Historical Reconstruction of the Gdansk shipyard gate. Courtesy of the artist Dorota Nieznalska.

Okategoriserade Some thoughts on solidarity

The author analyzes the content of the word “solidarity”, not for the sake of linguistics, but in the belief that words contain memories as well as many other experiences, often conflicting ones. He also talks about Solidarity, the trade union in Poland, which was created in August 1980 and crushed in December 1981.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2015, pp 91-93
Published on balticworlds.com on May 19, 2015

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Before I begin there is something I must explain. I will not address the problem of how you should deal with solidarity against; instead, I will focus on solidarity for. Moreover, I will not talk very much about solidarity as loyalty, even though loyalty is the most important ingredient in solidarity. Solidarity/loyalty can also be found among thieves, criminals, religious groups, and various minorities, which means that an idyllic view of the phenomenon is problematic. And two further explanations:

1. I will analyze the content of the word “solidarity”, not for the sake of linguistics, but in the belief that words contain memories as well as many other experiences, often conflicting ones.

2. I will talk a little about Solidarity, the trade union in Poland, which was created in August 1980 and crushed in December 1981. For the sake of convenience I will use quotation marks when referring to the union, or else use its official name: the Trade Union Solidarity, or something similar.


The word solidarity is a French invention, more specifically of the Enlightenment. In the Encyclopédie (1765), solidarité was defined as mutual responsibility, but the word was also used in the sense of “independent, complete, whole” (from solidaire). In many other European countries, however, the word emerged and was assimilated in the second half of the 19th century. It derives from Latin and its origin is related to capital: solidum in Rome meant the whole sum, the capital. As I said, it was from French that the word made its way into English and many other languages. We thus have two almost contrary meanings: The first is based on the idea of a firm point that guarantees and creates independence. Its foundation can be economic, that you own the whole sum, the capital, the lot, and in this way you become independent. But it can also mean that you jointly take responsibility for somebody or something, that you create a community of mutuality, where you as a member of the group act with consideration and without self-interest, for the benefit of this group or its individuals. Here, the personal and the common intersect. The firm foundations intersect as well. Economic independence is based upon capital, that is to say, something over which the individual has power (and which can be formulated: “I have the whole sum, which is my firm point and guarantee”); but at the same time, this refers to a guarantee that lies outside of human control, namely the economy. Everything that builds up such independence must be part of the financial exchange represented by money. By contrast, mutual responsibility depends on trust, based upon the inner reliability of the group. This was how Jozef Tischner reasoned concerning the ethics of solidarity (the title of his book), arising in the encounter with the “Other”, who can be very different indeed. Reasoning in this way, all foundations are erased. Responsibility for and openness towards that which is different becomes a groundless ground, an imperative. Tischner followed in the footsteps of Emmanuel Levinas, but tried to interpret him through Christianity.

However, things are not always as simple and idyllic as that: The word “solidarity” has explosive potential. Its content tends to find robust, less fickle grounds: ideology, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, politics, religion, etc. This is where you build “solidarity against”, when you need to find a strong identity and defend it.

Economic independence is secure as long as there is an economy. But the “whole sum”, as we know, can evaporate during revolutions, catastrophes or crises. Ethical independence too can be unstable, momentary, ecstatic, and explosive: as in a solidarity based upon closing ranks against, excluding, rejecting the other. To contain these significations in a single word, namely solidarity, seems an impossible task — which nevertheless becomes possible. In spite of everything, this is where some kind of impracticable, impossible attachment happens. Solidarity is a child of the moment. The English word “solid” has preserved this opposition: it means massive, compact, but also steady, firm, strong, stable, reliable. Not only that: “solid” can also mean affluent and creditworthy.

When the union “Solidarity” was founded in the autumn of 1980, as a result of strikes all over Poland, it was difficult to find a name for the phenomenon.


The story is simple enough. In August 1980, a strike broke out at the shipyard in Gdansk. The workers, who were among the fairly well paid, wanted a raise. In the People’s Republic of Poland, such a matter was not difficult to resolve. Either you agreed to the demands of the workers, or you used the police, the military; this had been done before and required victims. The workers demanded a meeting with top politicians in order to solve the conflict, and the politicians agreed to this. But they were in for a surprise. The negotiations took place in public: apart from the strike committee, the other workers also participated (through the internal radio at the shipyard). And the workers circulated between the room where the negotiations took place and other places in the shipyard. Every decision made by the strikers’ committee was a joint decision.

Among other things, it transpired that a female worker had been sacked from her job for political reasons. The strike committee demanded that she should be reinstated. The politicians agreed to this. But now it turned out that many of those who had cooperated with the workers at the shipyard in Gdansk were imprisoned, and the strike committee demanded that the politicians should free them as well as all other political prisoners.

To this, the authorities would not agree. Now the issue was no longer Gdansk, the shipyard or money. It was no longer a strike, but a kind of revolution: all strike rules were broken, it was no longer a struggle based on self-interest, and before the politicians had time to find a solution (either agree to the demands or suppress the revolt by force), strikes had broken out all over the country, primarily in big enterprises: mines, ironworks and other companies of great importance for the economy. In these cases as well, therefore, the strikers were among the fairly well paid. Money, economic exchange ceased to be the foundation or model for representation. There were strikes demanding compensation for low-wage groups, instead of simply a rise in wages.

I am not going to relate the whole history of “Solidarity”. What I want to point out here is that this is where the attachment, the inner connection contained in the word solidarity is most clearly manifested. One begins by acting out of self-interest, and suddenly this horizon is transcended.

What should this new phenomenon be called? It was clear that what had been created must be called a union. At the same time, it was clearly not a union. Those involved were conscious that the strikes had succeeded by virtue of solidarity, but the word itself had become somewhat overused through propaganda, where you had to declare your solidarity with everything that the authorities pointed to. Thus the name: “the Trade Union Solidarity” had a somewhat suspicious ring. Therefore ‘Independent’ was added: “the Independent Trade Union Solidarity”. But not even this was satisfactory. Why? I think it was because the word “independent” pointed to the outside world or, in plain language, to the authorities. It emphasized that those within the movement were independent from “those people”, who could no longer influence them. But something was still missing. Intuitively, those involved wanted to find a name for solidarity that both preserved and erased the intersection between unselfishness and solidity. And so yet another word was added: “self-governing”. Rather amusingly, then, the name of the emerging movement finally became, in its entirety, “the Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarity” —  as a kind of explication of what was originally, from the very beginning, contained in the simple word solidarity. And so a relatively small strike by the workers at the shipyard in Gdansk turned into a very solid movement: out of Poland’s whole population of 33 million, 10 million became members.


“Independent, Self-governing”:  can this be accomplished? Suddenly a new player had entered the political stage —  with enormous force. Simultaneously it expressed an attachment with explosive energy. At once “Solidarity” became a troublesome player for the others, that is to say the Communists and the Catholic Church. Interestingly, when “Solidarity” exploded, it remained a democratic movement. It was extremely decentralized, in accordance with the pattern set during the strikes. Weaker organizations or companies could count on the support of the stronger ones. Strikes broke out almost incessantly. Note that the other players, the Party and the Church, were hierarchic or feudal. Decisions in such structures can only be made by one or a few persons. In “Solidarity” this was, paradoxically, both impossible and necessary: you had to adapt to the other participants. The country was on the brink of economic and social disaster.

A paradox: When the movement emerged, it was as a form of solidarity with vulnerable groups —  workers, peasants, political prisoners and the intelligentsia. How is this compatible with its enormous force, which led to the movement becoming a massive majority in the country? They were also very proud of this success, so proud that it might be interpreted as complacency.


Among the many literary and scientific works of Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842—1921), there is one with the title Mutual Aid (from 1902), in which he repudiates Darwinism’s “struggle for existence” and claims that it is not competition but solidarity that is the main driving force of evolution. Kropotkin was a Russian aristocrat. In the second half of the 1860s, he spent a few years in Siberia, where he worked as a civil servant and geographer and experienced revolts among exiled socialists and Polacks, revolts that were bloodily suppressed. Geographically, then, his writing has its origins in what are perhaps the most inhospitable areas conceivable, where the conditions are extremely difficult for people and animals. Politically, it deals with Russia, that is to say, a country with an extremely autocratic and unrestrained government. Socially, the background of his work is formed by the theories of Darwin and his followers, in particular “Social Darwinism”, which claimed that the struggle for existence is the core of evolution in both animals (Darwin) and people (the Darwinists), and that the stronger, better adapted will be victorious. Everything is about competing with and forcing out your competitors (the rat race). This did not accord with Kropotkin’s experiences from Siberia. He pointed out that even the animals in these harsh conditions transcend the principle of Darwin, and that people stand by and support one another. This eventually became the core of anarchism. “Mutual aid”, regardless of one’s political stance, says a lot about our paradoxical situation: even under difficult conditions, we can show solidarity, and this might be the principle of evolution. Now, perhaps this only happens in a state of emergency, as an exception; but perhaps this exceptional state of emergency is to be found not outside, but inside of us? In that case, it happens instantaneously, and in a rift or an attachment. On this point, Kropotkin would certainly not agree with me, but I am convinced that the rift or attachment is something that can only be expressed in art, in an instant of explosion. That is to say —  and here I am close to Kropotkin —  in an extreme decentralization and individualization of life.


Prince Pyotr Kropotkin died 1921 in Dmitrov. He was given a state funeral, despite the fact that he had been forceful in his opposition to the Bolsheviks and the Communists. “Where there is power, there is no freedom”, he claimed. Masses of people followed his body on its last journey, both in Dmitrov and in Moscow where he was buried. 100,000 people turned out, despite the terror that prevailed in Russia. They turned out carrying the banners of anarchy and signs demanding that their fellow anarchists be released from prison. It has been claimed that this was the largest voluntary manifestation in the history of the Soviet Union, and the last on such a scale. Politics aside, the manifestation very much confirmed Kropotkin’s theory. People conquered their fear — instantaneously. This was what happened in Siberia in 1884, in Moscow in 1921, and in Poland in 1980. But this was also what happened in Sweden in 1968, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The same is true of the revolutions in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt etc. that we witnessed recently: explosions of solidarity.


Jacques Derrida once wrote about hospitality. Among other things, he pointed out how strongly hospitality is connected to the regulating norms of the law and also how much it depends on the unselfishness that lies at the basis of hospitality, against a background of relations of power. We are visited by someone extremely different. In fact, in such a visitation, we don’t know for sure if the other has come to visit us or to haunt us. Derrida inscribes this event in the Messianic tradition and its way of thinking. He writes about the risks that the host takes in opening his or her door to a stranger: a stranger who might be Jesus, the Messiah, or a murderer. In its explosive phase, solidarity opens a door, takes the risk. But solidarity also contains other foundations, leading to a closed door. ≈

NOTE: This article is one of many contributions to the theme “Voices on solidarity”, guest edited by Ludger Hagedorn.

  • by Leonard Neuger

    Professor of Polish language and literature, and translator. Researcher at the Institute of Polish Literature and Culture at the University of Silesia (1974–1982) in Katowice, where he founded Solidarity. Interned and imprisoned 1981–82. Researcher at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Stockholm University, and its director since 2003. Author of over 200 scientific papers and critical essays.

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