Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist Party

Workers Struggles Exposes Capitalism in Soviet Satellite

Upheaval in Poland

First Published: Revolutionary Worker, No. 68 (Vol. 2, No 16) Aug. 22, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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By August 21st more than 100,000 Polish workers were out on strike, including more than half of the labor force of the northern industrial region of Poland. As we go to press there are reports of a general strike breaking out in the nation’s capital Warsaw. Shipyards have been occupied by workers for days, ports have been closed, railroads and other forms of transportation have been shut down. The city of Gdansk, Poland’s second largest port and the site of some of the largest shipyards in the world, has been completely paralyzed. As the strike continues to spread, almost every major industrial city in the country has been hit. Even the huge “model” steel works of Nowa Huta in the southern part of the country near Cracow experienced at least temporary strikes this week. Every section of Polish society has been affected and there are reports of peasants, students and intellectuals joining the struggle. So far the Polish government has emphasized negotiations with the strikers and restrained any use of force. But there are reports of Polish army troops being sent to strategic positions in the country, and nobody has forgotten the two Soviet armored divisions that are stationed in Poland.

One thing is for certain: the upheaval of hundreds of thousands of workers that has erupted across Poland in the last month has significance far beyond the demands of the strikers. The spreading strikes and growing militancy of the Polish workers has riveted the attention of the world in a way never done by general strikes in most other countries. The reasons are not hard to find.

Even more than the strikes of Polish workers in 1970, which brought down party boss Wladyslaw Gomulka, and 1976, which forced revisionist party secretary Edward Gierek to rescind food price increases, the current wave of unrest takes place as the U.S. and the USSR are impelled with daily increasing velocity towards World War III. In the U.S. the news of the Polish strikes has competed for front page headlines with stories about the new U.S. nuclear war strategy and the comparative state of the two superpowers’ war-making abilities. The question that seems foremost in the minds of many is whether the confrontation between the Polish workers and state will develop to the point of actually threatening the Soviet satellite government and precipitate a Russian invasion–obviously a highly volatile prospect given the current international situation.

Of course the Western media coverage, especially in the U.S., has focused attention on the strikes as an exposure of the failure of “communism” in Eastern Europe. The rebellion of the workers against the self-styled Polish Workers State is used as testimony to the claim that Western-style capitalism is indeed the best of all possible worlds for the masses of workers–and something U.S. workers should be ready to fight to defend from the Soviet threat.

Actually, the struggle of the Polish workers against their government is a vivid exposure of the so-called Polish Workers’ State, the state-capitalists, phony “communist” Party, and the Soviet imperialists. But not in the way the U.S. makes it seem. It is an exposure of the fact that the form of government and economy that exists in Poland is not socialism, but state capitalism, deformed in its own development by its domination by the Soviet Union. The rebellion of the Polish working class, objectively, is not against a socialist state or “communism” but against the exploitation and oppression suffered by the working class of every capitalist country–East and West–at the hands of their own bourgeoisie and, in the case of dependent countries, of their imperialist overlords as well.

This rebellion of workers in the heart of the Soviet imperialists’ empire also has great significance for the international proletariat. Any actions of the working class and masses of people that weaken their own capitalist class or the imperialist superpowers, and in any way bring closer the day of their overthrow and destruction, serve the interest of the international proletariat. But even more concretely, this rebellion of the Polish workers has to be seen as a sign of the potential ability of the workers of the East or the West, and even in the superpowers themselves, to rise in revolution and thus prevent an imperialist sponsored nuclear war, or to accomplish this revolutionary goal in the course of such a war.

It is these factors that give the Polish workers’ strikes their progressive character and call for the support of progressive and revolutionary people everywhere, despite the fact that some of their most disgusting mouthpieces and servants of U.S. imperialism are also proclaiming their support, while the imperialists look on silently but approvingly hoping to take advantage of their Soviet rival’s troubles.

Price Hikes Spark Strikes

The current turmoil began when the government announced hikes of from 30% to 90% in the price of meat on July 1st. Edward Giereck, Secretary of the United Polish Workers Party (PUWP) also announced that other food and consumer prices would have to be raised. The response of the workers was almost immediate. On July 2nd 17,000 struck the huge tractor factory at Ursus, near Warsaw, a center of the workers’ strikes against government attempts to raise food prices in 1976. In the following days the strikes spread to other cities. 20,000 auto workers shut down the huge Zeran auto plant near Warsaw. Electronic workers at the Rosa Luxemburg factory in Warsaw struck. By mid-July the strike spread to the Lublin region. Trains were paralyzed, bus service disrupted, milk deliveries cut off. There were work stoppages in the construction industry and in the public utilities.

The strikers’ demands were for wage increases and the retraction of the price hikes. The government stated its determination to stick with the new prices, but moved quickly to negotiate the wage increases. So far they have granted at least $1.1 billion in wage demands. But while the Polish ruling class offered the carrot, they also prepared the stick by strengthening troop displacements and police forces. Yet fearful of an escalation of the struggle that could be sparked by trying to use force against the strikes, the government maintained a conciliatory attitude towards the economic demands of the strikers. Government and party newspapers even conceded that the people had some legitimate complaints. The party daily Trybuna Ludu admitted that the social discontent was based on “real frustrations.” Among the causes for the frustration, it listed “poor supplies available in stores and factories, long waiting lines, increases in the cost of living, bureaucratic slowness, in certain cases the predominance of private interests, and the existence of a class of nouveau riche who can get everything.”

The government was forced to admit to some of the most obvious gripes of the masses. Among many workers the constant shortages are a particular irritant. For steel workers and others, although they have relatively high wages, there just aren’t the consumer goods. This is compounded by the fact that there are stores that generally have full supplies: the special stores where only police and party officials can shop, and the stores that can only be used by those with hard fc e.gn currency. Both of these increasingly became objects of hatred for the strikers. In most cities there are breadlines because of the shortages. Women line up at 5:00 and wait sometimes up to two hours for the daily bread ration. They jokingly refer to the “communist fast” on Monday and the “Catholic fast” on Friday. On Monday no meat is available at all.

But the government’s concessions on the wage demands did not buy the peace it had hoped for. By August 12 more than 150 factories and tens of thousands of workers had been struck. The list read like a list of the major cities in the country: 10,000 textile workers in Lodz, 20,000 helicopter factory workers in Wroclaw, 30,000 steel workers in southeastern Poland. All this time Gierek was on the Soviet Crimea, visiting with Soviet president Breshnev and discussing the situation in Poland. Government officials continued to call the strike movement a “bubbling unrest” and emphasized its “non-political nature.” One government official explained the government’s position by stating “The Polish government will not use force unless its vital interests are at stake and the hourly wage is not a vital interest.”

On August 14th, however, the situation took a leap when 16,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyards in the Baltic seaport of Gdansk joined the strikes and occupied the shipyards. Within days the strike spread to neighboring shipyards and the dry docks as well as to other cities in the region, including the shipyard Pahs Commune in Gdynia and to the cities of Sopop and Sczcenian. With the entry of this Baltic region into the rebellion the government became much more concerned. Gierek immediately returned from his “vacation” and began talking about how the situation “is beginning to worry our friends to the East,” a veiled threat of Soviet intervention if things didn’t cool out. A special government commission was set up to investigate the workers’ demands and to take part in the negotiations at the Lenin Shipyards. Meanwhile the government press began official coverage of the strikes with a less conciliatory tone, declaring that all the “trouble was being caused by anarchists and anti-socialist elements.”

On August 16th the government said it would compromise on the demands of the Lenin Shipyard workers, hoping to isolate them from the other strikers in the area and take the wind out of their sails. When the workers rejected the compromise, the government went ahead anyway and announced that the strike at the shipyards was over. This proved to be a self-defeating move by the government.

Political Demands

Responding to the call of workers throughout the region, angry about the false announcement, the Lenin Shipyard workers announced that they were remaining on strike and would continue to occupy the yards. In addition, 21 factories from the Gdansk-Sopop region declared that they had formed a joint strike committee, which they announced would be the only voice of the striking workers and that “the end of the strike would only be announced by this committee.” The joint committee issued a list of 16 demands that had to be met before the strike would end. The demands included: the guarantee of the right to strike, the abolition of censorship, the release of all political prisoners, the end of special privileges for the police, and, most outrageous as far as the government was concerned, the formation of “free and independent trade unions” instead of the government established trade union councils.

The government immediately cut all lines of communication between Gdansk and the rest of the country. Gierek cancelled a planned visit to West Germany and delivered an “appeal to the Polish workers and people” over nationwide television and radio. Radio Gdansk declared that “the climate of discussion in certain plants had become alarming.” On August 18, Gierek warned “There are limits that must not be stepped over by anyone!” The next day the Soviets made their first public response to the month of upheaval, backing up Gierek’s warning that “Poland can only be an independent country under socialism!” Of course, since neither Gierek nor the Soviets were talking about real socialism, these remarks could be more accurately translated as “Poland can only be independent under our social-imperialist domination.” Soviet press reports also sought to add strength to Gierek’s stand that “actions that are aimed against the basic foundation of the socialist system will not be tolerated and nobody can count on compromise on this issue!” In addition to the Soviet announcement that Warsaw Pact troops, 40,000 strong, would hold exercises in neighboring East Germany in September, travelers recently arriving in Sweden from Poland have reported that Soviet as well as Polish troop movements have been sighted in northern Poland.

Despite the toughened stance, however, it seems that the government is still trying to negotiate its way out of its crisis. Calling in Polish army troops could only worsen the situation as they see it now. As one recent visitor to Poland told the R.W., neither the Soviets or Gierek’s government can be sure which way the bullets will fly if they try to mobilize the Polish army against the strikers.

Behind the Current Crisis

Behind the current events in Poland is the crisis of that country’s capitalist economy, and its relation to the big imperialists–mainly the Soviets, but also those of the West. While there has been expansion in recent years, chickens are coming home to roost. Poland’s national income, agricultural production and capital investment have all shown a negative growth rate for 1979 and prospects look worse for 1980. Its industrial production has declined to an annual growth rate of 2.8%. Since 1971, Poland has fallen more than $30 billion into debt, $20 billion of which is its hard currency debt to Western European and U.S. banks, and it is forced to continue borrowing just to make the yearly service charges on the outstanding loans. Currently Poland has to come up with $7.8 billion, $5 billion of which is for repayment of the principal and the rest for the interest.

There is only one way to understand Poland’s sorry plight: the capitalist economic development enforced by its revisionist rulers and the thorough economic, political and military domination of Poland by the social-imperialist Soviet Union. For the most part, the Soviets’ economic and political exploitation of Poland has been carried out under the cloak of “mutual socialist aid,” “international division of labor,” “economic integration” and a host of similar sweet sounding phrases. Their main instrument in this plunder has been the Community for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).

For Poland, membership in COMECON has contributed heavily to the devastation of its economy. The basic operating principle of COMECON is the Soviets’ infamous “international division of labor,” by which they mean that the satellite countries of Eastern Europe and elsewhere are exploited for the benefit of the needs of the Soviet Union. This takes the form of plans for “economic integration and joint investment projects,” for example. In a joint investment project Poland agrees with the Soviet Union (and often a number of other Eastern European countries) to aid in the construction of industrial and raw material plants in remote areas of the Soviet Union. This aid consists in sending capital, machinery and labor to the Soviets. Poland built the Ustilimsk Paper Pulp Combine in Siberia in conjunction with four other Eastern European countries at a cost of $300 million rubles from 1973 to 1978. And in 1976 Poland joined with 5 Eastern European countries to build the Ohrandburg Natural Gas pipeline and agreed to build at its own expense 500 kilometers of the pipeline. In this joint investment project, Poland and 5 other countries provided more than 20,000 technicians and workers, as well as capital. Poland has also been involved in the development of Soviet phosphorous mines, the construction of the Byelorussia-Lithiuania oil pipeline and the Western Siberia-Byelorussia pipeline.

For the Soviet Union these joint investment projects are a very good deal. Not only do they get to appropriate the profit for the labor of the “COMECON workers” but they also get industrial development in the outer regions of the Soviet Union at very little cost to themselves, thereby freeing their capital for investment elsewhere. For Poland and the other COMECON members, however, it means that surplus capital in their own countries is plundered by the Soviets and invested to meet the needs of the Soviet Union. Over the course of the 1970s this “economic cooperation” has increased between Poland and the Soviets. In fact, in a joint meeting of Soviet and Polish government and Party leaders in late 1976, Poland promised to increase its participation in these joint investment projects in exchange for a $1.3 billion loan from the Soviets, earmarked for immediate use to cool out worker discontent in the wake of the June 1976 rebellion. This agreement prompted the Soviet news agency, Tass, to state, “Soviet-Polish relations have entered into a qualitatively new stage...of cooperation in policy, the economy and culture.”

The Soviets are Poland’s largest trade partner (West Germany is second) accounting for about 32% of its total trade. The Soviets supplies 80% of Poland’s petroleum and natural gas. Because of their dominant position, the Soviets have largely dictated the terms of the trade agreements, basically telling the Poles what exports they need and thus forcing a certain structuring of the Polish economy based principally on benefit to the Soviet Union. In addition the skyrocketing oil costs for the petroleum the Soviets pump to Poland, while still at a somewhat lower price than the world market, has put severe pressures on the economy. And Soviet moves to limit oil and natural gas export have forced Poland along with other countries of COMECON to begin purchasing on the world spot market, at even greater cost.

Poland’s backward agricultural sector plays into the overall economic havoc that now stalks the country; it is also linked to the negative effects of Soviet domination and trade on Poland’s economy. 80% of agriculture is still privately owned, mostly by peasants in small plots. This is in contrast to even most other revisionist countries which emphasize so-called state farms, a euphemism for a state capitalist monopoly in agriculture. Poland’s backward agricultural base is far behind the capitalist development elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The inefficiency of Polish agriculture, which is still not even completely mechanized, involves over 35% of the population, an enormous percentage by the standards of the industrialized nations. The backwardness and inefficiency of the agriculture sector has been an important factor in the food shortages and rationing that have affected the industrial workers. But further, the weakness in agriculture has required that Poland import large quantities of its grain. Since 1973 it has spent nearly all of its revenues from the export of coal (which accounts for its largest foreign exchange earnings) to do so. Of course the rampant inflation in the West has meant the ever increasing cost of these grain imports and hence the inflation of the costs of food in Poland. The food shortages in the country are then aggravated by the fact that the Soviets require the import of a significant proportion of Poland’s agricultural products, which are used to offset increases in Soviet oil charges.

Poland’s Capitalists Try to Buy Development from the West

Following the standard laws of capitalist logic, Poland’s leaders have tried to extricate themselves from their economic morass through increasing the productivity of the country’s workforce, particularly in export commodity sectors, and trying to implement a series of austerity measures, particularly the reduction of government subsidies that have kept down prices for key food items. But every time in the last decade they have tried to carry through with these austerity measures, they have met with the wrath of the working class. In 1970 in response to a food price increase, as well as shortages in food and housing, violent strikes and anti-government riots erupted for more than a week. Numerous party headquarters were burned down and the government was forced to call in tanks and the army. Over 55 workers were killed.

In the wake of the 1970 upheaval the new party leadership launched a massive effort to develop Poland’s industrial production, by purchasing plant and technology from the West. In terms of procuring this plant and technology, they were very successful. More than 51% of Poland’s industrial capacity has been developed since 1971. But this development was built on a foundation of sand, financed mainly by huge foreign, mainly western, credits and loans. This is what has been mainly responsible for Poland’s gigantic $20 billion western debt. But the fruits of such industrial development, the typical get rich quick schemes of capitalists from Teng’s China to Gierek’s Poland, have been not only disappointing to the Polish leadership–they have been down right disastrous. The production that results from this industrialization has been nowhere near enough to offset Poland’s debts and continued import requirements. The servicing of Poland’s annual debt to the West alone requires the proceeds of 60% of its exports.

By 1976 Poland was again in deep economic trouble. Gierek announced new “labor reforms” (to increase labor productivity) and price increases on food and basic necessities. Once again the Polish workers rebelled with massive strikes and demonstrations throughout the country. Within 24 hours the government backed down. Since 1976 the Polish ruling class has been able to maintain some semblance of “stability” only by relying on further massive injections of foreign credits and loans. In addition, in 1976 Poland adopted a new investment code that allowed foreign investors to set up and manage wholly owned businesses.

All these economic moves–both by East and West–have an important relation to the war plans of both sides.

For the U.S. and its bloc the openings for financial penetration of Poland offered important economic, but mainly political opportunities. Here was a chance to drive a wedge into the Soviet bloc, in a country which the U.S. imperialists figured to be the Soviets’ weak link in war. By tying Poland financially to the West, the U.S. hoped to wean it slightly away from the Soviets and increase its opportunity to intensify anti-Soviet sentiments within the country.

Poland’s dependence on Western credit, coupled with its impending financial crisis, led to a startling move in January of 1979. The Polish government agreed to permit a consortium of Western banks, led by the Bank of America and Citibank, to monitor its economy–in essence not only throwing open its books to the Soviets, but to the U.S. as well. These Western bankers insisted on a new austerity budget that would curb imports and reduce the amount of government revenues expended in subsidies. The western bankers also insisted on another startling provision in the Polish budget: the freezing of military expenditures! In a Warsaw Pact nation!

The emphasis that the U.S. bloc puts on finding ways to increase its influence in Poland and undermining the Soviets was only underscored by the election of the Polish pope after the sudden demise of his predecessor.

The Soviets, for their part, do not necessarily oppose this Western economic investment inside their bloc, even in the Soviet Union itself. They just have opposite aims from the U.S., hoping it will aid their side in their war strategy. They hope to get large amounts of technological assistance, and further build their economic base using Western capital. As for the massive debts incurred, while they do cause some real problems–the ultimate Soviet strategy is to cancel them through the “financial device” of war.

U.S. Response to Polish Strikes

While the U.S. government has taken an officially “low key” stance on the turmoil in Poland, refusing public comment on an “internal affair of Poland” (other than to express some disapproval at the arrest of some of the dissidents on August 20th) it has unleashed its mouthpieces to grab whatever propaganda points they could from the situation. Some of this posturing has been absolutely preposterous. On the one hand there is the example of international Longshoreman’s Association Teddy Gleason, a long time bootlicker of imperialism declaring a boycott of Polish shipping and denouncing the government controlled trade unions in Poland and giving support to the workers’ demands for a “free trade union.” In fact, there is little substantive difference between the government controlled trade unions imposed on the workers of Poland and the unions of the U.S., which while not administered directly by the government are controlled by the bourgeoisie nonetheless. In “communist” Poland as well as “free” America, the unions serve as vehicles for bourgeois control and suppression of the working class. The only time the likes of Teddy Gleason stirs himself from the routine of collecting graft and dining with the shipowners is when he is called upon by the U.S. imperialists to make some reactionary move on behalf of the U.S. government, like his attack on the Iranian revolution.

Then there is the ridiculous comment of the New York Times editorial which had the gall to proclaim that “the propaganda points of the Polish crisis are obvious...It draws attention to the economic failures of a country with an abysmal growth rate and a foreign indebtedness that has climbed to $30 billion.” Of course the U.S. imperialists and its bloc are the principal beneficiaries of this foreign indebtedness. And in light of the recent second quarter summation of the U.S. economy–commonly described as dismal–a characterization of the growth rate of Poland as “abysmal” is laughable.

Overall, however, the U.S. has proceeded somewhat cautiously in trying to further exploit the current turmoil in Poland. This was reflected in the statement of its Pope, John Paul II. in his prayer before the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on August 20 the pontiff expressed his personal solidarity with the church and people of Poland and called for the freedom of both. If the words were guarded the intent was obvious.

The cautious U.S. response reflects the tender position of the U.S. imperialists in this matter. First off, Western, including U.S. bankers, have been and continue to advise the Polish government to resist the strikers’ demands and lo persist in austerity measure. But, as important as the Western economic interests are in Poland, these are not dictating their tactics. Politics are in command, and Western imperialist politics mean welcoming trouble for the Soviets, but even here cautious maneuvering is required. For one thing, the very fact that the U.S. imperialists have influence in Poland, especially through the Pope, means that they have to be careful about going on the record supporting the resistance. There would be no easier way for the revisionist government to discredit the strikers than to be able to point to evidence that they are U.S. inspired. But even more significant than this in the U.S. response are the mixed feelings that the U.S. bourgeoisie have about possible Soviet military intervention in the crisis. While Soviet intervention would bring more resistance (and perhaps revolutionary resistance) inside Poland, still the U.S. overall would not welcome action in Poland by Soviet troops, and doesn’t want to provide the Soviets with an excuse to step in.

The significance of Poland in the deadly serious war preparations of both the Soviets and the U.S. is not hard to see. It is a key member of the Warsaw Pact, the centerpiece of the Soviet bloc. Straddling Central Europe, Poland is the direct route of march for Soviet troops into East and then West Germany. The importance of Poland and the seriousness with which the Soviets view internal rebellions and U.S. efforts to exploit such turmoil was underscored in the remarkable (and reactionary) book that rode the top of the best seller charts this year called The Third World War, August 1985, by Sir General John Hackett and other top ranking NATO Generals and Advisors. Purporting to be the scenario for World War III (a scenario in which the Western bloc wins the war), Hackett and his co-authors obviously base a lot of their plot development on the actual military and political assessments of Western military leaders, although their dream for victory is clearly based more on wishful thinking than political and military reality.

In an intriguing chapter entitled, “Unrest in Poland”, the General says: “the Third World War was said by many to have broken out in the same country as the Second, in Poland, on 11 November, 1984, the sixty-sixth anniversary of the end of the First World War. It did not seem like an outbreak of world war at the time.. .The political police and the army tried to arrest workers’ leaders on 11 November, and met with resistance By 12 November factories in several provincial cities of Poland were under workers’ control.. .Dramatic visual evidence of these events was provided by a group of dissidents working in Polish television. In Gdansk, the television station was taken over and held for some hours by technicians whose sympathies were with the strikers.”

Of course in Hackett’s not so far fetched scenario, the workers who seized the factories flew “a prewar Polish flag with the communist insignia ripped off.” And his purpose is not to hail workers’ control, but to demonstrate how the actions of the Polish workers contributed to a series of events that escalated into World War III and subsequent U.S. victory.

What Hackett and the rest of his kind cannot see is that the development of the working class movement in any country can contribute to something entirely different–a common revolutionary struggle of the international working class against their capitalist exploiters, East and West.

True, the workers of the contending blocs are the cannon fodder each set of slavemasters intends to send off to kill and die for their respective masters. But within the powerful workers struggles it Poland, just like the Miami rebellion and other powerful struggles in the West, are the seeds of an entirely different army which can come into being–an army of the international proletariat fighting in revolutionary struggle against their own masters and all their reactionary plans.