Mass strike at Gdansk shipyard in Poland,  August 1980 (Photo: wikimedia commons)

In the last column we saw how workers rose against Stalinist rule in 1956 in Hungary. Another great revolt came in 1980 in Poland.

The Solidarity (Solidarnosc) social movement saw huge numbers of workers strike and push back against the fake socialism of the Eastern Bloc and their own “Communist” ruling class.

State directed production and exploitation made Poland the tenth biggest international producer by the 1970s. But by 1979 Poland had started to experience a huge economic crash—output fell by nearly 20 percent between 1979 and 1981.

From 1976-80, there were some 1,000 strikes, despite harsh restrictions on unions. The catalyst for Solidarity occurred in Gdansk, a port city on the north coast of Poland.

Shipyard bosses fired Anna Walentynowicz in August 1980 for taking part in an “illegal trade union”. Strikes tore through coastal Poland and within days Gdansk strikers’ demands were met. Walentynowicz, and another fired worker, Lech Walesa, won their jobs back. Workers secured their largest ever pay rise and improved family allowances.

But strikers elsewhere remained dissatisfied. So as Gdansk workers ended their strike, Walentynowicz and Walesa urged workers to continue their fight.

Strikers from Gdansk formed the Inter-enterprise Strike Committee (MKS). It created a political document named “21 Points”, calling for free trade unions, less censorship, freeing political prisoners and a better health service.

MKS was formalised into Solidarity, and by autumn 1980 there were 10 million members, some 80 percent of the Polish workforce.

The revolutionary potential of Solidarity was clear. Socialist author Colin Barker writes that there was an “incipient ‘dual power’ situation in Poland”. Dual power is the situation where alongside the existing state a working class governing force arises.

For Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, dual power is characterised by the class nature of the two competing forces. The capitalist, bourgeois state is confronted by a working class “which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people”.

Situations of dual power have the potential to overthrow the state—Solidarity was no exception.

As Barker puts it, “Polish society enjoyed an orgy of self‑governing participation.” Solidarity also highlighted the class antagonisms present in the Eastern Bloc. As it developed, repressive force against workers escalated, reaching breaking point in March 1981.

In the city of Bydgoszcz, a peasants’ union occupied an office of the Polish legislature. When the group’s demands were not met, workers continued the occupation, and some 200 police entered to assault them. When Solidarity called a general strike for 31 March in response, Poland’s rulers threatened to call on Russia to suppress it.

But the general strike never came. The leadership failed to harness the revolutionary potential of Solidarity and the revolutionary tendencies never crystallised. Both the church and Polish intelligentsia pushed a reformist agenda within Solidarity.

And when the state declared martial law in December 1981, Solidarity never confronted it.

Solidarity showed that a different form of society was possible in Poland—but it was never realised. And when the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, Walesa, Solidarity’s former national committee chair, became Poland’s president and ushered in free market policies and privatisation.

Solidarity showed the class divisions in the Eastern Bloc and the potential for the working class to overcome them.

We were right to support Solidarity and other struggles against Stalinism in Russia and elsewhere.

This is the 19th part of a series that discusses What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principle. For the full series go to tinyurl.com/WWSF2024

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