The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Scope and the Limits of the Polish Workers Movement

Dec 31, 1980

[The following article is a translation of an article from the French Trotskyist journal, Lutte de Classe, edited by Lutte Ouvriere. It appeared in issue no. 78, 29 September 1980.]

The powerful strike wave that shook Poland has driven a wedge in the authoritarianism of a regime that is still fiercely anti-worker. By the breadth of its movement, by its unanimity, the Polish working class overthrew the established order of the dictatorship. In a despotic country, where the police are omnipresent and where social movements have up until now been brutally repressed, the workers have dared to take the freedom to do and to say what the power told them they couldn’t do and say. In a country where the right to strike doesn’t exist, they went on strike and occupied their factories. In a country where the workers don’t have freedom of speech, they have imposed freedom of expression by their own acts. The occupied factories became political centers where things were discussed and where one could come for news. The workers wrote and distributed their leaflets all over the country; they published their own factory newspapers. Conscious of the strength they represented, they did not let themselves be hindered by police maneuvers. Some of their comrades were fired and imprisoned, so they forced the regime to free them and to rehire them into the factories, and at the same time they called for and won the liberation of all political oppositionists.

They made it a precondition to all negotiations that their demands be published in the official press so that they could be made known to everyone. They designated representatives of their own choice, and they forced the leaders of the country to negotiate with those representatives.

The working class showed that, in a despotic and police regime, it could fight back. It learned how to avoid the ambushes of the rulers who tried to crumble the movement by proposing to negotiate factory by factory. Moreover, it forced the leaders of the regime, members of the government such as Vice-Prime Ministers, to come in person, with their heads bowed, to negotiate in Gdansk, the very heart of the strike and of the occupied factories, under the control of the striking workers.

All these things that might have seemed unimaginable and impossible just a short time ago, were accomplished by the Polish workers. And they did this in spite of the ever present and very real threat of a possible Russian military intervention.

It was thus that the Polish leaders were forced to recognize and endorse a movement and demands that they had already been forced to accept in action.

The government was forced to satisfy point by point all the conditions posed by the strikers, the most important points being: the right to organize free trade unions independent of the power; the right to strike; the right to express themselves in free union newspapers; the lifting of censorship, at least on problems of internal order; as well as a certain number of measures which tend to better the level and conditions of living of the workers. If many of the points of the agreement remained vague, especially the economic demands, nonetheless the government gave in on the most important points, and in particular, on trade union liberty.

It is the fact that the power was so demonstrably forced to yield to the strikers that constitutes such an enormous success for the Polish workers. Their success was measured by the sympathy that the Polish workers won from the population. It was, moreover, one of the trump-cards of this struggle: the Polish strikers did not remain isolated in their occupied factories, cut off from the rest of the population. On the contrary, the working class in struggle, by their determination, appeared as a pole of resistance to the oppression and dictatorship. The strikes were able to spread, all the more easily and quickly, because the news was known and talked about by the whole population. Each partial retreat on the part of the administration appeared to be a victory not only to the strikers, but also like everyone’s revenge, and an encouragement to struggle against the despotism of the regime. The success of the Baltic strikers awakened the hopes not only in the heart of the whole working class, but even among petty bourgeois intellectuals. Teachers, journalists, filmmakers and artists were all drawn into the free trade union movement.

This sympathy, which the strikes found in the population, was no doubt their strength. Their demands, as provocative as they had appeared in the eyes of the Polish leaders, became more difficult to attack to the extent that they found material and moral support in the population. It became more difficult for the government to repress them.

Some New Possibilities for the Workers

The movement has forced the dictatorship into some important retreats: the recognition of the free trade unions is a breach in the absolute power of the leaders since it recognizes the rights to organize and to have public debate. The credit for this change unquestionably goes to the working class.

Even now that the agreements have been signed and work has, so it seems, been resumed everywhere, the potential of the movement is still tremendous. Because the working class has won the right to have its own organizations of struggle. In a dictatorial country, where the working class was repressed, where never before could it express itself, nor even organize itself, even on a simple economic level, it is an enormous progress to have its own organizations, its own press, the means to communicate from one end of the country to the other. It is in this that lies the potential for the working class to become conscious of its existence as a class, of its own strength, to formulate its own economic and political aspirations.

The new unions, because they are the only democratic structures in a dictatorial regime, by their very existence encourage the blooming of ideas, and the expression of all the aspirations for democratic changes in society. This is true not only for those of the workers, but also for those of other social layers, like the intellectuals who themselves are beginning to create their own unions.

Far from being hardened apparatuses like in the Western democracies, the free unions can take on an almost revolutionary character. Centers of the challenges to the regime, they could become political organs, the instruments of a counter-power. They could be places where the workers prepared themselves morally and materially to fight for the defense of their freedoms and of their conquests. The struggles to come will perhaps require new strikes, perhaps they will require more than strikes. The new unions could be the places where workers prepare themselves for these struggles. If the workers don’t abandon the freedoms they have been able to win, a show-down is almost inevitable.

The Threat of the Russian Bureaucracy

It is difficult to think, really, that the Russian bureaucrats would accept that a movement which goes so openly counter to their power, should develop. This is perhaps the first obstacle which the Polish working class will be forced to confront.

The Russian bureaucrats must dread the strength of contagion of the Polish movement and fear that, by example, the workers of Poland will encourage the workers of other satellite countries to imitate them. As soon as autonomous organizations are created, independent from the state apparatus, the potential exists that one fine day not only will anti-Russian feelings be expressed, but voices will be raised to publicly challenge Russian hegemony over the satellite countries. The Russian bureaucrats cannot easily tolerate this because they cannot accept that their domination is questioned in any one of their satellite countries. The Russian tanks intervened in Prague in 1968 over something much less than this. Certainly, the wave of liberalization, which took place at that time, had led the Czech regime to take a little more distance from Moscow. But it was a controlled movement, which did not escape the Czech leadership since it took place under their protection. In spite of this, Brezhnev sent the Russian tanks to put an end to the operation at the end of six months.

Is this to say that the Russians are surely going to intervene? The Russian leaders themselves, perhaps, don’t even know.

The current mobilization of workers and other layers of the population in Poland no doubt gives them a reason to hesitate. To invade a country like Poland, to maintain their domination there militarily, is to run the risk of seeing a popular resistance movement lined up before their army. And they are not certain of being able to bring such a movement easily to an end.

All of these reasons could be making them hesitate. But they could also be thinking that by letting things go on longer, they give the movement additional breathing space, letting it gather strength, organize, and even prepare a retaliation to an intervention. While waiting, the USSR is not inactive. The presence of Warsaw Pact troops on the Polish borders continues to threaten.

Pravda calls on the Polish leaders to take actions against “anti-socialist plots”, but the Russian bureaucrats seem to be content simply to put pressure on the Polish leaders to “normalize”, as they say, the situation in Poland. But this does not mean that their decision will not change, and perhaps they do nothing but put off until a more favorable moment the time when they will force the Polish government to take back what it gave away, either militarily, or by some other kind of economic or political pressure: the Polish regime is dependent on the Russian leaders and the Russian leaders do not lack means of retaliating.

... and Those of the Regime Itself

But a Russian intervention is only one of the possible obstacles to the development of the Polish movement. There is the risk that it will confront other difficulties inherent at this time in Polish society itself. The first of these difficulties is that Poland is a poor country, with a limited industry, which finds itself in the middle of the world economic crisis.

In order to satisfy the current demands of the workers, the Polish leaders have obtained new loans from the USSR and from the imperialist countries. But these credits must be repaid. Although it postpones the problem, it only puts it off for the future.

Three times in the last decade, the government has had to confront a strike wave against the rise of prices. In 1970, in 1976, there were already the same problems. In spite of the heavy repression it used, the Polish state was forced to give in, to freeze prices and increase wages... for a while. But, in a country like Poland, it isn’t possible really to satisfy the demands of the workers in a lasting way, without forcing deep transformations in the society.

And even by seizing on the resources of the privileged ones of the regime and in Polish society, assuming that the workers impose measures which go in this direction, it is not possible to satisfy all the economic demands of the workers. It is why the Polish leaders cannot, without taking a risk, allow the workers to express themselves fully; neither can they allow the workers to organize freely, under pain of having to face a flood of demands that the regime cannot, and will not satisfy. The Polish state is the state of one of the least wealthy countries in Europe. If it can find the basis, in a momentary way, to satisfy partially the workers’ demands when they are taking an explosive turn, it cannot afford the luxury of functioning the way the Western democracies do.

It does not have a sufficient margin to maneuver, in order to maintain a whole union bureaucracy, a whole series of intermediate apparatuses, to act as buffers, which would allow it to play the game of harmonizing and safeguarding the essential things when social struggles erupt.

The strength of the Polish state, in the last resort, is to threaten the workers with... the Russians, to try to moderate the workers’ demands. It’s what Gierek did before being thrown out by the movement. The Polish government gave in to the democratic demands of the working class only because it was impelled and forced to do so by their mobilization. It was forced to recognize the legal existence of the new unions, even if it was only half-heartedly. But, if the new unions rely only on these rulers, the unions would have no other future, nor any other role to play than that played by the official unions, that is, to be the machinery of the state apparatus. What prevents this, for the moment, is the genuine mobilization of the workers. Lech Walesa announced that they had 4 million followers at the time of the constituent conference of “Solidarity”, the name given to the new unions. If the figure is correct, this gives an idea of the difficulties awaiting the Polish leaders, if they want to make these organizations disappear.

Certainly there is the example of Gomulka in 1956, who succeeded in putting an end to the Workers Councils, born of the workers’ mobilization. Elected organs of the workers, Gomulka made them appendages of the administration in the factories. But to do this, he had to wait for two years for the workers to be disillusioned about their value, to grow tired, and to desert these organs. It is possible that the Polish leaders are counting on an eventual dying out of the movement to integrate the “free” trade unions into the official apparatus. But today, strong from their success, the workers don’t seem ready to give up their position for the time being.

The Limits Inherent in the Movement Itself

But, while the gains of the strike struggle are considerable, while the freedom of expression and the right to organize into their own union can open up important perspectives to the Polish workers and perhaps constitute an encouragement for the workers in the other People’s Democracies and even for the workers in the USSR, it is not necessary to be blind to the limits of the movement. Because there are major limits within the movement itself, in the political orientation and its perspectives. One can obviously judge this through the acts and statements of the leaders of the movement as they are reported in the press, principally those of Lech Walesa, but it really does seem that he is in fact very representative of the movement.

The conflicts certainly broke out over economic demands: against the rise in the cost of meat, for wage increases, and for better working conditions. But the conflict went further, and became politicized; the democratic aspirations of the workers were demonstrated, as very diverse political demands appeared, among which was the right to listen to mass on the radio, which is a reactionary demand but which, we have to believe, strikes a chord in the heart of a certain number of workers. And we can’t tell in whose name the Polish leaders decided what the workers had the right to listen to, as with all other demands, like the right to organize in independent unions.

But the leaders like Walesa have led the movement in demanding a certain number of clerical and politically reactionary ideas. It was in the name of the national anthem and of religious hymns, behind a portrait of the Pope and the cross, that the strikes were led.

These ideas, even if they have a wide audience in the working class, can only run directly opposed to the coming political and economic interests of the workers. If this aspect has taken the forefront of the scene, maybe it is because of the role played by the personality of a man like Walesa. But the fact is that it was behind a nationalist banner and in the name of ideals which are those of the Polish petty bourgeoisie that the movement has been led. And this is a sure limit on the movement, both on the level of the democratic direction it will take and on the level of the goals it will strive for.

Walesa’s first act in founding his union was to hang a crucifix up in the local. He had even stated his intention to do this to Le Monde journalists: “You will find it in the new office of the unions as long as I work there and if someone asks me to take it down, I will quit the union.” This way of thinking and of behaving with regard to the movement is very significant. On the part of a militant like Walesa, it means to post a program, to warn in advance those who will not be in agreement that he won’t yield on this, that it is a point that is not even debatable. No doubt, it can be said that, in doing this, he doesn’t run counter to the opinion of a great part of the workers. But it is precisely this fact that is a real limit on the movement.

There is a story, according to the journalists of Europe 1, that he hung a photograph of Pilsudski up in his place, a photo which can also be found in the locals of the new unions in Warsaw, according to Liberation. Advertising in this way their sympathies for a nationalist field-marshal who imposed a police boot on the neck of the Polish workers movement between the two wars is a political choice on the part of a militant like Walesa. And it is a choice that goes indisputably counter to the interests of the working class. Is it a Pilsudski-style regime that Walesa wants to see reestablished in Poland today, that is, a dictatorial regime as fiercely against the workers as the dictatorship of the current Polish leaders? The only change would be that the country would pass out from under Russian tutelage to the economic and political domination of the Western imperialists.

Neither Walesa, nor anyone else, is saying that. If Walesa shows more sympathy for the Polish Pilsudski than for the Russian Brezhnev and his Polish proteges, it is of course his right, but it is also our right to say that to fight Brezhnev and company under the banner of Pilsudski is to fight one executioner of the workers in the name of another executioner of the workers. Such is the logic of nationalism which leads Walesa to prefer the Polish Pilsudski to the Russian Brezhnev. As if both were not dictators against the working class, as if both didn’t have the blood of workers on their hands!

Walesa, as completely a workers’ leader as he may be, doesn’t understand at all how to incarnate and defend the political interests which are specific to the working class. On the contrary, he defends the demands of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes. It’s like trying to pretend that the workers have the same interests as the privileged people of Poland because they are all Polish!

In the current movement, are the workers in agreement absolutely with everything Walesa does and says? That’s not hard to believe. No doubt, in following Walesa, the workers recognize themselves in him, a worker like themselves, a militant of longstanding, since already in 1970 he had been elected to the Gdansk strike committee. He had not been spared by the repression, and from the first days of the strike, the workers went to battle for him to be rehired into the factory.

But do the workers go along with all of his opinions? It seems that they agree to the crucifix without much trouble; as for the portrait of Pilsudski, it’s hard to say what they think. Certainly, the workers who are fighting against Polish despots have a great feeling for fighting against the Russians. It might even be that, although the aspiration to get rid of Russian oppression wasn’t the factor that launched the movement, it was one of the main underlying causes. But that isn’t the same as saying that the workers find themselves in Walesa’s petty bourgeois nationalist program and ideals.

It’s probable that for the workers Walesa represents in a certain sense the struggle against oppression. But he tries to use this feeling to serve a precise policy: his program is not the emancipation of the workers, but the liberation of Poland, that is of the privileged social layers in Poland, from the Russian yoke.

Perhaps the working class will fight behind him, behind his program, it would of course be their right, and we would even in that case be in complete solidarity with the struggle. But it’s likely that if the movement continues, spreads, if the working class acquires more consciousness of its real interests, either the current leaders of the movement will change, or the working class will change its leaders.

The Permanence of Centrifugal Forces in the National State Itself

The problem of the nature of the Polish movement is a problem which is common to all the popular democracies. In these countries, in fact, the Russian oppression disguises the relations between the social classes which are opposed to each other.

The peculiarity of these regimes is that they were all originally put in place by the Russian bureaucracy. In the redivision of the world that followed the Second World War, these countries were given to Stalin as his sphere of influence. At that time, the most important problem in these countries, which had been successively occupied by the German armies and then by the Russian army, was to reestablish and to maintain order, that is, first of all to fill the political vacuum created by the German defeat by reconstituting national state apparatuses. Everywhere these apparatuses were set up, thanks to the collaboration of the national Communist Parties, with the representatives of the former ruling classes, to the extent that this was possible.

In Poland, fiercely anti-communist and nationalist as the others, this collaboration was refused. It was the CP, on the basis of the national resistance movement, that took charge of reconstructing the state apparatus. Since the official representatives of the national bourgeoisie refused to participate, the CP revived the formation of a second Socialist Party, a second peasant party and a second democratic party, parties with which the Polish Communist Party shared power for a time.

Thus, these state apparatuses, created and maintained by the presence of the Russian army, represented from the time of their creation, a certain balance between the national bourgeois forces in the country, even though they are very weak ones, and the Russian bureaucracy. In effect, these states owe their origin and their power to the USSR, particularly to the weight of the Russian army. But by their very existence, distinct from the Russian apparatus, the apparatuses express different interests from those of the Russian bureaucracy; they express the nationalist aspirations of the leading strata.

This is why we have seen the rulers of these countries, even the ones most loyal to Moscow, become the spokesmen for the privileged layers in the countries, the champions of a certain national independence. In the states which are weak and have no other support than the Russian power, their rulers behave like puppets of Moscow. But to the extent that these states become stronger, that is, that they find a national base in the dominant layers of the countries, and perhaps even a consensus in the population, these rulers express the tendencies of the social layers who want to make less concessions to the Russians.

The more these states obtain an important social base, the more their center of gravity pulls away from the Russians, and the more their rulers can demonstrate their independence. It has gotten to the point that, in certain cases, the Russians have felt the need to intervene militarily to stop this evolution, as we saw in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The rulers of these countries, who are intermediaries between contradictory aspirations and interests, follow policies which partly consist of playing on the support of the Russians when confronted with the aspirations of the population; but on the other hand, they base themselves on the national interests of the countries when facing the excessive demands of the Russians. And since, when things get stirred up in the country, they get stirred up in an anti-Russian direction, the leaders of these countries can take support from these popular movements to win for themselves more autonomy with respect to the USSR. The evolution of the Polish regime is an illustration of this.

In 1956, the arrival in power of Gomulka following the Poznan insurrection was the first notable success of these nationalist tendencies in the Polish state apparatus. This former victim of the Stalinist purges had played the part of an oppositionist and of a liberal after spending several years in Russian prisons. This is what allowed him to gather a consensus around himself at the time he came to power, and to channel the October movement in a way to further establish his power in relationship to the Russians. Although he always let the workers believe that he shared their aspirations for democracy, he stirred up (just as Gierek did last August) the threat of a Russian intervention in order to get the workers to moderate their demands. But, to the Russian rulers, he asserted that he was the only one able to hold in check the movement of Workers Councils which covered Poland.

A singer of the praises of “national”communism, Gomulka, who had a greater autonomy in relationship to Moscow than his predecessors, followed nationalist bourgeois policies: clamping down his dictatorship on the working class, and showing his liberalism only toward the most reactionary and the most anti-communist national forces, like the Church. The Church in Poland constitutes a virtual state within a state, and it had increased its audience with the war it fought against the Polish state in the 1950s.

According to Fejto in his History of the Popular Democracies: “The dispossessed former landowners, the jobless functionaries, the frightened petty bourgeois, the peasants feeling that their land was threatened, all directed their grievances and hopes toward the Church. Others turned to the Church out of patriotic resentment...” It is these social layers that Gomulka looked to conciliate in order to strengthen himself. As a mark of his good will and regard for the Church, he freed Cardinal Wyszynski.

But after 14 years of a dictatorial regime, the opportune man of 1956 had lost all popularity. Incapable of preventing or even of holding back the big strikes of 1970, he yielded his position to Gierek.

Gierek, in 1970, didn’t hold the same trump card in the face of the USSR as his predecessor did in 1956. He didn’t have the same popularity, nor did he arouse the same illusions. But he benefitted from a favorable international conjunction, since it was the period of detente between the United States and the USSR. He took advantage of this to play the opening card with the West. The economic exchanges between Poland and the Western countries took on more and more importance. In 1978, 40 per cent of the imports in Poland came from these countries. The need for signatures on these deals and economic agreements provided occasions for numerous and repeated meetings with Western chiefs of state. Gierek went to the United States in 1974 to conclude cooperation accords; the following year he received a visit from President Ford. In 1977, it was Carter’s turn to go to Warsaw. Likewise, Giscard went twice to Poland, and received Gierek in Paris.

On the level of domestic policy, Gierek compromised with the nationalist political forces, the Church, and, in the wake of it, with a certain opposition. He was the first Polish leader officially to renew ties with the Vatican. And, beginning with the strike movement of 1976, opposition movements, essentially in the intellectual milieus, appeared openly, frequently supported by the powerful Catholic Church, although they were still officially banned. The repression of the workers was very heavy after the strikes of 1976–the strikers were fired, the militants hunted down, but in spite of all this, it wasn’t a blood bath, nor police terror, and it finally appeared that the regime was accommodating, to a certain extent, an open challenge that had become permanent. This is how KOR was able to exist and grow since the strikes of 1976.

Created to help defend the striking workers who were victims of repression, the KOR, even though many times its leaders were imprisoned, was always able to raise funds and provide for the needs of workers who were fired, and to organize support and the defense for the prisoners. Lech Walesa himself, if we can believe the press, was fired following the strikes of 1976 and subsisted for a time thanks to the financial support of KOR, the movement in which he was a militant.

The Policy of Balance of the Privileged National Layers

Polish society over the last 10 years was liberalized, certainly, but it was a liberalization very controlled and still under surveillance. This evolution affected essentially only the layers of the middle and petty bourgeoisie, exactly those layers on which the Polish state apparatus leans. And, while this may seem surprising at first glance, it can be explained by the margin of autonomy that the Polish state succeeded in gaining from the Russian bureaucracy. The men who make up the Polish state apparatus, even though they have been recruited and selected from the beginning on the basis of their loyalty to Moscow, come from Polish society. Generally, it can even be said that they come out of the privileged petty bourgeois layers, or from among the intellectuals, and they express the feelings and the aspirations of these layers. Quite naturally, they are nationalists and often, even, Catholics, as are others in these milieus.

And the tens of thousands of men who make up the ruling layers of the regime, the high functionaries, the administrators, they all represent the aspirations of these privileged layers of society and maintain and even increase these privileges, against the working class, if that is who is voicing demands, or against Moscow if they can get Moscow to loosen its control.

While these layers are not socially different and in general have common interests, they are not necessarily unanimous. Political cleavages can appear because they don’t always have the same understanding of these common interests. Such and such factory manager will not be a partisan of any liberalization if he believes that it will be a source of difficulties for him on a professional level in the future.

To come back to the more recent example, after the signing of the Gdansk agreements, even once the workers had the right to constitute their own unions, they had to confront the factory managers who would not agree to implement the agreement. And in spite of Kania’s declarations confirming the national extension of the new unions, it’s an easy bet that the workers will be put under all kinds of pressure, financial and administrative, before being able to operate their organizations. But on the other hand, the recognition of these new unions has been able to rouse the enthusiasm of thousands of petty bourgeois, of the privileged layers, of intellectuals, or lawyers, and journalists, who see it as a possibility for them to express themselves more freely.

In this context, while there are forces in the Polish state apparatus which will not or cannot take the risk of letting a popular excitement grow, there are also people who have a certain understanding about the situation and who can gain more freedoms for themselves from these crises, and also more privileges. For example, the credits which the USSR and the imperialist countries have unfrozen to help the Polish state overcome the peak of the strikes, will perhaps wind up for the most part in the pockets of the workers. That is probably so. But only after a more or less important amount is skimmed off the top by the apparatus, by the bureaucrats of the regime.

This is the reason why it is possible that men in the heart of the state apparatus, nationalists and clericalists themselves, will seek the support of Walesa, since he places the struggle of the Polish workers on a nationalist and religious ground. We do not know if the Gdansk negotiator, the Vice-Prime Minister Jagielski is one of those men, nor if the praise given him by Walesa can be understood in that way. “This man,” he said, “has done a lot. There aren’t enough like him at the top of the apparatus. They aren’t all bad and some of them are worth our attention. We shouldn’t forget people like Jagielski, if we don’t want him to be lost among the others.”

It Is in the Interest of the Working Class to Follow Independent Policies

The game that was started with the strikes of this past summer in Poland is far from being over. Quite clearly, now that the strikes have stopped, the workers are no longer in as favorable a situation, they don’t have the same possibility of leaning with all their strength on the political life of the country any more. In this situation, the choices and the political options of the current leaders are a question which is posed more than ever. These people, while they have the approval of a very large fraction of the working class (and they’ve shown that they do), also have the approval of many other social layers, petty bourgeois and on the whole privileged layers which do not represent the interests of the working class, even if the workers do not understand that. And there is a danger that these people will take the forefront of the political scene.

But this is no reason for the workers of France to limit whatever support they can give to the struggle of the Polish workers. No matter what the limits are of this movement, and no matter what is the political program on which the Polish workers fight, our solidarity must belong to them, fully and totally.

Having said this, we shouldn’t hide the extent that the nationalist road taken by this movement is a serious limit to the perspective of the emancipation of the Polish working class.

The game isn’t over yet. No one can yet say that the Polish workers gave in too easily and accepted to see their struggles channeled to benefit interests other than their own. As long as the Polish workers use the freedoms they have won, as long as they take the freedom to express their economic and political aspirations, they keep the initiative and we must believe that if they know how to win these freedoms, they will know how to use them.