In August 1980 I had other things on my mind than the strikes of shipyard workers in Gdańsk. After all Aston Villa were just embarking on a league championship season (yes it really was that long ago!) and this ten year old was more concerned with Peter Withe than Lech Wałęsa. Yet even in these circumstances the huge working class mobilisations in Poland had made their impression. The iconic images of Solidarność, Wałęsa jumping on the wall and the V-signs of victory are all memories of my youth.
One of my first political acts was to go on a march against nuclear weapons. Basically I didn’t want to die and the TV film Threads – showing Sheffield being incinerated by a nuclear bomb – had scared the life out of me. And so we marched – calling for our own government to ditch its nuclear arsenal as a step towards full nuclear disarmament in the world. On such demonstrations it was not uncommon to see the Solidarity symbol on a lapel alongside a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge. It remained a symbol of hope and unity beyond the boundaries of Poland – now quietened by Martial Law.
These were the last flickerings of optimism for the Western European left during the Cold War. The overthrow of the dictatorships in Southern Europe from the end of the ‘70s had emboldened many previously radicalized by the events of 1968. The growth of a mass working class movement in Poland, espousing a radical programme of workers self-management, seemed to fit this mood nicely. Yet the wheels of history were turning in the opposite direction. Thatcher and Reagan had taken the reins of power and they weren’t going to let go.
Solidarność contained many contradictions and aroused numerous emotions and hypocrisies. The ex British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once remarked – after seeing pictures of strikers holding a Mass outside the Gdańsk shipyards – that he always liked to see workers on their knees. The western left tended to brush aside such concerns and were at the forefront of organizing material and political support for the strikers. In Washington and London the elite were apprehensive about the strikes. There is in fact some evidence that the American admistration knew about the Polish government’s plans to introduce Martial Law (as they had been told about them by the defector Kukliński) yet failed to inform the Solidarność movement that they professed to support.
As Thatcher expressed her outrage at the treatment of strikers in Poland she was preparing her own domestic assault. The miners’ strike in the UK (1983-84) was accompanied by a massive state deployment including the physical repression of strikers by the police. These were accompanied by the use of plastic bullets in Ireland, the death of Irish Republican hunger-strikers, the violence against the black-communities in the inner-cities and the military adventure in the Falklands. It is no exaggeration to say that many more people died under Thatcher than Jaruzelski and it has always been a source of dismay for me that many in Poland have seen Thatcher as a hero. The other hypocrisy of course was that the Polish ‘socialist’ government continued to export coal to Britain throughout the year-long miners' strike. Strange times indeed.
The hypocrisies have not gone away. The Solidarność movement was a shadow of its former self by the end of communism, yet it was able to negotiate the peaceful end of the system and win the first free elections with landside victories. Yet the Shock-therapy reforms that its leaders helped introduce were never agreed at the Round-Table talks. Many advances have been achieved in Poland. Free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of travel – whatever their practical limitations today – are basic human rights. The ending of the ludicrous economy of shortage and the queues for basic necessities – that reached absurdities in the 1980s - is a victory for all. However, the Solidarność victory is incomplete and partial.
30 years ago the Solidarność strikers put forward a list of 21 demands. Most of these concerned direct economic issues and many have yet to be met. They included improving the health service (the present health service in Poland is crumbling and the government would like to privatise it); for more nurseries to be provided (presently 30% of pre-school children do not attend nurseries and local councils are closing them) and for a reduction in the retirement age (the government is currently trying to increase it). The number one demand of the strikers was for the right to form free trade unions. Although this right now exists trade union membership has slumped – falling from 18% in 1991 to below 6% in 2002. This has left large swathes of workers open to exploitation. Although one of the achieved demands of the strikers was to not have to work on Saturdays, Polish workers presently work the longest hours in Europe (1,984 hours annually), which is more than in any other country in the OECD apart from South Korea, even surpassing Japan.
The present political leaders are falling over themselves to claim the mantle of Solidarność. All agree it represented the beginning of a new and free Poland. Yet they distort its real historical meaning with an Orwellian revisionism of history. Through this cloud of ideological distortion we should pay tribute August 1980.
I'll leave the last word to the Angellic Upstarts