The Spark

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

Will Solidarity Be the Polish C.I.O.?

Jun 30, 1981

In the beginning of June, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party sent a

letter to the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party. It criticized the current leadership of the Polish government for not cracking down more vigorously on what it termed anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary elements. It warned Poland that the Soviet-bloc countries “will not leave Poland alone” in its crisis. This warning raised once again the threat of a Russian invasion of Poland.

In response, the Polish government, on the one hand, refused to remove either Stanislaw Kania, first secretary of the party, or General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the prime minister who came to prominence in the government on the backs of the workers’ struggles of the last year. They also, in a guarded way, pledged to continue their current political stance, in regard to Solidarity.

At the same time, however, they reaffirmed the alliance between Poland and the Soviet Union and sharply criticized any anti-Soviet activity. They indicated that the government would take stronger action in the future against any opposition which could call in question their relationship to the U.S.S.R.

Finally, General Jaruzelski made a strong patriotic appeal which warned against the renewal of strikes or other protests. He said, “When the ship is approaching the rocks, saving it should be a matter of life and death for the crew. It appears that sometimes our Polish ship, even when it is sinking, harassment of the command is a more important task.” He went on to cite examples of Poland’s economic problems and the need for “social understanding” to prevent the country from sinking into economic chaos.

The meaning of the general’s statement was not lost on Solidarity. And Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was quick to respond. Walesa indicated that it was time to stop agitating. No doubt with the Russian bureaucrats in mind, he cited Poland’s “geopolitical” position. And no doubt with the Polish government in mind, he reiterated what he has stated many times before: that Solidarity did not intend to become a political party or challenge the present government. Speaking to auto workers at a meeting in Warsaw, Walesa told them, “leave politics to others – what we need most is peace.”

This call for social peace from Walesa comes just 10 months after he was catapulted into the international spotlight by the far from peaceful events of last summer in Poland.

Summer in Gdansk

Beginning in July of last summer, when the Polish government tried quietly and

discreetly to raise meat prices, the Polish working class went on the offensive. At first the strikes were scattered and involved only individual factories. The government tried to deal with this problem by granting settlements, factory by factory. But the struggles continued and began to expand to the whole geographic regions and to generalize, industry by industry. By August, the majority of the Polish working class was on the move. The workers quickly began to organize and coordinate their struggles. This culminated in the MKS, the interfactory organizing committee, whose main headquarters became the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk.

What began as a struggle over meat prices expanded in scope. Embodied in the 21 demands put forward by the MKS in Gdansk was a call not only for economic justice, but also for democratic rights. Over the months that followed, through March of 1981 when the Polish government recognized Rural Solidarity, the Polish working class time and again forced the government to accede to their demands.

Over the last year, the workers of Poland showed what the working class is capable of when it is organized and determined to fight. Held in check by one of the most repressive and undemocratic regimes in the world, a regime backed by the Soviet bureaucracy and its military might, the Polish workers imposed, by their struggles, rights which had been denied them.

The Polish workers struck in a country where strikes are illegal. The Polish workers organized Solidarity, their own independent trade union, in a society where all organization is controlled from the top down and run by the regime; they forced the government to recognize their union and to give it a place in Polish society, and even in the regime. In a society that denies freedom of the press, the workers created their own press and even demanded, and took access to the TV and radio in order to tell the facts about their struggles. At least for a while, the workers imposed democracy in Poland through their own democratic activities.

The workers’ example and militancy and organization had a tremendous effect on the rest of Polish society. In the wake of the workers’ struggles came the farmers, who, with the workers’ support, and their own militancy, organized themselves and also forced the government to recognize their union, Rural Solidarity. The students came alive again on the campus and in the streets. The actions of the Polish workers gave new freedoms to the intellectuals and lessened the repression against the political dissidents.

The Leadership of Solidarity: Catholicism and Nationalism

The Polish workers’ movement was led at the beginning by two well-known militants

who had already been active for many years, Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa. Walentynowicz was a militant of the Gdansk yards who had been fired in the summer. She had been active in the 1970 strike committee, and, with Walesa, she had participated in a workers’ committee which had been established in 1977 to organize free trade unions. She was quickly brought back to the yards by the Gdansk workers and was in the leadership of Solidarity up until the period of March.

Lech Walesa had also been active in the struggles of 1970. In 1976 he was fired from the Gdansk yards. He was active after this with the KOR, a workers’ defense committee organized by political dissidents and worker militants, to defend victims of repression of the period. He had been fired from several jobs and had been unemployed for a period because of his activities. He was picked up and jailed by the security police. When the strike began in Gdansk, he quickly went to the shipyard and helped form the MKS.

It is understandable why the workers looked to such militants. They were workers like themselves, and they had already proved themselves as militants. Also, in their political views, Walesa and Walentynowicz corresponded to the views and consciousness of the Polish workers.

Both militants are devout Catholics, who are quite tied to the Church. The Polish Catholic Church has had a big influence in Solidarity. Gdansk was filled with religious symbols. Mass was said daily in the shipyards. Walesa himself is never seen without his cross. Throughout the struggles of the last year, Walesa sought advice from Cardinal Wyszynski, and his first visit outside of Poland was to Rome to see the Pope.

The connection of the workers’ movement in Poland to the reactionary institution of the church has its roots in Polish history. Even after the establishment of the current regime in 1948, the church has sought a more independent Poland, independent from Russian influence, and with more ties to the West. On the one hand, the church has been one of the leading centers of opposition to the Polish regime, and to the Russian domination over Poland. On the other hand, the Church has played the role of mediator within Polish society. While it has wished more rights for itself, it has also tried to temporize conflicts which opposed the Polish government to different layers of Polish society.

While it has sided with the workers’ movement up to a point, it has also been quite ready to use its considerable influence to hold back and restrain the workers’ movement. The church acted as an intermediary in the negotiations between Solidarity and the government. It opposed strikes in some instances and drew a line of demarcation between the workers and the more radical dissidents.

Another basic political attitude expressed by the leadership of Solidarity is nationalism. Lech Walesa has stated repeatedly that his struggle is primarily a struggle for the Polish nation. He said in an interview, quoted by Francois Gault, a French journalist, “... we are before all Polish people. And, before the interest of the union, it is the interest of Poland which is primary, above all in our hopes and in all our demands.”

Given the way that the Russians imposed the present regime on the Polish people it is understandable that there are strong national feelings in Poland as a whole and thus in the working class. In a country where there is a repressive dictatorship, backed by the Russian army, a strong anti-Russian feeling is not surprising. But by being, on the political level, simply nationalist, Walesa ties the working class to its enemies. For example, in his home and in some of the local offices of Solidarity, there are pictures of Marshal Pilsudski. In choosing Pilsudski, Walesa chooses a man who was as ruthless and brutal a butcher of the Polish workers as could be found.

The reactionary effects of nationalism on the Polish workers’ struggle can be seen in a symbolic way in Gdansk. The Polish flag flew over the yards, not the red flag. The Polish national anthem was the workers’ song, not the Internationale. And in the beginning of May, the Polish workers chose to celebrate the anniversary of the Polish constitution, not May Day. That means the workers tend to forget the interests of their own class, as though the working class had no enemies in Polish society, and to believe that they stand on the same ground as the Polish government. These things were happening at the moment that the working class was organizing itself to defend its own specific interests, against this same government.

While Walesa’s views are the most articulated and thus the most well-known, this is not to say that Solidarity is a monolith and that there are no other opinions in Solidarity. Certainly we have seen at times some opposition to his policies within Solidarity. In March, this opposition led to Anna Walentynowicz being expelled from the leadership of Solidarity along with other less known leaders. But as much as we can see of the disagreements in Solidarity, and it is difficult from here both to see them and to know also what they mean, the disagreements seem to be tactical, as in March, over the advisability of the general strike, and not based on more fundamental political questions.

Another influence in Solidarity has been the dissident intellectuals like Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski of the KOR. While there is a range of tendencies within the dissident movement, all of them appear to stay within the framework of Polish nationalism. None poses any real political alternatives to the political leadership of Walesa. There have been recent reports that the KOR is considering disbanding on the basis that today, with the existence of Solidarity and the democratic rights it has already won, it no longer has any real need to continue as an organization. This means that the KOR itself does not pose the necessity for constructing a revolutionary party in Poland.

The Attitude of Solidarity toward the Polish Regime

Solidarity sets at its goal to organize an independent trade union. While it certainly fights

for more democratic rights, it accepts on the general level the political framework of Poland. It acts as a militant opposition to the government at times, on specific questions. But even in this context, it confronts the government as a loyal opposition, simply seeking limited reforms, making the point, at each stage, that is does not want to call into question the current regime.

Despite the fact that Solidarity was born in a very different political context, on the basic level it is not different than the reformist unions in the U.S. or Europe who also can see their role as pressing for reforms and who have themselves at times also launched militant struggles. Solidarity does not have as its goal the construction of a working class party. Refusing this option, it can have no other choice than to decide whom to support and whom to oppose within the existing regime. Walesa himself has praised Vice-Prime Minister Jagielski, who was one of the major government negotiators in Gdansk. Walesa said, “this man 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.” For Walesa there are good government men an bad ones. And if the bad ones must be kicked out, then the good ones must be supported.

The government has played on this good-guy-bad-guy theme too. In putting in General Jaruzelski, they tried to make him appear pro-worker by quoting him during the strikes as saying that Polish soldiers would not shoot Polish workers. Once in office he tried to use this reputation to justify asking the workers for a 90-day moratorium on strikes.

Solidarity has pressured the government to rid itself of its most corrupt elements, especially those particularly odious to the workers. In several cases, party officials have been removed on Solidarity’s demands; more recently, another official, who had been responsible for investigating the charges of police brutality against Solidarity members in Bydgosczc, was dismissed by the government.

In the same way, Solidarity does not call in question the dominant role of the CP in Poland. Thus, Solidarity has praised the efforts made by the Polish CP, supposedly, ro reform the party. Members of the party have called for more open and free discussion in the party, the use of secret ballots, more open elections of delegates to the upcoming July Congress, and more representation of workers at all levels of the party. Solidarity members will no doubt be among the delegates. These moves are aimed at, and no doubt are effective in, reinforcing the workers’ illusions in the possibilities of reform from within. Thus, Solidarity has opposed the government, by trying to pressure it for reforms; and, at the same time, it has held out the promise of social peace to give the regime the time to reform itself.

These are the limits of Solidarity’s proposals to the Polish workers. Solidarity has not posed for the workers the need for an independent policy for the working class. It has not raised the question of the need for the working class to organize not simply its own trade unions, but also its own political party. In fact, all of Walesa’s statements make it clear he is against this idea. Solidarity does not see the necessity for the workers to take power in Poland, nor the necessity for the workers to construct a new society; that is, it does not have as its goal the socialist revolution, even in the distant future.

Solidarity has not so much opposed the current regime, as it has strengthened the more nationalist and the more anti-Russian tendencies which exist in that regime. That is, the section of the government which is more nationalist has been able to take advantage of the struggle of the working class movement to try to get rid of those elements in the regime more tied to Russia. At the same time, the events of the past year have allowed them to take a certain degree of independence from Russia.

What Will the Future Hold for Solidarity?

Without being in Poland, and involved in the day to day events, it is hard to make specific

judgements on this or that tactical decision of Solidarity. It is hard to know, for example, whether Walesa was right or wrong in calling off the March general strike. To know this would mean to know and take into account all the variables of the Polish situation: the attitude of the Russians, of the Polish regime and, above all, the attitude of the workers and their readiness to fight. And it is impossible to know whether revolutionaries in Poland should have supported him or opposed him in one or another set of circumstances. But what we do know is that Solidarity has not chosen the road which leads to an independent revolutionary party of the working class.

The logic of the policies of Solidarity, and we can see it more clearly today under the new pressure from both the Soviet Union and the Polish CP, is for Solidarity to integrate itself more and more into the Polish regime. Solidarity is even beginning to offer to play the role of disciplining the working class for the regime, discouraging the workers from new struggles and confrontations. Already Solidarity has begun to ask the workers to refrain from new economic demands in the name of helping the Polish economy. And it is asking the workers to refrain from political activity, to avoid provoking Soviet intervention. The Warsaw branch of Solidarity even called on the government to investigate the desecration of a Soviet monument.

These actions by Solidarity do not mean that it will give up all opposition and simply go along with everything the regime proposes. It can still, and probably will, oppose the government on specific issues. But the statements and actions of Solidarity do show its basic acceptance of the regime and the present political framework.

Of course what Solidarity will do in the future does not depend only on the leadership of Solidarity. It also depends in part on the attitude of the Polish government.

Today it seems as if Kania and Jaruzelski are willing to accept the existence of Solidarity and to make room for it in the regime. It may have been the struggles of the Polish workers which forced them to this point, but now that Solidarity exists as a reality of Polish life, the government is able, perhaps, at least so it seems to hope, to use it for its own ends.

But this is only one possibility, and not the only one. Using Solidarity to discipline the workers certainly would hold advantages for the regime – above all, because Solidarity carries much more influence with the working class than do the old unions, which are nothing more than outgrowths of the regime. At the same time, however, it would hold disadvantages also: the most important being that the organization of the working class gives Solidarity a certain independence from the regime; it also creates a certain pressure for concessions from the regime. And a government like that in Poland might not be able to afford the price of concessions it would have to make.

Already the regime has made several efforts to crack down on the more militant and political elements in Solidarity. This may be nothing more than an attempt by the government to frighten the workers; or it could be a sign of good faith to the Russians by the Polish regime. But it could also be the sign of increasing attacks to come in the future.

Of course, the Polish regime does not stand alone: in all the decisions it makes, it is looking over its shoulder at the Russians and what they will decide finally to do. The Russians could refuse to accept the new relationship for forces in Poland and could decide to put an end to the Polish experience. The Russians have hesitated to invade. If so, it is probably because they feared the consequences of such an invasion. They fear to be received in Poland like a hostile invading army, opposed by the Polish population, including the Polish army. No doubt they would prefer to exert a pressure on the Polish regime and the Poles settle the problems themselves – as long as it is settled within the limits that the Russians find tolerable. But these limits mean that the basis of the relations between Russia and Poland cannot be called in question. So, whether Solidarity finds its place in the Polish regime depends also on Russia.

Lastly, in looking at what determines the future for Solidarity, one must look at the Polish workers themselves. If there are more strikes and protests by the workers, despite Walesa’s wishes, it could lead to an opposition movement inside Solidarity. Such an opposition in the future might not only challenge Walesa’s tactics on the union level, but perhaps could also raise more fundamental political questions about his policies for the working class.

We have no crystal ball to know the future. We can only see today what direction Walesa and Solidarity have chosen to take so far, that is, to try to find a place for their independent union within the Polish regime. But this does not simply depend on the leadership of Solidarity. It will depend on the Polish regime and what it can allow, and on the tolerance by the Russian bureaucrats and what they will accept. But it will depend also on the Polish workers: it is up to them, finally, to decide what road to take for themselves and their organizations.