Europejskie Centrum Solidarności (European Solidarity Centre), Gdańsk. Photo: Borys Kozielski / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY 4.0, licence linked at bottom of article Europejskie Centrum Solidarności (European Solidarity Centre), Gdańsk. Photo: Borys Kozielski / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY 4.0, licence linked at bottom of article

To mark the 40th anniversary of Solidarity in Poland, Jacqueline Mulhallen and William Alderson look at the rise of the movement, its struggle with the regime, and its collapse

Part One: The Rise
Part Two: The Struggle

Martial law

The response by the workers to the 13 December declaration of martial law was magnificent. Mines, steelworks, shipyards and factories struck immediately and the cities of Wrocław and Gdańsk were at standstill as tanks rolled in with the detested riot police, the ZOMO. The Katowice steelworks held out until 23 December, the Piast coalmine until 28 December. On 16 December, miners armed with pikes and petrol bombs attempted to defend the Wujek coalmine against the military. Machine guns and helicopters were used by the ZOMO (not by the army), and four miners were killed and 15 hospitalised – one died in hospital. A nurse was also killed.

The leaders of Solidarity, however, ‘ruled out the use of force’.[1] At Wujek a commemoration mass was held and a cross was erected, where flowers were laid and candles lit, but the cross was destroyed overnight. Despite the fact that the mines were taken over by the military, the miners refused to go down the following morning, and the Commissar was compelled to order another cross to be erected.

There were also demonstrations at the monuments to the 1970 Gdańsk workers and the 1956 Poznań victims, and the ZOMO attacked the crowds laying flowers at these memorials. The workers responded with a 10 minute strike in Poznań, and in many cities there were mass street walks during the broadcasting of the evening news on TV.

Target. Photo: Voice of Solidarity

On 29 December the military regime announced its first formal banning of popular organisation (as opposed to its suspension). It did not attack the major organisations, but the deepest expression of social fairness which had emerged from Solidarity’s strength. It ordered that ‘personnel employed in retail sales outlets not accept any lists or suggestions made by queue committees’, explaining that the ‘so-called social queue committees have, in principle, been operating illegally’. Meanwhile, the miners lost all the excellent conditions and pay which they had won since 1980, including better shifts, no Saturday working and health and safety regulations. Where there had been no accidents in the mines under Solidarity, accident levels again rose to or exceeded those before 1980.[2]

Solidarity advocated ‘passive resistance’, and this took several forms. Underground presses began to roll, especially in Poznań where leaflets were already being distributed the day after the coup, and an illegal newspaper (Solidarni) on the following day.[3] A ‘standard method’ was ‘to scatter leaflets from rooftops and staircases’ using a delayed release mechanism.[4] There were anti-government posters, slogans and street fights everywhere. KOSs (circles of social resistance, based on those set up against the Nazis in WW2) were formed,[5] and anyone collaborating with the government was boycotted. There was a mass exodus from the ruling party. Commemorative masses were also organised as a form of protest. Some demonstrations passed off without being attacked, but thousands lost their jobs. 7,000 people were interned and tried under martial law, with 10-year sentences for organising strikes. In Wrocław strikes were triggered by the regime’s terror tactics. In 1982 there were also strikes at the Ursus factory in Warsaw and in Bydgoszcz on the anniversary of the Bydgoszcz beatings. In April there were more brief stoppages and a 15-minute protest strike in May.

Underground Printing. Photo: Independent Polish Agency / William Alderson

Some martial law restrictions were lifted in May, such as the curfew, but June saw strikes in Gdańsk, Kraków and Lębork, and MKSs were set up again. The ZOMO attacked the crowds but the people created barricades, fought back and won. At the Cegielski factory in Poznań, there was a 5 minute strike and march to the 1956 memorial. The Temporary Co-ordinating Committee (TKK) of Solidarity said the strikes should stop and instead workers should lay flowers, burn candles and hang up banners (which was clearly being done anyway). Although the strikes were short-lived, and the go-slow did not last,[6] there were demonstrations during August in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław and Nowa Huta, and these were attacked by the ZOMO.

In 1983, May Day protests were again held in all major towns and were attacked, with the mining areas suffering particularly. Meanwhile Solidarity was getting support from an increasing number of trade unions in Western Europe and the USA. There were demonstrations in Katowice, Warsaw and Kraków, but, despite martial law being lifted on 22 July, there were still political prisoners. A newsagent displayed in her windows quotations from Marx and Engels, impeccably accurate and, of course, completely at odds with the actions of the regime.[7] In August, when the Pope was allowed to visit, Solidarity banners were widely in evidence. Silesia was once again in uproar. On the Gdańsk anniversary there was a go slow and a transport boycott. Actors and writers were boycotting the government subsidised theatre, TV and radio stations and pursuing ‘independent cultural activity’.


As martial law had been lifted, we were able to visit our friends for Christmas and New Year. We took with us rucksacks full of oranges and other food we had heard was difficult to obtain. We found them very confident. They had been devastated by the imposition of martial law but they were glad that Solidarity continued to fight ‘underground’, and they had not yet lost hope. Wałęsa had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and we came home with underground commemorative badges.

Nobel Prize badge. Photo: William Alderson

Although our friends were not devout Catholics, they wanted to go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. We could not understand their wish to get there early, but they were going to the church of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, who determinedly supported Solidarity. Before we arrived, the church and churchyard were full and we could only just get inside the gates, but more and more people came, and by the end of the service we had been pushed to the top of the steps with the crowd packed to the fence. Popiełuszko came out of the church to minister to the crowds outside and passed quite close to us, a fairly tall dark man with blazing blue eyes.

When we went inside the church after the service, we found it decorated with messages of peace and goodwill in the familiar Solidarity script, and a display around the crib of dozens of examples of workers’ headgear, which even included military caps. Decorated cribs are a traditional feature of Polish churches at Christmas and families walk around on Christmas Day to see them. We saw discreet Solidarity signs in cribs in other churches too. When we finally left Popiełuszko’s church, more people were still arriving.

Less than a year later, the regime rid itself of this ‘troublesome priest’. He was kidnapped while on a visit to Toruń and savagely beaten to death. The ZOMO were in the habit of beating their victims in this way. In 1985, when the trial of his murderers began, there were articles in the official press attacking ‘political metaphors of cribs in churches’.[8]

“It’s not us! He killed Father Popieluszko”. Cartoon by Andrzej Krauze, reprinted with permission



In 1984 there were massive price rises, and demonstrations continued. Zbigniew Bujak, a leading member of Solidarity, said that strikes did not go far enough.[9] There were arrests, hunger strikes, torture and brutality to prisoners. Solidarity continued to get support from abroad, including from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and Poland suffered sanctions, which resulted in an amnesty for political prisoners being declared in August, a move long demanded by the underground press. Despite the amnesty, however, there were still political prisoners in Poland, as people started being arrested on ‘criminal’ charges but actually for political reasons.

At this stage, the Voice of Solidarity (VoS) continued to run interviews with leading members of Solidarity such as Andrzej Gwiazda,[10] but it also began to give more space to movements in the other countries which were colonies of the USSR and desired independence, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Afghanistan. Solidarity had expressed a desire for greater links between groups who desired free trade unions in those countries, and their pronouncements tended to be about the Polish economy and how Solidarity could ‘help’. VoS also began to cover wider activity. As the resistance in Poland developed into groups concerned with the environment and for peace, these issues were covered, and it also looked at those wishing to form a ‘new arts policy’, as there was a growing ‘alternative culture’ across Poland.[11]

Underground printing. Photo: Independent Polish Agency

The miners in Silesia continued to be active, with many underground papers and radio stations, a Solidarity cinema and loudspeakers in the streets showing the workers’ continued defiance. The underground press even had insurance in case they were raided and lost their equipment! Polish miners universally and solidly supported their counterparts in Britain during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike despite some remarks condemning Solidarity from Arthur Scargill and a statement concerning non-violence from Lech Wałęsa.

The fracturing of Solidarity

In 1985, there were again shortages and price rises. There were superb May Day demonstrations and strikes. But although the mainly women workers at the Rosa Luxembourg factory went on strike from May to June, they did not get sufficient support, a situation which would have been unthinkable in 1980. Free Saturdays were at risk, artists were blacklisted and it was still difficult for released political prisoners to get jobs. There were arrests, beatings and harsh sentences, such as 3 years for possessing an illegal radio. The safety of the mines was so bad that there were cave-ins in coal and copper mines. Reports were published on health, environmental issues and the link between them, such as: high levels of cancer in children in mining areas; risks of miscarriage through working with mercury, or, in the textile industry, from moving heavy loads and working at excessive speeds on a 3 shift system. Polish coal production rose by 25% a year under martial law, but the mining conditions deteriorated.

“And now we acknowledge your independence and self-governance”. Photo: Voice of Solidarity

In 1986, Solidarity leaders were put on trial. There was increased support from trade unions and other bodies abroad for Solidarity, but in Poland the strikes seem to have ceased. Instead, many members of ‘underground’ Solidarity seem to have got increasingly involved in the peace and environmental movements, and protests and demonstrations occurred over these issues, including a successful campaign against a nuclear power station. Solidarity had formed alliances with other opposition forces, embraced all social movements and was the basis for opposition in Poland.

Before 15 January 1981 Solidarity had had 9.5 million members,[12] and hundreds of thousands were involved in the underground activities in the years immediately following the imposition of martial law, but this number had now decreased. Many of the most active had given up activity or left to live abroad. Nonetheless, Solidarity was still bigger and more powerful than all the other opposition groups and its publications appeared in 48 of the 49 provinces of Poland.

In 1987, leading members of Solidarity, including Gwiazda and Walentynowicz, sent an open letter to Wałęsa demanding a National Commission. They complained of an unclear programme and a lack of concern with the standard of living and social problems, with a consequent loss of contact with the working population. They suggested uniting around a new programme to avoid the risk of splitting and losing identity. Another critic pointed out that Solidarity now included three different strands: the overt Solidarity Temporary Council; the Temporary Co-ordinating Commission (Underground Solidarity); and Lech Wałęsa.

The opposition movement as a whole included groups with completely opposing views, ranging from advocates for the overthrow of the system, advocates of an accommodation with the regime, and even a group which wanted to reinstate the Government in Exile in London, whose policy was described as ‘capitalism in the form of 19th century laissez-faire’.[13] One group, the Confederation for an Independent Poland, advocated a non-violent approach, fair elections, citizens’ rights, Christian traditions, a position which resembled the path eventually followed by Wałęsa.[14]

New protests

While the older leaders were arguing about the Polish economic situation, boycotting elections and calling for a referendum, a younger generation (or ‘New Wave’) who had been students in 1980 and had spent years distributing underground leaflets and papers, were beginning to make their voices heard. When workers became desperate at soaring price rises in 1988, there were strikes at the Gdańsk shipyards in May, mainly led by those in their 20s, and again in August, when older people were involved. There were as many on strike at the yards as there had been in 1980, and they were part of a nationwide movement of strikes, described as Poland’s ‘hot summer’.

Underground printing. Photo: Independent Polish Agency

William Alderson was a video editor at the BBC at this time, and when the Newsnight journalist concluded that these protests had nothing to do with the past, he was as surprised as the Polish translator brought in to help with the story. He ended the piece with a long pan across the faces of young and old workers looking over the shipyard fence, and shots of the memorial to the dead of 1970 erected outside the gates in 1980.

At this time the regime was weaker even than in 1980, and the whole Eastern Bloc was to collapse in the following year, so the threat of Soviet invasion was negligible, but again Wałęsa assumed the ‘awkward responsibility’ to ‘snuff out’ the ‘ever-present strikes’, in opposition to the new strike committees being set up all over the country.[15] While demonstrations were being attacked by riot police and the number of political prisoners was increasing, Wałęsa entered into a dialogue with the regime. The agreement he reached did not affect the price rises, but merely resulted in a new legal recognition of Solidarity in April 1989, and the opportunity for it to contest a few seats in the forthcoming elections to the Sejm, the Polish Parliament. These they won in a massive victory, and Solidarity now entered government with the regime that it had opposed for so many years.

In 1989 the PUWP dissolved itself and its members formed two new social democratic parties. Jaruzelski, the architect of the 13 December 1981 coup, and others retained jobs. Prices continued to rise, and privatisation was introduced, against the wishes of many leading Solidarity members, but supported by others who were now in government. Support for privatisation decreased as it was implemented. Only 57% supported it in large scale industries, though it was thought to be good for small handicraft-type businesses or if workers had shares. Other Solidarity members revived the Polish Socialist Party, and more new parties came into being. The underground paper, Region, reported more blue-collar workers joining Solidarity, still in existence as a trade union, and conflicts between blue-collar and administrative staff.[16] Solidarity now had only 2 million paid up members and expected to be in opposition to their former comrades. Wałęsa was campaigning to become President although only 21% supported him.


In 1990, a Polish journalist, who emigrated after the declaration of martial law and returned in 1989, described Poland as ‘overwhelmingly quiet’, the people ‘subdued, restrained, and depressed’ with no sign of any enthusiasm. A commentator remarked on this, saying that ‘this seems somewhat odd … They are being granted the freedom which they wanted so dearly’.[17] This assumption that the freedom people wanted in Poland was to replace subjection to bureaucratic state capitalism with subjection to Western capitalism was seriously mistaken, as there was opposition to the market as a solution in Poland throughout the 1980s. What Polish workers wanted was to change the way their society worked, not simply to replace it with another bad model.

We visited Wojtek and Alicja again in December 1983, after martial law had been lifted and they visited us again in 1984. Their purpose in coming to England was chiefly to find work to take sterling back to Poland instead of the near worthless złotys. They thought that we were much better off than they were, and at the time this was true, since the price rises in Poland had left many families on the brink of starvation and many ex-political prisoners found it difficult to get work. However, while in England Wojtek found his pay packet, including overtime, was stolen from his jacket pocket. He was aghast at the idea of a worker robbing another worker. Despite their privations, no one would have taken the money in Poland.

Polish workers won pay rises which favoured those on lower pay; they organised food and transport during strikes; they finally managed to close an appallingly polluting factory; they won apologies for state antisemitism; they won memorials to those who had been killed by the regime; but most of all they were getting rid of the worst representatives of that regime one by one. Between the summer of 1980 and April 1981 workers forced the recall of:

  • 13 ministers
  • 40 deputy ministers
  • 18 provincial governors
  • 26 deputy governors
  • 26 provincial party first secretaries
  • 72 provincial party secretaries
  • 7 heads of central departments, and
  • 14 heads of industrial groups[18]

These changes were piecemeal because the leaders of Solidarity would not accept that the whole regime could and should be swept away and replaced by the self-organisation of the working class in its own interests.

Despite the fact that Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski had made it clear in 1965 that there was no realistic alternative to revolution, by 1980 they had backtracked and accepted the idea, common to all the leaders of Solidarity, of a self-limiting revolution, of compromise with the regime. The argument was underpinned by the premise that otherwise the regime would be defended by the Russians sending in their army – a possibility Wojtek merely shrugged at. In the end, it led to Polish soldiers backing up the ZOMO against their own people. It is a merely academic question as to which repression would have been worse: activists and other workers were sacked, starved, beaten, imprisoned, tortured and died anyway. Had the workers’ desire to overthrow the system been shared by their leaders, steps would have been taken to win the army to the side of Solidarity, and the Russian threat would have been countered by a defence of Poland by its people and its armed forces, a challenge which would almost certainly have been too formidable to take on. 

After the imposition of martial law, many activists became involved specifically in Green, anti-racist and peace movements. We have seen such movements in the UK. The Anti-Nazi League won major victories against racism at the end of the 1970s, but some of these have had to be won again, and the rise of Black Lives Matter shows that racism fostered by the system has not been eradicated. CND, Occupy and Extinction Rebellion have all had significant impact on public opinion but have not won the vitally needed changes they call for. Even the Stop the War Coalition, which represented the views of the overwhelming majority of British people in 2003 and was part of producing the largest demonstration in the history of the world, could only reduce the confidence of the warmongers, but not stop the invasion of Iraq. If that protest had been supported by a wave of strikes like those in Poland in 1980, it would almost certainly have stopped Britain’s involvement in the invasion immediately.

Solidarity was an example of how workers have repeatedly and spontaneously shown that they have the desire, the skills and the understanding to run society themselves, but do not believe that they can. As a state goes into crisis, and people demand radical change, there are always leaders who do not believe that such change is possible, who want to compromise – whether through fear or self-interest – and who will lead the struggle to defeat. Like Lech Wałęsa, those leaders may be rewarded for propping up the system, but those they led will suffer the repression needed to re-establish the existing order, and the price of failure is enormous and certain.

In the 1980s it was the determination of the workers to challenge the regime which created the circumstances for Solidarity to arise, which drove the successes during the height of Solidarity, and which powered the resistance after martial law was imposed. This determination was not defeated by the regime, but by a leadership which would not accept that the regime could be overthrown, and which repeatedly led the workers into compromise and defeat. Had there been a group, aware of a wider political history, articulating the workers’ demands for an end to the regime and challenging demands for compromise, it would have gained increasing support and would have become the leadership to take the workers to the freedom they really wanted. As we face global environmental, political and economic crises, the question must be, are we preparing such a leadership for when the workers need it?



[1] Polish Solidarity Campaign Report October-December 1988, p. 2

[2] Voice of Solidarity, 16 November 1984, p. 14

[3] The Bloc, August-September-October 1989, p. 15

[4] Voice of Solidarity, 15 January 1985, p. 8

[5] Socialist Review, 20 May-19 June 1982, p. 12

[6] Socialist Review, 20 May -19 June 1982, p. 13

[7] Voice of Solidarity, 10 September 1983, p. 5

[8] Voice of Solidarity, February 1985, p. 3

[9] Voice of Solidarity, 1 February 1984, p. 3

[10] Voice of Solidarity, 5 Oct 1984, p. 14

[11] Voice of Solidarity, March 1985, p. 13

[12] Figure from Tomasz Kozłowski, The Birth of Solidarity: Dynamics of a Social Movement (Warsaw: Institute of National Remembrance, 2011), p. 5. At the time the figure of 10 million was commonly accepted.

[13] The Bloc, March-April-May 1988, pp. 3-4; VoS September-October 1987, p. 17.

[14] The Bloc, January-February 1988, p. 19

[15] The Bloc, November-December 1988, pp. 30-31

[16] The Bloc, Jan March 1989, p. 40

[17] ‘A quiet breakthrough’, The Bloc, Jan 1990, p.10

[18] Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed; Solidarity, Reform And Revolution in Poland 1980-81 (London: Bookmarks, 1986), p. 39


We are particularly indebted to:

– Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed; Solidarity, Reform And Revolution in Poland 1980-81, (London: Bookmarks, 1986)
Voice of Solidarity, years 1983 to 1988
The Bloc, years 1989 to 1990
– Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, Solidarność: The Missing Link; The Classic Open Letter to the Party (London: Bookmarks, 1982)

Our thanks also to:

– Denis MacShane, Solidarity; Polands Independent Trade Union, (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1981)
– Colin Barker and Karen Weber, Solidarność; From Gdańsk to Military Repression, (London: International Socialism, 1982)
– Magda Zalewska, Henryk Gawinski and  John Taylor, Solidarity Underground; Free Trade Unionism in Poland Today, (London: Polish Solidarity Campaign, 1983)
– Chis Harman, ‘The lessons of the Polish defeat’, Socialist Review (23 January – 19 February 1982)
– Chis Harman, ‘Between two storms’, Socialist Review (15 October – 14 December 1980)
– [no author], What happened in Gdansk’, Socialist Review (15 October – 14 December 1980)
– [no author], ‘Underneath Solidarity’, Socialist Review (15 October – 14 December 1980)
– Chis Harman, ‘The storm that won’t abate’, Socialist Review (18 April – 16 May 1981)
– Chis Harman, ‘Poland: no room to compromise’, Socialist Review (15 November – 13 December 1981)
– John Rees, The socialist revolution and the democratic revolution, International Socialism (Summer 1999)

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Tagged under: