The victory and defeat of Solidarnosc

About the author
Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

The images accompanying this article come from the Wyspa Institute of Art exhibition “Dockwatchers” inside the Gdańsk shipyard.

From the exhibition catalogue:

“With ‘Dockwatchers’, happening alongside the official celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Solidarność, Wyspa targets beyond officially represented history. It asks about oral histories, cracks in memories, abandoned visions and desolated heroes. "Dockwatchers" addresses the person, the individual, caught up in political and historical processes, whose personal memory is inscribed in collective experiences, the official representations of history and various forms of commemoration and mythologisation.”

Outside the shipyard gate, the voices of presidents, prime ministers and mayors boomed over the amplifiers. “Solidarity twenty-five years on! From Solidarity to Freedom!” Their tribune faced the gigantic steel monument raised by the Gdańsk shipyard workers to the dead of the 1970 workers' uprising in the Baltic ports.

The presidents of Poland, Hungary, Germany, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and the European Commission were sitting there, sweating in the afternoon sun. So were Václav Havel and Zbigniew Brzezinski. And so was a chunky, grinning figure whose famous moustache has turned white. Lech Wałęsa, the jobless electrician who led the great strike in August 1980 and became the first president of post-communist Poland, was enjoying his day.

The crowds around the base of the monument were large, but not enormous. They were good-natured, but not impassioned. It was not hard to push through them and find a way into the shipyard itself.

Commemoration is a game with strict rules. Don't go back to “where it really happened” – unless you are prepared to play that game and act out the latest version of what “really happened”. And if you can't play, you are just a ghost. I walked slowly down what had been the main roadway from Gate Two. Most of the buildings which lined it have vanished, and many of the fabrication halls have vanished too, leaving open wasteland. It was very quiet, except for the distant loudspeaker echoes.

But then I recognised ahead of me an old redbrick building – the “BHP” or Health and Safety block. In there I spent days and nights in August 1980, as the strike leaders and the government negotiators fought over every clause of the “Gdańsk Agreements”. Here was born the “independent, self-managing trade union” called Solidarność, out of the accord which for the first time broke the power monopoly of a ruling communist party.

The lawns and shrubbery outside the BHP are clean and empty. But I could see the ghosts: the hundreds of big, tired men in blue overalls sleeping on the grass, boots turned upwards, or smoking and eating green apples on the frail garden benches, or huddled together laughing over a smudgy strike bulletin.

Museum of solidarity BHPMarek Sobczyk / Museum of Solidarity, fragments (2005)

Inside, the place has become a museum. In the main hall where workers' delegations from the whole Gdańsk region sat at ranks of tables (the “Interfactory Strike Committee” to which Lech Wałęsa and his comrades were accountable), there are now showcases. Only the platform remains, with its long table under three icons – Lenin, the Polish eagle and the crucifix. Here, grinning with triumph, Wałęsa signed the Gdańsk agreement on 31 August 1980 with an outsize John Paul II souvenir pen.

It's a good museum. But not a place for ghosts. The inner conference room, with its glass wall, through which we could watch the negotiations, has gone. So has the little café alcove, where I watched Wałęsa arguing with a knot of colleagues while a baby daughter in a tartan dress bounced on his knee. How open it all was, with the negotiations broadcast into the committee hall so that all delegates knew what was being done in their name! How the party and state delegation hated that openness! My God, how insanely tired everyone was after two weeks of living on sweet black tea, sausage and cigarettes, of sleeping rough on floors and lawns, of not knowing if the family was all right or if the Soviet armies were preparing to invade!

Outside the yard gate that August, the city was terribly quiet and dark, its telephone lines to the rest of Poland cut and its transport on strike. Orange rust had begun to fleck the tramlines, and blades of grass were appearing between the cobbles. This was the work of big Henryka the tramdriver, delegate from the public transport garages.

She kept standing up in the hall to insist that the fight must go on to the bitter end, because the small enterprises and the political prisoners must not be abandoned for the sake of a quick compromise. “Till we are sure everyone is free and all enterprises are satisfied, no bus or train should move!” They cheered her. Wałęsa, in spite of his lust for bargaining and dealing, grew wary of crossing Henryka. In the end, she got her way.

I met her again at the twenty-fifth anniversary commemorations. Henryka Krzywonos hasn’t changed a bit, except that she runs an adoption agency instead of driving streetcars. But she's the only leading militant who didn't try to make a political career for herself. And, facing her once more, I felt for the first and only moment in these celebrations a lump in my throat.

Real revolutions bring anonymous men and women suddenly onto the stage, where they show their hidden powers. The Gdańsk August, when unknown electricians and tram-drivers took the future of Europe into their hands, was real all right. But as a revolution, how successful was it?

A contested legacy

It's easy to say that the birth of Solidarity was “the beginning of the end of 20th century totalitarianism” (Ralf Dahrendorf), or “on the scale of the American and French Revolutions and the independence of India” (Brzezinski), or “the greatest victory for freedom and democracy in a century” (President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia).

Easy, and in a proud measure, true. At Gdańsk, the Soviet “Titanic” hit an iceberg which drove a fatal hole far below its waterline; and although it took everyone years to realise that the whole system was sinking, it sank. But having said that, the tale of historic triumph is only a part of the story.

When the presidents and premiers got to the shipyard gate, they found there not one but three competing events. One was the official celebration, preceded by a Mass at the monument. The second, held in a hall a few yards away, was an anti-ceremony. Here a group of 1980 veterans, including some of the bravest and most eloquent of the strike leaders, had called a congress to denounce the present Solidarity leadership.

This group, headed by Wałęsa's one-time associate Andrzej Gwiazda and by the crane-driver Anna Walentynowicz, whose sacking was the pretext for starting the 1980 strike, accuses the union of having betrayed the Polish workers in whose name it was founded. The Gwiazda group attacks globalisation and free-market capitalism. But its members also warn of a creeping return of communism, which they fancy is being plotted by the post-communist left-wing alliance (SLD) that has governed Poland for the last few years.

Above all, they allege that Lech Wałęsa is a careerist traitor to Solidarity ideals, who sold out to crypto-communist politicians and once, long ago, acted as an informer code-named “Bolek” for the communist counter-intelligence service. When President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, himself an ex-communist, arrived at the Mass, some people in the crowd whistled at him or chanted: “Commie, out! Commie, out!''.

And there was a third campaign competing for attention. This was the current workforce in the Gdańsk shipyard. It was all too obvious that, as a group, they had not been asked to the “official” ceremony, let alone to the two-day conference “From Solidarity to Freedom” held in Warsaw. The yard has been through a rough time since its days of glory twenty-five years ago: privatised, bankrupted, handed over to the management of its sister yard at nearby Gdynia and fiercely downsized.

Man of Iron - workers fists from windowsAndrzej Wajda, Man of Iron (1981) [courtesy Film Polski]

Some 16,000 men and women were employed there in 1980, but only about 3,000 today. Shipbuilding still happens, on a reduced scale, but the yard branch of “Solidarity” is in revolt. It is demanding the restoration of independence from the Gdynia firm and the punishment of certain managers for alleged corruption. Threats to occupy the museum building came to nothing, but large protest banners hung over the gate next to effigies of three managers in the pillory.

The truth is that the Solidarity revolution succeeded politically but failed socially. It shattered the self-confidence of ruling communist parties, and provided an example of non-violent mass protest which is still studied and followed, most recently in Belgrade, Tbilisi, Kiev or in Bishkek. Earlier, it had influenced the peaceful mass movements in 1989 which overthrew despotism in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and the Baltic nations.

And the memory of Gdańsk in 1980 helped to inspire the Chinese students and workers who occupied Tiananmen square that year, only to be massacred by the army (whose officers had in turn been inspired by the martial-law putsch which suppressed Solidarity in December 1981).

A different monument

But it's hard now to remember that Solidarity was primarily a trade union. The Gdańsk Agreement included what we would now call “human rights” provisions: trade-union independence and the right to strike, effective abolition of censorship, the broadcasting of Mass by state radio, the crucial limiting of the communist party's right to nominate to leading posts. Most of it, though, was concerned with the improvement of working conditions and pay, and with the rights of employees (down to recognising back pain as an occupational disease of dentists).

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

“From multiculturalism to where?” (August 2004)

“Pope John Paul II and democracy” (April 2005)

“Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road” (July 2005)

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At the heart of the project was the idea of “self-management”, or workers' control. A vision deeply rooted in Poland's pre-communist labour tradition, this was the idea of occupation strikes which would become the nucleus of a quite new form of society – a decentralised producers' democracy, in which workers elected their own management and voted on their own production and pricing plans.

In other words, Solidarity was not only the beginning of something but the end of something. This was the last great manifestation of European anarcho-syndicalism, the utopian dream of replacing the state with industrial democracy based at the place of work. Several of the intellectuals who advised the strikers at Gdańsk, especially Jacek Kuroń, had written brilliantly (and clandestinely) about this vision.

Reading my diaries and notes, I remember how intensely the “self-managing society” was debated in the main hall, and in the smoky corridors. But nothing of that now remains. Unwittingly, Solidarity cleared the way towards a quite different social form: a liberal democracy based on extreme laissez-faire capitalism. And that society, as it emerged in Poland after 1989, destroyed the power of organised labour, brought about mass unemployment and left Polish employees almost helpless in the face of market forces.

There is much bitterness, with unemployment in Poland at around 20%. Opposite the commemoration conference in Warsaw, the staff of the Europejski Hotel have all been summarily sacked and the hotel shut by new French owners, who treated a pay demand as insufferable cheek from the natives. “Nobody wants to help us or stand up for us,” I was told. “Solidarity? Huh – the leaders are all too busy making money and careers for themselves!”

A friend of mine who formed the first Solidarity union at Przemyśl, on the Ukrainian border, went back there for the anniversary. He told me in horror:

“They are all on the paranoid ultra-nationalist right now! They think that being in the European Union is somehow a new partition of Poland. And they say that Brussels and the crypto-Communists in government are preparing a crusade for free abortion on demand. In order to wipe out the Polish nation.”

He smiled painfully. “The worst of it is a statistic. In 1980, we had 40,000 Solidarity members in that district. And now the district has just about 40,000 people unemployed”.

Jerzy Janiszewski / Poster with Solidarność logo, artist's proof with signature of the author and Lech Walesa (Signum Foundation)

In the Warsaw streets, I noticed that ordinary people were not hanging out flags. But in glitzy new banks or office blocks, the foyer usually had a display of Solidarity banners and relics arranged by the publicity department. Solidarity, as one Polish intellectual said, “has become the founding myth of the Third Polish Republic” and the free, self-managing trade union has been reduced to one more symbol of national unity.

Privately, Poles betray a certain embarrassment when they look back to 1980. Poland has a long history of noble insurrections, all of which have been understood as moral acts. But where now is the moral legacy of 1980? Poland today is a vivid, dynamic country, whose economic success conceals awful social injustices and whose public life is disfigured by lurid corruption. The rich get richer, and the government which will probably emerge from this month's elections will make them richer still by replacing graduated taxation with a flat-rate poll tax.

This is a society uneasy about its own cohesion, burdened with a sense that the sense of equality and fraternity so boldly discovered twenty-five years ago has been wasted. Some Poles become aggressive, saying wildly that all politicians are traitors. I prefer the words of the writer Paweł Śpiewak. He told the commemoration conference in Warsaw: “We shouldn't just be using this slogan ‘From Solidarity to Freedom’. It's more important now to get back to ethical values, and find our way ‘From Freedom to Solidarity’”.