Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Solidarity Decade: 1980-1989

Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Solidarity Decade: 1980-1989

Article excerpt

What is called here the 'Solidarity Decade' covers the developments between September 1980, the beginning of the mass, organised, peaceful and negotiated dismantling of communist domination in the Soviet Bloc, and September 1989, the formation of the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe, and the beginning of the 'contagious' systemic transformation that initiated the domino-like fall of communist regimes in the region and the gradual transition to what Holmes1 labelled 'post-communism'.

While the Polish Solidarity was not the first mass protest against communist domination - it was preceded by mass anti-communist opposition in 1945-47 in Poland, in 1953 in East Germany, in 1956 in Poland and Hungary, in 1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia and, again, in 1970 and 1976 in Poland - it was unique in many ways. The Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring apart, the pre-1980 mass protests could be accurately described as spontaneous eruptions of public anger and frustration; they were poorly organised and politically ineffective - and were promptly suppressed or defused by the authorities. While they resulted in leadership changes, their impact was more cultural than political; they left behind important political memories, legends and traditions, but no political-organisational legacies.

Solidarity was different. It was a mass movement of unprecedented strength, political restraint and - at least initially - social discipline. At the peak of its popularity in mid-1981, Solidarity boasted about 10 million members/ supporters - more than half the adult population of Poland. Moreover, this mobilisation was well coordinated, and it adopted the novel, yet familiar, form of a 'free trade union'. In turn, the free union provided a protective political umbrella to scores of independent (though often 'affiliated') oppositional groups and initiatives. Also, unlike the former mass opposition, Solidarity was 'antiutopian'. Its initial '21 demands' were sober and practical, and the reform programs that gradually emerged during the 1981 debates promoted the 'welltried' Western liberal-democratic institutional solutions: trade union formation, civil liberties, citizen and employee rights, democratic procedures and, in the later stages of discussions, political pluralism and respect for private property. Above all, Solidarity stressed freedom of thought, expression and association, and non-violent, conciliatory strategies for action. All these elements proved successful in 1980-81 in breaking - albeit for only 15 months - the communist monopoly on political organisation, information and free expression. These 15 months of freedom, as argued here, were sufficient to start the irreversible political change.

The closing date of the Solidarity Decade - September 1989 - was no less consequential. As argued by this author elsewhere in this volume (Chapter 9), it was the final stage of the historic 'Breakthrough' that initiated a new phase of change - a systemic transformation - accompanied by a largely unanticipated domino-like collapse of the Eastern European communist regimes. This was the proverbial 'beginning of the end': the end of 'reforming socialism' and the beginning of a 'systemic transformation' described by the leaders of the Solidarity government as 'a return to Europe'.

One should also highlight the 'external' conditions of success. By far the most important was the political ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev and his reformist campaign of perestroika (rebuilding, re -formation) and glasnost (transparency, openness). While these permissive and liberalising policies were essential conditions of Solidarity's Breakthrough, the dismantling of communism was never Gorbachev's intention. Perestroika aimed at reforming, and thus strengthening, communism, rather than its abolition. The second factor was a parallel reformist drive in Hungary. The Hungarian reforms, however, were almost completely confined to the Communist Party apparatus and were initially directed primarily towards economic modernisation (introduction of market mechanisms). …

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