‘Nobody can say yet whether this year will enter history as the year of the victory of the socialist model of liberty . . . or as that of a new collapse.’ Zycie Warszawy, 6 December 1980
The tremors that shook Poland during the ‘hot’ summer of 1980 precipitated an autumn full of tensions, hard bargaining, trials of strength, strikes and compromises. At the impressive and extraordinary ceremony at Gdansk on the 16th of December, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the shooting of shipyard workers, the main protagonists in the previous dramas—the new trade union Solidarity, the Church and the government—seemed to have achieved a tentative reconciliation. Nonetheless the way ahead remains unclear and uncertain. There is no question of going back to the old days when the country was ruled by simple fiat of the party hierarchy. If previously every city and town, every industry and every plant was governed by a decree from above, today those issuing decrees must carefully ponder all possible objections which may be raised before they adopt any economic plan, determine the level of productivity, fix wages and prices, or take decisions on educational or cultural policy. Suddenly everything has become arguable and open to debate. The party’s former monopoly over economic policy is now shared with Solidarity, while the Church has extended its access to the media and its privileges within the educational system. The party itself has been shaken by the events and it is unclear if the leadership can restore its dominance within its own apparatus—much less within society at large. The working class that moved to the forefront of the political scene—uncowed, self-confident and conscious of its power versus the employerstate—has shown its unity and determination. In its historic conflict with the State it wrested significant reforms from a party whose leaders seem to have fallen into shock at the sight of the big battalions facing them. The workers maintained the initiative throughout the contest and the response to their demands was surprisingly quick, without prolonged bureaucratic haggling; even, here and there, tinged with a stealthy admiration. The fear that the concessions granted may be ‘eroded’—to use a fashionable word—is not without foundation. But even more ‘eroded’ has been the authority of a party which emerges out of each successive contest more shaken and in deeper crisis.
The upheaval of 1980 was preceded and prepared by the events of 1956, and more recently by the crises of 1970 and 1976. These occasions have all demonstrated that even under one-party rule it is still possible to bring about changes at the top by militant pressure from
The cooperation between the workers and the intelligentsia, so important in the latest stage of struggle, dates from September 1976. At that time the government, under the pressure of concerted protests and threats of a general strike, rescinded unpopular price increases but proceeded to victimize the most active militants. A group of prominent lawyers, professors, lecturers and writers set up a Workers’ Defence Committee (kor), ostensibly as a semi-charitable organization providing financial and legal aid for victims of persecution as well as monitoring and exposing the worst cases of corruption and police brutality. kor is by no means a homogeneous body, although most of its members profess some sort of socialism. It has become a principal thorn in the flesh of the authorities who, anxious to make some show of adherence to legality and afraid of antagonizing the most articulate segment of society even further, have confined themselves to sporadic arrests and harassment. One of the most harassed has been, of course, the spiritus movens of the whole enterprise, Jacek Kuron. Kuron is a man of courage and impressive energy, who has already endured two long sentences in prison. During Gomulka’s leadership he was, together with K.
One of the activities of the kor at the end of the seventies which received considerable attention in the West was the creation of the so-called ‘flying universities’. These were clandestine popular gatherings addressed by dissident academics on subjects banned from the curricula of the official universities and schools. They were partially inspired by an old patriotic tradition dating back to the nineteenth century when partitioned and subjugated Poland fought against the forcible Germanization and Russification of her youth. To keep alive the vision of a sovereign and independent Poland and to preserve her cultural heritage was then, as now, the main aim of secret schools and universities. Since its inception kor has, however, been considerably enlarging its activities. It launched a number of samizdat publications and acted as a midwife to a multitude of committees: to defend peasants’ rights, to protect believers, to unite students, and so on. By the end of the seventies it had demonstrated its obvious value to the working class and achieved a much closer contact and coordination with factory activists. The semi-clandestine newspaper Robotnik (The Worker), edited by a group loosely connected with kor, played an important role in disseminating information which the government wished to suppress, coordinating strike action and often ensuring vital liaison between various local and regional strike committees. This undoubtedly increased the awareness, unity and solidarity without which there could not have been the same degree of common action. According to reports, the circulation of Robotnik jumped from the impressive number of 10,000 to the astonishing number of 50,000 during the turbulent months of August and September, while the paper, passed hand to hand, must have been read by many thousands more. kor has also been able to mobilize public opinion in the West by maintaining close relations with sympathizers abroad. It now has, for example, an ‘accredited’ representative to the Socialist International.
The Gdansk workers fully recognized their debt to kor when they insisted that a condition sine qua non of any negotiations with the government was the immediate release of Kuron and other oppositionists. Three weeks later, the workers protested in no uncertain terms against the accusations which had been made against kor members:
Of the famous twenty-one demands presented by the workers at the centre of the strike movement in Gdansk on 30–31 August to Vice-Premier Jagielski, the most momentous was, of course, the demand for the right to form autonomous trade unions, independent of state and party. Whatever the chicanery and the obstacles erected by those fighting a rearguard action, the new federation—under the name Solidarity—was within a relatively short space of three weeks allowed to deposit at the Warsaw District Court its statutes with a demand for formal registration. The name ‘Solidarity’ was adopted to avoid confusion with the old Central Council of the official trade unions which adopted a new subtitle: ‘independent and self-governing.’ Some three thousand people in joyful mood accompanied Lech Wałęsa to the registration office and then followed him to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers where a wreath adorned with white and red ribbons was solemnly laid.