The Spark

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

What Did December 13 Mean for the Polish Working Class?

Jan 31, 1982

When the regime of Jaruzelski imposed martial law on December 13th, the Polish working class did not find the means to defend its positions. Given the depth of Solidarity’s roots and its support by nearly the whole population, given the mobilization of the past 17 months, and the readiness of the working class to fight, we might have expected a conflict which threatened the regime. Instead, the Polish army had a relatively easy time of it.

But if the working class was defeated, it was not because it was unwilling to fight to defend itself. Just the opposite. Despite the brutal swiftness of the blow, the working class responded. With the threat of the death penalty hanging over the heads of all strikers, still leaders came forth who in their own names called for resistance. All the threats of the regime were not enough to make the workers obey the order to work. There were occupations of the important coal mines, of steel complexes in Warsaw, and tractor works in Ursus. Committees were formed in many industrial cities to coordinate the strikes. The Baltic ports and the industrial town of Gydnia were shut down.

The very fact that the regime itself cancelled work until the end of December at the Lenin Shipyards at Gdansk and 20 other factories not only prevented the full extent of the strikes to be measured; it also acknowledged that the regime did not want to risk going to a full test of force to get the working class to return to work. The fact that the regime subsequently pushed back the date for the resumption of work to a week later indicates the continuing determination of the working class.

However, while the strikes gave expression to the workers’ moral indignation, they were not weapons on a par with those in the hands of the Polish army. The readiness to fight is not in and of itself a sufficient means of defense for the working class. Moreover, the question is not simply a material question of arms. The real problem is the political preparation of the working class.

The Polish working class had not gained a clear consciousness of where the fight it had engaged would lead it. One proof of this is shown by the fact that the working class did not organize a defense for its leadership, even when they were meeting. The working class did not have any important means of communication, other than those in the hands of the state: the official telex and telephone lines. Overnight, the Polish army was able to behead Solidarity and isolate the working class centers, one from another. This was a working class which had developed organization every place over the past 17 months, wherever it saw the need to struggle. If it did not organize its leadership, or itself, it must not have seen the necessity.

Certainly, when the working class faces a test of strength with the forces which still hold the power, it is never sure it will win. But when the working class is not prepared for this test, as the Polish working class was not, it has no hope to win. Whatever other reasons account for its lack of preparation, one factor is the direction that Solidarity gave to the movement.

The Policy of Solidarity

It is true that for months, Solidarity had been warning of the dander of military force being used against the working class and against Solidarity. But then, why didn’t Solidarity prepare the working class to meet this threat?

It is clear that Solidarity believed that the primary danger was the USSR and that section of the Polish communist party most tied to the Russians. It also apparently believed that the danger could be avoided if the working class brought enough pressure to bear so that the regime would be willing to compromise with Solidarity.

In the short term, Solidarity undoubtedly was searching to find an accommodation with the current regime and with the Russians, a compromise which would give Solidarity its place in a more liberalized regime. The question was continually posed within Solidarity as to how far it could prudently push the regime to liberalize itself, without arriving at a real test of force, that is, without bringing in the Russians.

Over the long run, Solidarity was clearly trying to help those forces who wanted to build a more national Polish regime, one which would act as a bulwark against the Russians, one that would direct its army to defend against the Russian threat. The referendum debated on the night of December 12 posed implicitly this long term goal; by removing the domination of the communist party, Solidarity could hope to see a new Polish regime, drawn from an alliance of the national forces from both inside and outside the Polish communist party. The people around Walesa who opposed this referendum did not disagree with this as a goal, they only disagreed with the prudence of calling for the referendum, especially at that time.

The Congress of Solidarity, two months before the final attack, had already called for such a change in the regime. When Walesa presented the delegates with the agreement he had made with the government to establish a “national front of accord and cooperation” between the Church, Solidarity, and the regime, there was a debate at the Congress about the undemocratic manner in which Walesa had concluded the agreement. But there was little disagreement on the project itself.

There is every indication that Solidarity believed that the army, for the simple reason that is was a Polish army, would not attack the Polish people; that is, there was a large enough section of the army which would not attack, and which would prevent the rest of the army from attacking. Solidarity’s attitude toward Jaruzelski, the man of the army, reflects this belief. After consolidating his power in October, Jaruzelski moved to disperse units of the army to all the

major industrial centers. Solidarity responded in only the mildest of terms, and in fact even gave a certain credence to Jaruzelski’s claim that the army was to be used to speed up food distribution. It was of course this man of the army who delivered the blow to the working class when the attack finally came.

The attack on December 13 made several things clear: those in power would not indefinitely tolerate a situation where the mobilization of the working class interfered with the plans of the regime. And such a prospect weighed as heavily on the Polish regime as it did on the Russian bureaucracy.

An Impossible Compromise

The Polish working class had fought, during those past 17 months, to defend its standard of living; that is, it had carried out a traditional trade union struggle, but it carried out that struggle within a country whose rulers do not have the possibility to give, on the long term, the kind of concessions which would be required for social peace. It is for this reason that the regime moved to suppress the organization the working class had built up for itself. If we do not see something like bourgeois democracy in the underdeveloped countries like Poland, whether those countries are in the Russian orbit, or in that of the U.S., it is because there is no possibility to answer the demands which the working class would put forth, if they had democratic rights. Bourgeois democracy, including the possibility for the working class to have unions, is a reflection of the wealth of the ruling class, and when that wealth does not exist, there is only a limited possibility for a regime to tolerate democratic norms.

This is especially so in a country like Poland where the attempt to speed up the development of the national industry has been at the heart of the regime’s policies, practically since the end of World War II, regardless of who headed the regime. Over all these years, the regime in Poland has attempted to accumulate capital; it could do it only to the extent that it depressed the standard of living of the producers, to the extent that it diverted more of its own production either to capital goods produced in Poland or to export in exchange for capital goods on the world market. The most important limiting factor on the policies of the Polish regime was the working class itself, and its willingness to fight against the regime. Each of the previous big struggles of the working class, in 1956, 1970, and 1976, was sparked off by the attempt of the government to brutally raise prices, that is to lower still further the standard of living of the working class.

In the last several years, the aggravation of the world economic crisis has exacerbated the problems of Poland’s weak economy. In addition, Poland’s previous heavy borrowing from the Western banks began to put an additional pressure on the Polish economy. Every attempt to refinance the old loans coming due has only put Poland still more at the mercy of the Western banks, given the spiraling interest rates.

The regime had no other recourse, if it was to hang onto its goal, but to try one more time to lower the standard of living of the working class, by raising prices and cutting back on food rations. It was that action that sparked the movement that was to create Solidarity.

When the working class stepped onto the stage a year ago last August, each step the working class took cost the regime some of its precious industrialization. Confronted with the movement, which it was not able to nip in the bud, the regime chose to grant concessions. It was undoubtedly reinforced in this choice by the bureaucracy of the USSR and by the Western bankers, both of whom gave some aid to the Polish regime in its attempts to defuse the situation. What it could not manage alone, it could manage with their help.

If all of them saw an advantage in this course, and there is every indication that they all did, it must have been because it seemed the regime might find a way to make a useful alliance with Solidarity. Perhaps Solidarity could be turned into a more efficient means of disciplining the working class that the old discredited state-run trade unions could possibly be – at any rate, at one point, Solidarity gave the promise that it could be used in that way. It proclaimed that it was not a party, that it did not have a revolutionary goal, that it simply wanted to compromise with the existing regime. It stood on the ground of Polish nationalism; it was tied to the Catholic Church, which over and over advised the working class to stay on the ground of compromise with the regime. The logic of its position is seen in the fact that by the time of its Congress, it offered to share in the responsibility for rebuilding the economy.

But what Solidarity promised it did not deliver. Perhaps many of the militants who led Solidarity, for all their mistaken views of the situation, were not so willing, any time the test of the struggle came, to desert the working class and go over to the other side of the barricades. Certainly, the working class itself was not so easily contained. The democratic rights won by the working class were not just abstract principles for it. As quickly as the working class opened up more possibilities for its own organization, its own expression, it began to use those openings to reconquer ground it had lost on the economic front.

The more the working class mobilized, the more it exacerbated the already difficult problems standing in the way of the plans of the regime to industrialize. Even when the workers fought over political issues, each work stoppage cost the regime some more production. Perhaps if the regime had had more room to maneuver, it might have waited longer. Perhaps if it had been as wealthy as the American bourgeoisie, it could have given this experiment several years, and more, to run its course. But the Polish regime, even with the aid of the USSR and the Western bankers, didn’t have the luxury of such a lengthy experiment.

The working class by its activity went beyond the bounds which the regime could accept. But it never did it consciously. And it’s here the problem lay for the working class.

The Polish regime was more conscious than the Polish working class of where the

conflict was headed. It chose to call the question. It chose the moment to have the test of force. It chose it, on its grounds, and on its grounds alone. If it was the regime which did this, it was because the working class wasn’t prepared. And it’s this fact that helped give the advantage to the regime.

What Now?

So the regime had the test of force on its grounds, and it won, but the question remains, for how long?

It seems the regime believes it has now cleared the decks for a reimposition of sacrifices on the working population. Whether it has, and if so, for how long, we can’t yet see. Certainly it won’t be so easy to force the workers to produce as it was to clear the streets. Whether the regime goes to another test of force, we don’t know either.

But it’s not just the regime which will have a say in the matter. During the last 17 months, the Polish working class took many more steps than many working classes take in 17 years. This period of intensified class struggle gave it a taste of freedom. During these 17 months, the working class had the possibility to test its forces and to take a measure of itself. In a period like this, the working class can come to appreciate its own organization, it can become conscious of itself as a class.

Will it go further now? Will the working class understand that its defeat came because of the limits it accepted for itself? Will it understand where the unionist policy of Solidarity led it? Will the working class draw the lessons of its defeat?

We have some reason to believe so. At least, if we look at the recent history of Poland. This is now the fourth time in 24 years that the Polish workers engaged the regime in struggle. Each time before, they were able to draw different lessons of their previous struggles and enter the new struggle on a different level. This gives us reason to think that a section of the working class will draw the lessons of these past months. We will know that that is so if we see a section of the working class begin the process of creating a revolutionary party. If they move to create such a party, it will mean they also understand in some way that they guaranteed this last defeat precisely because they did not have an organization which posed the problem of revolution.

For 18 months we saw a series of compromises between the Polish working class and a regime which represents other social forces than the working class. It was a kind of tug-of-war which could not go on forever. As long as the enemies of the working class hold the power, that is, as long as they control the state apparatus and the army, the working class has no way to guarantee it can retain what it won by its struggle. In other words, the working class must be prepared to fight, prepared to fight not only for freedom or for democratic rights, not only for an

improvement in the conditions of life, but also for power in the hands of the working class. That is, the working class must fight for the one thing, for power, which is the guarantee that it can keep all the other things it has won.