From Isolation to Solidarity: How we toppled communism and what challenges lie ahead

Jul 03, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on International Co-operation and Trust reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019. 

Lech Wałęsa is the former chairman of the Polish "Solidarity" movement and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He served as president of Poland from 1990 to 1995. 

Thirty years ago, on the 4th of June 1989, the Polish people made history as the first nation that managed to put an end to a communist dictatorship that was brutally imposed on much of the world half a century earlier. While halfway across the world the spark of democracy was being crushed under the tracks of tanks, the Poles cast their votes in the first partly-free election in the history of the Eastern Bloc. What followed was an explosion of grassroots movements all throughout the Soviet-dominated world that crumbled Marxist-Leninist dictatorships everywhere from Berlin to Astana. In a fateful twist of history, communism was swept away by a popular revolution.


Today, we are once again facing a period of growing uncertainty and disruption that will redefine, to some extent, the shape of individual societies and the international system. With these new challenges in mind, I agreed to share with the OECD community some of the wisdom and experience I believe to have acquired as the leader of the “Solidarity” movement and president of independent Poland, being at the forefront of the previous grand social and international transformation for one and a half decades.

I wish to briefly recall Poland’s story – in so many ways the story of my own life – from the darkest days of communist totalitarianism, through the formation, struggle and final victory of “Solidarity” against an oppressive dictatorship, to the dawn of a new era with its own opportunities and challenges.

After the Second World War, Poland, abandoned by allies and crushed under the overwhelming military power of the Soviet Union, was subjugated to communist totalitarianism along with a half of the European continent. The Polish resistance movement that so effectively fought Nazi Germany for more than five years was brutally wiped out and Poland’s re-emerging civil society was nipped in the bud.

Members of the Polish Resistance
Photo: Public domain

In spite of the communist propaganda, much of the society, including my parents, never bought into the narrative about “liberation” by the Red Army. People were disgruntled with being subjugated to Russia as well as having to live under a backwards, impoverishing system from the very beginning. If the people were but once allowed a free choice, the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party would have been swept away at the nearest occasion.

Alas, they were not. The state’s oppressive apparatus was quick to stamp out any symptoms of organised discontent before they could spread. I have experienced that personally, from being watched and intimidated by the secret police to the massacre of protesting workers in December 1970 in Gdańsk. The people had the power to change the system, they simply weren’t allowed to realise that they did. Communist authoritarianism thrived on an illusion of its preponderance, maintained by effective isolation and oppression of the individual as well as by grand displays of the Party’s power and legitimacy.

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, Gdańsk
Photo: Flying Past on Flickr

In my opinion, the turning point that empowered our social movement to thrive was the election of the Polish pope and his pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. During the massive gatherings throughout the visit the people realised that they were not alone in their discontent and anger; to the contrary, there were millions who thought alike. The Holy Father demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid. His invocation of faith, courage and national renewal broke us free from the ideational prison imposed at gunpoint 30 years earlier.

Lech Wałęsa with Pope John Paul II
Photo: Public domain

The dispersed social energy that John Paul II mobilised in 1979 was catalysed a year later when the “Solidarity” trade union was born amid massive, country-wide strikes that I led. Within months, the movement claimed ten million members – more than a quarter of Poland’s population. 

Striving for a more just and prosperous system, as well an identification with a broad idea of freedom, united people across very diverse backgrounds and beliefs. The “Solidarity” of 1980 created, for the first time in the Polish People’s Republic’s history, a society-wide opposition movement united around a powerful idea.

Photo: Reuters

Our revolution was, to a large extent, facilitated by new technologies. It was thanks to the radio and the television that people could hear about a gentleman called Lech Wałęsa or a trade union that was formed in Gdańsk. It was thanks to these inventions that the rest of the world heard about our struggle and supported our cause. If it hadn’t been for mass media, I would have protested for a few days, riot police would have beaten me up and “Solidarity” might have never been conceived. 

Our ultimate success, although delayed for nearly a decade by a military crackdown in 1981, was thanks to the ability to inspire and channel an overwhelming social energy through ideas that stripped the communist system of its power.

I believe that each epoch has its own pains and discontents that elicit a desire for change – today is no different. In 1989, humanity had left an era of global division. We are still giving shape to a new chapter of universal history, an era of unbarred openness and integration that demands of us more global co-operation than ever before. Different cultures, worldviews and systems of values have to achieve the mutual understanding necessary to work together. The problems and challenges facing humanity today are larger than any one nation-state can overcome. In this century, climate change, environmental degradation, disruptive technologies and the danger of mutual annihilation, to name just a few, will put humanity to the test like never before.  


Our future depends on our ability to face challenges together. We cannot fall back into isolation. In an age when the existence of institutions such as the European Union or NATO is questioned, I feel it is my duty to stand in their defence. As someone who remembers a divided world all too well, and who has lost his father during the war, I can only assure you that the costs of the lack of co-operation far outweigh the tempting but illusive benefits of pursuing one’s narrow self-interest. 

Today, humanity needs to settle on foundations for global co-operation, hopefully in a discussion that takes into account the opinions and feelings of those previously underrepresented, ignored or left behind. The fundamental question that I believe needs an answer is: are we going to build our shared world only on regulatory laws – or can we achieve equality in universally recognised values? 

My answer is that we need to achieve a consensus regarding common values, recognised by all nations in the world. That is a daunting task, and a one that I can offer no easy answer to, but one that I believe can be a bedrock for a stable and prosperous future.

This essay was translated from Polish by Wiktor Babiński. If you wish to contact the author’s office, please email biuro@ilw.org.pl

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Banner image: Polish Government

Lech Wałęsa

Founder, Lech Wałęsa Institute; Former President, Poland

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