Bread and freedom

Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980 (Photo: www.solidarnosc.gov.pl )

31 years ago – echoing the rallying cry of earlier mass protests in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 – striking workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland were demanding “bread and freedom” from the communist authorities. The workers called their movement Solidarność (Solidarity) and formulated 21 postulates that encapsulated their aspirations for change. Along with economic grievances, their demands included important democratic priorities such as freedom of speech, freeing political prisoners and – listed as number one – legalization of independent trade unions.

Realizing that it can no longer contain strikes spreading across the country, the government delegated commissions to negotiate with the strikers and signed the so-called August Agreements granting their demands. Although the authorities later went back on their promises and brutally suppressed Solidarity during the martial law imposed in December 1981, the opposition movement survived underground and finally triumphed in 1989, spelling the beginning of the end of communism in the region.

Those early days of Solidarity, filled with hope and upheaval, were captured in many moving photographs. Yesterday, Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, unveiled a commemorative photo exhibition The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, delivered opening remarks, emphasizing that Solidarity managed to reveal the duplicity of Poland’s communist regime which claimed to represent the workers but in reality repressed them.

Today the same is true in many dictatorships around the world. Authoritarian leaders who claim to be the voice of the people and to have their best interest at heart in reality silence that voice and deny economic opportunity through trampling on political and economic freedoms. Today the calls for bread and freedom resound as loudly across the Middle East as they did in Poland three decades ago, showing the universality of this most basic human aspiration.

The history of successes and failures in post-communist transformation of Central and Eastern Europe carries an important lesson for Arab Spring reformers. The challenge is to translate revolutionary fervor into concrete policies that bring political freedom and inclusive economic growth. Bread and freedom go together. Reforms meant to advance them must go together as well or the promise of democratic and more prosperous future will remain unfulfilled.

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