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Solidarity’s Sources

In response to:

Poland After Solidarity from the June 13, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Timothy Garton Ash’s review of my book, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland [NYR, June 13], is a model of obfuscation that illustrates one of the principal themes of the work—namely the extent to which contemporary political culture has become too narrow and exclusive to digest with ease a popular movement of the range and social depth achieved by Solidarity. Readers of The New York Review of Books are entitled to know an historiographical detail that underlies Garton Ash’s anxious review: I single out his book, The Polish Revolution, as an urbane example of the simplistic conventional interpretation of Solidarity, i.e. the presumed causal role played by Warsaw intellectuals in its origins and development.

Corroboration of this circumstance lies in evidence, the central threads of which, as marshalled in my study, are invisible in Garton Ash’s review. It is not hard to understand why, for the evidence of worker insurgency in Poland that accumulated through decades of postwar Leninism constitutes a vast terrain that observers of Poland, including Garton Ash, have not taken the precaution of exploring. His review can be understood as an attempt at damage control.

Some germane points of fact may help explain Garton Ash’s evasiveness. The 17 day strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980 unveiled before the world three sequentially related insurgent activities: a huge occupation strike of 16,000 workers; an “interfactory strike committee” that recruited 600 cooperating factories to exert massive economic pressure on the regime; and 21 demands headed by one of decisive centrality—the recognition by the State of free trade unions independent of the party. Through days of tense confrontation, the strikers managed to withstand all party attempts at disinformation, negotiating sophistry and police terrorism. Omitted from conventional accounts such as Garton Ash’s was another area of necessary poise: workers had to withstand urgent and recurring advice from nearby and distant intellectuals that they back off from their “unrealistic” demand for independent unions. In the end, the workers prevailed and the interfactory strike structure became the house of Solidarity.

In reviewing the literature as to the causality underlying all this, it is helpful to note that journalists working under deadline pressures routinely report timely developments by utilizing sources that seem both appropriate and handy. In Poland, the presence in the late 1970’s of a group of visible oppositionists, centered in a Warsaw activist group known as KOR, conveniently provided a cornucopia of energetic (if transparently partisan) sources capable of interpreting Polish happenings for foreigners. Apparently in his impatience to publish, Garton Ash decided this was enough and thus unwittingly made himself a prisoner of his Warsaw sources. The advisories from KOR constituted, for Garton Ash, a “strategy” which in turn produced a “direct connection to the birth of Solidarity.” Isolated here is the central omission in the literature on the Polish movement, one that has crippled attempts to determine how Solidarity happened.

The evidence is this: Baltic workers did not require instruction either in occupation strikes or the merits of free trade unions. As Breaking the Barrier makes clear, both were an integral part of the prewar heritage. After being hammered into silence by the security police of the postwar Communist Party, these prewar shop floor traditions resurfaced in the 1950s, were again repressed, and then resurfaced with an immense emotional and programmatic power during the 1970 “December massacre” on the Baltic Coast. It was amid the terrifying carnage of this violent repression that Baltic workers first pioneered the organizational concept of an “interfactory strike committee” as a new and more powerful instrument for the achievement of independent trade unions. In the years after 1970, politicized Baltic workers from separate enterprises came together in insurgency, led occupation strikes, underwent periodic police detentions, returned to society, and continued organizing. The poised “presidium” of the 1980 interfactory committee—the directing summit of the workers’ confrontation with the state—was but a formal surfacing of a community of Baltic oppositionists populated by many worker activists who had labored in concert before KOR was ever formed.

To say the least, this is not how Solidarity is understood. These dynamics seriously reduce the role played by people remote from the Baltic coast, as heralded by Garton Ash and other Poland watchers who took their cues from Warsaw partisans. The relevant if awkward fact is that KOR’s most noted strategist, Jacek Kuron, opposed the formation of free unions when they first appeared in 1978; he opposed the first Gdansk demand of 1980; and he opposed it through the remainder of the crisis. The lengths to which he and other members of the progressive intelligentsia went to try to induce a worker retreat are detailed in Breaking the Barrier—evidence that is avoided with grim resolve by my reviewer.

The sense of authority the worker leadership acquired as a product of living through these instructive experiences centrally informed the subsequent life of Solidarity. The controlling reality is this: If Walesa and the other members of the worker presidium had not unanimously ignored the advice of Kuron and others, Solidarity simply could not have come into being.

Garton Ash’s review is a study in how to cope with new evidence by pretending it does not exist. In the course of evading the substance of Breaking the Barrier, he casts about for non-specific matters upon which to focus attention. He worries that I might not have gotten to Poland soon enough, that I wasn’t “there” during the Polish August. This is a curious occupational prejudice, one not shared in by a number of journalists. Indeed if applied to the historian E.P. Thompson (whom Garton Ash mentions but whose research techniques he clearly cannot reproduce), this stricture translates into a view that The Making of the English Working Class may be fatally flawed because its author wasn’t present during the Chartist era. As a discipline, History itself would seem imperiled by such requirements. Mr. Ash needs to confront the obvious: he missed the movement he undertook to write about.

Lawrence Goodwyn
Duke University

Timothy Garton Ash replies:

Readers of The New York Review are also entitled to note that, between restating at length the central argument of his book and fulminating about mine, Lawrence Goodwyn fails to answer any of my specific criticisms: notably on the sparsity of his Polish sources, the precise sociology of the people he so loosely describes as “worker activists,” and the complexity of the relations between “intellectual” and “worker,” “Warsaw” and “Baltic” opposition, which my long review essay went on to illustrate with examples from the end of the decade.

E.P. Thompson can speak very well for himself, but I suspect that if he had had the chance to witness his Chartists in action at first hand, he would not have missed that chance for anything. What is quite certain, however, is that he is fluent in the language of the people he studies, as well as writing about them in lucid, vigorous, and memorable prose.

For readers seriously interested in the history of workers’ protest in Poland, my attention has been drawn to a detailed study of the workers’ demands in 1970–1971 and 1980, published in a small internal edition at Warsaw University in 1988: Postulaty: Materialy do dziejów wystapien pracowniczych w iatach 1970/71 i 1980, edited by Beata Chmiel and Elzbieta Kaczynska. This is an important complement to Roman Laba’s The Roots of Solidarity, which, as I noted in my original essay, makes the same basic argument as Goodwyn, but in a more careful, knowledgeable, and concise way, based on extensive study of the primary sources.

I rest my case.

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