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Central and Eastern European States -
1981 Poland and Solidarity

‘To write about opposition to communism in the 1980s, one must begin with Poland. The Poles were the only ones ever to stage repeated challenges to communist rule, with major uprisings in 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976 and 1980. Solidarity, the last of these, was a more credible alternative to communism than anything else produced in Central Europe. Its influence throughout the region was incalculable…’ (Padraic Kenney – A Carnival of Revolution: 15)

Warsaw also had its spring. The ‘March Days’ of 1968 saw student strikes and theatre protests, but unlike in Prague, Gomułka ordered a swift and uncompromising clampdown. University social science departments were closed and leading dissident intellectuals dismissed. In contrast to events a decade later, the working classes offered little support for the protestors. The origins of Solidarity are to be traced to events in December 1970. Just before Christmas, the party decided to increase food prices by 36%. The people responded with strikes and demonstrations, most notably in the Baltic ship building port of Gdańsk. In December, Gomułka ordered a crack-down against the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and Polish soldiers shot at and killed Polish workers. 

Why was December 1970 so important? Firstly, the strike, demonstration and the shootings took place at the giant Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, which would later become the birthplace and organisational core of Solidarity. One important member of the strike committee in 1970 made it his career to settle the account of injustices committed. His name was Lech Wałęsa. Secondly, unlike in Poznan 1956 or in Prague in 1968, the protest was organized outside the context of the party. The protesters appealed to international law to legitimate their independent trade union activity as a workers’ organisation against the Workers’ state. The response of the party in 1970 was, however, similar to 1956. Changes were promised and reforms introduced; most notable was the replacement of Gomułka by Edward Gierek. In addition, as in 1968, the workers and middle classes remained divided.

December 1970 is the single most important date in the pre-history of Solidarity. In December 1970, the giant which the socialist regime itself had created, the new working class, first flexed its muscles, seized the men who claimed to rule in its interest by the scruff of their necks, and shook them. 
(Timothy Garton Ash - Solidarity 14)

In January 1971, Gierek successfully appealed to workers to return to work claiming ‘I am only a worker like you’ and launched an ambitious but ill conceived plan of ‘consumer socialist’, economic regeneration. On the basis of Western loans and imported technology, Gierek successfully raised consumer expectations: wages increased by 36% but prices remained fixed at 1967 levels. Of the 20 billion dollars Poland borrowed in the 1970s, 6 billion went on food stuffs. (Stokes 18) The consequence was massive national debt, at a time when the world economy was slipping into the 1973 oil crisis. The Poles now expected more and the crisis ridden state was increasingly unable to deliver. By 1976 something had to give. Without warning, food prices were increased by 60% and again the country went on strike. There were riots and violent state retribution, but again the party gave way and the increase in food prices was withdrawn. However, Solidarity did not emerge merely as a result of economic factors. It is the social and cultural context that explains the unique character of what would become Solidarity and what sort of people became Solidarity supporters. With the highest post-war population growth, a new generation was reaching adulthood in the 1970s. One third of the industrial working class was under 25 years of age. (TGA: 29) Unlike the party nomenklatura that constituted a significant portion of the older generation, they had no prospect of significant social mobility.

They were better educated than those above them, had higher expectations than the previous generation, but were destined to a life of manual labour. In addition, having been inculcated with the ideas of Marxist egalitarianism, they were confronted with daily injustices that rewarded party careerists with ‘front of the queue’ access to social provision and hard currency access to exclusive shops that stocked western consumer goods. This new working class was therefore susceptible to the new ideas and organisations that began to emerge in the 1970s. The most significant of these was the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), a group of intellectuals who initially organised the legal defence of the workers who had participated in the 1976 riots. 

What the KOR managed to do was unite the intellectuals who had revolted in Warsaw in 1968 with the workers who had led the protests in 1970. The KOR produced uncensored journals and newspapers like Robotnik, through an underground press that would be read in secrecy and passed on and devoured by eager workers. It was through an initiative of the KOR that the first independent trade unions were formed. On Mayday 1978, the first free trade union was launched in Gdańsk. Amongst the leaders of Free Trade Unions of the Coast, was Lech Wałęsa, sacked for trade union agitation two years previously, now he was to be found selling Robotnik outside the Lenin Shipyard gates.

Of course, the Communist leadership had the means to crush this dangerous counter-culture; that it didn’t can be explained by the international climate of Détente and the Helsinki Accords. A financially desperate Gierek was rewarded for Poland’s positive human rights record by a visit by US President Jimmy Carter with $200 million of US credit. Put simply, Gierek could literally not afford to crush the KOR.

The Antipoliticians or ‘What is to be done when nothing can be done?’- Jacek Kuroń 

After 1968, East European intellectuals faced the dilemma of how to live in a society which had proved itself immune to reform and dependent for its survival on Soviet tanks. Some intellectuals like former communist Milan Kundera left and migrated to the west. Others like Havel stayed. For those that stayed, the challenge was to live a private, ethical life. Or as Polish writer Konstanty Gebert put it, to erect ‘a small, portable barricade between me and silence, submission, humiliation, shame. As long as I man it, there is, around me, a small area of freedom’. (Stokes: 23)

But perhaps the most significant moment in the pre-history of Solidarity occurred in June 1979, with the official visit of Poland by Pope John Paul II. Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, had been elected Pope the previous year. 

The future Pope John Paul II established a reputation for presenting sermons with the themes of human rights. As many as 12 million Poles attended at least one of the open air sermons of his eight day tour during which the organisational reality of the communist state seemed to disappear. 

The Pope’s message was a simple one of human rights and peace, but the implications for the communist state were clear: ‘The future of Poland will depend upon how many people are mature enough to be non-conformists‘, said John Paul II.

When an unofficial lecture organized by Krakow students on 'Orwell's 1984 and Poland today' was broken up by police, the organiser went in some distress to his parish priest. A few days later there was a meeting in church, with an address, subject... 'Orwell's 1984 and Poland today'. This meeting was not disrupted. ‘Among his many firsts, Pope John Paul II, then Archbishop of Krakow, must be the first divine to have ordered 1984 to be read in churches’. (TGA Solidarity 23)


By the end of the 1970s the Polish opposition was more united and better articulated than at any time in its history. The workers’ unions, the intellectuals of KOR and the Church stood ready to lead a nation against Soviet control. All that was needed was a spark. 

The initial causes of the 1980 unrest were again economic. Poland’s international debt had risen from $1.2 billion in 1971 to $20.5 billion in 1979. (Kemp-Welch: 230) Faced with pressures from international creditors, the Gierek regime agreed to increase food prices. The sporadic strikes that resulted were contained through judicious, localised pay rises. The turning point, however, came in mid-August and significantly the cause was not economic. The sacking of popular crane worker and union activist Anna Walentynowicz just a few months before her retirement resulted in a demonstration for not only her reinstatement but also that of Lech Wałęsa. The director of the factory followed the previously successful tactic of promised better conditions if the workers returned to their jobs. But as the crowd seemed on the verge of accepting the offer, Wałęsa climbed up behind the director, tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘Remember me? I worked here for ten years… I have the confidence of the workers here’ (TGA 39) By August 18th some 200 factories from the Gdańsk region had joined Wałęsa’s Interfactory Strike Committee, soon to be christened Solidarność (Solidarity).

The Interfactory Strike Committee produced a list of 21 demands. Importantly, the list went beyond issues of pay and conditions and included the radical demand for the right to form independent trade unions. At the same moment both the KOR - ‘which artfully advised but never dominated’ – (R. J. Crampton Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century: 367) and the Catholic Church issued statements in support of this fundamental ‘right of workers to free associations in unions which genuinely represent them’. (quoted in Kemp-Welch 247) Although the government drew up plans to crush Solidarity by force, the Polish Politburo decided for a negotiated settlement. When on August 31, 1980 the Gdańsk agreement, or ‘Social Accords’, was agreed, Poland became unique in the communist bloc for allowing the paradoxical situation whereby an independent trade union could represent the workers against the workers’ state. In September, Solidarity appealed for registration and after six tense weeks of strikes and negotiation, Solidarity became a full legal entity. As Jacek Kuroń later put it, ‘I thought it was impossible, it was impossible, and I still think it was impossible’. (Stokes: 39) Solidarity was allowed to exist for 469 days during which the tensions of being in an ‘impossible’ situation were never far from the surface. That Solidarity was allowed to exist as long as it did was due much to the leadership and diplomacy of Lech Wałęsa. On the one hand, Solidarity was legally antipolitical and recognised the de jure leading role of the communist party. On the other hand, Solidarity exercised enormous influence as the only legitimate, de facto representative of the Polish working class. By some accounts Solidarity had 10 million members by the middle of 1981. (Barend: 258) Solidarity articulated the workers’ grievances but other than the threat of a general strike, it lacked the mechanisms to do anything about it.

Solidarity – which came first, the name or the logo? 

'Where did the name Solidarity come from? Since Deputy Premier Jagielski could not let the phrase “Free Trade Unions” pass his lips, we consulted the experts. This was a “solidarity” strike and our Bulletin was called Solidarity. So the name chose itself.’ Anna Walentynowicz (quoted in Kemp-Welch: 268)

 ‘…a young design student gave the movement a name by producing a striking logo based on the word Solidarność, the Rubicon was crossed.’ (Stokes: 36

‘… the name was suggested by one of the first dissidents, Karol Modzelewski’ (Barend : 258

Krzysztof Wyszkowski… the man who may have suggested for the shipyard strike bulletin – and hence perhaps the whole movement - the name ‘Solidarity’. (Garton-Ash 2002: 365)


So what did Solidarity achieve in the 469 days? 

Solidarity created a social and political pluralism in Poland that had never before been achieved in the Eastern Bloc. It was an intellectual pluralism that would not seriously be challenged even after the temporary imposition of martial law in 1981. One of the most important successes of Solidarity therefore was to create new precedents. Solidarity gave local groups a nationally organised focus; capable of providing a challenge to the state but self-consciously limiting the extent of that challenge. Solidarity eschewed not only violent methods but also antagonistic, overtly political methods. Wałęsa even issued six ‘commandments’, including the injunction ‘to keep peace and order’. (Crampton: 370) In other words, Solidarity did not challenge the state, rather it wanted a partnership with it and the Church; this was in the words of Andrzej Gwiazda ‘a moral revolution’ not a political one. (Stokes: 40) It negotiated and compromised, won concessions from the government but gave concessions also: it won the right of ‘Rural Solidarity’ to exist but not as a union, it successfully opposed the introduction of two working Saturdays but had to accept one. But all the time the leadership struggled to contain the militant rank and file who wanted more. And all the while, ‘the party’s control over the forces of law and order was unimpaired’. (Crampton: 372) The turning point came in Bydgoszcz in March 1981. A Solidarity demonstration in favour of Rural Solidarity was ended by the violent actions of the security forces. On the 27th March, Solidarity called a four hour general strike in protest and the call was almost universally heeded. But with an indefinite, general stoppage imminent, Wałęsa and the leadership reached a compromise agreement with the government which satisfied no-one. To have gone ahead with the general strike would have overstepped the antipolitical boundary, for Wałęsa ‘the risk was too great’. (Stokes: 41

Time Magazine Dec. 29, 1980

In the previous months, Soviet troops in the Ukraine and Baltic states had been on manoeuvres and in addition, the church was preaching restraint. The consequence was division on both sides of the industrial dispute. Wałęsa’s authority was damaged by resignations and internal criticisms and Solidarity increasingly moved in a political direction. This culminated in Solidarity’s 1981 ‘October Program’ which directly challenged the right of the Communist Party to govern Poland unopposed. For the authorities in the Party, divisions were also rife. On the one hand, reformists succeeded in introducing greater internal democracy in the party on the other hand, hardliners called for strong, military leadership to deal with the economic crisis which had seen the reintroduction of rationing and an inability to pay the foreign debt. Into the breach stepped Prime Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski. In the early hours of December 13, 1981 almost all of Solidarity’s leaders were arrested along with thousands of activists. Martial law was imposed, along with full censorship and the reintroduction of the six day week.Jaruzelski declared that Poland was on the ‘edge of an abyss’. Protest strikes were called but in the absence of leadership and coordination, they were easily put down. But defeat of Solidarity was also a defeat for the communist government. Its reliance on the military made it little better than the regimes of Franco or Pinochet. (Crampton: 376)



Polish National Opinion Poll November 1981

Percentage of respondents who expressed confidence in the following national institutions:


Solidarity         95%

Church            93%

Army               68%

Party                7%


Would the USSR have invaded in 1981? : The uses and limits of counterfactual history. 

Counterfactual or ‘what if?’ history is what historians do when they hypothesise about possible historical outcomes to key alternative moments in the past that did not actually happen. This sort of history became very popular in the 1990s with books like Niall Ferguson’s set of essays which considered such questions as what if Germany had won WWII? Considered by some historians as an essential part of the evaluative process – to understand how important you have to consider alternatives – other historians have dismissed the counterfactualism as elaborate parlour games or more strongly in the words of EP Thompson ‘unhistorical shit’. In this case, what would have happened if Jaruzelski had not declared martial law in 1981? Would the USSR have invaded as they had done previously in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? The position of the Soviet Union during the crisis remains unclear. They monitored the situation very closely, drew up plans for military assistance but ultimately ‘could not afford another Afghanistan – least of all in the middle of Europe’. (Kemp-Welch: 265) On the other hand ‘…evidence shows that Jaruzelski did call on Soviet forces to provide an ultimate back-up for martial law, as a last resort to save Polish communism and his own place in power’ (Kemp-Welch 325) Historians now have access to the previously secret Moscow archives to help. But even a seminar of historians, intellectuals and historical participants including the Russian military leader Marshal Kulikov and Polish leader General Jaruzelski held in Poland in 1997 could not reach a conclusive judgment. Evidence points to the conclusion that there was no intention of invasion by December 1981 (Andropov is quoted as saying at the time that ‘if Poland falls under the control of Solidarity, so be it’ TGA 363) and that therefore Jaruzelski was partly culpable for taking the initiative and imposing martial law. It is possible to claim, albeit very tentatively that if Jaruzelski had reached a compromise with Solidarity in 1981 that this ‘might just possibly have meant that some of what happened all over Central Europe in 1989 could have happened in Poland already in 1981’. TGA 363) Davies has a more positive view of Jaruzelski’s role. (24) ‘For part of the historical truth is that the Soviet leaders... did not know what they were going to do until they did it.’ (TGA 357) The archives show a similar story in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. We cannot know for certain because it never happened.

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