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
Q: What do you call a movement of 10 million people? A: A handful of extremists. (Polish joke)
Poland in the 1970s
In the 1970s, Poland had a rich and internationally renowned culture which included film directors such as Andrzej Wajda (who also worked in the theatre and tv) and composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki. The theatre was greatly admired and imitated, especially the work of Tadeusz Kantor, Józef Szajna and Jerzy Grotowski. They were just the tip of an iceberg; there were other excellent directors, who produced not only plays by classic and contemporary Polish playwrights but also by playwrights from other European countries and by modern American playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Some of the top directors who had become prominent in the 1950s and 1960s had also been trained as fine artists, and this produced a subtle and complex visual theatre which was not easily censored – things can be shown in a play which cannot be picked up in a script. The directors had lived through the Nazi occupation, and Kantor, for example, performed in an underground theatre in Kraków, while Szajna had been an inmate of Auschwitz. Their experience added to the depth, richness and originality of their thought. Secure subsidy of the arts meant that actors and directors could work together for a far longer period of time than is possible in capitalist countries, and they had no need to scrabble for funding.
The commitment to theatre production extended to the programmes and other related material. Polish theatre posters were collectors’ items, both in Poland and abroad. This excellence and originality in graphic art was to stand the trade union NSZZ Solidarność (Solidarity) in good stead when it came into being, since the style of its instantly recognisable logo was easily transferable, and came to be known as ‘solidaric’. Slogans or even single words, such as ‘amnesty’, need only to have the same letter design to be seen as originating from Solidarity, and various works journals were linked by the title being in the same style.
ln October 1978, I [Jacqueline Mulhallen] visited Poland to see the theatre, and one of the plays I saw, directed by Szajna for a leading theatre in Warsaw, was Majakovsky, about the Soviet playwright and poet. I knew little Polish but a friend came with me to translate. The stage was draped in red, and I was curious to see that it was set just before the 1917 Russian Revolution. An actress ran across the stage in a red dress, crying what sounded like ‘Strike! Strike!’ This was enthusiastically taken up by the audience. I couldn’t believe I was hearing the word shouted in a theatre in Warsaw, so I asked my companion what it meant. ‘Why, it is the same as in your language’, he explained, ‘we got the word from you.’
There were other signs that the people were not afraid of the regime. My friends were all young and cheeky, and they tried to get me into a reception for visiting dignitaries from Western Europe even though I was certainly not dressed for this type of occasion. They did not succeed, but they were far more politely and generously treated than young students trying to gate-crash such an occasion in London would have been. All of my friends grumbled about their lives: the lack of meat; the poor accommodation; the lack of freedom of speech, from which they were suffering in putting on a satirical show at their university; and, significantly, the lack of needed materials at work which meant they were often standing around idle as their work was held up. As they later admitted to me, this standing around idle was very productive when it came to organising in the workplace.
Polish women did not have complete equality with men. 45% of women worked, although they were not as highly represented in agriculture and industry. There were more women in social services, retail, health and education, for example, but even in these sectors women were under-represented in managerial jobs. There were crèche and nursery places and 3 months paid maternity leave. Women spent more time on housework than men, had less free time but were better educated. Contraception and abortion were freely available in Poland, and I was interested to find out how Catholicism affected their attitude to this. They greeted my queries with disbelief that I thought it possible that they would follow this absurd teaching of the church. Later, I could not believe that women who did not allow the Church to dictate to them over the question of contraception would allow it to dictate over Solidarity.
My friends did not seem racist or nationalistic. I was shown the site of the Warsaw Ghetto with great pride and they were keen to dissociate themselves from the attacks on Jews by the 1968 government. Nevertheless, there was a desire for Poland to be independent of the USSR and ‘a nation once again’, quite natural given the history of occupation and partition. This does not conflict with a working class movement.
I went back to Poland in early 1979 with a theatre group, and during that summer my friends visited me in London, as Polish people could visit Britain if they were sponsored by a British citizen. They came again in 1980 and 1981 and kept William Alderson and myself up to date with events in Poland, although we could not go there during the Solidarity period, to my great regret.
To understand this cultural milieu it is necessary to put the period in context by looking at Polish history. Divided between Russia, Germany and Austria for centuries, Poland was briefly independent after WW1 before being invaded by Germany in WW2 and then handed to Russian control in 1945 as a result of the agreement between the British, American and Russian leaders at Yalta. After 1945 there was massive industrialisation under the PUWP, the Polish communist party, drawing in large numbers of new workers who were forced out of agriculture, but in 1956 there was an explosion of popular revolt at the low standard of living workers suffered, echoing similar revolts in East Germany and Hungary. This revolt was put down, but the fact that many managers and officials had been involved made the PUWP aware of its isolation, and so the party, under its new leader Władisław Gomułka, created a broad layer of support for itself by granting privileges to ‘technocrats’. This ‘apparatus’ increasingly shaped the policies of the party in its own interests.
In 1965 Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, two lecturers at Warsaw University, published An Open letter to the Party, which was a careful Marxist analysis of the nature of Polish regime. It argued that Poland was not a socialist society, but a capitalist one where the bureaucracy (the ‘apparatus’) was a ruling class which owned the means of production and was intent on accumulation at the expense of the needs of the working class. As a result, they concluded that because the interests of the bureaucracy and the working-class were irreconcilably opposed, workers could only get their needs met by overthrowing the system. Unsurprisingly, both Kuroń and Modzelewski were arrested the day after publishing their analysis and imprisoned for 3 years.
The regime’s pressure to accumulate led to a continual lowering of workers’ standard of living. When the government presented plans for price rises in 1970, there were mass strikes and demonstrations in the shipyard cities, put down by the security forces at the cost of hundreds of workers’ lives. There were mass burnings of party cards, and Gomułka was replaced as party First Secretary by Eduard Gierek. Gierek decided to borrow from Western banks to fuel growth in the Polish economy, and the country went through a boom period. At the same time, strategic positions in Poland began to be filled with people acceptable to the party, and the privileges of this ‘nomenklatura’ and their families were guaranteed in law, even if they lost their position.
When boom turned to bust, Poland suffered the severest economic crisis of any industrial country since the 1930s, and in 1976 Gierek announced huge price rises. Immediately riots and strikes broke out affecting some 75% of Poland’s largest plants, and the price rises were withdrawn the very next day, but again the repression was fierce, with hundreds sacked, arrested, beaten, and jailed. In response, KOR (the Committee for the Defence of Workers) was founded, providing legal, financial and medical aid to the families of persecuted workers. It also supported peasant self-organisation and people facing religious persecution. Most importantly, it broke the State’s monopoly on news and information by producing underground literature and workers’ newspapers, such as Robotnik (Worker), and creating the ‘Flying Universities’, and these activities led to the growth of Free Trade Union groups in industrial centres.
As the situation worsened, industrial accidents increased, mortality rates rose across most age groups, alcoholism increased, medical services declined, and industrial pollution became the worst in Europe, while the layers of bureaucracy were seen as increasingly corrupt and privileged. There were around 1,000 strikes between June 1976 and the summer of 1980, generally over immediate economic demands, and generally successful. In this context, the visit in 1979 of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, truly represented ‘the heart of a heartless world’, but it also boosted workers’ confidence in their self-organisation. While the state laid on transport, the stewarding for the visit was organised by the people themselves.
On Tuesday 1 July 1980 the government announced significant price increases. Immediately there were strikes in Gdańsk, Tczew, Mielec, Świdnik and Warsaw, including in three sections of the huge Ursus tractor factory. All the strikes were quickly settled individually by pay-rises. The next day workers struck in Poznań, Żyrardów, and in other sections of the Ursus factory in Warsaw, and again the strikes were quickly settled individually by pay-rises. Local authorities and managers of ‘flagship’ enterprises were empowered to offer 5%, 10% or even 20% pay rises in order to divide the workers. On Thursday, however, all 14,000 workers at the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw went on strike, and when it was settled by pay-rises, they decided it was not enough, and went on strike again the following day. Other factories in Warsaw also struck during this week.
The following Monday saw workers in Świdnik on strike again because the price of pork chops had not been reduced, and there was a strike at the rolling millsin Żyrardów. On Tuesday women working at the textile mills in Żyrardów struck, in this case presenting a list of 30 demands and calling for cuts in the number of bosses at the mills and an efficiency audit of management. Their demand that family allowances should be the same as for the security police was very popular and spread. Managers of Poland’s major plants were told to buy ‘social peace’, and on Friday 11 July the Świdnik workers returned to work – and the best veal and chocolate seen for years! The same day there were strikes in Lublin, including at FSC Trucks, on the railways and local and district buses, and in chemicals, engineering, production co-operatives, bakeries and hospitals. The railway line to Russia was blocked, and new demands included ‘free Saturdays’ and free trade unions.
As the strikes spread in the next week to Wrocław, Siedlce, Stalowa Wola, Chełm and Warsaw again, Lublin was effectively on general strike. Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski was flown in to settle the disputes individually, promising to investigate other grievances. Meanwhile the first arrests occurred – of five people working to co-ordinate the Lublin strikes. On Monday 21 July workers at Radom were given unsolicited pay rises to prevent them striking! But strikes still occurred in mainly larger enterprises across Poland, including Gdynia, Sopot, Kalisz, Łódż, Włochy, Kielce, Tarnów, Kraków and Silesia, with workers winning pay-rises and other concessions. On Monday 11 August the arrest and quick release of a leader of the dustmen’s strike in Warsaw was followed by a partial transport strike, with a student demonstration the next day halting the rest of the trains.
On Wednesday 13 August a free trade union group organised around Coastal Worker, one of those created by the work of KOR, met after Anna Walentynowicz, a crane-driving grandmother, was sacked from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. The next day they called for a strike and by the afternoon all 100 sections had stopped work and occupied the yard. They ordered the manager to send his car to get Walentynowicz, and a strike committee was formed which included Lech Wałęsa, who had been previously sacked but had climbed over the fence to join the strikers. Their demands were even greater than those at Lublin, including the release of political prisoners, the re-instatement of sacked workers, and the erection of a monument at the yard gates to the workers killed in 1970. The management and district party secretary agreed to the monument, the reinstatement of Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz, family allowances in line with the army and security forces, and to a 1,200-złoty monthly pay-rise, but said that the other demands were beyond their competence, so talks broke down.
On Friday more workplaces in Gdańsk joined the strike, including the Paris Commune Shipyard, the docks, and local transport workers, with most of the strike committees organising liaison between themselves. At midday the authorities cut off telephone links between Gdańsk and the rest of Poland. When an agreement was reached later that day, Lech Wałęsa called off the strike, but representatives of the local transport workers objected that they had given support but would face only repression and sackings as the agreement did not include them. Wałęsa reversed the decision to end the strike and ordered the gates to be shut in solidarity with the other Gdańsk workers. About a third of the workforce was persuaded to stay inside, and that evening the 22 striking workplaces established an Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS). They drew up a list of demands, the ‘21 points’, and persuaded a priest to conduct a mass at the yard on the following Sunday in order to get the rest of the shipyard workers back in.
On Monday First Secretary Eduard Gierek rushed back from his Crimean holiday with the Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev. He broadcast an appeal for calm, which was ignored, and sent Deputy Prime Minister Tadeusz Pyka to Gdańsk to negotiate on behalf of the regime. Pyka refused to recognise the MKS but had no success with plant-by-plant talks. Meanwhile, shipyard workers at Szczecin had received a 10% pay-rise for no reason, but still went on strike, occupying the shipyard and demanding a meeting with their manager and information about the Gdańsk demands. The strike spread to other enterprises and a Szczecin MKS was formed.
At this point radical changes were taking place in the way the strikes were organised as large numbers of workplaces linked up. By Tuesday 19 August (only five days after the strike started) the Gdańsk MKS represented more than 250 enterprises, and the strikes generally took the form of occupations. Old bitterness was set aside, so that the students – who had not supported the shipyard in 1970 because the shipyard had not supported them in 1968 – now sent 10,000 złotys to the strike fund. The MKS organised supplies of provisions to striking workers and a network of food stores in a similar way to French workers in Nantes in 1968. It banned alcohol sales in Gdańsk and took control of health services and transport in the area, with buses and trams carrying placards stating: ‘We are on strike too, but we are working to make your life easier’.
On Wednesday 20 July Pyka was recalled and Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski sent to Gdańsk. He also tried to negotiate plant by plant, unsuccessfully, but on Friday he agreed to recognise the Gdańsk MKS, which was now affiliated to 370 strike committees representing more than 400,000 workers. At the same time, Kazimierz Barcikowski was sent to negotiate with the Szczecin MKS, which represented 134 workplaces, and which sent a delegation to Gdańsk to co-ordinate demands. On Monday 25 July the telephone links to Gdańsk were restored, which workers had demanded before talks could begin, and formal negotiations started. Microphones relayed the negotiations to a hall occupied by the delegates to the MKS, and through speakers to workers throughout the yard.
During the last week of August strikes started in Bydgoszcz, Toruń, Bielsko-Biała and Kraków, and MKSs were formed in Wrocław, Wałbrzych and Jastrzębie-Zdrój, the last including delegates from factories, mines and a beauty salon. By now more than 4,000 workplaces were involved in action.
On Sunday 24 August Cardinal Wyszyński had delivered a sermon urging the workers to exercise restraint, and long extracts were broadcast on state radio on the following Tuesday. By Thursday the church authorities were insisting that Wyszyinski’s sermon had been censored, but the cardinal had not said anything in support of the strikes, though the bishops now issued a joint homily including specific support for free trade unions. The same day Lech Wałęsa too issued a personal appeal to Polish workers to refrain from further walkouts. There were reports that a hard-line group in the Politburo wanted to use force, and that security forces around Gdańsk were on battle-alert.
On Saturday the Szczecin MKS signed an agreement, and on Sunday 31 August 1980 Deputy Prime Minister Mieczysław Jagielski and Lech Wałęsa signed the ‘21 points’ in front of TV cameras, agreeing to all the demands. Wałęsa declared the strike over.
Just the beginning
This agreement represented a major victory for Polish workers, and became the basis for others across Poland, but locally and regionally there were increasing demands for political change. Workers saw society more and more in terms of ‘us’ (the workers) and ‘them’ (all those in the hierarchy of authority). When our friends Wojtek and Alicja came to visit us in 1981, they were exhilarated when describing the atmosphere in Poland. Jacqueline managed to arrange a meeting through the Joint Shop Stewards Committee at her workplace, Charing Cross Hospital, with Alicja as speaker. A difficulty was that at that time there were still workers in Britain who saw the USSR and its satellite states as socialist and Solidarity as being anti-socialist. At the beginning of the meeting, someone asked Alicja why she was striking against a socialist government. She tried to explain the vast difference between socialism and what Poland was really like. In the end she said, in frustration ‘Look, we do all the work and they take our money’. A little ripple of laughter and recognition went round the room and the audience relaxed after that. We took up a collection for Solidarity and it was over £100 (around £390 in today’s money).
 Polish Solidarity Campaign, July-August 1988, p. 8
 Voice of Solidarity, March-April 1987, p. 16
 Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, Solidarność: The Missing Link; The Classic Open Letter to the Party (London: Bookmarks, 1982).
 This analysis is essentially the same as one written in the West in 1947 by Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia.
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; Poland’s 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)
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