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The memory and experience of 1980

An interview with Cezary Obracht-Prądzyński, sociologist and professor at Gdańsk University. Interviewer: Piotr Leszczyński

PIOTR LESZCZYŃSKI: What was the phenomenon of August 1989 in Poland? What took place at that time in the Gdańsk Shipyard, and what can this experience tell us now about Polish society of that time?

CEZARY OBRACHT-PRĄDZYŃSKI: It is not easy to talk about Solidarity. We do not have one position that would allow us to interpret the events, the causes and effects of the strike – both the experience and the memory of Solidarity have been very diverse. Solidarity was a very heterogenous movement from the beginning. It is remembered differently by people who worked and lived in Gdańsk and witnessed these events, who got to see what was taking place in the shipyard. Their perspective was unlike those who lived in other parts of the country and were forced to rely on information broadcasted by state media.

August 31, 2020 - Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński Piotr Leszczyński - InterviewsIssue 4 2020Magazine

Photo courtesy of Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński

There were many other approaches existing at the time in regards to the events, for example, the one from the communist authorities or the ambivalent attitude of the Catholic Church. I am therefore convinced that there is no such thing as one community experience of this event. Certainly, Solidarity was a protest movement, which was an expression of discontent towards the political reality, but it was also a movement that was strong, yet diverse, in regard to ideology and identity. It was a local movement, centred in big cities but also in peripheries. Thus, whatever interpretation you would like to apply is correct.

In August 1980 the intellectual elite became united with the workers over their dispute with the authorities. Yet today our society is strongly divided. Where did we lose this national unity that was built 40 years ago?

When we talk about a shared uprising, we stretch reality because we think right away about the negotiations and the signing of the 21 demands of the strike committee. We see the workers’ leaders and the leaders of the intelligentsia working together. But it’s an illusion to assume that they represented all Polish intellectuals. Many kept their distance during the events, and others stood beside those who were in power. The intelligentsia as a group was very diverse, as were the workers. We have to be aware of that when we look at society during the time of Solidarity, which was characterised by different positions and attitudes. For obvious reasons, they were not that visible to the public eye, but the reality was that we were very diverse back then and the divisions within groups were very strong.

Forty years later, we have been left with images of a mass movement and the large workers’ strikes, and it makes it seem like we had an ideal community. Yet, a few months later, the Martial Law, introduced in December 1981, divided the groups once again. To this day there is no shared position on the interpretation of this decision by General Wojciech Jaruzelski – should it be analysed purely in negative terms, or as a lesser evil? Or maybe even as something positive? It does reflect the whole experience of Solidarity in a way, since opinions were also divided. Overall, the mass nature of the Solidarity movement as well as the assessment of attitudes tend to generate disputes to this day, and this is probably how things will stay.

And what about our collective memory? What does it teach us about the end of the 1980s and what took place then?

By the end of the 1980s, there were debates on the country’s dramatic social and economic reality. The problem was not only the economic crisis itself, but the lack of ideas from the communist authorities on how to solve the crisis, as well as the outflow of energy coming from the opposition. Let us also not forget about the massive scale of emigration which took place. More than 100,000 Poles left their country for good in 1988; it was called a “migration out of helplessness”. Both the opposition and the authorities understood that they were walking on quicksand – without social support, the authorities could not introduce reforms, while the opposition would not be able to organise a second mass movement. Hence, came the idea of the Round Table. Those who criticise this solution today tend to forget about its context, which was hidden in its economic, social, but also mental significance. We were so worn-out and dead tired. This is the background of what took place between May 1988 and June 1989. In my view, these are the key months to look at in order to understand the dynamics of the situation. All participants of the Round Table talks understood that we had to sit down together and start talking, and it ended with an agreement and a new start. Most importantly, that allowed an awakening of society. Later came the June elections, and the first non-communist government, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz’s reform plan.

I recall these details to illustrate the state of our memory. It seems like we do not want to remember from what point we started. The memory of the Solidarity movement refers not only to the 1980 August Accords, but to the events that took place in the late 1980s. We entered the transformation period with different experiences and we were deeply split, thus influencing our assessment of the events that came later. I am saying this to note that we should not be surprised with the current divisions and because we should not idealise the past so much. The current divisions within Polish society are clearly divisions that have derived from our assessment of the past, of the transformation, and the subsequent political changes.

Haven’t we lost the collective wisdom that you mentioned before? Is there any chance for unity today?

Maybe things are still too good for us. I hope it won’t be the case, but possibly the deterioration of the current situation  – be it related to public health, climate change, the economic crisis or geopolitics – will push us to unite. Of course, I still prefer the current divisions over the ones the country experienced in the 1980s. But on the other hand, let us be careful not to think about a political dispute as a fight between two tribes with absolutely no chance for agreement. In fact, people can support one another and listen to one another, and do good things together. What is worrisome, however, is that the political dispute, or rather the two-party dispute, infects other areas of our lives.

For years we have thought of the Homo sovieticus as an obsolete concept in Poland, but now we hear it being used in public discourse. What went wrong? Were we pretending that Poland is “modern and western”, or did something change in recent years?

The concept of Homo sovieticus, which was popularised in Poland by the late Józef Tischner, a philosopher and Catholic priest with close ties to the Solidarity movement, was trivialised for years. But let’s put this issue aside for a moment and start with the evaluation of the transformation. We now hear criticism of this process from different sides, both the new left and the right-wing, as well as groups closely connected to the ruling Law and Justice party. I am a child of the transformation, as I started my adult life in 1989 and have always remained involved in discussions on the transformation and privatisation reforms undertaken first by Leszek Balcerowicz and later by Jerzy Buzek. It’s important to recall that we did not take all of these changes with silent approval. There was no need to completely disagree with the introduced reforms. We see for instance the political right often suggesting that we never cared about history, but it’s wrong. I think back to our great historical upheaval in the 1990s, when we were removing the white spots and opening previously closed archives. Those times also saw the great work of Polish historians, bookshops full of books and magazines that were specifically focusing on contemporary history. When I hear that there was no critical approach to the transformation, I think how short human memory can be. The problem is that everything can be turned around and moved in such a way that it would fit somebody’s ideological and political goals.

We have also forgotten about those who built our new economy from scratch after 1989…

Yes, the true creators of the transformation were the Poles who “took matters into their own hands” and started building new institutions and social organisations. We owe our success to all these people who showed great determination. Poland looks so different today. Many cross this achievement out, as if it meant nothing, but we should never forget who worked for that to happen. This is something I can never come to understand. I think it is a positive thing to be able to make a critical assessment of the last 30 years. However, I also know that omnipresent criticism only makes some more stuck in their own views. Let’s be open about it: we all participated in the process and contributed to the building of our state. All of us, including those who are being critical about it now. It would be much better for our society, and for the quality of our public debate, if we could realistically look at what took place and how we were writing and talking about it.

Is Gdańsk and our region overall some kind of an island on Poland’s map?

No, we are not an island. Pomerania is actually Poland in a micro-scale. At least this is how I see it. We are, for example, quite diverse when it comes to election turnout. In our region, there are localities with record turnout slightly above 20 per cent, but there is also the city of Sopot with election turnout exceeding 60 per cent – this is a huge difference. The same can be said about political preferences. There are places where the left has its stronghold and gets good election results, and places where the Law and Justice wins – this trend is currently on the rise. However, there are also places where the Civic Platform is the unquestionable leader. Thus, looking at our political map, we are just as diverse as the rest of the country.

But you have to agree that the Pomerania region is nonetheless different from the rest of Poland?

I would not agree with that, we are not any different here. It all depends on our perspective and whether we are talking about the whole region or just the metropolis, which in our case includes three cities, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot. Overall, the region looks different because of the dominance of the metropolis: there are 2.2 million inhabitants in the region, but one million live in these three cities. This structure decides on the results. If we look at the results of the last elections, it would seem that the opposition party, the Civic Platform, won; but if you look more closely, at the level of counties and villages, you get a completely different picture. And you cannot say that the situation won’t get reversed and that the Law and Justice will never win here. The word enclave sounds good, but it is not true.

“Everything started in Gdańsk”. Are these words the dream of the Polish liberal elite, or are they a real chance for change in Poland, just like it was in 1980?

You are asking whether Gdańsk, widely understood of course, is able to propose something, a new idea, or to give a signal? I would really want that to happen, but what would it be? First, we need to connect the issues and value systems that we are attached to, embodied by our coat of arms, nec temere, nec timide, which means neither rashly nor timidly; the “self-governing Republic”; and the most important of all words for the city – “solidarity”. The next thing is our engagement: we talk, engage and mobilise. This is the true ethos of public work. And the last thing is our mental attitude, which is related to the first two. In other words, we have ideas which are connected with some behaviours, and these behaviours entail certain positions.

We have a position of openness, understanding and empathy, and it seems to me that practice is a test of intensions. All these values together will be seen through our actions – it is the only way for us to convince ourselves and others that values and positions can be effective and socially accepted. This is a huge commitment. We are ahead of many commitments, which we should face and seriously treat, and we still have reserves as we have not yet achieved maximum engagement. Let us try to manage that.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński is a sociologist, anthropologist, historian and a professor at the Univeristy of Gdańsk and head of the Kashubian Institute.

Piotr Leszczyński is the publisher and editor of Przegląd Polityczny (Political Review) based in Gdańsk.

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