Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Solidarnosc 1979 - 89

Solidarnosc – re-creating a legacy

by Hatto Fischer

To remember Solidarnosc of Poland during a time when elsewhere in the world people need solidarity in the form of practical help, that might be an occasion to underline that things do not stand still and there is a need to re-create a legacy. After all there are Polish troops in Iraq today as it was odd then, when we helped members of KIK – the young Catholic Intelligent people of Poland – and others correspond with friends and relatives while in jail only to see them once released go to Paris and join a dinner organized by Le Pen. That remark does not aim at intellectuals like Jacek Kuron or Adam Michnik but it outlines a concern that not always the political positions taken in the East would have the same consistency when expressed and followed-up in the West, including at that time West Berlin.

Re-creating a legacy means re-examining the meaning of Solidarity and how Solidarnosc came about. It means also putting remembrances such as this one into context. For while many gathered at the end of August in Gdansk to honor what the workers did back then in 1980 as they gained concessions from the Polish government to form a free and independent trade union only to be outlawed and its core leaders arrested one year later in December 1981 when Jaruselski imposed martial law, ‘breaking news’ are filled with horrific descriptions at the end of August 2005. There is the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi after a hurricane swept that region and also the report about a stampede of people in Baghdad. The latter killed more than 800 after a rumor spread like bush fire that a suicide bomber is amongst the pilgrims. The rumor caused panic. People jumped off a bridge or were squashed by others rushing to safety. The stampede left in its wake shoes and sandals of the dead ones. The scene depicted by a photo in the International Herald Tribune reminds of the Auschwitz exhibition or of the Holocaust exhibition presently shown at the Imperial War Museum in London. Alone the association, and the different layering of pain and grief caused by people insecure, should remind that the Iraq war has not been responded to by a sign of solidarity by the people in the West, and in particular in those countries that have send troops to occupy that land, as if there is no connection, no trans-sensitivity, no human pain universal enough to feel the pain of the others and thereby create a world wide solidarity with those oppressed, threatened and even worse without real survival chances never mind a life with human dignity.

At the time when Solidarnosc was just beginning, many workers, trade union officials, people of the Left, including the Greens or at that time the Alternative Liste in Germany were skeptical about the chances of success. After all Eastern Europe had seen Russian tanks squashing stone throwing workers in East Berlin 1953, a bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and tanks of the Warszawa pact moving into Prague to squash the ‘Prague spring wishing a Socialism with a human face’ in 1968. Consequently German workers made preemptive judgments to the extent why struggle for freedom when you are going to get hit over the head anyhow? That pain never felt due to being numb to the point of being obliviousness to the real loss of freedom had been described already by Thomas Mann as the oppressive system in Germany functioning on a very simple premise, namely the art of making serious demands for freedom and just payments for work look ridiculous (see Buddenbrooks and the protest of the carriage drivers which were sent back home by their masters after laughing over their demands).

Still, in the Polish context, there was something more serious than just the risk of being made to look ridiculous if challenging authorities. As everyone would tell you what they feared the most was one main thing: their identity being erased by a totalitarian system. That fear drove them to freedom as the only chance to survive even if the odds were against them. As Lech Walesa pointed out to the BBC correspondent asking him if the workers did not fear the reprisal not only by the Polish authorities, but by the Russian troops, ‘yes, the Solidarnosc movement knew about the 200 000 Soviet troops in Poland and the other 1 million gathered at the Polish border on the Soviet side, but they had to do it.’

So while there is still today confusion and differences about workers struggling not merely for freedom but independence, politically speaking, it can be said that there were also some who criticized Solidarnosc out of fear of upsetting not only the Socialist and more precisely Communist system in Eastern Europe, but the status quo between East and West with its iron curtain in-between. Richard Loewenthal, a famous political scientist, conceded that the post Second World War peace was based on the concept of stable borders and in granting the other side full dominance in one’s own territory. Such political agreement at official level left people without freedom on either side.

Then there were others who were critical of the Solidarnosc movement because they wanted to remain realistic and therefore never gave credit to those who tried to attain freedom despite all political odds being against them. As to the political confusion that went with such criticism and skepticism, it had a lot to do with the term Socialism. Some took it to mean an alternative to Capitalism i.e. not private Capitalism but state ownership. Here they overlooked something preceding the Solidarnosc movement and yet which was crucial for making a difference in the political understanding of what this movement of Solidarnosc is all about.

The Polish movement began fore mostly around people like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron who created among other things again the Flying University in the late seventies. ‘Again’ is said because this kind of education in the underground was practiced already during the Second World War when German occupation forbade the teaching of anything needed by Poles to retain a sense of dignity and knowledge about how to run society and government by themselves. In that sense the Flying University in the late seventies meant historians, economists and others taught things to students which the official universities did not offer. As a matter of fact, the Flying University became a testing ground. If the authorities let one course run for an entire semester in the underground – mostly up to 150 students would gather in one flat to hear a professor speak and if the police came to raid the place everything was converted into a simple gathering there to consume cakes and drink coffee together – then that course would appear in the next semester in the curriculum of the official universities under state and therefore Communist control. A real need at that time was to know about history, including what happened to all those Polish officers shot by the Soviet army or why the Soviet army remained on the other side of the Weichsel when German troops were squashing the Warszawa uprising und later killing anyone inside the Warszawa Ghetto. That was already a pain in face of a lack of solidarity which cannot be explained solely by the Hitler-Stalin pact ensuring that Hitler’s army could invade Poland and then carve it up with Stalin before attacking Russia itself. No soldiers stood by, obeyed orders, rather than taking themselves the initiative to save other people’s lives.

The pain of the Polish people means literally that: to be left alone while two powers in the West and the East threaten their existence. No way that there would be any easy way out or to do something in such a way that it would not upset either the one or the other power. Gdansk itself had a history of being used as pretext by Hitler who wanted to reclaim Danzig as part of the German ‘soil’.

So the beginning of Solidarnosc had to do with another definition of Socialism meaning literally solidarity. Intellectuals of the Flying University started to redefine Socialism by moving away from the old political positioning with regards to state versus private ownership and gave Socialism another concept, namely the solidarity of all with the one facing the violence of the system. Here things started to make sense. As Klaus Heinrich at the Institute for Science of Religion in Berlin (West) pointed out, law and freedom can only come together in a reasonable way when no group has power over the individual (individuals can easily be terrorized by a group when no one steps out of that rank and file and acts in solidarity with that individual). This need to safeguard the individual against any group or other forms of violence is substantiated by the dialectic of secularization foreseeing state and church as two separate institutions which then counter-balancing each other in order to give the individual freedom of conscience and therefore the freedom of choice both in a political and religious sense. This played a dominant role for a youth seeking after Second World War a way out of military service by declaring themselves to be conscious objectors to military service out of reasons of conscience. It was Sartre who stated that violence is connected with individuals who have lost ‘free conscience’ as a way to rule and therefore end up in having no consciousness as to their own and equally the Rights of others. And it matters to understand Solidarnosc not merely as result of the Roman Catholic Church giving its support in the fight against a totalitarian state. Solidarnosc has its own secular self understanding of freedom.

Thus there was something of great importance added by the members of the Flying University when linking Socialism with the need to avoid violence. It meant the need to create the conditions for and once having become one to retain the sense of being a non violent movement. Knowing how repressive the totalitarian system was both in its physical, equally military and in its psychological, invisible sense – negation of one’s identity taken to be the greatest threat any individual can face when growing up in such a society – members of KOR and Flying University felt in view of Eastern Europe history moreover the need to anticipate violence before it would hit again the individual and the entire movement. Socialism was, therefore, the call of solidarity of everyone with any individual under immediate threat of violence and by act of solidarity the inspiration that ensures every individual can continue living in a non violent way as this was taken to be the essence of freedom worth striving for. Again in the West this form of individualism was misunderstood especially by those inclined to follow some abstract Socialist model while being themselves caught in-between past and present manifestations of a feudal capitalist society.

Historically speaking, such definition of Socialism is about knowing what happens politically if others pretend nothing was happening to oneself and instead of helping, look the other way and even worse just go on with their lives as if nothing had happened to that individual. In a way this was also a lesson they took out of the Holocaust and what happened to the Jewish population being left completely alone, without solidarity from the rest of the world as shown even in the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London since there the question is posed whether or not the Allied forces should have bombed at the very least the trains taking the Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz and other concentration camps?

For many reasons the First and Second World War was a failure of solidarity of the people of Europe. They allowed themselves to be divided into categories that pitted the one against the other or else taught them to ignore the plight of the others. As many Germans would say after 1945, they never knew what was happening to the Jewish people since they preferred to look the other way rather than declare solidarity immediately with the people when being arrested and before being loaded onto trucks or freight trains to be taken away for no other reason but for being Jewish. Even the fact that the trains ran on time while German troops were fighting already loosing battles indicates that once a system is annihilated completely from the respect of individual freedom, then it has lost all bearings and can mean but one thing: total destruction, including self destruction, if not halted otherwise. This means a practical show of solidarity was needed to say ‘no’ to such process of self destruction and destruction of others – a most difficult thing to do as pointed out by Klaus Heinrich.

An example of what it meant to create conditions of solidarity by saying ‘no’ against violence being directed against the individual - was the interaction of the intellectuals mainly of the KOR group in defense of human rights of every worker not only of the Gdansk shipyards but in all other factories throughout Poland. Evening discussions would do what many governments fear when intellectuals and workers finally get together rather than upholding cliché concepts about the other e.g. the intellectuals are not interested in the plights of the workers and vice versa the workers do not think but just act. There is the prejudiced viewpoint that intellectuals are just crazy people having their own theories which make no sense in real life while workers would not know how important the freedom of articulation is to doing work under humane conditions. But once that separation is overcome, theory and practice can be reflected in respect to both concrete and abstract needs. In those evening discussions the workers did learn that alternative possibilities are already created by a good questioning of things. For there is no emancipation without ‘theory’ – something German workers have forgotten. It is only when these two dimensions of theory and practice can be outplayed against one-another, a system of oppression is in place and loss of individual freedom immanent. Indeed, every worker is as intellectual as any intellectual can build ships and trucks.

There was the case of Anna Walentynowicy, the crane operator and next to Lech Walesa the leading spirit of the workers’ uprising at the ship yards. But before the spark created an act of solidarity, many other things happened before that, including the countless evening talks in which she and the others entered a dialogue with the intellectuals. They discussed many political issues, including human rights. Above all they were interested in how trade union approaches to organization at work could be changed.

In other words, there are many more issues in need of being considered than what the press acclaims as ‘news’ when a government meets suddenly the demands of workers. Workers know much more about the economy and about use of resources than many managers but they feel many times helpless in view of what the bosses upstairs decide by themselves and this without regard whether or not expensive trips overseas can be sustained by the factory. Workers see many things but for long stretches in time they just grumble and get on with their work knowing how precious little time they have aside from falling exhausted into bed once home. Anna Walentynowicy had become a thorn in the side of management at the shipyards for she protested whenever some other worker was treated unjustly. This provoked reprisals from the side of management. In the end she had to use a separate toilet and everyone was forbidden to speak with her. She was allowed to still work at the shipyards but she was totally isolated. Significantly after the barrier of silence surrounding her was broken down by the uprising, many workers came over to apologize to her. Their apologies always began with ‘I wanted to help you but you know I have a family with many kids at home so I had to think about them as well’. They were expressing their fear of possible reprisals or of consequences if they had crossed that invisible line separating them from Anna. They feared that management could fire them and then what would happen if such an act would threaten the lives of their families? It is but a subtle hint as to what coercion means at work when looking at the real grip of power over people’s mind. Solidarnosc does mean a freedom from such repression and from such violence directed against the individual until he or she like Anna Walentynowicy would be completely isolated. Such political reprisal does not make any economic sense as well for solidarity means also learning to work together not by command but in freedom of being able to communicate with one another.

The uprising of the workers began finally in Gdansk when management wanted to fire Anna Walentynowicy five days before retirement. Those who had done all the pre-work in evening discussions, that is after work (as described also by Peter Weiss in his ‘Aesthetics of Resistance’), they acted in solidarity and thereby created Solidarnosc not only as a trade union, but as a social movement sweeping all of Poland.


Moment in History: the firing of Anna Walentynowicz




To the workers of the Gdansk Shipyard

We turn to YOU colleagues of Anna Walentynowicz. She has worked at the shipyard since 1950. Sixteen years as a welder, later as crane operator in W-2 section, awarded brown, silver and in 1979 Gold Service Cross. She had always been a model worker, what is more one who reacted to every wrong an injustice. This has resulted in her activism in independent of management trade union movement...Walentynowicz received a disciplinary notice of firing on August 7 for "major infraction of worker's responsibilities." We would like to remind you that Anna Walentynowicz has only five months to retirement. This matter demonstrates that the administration of the shipyard does not care about public opinion or legal procedure, which it violates forcing people to bend with its whims. Anna Walentynowicz has been a thorn at their side. Because she is a model activist devoted to others. She is a thorn at their side because she defends others and is capable of organizing her colleagues...

We appeal to you, defend the crane operator Walentynowicz. If you don't, many of you may find themselves in the same dire straights...


Founding Committee of Independent Trade Unions and the editorial board of THE COSTAL WORKER: Bogdan Borusewicz, Joanna Duda-Gwiazda, Andzrej Gwiazda, Jan Karandziej, Maryla Plonska, Alina Pienkowska, Lech Walesa.

Siec translation (mszporer).



It is said that “the firing of former Hero of Socialist Labour and Solidarity activist Anna Walentynowicz (affectionately known by her co-workers as "Mala" or Tiny because of her slight frame) led to the historic strike in the Gdansk Shipyard, beginning the long road to freedom and democracy in Poland and elsewhere in the former communist bloc.”  [1] Today, that woman did not attend the ceremonies in Gdansk 2005 as she is fighting for an appeal without any real chance as of yet for compensation even though endless harm to her person has been caused by the system before Solidarnosc, after martial law in 1981 and even now, that is after 1989. The news [2] underlines following sad truth:


Anna Walentynowicz is" the mother of modern Poland," a former labour heroine, religious activist and free trade union leader over whose firing one month before retirement the Gdansk shipyard strike started on August 14, 1980. The strike gave birth to Solidarity--and led to the rebirth of free and independent Poland and the collapse of communism.

According to Rzeczpospolita on this Valentine's day, the Gdansk court has denied Anna Walentynowicz's petition for 120,000 ZL [$40,000] in reparations for numerous acts of illegal repressions and imprisonment against her by the communist regime.

We believe this act is shameful in this 25th anniversary year of Solidarity and we appeal to the Polish parliament and President Alexander Kwasniewski to correct this injustice.


Foundation for Free Speech is making $1000 contribution to Anna Walyntynowicz and calls on all Friends of Solidarity everywhere to follow its lead.

Address of Anna Walentynowicz:

Ul. Grunwaldzka 40 m 9
Gdansk Wrzeszcz 80-241


What Solidarnosc did bring about as a social movement was the condition of people becoming ‘creative’ when seeking solutions to all their plights and needs, may that be better kindergartens starting from good food but not ending there but continued by improving teaching methods in order to break out of the stereotypical Socialist education model. It included how neighborhoods organized themselves so as to provide everyone with materials to repair houses still damaged from Second World War.

Solidarnosc was in that sense a much wider phenomenon than a mere trade union movement restricted to typical and classical mistakes of trade unions in the West who limit themselves voluntarily to just wage negotiations on behalf of those having a job with the owners of factories and where needed with government officials. The Western trade unionists admit privately that they fail to communicate not only with their own workers but with the unemployed but officially that never creates any ruffles in all official waters of negotiations. They act out of fear to loose their own privileges but do so out of any context of solidarity and thereby render their activities to social and political meaninglessness.

One of the amazing things at factory level was how Solidarnosc started to include managerial tasks in their own decision making processes and thereby upgraded working councils to a level of sophistication that surpassed any managerial approach to things. What one trade unionist from Massey Ferguson in the UK said after having started correspondence with workers at URSUS outside of Warszawa and which produced as well tractors for the agricultural sector is the amazing thing that they could articulate themselves within one and half pages and still name all problems of the factory in a cohesive way. They mentioned resources not available, intelligence and know-how needed, while offering cooperation and exchange of experiences, so as to alter the concept of efficiency of the entire company.

The martial law declared by Jaruselski in December 1981 was not merely about squashing a trade union movement as the Western Press likes to distort the facts, but also a blow against people becoming finally creative enough so that they had the optimism and courage to tackle all problems in a self responsible manner. Disenfranchisement does not begin and end with voting rights; it starts with forbidding people to take matters into their own hands. There is an entire system that educates people to believe only the educated know what to do. That creates hierarchy, false dependencies and this laming disbelief in one’s own personal abilities. When Marx wrote about the need for human self consciousness only possible if people address one another in a language containing equally categories of productivity and creativity, that then they would not address each other as slaves but as free people capable of thinking, rational judgment, moral standards and lust for freedom. For Solidarity is in such moments the act by which the articulation freedom of people manifests itself in concrete terms of everyday lives but also how work and therefore society organizes itself to deal with the question of scarce resources needed to be used economically if all needs are to be fulfilled in a way that the freedom of everyone is not threatened by those seeking privileges over others in order to live in luxury at the expense of others and therefore in ignorance of the need of solidarity with all others.





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