25 Years After the Gdansk Uprising

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

Suzi Weissman interviews David Ost

THE OCCUPATION OF the Gdansk shipyard by Polish workers in 1980, demanding recognition of their independent trade union Solidarnosc, rocked the Eastern bloc and inspired the world. A quarter century later, Communist rule is only a bad memory but the present realities for the Polish working class are a grim choice between neoliberalism and reactionary psedo-populism. The following interview with David Ost, conducted by Suzi Weissman November 28, 2005 for her radio program “Beneath the Surface” on KPFK in Los Angeles (90.7 FM), explores what’s happened to post-Solidarity Poland. It has been edited for publication here.

SUZI WEISSMAN. We’re looking at the Polish elections and the defeat of Solidarity. That monumental movement challenged Stalinist authority and won; yet in the recent elections Poland has elected the Kaczynski twins who offer moral satisfaction instead of economic justice in a model familiar to anyone from Kansas, and I guess elsewhere.

I’m very pleased to have David Ost join us. He’s a professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-politics: Reform and Opposition in Poland Since 1968 and other works. He publishes articles in magazines including The Nation, Dissent, and Tikkun. This book is called The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Post-Communist Europe, published by Cornell University Press.

David, let me start by reading this from your book: “Poland offers a particularly provocative case because it was here that workers most famously seemed to have won [thanks to the role of Solidarnosc/Solidarity], and yet within a few short years they had clearly lost. An oppressive communist regime gave way to a capitalist society that embraced economic and political inequality, leaving many workers frustrated and angry. The leaders first ignored them, then began to fear them, and finally tried to marginalize them. In turn, workers rejected their liberal leaders, opening the way for far right-wing nationalists to take control of Solidarity.”

So Poland came to be polarized between two right-wing options: the free-market neoliberalism, which is discredited almost everywhere it has been tried, versus, the straight up clerical reaction out of the thirties, with no viable left alternative at all.

You did a great blog on Doug Ireland’s Direland, “Is Poland’s New President Kaczynski Another Putin, Or Another Peron?” in October, comparing the politics of the rightward shift by the Kaczynski identical twins of the Law and Justice party to the U.S. Republican Party’s victory, which as I said before offered moral satisfaction while eviscerating the standard of living of the majority. You call this not neoliberal, but “il-liberal.” Let’s talk about that…

DAVID OST: I thought the first thing you said earlier about Kansas was probably an allusion to Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? where he discusses how those in the United States who were the poorest citizens have been turning towards the Republican party, wooed by what I call “substitute satisfactions,” when economic developments don’t go well for them.

I think that is very similar to what has been going on in Poland. As you said, I had written about and studied this grand, great Solidarity movement — and we should note and commemorate the 25th anniversary, it began in late August of 1980 — a powerful social movement and trade union that talked about itself as being a kind of self-limiting revolution. That is, they wanted radical social change but also very well understood some of the flaws, some of the troubles which radical movements have gotten into when they take power and think they can solve everything. So it was a grand movement, very much about democratizing public life and having great open communication.

SW: The occasion of Solidarnosc’s huge victories that summer in 1980 before martial law was proclaimed the next year, was also the 25th anniversary of my first broadcast because I was invited to participate in a three-hour teach-in that KPFK had on the air about Solidarnosc. It meant so much: Here you had a 10-million strong workers’ movement that was challenging the state in what you call this self-limiting revolution, but their demands were so progressive and so rooted to workplace conditions that they had universal applications.

DO: Yes. It was first of all about having the right for free trade unions, and they understood that it was not just capitalist companies that can be an enemy of free trade unions, but that state socialist bureaucracies could stifle real working-class expression. They were really a kind of socialist movement, although they fled from that label very much. The kinds of things they were demanding, workplace power, a self-managed republic — one of the main ideas — were among the themes of the time.

SW: One of the things that was very attractive to me at the time — because I was pregnant — was their recognition of the importance of bonding with your children. They thought there should be a three-year paid maternity leave.

DO: I don’t remember that; it figures that you would have remembered it at that time. Well, those are among the things that I think often gave Solidarity — I think mistakenly — in the West a kind of conservative image because it was very connected with family, community. They had a number of issues where they saw themselves as both workers and also as citizens in the local community, who had rights by being citizens.

One of the things you pointed to was what happened after 1989, in what I call the defeat of Solidarity. As your listeners may remember, Solidarity began in 1980, but in December 1981 the government outlawed it — declared martial law, arrested a lot of people — and then the movement went underground for many years.

The regime couldn’t repress it; they weren’t able to stop it. The Solidarity people organized an underground very successfully, and finally by the late 1980s the Communist party had no alternative but to come back to Solidarity and to try to strike a deal.
There was a change over the course of the ’80s, which I think it makes sense in terms of what was happening in the West as well. In 1979-80 you had the victory of Thatcher first and then Reagan, a more neoconservative politics emerging in the West.

SW: And the Polish Pope as well.

DO: Yes, although the Polish Pope, whom Americans are used to considering as very conservative — which he certainly was on social issues, on family issues — on economic issues was far from a neoliberal. He was a very strong opponent of strict market societies, and in fact gave a lot of support to those who didn’t want to follow a strict neoliberal economic model.

But after 1989 — or I said over the course of the 1980s — there was a change inside Poland. Many people were turning to this notion of market economies, of consolidating private property and things like this, and after 1989 there was a kind of fear of workers, of simple workers — of what they would do.

There was a sense that “oh, we need to create a capitalist system.” By the way, inside Eastern Europe they talked about this quite openly. In the West, we kept hearing that they were building democracy, it’s true that they were doing this, but inside these countries (Poland and elsewhere), they were very explicitly saying, “Well, we have to build a ‘normal class society.’”

SW: We heard this in Russia as well, but one of the things that I read in your book that surprised me (and I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised) is that Adam Michnik, who was a former staunch supporter of the working class, later says that labor activism was dangerous for democracy.

DO: I was a big supporter of Michnik, I translated one of his early works — but I’m afraid he was one of the worst after 1989 in distrusting workers, in believing that you had to have these intellectual guardians who would keep things in line. Any time workers went on strike after 1989 — and there were very few strikes, but whenever they did — Michnik and his newspaper (he became the editor of the main newspaper) had very fiercely critical articles about them.

That gets to what happened in the elections, because in my book I was talking about not just the defeat of Solidarity as a union that was defending workers. Workers really did get screwed — they were the first to really suffer and they lost out quite a lot — but also what happened is that the people who had been supporting them, like Michnik, turned away from them after 1989.

SW: So that famous alliance between the intellectuals and the workers that we all thought was so amazing in Poland, broke apart in this period.

DO: That’s exactly what happened. I still think that alliance was amazing, and I don’t think its breakup was inevitable. I keep telling my own students I wish people would study more what happened in 1980-81 because it was a fascinating moment, but it didn’t last the test of time. After 1989 this new elite, people like Michnik, saw themselves as those who were going to bring Poland into the West, turn it into a “normal” capitalist system.

They were abnormally afraid of workers.  What I mean by abnormally is because workers pretty much supported the changes; they knew things were going to be rough.

SW: That would be a familiar story to people here — to go along and agree with their own leaders, even though these leaders were no longer defending their interests.

DO: Yes, exactly, that’s a fascinating thing. I got to know a lot of workers, trade unionists in factories around the country as I did a lot of field work at this time. And you could see them grappling with this.

On the one hand they look to these people as those who had been big supporters of them, those who had made Solidarity possible, who made this change of regime possible, and made it possible to have really independent trade unions. But at the same time, those people in the trade unions, when they came to power believed that, “well, that’s not so important anymore — we need to do something else.”

I have a South African friend who tells me it’s quite similar to what happened in South Africa when the ANC came to power.  It’s like, “well we have to follow the line of what everyone else does.” What happened in Poland was that they lost their working-class base. They weren’t organizing them politically, and left them available to other kinds of arguments, to other kinds of recruitment.  And this is what the conservatives did, just as in America. I think in America we can’t help but be impressed at the success with which conservatives have organized a base of people who really do have different interests from them, yet have been able to win their votes.

SW: You talk about the politics of anger, and the way that anger is mobilized; and anger comes about by workers who are excluded from wealth, power and almost everything else. That sort of anger exists everywhere; we certainly saw a lot of it in France recently as disenfranchised immigrant French youth began a new uprising that may herald an epoch of uprising upon us, where that anger of being left out is expressed. How did anger get expressed in Poland?

DO: This is where I see that this became the opportunity for the political right. Because after 1989 when the new economy is forming, and you have this turn to a class economy and workers’ interests are being put on hold, and they’re trying to build up a new elite class — and keep in mind that in communist-type systems the majority of the population was working class, they didn’t have a very developed service sector or a middle class — many  people found themselves on the bottom end of things.  And naturally, they started getting frustrated and angry.

There’s no problem about anger in a market economy; that always happens. Historically we know that what’s good for democratic systems is when that anger is mobilized by a class-based party — that is, by parties who say: “These people are doing poorly, their economic situation is deteriorating. We have to represent their interests and do something for them — as workers.”

What happened in Poland and all of Eastern Europe is that there was a general consensus that, “oh, economically these people are going to lose out, and they’re going to continue to lose out.”

SW: So no need to represent them?

DO: Basically, no one was representing them economically. And that’s the point where then these right-wing parties started saying (just as in the United States): “Well, if you can’t get your interests met economically there are other things. Let’s use this moment to really consolidate church power. Let’s use this moment to have a more illiberal system, a more authoritarian system; to talk about these kinds of values.” And those movements became increasingly strong.

SW: This is a really important point. Even if you look at all the gains that the United States had in terms of standard of living, they occurred when there was a strong labor movement. It does allow for the anger to be channeled into parliamentary forms.

DO: Yes, exactly, in an inclusive form. The general point that I try to build on was precisely that capitalist systems create anger. Even if you support a capitalist system you know that, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But if you want it to be inclusive, if you want it to be democratic, if you want it to be liberal in the sense where “the other,” your opponent, is just someone who is maybe electorally defeated, rather than humiliated or his rights taken away — then it’s best when these conflicts are organized precisely around economic cleavages.

Only a few decades ago, everyone seemed to understand it, but now it’s admittedly a little harder to organize around class politics because of globalization…The Communist Party stopped being left wing a long time ago and it has been a kind of liberal-global party, really more similar to the Democratic Party in the United States.

You wound up with two right-wing parties, the Law and Justice Party headed by the new President Lech Kaczynski and the Civic Platform led by the defeated neoliberal candidate Donald Tusk.

SW: You said in your conclusion was that the class difference in Poland couldn’t be processed as such, and that the emerging class conflicts that result became articulated as conflicts about identity and not class. This is what promoted the illiberal political culture that we see in Poland. It probably explains this election result as well. I think that — plus your very intelligent discussion on violence and anger — really helps to explain the lack of inclusion in Europe and the anger of the French immigrant youth.

DO: Yes, I think it is similar. If we look at France, we see that people have been upset, and again the political parties have not been organizing these people. They’ve just been abandoning them; saying, “You’re French, or you’re not French — you just have to get along.”

SW: Are you pessimistic about this being turned around in Poland?

DO: I think it’s going to be a rough couple of years, but I think insofar as the right wing in power are already showing some of their stripes already (alliances with extreme reactionary and racist groups, which we don’t have time to discuss here), there’s going to be some resistance. And so I’m hopeful actually that there may be an interesting clarification of the political situation.

ATC 121, March-April 2006