Remember Solidarity! Poland's journey to democracy

About the author
Norman Birnbaum is university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. He is active in the US Democratic party and has close ties to western Europe.

Twenty-five years ago, the workers of the shipyards at Gdansk, Poland, went on strike. A few years earlier, in the same city, the police of the Communist regime had murdered strikers on the streets. This time, the workers locked themselves into the yards – and dispatched emissaries throughout Poland to ask for support. Their leader, a devout Catholic electrician with nine children and a record of stubborn opposition to the government, was Lech Walesa – who at once became an international media star. Support came, in the form of demonstrations and strikes throughout the country.

The Gdansk workers, true to the name of their movement, Solidarity, rejected favourable terms for themselves from the government until their comrades elsewhere were equally well treated. The government conceded – and a miracle occurred: workers in the workers’ state actually bettered their conditions.

The movement, however, did not recede. Spreading from factories to farms to offices and schools, it became a national protest against a state in the hands of careerists voicing ideals of social justice they systematically ignored. Clubs, newspapers, even the state media, became forums for discussion. Polish civil society was heard, while the regime, facing total delegitimisation, was forced into negotiations.

Sixteen months later, in December of 1981, the regime struck back. The army under General Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law, arrested Walesa and the other Solidarity leaders, including many writers and teachers, and literally turned off the nation’s phones.

Jaruzelski later claimed that he had acted to forestall a Soviet invasion which could have precipitated a superpower confrontation, and Europe’s destruction. Perhaps. But when reforms began in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev four years later, the general and his government were conspicuously reluctant to follow Soviet inspiration. Having silenced the opposition, they confronted the passive resistance of a sullen citizenry. They began to realize that they were incapable of exercising the powers nominally theirs.

In 1989, the regime released the last of the Solidarity prisoners and opened negotiations again. In partial elections in June, Solidarity’s candidates won. The first round of voting took place on 4 June, the day the Chinese army on the other side of the world massacred the students in Tiananmen Square. In fits and starts, and then with increasing speed, the Polish Communist regime was dismantled. By the end of 1990, Walesa was President of a new Poland.

The shape of the struggle

Solidarity was supported by the western trade union movement, and the military coup d’état was officially reproved by western governments. They could do little else in a nation on the Soviet Union’s side of the Cold War boundary. Significant segments of elite and public opinion in the west, regretting the coup, thought it preferable to the unpredictable consequences of a Soviet invasion. That view was shared by elites and public in the two German states, for whom any form of European instability evoked the possibility that they would be reunited in a radioactive graveyard. Those in the Soviet Union opposed to the imposition of Communism on neighbouring states began to speak out, hesitantly, only after Gorbachev took power in 1985.

So the Poles were on their own. They had, however, their history – a record of ceaseless struggle against foreign occupiers and their Polish servants. General Jaruzelski was instantly recognised, very possibly also by himself, as the spiritual heir of Count Wielopolski, half reformer, half hangman, who ruled Poland for the Tsar of Russia. When revolt broke out in 1864, the Count was ruthless. Jaruzelski was a good deal less brutal and even had police officials tried for the murder of a popular Priest. From prison, Solidarity leaders like the writer Adam Michnik publicly derided his offer to allow them to go into exile.

The first part of the emergency ended and Solidarity again flourished. It was entirely illegal and totally visible. (This was the period of the Polish question, Why does it take three gendarmes to deal with a traffic accident? Answer: one to read the license plate, the second to write down the number, the third to watch over the intellectuals.) The initial negotiations with Solidarity were conducted for the general by a younger advisor who is today Poland’s president.

Catholics, conscience and history

The accession to the Papacy of Karol Wojtyła of Kraków in 1978, and his visit to Poland in 1979, had stirred the national pride of which Solidarity was an expression. The Catholic groups most active in the movement envisaged a Poland defined by social justice. Joining secular intellectuals who sided with the workers, Catholic thinkers reproved the Polish Communist Party for its defective attachment to its own ideas.

The Catholic philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, originally a libertarian Marxist, had left Poland in 1968 in disgust at the regime’s repressiveness and anti-Semitism. From Oxford, his influence merged with that of the regime’s critics inside Poland, like the historian Bronisław Geremek. Solidarity’s spiritual resistance demoralized those Communists (there were still some) who actually believed in a just social order. The Polish Communists were riven by the legacies of their own inner debates. One custodian of a reformist heritage was the writer Isaac Deutscher, who at his London home all through the fifties and sixties received an unending stream of Polish ambassadors, ministers and intellectuals – who were free, abroad, to confide to him their enormous doubts.

In Poland, voicing national resistance to Soviet domination was the mission of the Catholic Church. As early as 1956, and to the immense irritation of the Soviet leadership, the Polish Communists reached an accord for uneasy co-existence with the Church. There were larger currents. The Vatican under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI sought dialogue with the Communists in central and eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II had learned in Poland how terrain could be won by confronting the Communists with their own inner contradictions. A workers’ state run by a privileged elite was not the least of these. In Italy, Catholics and Communists collaborated freely: they joined to support Solidarity.

No doubt, sympathy and support from the western world helped. The Polish emigrant communities in North America and western Europe provided encouragement and funding. The BBC, the Voice of America, Radio Vatican and Deutsche Welle especially in the period of martial law, cast some light into the official blackout of information. Still, the bad conscience of the Polish Communists themselves was important. The Jaruzelski government was wretched, but it did not revert to show trials or mass terror.

Soviet fissures

Meanwhile, the Soviet bloc was hardly monolithic. Even under Stalin there had been the Titoist schism and the anti-Stalin opposition in other Communist regimes. Four months after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Germans in the east revolted. Khruschev denounced Stalin in his famous Cult of Personality speech of 1956 and emptied the concentration camps. The suppression of the Hungarian rising of 1956 failed to deter the Czechoslovak 1968 experiment in open Communism. Faced with the Chinese schism in the east and restless parties and peoples to the west, the Soviet Party in the seventies made space for technocratic reformers who discreetly agreed with the bitter literary and philosophical dissenters: the regime had to change.

The Soviet reformers asked if the only answer their nation had to the failure of its model abroad was to keep its armoured divisions at the ready. They proposed, indirectly but effectively, rethinking the authoritarianism, bureaucratisation and repression which worked, imperfectly, only in the short run. With its armed forces stationed in Poland and its agents implanted in the Polish government, the Soviet Union could not in the end hold on to an increasingly burdensome conquest.

Learning imagination

Several lessons emerge from Solidarity’s success. One is that there is no substitute for the will of a tyrannised population to retake control of its own destiny. The second is that even the most doctrinaire and rigid regime has internal fissures which widen under stress. Solidarity’s pressures brought the conflicts within Polish Communism to the surface. The third is that universal ideals, democracy and social justice, can only be achieved in culturally specific forms. Poland’s Catholics and secularists, aware of Polish traditions, came together to reclaim their nation’s history.

And finally, there is a lesson for ourselves. At the time of the Polish struggle, official and unofficial voices in the United States denounced Soviet imperialism. It was a period, however, in which the US installation of medium range nuclear weapons in western Europe provoked broad and deep European protest. The Europeans considered that they were on their way to a modus vivendi with a Soviet Union which was bound to change, and which would change the sooner military tensions were reduced.

It was the US which had earlier refused the suggestions of two foreign ministers, Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom and Adam Rapacki of Poland, for the reduction of arms in central Europe – suggestions which, if followed, might well have allowed liberalisation in Poland well before Solidarity had to fight for it. Perhaps we could have had more historical imagination to go with our moral indignation.