Poland’s Solidarność: Forty Years On
Gdańsk Shipyard, shot on film by Tom Palmer.

The example of Poland’s Solidarność should give hope to all those fighting socio-economic and political injustice, whether that be in Lukashenko’s Belarus, Ali Khamenei’s Iran, 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 to the day, Solidarność was founded – the first free trade union independent of a communist state. Shipyard workers in Gdańsk began what would become the first, albeit short-lived, subversive victory against a communist regime in the Eastern Bloc. It would, however, 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, and had ramifications far beyond Poland – indeed, for the Soviet communist project itself.

‘The values that had once united us [will] actualise evermore’. The Gdańsk ‘Declaration of Freedom and Solidarity’, signed in June 2019 during the thirtieth anniversary of the first semi-free elections in Poland, would suggest the continued pertinence of the values that defined Solidarity (Solidarność). In fact, its significance to the population has dwindled, while it has simultaneously been politicised by the ruling right-wing, populist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS).

Solidarity had its roots in the three decades preceding 1980. General disenchantment had periodically manifested in unrest: first with the Poznan uprising of 1956, followed by the 1968 student protests, and finally the 1970 and 1976 workers’ unrest across the Baltic coastal cities. It is the ballooning exercise of workers’ organisation preceding 1980 that lay the foundations for Solidarity.

The discussions surrounding the Solidarity movement often reiterate patriarchal power structures, centred around Lech Wałesa and his supposedly necessary charismatic leadership. In fact, women played an integral role throughout the 1980s. The dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz, who had given thirty years of labour to the shipyard, only months before her retirement catalysed the initial protest. Walentynowicz’s premature sacking, understood to have been in response to her involvement in unofficial union activity, nullified her rights to a pension.

Gdańsk Shipyard, shot on film by Tom Palmer.

On 14 August 1980, in solidarity with their colleague, workers gathered to demand a wage increase and the ‘reinstatement of Walentynowicz’. After the shipyard Director was ignored when he requested that workers to return to work, a Strike Committee was formed. This included Walentynowicz as well as Wałesa who, having not been employed by the shipyard since his dismissal in 1976, was scrambled over the fence to lead the strike. The demands made by the strikers included not only economic concerns, but socio-political considerations too. Foremost among them was the creation of free trade unions independent of the state.

Fifty-thousand workers across the Gdańsk region were now on strike. The Director of the shipyard capitulated to the wage demands so long as the premises were evacuated. The unrest looked to be resolved. It was the efforts of two women, Anna Walentynowicz and Alina Pieńkowska (the shipyard nurse and trade union activist), that would shift the nature of industrial action to a form far more threatening to the communist regime.

As the workers began to leave, the strike committees of smaller enterprises felt to have been abandoned and feared punishment for taking industrial action. Wałesa agreed and sought to revoke the evacuation. Walentynowicz and Pieńkowska frantically lectured at the gate of the need to display solidarity with the smaller enterprises who had supported them. The gates were closed, and an Interfactory Strike Committee (Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy, MKS) formed – this solidarity across industries inaugurated the Solidarity strike. Walentynowicz and Wałesa consequently co-founded Solidarność.

The demands of striking workers reflected those of a social movement, with socio-political as well as economic claims, including legalised free trade unions, the right to strike, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, and economic reform. At its zenith, the MKS represented over four hundred workplaces, while the movement boasted a membership of over ten million, more than a quarter of Poland’s population; Solidarity constituted an alternative society forming parallel structures to the state. The societal dichotomy was not, however, as stark as one would assume – indeed, almost a third of members of the ruling Communist Party were also members of Solidarity. While the movement enabled the organisation of society separate from the communist regime, it was not in direct opposition to it.

Zaspa, Gdańsk, shot on film by Tom Palmer.

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. Most significant was the legalisation of Solidarity (Solidarność) as a free trade union – the first of its kind in communist Eastern Europe.

The Polish crisis dominated foreign affairs and superpower interaction throughout 1981. The US warned of the consequences a Soviet intervention would incite yet refrained from explicitly backing Solidarity politically or militarily should violence ensue. The ruling Polish United Workers’ Party was under pressure from Moscow to deal with the increasingly audacious Solidarity movement – indeed, protests had erupted again in the summer of 1981 following an increase in the price of food.

December 1981 saw the eventual suppression of Solidarity with the implementation of martial law. General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s leader from October 1981, had introduced a ‘state of war’. 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 from its re-emergence in 1988. The Round Table talks held in 1989 between government and opposition groups saw Poland transition peacefully into a liberal, pluralistic 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 direction Polish politics took from 1989 is the focus of current politicised narratives of Poland’s recent history. The pressures of democratic political organisation saw the swift demise of Solidarity and the popular unity it represented. The existence of a common adversary against which opponents could unite had enabled the existence of a mass-led social movement. Poland’s pluralistic society was not conducive to the level of solidarity among political difference experienced in the early 1980s.

Poland’s transition to democratic organisation and the conduct of post-Solidarity politicians are being politicised by the ruling 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 peaceful resistance. The populist narrative maintained by 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 and success must be recognised – they have governed with a majority since 2015, and received forty-four percent of the vote in the 2019 parliamentary election. President Duda’s re-election has consolidated nationalist power. Their 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 allows 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. Immunity was not even granted to Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałesa. A book written by leading Polish historians closely aligned to the government and Kaczyński’s political leadership asserted that Wałesa was a communist spy throughout the 1970s; Wałesa fervently denies this and considers it an attempt by Kaczyński to settle a personal dispute.

Zaspa, Gdańsk, Poland, shot on film by Tom Palmer.

The experience of Solidarity throughout the 1980s is pertinent today. Poles are organising in opposition to the government’s anti-democratic reforms, forming the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, KOD) – an obvious attempt has been made to benefit from the legacy and name recognition of KOR, the organisation that preceded and assisted in the creation of Solidarity. Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland and former President of the European Council, himself active in the 1980s opposition movement, has called on the population to use their Solidarity past to oppose the nationalist populism of the PiS. 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 even 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.