4.3.4 ‘Solidarity’ (LE #8)

Back to 4.3.3

Unit 4 Contents


The next section in LE is headed ‘worker solidarity’.  This is such an important topic that I’m devoting a whole screen to commenting on this one section.

The first thing that must be said is that the writing and publication of LE in 1981 came during astonishing events in Poland that were being reported around the world.  Taking the term ‘Solidarity’ as its name, a new workers’ movement had emerged which was independent of the Marxist regime and challenged it in a way that was unprecedented in the Communist countries in the whole post-WW2 period.  John Paul II was known to be a strong supporter of the Solidarity movement.


Reading (5pp)

Wikipedia entry, ‘Solidarity (Polish trade union)’


Amazingly, the publication of LE in September 1981 (after delay because the Pope had been severely injured in an assassination attempt in May) was in the middle of the first National Congress held by the Solidarity union, by then a movement of 10 million members.1 We can be sure that many involved in the conflict, on both sides, examined the Polish Pope’s statement carefully.

Whether Pope John Paul had, given all his connections in Poland, influenced the choice of the name ‘Solidarity’, or whether he used the term ‘solidarity’ in the way he did in LE partly because of the events in Poland, we cannot be sure.  Both may well be true.  What is certain is that the concept of solidarity had long been prominent in his thinking.  The future Pope, Karol Wojtyła, had discussed it fully in a major piece of philosophical writing published in 1969 (entitled The Acting Person).

Even though events in Poland were no doubt very prominent in John Paul’s concerns while LE was being written, it is striking that he nowhere refers to them explicitly.  Of course, the main reason for this is that the encyclical was for the worldwide Church, indeed the whole world, not just his compatriots!  Nevertheless what John Paul actually said about ‘solidarity’, even though quite brief, was of immense significance in relation to the kind of protest he believed the Solidarity union – and any trade unions and similar movements – should make.

We have already seen that John Paul rejected an analysis that divided workers into classes that would be in conflict.  As noted already (4.2.7, 4.2.8), some have argued that CST has had a tendency, ever since Rerum Novarum, to downplay the role that conflict has to have in actually bringing about social change that ends injustice.  This criticism would say: the elites of the powerful and the rich who benefit from current arrangements won’t give up their privileges easily.  So a struggle against them, in which people have to take sides, is necessary.  This is a powerful argument.

What John Paul’s use of the concept of solidarity achieves is a ‘both-and’ solution to this problem.  On one hand, he very clearly advocates solidarity of workers against “exploitation” and “flagrant injustices”.  But, on the other, this solidarity is different from the ‘class conflict’ that Marxists believed in. Indeed the way that John Paul employed ‘solidarity’ made it a profound alternative to that.  The solidarity that he calls for “must never mean being closed to dialogue and collaboration with others”.  These words (in the second last para. of LE #8) are highly significant because they imply that solidarity rests on recognition of the unity of society and that the good of all persons is found in the common good.

A bit more background about this can explain it further.  In his 1969 book, Karol Wojtyła had said:

The attitude of solidarity… does not exclude… opposition.  Opposition is not a fundamental contradiction of solidarity.  One who expresses opposition does not remove himself from participation in the community, does not withdraw his readiness to act for the common good.

We are concerned with such a structure of community that permits the emergence of opposition based on solidarity.  Moreover, the structure… must make it possible for the opposition to function for the good of the community.2

Dorr comments on what the future Pope says:

In the light of this account of the meaning of solidarity, one can now see how ideal a word it is for the pope’s purposes in… Laborem Exercens.  The word ‘solidarity’ is action-oriented.  But it does not have the negative connotations of the word ‘struggle’.  Instead of evoking an image of divisiveness, it suggests that the primary thrust of the workers’ activity is towards unity and community.3

In summary, solidarity is necessary and it might well lead to protests and other forms of social activism.  The effects may be severe for those who manifest this solidarity – as they were for some in the Polish Solidarity movement.  But such collective action is not based on class conflict.  Rather it is always for the person and for the common good.

This screen has outlined much more about how ‘solidarity’ is significant for John Paul than the text of LE #8 itself says!  When you now read this, you might think: hang on, where is all the stuff about ‘solidarity’ being an alternative to ‘class conflict’?  Well, it isn’t in that section in the straightforward way I have set out here, although it emerges from understanding the encyclical overall (see especially #20) and is even clearer if this is read with the history of the Church’s opposition to class conflict in mind.  Moreover, in the midst of the events in Poland, people brought up on Marxist ideology would have seen how much work the concept of ‘solidarity’ was doing.


Reading (2pp)

Laborem Exercens, part of Chapter II: #8

This link takes you to the start of Chapter II, so scroll down.




When you have done that reading, look again at the introductory commentary that I have given above.

Do you think that that account of the significance of ‘solidarity’ fits with what Pope John Paul actually said in #8?



End of 4.3.4

Go to 4.3.5 Work, dignity and society (##9-10)


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  1. For the coincidence of dates, see Lamoureux, ‘Laborem exercens’ (ref. in 4.3.2 n. 1), 391. 

  2. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 4.2.2 n. 1), 304-5, italics in original 

  3. Dorr, Option for the Poor, 305.  Lamoureux makes the same point, ‘Laborem exercens’, 403.