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.