Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

The rise and fall of Solidarnosc

The nature of Stalinism

Post-war Poland

East looks West

Which way forward?

In the elections that took place in Poland late last year, the political remnants of Solidarnosc lost all their seats in parliament. December 2001 was also the anniversary of the military coup which crushed the militant trade union movement of 1980-81. 

ROB JONES charts how that movement, which could have overthrown Stalinism and replaced it with a genuine workers democracy, instead opened the door for the restoration of capitalism and, in government in the 1990s, presided over economic stagnation and 16% unemployment, until its ultimate demise.

(Rob Jones is a leading member of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) section of CWI. This article, prepared for publication late last year, has been held over until now for reasons of space.)

ON THE THIRTEENTH of December 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski, backed by the ‘Military Council for National Salvation’, declared that Poland was under martial law. Mobilising the army and security services, he took control of the TV and radio and unleashed the hated internal police and motorised riot police to break up unauthorised meetings. Military tribunals sentenced thousands of trade unionists for up to three years in prison. Even people queuing to buy goods such as bread could find themselves rounded up for taking part in an ‘illegal gathering’.

These events followed a series of inspiring uprisings against the dictatorial Stalinist regime which culminated in the explosive growth – over just 18 months – of the ten-million strong Solidarnosc trade union. Jaruzelski’s military coup, however, far from restoring stable ‘socialist’ rule, established the conditions under which capitalism would be restored a decade later.

The coup did not take place without resistance from the working class. Despite the arrest of thousands of their leaders, including Lech Walesa, workers protested and struck. In Gdansk, Warsaw and Lodz, demonstrations were attacked by riot police. In factories, sit-in strikes ‘demonstrating sadness at the aborted revolution’ lasted for up to two days before their brutal repression. The most determined opponents of the coup were miners. At the Wujek coal mine, nine were killed before order was restored. At the Ziemowitt and Piast mines, underground occupations lasted for three weeks. The miners were shocked when they eventually surfaced as they had understood that the whole of Poland was on strike with them. The lack of a determined national general strike and the dispersed nature of the protests were results of the disillusionment at the way the national leadership of Solidarnosc had acted in the months up to the coup and the lack of a revolutionary alternative that could have led the opposition.

Huge price increases for meat and other basic food products on 1 July 1980 had provoked a number of strikes, particularly in Warsaw at the Ursus tractor factory and the Huta-Warszawa steelworks and the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Although the government quickly conceded pay rises, the strikes spread like wildfire throughout the country. In mid-July, they began to take on a generalised nature. In Lublin, all factories struck and railway workers blocked trains carrying important consumer goods to the Soviet Union.

Not a day in the next two months passed without strikes. In mid-August Gdansk shipyard workers struck, demanding pay rises and protesting at the sacking of the popular independent trade unionist, Anna Walentynowicz. The local government – the City Committee of the Polish United Peoples Party (PUWP – the Communist Party in Poland) – backed off, granting pay rises and reinstating Walentynowicz. The bureaucrats were so afraid that they sent the factory director’s limousine to pick her up from her home. Walesa was unsuccessfully trying to persuade the shipyard workers not to return to work when delegations from the city’s factories arrived. They had not won any concessions and convinced the shipyard workers to stay out until all their demands were met. They then formed the Inter-factory Strike Committee – an idea which quickly spread throughout Poland.

The regime attempted to isolate Gdansk from the rest of the country. Telephone, rail, road and air links were cut and a deputy prime minister dispatched to negotiate. The workers demanded the lifting of communication restrictions and broadcast the negotiations over the shipyard’s PA system. These were taped and the cassettes sent to other factories. At the end of August, the government conceded all of the workers’ 21 demands.

It is worth listing these as some in the workers’ movement have depicted the strikers as anti-socialist. But socialists would not oppose any of these demands. The strikers called for the right to form trade unions independent of the PUWP; the right to strike; freedom of speech and access to the mass media for all; the release of political prisoners and an end to the discrimination of trade union activists; the publication of the strikers’ demands in the mass media; freedom of access to information about the economy and the involvement of the population in decision making; strike pay; wage rises; linking pay to inflation; restricting food exports until local consumption needs were met; the abolition of private food pricing and the closure of special currency shops for the elite; for factory management to be selected on the basis of competence, not party membership and an end to privileges for the police and party apparatchiks; strict food rationing as long as shortages existed; reduction in the retirement age; pensions to reflect working life; good universal healthcare; an increase in the number of school and nursery places for the children of working mothers; three year’s paid maternity leave; a reduction of housing waiting lists; increased support for those forced to travel far to work; and an end to ‘voluntary’ Saturday working.

The nature of Stalinism

THESE DEMANDS ECHOED those proposed in the late 1920s by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the former Soviet Union when they were struggling against the consolidation of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship. The fact that workers in a supposedly ‘socialist’ state had to struggle for such demands proves that there was something extremely wrong with the type of ‘socialism’ that existed.

When the working class led by Lenin and Trotsky took power in Russia in 1917, the commanding heights of the economy were taken into social ownership. Workers’ control of the economy was established. Revolutionary Russia was the first country to introduce wide ranging democratic rights for women and young people and to ban discrimination on the grounds of sex or sexual orientation. National minorities were granted the right to self-determination and several exercised that right. Even at the height of the brutal civil war, which started after 17 foreign armies invaded to try and suppress the revolution, the basic elements of workers’ democracy remained.

However, due to the isolation of the revolution in one country, the weakness of the working class in an overwhelmingly peasant country, the pressure of world imperialism and the tiredness and disruption caused by the years of civil war, the newly-formed workers’ state found itself under extreme pressure. Gradually the revolutionary elements were pushed out and democratic rights undermined - like a malignant cancer, a conservative, bureaucratic caste developed which rejected world revolution. It used repression and dictatorial methods to maintain its privileges and rule. By the early 1930s this political counter-revolution had become consolidated into a brutal one-party dictatorship.

‘Socialism’ in Poland, on the other hand, was established without a workers’ revolution. Following the defeat of fascist Germany in 1945, the Soviet Union and its ruling bureaucracy were enormously strengthened. Having occupied the countries of Eastern Europe, the Soviet army was left in control of Poland. Stalin had no intention of helping to establish genuine socialism. This would have required the nationalisation of industry under workers’ control and management with working-class people in democratic control of every level of society. This would have encouraged the working class of the Soviet Union, who had been disenfranchised and repressed by the Stalinist bureaucracy, to take back the power that was rightly theirs.

Initially, the Stalinist bureaucracy hid behind the local bourgeoisie and included them in coalition governments. Meanwhile, throughout Western Europe, the immediate post-war period was marked by poverty and workers’ protests. Capitalism was hanging by a thread, saved only by the betrayals of the social democratic and Stalinist leaders of the workers’ organisations. The Western European capitalists were too weak to give real support to their Eastern European counterparts. The contradictions between these weak coalition governments propping up capitalism and the state apparatus based on the Soviet army were too wide and the Soviet Union was compelled to expropriate capitalism.

Under these circumstances, the type of ‘socialism’ established in Poland was a caricature, mimicking the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. State ownership and planning was introduced but, instead of workers’ control and management, a bureaucratic state apparatus consisting of former leaders of the Stalinised Communist Party (CP) and former representatives of the Polish bourgeoisie decided all the main issues. Workers had no real power.

In the Soviet Union, the workers’ state established as a result of the October revolution degenerated as the Stalinists consolidated their hold on power. In Central and Eastern Europe, the ‘workers’ states’ were deformed from the very beginning.

Post-war Poland

THIS DOES NOT mean that there was no independent involvement of the working class in the changes that took place in post-war Poland. The Polish working class had a long history of struggle. The Warsaw uprising against Hitler in 1943 was largely led by worker activists from socialist, communist and Trotskyist organisations. Stalin held back the Red Army from supporting the uprising because he feared that the troops would link up with these working-class fighters. When the Red Army eventually occupied Poland, many Poles welcomed it as a liberating force from Nazism and, in the post-war elections, the CP and its allies won an overwhelming majority – not entirely accounted for by ballot rigging.

By the end of the war, the revolutionaries who could have led the working class had either died under the military dictatorship and Nazi occupation or were rotting in Stalin’s gulag. This explains, to some degree, why activists in Solidarnosc first turned to the ideas of Polish pre-war social democracy, which had some tradition of fighting for workers’ rights, rather than to revolutionary Marxism.

The abolition of the private ownership of the means of production and the introduction of planning led to significant economic growth in the early post-war years. From 1951-72, for example, national income grew at an annual rate of 7%, compared to the world average of 5%. Even though 60% of Poland’s schools were destroyed during the war, illiteracy was practically eliminated by the 1970s, at least in the urban areas.

These gains were despite the absolute incompetence of the ruling bureaucracy. For example, agreement was reached to produce Grundig radios in Poland but the necessary instruction sheets were not included in the deal. Expensive Western-produced heaters were purchased for trains but, because most wagons were made of wood, many were destroyed in the resulting fires. Examples of such stupidity are numerous. In addition, the economy was plundered by the Polish and Soviet bureaucracies.

In his brilliant analysis of the Soviet regime, Revolution Betrayed (written in 1937), Trotsky explained that the bureaucracy would defend the planned economy only as long as it maintained its power and privileges. Doubts began to surface by the late-1950s as a layer of the Soviet Union and East European bureaucracies lost faith in the planned economy. In 1965, Soviet premier, Aleksei Kosygin, launched a programme of economic reforms aimed at strengthening the role of the market in the economy. Although quickly withdrawn, one of the main ideologues of the reforms, Abel Aganbegyan, later became the main architect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ reforms in the 1980s.

The associated political liberalisation of the Soviet Union gave the Polish leadership room for manoeuvre. It introduced a series of measures designed to reduce elements of planning by giving the market a bigger role. These reforms, however, on top of colossal economic mismanagement, increased the already huge distortions in the economy. Massive subsidies to heavy industry, for food and other essentials were paid out. By 1970 these were consuming 33% of the state budget. In fact, these subsidies were continually increasing because the bureaucracy feared a backlash from the workers. There had already been big protests paralleling the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia. In December 1970, the PUWP leadership attempted to reduce the subsidies and remove the so-called 13th month – an extra month’s pay, effectively an end-of-year bonus. This led to widespread workers’ protests in Poland’s Baltic cities which were brutally suppressed. Solidarnosc developed out of this movement. For the first time in 1970 there were attempts to establish free trade unions. Walesa was one of the leaders.

The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had shown that the Stalinist states could not be reformed into genuine socialism. Workers needed their own political organisations to pump the oxygen of workers’ democracy into the planned economy, but also to overthrow and destroy the bureaucratic state apparatus that had been sucking the life out of society.

The 21 demands drawn up in the 1980s were similar to those of 1970. But neither set addressed the need to overthrow the bureaucratic elite. This was spelt out in a document circulated by the Trotskyist Workers’ Tendency of Solidarnosc. It explained that workers needed their own political party to end the one-party state. Such a party would struggle for free and democratic elections with the right of recall of those elected and with no state official receiving a higher wage than a skilled worker. It demanded the replacement of the totalitarian state by workers’ rule based on genuinely elected workers’ councils, linking up nationally to form a workers’ government. It concluded that: "The victory of the political revolution in Eastern Europe and the social revolution in the West will lay the basis of a socialist united states of Europe and ultimately the Socialist World Federation. On the basis of the planned and harmoniously developing industry, science and technique on a world scale, the fundamental premise will be laid for the creation of a classless society".

Unfortunately, this programme was produced only in the mid-1980s by activists who lacked the political authority or forces to have a decisive influence on events.

East looks West

IN THE ABSENCE of an effective revolutionary Marxist alternative, the Stalinist bureaucracy was largely able to direct events in the interests of maintaining its own power and privileges. Increasingly, it turned to the West for financial aid. Some increases in living standards were achieved between 1971-73 on the basis of credit which increased the amount of imported goods. But linking up with the world capitalist market also opened the door to some of the effects of the 1974 world recession. Poland’s exports to the West fell while its debts increased. By the mid-1970s, 60% of export income went on interest payments on the debt to Western banks. By the mid-1980s, the country needed $10 billion a year just to service the foreign debt.

The 1970s, however, was also the decade of so-called ‘stagnation’ in the Soviet Union. Kosygin’s reforms had been pushed back and the old guard around Leonid Brezhnev clamped down, increasing the bureaucratic control over the economy. Only in the mid-1980s, with the beginning of perestroika, were pro-market reforms tolerated.

Poland’s bureaucracy also toed this line and continued its plunder. The head of Polish broadcasting had seven cars, two aeroplanes, a helicopter, a yacht worth $1,500,000, a sheep farm, a chalet in the mountains and a hunting lodge in Kenya. Not surprisingly, his broadcasts about the benefits of ‘socialist’ Poland were met with increasing skepticism by workers and young people who experienced only shortages and declining living standards.

In this atmosphere it is a testament to the attraction of socialist principles that during the protests of 1980 the workers did not put forward pro-capitalist demands. But, although they instinctively argued that the bureaucracy should be swept out of the planned economy, this was not formulated in a conscious way.

There were, however, other social forces in the opposition movement which were pushing their own agenda, above all, the Catholic church. Polish Catholicism was tainted by its support for the pre-war military regime of Jozef Pilsudski and held reactionary positions on women’s rights and other social issues. But it also had a reputation for its opposition to the old Russian empire and the Nazi regime. When the Stalinists took over, Poland was still largely a peasant country. The peasants and intelligentsia formed a firm base of support for the church. Even a large layer of workers, many of whom were first generation city dwellers, looked to the church if for no other reason than it was the only national institution independent of the Stalinist state. The regime, therefore, quickly found a compromise with the church hierarchy. Religious education in schools was allowed as long as the church at least passively supported the regime. This accommodation was to prove very useful during the days of Solidarnosc. At critical stages, the church was used as a mediator or to disarm the movement. Typical was Archbishop Jozef Glemp’s broadcast after Jaruzelski’s coup calling on "the man in the street to subordinate himself to the new situation".

Which way forward?

A MORE BALEFUL role was played by the intellectuals, some of whom posed as Marxists and were uncritically feted by many Western lefts. In 1965, PUWP members, Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, published an Open Letter to the Party for which they were immediately arrested. In 1976, a number of intellectuals around Kuron formed KOR (Workers’ Defence Committee). KOR gained widespread influence in Solidarnosc because it publicised the conditions in which workers lived, and the heroism of its members, many of whom spent long periods in jail. In the absence of a revolutionary tendency within Solidarnosc, KOR’s programme increasingly filled the ideological vacuum.

In the Open Letter, Kuron and Modzelewski criticised the regime as being anti-worker, explained that the one-party regime could not be reformed and would have to be overthrown, and that such a new revolution would have to be internationalist in character. They were, however, petrified by a possible repeat of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and backtracked on their former radicalism. By 1980 they were arguing that the Solidarnosc revolution should be ‘self-limiting’. Workers, they said, should not form their own parties but should seek a historic compromise with the bureaucracy.

How these intellectuals disarmed the movement was seen in the months before the coup. KOR’s Adam Michnik was explaining to a group of workers that individual bureaucrats were not the problem, but that the system was to blame. "Then let’s overthrow the system", shouted one. Michnik immediately raised ‘geo-political realities’ to dampen down the mood.

Radical workers in Lublin argued that repeated strikes were tiring the movement and leading nowhere. When they called for a new tactic, ‘active strikes’ in which the workers expel the bureaucrats from the factories and organise production and distribution themselves, as a ‘strategy for workers’ power’, they were denounced as ‘leftists and Trotskyists’. Such workers could have provided a base for building a genuine revolutionary tendency in Solidarnosc had they been armed with a correct analysis of society.

Unfortunately, Kuron and his fellow thinkers introduced another idea into the Polish movement which played an extremely disorientating role not only in Poland but throughout the Soviet bloc. Polish communism was, they argued, a class society in which the means of production were owned by the bureaucracy.

As the first waves of Solidarnosc strikes subsided, some workers began to realise that if the struggle were to be advanced, they had to start questioning the control of industry. The more sharply this issue was posed, the more the bureaucracy’s position in society was questioned. But as wide layers of Solidarnosc activists had been convinced that the bureaucrats were the ‘owners’ of industry, they no longer saw the need to defend state ownership and often supported privatisation, which they thought would free them of these horrendous bureaucrats.

This process was repeated throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. In the Soviet Union, the anarchist KAS-KOR and the Marxist Party of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, each with several thousand activists, propagated the theory of state capitalism, promoting the idea that the establishment of the ‘free market’ would be progressive. The British Socialist Workers Party followed this to its logical conclusion when in 1993 its representative in Moscow attempted to mobilise support for the neo-liberal demo backing Boris Yeltsin’s armed suppression of the Russian parliament because it was ‘blocking’ market reforms.

The first and only congress of Solidarnosc, held in September 1981, reflected the contradictions between the mainly working-class delegates striving for a revolutionary way forward and the dominant leadership faction supported by intellectual advisors. It called for a "self-governing republic based on democracy, pluralism, the right of association and workers’ self-management". A significant layer of the delegates were critical of the role played by Walesa and Kuron. But the damage had already been done. Solidarnosc proved incapable of mobilising against the coup two months later.

In reality, there were several occasions when the Polish working class could have taken power from 1980-81 if only it had been conscious of the need to do so. This could have been a peaceful revolution which would have acted as a beacon to workers and young people throughout both Eastern and Western Europe. Instead, the opportunity was squandered. Significantly, Jaruzelski carried through his coup not in the name of ‘communism’ but ‘stability’.

Two years of military rule ended as the forces of perestroika were gathering strength in the Soviet Union. This, in turn, encouraged the ‘market reformers’ in Poland. Members of the PUWP and bureaucracy started to use their privileged position to privatise state property. By the end of the decade, Solidarnosc had won elections and formed the government. This, however, was no longer the militant, ten-million strong Solidarnosc trade union of 1980-81. It had two million members and was pushing through a neo-liberal programme of privatisation and market reforms. Kuron became minister of labour and spoke of the need to ‘eliminate strikes’.

The 1981 defeat set the Polish working class back years. Its failure to take power opened the door for the restoration of capitalism. And only now is the Polish working class beginning to recover from the devastation that has caused.

Home | Issue 63 | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page