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Banking on Reagan

Rarely, if ever, do publications originating from an illegal political underground movement deviate from the uniform propagandistic form. However, a few organizations dare to reveal candid debates and internal disagreements among their leadership. One such case is found in a collection of unorthodox interviews with the top seven leaders of Poland’s Solidarity trade union. Compiled between June 1982 and March 1984, the interviews, published under the title Konspira:  Solidarity Underground, were conducted by three journalists who were themselves deeply involved in clandestine activities on the behalf of Solidarity.

The main objective of the authors was to justify Solidarity’s continuing existence. The authors approached the problem by concentrating on three levels: ideological, political, and personal. This review focuses on the ideological and political aspects of the book.

The crucial questions addressed in this work are: How to organize underground struggle? How to conduct policies to meet popular expectations? And last, but not least, how to relate to the geopolitical situation of Poland, the Soviet domination of the country?

The majority of those interviewed found themselves in the clandestine leadership by sheer chance. Unlike many other prominent Solidarity activists, they managed to avoid arrest when martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981. They refused to accept the suspension of the union activities by the Communists. Changing identities and relocating hiding places, contriving complicated escape routes and donning disguises, and at all times longing for their children, spouses, and relatives, some of these men were to remain underground for up to five years.

They were assisted by a small army of supporters, perhaps 300,000 strong. These were either passive, dues-paying trade-union members or active, grassroots union organizers. The latter were backed by the operatives of a very extensive illegal press distribution network.

The involvement of the active supporters in underground work was largely a result of the spontaneous reaction-nay, revulsion-to the imposition of martial law. According to the Warsaw clandestine leader Zbigniew Bujak, himself a young socialist factory worker, the passive, rank-and-file supporters were united by their opposition to the Communist regime under the slogan “God, Honor and the Homeland”. The beliefs of the more sophisticated grassroots organizers spanned the political spectrum from subconscious Trotskyism to virulent ultranationalism.

Naturally enough, since Solidarity was at least nominally a trade union, the left-wing perspective predominated among the top leaders of the underground. It comes then as a pleasant surprise that, instead of inflammatory and romantic appeals to the masses, one finds, for the most part, pragmatism and realism emanating from their statements. At this point, there were no extremists among the underground leaders. Rather, despite the abnormal conditions they were forced to operate under, they could be classified as moderates.

The leaders shared a common goal: a democratic, just, and independent Poland. They differed, however, on the question of tactics. Their individual ideological affinities notwithstanding, the leaders held in common one immutable principle: the strategy of a long-term, non-violent, passive resistance which, presumably, was to lead to the restoration of Solidarity on the basis of a compromise agreement with the Communists.

They acted as the de facto ministers of Solidarity’s clandestine governing body-the Interim Coordinating Commission (ICC). The ICC took upon itself the impossible task of leading the masses of Solidarity’s aboveground supporters. Unfortunately, more often than not, the leadership proved unable to gauge correctly the popular mood. For example, underestimating the level of the radicalization of the people in the spring of 1982, the leaders eschewed a call for May Day demonstrations. The Poles took to the streets en masse, but leaderless. Although the underground leaders organized subsequent mass demonstrations in August of the same year, the result in political terms was nil. The Communist authorities broke up the demonstrations by force; they steadfastly refused to restore the suspended union. Instead, they criminalized it in October 1982.

Realizing the futility of insurrection and dreams of a swift victory, the rank-and-file felt very discouraged. The call for a general strike issued in November 1982 by the ICC went unheeded. The lesson for the underground leadership was clear: as long as the Communists were not interested in compromising with the opposition, massive social mobilization and direct action only harmed the movement’s cause. The unsuccessful strikes and demonstrations only alienated Solidarity’s supporters. As the token neo-conservative underground leader Aleksander Hall put it: “The only choice that remained [for the ICC at that point] was long-term activity.”

The clandestine leadership altered its tactics. It decided to draw on Poland’s rich tradition of conspiracies: the nineteenth century insurrections against the Russians, the wartime Home Army’s anti-Nazi resistance, and the Home Army’s successor-the Freedom and Independence anti-Soviet, anti-Communist underground. The Silesian socialist leader Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a truck driver, admitted that “the Home Army tradition is a point of reference for us in the technical but not the ideological sense.” Still, the emulation of the Home Army had its strict limitations: “The Home Army was an army, and we’re not.” The principle of non-violence was not to be compromised, stressed social democrat Bogdan Lis. This erstwhile member of the Communist party from Gdansk turned Solidarity activist held that “terrorism would mean the end of Solidarity… Our job is to prevent the underground from deviating into terrorism.” The ICC made a significant and successful effort to discourage worker (and student) radicals from turning to violence.

Following a tactics overhaul after a grueling internal debate, the ICC excelled at coordinating underground activities. It forsook centralization of the clandestine structures. Instead, it opted for a federative form that made the underground less vulnerable to secret police infiltrations and left it with a large degree of autonomy. Next, the ICC set out to construct a civil society in Poland, alternative and parallel to-as well as independent of-the Communist-dominated institutions. It was a question of self-defense: “A democratic society, with abundant forms of social life and activity, can defend itself against various defeats, while a totalitarian society is very frail, and every setback threatens its viability.”

In its quest to construct the civil society, the ICC relied heavily on cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. The Church provided moral guidance, political support, independent education, and material assistance to families of political prisoners.

Admittedly, the ideas about the nature of the civil society were quite hazy and, indeed, utopian. Having rejected both the Eastern and Western political models, the leadership claimed that “our society is trying to construct a new political model without rigid divisions along party lines… We’re building something for which we don’t yet have a name, a new consciousness, a concern for the values of truth, freedom, equality and justice-and, of course, independence, but of a kind different from nationalism.”

The underground ICC acted as the guide for the teething civil society and as the heir to the non-violent spirit of legal Solidarity. Moreover the clandestine leadership served before the eyes of both the Poles and foreigners as a symbol of the movement’s uninterrupted existence, a continuation of its democratically-elected leadership. Faced with the problem of whether “to be a trade union, a political party, or a national liberation movement”, Solidarity ended up becoming all three. However, to the outside world it displayed only its trade unionist facade. This brought the movement substantial gains in terms of favorable press and financial and moral assistance from Western labor and left-wing organizations.

The ICC leaders considered various scenarios in terms of foreign policy. At least one of them, perhaps misled by President Reagan’s rhetoric, predicted either war by 1985 or, more correctly, “the weakening of Russia to such an extent that it would be possible to present it with an ultimatum.” Another underground leader was uncannily prophetic: “Poland’s situation is closely bound up with the international situation. No radical changes in East-West relations are possible until 1985, after the presidential elections in the United States. If Reagan is reelected, the Soviets won’t be able to stand another four years of technological competition, sanctions, boycotts, and the clever manipulation [by the U.S.] of the Chinese threat. They will have to come to some agreement.”

All along, the ICC leaders were longing for some sort of a compromise with the Communists. Therefore, their postulates were anything but radical. They promised not to challenge the Communist supremacy in the state; they pledged to maintain Poland in the Warsaw Pact; and they refused to condemn the 1945 Yalta Agreement, which placed Poland in the Soviet sphere of influence. All they asked for was re-legalization of Solidarity. Unlike the rank-and-file, the underground leaders dared not bring up the question of Polish independence, much less of that of the captive nations of the Soviet block. One of the leaders, the veteran human rights activist from the Baltic Coast, Bogdan Borusewicz, admitted it explicitly: “for us the current political problem is not how to liberate Lithuania, Latvia, and the Ukraine, but how to bring about the release of [Polish] political prisoners.”

However, let’s remember that Konspira was intended not only for pro-Solidarity readers; the domestic Communists and Soviets were expected to familiarize themselves with the contents of the book as well. Hence the pro-independence message was missing from the book. Such realism could be laudable if it were a just means to the end and not the end itself. In fact, when the Reagan offensive began causing the Soviets to relax their grip over Poland, the Solidarity left-wingers still pursued the platform of 1984. When the winds of change began blowing mightily, they lacked the will and imagination to demand free elections. They sought compromise on the same terms as five years earlier.

The Communists saw their chance. At first, they limited themselves to several amnesties for the prisoners of conscience. Later, with the advent of Gorbachev, they concluded a compromise in 1989 with the left wing of Solidarity. For the price of legalizing the union, Solidarity’s left wingers endorsed sham parliamentary elections, where only 30% of the seats were contested and the rest were guaranteed to the Communists and their allies. For a share of the loot from the state property, the Communists were allowed to retain its largest chunk and even acquire more.

Alas, the text of the compromise remains the basis for Poland’s political system today. The ad hoc strategy of Solidarity’s left wing served for its blueprint. As a result, the Communists were able to weather the storm of 1989-1992. Today again both the Prime Minister and the President are Communists; the secret policemen guilty of a multitude of crimes committed under the Communist regime enjoy their freedom; and the party kleptocrats wallow in their ill- gotten wealth-all with the blessing of the tiny band of left-wing leaders of Solidarity, many of whom had been Communists themselves.

President Reagan delivered on his anti-Communist promise. Too bad the genuine anti-Communists in Poland were too weak to take full advantage of the blessing of the apparent dissolution of the Soviet Union. Better luck next time. 

Maciej Lopinski, Marcin Moskit and Mariusz Wilk eds., Konspira: Solidarity Underground. Translated by Jane Cave. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1990.)