Chris Harman


What produced Solidarity

(December 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 38, 14 December 1981–13 December 1981: 10, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Poland: The state of the Republic
Reports by the experiences and future discussion group (DiP) Warsaw
Edited Michael Vale
Pluto Press, £4.95

‘The last ten years have been characterised by growing stratification ... The end result being a widening of the income differential to a ratio of 1 : 20.’

‘Social differences are growing. Part of society continues to live with lower than the social minimum income, while another segment consisting of the privileged, has incomes several or even dozens of times the average.’

‘Inequality and injustice are everywhere. There are hospitals that are so poorly supplied that they do not even have cotton wool, and our relatives die in the corridors; but other hospitals are equipped with private rooms and full medical care for each room. We pay fines for traffic violations, but some people commit highway manslaughter while drunk and are let off with impunity. In some places there are better shops superior vacation houses, with huge fenced in grounds that ordinary people cannot enter. People see all this and they know that high ranking officials drive luxurious cars ...’

‘There is an increasing tendency to fill posts with “One’s own people” – from the younger generation. This is the case not only with leading positions in agriculture or the administrative apparatus, but with all kinds of posts e.g. publishing houses, institutions of learning and scientific jobs.’

‘A recent study shows that a child whose parents have a higher education has 7.5 times the chance of staying within the ranks of the intelligentsia than the child of a farm worker has of entering them.’

The two reports contained in this book could have been entitled What produced Solidarity. They contain graphic details of the state of Poland just before the August strikes of 1980 – the class divisions, the corruption of the bureaucracy, the growing bitterness of the ruled, the economic crisis, the drift towards chaos, the breakdown on all sides of any sort of faith in the regime.

The reports were based upon the discussion of a hundred odd people from the middle layers of power – academics, specialists, managers, planners. They initially met two years ago under the auspices of the regime – but the conclusions were too honest, and had to be published unofficially. The result is a marvellous description of a society that has reached the stage of economic, political and ideological bankruptcy.

This is shown most graphically in the economic sphere. Year after year the rulers of Poland and other East European states boast about the beauties of their central planning. The claim is still accepted by much of the left in the West, who if they no longer talk of socialist paradises, do talk about ‘post capitalist societies based upon planning’.

Yet one of those who contributed to these reports tell how:

‘We have sham planning and sham fulfillment and even over-fulfillment of plans ... playing this game of pretence and sham has become so universal that no-one, even at the highest levels of power, can distinguish any longer between what is real and what is not.’

Another can argue:

‘Planning has ceased to deserve the name of planning, coordination has become impossible, while any check on performance is purely illusory.’

A third can point out:

‘The economic plans fall far short of the targets set. The flood of erratic and makeshift recommendations and restrictions only adds to the chaos because they bear no intrinsic relationship to one another ...’

Yet another notes that every ‘five year plan’ tends to collapse in its third year.

‘Each time the resource balance fails, unleashing a frenzy of corrective measures that freeze resources already invested and concentrate an excess of non-planned productive energy in areas where, with good planning, only 50–60 per cent of the original estimate would have been needed.’

If any Stalinist (or ‘Trotskyist’) dinosaur still refuses to accept these claims, they should look at the experience of the last year, where the national output has fallen by 15 per cent or more.

The other side of economic chaos is a repeated failure of the regime to live up to its promises to improve living standards. After 1956 and again after 1970, there were rises in living standards and promises of even greater rises. But ‘in each case it was confined to the first few years. In both periods the crisis struck at similar moments ...’ The ‘breakdown in the economy and in domestic policy, showed astonishing repetitiveness, one is even tempted to say a cyclical nature.’

It is not only wages that have suffered. There has been a continual run down in the social services. In 1960, expenditure on education, health, social welfare, recreation and sports amounted to a third of all capital investments, now it has fallen to 19 per cent. As a result, their schools are overcrowded and teachers badly paid, a third of young couples have no accommodation of their own, ‘the number of hospital beds in Warsaw is barely half the European average’, and a quarter of essential medicines are unavailable.

The report goes on to show how the crisis has spread out to affect every other aspect of life, so that no-one any longer believes in the goals the rulers profess to hold. Among workers there is distrust and bitterness. Among those who rule over them there is cynical self-seeking, with politicians not believing the speeches they make and journalists not meaning a word they write.

Already when they compiled this report two years ago, its authors could see the likely consequence of the conditions they depicted:

‘In such a situation disturbances, such as a spreading wave of strikes, demonstrations or even acts of violence against official institutions, could be sparked off by a quite trivial event.’

The emergence of Solidarity more than fulfils this prophecy.

Yet there are two problems with the account of Poland as presented by the reports. The first is practical: despite their massive documentation of the divisions of Polish society into social classes with quite different material interests, the authors see their goal as being the suggestion of measures that can ‘restore provisional trust in the authorities.’ The assumption is that reforms are possible that will leave the bureaucracy with its power, but ensure that the power is exercised in a less arbitrary way. Like the present ‘moderate’ wing in Solidarity, the authors fear ‘vacuous rebellion’ more than a reconsolidation of bureaucratic rule in a slightly reformed fashion.

This ties in with the second problem: the marvellous factual account of what is wrong in Poland is not linked to any theoretical explanation of the forces that made things the way they are. We are, for instance, told again and again that it is faulty investment targets that lead to the breakdown in planning, to wasted resources, idle factories, half finished construction sites, to a continual chopping and changing in the order given to managers and workers. But we are never told why investment targets are always faulty.

You cannot explain that unless you emphasise what Poland (and the USSR for that matter) has in common with Western states -insertion in a world system of competitive accumulation which forces each capital to invest to the maximum, regardless of the economic chaos that causes. Instead, like all reformers, the authors have to believe it is the peculiarities of their own country that have produced crisis. In this respect, they are like those people who prattle on about ‘the decline of Britain’ and peddle schemes to ‘restore our national industrial base’.

It is true that in Poland the crisis is further advanced than elsewhere in the East, just as it is further advanced in Britain than in most other places in the West. But the basic causes of the crisis everywhere lie in the state of the world system, not of its individual parts. That is why working class revolution, as opposed to reformist tampering, is the only real way out, East or West.

Last updated on 5 October 2019