ARTICLES : Satyagraha / Civil Disobedience

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Civil disobedience In Poland – Its Roots And Examples

By Kinga Rodkiewicz

Mahatma Karamchand Gandhi used to say that he didn’t create anything new because the rules he propagated were “as old as the hills”. The features of behaviour, which were named later by Henry David Thoreau as civil disobedience, can be found in each epoch and in almost every country all over the world. Sophocles' “Antigone” as well as the life of Socrates are said to be the perfect examples of the philosophy of civil disobedience.1
Poland has got great history with the actions that can be included in the category of civil disobedience. Despite the differences in the definition that I will disregard in this essay, we will use the term which was presented by John Rawls who understands civil disobedience as: "a public, non-violent, and conscientious act
contrary to law usually done with the intention to bring about a change in the policies or laws of the government. It is a last resort after constitutional remedies have been exhausted, for the establishment must be given a valid opportunity to right the wrong being raised.”2 The whole history of Poland is abounding with periods of great struggle against the invaders. The last great fight against communism was based on civil disobedience. That is the main cause that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, during his visit in Poland which took place from 5th to 12th December 2008 said: “Polish people are the nation which has experienced many tough periods, but despite the difficulties and obstacles it has kept determination and spirit. That is why I admire Polish nation.”3Among the scientists there is an agreement that the roots of philosophy of civil disobedience in Poland can be found in the Henrician Articles. During the first interregnum following the death of Zygmunt August in 1572, the Sejm formulated the document which is a list of nonnegotiable rules that bound every monarch. The document was signed on 12th of May in 1573 at the town of Kamien nearby Warsaw and took its name from Henryk Walezy (the French Prince Henri de Valois, brother of the king of France), the first elected fPolishking, who was obliged to sign the Articles before being allowed to mount the throne.
In 21 Articles, Polish gentry (szlachta) guaranteed that a king would be elected in the free election. However, each elected king, beginning with Henryk Walezy, was obliged to obey certain privileges. The Sejm had to be summoned every two years for six weeks; there was also the assurance of religious freedom. At the time when the Sejm was not in session, there were 16 senators who called themselves the residents as the advisors of a king. The most important part of the document has been written in the last 21st Article, which emphasizes that if the monarch were to break the laws and privileges of gentry, they had a right to refuse the king's orders and act against him (official rebellion, called ‘the rokosz’).The king had no right to increase the taxes or to create the new ones without the approval of the Sejm. The same situation was with the declaration war or peace and with the calling of massed levy (pospolite ruszenie). The 21st article says: “If anything (God forbid) has been done by a king against laws, liberties, privileges or customs, we declare all the inhabitants of the Kingdom are freed from obedience to him.”4 Therefore, the Henrician Articles justified civil disobedience of whole gentry when a king disobeyed the Articles. The document was a tool in the hands of gentry and a guarantee that a new - elected king wouldn’t take away their prerogatives.
In literature the great example of civil disobedience is said to be the Revolutions of 1989, sometimes called the " Autumn of Nations". However, the political and economical changes that started after the World War II in the Middle – East Europe were based on non-violent actions. As the civil disobedience acts are called the Polish workers’ demonstrations in Poznań in 1956 (also known as Poznan 1956 Uprising or Poznań June) when a crowd of approximately 100,000 gathered in the city centre near the UB secret policedemanding better work conditions; the events in Czechoslovakia after Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968; period of strikes and demonstration 1980 – 1981 and finally, the year 1989 – excluding Romanian Revolution based on bloody acts of terror and violence.5
The changes in the whole Europe began in Poland when Solidarity - (“Independent Self-Governing Trade Union "Solidarity”) started to act in September 1980 at the Shipyard, originally led by Lech Walesa.6 This Polish electrician spread the idea of fighting without violence. He was the follower of co – operation with the communists.
At the time of the Polish Revolution, as the years 1980 –1982 are called by Timothy Garton Ash, the workers from Polish companies and fabrics were acting with political, economical and social demands. However, there were some episodic violent acts since the whole society were struggling using civil disobedience. The mass demonstrations of workers were to bring the improvement of working conditions. Priest Joseph Tischner emphasizes: “The work with no sense is the highest form of human exploitation by another human. It is straight humiliation of human dignity of a working man. When the human work becomes work without any sense, the only reasonable action in this case is strike.”7 However, the demands presented by Solidarity weren’t identical with any side of the political scene at that time.
“The Solidarity” was fighting for some basic values which had public support both by the left and the right; the values for which the citizens were fighting during English Revolution and American Revolution: freedom of an individual, democratic government, legitimacy.”8
On 17 August 1980 the Interfactory Strike Committee (Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy, MKS) created a list of demands from the government. The demands issued by the strikers were as follows:

  1. Free trades unions independent from the Party and employers are accepted as provided by Convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation on free trades unions ratified by the Polish People's Republic.
  2. The right to strike as well as safety of those on strike and their supporters are guaranteed.
  3. Freedom of speech and freedom to print and publish are guaranteed as provided by the Constitution of the Polish People's Republic; that independent publishing houses are not persecuted; and that mass media are made available to the representatives of all denominations.
  4. a) The workers sacked after the strikes of 1970 and 1976 are allowed to return to work; Students expelled from universities for their convictions are allowed to return to schools.
    b) All political prisoners are released (including Edmund Zadrożyński, Jan Kozłowski and Marek Kozłowski).
    c) Persecution for convictions is abolished.
  5. Information about the creation of MKS is made public in the media together with the demands.
  6. Activities are undertaken to lead the country out of the crisis through:
    a) Informing the general public about the real political and economic situation in the country.
    b) Allowing all social groups and strata to take part in adiscussion about the programme of reforms.
  7. All workers taking part in the strike are paid remuneration from the budget of CRZZ (the Central Council of Trades Unions) for the period on strike as if they were on aleave.
  8. All workers receive apay rise of 2000 zloty per month as compensation for price rises.
  9. Wages are increased automatically with any price rises or zloty devaluation.
  10. The internal market is fully supplied with food and that only surplus food is exported.
  11. The commercial prices and foreign currency trade in the so-called internal export are abolished.
  12. Managers are selected according to their skills and not party membership and that special privileges for police, secret service personnel and party members are abolished through:
    - The introduction of equal family benefits;
    - The abolition of privileged purchasing etc.
  13. Food coupons for meat and processed food are introduced (until the situation on the food market has become stable).
  14. Retirement age is lowered for women to 50 years of age and for men to 55 years or alternatively retirement after having worked in the Polish People's Republic for 30 years for women and 35 years for men regardless of age.
  15. Old age and disability pensions, which are calculated according to the old rules, are made equal with those paid at present.
  16. Working conditions of health care workers are improved which will result in full medical care for those who work.
  17. That working mothers are provided with enough places in nurseries and kindergartens.
  18. A 3-year paid maternity leave is introduced for bringing up children.
  19. Waiting time for apartments is shortened.
  20. Travel allowances are increased from 40 zloties to 100 zloties and that aseparation benefit is introduced.
  21. All Saturdays are free. Employees working in the 4-shift system will be compensated with longer leaves or other free days they will be paid for.9

The mass character of the strikes forced the government to start the negotiations. The government commission led by Kaziemierz Barcikowski - the deputy Prime Minister - was negotiating in Szczecin; the other one went to Gdansk with the leader – Mieczyslaw Jagielski. Next cities were joining to the strike: Wroclaw, Poznan, Walbrzych, Nowa Huta, Lodz. Finally, the government yielded to the strikers and on 30th August the list of the demands was signed in Gdansk, one day later in Szczecin.
The nonviolent victory and achieved compromise stirred up enthusiasm of the whole society. The collapse of communism in Europe began with August demands in Poland. "The August Agreement started the domino effect. Like a rolling stone, which causes an avalanche. [...] We must remember that the events of 1989 really began in 1980."10
“Solidarity” was a trade union which was open for new members; it means that each worker had a chance to join in. This fact was emphasized during the Conference: The Experience of “Solidarity” by the President of Bulgaria in 1990- 1997 Żeliu Żelew: “ A trade union doesn’t use any plots, collusions or secret actions in political fight – from its definition it is open and public. Thus this aspect makes from the trade union a typical example of citizens’ fight. That is the reason why violence and terrorism aren’t the unionists’weapon. The only sort of violence which is used by a trade union could be civil disobedience.”11
The important issue for fighting workers, which was discussed also by Gandhi, was conscience. Lech Walesa exhorted repeatedly that it is crucial for fighting workers to have clear conscience. In Solidarity Weekly he writes: “There is a need to put in order the inner countenance of a man.”12 Afterwards, the fight in the companies, factories, shipyards and other works is possible. The changes therefore should begin in the humans’ interiors.
The Round Table Talks are also included in civil disobedience act. The leaders of two antagonistic political camps discussed the future of Poland. The talks took place in Warsaw, from February 6th to April 4th , 1989. The fifty-seven negotiators at the talks included representatives from the ruling PZPR, Solidarność, and various PZPR-sanctioned quasi-parties and mass organizations, such as the United Peasant Party, the Democratic Party, the Christian Social Union, the Association of Polish Catholics, and the All-Polish Alliance of Trade Unions. The document signed by the participants on April 4th , 1989, laid the groundwork for a pluralistic society that in theory would enjoy freedom of association, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and independent trade unions. Thanks to the talks Poland avoided the civil war and initiated the political changes in Middle and West Europe. “The events in Poland had unquestionable influence on acceleration the processes which took place in the countries of Middle and East Europe. They showed what could be achieved when civil disobedience is in use.”13 Searching for an answer what was the main cause of communism defeat when the other side was acted on the way of civil disobedience? Some answers were given by Adam Michnik14 during the Conference: Communism’s Negotiated Collapse: The Polish Round Table, Ten Years Later. “That compromise was, as usual, the result of relative weakness of both partners. The authorities were too weak to trample us, and we were too weak to topple the authorities. And out of those two weaknesses a new chance arose for a new compromise resolution….”15
The success of Polish society with communism was achieved also with great help from Polish Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II was always encouraging Poles to fight for their freedom. Cardinals, bishops and priests were in majority those who always supported strikes and non-violent actions against the communism.
“The government of the People’s Republic of Poland always looked to the Church to become a partner, whom they could easily treat instrumentally, some kind of a partner who would be able to moderate the opposition and to calm the tensions in society. Well, we didn’t talk only to them; while there was the principle assumed already by Cardinal Wyszyński that we would always talk whenever the authorities wanted to talk, but we also conducted talks with the leadership of the opposition. We would always encourage talks with the society, through chosen representatives.”16
Among those who were persecuted by the communist system the great number of people were priests, monks and nuns. “(..) from the very beginning of the Polish People’s Republic, first Cardinal Hlond and then Cardinal Wyszyński would oppose the sovietization of Poland, the construction of a totalitarian system. Actually, at that time
he paid for it with three years of imprisonment; at that point, the Church de facto was apolitical opposition, although it was never its intention, which it expressed many times in public declarations. But the government of the Polish People’s Republic would push the Church into the role of political opposition….”17
The charismatic Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko was killed on October 19th, 1984 by three Security Police officers. The sermons of young priest in which he attacked the regime and demanded freedom, were transmitted by the Radio Free Europe.
During 1989- 1990 many countries decided to follow Polish example and liberated themselves from the power of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After The Round Table Talks in Poland, there was the “triangular table” in Hungary, The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Collapse of the Berlin Wall, throwing out from power Teodor Ziwkow in Bulgaria and finally free elections in Albania.
In free, democratic Poland the acts of civil disobedience are still present however, they have different dimension. Nowadays, there are many ecological organisations all over the world, which are fighting using civil disobedience acts. The ecological issues’ entrance to the political scene began in the 70s. As the ecologism it is understood: “political ideology which pursues to protect natural environment from a man.”18
From the very beginning of ecological organisation arising there were many kinds of actions mainly against the government. In many countries the aims of ecological movements are now presented by the political parties. The most famous ecological action which can be named as civil disobedience took place in 2007 in The Rospuda Valley region. Despite losing a regional referendum and a court case over the building of the freeway through Rospuda, the Polish government decided to ignore the growing opposition and begin construction anyway.“Along the planned route of the bypass scientists have identified 75 bird breeding districts of species that, according to the European Commission, are threatened by extinction throughout Europe. The road will also negatively impact wild, marshy forests and peat-bog, included in the European Network Natura 2000.”19
The groups of ecologistis set up the “green camp” on 12th of February when the temperature in Poland was below -20°C. The activists were desperate to stop big tractors and bulldozers. Finally, with the support of European Commission the act of civil disobedience ended with great success. In March 2009 Polish government announced that there is new decision and the new route of bypass wouldn’t be across the Rospuda Valley.
All the examples of civil disobedience show that Gandhi had right writing that civil disobedience can be used only for people who are courageous enough to fight without violence. During the centuries Polish people as the nation and as the individuals where struggling against injustice using acts of civil disobedience. What is more important nonviolent actions can be successful even in 21st century.

  1. Different opinion was presented by Hanna Arendt who was German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist. In her point of view the essential feature of civil disobedience should be its mass character. “ Civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt”( H. Arendt, Civil Disobedience, Warsaw 1998, p.65.)
  2. J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, London 2003, p. 45.
  4. Henrician Articles, article 21 in: P. Jasienica, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów. Srebrny Wiek, Warsaw 2007, p. 78.
  5. Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death by a military court on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide, and were executed in Târgovişte on December 25. Footage of their trial and pictures of their corpses (but not of the execution itself) were shown the same day on television for the Romanian public.
  6. L. Walesa was born September 29, 1943 in Popowo. Thanks to the non-violent fighting against the communism he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. On December 9, 1990, Walesa won the presidentian election in 199
    Presidential elections were held in Poland on Sunday November 25 , and Sunday December 9, 1990 . 60.6% of citizens cast their votes during the first round, 98.5% of those were valid.... to become president of Poland for the next five years.
    The Nobel Peace Prize is one of five Nobel Prizes bequeathed by the Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel. According to Nobel's will , the Peace Prize should be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for :wikt:fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the h...
  7. J. Tischner, Ethics of Solidarity in : T. G. Ash, The Polish Revolution. Solidarity 1980 – 1982. Warsaw 1987, p. 150.
  8. T. G. Ash, The Polish Revolution. Solidarity 1980 – 1982, p. 202.
  9. Internet,
  10. Lech Walesa,
  11. Ż. Żelew, The Experience of Solidarity, The Conference From Solidarity to Freedom, p. 69-70.
  12. The Solidarity Weekly nr2/81, in: T. G. Ash, Polish Revolution. Solidarity 1980 – 1982, p. 181.
  13. A. Garlicki, History 1939- 2001. Poland and world, Warsaw 2002, p. 391.
  14. A. Michnik was the negotiator for the opposition in the Round Table Talks, in 1989- 1991 he served as a Deputy in the Sejm.
  15. A. Michnik, The significance of Polish Round Table, Michigan 1999,
  16. Bishop A. Orszulik, The political contest 1986- 1989, Michigan 1999,
  17. Ibidem.
  18. A. Wielomski, Ecologism, in: Political Encyclopedia, J.Bartyzel. B. Szlachta, A. Wielomski, p. 66.