Solidarity, 25 Years Later

Solidarity, 25 Years Later

That brief explosion in Gdansk of civic participation and political innovation contains secrets and gems of political ideals that can be achieved.


Twenty-five years ago this summer, the world’s attention was focused on Gdansk. The images–of thousands of workers sitting down in the Lenin Shipyard demanding independent trade unions and the right to strike, while back in the printing shop bearded intellectuals, 20-year-old students and middle-aged shipworkers collaborated to produce the strike’s daily bulletin, Solidarity–offered an improbable vision of a society united against the state. And when, against all odds, they forced the government to capitulate–the same government that had sent tanks against strikers ten years earlier, killing dozens–the Solidarity movement quickly galvanized the world. Especially the world’s left.

For although Solidarity fought against the official Communist world, the left welcomed it more than the right. While bankers feared the movement might jeopardize the repayment of Poland’s large debts, and conservatives feared mass democratic movements in general, radical activists from Brazil to South Africa sent their greetings and their representatives, trying to figure out what this unusual trade union/social movement, led by 37-year-old electrician Lech Walesa, was all about.

As demonstrated over the next sixteen months, Solidarity’s real innovation was its commitment to radical social transformation without bothering about the state. Partly because party dictatorship put the state off-limits and partly because Solidarity’s key ideologues had themselves been 1960s radicals inspired by the anti-authority ethos of the time, Solidarity developed the groundbreaking concept of “antipolitics.” The idea was not to “take” power but to get away from power and let society transform itself.

August 1980 set in motion an emancipatory carnival of civic participation. Workers (including intellectuals, for everyone was a wage worker under state socialism) formed trade unions and published uncensored company newsletters. They took local matters into their own hands and improved their working conditions. Students built their own organizations and revamped school curriculums. All over the country people attended meetings, read newspapers and talked with one another with that rare sense that they mattered. To use a favorite Solidarity term, for a moment regular people were the “subjects” of politics, not its objects.

Within a few short months nearly 10 million people–more than a quarter of Poland’s population–had joined Solidarity. Yet even with such numbers, it practiced a day-to-day democracy unrivaled in mass movements elsewhere. Meetings went on until everyone had his or her say. Leaders at all levels were elected. Independent journalists were allowed to sit in on meetings of the top leadership bodies and publish their accounts, so everyone could know what the leaders were thinking and doing.

Solidarity would not abandon its democratic commitment even in the face of threats to its existence. I remember a conference of Warsaw delegates in December 1981 where local president Zbigniew Bujak told the gathering that if it came to a confrontation with the government, he would call another meeting so delegates could share their views on how to respond. One week later the government outlawed the union, declared martial law and arrested most of those same delegates.

To an American left mired in late-1970s doldrums caused by the demise of the antiwar movement and disillusionment with Third World revolutions (witness Pol Pot’s Cambodia), Solidarity was a revelation and an inspiration. Perhaps workers should not be written off as a force for change. Perhaps radical, nonviolent democratic movements could get broad-based support. Some balked at the hearty Catholicism of Polish workers, but hadn’t the civil rights movement also had religion as one of its sources? And Solidarity’s belief that things don’t change because of new leaders, that only changed people can change the world–wasn’t this central to New Left notions of radicalism too?

With its unremitting belief in independent initiatives, its extraordinary labor-intellectual alliance, its revolutionary passion yet remarkable self-restraint, Solidarity was the original purveyor of a “third way.” Its program advocated neither capitalism nor socialism but a “self-managed republic,” understood essentially as a permanently open democracy. Civic participation was not a means to an end but an end in itself.

If such ideas have become more popular among the left since 1980, that is in large part due to Solidarity. For it was Solidarity that reintroduced the concept of civil society to the West, bringing to it a radical participatory vision far different from the watered-down notion of the voluntary sector that it often implies today.

Things did not quite work out as hoped. One of Solidarity’s great strengths had been its freedom from illusions, its unwillingness to trust any leader or ideology promising a quick fix. Yet after 1989 it succumbed to illusions about the “free market” and was not interested in building strong trade unions to counteract that. (The West bears responsibility for this too, having elected in the 1980s the conservative governments Poland would have to work with.)

So Solidarity didn’t live up to its promise. It’s hardly the first social movement that’s failed to do so. But today is the occasion to celebrate not 1989 but 1980–that remarkable “in between” moment when people started living their lives as if the dictatorship simply did not exist. They were forced to come up with new ideas and exciting practices, and these are what deserve to be remembered and recovered today.

Unfortunately, few are interested in doing so. Western progressives don’t seem to care, because Poland eventually became a “regular” country, with a pro-American foreign policy to boot. Most Poles no longer care because they’re glad Poland became a “regular” country. But that sixteen-month explosion of civic participation and political innovation between August 1980 and December 1981 still contains secrets and gems about the alternative political universes that are possible. Let’s hope we recover them before another twenty-five years have passed.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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