Jack Bloom was a social movement's specialist previously unconcerned with Poland, when he first visited the country in 1986. After five weeks in Poland his new goal was clear: researching the social movement Solidarność. More than 25 years later, this led to an English language in-depth study about the Polish events of the 1980s, and the development of the opposition that led up to it. So many years later, however, this story has only little new to offer in an academic discourse that has moved on.
The set-up of his story is fairly traditional, telling the story of the Polish opposition from the Poznań events, through the upheavals of 1968, 1970 and 1976, to a detailed description of the different phases of the Solidarność years and the story beyond until 1989. The additional value of Bloom's account should therefore be sought in his approach to telling this history.
As a left-wing academic, Bloom's research is inspired by a class perspective, and he does not shy away from referring to Marx (p. 12) and Trotsky (pp. 219-220) for analytical guidance. The character of Solidarność as a workers' movement justifies his choice to some extent, but it is still a remarkable angle for the analysis of a movement that defeated communism. Blooms point of view brings back memories of the eager leftists in the 1980s who regarded Solidarność as the hope for a more humane socialism. Bloom however, from his class perspective, is realistic enough to recognize that 'workers, acting as a class, played the central role in resolving the issue of national oppression' (p. 382) and not necessarily had the ideals of socialism on their minds.
Bloom is not the first chronicler of Solidarność to focus on its character as a workers' movement. He rightly refers to researchers Roman Laba and Lawrence Goodwyn who in 1986 and 1991 challenged the narrative of an intellectual opposition as the main instigator of Solidarność. Back then, their criticism was justified, although arguably often too militant. With good reason, Bloom takes the less radical position that KOR and the Church were very important to Solidarność, but did not cause or lead it. As a very belated addition to the debate, this sounds more like a compromise position that already prevailed long ago, rather than a new synthesis.
Interestingly, Bloom decides to combine his class perspective with an intense focus on personal stories and agency. Although methodically his hybrid approach of contingency and class sounds problematic, the last aspect is what makes this study worthwhile. During the long time of his research, Bloom interviewed 150 (!) people. By letting the protagonists speak, he shows that strikes and demonstrations were not some abstract forces of nature, but were made by actual people. Through the interviews, he developed interest in less political aspects of the events that are often ignored, such as the sense of community that was created by Solidarność and the strong feelings in society about the privileges of the nomenclature. His belief in contingency also influences his stance in the debate about the inevitability of martial law for which plans already existed in an early phase: 'The existence of these plans did not mean that martial law was inevitable, but it was clearly an option,' he states rightfully (p. 274).
The account that emerges does little to break out of the conventional narrative of the history of the Polish opposition and offers hardly any information that was not already available in the 1990s. For an English language public, his history of the later 1980s might be of interest because it is understandably absent in English-language accounts available from the early 1980s such as those of Timothy Garton Ash and Kevin Ruane. Bloom's account of the Solidarność underground, however, although stipulating some interesting personal stories, omits important issues, such as internal disagreements and the influence of prominent arrests and trials for the underground activists.
The most interesting part of his post-1981 story is the analysis of the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in 1984, which he regards as a game changer for the opposition. In the same way, he sees the suppression of the strikes in 1976 without lethal violence as a crucial turning point. While 1976 showed that speaking out against the regime could be done without the risk of dying, the murder of Popiełuszko embarrassed the regime to such as extent that it made repression much more difficult. That is why, according to Bloom, both events enabled the opposition. This is a valuable analysis that shows the added value of telling the whole oppositional story from 1956 to 1989.
Although the interviews are the biggest asset of the book (especially for a non-Polish speaking audience that would have difficulty finding such testimonies elsewhere), they are also a weakness. Bloom dedicates almost no space to the methodological difficulties of oral history and does little to contextualize or question the quotes he offers. By doing this, he not only gives almost no interpretation of the quotes, but also prevents his audience from passing their own judgement on the veracity of the utterances. Most problematic is the absence of dates. Bloom himself admits that the interviews he conducted in 1986, shortly after the arrest of underground leader Zbigniew Bujak, were much more pessimistic than those he did in 1988 (pp. 361 and 367). He also mentions in a footnote that his first interpreter quit after the first interview because he was afraid of the topics addressed (p. 325). Bloom fails, however, to reflect on how this fear and pessimism could also have influenced his interlocutors and indicates nowhere which of the interviews are from 1986, 1988 or the 1990s, which could have profoundly influenced the content of the quotes.
The author returns to his left-wing outlook at the end of the book. Contrary to most foreign authors writing about Poland, Bloom is very negative about the 1990s. Instead of stressing the gains with regard to democratic freedom, he focuses on the poverty of many, which became even more clear because of the growing divisions in society. This might be a refreshing take for those Poles who have heard enough praise of a time they remember as rather precarious.
All in all, the book has mainly benefits for a public that does not speak Polish and is now for the first time presented such an amount of personal testimonies. Unfortunately, the book hardly draws on any other Polish sourcesor debates, as Bloom's knowledge of the language appears to be limited. Nonetheless, the interviews remain a remarkable achievement. Maybe the title of the book could have been chosen differently: Rather than 'seeing through the eyes' of the Polish revolution, Jack Bloom helps us to 'hear the revolution through its various voices'.