Divided Solidarity
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

Text from the collective work: Polska Solidarności: kontrowersje, oblicza, interpretacje, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Kraków 2011.


An essential discord between three various concepts of Solidarity’s political role had been at the core of this social movement even before the Martial Law was introduced. This issue was strictly associated with Solidarity’s approach to the political system of the time, in particular the movement’s definition of its own place within that system, and entailed the need to define the limits of system’s flexibility and thus the definitive boundaries for the proposed reform. Hence, Solidarity activists sought to answer the question of who exercises/should exercise power in the state following August 1980. The journalism of the time reveals three different views, each with gravity of its own. Eventually, the unresolved dispute between the proponents of each vision shows how dynamic the political reflection at the time was as activists sought to address the changing reality. The issue in question is also one of the points where inconsistency in pursuing one given strategy could have ended up in an ultimate failure of the project of the August Revolution.

The first stance is the one voiced by the moderates, who mostly recognized state legality of the Polish People’s Republic. In their view, Solidarity should not cross the framework laid out in the Gdańsk Agreement, and trade unions’ commitment should be limited exclusively to the social realm. The minutes of the Gdańsk Agreement says: “Founding new, independent and self-governing trade unions, MKS hereby states that the unions will comply with the provisions of the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic. The new trade unions will defend workers’ social and material interests and will refrain from playing a role of a political party. They will rest on the principle of social ownership of the means of production, the foundation of Poland’s socialist system. Recognizing the steering role of PZPR within the state and not intending to undermine the established system of international alliances, the new trade unions will seek to provide working people with relevant means of control, voicing their opinions and defending their interests”[1]. The new trade unions wanted to have the real capacity to publicly comment on key decisions made by the state authorities. Hence, this document specifically defined the areas of power, whereby the state was to remain the domain of the Communist party, the political power of which was not to be questioned. Consequently, Solidarity and other social organizations were meant to be defended against the state interference in their independent activity. This strategy was deliberate, as evidenced by the fact that the request for free elections that had been considered during the August strikes (Demand No. 22) was immediately rejected by strikers themselves[2]. Recognizing the rule of one party, Solidarity activists thus sought to establish social pluralism, a considerable change for the system. The Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic envisaged that “PZPR is society’s steering political power in the mission to build socialism.”[3] The August Agreement factually corrected this constitutional provision as the essential role of the party was to be limited exclusively to the political dimension.

The proponents of this strategy called for a model of trade union politics based on pragmatism and moderation, one that could facilitate a structural political compromise with the government while at the same time respecting the common human rights. This group definitely comprised the majority of Solidarity’s experts, especially the duo Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronisław Geremek, who worked closely together at the time. This circle also included moderate mid-level trade unionists and the Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa, who consistently tried to temper radical activists since November 1981. Supporters of this stance believed that the secured social pluralism was a great achievement, and the movement won all it could win within the political system of the time. For this reason, any actions that would cross these boundaries would, according to these activists, put all previous achievements at a deadly risk. The August Agreement marked the end of the revolution, and any ensuing activists’ efforts should primarily make sure the new institution becomes a permanent complement of the political system in place. Hence Mazowiecki’s words in early September 1980: “a great thing has happened, and now we should make it take roots, grow durable and impact the life of the whole country.” As for the mission of trade unions themselves, “the most important thing is that they should not only organize themselves, but also grow stronger and just be themselves: trade unions. Most importantly, they should defend their independence and their institutional being. There are conditions for the independent and self-governing trade unions to play their role on a long-term basis”[4]. Wałęsa would speak in the same vein: “We do not want to rule. We have the least to say in this field. There are specialists and lawyers for that, and we make even spelling errors; we are workers, after all. We do not want to be officials; we want to be activists: inspectors.”[5]

The most comprehensive theoretical justification for this strategy was Jerzy Jedlicki’s statement looking into Solidarity’s position within the then socio-political system. The Warsaw-based philosopher argued that “since 31 August 1980, the relations between the independent trade union movement and political authorities have had the form of a conflict system with elements of cooperation and a high level of mutual distrust. This system should gravitate, with our help, if possible, towards greater trust and stronger elements of cooperation, with a clear division of roles and responsibilities so that the conflict that is neither evitable nor desirable should not destroy the state and disorganize the society.[6]” To that end, Solidarity should fully recognize the fundamental principles of the political system listed in the Gdańsk Agreement. There remains a vast field affording a new public order within these boundaries of possible transformations. “In such a state, the government will not be elected by the majority of the nation, but it will not be able to rule against its will, either. It will need to canvass support and social mandate. It will be a state with factually split sovereignty, such as a constitutional monarchy; however, it will not be a dual-power model. The power will belong to the constitutional bodies: Sejm, the government and PZPR. Now, the public will have, through Solidarity and other associations, an obvious power to limit and inspect state authorities, or even inspire their actions.”[7] Elaborating on the latter, Jedlicki argued that the trade union movement in fact gained the right of legislative initiative and to oppose governmental bills. The proposed model did not envisage Solidarity’s being embedded into political institutions. Instead, it was designed to stay outside of them and maintain its autonomy while at the same time exerting real and constructive impact on their operations. Above all, Solidarity was to take an active part in the legislative process as “an advocate for the fairly agreed social interests rather than particularistic interests.” With his statement, Jedlicki thus sought to end the Solidarity revolution and lift the strong division between the state and Solidarity. Recognizing that the new political system had actually been formed, Jedlicki sought to define three basic types of common ground aptly pointed to by Lech Mażewski. “The first of them are the principles of the political system of the Polish People’s Republic and its international obligations that the representatives of the strikers pledged to comply with as early as the Gdańsk Agreement. As part of the second common ground, Solidarity negotiated certain solutions with the authorities, thus exerting institutionalized influence on the political system. Importantly enough, Solidarity factually gained the right of legislative initiative. The third one was the area that, pursuant to the Gdańsk Agreement, was excluded from the principle of the party’s steering role. This field covered all of the matters that were excluded from the political system and became an extra-political domain of the social element.”[8]

The position of legalists, who wanted to limit the activity of the social movement in question to the framework laid out in the Gdańsk Agreement, thus calling for the formula of social pluralism, was subject to thorough critique from the moment Solidarity was founded on. The primary arguments against limiting Solidarity to the narrow trade union formula was the party’s utter distrust and society’s expectations for a real transformation of the socio-political system, aroused by the success of the August strikes. Aiming to reinforce its position as much as possible prior to the imminent confrontation with state authorities and to meet people’s expectations, Solidarity would, at its outset, abandon the typical trade union formula in favour of a broad social movement. As a result, a state-Solidarity duality emerged, furthering the atmosphere of continuous confrontation. This process was thoroughly discussed by Lech Mażewski in Niszczący dualizm, who pointed to several key decisions that led to this situation.

The first decision regarded the structure and the territorial scope of Solidarity and was made in Gdańsk on the 17th of September 1980. The winning concept was that of a nationwide body with pretty centralized leadership and a territorial structure typical of political parties rather than industry corporations. Many years later, Krystyna Kersten would argue that this was a breakthrough decision in the history of Solidarity as “the united Solidarity was formed” as “the reflection of state authorities’ total system, that is the total opposition.” Consequently, the new movement picked the “path of radicalisation” from the very beginning.”[9]

The second issue was the conflict around Solidarity’s registration, applied for at the Regional Court in Warsaw. On 24 October 1980, Solidarity was entered in the register, yet the judge made a handful of arbitrary changes in the Statutes. He deleted the passages regarding the right to strike and added a statement confirming PZPR’s steering role. The National Agreement Committee protested this abuse and appealed it with Poland’s Supreme Court, which overruled the changes in question. What contributed to this decision was the fact that all regions had announced their readiness to strike and advanced talks were underway between Solidarity delegates and the Prime Minister Józef Pińkowski. In exchange, Solidarity representatives agreed to attach to the Statutes the decisions of a convention of the International Labour Organization and, in extenso, the provisions of the political items of the Gdańsk Agreement (items 1-7). Timothy Garton Ash aptly observed that “the registration crisis caused huge damages. Solidarity’s political customs were formed during the nationwide mobilization of these two weeks. The regions learned that they knew how to organize strikes.”[10] Another event of similar nature was the so-called case of Narożniak, a Mazovia member of Solidarity arrested in connection with reproducing a secret instruction issued by the Attorney-General of the Polish People’s Republic to fight the opposition. The crisis was diffused with protests in several regions nationwide. Lech Kaczyński pointed out that the registration crisis and the case of Narożniak “inspired a belief that the stronger the hit, the bigger the concession. In a word, there is a directly proportional relationship between the force and the size of its effect.”[11]

The third event of major importance was the rejection of the joint committee model, instituted at the regional level by the Szczecin Agreement signed on 30 August 1980. The Committee was designed to be composed of the representatives of the government, regional authorities and trade unionists and was supposed to convene in full composition once a month, whereas Szczecin members would meet once a week. The main idea behind the joint committee was to eliminate the disputes as they would crop up and reduce the number of conflicts the new trade unions would face in their operations. Promoted at the time by the authorities, the idea of the meetings was part of a broader model of collaboration based on the ‘round table’ concept. The government proposed to depart from the formula of subsequent negotiations aimed at diffusing new flashpoints that occurred all too often in favour of an on-going cooperation as part of the joint committees. Solidarity saw this as an attempt to bring the new trade unions into the political system so that in a long term the government could shift the responsibility for the poor economic performance on trade unions. Consequently, in early December 1980, the regional Joint Committee was dissolved at trade unionists’ request and ‘the round table’ model proposed by the party was rejected.

Solidarity’s adopting the national territorial structure, realizing how effective a weapon strikes can be in forcing the party to make certain decisions, and the abandonment of the Joint Committee mechanism that would likely make Solidarity share the responsibility for the poor state of economy evidenced the expansiveness of the new social movement. It soon proved clear that the position of the legalists, who limited the sense of the August Revolution to social pluralism, would not be adequate in the view of the dynamics of the unfolding events. Solidarity had to look for a formula transcending the framework adopted during the negotiations in the Gdańsk Shipyard without crossing the boundary of an open armed conflict. This situation led to the emergence of two stances questioning the legalists’ strategy.

The first of them came from the supporters of the grassroots local-government movement. This group was headed by Jacek Kuroń, one of major advisers to Solidarity, and Karol Modzelewski, a spokesman for Solidarity. Invoking the idea of the workers’ revolution, they viewed the Gdańsk Agreement merely as the beginning of a thorough transformation of the whole system, or the first stage of the revolution. In assessing the significance of the August, Kuroń said that “the events we witness have affected the base of the system we live in.” Under such circumstances, the idea that “the process of democratization could be limited to trade unions addressing the matters of payrolls and working conditions only” is “utopian and thus purely pugnacious.” On the other hand, though, they agreed with legalists that the request for free elections to the Sejm and national councils was unacceptable since it would mean an open war with the Communist party. Therefore, accepting the essential principles of the system of the Polish People’s Republic, Kuroń actually calls for a broad social movement, in which Solidarity could support a grassroots democratic movement in all realms of life where grassroots initiative crops up. Right after signing the Gdańsk Agreement, in an open letter to striking workers, Kuroń laid out the tactics of the nascent social movement this way: “we cannot count on a good secretary, we have to organize ourselves democratically on our own and take the matters of our COUNTRY in our own hands. However, we cannot grow fully independent. We have to reckon with external forces that guard the steering role of the party. Therefore, we deliberately give up some of our independence. We focus on trade unions that should actually defend workers’ rights; on industrial self-government that will struggle for the independence of enterprises; on peasant organizations that will struggle for the conditions for individual farming to develop; on cooperatives that should become true cooperatives, so that they are managed by its members; on an independent student movement; on the independence of science, culture and education. This is the meaning of the GDAŃSK AGREEMENT.”[12] Elsewhere, Kuroń clarified: “we thus have, on the one hand, those great social movements, independence, self-governance in many realms of life, and on the other – the need to maintain the so-called steering role of the party, that is its power over central administration, the police and the military. We need to reconcile both. We have to do it. We have to create a brand new model based on compromise. The idea is that everything that is part of the state’s domestic policy should be determined through negotiations between the society organized as self-governing and independent organizations and the state authorities. The new model of social relations is made up of institutional forms of those negotiations.” Hence, the new strategy consists in “taking subsequent realms of social life from the Communist regime. The drive to limit Communists’ power may lead to their complete loss of power. In this sense, we need to take risk of Soviet tanks invading Poland. But since we do not want that, we do not want to, we must not, cross the boundary of toppling the Communist rule. We will not cross it only if we develop institutional forms of negotiation.”[13]

Therefore, the proponents of the idea of a grassroots local-government movement called for continued expansion of the scope of social revolution to cover new realms of life and take subsequent elements from the monopoly of the Communist regime. Kuroń thus came up with a very radical agenda, which ultimately would leave Communists with power over foreign affairs, defence and domestic policy only. In other realms, the social movement inevitably stepped into an open conflict with the ruling elite, which would actually need to give up all of its local and regional power and the privilege to manage businesses. Kuroń’s model of a negotiation-based state is very demanding, too, as it would make it hard to keep internal stability. “It would be so because the position of one of the parties would consist in constant mobilization of the people organized as part of social movements. The questions is why would they not seize central power? Why would the party that wields monopoly of physical power not use it, if only to provide for system stability?”[14]

The major alternative to Kuroń’s and Modzelewski’s idea was offered by the proponents of “legalism of national aspirations.” This group comprised trade unionists with the pro-independence backgrounds and the majority of low-level Solidarity activists. These activists thought of the August Agreements merely as the first stage along the path towards a radical system transformation, its subsequent stage being free elections to the Sejm and national councils, a transition from the previous social pluralism to political pluralism. The most notable Solidarity leaders who kept calling for such a solution were the leaders of two regions: Jan Rulewski and Marian Jurczyk, as well as several trade union advisers, including, first and foremost, Stefan Kurowski and the group of people behind Głos. It was Kurowski that at the meeting of the National Agreement Committee in August 1981 said that “one needs to define clear and concrete political demands to change state politics. One of them is the demand to mount free elections not only to national councils, but also to the Sejm. [...] We would demonstrate a low spirit, narrow-mindedness and trade union haggling of sorts if we resigned from making it part of our struggle [...] It is quite vague why some put so much effort into the struggle for self-governance in businesses while at the same time eschewing self-governance on the national scale with great determination.”[15]

The main opponent in the eyes of the proponents of “legalism of national aspirations” were those activists who promoted the ideas of a confrontation with the authorities divided into instalments. Stefan Kurowski argued overtly that Kuroń “radicalizes, or seeks to radicalize, Solidarity in select fields and pacifies it in others, which is why, overall, he does not radicalize it at all. It is not that Kuroń is the most radical of extremists – no, he is not; he wants to radicalize some fields, and, within others, leaves vacuum, so to say, or actually tries to bring Solidarity into, as a I put it once, collaboration with the authorities [...]. What for? He does so to make a political proposal to PZPR, a proposal to establish the Committee of National Salvation, in which all of those groups would somehow share power.”[16] Antoni Macierewicz, too, rejected all concepts of a national salvation government that would comprise trusted people of the Catholic Church, Solidarity and PZPR. “The consequences of this concept will mean a return to the sad time of the late 18th century, when various political groups would go to the Russian embassy to seek political mandate to exercise power in Poland.” A realization of this vision would stand for ‘Balkanization’ of the Polish politics and would postpone Polish independence. The only real alternative is democratic elections to national councils and the Sejm and a local-government economic reform. “This would transform political and economic system, something that provides for sovereignty and democracy. The Sejm and the government it would appoint would undertake necessary negotiations to provide for the validity of Poland’s international alliances.”[17]

The three groups discussed above clashed with each other in their reflection on Solidarity. Legalists called for full recognition of the steering role of the Polish United Workers' Party, which allowed the working class to play its steering role in building socialism. However, the newly established Trade Union made a significant change as it introduced social pluralism and thus legitimized party-independent entities expressing the will of the socialist society. In legalists’ view, the August Agreements thus limited the particular role of the party to the political dimension. The proponents of the grassroots self-governance movement considered social pluralism only as partial success and called for expanding the social movement to cover other realms. They recognized the steering role of the party in the field of foreign affairs, defence and central-level domestic policy and refused to accept its particular role at the local and regional levels and in the field of enterprise management. The demands of the proponents of full national sovereignty went even further as they rejected the primary axiom of the Communist state, i.e. the leading role of the working class and the steering role of the party. They called for fully free elections to the Sejm and national councils and transformation of the Communist state system into a classical parliamentary democracy.

It is hard to clearly say which of these three conflicting visions of the relationship between the society organized as the Trade Union and the party claiming the right to be the only representative of the working class and a guarantor of external sovereignty eventually prevailed in Solidarity. Undoubtedly, the legalist strategy, limited to social pluralism, prevailed for a long time in trade union politics. It was not until the summer of 1981, when a serious social crisis occurred against the economic backdrop, that a significant correction took place. At that time, in the light of a terrible state of food supply and a visible crisis of the public trust towards Solidarity’s activities, the management of Solidarity came to give recognition to the formula of a broad social movement, aimed at thoroughly reforming the political system. This opened the gate for the proponents of the working-class-revolution strategy, which formed the basis of the concept of the Self-Governing Republic of Poland adopted at the Convention of Delegates in 1981. At the time, the arguments voiced by the proponents of full national sovereignty, who called for free elections to the Sejm and national councils, were becoming more and more prominent. Due to the difficulties in implementing Kuroń’s strategy, resting on heavy involvement of workers in the professional self-governing bodies, and subsequent negotiation crises between Solidarity and the government, in November and December, the management of Solidarity adopted a radical stance and called for free elections. As argued by Mażewski, Solidarity’s policy then “grows radicalized even more, and the state/Solidarity duality might be lifted with a winning confrontation with the government. What points to this line is the meeting of the Board of the National Committee in Radom on 3 December 1981. Simultaneously, the idea to set up an interim government and then mount democratic elections to the Sejm grew more and more popular among trade union leaders. These objectives could be achieved, again, by means of strikes. These matters actually filled the agenda of the last meeting of the National Committee before the Martial Law was introduced.”[18]

A clear example of radicalisation of Solidarity’s thinking is the meeting of the National Committee of 11-12 December 1981. During that meeting, Andrzej Rozpłochowski said that “as long as the dogma of the steering role of any political force exists, partner relations or cooperation of all representatives of the nation for partnership activity will not materialize.”[19] Jan Rulewski then again pledged support for the political solution, i.e. recognition of “the primacy of the nation over the party’s interests.” This principle should be enforced by a representative system. If the path of negotiations failed, the strategy of confrontation should be followed and a nationwide referendum should be held for the society to express its distrust towards “this system of governance.” In other words, “the party monopoly shall be deconstructed” to appoint a new government that would include Solidarity representatives. Surprisingly, Lech Wałęsa spoke in a similar vein: “I prefer this concept, that is, just like Jan Rulewski, but Jan missed one thing...that [...] this government won’t come out of heaven... Someone has to start this government [...]. We are well aware of that: we reached a point that I thought would happen only in spring (1982), I thought I would keep shunning.., keep being criticised by you..., and you would keep arguing. I wanted to ride it out until spring, I didn’t want these political solutions to happen right now. I got as far as Radom, I see I won’t go any further because the internal resistance is too high, the misunderstandings between us; I have realized that there is no way out, these political solutions must happen earlier.”[20] The comparison of these words with Wałęsa’s previous quote of autumn 1980 clearly shows Solidarity’s evolving line and a gradual transition from the concept of social pluralism towards political demands.

Due to this evolution, an unambiguous answer to the question of which concept prevailed will depend on which period of Solidarity’s life is deemed most crucial: the first year dominated by the legalists’ stance, the Convention of Delegates adopting the strategy of a workers’ revolution in early autumn 1981 or the final two years prior to the Martial Law, when the management of Solidarity becomes receptive to the demands of the proponents of full domestic sovereignty. It is worth adding that the lack of a decision to consistently pursue one of the concepts in question made Solidarity undermine its chances in confrontation with the Communist state. The legalists argued that starting from July 1981 Solidarity yielded to radical demands for the reconstruction of the political system and thus sought an open confrontation with the state authorities, which caused a decisive response in the form of a Martial Law. If Solidarity had harnessed radicalism and stuck with social pluralism, the scenario would not have happened and the multi-million Solidarity would have been become a permanent part of the system in place. This strategy would be at the cost of withdrawing the demands of the rapid recovery of domestic sovereignty, but it would have given the institution a huge opportunity to survive, which should be the primary goal of trade union authorities. The proponents of a working class revolution argued otherwise. If Solidarity had opted for the local-government movement, it would ultimately compromise the power of the Communist regime across the industry and regions, and this would have prevented the introduction of the Martial Law. In addition, maintaining party’s steering power at the central level would have saved the country from Soviets’ intervention. Now, the proponents of “the legalism of national aspirations” would argue in favour of their concept, which, according to them, Solidarity should have pursued from the moment it came into existence. By pushing the regime to a defensive position, leveraging the impressive social mobilization and the great weapon the nationwide strikes were, Solidarity should have rapidly brought about a confrontation around strictly political demands. As this did not happen, an opportunity was wasted to move from social pluralism to political pluralism, which would have provided for a lasting effect of the changes made in August 1980. As none of those strategies was consistently pursued, historians have had problems with evaluating the rightness of the above opinions to this day.

[1]The Minutes of the agreement concluded between the Government Committee and the Inter-works Strike Committee on the 31 August 1980 in the Gdańsk Shipyard, item 1, paragraph 2.

[2] Cf. L. Mażewski, Niszczący dualizm. Polityka NSZZ „Solidarność” w latach 1980-1982, Toruń 2004, p. 22.

[3]Constitution of the Polish People's Republic, 22 July 1952, consolidated text of 16 February 1976, Article 3, paragraph 1.

[4] Rozmowa z Tadeuszem Mazowieckim przeprowadzona przez Jolantę Strzelecką, “Tygodnik Powszechny” No. 41 (12 October 1980), p. 5.

[5] Plan rozmowy układamy wspólnie. Rozmowa z działaczami Międzyzakładowego Komitetu Założycielskiego NSZZ „Solidarność” w Gdańsku, “Polityka” No. 44 (1 November 1980), p. 6.

[6] „Solidarność” w polskim systemie społeczno-politycznym, „Ruch związkowy. Zeszyty OPSZ” No. 1 (1981), as quoted in: L. Mażewski, op. cit., p. 107.

[7] Ibidem, p. 108.

[8] Ibidem, p. 110.

[9] K. Kersten, [in]: Wejdą – nie wejdą. Polska 1980-82 – wewnętrzny kryzys, międzynarodowe uwarunkowania, Warsaw 1999, p. 143.

[10] T.G. Ash, Polska rewolucja. Solidarność 1980-1981, Warsaw 1990, p. 53.

[11] Polityki znieść się nie da. Rozmowa z Lechem Kaczyńskim, “Przegląd Polityczny” No. 8 (1986), p. 20.

[12] J. Kuroń, Do stoczniowców i wszystkich robotników Wybrzeża: list otwarty, Warsaw 1980, [pages not numbered].

[13] J. Kuroń, Czy grozi nam interwencja?, “Robotnik” No. 68-69 (23 November 1980), p. 2.

[14] L. Mażewski, op. cit., p. 33.

[15] S. Kurowski, Sytuacja gospodarcza i strategia Związku – ocena i wnioski po 11 miesiącach, [in]: S. Kurowski, Od sierpnia do grudnia, Warsaw 1985, p. 71.

[16] S. Kurowski, Przyczyny i charakter przełomu społecznego w Polsce, Referat wygłoszony w Popielżynie na „Dniach społecznych 81” 12 September 1981, [in]: Ibidem, p. 88.

[17] A. Macierewicz, Spór o program, “Wiadomości Dnia” No. 203 (2 October 1981), p. 2.

[18] L. Mażewski, op. cit., p. 160.

[19] Komisja Krajowa NSZZ „Solidarność”. Posiedzenie w dniach 11-12 grudnia 1981, Warsaw 1986, p. 48.

[20] Ibidem, pp. 32-52.

Recently added articles


This website is a part of the project entitled ‘Polish Political Thought and Independence: A Program for the Promotion of Polish Intellectual Heritage Abroad’, generously funded
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as A part of ‘Public Diplomacy 2017’ programme, component ‘Collaboration in the field of Public Diplomacy 2017’.
Design by Stereoplan