When the 25th anniversary of Poland’s Solidarity movement was celebrated at the end of August, its former leaders proudly recalled the dramatic events in 1980 that pointed the way to the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Yet not everyone was happy with the breathless programme of concerts and conferences. Prominent figures boycotted the main commemorations. It should have been a time for modest self-examination, they insisted, not extravagant self-congratulation.
In the past quarter of a century, Solidarity has indeed become the stuff of legend. Polish television re-screened images of workers in their grimy overalls occupying Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard, of priests hearing confessions in the streets, of anxious debates in the Inter-Factory Committee hastily formed to co-ordinate the strikes.
Ostensibly economic demands – free trade unions, the right to strike – accounted for most of the 21-point Gdansk Accords, signed reluctantly on August 31 by Edward Gierek’s regime. But the document contained more general aims too, including freedom of speech and the release of political prisoners. This was a major political challenge. When Solidarity was founded as a trade union on September 17, 1980 a quarter of the Polish population signed up in an unprecedented surge of unity by previously divided social groups.
The movement appealed to the authority of the newly elected John Paul II. During his first homecoming 15 months before, the Pope had breathed new vitality and hope into his depressed homeland. Many saw the June 1979 pilgrimage as a dress rehearsal for Solidarity, not least by enabling Poles to gather in large numbers for the first time. John Paul II had hinted at how Communist structures could be challenged – not with violent protests, but through a kind of liberation within, based on conscience and personal integrity. Remarkably, that message appeared to have filtered down to ordinary industrial workers.
Poland’s Communist rulers were caught off guard. They knew how to suppress popular discontent. But they had no answer to an “independent self-governing trade union” that invoked the teachings of a Church. The Pope had used the term “solidarity” in Redemptor hominis, his first encyclical. In 1981 he followed this up with Laborem exercens, published during Solidarity’s first national congress. This described unions as an “indis pensable element of social life” and vigorously defended worker rights.
The world was living through a new phase of development comparable to the Industrial Revolution, the Pope made clear, in which the “great conflict” between labour and capital still dragged on. What was needed now were “movements of solidarity” which could unite those facing poverty and exploitation.
Solidarity’s workers reciprocated by placing their trust and confidence in the Church. There would be many occasions on which Poland’s Catholic bishops, fearing Soviet intervention, wavered in their support for the movement, especially when it was outlawed under martial law after December 1981. The Pope had fewer misgivings, and the momentum of opposition continued. The result, in 1989, was government-opposition round table talks, followed by partially free elections and the formation of a government led by a Catholic premier. Other countries staged revolutions of their own – Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Two years later the Soviet Union itself broke up, giving the world 16 new sovereign states.
Solidarity’s victory taught lessons about peaceful resistance, the role of values against interests, and of human will against physical adversity. It also said important things about sovereignty, legitimacy and the nature of power. That much of its language of human rights and freedoms derived from Catholic social teaching was a reminder of the Church’s potential as a social and cultural force to bring real change in the world.
Yet Solidarity’s profile changed in the 1990s. The movement provided a platform for Walesa’s presidency and Poland’s first three post-Communist governments. But it also fell apart, leading many to complain that its name had been dishonoured by political infighting. Although parts of the movement came together in 1997 and successfully ousted Poland’s governing ex-Communists, they soon fragmented again. In 2003, after a humiliating counter-defeat, Solidarity announced that it was withdrawing from politics and returning to its role as a trade union. The move was encouraged by the Pope. But it came too late to affect the economic and social climate. Today Poland is a member of Nato and the European Union, achievements unthinkable a quarter of a century ago. As in all European societies, post-industrial restructuring has been essential.
Yet the costs of change have been exorbitant. Unemployment stands officially at 20 per cent, and there are high rates of poverty and exclusion. The sense of moral drift in public life has taken its toll in incessant corruption scandals. There’ve been calls for a new Fourth Republic, for “another Solidarity” to complete the transition from Communism.
With its membership now down to 700,000, however, Solidarity is a spent force. The grasping nature of Polish capitalism has not spared the movement’s birthplace. Having employed 17,000 during the “Polish August”, the Gdansk shipyard now provides jobs for just 3,000. In 1995 it was taken over by Polish and US companies, forcing it to pay rent for its own launch ramps. Its workers say promised state funds were creamed off by the new owners, who failed to honour their investment pledges. After massive job losses, many are now having to work an 80-hour week.
In a blistering open letter this August the local Solidarity office said that a similar fate had been shared by many other workplaces in the new Poland – “a Poland of phoney businessmen, bent lawyers and self-interested politicians”. “Of the 21 demands from August 1980, only those which speak of political freedom and national sovereignty have been realised,” the letter noted. “Demands affecting real people, their dignity and survival, are respected only when this suits the financial and economic elites.” For all its angry rhetoric, the letter expressed important truths about present-day Poland, which is paying the price for the ideological liberalism that characterised post-Communist reforms, when laissez-faire enthusiasts descended on the country with their theoretical models and abstract tables, and calls for social justice and economic fairness were derided as Communist-tainted. For many Poles, the much-vaunted Solidarity revolution has come to look distinctly jaded – its fruits won by an emerging middle class of predatory entrepreneurs and businessmen, on the backs of workers who’ve been left even poorer in relative terms than they were under Communism.
The result has been a deep confusion of values. Though Poland remains staunchly Catholic, there is much here which profoundly contradicts the teachings set out in John Paul II’s great encyclicals, with their emphasis on human primacy. The Polish Church must share the blame for current attitudes. In the early 1990s, free market ideas gained influential support in Catholic circles, fuelling complaints that the Church was failing to defend those hardest hit by postCommunist reforms.
It took the Pope himself to challenge the apparent desinteressement with a passionate homily in the southern city of Legnica in 1997, in which he deplored the appalling conditions faced by families, single mothers, the elderly, sick and orphaned, and the “phenomenon of exploitation” which “considers the worker as a tool of production”.
Besides running extensive charity programmes, Church leaders have since demanded tighter controls on Poland’s mostly foreign-owned hypermarkets, including Tesco and Leclerq, which have been accused of ignoring norms binding in their own countries. They’ve also warned politicians of the social consequences of a government pit closure programme, which threatens to lay off more than a third of the 143,000 miners in Poland’s densely populated Upper Silesia region.
Yet for many Poles the criticisms are unconvincing. While claiming an “option for the poor”, Poland’s Catholic bishops have yet to speak out forcefully for juster workplace regulations and tougher curbs on the abusive practices which are now so widespread.
Today, Solidarity still commands respect as part of a tradition of national resistance when Poles overcame their differences and revealed their greatness by standing together. Yet if its legacy is to survive the next quartercentury, and if talk of freedom and democracy is not to prove hollow, Poland will need similar voices of warning in the period to come.
Jonathan Luxmoore is the co-author of The Vatican and the Red Flag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe