Eastern Europe, Labor, Theory

Lessons of the Polish Solidarity movement

Eric Fretz takes a look back at Solidarność, the anti-Stalinist trade union movement in Poland — arguing that 40 years on, this inspiring yet tragic history is ripe with lessons for socialists today.

Forty years ago today, on September 17, 1980, after months of strikes, 36 regional unions and strike committees formally united under the name NSZZ Solidarność (Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”). Before that August, independent unions had been illegal in Poland. Solidarność quickly grew to 10 million workers, leading a strike wave and social movement that shook Poland to its foundations.

From August 1980 to December 1981 Solidarność unleashed a carnival of workers’ power, with spontaneous strikes, strike coordination committees, and far-reaching social demands, becoming not just a labor union but the center of a social movement demonstrating once again how fast things can change once set in motion. The inspiring story of Solidarność, which won so much before being repressed, illuminates the nature of trade unions, and of the Stalinist states, and contains important lessons for today on socialist strategy towards reform, rebellion, and revolution.

Roots of Solidarność 

Poland was part of the Eastern Bloc, dominated by the Stalinist Soviet Union since the end of World War II. These were called “Communist” countries, although they had nothing to do with the workers’ control that would characterize true communism. In this one-party state, the body that controlled industry, the military, police, the media, and so on was called the “Polish United Workers Party” (PUWP), but it represented the bureaucracy that exploited the workers. In Poland most workers were employed by the state, in a system best described as bureaucratic State Capitalism

There had been periodic working-class revolts before Solidarność, often sparked by government announcements of food-price hikes. In 1956 in Poznań and in 1970 in Szczecin, when workers struck and rioted in the streets with supporters, trashing police stations and other government buildings, they were countered by tanks and thousands of troops who fired on crowds, killing many and wounding thousands. Again in 1976 an attempt at raising food prices was met by over 100 strikes throughout Poland, and huge crowds again trashed offices of the PUWP. The strikes were also put down by a combination of concessions and repression, but this time without the bloodshed, which led some to think there was more space for organizing. The actions did succeed in reversing the price increases. Some of the activists pointed out that striking workers were more effective and safer occupying their workplaces than rioting in the street. The government seemed to be more concerned with re-starting production than saving human lives.

After 1976, a small group of dissidents who had been involved in these uprisings created the Workers Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR), defending arrested workers, supporting their families, and producing the underground news sheet Robotnik (Worker), and later Robotnik Wybrzeża (Coastal Worker, for the Polish cities on the Baltic coast). The ex-revolutionary Marxist Jacek Kuroń, previously imprisoned for his insightful and groundbreaking “Open Letter to the Party,” was a key member of KOR, and went on to play a major role in Solidarność.

The strike begins 

On July 1, 1980, the Polish government announced a surreptitious rise in food prices — better cuts of meat would only be available in the “free price” stores rather than the standard stores where prices were state-regulated. Again, isolated protests and strikes broke out. This time the government was prepared to quietly go into individual workplaces and offer raises in compensation, to stop strikes and retain the nationwide price increase. This might have worked but in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, management had fired a woman crane operator, Anna Walentynowicz, who had edited the Coastal Worker and distributed it in the shipyard. On July 14, other activists leafleted and brought out workers from department to department, until they had a crowd of thousands declare a sit-in strike for her reinstatement, as well as a wage increase of 2,000 Polish zloty to compensate for price rises. Lech Wałęsa, an electrician who had also been fired for union activity, jumped over the wall and joined the strike. Soon, they were demanding his reinstatement as well, and elected them both to a strike committee. 

With news of the occupation of the Lenin Shipyard spreading, the next day the Paris Commune Shipyard in nearby Gdynia went into occupation, and ports and public transport throughout that area also joined the strike.

The government was now desperate to stop the strikes. On July 16, concessions by the management of the Lenin Shipyard almost led Wałęsa to end the strike there, but Walentynowicz and others insisted that strikers from elsewhere not be abandoned, and the occupation continued as a sympathy strike. At that point representatives of 21 factories and plants elected an Inter-Factory Strike Committee with two reps from each workplace, and Wałęsa as chair. Within days the Gdańsk Inter-Factory Strike Committee grew to 156 enterprises. This not only kept the government from playing one factory against the other, but led to a broader set of demands, the collectively compiled ‘21 points.’ 

The first two points were the recognition of free trade unions, unheard of in the Stalinist states, and the right to strike without recrimination. Along with the reinstatements, wage increase, and extended paid maternity leave, were other social demands to relax censorship and free political prisoners.  

On July 20 a group of Polish intellectuals signed a letter calling on both the government to negotiate and avoid violence, and the strikers to avoid insults, moderate their demands, and be prepared for compromise. On the same day, the government arrested 13 people in Warsaw, including Kuroń and other KOR members. While the government was concerned that the dissidents were politicizing the bread and butter issues of the workers, in fact even KOR members were shocked at the radical demand for recognition of free trade unions in Poland. However, workers saw it as the natural outcome of the strikes. The left economist advising Solidarność, Tadeusz Kowalik, later said “I did not meet a single striker or delegate who was willing to compromise on this issue.”

With the strike wave still growing, on August 22 the government finally sat down to negotiations with a delegation of the Gdańsk Inter-Factory Strike Committee, sending Deputy Prime Minister Jagielski. A separate team was sent to Szczecin. The continued factory occupation, with masses of supporters gathering outside the factory gates each day, supported collective discussions and pressure. Instead of closed door negotiations with Jagielski, microphones in the large meeting rooms were hooked up to the shipyard tannoy system and broadcast to crowds outside, who followed every word and yelled through the open windows at points. As the negotiations continued workers in the southern mines and steel mills came out, protecting the Baltic shipyards from being isolated and 1970 repeated.

It later emerged that rank and file soldiers in local barracks were following the developments closely, and sympathetic with the appeal for unions.


At the end of August, all the points had been granted except the demand to free political prisoners. Anna Walentynowicz recalls:

… the Government signed all our demands except the fourth. But surely that was the most important point! If we don’t defend the political prisoners today, then tomorrow our agreements are worthless for we are all political, and they will call us that, and simply lock us all up. So we refused to agree.

In the end Kuroń and others were released, and on August 30 and 31 representatives of the workers and the government signed the “Gdańsk Agreement,” accepting the workers’ 21 points, including the recognition of “independent self-governing trade unions” and the right to strike.

On September 22, 1980, 36 regional unions formally united under the name NSZZ Solidarność (Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”). 

Wałęsa was the most well-known figure in Solidarność, and became the chair of the national coordinating committee. Retaining the structure of the strike committees, any division in the union was by region, not by craft. Solidarność acted as a mixture of “one big union,” a union federation, and a mass social movement. 

By the end of September, Solidarność had close to 10 million members — around 80 percent of the Polish workforce. For seven months after the Gdańsk agreements, the wave of local strikes kept advancing.  

Solidarność !

Solidarność became the national organization where workers went for questions of everyday life. No one thought of going to their local party functionaries to ask for things to be done. The party was held in open contempt. Bogdan Borusewicz, one of the Solidarność leaders, complained that “at this moment, people expect more of us than we can possibly do.” The people think of the union, “they should fill the role of trade unions, participate in the administration of the country, be a political party and act as a militia… they should teach morals.”

As Colin Barker explained, “though they did not know it, the Polish workers had reinvented, out of the logic of their own experience, the organisational form first adopted by Russian workers in 1905—the workers’ council.” This is a form that happens again and again when workers go into struggle, from the soviets of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, to the 1919 Seattle General Strike, to the Cordones industriales of Chile in 1973. Workers realize that they not only create the wealth appropriated by others, but collectively have the power to do things for themselves, and run society in the interest of the majority. But as this power grows, it comes in conflict with the existing state. 

Instead of a plus, for Borusewicz this expectation by the masses was “a great problem for us.” They genuinely wanted to exercise the power of workers to better their conditions, but only in the specific areas deemed proper to unions in civil society. They had committed to what their advisors saw as a “self-limiting revolution,” i.e. one that would not challenge the state, and “recognizing that the Polish United Workers’ Party play the leading role in the state” — a clause controversially inserted into the Gdańsk agreement.

But if the leaders of Solidarność were not ready to take on that role of running society, the lines were not that clear and they were pushed again and again into crossing them.  

The local strike wave was not just about wage demands, almost all the 21 points formally agreed to became points of contention around how they were carried through in practice. This included a major national dispute around the demand for work-free Saturdays.

Once effective local organization had been formed, workers were tempted to use them against local petty officials for past grievances. Many local occupations were successful in getting individual corrupt officials fired.

National Solidarność officials often tried to counter these social retaliations, as they were a direct attack on the material privileges of the party officials, and making enemies of them. Colin Barker quotes one moderate in the Solidarność leadership complaining ‘We want to stop these anti-corruption strikes. Otherwise the whole country would have to go on strike’.

In November two people were arrested for leaking a secret document that revealed government plans for repression of dissidents. The arrests kicked off a city-wide strike. Even when the two were released, the strike continued, demanding an investigation, rules against police harassment, and a cut to the secret police budget. In this case, it took the appeals of Kuroń and Wałęsa, flown in from Gdańsk, to get the steelworkers to end their strike — leaving the secret police untouched. 

However, at the end of January, a general strike in Jelenia Góra was started, demanding that holiday resorts belonging to the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Committee of the PUWP be turned over for the use of charitable institutions. There were similar demands for a special police hospital to be instead used by the under-funded health services, again enforcing the workers’ idea of how society should be run against the interests of the state. 

In this period students also struck and demonstrated, and inmates rioted for better conditions in a majority of Polish prisons, often with Solidarność members demonstrating outside. 

Farmers too wanted to join in, demanding a rural Solidarność. Poland was one of the few countries in the Eastern Bloc where agriculture had not been overwhelmingly and forcibly collectivized. Although technically small landowners, not workers, small farmers had sympathy for Solidarność, and felt they too could band together to defend their own conditions, complaining “the head of the commune and the secretary of the PUWP have an unlimited power over us.”

The state was weak, but still intact. The government was vacillating and there were suggestions to call martial law. But more realistic officials advised against it because the strike movement was too big and they were afraid they would lose in such a confrontation. They might be able to shoot a crowd of thousands in one city, but the rest of the country was ready to strike and storm their police headquarters. No one knew how the soldiers would react to being called out against the workers. But all this time there was no attempt by Solidarność to reach out to rank and file soldiers who were being influenced by the movement.  

In mid-January of 1981 the then head of government Stanisław Kania, told his party there was “no room for two power centres in this country. Double power has never been and could never be a system of organisation in public life.” Yet he was incapable of appeasing or destroying the alternative center of power. The leaders of Solidarność, however, were still committed to an impossible equilibrium. 

By mid-February, the defense minister General Jaruzelski took over from Kania. Against party rules, he continued in the role of defense minister and party first secretary while Prime Minister. The party was weakened enough that it could not yet hope to present an opposition to Solidarność. But the party retained hope in the army. 

March 1981 — Defeat from the jaws of victory? 

In March 1981 an incident in the city of Bydgoszcz brought things to a head. Solidarność activists occupying an office to support recognition of Rural Solidarność went to negotiate with party reps at the local prefecture. After negotiations broke down, 200 police barged into the room, beating the Solidarność members with clubs, injuring 27, and hospitalizing national leader Jan Rulewski. The next day a protest strike broke out of half a million people in the Bydgoszcz area. 

A national delegate meeting showed the grassroots pressure for national action. After debate, Solidarność called a solid national four-hour strike, and threatened an unlimited national general strike if the government had not recognized Rural Solidarność and found and punished those responsible for the police violence within four days. This mobilized the country on both sides; the largest factories were provisioned for occupation and fortified, and some prepared for “the final battle.” Under pressure from the government and his supposed allies in the Catholic Church, at the last minute Wałęsa called off the strike. Many leaders of Solidarność sharply criticized Wałęsa’s undemocratic actions, and while some felt relief, there was widespread bitterness and disappointment. Wałęsa was under the same pressures as any trade union bureaucrat, and in the face of threats to stability by a radicalized workers movement, put on the brakes instead of spurring it on. The decision followed from the philosophy of the “self-limited revolution.”  

Unfortunately, this proved a turning point. The momentum was lost, and attendance at union meetings declined. For over three months the level of strikes fell to a minimum. From this point on more radical Solidarność members consciously to the left of Wałęsa began to emerge, arguing for democracy or battling for influence. But none of these small groupings around individuals were formalized into organizations that could challenge Wałęsa’s leadership inside Solidarność. Neither had they mobilized networks of workers to act independently, at least outside of local pockets. Such networks were much harder to build in the time of relative quiet and demoralization after March. 

Had a general strike been called, the country would have ground to a halt. At that point, it would have been up to the workers’ movement — the various strike committees and Solidarność nationally — to coordinate necessary services. Sympathetic farmers, bakers, and others had already been supporting strikes and occupations. In a general strike this would have been formalized, beyond “mutual aid” and individual solidarity to a plan for the united working class to take over services from the state. Solidarność could stop all mass transit in the country, but in an extended strike would have had to decide which services to start up, for free, to serve the population — but not for the police or military. Similarly with gas stations and phone exchanges, which were reportedly under workers’ control. This is what happened in Seattle in 1919 and Minneapolis in 1934, and countless revolutionary and pre-revolutionary situations around the world. The growth of Solidarność and expanding local strikes were already pushing society to a point of “dual power;” the general strike would have pushed it over the edge. Then the crucial question would have been winning the soldiers over to the side of the workers, eliminating the useless existing state and continuing the practice of workers’ power. 

Although the government threatened Solidarność in the run up to the strike, it is notable that General Jaruzelski resisted calls from some in the Politburo to institute martial law at that point. Presumably he was afraid the police were no match for a united working class on the move and prepared for battle. Neither did he want to risk splits in the military, whose ranks were filled with worker and peasant draftees with relatives in the Solidarność movement. But from this point forward he began to draw up detailed and secret plans for coordinated oppression when the chance arose. 

Behind all this was of course the threat of not only a Polish crackdown but of a Russian invasion. Soviet tanks had drowned the Hungarian revolution in blood back in 1956, and curtailed the reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the situation was different in 1980, the economic doldrums that led to the Polish strikes were present elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc. And the Soviet army was tied down in Afghanistan. More important, if the massive workers movement in Poland had been more united and confident of moving forward, running society, and taking on the state, it would have made it easier for the ranks of the military (mostly working class and peasant draftees) to change sides. This would have made any Soviet invasion much more costly. We can never be sure of “what if” scenarios, but in any case, by not moving forward they allowed the Polish state, with its own military, to regroup and prepare.  

Throughout 1981 the economic situation continued to deteriorate. Some localities saw hunger marches by thousands of women demanding food. By the summer of 1981, isolated strikes from below broke out again. Dock workers struck to stop the export of food. Newspaper print shop workers demonstrated against anti-Solidarność propaganda in the news, airline workers struck to choose their own manager, transport workers struck against corruption. By late September, there were again strikes in a majority of Poland’s provinces. But the Solidarność leadership made no attempt to coordinate them, unify demands, or focus conflict on the national government. An organization of militants with a political focus could still have made a difference here, but the left in Solidarność had no organization to try to push forward on these issues. And Solidarność leadership continued to urge members not to go “too far.” 

December 1981 — The state takes its chance 

December saw the end of the Solidarność experiment. On December 2, the growing determination of the Polish state was revealed when hundreds of riot police fought their way into an occupied school to arrest students fighting for a student union. 

The second Solidarność congress met in December with rumors of police mobilization hanging over their heads. A radical mood was growing, but debate was split between conservatives and legal advisors urging consolidation and non-confrontation on one hand, and on the other militant statements and arguments for strikes against the regime. Some with experience in the anti-fascist resistance of World War II foresaw what was being prepared, and argued “There’s no question of any accord with the authorities.” But Wałęsa looked down on the more radical statements, and seemed willing to make enormous compromises in order to preserve or save Solidarność for the moment. The delegates voted to oppose emergency powers legislation with strikes, including a general strike, but by then it was too late. That night the hotel where delegates slept was surrounded by riot police, the majority of the leadership rounded up and jailed. Simultaneously, around the country Solidarność leaders and worker militants were arrested in their beds.

The next morning, Jaruzelski announced the imposition of martial law, and the suspension of Solidarność, while tanks patrolled the streets. The armed forces took over the press and TV, and a Catholic cardinal made a national appeal for the population not to fight back. Flags proclaiming “Strike” still went up in workplaces around the country, but without preparation most were easily overcome by the military and riot police. Strikes continued longer in occupied mines, but eventually were starved out or repressed — after three days of fighting against infantry and special police in the Wujek mine in Katowice nine workers were killed and the strike suppressed. 

Even though, tragically, there had been no formal outreach to soldiers or conventional police to undermine orders of repression, there were still some signs of discontent in the ranks. Attacks on the factories were mainly carried out by specially selected battalions of riot police. Reports in Gdańsk relate that when the “regular” forces learned that they were going to the shipyard, many of them suddenly started complaining, “I don’t have any gas,” “Maybe someone else could go?” The regular army was mostly held in reserve. The morning after the military had been called out, “every few kilometers or so along the road stood tanks that had ‘broken down’ on the way from the barracks into town.” [*Konspira, p. 23] 

Had Solidarność been creating unions with rank and file conscripts, and had they been prepared and offered more determined resistance to the coup, this passive resistance by troops could have been turned to more active refusal of orders, and even defense against the special police. This was the example of the workers and soldiers soviets of 1917, a history that was smeared by the lip-service of the Stalinist states. In December of 1989 we saw again how the ranks of the Romanian military were won to support an opposition fueled by strikes. They defeated the feared secret police, and brought down the Stalinist dictator Ceaușescu. 

Solidarność after martial law

The remnants of Solidarność went underground. The conservative wing dominated, and rapidly moved rightward, receiving money from the US through the CIA. They became convinced that market capitalism, with legal trade unions, was the alternative to state capitalist repression, and negotiated with the Polish government as it was later forced to adopt more market-oriented plans. 

Strikes that broke out in Poland in 1988, by a new generation, were the beginnings of the process that swept the Eastern Bloc in 1989, and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But none of these were prefaced by mass workers’ movements like Solidarność that could have turned towards a different future. Instead, state capitalism was replaced by a market based capitalism that was also oppressive and exploitative. Solidarność re-emerged, split into a conventional trade union and a political party. They won the majority of seats in semi-free elections, and Lech Wałęsa was elected president in 1990. But the turn to the market meant Solidarność in government successfully instituted brutal austerity measures against the working class. Their popularity and support quickly disappeared, leading to the situation we see in Poland today, now under the right wing Law and Justice party. 

The state and revolution

In 1980-81, the idea of a “self-limiting revolution,” limiting the activity of unions to civil society, curtailed the ability of workers who organized and banded together to see the need to take over the state’s functions. Growing up under an oppressive government that falsely called itself “Communist,” and dominated by an imperialist Soviet Union, most workers were suspicious of talk of a workers’ state, soviet power, or even revolution. But many had been slowly discovering the true meaning for themselves, even if conclusions came too late.

The state is always an instrument of class rule. If the mistakes of 1981 centered on leaving the state unchallenged, the mistakes after 1989 were taking on the role of strengthening the existing state in hope of future reforms. 

The conclusion is not that Wałęsa should have done things differently. All movements will eventually be faced with sections or leaders that make compromises with the priorities of the existing state when pushed. The lesson to socialists is to be prepared for this with independent networks of activists, the examples of history, and a clear political vision. A pre-revolutionary situation does not come along everyday. But if socialists are focused on the existing state, thinking this is the best that can be done, they will miss movements when they arise, or unwittingly steer them to compromise and defeat. 

Polish Solidarność demonstrates how pre-revolutionary situations can erupt without a moment’s notice, as do the revolts that swept the world by the end of 2019. A socialist organization needs to be ready to orient itself to those movements and to the power of the working class, and to seize every opportunity to make society anew in the interest of the majority. 

Eric Fretz

Share image: Lech Wałęsa addresses striking workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk. Reportagebild/AP Images.