Forty years on, Mark Osborn's book Solidarnosc: the workers' movement and the rebirth of Poland in 1980-1 is a timely celebration of the dramatic events in Poland which created the first independent trade union in the Soviet empire.
It’s a story that needs telling, not least because Solidarity has been misrepresented and its leaders traduced by the country’s present-day rulers, and has been largely forgotten by the wider world. Here it is excitingly retold in short chapters and good pictures.
Mark Osborn has also produced an honest book, free of pieties about Trotsky or apologetics for Stalin. He acknowledges the importance of the election of a Polish pope and the impact of John Paul’s nationwide tour in 1979.
The decades-long antecedents to Solidarity’s triumph on 31 August 1980 are well related: from the mass disturbances in Poznań in the summer of 1956 to the formation twenty years later of the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), discussed below. Osborn’s account is valuable in stressing the regular use of antisemitism by the ruling party in order to shore up its popularity. Disguised as anti-Zionism, these campaigns reduced the country’s surviving Jewish population to fewer than ten thousand.
His narrative of the 17-day occupation strike at the Gdańsk shipyard – preceded and quickly reinforced by industrial action elsewhere - is good too. Osborn gives due credit to the two women who turned Lech Wałęsa, the strike’s charismatic tribune, from calling off the stoppage once the demands in the shipyard had been substantially met, to continuing the occupation in support of other striking workers on the coast and forming an Inter-factory Strike Committee.
The cover photograph needs a new caption however. Apart from two, the young workers shown there are not reading newspapers: they are listening to the deliberations being relayed over the public-address system.
There are many lessons to be drawn from this story. One is the way in which the activists combined patient low-key propaganda over the previous years – distributing their paper despite harassment, pressing for a memorial to the workers shot down in 1970 – with co-ordinated nimbleness in their response to the sacking of their comrade, the crane-driver Anna Walentinowicz, which they made the trigger for the strike.
Osborn, like others, stresses the key importance of KOR. This was formed by a group of intellectuals in 1976 to represent and protect the workers sacked, harassed and beaten after the strikes and demonstrations of that summer. Renamed KSS-KOR (KSS: Committee of Social Self-Defence) it made a series of creative interventions. Acting with defiant openness, it launched a paper for industrial workers called Robotnik (The Worker). It helped form a committee for free trade unions in Gdańsk - from which small nucleus the future strike leaders sprang.
Above all KOR sought to create an alliance between workers and intellectuals that had been missing in other confrontations with the government, causing the former to fight alone in 1956, 1970 and 1976 and the latter alone in 1968, each time going down to separate defeat.
Osborn recognises KOR’s dynamic influence on the course of events. Its chief theoretician was the tough and genial figure of Jacek Kuroń. At the same time, however, he blames KOR’s social-democratic strategy of accepting the party’s control of the state (and its external alliances) while seeking to hollow out and humanise that control from within.
Instead of adopting this self-limiting perspective Solidarity, Osborn argues, should have challenged the state and taken over. By seeking an accord with a party-state which never wanted to share power Wałęsa “disorientated and politically disarmed the millions that followed him.” (p. 88)
The moment for doing this, he suggests, was after a violent police attack on activists in the town of Bydgoszcz, between Gdańsk and Poznań, in March 1981. Solidarity held a national a four-hour warning strike – absolutely solid – but then Wałęsa controversially called off the indefinite strike that was planned to follow if talks with the government proved fruitless. This failure was the key event on the road to martial law, imposed the following December, says Osborn. He calls it a “military coup,” which doesn’t seem the right term.
How realistic was “seizing power” either then or later? The Russians would certainly have sent in the tanks, as they did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. (This was before the time of Gorbachev, remember.) Avoiding such an intervention was at the heart of KOR’s strategy. Osborn criticises Solidarity for failing to organise within the police and armed forces.
I would have liked more about the historical and intellectual inspiration behind Solidarity, and more about the experience of living through this tumultuous movement of democratic and national reassertion; which – to state the obvious – took a distinctively trade union form. Even Poland’s small peasant-farmers demanded and got their own union.
To me, a pro-Solidarity activist from almost 40 years ago and the author of a short book on the subject myself (Five Months With Solidarity), Mark Osborn’s volume is a welcome reminder of those inspirational sixteen months.