Poland: Solidarity's Future

The resistance movement lives on, but it is increasingly dispirited by Poland’s official climate of enforced mediocrity

THE SPIRIT OF Solidarity still runs strong beneath the surface of Poland’s tenuous political calm. A clear sign of this came last November, when 25,000 Poles gathered to mourn Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who had been brutally murdered by members of the security police. In the face of the government’s continuing campaign to stifle the resistance movement, what are Solidarity’s prospects for survival? With this question in mind, I recently visited Warsaw.

At its height Solidarity was one of the most spontaneous mass movements in history. Nominally a trade union, Solidarity was born in 1980, during a series of strikes in Gdansk triggered by price hikes, food shortages, and the desperate condition of the economy. The union at first focused on improving labor conditions, demanding increased self-management in factories and a five-day work week. Yet Solidarity soon grew into a profound social movement, which attempted to redistribute political power within Poland. In a population of 37 million, 10 million were formal members (they paid one percent of their salary as dues) and millions more were active sympathizers. The organization was led by an elected national commission and had chapters for virtually every occupation and in every region of the country. Solidarity’s message was spread by word of mouth as well as through some 2,000 journals and other periodicals produced by the 150 publishing houses associated with the resistance movement.

Many Poles are still shocked by the speed and ease with which government forces were able to destroy Solidarity’s national structure, on December 13, 1981. As one student in Kraków described the imposition of martial law, “Solidarity was decimated literally overnight. It was the loss of communication that killed us. Our phones went dead. We could not walk to see friends, because of the curfew. Zomo [military police] were everywhere.” On that same night many of Solidarity’s leaders, who were gathered in Gdansk for a national meeting, were arrested. Some 300, including Zbigniew Bujak, a key figure in the organization, escaped and have remained in hiding since. This group formed the Temporary National Commission, an underground organization that is the sole institutional survivor of Solidarity’s once vast network.

The destruction of Solidarity’s structure, however, has by no means ended all the resistance movement’s activities. Minutes after entering the country one can see that Solidarity is still powerful. Though the SOLIDARNOSC buttons that were once fixtures on Polish lapels have all but disappeared, other signs of political opposition remain. In the square across from the hotel where I was staying, in the center of Warsaw, a twentyfoot crucifix made of flowers and surrounded by banners laden with political symbolism suddenly appeared, and it remained until a dump truck arrived to cart it away. On Sundays small demonstrations composed of exiting congregants materialized outside churches. Underground literature was distributed, and the conversations among the churchgoers focused on the latest developments in the resistance movement.

But beyond these surface signs of continuing resistance it is difficult to measure participation in Solidarity. Of necessity, most meetings of activists are clandestine and those who distribute literature or information do so surreptitiously. It is, however, possible to count the number of underground publications that continue to roll off hidden presses. Martial law led to the decentralization of the Solidarity publishing network. Now many small factories print their own newsletters and journals. When unable to find ink, the printers use machine grease. At present, some 500 independent periodicals appear regularly. Their titles indicate their contents: Freedom, The Shout, Truth of Free Poles, To Be Continued. More-sophisticated publishing houses—of which there are about forty— continue to print high-quality books.

Aboveground activities like peaceful demonstrations, however, no longer flourish. When they occur, arrests are common and the authorities use violence. Last December truncheons and tear gas were used to break up a demonstration commemorating the strikes of 1970. Overt activities are more prevalent within factories and workplaces, where it is difficult for the authorities to identify the organizers. One source has estimated that one million (of the original 10 million) members are still contributing dues to Solidarity. Most of these funds go to political prisoners and their families.

The situation in the universities, once known for their bold activism and unanimous support for Solidarity, is similarly ambiguous. On the one hand, there are clear signs of liberalization within the intellectual community. Books banned by censors for more than ten years are nowappearing in the stores. Students are being granted more flexibility in their curricula and in their choice of professors. A seminar titled “The Philosophy of Culture,” once given only secretly, is nowoffered openly at Warsaw University. The topics of discussion include democracy, tolerance, truth, and liberty. On the other hand, the universities have been forced to temper their political role. When the faculty of Warsaw University nominated Klemens Szaniawski for president last year, the authorities rejected him because of his criticism of the government. Professors fearing similar treatment have chosen the path of discretion: “Whereas ninety percent of the University Senate used to be outspoken supporters of Solidarity, one professor told me, “only fifty percent are now willing to take the risk.”

The Church is now the one institution that enjoys at least some degree of political and ideological immunity, and it has taken on an increasingly important role in the resistance movement. Even in the minds of the authorities and the military the Church occupies a sacrosanct position in Polish culture. Father M., a parish priest in a suburb of Warsaw, told me that during martial law he had often stood in the midst of violent clashes between demonstrators and police without once being threatened; his black cassock “had a calming effect on everyone, including the militia. The Church has come to serve as an outlet for anti-government sentiment that cannot be expressed through other channels. During the past three years attendance at mass has swelled dramatically, especially among the young. Sermons contain political messages, and celebrations of feast days often turn into anti-government rallies. But the Church provides more than a haven for the discussion of political and ethical issues, Father M. insists; it “breeds a feeling of solidarity. The act of attending mass is as close as most Poles can now come to re-creating the sense of national unity that swept Poland during Solidarity’s heyday.

“The main achievement of Solidarity has been to change society,” says Adam Michnik, a key member of the resistance, who was arrested in February. “There is a new feeling. There has been a spiritual revolution.” Contrary to most accounts in the West, Solidarity did not attempt to take the place of the government or to rid Poland of socialism. It was a mass movement par excellence, relying on the simultaneous mobilization of the workers, the intellectuals, and the Church to reform the system from within. The rallying point for the resistance was a shared aversion to the Polish government and to Soviet communism, which was seen to be behind the government. For workers, Polish communism amounted to a denial of self-management and was a principal cause of the shortages that were ravaging the country. Intellectuals, many of whom had originally been Party members, felt that the government had slavishly capitulated to Soviet ideology. The clergy saw communism as a longstanding attack on the nationalist and spiritual values that the Church was attempting to protect.

Despite its formidable grass-roots power, Solidarity rejected violence as a political tool. To use force against General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leaders of Solidarity decided, would only tempt the Kremlin to invade and would do little to reform Polish society. In 1981 there were numerous incidents throughout the country in which high-ranking union members intervened to protect government officials from outbreaks of mass anger. The primary weapon of Solidarity was passive civil resistance and its potential to stimulate a challenge to the ideological and political conformity demanded by the Polish government. As Michnik put it, “There is no difference between our principles and our tactics.” The awakening of Poland’s political consciousness was both a means to an end and a goal of the revolution embodied in Solidarity.

Even to an outsider it is clear that this awakening has taken place. Beneath the blanket of uncertainty and frustration that covers Poland lies an intellectual boldness and a political awareness unknown elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. Cabdrivers in Warsaw launch into sophisticated tirades against the government with little concern for the origins or the allegiances of the foreign visitor in the back seat. Open discussion of political issues abounds in coffeehouses. In the countries that surround Poland—the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia—such public debate would not and could not occur.

BUT THIS AWAKENING has not come about without considerable social pain. I had only to look at the faces passing by on the streets of Warsaw to detect the anger and frustration that makes Poland a depressing place to be—even for a visitor. In overcrowded and understocked stores basic courtesies are nowhere to be found; people treat each other only as competitors for scarce resources. What’s more, an atmosphere of enforced mediocrity seems to pervade the country. I met a fascinating young woman, a student of the Japanese and Chinese languages who makes her own oriental-style clothes. I saw them hanging in her closet and wondered why she wasn’t wearing them. “I don’t feel comfortable now,” she explained. “There are too many angry stares, too much resentment.”

The miserable state of the economygoes a long way toward explaining the dour mood of the country. There is, however, another, subtler explanation. Poland’s political awakening has opened a seemingly irreparable rift between the state and the society at large. Before Solidarity there were occasional outbursts of criticism and revolt against the regime, but there was at least a pretense that communism was working, that the Party, as the “vanguard of the proletariat, had a legitimate claim to govern. In short, whether by indoctrination or coercion, the state was able to impose ideological conformity, however shallow, upon the people.

That charade is now finished. As one activist put it, “Solidarity has made room in the national consciousness for the protection of rights.” It’s not that the Polish government has suddenly become illegitimate but that the people have begun to think in terms of legitimacy. The frame of reference has changed. Rights, representation, freedom—these terms have entered the daily political dialogue. The Party—the institution that supposedly provides the link between the people and the government— has eroded. Nearly half of the Party joined Solidarity; since 1980 Party membership has declined from three million to one million.

Drawing Party members into its own ranks was not the only way that Solidarity undermined the Party. By demanding self-management in the workplace and wider access to positions of influence, it attacked the nomenklatura system itself—the means by which Party members climb to powerful posts throughout society. When Jaruzelski realized that the Party was both losing its authority and decaying internally, he had to rely on the armed forces and the security police to maintain control. To shift power from the Party to the military has been costly. The military, an independent institution, does not wield the same degree of political authority over the regional governments that the Party did. Regional authorities, who were already claiming some autonomy in 1980, have increased their distance from Warsaw. Students at Jagiellonian University, in Kraków, cited numerous incidents in the past two years in which their local government has ignored dictates from Warsaw. This has only forced Jaruzelski’s hand and pushed Poland further toward becoming a nakedly military state.

Many Poles view the present regime with outright repulsion. Cynicism is everywhere. Since martial law actors have boycotted television programs; to act within the “cultural guidelines” imposed by the state is intolerable. In one community residents agreed to put their televisions in their front windows, facing out, when the evening news began. The open scandal that Polish communism is bankrupt is one of the key achievements of Solidarity. That the Polish people must continue to live with a system that they have summarily rejected—such is the tragedy of Poland’s arrested revolution.

THE FRAGMENTATION of Solidarity’s leadership and widespread frustration over the dismantling of the union’s structure have given rise to groups taking maximalist positions. Several small parties within the resistance now advocate the use of violence to attack the government. But the most influential resistance leaders—the underground activists gathered around Zbigniew Bujak, and Lech Walesa and his aides in Gdansk—are as strongly committed to nonviolence and civil resistance as ever.

“Why,” I asked Michnik, “should the resistance not resort to violence if pressed to do so by the government?” His answer was the same as the one often heard in 1980; martial law and the treachery of a government that had supposedly negotiated in good faith had changed nothing. Michnik is still committed to a social revolution that will effect a durable recasting of—not the destruction of—Poland’s political and economic system. Passive resistance remains the most effective and the most realistic means of both stimulating political awareness and influencing Jaruzelski. To resort to violence against a regime that monopolizes the coercive potential of the state, Michnik argues, would only lead Pole to kill Pole and increase the likelihood of Soviet military intervention.

Though discussion of these broader issues continues, the question of longterm strategy is on the back burner. The key challenge is to restore momentum to the resistance movement; the former cadres of Solidarity are now jostling for positions within the emerging chain of command. Furthermore, several serious rifts that emerged within the leadership of Solidarity in 1981 have not yet been fully repaired. There is a consensus among Solidarity activists and sympathizers that Walesa erred in backing away from a general strike in March of 1981, after government militiamen attacked and seriously wounded several resistance leaders in Bydgoszcz. At that time, Solidarity had the necessary cohesion to precipitate a national shutdown, which might have forced further concessions from Jaruzelski. There is also widespread consternation over the failure of the leadership to have organized any significant national resistance to martial law before it was imposed. Michnik is self-critical on this point: “We should have made preparations for martial law—our own radio links, plans for the underground.” He blames “naiveté, fear, inertia” for the lack of foresight.

Most activists are attempting to draw lessons from these mistakes, about how to restructure the resistance movement. Some argue that it must continue to be run from the underground. Only covert structures can safely offer support to factories or local groups that are attempting to establish independent unions, to increase self-management, or to create new councils for monitoring violations of human rights. A decentralized organization is also harder for the government to suppress. Others argue that to remain underground is to succumb to Jaruzelski’s efforts to intimidate the resistance. Only the revival of a visible national organization, they maintain, can restore momentum to the struggle. The pattern emerging within the past few months suggests a compromise betw-een these two positions. Last July the government attempted to defuse the underground by offering its members amnesty if they surfaced before the end of 1984. No one accepted the offer—a clue that Bujak and his colleagues will likely remain underground for the indefinite future. But also efforts are being made nationally to coordinate overt resistance activities and to establish contact between the underground, Walesa’s group in Warsaw, and the activists released under the amnesty.

The resistance movement’s reliance on the Church poses problems that could grow serious over the long term. Many Poles now attend mass because of the Church’s political, rather than its religious, role. Michnik suggests that in time “the appeal of the Church to those in the opposition movement could be restricted to only Christian Democrats.” The ideological problem cuts both ways. Father M. spoke of his growing frustration with the resistance. For years underground journals have refused to print articles that he has written condemning abortion. Should the resistance movement grow in numbers and sophistication, the volatile mixture of religion and politics could make the Church a less attractive vehicle for political activity.

The most immediate fear, however, is not that the movement will outgrow Catholicism but that the Church will retire from the bold political role it now plays. The murder of Father Popieluszko demonstrated that the Church is not immune from terror. Primate Glemp has already proved his willingness to acquiesce under government pressure and has thereby lost public confidence. Two days before a planned general strike in November of 1982 Glemp met with Jaruzelski, a move that contributed to the canceling of the strike. Father M. described a private meeting that Glemp held with parish priests in 1982, at which the Primate was angered by the critical questions asked him; he left the meeting well before planned. Unable to ask his questions in person, Father M. sent them to Glemp in a letter. He has yet to receive a response. The Episcopate will go only so far in risking its religious autonomy to support the political aims of the resistance movement. One priest who is an outspoken supporter of Solidarity commented, “The Church cannot be expected to take the place of Solidarity. We have a religious role to perform and cannot take responsibility for social organizing and planning.” Should the Church recede significantly from its present level of commitment, the resistance would be damaged structurally; but, more, the spiritual and nationalistic renewal that has become inseparable from Solidarity’s struggle would be dealt a heavy blow.

JARUZELSKIHAS clearly chosen to wage a war of attrition against the resistance. He is continuing to use violence and intimidation to wear down its internal strength and to stifle its overt political activities. At the same time, he is employing more subtle means, to search for the fine line between fueling further alienation and gradually undermining the will to resist government authority.

The decision to grant amnesty to some 650 political prisoners last July was a perfect example of this more subtle strategy. Jaruzelski’s principal reason for the move was to soften the West’s economic boycott of Poland—a goal that he has achieved. Yet he also recognized that the continuing internment of Solidarity activists was feeding public outrage, and he hoped that their freedom might rebuild confidence in his regime.

The general elections held in July were likewise intended to restore at least a patina of legitimacy to the regime. Michnik, who was in prison at the time, wrote that the election was “an act of homage” to Jaruzelski, and asserted that Poles “have bowed to the force of terror long enough, slavishly lining up at the polling stations.” The turnout, estimated by the opposition to be 50 percent (the government claims 75 percent)—this in a country where voting is required and usually brings out 95 percent of the electorate—was an indication of the government’s failure to get what it wanted from the exercise. One priest told me that older parishioners, having cast their ballots, came to confession to ask pardon for their sin. The government had threatened to cancel their pensions if they did not vote. Such episodes hardly inspire public confidence in the regime.

The economic situation makes the battle against Jaruzelski no easier. The frustration engendered and the time expended in coping with food shortages and a lethargic bureaucracy leave little stamina for fighting the government. If the drain on vitality should increase, this would mark the end not only of Solidarity but of its intellectual and spiritual legacy.

An underground journalist provided me with the most illuminating description of the present “war” in Poland. The key participants in the struggle, he said, are not the government and the resistance but the ghosts of Poland’s political and cultural heritage. The regime must confront the ghosts of Solidarity, of democracy, and of national unity—enemies that can withstand the heaviest truncheon. But the real challenge, he continued, is the one facing the Polish people themselves. For they must attempt to preserve these ghosts intact and if possible to restore them to life.

—Charles Kupchan