August 31st 2005, marks the 25th anniversary of the emergence of Solidarity, the trade union whose stand for the truth about the human person and against the lie of Marxism, contributed immeasurably to the collapse of one of the two great totalitarian evils that disfigured the twentieth-century. Few organizations, let alone individuals, can claim to have changed the world. Solidarity, however, altered history itself.
When a group of Polish steel-workers in the port of Gdansk began their 17-day strike in August 1980, the odds that they would emerge as the first free trade union in the Communist bloc were very long indeed. This was a world in which Marxist regimes ruled one-third of the planet. Many, if not most, Western political scientists, economists, religious leaders, and governments had resigned themselves to the notion that Communist systems were here to stay, and that such regimes needed to be managed rather than morally confronted.
The Solidarity movement that gained the Polish nation's allegiance, however, did not base its claims upon pragmatism or the usual ideological rationalizations common to all Marxist practitioners. Instead, Solidarity based its claims upon the truth: the full truth about the human person, the truth that is the only foundation for any coherent theory of human rights and duties.
Here, they were clearly inspired by the late Pope John Paul the Great, whose 1979 visit to Poland galvanized thousands to stop living the lie that propped up all Marxist regimes. During one of his 1979 homilies in Poland, he proclaimed: "Remember this: Christ will never agree to man being viewed only as a means of production, or agree to man viewing himself as such. He will not agree that man should be valued, measured, or evaluated only on this basis. Christ will never agree to that!"
It is difficult to imagine a more direct swipe at the philosophical materialism that lay at the heart of Communist systems and which remains so virulent in much of the West. Human beings were, as Solidarity insisted, more than just objects. They were also "subjects"; that is, creative beings endowed with the power of right reason and thus the unique ability to make truly free choices. To treat people solely as objects--as Marxism cannot help but do--is therefore to deny their essence as human beings, to de-humanize them.
The fact that Solidarity was unembarrassed about making such statements perhaps explains why it puzzled many West Europeans and North Americans. In the wake of the determination of the generation of May 1968 to interpret everything as a struggle for power, some West Europeans and Americans found Solidarity's language literally incomprehensible. Given the extent to which much of the West's intelligentsia had consciously or otherwise bought into Marxist principles and theory, not to mention its mindset of moral relativism, it was little wonder that they could not quite grasp why Polish workers were defying an ostensible "workers' state."
By underlining the extent to which Communism relied upon lies to perpetuate its existence (as Polish workers were fond of saying, "We pretend to work while they pretend to pay us"), Solidarity's ability to bring light to bear upon this darkness exposed the moral hollowness of Communist regimes. From that moment, Communism was finished. As the examples of North Korea and Cuba illustrate, economic bankruptcy is no guarantee that totalitarian regimes will collapse. But the moment such regimes are forced to confront the wilderness of moral lies which they foster, they are terminal.
Solidarity's own freedom was temporarily extinguished in December 1981, when--in rank absurdity--the Polish state ordered the Polish army to invade and occupy its own country. Yet within 8 years, Poland enjoyed its first non-Communist prime minister in 40 years, followed closely by the elevation of former strike-leader, Lech Walesa, as the first democratically elected president in postwar Poland.
Since those momentous events, much has changed in Poland. Where 15,000 once toiled, only 3000 workers are now employed in Gdansk's shipyards. Poland even has a "post-Communist" president and government. The Solidarity union is now a shadow of its former self. The transition to liberty has not been painless.
And yet the achievement of the Gdansk workers who chose the path of truth over lies 25 years ago is literally incalculable. For by cracking open Marxism-Leninism's cold, criminal edifice, they allowed millions through Europe and the former USSR the opportunity to take the risk of political, social, and economic freedom to which all are called. Solidarity's struggle thus truly embodied the promise of their Polish forebears who, in fighting oppression, were fond of reminding everyone that they did so "for our freedom and yours."
Such is the essence of the virtue of solidarity.
Dr. Samuel Gregg D.Phil. is Director of Research at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (University Press of America, 2001) and On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lexington Books, 2003).
Read the entire article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute.