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Book Excerpts: Poland
from Part I: Chapter 3 - Poland: Power from Solidarity

The end of the communist dictatorship is not the only measure of what Poland's nonviolent opposition movement accomplished. Communist governments collapsed everywhere in Eastern Europe during 1989, even in countries where resistance was spontaneous and disorganized. The Polish party may not have lasted long in power even had there been no KOR [Workers' Defense Committee], no August strike, no Solidarity, and also no Kuron, no Walentynowicz, no Walesa, and no Bujak. What marks these names as momentous is not just that they triggered the end of tyranny but that they reinvigorated the popular character of Poland even before the communists fell.

The first kilometers in this road were paved in the 1970s when Polish intellectuals took direct action - helping workers, publishing journals and books, teaching courses. But what KOR and other dissidents could not do was to force the regime to accept institutional limits on its power and create a lawful sphere for a free society. That took large-scale nonviolent action - the August 1980 strike. Learning from the 1970 uprising and the experience of KOR, the Baltic workers organized themselves on a giant scale in a matter of weeks, roused the public, and outmaneuvered the party inside factories and across negotiating tables.

Solidarity then became a vehicle for all Poles. The dynamic new union used threats of a general strike to constrain the regime not only to accept its existence but to allow others to organize and speak out. If KOR had fought a nonviolent guerrilla war to liberate a beachhead of independent space, Solidarity seized a popular mandate for an entire coast of freedom. For a shining interval, communist Poland had a free, civil society. After the crackdown broke up the union, an opposition re-emerged to contest control of Polish life. Even under martial law, the struggle for self-organization went on. Then, at the end of the decade, as Jaruzelski looked for ways to save a sinking economy and stem a new tide of turmoil, he turned for help to the alternate power that Solidarity signified - and soon he was finished.

The victory of the movement that changed the history of Poland was the world's most striking display of people power against oppression since Mohandas Gandhi shook the foundation of British rule in India. For a century and a half, the British controlled India by having Indians collaborate in running the raj. Likewise for thirty years the communists in Poland kept the lid on discontent by co-opting reformers and isolating disruptive voices - until another way to oppose oppression was found, by disengaging from the state and engaging the people.

Zbigniew Bujak regarded Vaclev Havel's essay, "The Power of the Powerless," as the theory that explained his work. Havel saw the reliance of an authoritarian regime on the people's cooperation as a weakness, because it required them to live a lie - and those who found the space in which to "live in the truth" would open up "singular, explosive, incalculable political power." Those who remained "within the lie" could be "struck at any moment. . .by the force of truth," and as they changed, the truth would become visible - through "a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure. . ."1

Eighty years before in South Africa, Gandhi had said this "truth force," or satyagraha, when employed by resisters, would eventually draw power away from oppressors. So it was in Poland. Lech Walesa creates independent space in a shipyard, and the regime comes to him to negotiate. Bujak goes underground, and eight years later Jaruzelski invites him, Walesa, and others to help remake the country. All the oppositionists at the roundtable in 1989 were there because they had first refused to cooperate with the state - they stopped lying to themselves - and then they made space in their lives and workplaces for the truth to be the basis for action.

As they did so, they refused to use violence in taking that action. Havel said real dissidence "is and must be fundamentally hostile toward the notion of violent change. . ." Bujak rejected "any acts of violence." Even in the face of violence? The year after the events in Gdansk in 1981, a worker wrote in his diary, "We were ready to take the cross upon our own shoulders, the cross in the form of the caterpillar tracks of the tanks, if it came to an assault on us..."2

In the twentieth century's armed liberation movements, portraits of gun-wielding martyrs - the Che Guevaras of the world - were often flaunted as symbols, but none of those struggles produced freedom. Throughout the years of Solidarity's ceremonies and marches, the only person whose picture was held aloft was the Pope, whose most inflammatory injunction to his fellow Poles was to be "nonconformists." And Solidarity's most common decoration, laid at factory gates and monuments, received by leaders and given to heroes, were garlands and wreaths of flowers. Hammers and sickles, fasces and clenched fists: symbols of revolution all, and each one easily used as a weapon Not so, flowers.

Disdain for dictators is easy. Disdain for violence, their favorite tool, is not so easy, especially when it threatens you. But renouncing it pays, in the coin of achieving power. Polish workers remembered how little progress they had made in 1970 and 1976 by burning down party buildings. And had Solidarity stowed away caches of weapons only to be discovered later, as Brezhnev told Kania to pretend it had, or if Bujak had organized hit squads to assassinate party bosses, would the general have dismissed the party hard-liners when they denounced Bujak and other Solidarity chiefs in 1989 as political criminals? You reap exactly what you sow, as Gandhi told India.

If the ultimate reward of forswearing violence was not foreseeable in August 1980, the immediate risks were in plain view. Every striker in the Lenin Shipyard realized that the regime, the nation, and the world were watching every move they made. If, when the shipyard's administrator first outwitted them, they had beaten and thrown him into the street, would the regime have been likely to return to the talks? Later, if the union had inflamed the Bydgoszcz crowds and incited them to attack the police, would martial law have come sooner and been seen as a justifiable response to public disorder? Those who start the violence usually pay the cost of its dishonor. And if bloody revolt instead of nonviolent organizing had been the culminating action of the movement, would the regime have seemed so odious and Solidarity so worthy, all the long years of the "state of war"? Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 - the world's blessing on the Polish people's cause, and another mark of disrepute for those who held it back.

Those who sat in the chairs at the roundtable felt the weight of Poland's fate on their shoulders. But by then it was the people's leaders, not the officers of state, who had the wind of history at their backs. For twenty years its speed had gathered, then receded - then it rose again. The gale of power blowing communism out was not the weather of violence. It came out of the climate of a new civil society that Poles had built under the very awning of authoritarian will. It came up through the eaves and windowsills of every church where dissidents met, every factory occupied by strikers, and every house that harbored a member of the underground.

To plant the vine of freedom in the soil of communist Poland, the people's movement of the 1970s and 1980s challenged a regime that was heir to the deadliest family of modern tyrants. From Stalin's elimination of the kulaks to Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, whole peoples had been sacrificed in the name of communism if not in the service of its original ideals. The Polish variety was not as demonic, but the prison cells that awaited those who challenged its control were no incentive for opposition. Yet against this citadel, the movement set clear goals, rallied massive popular support, enlisted the Church and foreign help, avoided tactics that would trigger quick repression, and brought the use of strikes and self-organization to their highest development in the history of nonviolent action. Its only serious lapse was not to prepare for a military crackdown.

For all his ignorance of what was really going on in Poland, Leonid Brezhnev was right when he saw Solidarity as a dagger pointed at the heart of his empire's control. It refused to respect the guidance of the party. It defied the orders of the state. It demanded that the consent of Poles, not the fiat of government, determine the conditions of life and labor. And it had the audacity to press its demands by threatening the state with economic chaos, political stalemate, and international disgrace. It did all that, and it turned the history of communism on its head - without having to take the head of a single Polish communist. Had it aimed at heads, its own might never have taken power.


1. Vaclev Havel, The Power of the Powerless, ed. John Keane (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1985), pp. 41-42.

2. Ibid., p. 71; Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (Westport. CT: Praeger, 1994), p. 306; Kubik, Power of Symbols, p. 189.

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