Solidarity – a Myth that Withers or the Foundations of the Polish Political Character?
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Dariusz Gawin

[in:] Polska Solidarności: kontrowersje, oblicza, interpretacje, OMP, Cracow 2011.


In her introduction to Between Past and Future Hannah Arendt wrote: “The history of revolutions - from the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia and the summer of 1789 in Paris to the autumn of 1956 in Budapest – […] could be told in parable form as the tale of an age-old treasure which, under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana.[1] The German political theorist died five years before August 1980; hence she was not able to comment on the phenomenon of the solidarity revolution. Yet, one cannot help noticing that her perception of politics corresponds perfectly with the Polish experience of the time. Solidarity was a great democratic revolution whose scale and pathos compared both to the American and French revolutions.[2] Hardly ever did the Polish manage to reach the level of the universal history in such an obvious way. Nevertheless, in today’s memory of that time bitterness dominates over pride. The concept of a “lost treasure” depicts the ambivalence very well. Why is it so?


In order to answer the question, one must ponder over the essence of the Solidarity heritage. What values are at the core of its ethos? One should naturally remember the whole complexity of the Solidarity movement that – after the thirty years – sparkles with all ideological colours and shades. It was both leftist and nationalist, conservative and liberal, anti-communist and Christian. Each of these traditions can voice their claims to the legacy of Solidarity. And though they do not have exactly the same rights, each of them can be thoroughly documented. This means that the legacy of Solidarity reaches deeper, well beyond the level of ideological projects of the modernity; it reaches directly into the sources of the western political thinking in the way that other great democratic revolutions of the western world did. Therefore, we can mark off two basic layers in the legacy of Solidarity – both referring to what is political and to what is social in nature. The first layer pertains to individual freedom in civic community. And both parts of the preceding sentence are equally important here, which needs to be stressed because the modern political thought has got used to opposing individuals and communities. Those who emphasise individual rights, distrust collective rights. This kind of tension can easily be described by the antagonism between liberalism and conservatism, or liberalism and nationalism. Solidarity rejected that dichotomy. Individual freedom and rights became effective only within political communities. Only in free and law-abiding political communities can individuals enjoy their own freedoms as well as guaranties of their own rights. Yet it requires individuals to keep ready to support the community at all times by participating in public life, cherishing common good, showing readiness to debate, dispute, seek agreement or reconciliation, and incur risk involved in the defence of the community. The time of the great Solidarity was the time of revelation – which is a widespread recollection in Poland – of the truth that individual dignity is gained together with others who reveal it in themselves and in their fellow citizens through their common fight and civic life. This revelation marks the moment which founds a political community differently from a social contract. Its power originates from the fact that a contract must be preceded by the calculation of profits and losses, whereas the bonds that tie authentic political communities originate from a deep sense of brotherhood that binds people who make a commitment to live together in a civic community. The bonds are primary to all ideologies or institutions that have been born in modern politics. It forms the foundation for such structures as state, nation, socialism, patriotism, etc. Without it, the structures are meaningless. Arendt has a lot to say about this political layer, just like other representatives of the contemporary republican tradition. Such Solidarity used to be our Polish, local variety of the great western and at the same time universal tradition of the republican political thought.


The social aspect of the legacy of Solidarity entails equality and justice. Citizens united in a civic community want the concept of freedom to be strongly integrated with the concept of dignity. Here, a political element intertwines with a social element – a free man is a man who lives a “dignified life”, though at the same time the Polish concept of dignity goes beyond political freedom and involves wellbeing, “good existence”, i.e. a standard of living. A free man must not be another man's slave in the political sense, and must not be a slave of a vital necessity, either. Poverty and want are not only material problems, they are also a problem of dignity – the one who is poor feels devoid of dignity because the poor are despised. Therefore a poor person feels excluded from the civic community; a poor person is not a fellow citizen; a poor person is somebody of a lesser value. The understanding of that position led the first Solidarity to believe that it must be a political concern to ensure dignified life to all members of a community. Dignified life is a condition for freedom; and freedom guarantees dignified life. At the time of the first Solidarity the two concepts were indivisible and could not be divided into liberal individualism that could easily evolve into egoism or any socialist leftist protectiveness that forcefully levelled differences through national redistribution in the cause of the so called social justice. Again – in the political sphere Solidarity tried to combine individual rights with the rights of a community, and in the social sense Solidarity tried to combine liberty with justice – values that in modern world are in an unavoidable conflict, as we have been aware since the time of Tocqueville. In this case the Polish experience goes beyond the republican tradition as understood by Arendt who would always emphasise that the social sphere, the sphere of life necessities should be excluded from the political nature (just as it used to be in the Greek society). The origin of the latter layer of the legacy of Solidarity is not classical. It is Christian. Here, we would be guided more by John Paul II and rev. Tischner, author of The Ethics of Solidarity, who was called the chaplain of Solidarity.[3] Equality and justice as the foundations of dignified life in a free environment are just a processed tradition of the Christian charity combined with the love of one's neighbour. The ethos of solidarity meant the understanding that fellow citizens are neighbours, and solidarity written with lower case meant readiness to carry burdens together. It is thanks to the Christian roots that the social dimension of the Polish experience, though it appeared leftist, was not socialist in that socialism changes the slogan of social justice into arms in the class struggle (Solidarity was a movement of the “working people” as they were called in Poland rather than a revolt of the “working class”). Therefore the revolution of solidarity was not social in the sense that the Bolshevik revolution was; it was a political revolution that took into consideration the cause of equality understood as the equality of dignified life. The community of solidary citizens was united in the common care for the common good, and saw it as a common obligation that united everyone.


If this is the way the legacy of Solidarity is to be understood in its political and social aspects, then it should be stated that today it is cracked, broken, and permanently lost by the present generation. This however does not mean that it was a myth that lost the fight with the harsh reality, and is now gone. The heritage is alive even if mostly in our memory. The fact that the present generation has rejected and lost – to paraphrase Arendt’s words – the treasure of Solidarity/solidarity (as it has lost it in both senses) does not mean that all future generations shall do the same. The present generation has power over the present only, and its power does not reach into the future though. Why is it so? Why has the present generation lost the heritage, why can it only cherish the memory of it that may only be brought back to life by some future generation? The key to the answer can be found in Arendt’s writings again. Her whole work was a great effort to understand the classical tradition of political action, and explain its sense to the contemporary western men who – as she thought – were losing the ability to take from that source of political nature before her very eyes. At the same time however, she unconsciously pointed to some kind of irremovable potential of utopia in the republican tradition, which can be seen in such works of hers as On Revolution or The Promise of Politics. This is why she wrote that the treasure had appeared and disappeared in the western tradition. The experience of civic, political action within a political community happens in the western culture in a way regardless of the rationally structured cause and effect lines. It can last longer or shorter but each time it is not guaranteed once forever; to maintain it requires effort and care. Yet, it cannot be brought to the ultimate end, to perfection, as even the Athenians – as portrayed by Arendt in The Human Condition – are more of an intellectual construct, a model or ideal type not even achieved by Pericles’ fellow citizens (to see that it is enough to read those fragments of The Peloponnesian War which are thoroughly disregarded by the German philosopher). This does not however mean that the ideal type is to be seen as false or utopian in the sense that utopia is commonly understood, i.e. as an impossible project. The political nature of the Greeks is more of a measure that is applied to each present time that tries hard to implement the project of a democratic and at the same time republican political community, as it is understood in the civilization which is called western.


In this sense, Solidarity participates in the great western tradition, being a local variety of the universal values that are constitutive for that tradition. And as such, it gives us, the Polish, a measure to assess each Polish attempt at implementing that ideal type in practice. It is a measure because out of all the varieties of political community that the Polish have created throughout their history, it is this very project, this political reality that has probably come closest to the universal western ideal type (I say “probably” because some equally great moments have happened in our history – for instance the Republic of Poland of the 16th century movement of the enforcement of rights, the work of the Constitution of 3 May, or the beginnings of the Second Republic). Solidarity, the first one, the great one – literally the great one as it amounted to ten million, and at the same time great in a spiritual way – reaching farthest towards the ideal of the civic life that has been targeted for over two thousand years by the men of the West, can therefore be called after Aristotle the entelechia of the Polish, the most perfect kind of the Polish nature understood as the ideal of civic nature. The most perfect that the Polish are able to build within their real history.


When such Solidarity is applied as a measure to contemporary Poland, its drawbacks can be seen with all the painful expressiveness. True, after the twenty years of free Poland we enjoy individual freedom and collective sovereignty, we live in a country which is incomparably richer than it was thirty years ago. Yet today individual freedom is not as strongly linked with the freedom of a political community as it used to be; freedom is also in conflict with equality and justice, with the idea of “a dignified life” as a condition for freedom. The initial sentences of a cult issue of Bohdan Cywiński’s legendary Genealogy of the Unhumble, which was in fact a course book for the generation of solidarity, read: “The green light for the capitalist entrepreneurship for one group, has – apart from its excellent effects for the society in general – caused an unavoidable deprivation of others, causing their social degradation. Exploitation of working men by businessmen has become the Polish social problem anew. Culture, dependent on the market, and therefore reduced solely to the dimension of entertainment, does not find in itself enough energy to stimulate collective thinking.”[4]


The effects can unfortunately be seen everywhere – the state is treated as an instrument for the protection of the interest of the rulers. The widespread social apathy and indifference towards public matters coexists with a fierce enmity of fighting radical minorities and elites that can organise devastating campaigns of political mobilization in order to quickly abandon their core ideas and consume the fruit of power. Common good has collapsed in a hateful mental civil war. Only in dramatic moments can we see that responsibility for the whole, for public matters, for the good of a political community should be a common matter. At such times masks drop and we stand naked against the horror and seriousness of the reality – just as it was after 10 April when the whole nation stood still hearing the news about the tragic death of President Lech Kaczyński. Such moments are short though, and soon everybody returns to their well-known roles played in the tragedy of brotherly war.


The ferocity of the fight originates in the time of the great Solidarity. Its causes disappear somewhere in that past, unclear to us, tormented by that collective misery that we have been witnessing for some years now. We have been witnessing a fight within the generation of politicians who appeared on the political scene back then. Let us not be too harsh – with all their sins, they are also carrying faults that are not theirs. I mean martial law, several years of brutal violence, physical and psychological terror that mutilated our generation and poisoned liberated Poland. That was a time of breaking human characters, devastating social structures, destroying social bonds. Solidarity as a movement survived that time, the price was high though. It is worth remembering before we attribute all our misfortunes to our national character or historical necessity. We do not know how the present internal conflict is going to end. It is sure though that the legacy of Solidarity understood and remembered as a measure, as a criterion of the Polish reality, is going to last. Its treasure – which is lost today – becomes a framework for the Polish tradition, the Polish way of remembering the essence of the political character. True – it can sink in the daily course of discouraging politics. Yet our passions, our anger, our involvement in it derives its strength exactly from the deep sense of disparity between the measure and the reality. To quote Arendt again: “Without testament, (...) without tradition – which selects and names, which hand down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is – there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it.”[5] The slogan  “Solidarity cannot be divided or destroyed.” was popular during the martial law, It was true then. Unfortunately, the real solidarity (with lower case) has turned out not to be so firm or resistant to blows in liberal conditions. Yet tradition and memory of that experience cannot be divided or destroyed indeed. In the name of the Polish future.

[1] H. Arendt. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, translated by M. Godyń, W. Madej, introduction by P. Śpiewak, Warsaw 1994, p.16

[2] Her passionate admiration for the Hungarian uprising of 1956 which she would consistently call a revolution is another issue. Nevertheless, her delight in the working councils of Budapest contrasts intriguingly with her complete disinterest in the Polish October or Polish working councils like that from Żerań in Warsaw. Maybe, which is just a hypothesis though, that desinteressment originated from her childhood and youth spent in Konigsberg in early 20th century, which gave her a specific Prussian perception of the Polish cause. Some circumstantial evidence can be found in her comments about Poland made in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is a shameful mixture of ignorance and prejudice.

[3]              See the interesting work by Zbigniew Stawrowski that combines the two figures in the context of Solidarity: Solidarity Means Bond. Within the Circle of Józef Tischner’s and John Paul II’s Thoughts, Krakow 2010.

[4] B. Cywiński, The Genealogy of the Unhumble, Warsaw 2010, p. 14.

[5] H. Arendt, Between Past..., quote, p. 17.

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