Solidarity: The Unfulfilled Project of Polish Democracy

by Ireneusz Krzemiński (Author)
©2019 Monographs 352 Pages
Open Access
Series: Studies in Political Transition, Volume 13


This book is a collection of essays which span three decades, capping research into the Polish Solidarity movement and its impact on social change. The major one reports on the author’s 1981 study on the formation of the Solidarity movement and trade union, one of two research projects on Solidarity carried out at the time. The idea of debating (deliberative) democracy fostered by Solidarity proved an unfulfilled utopia. It was abandoned by the new political elite and by Poles, who used freedom to develop individual, ambitious and aggressive career paths in order to attain West-European living standards. While Polish religiosity and the Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II, vitally promoted peaceable resistance to communism, now the Church has morphed into an anti-democratic political and cultural actor.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Solidarity: Years Later. A New Introduction to the English Edition
  • The Forgotten Past
  • Part One The Way It Was: Solidarity and Empirical Sociology
  • “Hot Sociology”: Research Assumptions and Procedures
  • Workplace-Based Communities: The Selection Criteria
  • The Multi-Perspective Research Design
  • Competent Informants and the Main Research Questions
  • Research Methods: The Epistemological Underpinnings
  • Basic Theoretical Assumptions: Symbols and Actions
  • Research Method: The Insider’s View
  • Limitations of the Study
  • Note on Citations
  • The Rise of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity”
  • Celebrating the Agreement
  • The Explosion of Self-Organising
  • The Formation of the Social Movement
  • The Summer of Revolt and Protest
  • Warsaw on Strike: The Summer of 1980
  • The Factors behind Collective Protests
  • The Discontented-and-Defiant
  • We: The Circles of Community
  • The Common Definition of the Situation
  • Intellectuals and Big Industry Workers: Generational Groups
  • The KOR and the Democratic Opposition
  • The Pope’s Visit and the Catholic Church
  • Implementing the Ideal: Building the Independent Trade Union
  • Autumn 1980: Definitions of the Social Situation
  • It Can’t Go on Like This Anymore
  • The Public Must Understand
  • “Somebody Must Be in Charge of the Whole Thing”
  • “Three Souls” of the Directors
  • Establishing Independent Trade Union Units
  • Turning Points
  • Models of Founding Independent Trade Union Units
  • The Organisers
  • Impeding the Formation of Independent Trade Union Units
  • Practical Measures
  • Symbolic Measures
  • Solidarity’s Organisational Dilemmas
  • Lacking Models
  • Lacking Communication
  • The Pressure of Social Expectations
  • Part Two What Was Solidarity? Interpretations of the Solidarity Trade-Unionist Movement: Introduction to Part Two
  • The Rooted World
  • Civil Society: How the Idea Developed
  • The Definition of the Social Situation and the Need for Roots
  • The Cultural and Spiritual Relevance of Democracy
  • Religion and the Idea of Democracy
  • Rootedness in Values and the Diversification of Social Thinking
  • Sociology and Social Processes
  • The Role of Generational Groups in the Social Movement
  • Sociology, Society and Roots
  • Poland after Solidarity: Social Consciousness and People’s Attitudes
  • Social Consciousness
  • Ubiquitous Politics
  • Stage One: Moral Victory and Underground Society
  • The Turning Point: Society Disintegrates as “They” Prevail
  • The Church as a Substitute of Society: The Devil in History
  • The Negative Definition of the Situation: “People Don’t Matter One Bit, Only Force Does”
  • Variant One: Conformist Harmony
  • Variant Two: A Manichean Drama with Messianic Elements
  • Variant Three: Egoistic Escapism
  • Variant Four: Desperate Dissent
  • The Polish Modes of “Escape from Freedom”
  • Variant One: Conformist Harmony
  • Variant Two: A Drama of Mortality and Eschatology
  • Variant Three: Egotist Escapism
  • Variant Four: Desperate Dissent
  • “Internalisation of Violence” and Privatisation of the World
  • The “Enactment” of Declared Values
  • The Right to “Make Money”
  • The Latent Negative Worldview behind Positive Changes
  • Challenges to and Risks in Poland’s Democratic Transition: A Social Psychology Perspective
  • A Lyrical Model of Capitalism
  • The Democratic Personality
  • Polish Negativity
  • Social Action as Warfare
  • Bad Individualism and Bad Identity
  • The Manly Attitude
  • Babstwo: A Short Theory
  • Resentment, or Poles Are Owed It
  • Authoritarianism and Lost Subjectivity
  • Money, Money, Money…
  • Forgotten Labour and Devalued Education
  • Evil Legacy: An Evil Capitalist
  • The Future and Liberalism: Anxieties and Concerns
  • Part Three After Solidarity: Introduction to Part Three
  • Solidarity: The Organisation of Polish Hopes
  • The Transformation Process: Preparations for Joint Action
  • The Organisation of Protest, the Birth of Civic Consciousness and Reformist Demands
  • Community: The Image of the Individual and the Civil Image of Society and the Nation
  • The Wisdom of the Majority and the New Citizen Mentality: A Short Critical Digression
  • The Independent Trade Union as a Laboratory of the Democratic State
  • Conclusion: A Handful of Still Pertinent Insights
  • Revolution, Solidarity and Words
  • The Language of Solidarity
  • In the Grip of Pernicious Politics
  • The Social Problem Turned Political Problem
  • Solidarity and an Idealising Vision of Politics
  • The People’s Republic of Poland, Martial Law and a Cynical Vision of Politics
  • The Transition and the Original Sins of the Reborn Republic
  • Sad Conclusion
  • The Republic of Hateful Enviers
  • Changes in the Language of Public Debate
  • Political Divisions and Social Divisions
  • The Catholic-National Socio-Political Unity
  • The Mentality of Religious Repression
  • Hateful Envy and Anti-Democratic Authoritarianism
  • Solidarity: Experience and Memory. Narratives of the Activists of the Gdansk Region
  • Small Town vs. Big City
  • Motives and Goals of Social Action: The Solidarity Movement as the Basis of the Trade Union
  • The Relevance of the Earlier Experiences and Protests in the Coastal Region
  • Past and Present Divisions and Conflicts
  • The Crowd, Civil Society and the National Church: The Polish Dispute over the National Symbols and Identity in 2010
  • Spontaneous or Pre-Programmed?
  • The Media, the State and the Church
  • The Church, Polish Catholicism and Civil Religion
  • Mourning as a Significant Social Fact
  • Peace as a Method of Social Action: The Path of Polish Solidarity
  • Conclusion: Solidarity and Bad Memory
  • Bibliographic Note
  • Index of Names

←10 | 11→

Solidarity: Years Later. A New Introduction to the English Edition

This volume may well seem a collection of outdated scribblings. It ponders social developments that took place a very long time ago. It recounts the first (and, in general, scarce) studies on the social movement of Solidarity in Poland in 1980–1981. It seems so ancient that we would be justified to scratch our heads, wondering whether it even makes sense to recall those days. The idea to rehearse reflections on Solidarity from several years ago may indeed raise more than one brow. After all, democracy that Solidarity trade-unionists made their goal has long been achieved. But now, in 2017, this goal seems at jeopardy in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. The aspiration to live in united Europe, which millions of Poles had cherished for years, came true quite a while ago. But united Europe looks nowhere near stable even as we speak of it now.

I will answer these doubts with a boldness typical of authors: the same wave of social processes that is surging across Europe and the globe these days, apparently pitting nationalist and authoritarian discourses against the ideas of liberal democracy, makes this book a worthwhile reading. For this volume was written by a social scholar, not by a historian. As such, it helps understand processes which so strongly promoted democracy and social cooperation back then, in the circumstances hardly favourable to individual and social freedom. After all, the demolition of the Solidarity movement by the military government of the communist Party1 precipitated the total societal delegitimisation of the regime. And a few (long and hard to Poles) years later, it put an end not only to the system constructed in Poland after the Second World War, but also to the entire Soviet system. A scrutiny of social, political and psychological mechanisms at work in those days and an insight into people’s unfulfilled dreams can give us valuable knowledge to rely on in our perturbed, astonishing times.

This volume contains my research not only on the formation and rise of a vast social movement, but also on its consequences, peculiar “obliviousness” and failure to fulfil people’s aspirations. The chapters compiled in this book come from various periods, whose exact dating is far less relevant than distinctive ←11 | 12→social mobilisations and experiences. These periods include the rise of the Solidarity movement and Trade Union, the dark years of severe communist dictatorship in the 1980s and, finally, the time of liberation and the formation of a new society and a new state in the 1990s, followed by the years when democracy matured. What on paper seems barely more than a dozen years was felt by people as several different epochs.

The memory of Solidarity in Polish society is a paradoxical thing. The unexpected triumph of Solidarity’s fundamental aspiration – social and political liberation – has not resulted either in reviving the movement itself nor, perhaps even more poignantly, in reinvigorating the civic values, which had been so pronounced in original Solidarity’s liberating and reformatory movement. People’s civic engagement and the notion of politics as thinking together about how to organise a good social life have proved but fleeting values. And expectations have outgrown the actual possibilities of the emergent new socio-political order since the very beginning.

Both the general public and the Solidarity-formed social elite (or elites) expected a renewed mass engagement with the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity,” emulating its legal period, and a rise of a huge, peaceable civil movement. Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, even when the trade union was officially disbanded, people were actively involved in pro-democratic, socio-political work across various levels of social life. Yet, when freedom finally came, most Poles turned out surprisingly reluctant to engage in social and civil commitments. The available Polish literature does not offer any tolerably coherent or homogeneous explanation of this development. What happened to what seemed Solidarity’s fundamental notion that people’s care for their own and their loved ones’ lives also entailed the right and the obligation to commit to others and to the common good, which was a major factor in personal success and failure? What happened to the belief that, while fully enjoying individual human and civil rights, we must not fail to feel part of society, of a civic community, whose wellbeing was everybody’s indelible responsibility? What happened to the movement assembling dedicated and infinitely resourceful citizens after their common enemy had disappeared and the fruit of the joint action could be freely savoured? And, finally, what happened to the spirit of tolerance and mutual kindness, to the deep-running belief that everybody was equally entitled to have a say in matters they found important, disturbing and/or pertinent? That everybody’s voice should be listened to without hostility towards or exclusion of those thinking differently than the majority? Since answers to such basic questions are very hard to find, it does not come as a surprise that many scholars now tend to agree that the Solidarity movement was a unique “festival” ←12 | 13→and “social carnival”: an exceptional development that cannot be expected to continue or to produce a stable framework applicable in the “regular” democratic social life.

This view, however, cannot be fully endorsed, for the Solidarity movement was certainly a highly democratic enterprise within the developing independent trade unions. The fundamental thesis of this book is expressed in its title; I argue that the Solidarity social movement and the trade union, which operated legally in 1980–1981 and clandestinely afterwards, invented and attempted to practise a distinctive and original model of democracy. Therefore, Solidarity can serve today as a model project of a democratic order at the level of societies, states, institutions and/or big organisations.

In hindsight, we can see that it was a utopian model, and, in fact, it has been described as such by various researchers. This approach is exemplified in Marcin Frybes and Patrick Michel’s Apres le communisme. Mythes et legendes de la Pologne contemporaine published first in France in 1996.2 There was a time when I disputed the authors’ theses, but now I believe that the utopian element in Solidarity people’s thinking about the organisation of the future social world must not be overlooked. At the same time, this particular utopia is still on people’s minds and hearts, not only in Poland.

The Polish-Danish philosopher Bronisław Świderski offered a surprising interpretation of the significance of the Solidarity movement in his 1996 book Gdansk i Ateny (Gdansk and Athens).3 Świderski’s main insight is that the ideals promoted by the Solidarity movement resembled, in fact, the Athenian direct democracy. Even though I disagree with Świderski’s many views, I could subscribe to this fundamental thesis; it still rings true and provides stimulating food for thought.

Świderski’s central tenet is close to my basic thesis about the social movement of Solidarity: the movement was an attempt to turn “ordinary” Poles into citizens and make dedication to the common good part of people’s focus on everyday, individual prosperity. People’s participation in decision-making on matters of interest to entire society, matters which directly or indirectly, immediately or eventually affected everybody, was the most profound ideological – and I would ←13 | 14→even say spiritual – aspect that swayed people to embrace common action. This was the factor that I believe helped lay the foundation for the Solidarity mentality, combined with the “citizenation” of the nation. Being part of a community, which entailed the right and even the imperative to participate in the debate on social action – that is, in politics – was founded on another inalienable component of the Solidarity identity: on personal dignity, individual dignity, which was encapsulated in the popular notion of “subjectivity” (podmiotowość).

“Subjectivity” made a staggering career in 1980 and 1981. It became common currency among the educated and the uneducated alike. It also served as a powerful ideological weapon, as it emphasised that a system could not possibly be good unless it guaranteed basic rights and dignity to the citizens. To this core set of values, “subjectivity” – that is, the capacity to hold one’s fate and that of one’s loved ones in one’s own hands – added each citizen’s commitment to the common good and communal life. Consequently, a system could not possibly be good if it limited individuals’ right of self-constitution and did not allow them to discuss and assess the policies of the state, of the party-state to use the sociologist Jan Strzelecki’s very apt coinage. The right to subjectivity was handily weaponised against the communist order.

This was intimately associated with the “citizenation” of the nation. After all, the citizens who united around civil liberties and rights made up a “nation.” And, equally importantly, while being a nation they were part of Europe, part of the West as opposed to the East. The opposition of Poland/West and the Soviet, or Russian, East was one of the major factors organising the way people thought at the time. The “not like in the East” adage represented the inclusion of respect for freedom into the ensemble of national values. Politically independent society and statehood went hand in hand with the citizens’ personal freedom and individual rights. National, state and individual independence formed an inseparable ideological “cluster.” Citizenation and subjectivity entailed readiness to act, and social pro-activeness involved commitment to communal matters as capping a good, adult life, a fully moral life even. This ideal is still vibrant in the social memory of the “first” Solidarity activists, as suggested by the studies on the memory of Solidarity which have been carried out by the Centre for Research on Solidarity and Social Movements in collaboration with the Gdansk-based European Solidarity Centre since 2010.4

←14 | 15→

What happened to the civil society galvanised by Solidarity which was robust even in the dark 1980s is a crucial question that haunts Polish social and political scholars. When, at the long last, Poland thankfully got its chance to build an independent and democratic state, its citizens’ engagement in public life plummeted. For years, the voter turnover, both in the general and in the local elections, has been consistently low. Even 1989, the year of the first semi-democratic election, which incisively changed the political system, did not see any eruption of participation. Just over 60% of the citizens went to the booths. And to think that the election set off “the Autumn of Nations” in Eastern Europe and, consequently, hastened the dismantling of the communist system in the USSR as well! For comparison, in Bulgaria, where social resistance movements had been frail to the point of non-existence, nearly 90% of the citizens voted in the first free election.

Secondly, the formation of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s first non-communist cabinet was not followed by any spectacular increase in social activity. Admittedly, as shown by Polish-American researchers Jan Kubik i Grzegorz Ekiert,5 in the first years of the transition Poles organised first and foremost in protests. The protests expressed various demands and served as a form of public debate, or rather they filled in gaps in the existing public debate, with streets of the capital city serving as a huge public discussion forum. Citizens took to the streets to debate in an endless string of marches and rallies. Even if we agree with Ekiert and Kubik that this served as a platform for social debate, where views could be shared and confronted with each other, the debate would likely have been more effective, to-the-point and nuanced if as many people had indeed been involved in a full-fledged, candid, both unfettered and more orderly discussion. This actually was the case with the “first” Solidarity.

Ii is for good reason that I refer to it as the “first” Solidarity. The movement and trade union activists we interviewed in our research agreed that it was an ←15 | 16→apt choice, and that the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” reactivated in 1989 was not the same as the union destroyed by martial law. The new Solidarity neither regained its powerful membership nor revived its never fully expressed ideological potential. The union robustly engaged with abrupt and often costly political and economic changes, and it soon became a political actor of quite firm ideological leanings. Consequently, the trade union started to lose its membership base rapidly and took a definite position as a player on the political arena. In 2010 and 2011, even the activists of the current union hailing from the first Solidarity were highly critical of the union’s “excessive politicisation,” despite their overall allegiance to the political party to which the union had become “a political annex,” so to speak.

To finish with, let me stress that this volume is not a simple re-edition. Inspired by the Head of the European Solidarity Centre, I added a third part to it. It includes texts that revisit the earlier discussed factors in and the values of the Solidarity experience in order to understand what happened to the civil society that issued forth the Solidarity movement and then was shaped by this movement in turn. I do not know whether I can answer this question comprehensively, but I hope that my insights will shed some light on the phenomenon of Solidarity, which is transforming into a big socio-political myth, as French sociologists pithily put it.

In Conclusion, I will look into the questions asked in this Introduction through a social scientific lens and see what happened with the Solidarity experience, whether its legacy is still vivid in the memory of its participants (as suggested by field research) and whether it still harbours a social, political or, simply, civic potential. My answers, tentative though they may – or perhaps must – be, will hopefully add up to a pertinent account of our knowledge of the social and trade-unionist movement of Solidarity and our perception of Poles’ grand collective work of the 20th century.

1 The communist Party refers to the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polish: Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza), which was popularly referred to as the Party throughout the communist period. (translator’s note)

2 Marcin Frybes and Patrick Michel, Après le communisme. Mythes et légendes de la Pologne contemporaine (Paris: Bayard Edition, 1996). For the Polish edition, see Marcin Frybes i Patrick Michel, Po komunizmie: o mitach w Polsce współczesnej, trans. Jan Maria Kłoczowski (Warszawa: Krupski i S-ka, 1999).

3 Bronisław Świderski, Gdańsk i Ateny: o demokracji bezpośredniej w Polsce (Warszawa: IFiS PAN, 1996).

4 In 2010, I launched the first research project entitled Solidarność – doświadczenie i pamięć (Solidarity: Experience and Memory) in collaboration with Warsaw’s Centre for Public Opinion Research, funded by the European Solidarity Centre. The Polish publication with the study’s findings was released in the same year. As the project went on in subsequent iterations, another book appeared in 2016 (Solidarność - doświadczenie i pamięć [Solidarity: Experience and Memory] and Solidarność – doświadczenia i pamięć po raz drugi [Solidarity: Experience and Memory Revisited]). My research team from the Centre for Research on Solidarity and Social Movements at the Sociology Department, University of Warsaw, included Wojciech Ogrodnik, Marcin Jóźko, Krzysztof Martyniak and Dominik Wasilewski. The study was carried out across Poland, specifically in Białystok, Gorzów Wielkopolski, Zielona Góra, Żyrardów, Łódź, Płock, Radom, Rzeszów, Legnica–Lubin–Polkowice and Bielsko-Białą.

5 See Grzegorz Ekiert and Jan Kubik, Rebellious Civil Society: Popular Protest and Democratic Consolidation in Poland, 1989–1993 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 278.

←16 | 17→

The Forgotten Past

In the early 1980s, the word “solidarity” captured people’s imaginations and became a common catchphrase. And that was the case not only – one could say particularly not – in Poland. The word was revived, taking a new lease of life and a new relevance as a social and political tag. Before 1980, “solidarity” featured in political discourse in two contexts which gave it a slightly ambiguous ring. In one of them, when used by serious political scientists, it sounded ironic and corresponded to “social solidarism.” Back then, social solidarism was (and as a matter of fact still is) viewed as an unfeasible socio-political concept that posited bonding and collaboration between social groups – classes – despite their conflicting positions.

In broad lines, political scientists are ironic about solidarism, as its advocates have generally failed to appreciate either the relevance of conflicts spawned by divergent interests or the power of mutual dislike, envy and resentment between those on “top” and those at the “bottom” of the social hierarchy. Solidarists firmly believe that the upper echelons of society are ready to take account of the needs and demands of the lower strata, while the latter are perfectly capable of tempering their claims for the sake of common good; serious researchers insist, however, that this belief is belied by historical experience and the lived social reality. They also sneer ironically at solidarists’ belief that the upper social classes can become a genuine authority for their social inferiors, which will breed harmony and understanding between the “top” and the “bottom” rungs of the social ladder.

Anyway, conflict lines can run not only between classes but also between other large groups of citizens who hold different positions and embrace entirely different political arrangements or entirely different notions of national tradition and its role in the state. In such cases, solidarists will also presuppose that agreement is possible, especially if facilitated by commonly recognised authority figures.6

In the other context, the word “solidarity” was also given a class-inflected meaning, albeit one opposed to the solidarist vision. Solidarity was supposed to be intrinsic to the working class, whose members had come to be aware that they shared the same fate. On this model, the working class was a symbol of all the oppressed, the humiliated and the exploited. Consequently, proletarian ←17 | 18→solidarity was attributed to all the oppressed, the humiliated and the exploited. Hence, Stanisław Skorupka’s 1968 Słownik frazeologiczny języka polskiego (A Phraseological Dictionary of the Polish Language) lists multiple examples of such usage of “solidarity” and “solidary.” The dictionary describes solidarity by modifiers such as “internationalist,” “of the proletariat,” “of the peace bloc” and, finally, “of the fighting proletariat.”7 By definition, solidarity between the proletariat and capitalists was out of the question, but solidarity of all workers, regardless of their national, occupational or financial differences, was indeed necessary as only such solidarity could help workers, in fact humans as such, shake off their fetters. In this sense, solidarity was contrasted with solidarism, which could hardly be anything else than an invention of the ruling and monied classes designed to beguile the exploited. Therefore, solidarity only concerned the working class and its allies who grasped the proletariat’s historical mission. Only the humiliated and the exploited could stand in disinterested solidarity with each other.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (October)
Changing role of the Catholic Church Democratic opposition Non-violent civic movement The state and human rights Trade union Debating (deliberative) democracy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 352 S.

Biographical notes

Ireneusz Krzemiński (Author)

Ireneusz Krzemiński is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw. His research focuses on anti-Semitism, national stereotypes, Solidarity and new social movements. He taught at universities in Poland and abroad (Rochester University, USA; Hebrew University, Jerusalem). He is engaged in public and political life as a commentator and publicist.


Title: Solidarity: The Unfulfilled Project of Polish Democracy
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