“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Oct 31, 1981
The recent congress of the Polish workers’ organization, Solidarity, symbolized the political changes in Poland since the Gdansk strikes of summer, 1980. The very existence of the Congress more than one year later demonstrated the democratic rights which the Polish workers had taken for themselves in this period. That the workers have sustained their organization so long and continued to extend their demands without falling back is remarkable.
Against sharp increases in prices, the workers have struck and have held the line in many cases. To shorten the work week, the workers simply refused to work Saturdays. Through strikes and demonstrations, the workers took the right to hold meetings, to publish openly their own newspapers and to have some access to radio and television.
They have resisted attempts at repression as well, and have even won the release from prison of opponents of the regime incarcerated for years. Beyond that, they have forced the resignations of top Communist Party and government officials and have won the removal of a number of local plant and other officials.
Above all, in the strikes of August 1980, they forced the government to recognize and negotiate with Solidarity as the representative organization of the workers. Since then, although the regime has been able at times to stall Solidarity, it has not been able to halt the growth of Solidarity and the growth of its influence. The regime has made threats, even with the backing of the U.S.S.R., but so far it backed down in the face of the workers’ intransigence. The Polish workers have demonstrated that the repressive regimes of the Soviet bloc with the Soviet armed forces behind them, are not immovable monoliths, when the workers decide to fight.
However, if the Polish workers have made substantial gains, nonetheless the problems remain. On the political level, everything the workers have won could be called in question at any moment, including, and especially, the existence of their own organization. On the economic level, the problems which ignited their movement have actually become more acute. Rationing of meat and other basic consumer goods has been more severe than ever, resulting in extremely long lines. The regime continues to demand higher prices on consumer goods.
The Communist Party blames the severity of the current crisis on Solidarity’s activities during the past year. Of course, it’s true that the many strikes and disruptions to production-as-usual have exacerbated an already very bad situation. But it was the insistence of the regime that the workers bear the burden of paying for the crisis that led to the strikes of 1980-1981.
The regime’s explanation is self-serving. It is the policies of the regime that have helped shape the Polish economy for many years. The economic policy of the regime is a very common one: to industrialize and otherwise modernize a relatively backward economy.
Obviously a certain degree of industrialization has been achieved. But in a country like Poland, the accumulation of a surplus to finance industrialization requires that the workers and farmers accept to bear the burden of an especially low standard of living.
But while they do so, other, more privileged layers of the population – including especially the Communist Party leadership – retain a relatively luxurious standard of living. The periods of strikes and riots in Poland since the 1950s show how much the regime has been at odds with the working class over how fast the workers will pay the cost of the attempt at industrialization.
The regime was not able to accumulate the capital it needed. And so it sought to find the balance by floating substantial loans, particularly from Western banks. But borrowing did not solve the problem of industrialization. It created a new one, leaving Poland in the grip of a foreign debt today totaling more than 27 billion dollars! In 1981, according to Solidarity, Poland needs “10-11 billion dollars in additional credits..., of which 6-7 billion is needed for repayment of loans, 2-4 billion for payment of the interest on loans, and 1 billion to cover the current deficit.” Poland’s gross national product, estimated at 146 billion dollars in 1979, has been declining since then, while this foreign debt has continued to grow. According to these figures, just servicing these debts is now costing about 10% of the gross national product. And, as the debt continues to grow, it compounds the difficulties standing in the way of industrialization.
To finance not only the industrialization, but also the loans, it has been necessary to export Polish products. But the productivity of Polish labor, given its weak industrial base, is so low that Polish goods, especially agricultural products, do not fetch prices on world markets that really help alleviate the pressure of the loans. Consequently, a huge amount of Polish production has to go toward exports even to keep “running in place”. This, of course, means taking from the domestic consumer-goods industries.
The impossibility of really meeting the goal of industrialization can be seen in the real distortions apparent today in the Polish economy. For instance, major industrial plants such as the multi-billion-dollar Katowice steel complex are producing below half their capacity. The Ursus tractor works has been producing 500 Massey-Ferguson-designed tractors per year, rather than the planned 75,000! But all replacement parts have to be imported at high prices, and the tractors simply cannot be sold. Such results simply exacerbate the balance of payments problem.
In the face of the regime’s demands for sacrifice, the Polish workers have refused to bear the burden of the country’s economic disaster. They have repeatedly refused to accept the increase in prices.
The workers are not responsible for the crisis; they do not hold the power; it is not the workers who have made the decisions in Poland. And yet it is the workers who were asked to make the sacrifices for the national good by other, more privileged layers of the population – including especially the Communist Party leadership. There is no reason the workers should agree to pay for the crisis.
In the process of the struggle, the workers have compelled the regime and the privileged layers in Poland, and even the Western capitalists, to back down. For example, the Western banks have agreed to extend the limits on the payment of Poland’s debts. They are certainly not doing this out of generosity or sympathy for the Polish people. Rather, they and their governments are frightened by the Polish workers’ struggle, and they are afraid that this one could bring a social and political explosion in this part of Europe. So they have made concessions to try to buy social peace.
The same is true of the bureaucrats who rule the Soviet Union. In spite of their belligerent rhetoric, not only have they failed to mount a military invasion of Poland; they have also accepted to continue to give aid, to sell oil to Poland, and so on.
All of this shows that if the Polish workers have a chance not to sacrifice, it will be through continuing their struggle. Short of preparing to take power, this is all they can do.
In the long run, the only way not to sacrifice in favor of the privileged layers of Polish society or imperialism would be for the workers to destroy the power and privileges of those layers, that is to take the state power for themselves. Then, the workers could decide how to run the society, including, if it is necessary, what sacrifices they need to make – this time, in their own defense, and not in the interests of the bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie. But so far, no one seems to defend this prospect within the working class.
Today, workers in Poland have continued their strikes and protests. But in the discussions within the leadership of Solidarity, and especially at the Congress, we saw another response to the current situation in Poland.
What they consider is a compromise with the regime, to accept the rules of the existing society, to share with the regime the responsibility for resolving the crisis and managing the society, that is, for developing a modern industrial economy in Poland.
According to Solidarity’s Draft Program, “We want to peacefully shape the life of our country in accordance with patriotic ideals, social justice, and democratic rights. As a trade union, we do not aim to replace the government in performing its tasks, but we do want to represent the interests of working people in relation to the state.”
This statement, unlike the accords signed at Gdansk in 1980, was not made under the duress of the moment. It was a statement precisely drafted to express the aims of Solidarity. And these aims clearly involve acceptance of the current regime.
Even in the context of critiquing the regime’s lack of democratic procedures, bureaucratic mismanagement, and acceptance of privilege, Solidarity’s Draft Program argued that economic reforms “...should be the result of free, public discussion by specialists, but they should be implemented by the government authorities, who control the whole economy.” And they add, “We do not aim to substitute for the government. We just want to indicate, in principle, the direction that economic and social policy should take...”
Solidarity’s leadership argues that the workers could better achieve the goal of economic development through self-management of the enterprises.
According to Solidarity’s Draft Program, individual enterprises “should be self-financing...They should be evaluated not on the basis of fulfilling the plan, but on the basis of economic efficiency...Workers’ self-management bodies...[are] an indispensable element of economic reform...[and] should have sufficient legal authority to make effective decisions about the ...operations of the enterprise.”
We can see what this means when we see the leadership of Solidarity sign an agreement with the regime on self-management: it does not call for any change in the framework of the existing Polish society. And we see even more the sense of the compromise they look for when we hear them talk of free elections to the existing Polish Parliament or when they question whether Solidarity should take a position in the existing Polish government.
The assumption of all of Solidarity’s proposals is that Poland’s economy can be developed on a national basis, without challenging the international context of imperialist control of financial and commercial markets. In fact they share the same basic goals as the regime. And, in the same way as the regime, Solidarity could only look to accumulate a surplus from the labor of the Polish workers. In supporting such an attempt, what could Solidarity do but to urge the workers to sacrifice in the name of national development? Like the unions in the U.S., for example, Solidarity could become a disciplinarian of the working class from within the working class.
In this regard, the incident concerning the signing of the agreement over self-management is a small indication that Solidarity could become a bureaucracy on top of the working class. Walesa signed the agreement, without consulting the Congress, even though the Congress was just about to meet.
If the leadership of Solidarity has made such proposals for co-operation, there are elements of the regime which have listened to them. Some of them have apparently decided that they have an interest in giving some responsibility for managing the crisis and controlling the workers to Solidarity, rather than continuing indefinitely in a series of direct confrontations with the workers. They have, for instance, proposed a compromise form of Solidarity’s proposal on workers’ self-management of the enterprises. Some of them have even discussed the possibility of integrating Solidarity in the government.
On the other hand there are others who feel that Solidarity and the workers’ movement should be crushed. What the removal of Kania means, in this regard, cannot clearly be seen at this moment. But there is always a danger of a repression, backed by a military intervention of the Soviet Union, hanging over the heads of the Polish workers.
The actual resolution of the situation depends, of course, on all the actors involved, including the imperialist bourgeoisie, the Soviet bureaucracy, the Polish bureaucrats, as well as the Polish workers and farmers. But, inside Solidarity, we can see at least two general tendencies: the continuing reaction to meet the government’s challenges with strikes and protests; and the preparation to make an accommodation with the state apparatus, even eventually to integrate itself into it.
If the workers retreat, then the future of Solidarity will be defined by its own tendency to integrate itself into the existing state apparatus, to turn from a vehicle of the workers’ struggle to a vehicle of their repression. But, if the workers stay mobilized, they have a chance not to sacrifice and at the same time to keep their democratic organization. It’s only a chance, but there is no other way. So, partly at least, the future depends on the capacity of the working class to continue to fight.