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
Among 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
Henri de Valois, brother of the king of France), the first elected
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
demanding 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
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.