[Viewpoint] Needed: a global civic movement
The collapse of communism two decades ago in Central and Eastern Europe, often symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, is one of the most significant events in recent world history.
It paved the way for democracy in several countries, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the birth of new states, the reunification of Germany, the enlargement of NATO and the expansion of the European Union.
It resulted in dramatic political, economic and cultural shifts all over the world.
This sudden global transformation took many scholars of international politics by complete surprise, and over the years we’ve seen different interpretations of what happened and why communism in that region of the world crumbled.
The most common theory is that communism just could not compete economically with liberal democracy, As a result, the thinking goes, most communist countries abandoned the system between 1989 and 1991.
But as North Korea, China, Cuba and other countries show, economics by itself could not crush such a powerful ideology as communism, which has a high degree of persistence and can adapt itself to the changing international environment.
The turning point for communism was a series of events that took place in August 1980, which marks the birth of Poland’s Solidarity (Solidarnosc in Polish) - an independent trade union that quickly became a powerful civic movement - at the Gdansk shipyard.
Without the birth of Solidarity, there would have been no fall of the Berlin Wall. The Gdansk shipyard, which became the epicenter of massive strikes and other forms of peaceful resistance, inspired the rest of Poland with the idea of freedom. That eventually rippled to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The birth of Solidarity was the crack in the structure of the Soviet Bloc, the beginning of the end of the totalitarian system.
In the grim picture of politics in the 20th century, it’s hard to find bright spots. Solidarity, however, is one of the few - not only because it stood for some fundamental human values such as freedom and justice, but also because it accomplishing its goals in a nonviolent way and initiated a profound world transformation.
Today we live in a world that is fundamentally different from the one before 1989. We are no longer divided by a global ideological struggle between communism and liberal democracy. The key issue today is not a bipolar division but globalization. The decline of communism has made the world almost into one single market that is penetrated by transnational corporations. In addition, an expanding global system of communication, especially the Internet, has helped to establish a single global society.
At the same time, the world today is grappling with serious problems. Tensions and violent conflicts grip many parts of the world, and we are haunted by terrorism and war. Poverty is a grave issue around the world, as is massive cross-border crime. Finally, there are environmental challenges, such as pollution, water shortages and global warming.
Globalization, poverty, crime, terrorism, scarcity of resources, environmental pollution: these are the issues that in one way or another affect human beings today. They influence human life in a powerful, often destructive way. They necessitate a new world transformation and a new solidarity. But is such a transformation even possible? And what can we learn from Poland’s Solidarity?
There were four factors connected with the birth of Solidarity. First, the initial economic demands of the striking workers were transformed into social and political issues. Second, their struggle was institutionalized. Although the earlier protests that took place in Poland in 1956 and 1970 led to some political changes, they could not have a long-term influence on political life because there was no institution in place to defend the gains of the protesters. Not until August 1980 was there popular recognition [of the need] to protect these gains, hence the formation of Solidarity. Third, in August 1980, Polish society was for the first time truly united. Solidarity had over 10 million members hailing from a host of different social groups. Finally, there was the lack of ideology. Solidarity arose as the result of a popular recognition that certain basic needs are essential to human life, such as food, freedom and justice.
So if we try to apply these concepts to today, we need a global civic movement based not on any ideology but rather on the recognition of some fundamental human needs capable of being institutionalized and of uniting a large part of the population. Like Poland’s Solidarity, the movement would have to uphold the basic needs of all. Moreover, it would need to be guided by the idea of nonviolence in obtaining social and political goals. It would promote civic values and exert pressure on governments to implement reforms to facilitate a positive world transformation.
Whether a type of global solidarity movement will form on the basis of some existing nongovernmental organizations that share a similar program and can combine under an umbrella-type group or whether there will be a wholly new establishment is a question that is not going to be discussed here.
But the World Civic Forum, which took place in Seoul last week and brought together representatives of many civic organizations from all over the world, could in fact be the first step toward establishing global solidarity and building a more humanitarian planet.
*The writer, a former deputy mayor of Gdansk, is a professor and international scholar at the School of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz