‘Solidarity Will Never Die’

‘Solidarity Will Never Die’

If Polish law supposes that a huge social movement can be voted out of existence, then, as Mr.


If Polish law supposes that a huge social movement can be voted out of existence, then, as Mr. Bumble put it, "the law is a ass, a idiot." No sooner had the Polish Parliament passed its new trade union law, designed primarily to ban Solidarity, than the underground leaders of the movement called for a nationwide strike on November 10.

As it happened, the strike was less than a success, in large part because an underground movement is unable to paralyze a country controlled by soldiers. But it did, in a roundabout way, achieve the release of Lech Walesa after eleven months of internment, and that is important in itself. It was on the eve of the nationwide strike that the Catholic Church, perhaps fearful of bloodshed, came to an agreement with martial law authorities, in effect bargaining for the liberation of Walesa by attempting to sell out Solidarity.

The deal did not quite go as planned. After his release, it took Walesa a couple of days to get to his home in Gdansk. A taped television interview with him was made and publicized but never released by the Polish authorities. In the public statements he did make, he did not sound like a corporal addressing his general but an independent and reasonable labor leader speaking on behalf of the Polish working class.

Given the present political stalemate, this man, armed with just his voice, still matters. The military may control, but it does not have any success in wooing the workers, as shown by the dearth of volunteers for the government’s pro- posed new unions. Walesa does, and hence his significance, now and in the foreseeable future.

Solidarity, under whatever name, is thus very far from finished. All that the ban accomplished was to make it easier to get rid of some of the fashionable distortions surrounding its struggle and to perceive that struggle with a new clarity. Fundamentally it is a conflict between rulers who, to preserve their absolute power, must not only break the labor movement but in some Orwellian fashion deprive it of its collective memory and a working class which, in trying to defend its conquests, is really defending the paramount interests of the society at large.

* * *

The new trade union law is hardly significant in itself, though if the labor movement had not previously made such tremendous strides some of its provisions might have aroused interest. After all, it does provide that new unions will be theoretically independent of the party and the government and will have the right to strike. But that right, like most others, is so circumscribed by provisions for advance warnings and compulsory arbitration and jurisdictional restrictions that it remains rather empty. The law even goes so far as to forbid any industrywide organizing until 1984 and any Solidarity-like association among unions until 1985.

The enactment of the law was important for other reasons. It was an ostentatious signal of the authorities’ refusal to compromise and an open display of their political power. In the handpicked Sejm, or Parliament, only 12 out of 460 deputies dared vote against it, and 9 abstained. Among the dissenters, the most notable was Jan Szczepanski, a prominent sociologist who has hovered for some time on the liberal fringes of the Polish establishment. As late as last December, as a member of the Council of State, he contributed his signature to the document that provided a legal cloak for the military coup. Like a surprising number of Western liberals, he was still giving General Jaruzelski the benefit of the doubt. Through his vote he has now admitted he was utterly, wrong.

Why did the authorities show their hand so plainly? The answer comes from Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a deputy prime minister. He, too, once had a liberal reputation as the editor of the weekly Polityko, but has since become the most aggressive spokesman for the junta. Speaking on the eve of the parliamentary debate, he said that the government had originally intended to revive Solidarity on the assumption that its leadership would be reasonable–or, in other words, that, defeated by the military, the union would accept a subordinate role. (Rakowski put it more eloquently: the rulers had thought that "the mass membership of Solidarity would isolate the extremists and that realists would gain the upper hand in the leading organs of the organization.") That assumption was mistaken, so the military had to ban Solidarity outright.

* * *

That Solidarity moved too far and too fast is a refrain one has heard often from Poland’s authorities and their Western defenders. It is usually coupled with the line proffered by Rakowski: reasonable, moderate workers were led astray by reckless leaders. The leadership of Solidarity may be accused of all sorts of things, including the lack of a clear purpose, but no one could honestly describe the sixteen months following the Gdansk agreements as a period when the mass of workers was begging for peace and quiet and its leaders were spoiling for a fight. Quite the contrary.

The latest version of this refrain is equally off base. It suggests that, driven underground, the leadership of Solidarity has lost touch with reality, imagining the workers are in the same fighting mood it is in, whereas really they are weary of protest and eager to get back to normal. In fact, when Solidarity was officially outlawed in October its underground leaders argued about the best response; some even wondered whether it would be possible to take over the new government-approved unions from within. Eventually Solidarity chose to boycott the new organizations and stage a protest strike, but it set the date a month away, partly to have time for preparations, partly in the hope the government would change its mind and offer concessions. Some "fighting mood."

Far from dragging their feet, the workers actually jumped the gun. Just after Solidarity was banned, at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk workers went out on a two-day strike, ended only after the "militarization" of the yard placed the employees under army discipline. Protest strikes were staged in most industrial centers, including the Szczecin shipyard and the Cegielski engineering works in Poznan. There were strikes and demonstrations in Wroclaw, the capital of Lower Silesia, and in the steel town of Nowa Huta wild street-fighting between protesters and police ended with one 20-year-old worker fatally shot. Some "weary of protest.”

The violent clashes in Nowa Huta had symbolic importance because it was originally thought of as a proletarian showpiece of the Communist regime. It is a gray, drab town, erected on the site of two small villages near Crakow as a home for the huge Lenin steelworks. It was there that Birkut built houses in the early parts of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble.

It was there, too, that a quarter of a century ago I thought I had grasped the meaning of Soviet "primitive accumulation." Peasants, uprooted, had been transplanted at the new site, turning it into an undisciplined boomtown like something out of the Wild West. The purpose was breakneck industrialization, which, once accomplished, was supposed to bring about prosperity and freedom. It turned out otherwise. In their working classes the Soviet-style regimes of Eastern Europe have, in the Marxist phrase, produced their own gravediggers.

* * *

The social weight of the Polish working class has been building up for at least a dozen years, ever since the winter of 1970-71, when workers won with their own blood the right to reject proposed increases in food prices. Ten years later workers established the right to create an autonomous labor organization. Last December the rulers opted for military dictatorship as a way to reduce this weight. Since then they have discovered that, even defeated, the workers will not give up. Hence the attempted exorcism of Solidarity and now, because that won’t work, a new operation: a Moscow-style trial, the trial of Jacek Kuron and three of his colleagues from the Committee for the Defense of the Workers, known as KOR.

KOR was begun in 1976 when a handful of intellectuals banded together to provide legal and financial aid to workers suffering from a ruthless backlash of repression after a successful strike. This was a new kind of worker-intellectual link in Poland, but it was eventually able to force the government to release all the workers from prison within a year. KOR went on encouraging resistance through lectures and publications, and in Robotnik (Worker) did much to spread the idea of an autonomous, free labor union. More generally, KOR inaugurated a new chapter in the relations between workers and intellectuals throughout Eastern Europe.

Once Solidarity was born, the members of KOR took an active part in the movement, though without any common line. They disbanded their organization just over a year ago, arguing that a group set up to defend the workers had no reason to exist when a powerful labor movement was protecting everybody. It was an argument tragically contradicted by the military coup. It 1s impossible, of course, to have a real Moscow-style trial in Poland today: nobody would believe it, and Kuron and company are not men to play the appointed parts. But in its hopeless effort to break the labor movement, to split Solidarity into jailed "extremists" and obedient sheep, the military has to drive on and on along the road of repression. Historically, it is a road to disaster.

* * *

The historical weakness of the government does not insure the present strength of the movement. The Gdansk strikers, compelled to go back to work so as to avoid the full blasts of martial law, illustrate Solidarity’s dilemma. On the one hand, it is now perfectly aware, as it was not during the heady summer of 1980, that the government is prepared to use force if it has to. Behind the ZOMO (riot squads) stands the Polish Army and behind that the Soviet tanks. Some caution is made necessary too by the isolation of being underground and the difficulty of communicating and establishing contacts.

On the other hand, if it is too cautious, Solidarity risks losing workers to the new unions, which if nothing else will be channels for welfare. Recommending go-slow tactics to people who need higher earnings to meet rising prices is also not likely to sit well. Will Solidarity be able to keep young workers in check when hope turns to hatred? Will it be able to wrest concessions from the rulers when its avowed aim is not to crush them but to bring them to the bargaining table?

It would be convenient for many if, dead and buried, Solidarity were to recede into the past. The men in the Kremlin could, at least for a time, stop bothering about "contagion" throughout the Soviet bloc, and the likes of Rakowski could preach once again that the Communist Party’s puppet unions are the true representatives of the working class. In the West, Reagan and Thatcher could escape the irony of criticizing the Polish government for taking much the same measures against unions there as they have used in their own countries.

But Solidarity refuses to oblige. The Polish proletariat has no manners: it is quite capable of rising up after the funeral orations have been delivered. Or, as the mourners of Nowa Huta wrote on their banners: "Solidarity will never die."

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