How Solidarity Spoke to a Nation: Lessons for Today’s Democratic Insurgents
Of the great social movements that have left their imprint on the history of freedom, few rival Poland’s Solidarity trade union federation in staying power, fortitude, and connection to ordinary people. The obstacles Solidarity faced were daunting. On three previous occasions, citizens in Eastern Europe had sought to overthrow the Soviet yoke: East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Each time the forces of democracy were crushed by the Red Army.
By the time Solidarity emerged, communism had held sway in Poland for four decades. Poles had clashed with the authorities in the past—four times before 1980, in fact. But the leadership had reasserted control through a combination of threats, reprisals, and rewards. Few scholars gave Solidarity a chance, having concluded that the Soviets remained sufficiently committed to their empire to put down rebellions on the periphery. As for the diplomatic universe, most U.S. State Department officials actually believed that the Polish people would opt for communist candidates, and thus for security, in the crucial 1989 elections.
Why, then, did Solidarity prevail, against all odds and despite many free world leaders who were doubtful as to the desirability of freedom in Poland? Part of the answer lies in the fact that during the 1980s, something akin to a free press existed in the country, in a kind of parallel universe to the controlled and censored official media. Among Solidarity’s most signal achievements was the creation of an independent, uncensored press that included serious political journals, regional newspapers, and mimeographed bulletins that covered events in a single industrial enterprise.
A recent conference sponsored by the Institute of National Remembrance—an admirable organization devoted to the study of the crimes against Poland by both fascists and communists, as well as Polish resistance to these totalitarian enemies—presented a striking reminder of just how crucial the Solidarity press was to the ultimate triumph of democracy.
It should be remembered that the Solidarity press was very much an underground, illegal operation. The authorities confiscated any printing equipment they discovered and imprisoned journalists and printers. Solidarity relied on the generosity of its supporters in democratic countries to provide it with printing presses. The United States was critical here: the Reagan administration, the new National Endowment for Democracy, and the labor movement all worked to ensure that Solidarity had the means to communicate with the Polish people.
If the Solidarity press offers a lesson for today’s freedom movements, it is in the organization’s determination to address its message to the entire population, and not simply to a narrow group of urban intellectuals. To be sure, workers and intellectuals had not always sought common objectives or used a common vocabulary. Prior to Solidarity’s emergence, however, a group of dissident intellectuals and workers collaborated to transcend the old differences and forge a national movement that embraced all opposition forces, from shipyard workers to university professors and activists from the Roman Catholic Church.
After Solidarity was declared illegal, the clandestine press served as a surrogate union, reporting on cases of management corruption and keeping readers abreast of the situation of imprisoned union leaders. It published books by authors like George Orwell and Hannah Arendt that were suppressed under communism. It even published journals aimed at the apparatus of repression, with one periodical, Dignity, for the police, and another, Redoubt, for the military.
For the Solidarity leadership, the goal was to convey the message of nonviolent rebellion against a foreign-imposed dictatorship to every group in Poland, including members of the ruling United Workers’ Party. No audience was considered too small, insignificant, or hostile to ignore. For the Polish people, the Solidarity period was a time of trial, marked by political upheaval, martial law, and years of scarcity and want. Poland’s communist leadership eschewed mass brutality, reckoning that people would eventually tire of strikes and poverty and surrender to the inevitability of party dominance. The failure of this strategy was largely due to Solidarity’s having gained dominance over the political discourse through its underground press.
The Polish experience is clearly relevant to the democracy struggles of 2012. To take two important examples, Egypt and Russia have experienced protest movements that in one case toppled the old order and in the other case shook it to its roots. But in both countries, the liberal democrats who propelled the protests forward failed utterly to reach the broad majority with their message of freedom and change. In both settings, liberals had the advantage of expertise in sophisticated methods of communication that enabled protest leaders to reach millions of supporters instantaneously. Yet in both Egypt and Russia, the instruments of new media have proven to be of limited usefulness, to put it mildly, in the arduous process of building a political movement that includes the many millions who do not have Twitter accounts or attend protest rallies.
Vladimir Putin is an unpopular figure in Moscow, the nerve center of Russia’s protest movement. But a recent opinion poll placed his level of national support at 60 percent. In Egypt, the most recent Pew Poll placed support for the Muslim Brotherhood at a whopping 75 percent, and polls have found that a majority of Egyptians consider Saudi Arabia to be the ideal model for emulation, while at the same time favoring democracy over other political systems. The challenge of speaking to and winning over these ordinary citizens, who get their news from traditional sources, has baffled the advocates of liberal reform to date. Solidarity succeeded because its leaders were committed to communicating with the majority. Those who today claim the mantle of democracy in authoritarian settings are not likely to prevail—even with the smartest technologies—unless, like Solidarity, they develop a language and instrument to convey their message to the millions they have thus far failed to reach.