Polish Resistance to Communism

Information taken from:

G. Ekiert, ‘Rebellious Poles: Political Crises and Popular Protest under State Socialism, 1945-89’, East European Politics and Societies, 11, 1997, 2, pp. 299-338

Background to Resistance in the Soviet Union

Kersten (1993) - everyday behaviour under authoritarian rule displays a complex pattern in which various degress of acceptance and adaption are paralleled by dissent, passive resistance and active resistance. State socialist regimes faced critical challenges in maintaining political stability, with waves of popular mobilisation and various forms of collective action and protest occurring repeatedly. --> the threat of protest was always taken into account during policy decisions. 

  • Ability of collectives to come together and protest against different aspects of the state-socailism regime showed the institutional and political weaknesses of the regime and challenged their image of homogenic and atomised citizenry
  • Officials liked to hold a view that the masses were incapable of exercising effective political pressure and that the masses were skilfully manipulated by ruled - showed the extent of totalitarianism in the regime 
  • Protests also called into question the validity of "state-centred" explanatory methods - only state elites or hegemonic power in the region was accorded an active role in shaping political process. Protests contradicted this 
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Collective Power in EE - Main Characteristics

  • The distinction between routine and unconventional forms of protest cannot be applied to state-socialist regimes. Stalin's terror had eradicated all routine forms of dissent and protest. A small disagreement over policy would lead to severe repression. 
  • Cases of open defiance indicated a strong undercurrent of everyday resistance and social discontent. 
    • Range of defiance greater than instances of open protest. 
    • This collective action formed a crucial dimension of the relationship between the state and society under state-socialism. For example, peasant resistance to collectivisation and church/religious communities resistance to the state's forced secularisation of policies. 
  • Illegal and semi-legal economic activities were common and underlined the institutional and ideological foundaions of state-socialism. 
    • This begs the question - if this defiance was so wide-ranging, why were major protests relatively few and why did they only frequently occur in Poland and no other country? 
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Tarrow and Opportunities for Political Mobilisatio

Collective power shows that political mobilisation is shaped by the structure of political opportunities offered by the state. Changes in political opportunity structure invited a collective change to the existing status quo. 

Tarrow (1994) - "political opportunities provide the major incentives for transforming mobilisational potential into action... they signal the vulnerability of the state to collective action and thereby open up opportunities for others, affecting both alliances and conflict systems. The process leads to state responses... which produce a new system of opportunity.

Tarrow's (1988) five conditions to the opening of opportunities:

  • The degree of openness of political institutions 
  • The stability of political coalitions and alignments, 
  • Elite divisions and/or their tolerance for protest
  • The presence of support group and alliances 
  • The policy-making capacity of the state. 
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Instability of State-Socialism

During the 1950's and 1980's state-socialist regimes experienced instability, caused by an overlapping of domestic, economic and political crises with the geographical pressures and uncertainty.

  • This created splits and struggles within the ruling elite and created openings in the political arena. 
  • In both periods, the repressive capacity of the party-state was seriously weakened and various collective actions responded to the expanding structure of political opportunity by
    • Voicing grievances
    • Demanding changes in state policies 
    • Calling for reform of political and economic institutions
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Tarrow's Cycle of Protest

Tarrow's "cycle of protest" - "a phase of heightened conflict and contention across the social system." Includes:

  • A rapid diffusion of collective action from more mobilised to less mobilised sectors
  • A quickened pace of innovation in forms of contention - a new or transformed collective action frame 
  • A combination of intensified interaction between challengers 
  • Sequences of intensified interaction between challengers and authorities which can end in reform, repression and sometimes revolution

Waves of protest and public activication in the region that occurred during the de-stalinisation period in the 1950's and during the disintegration of state socialism in the 1980's fit this description. The 2 periods provide an ideal example of cycles of protest that were not confined to the domestic politics of particular countries, but displayed transnational dynamics as well.

The resolution and outcome of these protests differed from one country to another and produced the most enduring and significant variation in forms of state-socialism. 

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Poland and Resistance

The 5 major political crises in Poland (1956, 1968, 1970, 1976 and 1980-1) all involved massive mobilisation of various social and professional groups. They all provoked coercive responses from the state and Poland was the first Soviet bloc country in which Communists peacefully surrended their power in 1989. 

Poland represented an extreme example of both institutional weaknesses of the party-state and the capacity of various groups within society to launch collective protest. Mass protests became a relatively routine as a way of exerting political pressure by transmitting collective grievances and collective interests. 

  • Destalinisation engendered institutional, political and cultural legacies that grew a unique political opportunity. 
  • Poland set apart from other countries in the Bloc, as the Polish regime had become institutionally more diverse, culturally more tolerant and economically more constrained 
  • Poland appeared more vulnerable to collective action from below, thus policies became more constrained. Overall, since 1956 Poland's political and economic developments have been unique. 
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Workers Revolt 1970

December 1970 - government announce price increase in basic foodstuff, workers in coastal cities (Gdańsk, Elblag etc) where they held mass meetings, elected strike committees, drew up lists of demands, organised marches to the local party headquarters and clashed with the police and military forces. Between 14th and 20th December, 45 people were killed, 1,165 wounded and 3,161 arrested. 

  • Higher amount of police, curfews imposed and communication from the region was cut off with the rest of the country in an effort to decrease/stop future strikes and demonstrations. By 19th Dec, strikes had spread to other parts of the country and approx. 100 throughout Poland. 
  • Rapid decline of protests after 19th Dec because of police brutality, military occupation of factories and dramatic change in the country's leadership
  • Polish intelligentsia, students & the Church didn't join in with the workers - added to the reason that because the workers had no influential allies, their protests were easily suppressed and their political tensions promptly and skilfully defused. 
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Consequences of 1970 Worker's Revolt

A turning point - created historical memory of heroic struggle against the regime and became a symbolic reference point for working class resistance in similar ways that the 1956 and 1968 revolts had done for the intelligentsia. 

  • The brutal, repressive nature of the regime was revealed to current generation of the working class. Workers' demands grew from being just economic - influenced by ideas of social justice and equality and new, democratic functioning of public institutions, economic reforms, the management and organisaton of production and broader social issues such as healthcare and housing conditions. 
  • A new development of protest had arisen that shaped the patterns of workers' protest in the year to come 
  • Laba - "The sit down strike and the interfactory strike committee are the organsational breakthroughs. The programmatic or breakthrough is the demand for free trade unions, independent of the Party." 
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Consequences of 1970 Worker's Revolt (2)

The differences between the workers' demands and actions in 1970 and 1980 are important. The 1980 demands were articulated in the clear language of political rights, which was absent in 1970. The strikers' demands in 1980 not only wanted credible, truthful information in the media, but also the abolition of censorship and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression

  • In 1980, they wanted the right for new, independent unions. 
  • A fundamental change in the political imagination and the emergence of new political discourse in 1980 allowed the demands to be developed. 
  • This pont argues against the point that Solidarity was the sole creation and expression of long-lasting working class struggle - the work and role of intellectuals, human right organisations and the church were important factors too. 
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Events leading to the 1976 Revolt

Gomułka was defeated and Edward Gierek replaced him, who promised a 2 year freeze on food prices and unspecified economic reforms. Gierek's regime skilfully restored order by blaming all use of force on departing leaders, by offering conciliatory gestures and through economic concessions. 

  • New agricultural policy abolished - end to compulsory delivery quotas for private farmers
  • Real wages increased by 22% immediately after crisis 
  • Feb 1971 - Government cancelled all price increases and lowered food prices to the level that existed prior to Dec 1970 
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1976 Revolt

Gierek's new policies were dependent on Western loans and he had no serious attempts to reform Poland's economic institutions and practices:

  • Economic crisis in 1976 - dealt with this by restructuring the price of food/consumer goods - leading to a cut of real wages
  • June 1976 - workers responded with mass revolts in 2 industrial cities. Strikes mainly peaceful and lasted 1 day. The price increases were revoked on that evening. 
  • Howecer, the revolts turned violent and workers blocked main railroad tracks and fought with the police. 
  • The regime acted quickly - 2 people were killed in Radom, 121 wounded and more than 2,000 arrested. 1000's of people lost their jobs as a direct result of participating in the protests
  • The intelligentsia recognised that they needed to support the working classes and in Sept 1976, the Committee for Workers' Defence (KOR) was set up, demanding the amnesty for all workers who had been arrested and tried, as well as the end to repressions.
  • The Catholic Church officially demanded an end to repression against the workers involved in the protest. 
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Significance of 1976 Revolt

Significant because an alliance emerge among workers, intellectuals, students and Church. The KOR stimulated the rapid development of independent groups and organisations across the country. 

  • Intellectuals, students, workers and peasants formed their own organisations to monitor state repression and provide all victims with support and protection 
  • Strictly political organisations were funded by some opposition activists. Underground publications appeared and flourished, and clandestine publishing houses were established. Independent self-education groups and unofficial universities were organised. 
  • They secured the existence and consolidated the independent democratic sphere, bringing together committed groups of leaders and supporters who re-evaluated past experiences and designed new strategies 
  • The economic criss engulfed all branches of the economy and resulted in the erosion of all official party structures. The growing moral and intellectual decay affected the entire institutional structure of the regime. 
  • Marxist-Lenism project crumbled to pieces, evident in Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland in 1979 - an open symbolic confrontation with the regime. 
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Emergence of Solidarity

The political and social gap between workers and intellectuals was bridged as a result of the post-1978 developments and the resultant opposition activities. Solidarity was led by its own grassroots leaders and supported by the church, intellectuals and majority of the nation (10 mil members). It presented a mighty political force that was able to threaten the domestic and political stability of Poland. 

The demands of the union were distinctly political:

  • Freedom of association 
  • Freedom of conscience 
  • Freedom of press
  • Social autonoy and self goverment 
  • Equality of rights and duties 

Pravda (1980) - "1980 brought an unprecedented expansion and politicalisation of workers' demands. Instead of pressing only for material security.. strikers asked for institutional change in the forefront of the struggle for civil liberties." 

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Emergence of Solidarity - August Agreements

The August Agreements which followed the nationwide strike action announced:

  • Formation of free trade unions in the communist world 
  • Established new model of state organisation 

These announcements set to combine an authoritarian state that securely controlled national politics and vibrant, democratic politics in places where the state's control were no longer effective. 

Marcinak's characterisation of strikes:

  • A sense of violence 
  • A strong impact on significant segments of establishment (local authorities, management, union organisations and enterprise party) 
  • Rapid development of strong organisational structures 
  • A commond identity, which quickly led to formation of a nationwide movement. 
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Emergence of Solidarity - Success and Popularity

Solidarity won significant political concessions and the time necessary to secure and consolidate the achievements of the successful countrywide collective action. For the first time, state-socialist regime faced a highly organised, independent opposition with independent resources, experienced grassroots leaders and capacity to mobilse millions. 

Existing state-controlled organisations were transformed by the explosion of popular participation after august 1980. They went through rapid democratisation and a change in leadership:

  • Acted as "transmission belts" between party-state and society, controlling the political arena which now acquired a significant degree of autonomy and challenged the state's policies 
  • The Catholic Church grew rapidly - the Catholic intelligentsia and many individual priests were deeply involved as the mediator of conflicts between society and state
  • Civic fever sparked by Solidarity spread to all groups, cities and villages, and to all organisations and institutions of the Polish party-state.
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Emergence of Solidarity - Success and Popularity (

  • The self-governing spirit even affected the police and military as their members attempted to organised independent trade unions. 
  • Third of the 35.5 million population were members of independent professional, social and political organisations. 1 in 5 Poles participated in protest at least once in by the end of the Solidarity period - 1 in 10 in the countryside and 1 in 4 in urban areas. 
  • Polish society experience an unprecedented cultural and political revolution that altered all institutional structures, political attitudes and modes of participation. 
    • The emergence of a multi-dimensional, self-organised, strong and independent democratic civil society that faciltated the eruption of mass public participation became the more striking characteristic of the Solidarity period. 
  • Merged concepts and ideas developed by the democratic opposition in the 1970's with those promoted by the Catholic Church (social & ethical doctrine)
  • Appropraited segments of national & patriotic values and traditions 
  • Colllective identity of Solidarity was built around symbols, values and traditions which set it apart from the official political language, values and ideology. 
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State's response to Solidarity

Events that followed 1981 showed the regime's ability to survive & adjust to the challenge from below became of the pragmatism and flexibility of those in power and the results of Solidarity's self-imposed limitations. 

Walicki - "communist power in Poland should be reduced to safeguarding the interest of the Warsaw Pact." 

13th December 1981 - martial law imposed, ended the balance between political forces and reduced political uncertainties. 

  • Border's sealed, communication system cut off, a national curfew, repressive legal regulations, all organisations suspended and 10,000's of Solidarity activists detained. 
  • Poland went from the most liberal to the most repressive regime in the Soviet Bloc. 
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Solidarity's goes Underground

Martial law did not break the political stalemate between the state and the society that had emerged during the Solidarity period. Solidarity re-emerged as a loose network of groups organised around territorial, institutional, professional and personal bases united by common goals, values and symbols. 

  • Underground organisations formed the backbone of opposition and resistance against the post-martial law regime.
  • 25% of the population remained in strong opposition to the regime and political resistance persisted through less visable and spectacular forms. 
  • E.g. on the 13th of every month (the date that martial law was imposed) street protest would occur. 
  • Undergound movement also established independent education system as well as countrywide undergound publishing and distribution works
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Solidarity's Re-emergence

By the end of 1980's, Poland had re-emerged as the most political liberal country of the Soviet bloc. Liberalisation of the post-martial law regime, plus the declining capacity of the Solidarity movement to coordinate the struggle of oppositional group led to significant organisational and ideological fragmentation of the Polish opposition 

  • Martial law did nothing to improve the party-state's capacity to deal with Poland's economic crisis. Poland's political elites refrained from political repression and searched for some sort of accommodation with representatives of the defeated opposition
  • 1988 - strikes emerge, calling for the restoration of Solidarity and its demands. However, these strikes failed to stimulate mass political mobilisation and revive the spirit of 1980 - they only resembled a "normal strike" (Marciniak), failing to produce new organisational structures and identities. 

Official negotiations began in Warsaw on 6th February 1989 during the strikes - in Feb, 214 strikes, in March there were work stoppages in 223 enterprises and strikes in 341, affecting all regions and industries in the country. 

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Solidarity's Re-emergence

By the end of 1980's, Poland had re-emerged as the most political liberal country of the Soviet bloc. Liberalisation of the post-martial law regime, plus the declining capacity of the Solidarity movement to coordinate the struggle of oppositional group led to significant organisational and ideological fragmentation of the Polish opposition 

  • Martial law did nothing to improve the party-state's capacity to deal with Poland's economic crisis. Poland's political elites refrained from political repression and searched for some sort of accommodation with representatives of the defeated opposition
  • 1988 - strikes emerge, calling for the restoration of Solidarity and its demands. However, these strikes failed to stimulate mass political mobilisation and revive the spirit of 1980 - they only resembled a "normal strike" (Marciniak), failing to produce new organisational structures and identities. 

Official negotiations began in Warsaw on 6th February 1989 during the strikes - in Feb, 214 strikes, in March there were work stoppages in 223 enterprises and strikes in 341, affecting all regions and industries in the country. 

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Roundtable Negotiations & End of Communism in Pola

4.4% of adult Poles participated in strikes and demonstrations at least once in 1988; in 1989, 8.4% had. Among 314 protest events recorded by the Polish press in 1989, about 80 took place before the signing of the rountable negotiations. 

  • The outcome of the negotiations were the result of the wave of popular mobilisation that began in the Spring of 1988 until 1989.
  • The 1989 transition was the direct result of mass political movements that emerged in 1980, remained considerable political force after the imposition of martial law and renewed its protest activities in 1988.  
  • Polish political developments reflected a powerful challenge from below that lasted for more than a decade, involved millions of people and celebrated its final triumph in 1989
  • 5th April - relegalisation of Solidarity, Farmers' Solidarity and the Independent Student Union. Gained access to the official political process through semi-democratic elections. 
    • Rapid process of liberalisation and party-state elites lost control of events 
    • Parliamentary elections represented a clear moral and political victort for the restored Solidarity movement 
    • By the end of 1989 - first non-communist government since the 1940's // Jan 1990 - Polish United Workers had ceased to exist. 
    • New political elites that emerged from Solidarity movement led to the country toward liberal democracy and a market economy 
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