Solidarity rose to prominence in the midst of Polish disunity: Poland had disappeared as a state, but it survived as a nation. Polish national identity endured residually within the Catholic Church and Romantic Messianism, as well as in insurrectionary tradition. Ash’s firsthand account of the development of this national identity is greatly explored in The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. Ash allocates his exposition into four central ideas that overlap in ideology, forming distinctive segments in Solidarity’s history. It follows the chronological maturation of the rise of Solidarity’s immense popular appeal, leading to an exercise of the worker union’s newfound power in society and a self-examination of Solidarity’s founding principles. As its membership and boundaries increased, Solidarity began to vie for political power with a partnership to the Polish Party, while simultaneously searching for its role in the nation’s future. The failure of shared power led to open use of military force and the conclusion of the Solidarity movement under the Party’s General Jaruzelski, yet Polish nationalism was preserved.
The inefficiency of the Gomulka and Gierek regimes and a plunging economic crisis led to the union of the three pillars of Polish national identity to form a people's union into the famous Solidarity. The rising discontent in Poland was unified in a representation of their dissatisfaction with the current corrupt government. Voiced by Walesa, a figurative Romantic Messiah, who was “one of them, the personification of the ‘little man’, a truly representative individual”, the movement took root in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, a symbol of Solidarity’s trades union origin for workers. The methodic dispersion of worker’s unions--Divide and Rule--applied by authorities to decentralize revolts, failed in Gdansk in 1980. Gomulka and Gierek, Party leaders, had used this method in the 1956, 1968, and 1970 uprisings so successfully, yet Gniech’s efforts in Gdansk could not put down the trade union, which refused to be quelled. In spite of the initial critical successes of Walesa’s coalition of workers, some defected and betrayed the union in favor of security and conservatism. Walesa described this as the purge of the weak, as the impending strikes would require coordination and unity unprecedented in Polish history.
Solidarity began to exercise its power and enforce its demands in a social phenomenon: pressure from below. Walesa stressed the conception of a new social contract, encouraging the development of social rights as well as economic recovery. Solidarity leaders launched a civil crusade: the movement came to encompass the society as “Solidarity filled that yawning gap between the family and the nation.” A series of crises shook Solidarity, each rising in importance as Solidarity grew to expand its role for the Polish society. The Registration crisis was the first Solidarity’s victory against the Party, foreshadowing the government policy of appeasement that would lead to further concessions. The Narozniak Affair became a frontal challenge to the ruling class and a symbolic struggle of Solidarity’s rise as a political party, defending the privilege of its members; its members were Polish society and its ‘privileges’ were basic human rights. The Rzeszow Commune became Rural Solidarity’s debut, the farmer’s strike, which greatly aided the unity and spread of Solidarity’s ranks. The workers would proclaim and enforce national civil rights, while the farmers would supply the workers with food and fuel to strengthen the movement. The Bydgoszcz Crisis initiated the beginning of the end for political maneuvers between the Party and Solidarity. Solidarity backed off from yet another general strike which could have been a decisive blow to the Party and allowed Solidarity to gain the upper hand. Walesa’s cancellation of the strike was the crucial point when he began to lose control of Solidarity to radical forces. It also delved into Solidarity’s dubious boundaries as a trade union; the principle of self-limitation became even more relevant after the Warsaw Pact, in which Soviet Intervention could threaten to crush the movement at the height of its power.
As Solidarity, a mere trades union, grew beyond precedented size, it became apparent that two ‘Parties’ could not coexist: a merger was necessary, or either side would be destroyed in a military confrontation. Government appeasement fed the appetite of Solidarity leaders: “A hungry nation can eat its rulers.” Solidarity gradually shifted its purpose from self-defense to self-government, and from self-government to an active enforcement of its privileges. Any form of compromise had a precarious balance to fulfill: the need to satisfy the Polish people, but also the need to satisfy Moscow. Thus the self-limiting revolution emerged, and all Poles felt the “inner tension between the ideal and the possible.” The rise of Rakowski precipitated his ‘Vision of Partnership’, known as consultative authoritarianism which Solidarity had no option but to refuse. Solidarity wrestled with conflicting ideologies within its own ranks with Gwiazda’s endorsed fundamentalist urge against Walesa’s supported pragmatic understanding. Walesa, seeking peace, failed to prepare Solidarity from the coming civil war. Power was powerless, restrained by the use of force, and so when General Jaruzelski abandoned a political solution and unleashed Polish forces among the Polish people, surprise was complete.
Pole shall not kill Pole; this unspoken promise was shattered by Jaruzelski’s ‘state of war’, initiated to reassert the communist ruling class as the dominant Polish force. Jaruzelski relinquished a political resolution long before the December 13 surprise raids; “Jaruzelski’s two-week Blitzkrieg in December 1981 was to Solidarity what the three-week Blitzkrieg of September 1939 was to the Second Republic.” The general’s precision in deploying the raids betrayed the advanced, methodical planning and deception used to lure Solidarity into a military confrontation which took Solidarity by complete astonishment. This state of war undermined the power of a repressive state, rather than the lack of popular support for Solidarity, and emphasized the helplessness of the Polish majority: a resistance would mean the intervention of Soviet troops to back the Polish forces in this ‘war’. The majority believed that Polish repression was a ‘lesser evil’ than Soviet intervention, and hesitated in a self-limiting acceptance. Jaruzelski, sensing this weakness, exploited the fundamental link: “violence can only be concealed by the lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.” With the overthrow of Solidarity, Poland would again be drawn into the heavy fog of the Iron Curtain, but the collective conscious would leave a lasting legacy of hope and freedom.
Ash encompasses not just the Solidarity movement’s evolutionary revolution but its legacy--not just in communist Eastern Europe, but across the world as a beacon of hope. The precarious nature of Solidarity’s position against not only the Polish government, but also the Soviet superpower, expresses the incredible willpower and unity of the Polish nation in the face of daunting adversities. Ash proclaims Polish nationalism that arose in the darkest hour of repression: “The most beautiful flowers sometimes bloom on the edge of the abyss.” The crude necessity of Solidarity as an expression of Polish society fostered the rise of a great national conscious, the evolution of economic revolt for social and civil gain, and the evolution of animal to man. The subsequent influence of Solidarity on national identity remains a greater achievement than the material gains it attained as an organization. The Poles had tasted freedom; their perspective was changed forever, the Party had been broken, and communism, for a while, had retreated under the onslaught of Polish democracy. Ash reiterates the psychological effects that Solidarity in the nation: it was a vehicle for moral progress, a search for truth and individual conscious in the world of lies and corruption. Ash’s greater theme contains the triumph of good over evil in the occupied country of free people.
Ash, a direct participant and observer of Solidarity’s rise against the odds, naturally gravitated towards a sympathetic view of the downtrodden victims of communist corruption. Ash continues to assert his endorsement of Solidarity’s authenticity in the Manichean dichotomy of ‘power’ versus ‘society’: “The outcome of the Blitzkrieg therefore says very little about the quality of popular support for Solidarity. It is, rather, a devastating reminder of the power of a state” Ash, a competent historian who specifies in liberation from Communism and the principles of freedom and repression, emphasizes his educated bias against oppression and voices a distaste of higher authority within the context of the Polish revolution. The writer supports the actions and development of Solidarity’s position in almost every instance of conflict, appealing to abstract ideologies to justify the trade union’s expansion while condemning the Party’s corruption and unwillingness to compromise. The Polish Revolution in the 1980s constituted a tense standoff between the relative Communist ‘East’ and the Capitalist ‘West’. The simplistic labels of the Western world and the Manichean view of capitalism and communism led the Polish Revolution to fit the mold the West had created for it. To address the inherent mistake of perceiving the Polish Revolution ‘under Western eyes’, Ash compliments his account with complex ideologies that force the change in perspective, critical to fully understanding all the implications of this self-limiting revolution.
Ash’s account of the Polish Revolution is regarded as the most complete narrative of the years 1980-1983 in Poland: he integrates a dynamic perspective with a lively chronology of Solidarity’s reign. Ash perceives the “[Polish] communist regime as an unnatural grafting, destined for trouble”, foreshadowing his defense of the Polish national culture against the communist-infiltrated, authoritative Party. The principle of power versus society, the Manichean dichotomy, is fully expressed in the struggle for representation of the people, which culminated in a wave of repressive power warping and destroying the hopes and dreams of millions of Poles. Kirkus Reviews exhibits the complex ideologies found in Ash’s book as “useful, though wordy”, highlighting the repetitive concepts that he utilizes in every major conflict. A review by John C. Campbell accentuates the diversity of interpretation constructed in Ash’s account: “the author adds an arresting chapter on the West’s reaction to the Polish events.” This unique perspective incorporates the world’s reaction to Solidarity, and Ash is able to critique the West’s lack of support and the failure of containment, as it left communism rampant in already existing Soviet bloc countries. Its publication in 1984, followed by subsequent editions, documented the profound effects of Solidarity’s existence. By combining multiple layers of perspective, Ash creates a complex, multi-dimensional analysis of the factors surrounding Solidarity’s rise and fall.
Ash’s gripping account of the Polish Revolution is an intellectual, complex explanation of Solidarity’s efforts to escape communist repression through an expression of the Polish national conscious. He addresses the challenging task of uniting all possible effectors and causes of the Revolution, and constructs a thoroughly built explanation of the key events surrounding Solidarity. The periodic use of dialogue from actual participants in Solidarity’s formation, such as “we don’t care about life/the pig also lives/we want a life of dignity” greatly contributes to Ash’s argument of Solidarity’s inherent goodness against the communist forces of evil by incorporating a pathos element to the logic and credibility established by Ash’s intellectual discussion. The result is a brilliant narrative, enriched with the vivid description Ash employs to comprehend Solidarity’s existence, coupled with dramatic quotes to deepen the reader’s understanding of abstract topics, including Polish nationalism.
Ash severely criticizes the lack of response to Solidarity’s fall from the Western world, drawing upon the symbolism of the Iron Curtain to depict the Western powers’ detachment to the hidden repression in the Eastern countries. Ash dedicates a chapter to Western response, or a lack thereof to apply their influence and economic aid in a nation searching for its identity. The United States, in particular, with Reagan as a newly elected, conservative president in 1980, saw the rise of conservative ideologies to govern domestic policy as well as foreign policy. The simultaneous rise of Solidarity in 1980 was the worst possible time period to begin the revolution, as President Carter’s term was too short to implement a coherent foreign policy supporting Poland in his last year of presidency. Ash condemns Western inability as ‘Embarrassment on the Left’ and ‘Embarrassment on the Right’, and so denounces both liberalism and conservatism as extreme in their own rights. Liberalism failed to recognize the social and religious connection between the worker and the Catholic Church. Reagan’s conservatism administration “displayed flagrant double-standards” by supporting Solidarity in its rights movement then denying those same rights in Central American countries. This logic was compounded by the superpower rhetoric: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In context, Solidarity was helping the United States combat communism in Eastern Europe. Progressivism was limited: the failure to support a social worker’s government in Poland and failed economic aid to combat communism were examples of an inefficient political coherence in America to support a truly revolutionary revolution.
Solidarity exemplified the brief beacon of hope that united the Polish nation under a common cause and collectivized the voice of society. The movement left a lasting legacy of democratic freedom, foreshadowing the fall of the communist regime in 1991.
1. Ash, Timothy. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
2. Ash, Timothy. 48.
3. Ash, Timothy. 78.
4. Ash, Timothy. 327.
5. Ash, Timothy. 193.
6. Ash, Timothy. 268.
7. Ash, Timothy. 282.
8. Ash, Timothy. 207.
9. Ash, Timothy. 269.
10. “Kirkus Review: The Polish Revolution: Solidarity.” www. kirkusreviews.com. N.p., 23 Apr. 1984. Web. 22 May 2016.
11. “Kirkus Review: The Polish Revolution: Solidarity.” www.
kirkusreviews.com. N.p., 23 Apr. 1984. Web. 22 May 2016.
12. Campbell, John C. “The Polish Revolution: Solidarity.” Foreignaffairs.com. N.p., 1984. Web. 22 May 2016.
13. Ash, Timothy. 283.
14. Ash, Timothy. 313.