Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Ron Whitehorne

Polish Workers’ Strike ... More Meat and Democracy

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 6, No. 9, September 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Upwards of 300,000 Polish workers are on strike demanding higher wages and democratic trade unions from what is supposed to be a workers’ state. In much of capitalist Western Europe striking workers carry red flags and display the hammer and sickle. In this quarter of socialist Eastern Europe the strikers hoist placards of the Pope. Meanwhile the capitalist bankers of Germany, Britain and the US loan Poland’s Communist government a billion dollars and caution the Polish workers that they must learn to tighten their belts.

What underlies these ironies? Is the Polish strike yet more “proof” that socialism does not work as the capitalist circles here and elsewhere allege? Or are the Polish workers well intentioned but misguided dupes of anti-socialist elements as Moscow suggests. What should the attitude of class conscious workers here in the US be toward the strikers and their demands? These are just some of the questions posed by the Polish events.


While Poland is certainly not a capitalist country in that the means of production with the exception of agriculture are state owned and the economy is centrally planned, its political constitution and economic policies reveal some decidedly unsocialist features. The present Polish state and social system is the product of a partial revolution from above. Moreover the motive force for this revolution came not from Poland but from its neighbor to the east, a country that in the minds of the Poles is responsible for centuries of subjugation and national humiliation. Polish “socialism” is marked by the circumstances of its birth and no attempt to understand present events can succeed without grasping this.

Poland was liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army in 1944. Five years of ruthless German rule had created a political vacuum in the ’Country. The Polish resistance movement, while heroic, lacked the scope and organization characteristic of the Partisans of Yugoslavia, Italy and France. The government in exile consisting of pre-war political figures had little strength. Moreover it was politically unacceptable to the Soviet leadership.

Stalin demanded and received from his British and American allies recognition of two broad principles that were to govern the Soviet role in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. One, the Soviets demanded a free hand to deal with pro-fascist forces in the zone of their occupation and two, that no post war government in this area be hostile to the USSR. The Polish government in exile had at its core the followers of the ex-Polish dictator Pilsudski, was backed by British imperialism and was virulently anti-Russian.

Unfortunately anti-Russian sentiment was not limited to this handful of emigres. Repeatedly annexed, partitioned and invaded, Poland has developed a national psychology of deep distrust for its neighbors. From the close of the Napoleonic wars to the Russian Revolution Poland was reduced to a province of the Tsars. The role of the Soviet Union during the war did not dispel popular anti-Russian sentiment. While the Soviets defeated the Nazi occupiers, they also occupied the Eastern marches of Poland in the first days of the war in accordance with a secret protocol in the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, thus participating once again in the dismemberment of Poland by foreigners.

In addition the Red Army refused to allow the western allies to provide support to the Warsaw uprising in 1944 and only provided aid of their own after it was too late. Soviet policy in both instances was dictated by defensive concerns rather than any aggressive designs on Poland. Nevertheless the effect could only be to reinforce anti-Russian and thus anti-Soviet sentiment.


The only political force in Poland that could be entrusted to organize a government that was not hostile to the Soviet Union was the Polish Communist Party. Small and compromised by its defense of Soviet behavior in relation to Poland, the Party was a slender reed on which to construct a government that could command popular confidence. Yet, short of turning power over to anti-Soviet reactionaries tied to Anglo-American imperialism, the Soviet Union had little choice but to sponsor a regime based primarily on this Party.

Had it not been for the intervention of the Cold War a more democratic evolution of the Polish People’s Republic might have occurred. The Polish Party, with the support of the Soviets, succeeded in drawing some left wing social democratic forces into the government and adopted a conciliatory policy toward the powerful Roman Catholic church. While committed to an eventual socialist transformation of Poland because of both ideological conviction and security considerations, the Soviets urged a cautious and gradual approach. The new government limited itself to social and economic reforms while trying to build popular support for more far-reaching socialist measures.

A drastic shift occurred as the imperialist powers abandoned the wartime alliance with its acceptance of Soviet preeminence in Eastern Europe in favor of a policy of “rollback.” The imperialists combined military intimidation with attempts to exploit the internal contradictions within Eastern Europe in order to undermine Soviet influence. The Soviets reacted by moving to consolidate all political power in the hands of those of proven reliability, purging non-communists and communists alike. Gradualist measures gave way to a policy of rapid nationalization regardless of political conditions. Thus the tempo and character of Poland’s social transformation was dictated by external events.


The regime that has emerged from this unfortunate history is full of contradictions. Compromised by being empowered by the Soviets, it at the same time has shown an ability to respond and adapt to Polish nationalism as in 1956 when Wladyslaw Gomulka emerged as the first successful “national” communist, becoming Party leader over the objections of the Soviets. Owing to the circumstances of its origins, the regime was unwilling to encourage the broad democratic participation of the working masses in the administration and policy-making of the state.

Years of power and the bureaucratic habits that inevitably flower in the absence of democracy have further alienated the Party from the masses. Yet even Western analysts acknowledge that Poland is a far cry from the grey Police State of anti-communist lore. There are few political prisoners, the dissident community has more latitude than anywhere else in the bloc, and the Catholic Church functions openly as a powerful and independent opinion molder. Public criticism of the regime is freely given, generally tolerated and even encouraged within narrow limits.

The Polish Communist Party is at once a bureaucratic elite and a working class political party. Its leader is a former Silesian coal miner as is the head of state. While the Party acts to preserve its bureaucratic privileges, it also seeks to raise the living standards of the Polish working class.

The actions of the Polish workers reflect the contradictions that characterize the Polish state. There is no indication from either the strikers’ demands or from interviews with them in the western press, that the strikers seek a return to the bad old days of capitalism. The thrust of the workers’ struggle is against undemocratic distortions and wrong-headed economic policies that are holding back the development of socialism in Poland.

Even with all of its defects the present Polish social system has dramatically improved the lot of Polish workers. There is no unemployment and real wages in the last decade have increased by 60%, a sharp contrast to the plight of the inflation and layoff-ridden working class in our country. Low prices and comprehensive social services have attracted thousands of Polish Americans and others to spend their retirement years in Poland.

Food prices, particularly of meat, along with the availability of these items has been the principal focus of worker economic dissatisfaction, not simply today but in 1956 when working class demonstrations in Poznan brought reformer Wladyslaw Gomulka to power, in 1970 when worker unrest brought Gomulka down and raised Edward Gierek to his place and again in 1976 when strikes forced the cancellation of price increases. The combative Polish workers are jealous of the economic gains they have made and believe that they could and should have more. And they are right.


The shortage of meat and its relatively high price is rooted in the regime’s failure to move towards the collectivization of agriculture. Some 80% of Poland’s agriculture is in private hands, consisting of small family farms. As a result Polish agriculture is inefficient and labor productivity is extremely low. Over 35% of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, a remarkable figure for an industrialized country. The result is high prices for farm products. The state has softened the blow historically by selling the produce it buys from the farmers at a price well below cost. On July 1 the state moved to end this subsidy, a measure that resulted in a 40-60% rise in the cost of meat.

This move was prompted by a growing economic crisis brought about by Poland’s indebtedness to western financial interests. In the early 1970s Poland initiated an ambitious program of industrial development, borrowing heavily from West German and US banks to finance its growth. Today Poland is over $20 billion in debt, slightly more than half the indebtedness of the whole Eastern bloc. In interest alone the government must pay nearly $2 billion this year.

Polish planners expected that increased productivity and rising exports would enable the state to repay its debt while still delivering improved living standards. This has not occurred. The high costs of imported energy, the economic slump in the West which has undercut markets for Polish exports, and bureaucratic sluggishness have all been factors. One result is increasing Polish dependence on the West. This dependence is encouraged by Western financial interests and governments alike.

This, more than any desire to forestall Soviet intervention, which is most unlikely anyhow, is what explains the curiously sympathetic attitude of the financial community and the state department toward the difficulties of the regime. This most far-seeing imperialist strategy sees Poland gradually being drawn into the capitalist economic orbit and the Polish leadership has unwittingly served this aim. The other result of mistaken Polish policy is that the government, in order to service its debt, must cut back on expenditures and is calling for workers to tighten their belts.


Polish workers are unwilling to pay the costs for mistaken policies which they had little say in formulating in the first place. It would be one thing if the regime had adopted the present course in a democratic fashion which included widespread public discussion and debate. But it did not and thus has little basis for demanding that the working masses share in the responsibility for its mistakes. The workers have not developed a full blown alternative to the economic policies of the regime. However one of the strikers’ demands is for a full public airing and discussion of the economic situation and an unfettered debate on proposed measures to resolve it.

Worker unwillingness to “bite the bullet” is fueled by resentment over the privileges enjoyed by Party members, high state officials, and other members of the elite. While workers wait in line for meat, the best cuts are either exported to earn hard currency to service the national debt, or go to specialty shops reserved for this privileged stratum. The strikers are demanding an end to the specialty shops and the limiting of exports to whatever surplus exists after domestic needs have been met.

Aside from the demand for a $66 a month wage increase, the other principal demand of the strikers is for trade unions free of administrative interference from the state and controlled democratically by the membership. The present trade unions in Poland are bureaucratized, top-down organizations which function more as instruments of labor discipline than as vehicles that represent the workers’ concerns.

The Leninist conception of the role of trade unions during the transition to socialism sees the unions as transmission belts between the workers on the shop floor and the workers’ state. The union represents the workers in matters pertaining to wages, working conditions and the organization of production. The union also seeks to mobilize the workers to carry out the various political and economic tasks necessary to build socialism. The unions do not exist in an antagonistic relationship to the state, but neither are they simply extensions of the state.

This conception assumes proletarian democracy both in relation to the unions and the state, and the existence of a revolutionary party that has the confidence of the workers and can mediate between these two institutions. None of these requisites are present in Poland today. In demanding the democratization of the unions the Polish workers are taking an important first step to bringing about a broader democratization of Polish society. The call for total autonomy for the unions, however, is a misplaced emphasis. Instead the focus must be democratizing the state as well as the unions.

While the strike movement has not elaborated a clearcut socialist alternative to the present impasse, the political thrust of the movement is predominantly progressive and will serve to advance Poland’s progress on the road to socialism. The strike is in reaction to economic policies that weaken socialism and strengthen the position of international imperialism. While the Polish workers have not demanded the collectivization of agriculture or a sharp reversal of the import of western capital as the means for modernization, objectively their strike points in this direction.

The main political content of the strike is an attack on bureaucratic power and privilege and a call for greater democracy. While the movement as yet lacks a comprehensive vision of working class democracy that encompasses the Party, the state and all the institutions of Polish society, the call for democratic unions and the demand for an end to the specialty shops contain the embryo of such a vision.


Concern that the strike could be exploited by reactionary elements is not entirely unwarranted. The alienation between the strikers and the Party has furthered the influence of the powerful Catholic church and the dissident movement, composed primarily of intellectuals from the upper stratum of Polish society. The strikers’ demands, at least as reported by the Committee for Social Self Defense, a dissident group, reflect the influence of these two forces, neither of which are friendly to socialism.

The two demands that most directly reflect this influence is the call for the release of all political prisoners and the demand for access to the mass media by religious groups. There is no differentiation between those who have been imprisoned for legitimate political activity that should be protected and those who have been jailed for organizing outright counter-revolutionary actions. The main beneficiary of what appears to be a demand relating to religious freedom in general would be the Catholic Church, the principal organized counterweight to the Party and an institution that has, while practicing co-existence with the state, sought to hold back and retard the development of socialism.

However neither of these demands appear to figure centrally in the strike negotiations. The strikers have raised no objections to the recent arrest of 12 members of the Committee for Social Self Defense and have sought to put some distance between themselves and the dissident community.

Western media accounts have made much of the visible expressions of religious sentiment on the part of the workers, seeking to buttress the idea that this is an anti-communist strike. However the undeniable identification with the church and Catholicism co-exists with manifestations of revolutionary socialist convictions among the workers. Last Sunday the New York Times reported that the workers held a mass in the Lenin shipyard and then joined together in singing the Internationale, the anthem of revolutionary workers throughout the world.

The influence of the church is not simply the product of strong religious feeling among the masses. It is also a reflection of the role the church has appropriated as a voice for national independence. The church has taken advantage of the compromised position of the Party and subtly played on Polish national sentiment and resentment toward the Soviets to bolster its position.

In any event the workers have not pressed the question of the church’s status during the strike and the church has been unwilling to jeopardize its relationship of co-existence with the state by backing the strike. The limits of its influence were clarified when Cardinal Wyszynski, the leading prelate, went on television and urged the workers to show restraint, in effect urging them to return to work. The message did not play well in Gdansk and the strike continues.

To oppose the strike on the grounds that reactionary forces, real or imagined, might gain influence is a profoundly shortsighted and stupid position. In the case of the Polish Party such an attitude would function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Repression of the strikers could only strengthen the hand of the enemies of socialism. For revolutionaries in Poland to support such repression would deny them any audience, let alone influence, among the mass of the Polish workers. For revolutionaries in the US to take such an attitude would be to forfeit our credibility as advocates of working class rule in the US before the workers of our country.

History is not a simple thing. It has imposed upon the Polish working class a tortured and twisting road towards its own emancipation. The Polish workers are travelling it nonetheless.