First Published: Theoretical Review No. 26, January-February 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The tragic events in Poland have brought into sharp focus the central contradictions presently unfolding in the USSR and Eastern Europe. The Polish regime, whose social base has been reduced to a relatively narrow strata of party and state bureaucrats and security personnel, was being openly challenged by the very force whose interests it had always claimed to represent: the Polish workingclass. The self-organization and activity of the Polish workers once and for all exploded that myth. The declaration of martial law nakedly demonstrated the reality of the situation: the government could stay in power only because it controlled the state repressive apparatuses and not because it enjoyed the support of the people.
What about the “leading role” of the party in all this? General Jaruzelski’s declarations during the emergency were issued as head of state without any mention of the Polish United Workers Party of which he is ostensibly the head. Numerous other factors (including mass resignations) point to the virtual collapse of the Party as a political force of consequence. This goes to illustrate a point which has frequently been made in the pages of this journal about the party-state relationship in these countries: it is not the party which controls and leads the state under Stalinian “socialism,” but the massive state system which dominates and shapes the party. When, as in Poland, the party ceases to function as an institution for controlling the masses, the State thrusts it aside to disclose the real power of these regimes: the armed might of the state security police and the army.
A combination of inter-related factors overdetermined the Polish crisis from the outset. The national economy was corrupt, bureaucratic and inefficient–the debt to Western capital did not improve the situation but rather introduced aspects of the current capitalist recession (most notably inflation) into Poland itself. Politically, the government systematically mismanaged national planning while blocking any input from the masses in the establishment of realistic goals or the formulation and implementation of policy to achieve them. Ideologically, the distorted form of Marxism-Leninism which the Party and the State promoted not only acted as an obstacle to the fusion of communism with the working masses, but actually gave a new lease on life to ideologies hostile or indifferent to socialism: religion, nationalism, etc. The total inability of the Party and State to develop a plan for leading the nation out of this crisis compelled the workingclass to step into the breach.
The issue of whether or not the workingclass overreached itself immediately before martial law was imposed will undoubtedly be debated for some time to come. Certainly there is no question, however, that Solidarity was correct with regard to the central principle upon which it was founded: the leading role of the workingclass in socialist construction. Without its active participation any attempt at socialist renovation would have been doomed from the start. Tactically, however, the workers’ movement increasingly began to assume the political tasks and responsibilities which the paralysed Party and State were no longer capable of performing, without having either sufficiently won over and transformed the party organizations, or created its own political structures. In this sense Solidarity had the support of the working masses while lacking the mechanisms to transform this support into effective political practice.
The Polish situation confronts revolutionary Marxists everywhere with a decision, a choice of allegiances, if you will. The two alternatives are as follows. Is the struggle for communism in the socialist transition period a struggle by the workingclass and all oppressed for their emancipation to which cause the communist party dedicates itself? Or, is it a struggle by the party through its control of the state system to subordinate the workingclass and popular masses to its own conception of what socialism should be? Put another way: does the party lead the masses by means of a mass line of political-ideological struggle, or does it rule over them, presumably in their “interests,” through the use of force and state compulsion?
The charge that anti-socialist forces were active in the Polish workers movement is a red herring which should fool no one familiar with Lenin’s thinking on the nature of revolution. In 1916 he wrote:
“The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of backward workers will participate in it–without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible–and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors...
“Whoever expects a ’pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.” [emphasis in original]
The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe require a fundamental renovation if their present situation of economic, political and ideological crisis is to be overcome and their motion in the direction of Communism is to be reactivated. Such a transformation will only occur as the result of a mass social movement of the workingclass and other social forces. In such a movement the participation of backward forces is also inevitable, but without them such a mass socialist renovation is likewise impossible. Those who use the existence of backward elements in Solidarity to oppose the Polish workingclass must accept the logic of their own position: they are opposing the possibility and reality of any rebirth of revolutionary socialism in Eastern Europe. They are paying lip-service to socialist renovation without understanding what it is and how it develops.
Some of them, anyway. Others, like the Communist Party, USA, Workers World and Line of March know very well what they are talking about. These forces oppose the struggle of the Polish workers against the state system because their conception of socialism and the nature of revolution is virtually indistinguishable from that of General Jaruzelski. For them Marx’s insistence that “the emancipation of the workingclass must be the task of the workers themselves” is nothing more than a blatant expression of the anarcho-syndicalist deviation. Or as a leader of Line of March brilliantly put it: “the duty of the party is to make revolution; the duty of the workingclass is to follow its leadership.” Phony communists of this variety know only too well that what they are opposing in Poland is not the presence of backward elements in the workers movement.
What they are really against is a social process in which the workingclass plays an active and leading part, one in which it is not the workingclass which serves the party, but the party which serves the workers. Between revolutionary communists and these apologists for Polish “military socialism” there exists an unbridgeable gulf which no amount of rhetoric can or should conceal.
Events in Poland require the earnest attention of all revolutionaries. Summing up the lessons of these events and what they mean for the character of the countries of Eastern Europe and the nature of state power in them, is essential to understanding their present and their future. But it is not enough that we understand these events. Proletarian internationalism requires that we put that knowledge in the service of the workingclass movement, in the service of international solidarity with Polish workers and socialist construction. For socialism and workers’ democracy are inseparable: an attack on one is simultaneously an attack on the other.
 V. I. Lenin, “The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up,” Part 5 (The Irish Rebellion of 1916).