Solidarity as the People of God
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Marek A

[from:] Marek A. Cichocki, 
Władza i pamięć, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Kraków 2005.



In the memories of participants of the first "Solidarity", the main motive which stands out is the directly lived-out collective experience of community. This experience it described by them as a pervasive sense of a restored authenticity of human relationships and bounds. Someone likened this feeling to a situation in which a person, after being forced to hold his/her breath under water for a long time, finally flows to the surface to catch a huge swig of air. The first Solidarity was supposed to be this very moment when the Poles, having choked for decades in the reality of the Polish People’s Republic, finally became able to inhale the fresh air of freedom. Interpersonal relations, hitherto distorted by the Polish People’s Republic, due to August ’80, became close, direct, devoid of the distance created by social roles - they finally became free and authentic.

In the first issue of “Tygodnik Solidarność”, Bohdan Cywiński[1] described these social relations, distorted by the socialist system, as the constant need to pretend and to build a variety of ad-hoc tactics. In the Polish People’s Republic, entering into contact with other people than the circle of family or close friends was always “like a trip abroad - careful, self-seeking and undertaken with the aim of returning. It was necessary to “play different roles, to pretend, to perform spurious gestures, to do things and to submit declarations one wasn’t convinced about.” Solidarity suddenly invalidated this need of an everyday play.  Perhaps this very experience[2] led to the propensity to use the Manichean vision when describing the phenomenon of Solidarity: on the one hand, the world of lies, on the other hand – the opposing world of truth. This contrast was not, however, exclusively - or even primarily - a revolutionary tactic (an ideological desire to distinguish oneself from the ancient regime), but the direct consequence of a specific collective experience of freedom – that sense of restored authenticity and unhypocritical interpersonal relations. The truth was manifested by the freed and unmediated social relationships, forming community. In his sermon of October 19, 1980, given on the Wawel Castle, Rev. Józef Tischner talked about the experience of collective truth: “The basis and the source of solidarity is what each person in reality seeks in life. When the spring comes, we should make sure we sow and plow on time. When the fall comes, we should make sure we harvest on time. When our house is burning, we should make sure we put out the fire. [...] Today we are experiencing extraordinary moments. People reject their masks, they unveil their true faces”.  In other words, the distorted, relativised and mediated world returned to its natural shape thanks to Solidarity, the shape in which “truth always meant truth, and justice – justice[3].

The experience of the first "Solidarity" was therefore understood as a collective experience of “living in truth”, long-awaited and formulated in previous years by opposition groups as a moral objective. Solidarity itself was defined respectively as “primarily a social movement, a movement of ethical revival, which demanded restoration and compliance with the criteria of morality in public and private life[4]. And although the participants of Solidarity, apparently, did not feel the need for further theoretical explanation of the notion of truth, which, probably, intuitively was obvious for them, it is not quite clear what the truth was. Certainly it was not only the rejection of the falsehood of social and political behaviors in the Polish People’s Republic[5]. However, today, posing the question directly, what this truth was in reality, is, perhaps, not completely prudent and rational.

II. Solidarity’s People Of God

From the point of view of Solidarity perceived as a collective experience of living in truth, we can distinguish two main descriptions of this phenomenon which are complementary to each other, although they belong to different systems. The first description is about some kind of “sacralisation” of the first Solidarity, presenting its phenomenon in terms of res publica ecclesiastica, or even as a community of believers or God's people. The second one refers to the concept of civil society, which, nevertheless, has lost its brightness today. Both descriptions, as mentioned, are complementary, because each of them tries to illustrate in its own way the collective phenomenon of living in truth, although their comparison may be surprising from the point of view of modern social or political science[6]. One description refers to theology, while the second one refers to the theory of politics.

In Polish conditions, the description of Solidarity as a community of religious experience, must inevitably lead us to the mystical language of Romanticism. It is not by chance, after all, that during the strike in the Gdansk Shipyard, the most mystical collective experience of the Poles in ‘80 and ‘81, was the one when the actors of the “Wybrzeże” Theatre read the Books of the Polish nation and Polish pilgrimage. The same text, symbolizing the most mystical language to talk about a national community of the Poles, was also mentioned by Rev. Tischner in his Solidarity-related sermons. These facts raise certain puzzlement today, because this language was successfully deconstructed after ‘89 and it seems that the only thing from the Romantic language that touches Poles is a certain extract of the Polish Gemütlichkeit,  taken from Pan Tadeusz.

Sacralisation of Solidarity is an attempt to grasp “living in truth”. And since today a direct referral to the Romantic language would be quite troublesome, this attempt had to be described using a more neutral language, the language of contemporary political philosophy. For this purpose, it would be indispensable to use the term of “a miracle”[7]. This concept was often used in an attempt to convey the unexpected and quite incredible nature of the phenomenon of Solidarity. However, it would be a mistake to interpret this concept too literally, in a colloquial sense: Solidarity was a miracle, since it seemed to be a miracle that a mass movement of freedom suddenly appeared in the Eastern Bloc, terrorized by the Soviet tanks and the secret service. In the same manner, the miracle of Solidarity was the notion used by such people as Jan Nowak ­Jeziorański, Stefan Kisielewski and others – who built their strategy of resistance against communism on the assumption that they themselves do not have a chance to live to see the independence. However, this is only a superficial interpretation of a “miracle”. However, if we return to the previously quoted fragment of Rev. Tischner’s preaching, the term “miracle” regains its depth. It’s because living in truth is, in fact, not only a collective act of rejecting the forms of coexistence in the Polish People’s Republic, distorted and degenerated by the communism, but primarily the practice of maintaining authentic, undistorted by any “unnatural” distance, interpersonal relationshipsSolidarity was thus the chance for restoration and maintenance of “directness”, “proximity,” “obviousness”, “lack of distance” in relations between the Poles. Its uniqueness lies in the revelation of human existence in its most simple, most sincere, completely pre-political relations. However, this sort of existence would be perceived in the categories of modern political philosophy as a divine miracle - if it is not a chaotic and violent state of nature.

By the way: this is a great paradox that priest Tischner preached about this a-historical and a-political vision of the national community based on direct, authentic relationships on the Wawel Castle, in the immediate presence of national symbols and traditions, carved in stone. But all this Evangelical language is paradoxical, since it tries to describe an archi-political phenomenon in a-political categories.

The events in the Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980 are clearly crucial when describing Solidarity in the categories of mystical community. The religious dimension of these events was undoubtedly intensified by a sense of spiritual unity, collective admiration, but also by a sense of separateness from the surrounding world or even certain isolation from it[8]. Community in this sense may be compared to the first Christian communities, growing in an alien and hostile non-Christian world. The intensity of this common experience was also built on the awareness of a constant external threat. The religious nature of the event was emphasized by frequent Holy Masses, fervent collective prayers[9] and confessions made in other people’s presence. It was popular to create self-penned religious poetry. Religious symbolism often naturally passed into national symbols. These events were later called, not without a reason, a large national retreat and a great religious revival. However, based on the description of the strike, it can be assumed that is was not the Holy Masses or prayers that were the most powerful religious symbol, but the gate to the shipyard. Religious symbols were most noticeable on the gate separating the shipyard from the rest of the city. The decoration of the gate very much resembled an altar on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The image of Our Lady of Czestochowa was placed there, along with the image of John Paul II and it was entirely garnished with bouquets of flowers[10]. In the aforementioned text by Bogdan Cywiński, published in “Tygodnik Solidarność”, the gate of the shipyard carried a symbolic meaning of transition between the world of lies and the world of truth, where the world of truth was squeezed in a small – compared to the whole country – area of the shipyard, designated by the magically reinforced wall. For Cywiński, passing through the gate was an individual choice of each Pole, a chance, given to everyone, of transition from one world to the other. By analogy with the altar, this transition, or transgression, gained another, additional, spiritual meaning. It became a miraculous event, as beautiful as the event of transgression during the Holy Communion.

From the point of view of the tradition of modern political thought, the concept of miracle assumed the proportion of a major theoretical concept, since it allowed for a distressing possibility of external, divine intervention in the legal and social order, established thanks to the political power of the sovereign authority. In the time when, based on the philosophy of history, the established order, or rather various orders began to be perceived in a historical perspective of evolution as a logical process, the concept of miracle seemed to remind of the existence of a completely different, deeper order, covered with a progressively thicker layer of historical forms.  A miracle is like tearing the curtain in the temple, it is the moment in which the historical reality parts like the Red Sea, the history parts like the Red Sea  – and the absolute reality presents itself in all its immediacy. This is the moment where we may see a glimpse of truth.  A miracle, at the same time, undermines the logic of history. And if we realize that communism had yet another historical influence over the genealogy of modern times, and, as its result, the Polish People’s Republic, then the phenomenon of Solidarity challenges this logic, and thus grows to the ranks of “a miracle” in the modern sense of this notion.

This sacralisation of Solidarity, or even the attempt of presenting it in the categories of res publica ecclesiastica should not be too hastily regarded as an unauthorized attempt of its catholisation. Today, many people seem to be particularly sensitive to this problem. Still, the phenomenon of new outbreaks of the “Polish religious war”, which have exploded from time to time after 89, is of no relevance here. The religiosity of the Solidarity movement, and especially the religiosity of the striking shipbuilders was deep and sincere, although, with hindsight, some of its forms may even seem funny or tragic-comic to us [11]. However, this religiosity made up the phenomenon of Solidarity and played a huge role within this movement [12]. In relation to Solidarity, the Church assumed a dual role, one might say – its primeval role, on the one hand, by providing religious service among the strikers (Holy Mass, confession), and on the other – by maintaining its original position of restraint with regard to great social movements of the lower classes. So when in August 1980 the first the Poles performed the act of cleansing, by passing through the gate - the altar of the Gdansk Shipyard, on August 26, Primate Stefan Wyszynski in his sermon at Jasna Góra called for responsibility, work and peace. At the same time, it was primarily the Church people who, in their speeches, drew to the surface the religious and evangelical sense of Solidarity. Suffice it to recall two examples. The Pope, when closing his sermon given on Plac Zwycięstwa with the words: “Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land” - he underlined the eschatological dimension of the event that was to take place a year later. In turn, Józef Tischner, in his Solidarity-related sermons, when recalling a biblical understanding of human solidarity as the evangelical commandment “carry one another's burdens”, showed an ethical sense of Solidarity in the spirit of the Gospel. It is doubtful, however, that in this way the Church wanted to sacralise Solidarity or that such was the intention of the Church people, since the Church has always been guided by far-reaching prudence in such matters. For it understands that there is a very fine line between a massive religious ecstasy and a revolutionary ecstasy.

III. The idea of civil society

The second description of Solidarity, complementary to the previous one, was the concept of civil society, characteristic not only the Polish movement towards freedom, but all the dissident movements in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. From today's perspective, it is hard to resist the impression that this very general, and even vague concept was used in the 70s and in the 80s to describe various, sometimes very heterogeneous phenomena in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe [13]. Also the theoretical basis of this concept is not quite clear. However, without a doubt, in a certain period of time it was the dominant concept for the intellectual description of Solidarity. It had another significant advantage, since it allowed to refer, in the theoretical reflection on Solidarity, to the debate, ongoing in parallel in the West, over liberalism. This concept was also supposed to play the role of a bridge through which Solidarity was no longer a local event, but became a part of a broader Western debate over the foundations of the modern liberal world[14].

The disappearance of the concept of civil society from the debate over the events in Poland in the last 20 years was as quick as quick the fashion for it came in the 80s. “How did it happen that civil society has fallen so low? – inquires Aleksander Smolar today. – It was only ten years ago, that the peaceful revolutions that rocked our region, were taking place in the name of civil society. Overnight,  the adjectives civil, civic, obscanske, grazhdansko became key words in the public language of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. There appeared civic committees, movements, assemblies, initiatives, civic parliamentary clubs and civic parties. But it did not last long. Just a few years later, the concept of civil society left the streets and public squares, to lead a quiet, somewhat sleepy life in seminar rooms”[15].

The situation is evidently much more serious than it is drawn by Aleksander Smolar. As far as I know, the concept of civil society is not predominant even in seminar rooms – at least not in Poland. It is not only the result of our strong intellectual fashions. The problem lies in the very concept.

The term “civil society” was an attempt to describe the collective nature of living in truth, but today it requires its precise description. According to Zbigniew Pełczyński, civil society in the Hegelian sense is primarily the concept of a corporate union of interests of different groups of citizens. In any case, he believes that it is necessary to strictly separate the notion of civil society in the Hegelian sense from the concept of political society [16]. This division is a necessity from the point of view of Hegelian philosophy of history. For, as Hegel notes, “modern peoples are for one another like enslaved individuals – the freedom of citizens in this signification is the dispensing with universality, the principle of isolation”, the lack of consciousness for the whole. This is so because “at present, the will of a specific individual is what was made first, what was made  absolute (arbitrariness)”[17]. For Jerzy Szacki, the concept of civil society only makes sense insofar as it relates the Polish experience to the concept of Western liberalism [18]. And he means liberalism in Locke’s understanding, i.e. the one which allows the individual to fulfill the needs of ownership in a rational way, to manifest an individual initiative in this respect, and to preserve the right of possible political citizenship in the public sphere. This is the kind of liberalism, which essentially exempts the individual from the majority of collective obligations. Therefore, the community-oriented word of “Solidarity” is defined by Szacki succinctly as “a utopia of civil society[19]. In turn, Paweł Śpiewak strongly opposes this interpretation of Solidarity. In the text Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt on Solidarity [20] the concept of civil society is probably not mentioned even once, but in essence, all his arguments are designed to juxtapose the liberal, negative “social” and anti-political sense of this notion with a positive definition of politics as the Republican ethos. In Śpiewak’s conceptualization, civil society (based on the example of Solidarity) becomes primarily a political society. Yet another understanding of civil society in relation to the experience of Solidarity is presented by Aleksander Smolar, for whom this concept has an entirely separate, unique specificity in the context of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. He argues that “the idea of civil society, which has gained popularity in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, has little in common with the debates of the past, deliberations of Locke, Ferguson, Smith, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx or Gramsci. It grew out of a long history of post-war resistance[21].

What was defined in Central and Eastern Europe using the concept of civil society, in some way, however, took its roots from the old antinomy between society and the state, and going deeper – from the antinomy between an individual, manifesting its initiative and the oppressive policy [22]. In Poland, the communist reality imposed a specific convention on this opposition. Nevertheless, regardless of this specificity, the concept of civil society described, above all, the space that was to exist next to the state and was to have a non-political nature or which completely equated the political factor with the highest moral principles. In contrast, the ambiguity of this very notion testified rather of its theoretical immaturity, which allowed it to reconcile liberal ideas of a minimal state and an autonomous, self-sufficient society with an anarchist or simply romantic belief in the self-ability of society to organize politically without a state. If one would really try to look for a particular distinguishing feature of civil society in the context of Central Europe, it would be an extremely strong moral justification of existence of such a parallel space. Civil society’s task was not  to realize the demand, present even among the current party’s liberals, for weakening the state’s centralism and for giving more opportunities for carrying out grassroots initiatives and for self-organization. Civil society was not there to be the fulfilled demand for living in truth, the incarnation of the eternal – although challenged also by the People’s Republic of Poland - dream of politics consisting in spontaneous, discursive and consistent solving of the community’s issues, harmoniously making one whole, composed of conscious and noble-minded citizens.

IV. The idealist and the realists

Both ways of understanding Solidarity as a religious community and as a civil society are - as stated before - taken from other systems of thinking (one draws its source from theology, the second one - from the history of political ideas), but they remain complementary in the sense that they are characterised by a similar moral justification. Both pictures of Solidarity refer to the hope for complete overcoming of historic and conventional limitations in politics (of which communism is only one of many), and advocates an absolute ideal of living in truth - without mediations, distances and roles. Although this demand, faced with hypocrisy of everyday life and politics in the Polish People’s Republic must have seemed quite obvious for the participants of the first Solidarity, it does not change the fact that from a theoretical point of view, it extremely complicated this experience, by putting it above history and above politicization and by giving the Solidarity such a high moral and simultaneously non-political credit that today, from the perspective of twenty years, it must seem simply unbelievable, and in some cases may even be considered dangerous.

But regardless of  these theoretical problems arising from the adoption of the two so radically non-political and ethical points of view on Solidarity, there is also a usual, rational reproach, based on the direct reminiscences of individual participants in those events. This reproach appears and will always continue to appear in all discussions on the nature of the first Solidarity - and it’s impossible to ignore it. Solidarity is said not to be any ethical or mystical moment of unity, embodying an unmediated true nature of human relationships. The demand for living in truth should not be understood too literally, either, for it is meaningful only in relation to the experience of the Polish People’s Republic and it would be wrong to try to explain it apart from its historical and social context. It would lead to unnecessary idealization of Solidarity, to the search for non-existent metaphysics of this event. And Solidarity was a socio-political movement and thus was subject to all the rules of conventional politics and social life. An attempt to seek anything non-historical and, thus, universal, in the phenomenon of Solidarity ignores the fact that the Solidarity movement was entangled in history, it was mostly a political phenomenon. Solidarity put up a fight and a game with the authorities, concluded agreements, carried out negotiations and was guided by different tactics depending on the situation. Inside, it was divided into factions, reciprocally accusing each other and into competing groups, circles of those more and less initiated. [23]  It also had its heroes and its traitors. In fact, it was far from the idealised image of a civil society or a mystic community, described by the language of the Gospel. More broadly, "sacralisation" of the phenomenon of Solidarity distorts its historical dimension to some extent. Likewise, the concepts of civil society, a parallel society, a non-political society falsify the political dimension of this phenomenon, since they put an emphasis on all that is non-political in interpersonal relations as  opposed to peculiar ethics of immediacy as a moral postulate.

However, this is not only a dispute between Solidarity’s "realists" and "idealists". It is also a serious theoretical problem, for both views of Solidarity, which imply an absolute moral postulate of authenticity, evoke a permanent set of contemporary doubts of political and theological nature. With regard to the first Solidarity, Paweł Śpiewak expressed these doubts in the biblical metaphor of a fruit-bearing tree in the wintertime that could not give any fruit [24]. The first part of the metaphor refers the phenomenon of Solidarity to the concept of a miracle, an event which was not allowed to happen in the normal historical order and was only possible thanks to some mysterious Providence. A miracle is the moment of tearing the veil of history, as well as the moment of purifying the foreground of all mediations and distances, and thus, de facto, of the elements of politics. It is an abolition of historical and political "normality". The second part of the metaphor contains the statement that this event could not leave any traces and is devoid of any consequences for the world in which it took place. It is a very significant metaphor and, as I intend to prove - teaches above all that Solidarity could not and cannot have any consequences for us, precisely for the reason that it was an event belonging to the category of miracles, and these, even if they do occur, are futile for people.

V. The miracle and its prophets

The problem of futility of divine miracles was a theological and political problem resulting from deistic and pantheistic doctrines that, after abandoning the principle of divine intervention in the historical and political world of man, had to cope somehow with the theoretical problem of rationally unexplained events which opposed to the logic of reason or logic of history. In his Theological-Political Treatise [25] Benedict de Spinoza argues that the miracle does not leave any trace in the world, and therefore, in essence, from the point of view of earthly events, is irrelevant. The prophets who experienced enlightenment or claimed that they talked with God, did not become the source of all this special knowledge or wisdom to other people. After becoming the subject of Divine intervention, the participants of a miracle were not more instructed than other ordinary people and after the miracle ended they remained faithful to their old views. Through a miracle, God did not pass on any particular wisdom, nor any special experience to other people. Spinoza tried to justify this shocking - in its implications - thesis in two ways. Firstly, he referred to the Books of Moses (Exodus 33:20), in which it is said that even Moses saw God only from the back: "For there shall no man see me, and live". He believed that visibility is contrary to God's nature, and that no-one, except Christ, could speak to God face to face[26]. Therefore, and secondly, the participants of a miracle interpreted what they thought God conveyed to them by miraculous events in their own way, in their own language and in accordance with their own understanding [27]. It is not the place for a serious analysis of pantheism. To sum up - for the purposes of our discussion we can only state that in accordance with the rationalistic and pantheistic criticism of miracle, even if we assume that miraculous events do occur, it does not lead man to a direct relationship with the Divine truth. The truth may be mediated only by reason. Miracle remains a Divine message without any addressee. Even if one assumes that a miraculous event contains some kind of Divine message (which, evidently, from the point of view of pantheism is not possible at all), it still does not matter for the human world, it does not increase our knowledge nor wisdom, no teaching flows from it that we could follow in life or that we could pass on to our posterity. Perforce, the miracle remains without a trace for the posterity. This, according to Spinoza, would be the nature of miracles.

The above stance is of great importance for the question which occupies us. According to it, the events deemed "miraculous", non-historical, morally absolute, do not contain any universal or timeless teaching, do not bring us closer to the truth - not to mention living in truth - and thus do not contain any message for the posterity. There is of course no coincidence in the fact that Spinoza presents his devastating critique of miracle in the chapter on the prophets and their authority. For if the events considered to be miraculous do not contain any particular truth, then the prophets lose their credibility  as custodians and guardians of the revealed truth - and at the same time, as those who are to give their testimonies to it. Their claim to have a special status, respectability, moral authority, which derives from the authenticity of a miracle and from the fact of being its active witness, and the exclusive role of the interpreter of the meaning and significance of miraculous events of the past are becoming completely unfounded for their contemporaries. Their authority is brought down to the act of deceiving, fooling gullible people, and their claims are unmasked as a mere claim of power. That criticism was echoed by Hobbes in his Leviathan, where we read in the chapter on the power of the prophets: "For he that pretends to teach men the way of so great felicity pretends to govern them; that is to say, rule and reign over them; which is a thing that all men naturally desire, and is therefore worthy to be suspected of ambition and imposture”[28]. And so, the criticism of the concept of miracle led to the political problem of the credibility of the prophets, that is, of those who participated in the event and are its witnesses against the doubters and the next generations, and who are the depositaries of truth revealed and entrusted to them in this event.

The conflict, described in the seventeenth century, between a direct, active witness of a miracle and the existing or ensuing order of power and society - similar to the conflict between a revolutionary and those who wish to strengthen the post-revolutionary order - explains why it is so difficult today to express specific aspects of the Solidarity’s postulate of living in truth and why such attempts can be considered downright dangerous. This conflict has a dynamic character. It is not just about the issue of the credibility of those who, through their participation in the Solidarity movement gained a kind of authority and respect from others, and then they were not able not rise to the occasion in the times of an open, public activity, when they minimized the importance of truth by making it an instrument for their own particular purposes, or simply by explicitly denying it for opportunistic reasons. So it is not only the problem of the incapability of people who are witnesses, those who at one time were harshly called by Emil Skiwski “traders of lofty commodity”. This is primarily the problem of the relationship between the event contained in absolutely non-political and non-historical categories, and the social and political reality, that followed – a relationship having a character of a dynamic conflict. The "evangelisation" of the phenomenon of Solidarity and its ethical absolutisation contained in the concept of civil society, both based on the moral tenet of living in truth, are hinting at the ideas which are not of this world – not of the human, historical and political world. Perhaps they even conceal a sliver of a promise that the frailty of human nature can be overcome in the collective life. Nevertheless, they put the experience of Solidarity in a state of acute conflict with the historical, political and conventional nature of human relationships; still, at this level of generality it is virtually irrelevant whether the conflict relates to interpersonal relations in the Polish People’s Republic (which was a conscious operation shaping Solidarity’s self-awareness in opposition to communism) or to new relations of the democratic Polish state after '89 (which was an inevitable consequence, but certainly unwelcome by many). Thus, while in the struggle against communism, ethical or evangelical absolutisation of Solidarity’s living in the truth played a crucial role in the creation of a new community-related identity of its participants,  since '89 it was rather a cause of a serious destruction of community identity that lead to a crush of the essential idea of living in the truth against the reality of the "round table", the absence of lustration or consolidation of the nomenclature-related system in the new state.  It gave Solidarity a maximalist and ideal character that hardly translated into Polish reality after 1989; it reduced almost to a minimum the possibility of transforming this collective experience and memory of it into durable forms of institutions, customs, cultural phenomena and forms of social rituals. This happens because - and here we also see the analogy with the modern history of politics - each constituted political system treats such an absolute postulate of truth in public life which seems to include the aforementioned description of the Solidarity experience with great suspicion. For the political system, such a postulate is always uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is like this even when a part of this system consisted - to a great extent - of people who participated directly in the experience of Solidarity in ‘80 and '81. Moreover, this is one of the main reasons of what was widely reported and commented as a betrayal of the Solidarity’s ethos by its elite after '89. It seems that it is precisely the argument that brings together the representatives of the previous political system, contributing to the creation of a special alliance, regardless of their political origin, against this absolute, ethical postulate contained in the idea of ​​Solidarity and all those who recall and refer to it. That's why the representatives of the system, and again, often regardless of their pedigrees, are trying to create together such official forms of preserving the memory of Solidarity, which would be the most convenient, safe and which would make its absolute moral expression look relative and dull.

Frankly speaking, although this fear certainly does not express concern about the common good, but about their own interests, it is not yet entirely unfounded. There are people who will refer to the absolute, ethical dimension of Solidarity only to demonstrate that the existing political system and the whole related reality in Poland after 1989 is false and has no reason to exist. They will be interested in making this absolute dimension of Solidarity as large as possible, but only because it proportionally increases the destructive power of their criticism.


VI. The problematic nature of the experience of Solidarity

The contemporary criticism of miracles and prophets provides quite an impressive arsenal of arguments against the above described two ways of presenting Solidarity. However, I would like to be well understood. The experience of the first Solidarity also provides many good counterarguments. It shows, first of all that, contrary to the scepticism and agnosticism encoded in us by the modern era, that people can organize their social relationships for some time around moral principles of living in truth, by creating a political and discursive community, a conscious public whole, which is not based on violence or terror and, in addition to that, permeated with deep, sincere religiosity, which in this case does not stand in sharp contrast with the social life. In other words - this experience proves that one can be better than what the modern and contemporary era teaches us, and not fall into either extreme individualism, excessive or oppressive state or law; one can at least temporarily move closer to the ideal of "living in truth", by suspending, to a certain extent, the historical conditions and the conventions imposed by human reality. It hides the universality of the collective experience of Poles, but is also the root of its problematic character.

There is a fundamental difference between stating that such exceptional events can bring a particular community closer to the ethical and religious ideal of living in the truth; that such events make us believe that this kind of a community can rise above its mediocrity and give all its best – and stating that such exceptional events are a proof that one can finally break the political, historical and social condition of man, and in this way establish a sustainable, ideal, moral community on the earth. Not to mention the theological aspects of this phenomenon. I am concentrating on their political nature. The latter stance makes the experience of Solidarity, as a special or even miraculous event, gain the maximum moral and religious significance, but it becomes robbed of its political meaning and nature. This perspective is obviously wrong, because the first Solidarity, due to its discursiveness, polemicity and reference to the deepest national and religious traditions was a thoroughly political event. The second implication is reduced to the phenomenon described earlier as non-conclusiveness of miraculous events. Solidarity occurred, but only as an ethical and religious event and it could not and cannot affect us today in any way. Moreover - we cannot even assume that the people who experienced the phenomenon of Solidarity learned anything about themselves and their community, and that they can pass on any knowledge to future generations. The third important consequence is the appearance of an obvious conflict between the moral imperatives stemming from such events - and the ambiguous nature of the political reality, which was constituted after them. The experience of Solidarity, understood as an absolute experience in its ethical and religious nature, becomes the subject of acute dispute on the very ad hoc and particular goals between those who represent the ruling authority and see a threat to their own interests in emphasizing the absolutely ethical image of Solidarity, and those who, in order to contest the ruling authority, use the Solidarity’s absolute ethical nature, essentially playing the role of false prophets. In each of these three cases the experience of being in Solidarity is silenced.

Recognising Solidarity in political categories (not at all denying its religious and ethical meaning, but without absolutising it) as a special event, which brings the community of Poles closer, at least for a moment, to the ideal of living in truth, allows this collective experience to speak for itself. It opens up the possibility of treating it in terms of national self-consciousness of Poles and obliges us to search for the ways to translate the experience of participation in the Solidarity movement in the current reality (although it certainly does not give a chance for full removal of this constant conflict between the values ​​and moral demands contained in the experience of Solidarity, and the political current practice of democracy). How can this translation be done?

In the chapter closing Solidarity’s Ethics, "The Spirit of the Republic", Tischner refers to the fragment of Mickiewicz’s The Books and the Pilgrimage of the Polish Nation which reads: "For every one of is bears in his own soul the seed of future laws, and the measure of future boundaries. In proportion as ye shall have improved and enlarged your soul, in that same proportion your laws shall be improved, and your boundaries enlarged". Holding on to the poetics of this passage, one can say in a somewhat grandiose tone, that people's experience of the first Solidarity is the seed, which for more than twenty years has lied in the soul of each of us. Therefore, it depends on us to what extent the laws of today will become the fruits of that sowing. From today's point of view, Solidarity is extremely significant as a confirmation and a renewal of the widely understood political community of the Poles. This community was revealed in the Gdansk Shipyard and in other plants which were striking, in the Olivia Room, and then also on the occasion of the following papal pilgrimages to Poland. In the act of that renewal of the Polish political community, the most important elements of our tradition were confirmed: religiosity, republicanism, romanticism and national-democratic concept, socialist thought and the ethos of intelligentsia. The uniqueness of Solidarity stems from the fact that all these elements of the Polish tradition – frequently occurring in the history of Poland in opposition to each other – are explicitly expressed here with all acuteness and intensity at the same time, in the community. This fact allows us to understand the spiritual heritage of Solidarity and the content for which we should reach in order to refine our modern democracy. 


Text from the book "Authority and Memory" (Centre for Political Thought)

  1. First edition under the title The Experience of the first Solidarity - between moral absolutism and political self-consciousness of the Poles [in] Lesson of August, ed. Dariusz Gawin, Publisher: Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Academy of Sciences, Warsaw 2002, pp. 77-101.


[1]  Bohdan Cywiński, Tylko mocą własnego wyboru [Only the power of one’s own choice], “TS”, No. 1/81.

[2]  Jerzy Szacki (see: Złudzenia i rzeczywistość polskiej demokracji [The Illusions and the Reality of Polish Democracy] “Res Publica”, No. 5/91) attributes to Manichaeism a constant feature of every revolutionary movement and as such he recognizes the first Solidarity, consistently using the notion of “our revolution”.

[3]  Józef Tischner, Etyka solidarności [Ethics of Solidarity], Znak 2000, p. 10.

[4]  Maria Janion, O różnicy między Robotnikiem a Przedstawicielem klasy robotniczej [On the difference between a Worker and a Representative of the Working Class], [in:] Lech Wałesa, Gdańsk 1990.

[5] What is striking is, for example, the comparison of the moralistic rhetoric of “living in truth” with Walesa’s statement for “TS”, No. 2/81: ““I wish everyone realized what he is going to get from this life and what he would leave to his children. Why and what for he works. [...] One has to have confidence, faith in the stabilization. But not only that. One also needs to put in order the inner face of man. Those people who work, eat, go for a beer, they really need to straighten up their inner self, because the conditions of life and the worldviews have changed, and what is left is generally a big mess. I'm not saying that all of them need to be made go to church, but these people need to be helped to get it right somehow”.

[6]  At this point we may recall the famous Leibniz’s formula on the relationship between theological concepts and legislation: Merito partitionis nostrae exemplum a teologia ad jurisprudentiam transolimus, quia mira est utriusque facultatis similitudo, [in:] Nova Methodus, par. 4 i 5, [as cited in:] Carl Schmitt, Teologia polityczna i inne pisma [Political Theology and other works], Znak 2000.

[7]  See: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XXXVII, PWN Warsaw 1954; David Hume, Badania dotyczące rozumu ludzkiego [An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding], chapter X, Kraków 1947; see also: Carl Schmitt, Der Leviathan, Köln 1982.

[8]  Czeslaw Robotycki’s comment deserves special attention here: “The walls, beyond which the strike was taking place, were marked and magically reinforced. The walls were given the meaning of a border between two different  worlds”, [as cited in:] Dionizy Smoleń, Tłum czy społeczność zorganizowana [A Crowd or an Organised Community], [in:] Solidarność w ruchu 1980–1981 [Solidarity movement 1980-1981], Warsaw 2000, p. 197.

[9]  Ewa Milewicz, in the September issue of the “Biuletyn Informacyjny” notices sarcastically: “The level of detail in these prayers was so great that I was waiting for them to pray for the duplicator hand crank”, [as cited in:] Piotr Zaremba, Młodopolacy  [The Young Poles], Gdansk, 2000, p. 170. Another witness of those events  described this intensity of religious feelings somewhat differently: “We attended the Holy Mass with tears in our eyes, because we realised that it was virtually unprecedented in our country that a Holy Mass would be held on the territory of an enterprise, during a strike, but it turned out that it was possible and it  gave us a lot of strength to survive, despite many rumours heard”, [as cited in:] Dionizy Smoleń, op. cit., p. 196.

[10]       Ibid., p. 197.

[11]       One of the most hilarious and at the same time touching examples of religious enthusiasm in the Shipyard follows from the story of “The Convert from the Communist Party” described by Jerzy Surdykowski. In his relation, one of the delegates of the Communist party under the influence of the dominant atmosphere among the strikers wanted to go over to their side:

– I swear to God! I’m on your side, I’m religious, I had my son baptised!  

– Throw him out, throw him out!

– I swear on the crucifix!

– Throw out the traitor!

He climbs on a chair, pulls out two fingers (he’s short) towards the cross hanging on the wall since the beginning of the strike. He swears an oath. He climbs even higher and kisses Christ Crucified. Next, there is a statue of Lenin, the patron of the Shipyard. The room calms down. Nobody shouts, there is only a shimmer like after the storm  - it is difficult to understand whether it’s weeping or a bitter laughter.

Ibidem, p. 198.

[12] Ibidem, p. 195–199.

[13]       Jerzy Szacki, Liberalizm po komunizmie [Liberalism after Communism], Znak 1994, see above all p. 111–135.

[14]       Jerzy Szacki point to this interpretation, giving examples (see op. cit., p. 111). It is also worth it to consider the interpretation, according to which the term “civil society” was taken by the Polish dissidents, mainly from the Workers’ Defence Committee’s environment, in the late seventies, from such authors as Jacques Rupnik. (See: Zbigniew A. Pełczyński, “Solidarność” a “odrodzenie społeczeństwa obywatelskiego” w Polsce w latach 1976–1981 [Solidarity and “the Rebirth of Civil Society” in Poland in the years 1976-1981], [in:] Wolność, państwo, społeczeństwo [Freedom, State, Society], Wrocław, 1998). There are, however, a suspicion that maybe all the relation between the Western debate referring to civil society and using this concept by Polish dissidents was just a theoretical misunderstanding.

[15]       Aleksander Smolar, Przygody społeczeństwa obywatelskiego [The Adventures of civil society], [in:] Idee a urządzanie świata społecznego. Księga jubileuszowa dla Jerzego Szackiego [Ideas versus organizing the social world. The Jubilee Book for Jerzy Szacki], PWN 1999, pp. 386–396.

[16]       Mixing of these two orders seem to be treated as Solidarity’s fundamental error and the root cause of its defeat. (See: Zbigniew A. Pełczyński, op. cit., p. 256).

[17]       G. W. F. Hegel, Wykłady z historii filozofii [Lectures on the history of Philosophy], Warsaw 1996, p. 274 i 275.

[18]       Jerzy Szacki, op. cit.

[19]       Jerzy Szacki, Złudzenia i rzeczywistość polskiej demokracji [The Illusions and the Reality of Polish Democracy], “Res Publica”, No. 5/91.

[20]       [In:] Paweł Śpiewak, Ideologie i obywatele [Ideologies and citizens], Warsaw 1991. Characteristically, Śpiewak makes almost no distinction between Tocqueville’s and Arendt’s views, setting them both as an example of positive thinking about politicity as about the pursuit of the common good. Nevertheless, the difference between them seems to be very important. For if Tocqueville is fully aware of the fact that the tension between equality and freedom, between what is social and political, between equalistic society of “fearful animals” and freedom-loving society of participating citizens is indelible, it seems that Hannah Arendt in On revolution gets close to eliminating this tension, by introducing etopian elements to her reflections on civil society.

[21]       Aleksander Smolar, op. cit., s. 386. For Adam Michnik, this tradition was much deeper and was not confined to the post-war period. His well-known text Nowy ewolucjonizm  [New evolutionism] from “Aneks” [“Appendix”] (September 1976), in which he explains the strategy of gradual expansion of civil liberties and human rights in the Communist state, ends with the statement: “Formation of alternative programs and protection of imponderabilia is the task for the intelligentsia circles. And more precisely – for this small part of the layers of the society that feels the obligation to continue the tradition of the ‘defiant’ intelligentsia of the early XX century, the traditions of Brzozowski and Wyspiański, Żeromski and Nałkowski”.

[22]       Bronisław Geremek, Społeczeństwo obywatelskie i współczesność [Civil Society and the Present Age], [in:] Europa i społeczeństwo obywatelskie [Europe and Civil Society], Znak 1994.

[23]       Czynniki określające dynamikę ruchu “Solidarności” w latach 1980-1981 [The Factors determining the dynamics of the Solidarity movement in the years 1980-1981], [in:] Solidarność w ruchu 1980-1981 [Solidarity movement in 1980-1981], Warsaw, 2000; also, [in:], Warsaw 2000; see also: Timothy G. Ash, Polska rewolucja Solidarności 1980-1981 [The Polish Revolution: Solidarity 1980-1981], 1987.

[24]       See: Editors’ discussion, “Res Publica Nowa”, August 2000.

[25]       Benedict de Spinoza, Traktat teologiczno-polityczny [Theological-Political Treatise], chapter 2 “On the prophets”, ANTYK 2000.

[26]       Ibid., chapter II, paragraph 43.

[27]       Ibid., chapter II, paragraph 24 and 31.

[28]       Thomas Hobbes, op. cit., Warsaw 1954, p. 385.


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