Universal Rights or Everyday Necessities?

Translating Human Rights between Local Workers and Transnational Activism in late 1970s Poland

In: East Central Europe

Polish opposition against the state-socialist government emerged out of the political engagement of predominantly left-leaning intellectuals with repressed workers in the 1970s. In their writings, these intellectuals addressed not only workers in the country, but also Western European left-wing intellectuals and politicians. Based on an analysis of relevant samizdat publications, this article shows how Polish intellectuals modified their rhetorical strategies depending on their audience. It thus challenges the monothematic focus on an internationally salient human rights language as the main tool for political empowerment during the 1970s. Whereas the universalizing human rights discourse presented repression and the lack of democratic labor structures negatively, the inner Polish debate between intellectuals and workers initially framed these issues as basic necessities deduced from tangible problems. It was only after two years of organizational work that the Warsaw-based Workers’ Defense Committee, in their “Charter of Workers’ Rights” (1979), depicted repression as a violation of human and labor rights. The rhetoric changed so drastically because the Charter addressed not only workers, but also different target groups on an international and national level. Even so, a singularizing narrative of repression made more sense in the context of Polish labor protests than the adoption of a universalizing human rights language.

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