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Colin Barker & Kara Weber

From Gdansk to Military Repression

Part I: Sixteen months of Solidarity

3. The road to Bydgoszcz

Advance – and retreat

The ceremony at Gdansk, and the Christmas truce that followed it fed the hopes of the ‘moderates’ that a permanent agreement with the regime was possible; but the truce did not last. In January the government reneged on a key part of the Gdansk agreement – free Saturdays. These, it claimed, were not possible in view of the economic crisis. Solidarity responded by calling for workers to stay at home on the Saturdays in January which the government said they should work. Virtually every large factory was empty, buses and trains operated a Sunday service, many shops announced Saturday closing in future, and workers in essential services wore the by then customary red and white armbands as a gesture of support.

A new feeling of combativity was widespread by the end of the month when the union ‘moderates’ managed to push through an agreement to work one Saturday in each month. Local conflicts flared up again with greater than ever vigour. The Bielsko-Biala region went into indefinite general strike for the removal of those in charge of the local power structure – a goal achieved after about a week. Strikers at Jelenia Gora demanded not only the dismissal of corrupt personnel but also that a special luxury hospital reserved for the police be turned over to the health service and that a huge tract of specially reserved prime hunting land be turned over to the community. There were other strikes in Bydgoszcz, Gdansk, Czestochowa, Kutno, Poznan, Legnica, Kielce. In desperation one ‘moderate’ in the Solidarity leadership complained: ‘We want to stop these anti-corruption strikes. Otherwise the whole country would have to go on strike’.

The revolt began spreading to other sections of Polish society, most importantly the small independent farmers. At their first demonstration on December 14th they had raised the demand to form their own independent union. In January sit-ins took place at Rzeszow and Ustrzyki Dolne (from which they were to be evicted by police in gas masks) in support of the demand. The government objected: they were not employed workers so how could they possibly form a union?

Workers in their turn began to apply pressure in support of the peasants. They were quite right to do so. The peasants in Poland are not an exploiting class. Although 80% of Polish agriculture is based on ‘private property’, the reality of the situation is that in many cases ownership is almost a formality. In their appeal to the workers sent to Gdansk in late August 1980, the peasant farmers described some of the conditions under which they live:

The head of the commune and the secretary of the PUWP have an unlimited power over us. At any moment they can take our land away from us, expropriate us, transfer our children to a distant school, forbid us to finish building a house, conscript our sons into the army in order to send them to work on a state farm. The head of the commune, not we, decides what we should grow, when we should harvest, without worrying about our profit. Often he sends us state machines to gather our harvest when it isn’t yet ripe. In some regions our lands are being taken away and we are being given new ones. We are dependent on the whims of the head of the commune even when we buy a sack of cement, a three foot plank or other materials ... In practice there is no way of controlling the head, no way of appealing against his decision. He may be capable of ruining the commune in a year, but we can’t complain. [31]

Other sections of society which joined in the unrest of this period were students and prisoners. The students at Lodz University began their sit-in in January in support of their own independent union, the NZS, and to protest about Party interference in university curricula. Within a month this protest was to spread to sit-ins and protests in academic institutions all over the country.

In Warsaw 2000 prisoners began a protest demanding ‘as much rood as police dogs’. In the course of the following 10 months, riots occurred in 109 out of 146 penal establishments existing in Poland, according to the November issue of Polityka. Evidence collected by Solidarity investigators into some of these revealed incredible conditions, amounting to punishment by torture in some cases. [32]

An attempt was made to stop this developing pattern of conflict. Jaruzelski replaced Pinkowski as prime minister, and there was a further appeal for a 90-day truce from the strikes. This time the regime offered concessions to buy time. They accepted the demands of the workers at Jelenia Gora and Bielsko-Biala, reached a compromise settlement with the students and somehow managed to end the farmers sit-in at Rzeszow without conceding the registration of Rural Solidarity.

This truce, however, stood no better chance than the last one. Within days conflict had broken out again. The tide of protest was to climax in the greatest confrontation between the workers and the regime in the whole 16-month period.

The events which led up to that incident included elements of the old pattern, with workers in various localities impatient to ‘clean everything up’. The issue of privilege raised in Jelenia Gora in January, especially the provision of special ‘Ministry of the Interior’ hospitals, was now taken up in Lodz, Radom and other places. In Lodz the sacking of five Solidarity activists from one of these hospitals resulted in a one-hour general strike throughout the city. In Radom, where workers had been subjected to incredible brutality in 1976, the hospitals demand was part of a comprehensive package aimed at settling old scores with both the police and the judiciary.

In Warsaw, a demonstration was held to commemorate the student unrest of March 1968, again as part of a desire to right the wrongs of the past and to point the finger at Moczar, now back in the Politburo.

We can perhaps allow the nauseous, allegedly ‘liberal’ deputy premier, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, to summarise the rest of the period in the tirade he delivered to the Solidarity delegation during the negotiations in the aftermath of the Bydgoszcz incident:

In Kalisz there has been a strike alert and a threatened strike. In Suwalki, a threatened strike on account of some personnel in leading positions in the province.

In Katowice, the interfactory committee has put forward political demands. It demanded the speeding up of the legislative work of the Sejm [the Polish parliament] and abundant food supplies for the country. The ultimatum says that, should the Government not agree to it, of course there will be a strike.

In Radom there have been demands for the dismissal of members of the provincial and the central authorities, and many other demands connected with events of 1976. We have come to a preliminary agreement with Radom Solidarity. In Bielsko Biala, despite the fact that we had already concluded an agreement, local Solidarity demanded the elimination of more people from leading posts ...

In Nowy Sacz there is conflict against the background of various local issues and in connection with demands to change the use some buildings are put to. In Szczecin, Solidarity of municipal workers threatened to strike if their pay and other demands were not met. In Cracow, Solidarity of employees in institutes of higher education have demanded personnel changes at Government level, and trade unionists from colleges of education have submitted a number of demands of a political nature. In Lublin there was a strike alert at the post office, connected with paper deliveries.

A particularly large-scale propaganda attack was conducted by Solidarity in 33 provinces against the militia and the security services. All this – I stress – happened before the Bydgoszcz events ... This is what Solidarity’s reply to General Jaruzelski’s appeal for 90 peaceful days really looked like ... During the few weeks since I took office I have not worked as a deputy prime minister, but only as a fireman, putting out small or large fires ...

I cannot help feeling that an ever-growing number of Solidarity groups are being transformed into political parties. The country is flooded with leaflets, placards, gazettes of an anti-Communist nature. I have seen a leaflet showing a gallows with an explanation of who is going to hang from it. One factory paper wrote: ‘ninety days of Jaruzelski’s government – 90 gallows for 90 leaders of the party’. It is difficult to call this ‘partnership’. [33]

Indeed it was! But the aggro was not only coming from below, from the exploited classes unwilling to be ruled in the old way. Many of the ruling class and the petty functionaries who depended on it for their privileges were also bitterly opposed to any notion of an agreement. It was all right for their more far-sighted representatives to tell them that Solidarity was too powerful still to be crushed except at immense cost and that attempts had to be made to buy time; meanwhile their privileges were being threatened from one end of the country to the other. Some sections used the parts of the state apparatus under their control to try to get their revenge on Solidarity – regardless of the agreements their political leaders had made.

Solidarity complained in a policy statement after Jaruzelski’s appointment as prime minister, arguing that ‘recent weeks have brought a resurgence of official arrogance and malicious propaganda, and attempts to confront society and our union with faits accomplis. Work on preparing the new laws on trade unions, on censorship and on workers participation has been blocked, a number of activists of independent organisations have been arrested with the intention of staging political trials in violation of clause 4 of the Gdansk agreement’. [34]

Jaruzelski told Lech Walesa that no further action against KOR was contemplated. But both Kuron and Michnik were harassed by the police within a few days. Kuron was arrested in early March, held for six hours, told to report to the police regularly and warned that proceedings were being prepared against him. Similar actions against Michnik were foiled in Wroclaw by a ‘workers guard’ organised by Solidarity, which formed itself round him and prevented the arrest taking place. Nonetheless Michnik’s movements were also hampered as police assured him that his liberty was only provisional.

A section of the regime turned to methods they had used, with varying degrees of success, in 1957 and 1968 – they tried to play on the anti-semitic tradition of the peasantry and the old middle class. A secret letter, issued by the party headquarters in Wroclaw, suggested that party activists in the union should discredit Karol Modzelewski, at that time chief union spokesman, by accusing him of being a Jew brought up by Christian parents. At the same time as the regime was supporting the extreme nationalist Grunwald Patriotic Union, anti-semitic leaflets were circulating among the peasants. In March, while students commemorated the dissident demonstration of 1968, this organisation attracted a thousand people to a counter-demonstration, supporting the anti-semitic purges of that year and attacking ‘dissidents’ and ‘Jews’ inside Solidarity.

Worst of all was the physical violence against Solidarity members which probably emanated from the same source. ‘86 year old Antoni Pajdak, a leading member of the Socialist Party before the war, a minister in the underground government and a founder member of KOR, was attacked by an unknown assailant and suffered a fractured pelvis. Stanislaw Kliga, a former resistance fighter and chairman of Solidarity at a factory at Nowy Sacz was found, apparently hanged, shortly after being detained by the police for 24 hours. (This is presumably what Rakowski meant by ‘various local issues’ at Nowy Sacz – CB/KW). At Starograd Szczecinski, a member of Solidarity was arrested in the street and told he was being taken to police headquarters. On the way he was dragged into a cellar and severely beaten up. [35]

The final provocation that detonated near-total political crisis came on 19 March in Bydgoszcz. [36]

A number of Solidarity members had been occupying an office in support of the demand for the legalisation of Rural Solidarity. On that day they went to the local prefecture for negotiations with the regional council and a deputy premier, Stanislaw Mach. When the negotiations broke down, the Solidarity activists refused to leave the room, and some members of the regional council stayed with them. After six hours it seemed that there was going to be a peaceful resolution to this row, and an agreed statement was signed. Then, suddenly, a force of 200 armed police broke into the room, wielding clubs.

The occupiers were systematically beaten up, with 27 of them receiving injuries. Among those hospitalised was a national leader of Solidarity, Jan Rulewski.

The next day there was a half-million-strong protest strike in the Bydgoszcz area, and thousands of union members crowded outside the local union headquarters to protect it from attack.

Posters showing wounded and bleeding Solidarity activists were pasted up all over Poland. By the time the union held a national 300-strong delegate meeting three days later, pressure for a national strike in protest at the provocation was overwhelming. The ‘moderate’ line of the union praesidium was under the most severe pressure yet from outraged local activists and at one point Walesa staged an angry walk out as his opposition to an all-out general strike was ignored.

In the end, however, it was agreed to call a four-hour warning strike and then to allow the authorities four days in which to punish those to blame for the Bydgoszcz attack, recognise Rural Solidarity, release political prisoners, drop judicial proceedings against oppositionists and give full pay to strikers. If these demands were not conceded there was to be an unlimited all-out strike.

The following days were ones of mounting tension. The four hour strike was an overwhelming success and the union issued guidelines for the projected general strike. The union’s members were to effectively take control of the country’s workplaces by occupying them and by denying access to anyone not authorised by the union. Each factory was to be a citadel, with the local union committees operating from the inside so as to avoid harassment from the forces of the state.

From the side of the regime preparations also seemed to be afoot for an all-out confrontation. Massive numbers of police were drafted into the Bydgoszcz area. The politbureau broadcast a statement denouncing Solidarity for ‘political activities’ and for creating a state of anarchy’. Government spokesmen went out of their way to emphasise that Warsaw Pact exercises taking place in the country were being extended ‘owing to the seriousness of the situation’. They went on to say that the government was prepared, if necessary, to endure a 30-day general strike.

Yet in these days of growing tension, one incident revealed that the regime was not at all sure it would win in any confrontation. The majority of the politbureau were for declaring a state of emergency and turning the police and the army against the union. But Jaruzelski threatened to resign as premier and head of the armed forces if this were done. [37] At the time many people ascribed this to his moderation. Events since have shown that he was quite prepared to use troops and police to impose a dictatorship when he thought he could get away with it. If he did not do this in March, it was because he could see that the momentum of the workers’ movement was still growing and that to attempt to put the armed forces in its path might smash the armed forces. He preferred to bide his time.

Pressure was applied to Solidarity not only from those who wanted it smashed, but also from those who preached conciliation between the rival classes. On 28 March Walesa had an hour-long meeting with Cardinal Wyszynski, and the next day the Pope declared that Polish workers wanted to ‘work not strike’.

The day to day leadership of the union bent under these combined pressures. At the last minute Walesa announced that the strike had been called off. The government agreed to suspend certain officials involved in the Bydgoszcz attack, and to ‘study’ the problem of Rural Solidarity and the imprisoned dissidents. In return, the union ‘accepts that there was some justification for police interference in Bydgoszcz because of a climate of tension in the city’.

The majority of union activists accepted the deal. But a quite large minority were bitterly angry. From their hospital beds the injured Bydgoszcz officials denounced it. Karol Modzelewski resigned his position as union spokesman because of the leadership’s ‘undemocratic’ behaviour. And in Gdansk Anna Walentynowicz’s outspoken opposition to the deal led to her being replaced as a union delegate.

It was from this moment that the currents were born inside the union that became known as the ‘radicals’. Their significance was to increase in the months that followed.

They were motivated by a double feeling of distrust. On the one hand, they felt that Walesa and the praesidium were increasingly behaving in an autocratic, bureaucratic manner, not bothering to consult the members – a feeling which received confirmation as Walesa argued for the need for ‘a dictatorship’ inside the union. On the other, they felt that by failing to respond to government provocations the union leadership were allowing the regime to regroup its battered forces for further assaults upon the positions the workers had won.

In both respects the radicals were proved right by events. Walesa was increasingly to use use his position of authority to stop strikes, not to build the support that would gain them success. And, as was proved later [38], March was the month in which Jaruzelski began the long drawn out preparations that were to culminate in the military takeover of 13 December.

What would have happened, had Solidarity gone ahead with the general strike? No one can say. Yet what is certain is that the regime, in March, was in nothing like the shape it was to be in eight months later, when it chose to move.

Crisis in the party

The outcome of the Bydgoszcz confrontation was decisive in providing a framework within which the events of the next six months took place. The regime had discovered it was by no means strong enough to smash Solidarity. But the Solidarity praesidium had shown that it had no intention of leading the workers forward with a perspective of smashing the regime. The result was a condition of mutual paralysis, an equilibrium between roughly equal forces.

The apostles of conciliation interpreted this as meaning that a long-term agreement between Solidarity and the regime was possible, that ‘the moderates on both sides’ would be able to get together and spell out the terms of a new ‘social contract’.

It was with this perspective that enormous hopes were placed in the special Party Congress of the summer by the western press, by the moderates in Solidarity, by Eurocommunists and even by some western ‘Trotskyists’. [39] It was believed that ‘reformers’ in the Party would win control of the Congress and carry through a rupture with the old methods of the regime, enabling a ‘renewal of socialism’ on the basis of an agreement with the union.

These hopes were fundamentally misplaced. They did not understand the character of the PUWP or the depth of the Polish crisis.

One of the repeated formulae that Solidarity was asked to respect was ‘the leading role of the Party’. The formula suggests, as is widely thought, that the Party rules in Poland and the other ‘communist’ countries. In reality, the issue is rather more complex.

In ‘normal’ times, the one-Party monopoly is certainly very real. The workers are not allowed to organise in any other political party, nor to struggle for the realisation of any other programme for Polish society than that of the single ‘leading’ party. This monopoly is strictly enforced by police methods.

The Polish Party had a membership of some three millions. It would be absurd to imagine that these three million Poles ruled Roland, or ruled the Party they had joined. Within the Party, all factions and platforms were strictly forbidden. No rank-and-file member had any right to fight for his or her own independent ideas within the Party. As Kuron and Modzelewski wrote in the 1960s:

Exercising political initiative in society demands organisation, but in any attempt to exert influence on the decisions of the “top”, the mass of rank-and-file Party members is deprived of organisation, atomised, therefore powerless. The only source of political initiative can be – in the nature of things – organised bodies, i.e. the (Party) apparatus. Like every great apparatus, it is organised hierarchically; information flows upward, while decisions and orders are handed down from above. As in every hierarchical apparatus, the fountainhead of orders is the elite, the group of people who occupy conspicuous positions in the hierarchy and who collectively make basic decisions. [40]

What then is the role of the Party? Fundamentally, it is a branch of the state machine, though not the only one, nor necessarily always the most important. [41] Those who head the Party, together with the heads of the other major apparatuses of the state – the army, police, judiciary, planning bodies, economic ministries, cultural control systems etc. – together form the state decision- making apparatus, the real core of the ruling class. It is in this top circle that the fundamental class goals of Polish society are formulated, here that major policy decisions are taken. The Party is a mechanism through which the ‘central political bureaucracy’ (Kuron and Modzelewski’s phrase) exerts its rule over society. It is not the only mechanism of such rule: the security police, the army, the censorship, the media, the industrial management system and the official trade unions are also important. The ordinary member of the Party no more rules than does a private in the army.

The Party is, normally, a mechanism by which the state organises support in society for its goals. It reaches into all the various workplace and community organisations. If offers various kinds of rewards and satisfactions to its members. Party members generally get better access to such facilities as nursery and college places for their children, holiday resorts, sanitoria and hospitals, etc. Through Party meetings, they get access to ‘inside dope’ (an important commodity in a society whose media are so tightly controlled). Membership brings with it the chance to meet important people, to ‘be someone’. The Party is an important avenue of social mobility and promotion. It is, also, of course, the only place where anyone interested in ‘politics’ in the conventional sense can find his or her interests satisfied; and it attracts people, not only on the basis of self-interest, but also on grounds of commitment.

Party membership among workers is probably less stable or significant than among the ‘middle layers’. It matters more in those sectors of society between the ruling authorities and the mass of workers and peasants, in jobs where some degree of initiative and the exercise of judgement is required. Party membership is typically higher, in proportional terms, among such people as managers and foremen, journalists, teachers, TV personnel, army and police officers, than among rank-and-file workers and (especially) peasants. Fewer than half the Party members are workers despite its name.

In ‘normal’ circumstances, the Party functions as a hierarchical mechanism through which the ruling group fills significant positions in the overall command structure. It also motivates people to urge their fellows to work for and support the main goals of their rulers. Those who fill the top positions select their subordinates, who control entry to Party membership. The lower level officials select delegates to official functions like regional and national congresses, where they are advised whom to vote for to bodies like the Central Committee. Normally only one list of candidates is possible, so that the election of the ‘recommended’ people is assured. The Central Committee thus ‘elected’ then selects the Politbureau from its own ranks. At the same time, through the so-called ‘Nomenklatura’ system, the Party leadership controls access to key positions in the other hierarchies of the state.

In normal times this mechanism of rule works fairly well for the ruling class. But in crisis situations it can fall into disarray. There is a serious breakdown in the whole Party’s functioning. This happened in Poland in the crisis of 1956 and again in 1981.

There were already difficulties before Solidarity erupted onto the scene. In the run-up to the February 1980 Congress, the economic crisis found an echo in strained relations within the Party. Sections of the membership were ‘increasingly exasperated’: ‘In factories, meetings often turned into unruly protests that concentrated on the chaotic food supply, the growth of corrupt privilege in official life, the infuriating effect of official “success propaganda” on working-class families and the lack of effective workers’ representation in the plants.’ [42] But the Party rank-and-file might voice their grievances: they could not alter the Party regime. It was not within their power to initiate new reform proposals. They had to be satisfied with the sacking of Jaroszewicz, the Prime Minister, and an anodyne speech on ‘socialist democracy’ by Gierek that promised nothing concrete.

The great mass of workers were excluded even from this degree of participation. But in July 1980, when the strikes began, the workers’ movement forced considerable changes inside the Party. At Lublin in July, after the first strike wave there, many party workers were elected to the works councils – but not one single candidate who’d been nominated by the Party. [43] The challenge was to broaden out immensely from August 1980 onwards.

The impact of Solidarity on the inner workings of the Party was immense. It threw it into disarray, as it was also to throw into disarray other sections of the Polish state apparatus (though not all). The turmoil inside Poland was rapidly reflected in the changes in Party leadership. In September 1980, Gierek became ‘ill’ and was replaced by Kania. Shortly after, the new regime began to talk about the Gierek leadership’s ‘errors’, which had previously not been directly admitted. Party morale was affected by this and subsequent changes at the top, and by the growing wave of open revelations of corruption and mismanagement. Quite a large number of members quit the party voluntarily: by late April 1981, the numbers were officially reported to be 136,000 and the drain continued. [44] The Party’s credibility was thrown into serious question by everything that happened, and it became more unpopular than it had ever been. The official public opinion research bureau reported in June 1981 on a survey among Poles, in which they were asked which institution in Polish society inspired most confidence in them: the Catholic Church came top, followed by Solidarity, the army, the council of state, the government – and the Party came bottom. [45]

The pressure of Solidarity on the Party was also felt much more directly, in that many Party members – and especially members in the factories and other workplaces – joined the new movement. The Party was no longer the single focus of organisation and politics. Solidarity was new and exciting, offering more than the Party’s increasingly tired rhetoric about working-class organisation and justice.

The new movement broadened the aspirations and the imagination of hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file Party members. Estimates of how many Party members joined Solidarity vary from three quarters of a million to two millions. The more that the state and party leadership were forced to make concessions to workers’ demands, the more the appeal of Solidarity increased. Jan Labecki, first secretary of the Party in the Gdansk shipyard, and himself a Solidarity sympathiser, reported: ‘In our shipyard Solidarity and the party are organically intertwined. Eighty per cent of the party’s members also belong to Solidarity.’ [46] These members’ primary loyalties were by no means to the Party: when the regime tried to persuade its Party members to turn up for work on the free Saturdays, the response was poor; even more seriously, when the Party tried to persuade its own members to break the four-hour protest strike on 27 March 1981 they failed miserably. The Party as a mechanism of control had broken down. Party members with leading positions in Solidarity were soon either to be expelled like Bogdan Lis of Gdansk, or to leave like Andrzej Slowick from Lodz (now serving a three and a half year sentence for calling a strike).

One effect was the radicalisation of whole sections of the Party’s membership. One notable development was the emergence of a ‘rank and file’ movement inside the Party, beginning in Torun. A radical alliance was formed between a local Party secretary, Iwanow, and the university Party group. In October 1980 this group organised a ‘horizontal’ meeting between members in eight local factories, followed the next month with a larger meeting. In February Iwanow was expelled from the Party for this breach of Party rules, but his members promptly re-elected him. The ‘horizontal’ conferences called for an emergency Party Congress, for free and secret elections to all posts and committees in the Party, for new laws of the kind Solidarity wanted: on trade unions, censorship, electoral procedures, the separation of Party and state. They seem to have wanted the Party to stop being an apparatus of the state, and to become a force fighting genuinely for its ideas among workers. They favoured a new pluralism in Polish political life.

Twenty ‘horizontal’ structures held a conference at Torun on 15 April 1981, where they put forward a whole series of demands, including the removal of compromised officials, a reformed and renewed PUWP, rights of opposition and tendency within the Party, and so on. Their ideal was a genuinely democratic Party which could formulate, and argue for, a real programme of national reform and renewal, alongside Solidarity. Although this conference was held in formal breach of the Party’s statutes, it was attended by quite senior Party personnel, and the Party daily reported quite favourably on it. [47]

The more that the leadership of the Party had to make concessions to Solidarity, and the more it appeared divided and irresolute in the crisis, the greater the space for the membership to begin to assert its own wishes and ideas: one rank-and-file member declared: ‘We decided we could not get sound advice from the leadership. After August the leadership simply was not in charge. It was split. Some members of the leadership were strongly opposed to a political solution to the crisis. This prevented the Politburo from taking a more vigorous line, which in a way was a good thing. It gave the rank and file a chance to play a more active role.’ [48]

Another element in the situation that weakened the Party was that many of its middle layers had to be driven out, under the Pressure of strikes and demands for a clean-up. Some 70,000 members were expelled by late April for corruption and other offences, and the process continued thereafter. Local officials, business directors, former ministers and the like were purged, and still the popular demands came for more. The Guardian reported ‘Rank and file pressures are still growing for the punishment of those leaders who caused the present crisis, and there is no sign that the Central Committee is prepared to resist them ... Since the reform movement began last August, about two thirds of the provincial Party secretaries have been replaced. The demand for further changes is strong.’ [49]

The Party leadership had no choice but to bow before this popular pressure. Particularly after the February Plenum of the Central Committee (when General Jaruzelski, the Defence Minister, also became Prime Minister), it attempted to lead and legitimate the reform movement inside the Party, in the hope of heading it off and controlling it. It identified itself with the anti-corruption movement. One Central Committee member suggested, after Jaruzelski’s assumption of the premiership, ‘This is the blackest day in the lives of many incompetent government officials’. [50] Jarulzelski was also expected to push back some of the concessions that his predecessor, Pinkowski, had made to Solidarity.

The new leadership was treading a difficult course: it wanted to contain Solidarity, but it was as yet without the resources for any kind of head-on confrontation. Kania, as Party secretary, had to attempt to limit his own hard-liners: ‘There are people in the Party,’ he declared, ‘who fail to understand that there is a new situation’. [51]The Party leadership must manoeuvre carefully to regain control over the situation, re-groupings its forces and attempting to re-build the shattered mechanism of transmission between itself and its own ; base. In early March, the Central Committee’s press spokesman, Josef Klasa, admitted publicly that the Party’s ideas were inadequate: ‘It is arguments that we lack most.... All views should be ventilated, in the Party press, provided we have sufficient ammunition to defend the Party line.’ And ammunition was lacking: the Party had debated with Jacek Kuron, ‘... but our polemics lacked sufficiently good arguments.’ [52] The third report of the ‘Experience and Future’ group (the DiP) appeared in the spring of 1981, and commented:

In the conditions of the Polish system, the development of the situation in the PUWP is a key issue. As a consequence of geopolitical necessity and historical conditioning [i.e., because of Russia! – CB/KW] its key role in society is beyond discussion, although there is still little clarity about how this role could and should be fulfilled in the much changed social situation. The peculiarity of this situation is that the leading role of the Party is recognised as a fundamental principle of the system without the belief that it is capable of playing such a role. Arguments put forward in favour of recognising this fundamental principle very seldom refer to the actual good qualities or achievement of the PUWP ... [53]

Yet, despite its growth, the ‘horizontal movement’ could not succeed in taking over the Party. For it to have done so, there would have had to be a clear split between a Party rank and file opposed to the regime and a leadership that supported it. But in practice a very large chunk of lower-level Party activists themselves shared in the privileges the regime granted to those who defended its rule. They saw that Solidarity represented a challenge to all privilege, and so identified either with the existing Party leadership or with the right wing authoritarian ruling-class ‘opposition’ of Grabski and Olszowski.

Paradoxically, this was revealed the moment the Party leadership conceded the most prominent of the horizontal movement’s demands – that for a special Party Congress based upon free and secret election of delegates from the different Party districts. What resulted was not a workers’ democracy of delegates elected by those who were exploited and oppressed in Polish society, but a version of what Lenin used to call a ‘slave owners democracy’ – an assembly made up in the main of representatives of those who gained privilege from exploitation and those who were engaged in oppression.

In the months running up to the Congress in July a different sort of horizontal movement appeared in opposition to the Torun movement – the so-called Katowice Forum made up of hardline opponents of any sort of concessions to Solidarity. In a sense this was just as authentic a representation of rank and file Party members as the Torun movement – one represented the sections of the rank and file from the working class and the intelligentsia, the other from the ranks of state functionaries and the ‘technocracy’.

Under these circumstances arguments in the Party meetings that elected delegates were intense indeed. The censorship intervened to prevent publication by the press of some of the discussions. ‘The Party’s demands are at times too radical for the censor.’ [54]

The result of the polarisation in the Party was that the delegates to the Congress were overwhelmingly new people. 80% had never been to a Congress before. It also meant that in locality after locality one side or the other was able to get enough support to get rid of old activists it disliked: only 40 of the 143 members of the old Central Committee were elected as delegates. Yet this did not mean that either of the ‘extreme’ groups in the Party could enjoy success for itself – neither the Torun movement nor the Katowice Forum got more than a small proportion of delegates. Nor did it mean a change in the basic character of the Congress as representing those sections of the middle layers who identified with the regime sufficiently to join its Party. Only 20% of delegates were workers – and of those, a quarter were foremen. 60% of the delegates were white collar. The Congress was chiefly made up of ‘middle aged, middle class intellectuals’ [55] and was 95% male.

These delegates were prepared to throw out many of the old Party leaders: only four of the old 11-strong politbureau made it to the new Central Committee. But the delegates were not prepared to push a new political line to go along with the new personnel. Jaruzelski and Kania who were the mistakenly identified as wanting some sort of reform were elected, but so was Olszowski, the sponsor of the hardliners.

In practice, nothing came from the Congress of value either for the regime or for the opposition to it. Even a new constitution that was supposed to subordinate the politbureau to the Central Committee was only approved in a ‘draft’ form – it had to be endorsed by the Central Committee.

In the months that followed the Party was no more able than it had been before to play its ‘leading role’ – to institutionalise the hegemony of the small bureaucratic ruling class over wider social layers. Its leadership remained a hotch potch of factions, based not on perspectives for getting out of the crisis, but on opportunistic alignments based on crude career calculations. The result was that the leadership of the regime was paralysed, unable to follow a clear cut policy either of attacking Solidarity or of making concessions to it.

The complete bankruptcy of the attempt to ‘renovate’ the Party via the Congress was shown in October. One of the ‘great’ ‘democratic’ reforms of the Congress was supposed to have been the election of the Party secretary by secret ballot. Kania came top in this ballot and continued to hold the position. But a ‘coup’ within the Central Committee in October overturned this ‘democratic’ decision and handed the job to Jaruzelski, who was already head of the armed forces and premier. There were few complaints when the ‘democracy’ of the Party Congress gave way to a greater than ever concentration of power in one person – for everyone could see that the Party was drifting as much as ever, unable to solve the regime’s problems and certainly incapable of fulfilling the hopes placed in it in the early summer. By that time nothing seemed more absurd than the optimism of a typical western ‘socialist’ D.M. Nuti, back in the summer: ‘The Party has ridden the storm, and come out of the experience considerably strengthened and with greater authority.’ [56]

In reality, the Party proved quite incapable of coping with the task of holding society together in the face of the challenge to the ruling class’s power. Even at its top, it no longer functioned as an arena in which cohesion could be produced among the rival groups within the ruling class.

This was to be proved, dramatically, in December when a different state organisation had to take the levers of power into its own hands and to push the Party – at least for a time – out of the power system of the so-called ‘one-party state’. The Party will not be allowed to resume its ‘leading role’ till it has been thoroughly purged and re-disciplined. Meantime, the ‘Communist’ regime is, in effect, doing without a communist party.


31. Labour Focus on Eastern Europe IV, 1–3.

32. After a prisoners’ revolt in Bydgoszcz in early September Solidarnosc (nr. 25, 18th Sept.) carried a report, based on evidence gathered by local regional Solidarity officers from prison inmates.

‘... prisoners referred repeatedly to the so called “belter”: a device used to punish insubordinate elements. What I saw surpassed my worst expectations. It is housed in a room of about 7-8 sq. metres, with a double door and a thick plexiglass window. The thick walls and the porch are there to ensure that the room is soundproof. A wooden platform about the size of a large bed stands in the centre, equipped with six metal loops to which belts are fastened. The prisoners relate that the condemned man is laid on the platform, his legs, arms and chest are bound in such a way that his shoulder-blades touch. The gaoler crushes the prisoners’ chest with his knees in order to make him exhale and tightens the belt to the maximum extent. He slides a matchbox or a cake of soap under the backbone. The constraint is painful and the soap causes additional burns. The prisoner is kept in this position for 6, 12 or even 24 hours. Even after six hours he is incapable of holding anything in his hands for the next fortnight. One of the prisoners, who had undergone this punishment 30 times demonstrated thick scars on his shoulders and armpits. It looked as if his arms were stitched on.

‘The decision to use the belts rests with the prison Governor, while the prison doctor certifies that the prisoner’s state of health is sufficiently sound to permit it. The prisoners complained that the representative of the prison health service treated both sick and healthy men alike in this respect. One of the prisoners showed us scars on his wrists. He had slashed them in order to evade the belts, but did not succeed ...

‘The most cruel punishment – those belts – was, until recently applied in the full majesty of the law. After the hunger strike in Grudziac prison, it was forbidden. The Governor of the Bydgoszcz establishment maintains that it is not used. Prisoners who were interviewed, both in the prison and in the town, consistently said that this was not true.’

33. Guardian, 28 March 1981.

34. Guardian, 19 February 1981.

35. J. Taylor, Five Months with Solidarity, London 1981, p. 19.

36. For a translation of the internal debate within Solidarity that the Bydgoszcz events triggered, see Dissent 1981.

37. Financial Times, 26 March 1981.

38. See the Insight team’s report in the Sunday Times, December 20th 1981.

39. See for instance the various articles that appeared in Intercontinental Press in this period.

40. Open Letter to the Party, p. 7.

41. Under Stalin, for example, the secret police were the most important branch of the state machine.

42. Ascherson, op. cit., pp. 126–7.

43. Ibid., p. 180.

44. Press reports at the end of 1981 suggested that as many as one and a half million members had been lost.

45. Guardian, 22 June 1981.

46. Guardian, 8 May 1981.

47. Guardian, 16 April 1981; Sunday Times, 19 April 1981.

48. Guardian, 8 May 1981.

49. Guardian, 29 April 1981. In May, Radio Warsaw reported that 13 Ministers, 40 Deputy Ministers, 18 Provincial Governors, 26 Deputy Governors, 72 Provincial Party Secretaries, 7 Heads of Central Departments and 14 Directors of Industrial Groups had been ‘recalled from top posts’. Denis McShane, New Socialist, September 1981.

50. Sunday Times, 15 February 1981.

51. Guardian, 4 February 1981.

52. Sunday Times, 8 March 1981.

53. Kultura (Paris), nr. 5/404, May 1981.

54. Guardian, 21 June 1981.

55. Guardian, 13 July 1981.

56. D.M. Nuti, The Polish Crisis: Economic Factors and Constraints, Socialist Register 1987, p. 127.

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