August 29, 2005
EVALUATING SOLIDARNOSC, 25 YEARS LATER -- by Norman Birnbaum
Today is being celebrated in Poland as the 25th anniversary of the birth of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the trade union movement that spearheaded Poland's liberation from Communist dictatorship The following was written by frequent DIRELAND contributor Norman Birnbaum, who wrote the prescient analysis for DIRELAND last month on Germany's Political Crisis (and why its Left is in Disarray).
Norman (left) is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law School, and author--most recently--of After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism In The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press), among other books. Norman was a founding editor of New Left Review, was on the editorial board of Partisan Review, and is on the editorial board of The Nation. Norman, who got his doctorate in sociology from Harvard, has also taught at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, the University of Strasbourg and Amherst College, has had academic appointments in Italy and Germany, and has been a consultant to the National Security Council. When Norman sent me this piece, he commented, :"I did not draw in this analysis the lessons for Iraq; if someone cannot grasp them, instruction would be futile..."
A quarter of a century after the beginning of Solidarnosc, let us try to make sense of what at the time, for many, was so astonishing that theological rather than historical explanation seemed appropriate. The fact that partially free elections were held in Poland, after the Communist Party acknowledged that it was incapable of commanding society on June 4 1989, indeed reminded us of Providence. It was the day the Chinese party and state massacred the young in Peking. .
Three historical currents converged in Solidarnosc. The first, of course, was the history of Poland itself. Their own history taught the Polish people that there is a time for everything—for resistance, for temporary submission, for sullen compliance. Nothing in that history was lost---and Solidarnosc owed much to 1830, 1863 and 1944. That was as true, in the end, for the Communists as for their antagonists. The present Polish president, after all, in 1989 negotiated with Solidarnosc as counselor to General Jaruzelski (right). Was the latter, in effect, a Soviet agent? If so, what about Alexander Wielopolski (left), the Polish Count who was half-reformer, half-hangman as the Tsar’s man in Warsaw, and the generations of Poles who served Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia? Providence, upon examination, in the end was that most profane of history’s characteristics, its ambiguity and indeterminism. Those who, like Jaruzelski, convinced themselves that they had but one choice, upon acting on it invariably discovered that they had become prisoners of the forces they sought to subdue.
Solidarnosc surprised the western elites only because they believed a Cold War ideology which depicted Communist societies as monolithic. It had been preceded in Communist Poland itself by a very turbulent history: Gomulka (right) was most definitely not the Soviet Union’s candidate to assume power in 1956. Polish Communism was always riven by ideological conflict. (The spiritual heir of Polish Trotskyism, Isaac Deutscher, (left) was visited at his London home by Polish Ambassadors, Ministers, and intellectuals in an unending stream.) In the larger setting, Titoism, the revolt in 1953 in the German Democratic Republic, Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalinism, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Maoist schism, Soviet dissent, and the Czech experiment in open Communism of 1968 demonstrated that the exceptionalism of Poland was entirely normal. The second current that made Solidnarosc possible, then, was one constituted by the insuperable internal contradictions of Communism itself. Of these, two were salient. One was the assertion that a backward country, Russia, was the vanguard of universal emancipation. The other was that the more developed a working class became, the more necessary its submission to a dictatorial and hermetic party. Leszek Kolakowski (left), Jacek Kuron, (lower left) Edward Lipinski (right) , Wojciech Modelski, and Adam Michnik (lower right), in their struggle against these absurdities, laid the intellectual foundations of KOR, the group founded illegally but publicly in 1976, to express the intellectuals’ solidarity with the workers. They had help: the secular sociology of truth seekers like Jan Szczepanski, and the desperate efforts of Adam Schaff to keep Marxism intellectually respectable.
There was a third current in the background---the slow decomposition of the Cold War itself. The Helsinki Agreement of 1971 (and especially the apparently secondary references to Human Rights) was a charter for what proponents of orthodoxy in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact deemed impossible as well as impermissible: peaceful if competitive co-existence. True, Solidarnosc developed as the USSR and the USA were planning to install medium range missiles on the territory of their satellite states, the better to initiate a war between them by devastating Europe and not their imperial homelands. Very large popular protest in the German Federal Republic, Great Britain, and elsewhere in Europe was matched by a peace movement in the German Democratic Republic which was an anticipation of the popular protests of 1989. All of this seems far from the concerns of shipyard workers in Gdansk. (Left, Lech Walsea speaks to striking Gdansk workers in 1980.) There may have been a connection: a conviction, on the part of the European peoples, that it was time to stop exploitation at the hands of distant powers acting through local satrapies. In any event, the US did very little, apart from talking even more loudly---a perpetual American response to political impotence---when Solidarnosc emerged. It was the US which had earlier refused the suggestions of two foreign ministers, Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom and Adam Rapacki of Poland, for the reduction of arms in central Europe – suggestions which, if followed, might well have allowed liberalisation in Poland well before Solidarnosc had to fight for it. Perhaps we could have had more historical imagination to go with our moral indignation.
What of the obvious Catholic component in Solidarnosc, its long pre-history in the autonomous activities of Catholic proponents of social justice in the Polish People’s Republic? The election of Cardinal Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1979, and his visit that year to Poland, obviously reinforced Catholic activism. Pope John XXIII and his successor, Paul VI, had broken with the rigid anti-Communism of the Vatican. They Initiated and continued dialogue with the Communist regimes as a way to secure nd enlarge space within these regimes for Catholicism and for spiritual freedom generally. Solidarnosc was a belated product of the Aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. It is interesting that the Italian Communists -- close in many ways to the Italian Catholics -- were supporters of Solidarnosc.
The specific effect of Solidarnosc on Communist societies is a matter that still requires historical investigation. The critical Chinese intelligentsia knew of it, but it knew of everything that happened in the world. That is why it was so dangerous to their rulers. In the event, the Chinese student rising of 1989 (right) did evoke widespread solidarity from the Chinese working class. From my own direct knowledge of Communist Germany and its official elites as well as its dissidents, I would say that the East German response was entirely ambiguous. Some (along with the West Germans) feared a civil war in Poland, Soviet intervention, and a fatal conflagration. Others thought of Solidarnosc as a lesson in democracy, taught by Polish civil society to those still mired in an unnecessary quietism—those of their fellow East German citizens who first awoke in September and October of 1989 to their own potential power..
The images from the Gdansk shipyards on the West’s television screens, however, did not immediately encourage historical reflection. They were initially interpreted according to the predilections of the viewing publics. In the US, intellectual primitivism had full reign. Very few asked how, if Communism was so oppressive, Solidarnosc had been able to develop in the first place. In Western Europe, the response was much more informed and nuanced. As the Poles struggled to free themselves of indirect but effective Soviet suzerainty, many in Western Europe thought that the time had come for them to confront the United States as equals. In short, Solidarnosc contributed to the view that Europe had to cease existing only of itself and should act for itself. There might be lessons in that for the Europeans, still. -- Norman Birnbaum
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What about the women of solidarity? On August 29th of this year, the USA Ambassador to Poland, Victor Ashe, hosted a special, first of its kind, conference at his residence in Warsaw. According to the conference participants, this was the first official recognition of the role of women in sustaining Solidarity through martial law. Among the attending and conspicuous dignitaries was former USA Secretary, Madeleine Albright.
The three main participants were author Shana Penn, whose recent work “Solidarity's Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland” was about the activities of the female editors of the Solidarity underground weekly Tygodnik Mazowsze. One of those editors, and participants was Helena Łuczywo [Wikipedia link problem], currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper (which she helped found in 1989). Before martial law, Łuczywo had managed the Solidarity Press Agency, and before its inception, she was acting editor of Robotnik, a workers' publication she founded. And finally, mentioned earlier, Barbara Labuda currently serves as the Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the President of Poland, a position she has held since 1998. She was elected to the Sejm in 1989 after decades of political work. During martial law, Ms. Labuda was one of the leaders of the underground opposition in Wrocław. She was active in Solidarity from its earliest days, previously working with the Committee for the Defense of Workers.
According to Labuda, the dominant images of women during Solidarity were connected with activities like “weeping, praying, cleaning floors…making sandwiches.” But this was only a part. Labuda claimed that of the estimated 10 million strong members of Solidarity, half were women – however, and this would have influenced the media’s lens, only 8% of Solidarity leadership was women. During Martial Law (1981-1983) women understood their role as ‘patient revolutionaries.’ An underground paper was published (Tygodnik Mazowsze - up to 80,000 illegal copies each issue) by women to keep the voice of the movement strong serving to take away the government’s monopoly on information. Women maintained a Polish version of the underground railroad with networks of safe houses to hide Solidarity men. Interestingly, cultural blinders in the form of sexism was one of Solidarity’s biggest allies (and Achille’s Heel) since the Secret Police sought dissident men. Labuda stressed that women were overlooked, “the government’s sexism became our secret weapon.” Labuda presented Solidarity women as a backbone of the movement with the long view in mind, this was not the time for dramatic revolution. She referred to it as a “Teller Revolution” in which crucial information was shared in daily chatter and usually without much attention paid by the public, or official bosses within earshot.
Helena Łuczywo presented the issue more broadly, looking from a global perspective and how women fight for Democracy everywhere. Using Poland and her role during Martial Law as an example, she said that thousands of women were involved, mostly participating behind the scenes, but not always. She mentioned the radio station launched by women in Poznan. Łuczywo made sure to mention that both women and men were necessary for the success of the movement and that the recognition of the role of women in Solidarity is not intended to displace or compete with men – simply to recognize and add historical equity. She also made some critical comments about the ironies of the success of Solidarity – reflecting that the “people who actually sustained and started the movement have become its biggest victims.” We mustn’t forget Łuczywo said, that Solidarity was a working class movement (referring to Robotnik).Will the neo-communists in Poland, ironically, attract these disenfranchised people? She spoke of a treason and that the Left is dying, not only in Poland – there is too little solidarity. “Is this tradition over?” she asked.
Posted by: js | Oct 29, 2005 11:43:37 AM
Also, just a side note about the crackdown in Bejing in 1989: it was mostly the workers of the town that died, not the students in Tienamin Square. It was, after all, the former who could have been the real threat to the regime.
Posted by: Paul Lyon | Aug 30, 2005 8:09:49 PM
It seems to me that one should notice firstly that Solidarnosc was---in the year and a half of its open existence---a worker's movement, that for time it seemed that the Polish working class was changing from being a class in itself to a class for itself. Lenin, I suspect, had he been alive to see it, would have recognized this at once, but being Lenin, he would have tried to get control of the movement and steer it in the direction he thought it ought to go, rather than to suggest a direction and let the movement evolve in a more natural way. Having said that, it should be clear that Lech Walesea was not the one to lead a second revolution. It is an unpleasant irony of history that having inadvertantly prompted into existence that which a serious Marxist revolutionary might most want, the leadership of the so-called communist party could not even see what was in front of their noses, nor see that a significant step in the development of a socialist society in Poland was now possible. In the Jaruzelski years of suppression, it seems to me, Solidarnosc lost its way and the result for the workers of Poland is that they are now subject to capitalist bosses rather than apparatchiks. [``Gonna get a new boss man, gonna treat me right'' (Big Boss Man).] Perhaps many among them are now somewhat more prosperous, but was that really all that was possible?
Posted by: Paul Lyon | Aug 30, 2005 8:05:42 PM
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