Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics

Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics

By David Ost

David Ost argues that the Solidarity movement in Poland, which asserted itself as a purely social organization and not political, was true as well as false to this claim: true because that was the stated intention by Solidarity leaders and the actual practice for several years, but also false because inevitably the desire for social power will lead to confrontation with the state. His book reads like a history of Poland from 1944 until 1991 with an emphasis on the Solidarity movement. His thesis is that the Solidarity movement in Poland successfully exploited a previously unexploited chasm between state government and civic society to wear down the repressive communist party and eventually force change in Poland.

The most interesting element in Ost’s book is his focus on the method to the Solidarity movement’s success. Solidarity, and its predecessor, the Workers Defense Committee (WDC) before it, focused entirely on developing a civic sphere of Polish society while completely renouncing participation in politics. This approach was pragmatic because both groups knew the state would not have allowed open opposition, but it was also ingenious because of its backhanded effect on the eventual undermining of Communist party control of the Polish state. The approach of developing an independent and viable civic society in Poland enabled the WDC and later Solidarity to gain strength and eventually challenge the state party.

A second issue that Ost grapples with is whether or not Solidarity meant to enter politics and challenge the Communist party for control of the Polish state. Ost notes that Solidarity never expressed an interest in entering politics and the fact that they were caught off guard — like most Polish — and unprepared for this confrontation when it did happen is evidence of their lack of interest in politics. In fact, as Ost argues, the Solidarity movement became irrelevant as soon as it became successful: success defined as developing a viable civil society. Ost explains that Solidarity believed that society could be reformed or created from the bottom up without challenging the state. This, of course, was not the case and upon developing into a viable movement, Solidarity moved into the political realm and therefore ceased to exist.

Ost follows the development of Polish opposition with a focus on the Solidarity movement from its conception following negotiations between its predecessor, the WDC, and the state over independent trade unions until the declaration of martial law and the end of the Solidarity movement. Ost concludes his book with a discussion of the reemergence of Solidarity in 1989 as an opposition political party and its victory in the first democratic election in over 50 years.

I believe Ost does a wonderful job describing the Solidarity movement in Poland: especially to someone with almost no prior knowledge of its history. His assertion that Solidarity had little interest in becoming a political group is convincing although it’s difficult to believe that neither the WDC nor Solidarity thought their efforts to create an independent civic society in Poland would most likely lead to some kind of showdown with the state. Ost’s argument that Solidarity’s lack of preparation to enter politics is evidence enough of its lack of intention is somewhat suspect and could be challenged more effectively by deeper study. Overall, however, Ost presents an interesting read on the Solidarity movement and presents a convincing argument.

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