In Poland, the Debate Over Solidarity's Legacy Continues

Dec 5, 2023

5 min

On November 13, 2023, Poland’s parliament convened for the first time since a centrist-progressive coalition won a legislative majority, ending the eight-year rule of the right-wing Law and Justice party.

The recent political shift has been heralded by some as the most significant since 1989, when the then-Soviet-controlled government allowed the country’s first elections in over four decades. That year, an anti-authoritarian movement called “Solidarity” seized all but one seat in the Senate and every contested seat in the Sejm (or lower chamber). A stunning rebuke for the Soviet regime, the landslide victory effectively signaled the end of Communism in Poland—and served as a harbinger of the Eastern Bloc’s collapse.

Gerald Beyer, PhD, is a professor of Christian ethics in Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the instructor of the class “Solidarity and Peacebuilding in Central and Eastern Europe” and the author of Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution. He recently shared his thoughts concerning the parallels being drawn between 1989 and 2023, the complicated legacy of Poland’s anti-Communist struggle and what can be gleaned from studying and reconsidering the Solidarity movement.

Q: As a new Polish government takes shape, how would you describe the current political situation in the country?

Dr. Beyer: At the present moment, Poland finds itself at a major crossroads. Like the United States, the country is very divided, politically speaking. On the one hand, you have people who believe that Poland has turned away from the European Union (EU) to a troubling extent and backslid into authoritarianism under the Law and Justice party’s rule. So, you have a significant portion of Polish society who believe that this recent election [in October] was about protecting democracy and ensuring the future of democracy in the country. On the other hand, you have an equally significant portion of the population who think democracy has not been in peril—and that, in this year’s election, what’s at stake was a sense of Polish national values and national sovereignty.

Q: Is there any credence to the new legislative majority’s claims that the Law and Justice party “overstepped” while in governance?

DB: I think there’s reason to ask that question. The EU has sanctioned Poland during the present ruling party’s tenure for weakening the autonomy of the judicial system, and there has been concern over the ruling party exerting undue influence on state-based Television Poland (TVP). Poland, however, has a very vibrant free press—and has since 1989… I would contend that there’s been some backsliding on measures that would not score well on the democracy metrics, but I would not say that Poland has been existing under an authoritarian regime.

Q: Do you consider this year’s election comparable to the election of 1989?

DB: It’s certainly one of monumental significance. You may have noted the turnout of 74-plus percent. That’s historic for Poland, that massive turnout. At the same time, the overthrow of the Communist system in ’89 stands out as a unique and discrete moment in Polish history. So, there are ways that a comparison can be made, but there are ways in which I don’t believe it’s particularly apt.

Q: What makes tying the events of 1989 and 2023 a complicated issue?

DB: Whether or not 2023 is directly comparable to 1989 is a matter of perspective, and there are a number of different perspectives that exist in Poland today. Since the fall of Communism, there has been an ongoing conflict over Solidarity, its history and its legacy, and various political actors and parties have claimed their objectives are in concert with the values and principles of the movement.

In this year’s election, the Law and Justice party’s candidates presented themselves as guarantors of freedom, which was at the heart of the Solidarity movement, by stressing their opposition to external forces like the EU. In addition, during their time in leadership, the party’s officials worked to institute a number of social welfare programs that were designed to help people economically, providing something akin to what Catholic social teaching calls a “family living wage.” So, they were actively trying to raise the standard of living in a way that was arguably analogous to Solidarity.

On the other side of this equation, the election-winning opposition parties emphasized their status as defenders of democracy—once again, a core tenet of Solidarity. As we discussed, many members of that alliance and their supporters felt that the independent judiciary had been stifled by the Law and Justice-run government; they also voiced concerns about the free press.

On both sides, there has existed and continues to exist a sense that they are the ones best suited, maybe even solely suited in the current political landscape, to carry on Solidarity’s legacy and to ensure Poland thrives. Herein lies the source of conflict.

Q: Despite the ongoing debate over Solidarity’s legacy, are there any lessons from the movement’s history that might prove helpful today?

DB: Sadly, much of Poland’s current political acrimony can be traced to the “war at the top” that emerged within Solidarity in the wake of 1989, when longstanding tensions within the movement manifested in political rivalries. Once united, anti-Communist organizers became adversaries in the years after the Soviet regime’s dissolution, laying the groundwork for the divisive rhetoric of the current day.

Looking beyond what’s transpired over the past three decades, however, I think much can be learned from Solidarity in its early years and at its core. When the movement first took shape, its central aim was attaining a society characterized by unity among differences. And, to achieve this end, its leaders and supporters recognized the “necessity of dialogue,” a concept frequently invoked in Father Józef Tischner’s The Spirit of Solidarity.

Given the stark divides that currently define Polish politics, I think these origins and these concepts should be revisited—and that it’s important to look at Solidarity not just as a political moniker, but as an objective and a virtue. Personally, I believe that people can change. And if they are reacquainted with the principles that inspired and guided their struggle for freedom and democracy, perhaps Poland’s elected officials can change for the better.

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