This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarność (Solidarity), the Polish independent trade union, at what was then the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. Solidarność both emerged from and provided the organisational infrastructure for the mass strikes of August 1980.
This intense period of struggle thrust strike leaders like Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz into the international limelight. With the signing of the Gdańsk Agreement on 31 August 1980, Solidarność became the first independent union to be recognised by a Warsaw Pact country.
At its height in September 1981, Solidarność boasted a membership of 10 million, representing a third of the entire working-age population of Poland. It proved on a larger scale than Hungary 1956 or East Germany 1953 the ability of the working class to organise against the fake-socialist regimes of the Eastern Bloc; shook the foundations of the bureaucratic empire in the USSR and Eastern Europe; and left the structure shaky enough to be brought down by the surges from below in 1989-91, after the USSR's debacle in Afghanistan and the failure of attempts to escape economic "stagnation".
In his new book Solidarność: The Workers' Movement and the Rebirth of Poland in 1980-81, Mark Osborn provides a short and accessible overview of the developments that culminated in Solidarność’s birth. He also lucidly explains the dramatic events of 1980-81 themselves, which ended with Solidarność being forced underground by Wojciech Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law in December 1981.
In Poland, more so than in other East European countries where Stalinist parties had at least some pre-1945 base of support, the "Communist" rulers "were aware they were a beleaguered minority imposed by a hated foreign power”. That prevented them from ever achieving complete totalitarianism (p. 9). Even in the period of High Stalinism, the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, “PZPR”) could neither subjugate the Church nor collectivise private agriculture.
All independent working-class organisation or free speech was banned, but Polish cultural and political life had a higher degree of autonomy than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Those conditions facilitated the further laying of long-term foundations for Solidarność. Stepping-stones were the 1956 Poznań uprising, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski’s 1964 “Open Letter to the Party”, the 1968 student revolt, the 1970 and 1976 strikes over price increases, and the 1976 founding of the Workers' Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, “KOR”).
Throughout his historical overview, Osborn provides a running critical commentary from a Third Camp socialist perspective, drawing out both positive and negative lessons for today’s political left and organised labour movement. This critical commentary is bolstered by the appendices, which include pieces published by Socialist Organiser (a predecessor of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty) in the 1980s and Stan Crooke’s summary of political developments in Poland from the 1981 coup to the present day.
Solidarność has degenerated tragically. The political balance within it shifted to the right when it was underground between 1981 and 1988. Today the union has only 5% of the membership numbers it had in 1980. It is caught in “the political slipstream of right-wing populism” (p. 100).
The positive lessons Osborn draws out from the experience of Solidarność include the wide circulation of an oppositionist press amongst organised workers (including the KOR’s periodical Robotnik), the creation of regional Inter-factory Committees confederated into a delegate-based National Commission, the rank-and-file’s successful push to prevent Wałęsa from ending the Gdańsk strike on 16 August 1980, and the live broadcasting of the negotiations in the Lenin Shipyard via the PA system.
The negative lessons include Solidarność’s unwillingness to make a direct challenge to the PZPR’s right to rule and, by extension, its unwillingness to take power. One sees this from how, strong though many of the famous 21 Demands of August 1980 were (e.g. the right to strike, paid maternity leave), Solidarność made little in the way of specifically political demands, e.g. the freedom to form independent workers’ parties, or democratic control over the administrative apparatus.
The omission is especially noticeable when one bears in mind that the left-wing intellectuals Kuroń and Modzelewski, who were crucial to Solidarność’s founding and direction, had previously placed such political demands front and centre in their “Open Letter to the Party”.
To Osborn, much of Solidarność’s reluctance stemmed from how its hybrid nature as “[p]art union, part network of workers’ councils, and part political movement” was not conducive to sharpening and resolving internal differences on an explicitly political basis (p. 65). Moreover, Kuroń and his co-thinkers had drifted towards a strategy of “self-limiting revolution” out of fear that, if Solidarność were to engage in party politics directly or seize power outright, the Soviet Union would respond with military force.
The fear was understandable in light of the Russian invasions that crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. Nevertheless, as Osborn points out, at the height of Solidarność’s power in 1981, the Russian military was bogged down in an extremely costly war in Afghanistan, and wary of the American reaction that an invasion of Poland might provoke (p. 67).
Even in 1956, Polish troops successfully blocked a Soviet armoured column advancing on Warsaw, prompting Khrushchev to back down rather than risk triggering an armed conflict.
Moreover, by seeing themselves as having to make some degree of compromise with the Stalinist party-state and viewing Jaruzelski (who would lead the 1981 military coup) as an officer who could be trusted, Wałęsa and the other national leaders of Solidarność severely underestimated the party-state’s systematic inability to accept opposition to its rule and left the workers’ movement vulnerable to that 1981 coup.
At the time, the influence of Stalinism and the resulting “Second Campist” support for the Soviet Union led some sections of the British left to dismiss Solidarność as little more than a front for the CIA or the Catholic Church. A broader section of the labour movement was pro-Solidarnosc in a tepid, passive "yes-but-on-the-other-hand" way.
When Jaruzelski shipped coal to Thatcher to help her counter the British miners’ strike in 1984-5, that shifted perceptions, but too late. Still today there are some on the left who look fondly on the police states of the Eastern Bloc as a historically progressive alternative to capitalism.
By writing such a readable introduction that acknowledges Solidarność’s pitfalls without losing sight of its major significance as a story of working-class courage and organisation in the face of repression, Osborn has done us a tremendous service.