Chris Harman


Poland: No Room to Compromise

(November 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 37, 15 November–13 December 1981: 10, pp. 21–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The crisis in Poland reached a new peak of intensity last month. Kania fell from power and was replaced by Jaruzelski. Both police and unknown groups organised attacks on Solidarity members, and the union responded with its second one hour general strike this year. Speculation in the press is one moment that a state of emergency and a ban on strikes will be announced, the next that a coalition government will be formed.

Where is the Polish regime going? And what is Solidarity going to do? Chris Harman looks at some of the issues involved.

It is, not often that a major industrialised country finds itself in a crisis so severe that the old rulers can see no way out. But it does happen on occasions. And then all the classic symptoms of a revolutionary situation begin to accumulate: the ruling class becomes divided against itself, the masses no longer feel that society can proceed in the old way, people begin to look, in desperation, for a solution to the crisis, however ‘extreme’.

At such moments the question of revolutionary leadership suddenly becomes absolutely crucial. Either a section of the oppressed class is prepared to press forward with a programme for reconstituting society on a new basis through revolutionary action, or the disintegration of society continues, until the exploited as well as the ruling class is disorganised by it and the basis is laid for the most aggressive and barbarous section of the old ruling class to impose its will.

All the indices indicate that such is the condition of Poland at the moment. There has been a fall in the output of the economy by between 15 and 20 per cent in the last year. The shortages of basic foodstuffs have become so grave that even after queueing for five or six hours at a time, people are being turned away from the shops empty handed. Women who occupied their factories in Zyrardow were ‘openly weeping, saying they had no food for their children’. And now it is no longer just food which is in short supply.

But the crisis is not just economic. The economic failings of the regime have exacerbated the elements of political and ideological crisis.

Already two years ago there was a widespread feeling that those who ran the government and the party were living from hand to mouth, with no real notion of where they were going. Factions were formed and reformed within the apparatus not on the basis of any principle, but on the basis of the crudest careerist calculations of who was likely to win any petty power struggle.

Under such circumstances those in the middle were completely cynical about those at the top, and those at the bottom came to despise all those who gave them orders. The political crisis became an ideological crisis throughout society as not only those who read stories in the press ceased to believe them but so did those who wrote them.

The replacement of Gierek by Kania after the Gdansk strike of August 1980 did nothing to alleviate this problem. Nor did the much heralded party congress of this summer. Its secret ballots were an exercise in what Lenin once called a ‘slave owners democracy’ – those who exercised power in and enjoyed privilege in the state, the economy, and the party argued over who was going to provide the political direction needed to defend their power. They were as divided after it as before. The replacement of Kania by Jaruzelski cannot be expected to end the political and ideological crisis either.

Reports indicate that the popular discontent was growing daily in the week after Jaruzelski’s appointment. What are often written off as ‘local strikes’ involved thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of workers: witness the 14,000 women workers who occupied the textile mills of Zyrardow or the 180,000 workers who joined a one hour general strike in Zelena Gora.

At one point there were strikes in something like two thirds of the country’s provinces.

‘Strikes and threats of strikes continue to dominate Poland, despite earlier promises by Solidarity that they would try to avoid a possible showdown with the new Jaruzelski administration’ (Guardian, 21 October)

The warring factions inside the regime continued to be unable to provide a unitary response to this discontent. The finance minister Krzak continued talks with Solidarity leaders over economic issues and rumours began to circulate that some elements in the regime wanted to draw figures from Solidarity and from the church into the government providing they accepted ‘the leading role of the party’. Yet Jaruzelski called for a ban on strikes and announced that soldiers would be used to ‘restore order’ and maintain supplies. While the local authority in Zyrardow recognised that local strikers had a case, the Ministry of Labour nationally denounced these strikers for being ‘politically motivated’.

Any strategy being pursued by Jaruzelski seems to have been consciously ignored by the hard-line pro-Russian Forum faction centred upon a section of the apparatus in Silesia. In two Silesian towns, Wroclaw and Katowice, police responded to Jaruzelski’s appointment with the most provocative of actions. They operated in crowded streets to seize members of Solidarity who were distributing bulletins and speaking from radio vans.

The actions could almost have been designed to provoke riots, if not local uprisings. As it was, in Wroclaw it took all the efforts of the local Solidarity leadership to move a crowd which was besieging a cordon of police around the police station, while in Katowice thousands of workers overturned a police van and eventually forced the freeing of those detained – despite the use of tear gas by the police.

If these police actions were not enough to enrage the workers, members of the Forum then proceeded to occupy a Solidarity office in Katowice and issue from it denunciations both of the union and of ministers identified as wanting to reach a compromise with it.

A mustard gas bomb attack on miners pickets on 27 October, on the eve of the national one-hour general strike, was clearly another instance of deliberate hardline provocation. The pro-Russian Forum elements have clearly been studying the tactics of fascist groups like Patria y Libertad in Chile and Ordina Nero in Italy.

The faction fighting in the regime is both a product of the economic and social crisis and a factor that aggravates that crisis. It means the regime finds it very diffiult to mobilise any other section of society behind itself. It means its isolation grows worse by the day. It means that even its closest adherents just do not see a way out of the mess the country is in. The crisis has reached such a depth that those outside the regime’s ranks to whom it has given privileges in return for their support are now reluctant to provide that support; the intellectuals are more attracted to Solidarity than to Jaruzelski; even within the police a movement exists for an independent union, linked to Solidarity.

Under such circumstances, Solidarity should find itself in an immensely strong position. Yet all the evidence suggests that confusion rather than strength is the general feeling in the union at the moment.

In the issue before last of this Review I characterised the standpoint shared by all the tendencies within Solidarity as ‘syndicalist’ – the belief that the union could build itself as a countervailing power on behalf of the working class while leaving the regime intact. But the very depth of the Polish crisis no longer made this a viable option. It put a gun at the head of the union: either show that you can solve the crisis by shoving the government out of the way or collaborate with it to solve the crisis. The alternative of pressure on the government could only help deepen the crisis and encourage a fragmenting of Solidarity’s own strength.

Events since have confirmed this analysis.

The so-called moderates in Solidarity have gone further than ever in moving towards collaboration. Walesa commented on Jaruzelski’s appointment:

‘At least it means power is concentrated in one man’s hands. What we need is a strong, reasonable government we can negotiate with.’ (Quoted Guardian, 20 October).

After the police actions in Silesia, Walesa argued against calls for a general strike, saying that his programme was ‘to construct institutions and not to destroy them’ (Quoted in Il Manifesto, 23 October).

His line of thinking does not seem to differ from that of the Catholic hierarchy, which while making token gestures towards the popular discontent could still make it clear, in the words of the head of the Polish church, Cardinal Glemp, that:

‘The nomination of General Jaruzelski was received in Rome with great benevolence.’ (Il Manifesto, 22 October)

Walesa’s own position inside the Solidarity leadership is not as powerful as it was. The recent Solidarity congress seems to have been very much a victory for the ‘radicals’ who are deeply suspicious of any collaboration with the regime. Walesa and those close to him were censured for coming to an agreement with the regime over the appointment of factory managers without consulting with other elected Solidarity representatives; leading ‘moderate’ experts were voted off the new National Commission of the union while the most prominent radicals won seats easily; Walesa himself only retained the leadership against a substantial 45 per cent vote for three rival radical candidates; and the draft programme of the union was modified in a radical direction.

Rakowski, the minister in charge of negotiations with the union and a darling of the Western liberal press, charged that the first part of the conference was ‘hegemonised’ by the ‘radical faction of Solidarity guided by Kuron and other exponents of KOR’ (Quoted Il Manifesto, 29 September). A socialist reporter notes of the second part of the conference:

‘The radical current in the union has decisively oriented the second phase of the congress, conceding to the moderate wing which practically ran the union over the last year the presidency of Walesa only. Solidarity has a national commission with a majority independent of the church and supporting the dissolved KOR, and a radical programme.’(Il Manifesto, 20 October 81)

Yet the radicals themselves are by no means clear as to what they want. Their programme is radical in words, but evades the key question of power that faces everyone in Poland today. It calls for ‘self-management, control of the economy and political liberty’ but does not specify when these should come into effect. The radicals want to avoid collaboration with the regime and to fight for control, yet at the same time seem to shy away from any notion of the workers they represent overthrowing the regime. So they call for workers’ representatives to control parts of society through special mechanisms while leaving the existing order in control of the rest.

At the local level this means workers struggling to gain control over the nomination of new enterprise managers. At the national level it means aiming at ‘the institution of a second chamber in parliament, the chamber of self-management, elected democratically and deliberating on all economic questions’ (Il Manifesto, 26 September). This would ‘control the political economy of the government and legal actions in this area’.

This formulation is especially interesting. For it is not the first time it has emerged in the history of the workers movement. In the period immediately after the end of World War One, revolution seemed imminent and the whole of the European labour movement was divided over whether to back a reformed version of bourgeois rule based on ‘parliamentary democracy’ or to press for a workers’ council state. The leaders of the half a million strong left socialist USP party in Germany tried to bridge the divide by proposing the formula: parliament plus workers councils.

To millions of workers who were just becoming radicalised, this at first seemed much more ‘realistic’ than the ‘extreme’ call of the few thousand people in the Spartakus League for a workers’ council state. It seemed to offer the best of both worlds. It took two years of bitter defeats and passionate arguments before the majority of the left socialists came to see that workers’ councils were incompatible with the existing state.

The argument was not then and the argument is not now merely one about the phrases used to describe a distant final goal. At stake is the whole strategy of the workers movement. Is it at every point to support any spontaneous struggle of workers that increases their confidence in their own ability to take control of industry and to replace the existing bureaucratic state? Or should such struggles be restricted in the interests of negotiating a space for the parallel institutions of self-management with the existing regime?

The majority inside the Solidarity leadership still tend to opt for the latter view. So Kuron, who has been accused of directing the ‘radicals’ at one stage was urging the formation of a government of national unity, in which the present regime would hold the key foreign and public order ministries, while Solidarity and the church would hold other posts.

Fortunately, this does not seem to have appealed to other ‘radicals’. Kuron retracted his suggestion. And when there were rumours that the regime was considering a coalition the Solidarity presidium declared it could not have any confidence ‘in any offer from a government which does not respect the law and refuses Solidarity access to the media.’

But this formulation itself points to a very dangerous tendency among the ‘radicals’ – to offer to restrain the economic struggle in return for political concessions. And so when the Szczecin delegation at the Solidarity conference protested at Walesa’s readiness to meekly accept the government’s doubling of cigarette prices, they urged, as well as protest actions, an ‘attempt to get government concessions like access to the media in return for concessions on price increases’. (Financial Times, 6 October)

Yet for many workers, particularly those who have not been politically active in the past, it is precisely Solidarity’s ability to champion grievances that arise in their everyday, lives – ‘economic’ grievances – that leads them to identify with its political demands. Every time Solidarity hesitates over full support for their economic struggles, it undercuts its own political hegemony.

As Rosa Luxemburg, the greatest of Polish revolutionaries, pointed out more than 60 years ago, at a time of a great upsurge of working class struggle, economic struggles lead directly into political struggles and political struggles into economic ones. Those who try to separate the two in the interests of some clever ‘strategy’ weaken the whole movement.

Yet this is still what Solidarity is attempting to do, despite the radical majority in the national commission. The one-hour general strike was a much better way to respond to the police atacks in Silesia than the inaction that Walesa wanted. But it still does not match the challenge facing the union.

The radicals want an alternative to the collaboration suggested by Walesa – but it seems that they still cannot grasp in a coherent way what this alternative should be. And so they end up accepting a slightly more radical version of Walesaism.

This is especially dangerous at the present time. As the economy becomes more and more chaotic, the regime is hoping to turn people against Solidarity – or at least the more radical elements in Solidarity – by claiming that their strikes, not its crisis, are behind growing privation. Just as the right in Chile in 1973 deliberately intensified the economic crisis so as to turn people against the workers’ parties, so at least a section of the regime is doing the same in Poland today. Hence its Thatcher-like statements to the effect that strikes are creating shortages.

For the present, such actions are intensifying rather than diverting working class anger. But all past experience shows that eventually endless queueing and continual shortages of essential foodstuffs will take their toll in terms of workers morale – unless a powerful tendency emerges in Solidarity which consciously directs anger and frustration towards a revolutionary alternative to the regime. Without this, a point can be reached where not only Walesa, but many peasants, intellectuals and workers begin to see a ‘strong man’ from the regime as the only way to deal with the queues, the hardship, the police attacks, the pro-Russian terrorists, spawned by the regime itself.

The alternative to the danger of such a deterioration is for the radicals to start pressing for the structure of direct workers’ delegates that makes up Solidarity to take over the running of the whole of society. A programme which could begin leading the mass of the Polish population out of the crisis would not then be difficult to elaborate. The key points it would have to include would be:

  1. An end to privileges enjoyed by the mass of bureaucrats – their chauffeur driven cars, their secret supplies of food, their luxury apartments and villas, their very high salaries, their private kindergartens, their privileged access to health facilities etc.
  2. An end to wasting six per cent or more of the output of the economy on Warsaw Pact forces designed to put down Solidarity-type movements in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, and to help threaten nuclear annihilation of other countries.
  3. An end to sacrifices designed to help pay off loans to Western bankers contracted by the ruling bureaucracy in the past. Instead appeal to all those workers organisations in the West that have pledged support for Solidarity to help Polish workers throw off the burden of their masters’ debt.

Such a programme could begin to deal with bridging the shortfall in Polish output over the last year and alleviating the distress of the population.

But it could not be implemented without a complete transformation of society. At the local level it would require the most thorough-going struggle for what the Solidarity radicals, call ‘self-management’ – in each plant and office, the workers would have to seize power and impose tight controls on the operations of all levels of management. But it would also require something that the radicals have hardly spoken of yet – a struggle at the national level, to overturn the hierarchies of control in the police, the army and the ministries, replacing them with direct representatives of the workers organisations.

No-one seems to have argued for such a revolutionary programme at the Solidarity conference, Yet rarely has a workers’ movement historically been in a stronger position for making a bid to solve society’s problems by taking power into its own hands. All the other oppressed groups in Polish society – the peasants, the students, a sizeable chunk of the intelligentsia – have shown over the last year that they will follow when Solidarity and the workers lead. Even within the army and the police, only a few hardliners would put up determined resistance to any serious attempt by the mass workers’ movement to bring the present chaos to an end by taking power.

Two sorts of arguments are used against any such programme of action. The first is not new: it is that workers are congenitally incapable of running an advanced industrial society. It is an argument that should fall completely flat in present day Poland. For it is absolutely dlear that those running Poland at present are congenitally incapable of doing so. And it is also clear that all the creative forces of society – not merely the manual and white collar workers, but the technical experts, the middle class professionals, the intellectuals – can be drawn behind the workers.

The second argument is that any truely radical development would invite an immediate Russian takeover.

This argument is not new either. It was used by Dubcek and then Husak to justify the reimposition of bureaucratic control – so called ‘normalisation’ – in 1968-9 in Czechoslovakia. Similar arguments have been used in the West – during the revolutionary upheavals of post-World War One Germany and Austria (when it was said any revolution would lead to the allied powers cutting off food supplies and starving people) and in France and Italy at the end of World War Two (when the CPs argued that any revolution would be crushed by American troops). No doubt it will also be used should any genuinely revolutionary situation develop in Western Europe in the next couple of decades.

The argument rests on a confusion. It assumes that the Russians have not moved into Poland so far because the workers have restrained themselves. Yet whatever restraint has been shown, events in Poland over the last year have been a hundred times more radical than they were in Czechoslovakia in the first eight months of 1968.

In Czechoslovakia the Dubcek regime may have been too weak to impose its will on the intelligentsia, but the most extreme thing to happen (driving the Russians crazy) was the drawing up of an intellectuals manifesto, 2,000 Words, which suggested that workers might, possibly, consider taking token strike action. By contrast in Poland we have had 14 months of almost continual strike activity, the publication of open, anti-regime and anti-Russian news sheets, the open appeals for workers elsewhere in Eastern Europe to follow the Polish example, completely open debate among millions of people as to what is to be done. Yet the Russian tanks have not yet crossed the frontier.

What has held them back has not been Solidarity’s self restraint. It has been a recognition that the very radicalness and depth of the Polish movement makes an invasion attempt very dangerous for the Russian leaders. It could bog them down in a struggle against the people of a country three times the size of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, just at the time when there is manifest discontent among workers elsewhere in Eastern Europe and inside the USSR itself (witness the strikes in Russia’s huge auto plants last year, the strikes and riots in Estonia, the chaos that followed attempts to mobilise forces in nearby parts of the Ukraine for possible use against Poland).

The one thing that will encourage the Russians to move on to the offensive against the movement in Poland – whether directly by sending huge numbers of troops across the frontier or indirectly by using ‘reliable’ sections of the Polish army and police to restore ‘order’ while the Russian forces stationed inside Polish garrison towns are gradually strengthened – is a faltering in the forward momentum of Solidarity.

The moment Solidarity’s forces show any signs of dissipating, then the pressure will be applied hard and good. In so far as Solidarity’s leaders try to slow down the forward momentum of the workers movement, they produce such dissipation – and thereby increase the chances of Russian action.

Of course, the Russians would do everything they could to overthrow a genuine workers regime in Poland – just as at the moment they are doing everthing in their power to weaken Solidarity. But the Russians are not all-powerful. They are restricted by the knowledge that the Poles might fight back and the fear of rebellion elsewhere in their empire. A workers movement that had taken power in Poland would be able to increase Russia’s hesitancy on both counts – by preparing coherent military plans for the self-defence of the revolution and by using the maximum propaganda resources to aid those dissidents and workers elsewhere in the Russian bloc seeking to emulate Solidarity.

We have seen in Poland over the last year a text book example of how a ‘purely spontaneous’ movement of workers begins to give rise to various tendencies within it – to what in the great revolutions of the past have been called ‘parties’.

The ‘parties’ of the Polish movement are still far from fully formed. But it is possible to delimit three rough groupings within Solidarity – and reports indicate that relations between them are often quite acrimonious.

On the right stand the ‘moderates’ around Walesa, who are usually seen as close to the church. In the middle stand the ex-KOR group of ‘secular’ reform activists. And, partly overlapping with them, to the left are the various radical leaders with their strong regional bases – Giazda in Gdansk, Rulewski in Bydgozcz, Jurzyk in Szczecin.

Yet it is doubtful if any of these groupings is based upon a clear and coherent view of the world. KOR has just dissolved itself, and at the Solidarity conference two of its foremost members, Kuron and Michnik were on opposite sides in the argument over the conduct of the ‘self-management’ negotiations. And three different ‘radical’ candidates stood against Walesa in the presidential election.

The most significant thing at the moment, however, is the absence of a clear revolutionary current.

In every great revolutionary upheaval, a gap opens up between what the workers are actually doing – beginning to take control of society – and their consciousness of what they are doing. They have been brought up under the old society to believe that they themselves are incapable of exercising power, that only ‘educated people’, ‘those born to rule’ can do so.

These ideas do not disappear overnight. They are challenged by new perceptions, but not automatically overthrown. So the workers who had overthrown the Czar in Russia in February 1917 let the government fall into the hands of the war profiteer Prince Lvov, and the workers and soldiers councils which ran Germany in November and and December 1918 handed power back to politicians and generals of the old order.

It takes months of bloody struggle and bitter disillusionment before workers en masse begin to see that they themselves alone can rule effectively. Whether they learn this lesson before they are crushed depends, in part, on how effectively the first groups of workers to grasp it offer leadership to the rest of the class, i.e. the extent to which they organise themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, a party.

Yet the crystallisation out of a revolutionary party can be held back by the very thing that makes it necessary – the ideological dominance of the old order over the new. Unless there exists in advance of the workers’ upsurge at least the embryo of a party, a nucleus of people arguing the possibility of workers power, then development of a real party can be very much delayed.

Worker militants have to try to think their way through all the old prejudices to an understanding of the role their class can play. And they have to do so in the heat of the most bitter struggles, when they have little time to study the lessons of past workers’ movements or carry through scientific analyses of what the outcome of their present actions will be. For months, even years, bastardised conceptions can prevail which combine the best of the new with some of the worst of the old.

In the case of Poland, this means that Solidarity activists can combine an instinctive rejection of compromise with a nationalist belief that all Poles have a common interest – precisely the prejudice the regime is trying to exploit to turn people against Solidarity. It means they can play with the notion of a ‘self-management chamber’ alongside the existing parliament. It means that Walesa can get away with his references to Jaruzelski as an ‘honest’ soldier.

The great danger in Poland is that the best activists will not succeed in cutting through this web of false ideas until it is too late. The question of power – of which class is to rule – cannot be postponed indefinitely. It will be raised in the sharpest possible way if an all-out general strike develops in defence of what the workers have won over the last 15 months. Workers would not be able simply to sit passively at home or in the factories. They would soon be suffering as much as the regime from shortages of food and fuel and the collapse of essential services. They would either have to move forward to kicking the regime aside and producing these things for themselves, under their control, coordinated by their power. Or they would very rapidly be under immense pressure to accept the terms of the regime.

The Polish working class has fought heroically over the last 15 months. It has destroyed for once and for all the myth that the Eastern states are 1984-type societies against which no successful revolt is possible. But the movement cannot go much further forward unless the radicals in Solidarity come to terms with the problem of power.

Last updated on 5 October 2019