The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization

The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization

by Roman Laba

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In July 1980, two weeks before the Gdansk shipyard strikes, Roman Laba arrived in Poland as an American graduate student. He stayed there for almost two and a half years before he was arrested and expelled from the country for "activities noxious to the interests of the Polish state." Laba had set himself the ambitious task of documenting the history of Poland's free


In July 1980, two weeks before the Gdansk shipyard strikes, Roman Laba arrived in Poland as an American graduate student. He stayed there for almost two and a half years before he was arrested and expelled from the country for "activities noxious to the interests of the Polish state." Laba had set himself the ambitious task of documenting the history of Poland's free trade union. Martial law was in force for the last year of his stay, but even during that time he continued his rescue of the unique historical materials that contribute so much to Roots of Solidarity. The book uses this hard-earned information to challenge the commonly accepted view of the Polish intelligentsia as the driving force behind Solidarity and to demonstrate that the roots of the movement go back a decade earlier than the 1980 strikes. Laba presents compelling evidence that Solidarity emerged directly from the activities of workers in the 1970s along the Baltic coast. It was not the intellectual elite but these workers, independent of and unknown to the rest of Poland, who created three crucial strategies for struggle against oppression: the sit-down strike, the interfactory strike committee, and the demand for free trade unions independent of the party state. This concise and provocative work is divided into two parts. The first is a narrative of the creation of Solidarity. The second shows how workers' resistance to the Leninist state gradually generated new forms of democratic organizations and politics. Laba criticizes elitist ways of understanding social movements and also presents an unusual analysis of Solidarity's ritual symbolism. In addition, new evidence transforms our understanding of the role of the police and the army in a one-party state.

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The Roots of Solidarity

A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization

By Roman Laba


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07862-5



When it emerged out of the strikes of August 1980, the Solidarity movement seemed to be a severe judgment of history on the Soviet workers' state. With its constituent base in the industrial working class, its organizational strength in interfactory strike committees, its elaborate system of worker delegates and worker spokesmen, and its programmatic dedication to local democracy, Solidarity appeared to be an ultimate negation of the Leninist model of the state. It also seemed to be a refutation of the operative justification of the Leninist system—namely, the belief that the working class, acting alone, was capable only of limited trade union or materialistic consciousness. Solidarity demonstrated that ordinary people such as workers were, indeed, capable of coherent political activity without consciousness-raising or leadership by elites.

Specialists have come to a different conclusion. The opinion among the political class of Poland and the specialists is that Solidarity occurred because of the leadership, the actions, and the theories of the intellectual opposition, and that consequently it is the intellectual opposition who are the main agents of the Solidarity revolution.

The Elite Thesis

The consensus that intellectual elites fashioned the Solidarity movement is broad. For the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, the energizing intellectuals may be found in the democratic opposition group KOR (Committee for the Defense of Workers). Says Kolakowski, "Although the intellectuals grouped in KOR did not cause the strikes out of which Solidarity emerged in the summer of 1980, KOR's influence on the way the workers voiced their grievances and articulated their demands was certainly essential." The Polish Communist party has agreed with Kolakowski. Very early in its political struggle with Solidarity, the Polish party claimed that the 10-million-member union was brought into being and manipulated by vanguard extremists of KOR. Former premier and first secretary M. Rakowski, a prominent Polish Communist, stated "It is impossible not to notice that KOR activists, among them Jacek Kuron, prepared the future leaders of Solidarity long before the July-August strikes. They nurtured them in a spirit of struggle with really existing socialism. They openly boasted of this in 1981 as did Walfsa and many other union activists."

The opinion that intellectuals created and led Solidarity extends beyond politically engaged Poles into academic scholarship. The French and Polish team led by sociologist Alain Touraine is incisive on what Solidarity was, but when it turns to the reasons for Solidarity's rise, it flatly states that the intellectuals created workers' newspapers and organized free trade unions. "Here the KOR (Worker's Defence Committee) played a major role and workers were able to progress beyond riots." A Polish sociologist explains why this is so:

Only after the 1976 insurrection, when the Polish intelligentsia entered into a close collaboration with the leader of the workers, did they affect the 1980 change in the Polish society. No force other than the working class can challenge the powerful political elite in the People's Democracies, but this class must be provided with the leadership of more enlightened people.

For one American political scientist, KOR "acted as a disseminator of information and an agent for 'consciousness raising' among both workers and intellectuals. And it helped to provide the workers with an integrated ideology, both socialist and democratic, that was crucial later on in the development of the workers' own representative organizations."

Sometimes individuals within the intellectual opposition are identified as having created Solidarity through their superior vision. Jonathan Schell, a writer for New Yorker, finds the cause of Solidarity in "a prophetic essay" entitled "A New Evolutionism," written by Adam Michnik. Adam Przeworski, an American political scientist, discovers the "key to the success of Solidarity" in workers "staying in factories rather than going into the streets," which he says is "to a great extent a fruit of the strategic genius of Jacek Kuron as expressed in his slogan, 'Let us not destroy [party] committees. Let us form our own.' "This slogan, explains Przeworski, "guided workers through the summer of 1980."

Occasionally intellectuals other than those grouped in KOR are given precedence. Adam Bromke, a Canadian political scientist, asserts that "the workers' demands were drawn largely from a report on the Polish economic crisis issued by some prominent Polish intellectuals including both Catholics and communists who are known as the Experience and Future group." The French writer Jean-Yves Potel agrees with Bromke that the work of the Experience and the Future group had "tremendous repercussions." In fact, says Potel, their findings "provided the underpinning for many of the demands." In short, intellectuals close to the party were essential to Solidarity.

There are some divergences within this consensus that Solidarity was inspired by other than its worker members. In one alternative, workers became genuinely politicized and democratic, thanks to the consciousness-raising of the intellectuals. While conceding the presence of a political learning process among workers, English journalist Timothy Garton Ash concludes, "KOR worked very much as Lenin recommended (in "What Is To Be Done?") that the conspiratorial communist party should work, raising the political consciousness of the proletariat in key industrial centres." Though KOR members were by no means party-oriented Marxists, Garton Ash finds that their "Leninist" organizational approach "played a major role in helping discontented workers to generalize their grievances, formulate remedies, and coordinate their activities." In discussing the workers' twenty-one demands, Garton Ash writes, "The drafting hand of the opposition activists is very evident here: in the top priority given to independent trade unions; in the breadth of interests represented—workers, students, prisoners of conscience, believers of all denominations."

In his history of KOR, Warsaw literary historian and KOR activist Jan Jozef Lipski also states the thesis of elite leadership forthrightly. "KOR was involved in the preparation of the worker's consciousness for the strikes ... it familiarized workers with the idea of the strike ... it indicated the possibility of strike demands that would go beyond economic issues."

In these interpretations, intellectuals played the necessary role, in Garton Ash's phrase, of "raising the political consciousness of the proletariat." For Garton Ash and Lipski, without the help of the intellectuals, workers would not have given priority to free unions or considered a range of social interests; they would not have been capable of being conscious human actors. Other observers will not grant the workers even that. Instead, these analysts assert that workers remained a brutish and primitive but explosive force. They remained politically incompetent and unstable in their commitment to democratic values. The leading role was played by intellectuals with their superior language skills, wider political horizons, and coherent political ideologies. For Polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis, for example, the working class is "profoundly authoritarian" and afflicted with a "semantic shame and incompetence" when faced with semantically competent party or opposition intellectuals. Their "aggression ... reveals the self-hatred of workers rooted in a depth of frustration connected with their own limited semantic competence." These sweeping generalizations are not supported by any empirical investigation into workers' symbolic or semantic abilities.

In a similar vein, Aleksander Smolar, a KOR spokesman in Paris, sees workers as trapped between passive, limited economism and outbursts of unreflected violence. KOR's crucial contribution, he feels, was to bring a "geopolitical wisdom" to temper the "crude and brutal language" of workers. Agreeing on these basic dynamics, Soviet observers disagree only on the usefulness of the result. A correspondent for Izvestiia, writing in 1985, draws these inferences:

Tens of thousands of young men, most often from the countryside, first-generation proletarians lacking in class consciousness, poorly developed in a political sense,... unburdened with the revolutionary and labor traditions of Silesian workers or even by family ties, had come from all over Poland to such major facilities as, for example, the Katowice Metallurgical Combine, the automotive plant in Tychy, and the new mines in Jastrzgbie. It is hardly surprising that it was this large mass of people that proved most susceptible to the demagoguery of the extremist leaders of the notorious Solidarity!

Some writers, marginally more optimistic about working people, are not sure that KOR has yet succeeded in raising the workers' consciousness, but they hold out hope. To J. M. Montias, an American scholar, the workers' mental incapacities are not necessarily permanent: "KOR may gradually supply the workers with the elements of an ideology—a set of symbols to which they can relate their experience. This ideology is essentially patriotic, legalistic, socialist, and democratic. With its emphasis on legalism, KOR may enable workers to formulate more abstract system-related demands."

Like Kolakowski, Lipski, Rakowski and Garton Ash, Adam Michnik, a Polish activist and member of KOR, sees KOR's teaching role as central. In a comprehensive treatment of this specific issue in 1985, Michnik strongly states the thesis of worker incompetence and elite competence. Employing the word "mass" as a descriptive term for Solidarity's members, he presents the union's significant internal politics solely in terms of conflicts among competing groups of intellectuals. He explains Solidarity's rise as the result of a conscious agent—KOR—acting on a "disorganized" and "disoriented" society. According to Michnik, "The Gdansk agreement was possible thanks to the functioning of a political strategy perfected in the KOR epoch.... At the moment the Gdansk agreement was signed, KOR's historical role was fulfilled."

There are, of course, views that diverge from the consensus about the central role of elites in Solidarity. There are generally found in the form of brief, unelaborated assertions. English sociologist George Kolankiewicz, for example, offers this explanation for Polish workers' radicalism: "This qualitative change [in workers] can only be explained in terms of the specific heritage of 1970-71 which had remained rooted in the consciousness of the populations on the northern seaboard, in Gdansk, Szczecin, and Elblfg." More elaborately, Jan B. De Weydenthal, in his article on workers in Polish politics written in 1977, steps outside the elite consensus in pointing out the gradual emergence since 1970 of "workers as a distinct albeit unorganized political force." The 1970 change was important because workers stepped beyond "narrowly defined economic interests" and the "confines of individual factories." It was "an active attempt to self-organize."

When the question "Why Solidarity?" is discussed by the most distinguished activists and students of Polish affairs, the results are paradoxical and surprising. Many hold that Solidarity was the result of consciousness-raising by the political intellectuals. If they are correct, with Solidarity, Lenin has triumphed at the moment of his defeat. His teachings about the low democratic and political possibilities of those he called "the masses" and the consequent need for elites are confirmed by the lesson of Solidarity.

The Problem of Gatekeepers

The elite thesis can be examined in terms of the evidence supporting it. Polish workers were held under very tight political controls until 1980. It was very difficult for independent journalists or academics to enter Polish factories, to conduct research, or to publish any significant findings. As a result, discussion of workers was almost always limited to how they were seen by, appealed to, or affected by intellectuals. In published accounts, workers are treated as passive recipients of the actions and attitudes of intellectuals. This problem is well known to social historians and students of social movements. It is simply much easier to study an organization within a social movement that produces documents and has articulate members than it is to study the social movement itself. George L. Mosse is sardonic: "The intellectual occupies the foreground, for he systematizes thought, making it understandable to historians."

This introduces a problem that is particularly severe for the student of foreign systems. Especially in repressive situations, intellectuals act as gatekeepers who interpret their own societies for foreigners. But intellectuals occupy a particular niche in their societies and have categories of thought and deep ideologies shaping their presentations. That the origin of Solidarity has been passed over as entirely self-evident and has been taken for granted by persons at such diverse ends of the political spectrum commands attention.

A Question of Evidence

A related problem is almost never mentioned. In postwar Poland, there is no social history of Polish workers, no sociology of the working class. Polish political activists were not obliged to deal with this problem of documentation, but it is surely different for the many historians and social scientists who have been ready to express sweeping judgments on shaky evidence. A rare exception is Jan Malanowski, a senior Polish sociologist and member of Solidarity and the party's Central Committee in 1981. In his book on Polish workers, Malanowski lamented that ideological pressure had pushed social investigations into designated areas known as "safe problems," and that "problems which the workers' explosion of 1980 showed as central to the lives of workers were clearly neglected." Summing up the work of postwar Polish social scientists, he wrote that there was not one study on the state of health of the working class; the same was true of its material situation and its political consciousness. Even the Polish statistical yearbooks avoided elementary data. "We did not have and we still do not have information on such fundamental problems as aspirations, needs, structure of wages, and character of work." Malanowski concluded with a sweeping judgment: "We did not create and we are not creating any body of knowledge on the working class." The lack of evidence made it possible to assert undocumented and unexamined opinions.

This study aims to shed more light on the activities and attitudes of a key sector of the Polish working class in the period 1970–1980. As part of Solidarity's post-August effort to recover its own history, documents were preserved that illuminate these matters in extensive detail.

As Baltic Coast workplaces went on strike in August 1980, they sent their demands to the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard, the headquarters of the regional strike committee. After the successful strike, these demands, together with other relevant documents relating to the August strike, were deposited in the archives of the Gdansk Solidarity Region.

In the fall of 1980, Gdansk and Szczecin Solidarities started gathering evidence of their histories; their work took on added momentum as the seacoast union chapters prepared for the tenth anniversary of the December 1970 strike, which was to fulfill one of the frequently voiced 1970–71 demands that a monument be erected in honor of the fallen shipyard workers. Early in 1981, the Gdansk region created a six-person historical team to investigate the 1970 strikes. The team worked continually for eleven months and produced a second body of evidence. It gathered many documents and conducted dozens of interviews, including discussions with local party and factory officials. It also unearthed a number of demands written during strike meetings in December 1970 and January 1971 and subsequently preserved by worker committees and by individual workers. Among them was the one-page protocol of the agreement between the strike committee of the city of Gdynia and the city's president, Jan Marianski. Also preserved was the folder containing all demands written by factory work teams in the general strike of the city of Szczecin. After that particular three-day strike, led by the Warski Shipyard, this folder and three others, constituting the basic archive of the strike committee, were locked in the safe of the Warski Shipyard director, where they remained until they were turned over to the Solidarity union in 1980.


Excerpted from The Roots of Solidarity by Roman Laba. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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