Chris Harman


Between two storms

(November 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 10, 15 October–14 December 1980, pp. 13–14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Continued tension between the authorities and the new unions in Poland. East German leader Honecker talks of ‘anti-socialist forces’ at work and seals off the population from any contact with Poland. Hungarian authorities reveal that they have faced strikes there. Reports of demonstrations and strikes inside the USSR in Estonia. Brezhnev reveals yet another failure of Russian agriculture to meet its targets, meaning intensified food shortages this winter.

The impact of the great Polish strike wave of July/August is making itself felt throughout the Eastern bloc, just as the extent of the economic crisis can no longer be hidden. Even though the storm of the summer has barely passed, a new storm is brewing of potentially much greater force.

In Poland the depth of the workers’ support for the new unions can hardly be exaggerated. Ralph Darlington’s article over the page gives some indication of the vast scale of their organisation, and the recent television pictures of shipyard leader Waleska’s reception in the mining areas of the south showed the degree of worker enthusiasm for them.

This has not stopped the authorities trying to whittle down to nothing the concessions forced from them at the height of the strike movement. In a move that must have warmed James Prior’s heart, the Warsaw district court has been doing what the regime was too nervous to do directly itself: it has denied the unions the right to be legally independent of the state and has insisted that their right to strike should be defined by the new trade union law that is being drawn up and not by the union’s own rule books. The material submitted by the unions to the press is continuing to be censored. And many local magistrates are still refusing to pay the wage increases supposedly agreed on two months ago.

There are threats of new, ‘selective’ strikes as we go to press. Western reporters suggest that this is due to pressure on the cautious union committees from the workers who elected them. Apparently in Gdansk workers’ representatives have

been talking of abandoning the pursuit of legalisation as a union committee in the courts and declaring themselves once again a strike committee.

It is doubtful if the regime wants an all-out confrontation with the unions yet. It still seems to be trying to buy time with all the means at its disposal. The head of the party. Kania, has been trying to do some sort of deal with the Church to cool things: after meeting Cardinal Wyszinski a joint communique affirmed ‘a common view that constructive cooperation between the church and state serves well the interests of the nation’. And the premier is due to have talks with the Solidarity union leaders.

Some compromise may well be worked out this time. But it will not stop further tensions arising. The regime, under pressure from the Russians on the one hand and its Western creditors on the other, will soon be back trying to recoup what it conceded at Gdansk. And the workers will resist every such move, seeing in the independent unions their only weapon against chronic food shortages, dangerous working conditions and bullying and managerial corruption.

The other East European leaders are visibly shaken by the upsurge of a real workers movement in Poland.

The Hungarian authorities claim they can handle the situation. They may be right: they have certain safety valves for discontent (see Tom Hickey’s article). But the central party paper has admitted that ‘in the past there have been stoppages in some places – or if you like strikes – lasting several hours’. And on 31 August (the day of the Gdansk agreement!) they rushed to rescind price increases due the next day for sugar, petrol, and other consumer items. Miklos Haraszti (author of The Worker in the Workers’ State) has noted in the Guardian:

‘Kadarism has not had to face a constantly falling living standard before and, save for the aborted Prague Spring, it has not had rivals in the liberalisation game. It is hard to tell how Kadarism could survive two such heavy blows which would deprive it of its two main appeals.’

If the Hungarian regime seems bleak, not so the East Germans. The tone of their talk of ‘counter-revolutionary forces’ is identical to that in the run up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They see Poland as ravaged by a contagious disease, which has to be met with the strictest quarantine measures as an interim measure while consideration is given to the wholesale slaughter of those infected. After using currency regulations to cut West German visitors to their state by half, they have virtually banned travel of East Germans to Poland and Poles to East Germany.

But a fracturing of one’s limbs is not as serious as sclerosis around the heart. And that is what is threatening Brezhnev’s Russia.

Last year saw the lowest rate of economic growth since 1945. And now the harvests, for the third time in five years, failed to meet expectations. The food shortages that have been plaguing Russia’s cities this year are likely to become quite desperate next.

The failure of agriculture is not some peculiar aberration in the Russian system. Rather it is inbuilt into it, as the other side of the apparent successes of state capitalism under Stalin and Khrushchev in industrialising the country. In order to provide an arms potential to match that of the West, resources were systematically grabbed from the countryside to build heavy industry in the towns for four decades.

Whatever the ‘plans’ promise in the way of investment for agriculture, their implementation saw it switched away from the farms to the military industrial complex. The peasants were driven into collectives and state farms, left to survive on what they could grow on their own minute private plots (chiefly potatoes). The younger and more energetic elements fled to the slightly better living standards of workers in the towns, leaving the countryside increasingly populated only by old people. The low level of mechanisation and the growing shortage of rural person power meant, inevitably, that agricultural output grew less rapidly than the demand for food of a growing urban population.

In the past ten years the regime has attempted to improve things with larger investments and inducements for skilled workers to remain on the farms. But the accumulated deficiencies of the past have been too great: indeed, the regime itself, has. in good harvest years, reverted to raiding agriculture in order to raise industrial investment. The product of accumulation, an industrial working class which did not experience the extreme deprivations of the collectivisation period of the 1930s or the ravages of the war, demands more and better food. The system based on accumulation can only offer stagnating living standards in good years, food shortages in bad. Against such a background, what is happening in Poland could detonate a massive explosion.

We reported the strikes in Russia’s great car plants in an earlier issue of this Review (1980 : 7). Now there is news of strikes and street demonstrations in Estonia – one of the Baltic countries which was absorbed into the ‘socialist’ world ‘thanks to Hitler’s agreement with Stalin in 1939. At the beginning of last month the town of Tartu experienced both a successful strike of 1,000 engineering workers and a demonstration of students asserting their national rights. The significance of these events is that Estonia is one of the few parts of the USSR with unrestricted access to the Western television broadcast in a language, Finnish, virtually identical to their own. They know what has been gained in Poland and want to move along the same path. A Financial Times report could quote an unnamed ‘long time East European Communist’ on 23 October. He was less ‘optimistic than ever about Poland because of the disclosures of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee session in Moscow’. He feared that:

‘If the Soviet harvest turns into another disaster as indicated, and there are problems feeding the Soviet people, Brezhnev and his politburo will indeed feel threatened, and not only in Poland.’

He could well be right.

Last updated on 21 September 2019