Solidarity was the first independent, worker-organised and self-governing trade union in the communist Eastern Europe, and later morphed into a much broader social movement. It is difficult to overlook a seeming paradox that it is not solidarity but societal and, above all, political polarisation that is the Solidarity’s longest-lasting legacy.
The European Solidarity Centre (ESC) occupies a symbolic site of the Gdańsk shipyard, where the legendary Solidarity trade union was born in August 1980.
Solidarity was the first independent, worker-organised and self-governing trade union in the communist Eastern Europe, and later morphed into a much broader social movement, which became a key actor in toppling the communist regime in Poland.
The ESC is tasked with the promotion of Solidarity’s ideological legacy, formulated as the principles of democracy, open and solidary society, and the culture of dialogue.
It is also oriented towards the commemoration and incorporation into the European founding myth of the ‘experience’ of Solidarity as a peaceful revolution, which set in motion the democratisation of Central and Eastern Europe.
Yet, even from the position of deep sympathy to the progressive postulates of the movement as well as its method of non-violent resistance, it is difficult to overlook a seeming paradox that it is not solidarity but societal and, above all, political polarisation that is the Solidarity’s longest-lasting legacy.
ECS and the memory battle
The case of the ESC is symbolically charged, fleshing out the entanglements between Solidarity and political polarisation. The institution got caught in the crosshairs in early 2019 after the funding from the state budget was halved.
At the same time, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage promised that the funding would return to the previous level on the condition that a new founding contract were to be signed with a view to increasing the government’s influence.
The ECS, therefore, was pulled into the memory war waged by the current right-wing, conservative and nationalist government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party and steered from the backseat by the eminence grise, PiS’s chairperson Jarosław Kaczyński.
Who has the right to the legacy of freedom struggles and, thereby, the legitimacy to represent the ‘people’?
The supposed reason for the government’s dislike of the ESC is the emphasis it places in its narrative on the legendary leader of Solidarity and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Wałęsa.
Meanwhile, the role of other opposition figures – most notably, Lech Kaczyński (the late president and twin brother of Jarosław Kaczyński) – and the Catholic Church is seen as overtly downplayed.
This controversy reflects the deepest cleavage in the contemporary Polish party politics: who has the right to the legacy of freedom struggles – encapsulated in the heritage of Solidarity movement – and, thereby, the legitimacy to represent the ‘people’ (or ‘nation’, how Poles most naturally refer to themselves).
The ‘people’ vs the ‘state’: Polarisation in the name of unity
The links of current polarisation to Solidarity are laid bare in Wałęsa’s landmark speech given at the US Congress on 15 November 1989, just a few days after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Wałęsa spoke there as a representative of the Polish people, albeit not (yet) as a head of state, thus marking a rigid separation between the (communist) state and the (non-communist) nation.
Famously, Wałęsa stated that he and other members of Solidarity had devoted their lives ‘to the service of this idea:
‘“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Against privilege and monopoly. Against violations of the law. Against the trampling of human dignity. Against contempt and injustice’.
In so doing, he drew a line between the sovereign, victimised and heroic nation, and the illegitimate, victimising regime, ridden with corruption and profiteering from inequality.
As Jack Bielasiak, a political scientist at Indiana University, succinctly put it: Solidarity ‘not only represented Polish society but in the eyes of many it became the “true” nation’.
Solidarity ‘not only represented Polish society but in the eyes of many it became the “true” nation’.
Yet, beneath the surface of strong consensus, Solidarity was a very diverse movement, as is perhaps inevitable with the membership of up to ten million people. It encompassed workers, dissident intellectuals, (mainly lower-level) clergy and, gradually and by extension, broader strata of the society.
It follows, then, that people affiliated with the movement harboured disparate political, ideological and social views. Liberals, social democrats, and nationalists all temporarily repressed their insurmountable differences in the name of struggle against the communist regime and oppression; a cause as noble as it was fuzzy.
Consequently, the urgency, and unlikelihood, of overthrowing of the communist regime relegated to the background an imperative of developing a coherent vision of Poland after communism.
While instrumental in bringing down the regime, this diverse composition was bound to become problematic once the common enemy disappeared: not only did it exclude those members of the society who sympathised with the communist government but also masked the glaring differences within the opposition itself.
Triumph of polarisation over reconciliation
Polarisation – the division between the ‘us’ in opposition and the ‘them’ of the communist regime – became, in fact, a founding myth of the Third Polish Republic, the renewed state inaugurated in the aftermath of the ground-breaking Roundtable Negotiations.
Initiated in February 1989 by the communists to appease social unrest, the talks brought together representatives of the government and opposition, and commenced a peaceful transfer of power.
The Roundtable Negotiations concluded in April 1989 with accords that re-legalised the Solidarity trade union, called a partially free parliamentary election, and generally kick-started the process of democratisation.
The talks revealed the limits of the consensus paradigm as the oppositional patchwork began tearing at the seams.
Although such an opening chapter offered the promise of national reconciliation, this potential was quickly undermined.
Instead of becoming a long-lasting symbol of unity and source of pride, the talks revealed the limits of the consensus paradigm as the oppositional patchwork began tearing at the seams.
In order not to jeopardise an agreement with the government and to avoid bloodshed, the leadership of Solidarity – spearheaded by Wałęsa – decided to exclude from the negotiations the most radical and uncompromising factions in their midst, particularly the Catholic-nationalists.
Thus, in addition to the already entrenched split between the government and the people/opposition, another line of political division emerged separating the supporters of the Roundtable Negotiations from its embittered opponents.
Predictably, then, Poland that emerged from the turmoil of transition was a politically divided country. The most clear-cut line separated the heirs to the communist regime from those to the anti-communist opposition.
Poland that emerged from the turmoil of transition was a politically divided country.
Yet, by the early 1990s further cracks could be observed in the latter, already fragmented camp: voices grew louder, among them Jarosław Kaczyński’s, demanding that political and social life be purged of former communists.
To them, the Roundtable was instrumental in triggering change and ensuring a peaceful transformation, but its lingering conciliatory spirit began to seem as a ‘treason’ or ‘manipulation’.
Finally, in the runup to the 1995 presidential election even Wałęsa, who had thus far championed the conciliatory attitude, resorted to using his rival, Aleksander Kwaśniewski’s communist past as a weapon against him. This strategy proved unsuccessful, Kwaśniewski won two consecutive elections and remained the president of Poland for ten years.
Forty years after Solidarity: Poles apart
After the post-communists lost ground in mid-2000s, the post-Solidarity/post-communist cleavage that governed Polish politics for the first 15 years of the Third Republic was transposed into a fratricidal conflict between the descendants of Solidarity.
With the post-communists effectively out of the picture, from 2005 Polish political scene has been dominated by two parties emergent from the post-Solidarity camp: PiS, presided authoritatively by Jarosław Kaczyński, and Civic Platform (PO), previously spearheaded by Donald Tusk who has recently concluded his second term as the President of the European Council.
The key actors in the Polish political life all have lineages that trace back to Solidarity and draw on the symbolic capital of the movement.
After peeling off the many layers of personal animosities, it is arguably the attitude towards the political transformation inaugurated by the Roundtable Negotiations that drives a wedge between the former anti-communist dissidents.
The imaginaries once developed by Solidarity are revived once more, although with a very different goal in mind: where they were used to create unity before, now they explicitly aim to divide.
Both the current government (PiS) and the opposition (PO) representatives are quick to liken each other to communists: PiS are communists because of their tight grip on the media and judicial system, PO and their allies are communists because of their opposition to the reforms that are cast as an overdue overhaul of the post-Roundtable (dis)order.
Both also invoke service to the ‘nation’ as a justification for their positions. Crucially, however, each party seems to imagine a ‘true’ nation being composed of their supporters and excluding their critics.
Each party seems to imagine a ‘true’ nation being composed of their supporters and excluding their critics.
Indeed, more than the previous iteration of this cleavage, current polarisation is projected onto the society as a whole as a moral, cultural, indeed civilizational divide. Accordingly, a recent report by the Centre for Research on Prejudice showed that the attitudes among the PiS supporters towards opposition supporters are predominantly negative and even more so the other way around. Mutual animosity, dehumanisation and distrust point to the high polarisation that cuts across the Polish society.
Given that the key actors in the Polish political life all have lineages that trace back to Solidarity and draw on the symbolic capital of the movement, it is a disheartening but only logical to conclude that forty years on, polarisation is the longest-lasting legacy of Solidarity.
Postscript: The fundraiser
In the end, the 2019 budget of the ECS was salvaged by the online fundraiser, which brought in the missing half of the funds (over 3 million zlotys, or 702,000 euros). The institution can thus continue its operations without overt political oversight and interference, striving to reclaim a more positive legacy of Solidarity.
Although the initiator of the fundraiser pledges political non-alignment, there are two plausible interpretations here. An optimistic one invites hope that the immense display of social support for the ECS speaks of the appreciation of Solidarity as a legacy close to all Poles’ hearts, testifying to its de-polarising potential.
A more pessimistic one carries a nagging feeling that the fundraiser was yet another manifestation of contempt towards political opponents, yet another sign of the insurmountable division that splits open the Polish society.
This text is part of a series of articles published to examine Solidarity and its legacy.
Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius is a Postdoctoral Researcher (Core Fellow) at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (University of Helsinki).