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Brier, Robert:

Poland’s Democratic Opposition and the Western Left, 1976-1980. Transnational Activism and International Symbolic Politics in the late Cold War

It has long been acknowledged that “ideas were an essential component of the cold war world, which cannot be reduced to any assumed ‘realist’ structure – be it conceived in purely economic or power based terms – without losing an essential dimension of the narrative.” However, historians are only beginning to appreciate the complexity of the cold war’s ideological dimension. By analyzing the relationship between the Polish democratic opposition and the Western left, this paper contributes to this trend.

The paper’s focus is on the “foreign policy” of the Workers’ Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników [KOR]), Poland’s foremost opposition group of the pre-Solidarity period. Deprived of any meaningful foreign policy resources, these oppositionists concentrated their international activities on the international ideological comittments of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Like their Soviet and East European counterparts, Poland’s communists claimed to implement an alternative, socialist project of modernization; thus, they tried to legitimize their rule by reference to the values and ideas of the international left. Polish oppositionists managed to exploit this ideological claim: Through open letters and appeals in the Western media, they publicly invoked the solidarity of the international left with Poland’s striking workers and demonstrated how Polish communists violated its proclaimed values. Through this kind of international symbolic pressure, Polish oppositionists managed twice to “shame” their government into easing some of its repressions.

These findings provide the starting point for the discussion of three broader questions related to Cold War interactions: First, it turns out that the Cold War as an ideological conflict not only divided the world into two hostile blocs but also provided non-state actors like Poland’s opposition with opportunities to turn their rulers’ ideological claims against them. Second, the role played by the Western left in KOR’s foreign policy allows for a more nuanced assessment of its relationship to the East European dictatorships. Finally, these findings also provide a perspective on East-West interactions prior to 1989: Invoking the solidarity of the Western left, Poland’s democratic opposition forced the latter to rethink its own identity in relation to the socialist project of modernity.

Thursday 29 Oct 16.15-18.15 SESSION 3
Panel: Solidarnosc and the West