[Marxism] Evaluating Solidarnosc 25 years later

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 30 07:24:53 MDT 2005

August 29, 2005

Today is being celebrated in Poland as the 25th anniversary of  the birth 
of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the trade union movement that spearheaded 
Poland's liberation from Communist dictatorship The following was written 
by frequent DIRELAND contributor Norman Birnbaum, who wrote the prescient 
analysis for DIRELAND last month on Germany's Political Crisis (and why its 
Left is in Disarray).

Norman_birnbaum_9 Norman (left) is University Professor Emeritus, 
Georgetown University Law School, and author--most recently--of After 
Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism In The Twentieth 
Century (Oxford University Press), among other books. Norman was a founding 
editor of New Left Review, was on the editorial board of Partisan Review, 
and is on the editorial board of The Nation. Norman, who got his doctorate 
in sociology from Harvard, has also taught at the London School of 
Economics, Oxford University, the University of Strasbourg and Amherst 
College, has had academic appointments in Italy and Germany, and has been a 
consultant to the National Security Council. When Norman sent me this 
piece, he commented, :"I did not draw in this analysis the lessons for 
Iraq; if someone cannot grasp them, instruction would be futile..."

A quarter of a century after the beginning of Solidarnosc,Solidarnosc  let 
us try to make sense of what at the time, for many, was so astonishing that 
theological rather than historical explanation seemed appropriate. The fact 
that partially free elections were held in Poland, after the Communist 
Party acknowledged that it was incapable of commanding society on June 4 
1989, indeed reminded us of Providence. It was the day the Chinese party 
and state massacred the young in Peking. .

Three historical currents converged in Solidarnosc. The first, of course, 
was the history of Poland itself. Their own history taught the Polish 
people that there is a time for everything—for resistance, for temporary 
submission, for sullen compliance. Nothing in that history was lost---and 
Solidarnosc owed much to 1830, 1863 and 1944. That Jaruzelski was as true, 
in the end, for the Communists as for their antagonists. The present Polish 
president, after all, in 1989 negotiated with Solidarnosc as counselor to 
General Jaruzelski (right). Was the latter, in effect, a Soviet agent? If 
so, what about Wielopolski Alexander Wielopolski (left), the Polish Count 
who was half-reformer, half-hangman as the Tsar’s man in Warsaw, and the 
generations of Poles who served Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia? 
Providence, upon examination, in the end was that most profane of history’s 
characteristics, its ambiguity and indeterminism. Those who, like 
Jaruzelski, convinced themselves that they had but one choice, upon acting 
on it invariably discovered that they had become prisoners of the forces 
they sought to subdue.

Solidarnosc surprised the western elites only because they believed a Cold 
War ideology which depicted Communist societies as monolithic. It had been 
preceded in Communist Poland itself by a very turbulent history: Gomulka 
(right) Gomulka_2 was most definitely not Deutscher the Soviet Union’s 
candidate to assume power in 1956. Polish Communism was always riven by 
ideological conflict. (The spiritual heir of Polish Trotskyism, Isaac 
Deutscher, (left) was visited at his London home by Polish Ambassadors, 
Ministers, and intellectuals in an unending stream.) In the larger setting, 
Titoism, the revolt in 1953 in the German Democratic Republic, Khrushchev’s 
repudiation of Stalinism, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Maoist 
schism, Soviet dissent, and the Czech experiment in open Communism of 1968 
demonstrated that the exceptionalism of Poland was entirely normal. The 
second current that made Solidnarosc possible, then, was one constituted by 
the insuperable internal contradictions of Communism itself. Of these, two 
were salient. One was the assertion that a backward country, Russia, was 
the vanguard of universal emancipation. The other was that the more 
developed a working class became, the more necessary its Kolowkowski 
submission to a dictatorial and hermetic party. Lipinski Leszek Kolakowski 
(left), Jacek Kuron, (lower left) Edward Lipinski (right) , Wojciech 
Modelski, and Adam Michnik (lower right),  in their struggle against 
theseMichnik_4  absurdities, laid the intellectual foundations  of Kuron_1 
KOR, the group founded illegally but publicly in 1976, to express the 
intellectuals’ solidarity with the  workers. They had help: the secular 
sociology of truth seekers like Jan Szczepanski, and the desperate efforts 
of Adam Schaff to keep Marxism intellectually respectable.

There was a third current in the background---the slow decomposition of the 
Cold War itself. The Helsinki Agreement of 1971 (and especially the 
apparently secondary references to Human Rights) was a charter for what 
proponents of orthodoxy in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact deemed impossible 
as well as impermissible: peaceful if competitive co-existence. True, 
Solidarnosc developed as the USSR and the USA were planning to install 
medium range missiles on the territory of their satellite states, the 
better to initiate a war between them by devastating Europe and not their 
imperial homelands. Very large popular protest in the Lech_walesaGerman 
Federal Republic, Great Britain, and elsewhere in Europe was matched by a 
peace movement in the German Democratic Republic which was an anticipation 
of the popular protests of 1989. All of this seems far from the concerns of 
shipyard workers in Gdansk. (Left, Lech Walsea speaks to striking Gdansk 
workers in 1980.) There may have been a connection: a conviction, on the 
part of the European peoples, that it was time to stop exploitation at the 
hands of distant powers acting through local satrapies. In any event, the 
US did very little, apart from talking even more loudly---a perpetual 
American response to political impotence---when Solidarnosc emerged. It was 
the US which had earlier refused the suggestions of two foreign ministers, 
Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom and Adam Rapacki of Poland, for the 
reduction of arms in central Europe – suggestions which, if followed, might 
well have allowed liberalisation in Poland well before Solidarnosc had to 
fight for it. Perhaps we could have had more historical imagination to go 
with our moral indignation.

What of the obvious Catholic component in Solidarnosc, its long pre-history 
in the autonomous activities of Catholic proponents of social justice in 
the Polish People’s Republic? The election of Cardinal Wojtyla as Pope John 
Paul II Pope_john_xxiii in 1979, and his visit that year to Poland, 
obviously reinforced Catholic activism. Pope John XXIII and his successor, 
Paul VI, had broken with the rigid anti-Communism of the Vatican. They 
Initiated and continued dialogue with the Communist regimes as a way to 
secure nd enlarge space within these regimes for Catholicism and for 
spiritual freedom generally. Solidarnosc  was a belated product of the 
Aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. It is interesting that the 
Italian Communists -- close in many ways to the Italian Catholics -- were 
supporters of Solidarnosc.

The specific effect of Solidarnosc on Communist societies is a matter that 
still requires historical investigation. The critical Chinese 
intelligentsia knew of it, but it knew of everything that happened in the 
world. That is why it was so dangerous to their rulers. In the event, the 
Chinese student rising of 1989 (right)Beijing_1989 did evoke widespread 
solidarity from the Chinese working class. From my own direct knowledge of 
Communist Germany and its official elites as well as its dissidents, I 
would say that the East German response was entirely ambiguous. Some (along 
with the West Germans) feared a civil war in Poland, Soviet intervention, 
and a fatal conflagration. Others thought of Solidarnosc as a lesson in 
democracy, taught by Polish civil society to those still mired in an 
unnecessary quietism—those of their fellow East German citizens who first 
awoke in September and October of 1989 to their own potential power..

The images from the Gdansk shipyards on the West’s television screens, 
however, did not immediately encourage historical reflection. They were 
initially interpreted according to the predilections of the viewing 
publics. In the US, intellectual primitivism had full reign. Very few asked 
how, if Communism was so oppressive, Solidarnosc had been able to develop 
in the first place. In Western Europe, the response was much more informed 
and nuanced. As the Poles struggled to free themselves of indirect but 
effective Soviet suzerainty, many in Western Europe thought that the time 
had come for them to confront the United States as equals. In short, 
Solidarnosc contributed to the view that Europe had to cease existing only 
of itself and should act for itself. There might be lessons in that for the 
Europeans, still.  -- Norman Birnbaum



More information about the Marxism mailing list