Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Solidarity Decade in Eastern Europe, 1980-1989: An Australian Perspective

Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Solidarity Decade in Eastern Europe, 1980-1989: An Australian Perspective

Article excerpt

One seldom finds a consensual view among historians of recent events, but very few would object to calling the 10 years that preceded the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe the 'Solidarity Decade'. It is spanned by two crucial events, both related to the Polish Solidarity movement but also, and indirectly, sharing wider international importance. The first was the formal recognition by the communist regime of the first 'free and independent' trade union and, in reality, a powerful social reform movement in Poland in late August to early September 1980. The second event was the swearing in of the 'Solidarity government' in Poland on 12 September 1989 - the first noncommunist government since the consolidation of communist rule in 1948. The first date marks the beginning of a mass, organised social dissent that not only fatally undermined communist legitimacy in Eastern Europe, but also created a powerful collective social force capable of directing change beyond the confines of 'reformed communism' and into 'post-communism'.1 The second date marks what we call the 'Breakthrough' - a shift of emphasis from reforming to transforming the communist system, from the monopoly of power vested de jure in the Soviet-style Communist Party to the first freely elected non-communist government in the Soviet Bloc. It was a tipping point initiating the processes of the domino-like collapse of the Eastern European communist regimes.

What was remarkable about this decade - and what is worth returning to on its anniversary - was its regional and worldwide impact, which was largely unanticipated by the major actors, including Gorbachev, Walesa, Reagan, Bush, Kohl, Jaruzelski and Havel. We are armed now with a better historical hindsight2 that allows us to trace both the origins of the momentous year 1989 - declared by Ash (2009a) 'the best year of European history' - and its impact on the subsequent chain of events, ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, through socio-political emancipation of 15 new post-Soviet republics in 1991-93, to a series of political 'aftershocks' in the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Burma and, more recently, Iran.3 While the causal connections between these 'aftershocks' and the 'negotiated regime change' - which we claim was successfully tested during the 'Solidarity Decade' - are highly diverse and complex, they are, nevertheless, quite apparent. All of these political aftershocks bore clear marks of the original Solidarity 'refolution' (Ash's term aptly describing a mixture of reform and revolution). All shared the basic 'political DNA' that can be traced to the original Solidarity model of 1980-89: a combination of mass opposition carrying strong moral overtones (against injustice, lies, deceptions); wide solidary mobilisations that transcend boundaries of class, region and faith; rejection of ideological utopias - so prevalent in previous violent revolutions and radical political movements; and - perhaps most characteristically - the nonviolent forms of action backed by the principles of negotiation and compromise with political opponents.4 In spite of the divergent labels attached to these recognisable and converging paths to negotiated regime change - such as 'movement of moral renewal', 'refolution', 'velvet revolution', 'self-limiting revolution', 'peaceful revolution', 'negotiated revolution', 'coloured revolution' (orange, saffron), 'flower revolution' (tulip, rose), and so on - all of them carried a clear imprint of the successful template for non-violent transition developed and tested in Poland during the Solidarity Decade: 1980-89.

This template itself, as stressed below, has been a product of complex political evolution that occurred in Poland and in other communist countries since World War II. It included the long legacy of contestation of communist domination: the 1945-47 opposition in Poland; the 1953 revolt in East Germany; the 1956 uprisings in Poland and Hungary; protests during the Warsaw March and the Prague Spring of 1968; and, most importantly, the series of mass protests in Poland in 1970 and 1976. …

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