Dangerous Minds: Independent Students' Association

40th anniversary of anniversary of the legalization of the organization

On 17 February 1981, protests were putting the communist authorities under pressure, which resulted in the legalizing of the Independent Students’ Association. A new, autonomous youth organization operating alongside “Solidarity”, its members would eventually become famous for their radicalism, especially during the political transformation.

by Tomasz Kozłowski


At the end of the seventies, students constituted a relatively large social group in Poland. There were about 450,000 of them, the vast majority studying full-time, and almost 40 percent of them lived in dormitories. In 1968, students had become the driving force not only behind the protests against censorship, but also against the overall policies of the communist authorities, which were considered increasingly repressive. In March of the same year, demonstrations took place in many areas, including Warsaw, Gdańsk and Krakow. To this day, there is still talk of Generation of 1968 – political, social and artistic leaders for whom the joint revolt was a pivotal moment. They constituted an important part of the democratic opposition in the 1970s, and later also of Solidarity. The problem was that their younger colleagues weren’t that active anymore.

In the 1970s, there were many young activists from the democratic opposition among the students. After the murder of Stanisław Pyjas, a student and associate of the Workers’ Defense Committee, his friends and acquaintances even created the Student Solidarity Committees. They operated in several academic centers: Krakow, Warsaw, Gdańsk, Poznań, Wrocław and Szczecin. However, it seems that there was an even larger group of young people who were active in the Socialist Union of Polish Students, established by the communist authorities, in an attempt to secure a favorable start to their future careers.

Stanisław Pyjas (public domain)

Between these two extremes – the opposition and the politicians – there stood an overwhelming, rather silent majority. As the eminent sociologist Hanna Świda-Zięba wrote: “The crowd of young people spontaneously built their worldview in opposition to the world in which they lived, which at the same time allowed them to function in this world”. The creation of “Solidarity” in 1980 brought with it a chance for a breakthrough.


Student Solidarity

The students, watching the peaceful worker revolution, decided to take action as well. On 18-19 October 1980 – a month after the foundation of Solidarity – a Congress of Delegates of the Founding Committees of Independent Student Organizations took place in Warsaw, and was attended by representatives of 59 groups from 17 academic centers. A joint authority was elected for a new organization: the Independent Students’ Association. “Solidarity” was definitely a source of inspiration for them. The association quickly gained considerable popularity, but it seems that this time – unlike in 1968 – the students were no longer a key group in the revolt. The strikes that spilled over Poland in August 1980 and the creation of “Solidarity” were an almost universal experience for young Polish workers and they were the driving force behind the protests to a large extent. But was this experience also important for students? Hanna Świda-Zięba stated that it was not: “there was a split in the generation between those who were employees and those who at that time were still students (…) Solidarity was not their movement.”

Up to ten million people joined “Solidarity”, a significant proportion of all working people. Meanwhile, the Independent Students’ Association estimated the number of its members at 80,000, or about 25 percent of all full-time students. As historian Kamil Dworaczek noted, the authorities gave even lower estimates – in their opinion, no more than 10 percent of students were involved. For comparison – in the seventies, 70 percent of students belonged to the Socialist Union of Polish Students established by the communist authorities. It is worthwhile remembering that membership in the Union was not an ideological declaration: most often it resulted from the desire to obtain amenities.

1st National Congress of Delegates of Solidarity (photo: PAP/CAF/J. Uklejewski)

The weakness of the Association was also that it was a loose federation of representatives from individual universities rather than a coherent organization. Furthermore, it lacked one recognizable and charismatic leader. “Solidarity” was led by Lech Wałęsa while the leadership of the Independent Students’ Association was a collective. The students did not experience any common, symbolic or formative moment either. For “Solidarity” such a role was played by the August strikes and later the signing of agreements with representatives of the government. Initially, the Independent Students’ Association lacked such a moment, especially as the authorities did not want to agree to the legalization of the Association for a long time.


Fight for legalization

Students submitted the legally required documents back in October 1980. But after a few months nothing had moved forward. The breakthrough moment was the proclamation of a strike at universities in Łódź. In late January 1981, the national leadership of the Independent Students’ Association called on everyone to support this local protest. More universities began to join the solidarity strike – at its peak, as many as 34,000 students protested. The pressure was effective – Janusz Górski, the minister responsible, inter alia, for higher education, came to Łódź. On 17 February 1981, he agreed to legalize and register the Independent Students’ Association.

However, even the circumstances of this victory show that the Independent Students’ Association was still in the shadow of “Solidarity”, much like a younger brother. In fact, the decision to legalize the association was made during behind-the-scenes negotiations. Bronisław Geremek, Lech Wałęsa’s closest advisor, reached an agreement on this matter with Mieczysław Rakowski, deputy prime minister in the new government of Wojciech Jaruzelski. The political compromise was part of the search for an agreement between the government and the trade unions. Jaruzelski announced in his speech that he would try to obtain “90 peaceful days” for the country. Wałęsa, in turn, aimed for an agreement with the “liberal” wing of the authorities – that is why he tried to end the strike in Łódź. The chairman of “Solidarity” complained about the waywardness of the protesting students who tried to win additional concessions: “What happened to the students, I cannot understand. Everything is agreed, I talked to Mr. [Deputy Prime Minister] Rakowski, we agreed that everything was OK. First it seems there is no problem, then they break off the conversation and it’s over and they leave.”

Congress of Polish Culture at the Dramatic Theater. In the picture: Józef Tejchma, Mieczysław Rakowski and Jerzy Waldorff, 11 December 1981 (photo: PAP/CAF/M. Szyperko)

After legalization, students organized the first Congress of the Independent Students’ Association and elected new authorities and a chairman: Jarosław Guzy from the Jagiellonian University, who had previously cooperated with the Student Solidarity Committee. Years later, he recalled what managing the association looked like: “The Independent Students’ Association had an anarchic character, was constantly on the move and did not become a systematic organization.” The association was rather decentralized, and students concentrated on activities in their home universities. As a result, they published up to 260 magazines with the Independent Students’ Association logo, organized self-education campaigns, meetings with activists of the democratic opposition, and opened libraries with illegal literature. However, the association was most visible during the big actions. “For quite a lot of people, membership in the Independent Students’ Association was all about signing up, it was a kind of personal declaration and support for what we do. It meant commitment at times when we undertook mass actions, that is strikes, support for some action,” recalled Guzy.

After the legalization, the activists of the Independent Students’ Association took part in two large protests [that had a turnout] of many thousands. In May 1981, they organized marches to defend political prisoners in the largest cities (including Warsaw, Wrocław and Kraków) and as many as 20,000 students took part in them. The real storm, however, began in the fall of 1981 in connection with the conflict over dismissing the rector of the Higher Engineering School in Radom. The national leadership of the Independent Students’ Association spoke out against the rector, and more centers began to join the solidarity strike. At the climax, up to 150,000 students went on strike. This time, however, the government deliberately did not seek a compromise and heated up the atmosphere of the conflict.

Announcement at the University of Warsaw on the organization of the NZS (photo: PAP/J. Morek)


The next generation

In December 1981, martial law was introduced. The Independent Students’ Association activists organized strikes at universities and took part in street demonstrations, but the resistance was quickly broken. The Security Service started the internment of Solidarity activists and the democratic opposition. 410 members of the Independent Students’ Association were among the 10,000 internees. The Association itself was banned at the beginning of January 1982.

The students tried to continue activity, illegally in the underground. Among other things, they published underground press – numerous second-circulation magazines and books were published under the name of the Independent Students’ Association. They commemorated the anniversary of registration on 17 February, took part in demonstrations, and broadcast illegal radio at some universities. After the abolition of martial law, some of the former members of the Independent Students’ Association became involved in the activities of the university self-government. Gradually, it was time for a generational change.

Older activists of the Independent Students’ Association graduated from universities and joined the ranks of other opposition groups – they were, for example, the initiators of the well-known pacifist movement Freedom and Peace. Meanwhile, the younger generation of students often acted as a support for the already functioning organizations of the “older” opposition, for example, Fighting Solidarity. The ranks of the Independent Students’ Association slowly decreased, but at the same time they attracted a small group of determined anti-communists with adventurous inclinations. Ryszard Czarnecki, one of the most important activists of the Independent Students’ Association in the mid-1980s, recalled: “of course our motivations were patriotic, but apart from these motivations, it was not without significance that the female students favored the conspirators more than those who did not conspire.”

Strike at the Warsaw University of Technology organized by the National Commission of the NZS. In the foreground, Agnieszka Romaszewska, October 1981 (photo: PAP/CAF/Tadeusz Zagoździński)

The renaissance of the Independent Students’ Association activity took place in 1988. An important initiative was the celebration of the anniversary of the student protests of March 1968. However, the key – as in 1980 – was the resonance caused by workers’ protests and the actions of “Solidarity”. Two waves of strikes swept across the country, which led the communist authorities to negotiate with Lech Wałęsa and his advisers. The Independent Students’ Association also began to gain power – the secret political police (Security Service) estimated the number of members and supporters of the Association at around five thousand people.


Students at the Round Table

In September 1988, a nationwide congress of the Independent Students’ Association was organized and the national authorities were restored, but due to internal divisions the chairman was not elected. The national authorities of the Independent Students’ Association announced their support for Solidarity and their willingness to participate in the work of the Civic Committee by the side of Lech Wałęsa. As a consequence, representatives of the Independent Students’ Association also took part in the Round Table talks. In the course of its work, they demanded the restoration of the legal status of the 1981 Independent Students’ Association, an amendment to the law on higher education, a reform of military service and the military training of students.

However, as in 1981, the relationship between the Independent Students’ Association and Solidarity was not easy. On the one hand, Lech Wałęsa assured that “a round table must have at least three legs: Solidarity of workers, farmers and the Independent Students’ Association”, but he also added that “no leg should trip over the other leg”. By this he meant that students should refrain from protests and keep a low profile so that the “adult” opposition could communicate with the government. Wałęsa even threatened to suspend the promised funding if the students did not refrain from protesting.

The intergenerational discrepancy was described by one of the commentators in the biggest opposition magazine “Tygodnik Mazowsze”: “Everything seems to be known. [Young] have no hope, no chance, no rights. But have all those who call for moderation and patience ever tried to explain to them why it is necessary to act slowly? Do they understand what “slowly” means to these young people? They don’t have housing, resources, income, or arrangements to wait for an agreement to mature. It is their life that is passing by.”

May 1988. Student protests at the Warsaw University. First point on the list demands re-legalization of the NZS (Rafał Werbanowski – author’s collection; Copyrighted free use)

The students may have been disappointed. When the Round Table talks ended in early April 1989, it turned out that the demands of the Independent Students’ Association were not taken into account. However, at that moment the Association could only protest symbolically – no representative was sent to the ceremonial signing of the agreement. The key problem was that the Independent Students’ Association was still illegal. The authorities agreed to register “Solidarity”, but did not want to make any concessions to the students. The main reason was that there was a clause in the Independent Students’ Association statute that guaranteed the right to strike. Moods among opposition students began to radicalize. Paradoxically, this became a problem not only for the authorities, but also for “Solidarity”, which was concerned about the stability of the political agreement concluded at the Round Table.

Lech Wałęsa and other opposition leaders, including Jacek Kuroń, tried to persuade students to give up this postulate. At the same time, they urged government representatives to compromise. Kuroń tried to make people realize that such treatment of students could lead to the creation of “illegal, mass, large organization in which a rapid radicalization process takes place. Most want to register with this stupid entry – he explained – now if we leave it, everyone will shift to these radicals and we really have shit with which we do not know what to do”.

However, none of the outgoing government of Mieczysław Rakowski had any intention of legalizing the Independent Students’ Association. Only the government spokesman Jerzy Urban, ridiculed by students, was of a different opinion, cynically stating: “students are the future intellectuals, future executives, these are those who, anyway, divided in the past into different political orientations, will play an important role in the life of the country. And why do we need to fail to give them what they wanted in their youth? ”.

The opening session of the Poland’s Round Table (photo by Erazm Ciołek, public domain)

The decision to allow legalization was made only by another Solidarity government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. On 22 September 1989, the Independent Students’ Association became legal again. And it has operated up until today.

The history of the Independent Students’ Association in the 1980s is the history of a relay race of generations – successive generations of students undertook activities under this one legendary association created in 1980. For them, it was an important element of self-identification, despite the fact that the organization itself was both highly decentralized and often ideologically divided. Over the years, the Independent Students’ Association was inextricably linked with “Solidarity”, although the cooperation was not the easiest one. The actions of young people always aroused a certain fear in the “adult” opposition – constantly calling for caution. However, years later it can be seen that the Independent Students’ Association became a source of the new elite of the Third Polish Republic, especially politicians. Today’s largest opposition party, Civic Platform, was founded by Donald Tusk and Maciej Płażyński, who in 1980 founded the Independent Students’ Association in Gdańsk. A group of their collaborators also came from the student opposition. Tusk himself was the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland for many years, and then the chairman of the European Council. However, in the ranks of the ruling Law and Justice party, we can also find many former Independent Students’ Association activists, including Mariusz Kamiński, Ryszard Czarnecki or Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin.


Author: Tomasz Kozłowski – PhD in political sciences, employee of the History Research Office of Institute of National Remembrance
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin