Thirty years ago, the Polish working class rose up in struggle against the Stalinist regime and formed their own independent trade union, Solidarnosc. Solidarity looks at their experience and the lessons for today
The rise of Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland in 1980-1981 again exposed the lie that the Soviet Union was any kind of socialist society. At the same time the power of the working class, channelled through the independent trade union, showed that Marxist ideas of working class struggle and its capacity to reshape society still have immense relevance.
Poland’s working class had a history of explosive struggle, seen in clashes with the regime in 1956, and again in 1970 and 1976.
By the 1970s Poland was wracked by economic crisis. It was massively in debt to Western banks and cracking down on living conditions to try to repay them. This led to growing tension between the working class and the regime as workers fought to maintain wages in the face of price rises for basic goods and services. They burned down party buildings and tore up railway lines in protest.
The government was quite rightly afraid of the growing upheaval. They hoped that increasing wages and cutting food prices might stop the strikes and demonstrations. But these concessions had the opposite effect, showing the working class its own power to win demands. In fact, in the 1970s the government only gave pay rises to workers who struck, which encouraged many more people to join the demonstrations.
Out of the strike wave of 1976 a group of dissidents set up the Committee for the Defence of Workers (KOR) to support workers victimised for organising strike action. They helped organise groupings of worker activists that produced their own clandestine newspapers.
A new upsurge began in mid-1980 when Anna Walentynowicz, a member of one of the KOR groups, was fired from the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, and workers came out to occupy in solidarity with her. Other factories in the Gdansk region also struck in solidarity. The government met the Lenin shipyard workers’ demands quickly, including the reemployment of Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa, who had also lost his job, along with the highest pay-rise ever in the Lenin shipyard, better family allowances and the right to build a memorial commemorating people who had died in the riots in 1970.
As the shipyard workers were leaving the occupation Walesa was confronted by a tram worker who explained that workers who had struck in solidarity with the shipyards had got nothing, and demanded that they continue the strike until the demands of other workers in the Gdansk region were met. The shipyard bosses refused to let Walesa announce a continued occupation over loud-speakers but around a tenth of the workers stayed out. To coordinate this strike wave an Inter-enterprise Strike Committee (MKS) was set up in Gdansk.
The Gdansk MKS drew up a set of demands called the “21 Points” which included the right to organise independent unions, the easing of censorship laws, freedoms for the Catholic Church, improvements in the healthcare system and the release of political prisoners. This marked a shift away from purely economic questions like wages and prices.
Workers’ methods of organisation had also changed. The state had put down the riots in the 1970s by force without too much trouble. The occupation strikes in 1980 forced the government to come into the factory and negotiate over loudspeakers.
In a show of their panic over the occupations the government cut communication from Gdansk to the rest of Poland, and announced there had been a hurricane which knocked down some telephone poles. Nevertheless, within a month 4000 enterprises all over Poland had joined the strikes and were setting up their own MKSs.
What proved to be the sticking point of the Gdansk talks was the release of political prisoners. The regime knew independent workers’ organisation posed a challenge to their rule so they tried to imprison key activists to break it up. Walentynowicz summed up the issue: “If we don’t defend the political prisoners of today, then tomorrow our agreements are worthless, for we are all political, and they will call us that, and simply lock us all up.”
The fact that workers continued to strike until this demand was met showed them their capacity not only to achieve gains over immediate issues but also over much broader social questions.
The emergence of Solidarnosc
Within weeks of the victory in Gdansk the MKSs from all over Poland set up a central organisation that they called Solidarnosc. It had around three million members, and grew within a few months to ten million, 80 per cent of the Polish workforce. Solidarnosc functioned as a trade union, but it also became the place for anyone oppressed or exploited by the Polish regime to come to.
This type of organisation echoed the soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917, and the workers’ councils in Hungary in 1956. The involvement of rank-and-file workers is shown by how negotiations with management were conducted. They were broadcast over loudspeaker in the factories or were recorded and brought back on tape for debate and decision. Solidarnosc’s ability to control production, by shutting off power or other services and bringing whole cities to a halt, made it in effect an alternative government. This led to a situation of dual power in the country, with Solidarnosc on one side and the Stalinist regime on the other.
The Polish state in crisis
The Polish regime was under constant pressure from Russia to squash the workers’ movement, as well as pressure from Western banks to repay their huge debts.
Between the Gdansk talks in August and October 1980 almost 5000 strikes took place across Poland. The government was forced to constantly concede workers’ demands. Attempts at any frontal assault on Solidarnosc completely failed.
In Szczecin the party newspaper tried to attack Solidarnosc, so the union printed 400,000 leaflets, took over the trams, covered them with posters and had students insert Solidarnosc’s response in every copy of the paper.
This situation of dual power could not last. The regime couldn’t regain control without destroying Solidarnosc—every way they turned Solidarnosc had a list of demands and a wave of strikes and occupations to back them up. The state’s political control was rapidly crumbling as Solidarnosc gained more concessions.
This presented a huge opportunity for Solidarnosc to bring down the dictatorship in Poland and put the country under the control of the working class. But this opportunity was not realised.
Despite the demands made in the “21 Points” they conceded the “leading role of the party”—the continuation in power of the Stalinist government. Solidarnosc saw its attitude to the regime as simply attempting to gain concessions, instead of seeing the possibility to overthrow it.
Reformism in Solidarnosc
The dissidents who had formed KOR maintained an enormous credibility as people who had risked their lives to support opposition to the dictatorship over previous decades. But when they became advisers to Solidarnosc’s leaders they advocated compromise with the regime. Tensions over this existed from Solidarnosc’s beginning. During the drawing up of the “21 Points” some workers had expressed a more radical demand about censorship, saying they should push for its complete abolition. Intellectuals advised a softer line so as not to push too hard or go too far with the regime.
The rise of these advisers also saw the demise of Solidarnosc’s transparency—something that had been essential in the early days with live broadcasts of negotiations into workplaces.
Negotiations started to happen behind closed doors, the leadership and the rank-and-file met less frequently, and every proposal had to go through a layer of union bureaucrats. Any protest against these developments was met with accusations that people were trying to divide Solidarnosc and this would weaken them when negotiating with the regime.
The influence of the Catholic Church also pushed Solidarnosc leaders in a reformist direction. In general the Church has been a conservative force in Polish society. But the Church was also repressed by the regime and became a symbol of Russian domination of Poland.
The Church was concerned with its own well-being and was not enthusiastic about trying to overthrow the regime. During 1980 and 1981 it frequently encouraged workers to abandon strikes and encouraged “peace” and “dialogue”.
The lack of any serious revolutionary socialist organisation within Solidarnosc arguing that it had the power to topple the regime, and that the network of delegates from workplaces that formed it could be the basis for a new way of running society, meant there was no coherent alternative to the voices of moderation.
An obvious difficulty in establishing a revolutionary socialist organisation in Poland was the pretence of the regime that Poland was already a socialist country. The regime had co-opted terms like “Marxism”, “workers’ power” and “socialism” for their own purposes, and left the working class confused. They worked in places named the Lenin Shipyards, or the Paris Commune Shipyards, but their society had nothing to do with these people or movements.
What was increasingly exposed during the post-war period was that neither Russia nor its Eastern European satellites had anything to do with socialism. The state owned the means of production, but this didn’t mean these countries were controlled by workers. The fact that Polish workers’ wages were constantly driven down in efforts to boost production and make the Polish economy more competitive shows the regime was trying to squeeze workers, in the same way corporations do under free market capitalism. Poland was a state capitalist society, where the party elite formed a ruling class collectively exploiting Polish workers.
But Poland exposed these class divisions inside the Eastern Bloc and showed the revolutionary potential of the working class to fight for a genuinely socialist society.
The consequence of Solidarnosc’s leaders seeking compromise with Poland’s rulers was holding back and demobilising the workers’ struggle, allowing the regime to regroup.
In March 1981 a new flashpoint erupted. When an agreement couldn’t be reached in the city of Bydgoszcz over the setting up of a rural Solidarnosc wing, the regime called the police in to beat up Solidarnosc members. Half a million people struck in outrage and Solidarnosc agreed on a four hour national strike, followed by four days for the regime to lay charges against those who’d beaten up union members and recognise Rural Solidarnosc. It threatened an indefinite strike if these demands weren’t met.
Both sides prepared for an out-and-out conflict. The regime distributed ominous leaflets implying the Russians would be called in, while workers built barricades and stocked up on supplies to occupy the factories.
But Solidarosc leader Lech Walesa was being pressured behind closed doors by a Polish cardinal and Church advisers sent by the regime. He emerged to announce that the strike was called off.
The Solidarnosc leadership had been forced into a backdown, but the economic crisis continued and so did the struggle. Raw materials and basic commodities were in short supply, even ration coupons didn’t guarantee much. Postal workers and LOT Polish airlines went on strike; in Silesia, a big mining centre, a million workers struck; people went on hunger marches and Gdynia dock-workers refused to load food for export; press workers struck in protest over slanderous media representations of Solidarnosc.
In late 1981 Solidarnosc’s National Congress redefined its function from “trade union” to “social movement”. In a lot of ways this was a step forward. It meant Solidarnosc was now trying to envision a democratic society with people’s control. But there was no plan set out for how to win any of these demands.
The state had maintained firm control of the army despite the upheaval. Solidarnosc had not tried to involve soldiers in its strikes or demonstrations.
In a state of emergency situation, General Jaruzelski took over the positions of Prime Minister, party secretary and defence minister all in one go. He began testing the loyalty of the army, sending units into small towns and areas of the countryside, to take control of food supplies. Then army units were sent into individual factories—but still the Solidarnosc leaders did not respond.
When the army used open force to break up a student occupation at a fire-fighting school, which the regime claimed was under the jurisdiction of the army, it was clear a military coup was imminent. Belatedly the Solidarnosc leadership realised the need for a more radical response. In Lodz workers voted for an active strike and the formation of a workers’ guard for the upcoming conflict. The national commission met in Gdansk and agreed that it would fight the militarisation going on as a result of the “emergency powers” of the state with a general strike.
But the shift to radical ideas about how to fight the state was too late. That night the army invaded the hotel where Solidarnosc’s national commission were staying in Gdansk. All over the country, Solidarnosc activists were arrested. There were strikes held in response, especially in the mines, but they were weak and isolated from each other—one mine held a three week underground occupation and its workers were particularly shocked when they resurfaced to find there had been few similar actions.
Conclusions and lessonsThe economic crisis in Poland produced an intense period of struggle against the regime. The working class was rapidly changed through this struggle. It became more confident and it won enormous concessions for working people.
But through doing this Solidarnosc produced an ever-expanding list of demands that exposed the contradiction between the state’s interest in workers’ continued exploitation and oppression, and the working class’s interest in overcoming that exploitation. But the moderation of Solidarnosc’s national leaders, and the failure to see Solidarnosc as a force that could challenge the continued existence of the Stalinist regime in Poland, led to the union’s destruction.
The next time history throws up another such revolutionary crisis, we need to have the lessons of Solidarnosc’s experiences at the front of our minds.