Solidarity Comes to Power


In retrospect, it seems predictable that the first opposition group in the Soviet bloc to succeed in unseating a communist regime would be Poland’s Solidarity movement. Discontent with economic hardships and the suppression of civil liberties had long been evident in Poland, erupting in workplace unrest and mass protests more frequently than anywhere else in Eastern Europe: 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976. In 1980, during yet another wave of strikes and demonstrations, the Solidarity trade union had been formed in the port city of Gdansk.

It soon took on the character of a nation-wide opposition movement, attracting a membership numbering in the millions. But if this recent history demonstrated the depth and durability of hostility to the regime, it also seemed to demonstrate its futility. On every occasion, the regime had been able to use a combination of modest concessions and brute force to master the situation and re-confirm its monopoly on power. Even the unprecedented social support for Solidarity in 1980, which initially led the regime to recognize and make concessions to the union, could not prevent a subsequent crackdown.

The imposition of martial law in December 1981 forced Solidarity into the role of an embattled underground movement. It did, to be sure, maintain a significant following, and by the late 1980s, the now illegal trade union played a role in a new wave of strikes that broke out across the country. But opposition activists had to wonder: why would these protests end any differently than those the regime had successfully thwarted in the past?

And yet a number of things had changed over the course of the 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious was the international context. Earlier crackdowns on dissent had been motivated not only by the Polish Communist Party’s interest in maintaining its own rule but also by concerns about the potential for Soviet intervention if Poland’s domestic situation was deemed to be getting out of hand. Indeed, the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, named after the long-serving Soviet leader, proclaimed that Moscow was prepared to intervene militarily to prevent any threat of regime change in Eastern Europe, just as it had in response to radical reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 suddenly changed the direction of the pressure that Moscow exerted on Eastern Europe. Gorbachev and his allies were convinced that the greatest danger to the Soviet system was not dissent but inertia, and they saw a policy of openness (glasnost) as essential to spurring necessary changes. The Brezhnev Doctrine was now replaced by the Sinatra Doctrine, which positively encouraged Soviet satellite states to “do it their way” by experimenting with political and economic reforms. This change in signals from Moscow greatly strengthened the hand of moderates within Poland’s communist party, who believed that some accommodation with opposition groups was possible and desirable.

Another factor spurring party reformers to reach out to Solidarity was a growing sense of urgency regarding the economy. In previous decades, the regime had been able to manage economic discontent with a mix of centralized planning (keeping the prices of staple goods artificially low) and selective opening to the Western market economy (borrowing heavily from Western governments and banks). But these expedients had only masked many of the economy’s underlying problems, not addressed them.

More fundamental reforms, most experts had come to agree, would be necessary to overcome mounting inflationary pressures and lagging growth. Since such bitter economic medicine was likely to inflame rather than calm popular discontent, party reformers believed it was crucial to achieve some kind of social consensus about the necessity of such measures. Rather than allowing Solidarity activists to continue criticizing from the sidelines, they argued, it would be smarter to make the opposition co-responsible for the unpopular but necessary economic policies to come.

Convinced that engaging Solidarity would do more to tame the opposition than to empower it, party officials made a series of gestures to the still-outlawed movement. In November 1988, the leader of the official, party-affiliated trade union, Alfred Miodowicz, challenged the head of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, to a televised debate, expecting that the event would highlight the latter’s inexperience. Instead, Walesa succeeded in focusing attention on the past failures of the regime, casting Solidarity as a clear, untainted alternative.

In February, when party officials and Solidarity representatives began the Round Table talks—an extended set of negotiations on political and economic questions—a similar tug-of-war developed over the agenda. Representatives of the regime tried to emphasize commitment to a shared, “national” program of reforms, while Solidarity insisted on the introduction of trade union pluralism and genuine political competition.

For opposition leaders, it was a delicate balancing act. If they demanded too much, party hardliners might call off the entire dialogue. If they were overly deferential, their grassroots supporters might feel betrayed and lose faith in their leaders. After two months of negotiation, a careful formula was worked out. Elections for a newly created Senate would be freely contested, as would 35 percent of the seats for the lower house of the legislature, the Sejm. This would give an unprecedented political voice to groups critical of the communist regime but guarantee the regime’s continued hold on power.

What neither side counted on was the utterly lopsided outcome of the elections held in early June. Solidarity won every seat it was able to contest in the Sejm and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate. In the aftermath of this landslide, the “guarantees” of the party’s continued hold on power suddenly looked very shaky. Members of small satellite parties that had been in permanent coalition with the communist party spoke of refusing to support a communist candidate for prime minister or president.

Opposition leaders, in turn, worried that such a drastic exclusion of the party from positions of power could incite hardliners—possibly aided by Poland’s Warsaw Pact neighbors, if not the USSR itself—to resort to a military crackdown. Anxious to avoid a deadlock and potential bloodshed, party reformists and Solidarity leaders negotiated an extraordinary compromise. The opposition accepted the election as president of

Wojciech Jaruzelski, until then general secretary of the communist party, while Jaruzelski in turn named as prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual and long-time Solidarity adviser. It was, like the negotiations preceding it, a complicated balancing act. But the outcome was nonetheless dramatic: the largest Soviet “satellite” in Eastern Europe now had a non-communist head of government.

The months preceding this transfer of power provide a fascinating case study in what historian Timothy Garton Ash famously described as 1989’s “refolutions” (hybrids of “reform” and “revolution”). As in other moments of dramatic historical change, the documentary record reveals the widespread sense of revolutionary upheaval, of long-held expectations being repeatedly overturned, of constant improvisation. And yet one also sees in the record of the era a determination—particularly among Solidarity activists, but also among reformist party members—to avoid the descent into violent confrontations that have characterized most revolutionary eras of the past.

James Bjork
Kings College London
London, England