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Colin Barker & Kara Weber

From Gdansk to Military Repression

Part I: Sixteen months of Solidarity

2. After Gdansk

Two contradictory powers

The Gdansk agreement, though a great victory, was but the starting point of further struggle. Nearly every one of the ‘21 points’ agreed on at Gdansk was to become the focus of further conflicts which led the movement on.

In the months that followed, the power of the regime was increasingly paralysed by a new power that had arisen in opposition to it, in a way that characterises every serious pre-revolutionary condition. Two irreconcilable forces were locked in combat. On the one hand stood Solidarity, an extraordinary channel for the expression of workers’ aspirations and grievances, expanding rapidly and drawing behind itself virtually every other section of the oppressed and exploited in Polish society. Against it stood the regime, forced to make concessions of a vast and unprecedented character, and thrown into internal confusion. Solidarity was the organised expression of a popular movement from below, whose demands were to grow and to flow across the boundaries separating the ‘economic’ from the ‘political’ and the ‘cultural’. The state it faced had, if it were to maintain its central purpose, to force down living standards, yet it had temporarily lost a large part of its power of initiative.

The scale of the economic crisis pressed on both sides, demanding a rapid solution. The state was under increasing pressure both from the Russians and from the western banks to cut living standards so as to pay off debts and restore economic expansion. Yet the same state was forced by the workers’ movement to grant massive economic concessions, in terms of wages, food supplies, health service demands, etc., which were ‘impossible’. Every failure by the state to make good its promises raised the temperature further, strengthening the power of Solidarity’s demands. If it were to conquer the crisis, the state must undergo a major process of internal reform in its personnel and procedures, yet the effect of the workers’ movement on it was to throw the state’s forces into chaos, to undermine its hold over its own personnel. Reform was thrust on to the state from below, as the population stepped up its demands for the sacking and punishment of the state bureaucracy who had committed uncounted crimes of corruption and repression in the previous decade.

The very existence of the state was threatened by the logic of the workers’ movement, for Solidarity’s demands went far beyond simple economic improvements towards generalised aspirations for democracy and popular control, which, if realised, must mean the end of the whole existing state machine. Every demand raised by Solidarity, nationally and in its varied and manifold local sections, was in this situation genuinely ‘transitional’. For every demand was ‘impossible’, yet behind it stood a rising mass of workers and their popular allies pushing to enforce it.

As the two sides grappled with each other, the economic crisis turned into economic collapse. Before the eyes of the participants two urgent outside menaces lurked, the western banks and the Russian army, each threatening to intervene and further alter the terms of the conflict.

Neither side, as it stood, could survive the the existence of the other. The state, with its political and economic machinery crumbling around it, could not hope to re-establish control over Polish life without the destruction of Solidarity. For the existence of Solidarity, that flooding river of popular aspirations, was incompatible with the continued existence of the bureaucratic structure. To nine-tenths of the population Solidarity represented an alternative set of political, social, economic and moral principles from those of the old state power.

Solidarity was, in effect, a potential alternative government. The survival of the state was incompatible with its continued existence. The key question, throughout the year and more after the Gdansk agreement, was the question of power. No stability could be achieved unless and until one or other side reorganised itself to assume full control – through the elimination of the rival power centre.

While those who headed the Polish state realised the real character of the situation, they were, for a whole period, powerless to control it. The then head of the regime, Kania, told his party officials on 15 January 1981, ‘There is no room for two power centres in this country. Double power has never been and could never be a system of organisation in public life. History knows of no such thing ...’ [8]

Kania might denounce, yet he could not prevent. The Polish tragedy is rooted in the fact that those who led the workers’ movement did not, in practice, recognise the logic of the position. Or, they began to realise it too late.

What, Lenin asked once, is a revolutionary situation? Two elements fundamentally characterise it: the ruling class is no longer able to rule in the old way, and the exploited classes are no longer willing to be ruled as before. Those two elements existed, in full measure, in Poland from August 1980 to December 1981. But, as revolutionaries have long known, there are two possible outcomes to every revolutionary situation: either revolution, or counter-revolution. For the former to occur, the movement from below must go far beyond its starting point to challenge directly for power; for the latter, the state must find a new way to rule, at the expense of the working people.

Those who led the Polish workers’ movement never faced this issue directly. They sought a point of equilibrium in a situation that was inherently unstable, in a society that lurched from crisis to crisis and in which their own existence was itself a potent cause of unbalance. The point of equilibrium they sought did not exist. The movement they led was too big, too urgent, too democratic ever to accommodate straightforwardly with the regime. It had either to conquer or be destroyed.

A Society in Crisis

No one could have predicted the sudden emergence of Solidarity in the late summer of 1980, or the paralysis which it induced in the regime. The movement took by surprise even those most involved in creating it. Yet the events of August 1980 did not occur in a historical vacuum: they occurred as the product of a growing economic, social and ideological crisis whose outlines were visible long before.

Late in 1978, a group of academics, experts, journalists and managers came together in the ‘Experience and Future’ (DiP) group. They met, initially under the auspices of the regime, to produce a report of the condition of Polish society. Their conclusions were dramatic: they wrote of ‘a crisis that has now appeared in various forms and in various areas of social life’, ‘an alarming situation that will inevitably grow worse’, ‘the state of extreme moral and physical exhaustion of Polish society’, ‘the progressive atrophy of any honest public life’, ‘growing moods of opposition in the country’, ‘an atmosphere of mounting criticism’, retreats, resentments and grudges that have accumulated and clotted in the public mind’, ‘the unbridgeable gap that exists between aspirations and the real opportunities to meet them’. [9]

The crisis in Polish life which they described was in part economic. The relatively high growth-rates of the early and mid-1970s had given way to stagnation and the beginnings of economic contraction and recession; the regime’s need to pay mounting interest on a huge accumulation of foreign debts was pushing it to exert growing pressure on the living standards of the workers and peasants.

We consider the economic crisis in more detail in the article that follows. Here, it is important to note how the economic crisis was intertwined with an escalating political and ideological crisis.

In the early 1970s, the government under Edward Gierek had ruled with a high degree of self-assurance and its own confidence had rubbed off onto other sections of society. Managers saw the enterprises under their control expanding, workers and peasants experienced limited but real improvements in their living standards, journalists and intellectuals did not find it too difficult to articulate an image of Poland as a society able to satisfy people’s needs. Economic stagnation and contraction, however, reduced the government’s self-confidence. Not only did the regime have to go back on its previous promises to workers and peasants, it could not even provide assurance to those closest to it. At the bottom of the Polish social pile, cynicism and despondency grew, while nearer the top the crudest careerism and corruption became more and more endemic. The regime began to splinter into factions: only, these were not factions offering different programmes for the resolution of society’s problems, but rather cliques and cabals based on temporary alignments of individuals out to feather their own private nests. In the words of the DiP group:

‘As ideological motivations waned, power and its attendant benefits became overwhelming motivations. Conflicts within the party became more acrimonious ... Many extremely important decisions have been made not on the basis of real needs ... but as a result of a momentary constellation of forces or the purely egotistical interests of particular groups within the party.’ [10]

The regime’s legitimacy, in the eyes of those directly below them, waned; belief was corrupted. Government officials issued documents they knew to be full of lies, journalists wrote stories they did not believe, TV interviewers had to listen uncritically to official spokesmen they knew to be uttering mere fabrications and dreams. If the immediate servants of the regime had lost belief, the situation was much more serious among the mass of the population: there, an almost total scepticism to any statements by the regime reigned, ‘with an indifference towards almost everything that has to do with the state politically and economically’. [11]

More and more, the real links holding society together were not those of shared values and ideas, whether these be false or true, but self-serving clientism and corruption on an immense scale. Bribery became an accepted means for ensuring needed or valued goods and services: a hospital bed, a university place for a child, a particularly desired job. If not bribery, ‘influence’ – knowing someone who would do you a favour in return for past or future reciprocal favours – became the basis of a massive network of corruption and ‘pull’ that linked together factory managers, school administrators, doctors, housing officials, foreign trade representatives, local police chiefs, materials suppliers and that bound them to those above. A sense of moral disgust pervaded official society.

If the crisis was a crisis of the whole national society, it was not experienced in the same way at every level. In the world of the ‘deal’ and the ‘fixer’, which was grafted on to an already existing system of classes, inequalities multiplied. This is often misunderstood. From 1981 onwards, Solidarity was to pose a huge threat to the whole system of rule throughout the entire Russian bloc, and this led many commentators to see the demand for repression in Poland as an exclusive product of pressure from the Kremlin. But such a view is quite wrong. Within Poland itself, the very period in which the crisis became aggravated and in which the regime exerted increased downward pressure on the living standards of the mass of the population was also a period of unprecedented expansion of privilege. The indigenous Polish ruling class experienced a rise in its living standards at the same time that life became more difficult for the majority.

The DiP report pinpointed this trend:

The seventies were a decade in which incomes rose most quickly in the highest income brackets, the end result being a widening of the income differential to a ratio of 1 : 20 ... Income privileges acquire political overtones for the rest of society. It is well-known that 80 per cent of factory directors are members of the Polish United Workers Party, and that 60 per cent hold influential party positions at various levels ... Members of the active political core of the party, its allied political groupings and the administrative apparatus enjoy a privileged position in society. Their privileges extend to almost all spheres of life: access to status positions, real incomes, easier shopping, health, education, foreign travel ... The 1970s saw the inheritance of privilege ... There is an increasing tendency to fill posts with ‘one’s own people’ from the younger generation. [12]

The growth of privilege and official corruption also tied members of the apparatus with other groups who – through various legal and illegal private activities – were also creaming off the means to a higher living standard. A whole stratum thus developed within Polish society – within and without the official mechanisms of the regime – whose positions depended on the maintenance of the various abuses. They had done very well out of the system.

The result, as the DiP group commented, was that ‘In Poland today there is a relatively large army of people who have a lot to lose and are capable of doing anything to preserve their privileges’. To such people, the growth of Solidarity represented a great threat. And for such people, too, the ‘home grown’ military takeover of December 1981 will have come as a great relief: they were indeed ‘capable of doing anything to preserve their privileges.’

If, in the 1970s, the class differences became so pronounced that no manner of official coverup could conceal them, they did not start then. Their roots lay in the foundations of the regime, in the period after the Second World War. The Polish regime was created under the Russian occupation of the country at the end of the Second World War. Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to Russian domination of the country, at the Yalta conference, in return for a free hand for themselves in Greece, Italy and France. Stalin imposed on Poland a political system to safeguard Russian interests. By and large the old ruling class was destroyed; the old mass organisations of workers and peasants were purged until all that remained were those elements from their apparatuses that were willing to work with the Russians. Industry was placed under the control of a new bureaucratic structure, managed on principles derived from Russia’s need to develop, in its bloc, an economic and military potential to match the American bloc.

Yet this new system was more than just a foreign transplant. It also fitted Polish circumstances in a certain sense. Poland had been an overwhelmingly backward, agricultural country, but the postwar regime – with its state control of industry, elimination of the former ruling class, destruction of former workers’ and peasants’ organisations, enforced accumulation under the control of a highly centralised bureaucracy – made possible the country’s extensive industrial development. Such industrial development had been attempted by Poland’s ruling class in the inter-war period – and had provoked bitter and sometimes bloody class struggle with the workers and peasants.

As Kuron and Modzelewski, authors of the pioneering Marxist analysis of the regime, put it in 1964:

the effective realisation of such a process of industrialisation required all classes and social strata to be deprived of the means of defining their differing interests and fighting for their implementation or in their defence. It required that the whole of political decision-making and the power over means of production and the social product be concentrated exclusively in the hands of the new elite. It required, finally, that production be made independent of the regulating influence of the market and that the economic initiative of the working class, of the technocracy and of the peasantry be limited to the greatest possible degree ... It may be said that the nature of the task of industrialising a backward country called to life as a ruling class a bureaucracy that was able to achieve this task, since it alone, through its class interests, represented the interest of industrialisation under such conditions – production for the sake of production. [13]

The social grouping who took control in the postwar years became – through their identification with the goal of accumulating means of production at the expense of the workers – themselves a class opposed to the working class. Kuron and Modzelewski called them the ‘central political bureaucracy’, describing them also as ‘the party-state power elite, free of any social control’. [14] As a grouping, these men – those who head the hierarchies of the state, the economic administration and the party – are quite small in number. They and their families together cannot number more than a few score thousand.

In a period of economic expansion, the small size of a ruling class does not matter very much. It is strengthened by its own ability to permit, at least to some extent, the satisfaction of the aspirations of other strata within society. But periods of sharp economic crisis can leave it dangerously isolated, cut off from significant support in the society it rules, and facing extensive popular opposition.

Such an outcome threatened Poland’s ruling class in the regime’s first great crisis, in 1956. The workers’ uprising in Poznan initiated a period of social turmoil which brought Poland to the brink of revolution, at a time when a full-blooded social revolution was breakout out in neighbouring Hungary. In a desperate bid to avert is own downfall, the central political bureaucracy turned to one of its former leaders, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Gomulka enjoyed a certain popularity, partly because he had been imprisoned for a period only a few years before, and under his leadership the regime carried through a series of reforms, improving workers’ living standards, lifting numbers of restrictions on the peasantry, and allowing greater freedom to intellectuals. It did a deal with the Church hierarchy, in return for Church support, and won a measure of general popularity by making a number of nationalist noises directed against the Russians. Above all, the ruling group – the central political bureaucracy – sought to overcome its isolation by tying to itself the layer of the administration immediately beneath, within the various hierarchies of industry, government, police, army, etc. For this layer – variously estimated at between 300,000 and 800,000 petty functionaries – it created new privileges. [15] This larger group – sometimes termed the ‘technocrats’ [16] – had tended in the mid-1950s to identify with the workers and the ‘creative intelligentsia’ in their opposition to the regime. In the 1960s and 1970s, on the other hand, they were to form a quite significant pool of people who would defend the status quo, more out of cynical self-interest than from any clear ideological agreement with the regime’s aims.

One of the DiP group described this layer as follows:

What might be called the socialist middle classes or the socialist petty bourgeoisie ... have an unquestionable influence on the party and the government apparatuses, the greater part of which are manned by these middle classes. Do they have any interests in common with the working classes? Absolutely not. They grow richer and richer, but they are still not as rich as they would like to be. [17]

This layer has proved to be especially amenable to a certain kind of nationalism, often of a very unpleasant character. In the crisis of the late 1960s, it was this layer that served as a transmission belt between the regime and some wider sections of society. The Minister of the Interior, General Moczar, had for some time been cementing his relations with some of the older nationalist sections from the former generation. Faced with student demonstrations in 1968, he launched a vicious campaign of anti-semitism, with the dual aim of laying the blame for the system’s faults on a traditional scapegoat and at the same time enhancing his personal career. Polish Jewry amounted to no more than some 25,000 people out of a population of over 30 million Poles, for it had been almost destroyed by the Nazis; yet the sections of the state and the party influenced by Moczar blamed them for both the crimes of Stalinism and the student demonstrations. The student leaders were said to be Jewish (in point of fact, very few were) and thousands of Jewish people who had nothing to do with the demonstrations were forced into exile.

In 1970-71, the change of leadership forced on the regime by the workers’ revolt in the coastal cities was effected without major crisis because of continuing loyalty of the ‘middle layers’. And when, in the late 1970s, crisis again enveloped Polish economy and society, the privileges and ties of corruption that bound the ‘technocratic’ middle layers to the regime became still more important. Even before the rise of Solidarity, two of the regime’s leading figures, Grabski and Olszowski, attempted to mobilise these layers behind a policy that combined a sort of technocratic anti-bureaucratic demagogy (tinged at times with anti-semitism) with the demand for a hard line against dissidents and workers. Further attempts at such mobilisation were made after the rise of Solidarity: within the party through an organisation calling itself the Katowice Forum; in the armed forces through the propagation of a nationalist, anti-dissident line in the army newspaper, Zolnierz Wolnosci (Soldier of Freedom); and among the population at large by attempting to develop a nationalistic, anti-semitic organisation, sponsored by the regime – the Grunwald Patriotic Union.

In the long term, the central bureaucracy’s alliance with this layer of corrupted and cynical functionaries may have helped it solidify the state machine sufficiently to be able to turn it against Solidarity. But, in the short run, its alliance had a very different, and de-stabilising effect. The workers knew – and hated – the local bullies, the corrupt officials and managers, much better than they knew those who formed and ran the central bureaucracy. As a result, time and again the regime would manage to win some kind of provisional agreement with Solidarity nationally, only to have local struggles breaking out against the local bureaucrats. And this popular hatred and resistance only intensified the fear and hatred with which the ‘middle layer’ – the regime’s only certain base – looked upon Solidarity.

Thus, in the autumn of 1980, it was not only the ‘external’ pressures deriving from Moscow and the Western Banks that were bound to disrupt the various attempts at ‘peaceful co-existence’ or ‘historic compromise’ between Solidarity and the regime: the dynamics of the internal struggle between classes in Poland also continually undermined all such attempts.

Consolidation and registration

The early autumn of 1980 was a period of consolidation for the workers. Their decision to form one national organisation, made at a meeting of national delegates on September 17th, was a major advance for the movement. One way out for the government – namely, the possibility of playing off regions or craft sections against each other – was cut off. ‘Divide and rule’ was a weapon which the government had used often before, and its effects were familiar, especially to Silesian workers. Andrzej Rozplochowski, chairman of the Solidarity region at Katowice, when questioned about the special needs of Silesia as opposed to Gdansk, replied: ‘That mentality, separatism, is especially encouraged by the government. It’s the special domain of Messrs Gierek and Grudzien [first party secretary in Katowice], a division into Silesia and the rest. Especially perfidious is the way people were bribed via their stomachs, because this was the only region where you could buy a piece of sausage or other goods. We want to smash this barrier, it does not exist and never will.’ [18]

Within a national organisation every demand becomes a national demand, everyone has a national organisation to join, and the choice between joining it or remaining in the old, sectionalised unions is much clearer than it would have been had the movement consisted of many small, local unions.

The rate at which Solidarity grew was phenomenal. By the end of September the total membership was in the region of 10 million, a figure which most western correspondents refused to believe for a good month afterwards. As workers flooded into the organisation the deadline for the fulfilment of the Gdansk agreements, the last day of September, approached. The tide swept all before it, although some managements and some old state union organisations did their best to be obstructive. The new membership was very impatient. The union called its first one-hour strike, ostensibly against the sluggish fulfilment of the Gdansk agreements but, above all, because the Gdansk leadership realised that if they did not call a strike at this point their new recruits would come out any way. They were anxious to demonstrate their nation-wide support, but it was to be a test of union discipline too. They were anxious that the strikes throughout Poland should not only start on time but also stop on time.

Solidarity’s first national strike call was more than 100% effective: the centre’s strike plan was ‘over-fulfilled’, thanks to the efforts of local managements who tried to prevent those not called out showing their support by sounding sirens and displaying flags. It also demonstrated Solidarity’s penetration into every corner of Poland.

By late October the new union was engaged in its first major battle with the government over the legal registration of its statutes. The grounds on which the statutes had been rejected upon their first submission revealed that the state too, was aware of the advantages a national organisation would give the workers; it was at that time anxious to keep open the option of incorporating the union to its own structures. Apart from objecting to the national character of Solidarity and wishing ‘the leading role of the party’ to be written into the main body of the statutes, the state objected to the rule that those who held office in management or in senior party levels could not hold office in the union. It was, they said, a denial of management civil rights! Had the state succeeded in its aims, the road might have been open to the undermining of Solidarity.

The registration crisis ended in victory for the workers. But it had involved uproar throughout the country, several successive threats of a national strike, visits by party leader Kania and premier Pinkowski to Moscow and the closing of Poland’s borders with East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Polish workers had been treated to a demonstration of the judiciary’s role as a tool of the regime. One judge attempted to write the leading role of the party, and a clause limiting the right to strike, into the statutes as a condition of registration. Then the supreme court was used as a mouthpiece to announce the deal forced on Pinkowski by the threat of a strike. While insisting that Solidarity confine itself to a pure trade union role, the state was unwittingly encouraging workers to look beyond, demonstrating vividly the links between the economic, the political and the judicial systems.

It was the new union’s first serious confrontation. Its victory resulted in a feeling of confidence and set a militant tone for the weeks which followed. The state, on the other hand, was thrown into further disarray. This new period, from late autumn of 1980 through the spring of 1981 was one of local strikes, which broke out in one place after another, like fire crackers on a string.

Battles and a ceremony

Health workers in Gdansk occupied a room in the prefecture for eleven days. Workers in Czestochowa demanded the prefect and most of his assistants be sacked. (They were.) So did the Solidarity members of Bielsko-Biala. By mid-November a third of the district first secretaries and prefects had been replaced. Strikes occurred on the railways to force the government to pay greater pay increases to the lower paid. Textile workers struck in Lodz, and sugar-beet processors in Pruszcz Gdanski. All in all, by mid October strikes had occurred in 4800 separate enterprises and the number was constantly growing. Production losses in October alone were estimated at around $650 million.

The party and administrative apparatus was in retreat, desperately trying to re-orient itself in the face of the workers’ onslaught. Inevitably, participation in struggle educated people, they began to seek removal of, not just symptoms, but also causes. In the process new demands began to appear, notably the demand to sack local officials, and to investigate suspected corruption.

Perhaps the most notable of the strikes in the autumn of 1980 was the affair triggered by the arrest of Narozniak, a volunteer printer for Solidarity, and Sapielo, a clerk from the public prosecutor’s office accused of leaking a secret document on how to deal with dissidents. At the time ferment in the party and the government was gathering momentum, the word ‘renewal’ was heard more and more often, in ruling circles, and the hawks in the apparatus were losing ground. Kania had asked Walesa for discussions on joining the official committee drafting the new trade union law. The document leaked by Sapielo revealed that, at the very least, the section of the Gdansk agreement which promised ‘to institute full liberty of expression in public and professional life’ had not been accepted at all. Harassment of political opponents of the regime by the judiciary and the police was to continue as before.

The affair resulted in a major confrontation. Once again workers did not stop at the demand to free the two arrested men but looked beyond the surface phenomena at the cause of the outrage. They demanded a commission to investigate the methods of the security police and the public prosecutor plus safeguards against unjust police harassment; they demanded cuts in the police budget and punishment of those responsible for the lawless police brutalities of 1976; and they reiterated the demand for the release of political prisoners. Bujak, chairman of Warsaw Solidarity, threatened a general strike in the entire region.

The temperature rose. Ursus, Huta Warszawa and at least four other large enterprises had stopped work. Trams and buses began to carry ‘Free Narozniak’ posters. On the borders the Soviet tanks stirred and rumbled once again. Liberals within the party, including Stefan Bratkowski (a prominent reformer and leading light in the DiP group) rushed to Kania and negotiated a settlement. Narozniak and Sapielo were released but there was a hitch in the timing of the promised talks on the rest of the demands. The workers of Huta Warszawa smelled a rat and refused to resume work.

Bujak and Bratkowski pleaded and argued. The long-time dissident Jacek Kuron was brought in to speak to the workers. Walesa was flown in from Gdansk. It took 24 hours of frantic, non-stop remonstration to persuade them to go back to work.

They had won the release of the prisoners, they had won a public promise on TV of talks on an enquiry into police methods. But the workers were right to be so mistrustful. No kind of enquiry was ever initiated, no curbs on police powers, police budgets, police privileges or judicial shenanigans were ever seriously contemplated.

The arguments within the union that arose over this incident highlighted what was going to be a growing problem in the months ahead. At the time of the founding of the union, virtually all activists were agreed on one thing – the union should be a way of organising workers to extract concessions from the existing regime, it should not try to overthrow or displace that regime. We will look later at the arguments put forward for this perspective. For the moment it suffices to note that the activists’ perspective was one of reform not revolution.

Yet the growing momentum of the movement from below made it increasingly clear, even to the participants themselves, that it was impossible to maintain the assertion that Solidarity was nothing more than a trade union. Ascherson describes how: ‘A few days before at Szczecin, after addressing a mass rally, the national Solidarity leaders had been chilled by the questions the audience threw at them: When would the Communist leaders who had brought Poland so low be punished? When would the union become a political party? Was it true that a new mass grave had been discovered in Katyn forest?’ [19]

The Gdansk KOR activist, Bogdan Borusewicz put it this way:

At this moment, people expect more of us than we can possibly do. Normally, society focuses on the party. In Poland nowadays, however, society gathers round the free trade unions. That’s a bad thing. Thus there is an increasing necessity to formulate a political programme. It would be good if the party took the lead and removed people’s social expectations from our shoulders. But will it do so now? In the eyes of the people the new trade unions should do everything: they should fill the role of trade unions, participate in the administration of the country, be a political party and act as a militia, that is confine drunkards and thieves, they should teach morals – and that’s a great problem for us. [20]

Even in its very early stage the movement was outstripping mere trade unionism, however much the leadership, with one eye on possible Russian intervention, wished it were otherwise. Jacek Kuron also describes the implicit revolutionary mood of the workers. ‘The main difficulty is that the people’s attitude towards the government under which they have had to live for three and a half decades is characterised by frustration and increasing antipathy in all areas. The result is that when any conflict arises between Solidarity and the government, no matter on what question, we always get tremendous support. On the other hand, any understanding, however favourable to the union it may be, arouses dissatisfaction, or – to use perhaps a better word – disappointment among the people.’ [21]

These statements were honest testaments to the great potential of the movement and its revolutionary nature, but they also reveal the great weakness that was to play a decisive role in the struggle. Kuron considers this mood of the workers as a ‘difficulty’. To Borusewicz the fact that the workers want to ‘do everything’ is ‘a great problem for us’. He correctly recognises the need for a political programme, but suggests, without hope, that the PUWP, that instrument of ruling class control, should formulate one for the workers!

Thus the great strength of the movement, the generalisation of the struggle from the economic to the political, this willingness to take on board every aspect of every grievance, in effect a readiness to rule; all this, according to two men who were among the most radical of Solidarity’s advisors, becomes a ‘bad thing’, something to be deflected and contained.

In a sense, these remarks by Borusewicz and Kuron encapsulate the entire contradictions of Solidarity, as events were to reveal. If the union was to continue to operate within its initial reformist frame of reference, then it increasingly must attempt to hold workers back from struggle, for these struggles were spontaneously breaking out of that frame. The path of ‘reform’ came to mean, for the union, helping the state to remain intact, helping it to solve its crisis, so as to be able to negotiate with it. Either Solidarity must remain no more than a trade union, and deliberately attempt to prevent the movement getting ‘out of hand’, (i.e. getting too strong) or the reformist ideas must be abandoned in favour of a revolutionary perspective.

For the day to day national leadership of the union, its ‘praesidium’, the reformist perspective was inviolable. There were various reasons for this – the influence of the Catholic church, the prejudice inculcated by existing society that workers are incapable collectively of controlling society (Walesa several times insisted that for the workers to take control of Poland would merely ensure a new dictatorship), fear of provoking the Russians. But regardless of the reasons for the reformism, its impact was to make the leadership try to prevent the rank and file from struggling.

Within two days of his discussions with Kania over the Narozniak-Sapielo arrests, Walesa was saying that now that the union was legal there should be an end to ‘wildcat’ strikes. “It may indeed appear that unrest is rampant in the country, with stoppages here, sit-ins there, and hunger strikes somewhere else ... Even when there is just cause, there are other ways to settle our grievances without striking.” [22]

The struggle over Narozniak and Sapielo had given the moderates in Solidarity a bad fright. In the aftermath the Warsaw Solidarity branch stopped the distribution of posters and leaflets throughout the capital and issued a statement that “Our country and Solidarity require peace, organisational work, an atmosphere that permits the rebuilding of the economy and the consolidation of the gains that have been made.” [23]

Although, as we shall see, the new ‘moderation’ was not accepted by all the union’s activists, the basic reformist assumptions did remain inviolate. No group emerged to challenge the ruling definition of the situation within Solidarity, to point out that the two forces – Solidarity and the regime – were incapable of co-existing for lone, and that one must crush the other. Solidarity, in short, never developed a revolutionary marxist current. So the whole movement was beguiled by the illusion that some new agreement, some ‘social contract’ was possible between the union and a ‘moderate’ wing in the regime. Among those who propagated this illusion were the intellectual ‘experts’ who advised the Solidarity leaders. Some of these came from the DiP grouping mentioned earlier. In its third report, which was being drafted at about this time, the DiP argued:

The battle lines in this struggle will by no means lie along the old demarcations, which set those who direct against those who are directed, nor on that other plane – those within against those outside the party. On either side of the old division we find supporters of change who are conscious of the opportunities change presents side by side with people who are passive, incapable of adapting to the new conditions, or interested in maintaining the old order. The success of the reforms depends on the mobilisation of all progressive forces, on a broad coalition of all forces seeking change and ready to bring them into life in an effective manner. [24]

Clearly, such a perspective of agreed compromise cannot be realised if an unending series of confrontations forces each side to adopt ever more militant postures and harden its positions.

Kuron was less blind than the DiP to the fundamentally opposed interests of ‘those who direct and those who are directed’; nevertheless he too, was for skinning the tiger claw by claw. Asked whether he regarded the Party not only as an opponent, but also as a tactical ally, he replied:

In so far as we – that’s how I picture it – build up this pluralist structure in stages and gradually dismantle totalitarianism, step by step. Very slowly. The goals of the government and of the democratic movement are completely opposite. But the struggle between the two tendencies, the totalitarian and the democratic one, are to be fought exclusively by peaceful means. The observation of this rule by the government will determine the degree of partnership you mentioned. [25]

The high point of those whose hopes rested on a ‘pluralist’ compromise resolution to the conflicts (there were few in Poland who consciously hoped for any other, better, resolution) was the commemoration, in December, of the workers who died in Gdansk ten years previously. It was the occasion when the 140 foot high monument in chrome steel paid for and erected by the workers was unveiled.

Attended by 150,000 people, staged by Andrzej Wajda, the Polish film director, it was a solemn and dramatic moment. Paradoxically, the commemoration of struggle and the slaughter of workers in conflict with the state was turned into a symbol of national unity. Heads of state and party, ministers, generals and admirals stood side by side with workers’ leaders and archbishops.

The workers’ victory was, of course, a condition that such an event could become an occasion to look forward in hope rather than backward in anguish. But, for those who had eyes to see, it was also a sign that the workers’ victory had not been complete. The bitter confirmation of that fact came a year later when, on the eleventh anniversary of the ‘December events’, there were once more tanks on the streets of Gdansk and more martyrs to the workers’ cause.

This seems a suitable point to interrupt our narrative of the struggle, and examine the nature of the third partner in the Gdansk ceremony – the Catholic Church.

The role of the Church

The emergence of a moderate line within the workers’ movement was aided and shaped by the close links between many activists and the Catholic Church, whose complex and contradictory role is rooted in Polish history.

From the late 18th century until the end of the first world war Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia (Germany) and Austria. Poles were divided from their conquerors not only by nationality and language, but also by religion. The Russian Church was Orthodox, the Prussian Church Lutheran. Thus the Polish Catholic Church, not unlike its counterpart in Northern Ireland, was oppressed and became associated with the struggle for independence and, in consequence, the struggle for civil rights.

In the struggle against the Nazi occupation the role of the Church again served as a symbol of the fight against national oppression. Many priests were among those who perished in the resistance movement. After the war, during the terrors of Stalinist economic expansion, the Church, while subject to a degree of repression (the primate, Wyszynski, was under house arrest in the early 1950s) maintained and expanded its influence in society. The regime and the economic system were seen above all as an alien importation from the East, and the Church, as before, became identified with aspirations of national independence. Its oppression became a symbol to many Poles of their own oppression. It was, classically, the heart of a heartless world, the opium of the people. The harsher the conditions, the more closely did they cling to it. Its influence was therefore greater than before the war, when it was identified with the state. Catholicism became virtually the only way in which opposition to the state could be expressed, while, conversely, atheism became identified with careerism and support for the system.

Thus, when Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II it was not merely that the national pride of Poles received a boost. It also seemed that resistance to the Polish regime was being given a greater than ever international legitimacy.

According to Jan Litynski of KOR: “The Pope created through his visit here a new idea of the nation, a nation without chauvinism, a nation as a community. It was on that basis that Solidarity grew. The Pope’s role was, if you like, revolutionary.” [26]

And when they flooded onto the streets in uncountable numbers to greet the Pope on his 1979 visit to Poland the event became, for the people, a demonstration of their own strength. One Polish worker told us: “It made us realise: we are so many and they are so few.”

The police stayed away from these occasions. The state, affecting an attitude between polite friendliness and indifference, provided helicopters and other equipment, but the stewarding was done entirely by non-state personnel. Thus the Papal visit became a festival of self-reliance, of independence from state control.

When the strikes erupted a year later it was not surprising that the church provided the strikers with many of their symbols. Shipyard gates festooned with the Pope’s picture, crucifixes in every Solidarity headquarters and effigies of the Madonna worn conspicuously in the lapel of the workers’ leader, threw western correspondents of all kinds into confusion. The right were convinced that the protest was against communism and atheism, while many leftists, unable to step outside the canons of their own dogma, could not see that the content of the Poles’ support for the Church was precisely the opposite: their aspirations against an exploitative state and against Russian imperialism.

The Church support for the 1980 strikes was not simply sham. In Silesia, as in many other parts, local priests were involved in organising food supplies for workers locked in the mines and were trusted to act as their banker when financial support flooded in. The religious activities inside occupied factories also had a Psychologically supportive effect. Tadeusz Jedynak, a leader of the Jastrzembie region, told us how, in particular when priests toured mines with an effigy of St. Barbara, patron saint of miners, it had a calming effect on the strikers. It turned frenzy into determination, gave miners the forbearance to persist in the face of intolerable tension.

Workers occupying shipyards and mines were thus very keen to receive the priests and often pressurised them into visiting the occupations. But this did not mean that workers were passively manipulated by the bishops, far from it. They turned the religious symbolism to their own ends – often despite opposition from the bishops. Father Jankowski, the Gdansk parish priest, was due to celebrate Mass at the Lenin shipyard, but called it off under instruction from his bishop when a first ‘agreement’ between strikers and management had been reached. When the strike was restarted, the militants realised the importance of getting the Mass inside the gates to take place as originally planned. Desperate negotiations between the bishop and the strikers took place, with the workers even contemplating kidnapping the priest, should the bishop still fail to give his blessing. Jankowski was, with some reluctance, eventually persuaded to say Mass and bless the cross which had been raised outside the gates, drawing many workers who had left the occupation back inside the shipyard.

This incident reveals the ambiguity in the Church’s attitude to the popular movement. For although many individual priests sincerely supported the struggles of their worker and peasant parishioners, the hierarchy of the Church had other ends in view. They regarded it as their duty to build up the Church as a powerful independent institution in Polish society, and to this end were prepared to do all sorts of deals with the state. They regarded the support the Church received through being a symbol of the struggle against oppression as being a bargaining counter for these deals. Once the bishops had concluded such deals with the state, they would be prepared to forget much of their talk of ‘human rights’.

This is shown by any serious examination of the history of the Polish Church. Unfortunately, very few of the activists in Solidarity seem to have been prepared to look at that history. Thus even Kuron – himself hardly a blind follower of the Church – has asserted that in the inter-war period when the Church enjoyed full recognition from the state, it had put individual liberty as its ‘supreme value’. A more thorough and honest examination would have shown that the Church then showed no interest in civil liberties when these conflicted with its doctrines or its alliance with the groups who controlled the state. Between the wars the Church was itself a big landowner and its sympathies lay with other landowners and industrialists. Its closest political links were with the right-wing oppositional National Democratic party. It was only in 1950, when it lost all its lands, that these alliances were largely forgotten and the Church could reinforce its position over the population as an ideological force.

Whatever its political allegiances may have been, the Church did not hesitate to play its part as a bulwark of Pilsudzki’s inter-war dictatorship against the workers and peasants. It used its position to deny the right of men and women to divorce, and made no protests at all in 1931 when the army shot down miners or in 1937 when military force was used against peasant strikes.

On the question of anti-semitism too, the Church played a role quite out of keeping with its mythical reputation as a defender of justice and human dignity. We have space for one example only, a case which Solidarity Weekly featured as part of the compulsive re-examination of Polish history which the upsurge brought forth. [27] In 1946 even after all the horrors of the war, incredibly, a classic pogrom occurred in the town of Kielce. 41 Jews were slaughtered after the circulation of rumours of Jews killing Polish children. The event was triggered by the organised abduction of a child who was returned to his parents after three days with a carefully rehearsed story. It was clearly a provocation. The then regime accused elements from the non-Communist wartime resistance, but the balance of the evidence presented in the Solidarity article points to the Stalinists themselves. What was the reaction of the Church at the time? It deplored the event of course, but instead of attacking the Stalinists for provoking the outrage, the primate Cardinal Hlond went on to point the finger at the racial composition of the state authorities, thus blaming Jews for anti-semitism in the classic racist way: ‘The fact that these [anti-semitic] conditions are growing worse must in a large measure be blamed on the Jews, who occupy leading positions in the Polish government today and attempt to introduce a ruling structure which is rejected by the majority of the nation.’

It was perhaps not surprising that when General Moczar in 1968 unleashed another anti-semitic campaign in order to purge dissident academics and students, the Church once again kept its head down. Moczar was, after all, only playing the same card, if for different purposes, as Hlond had done 22 years previously.

When the events of 1956 brought Gomulka to power, one of his first acts was to remove many of the previous restrictions on the Church. It remained in opposition, but it was a loyal opposition which amply repaid Gomulka’s gesture by helping him consolidate his position in the months which followed. As the fighting continued in Hungary, Wyszynski’s voice joined Gomulka’s in calling on Poles not to behave ‘rashly’: “Poles know how to die magnificently but, Beloved, Poles need to know how to work magnificently.” [28] In the relatively free elections of early 1957, the Church urged people to vote for Gomulka’s list of candidates. And when students demonstrated against the closure of the radical Po Prostu magazine later that year, Wyszynski condemned demonstrations and appealed for calm.

This pattern of behaviour was repeated more than once. In 1970, for example, the Church played its part in supporting the Szczecin shipyard sit-ins, but in Gdansk it was quick to capitalise on the situation. As the rioting and demonstrations in that city got out of hand, the state turned to Father Jankowski for help, begging him to issue an appeal which would get the workers off the streets. At that time Jankowski was without a church, since none had been built to replace the devastation of the war. “And where is the pulpit from which I am to deliver my sermon?” he asked. A bargain was struck: Jankowski made his appeal for calm and got his church.

This then is the paradoxical role of the Church in Polish affairs. A bureaucratic organisation, in many ways parallel to the Party, with its own international links and its own centre abroad, it provides limited, verbal support for certain protests against the regime, but is careful to safeguard its own position. It relies on its powerful symbolism to obscure its unreliable and potentially traitorous nature in the struggle for workers’ rights.

For a brief moment in August 1980 the diverse aims of Church and workers were laid bare. At the height of the strikes Wyszynski made a speech implying that workers should abandon their occupation. The Church, he said, understood their grievances but was critical of their methods. He warned, “Prolonged stoppages, possible disturbances and fraternal bloodletting are against the good of society.” A Church supporter who talked with the Cardinal some three days before recounted how reluctant the Cardinal had been to make it. He had decided however, to yield to the pressure of the state authorities, because otherwise he would lose his place in the corridors of power and be unable to use his influence there on behalf of the workers ...

The reaction of many workers was one of shock followed by embarrassment: the Cardinal was old, he was entitled to make mistakes. Walesa politely told the Church not to interfere and to confine itself to looking after its own affairs.

However this was not enough to alert the workers to the dangers of too close an alliance with the Church. In spite of their declaration, very early, that Solidarity was entirely secular in nature, the Church view was prominent in the development of a moderate line within Solidarity. These ideas were taken up by a large section of the union leadership, notably Walesa, and the Church itself was able to back up these ideas by providing a mediation and conciliation service acceptable to both sides. Thus in the local dispute at Bielsko Biala in February 1981, when local government authorities had reneged on a settlement, it was Bishop Dabrowski who, beating his breast, persuaded the now sceptical workers that the renegotiated settlement with central government was genuine and that they, the bishops, would vouchsafe for the government’s honesty and sincerity. After the horrors of the military coup which was to follow in less than a year, these assurances can be seen for what they are: shabby compromises to safeguard the bishop’s own position in the power structure.

The position they were safeguarding was certainly by then one of considerable influence. In September 1980, when the government was looking for a new prime minister in one of its several cabinet reshuffles, the Church was consulted and intimated that Grabski would not do because of earlier anti-clerical remarks. Pinkowski was appointed instead.

It is also clear that while the Church will protest about offences against ‘human rights and dignity’ (which of course includes the human rights of the Church), it is not only unwilling to challenge the regime’s right to rule but is, in practice, anxious to preserve that right in some circumstances. Thus as early as December 1980 a bishops conference issued a statement giving amazing support to the Kama government. In the assessment of Neal Ascherson, “it was the closest the Church had ever come to full recognition of the Communist state since 1944. It gave powerful endorsement to Kama’s policy of renewal and appealed for co-operation with the state authorities.” [29] This was followed, two days later, by a further statement which attacked KOR by name and Jacek Kuron in particular. This, it must be said, went too far on the road to collaboration. A bitter dispute followed, both in Solidarity and within the ranks of the Church itself. Nevertheless it was an attitude which persisted to the end within some sections of the Church. Even as the world watched, horrified, at the Polish movement being crushed under Jaruzelski’s military boot heel, Polish priests preaching to emigrd Poles in London attacked KOR once again and blamed the catastrophe on the fact that Solidarity had gone ‘too far.’

The Church in Poland opposes militant struggle even for reforms which it supports. In the context of the class struggle in Poland it was asking Solidarity to do the impossible. It supported workers’ demands while opposing any fight which had a realistic chance of achieving them. its proposed policy, that Solidarity should join it in a compromise with he regime was always pie in the sky. For an organisation like the Church compromise with a hostile state is a realistic proposition. Concessions to the Church do not endanger the state’s existence and concessions gained from the Church can be very useful to the state. [30] It is quite another matter for a working class to compromise. Its aspirations can only be achieved by destroying the economic and social goals of the ruling class.


8. Cited by Chris Harman, Poland: the truce that couldn’t last, Socialist Review, 21 March–18 April 1981, p. 25.

9. Poland, The State of the Republic: Two Reports of the Experience and Future Discussion Group, ed. M. Vale, London 1981 (Henceforth referred to as the DiP Report), pp. 5–7.

10. Ibid., p. 17.

11. Ibid., p. 25.

12. Ibid., p. 55.

13. J Kuron & K Modzelewski, An Open Letter to the Party, London n.d. (1965), pp. 26–27.

14. Ibid., p. 7.

15. The figures are given in an analysis by Marek Tarniewski, translated in Survey, Spring 1981.

16. The term is Kuron & Modzelewski’s.

17. DiP Report, op. cit., p. 65.

18. Labour Focus on Eastern Europe IV, 4–6.

19. Ascherson, op. cit., p. 205. The Katyn forest was the site of a massacre of Polish officers in World War II, believed to be the Russians’ work.

20. Labour Focus on Eastern Europe IV, 4–6, p. 15.

21. Not to lure the wolves out of the woods: an interview with Jacek Kuron, Der Spiegel, 15 December 1980, translated in Telos 47, Spring 1981, p. 94.

22. Ascherson, op. cit., p. 204.

23. Ibid., p. 208.

24. Kultura (Paris), nr. 5/404, May 1981. See below for discussion of the DiP group.

25. Telos, pp. 95–6.

26. Guardian, 27 May 1981.

27. Solidarnosc nr 36.

28. Cited in Chris Harman. Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, London 1974, p. 112.

29. Ascherson, op. cit., p. 222.

30. “The Church’s traditional commitment to nationalism, to the preservation of a patriarchal family structure and to the values of hard work and social humility, accorded excellently with the political need of the state to maintain a fragmented and politically docile population. Indeed, it has often been useful for official propaganda to have a ‘non-Marxist’ source of authority to voice ideas which are awkward to express in Marxist terminology.” Michael Szkolny, London Review of Books.

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