Poland's people power has lessons for today
Thirty years ago, Solidarity's success in Poland marked the beginning of the end of Soviet Europe. Neal Ascherson says its legacy must not be forgotten
Thirty years ago today, ordinary people challenged an armed dictatorship - and won. On August 31, 1980, the strikers in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk forced the Communist authorities in Poland to sign an agreement.
It promised them - among other things - a free and independent trade union, the liberation of political prisoners, plural and uncensored media and the right to strike.
Within days, other strike committees all over Poland were winning the same sort of terms from their party bosses. Soon all the local agreements ran together into a single movement covering the whole nation, which recruited nine million members by the end of the year. Its leader was a fast-talking, pious, slightly rascally electrician called Lech Walesa. The name of the movement was 'the Independent Self-Managing Trade Union Solidarity'.
The strikes spread and the government, riven by panicky arguments, finally gave way on August 31. That was not the end of the story. In the months that followed, the regime tried to block, delay or otherwise cheat on all the main points of the agreement, repeatedly driving Solidarity into confrontation. Sometimes Poland seemed close to civil war.
Finally, in December 1981, General Jaruzelski carried out a military coup, dissolving Solidarity, arresting thousands of its leading members and imposing martial law. But that wasn't the end of the story either. Solidarity became an underground resistance movement.
The Communist regime, now discredited and despised by everyone, lay on top of Poland like a dying tyrannosaurus. In 1988, a fresh wave of strikes forced the regime to convene a Round Table to discuss radical reform with Solidarity and other opposition groups.
A compromise arranged for a 'free' election in June 1989, gerrymandered to ensure that the Communists and their allies kept a parliamentary majority.
But the voters found a loophole - the requirement that all candidates must gain the backing of 50% of the votes cast. The regime list was wiped out.
Four months later, the first government in 'Soviet Europe' led by non-Communists took power. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected President of the free Republic of Poland. That first year of Solidarity, which had begun in summer and ended on a freezing December night, was a carnival which became a sustaining myth. Yet many of the things that made it special have been forgotten.
One was the part played by women in those first weeks. The Gdansk strike began because of the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz, a small, bespectacled crane driver who became one of its toughest leaders.
For patriotic Poles today, Solidarity's glory is that it gave a mortal wound to the whole Soviet empire. But even if Solidarity blew open the gates to the future, it belonged in many ways to the past. It was the end of many things, rather than a beginning.
To start with, it was the last grand uprising of the producers - of the men and women whose labour made wealth, and who claimed a right to control in their own workplaces how that wealth was produced and shared. The Gdansk events belong to another vanished age: the era of vast industrial plants employing many thousands of workers.
The Communist regimes had encouraged giant factories, assuming that they would breed a disciplined working class to carry forward the building of socialism.
In the event, these places became fortresses of rebellion, able through their very size to pour armies of angry workers onto the streets and bring a government to its knees. That organised working class, that human torrent in cloth caps or berets pouring in and out of the factory gates as the whistle blew, has almost passed into history. What remains from that August spirit, in a Poland committed to neoliberal free markets and individualism, in which enormous wealth gaps separate rich and poor?
Solidarity went through several shape-changes after 1980. It became a resistance movement devoted more to national independence than to workers' rights.
Then, after 1989, it became one unsuccessful right-wing political movement among several others. Today it is once more a trade union, with a mighty name but limited influence.
If Solidarity had not given millions of people the confidence that by sticking together they could change everything, Poland in 2010 would look more like Ukraine - a dismal mess of failed hopes and dirty power-politics. Instead, it is a stable European democracy whose citizens are often fed up and furious but never passive.
The journalist Jacek Zakowski writes: "That myth, for many of us, is the proof that it was worth being born. We contributed something to this world.
"Thanks to Solidarity, several million people in Poland can reflect that they did something tremendous, and not just for themselves. In all history, there are not many generations like that."