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The Polish Lesson: From Communism to Solidarity to Capitalism

When you heard about Lech Walesa endorsing Mitt Romney, saying, “Get your success, be successful,” what did you think? Did this inspire confidence in the legacy of the Solidarity movement? Did you actually still remember and identify Walesa with Solidarity? How much do you really know about Walesa? And finally, how much do you really know about what happened to Solidarity?

Let’s start with Solidarity. Gerald Beyer calls Solidarity the most successful embodiment of Catholic Social Teaching in the best introduction to the topic, in either Polish or English, Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution. Why did it merit this label? Because the movement embodied the Catholic primacy of the person (always inserted within a community) above capital. Its main springboard laid in an embodied phenomenology of community. More straightforwardly, it meant taking a preferential option for the poor, and its concomitant sacrifice, seriously.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this call was best represented on the intellectual plane in the philosophical writings and sermons of Solidarity’s unofficial chaplain, the phenomenologist Fr. Jozef Tischner. He summarized Solidarity in a very Pauline fashion as the conscious effort to carry one another’s burden. On the historical plane this was embodied in Walesa’s refusal to quit striking in the Gdansk Shipyards—despite receiving the raise sought—in order to remain in solidarity with other workers who also deserved the same. This sort of thing was crazy, but it worked.

But it didn’t survive. Andrzej Potocki, OP is quoted in Beyer’s book as saying:

At one point, solidarity united people in resistance against the politics of the incontrovertibly divisive Communist government (‘Divide et impera!’). Today levels of income and the related levels of well-being are a divisive factor and may be even more so in the future. This atomization gives rise to a postulate of a new solidarity: the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, the unemployed with workers and workers with the unemployed. Evidence [concerning poverty and inequality] reveals the necessity of building this kind of order of solidarity. It would be difficult not to see that this would be an order based on Gospel foundations.

The not-so-hidden implication of these words is that income inequality employs the same kind of divide and conquer logic as Polish Communism at its worst. What’s not apparent—and this is something that Beyer does talk about directly—is that the very people who were behind Solidarity were also the ones who created the new order.

The partial collapsed of Solidarity after the persecution of its leadership during the mid-80’s turned into full betrayal by the early 90’s. The whole government, with President Walesa at the forefront, along with former left-radical dissidents such as Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, even Fr. Tischner, came to believe that only liberal-capitalism would save Poland. They ridiculed their opponents, mostly Catholic-personalists, as dinosaurs who didn’t understand how a flourishing economy functions.

This meant severe austerity measures at the hands of Leszek Balcerowicz, a neoliberal doctrinaire. The austerity measures were so severe that they were called “shock therapy.” They left a whole generation of Poles abandoned to a wild capitalism and with almost no social net. If you can imagine the opposite of Solidarity, this would be it.

Things were so bad that Milton Friedman was called in as a major adviser and, as much as I hate stupid Pollack jokes, this might be one situation where they are appropriate! A couple million Poles left the country to find living wages in Western European countries. It was an enormous demographic hit.

Not that I want to pile on, but First Things contributed to this problem through its Tertio Millennio Seminar. I’ve written about a whole generation of Poles who have rebelled against their capitalist indoctrination in the program, here.

In the end, Poland is yet another example of how the money doesn’t trickle down, even if Solidarity’s former stalwarts ardently believed that it would trickle, that it should trickle. Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity details how the “shock therapy” disproportionately hit the weakest members of society the hardest: women, children, and farmers. It’s not a pretty picture.

These are the reasons why Beyer calls Solidarity an “unfinished revolution” in need of recovery. Perhaps the recovery won’t even happen in Poland? One thing is clear: the earlier Polish example shows that Catholic Social Teaching is possible to realize on a large scale. But can it be sustained over the long term? Do Catholics and people of good will have the wherewithal to try it again, or are we stuck with any number of versions of “divide and conquer”? Is class war through the preferential option for the rich the only politics we know?


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  • IRVCath

    The problem Is the international lenders like the IMF, and the Great Powers, have no interest of lending support to what has been called for.

    • Howard

      As is so often the case, there is blame enough to go around. Certainly the national leadership is never immune to criticism.