Poland, 1980-1989

Image: Andrés Sandoval / Jornal de Resenhas


Lech Walesa's conciliatory leadership was also responsible for the defeat: it never warned, prepared or politically organized the working class to resist a predictable army coup or an invasion by the USSR.

Between July and August 1980, a wave of workers' strikes shook the former People's Republic of Poland, then under the tutelage of the USSR. The trigger was the announcement by the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR), in the context of a single-party regime, of a significant increase in food prices. It was the beginning of one of the most impressive processes of political revolution in Eastern Europe, perhaps the one in which the organized working class played the most relevant role.

The strike in Poznań and the “Polish Thaw” of 1956 were followed by major workers' struggles – the strikes of 1970 and 1976, in turn preceded by a strong movement of intellectuals and students in 1968. All these processes were harshly repressed.

Faced with a 38% increase in the prices of basic goods, workers on the Baltic coast, specifically in Gdansk, Szczecin and Gdynia, organized a strike between 14 and 19 December 1970, which spread to 18 cities, although the epicenter was the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. There, two leaders emerged who went down in history: Anna Walentynowicz, a 41-year-old crane operator, and Lech Walesa, a 27-year-old electrician.

The Stalinist repression, with almost 25.000 soldiers and 500 tanks, killed 40 workers and injured more than a thousand. However, the force of the strike shook the highest levels of the ruling party. At the top of the regime, the all-powerful Gomulka was replaced by Edward Gierek. This turning point in post-war Polish politics would mark the subsequent dynamics of the labor movement.

Despite the government's reaction, the Gdansk strikers won a 25% pay rise. Weeks later, women workers in the Lodz textile industry – 77% of the local workforce, who were paid 20% less than men – went on strike demanding the same raise as their shipyard colleagues.

Fearing new strikes, the price increase announced by the government in December was canceled on February 15, 1971. The workers' struggle managed to extend the wage increase won in Gdansk to the entire country. Their tactical contribution proved to be lasting and fruitful: they did not directly expose themselves to machine guns and tanks in the streets, but occupied the factories.[I]

Meanwhile, the international economic crisis hit the former workers' states, which suffered an increasing dependence on international capital and trade with the capitalist world. In this context, the PZPR dictatorship returned to power in 1976, increasing the price of butter by 50%, the price of meat by 69%, the price of sugar by 100%, etc. The rationing of basic products was intensified. The response from the working class was not long in coming.

New strikes shook the country. In Radom, angry protesters stormed the single party headquarters. The solidarity of the intelligentsia with the workers gave rise to the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR), a broad platform of democratic opposition, to a certain extent a precursor of the process that would erupt in 1980. The strike was repressed, although it managed to suspend price increases .

In accordance with the policy of Western powers, Pole Karol Wojtyla was anointed Catholic pope in 1978. He visited the country the following year. During a mass in Warsaw, John Paul II uttered his famous phrase “do not be afraid”, encouraging opposition to “communism” and, obviously, postulating the Catholic Church – the only legal institution with relative independence from the regime, with many faithful in Poland – as an alternative political leadership in an eventual transition to a market economy.

A dead-end economic crisis

In the early 1980s, Poland's industrial and agricultural production was plummeting. Poland had the largest foreign debt in the world. In 1979, it reached 21 billion dollars. In 1982, the country owed US$28,5 billion to 500 banks and fifteen Western governments. Moscow had given Warsaw more than $10 billion to pay the interest, but it was unable to maintain that flow.[ii] Imperialism was draining the resources of the Soviet bloc.

In 1982, one expert described the vicious circle: “Imports of advanced technology, through hard currency loans, must continue for the essential reason that it is needed to produce exportable goods, the only way to obtain the foreign exchange needed to pay old debts”.[iii] Since 1976, external debt was equivalent to 40% of the value of exports to the West. The regime went into debt to import Western technology in order to modernize its industry and thus export competitive products, but the trade balance was always unfavorable,[iv] the accounts never closed and the solution consisted of taking out more loans.[v] Poland was in a rush to the debt cycle typical of any semi-colonial country.

To make matters worse, incompetent bureaucratic management made it difficult to absorb imported technology. It is estimated that in 1980, the value of uninstalled equipment exceeded US$6 billion. In 1979, the economy fell 2,3%. Debt payment compromised 92% of exports to the West. In 1986, Poland's debt to capitalist countries rose to $31,3 billion, two and a half times its total annual exports.[vi]. In the same year, Poland joined the IMF and the World Bank. Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary had previously done the same.

Imperialism, dominant in the world economy, had penetrated the economies of the former workers' states. The policy of submission to imperialism, which prioritized the payment of external debt to the detriment of the people's needs, made it impossible to direct part of the production intended for export to the domestic market, a measure that could have alleviated the shortage. The sabotage of the socialized economy, by the bureaucracy itself, has reached alarming proportions. In the 1980s, around 80% of arable land in Poland was in private hands.

Thus, the theory-justification of “socialism in one country” and its political correlate, “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, prepared the ground for the restoration of capitalism in the so-called “socialist bloc” by the communist parties in power themselves. In this process, the policy of the ruling bureaucracies in Moscow and Warsaw was based on transferring the entire burden of the crisis to the working class and the popular masses. Only the labor movement, with a political leadership equal to the task, could have reversed the restorationist course of Soviet Thermidor. This is the backdrop to the 1980 strikes.

Unrest on the Baltic coast: the labor movement enters the scene

The strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk began on August 14, 1980. This process, a continuation of the 1970 strikes, irreversibly changed the political situation. The railway workers' strike in Lublin, a strategic railway junction between the USSR and East Germany, enraged Brezhnev. Faced with the strength of the strike movement, the then Minister of Defense, Wojciech Jaruzelski,[vii] did not advise the use of the army. By the end of August, more than 700.000 workers would strike at 700 workplaces across the country. Strike committees emerged in more than 200 companies.

The main leader of the Gdansk shipyard strike was Lech Walesa, who had been fired in 1976. The other prominent leader was Anna Walentynowicz. In fact, her dismissal precipitated the strike. The solidarity of the workers demanded the reinstatement of both, without reprisals.

On 16 August, an Intercompany Strike Committee (MKS) was formed, with delegates from other strike committees arriving at the shipyard in Gdansk. Within a few days, there were more than a thousand workers' representatives. At the Lenin shipyard and other factories, through microphones and loudspeakers, the assembly debates were watched by crowds.

A day later, the MKS formulated a list of 21 demands, which were not limited to economic demands, but included political rights: legalization of independent unions, freedom of expression, right to strike, etc. Restitution of dismissed workers, reintegration of students expelled from universities for their ideas, release of all political prisoners, abolition of the privileges of the police and the state apparatus. In short, free trade unions should have an active voice in political decisions, especially those relating to “…the basic principles of remuneration and the guidance of wage policy, particularly with regard to the principle of automatic wage increases in line with inflation, the long-term economic plan, the direction of investment policy and changes in prices”.[viii]

Irreverently, the 21 demands were written on a large wooden board hanging at the shipyard gate, a symbol of the struggle on a national scale. The strike, with broad popular support, forced the regime to negotiate. On August 31, 1980, Walesa sat down with Mieczyslaw Jagielski, Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, to sign the Gdansk agreement and end the strike. The event was broadcast live on television throughout Poland.

The most important achievement was the authorization to found a union independent of single party control. Political prisoners would be released. Economic demands would be met gradually. Walesa, in turn, accepted that the new union respected the constitution and recognized the “leadership role” of the PZPR in the State.

Lech Walesa's figure became enormous. In a few weeks, the unknown electrician became a national political actor that the bureaucracy could not ignore.

The magnitude of the crisis meant that, in September 1980, Edward Gierek lost control of the party to Stanislaw Kania. The labor movement had put the bureaucracy on the ropes.


On September 17, the founding congress of the Solidariedade union (Solidarity, in Polish). At its peak, it organized more than 10 million members (about 80% of Poland's workforce) in a country of 35 million people.

In the first 500 days after the Gdansk agreement, Solidarity brought together sections of the student, farmer and artisan movements. It was not only the first independent union in the satellite states of the former USSR, but also by far the largest in the world.

Its highest decision-making body was the Convention of delegates, who represented 38 regions and two districts. Lech Walesa was elected to the National Commission, the executive body. In November, the union was legalized. In September 1981, the first Solidarity congress issued a message to “all workers in socialist states” and elected Lech Walesa as president.

Solidariedade became a movement with a national presence. Strikes broke out here and there in the months following its founding. The Polish working class was at its best. The Moscow and Warsaw bureaucracies feared that this dynamic would infect other countries under Stalinist control.

The contradiction in this process of reorganization of workers was in the nature of its political direction. Lech Walesa was a conservative and conciliatory man, who served the interests of the Catholic Church apparatus. In a few months, the president of Solidariedade became a celebrity in the capitalist world. On January 15, 1981, he met in Rome with John Paul II, an emblematic figure of the anti-communist struggle that he admired.[ix] The support of the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for Walesa was explicit. In 1982, the magazine Time declared him “man of the year”. A year later, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The political profile of Solidarity's leadership combined this Catholic imprint with elements of Polish nationalism and Western liberalism. He also preached the precept of non-violence to his members. Walesa believed that bureaucracy should not be overthrown, but reformed, and that the Polish proletariat could not make the mistake of “demanding too much”.[X]

But despite the treasonous nature of its leaders and the influence of the Catholic leadership, Solidarity established itself as the undisputed reference point of the working class and a genuine expression of the strikes challenging the Stalinist regime in Poland and abroad.

So much so that, between 1980 and 1981, we can speak of an incipient duality of power between the single-party regime and the working class in movement, expressed in Solidarity, its most significant organizational achievement.

Jaruzelski's coup

The growth of Solidarity, the colossal economic crisis and Moscow's constant pressure to restore order led the Polish regime to reinforce its policy of repression of workers' mobilization. To that end, in October 1981, First Secretary Kania was replaced by General Jaruzelski, a true Russian bloodhound. He promised to “put things in order” but called on the Kremlin to intervene in case of failure.

From December 4 to December 12, the Red Army deployed more than 100.000 soldiers on the Polish border. However, an invasion, like that of Hungary or Czechoslovakia, was not Moscow's first option, as it was bogged down in Afghanistan. Thus, the dirty work would fall to the Polish army itself.[xi]

On December 13, 1981, Jaruzelski declared martial law, completing a reactionary coup. Around 1.750 tanks and 1.400 armored vehicles took to the streets. Lech Walesa and the Solidarity leadership, gathered in Gdansk, were arrested. It is estimated that more than 10.000 Solidarity activists were arrested, half of them on the night of the coup.

The labor movement responded with more than a hundred strikes and occupations of factories and mines, but all were defeated. No one was prepared for a physical confrontation with the military apparatus. The Lenin shipyard in Gdansk went on strike on December 14, but resumed work two days later when police killed one worker and injured two. On December 16, 1981, police killed nine miners and injured 22 others during the suppression of the strike at the Wujek mine in Katowice. Anna Walentynowicz was arrested on Friday the 18th. Solidariedade went underground.

On December 14, the strike began at the Piast coal mine in Upper Silesia. Around 2.000 miners resisted for 14 days at a depth of more than 650 meters.

Hundreds of people died. Thousands were arrested. The coup was consolidated. The so-called Western democracies turned a blind eye. The Cuban government declared that it was necessary to defend the Polish regime from “the action of the imperialist enemy” and that, in this sense, “considering the alternative, [the coup] is the least serious thing that could happen.”[xii]

A Military Council of National Salvation was created and controlled Poland until July 1983. During this period, a state of siege prevailed. Meetings, strikes and all forms of protest were banned. Censorship was intensified. In this climate of terror, the regime carried out a series of economic attacks. On February 1, 1982, price increases averaged 257%, but some products rose as much as 400%[xiii]. On October 8, 1982, the Solidariedade union was formally outlawed.

Lech Walesa's conciliatory leadership was also responsible for the defeat: it never warned, prepared or politically organized the working class to resist a predictable army coup or an invasion by the USSR.

However, the union reorganized itself and continued to operate underground, encouraging strikes in mines, shipyards and transport between 1981 and 1988. Through an illegal structure and media, such as Solidariedade radio, activists were able to obtain information and organize resistance. By early 1983, the organization published more than 500 underground newspapers called library. There was a lot of international pressure for Walesa's release. On November 14, 1982, he was finally released from prison after writing to Jaruzelki saying he was ready to “march towards a national settlement” and emphasizing, as a sign of good faith, that “from the end of June to the end of August , we suspended all strikes”[xiv].

On July 22, 1983, the Polish dictatorship considered the situation more stable and suspended martial law. Many Solidarity members were released.

Transition to a market economy

In the second half of the 1980s, the Polish economy, as well as that of the entire Soviet bloc, was in dire shape. The 1988 strikes in Poland showed the local bureaucracy that, without a solution to the Solidarity problem, the possibility of a social explosion was real. At the same time, the state apparatus was involved in serious factional disputes. In the USSR, Perestroika and Glasnost were underway as part of the CPSU's decision to restore capitalism. In this context, the regime negotiated with the leadership of Solidariedade –under the leadership of the Catholic Church, we must not forget– a transition to liberal democracy.

By 1989, productivity had plummeted, inflation exceeded 350% and shortages were desperate. Decades of agreements between Stalinism and imperialism had destroyed the non-capitalist economies of the USSR and Eastern Europe.

In February 1989, negotiations began at the so-called Round Table. In April, it was decided to restore the legality of Solidariedade, which soon reached 1,5 million members; create the second chamber of Parliament; restore the office of President of the Republic of Poland and call free general elections for 100 seats in the Senate and 35% of seats in the Sejm, the parliamentary lower house. In these elections, held on June 4, 1989, candidates supported by Solidariedade won 99 of the 100 seats in the Senate and all the seats up for grabs in the lower house.[xv]

On August 24, 1989, the Sejm appointed Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of the founders of Solidarity, as head of Poland's first non-Stalinist government since World War II. This created a domino effect throughout the USSR's area of ​​influence. On November 9, the East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall and the first Soviet republics or those under their rule declared their independence from Moscow.

In Poland, Jaruzelski himself led negotiations aimed at a “peaceful” transition to a liberal democratic regime. The prestigeless PZPR was dissolved in 1990. On December 9, 1990, Walesa triumphed in the elections and became president of Poland for the next five years. The restoration of capitalism proceeded brutally, privatizing all remaining socialized properties in record time, in what neoliberals called “shock therapy.”

The prosperous Polish labor movement of 1976-1989, although heroic, was unable to consummate a political revolution, that is, to overthrow the power of the bureaucracy and, at the same time, preserve the non-capitalist economic basis of society through a regime of workers' democracy . In part, due to the regime's harsh repression, but mainly due to the betrayal of the counter-revolutionary leadership personified in the figure of Lech Walesa. The reason for Solidarity's defeat and co-optation cannot be reduced to the 1981 military coup, since Lech Walesa's policies completely disarmed the working class for this confrontation.

In other words, there was no lack of initiative and willingness to fight on the part of the Polish working class, but rather the lack of a revolutionary political subject.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.

Originally published in the ABC newspaper [https://www.abc.com.py/edicion-impresa/suplementos/cultural/2022/06/26/solidaridad-y-la-revolucion-politica-polaca-1980-1989/ ]


[I] The factory occupation strike tactic emerged in Poland in 1931. When it spread in the US during the 1930s, it was often called the “Polish strike”, after the Polish immigrants who spread it.

[ii] See: https://elpais.com/diario/1982/03/02/internacional/383871604_850215.html. Accessed on: 04/10/2023.

[iii] Idem

[iv] Between 1971 and 1973, imports grew 19,3% per year; exports, just 10,8%.

[v] See: https://elpais.com/diario/1981/02/17/internacional/351212403_850215.html. Accessed on: 04/10/2023.

[vi] Poland's external debt and ways to overcome it. Comercio Exterior Magazine, vol. 37, No. 8, Mexico, August 1987, p. 682.

[vii] Jaruzelski had been Defense Minister since 1968, when a Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring.

[viii] See: https://elpais.com/diario/1981/02/17/internacional/351212403_850215.html. Accessed on: 03/10/2023.

[ix] Lech Walesa on the role of John Paul II, in a 2014 interview: “He freed us by putting us in prayer (…) I am convinced that his pontificate was decisive for the quick and non-violent defeat of communism. As far as our personal experience is concerned, he was a spiritual guide, any of his teachings meant a lot to me.” See: https://elpais.com/elpais/2014/09/09/eps/1410281457_483334.html.

[X] TALPE, Jan. The working states of Glacis. Discussion about Eastern Europe. São Paulo, Lorca, 2019, p. 119.

[xi] The subordination of the Polish leadership to Moscow was so evident that one of the threats to stop the strikes was a possible Soviet invasion. The 1981 coup itself was carried out in the name of preventing this fact.

[xii] See: https://elpais.com/diario/1982/02/12/internacional/382316416_850215.html. Accessed on: 03/10/2023.

[xiii] See: https://elpais.com/diario/1982/03/02/internacional/383871604_850215.html. Accessed on: 04/10/2023.

[xiv] Talpe, op. cit., p. 121.

[xv] According to the Round Table agreements, only the Communist Party and its allies could occupy the remaining seats.

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