Solidarity’s Promise

Solidarity’s Promise

(Andrzej Iwański/Wikimedia Commons)

In the photo above, taken on May 1, 1989, Jacek Kuroń, a leader of the democratic opposition in Poland, marched with Solidarity, a movement he was instrumental in building. The demonstration came on the eve of victory for Poland’s anti-authoritarian opposition. Thirty years after Solidarity finally ended bureaucratic single-party rule, we can appreciate both its achievement as well as its unfulfilled promise.

One mark of that unrealized potential are three letters printed on the banner behind Kuroń, FSO, the acronym for Poland’s most famous car factory, located in Warsaw. It was here, in 1956, that Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski came to unite students and workers around the struggle for a socialist democracy.

The FSO was the central site in that momentous year of the workers’ council movement, whose leadership advocated for workers to take control of their factories. In October, when the possibility of Soviet intervention loomed over the councils, the workers were ready to go to their deaths. The invasion never came, but the new First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party Władysław Gomułka, who had won popular confidence during the events of October, gradually extinguished hopes that workers’ self-
management bodies would play a meaningful role in Polish society. But the mobilization left a powerful and lasting impression on Kuroń and Modzelewski.

Kuroń kept that democratic vision alive long enough to witness the fall of dictatorship. And it stayed with him during the disappointments of the Third Polish Republic. Kuroń remained resolutely on the left until the end of his life, in 2004, despite everything he experienced—Stalin and martial law, and later the triumph of capital, the Church, and Polish chauvinism. For those of us who despair at the difficult road ahead for the left, Kuroń’s resolve should be an inspiration.

Cyryl Ryzak is an editorial intern at Dissent.