- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Polish politics today is dominated by the clash between national-conservative populists and their neoliberal opponents, with left-wing forces pushed into a minority space. But postcommunist Poland might have followed a very different path.
During the 1950s and ’60s, communist reformers argued for a version of socialism that would be more democratic than the Soviet model. In 1980, popular discontent with the system gave rise to the Solidarity movement, one of the biggest mobilizations by workers anywhere in Europe since the Second World War. Understanding Solidarity’s fate after its emergence is crucial if we want to understand the state of Poland today.
David Ost witnessed the emergence of Solidarity firsthand and later wrote a book about the movement’s rise and fall, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe.
Why was Poland an especially troublesome country for the Soviet Union during the Cold War period?
I think it goes way back. You say it’s troublesome for the Soviet Union, but Poland was always troublesome for Russia. Poland has a long border with Russia. If you go back to the 1600s, Poland was one of the major countries in Europe, at a time that Russia was quite weak. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was such a strong power that, in the early 1600s, Polish forces actually occupied Moscow.
Russia began emerging as a major power in the early 1700s, under the leadership of Peter the Great. At the end of that century, Poland in turn was very weak. Both unable and unwilling to form the kind of absolutist system that was developing in Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Poland in the late 1700s was divided up and partitioned by these three occupying powers. Russia took the most important part, Warsaw, and controlled it basically from the 1790s until 1918, with a small intermittent period when Napoleon had invaded.
This complex interrelationship always led to serious issues, such as when a communist party emerged in independent Poland in the 1920s. Poland had become independent in 1918, and its Communist Party, like all communist parties, was very sympathetic to the Soviet Union. But because of the charged Polish-Russian history — as recently as 1920, the two countries had gone to war over the mostly Ukrainian borderlands between them — many in the Soviet Union always looked at Poland as a potential threat.
The biggest development that’s important for this history came in 1938, when Stalin decided, without any evidence, that the Communist Party of Poland had become, in his words, “a den of spies.” Of course, every communist party had its spies. But there was absolutely no evidence to justify Stalin’s claim concerning the special case of Poland, and history since then has made that clear. The result was that, at the height of the Stalinist purges, the entire Communist Party of Poland was formally dissolved by the Comintern.
Leading officials from the Polish Communist Party were called to Moscow. Many of them perished in the purges or were sent into internal exile. In 1945, however, as the Soviet Union was about to emerge victorious in World War II, Soviet leaders understood that they now needed a strong Communist Party in Poland.
Some of the communists who had escaped the purges in the prewar period — mostly, ironically, because they had been sitting in Polish jails, and so were unable to come to the Soviet Union — were called on to form the new Communist Party, which was known as the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP). Nevertheless, Soviet leaders always had some strong sense of doubt and distrust for Poland and for the Polish Communists.
There had been an earlier reform moment or opportunity in Poland in the late ’50s, when Władysław Gomułka came to power in Poland — to some extent against the will of the Soviet leadership, although he kept Poland in the Soviet bloc. At that time, in 1956, there was a great deal of popular support and enthusiasm for what Gomułka was trying to do. However, by the end of the following decade, both he and the communist system in general had gone back to being deeply unpopular. Why did that reform experiment fail?
Gomułka is a fascinating figure. He was one of those Communists who had stayed in Poland during that time that I spoke of, and that’s why he had survived. He was a Communist, but always with a strong sensibility for Polish independence.
In the late 1940s, there had been Stalinist purges in all the East European countries. Gomułka was purged from the leadership and placed under arrest. He was lucky; his equivalents in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria were all executed. Gomułka’s fortunes changed after Stalin died in 1953, and particularly after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader of the party, denounced Stalin.
Khrushchev’s speech caused major upheaval throughout Eastern Europe. In Hungary, it led to the temporary collapse of Communist Party rule, leading to a Soviet invasion in November 1956. At the very same time in Poland, Gomułka emerged now as someone who had authenticity, because he was a Communist, but one who had been repressed by Stalin. He got the majority of people behind him.
Gomułka did encourage some democratization in the sense of a greater ability to raise questions and discuss the country’s recent history. He also made big changes in agriculture. Poland became the one country in Eastern Europe that moved away from collectivized agriculture to having private farms. He made deals with the Catholic Church.
As far as the intelligentsia was concerned, there was a period of greater press freedom. But already by the late 1950s, Gomułka was trying to crack down. He was someone who had great confidence in himself and in his own abilities to modernize, but he really distrusted the left-wing intelligentsia in the country. By 1958, he succeeded in suppressing the “workers’ council” movement that had arisen in 1956 and had brought together left-wing workers with the socialist but anti-Stalinist left.
Was the reform experiment a failure? I think we need to look at this more historically. The year 1956 dramatically changed Poland. It became possible to discuss oppositionist ideas, and there were experiments on the margins.
Gomułka stayed in power from 1956 until 1970. Under his rule, a New Left student movement started emerging in the 1960s, with some significant developments and accomplishments. Some of these people went on to become leaders in Solidarity.
It was also a time when the working class was becoming stronger. The shipbuilding industry was very important in the 1960s, but then in 1970, there was a workers’ protest that was violently repressed. Gomułka was forced to leave office at that time.
That movement in the late 1960s — or perhaps should I say several movements — was in some ways a forerunner of Solidarity. You had successively a movement of student protest that challenged the system, and then a movement of worker protest. But those two movements were quite distinct. They developed along separate lines, and they didn’t come together. Why would that have been the case?
Most historiography of the period looks at the period from 1956 to 1970 as the period of what’s known as revisionism — revisionist communism. One of the sources of that was the writings of Karl Marx. It may seem funny to hear that people considered the writings of Karl Marx to be some kind of contemporary thing in the 1950s and ’60s. But a lot of the earlier writings of Marx from when he was in his twenties — where he was talking about radical democracy, like in the 1844 manuscripts — were in fact not published or translated in much of the world until the 1950s.
After Stalin died, one of the big opposition movements within Eastern Europe was a Marxist revisionist movement where they were citing Marx and talking about alternatives. It was a revisionist period that brought a kind of revived Marxist thought. But it was also a period where the opposition was looking to the authoritarians to change things. The revisionists read the young Marx, but they did not call on the workers to rebel. Instead, they looked to figures like Gomuła in the party leadership to make reforms.
Radical-left opposition movements started emerging only in the 1960s. In 1964, there was the famous open letter written by two young historians and Communist Party activists, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, calling for real democratization and a true workers’ state.
Theirs was essentially a Trotskyist argument against the regime being corrupted and bureaucratically organized. They argued instead for real, genuine workers’ power, for a revolution from below. The two were soon arrested and sent to jail, but they encouraged a radical student movement, first at Warsaw University and then elsewhere.
Things got more serious in 1968. Students in Warsaw University organized a protest rally against government repression. The government then clamped down very aggressively and repressively. As you said, workers were not involved at that time. That is, many young workers went out there protesting, too. But the factories as a whole stayed working.
Why? Because, as of yet, no bonds had been formed bringing together workers and students. As I already noted, the revisionist movement had focused above all on persuading the party leaders of the need for change. Opposition groups were not yet trying to organize among themselves.
The student movement was repressed very harshly and very quickly. Students and oppositionists were sent to jail and even pushed into exile. The Party authorities used the moment to hound Jews into leaving the country.
Most of the small Jewish population had not participated in the protests, but some of the key leaders did have Jewish, communist roots. A nationalist wing of the Party now took over and blamed Jews for the student protests. Thousands of Jews who had nothing to do with the events suddenly found themselves persona non grata, fired from their jobs, and “offered” a one-way ticket out. Even aside from all this, it was a very demoralizing period.
Things started changing in 1970, when workers from the Gdansk shipyards went on strike to protest a big increase in prices, with complaints against speedup, too. As in the past, they did not yet have organizations or connections with others. But over the course of the 1970s, the opposition began creating these intermediate organizations.
The whole concept of civil society started emerging. The reality in the 1970s was to have these intermediate groups connecting different social strata in Polish society. That created the basis for 1980.
You mentioned there — and it’s probably worth going into a little more detail for people who might not be familiar with postwar Polish history — the fact that in the late 1960s, there was an openly antisemitic campaign that was orchestrated by the party and by the government in Poland.
Yes, this is astonishing. What happened is that in one sense, this was really a fight between groups within the Communist Party (which was officially named the Polish United Workers’ Party or PUWP). You had what we might call a liberal reform movement within the Party, somewhat supporting the student protests, saying “Let’s have more discussion, let’s be open to some democratization.”
Recall that at the same moment in 1968, the Prague Spring was unfolding in Czechoslovakia. But against that tendency, you also had the emergence of a nationalist wing within the PUWP, with which Gomułka allied. This was a very dangerous development.
To get a little perspective on this, we need to go back to the Stalinist period of the late 1940s, The repression was carried out, of course, by Polish Communists — Polish Stalinists. Several of them were communists of Jewish descent, and in 1968 this was the group that the nationalists in the PUWP started focusing on. They said: “We are true anti-Stalinists, and look, the Stalinists were led by the Jews!” — a complete falsification of history, except of course you could find individuals who were Jews who had been leading Stalinists.
In 1968, there were the protests by student activists and some of them had been children of liberal Jewish communists. Now this wing of the Communist Party started attacking the student protestors and saying, “Look, these liberal communists, who used to be Stalinists, and now very much internationalist. We oppose them because we represent true Polish communism, true Polish socialism. And we want to preserve leadership by true Poles.”
Gomułka quickly lost control of the situation, and he basically surrendered to these nationalists, who were led by the interior minister, Mieczysław Moczar. The nationalist communists started denouncing all the student protesters not just for being radicals but for being Jews, too.
The way the system worked was that party officials throughout the country looked for leadership to what the Politburo and the Central Committee were saying. The Politburo and Central Committee were now dominated by these “nationalist-communists.” Around the country, they started purging Jews, even those who were not political at all.
It was all so heinous, perhaps particularly because to be a Jew in Poland at the time meant being someone who had made a conscious decision to stay in Poland, despite it being the place where the Holocaust took place, despite having lost their entire prewar Polish Jewish world. Most Jews who stayed were left-leaning people: socialists, Bundists, left-Zionists, or apolitical people who were nevertheless somewhat sympathetic to the system, which had allowed them to rebuild their lives, and to some extent also a Jewish community.
Nevertheless, when the nationalist-communists took control, Poles who were Jews were suddenly being called on to publicly denounce Zionism. Remember that this was soon after the 1967 Six-Day War, which had been a big foreign-policy crisis for the Soviet bloc, which now became increasingly pro-Arab and anti-Israeli.
The government said: “Of course, we’ll make it easy for people who don’t feel like true Poles to leave.” Many Poles of Jewish origin were pressed to leave, and many thousands of them did leave. It became a turning point in the opposition movement, too, because people like these left activists who had been calling on the Communist Party to change now looked at the Party and could not escape the conclusion that it had become essentially a national socialist party, carrying out purges like the most radical fascists of prewar Poland had done. It was a dramatic transformation.
I might just say a quick word about 1970. The protest movement ended in mid-1968, while these antisemitic purges lasted a year or so longer into late 1970. December 1970 is when Gomułka announced price hikes, as a way of tackling the country’s internal economic problems.
Workers protested in the key Baltic port and shipbuilding cities of Gdansk and Szczecin, going on strike and marching out of the factories and into downtown. They marched to local Communist Party headquarters, and in a couple of cases even burned down police stations and PUWP offices.
What happened next was that workers in Gdansk were locked out of the plant. They didn’t know this, however, so the next morning they came to work on the train. Instead of letting them in, the army saw them as some kind of threat. They cornered the workers, and then began shooting.
The massacre of December 1970 was one of the worst anywhere in postwar Europe, and by far the biggest mass killing in Poland of the entire post-1945 period, up to the present day. Unarmed workers, trying to get into the plant, were fired upon by the Polish Army and police. At least several dozen were killed.
That led to the change in leadership, with Edward Gierek coming in to take over from Gomułka. He was there until the Solidarity movement emerged in 1980.
Moving on into the 1970s, as a kind of bridge between those protests of the late ’60s and the rise of Solidarity itself, you had the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Some of the people that you mentioned earlier, such as Jacek Kuroń, were involved. What was the significance of that?
The early 1970s was a very demoralizing period for the opposition. No one knew what to do or what could be done. Gierek tried to modernize Poland. The 1970s was the period of détente, as we call it, between the superpowers. This meant that countries like Poland, which had been subject to a pretty effective boycott on most trade between the Eastern Bloc countries and the capitalist world, could now engage in the world economy.
Gierek started borrowing a lot of money to try and modernize Polish industry. As a result, Poland fell into the classic Third World debt trap, as it’s often called. It incurred a lot of debt, modernizing its industry and making available all kinds of foreign consumer goods to their people. But then it was not able to pay back the debt. A pressing economic crisis ensued.
The Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) arose in 1976. It wasn’t accidental that it arose at that time, because 1976 was the moment when the debt trap came into effect. This drastically transformed Poland in the second half of the 1970s. A lot of the international debts were coming due, and Poland simply couldn’t pay them back.
Of course, this was also because the West in the 1970s was deep in its own crisis. You had the challenge of trade unions to capitalist rates of profit on the one hand, and the oil price hike on the other hand, with the rise of the Third World and the tripling of the price of oil, which sent Western economies into recession.
Poland, like a lot of countries that had incurred debt, could not pay it back. In 1976, the government announced another big price increase from one day to the next. This was where we got KOR, because these sudden price increases in the context of a rapidly declining standard of living led to strikes and protests in a number of cities. The big Ursus tractor plant outside Warsaw was one of the centers.
The regime repressed the workers very quickly. They rescinded the price hikes, but they also arrested many of the protest organizers, who were put on trial and sentenced to prison. The political activists did not really know how to respond, but they said: “We have to establish contacts with these workers. Let’s try to defend them.”
KOR raised bail for workers. They got them lawyers and organized support for their families. They thus established important ties with workers, precisely what did not happen during the revisionist period of the 1960s. In the 1970s, you had this whole new focus on independent organization, instead of trying to wrest gains from the Party bureaucracy. It was in this context that the concept of civil society reemerged, based on the Eastern European opposition practice of the 1970s.
This was what so attracted me in the 1970s. I was born in 1955. In the mid-’70s I was a graduate student, and I visited Poland in 1976 for the first time. It was clear in the late 1970s that there were these opposition movements going on in Poland and Eastern Europe, which attracted me very much.
What was so fascinating about KOR was that they didn’t set themselves up as a new leadership, or as a political party to try to take power. Instead, they focused on establishing connections between different social groups, which organized on their own. Soon after the 1976 strikes, KOR helped promote, together with worker activists, a committee called the Free Trade Unions — a direct precursor of Solidarity.
People on the Left know the irony that socialism came to power in countries that were economically weak. This was an irony in terms of classical Marxism because Marxists always thought that socialism would emerge first in the richest, most capitalist countries. As it happened, it came first in the context of poorer countries, and state socialism aimed to develop those countries fast.
By the 1970s, Poland was certainly among the developed countries, though with a large and still impoverished rural sector. The group of left-wing activists around KOR understood that socialism was always meant to be about workers controlling their own fate: workers, intellectuals, and farmers were capable of organizing among themselves. They said: “Let’s join together, let’s have these independent groups working together. We don’t need capitalism” — they were all opposed to capitalism — “but let’s democratize the system, and let workers and students speak for themselves.”
KOR became a kind of clearinghouse bringing together different opposition groups and organizations. This is what made Solidarity possible. By 1980, you now had the connections between different social groups that did not exist previously.
In those months of 1980–81, Solidarity didn’t appear to have a perspective for the overthrow of the system — at least not an explicit perspective. But at the same time, the very existence of an independent trade union that was much more popular than the Communist Party itself was a clear challenge to the logic of the entire system. How would you account for that gap in their thinking — if indeed it was a gap?
That’s what probably made a kind of reform almost impossible in 1980–81. This apparent contradiction lay at the heart of the civil society opposition movement of the 1970s. I called my first book Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics. “Anti-politics” was a key slogan of the 1970s, and even of the early Solidarity. In other words, they said, “Look, politics is about foreign policy. It’s about foreign alliances. We have nothing to do with that.”
The opposition claimed they knew that they were part of the Soviet bloc and that couldn’t be changed. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Solidarity supporters had reasons to be wary that it might happen again. These were New Left figures who were key intellectuals within the Solidarity movement, just like in the Western left in the 1960s.
The Western left in the 1960s was not classically revolutionary: it wasn’t the old left, it was the New Left. They weren’t calling for the overthrow of the Labour government in Britain or of the US government, to have a Communist Party take power instead. This was a different period.
In Poland, too, they said, “It’s not crucial to have a new authority take power.” That’s where they were part of the New Left. These were leftists who were critical of the Soviet Union and critical of top-down revolutions. They didn’t want to change the system, but they wanted to democratize it.
However, you’re right to say that having an independent trade union created a very difficult problem for the system. Worker independence did not go well with a planned economy where the government was working together with enterprises and loyal trade unions to plan out what each firm was to produce. There was a sense in which the state socialist system did not really allow for Solidarity.
I do think that a deal might have been possible in 1981. As the crisis became more severe in late 1981, with Solidarity being more active, and a lot of strikes by workers protesting shortages, there were calls for a kind of alliance or pact — a deal between the government and Solidarity that might allow for some gradual systemic change.
But the conditions weren’t there. Leonid Brezhnev was still in power. Mikhail Gorbachev only came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. In December 1981, the government imposed martial law instead.
I remember that there were some people in the Solidarity movement who would say — and this was partly tongue in cheek, or making sense of the situation — “The government did us a favor.” They didn’t know what could be done anymore. How could you democratize society without changing the political system? They said: “When they repressed us, they kept the myth of Solidarity alive.”
That’s what happened, in fact. Solidarity as a trade union could no longer exist after December 1981, but as a movement, a myth, a slogan, it could exist very well, and did exist that way all through the 1980s.
When the movement was at its peak in the early 1980s, before the coup, and indeed afterwards, how did the Left in Western Europe and North America respond to it? And how did Western governments respond?
This was fascinating. On the one hand, you had governments saying: “We support transformation in Eastern Europe, but not really that much.”
For example, I remember reading the Wall Street Journal in August 1980, at the height of the strikes in Gdansk. In an editorial they wrote something like this: “Of course, it is good that workers in these Communist countries are demanding freedom, but from the point of view of investors and bankers who have lent a lot of money to Poland, as far as capitalist interests are concerned, state socialism is more secure for us, because they don’t allow strikes.” Cynically, it was just the same position they took about supporting repressive governments in the Third World.
The major groups supporting Solidarity at the time were left-wing movements. By 1980–81, much of the Left had changed. Of course, there was still very much an old left, but there was also a very interesting development emerging in the Western old left at the time. It was known as the Eurocommunist movement, and was very strong in France, Italy, and Spain — probably Spain above all. These were people who had been loyal to the Soviet Union and usually maintained their loyalty through the 1956 invasion of Hungary.
However, by the 1970s and ’80s, it had become difficult for most of them to look at the Soviet Union as any kind of real model of a socialist system. Yes, they had beneficial state welfare policies, but those were paternalistic policies. Those countries were not giving workers power over themselves; at best, they were paternalistic welfare systems.
That could be quite good — we miss some of the coverage of those systems today — but it was top down, not bottom up. When they saw Solidarity — a real workers’ movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, an electrician — most of that old left also turned and became strong supporters of Solidarity.
Among the New Left, there was widespread support as well. After martial law was declared — as I heard from Solidarity activists themselves — the biggest support they got was from French and Italian trade unions that were smuggling in mimeograph machines or bringing in money to boost the underground publishing possibilities of the Solidarity opposition. They were providing all kinds of support when martial law was declared.
Then Western governments began supporting Solidarity, too. Ronald Reagan, who was elected and inaugurated as president after Solidarity had already been created, cynically became a supporter of Solidarity. At the same time, he was repressing radical labor movements in the West and in Central America.
This was just a completely cynical display of saying, “We support opposition to Communism,” but they weren’t really supporting workers. Nevertheless, this embrace of Solidarity by the Right did, to a certain extent, demobilize the western left.
I remember coming back to the US in 1982 from Poland under martial law, and speaking to a left audience, as a left-wing critic of state socialism who was supportive of the Solidarity movement. I found that plenty of western leftists, who used to be supportive of Solidarity, now said, “Look, the capitalist governments are supporting them.”
I point out again, although it’s not so widely known, that despite all the rhetoric, it was the western trade union movement that provided most of the resources for Solidarity during the underground period. The capitalist governments talked a lot, but they didn’t really want to upset the Cold War apple cart.
We might recall that George Bush Sr, who was president in 1989, was initially quite skeptical at the prospect of the breakup of the Soviet Union. He traveled to Kiev and made a speech arguing against such a breakup. Bush wanted to maintain the old Cold War divisions. Capitalists at that time were conservative and supported superpower domination of the world. They used the Solidarity movement cynically without really supporting it.
In contrast, most of the Left were supportive of Solidarity’s efforts, leading to some fruitful interaction over the course of the 1980s. Things then changed quickly, of course, after 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Suddenly different roads were possible for Eastern Europe that had not been possible earlier.
What happened to Solidarity as a movement in the period between the coup at the end of 1981, and its reemergence in the course of 1989 with the negotiations that led to the fall of the government? How had its character changed — if it had changed?
When martial law was declared and trade-union activity was banned, Solidarity obviously could no longer be a trade union. What did it become? It became a myth, a slogan.
In some places there were underground union cells, but an underground union cell is more like a political opposition group than a trade union, since it had no partner, no interlocutor, and could not negotiate with management. Poland under martial law was a very repressive, top-down system.
Solidarity thus broke up into different groups. There was a right wing and a left wing. The left wing was becoming more focused on democratization, but also started becoming pro-market. That may seem like a real profound irony. How could the Left turn to the market? Here again we have to understand the nature of state socialism.
One of the most important left-wing sociologists of Eastern Europe is a Hungarian writer named Ivan Szelényi. Szelényi coauthored a powerful book in the 1970s, Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, which led to the state socialist authorities forcing him into exile from Hungary. A key theme for Szelényi has always been about the way that the official leaders of state socialism were preventing workers from organizing on their own.
Szelényi thus argued that in the context of state socialism, introducing some market procedures could be beneficial for workers. This was because the system chiefly rewarded people who were loyal to the Communist Party. What about those workers who were not loyal to the party — not because they wanted capitalism, but because they wanted real workers’ autonomy? For this group, introducing some market mechanisms could be beneficial, so that they could have the means to take care of themselves.
We also need to keep in mind that in the 1980s, the Western capitalist world environment also underwent significant change. When Solidarity arose in 1980, social democracy was still strong in the West, although it was beginning to come under serious attack. Margaret Thatcher had just come to power in Britain but had not yet succeeded in her fight against trade unions. Reagan, too, was just coming to power.
By 1984, however, social democracy in the West was in tatters. In France, François Mitterrand had just made his famous about-face, rejecting socialist policies. Thus began the heyday of neoliberalism.
But remember that neoliberalism was initially seen as an opportunity by some workers, particularly those who felt boxed in by bureaucracies and state supervision, such as in Eastern Europe. Neoliberalism aimed to scrap all this, and for many, that seemed like a beneficial and democratic development.
Stuart Hall wrote about this early in the 1980s — about the way that neoliberalism could be an ideology that mobilized some workers. He was talking about Britain, a country where bureaucratic and state control was incomparably less than in Eastern Europe. It seems hard for us to understand today, but neoliberalism, with its calls to get the state out of the picture and allow economic actors to govern themselves, did have an appeal in its early days — and nowhere more so than in Eastern Europe.
I think there was some good faith and some bad faith on the part of Polish oppositionists in the 1980s. Some of them were genuinely asking how they could use the market to create the conditions for democracy. But there was also bad faith because many newly pro-market Solidarity activists and intellectuals had grown wary of the great activism that Polish workers had shown in 1980–81.
This group supported market reform because they wanted to make sure that workers would not come back as a strong political force. The Polish Communist authorities, especially after Gorbachev came to power, became sympathetic to market reform as well. Starting around 1987, you had the PUWP leaders beginning to talk with some of those left-liberal members of Solidarity to try to bring about a compromise.
There were people opposing that from within Solidarity, but they were mostly coming from the Right: they weren’t critical of capitalism, but they were definitely more nationalist. There was some of that nationalist concern with Polish authenticity on their part, and some of that lingering antisemitism, anti-Ukrainianism, and anti-Westernism that is very strong in Poland today.
As a result of the negotiations with the Communist authorities, the liberal Solidarity opposition emerged stronger. At the Round Table negotiations in 1989, they were able to make a deal with the PUWP, which led to the restoration of Solidarity and to semi-free elections. The first non-Communist government came to power in Poland in September 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
What became of the movement after 1989 and the turn to a multiparty system in Poland?
That brings us up to current history. I wrote a book called The Defeat of Solidarity and the title gives away what I think happened — a defeat of solidarity in two senses, with a big “S” and a small one. The year 1989 was the peak of neoliberalism and Solidarity intellectuals, with the support of Solidarity as a trade union, oversaw radical shock therapy and market transformation.
Of course, regular Poles and regular Solidarity workers were on the receiving end of this. They bore the brunt of a huge economic collapse. Naturally, a lot of them were very dissatisfied by this transformation.
You did still have some people who saw themselves as leftists helping bring about capitalism. It’s a fascinating history to go back to. I always believe that the way to understand social transformation, especially within the Left, is not simply for new generations of activists to say, “Our previous leaders betrayed the movement.” It’s easy to say that, but I think most leaders make changes because they believe in it, because they believe it’s good for the movement they have been part of.
Jacek Kuroń is a prime example here. In 1964, Kuroń, together with Karol Modzelewski, wrote a kind of Trotskyist “Open Letter to the Party,” calling for real workers’ revolution. In 1989, he became postcommunist Poland’s first minister of labor, ushering in the transformation to capitalism.
Kuroń understood the paradox perfectly himself, saying: “I’m in a weird situation, because I still see myself a leftist, but there’s no time now for leftist politics. Now we have to build capitalism fast, then we can have social democracy later.”
I think this is a complete misunderstanding of how any kind of social democracy is possible. In fact, about ten years later, Kuroń himself came around to this position, and decisively rejected and regretted his post-1989 ministerial work. Still, Kuroń and other former leftists were very much involved in promoting Poland’s market transformation. They knew that workers didn’t like it, but they kept repeating the line about there being “no alternative.”
They did not give workers any legitimate way to protest. They did not want to talk about class. The year 1989 of course meant that Poland, like all Eastern European countries, was creating a capitalist class society. The reformers wanted to create owners with power.
They also wanted to reinvent workers as a group who, unlike in the state-socialist period, did not feel empowered and did not feel that they were important actors. This was a period of deep and profound class formation, but the Polish left could not and would not use a class language to describe it.
This opened the way for the return of a nationalist right. Already in 1990 or 1991, people from this quarter were saying that while capitalism as a whole was good — everyone was pro-capitalist at that time, since capitalism was seen as the enemy of their enemy — this capitalist transition wasn’t working well for the workers because “real Poles” were not in charge of it. They used the same kind of national-patriotic language that the Polish Communists had used in 1968 during their antisemitic nationalist turn. They started being critical of foreigners or people who were not true Catholics.
In the early 1990s, as I was going back there, I could see that the Left was collapsing because it had no narrative with which to try and organize Polish workers who were being hurt by the market transition. Instead, the irony was that the Right was supporting these workers. I would sometimes read Christian fundamentalist newspapers in the early 1990s that were defending workers.
The difference, of course, was that the Right didn’t say that workers were being hurt by the transformation. They said that the nation (naród) was being hurt and tried to express it in nationalist terms.
Social democracy in the West only became possible when leftists started challenging capitalism and demanding an alternative. The irony in Poland at that time, as in much of Eastern Europe, was that people on the Left were anti-communist, pro-democracy, and somewhat pro-capitalist. They were not trying to organize workers. They left the anger at the results of capitalism to be mobilized by people of the Right.
That became the big tragedy. Already in the ’90s, I anticipated that a right would emerge very strong politically in Poland, because workers were suffering, yet the Left was not organizing them. Somebody needs to organize anger in capitalist society, because capitalism creates that anger. If the Left won’t do it, the Right will.
Looking back now from the vantage point of forty years, what would you say the legacy of Solidarity is, and how do you think people on the Left in particular should remember it?
I think it ought to be remembered as a movement of the Left. Leftists do need to learn from history. Stalinism today is no big challenge for the Left — I understand that as much as anyone. However, I also understand that if the Left wants to create a good, decent, palatable, and progressive alternative to capitalism, it needs to remember Stalinist legacies and make sure to do something better.
Solidarity was a real workers’ movement, bringing together workers and intellectuals who were not supporting capitalism or private property. They were calling for radical democracy and coming up with new ideas about how to administer things.
One of the most brilliant innovations they came up with, as the Communist Party was fighting them in 1980–81, was what they called the active strike. They said, “We’re on strike, but we’re continuing to work.”
In the West, that doesn’t make any sense — if you’re on strike, you don’t work. But this was a socialist country. They said: “We’re the true owners, so we’ll take over the firm. We’re on strike, we’re not working for the management or the state, but we will decide where our output goes. We will send coal to the places that need it. We’re not going to let the party distribute it.”
This idea of workers taking control and directing things themselves is what the Solidarity movement was all about. I think that is crucial for the Left. When workers have the opportunity, and when there isn’t the huge power of capital bearing down on them, they’re willing and able to come up with their own ideas. Workers ought to be trusted.
The problem was that the Solidarity movement itself did not have an example of how to change the state. That was the political problem that it could not resolve. But what Solidarity does show us is the incredible capability and eagerness on the part of workers to govern themselves and to take self-management seriously.