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International Socialist Review, Spring 1957


Edgar Morin

The Workers Councils in Poland

Report of an Eyewitness Observer


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1957, pp.49-53, 71.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following article, based on interviews held by Edgar Morin with worker militants in Poland recently, is extracted from a pamphlet scheduled for early publication in France.

The article was published in the February 15 issue of La Verité, newspaper of the French section of the Fourth International.

We join with the editors of La Verité in expressing appreciation for Morin’s informative report while not necessarily sharing all the author’s opinions.

* * *

THE NATIONAL explosion of October 1956 was preceded by a social explosion – Poznan – and was linked to a social revolution, incomplete and partial, to be sure, but deep-rooted. The thread of this revolution unravelled slowly before my eyes in the course of conversations until I came to the end of the skein at the WFM motorcycle and Zeran automobile plants. What was involved was the decisive action of a working-class vanguard against the state bureaucracy, an action supported by all social layers of the country. It was, in my opinion, a genuine, revolutionary class struggle.

Actually the vanguard of the working class was the driving power in the events of the last months. In Poznan the movement was launched by the workers of the Stalin plant, just as the East Berlin uprising began with a demonstration of the workers of Stalin Allee. (What beautiful Marxist symbols of the fact that Stalinism is its own grave-digger!) In Warsaw, during the feverish October days, the workers from the plants mobilized, took up arms, made, their weight felt through their delegations at the Eighth Plenum, and centralized the workers movement that broke out simultaneously in the industrial centers and provinces.

After October a revolutionary working-class force developed which tended to replace the old economic-social structure with a new one. This was the Workers Councils movement, which arose out of the Zeran and WFM plants.

This is not in any way to lessen the role of the intellectuals, or the role of numerous sections of the Polish Workers Party. I do not wish to reduce all the complexities of the Polish events to a bare formula. But recognition of the main fact makes it possible for us to understand how a semi-organized, yet organizing motive force, the force of a working-class vanguard, played the decisive role at every turning point.

To be sure, this action of the vanguard (for we must emphasize that it was not a matter of the working class as a whole, but only of the workers in certain plants and areas) could be decisive only because it found an immediate response in the whole population. The uprising of an entire city, Poznan, and the mobilization of an entire city, at Warsaw, are two examples. Thus there was a kind of pre-established harmony between the workers’ demands and the general demands of the nation; and this harmony was due not only to a common national sentiment of oppression but also to a new distribution of forces and roles in the class struggle, in contrast to the traditional class struggle in the bourgeois world.

The Working Class in the New Polish Society

The fact is that in the Stalinist world of the People’s Democracies the old social differentiations are blurred in the general pauperization and enslavement, while a fundamental differentiation appears between the state bureaucracy and all other social layers. Thus, for example, the antagonisms between the rich and poor peasants are blurred over in the Polish countryside, since the “rich” peasants are themselves pauperized by the special taxes levied against them. In the cities, the “capitalist” elements, reduced to a tiny fraction of artisans and merchants, no longer serve as a pole for the resentment of the working masses themselves directly dependent on the state. It is within the general pauperization and the general subjection to the state that social relations are now established. All classes have a fundamental interest converging against the state-as-boss, state-as-parasite, state-as-policeman, which maintains itself in power thanks only to the presence of the Red Army.

At the same time, the working class is undergoing a complete transformation. As a class, it is losing some of the traits that have distinguished other laboring classes. In the bourgeois world, the working class is the almost exclusive bearer of communist ideology. In the world of the People’s Democracies, “communist” is no longer synonymous with “working class,” and genuine communists appear in every layer of society.

On the one hand, the working class as such has not been privileged in the People’s Democracies. On the other hand, the working class is no longer a victim of social segregation. It no longer occupies the sociological ghetto of the bourgeois world. If it suffers the most harshly from the imperatives of the planned economy, it is nevertheless not a lower class in its social status; conversely, although ideologically glorified, it lacks power.

These facts have led some of our Polish friends to conclude that the working class has ceased to be a revolutionary class, and they support this conclusion with other observations. According to them, the working class has lost its vanguard. This vanguard, made up of Communist Party members, has in great part gone over to the apparatus of the state and the party or has been elevated to technical positions, thanks to the opportunities of the new regime. Moreover, accelerated industrialization has brought into the working class a whole mass of rural workers, politically and socially uneducated, conservative, religious, even anti-Semitic. (In certain plants, we were told, an anti-Stalinist could be smeared by crying, “He’s a Jew.” And when there were to be layoffs, the privileged Stalinists were successful in using the slogan, “Fire the Jews first.”)

Furthermore, these friends say, the working class has lost its ideology, not only as a result of the foregoing factors but also because this ideology collides with an allegedly achieved socialism that corresponds in no way to the aspirations that had been nourished in the capitalist world. Socialism is discredited – the workers do not feel that they have either power or authority in their factories or their cities. Hence, an ideological pauperization that prevents the working class from acquiring full consciousness of its own class role and duties.

Social Role of the Vanguard Workers

This pessimistic outlook contains, no doubt, important grains of truth. But the events of the last months show us that the greatest political energy, the highest social consciousness, the greatest organizational capacity appeared, if not in the working class as a whole, at least in a vanguard of the class. For it was this vanguard that acted as the motive force in the revolutionary transformations of Poznan, the October events, and the Workers Councils. To understand this, we must first of all recognize that some of the factors listed above as negative are in fact positive. The working class, for instance, has lost its old vanguard, which went over to the state and party apparatuses. But does this not equally mean that the working class has got rid of those Stalinists most inclined to bureaucratic careers? This promotion of an “elite” has, so to speak, de-Stalinized the industrial plants in advance. In the Stalinist world the wheat always, tends to sink to the bottom while the weeds rise to the top.

Similarly, the working class has not so much lost as de-Stalinized its ideology – in the living, concrete, irrefutable experience of forced labor. It has lost its myths its illusions. To be sure, in arousing the reaction among the workers of “No matter what, anything is better than this,” the Stalinist oppression might, at first thought, seem to have accomplished the miracle of making the workers want what they have rejected from the most subtle bourgeois paternalism. But the latest experience demonstrates that the change wished by the working class is not to a return to the past. It is the elimination of the bureaucratic and police regime, and, still more, ascendancy to collective management of the plants – that is, precisely, achievement of socialism itself.

The most highly developed industrial plants are natural fortresses of struggle against the bureaucracy. There is, in reality, no bureaucratic excrescence within the factory. The desks are occupied by technicians, who are production experts, not parasites. The “functionaries” (two from the party and two from the union at WFM and Zeran) are not numerous enough to constitute a bureaucratic layer and seem, on the contrary, to be tied rather to the masses. The atmosphere of the plant even tends to regenerate and purify the local organs of the party and the trade union. It is no accident that the healthy branches of the party are the local sections in the large industrial enterprises; it was these sections, inspired either by old militants who had not forgotten everything or by very young cadres who had not yet been corrupted, that played an organizing role in the revolutionary events of Poznan and October.

Moreover, within the industrial enterprises conditions are favorable for constituting a compion front between workers, party militants, technicians and factory administration, against the external bureaucratic enemy – the Ministry, the State. They all have a common enemy in the plan which is imposed abstractly from above and which is so deadly to the maximum profitableness and productive capacity of the plant. The plant directors are the least sure elements in this common front. Appointed by the ministries, they sometimes come to feel more tied to the fate of the ruling bureaucracy than to the fate of their plant. And so we see plant directors opposing control by the Workers Councils. But we also see directors calling for and promoting the formation of these councils, as at Zeran and WFM, because they see in them the best way of liberating the productive forces from the bureaucratic yoke.

That is why the revolutionary action of the working class was decisive wherever a block was welded of all members of the enterprise, embracing the nuclei of plant staff, management and party. In those cases, the awakened consciousness rose to the height of the economic, social and political problem. The struggle against Stalinism, against the state bureaucracy, against possible Russian intervention, was a single struggle, and this struggle contained a positive program. Zeran and WFM, which were mobilized day and night during October, remain today the pilots of the new course. Delegations flock there from factories all over Poland to study these models in the organization of Workers Councils.

Marx saw in large-scale capitalist industry the revolutionary stronghold against the bourgeois world. Today we can see in large-scale nationalized industry the revolutionary stronghold against the Stalinist world, because it is the social cell which the bureaucracy cannot corrupt from within, because it is constantly purified of its bureaucratizable elements by the suction pump of the apparatus, and because it is basically de-Stalinized through its class experience. The working class is the motive force of the new class struggle in Stalinist society because, as the class least susceptible to becoming either parasitic or host to parasites, it is the anti-bureaucratic class par excellence. The working class is the motive force of the class struggle, but against the real conservatives, the holders of Stalinist power.

The working class is capable of drawing behind it, in the common interest, all layers of the population. It is capable, that is, of orienting the collective action in a definitively socialist direction, thus avoiding in the People’s Democracy the catastrophic consequences which naturally follow the discreditment of socialism.

Coalition Against the Parasitic Bureaucracy

Stalin’s famous sentence turns ironically against Stalinism: “Only the working class can carry the banner of national independence.” Actually, Polish independence was reconquered thanks to the Poznan insurrection and the pre-insurrection of October; and this reconquest cannot be dissociated from a revolutionary social conquest. It was out of a single movement that the working-class vanguard, at the head of the Polish masses, restored to the country the foundations of its national freedom, breaking their chains – the chains of semi-slave forced-labor – and projected an economic-social system in conformity with the needs of the producers themselves as well as the development of the productive forces.

Although the national emancipation struggle hid from many observers the social revolution, the two processes were in fact indissociable. I do not say that the social revolution was the substructure of the national revolution, or vice-versa; it is a matter of two faces of a single complex movement.

The history of recent months acquires full significance in the general perspective of the conflicts within Stalinist society. Stalin’s death opened a new era. A thaw began in the latent antagonism between the ruling bureaucracy and the NKVD – that monstrous excrescence of the already monstrous bureaucracy, whose power it first guaranteed and then threatened. At the same time, the rusty connections of the system began to loosen up. The destruction of the NKVD through the combined action of leading party circles, the army and the Soviet state (liquidation of Beria), opened a revolutionary period which will be brought to a close only by the re-establishment of the police terror or the liquidation of the caste system.

In the general ferment, the working-class vanguard marched into the streets, in East Berlin in 1953, in Poznan in 1956.

(In Hungary, it was not the working class as a class which was the first to march into the streets, and this perhaps explains the weakness of the Nagy regime in the first days of the insurrection. In Poland a powerful movement of workers’ delegations was the dominant influence at the Eighth Plenum, played a decisive role in the nomination of Gomulka, and forestalled the military preparations of Rokossovsky and the Red Army. In Hungary, however, the genuinely working-class pressure made itself felt only slightly in the party, and Gero thought that he could easily crush a movement of students. The councils sprang up only after the Russian intervention. I do not say that things could have turned out otherwise than they did in Hungary, but I believe the chances of a different outcome would have been better had the councils appeared before they did.)

The working-class vanguard in Poland has been mobilized since Poznan. It animates with its energies the local party and trade-union sections. In the advanced enterprises, it is united with the technical direction. It is the only political force, partly organized, against the gigantic bureaucratic state apparatus, which is itself half-paralyzed, subject to contrary influences, including a partial urge toward liberalization.

If I do not dwell with the intellectuals it is not, I repeat, because I underestimate their role, but because I shall deal with it more thoroughly in another place. For the moment let us note this essential aspect: it was the intellectuals who blew the sharp blast of criticism that dispersed the mystical miasmas of Stalinist ideology. Overwhelmed by their own responsibility, ashamed of having lived as the servants and chorus leaders of tyranny, torn by their guilty consciences, drunk with the freedom they were winning to express themselves, all these young party intellectuals suddenly became men. Their need for the truth had a powerful echo. It was not only a subjective, petty-bourgeois, idealist need, it was the enormous political need of the popular masses, of the working class. The need for truth became a major political force. It welded together the huge coalition of all social layers against a power which henceforth had only one support – the Russian army.

Breaking the Chains of Semi-slave Labor

The October events are well known. Less well known is the working-class revolution that shattered the semi-slave-labor framework of industrial labor. Police pressure in the plants had already been sharply reduced after Stalin’s death and the liquidation of Beria. By the end of 1955 or the beginning of 1956 layoffs were no longer arbitrarily decided but had to be taken to joint arbitration commissions (of union and management). From the spring of 1956, working-class pressure made itself felt in the following ways: rescinding of disciplinary work conditions; wage guarantees; participation in plant management and profits.

At the height of the October wave that carried him to power, Gomulka solemnly recognized the right to strike. Soon after came repeal of the hated law on “socialist labor discipline,” that is, the semi-slave-labor type of law which imposed fines and prison terms for any infraction of the forced labor discipline.

At the same time, the working-class vanguard is seeing to it that wages are guaranteed, stabilized and even increased. Many production bonuses (which sometimes went as high as 100 to 200 percent of the base wage) are being integrated into wages. Wages are to be fixed independently of the work norms. Part of the profits (17 percent) are to be allotted to the plant personnel. As the chains of the working conditions are broken, the former economic system is put under attack at every point.

That system was based on a bureaucratic direction of the economy, which determined the plan and then had it executed at all costs; at the cost, that is, of total coercion, of passive obedience, and of incredible wastage of what is man’s “most precious capital,” initiative. The gigantic body, was walking on its head. The working-class vanguard, breaking the drive-shaft of that system, is projecting another system, the system of Workers Councils and collective self-government in the plants.

The Management Councils

This is clearly the heart of the problem of Polish socialism. The new system implies not only emancipation of the working class from the semi-slave-labor yoke, but also its active participation in the life of the enterprise and the economy of the country.

The idea of workers management was in the air by the spring of 1956. It arose spontaneously, since it corresponded to the official ideology which asserted that the workers were the owners of their plants. The influence of ideas from Yugoslavia, previously tabooed but now permissible, played an important catalytic role. These ideas boiled over at the Seventh and Eighth Plenums. Projects were discussed in the vanguard plants and occasionally carried out, as, it seems, in northern Warsaw.

To what extent was there confusion between the workers committees born spontaneously in October, and the management councils that were later to crystallize? In going over my notes, I find that many points are unclear to me, and some of the statements of various Polish comrades seem contradictory, not through any fault of these comrades but because we ourselves were thinking at that time in terms of comparing the councils with the Soviets of the 1905 and 1917 type, that is, with plant councils which had not only economic but also political power. But the fact is that the management councils movement reappeared in November-December, after the political powers of the workers committees had been abolished.

What is involved? Basically, management of the enterprise by a council elected by the entire personnel. The pattern ranges from a largely consultative council to an organ of management empowered to make final decisions for the entire enterprise. At Zeran and WFM, for example, the council expresses its opinion on the projected plan and makes corrections, adopts the annual production plan and establishes the monthly quotas within it, sets up the organizational structure of the enterprise as well as the broad lines of technical development and productivity. At Zeran the council, elected December 4, 1956, has since then remodeled the organizational framework of the plant, established a new wage structure through the integration of bonuses and a new distribution of total payments; it checks the relationship of work norms to wages; it meets regularly to take up the customary tasks of management. After a period of intensive activity in getting started, the council now meets regularly once a month. At Zeran the council constitutes genuine self-government of the plant, since it confirms the nomination of the director proposed by the Ministry, and the nomination of the department heads proposed by the director. (The council refused, for example, to confirm the head of a trade department who had been proposed.) Certain plants in the provinces, which have established similar regulations, have even opened up, through the press, competitive bidding for the post of director. Other councils, like the one at WFM, do not control the nomination of the director. Thus the rules of the plant councils are adopted according to local conditions and discussions, without, it seems, any standard statutes.

The essential thing is that the council is elected by the entire personnel, each department choosing its own representatives, with the method of balloting established by a full meeting of all the workers. The candidates (three for each position, at Zeran) are nominated by a hand vote; and the election is by secret ballot. The candidates do not announce their political affiliation (though one notes that on the Zeran council 50 percent are party members).

Another feature: 50 percent of the members of the Zeran council come from the technical personnel. This seems to confirm the fact that there is a close understanding in this plant between the cadres and the workers, an understanding that was manifest before October. It seems that almost everywhere a large number of technicians are elected to the councils, which could mean either lack of confidence on the part of the workers in handling the tasks of management, or else their desire to prove that the system of workers’ control is not in conflict with the necessities of technical efficiency.

At the beginning of February how widespread were the councils? It seems that 70 percent of heavy industry was already converted to the new system of management, that the electrical industry was entirely won over, and that the movement was spreading rapidly in certain provinces; but also, that obstacles of all sorts were being encountered.

For or Against the Councils

The councils of an enterprise tend to develop both vertically and horizontally. Vertically, the councils are inclined to federate into industrial combinations which would come to replace the Central Offices of the Ministries, that is, the bureaucratic state organisms at the summit of each branch of industry.

Horizontally the councils tend to federate on every level. The eventual logic of this is to constitute an assembly of producers, a body paralleling the political parliament.

This dual movement, horizontal and vertical, tends toward a new economic structure, more flexible than the old one, where the incentive of competition between enterprises would play a role (thanks to the workers sharing in the profits), where the producers themselves would participate in the economic direction of the country, where planned cooperation would replace dictatorial planning.

The fiercest enemies of the councils are obviously to be found in the state bureaucracy, the Central Offices, the party apparatus that remains Stalinist. On the other side the councils are defended and praised by a section of the intellectual left of the party, notably the paper Po Prostu, as well as by technicians and directors (though unfortunately I do not know how many). The problem is to determine to what extent the working masses, and not only an important vanguard section, are pushing and spreading the councils; and I regret not having verifiable information on the subject.

The position of Gomulka himself and of his closest associates seemed to be one of caution during January, and one of uncertainty at the time of our departure early in February. It seems that the leading circles are skeptical about the immediate effectiveness of the proposed system. Under the present conditions of economic chaos, they think, the problems are above all technical ones, and technicians above all are in a position to solve them most efficiently. It is a matter of transforming or reconverting industries, of modernizing and rationalizing them, of resorting sometimes to large-scale layoffs, of opening up new profitable opportunities, etc. Do the councils have the maturity and authority necessary for such steps? Will the individual enterprises be able to raise themselves to the general level on which every solution depends? Is there not, on the contrary, the risk of increasing the disorder and anarchy? And thereby, of playing into the hands of the Stalinist bureaucrats who are banking on and encouraging the disorder? And by the same, token, without deriving any real social benefits, does it not cause a new and fruitless point of friction with the Soviet Union, which is hostile to the “Titoist” system of workers’ control?

Actually, we were told at the WFM plant, profitable operation increased after the establishment of the council. At Zeran and at WFM the councils did not interfere with necessary reductions in personnel. On the contrary, the workers preferred that a smaller number should share in the same wage fund. Finally, the technicians and the directors believe that the councils can play a progressive role in the question of output and rationalization. The technicians, far from being eliminated from management, participate in it even more actively within the council, while at the same time being under control of the collective. In short, in these pilot enterprises no danger of stagnation or regression has been manifest.

If these experiences seem encouraging, is it nevertheless necessary to generalize from them in order to see further?

From now on the question is posed on the political plane. The apparatus Stalinists and the state bureaucracy have not come out openly against the councils, but pretend to hold to the experimentalist position which seems up to now to be Gomulka’s. In contrast, the activists of the councils are unanimous in believing that the councils will die of suffocation if they remain isolated and circumscribed in an experimental status. They can be effective only if they are called upon to rebuild the economic structure of the country. A cartoon in a left newspaper shows a whole population walking on its head, except for two people who are on their feet and carry a placard labeled “Experimental Section.”

Moreover, at the present time the councils movement does not enjoy full freedom of expansion. It is noteworthy that the relationship between the councils in different industries is entirely empirical. There is no federation organ, no liaison bulletin, no joint secretariat. It even seems that there is a party veto on this essential point. This does not prevent spontaneous contacts, visits, delegations, etc., but it obviously lessens the effectiveness of the movement.

The movement develops more freely within a trade (which caused one of the people to whom we talked to remark skeptically, “We are returning to the trade-guilds of the Middle Ages.”) The councils in each branch of industry get together, and then come up against the Central Offices. In some cases the Central Office seems to stand aside; in others, sharp resistance is put up. Anyhow there is intense administrative persecution, and information piles up in the files of the party leaders as to who are supporters and who opponents of the councils.

Is the situation changing? The Economic Council that was established at the beginning of February is half made up, we were told, of members who support extension of the councils. In any case – with due regard for the immediate economic difficulties, the balance which must be found between centralism and decentralization, and the huge problems presented by the autonomy of enterprises of such varying degrees of profitability – the choice today seems to be posed very clearly between the road toward a neo-bureaucratism, non-parasitic but technical, and the road toward what is, in the last analysis, the essence of socialism, that is, economic democracy.

The outcome, if today’s conditions do not change, will depend on the strength of the working-class current in favor of the new system. It will be an important test, demonstrating the ability of the working class as a whole, and not merely its vanguard, to take its destiny in its own hands.

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