Poland’s Solidarność Forty Years On: How is it Remembered?

The example of Poland’s Solidarity should give hope to all those fighting socio-economic and political injustice, whether that be in Lukashenko’s Belarus, Ali Khamenei’s Iranian theocracy, or Xi’s China. For those who took to the streets in the summer of 1980, that the communist regime would fall a decade later was incomprehensible.

Forty years ago this month, shipyard workers in Gdańsk went on strike and began what would become the first, albeit short-lived, subversive victory against a communist regime in the Eastern Bloc. It would take almost a decade for its long-term significance to come to bear. 

The summer of 1980 saw the inauguration of the largest, genuinely mass-led social movement present in the Soviet sphere of influence. At its zenith, Solidarity, in its simplest form, a trade union, boasted a membership of over ten million. Its existence had ramifications far beyond Poland – indeed, for the Soviet project itself. 

The Gdańsk Agreement of August 1980, signed by representatives of both the authorities and striking workers, is considered seminal to beginning the legitimisation of opposition to Soviet-backed communist rule in Eastern Europe.

December 1981 saw the eventual suppression of Solidarity with the implementation of martial law. That the movement lasted sixteen months is testament to its doctrine of non-violence. Solidarity’s experience during martial law, however, determined the form it would take with its re-emergence in 1988. The Round Table talks of 1989 saw Poland transition peacefully into a liberal democracy. It was, however, Solidarity’s intellectuals who had taken the reins, with the workers politically disarmed by the brutal experience of martial law.

The presence of a common adversary had previously enabled the existence of a mass-led social movement. The pressures of a pluralistic liberal democracy saw the swift demise of Solidarity and the unity among political difference it represented.

Poland’s transition to democratic organisation and the conduct of post-Solidarity politicians is politicised by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) who complain that the path taken failed to depart from, and discredit, the communists. Herein lies the present context for the memorialisation of Poland’s history of collective resistance. The populist narrative of the current government resonates with those who fail to see the benefits brought about by the transition to liberal democracy. 

The ruling party’s appeal must be recognised – their presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, was re-elected in July this year. PiS’ assertion of betrayal on the part of the post-Solidarity politicians, however, is unfounded and conspiratorial. In fact, the course taken in 1989 seemed pragmatic, validated by Poland’s bloodless transition. This does not, however, nullify the qualms of the Polish population about the direction that the economy took post-1989; the Solidarity-led government, by pursuing the rapid marketisation underpinned by neoliberal dogma, failed to protect the Polish working class from the social ills inflicted.

By tapping into this disenchantment, the PiS are able to pursue specific political endeavours with their policy of lustration – that is, the vetting of those in high profile positions to cleanse public life of those who collaborated with the former regime. This has allowed the PiS and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the party and de facto leader of Poland, to discredit opponents and settle personal disputes with accusations of past collusion with the communist regime, including Solidarity’s charismatic leader throughout the 1980s, Lech Wałesa.

The experience of Solidarity throughout the 1980s is not without encouraging pertinence today. Poles are organising in opposition to the government’s anti-democratic reforms, forming the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) – an obvious attempt has been made to benefit from the name recognition of KOR, the organisation that preceded and assisted in the creation of Solidarity. While the emergence of KOD reveals the continued salience to many Poles of their dissident past, the movement cannot be compared to Solidarity; far from inciting mass mobilisation, it is centred only in big cities, attracting older, better educated Poles. That said, Poland’s history of collective resistance remains significant; it renders the PiS unable to contemplate state repression as a means of silencing opposition. 

To veteran dissident Adam Michnik, Poland’s experience four decades ago incites a sense of trust in the Polish population. When the freedoms for which they fought are threatened, they will act.

By Tom Palmer

Picture Source: Tom Palmer