The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute

Krzysztof Bobinski
2 June 2009

The irony was clear. Inside Warsaw's Stalin-era Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture), Europe's Christian Democrat leaders were reverentially watching a film about Solidarity's role in toppling communism - then. Outside the building, Solidarity trade-unionists were battling police in a demonstration against closures of their indebted and ill-managed shipyards - now.

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

"The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked" (15 September 2008)

"Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

"Poland: the politics of history" (24 January 2009)

"Then" was 1989, when a nearly free election on 4 June swept the Solidarity opposition into power. "Now" is 2009, when the legatees of the movement are engaged in a passionate debate about who rightfully "owns" the legacy of the events of twenty years ago. That summer the first death-knell for communism sounded; what happened in Poland set in train the series of epic protests and decisions which saw the Berlin wall crumble and communism in eastern Europe along with it.

For a centre-right government in Poland with elections to fight - starting with the ones for the European parliament on 7 June 2009, and local-government and presidential elections in 2010 - the anniversary is a heaven-sent opportunity to establish itself as the heir of the Solidarity tradition. By contrast, the right-wing nationalist opposition in Poland is furious that its opponents in government are using these events to bolster their position; and the Solidarity trade union which is allied to the opposition is happy to protest on its behalf. The politics of memory in Poland continue to divide. But a look at the period that led up to the moment of 1989 can cast a fresh light on some of its residual myths.

The long compromise

The anniversary of 4 June 1989 is being celebrated, twenty years on, as the dawn of freedom. An election which the communist authorities agreed to hold saw all the 35% of the seats allocated to a free contest in parliament's lower house go to Solidarity and all the seats bar one in the 100-seat senate where the election was free were won by Solidarity. It was all over bar the historical debates.

The workers who had backed Solidarity from 1980 onwards were the force behind the change which brought in free-market reforms and a democratic system - a process of transformation that destroyed the workers' own political power-base in the process. These were the huge industrial plants built under socialism which occupied a special place in the socialist political order.

The entire system crumbled in 1989 because the essential compromise underpinning it from 1945 onwards had lost its rationale. Then, after the war, Poles, in the main, accepted the reality of political dominance by Moscow backed by the threat of force in exchange for the promise of social advance (see "Poland: the politics of history", 24 January 2009).

This process favoured the mainly rural masses who saw an opportunity for themselves in the industrialisation of the 1950s. It was then that the great factories were developed, including the shipyard in Gdansk, which sucked peasants off the overpopulated land. Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader (and first president of post-communist Poland) was one of them. The policy gave the system a source of support, providing these newly urbanised workers with a better life and educational opportunities for themselves and their children.

The workers backed the system when it was given a fresh lease of life by the de-Stalinising liberalisation of 1956. But by 1970 the shipyard demonstrations (which the authorities put down by force) saw the workers turning away from a system which was failing to continue to provide them with the benefits it had promised. In 1980 they turned en masse to Solidarity in the strikes of that summer. The authorities managed to regain the initiative with the declaration of martial law sixteen months later, in December 1981. But the coming to power in the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 saw the end of the other principle of the post-war settlement: the Soviet Union signalled it was no longer ready to intervene militarily to prop up its position in the area. 1989 then became inevitable.

In all this it had been the great plants like the Gdansk shipyards which had been the pillars, alongside the party and the secret police, of the system. It was in these plants that the party recruited its officials. The big plants were privileged in the allocation of scarce consumer goods. It was they who had the first-division football-teams, the holiday resorts and the better health facilities. When they struck against the system in 1980 they continued to expect better treatment; instead of (as before) providing a recruiting-ground for local party organisations, they began to provide cadres for Solidarity. It was these plants which struck against martial-law in December 1981, and it was there that members of Solidarity regional organisations found refuge from the secret police bent on interning them.

A fond farewell

The elections of 4 June 1989 opened the way to market reforms and broke the power of these plants. It turned out that the economics of full employment which had been the rationale on which they were based could not survive the business logic of an open, competitive market. Lay-offs soon followed. Most were downsized. The Marchlewski plant - a Solidarity stronghold in Łódż - was turned into a mammoth shopping-centre. But the great plants also saw their political strength disappear. A huge workplace employing 20,000 people which had been able to strike terror into the hearts of apparatchiks by the mere threat of strike action, suddenly became as important or as unimportant as a medium-sized town with 20,000 voters in a nation of nearly 40 million.     

The election marked more than just a rejection of the Soviet system. It also completely transformed the politics of the country, breaking not only the power of the once omnipotent communist party but also the working class and Solidarity in the great factories which since 1980 had in effect shared power with the party (see Neal Ascherson, "The victory and defeat of Solidarity", 6 September 2005).

The Solidarity workers demonstrating outside the Palace of Culture in spring 2009 waving their trademark flags were attempting to defend a position of privilege in society which they had, de facto, lost twenty years before. The power of the myth is strong, and the continuing struggle between Polish politicians about who is the true heir to the Solidarity legacy is bitter. But the debate is increasingly irrelevant, especially for young people. It continues to obscure the real divisions in a country which is seeking to modernise and catch up economically with its partners in the European Union. The driving forces of today's politics in Poland are regional rivalries, differences over the role of tradition and change; tensions between the generations; and arguments between a bureaucracy seeking to regain lost ground and businesspeople desperate to see cutbacks in all-embracing regulations.

Soon after 1989, Lech Wałęsa said that the Solidarity banner should be honourably laid to rest. In this, as in so many other issues, his instinct was at heart correct.


openDemocracy writers track Polish politics and governance:

Neal Ascherson, "The victory and defeat of Solidarity" (6 September 2005)

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

Neal Ascherson, "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

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