Compassion and the Legacy of Solidarity

A reflection on the international seminar “The Treasure of Solidarity: Lessons for Europe”.

This month representatives from the DLCC were invited to Brussels to attend an international seminar on the legacy of the great Polish working-class revolution of the 1980s – Solidarność. Gathered in the Polish Embassy, a matter of yards from the Berlaymont building – that stark, obscure omphalos of the European Union – thinkers, activists and political leaders from various countries came together to celebrate the ‘treasure of solidarity’ and to ask how the life of the movement could be recovered in Poland today. Although some present were reluctant to think of Solidarność as anything more than a closed episode in the history of trade unionism, it became evident across the course of the seminar that what happened in Gdansk was no ordinary effort in civil disobedience. Hearing of the heroic martyrdom of men like Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko, and of the moral witness of the great theorist of the revolution, Fr Józef Stanisław Tischner, one could understand why the dissident philosopher Roger Scruton declared the eruption of solidarity in Poland to have been ‘the most important thing that happened in Europe’ during his lifetime. For a brief moment, in the face of the greatest military dictatorship in history, the whole nation seemed to beat with a single pulse and move with a common energy. Those who opposed the Soviet regime knew that what they saw at the Polish shipyards was as much a moral as a political revolution. Solidarność involved nothing less than a comprehensive and radical transformation at the level of the spirit; and it is for this reason, as the delegates from the Centrum Myśli Jana Pawła II insisted, that it sent reverberations through the very texture of the Communist empire.

We at the DLCC found the event to be an apt occasion to reflect on the part compassion has in creating the spirit of solidarity and forming the sort of integral community that delivered Poland from its captors. Alexander Norman, the director of the DLCC was tasked with moderating the final panel of the day and there had the opportunity to ask delegates about the extent to which Solidarity could be understood as a reawakening of political and communal compassion. Perhaps the most interesting response from the panel was given by retired Dutch Politican and former European Commissioner, Frits Bolkstein, who argued that compassion was roughly equivalent to pity and that, as such, it could have nothing to do with a revolutionary insurrection like Solidarność. Bolkstein spoke with great candour, and his provocative intervention certainly lent life to the ensuing debate; however, the assertion that pity and solidarity can be identified without loss is, it seems, difficult to uphold. Were “compassion” withdrawn from the language and placed on an Index Verborum Prohibitorum, we would not be able to fill the semantic void with a word like “pity” for the two have different significations and, to borrow from Ludwig Wittgenstein, contrary fields of force. This is clear when they are used as adverbials – what a difference it makes to say that one acted ‘compassionately’ instead of ‘pitifully’ or ‘pityingly’.

Inadvertently Bolkstein – by comparing pity and compassion – provided a useful way of demonstrating just what it is that makes compassion so important and so singular. When we pity a person who suffers we remain, so to speak, above them, lifted beyond the life of their pain. This is not altogether ignoble but in our pity we have not yet begun to be compassionate. In genuine compassion one plunges into the depth of the catastrophe there to share life with the person who suffers. This is simply what com-passion means – the shared suffering of two or more people held together by what they must endure. When the Bodhisattva, though liberated from the world, remains to be with the unenlightened he is moved not by pity but compassion. In the Divina Comedia, when Beatrice condescends from the endless beatitude of the Empyrean to leave her footsteps in the very ground of Hell she becomes an image of perfect compassion. These two examples illustrate the peculiar character of the compassionate act which is at once a katábasis – a descent or down-going – and a kénōsis – a self-emptying or renunciation.

Returning to the question of solidarity and Solidarność, what then does this co-suffering have to do with such a movement? A clue is provided by one of the greatest Polish philosophers of the 20th century, Leszek Kołakowski, who was a keen sponsor and proponent of the Solidarność movement during the years of his exile abroad. In his book The Presence of Myth, Kołakowski wrote of what he called the ‘culture of analgesics’ – a culture he recognised in the dependent states of the Soviet Union. What Kołakowski had in mind was ‘…those organs of civilizations, those customs, those models of communal existence, thanks to which we are able to conceal from ourselves sources of suffering without attempting either to remove or to face them.’ Where the culture of analgesics has taken root one can barely manage pity, let alone compassion. What occurred in Poland as the Solidarność movement caught fire was the utter renunciation of such ‘analgesics’ and the willingness once more to suffer-together. In this sense is can be rightly called a revolution in compassion. And it is this, we would propose, that gave the Polish dissidents such force and resolve. For when two suffer together in compassionate solidarity they become, without losing themselves to each other, con-sanguine. In suffering shared a body – a real corpus – is made, not unlike that which takes shape among the communicants at a Catholic mass (and we must not forget the part that Catholics had to play in the life of Solidarność). When a people or group are so integrated as to resemble a body no weapon or threat of violence will deter them. And so we return to the question of the relation of compassion to solidarity. How do the two concepts stand to one another? Compassion, it would seem, when properly understood and fully-realised, is a necessary, if not a sufficient condition, for solidarity. Pope John Paul II – the man without whom Solidarność would have been shipwrecked – once remarked in a Homily during a Mass in 1999, that Polish revolutionaries would cry, as their motto or slogan, “there is no freedom without solidarity”. This is doubtless so; but we could also say, with as much truth, that there can be no solidarity without compassion.

 Nikolas Prassas