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Solidarność in Łódź: An Interview with Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski

  • Christopher Phelps (a1)

After serving as an organizer for the independent labor union Solidarity (“Solidarność”) during Poland's 1980–81 upsurge, Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski was elected to the union's regional leadership in Łódź in 1981. Poland's most populous city after Warsaw, Łódź grew rapidly in the late nineteenth century after a torrent of foreign capital investment. Known as the “Manchester of Poland” because of its concentration of textile manufacturing, the city and its mills were the setting for The Promised Land, the story of a German, a Jew, and a Pole seeking to make their fortune in the brutal new world of industrial capitalism, as told in the 1899 realist novel by Władysław Reymont and the 1975 film by director Andrzej Wajda. The Łódź working class has a militant history dating to the strikes of May 1892, when, as Tamara Deutscher writes, “more than two hundred rioting textile workers were cut down by Cossacks.”

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1. The textile industry has declined precipitously in Poland since 1989, as has Manchester's, so the phrase “Manchester of Poland” is no longer accurate, in either its English or Polish referents. The English-language historiography on Łódź is dominated by the Łódź ghetto, a major concentration point for Jews in Poland during the Nazi occupation of 1939–45, terminating in the Holocaust. Labor histories of postwar Łódź are scant, with the brilliant exception of Padraic Kenney's work; see especially “Working-Class Community and Resistance in Pre-Stalinist Poland: The Poznański Textile Strike, Łódź, September 1947,” Social History 18 (1993): 31–51, and Rebuilding Poland: Workers and Communists, 1945–1950 (Ithaca, 1997). Another article on postwar Poland refers to Łódź’s “wildcat occupation strikes, street demonstrations, and clashes with police”; see Jaime Reynolds, “Communists, Socialists and Workers: Poland 1944–48,” Soviet Studies 30 (1978): 516–39. For the quotation above, consult Tamara Deutscher, “Poland—Hopes and Fears,” New Left Review 125 (1981): 63.

2. See, for example, Daniel Singer, The Road to Gdansk (New York, 1981); Stan Persky, At the Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union (Vancouver, 1981); Roman Laba, The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratization (Princeton, 1991); Lawrence Goodwyn, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland (Oxford, 1991); and Jack M. Bloom, “The Solidarity Revolution in Poland, 1980–1981,” The Oral History Review 33 (2006): 33–64.

3. The University of Łódź is a public university established in 1945. Its best-known graduate is novelist Jerzy Kosiński (1933–1991).

4. The 1917 Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution that established the Soviet Union.

5. Kowalewski's interest in Latin-American guerrilla movements led him to publish a small book, Antropología de la guerrilla (Caracas, Venezuela, 1971); a pamphlet, El papel de la guerra revolucionaria en el desarrollo de la cultura (Mexico, 1971; also published in Cuba, Chile, and Argentina); and a longer study, Guerrilla latynoamerykańska: szkice z dziejów rewolucyjnych walk partyzanckich XX wieku (Wrocław, 1978). He has translated into Polish a study by Maria Esther Gilio, The Tupamaros Guerrillas, as Tupamaros (Warszawa, 1973); Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits, as Dom duchów (Warszawa, 1998); Samir Amin's Obsolescent Capitalism, as Zmurszały kapitalizm (Warszawa, 2004); and Étienne Balibar's Le philosophie de Marx, as Filozofia Marksa (Warszawa, 2007). Kowalewski's many other writings include “Background to the Struggle in the Ukraine,” in Gorbachev's USSR: Is Stalinism Dead?, ed. Carl Finamore (San Francisco, 1989), 161–171; a pamphlet, The Revolutionary Message of Rap Music (San Francisco, 1993); and an essay in the book Malcolm X, révolutionnaire noir (Montreuil, France, 1994). His thoughts on these varied subjects are linked by a theme of national self-determination.

6. Singer, Road to Gdansk, 184.

7. Łódź in 1905 was part of the Russian Empire and a center of the massive, unsuccessful revolution that shook the czarist order. Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) was a Polish-born Marxist who was a leader of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SKDPiL). The General Jewish Labor Union, or Bund, was a Jewish socialist party. Both the Bund and SKDPiL cooperated in 1905 with the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP), the largest of Poland's left-wing parties at the time. SKDPiL raised internationalist objections to nationalism, whereas the PSP catered to Poles’ desire for national independence.

8. Piotrkowska Street is the central avenue in Łódź, dividing the city center from north to south.

9. “Independent Poland” refers to the Second Polish Republic, lasting from the end of the First World War in 1918 until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.

10. Peter Green, who credits the Łódź proletariat for propelling Polish working-class resistance in 1905, 1970, and 1976, writes that occupation strikes among Polish textile workers as early as 1931 led the tactic to become known across Europe in the interwar years as “the Polish strike.” “Third Round in Poland,” New Left Review 101–102 (1977): 74; echoed by Neal Ascherson, The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution (New York, 1982), 137. “Polish strike” may be a misnomer, however, because the sit-down dates to well before the 1930s; Sidney Fine, Sit-Down (Ann Arbor, 1969), 121–148.

11. In March 1968, after student demonstrations broke out at Warsaw University, Polish state security forces launched an anti-Semitic and antiintellectual campaign to suppress the liberal wing of the party and punish student dissidents. Thousands of Jews lost their jobs and emigrated.

12. Between 1970 and 1981, Edward Gierek (1913–2001) was head of state in Poland and first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, ruling party of the Polish People's Republic (Communist Poland).

13. In English, the historiography of the Łódź strikes of 1971 is limited. There is an overview in Laba, Roots of Solidarity, 81–82. By far the most complete account is Padraic Kenney's article, “The Gender of Resistance in Communist Poland,” The American Historical Review 104 (1999): 399–425. A sophisticated gender analysis permits Kenney to explain why women textile workers succeeded in Łódź in 1971. The same article contains a rare treatment of Solidarity in Łódź, in a few pages about women's hunger marches in 1981. Neither Laba nor Kenney addresses party faction machinations in 1971.

14. On August 30 and 31, 1980, separate agreements were signed in Szczecin (very near the German border) and Gdańsk (on the Baltic Sea) between strikers and the government. These August Accords were the first agreements in the history of Communist single-party states to recognize workers’ rights to form independent trade unions and to strike. On September 1, 30,000 workers struck in Silesia. Their comparable agreement with the government was signed on September 4. For the texts, see the special issue of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe devoted to “Polish Free Trade Unions,” 4.1–3 (1980).

15. Trams are electric street trains that provide mass transit in Polish cities.

16. The official unions in the Central Trade Union Council were controlled by the ruling party and state. As such, they were instruments for disciplining the working class, not advocates of workers’ interests.

17. Solidarity was not organized by trade or even industry but first by enterprise and then by region. Survey data drawn from Warsaw makes Kowalewski seem typical of the “second wave” leadership that supplanted the initial strike committees in 1981. According to this data, roughly half of 1981 leaders had completed higher education. Most were “intelligentsia”: professionals, technicians, white-collar staff, or intellectuals. These leaders were more likely than rank-and-file workers to see Solidarity as a social movement, not merely a trade union; to be uncompromising toward the authorities; and to seek political goals, not just improved living and working conditions. Robert Biezenski, “The Struggle for Solidarity 1980–81: Two Waves of Leadership in Conflict,” Europe-Asia Studies 48 (1996): 261–84.

18. Established in 1976, KOR (known by its initials) was the Committee for the Defense of Workers, an opposition group formed by a circle of intellectuals to oppose repression directed at labor activists and advocate civic freedom. A forerunner of Solidarity, its politics, generally speaking, were social-democratic.

19. “Transitional demand” is a phrase developed by Leon Trotsky to characterize a demand that expresses legitimate popular desires for reform but whose logic runs so deeply against the basic nature of the system that it cannot possibly be granted, pointing the way toward the necessity of a revolutionary transformation.

20. “In May and June of 1981,” a French sociologist confirms, self-management was “the principal subject of discussion within Solidarity.” Beyond its democratic idealism, self-management was popular for practical reasons as a way to address poor living conditions by improving economic performance. The arbitrariness, irrationality, and waste caused by bureaucratic corruption, fief-building, and nepotism would diminish, according to Solidarity, with self-management. Quotation from Alain Touraine et al., Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980–81 (Cambridge, 1981), 94; see also Lawrence Weschler, The Passion of Poland (New York, 1984), 66–71.

21. Zbigniew Bujak (1954–) was a young worker at the Ursus Tractor Plant, head of the powerful Mazowsze (Warsaw-area) regional Solidarity leadership, and a member of the Solidarity national commission.

22. Lech Wałeşa (1943–) was the main figure in Solidarity, its spokesman and negotiator. As an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, he was on the 1970 strike committee and later led the August 1980 strike that sparked other Baltic strikes and gave birth to Solidarity, whose national chairman he became.

23. Solidarity spokesmen, according to a reporter for The New Yorker, answered the government's assertions that Solidarity was antisocialist by telling him, in May 1981, “On the contrary, socialism consists in social ownership of the means of production, which is precisely what we advocate.” Weschler, The Passion of Poland, 44.

24. Oskar Lange (1904–1965), a Polish Marxist economist, was the postwar Communist government's first ambassador to the United States. His pamphlet Some Problems Relating to the Polish Road to Socialism (Warsaw, 1957) includes remarks on self-management. Michał Kalecki (1899–1970) was a Polish economist whose writings have been published in English as The Collected Works of Michal Kalecki, 7 vols. (Oxford, 1990–97).

25. This elucidates the mediated manner by which workers would exert control under self-management as envisioned by Solidarity. Delegates, elected democratically from the shop floor, would comprise a workers’ council. The workers’ council, in turn, would appoint a hiring committee. That committee would select managerial finalists from the pool of candidates, after which the workers’ council would vet and vote upon the finalists. This method, rather than a raw vote by the entire workforce, would help ensure that the facility's need for expertise would figure highly in selection of managers, not mere popularity or whim.

26. Bronisław Geremek (1932–), a historian, was an advisor to Lech Wałeşa in 1980–81. Ryszard Bugaj (1944–) was a social-democratic economist active in Solidarity.

27. Seweryn Jaworski (1931–) was a foundry worker and leader of Solidarity at the Huta Warszawa steelworks who became vice president of Solidarity's Warsaw-based Mazowsze regional organization.

28. “Co-management” was an attempt to co-opt Solidarity by making the union responsible for joint management of the Polish economy, although ultimate power would still rest with the party.

29. These and several other articles were collected and published by the Łódź regional body of Solidarity for distribution at the first national congress of Solidarity in September 1981: Zbigniew Kowalewski, “Solidarność” i walka o samorząd załogi (Łódź, 1981). Translated into English, this title would read Solidarity and the Struggle for Workers’ Self-Management. A copy of the document is held at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.

30. In June 1956, a workers’ rebellion in the city of Poznań set in motion a chain of events. In August, Władisław Gomułka (1905–1985), a top postwar Polish Communist who was expelled from the party and imprisoned at Stalinism's zenith, was readmitted to the party. In September, the first workers’ council was formed at the large car factory in Żerań near Warsaw, influenced by Yugoslavian experiments in plant-level self-management. Workers, together with students, called in mass meetings for Gomułka to be returned to power, and in October Gomułka was made first secretary of the party. He spoke of a reform Communism, but the hopes he raised did not eventuate in a transformation of the state's basic structure. In 1970, Gomułka was ousted from power again after massive strikes erupted in protest against price hikes.

31. At this congress, Solidarity declared itself in favor of a “Self-Managed Republic.” In his own history of Solidarity, Kowalewski writes, “The totalitarian regime definitively decided to smash our trade union under the boot of military dictatorship when Solidarność decisively raised the banner of workers’ self-management and began to build self-management bodies; when the workers’ councils began to take increasing power inside the factories and began to coordinate regionally and nationally; when Solidarność declared at its congress that it was ready to violate the restrictive legislation imposed on the workers’ councils; and when increasingly large sectors of the working class began to prepare to seize economic power in the country through the revolutionary means of the active strike.” (In the “active strike,” or “work-in strike,” workers continued to produce while managing their own enterprises independently, in disregard of party and state directives.) First published in France in 1985, this passage is reproduced in the pamphlet Poland: The Fight for Workers’ Democracy (San Francisco, 1988), 20. See also Zbigniew Kowalewski, “Solidarnosc on the Eve,” Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, 5.1–2 (1982): 25–29; reprinted as “The Eve of Martial Law,” Against the Current 2 (1982): 48–51.

32. David Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968 (Philadelphia, 1990), 157.

33. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (1901–1981).

34. The chapter in which Ost makes this case is on pp. 149–86.

35. Jacek Kuroń (1934–2004) and Karol Modzelewski (1937–) were dissident intellectuals whose Open Letter to the Party was a criticism of People's Poland from the standpoint of revolutionary socialist democracy. They were sentenced to prison for three years for writing the letter. Later, Kuroń was the dominant figure in KOR. Modzelewski is credited with suggesting the name “Solidarity” in 1980. The open letter is included in Revolutionary Marxist Students in Poland Speak Out (New York, 1968).

36. Robotnik means The Worker in Polish. The Polish Socialist Party first used the title for its underground newspaper, established in 1894. KOR's Robotnik reached a circulation of tens of thousands between 1977 and 1981.

37. Jan Lityński, a 1968 new leftist, edited KOR's Robotnik. Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette), was the voice of Solidarity in the 1989 elections. It later became independent and is now a prominent daily. Its editor-in-chief is Adam Michnik (1946- ), a 1968 dissident involved in both KOR and Solidarity.

38. Michnik recounts his conversations with Kuroń in summer 1980 as follows: “Jacek, like me, was very uneasy about the situation in Gdańsk, where they seemed to have some pretty wild ideas… . The ‘wildest’ idea was the one that independent and self-governing trade unions could be formed. Jacek knew this was impossible in a Communist system. I also knew it was impossible and that's why I was supposed to go to Gdańsk, to explain to them that it was senseless to insist on such a demand. Since I was known and rather liked there, perhaps I might have convinced them. Fortunately, I was arrested. I couldn't go to Gdańsk and convince them and so Solidarity was created… . That's how Solidarity arose, without us and against us, although we always considered it to be our child. An illegitimate one, you might say.” Quoted in Ost, 77.

39. Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland was the name taken in 1989 by the reconstituted Polish United Workers Party, the ruling party in Communist Poland. Later it became the Democratic Left Alliance. In Poland, therefore, the mantle of social democracy was quickly claimed by the former Communists. The same thing occurred in some other eastern European countries, such as Hungary.

40. Jósef Piłsudski (1867–1935) helped bring about Polish independence in 1918. A leader of the Polish Socialist Party, he in 1926 effected a coup d’état and ruled Poland in an authoritarian fashion thereafter.

41. Upon his return to Warsaw in 1918, Piłsudski was greeted by his old underground associates, who greeted him as “comrade.” He rebuked them, saying, “Gentlemen, we both took a ride on the same red tram, but while I got off at the stop marked Polish Independence, you wish to travel to the station Socialism.” Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York, 2002), 208.

42. Wałeşa won the presidency of Poland in 1990 but was defeated in 1995. In 2000, he ran again for president but received only one percent of the vote (after polling at three percent). Afterward, he announced his retirement from any further electoral candidacies.

43. The Round Table talks—literally conducted around a gigantic round table—took place in Warsaw between February and April 1989 between the Communist government headed by Jaruzelski and a Solidarity contingent led by Wałeşa. The result was legalization of Solidarity and promised elections for a new senate and for the presidency. The party intended this as a compromise, based on a formula that would preserve its parliamentary power, but the resultant Senate elections of June 4, 1989, were so decisively in Solidarity's favor that they led to the toppling of the Polish government and set off eastern Europe's “velvet revolutions” of 1989, including the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which inaugurated liberal civic systems and led to the return of capitalism.

44. During the early 1990s, Jeffrey Sachs (1954–), then a Harvard University economist, called for “shock therapy” or the immediate economic liberalization of the former Communist states, including withdrawal of all state subsidies, privatization, and removal of currency and price controls. The initial result was astronomical rates of unemployment.

45. In 2005, Solidarity supported the right-wing Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party, which won the national election. The party's leaders, twin brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, became president and prime minister. This prompted Lech Waleşa to quit Solidarity in 2006.

46. Grzegorz Palka (1950–1996), mayor of Łódź from 1990 to 1994 and a leader of the Christian National Union, a small right-wing party.

47. Jerzy Kropiwnicki (1945- ) has been mayor of Łódź since 2002. Formerly a leader of the Christian National Union, he is now close to the Law and Justice Party.

48. Many local committees in France in 1981–1982 were named “Comité de solidarity avec Solidarność.”

49. In “The Holy Alliance,” Time, February 24, 1992, Carl Bernstein says that Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan met on June 7, 1982, agreeing to “undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire,” and that the “Solidarity office in Brussels became an international clearinghouse: for representatives of the Vatican, for CIA operatives, for the AFL-CIO, for representatives of the Socialist International, [and] for the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which also worked closely with [CIA director William] Casey.” For further details, see Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time (New York, 1996).

50. Known in France as “Comité de Coordination du Syndicat Solidarność en France,” this committee was established by Kowalewski and other Polish émigrés who were Solidarity veterans. Formed immediately after the declaration of martial law and announced in an appeal by Kowalewski published in Le Monde on December 17, 1981, it smuggled scanners, radios, walkie-talkies, and printing presses to the underground in Poland and encouraged solidarity efforts across western Europe with Polish Solidarity.

51. Confédération générale du travail (CGT) is a French trade union federation historically associated with the French Communist Party (PCF). The “Coordination Nationale de la CGT pour Solidarność” was a committee of CGT members in support of Polish Solidarity, in contravention of the PCF's line of suppporting the Polish Communist state.

52. Jerzy Milewski (1935–1997), a physicist who studied at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, directed Solidarity's Brussels foreign office in the 1980s. He was appointed national security advisor under President Lech Wałeşa in 1991 and again under President Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 1995.

53. Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1954–), president of Poland from 1995–2005, was the candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance, the social-democratic coalition (and, after 1999, a unified party) which replaced the Polish United Workers’ Party, the ruling party in the Communist period.

54. During his years in France, Kowalewski subsequently published a book-length account of the Solidarity uprising of 1980–81: Rendez-nous nos usines! Solidarność dans le combat pour l'autogestion ouvrière (Montreuil, 1985). Rendered in English, this title would be Give Us Back Our Factories! Solidarity and the Fight for Worker Self-Management. See also Zbigniew Kowalewski, “Solidarność Today: A View from the Left,” Against the Current 4–5 (1986): 23–26, 29–32, 35.

55. Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York, 1994).

56. The 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the military dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

57. The 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, a monarch who had ruled Iran since 1953. It led to the creation of an Islamic republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

58. A black township near Johannesburg, South Africa, Soweto erupted in mass protest against apartheid in 1976. The Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed in 1979, and merged into the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985. In May 1986, COSATU led the largest strike in South African history, of 1.5 million workers.

59. The Khmer Rouge, a Maoist movement led by Pol Pot (1925–1998), came to power in Cambodia in 1975. In four years, it annihilated two million people, a quarter of the population.

60. At the time of this interview, Kowalewski assisted in editing the newspaper of the All-Polish Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), a labor federation created in 1984 as a result of the recasting of the old official trade unions linked to the party-state. The OPZZ is allied with the Democratic Left Alliance, but Kowalewski is a political supporter of the Polish Labor Party, a small left-wing party formed in 2001 out of the WZZ, “Serpien 80,” a left-wing breakaway from Solidarity.

61. Kowalewski is coeditor of Revolution, a theoretical journal <> (accessed January 28, 2008).

62. Bożena Łopacka, a worker at the discount supermarket chain Biedronka (Ladybug), sued the chain's Portuguese owner in 2004 for failure to pay her for completed overtime labor.

63. Ryszard Tomtas was fired from a Loveland, Colorado, Wal-Mart distribution center in 2005.

64. Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (London, 1999[1983]), 30.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
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