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A model social movement

While other countries under the Soviet yoke witnessed significant attempts to overthrow Communist regimes – notably East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – Poland saw the most sustained resistance, with the trade union cum social movement Solidarity to the fore: “The story of 1989 [in Poland] cannot be understood without reference to the largest and most sustained popular 'push' in the history of communist Eastern Europe, that of Solidarity since 1980”[1]. Solidarity benefited from the example of Poland’s struggle for independence before 1918. At the emotional level on which political commitment and activism depends, Polish history made the events of the 1970s and 1980s a logical continuation of a longer fight for independence and helped to make Solidarity the force it was.


Workers and intellectuals united

A key element to Solidarity's strength was its ability to hold together workers and intellectuals in a single movement. When strikes over food prices in 1976 saw many workers arrested, intellectual dissidents led by Jacek Kuroń organized the Komitet Obrony Robotników (KOR, Workers' Defence Committee) to defend them, forming a bridge between workers and intellectuals which became a foundation of Solidarity itself. In the false dawn of liberation between the recognition of Solidarity in November 1980 and its banning and the declaration of martial law in December 1981, workers and intellectuals operated hand-in-hand to try to carve out space free of Party control. Solidarity itself grew from its trade union origins to become a social movement of which more than a quarter of the population were at one time a member.


Citizens not comrades

Across Central and Eastern Europe, resistance to Communist rule was based on fostering a civil society separate from Party structures and on the associated valorization of the concepts of citizenship and civic responsibility. While the language of citizenship was “important in all these [Central and Eastern European] revolutions”, in Poland, Solidarity “pioneered a new kind of politics: a politics of social self-organization and negotiating the transition from communism” [2]. It is no coincidence that when Solidarity came into government, its Parliamentarians adopted the name 'Citizens' Parliamentary Club'.


The false victory of the regime

In 1980-81, “the creation – or rather the assertion – of an autonomous civil sphere in Poland grew out of a social confrontation” [3]. This dynamic continued through the 1980s, even as the regime reasserted control under General Jaruzelski and the space for open debate and activism was closed. The regime's response to Solidarity went against its own ideology in its use of the army as a substitute for civilian Party structures in the period of martial law, demoralizing its own cadres as a result. The Party retreated into pragmatism and banked on economic growth keeping dissent down [4]. Designed to limit popular support for the opposition, the program of economic reform did not work. In the politico-legal sphere too, the Party was on the backfoot. The murder by the secret police of a Solidarity-supporting priest, Father Popiełuszko, in October 1984 and the decision to allow the prosecution of those responsible was “a milestone [which showed] the system was visibly cracking [and] the Communists' posture of infallibility had been abandoned” [5].


Although the regime kept a lid on opposition for a few years in the mid-80s, workers again protested rising food prices in March 1987. In its decision to hold a referendum on the economic reform program in the same month, the regime attempted the contortion of “portray[ing] itself in a more democratic light than the movement it had suppressed” [6]. The referendum succeeded, however, only in “illustrat[ing] the political and economic bankruptcy of Poland's Communist rulers” [7].


Given an inch, grabbing a mile

When the regime called Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa to talk down striking workers in 1988, it imagined itself to be defusing protest and co-opting Wałęsa. In practice, it was manoeuvring itself into oblivion. Recognition of Wałęsa was another acknowledgement of illegitimacy by the regime and another line crossed by Solidarity. When four months of negotiations between Solidarity and the government led to an agreement to hold round-table talks in February 1989, “for the first time in forty years, a ruling communist party was searching for ways to share power with the rest of society” [8].


Negotiating its way to power

In entering negotiations, Solidarity showed itself to be astute in recognizing the possibilities stemming from the opening up of political space. The fears of a more ‘radical’ wing that Solidarity would become complicit in the Party staying in power and would share responsibility for economic crisis proved unfounded. Nonetheless, Solidarity could not predict how quickly the negotiations concluded in the regime’s dissolution: it was not in control of events and was perpetually surprised at the evolving scale of what was possible. Seen by Solidarity as a means to achieve the legal restoration of the movement, the round-table talks concluded in an agreement for partial elections in June 1989, with a free vote for the upper house and for 35% of the lower house; Party candidates needed to secure more than 50% of the vote in the uncontested seats. In this, the government assumed that holding elections earlier rather than later would allow it to exploit its superior resources and its control of the media. That Solidarity won 99 of 100 seats in the upper house and all the seats which it contested in the lower house is proof that no amount of financial and organizational capacity can make up for a huge legitimacy deficit.


Solidarity’s cause in the elections was aided by the tactical error of the government to make the vote one against candidates, not for them. Voters had to cross out the candidates for whom they did not want to vote, transmuting the act of voting into that of physical cancelling out the Party: “Only two of the thirty-five candidates on the National List [the list of Party candidates for uncontested seats in the lower house] got the requisite fifty per cent of valid votes... In other words, more than half of those who turned out to vote took the trouble to cross-out, name by name or with one big cross, the prime minister, the interior minister, and the defence minister, as well as other less prominent establishment figures” [9].


The elections concluded in the appointment of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first non-communist Prime Minister in Central or Eastern Europe in 40 years. That it went out of its way at this point to allow General Jaruzelski to take the post of President showed Solidarity to be uncertain at the pace of change and nervous of a backlash if it claimed everything at once. But eighteen months later – ahead of the four year schedule laid out in the Round-table Agreement – Lech Wałęsa was elected President in fully free elections in December 1990.


A favourable external context

The regime was not only weak in and of itself, but also because the essential underpinning of unconditional Soviet support was withdrawn. For one line of argument, the attitude of the Soviet Union was paramount: “There is only so much about the changes of 1989 that can be attributed to indigenous social or political forces. In the last analysis, it was always Moscow that counted” [10]. Others consider that events in Poland did not simply adapt to fill a space approved by the Soviet Union, but themselves helped to shape Soviet policy [11]. Whichever line is taken, Solidarity benefited from campaigning in a context in which its targets were pre-disposed to give in to pressure because the Soviet Union was no longer willing to send in the tanks.


Solidarity benefited too from the morale boost given by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. Mobilization around the visit set an example for a whole way of campaigning as a “massive, sustained yet supremely peaceful and self-disciplined manifestation of social unity, the gentle crowd against the Party State, both the hallmark and the essential domestic catalyst of change in 1989”. [12]


Skilled campaigners

Solidarity knew when to call or exploit strikes to win concessions. It made the right decision to enter into negotiations in 1989. As political campaigning intensified in the run-up to elections, it demonstrated a mastery of communications based on knowing the value of symbols, slogans and icons. If Solidarity candidates were “elected because they were the candidates of Lech Wałęsa and Solidarity”[13], no-one could mistake them for anything else since every candidate but one used a campaign poster centred on a photograph of themselves with Wałęsa – and the only candidate who did not was the only one not to win their seat.


Solidarity had a highly distinctive logo in the national colours of red and white and deployed a single, simple and urgent slogan ('We must win') against which the various slogans used by the Communist Party – such as 'with us, it's safer' – paled in comparison. Again exploiting a tactical error by the government under which Solidarity negotiators were granted access to official media during and after the round-table talks, the movement’s spokespersons gave off an aura of calm authority which made them impossible to dismiss as 'agitators' or 'trouble-makers'.[14]


The role of international campaigning

In this story of social and political change, the role of international NGOs is minor. They contributed helpful background pressure in exposing the gap between the standards of respect for civil and political rights which Soviet bloc states signed up to in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the actual practice of denial of these rights. By refusing to allow concessions intended as notional to remain notional, international NGOs – most notably the International Helsinki Federation, later Human Rights Watch – acted as mosquitoes, harrying and annoying the Communist regimes [15].


Fundamentally though, this was a campaign designed and delivered by a grassroots movement whose strengths were its moral authority, legitimacy and embeddedness in Poland’s history and culture. The lesson for international NGOs may be to accept that theirs should be a supporting role, one of providing complementary campaigning pressure at the international level which favourably impacts the context in which home-grown, popular movements driven from the ground operate. And in their relationships with partners in developing countries, international NGOs should steer clear of assuming that issues it considers important are considered important by these partners or that its ways of working, campaigning style and culture are transferable to different contexts.


[1] We the People: the Revolution of '89, Timothy Garton Ash, p15.

[2] Ibid, p148, 134.

[3] Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, Tony Judt, p569.

[4] Heart of Europe: the Past in Poland's Present, Norman Davies, p414.

[5] Ibid. p412.

[6] '89: the Unfinished Revolution, Nick Thorpe, p79.

[7] Judt, p606. Garton Ash talks of “the ruling elite los[ing] faith in itself and in its right to rule”; p142.

[8] Thorpe, p80.

[9] Garton Ash, p30.

[10] Judt, p631.

[11] Davies, p415. Davies also argues (p409) that the Soviet Union and General Jaruzelski used Poland as a test-bed of reform pre-Gorbachev, a claim which reiterates the 

centrality of Poland to political change in Central and Eastern Europe, but also weakens Solidarity’s agency.

[12] Garton Ash, p133.

[13] Ibid, p33.

[14] Davies, p416.

[15] Garton Ash, p141.

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