The Independent, August 30, 2010
Thirty years ago, a trade union forced the Communist Party into a retreat that marked the beginning of the end of Soviet
Thirty years ago, ordinary people challenged an armed dictatorship, and won.
On 31 August 1980, the strikers in the Lenin Shipyard at
Within days, other strike committees all over
Everyone who was in that shipyard during the strike came out changed: wiser and perhaps with more faith in humanity. This was an occupation strike, asking strikers to forsake their homes and families for the sake of the common cause. The yard gates, almost hidden behind well- wishers' flowers and pictures of the Pope, were locked, and the workers forbade themselves to come out until they had won.
Inside, thousands of men in grey denim overalls lay on the grass listening to the Tannoy, as it broadcast the interminable negotiations in the Health and Safety hall. Outside the gate, women and children waited through long, hot August days. Sometimes they threw bread, salami and apples over the fence to their husbands, fathers and sons. There was paper and duplicator ink for smudgy bulletins in the yard, but not much to eat. Vodka was banned. In one of
The stakes were very high. The workers inside and the families outside thought about the ZOMO riot police, itching to batter them with clubs. The foreign journalists in the yard thought more about the Soviet armoured divisions that had moved up to the Polish frontier. If they invaded, we assumed that the Poles would fight and there would be what the regime's euphemism called "a national tragedy". But that was a possibility the strikers refused to discuss. It was an extra fear they did not need.
The strikes spread and the government, riven by panicky arguments, finally gave way. On 31 August, Lech Walesa – enjoying every moment of it – took a silly monster pen, a souvenir from the Pope's visit the year before, and signed the
That was not the end of the story. In the months that followed, the regime tried to block, delay or otherwise cheat on all the main points of the agreements, repeatedly driving Solidarity into confrontation. Sometimes
The Communist regime, now discredited and despised by everyone, lay on top of
But the voters found a loophole – the requirement that all candidates must gain the backing of 50 per cent of the votes cast – and the regime list was wiped out. Four months later, the first government in "Soviet
That first year of Solidarity, which had begun in summer and ended on a freezing December night, was a carnival which became a sustaining myth. Yet many of the things that made it special have been forgotten. One was the part played by women in those first weeks. The
And the strike would have been no more than a strike without Henryka Krzywonos, a tram driver. A few days after the stoppage began,
There were roars of approval. Walesa changed his mind and raced round the yard countermanding his own orders: the strike would continue and take on demands from other workplaces along the Baltic coast. Because of Henryka, an industrial dispute broadened into a revolution.
Forgotten, too, is the simple fact that Solidarity was a trade union. It relied on a formidable "adviser" team of opposition intellectuals. It was theatrically Catholic, and the strikers knelt at daily Masses in the yard. Deep down, it was powered by old-fashioned revolutionary nationalism: the longing to restore a genuinely independent
It was a colossal syndical upsurge based on the industrial proletariat, but a proletariat for whom "socialism" had become a dirty word. It had nothing but contempt for the Communist authorities, but hoped at first to co-exist with them rather than overthrow them. The "political" triumphs in the Solidarity agreements – relaxation of censorship, the freeing of political prisoners – were almost secondary achievements for the strike committees. Freedom of speech and the media were the best way of ensuring that the bread-and-butter elements of the agreement – the independence of the new union, better wages, no sackings on political grounds, getting supplies into the shops – would not be undermined.
Poles today find it hard to remember that Solidarity stood for what used to be called "anarcho-syndicalism". In other words, an extreme form of socialist democracy in which workers took charge of their own enterprises, elected their managements and voted on production plans. That was what the "self-managing" in Solidarity's title meant. This usually went with wage-levelling, to ensure equality in the work-place.
This was the programme of "workers' self-management" that Solidarity committees set up throughout
For patriotic Poles today, Solidarity's glory is that it gave a mortal wound to the whole Soviet empire. The revolutions of 1989, which brought down Communism and united Europe, "began at
But that is only half-true. Polish Communism began to die in August 1980; sooner or later, the Poles would have rolled its corpse aside and – if only to save the nation from chaos – established something like a democratic state.
But even if Solidarity blew open the gates to the future, it belonged in many ways to the past. It was the end of many things, rather than a beginning.
To start with, it was the last grand uprising of the producers – of the men and women whose labour made wealth, and who claimed a right to control in their own workplaces how that wealth was produced and shared. Ten years before, the late Jimmy Reid and the workers of
What remains from that August spirit, in a
Solidarity went through several shape-changes after 1980. It became a resistance movement devoted more to national independence than to workers' rights. Then, after 1989, it became one unsuccessful right-wing political movement among several others. Today it is once more a trade union, with a mighty name but limited influence.
Under the surface, Polish hopes changed too. In the bleak years under martial law, young people lost interest in the workers' control vision. In western Europe, they thought they saw a better system which worked: capitalism under a liberal democracy.
The "Solidarity generation" looks back with mixed feelings. But regret is not among them. If Solidarity had not given millions of people the confidence that by sticking together they could change everything,
The children of those who fought and suffered 30 years ago have been brought up with the Solidarity "myth". It doesn't seem to have much to do with the world they live in. And yet they have inherited a protesting, contradicting instinct which goes back to that 1980 revelation of what people can do together.
The journalist Jacek Zakowski writes: "That myth, for many of us, is the proof that it was worth being born. We contributed something to this world. Thanks to Solidarity, several million people in
Copyright © 2009 International Center on Nonviolent Conflict - All Rights Reserved
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs