Barbara FEDYSZAK-RADZIEJOWSKA: Rular Solidarity – A community of ‘religion and anger of the past’

Rular Solidarity – A community of ‘religion and anger of the past’



Rural and agricultural sociologist, ethnographer. Advisor to the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda.

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If our recollection is mostly limited to August 1980 and the labour protests, are we really faithful to the truth about the past?

.Journalist and columnist Timothy Garton Ash, who met with the farmers striking in Rzeszów in 1981, questioned the rationale of the urban-rural community for, as he wrote, ‘the objective interests of these two social groups, workers and farmers, are anything but identical’. Why, then, in 1980 and 1981, did these objective interests of both urban and rural residents, as well as farmers and workers, ultimately prove to be common? I think that T.G. Ash underestimated the power of the peculiar community of anger, religion and values that bound most Poles together at the time.

To understand the process which, after many strikes, partial agreements and numerous breakthroughs, finally led to the registration of Rural Solidarity (Independent Self-Governing Trade Union of Individual Farmers ‘Solidarity’, NSZZ RI) on 12 May 1981, it is necessary to revisit the experiences of the Polish countryside and farmers. The history of the struggle for the registration of Rural Solidarity is the history of the restoration of full civil and political rights to the Polish rural population. Stripped of their political and ideological identity in 1947 and subjected to a brutal attempt at collectivisation between 1948 and 1956, farmers were eventually reduced to the role of producers of agricultural raw materials – a category of people supervised by the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party via the United People’s Party.

In 1981, in Victory Square in Rzeszów, a large poster was displayed where the letters spelling out Solidarność (Polish for Solidarity) have been developed into separate Polish words, meaning:



People’s Rule









It would be difficult to find a more exemplary demonstration of the values that fostered community even within groups that appeared to be more divided than united. After all, the ‘anger of the past’ bound the countryside and the cities in solidarity of hurt and humiliation. The memory of the victims of the strikes in Poznań in 1956 and in Gdynia, Gdańsk and Szczeciń in 1970, of the fallen members of the independence underground, of the crimes committed against the activists of the Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s Polish People’s Party (PSL) and of the repression against farmers during collectivisation brought the two communities together.

They were also united by an egalitarian ethos and solidarity understood per the teachings of John Paul II, who referenced the words of St Paul: ‘Carry each other’s burdens’. The right to an autonomous and self-governing trade union, access to a pension without having to give up one’s land, respect for the individual and not displacing people overnight – these values united people, not separated them.

Furthermore, the two communities were bonded by their approach to the faith, the Catholic Church, and its esteemed leaders – Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and the Holy Father John Paul II. The protests of both the workers and the farmers were deeply imbued with Christian symbolism and were carried out ‘under the wing’ of priests who held Masses for the strikers, offered spiritual guidance and provided words of encouragement.

Let us add that the sense of community of the farmers fighting for a trade union was not limited to the agricultural sector but extended to the local community – the small homeland – which was the foundation of local governments. Among their demands, two crucial ones posed a significant challenge for the communist authorities: the right to an autonomous trade union for farmers and constitutional assurances for private, family-owned farms, meaning private land ownership.

Despite significant pressure, harassment, repression and arrests, collectivisation ultimately failed to transform Polish agriculture as recommended by the Cominform of 1947. It should be noted, however, that it was only after 1970 that Polish farmers were finally granted land titles under the land reform implemented by the Polish Committee of National Liberation in 1944. It wasn’t until the era of Edward Gierek’s government that family farms were exempted from compulsory deliveries, which enabled them to purchase tractors and harvesters independently (not just through agricultural societies). Yet even then the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic, as amended in 1976, declared in Article 11 that ‘the socialist economic system, based on socialised means of production and socialist production relations, shall constitute foundations of the socio-economic system of the Polish People’s Republic’. Further, article 15 stipulated that the Polish People’s Republic shall: ‘enable agriculture a steady increase in agricultural production, promoting socialist transformations (…), protect the individual farms of working peasants, (…), give support and aid to collective farms (…), develop and strengthen State farms’. Such a distribution of emphasis clearly signalled that private land ownership did not have adequate constitutional backing. Many specific solutions, including the Act of 27 October 1977 on the pension system (commonly referred to as the ‘land pension’), were seen as another attempt to transform Polish agriculture into ‘socialist agriculture’.

Not surprisingly, new forms of farmer protest and self-organisation emerged in response to this law. The agrarian ideas of private land ownership, peasanthood, ruralism and cooperativism proved so deeply rooted in the attitudes of Polish farmers that – despite the abolition of political representation – dispersed and unorganised peasant circles eventually won the battle for private land ownership against the Communists.

The election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy and his pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 was an undeniable breakthrough. It was then that the extent of Polish society’s potential for resistance to the ideology and practices of the Polish People’s Republic became apparent. John Paul II’s invocation in Warsaw’s Victory Square sparked a unique spiritual mobilisation, leading to the events of August 1980 and the subsequent emergence of independent Polish organisations: Solidarity (Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’, NSZZ) and Rural Solidarity (Independent Self-Governing Trade Union of Individual Farmers ‘Solidarity’, NSZZ RI).

Special Masses and homilies at meetings with Polish villagers and farmers were always part of John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland. The Church and its priests also supported the farmers in this way, like Father Czesław Sadłowski in Zbrocza Duża or Archbishop Ignacy Tokarczuk in the Przemyśl diocese. The General Council of the Polish Episcopate has, on several occasions, expressed its strong support for the farmers’ demands.

However, the struggle for independent peasant unions and guarantees of private land ownership did not end in February 1981. That same month, Stanisław Gucwa, chairman of the Supreme Committee of the United People’s Party (ZSL), questioned the need to create Rural Solidarity, while Bolesław Strużek (also from ZSL) tried to push through a law on farmers’ self-government (which weakened the demand for a farmer’s union). The struggle continued, showing that the ultimate success depended on solidarity and a sense of community in three important dimensions. The first was solidarity with the past, that is, with the tradition of the social and political popular movement destroyed during the Stalinist era. The second dimension entailed consensus within the community, meaning collaboration between the diverse factions of the autonomous trade union movement, the agricultural movement, the farming movement, and the rural movement. The third dimension of solidarity necessitated a sense of community between cities and the countryside, as well as between workers and farmers, to ensure success.

The peasant movement in the Second Polish Republic appealed to agrarian values. Why, then, was there no place for folk agrarianism in the Polish People’s Republic? There seem to be four key elements the peasant movement used to build self-esteem among the peasantry: private land ownership as a guarantee of their autonomy and freedom; peasanthood understood as the positive identity of a social group whose patriotism, industriousness and independence made their members at least equal, if not ‘superior’, to landowners and workers; rurality, with its modernising function, understood as the belief that the countryside was a better place to live than the city, (provided, of course, that modern solutions of the era, such as sławojki, were introduced into the rural cottages and villages); and finally, cooperativism, which also acted as a moderniser, improving the income and economic security of peasants through communal action or, as we say today, according to the principles of the social economy. Cooperative economic institutions (banks, insurance companies, agricultural cooperatives, processing cooperatives and agricultural products trade cooperatives) effectively demonstrated the unique economic characteristics of agricultural entrepreneurship.

All these values could contribute to the modernisation of the Polish countryside, but none of them fitted into the vision of a nationalised, or collectivised, agriculture of the Soviet type, in which farmers would be replaced by ‘agricultural workers’. In agrarianism, private land ownership was the foundation of peasant freedom and autonomy. Within this context, it becomes clear why the communist authorities, when liquidating the Polish People’s Party, tried to hijack the words ‘cooperative’ and ‘reform’ and changed their meaning by infusing them with new content. Throughout its conflict with the communists, Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s PSL party consistently upheld the principles of social democracy, freedom, ownership, justice, private entrepreneurship and cooperativism. Little wonder that for the ZSL to survive the rigged elections of 1947, the new party had to remove agrarianism from its programme.

What was the reason for the delay of almost five months in the registration of Rural Solidarity after the start of the sit-in strike in Ustrzyki Dolne (1980)? Did the communist authorities disregard rural and farming communities, playing for time and hoping the protesters would eventually tire and abandon their cause? My impression is that the government delayed the decision because they feared the rebirth of an independent peasant movement in Poland that would draw on the programme and values of Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s PSL party.

Peasant, rural and agricultural solidarity became a real social and political fact in Poznań (8-9 March 1981), when an agreement was reached among these three circles and the statute and name of the new organisation – the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union of Individual Farmers ‘Solidarity’ – were adopted. The next step was a sit-in farmers’ strike in March at the offices of the ZSL Voivodship Committee in Bydgoszcz, triggered by the manipulations of the authorities, who tried to ‘smuggle in’ the associations and organisations of farmers as their best trade union representation. Three days later, on 19 March, the so-called Bydgoszcz provocation (or event) took place during a meeting of the Voivodship National Council, attended by activists from the Regional Council of NSZZ ‘Solidarity’ (workers’ Solidarity) and the leaders of Rural Solidarity. In response, law enforcement officers beat up the representatives of both circles, Jan Rulewski and Michal Bartoszcze.

The permanence of private land ownership in socialist Poland resulted from a compromise that the authorities were forced to accept after the failure of the collectivisation campaign. But politically, they never fully embraced this compromise. In 1981, the memory of the events of 1946-1948 was much more vivid than we tend to assume. They were separated by 32 years, with less than 30 years elapsing since the defeat of collectivisation. The communist authorities remembered the failed referendum of 1946 and their defeat in the 1947 elections against Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s PSL party. Despite eliminating the leaders and structures of this party from the political scene, committing numerous crimes and arresting many of the party’s rank-and-file activists, the authorities had to falsify both the referendum and the election results.

It is therefore unsurprising that the government of the Polish People’s Republic feared the strengthening of the social group that still owned land. They dreaded the reactivation of agrarian values, which were still alive in the memory of the peasants, and of the urban-rural and peasant-worker solidarity, because it was much easier to govern Poles when these two social groups were kept in a kind of civilisational conflict. As we can see, the reasons it took so long for Rural Solidarity to register were complex and more politically and socially significant than we might think today.

According to Captain J. Gaj’s note, one of the participants in the Rzeszów farmers’ strike, who was also a secret collaborator under the alias Walter, offered the following explanation: ‘From what I have seen, I am certain that this strike would have collapsed long ago if it weren’t for the two elements: religion (the whole setting, masses, sermons and songs) and the accumulated anger towards the past’. If the motives of the strikers had been only of an ‘entitled’ and economic nature – that is, limited to the demand for a pension without handing over land to the state – their determination would probably have been lower. The aforementioned covert agent (TW), who was an active participant in the events, accurately assessed the sources of the peasant’s stubbornness.

Farmers did not view land ownership solely in terms of its economic value, even though it is commonly viewed that way these days. It was a source of dignity, freedom and independence to the farming families, a testament to their strong ties to tradition and the local community, including the parish, which played a crucial role in safeguarding not only the land but also faith and devotion to the Church.

All attempts by the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic to build anagricultural economy on socialist forms of ownership and socialist production relations brought back the ‘anger of the past’ – the living memory of the Stalinist years, collectivisation, production cooperatives, compulsory deliveries, murders, repression and the liquidation of Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s PSL. For many country dwellers, although possibly not all, the fight for land ownership was the fight for a free and non-communist Poland.

The battle for the agricultural trade unions also revealed a community of many circles and people involved in opposition activities. Support for the peasant opposition movement came from the so-called ‘popular right’–circles that identified with the values of the popular movement of the PSL party led by Stanislaw Mikołajczyk – and from centres of popular thought. Farmers were also supported by PAX circles and, even before August 1980, by the so-called anti-socialist elements – the main groups of the pre-August opposition, including the Committee for Social Self-Defence KOR, the Confederation of Independent Poland and the Movement for Defence of Human and Civic Rights. Renowned experts, such as Prof. Jadwiga Staniszkis, Prof. Andrzej Stelmachowski and Prof. Zbigniew Wierzbicki, stood by the farmers, too. Moreover, the involvement of foreign and Polish journalists, the performances of artists, the donations and the commitment of the people of Rzeszów provided tangible and genuine evidence of a community in solidarity with the farmers.

Undoubtedly, the advocacy of the workers’ Solidarity was of paramount significance. The first National Congress of Farmers, back in December 1980, was held with its support. In January 1981, the farmers’ strikes were supported by the National Coordinating Commission of the workers’ Solidarity, and on 27 January, Lech Wałęsa and Andrzej Gwiazda arrived in Rzeszów as liaisons and advisers assigned by the Solidarity branch in Gdańsk. Naturally, the already mentioned Bydgoszcz events proved to be the most important. On 19 March 1981, when representatives of the region’s management, led by Jan Rulewski, came to the Voivodship National Council meeting at the WK ZSL headquarters in Bydgoszcz to support yet another sit-in strike, history accelerated. The success of the nationwide workers’ strike sealed the success of the farmers, although, as we remember, the registration of the Rural Solidarity did not take place until 12 May 1981.

.The victory of a community of values, religion, the anger of the past and solidarity gave rise to an independent and democratic Poland. If, then, our recollection is mostly limited to August 1980 and the labour protests, are we really faithful to the truth about the past?

Barbara Fedyszak-Radziejowska

The integral version of the text was published in the book ‘Horyzonty kultury. Pomiędzy ciągłością i zmianą’ (Horizons of culture. Between continuity and change), UKSW Publishers, Warsaw 2012. It was recently recalled in the special magazine ‘Gościniec Dożynkowy’ issued by the National Institute of Polish Rural Culture and Heritage in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the farmers’ faith formation ‘Duszpasterstwo Rolników’.

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