Pope John Paul's visit to Poland 25 years ago this month triggered the first true workers' revolution in history, says Jonathan Luxmoore This month marks the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul Ifs second pilgrimage to Poland, an event which helped guide his Communist-ruled homeland towards democracy. The celebrations have been low-key, as befits a country moving from the heroic preoccupations of the past to the more upbeat conditions of a modern western society.
But it has been an opportunity, too, to recall the Polish pontiff's key contribution to the struggle against Communist injustices, as well as to the Solidarity movement which he did so much to inspire. No Solidarity veteran would doubt their debt to the Catholic Church.
When the great strike had erupted at Gdansk's Lenin Shipyard in summer 1980, the immediate cause had been price rises. But although the Baltic workers had acted spontaneously, they had showed tactical sophistication, enough to stay united and avoid being provoked into violence. They had also grasped a crucial truth: peaceful moral protests were a form of resistance Communist regimes had no answer to.
This realisation had owed much to brainstorming by Poland's tiny "democratic opposition" in the 1970s. But it had been taken further by John Paul H's first pilgrimage a year earlier. When Solidarity was formed, it needed a source of moral authority. This was why it had turned to the Church, and why Catholic symbols were used to express its aims and ideals.
Vatican ll's Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, had recognised the rights of workers to form unions and go on strike, and had listed "degrading working conditions" alongside slavery and prostitution as "offences against human dignity". Here, in short, was the kind of movement the Church could give its blessing to — a movement defending legitimate workers' rights but also steered by Christian principles.
Yet Polish Church leaders were wary of social unrest. In the 1970s, when workers' voices had been weak and inarticulate, the Church had relied on discreet behind-thescenes bargaining. The result had been permanent deadlock, but the kind of deadlock which allowed for manoeuvering, and for occasional small concessions.
By contrast, Poland's bishops had no idea how to handle an "independent self-governing trade union", one which had emerged almost overnight in the complex geopolitical conditions of Communist-ruled eastern Europe and looked set to gain more in days than the Church's own negotiators had achieved in decades.
`Remember the heart, though very important, is lower than the head," Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski warned Lech Walesa and _ other Solidarity representa _ other Solidarity representa ..-------.T. zfives that December. W°1-a1 "Achieving even reasonable rights demands a hierarchy of values, and patience. t John Paul II fully con tcured that Walesa and his colleagues should avoid provoking the Communist system into over-reacting. But he could also watch events from a certain diStance, taking a wider panoramic view. He himself had used the concept of solidarity in his early writings and believed ideas created reality. Meanwhile, the new movement's members seemed to understand instinctively the need to gain and hold the moral high ground — to obtain the prior "moral victory" which the Pope had talked about in 1979. When Walesa and Solidarity delegates visited the Vatican in January 1981, the Pope could see the hand of Providence at work. Solidarity's strikes were an industrial action. But they were also a spiritual awakening.
The Pope's message was spelled out the following September by an encyclical, Laborem Exercens, which appeared during Solidarity's first national congress. The world was living through a new phase of development comparable to the Industrial Revolution, John Paul noted, which was in turn bringing a re-ordering of economic structures.
The "great conflict" of labour and capital still existed. It had found its latest expression in the ideological conflict between capitalism and Communism, and "movements of solidarity': were needed to unite those facing poverty and exploitation as a result. But the real problem was not structural, but anthropological. It had been caused by the "error of econornism", which had placed the spiritual and personal "in subordination to material reality".
Against this background, Laborem Exercens continued, workers had a right to use trades unions as "a mouthpiece of the struggle for social justice". They could not be used for one-sided political ends. Above: Lech Walesa leaves the Gdansk Lenin shipyards to prepare for his June 1983 meeting with John Paul IL Inset: The clandestine Solidarity paper celebrates the papal visit But their activity did indeed enter the field of politics.
What John Paul II seemed to be suggesting was that the world functioned not through governments but through people. Whereas previous pontiffs had feared the potential of spontaneous social movements, he saw them as allies, a creative energy which could be harnessed and directed for godly purposes. With the Church behind them, they could make governments, even repressive ones, an irrelevance. It was not necessary to be "anti-Communist-, just to provide a convincing Christian answer to the needs and aspirations which Marxism had identified.
"Solidarity was the first workers' revolution in history — the Bolshevist coup of 1917 has no claim to this title," Leszek Kolakowski, the former Polish Marxist, observed from exile in Oxford. "It follows that the fist workers' revolution in history was directed against a socialist state, and has proceeded under the sign of the Cross with the blessing of the Pope. So much for the irresistible laws of history discovered scientifically by Marxists."
What brought the Polish experiment to a halt was, in the end, the simple incompatibility between a free trade union and a one-party state. If the Pope and Cardinal Wyszynski had counselled moderation, they also understood that freedom had a dynamism of its own. When rights and principles were at stake, how could a revolution agree to limit itself?
By the time the Pope arrived in Poland on June 16 1983 Poland was in its second year of martial law and thousands of Solidarity activists had been interned. Yet the rebuilding of Communist power had deepened the rift between state and society, and underground groups and publications were flourishing.
The regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski had bargained long and hard over the Pope's itinerary, rejecting his request for a prior amnesty and demanding advance copies of his homilies. By the first evening, however, he had spoken of the "bitter taste of deception, humiliation and suffering, of freedom denied and human dignity trampled upon".
There was no single theme to the pilgrimage — other than reassuring Poles their struggle was not in vain. A nation was genuinely free, the Pope told his countrymen, when it could "mould itself as a community, determined by a unity of culture, language and history". A state was truly sovereign when it served the common good, and allowed the nation to "realise the subjectivity and identity peculiar to it". The state's sovereignty was linked with its capacity to promote the nation's freedom, "to create conditions which enable the nation to express the whole of its historical and cultural identity, to be sovereign through the state".
Obviously, none of this could be said to apply to a one-party state under martial law. Jaruzelski's regime did its best to benefit from the pilgrimage, stressing the closeness of Church-state ties and reasserting its commitment to reform. "When the state weakens and falls into anarchy," the General reminded the Pope, "it is the people who suffer." But the Pope made short work of regime claims that Solidarity was now no more than history. His image of Poland, he told Jaruzelski in Warsaw, was of a "vast concentration camp". Walesa was flown to the Tatra Mountains abpard a Polish army helicopter to meet the Pontiff, in a symbolic acknowledgement that "Polish reality" was not solely as the regime had defined it.
The regime followed up the pilgrimage by lifting martial law on 22 July, reserving "special powers" for itself just in case. An internal Communist Party report confirmed that the government had protested at the Pope's statements, especially at their "most aggressive", and insisted Solidarity would never again be a "partner for the government". In reality, the pilgrimage had highlighted the gulf separating the state's structures of power from the moral expectations of society. setting the Solidarity experience in a religious light and instilling confidence that the movement's struggle for justice and dignity would ultimately prevail.
"We experienced how much we can do when unified?' was the verdict of Cardinal loz,ef Glemp, he new Catholic primate. "In the final analysis, it is not structures that shape the spirit but the nation's spirit that gives the structures content."
In June 1989, exactly six years later, Poles held their first semi-free elections after government-opposition negotiators had agreed plans to end the Communist Party's power monopoly. A Catholic former Solidarity adviser, Tadeusz Mazowiecici. became Polish prime minister that August.
Even today, though Poland belongs to both NATO and the European Union, some argue that the transition from Communism to democracy is still unfinished. But Poland is, to all intents and purposes, a freecounty with the potential to enjoy stability and prosperity. That achievement owes a greatdeal to the Solidarity movement, and to the wise imaginative Catholics who helped to sustain it in its hour of need.
Jonathan Lannoore is the c9-author of The Vatican and the RedFlag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe (avaii'able from Amazon)