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Colin Barker & Kara Weber

From Gdansk to Military Repression

Part I: Sixteen months of Solidarity

4. The crisis in Solidarity

Paralysis in Solidarity’s Leadership

It was not only the regime which, in the months after the Bydgoszcz incident, seemed paralysed. So did Solidarity. One sympathetic observer remarked in July, ‘Since March the only offensive action by the union has been the self-management movement’ (on which see below). [57]

The problem facing the union leadership was that its perspective of pressing the regime for reforms came to make less and less sense, given both the ever-deepening economic crisis and the inability of the Party to act decisively. Even if the authorities had been serious about implementing the already agreed reforms, they were quite incapable of doing so. They would, under pressure, grant wage increases – but they could not or would not ensure that there were goods in the shops on which the wage packets could be spent. They would promise freedom for the union to organise – but their local hardline apparatchiks and managers would seize every opportunity to harass and victimise union activists. They would claim to see the ‘moderate’ wing of Solidarity as a ‘responsible social partner’ – while the army daily newspaper denounced the union leadership in the most scurrilous manner.

Logically, there were two ways forward for the union – even if this was not clear to the activists. One (untried) road would have involved breaking out of the reformist ruling assumptions, and treating workers struggles as something to be spread and deepened, to be directed towards the base of the state apparatus itself in an effort to draw rank-and-file soldiers and police away from strict obedience to their officers. Such an approach would have involved the adoption of a clear revolutionary perspective. To go down the other path was to try to restrain workers’ struggles, in the interests of helping the supposedly moderate wing of the regime – Kania and above all Jaruzelski – to strengthen their position. A strengthened ‘moderate’ wing in the ruling class, it was believed, would be able to force its functionaries to honour agreements with Solidarity.

This latter view was represented, above all, by Lech Walesa. The militant leader of August 1980 was, within nine months, acting as if he were the most hardened trade-union bureaucrat from the West. Proudly assuming the role of ‘fireman’, Walesa saw his task, from December 1980 to the beginning of December 1981, as being to stop, or contain, spontaneous strikes, not to encourage and lead them. He spent a large part of his time touring the country, urging one group of workers after another (not always successfully) to return to work.

His famous remark ‘We are Poles first, and trade unionists second’ encapsulated his belief that only a solution of ‘national unity’, i.e. class collaboration, could get Poland out of its mess. The extent of the economic crisis, something the workers never fully appreciated in the euphoric days of the August strikes, was being spelled out to them by their own economic advisors. On January 20th Ryszard Bugaj told the National Co-ordinating Commission that Poland was ‘on the brink of economic catastrophe’. This too, in the reformist framework, constituted a powerful argument for ‘responsible’ action and co-operation with the state.

As a gesture towards the authorities (there could hardly be any other reason) Walesa announced in mid-January that Solidarity no longer needed the help of KOR – the renewed harassment by the authorities of KOR activists in February can hardly be unconnected with this. Walesa then left for a visit to Rome where he insulted his hosts, the Italian trade unionists, saying that he hadn’t come to see them but the Pope. The Pope, in a speech of welcome which was published all over Poland in a hundred and one local Solidarity gazettes, stressed: “The effort of the autumn weeks was not directed against anyone and the effort, the enormous effort, which still stands before you is also not directed against anyone. It is directed exclusively for the common good.” [58] (Pope’s emphasis) He urged the union to continue to seek this common good by the method of dialogue and reasoned argument with the representatives of the state, shunning the road of force and violence which, he maintained, did not spare the lives of innocent people.

As soon as Walesa returned from Rome he went straight to a tour-hour discussion with the then premier Pinkowski, before going on to the National Commission meeting in Gdansk, where he did his best to persuade the union to compromise on the free Saturday issue and dismantle the strike due to take place on the following ‘working Saturday’. He was outvoted, and severely criticised for his priorities in seeing the prime minister before he had been to see his own comrades in the union. Reuter’s correspondent, Karol Cwinarowicz, said the meeting was the most ‘confused and recriminatory’ [59] since Solidarity’s formation.

Nevertheless, the moderates continued to do as they wished. In particular they tried to suppress regional autonomy in the union. By the end of January the National Commission had issued a statement that “the random continuation of strikes called by individual Solidarity branches would deepen social and economic chaos and would simultaneously dissipate the union’s forces.” [60] It suggested that all its forces should be united into a single, nation-wide campaign. Two and a half weeks later the union was putting this same line more strongly and warning that any industrial action taken without prior consultation with the head office would be disavowed by the union leadership. “The plethora of local and regional strikes pursuing disparate aims without the consent of the National Co-ordinating Commission, often against its advice, not only have made little impact; they have sometimes been provoked by advocates of confrontation amongst those in authority as a means to disrupt our unity.” [61]

Walesa’s action in calling off the general strike over the Bydgoszcz attack reinforced the trend toward ‘moderation’. At the end of May the Guardian reported “The Government and Solidarity have begun to collaborate. Seven joint commissions have been set up to study law reform, the release of political prisoners (of whom, it may be a surprise to know there are only eight), miners’ issues, the press, the economy, Solidarity’s international activity, and ways of institutionalising Solidarity’s contact with the Government.” [62]

The January to March upsurge of local strikes had died down. The strike rate dropped enormously in April, May and June. In June Solidarity suspended or replaced its bulletin editors in Krakow, Lublin, and Torun, apparently for being too sympathetic to KOR. Warsaw’s bulletin also stopped reporting dissident activities. Not that any of the dissidents were against collaboration and the ‘normalising’ of the union’s relationship with the government. As before the suspension was more in the nature of a token of good-will in the collaboration game, a proof that the union was distancing itself from the ‘anti-socialist elements’ about whom the government was constantly screaming.

But the result was the opposite of what the national leadership of the union expected. Far from placating the authorities, it merely encouraged them to take a harder line against union activists.

Andrzej Gwiazda – a leader of the Gdansk occupation who was now one of Solidarity’s best known national figures – described the situation later in the summer:

Our union is confronting growing attacks on the part of the authorities ... A year ago the General Prosecutor’s office would not have dared to launch so many investigations against independent publications and the union press. In this respect we have not achieved progress, but have gone backwards instead.

This has happened because we did not respond to minor attacks which were meant to find out if we would concede. At that time we called these actions phony conflicts, but they are not phony conflicts any more, considering that 200 court cases have been brought against the activists of our union and the editorial offices. [63]

The regime could not take more advantage of the situation inside Solidarity because it too was internally divided and paralysed. But the outlook for Poland’s workers was ever more ominous. The economic chaos was deepening. As the food shortages became more acute, so the food-queues lengthened, and workers’ tempers shortened. Yet Solidarity, born the previous summer with so much hope, seemed no longer able to offer a way forward.

By July and August those who had been most prominent in articulating the reformist strategy the summer before, the KOR activists who had talked about the need for a ‘self-limiting revolution’, were expressing open doubts as to what to do.

Litynski, the driving force behind KOR’s working class agitation before the birth of Solidarity, expressed the dilemma:

We have arrived at a situation which seems to have no way out. The economy and the state are disintegrating. We can discuss pointlessly whether this decomposition results from conscious or semi-conscious sabotage by the apparatus of power or from the impotence of the power apparatus after the events of August 1980 ... Solidarity has accelerated this paralysing decomposition of the organs of power in a certain sense. The strategy that consists in standing aside to see how the regime moves and in making compromises with it seems ineffective. Solidarity loses its point and deludes itself. [64]

Bujak, the Ursus factory activist who chaired the Warsaw region of Solidarity used a graphic metaphor to sum up the difficulty Solidarity faced if it continued to regard itself just as a movement to win economic concessions for workers: ‘If we consider ourselves merely as a trade union, as the government expects us to, then we must think of ourselves as a trade union of seamen on a sinking ship.’ [65]

Shortly afterwards he spelt out the impact on the mass of workers of the union’s inability to pose clearly answers to the crisis – and he hinted at what the answer might be:

Our movement is weakening. At the beginning it was based on an implacable hatred for the regime and against the Party. But today that is not enough. Completely new motivations are necessary. The members of the union do not understand the tactics of the leadership... The protest strikes and the local struggles do not succeed in uniting into a coherent plan. People were wary of me in a mass meeting at Ursus. Only when I explained that this self-management leads to a taking of power did people understand and agree with me ... In this phase people want a clear programme. It doesn’t matter too much whether they understand it, as long as they see it was a way out of the crisis. [66]

Yet the option hinted at here – ‘a taking of power’ – was one that the union leadership still refused to consider. Thus, at a time when the mass of Polish workers were looking for a new way out of the crisis more desperately than ever, the paralysed regime was still faced by a paralysed union.

The fact that, at this point, neither the regime nor the Solidarity leadership had a clear view of what to do did not halt all movement. Within and outside Solidarity, people began to search for new alternatives. The summer of 1981 saw four new developments: the growth of the ‘radical’ current within the union; the rise of the ‘self-management’ movement based on the biggest enterprises; a growing interest among some sections of the population in oppositional parties outside Solidarity and in ‘political’ solutions; and a new wave of local workers’ struggles erupting from below.

The Solidarity radicals

As the implications of ‘moderation’ began to become clearer, a number of leading union activists began to distance themselves from Walesa and his activities. The arguments which had already begun to surface at the time of his visit to Rome in January became especially intense after he unilaterally called off the general strike over Bydgoszcz. What enraged many Solidarity members was that union democracy had been trampled on. Since the National Commission had called the strike, surely it alone was entitled to call it off? Walesa’s private chats with Jaruzelski seemed to be in shocking contrast with the openness of negotiations in Gdansk in the previous summer. Suspicion and hostility spilled over onto Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Catholic journalist who was to become editor of the union’s own weekly paper, and Professor Bronislaw Geremek, a historian who also acted as a regular union adviser. Some members demanded that union advisers should in future be excluded from actual negotiations.

The arguments became especially acrimonious in Gdansk. There, as we saw, Anna Walentynowicz lost her union position for refusing to bend to Walesa’s line. And Andrzej Gwiazda, another veteran of the small network of activists who had struggled to build the Coastal Worker in the years before August 1980, also moved into an increasingly oppositional stance within Solidarity. He wrote an open letter to Walesa: “Internal democracy is a need of our union. The anti-democratic environment, the external threat, the constant battles and tensions, all these result in tendencies appearing throughout our union, from top to bottom, which depart from democratic principles. If, however, the union fights by using the methods employed by its adversaries, it must lose.” [67]

Gwiazda became the centre of an opposition faction (nicknamed ‘the constellation’ after the Polish meaning – ‘star’ – of Gwiazda). One of the chief platforms from which he attacked the Walesa faction was this one of union democracy. He pointed out the function of rank-and-file activity in maintaining strength of organisation: ‘A dictatorship in the union is an essential (and sufficient) condition for the absorption of Solidarity by the system, returning us back to square one.’ [68]

In July, after regional elections had taken place in Solidarity he commented bitterly, “The membership has, by a large majority (in our region at any rate) declared itself in favour of dictatorship in the union. Walesa stressed repeatedly that he wanted to be a general and he has become one.” He then went on to describe the consequences of operating a moderate, reformist policy which ignores the development of the strength of the rank and file:

A dictator who does not have a police force or any army at his disposal is reduced to maintaining his popularity and his good relationship with the authorities. In order not to risk his position he has to pursue the politics of co-operation and move towards ever greater concessions, until a rebellious reaction and insubordination appears among the workforce. Then, in order not to lose popularity and to maintain his dictatorship, he has to turn about and lead the rebellion. This results in politics catastrophic for both the union and the country. Necessarily, it is a chaotic politics, lurching from one extreme to the other. It is much more erratic than the politics conducted by a democratic organisation, a politics which can change with the rhythm of fluctuating influences of fractions and differing groups. [69]

In the spring of 1981, Walesa and the praesidium had been able to beat off the challenge to their strategy: it was those who opposed Walesa’s handling of the Bydgoszcz affair who resigned or lost their positions. By the summer, however, the balance of forces within the union began to change, as the paralysis within Solidarity became more evident. By the time of the union’s congress in September, the ‘radicals’ predominated in many of Solidarity’s regional organisations.

The Congress was held in two parts. At the first, which concerned itself with framing general policies, ‘radicals’ tended to dominate the proceedings. Resolutions were passed calling for free elections, appealing to workers in other East European countries to follow the Polish workers’ example and form their own free trade unions, calling for Solidarity to set up its own ‘people’s tribunal’ if the regime did not bring to court the former leaders responsible for the economic crisis. Walesa was censured for coming to a compromise agreement with the government over self-management (below), though the agreement itself was reluctantly accepted.

Yet the question of state power was still studiously avoided. Krzysztof Wyszkowski, secretary of the Solidarity Weekly editorial board, actually delivered a hostile attack on those who might dare to raise it. In a short article, ‘Extremists and stupid children’, he was as scathing against ‘one of the experts to the National Commission who wrote that the party had already been deprived of power and we should be looking around for something to replace it’ as he was against Party hardliners who were calling for the de-legalisation of Solidarity. The union’s role, he claimed, included that of defending the interests of the nation as a whole; so, if the good of the nation demanded it, the union should be prepared to drop some of its demands, however justified they might be. To this the ‘radicals’ made no reply. Most of the delegates preferred to ignore the question of power altogether. Asked whether the union should proceed cautiously or do whatever it pleased, one delegate replied that it should go carefully but do what it pleased anyway ... Nonetheless, premier Rakowski complained that the ‘radical factions of Solidarity’ had ‘hegemonised’ the first stage of the conference.

The impact of the radicals was again shown in the second part of the Congress. Three of the ‘radical’ regional leaders – Gwiazda from Gdansk, Jurczyk from Szczecin and Rulewski from Bydgoszcz – stood against Walesa for the union presidency, getting 45% of the vote between them. A number of Catholic ‘experts’ closely associated with the ‘moderate’ policy of the preceding months were knocked off the union’s national commission. One western socialist journalist reported that: ‘The radical current of the union has decisively oriented the second phase of the Congress, conceding to the moderate wing which practically ran the union over the last year the presidency of Walesa only. Solidarity has a National Commission majority independent of the Church ... and a radical programme.’ [70]

Yet things were not quite as simple as that. For the Congress allowed Walesa to handpick the day to day leadership of the union, the praesidium, even if it was nominally to be under the control of a more radical national commission.

And on a crucial issue that exploded in the middle of the second part of the Congress – that of the doubling of the price of cigarettes – Solidarity failed to take any concrete action. Jan Rulewski tried to insist that there be some discussion on how to respond to price increases: ‘We must discuss the issue of food. Otherwise we will look ridiculous. The whole world will say we are ignoring the main issue.’ Yet the union was soon to go back on its opposition to the cigarette price increases and merely to beg that the increased government revenue go on welfare payments to the lower paid. Despite the radical tone of the Congress, the union leadership was to continue, as before, to follow a path of discussions with the government and of urging an end to strikes, rather than of making any preparation for confrontation.

Part at least of the reason why this could happen was that the ‘radicals’ in the union were not yet clear what they themselves wanted. They too had accepted the view of the union as reformist the year before and were still far from abandoning that view. They wanted more radical action in order to force concessions from the regime, but it was still concessions they wanted, not the overthrow of the regime. None of them raised in their election addresses in any sense the idea of Solidarity forming an alternative to the regime.

A brief look at what was said by the three candidates who opposed Walesa shows how limited the perspective of the radicals still was.

Marian Jurczyk was the most popular runner-up in the election, achieving nearly three times as many votes as his nearest rival. When asked whether he was in favour of a government of national salvation he replied:

I’ve never been a politician. I’m a trade union activist. I want to defend the working people. I want them to get decent wages for their work and I want them to live a decent life. That’s my aim. [71]

It would be unfair to say that this sadly naive response summed up all of Jurczyk’s politics. He wanted to insist on rank and file control over the union leadership. He wanted a more militant line taken by the union, with fewer compromises and retreats. He wanted free elections to the Polish parliament and a government subordinated to it. However, he shared such views with the other candidates. It was his ‘honest Joe’ image, contrasting with the image of the other candidates as radicals and politicos, which seems to have accounted tor his popularity.

Jan Rulewski, severely beaten up by the police in Bydgoszcz, afterwards gained a reputation as a radical. His most interesting contribution to the pre-election discussion was an anti-Russian speech. It cost him many votes and he came bottom of the poll, but it was much more than an anti-Russian speech. He placed the Polish state in the international context and although he concentrated on Poland’s relationship with Russian imperialism, what he said could easily be extended to her relationship with her western imperial creditors:

The mass media will argue that I have gone beyond the limits of union activity. Ladies and gentlemen, the problems of the union have to be seen in a wider perspective. We have to examine foreign policy and no one can lawfully deny us the right to express opinions in this, as foreign policy is connected to economic matters and arms production. It is easy to prove that our activity, our control and formation of public opinion on foreign policy issues mean the control of state budgets, of how much is spent on armaments, and how much on minimum benefits for the seven million Poles who are starving. [72]

The third ‘radical’ candidate was Andrzej Gwiazda. We have already seen the very clear way he not only attacked the lack of union democracy, but at the same time drew the link between collaborationist policies and the bureaucratisation of the union. He concluded: ‘I think it is a mistake to think that it is possible to pacify the authorities by making concessions ... We will not avoid conflict by retreating, concessions can only lead us closer to the ultimate conflict.’

Yet in spite of this correct prognostication his position suffered a number of crucial weaknesses. In urging workers to ‘take control’ he was referring to the management of the economy rather than political control. As we shall see, without the latter this was ultimately a recipe for the incorporation of the workers’ movement into the existing bureaucratic state. Just as important was his inability to organise within the union, an inability that flowed at least in part from a view that implied that there was no need to do so. As he put it himself:

I believe that if ten million people decide for some reason not to overthrow the government, then a thousand leaders, however bloodthirsty, will not be able to do anything about it. Conversely, if ten million people want to overthrow the system then even the most collaborationist leaders will be unable to prevent it. [73]

Formally this was quite correct. But in the context of the desperate need for an alternative leadership in Solidarity it amounted, quite simply, to a refusal to give it. Just how desperate this need was, was revealed by Walesa’s tired and bewildered defeatism:

I am worried that we badly underestimate our partner. We have too much self-confidence and at the same time fail to notice problems, troubles and methods by which we can be defeated.

I mean that we should remember that winter is coming, they can exert pressure on us, and very cunningly so. Simply turn off the taps if we don’t show proper respect for them.

Our problem is that we do not talk often enough amongst ourselves, that we do not look at the partner who is well equipped, who tactically, step by step and in an organised way is attacking our credibility and society’s trust in us. This is a deliberate action leading to victory, but not our victory.

The radicals in Solidarity sensed, more and more clearly, that something was going wrong. But they could not understand exactly what. Hence, all their arguments and solutions were partial attacks on the problem. Lacking a revolutionary perspective, they were in the position of blindfolded people in a locked room, groping wildly for a way out. As they stumbled and argued, desperately aware that ‘moderation’ was producing more and more problems, the union as a whole was moving closer to disaster.

Reactions to paralysis: the self-management movement

Ideas about the control of the economy by workers had been expressed since the early days of Solidarity. For example in November 1980 the Szczecin paper Jednosc argued: ‘State ownership and social ownership of the means of production are two completely different concepts which should never be confused. The means of production may be owned by the state, but this does not mean that they are thereby the social property of the working class.’ [74] The struggle, it said, was for the transformation of the state ownership of the means of production into social ownership.

The Jednosc team were not typical of the movement. But this formulation of aspirations in the economic sphere came to be generally accepted. Solidarity had begun, for reasons we have explained, by being suspicious of workers’ self-management councils. But as the economic crisis intensified in the summer of 1981 the pressure grew, not so much to share responsibility for the economy, but for the workers to do something about the economy simply because no one else would.

The ‘Network’ organisation, linking the largest factories, sprang up to promote ideas of self-management. A meeting held in July attracted a thousand plant representatives. At that time there were self-management founding committees in 17 major factories. By the end of August the movement had spread to 3,000 workplaces and was putting considerable pressure on Solidarity to adopt its ideas.

One idea which was accepted very easily was that of electing the enterprise director. Had not the Polish workers already got rid of thousands of corrupt and inefficient state functionaries? It was an easy step into new struggles. The most famous of these was the strike on the state airways, LOT. The workers rejected the government appointee and elected their own. The government, in its turn, rejected the workers’ choice, offering them a selection between two air force generals. It claimed that LOT was part of the military defence establishment. In the light of the military attack upon the Polish people which was to follow, this statement acquires a sinister meaning. The issue went to a prolonged strike after which a not very satisfactory compromise was reached. During the strike posters appeared all over Warsaw saying “Self-management is the last chance for our economy. Support LOT workers.”

Other factories took up the same demand. An office equipment factory voted to sack its manager in mid-July. So did the giant Huta Katowice a little later. At Wroclaw the workers at an engineering plant employing 1500 decided to go about it systematically. They got the local polytechnic to devise a battery of tests (intelligence, speed of reaction, association and co-ordination, ability to make rapid decisions under pressure – the academics must have had fun). Candidates had an additional day being grilled by a panel of worker representatives. They were quite surprised, hardly anyone could do their tests! [75] Of course, when it came to it the director of the combine, who had given his consent to the exercise, withdrew it. It took a national uproar and the threat of a strike throughout the region to get the workers’ choice accepted.

But beyond the demand for workers to elect their own manager the ideas of the self-management movement became more confused. A good illustration of this confusion can be seen in the following selections from a discussion on self-management held in late May 1981 which included a number of members of the Warsaw leadership of Solidarity. [76]

Here is Zbigniew Bujak, Warsaw region chairman speaking:

The authorities could have set quite considerable social forces into motion, which could have carried out the social reform program independently from the union. But the authorities did not do this – counting, I don’t know – on stifling the movement perhaps, on being able to return to the old track? Hence the union, whether it likes it or not, must take on this task. It has to do it because the existence of the union is simply impossible without certain unavoidable, essential changes.

Jadwiga Staniszkis, a regional ‘expert’ was also present. She outlined a possible future scenario which such changes would make possible.

It seems to me that at present the confrontation is much more dramatic than it was in August. At this point we can really talk about revolution. Suppose that several provincial committees, say Legnica, Wroclaw, Krakow, informed the workplaces before a proposed general strike, that they will not hamper communications, that they will assist the smooth delivery of food supplies, that they will not obstruct the conduct of the strike. If 80% of the Party organisations and the youth organisations – they’re mostly Solidarity members – sympathise with us, then it’s a much more serious confrontation for the government than the events of August. Yet the consolidation process in society is still continuing. You have to remember that actually all revolutions in history lasted for a dozen or more years. Many different forms emerged along the way. I think that we are in the process of a profound change of the system, and that this is an irreversible process.

Bujak again: “We have a situation of very deep crisis. So here the union must put forward a strong case for, say, the minimum wage, while on the other hand the self-management must put forward a strong case for solving the crisis. The unions must say ‘we must give to our people and our members’. The self-management must say ‘we won’t give because we haven’t got it. We must rebuild the economy first.” Seweryn Jaworski, another member of the Solidarity leadership agreed. “I can only see a solution which works by the friction between these two forces, the self-management and the union ... It’s well known that without reforming the government, and the self-management will be the actual government, we cannot achieve the goals of the union. Because if we don’t have at our disposal considerable economic achievements, men the fulfilment of the union’s material aims is also quite out of the question. Wages will not be able to be raised, there will be no improvements in maternity pay, pensions, etc. And we’ll never force it out of the government, it’ll never be capable of fulfilling these aims because it has quite lost credibility.”

The discussion ranged widely. The NTO editor remarked, for example, how the continued existence of the union is dependent on the existence of self-management councils. At present the union was getting buried in negotiations which went on and on. “And we have already arrived at the conclusion that the defence of workers’ interests is completely impossible without a change of the whole economic structure. We can continue to defend workers’ interests only on the basis of a totally different system, whose axis and nucleus will be the self-management councils.”

Maciej Madeyski, another representative of the regional leadership, also saw the problem of the relationship between the self-management council and the state clearly, but drew quite a different conclusion:- “But you are leaving the state out of your view of the crisis, the fact that the banks belong to the state. But the enterprise economy cannot do without the bank and the role of the bank. The bank can easily refuse you credit and you lose all your perspectives. Because you have to reshape the whole economy and create a system of connecting vessels and the circle has to be closed. And the circle unfortunately can only be closed by the representatives of the self-management councils, i.e. the national councils and the Sejm, the government and so on back again. Then the self-management council is unnecessary because the Sejm is the self-management. I would refrain from calling on self-management councils to form.”

Madeyski went on to outline how for him, the problem was not so much the existence of the self-management council, but the freeing of the director from state control, from all that interference. The others persuaded him that the only way of doing this was to make him responsible only to the self-management council, because otherwise he’d obey the centre anyway. Madeyski was reluctant to accept this because he did not want the director to become “the creature of the workforce either”. His job would be to maximise the enterprise funds, while the workers council’s job would be to divide “that part of the fund earmarked for wages.” Madeyski did not say who would do the earmarking. The others mocked him gently for this, but he just got back into the discussion for long enough to mention the mixed economy, competition and buying capital and technology from the West.

Jaworski made an important point about the mood of the workers. “We have to realise that this reform is unavoidable,” he said, “and the administration won’t do it in a month of Sundays. Besides, there is absolutely no one who can enforce an order to make the workers really start working reliably. Only a self-management council can do it. You have to realise, the workers today don’t believe any more that their effort will really produce results. They know how often it has been wasted in the past, and today they are incapable of believing it unless they have ordered it themselves. Only then will they be able to accept the state of affairs.”

Even these glimpses indicate a fascinating discussion. They show workers grappling with desperately real problems. But there are two crucial gaps. Several of the participants approach the question of state power, but none of them grasps the nettle. And nowhere is there any account of why the state’s economic functioning has failed to meet up to the workers’ needs. Everyone recognised the problem, but no one recognised that however efficient the state, its goals and those of the workers are fundamentally opposed.

These gaps were to lead to serious problems both in the practice of self management and in the self management programme that the Solidarity Congress was to adopt in the autumn.

The problems in practice are shown by the issue of voluntary Saturday working. In mid-August Solidarity’s National Commission issued an appeal for workers to give up eight free Saturdays voluntarily to help solve the crisis. It was a proposal that got a lot of stick from the workers. One miner at a meeting in Silesia told representatives of the National Commission, ‘You dare to call on people to work their free Saturdays because the government has to be propped up. But who says we have to prop it up?’ [77] It was indeed a concession by Solidarity. But they only got workers to take it up by the promise that the destination of the coal produced on the voluntary Saturdays would be controlled by the self-management committees and the union. Under their control it would go to farmers, to the food manufacturing industry, to winter reserves, towards the purchase of drugs.

The same contradictions were to be embodied in the Solidarity programme adopted at the union’s congress in the autumn. The self-management scheme, complete with proposals for a second Sejm chamber and rural council reform, was proposed as something to exist alongside a state where the “leading role of the Party” was still sacrosanct. To make the picture a little less incongruous, electoral reforms were also proposed.

Section VI of the Solidarity program is devoted to ‘the self-managing republic’. Thesis 20 states “Genuine workers’ self-management will be the basis for a self-governing republic. The system which binds together political and economic power and is rounded on continual interference of Party activists in the functioning of economic enterprises, is the main cause of the crisis in which our economy finds itself. It is also the cause of an absence of equality of opportunity in professional life. The Party ‘nomenclature’ system makes any rational staffing policy impossible, and makes millions of non-Party personnel into second class workers. Today, the only possible way of changing this situation is the creation of genuine workers’ self-management councils, which would make each workforce into an authentic manager of the enterprise ... Our union demands that the co-operatives have their self-governing character returned to them. It is essential to create new laws guaranteeing the freedom of co-ops from government interference.”

Thesis 21 states: “Territorial self-governing councils, which must be legally, organisationally and financially independent, must be the genuine representatives of local communities.” The amplification of this point discusses free elections to local government, with complete freedom of social organisations or groups of citizens to put forward candidates. In order to achieve this, by the end of the year a draft of a new electoral law, constructed in consultation with Solidarity members should be put before the Sejm. The local self-management council is to have jurisdiction over the ‘totality of local affairs’ and is to have the power to act economically.

Thesis 22 states:- “Self-governing bodies and organisations should gain representation at the highest levels of government.” It goes on to say that the Sejm should have the role of the highest authority in the state returned to it and, by changes in the electoral law, regain a genuinely representational character. The creation of a second chamber of the Sejm is suggested whose job would be the supervision of the economic reform program.

Part of section III, on the crisis and the economic reform, outlines in detail what this means. The basic economic unit in Poland would be the ‘social enterprise’ run by a director hired and fired by the workers council. He would be free to act both at home and abroad in a free market on the basis of ‘balanced economic accounting’. Prices, except for certain very basic essentials, would be controlled by supply and demand but there must be anti-monopoly and consumer protection legislation.

The state would influence the activity of the enterprise by economic directives and mechanisms – prices, taxes, interest rates, exchange rates etc. Finally “The central plan must mirror the aims of society and be accepted by society. Hence public debate about the central plan is essential ... This requires the establishment of social control over the central planning office.” [78]

With the confusions embodied in this programme Solidarity had, in a sense, got the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand, the programme amounted to a direct challenge to the leading role of the Party. If workers’ self-management were to become a reality, then workers would have to determine the overall goal of production. The programme actually says it: ‘the central plan must mirror the aims of society’. But if workers tried to control the purposes of production, they would immediately come into sharp conflict with both the Warsaw Pact and the western bankers.

Yet, on the other hand, the programme is hopeless when it considers questions of power. In a classic reformist manner, the union wanted to separate economic from political questions, and to institutionalise each in a separate chamber of the Polish Parliament. Behind this mistake lies a failure in understanding. Solidarity treats the crisis as if the problem is that political and economic power are fused, and hence need to be separated; when the real problem is that both political and economic power are in the hands of a ruling class, standing over society and imposing its own goals into production.

There are also elements in the programme of so-called ‘market socialism’ (on the Yugoslav model): ‘Self-managed’ enterprises are to compete, with the inevitable consequences of bankruptcy, unemployment and so on. But the key weakness is the continuing failure to face up to the question of state power, without which self-management would be a caricature. So, for all its creativeness, the self-management movement still remained trapped in the reformist perspective.

Reactions to paralysis: parties and politics

The inability of either Solidarity or the self-management movement to offer an immediate, positive way out of the crisis promoted a third phenomenon of note – a sudden growth of interest in the idea of forming political parties, and of reforming Polish political institutions.

The first group to gain from this was a small grouping of extreme nationalists, the Confederation for an Independent Poland (KPN). A tiny insignificant group before August 1980, the KPN offered little but an uncompromising anti-Russian stance and – like the regime’s hardliners – anti-semitism. Nonetheless, the paralysis in Solidarity caused a number of people to begin to take an interest in the KPN, especially when the government held a few of its leaders as political prisoners. Solidarity, while firmly dissociating itself from the KPN’s politics, felt it should support the campaigns for the political prisoners. Already, in Easter 1981, we received reports of growing KPN influence in rural areas. By July, Jan Litynski of KOR was complaining of its growth. [79]

One thing that helped the KPN grow was the fact that 36 years of Stalinist rule had blurred memories of the pre-war independent Poland to which the KPN harked back. Many Solidarity offices sported portraits of Marshall Pilsudski, whom people remembered only as the man who had led the Polish national independence struggle before 1918. Forgotten were his later actions as dictator, suppressing strikes as viciously as the post-war Stalinist regime and gaoling political opponents in his concentration camp at Bereza. Forgotten too were the still more brutal anti-working-class policies of the National Democrats, fore-runners of the KPN.

The KPN’s chief attraction was its militant anti-Russianism and its seeming readiness to contemplate total struggle against the regime. This allowed the KPN to influence some members of Solidarity, because it was the only grouping linking opposition to the regime with a more general political perspective. Revolutionary Marxism could have met these activists’ aspirations, pulling them away from the KPN’s anti-semitic or anti-gypsy filth.

Despite its growth, the KPN was never a force capable of initiating any action or directing popular energies into any real struggle against the regime. But its rabid nationalism and militaristic undertones did have one important side-effect: it helped focus people’s attention on the Russians as the only enemy, and strengthened the illusion that the Polish army could not possibly threaten the Polish workers’ movement. In the end, it was Jaruzelski who reaped where the KPN had sown.

Partly in reaction to the paralysis in Solidarity, and partly also in response to the KPN’s growth, the idea of ‘political parties’ began to gain popularity. Jacel Kuron told a meeting of the Solidarity National Commission in July, ‘The awareness of the necessity for a transformation is extraordinarily strong. Wherever we turn there is the call for a party. I’ve already heard this demand several times in this hall. “Let’s form a party”.’

In the autumn interest in ‘political’ solutions took official form in Solidarity’s programme, published after the Congress. There, as we have seen, proposals for parliamentary and local government reform were integrated with the union’s proposals for self-management. The ideas for political reform were also taken up by workers in the autumn. In mid-September the Warsaw Solidarity bulletin, Niezaleznosc (Independence) demanded that the union have the right to introduce legislation to the Sejm, simultaneously pointing out the undemocratic procedures for Sejm elections: ‘Nothing gives you, the deputies of 1980,’ it warned, ‘any basis to consider yourselves the nation’s elected ones.’ A few days later Solidarity announced that its price for cooperation with the regime in resolving the economic crisis was free elections and workers’ self-management.

After the Congress, some workers took the union’s programme seriously. In October a construction machinery plant in Wroclaw held a referendum on the ‘leading role of the Party’. At Braniewo workers set up an ‘initiative group’ to discuss proposed changes in the electoral law and to form an electoral team to ‘concern itself with conducting the elections to the National Councils’. A similar group in Krakow prepared to put forward candidates and campaign for them. In Wysokie Mazowieckie the local Solidarity branch demanded that it be involved in the selection of candidates for the prefectural leadership.

Outside the union, other moves were made. Kuron, with a few prominent Solidarity activists, announced on 22nd November the ‘Clubs for a Self-Governing Republic’. The founding document called for ‘socio-political formations’ which could be nuclei of political parties in a democratic state. The ‘Clubs’ should be formed at places of work or residence with a view to creating the proper conditions for ‘unrestricted exchange of social and political ideas’, ‘putting the idea of a Self-Governing Poland into practice’, and ‘undertaking actions on behalf of the humanisation of law as well as work.’

In one sense, the step was important: overt political organisation was being announced. But the timid formulations and beating around the bush (Clubs not a party) contrasted sharply with the urgent needs of the time, and with the rather bolder moves already taken in some regional sections of Solidarity. The founding document was hopelessly soggy. While it maintained that ‘a self-governing republic means a social order in which everyone acts as a subject, has his part in creating and distributing resources, in shaping political life’, it also said ‘the central authority should be, as much as possible, circumscribed (our emphasis) by organs of workers’ and territorial self-government, by organs of cooperative movements and consumers associations’.

The vision is still utterly reformist, blind to the class nature of the state. Workers and local self-management bodies are not to own the state, just to circumscribe it. In a way, Kuron’s vision sums up Solidarity’s real dilemma: nowhere in the world was there a workers’ movement that circumscribed its state half as well as Solidarity did after August 1980- yet, because the state was never theirs, they could not impose their own goals and needs onto society.

It may be that another attempt to form a party began in Szczecin. The day before Jaruzelski’s coup, Moscow radio complained that Solidarity representatives in the shipyard there were recruiting to a ‘Polish Workers Party’.

By itself, the attempt to form parties did not help the workers resolve the crisis in their movement. They saw parties as something to exist outside of Solidarity. Their purpose, to echo what Borusewicz had said so many months earlier, was to ‘remove people’s social expectations from the shoulders of Solidarity’ and allow it to act as the leaders had always wanted – as a pure, reformist trade union. Parties were to institutionalise the reformist distinction between Political’ and ‘economic’ questions.

Just as, discussing self-management, Solidarity sought workers’ control of production as if this could be separated from control of the state, so the reverse of the same coin appears with parties. Had they succeeded, the effect would have been to uncouple the organised power of workers to change society from organisations seeking that change – demobilising the political potential of the workers’ movement.

At no point have we evidence of any attempt to form a party which saw its task as acting within Solidarity to argue that the strength of workers in the factories and localities must be directed at replacing bureaucratic power with workers’ power.

If the idea of parties attracted politicised activists, it had far less impact among the mass of rank-and-file workers. In July Litynski reported that attempts to build parties had been unsuccessful, and Bujak said that in the Ursus factory in Warsaw there was a lack of interest in the idea. [80]

The fact that the idea of parties emerged at all shows that people wanted solutions to larger problems than could be answered by a mere trade union, committed to winning reforms for workers. But the idea could not take off seriously without the presence of revolutionary socialists working to develop a party as a centre of ferment inside the mass organisation of the working class, not as a fifth wheel that would not disturb the functioning of a reformist union.

Hunger marches and revolts from below

The impasse in Solidarity’s national leadership, especially after the general strike over Bydgoszcz was called off, was matched by a sharp drop in the level of strike activity from April until mid-July 1981. But the lull could not last. The economic crisis was simply too serious. Rising prices and continual shortages of food meant growing hardship for workers and their families. The old, the sick and young children suffered worst. Workers’ hearts broke as even providing the next meal for their children became an insoluble problem. The strain on family life became unbearable. Women were queueing all night – in one case, for 36 hours – just to get their ration allowances.

In mid-July the regime announced plans for food and fuel price rises of up to 400%, and a cut of one fifth in the August and September meat ration. From then on, strikes and hunger marches became a daily feature. Only, this time they were often called despite the opposition of the union’s praesidium. In the workplaces, rank-and-file activity revived. From mid-July to mid-August there were strikes in at least a dozen centres, and over a wide range of issues. Among the most notable were those in the Polish airline, LOT, where workers struck over the choice of manager, in Gdynia where dockers refused to load food for export, in Olsztyn and Krakow where printers closed the papers in protest at TV ‘slanders’ against Solidarity, in Bydgoszcz where the transport workers demanded the manager be kicked out for corruption, in Radom where again the demand for an inquiry into the repression of 1976 was raised.

And new forms of spectacular action, the hunger marches, exploded onto the streets. In Lodz, the protests lasted for three days: ‘The 15 buses taking part ... were bedecked with huge banners bearing the word ‘hunger’. They drove in slow procession down the street and stopped for two minutes outside the headquarters of the local mayor who has said that his pleas for additional meat supplies have fallen on deaf ears.’ Two days later thousands of women marched down the same streets.

In Warsaw, a similar motorcade of public service vehicles was stopped by police and prevented from filing past the Central Committee offices. The demonstration refused to disperse and blocked the centre of Warsaw for two days, showing in the most literal sense how workers could still paralyse the regime.

The crisis, of course, fed on itself. A senior government official declared, ‘One third of the country’s work force at any time is actually standing in a queue.’ An official trade union paper reported, ‘Because of under-nourishment six to eight miners now have to do the work that previously two could manage.’ [81]

At the root lay the hard currency famine, which crippled industry and took away every incentive for peasants to take their produce to the state markets. What was the point, they asked, when you can buy nothing with the money, no coal, no fertiliser, no farm machinery spares?

In these circumstances, workers’ privations grew, and with them the intensity of their protests. Tensions rose again to levels not seen since the Bydgoszcz affair. Kania began threatening the use of the police against street protests. Russian manoeuvres began again, this time around the Baltic. Archbishop Glemp declared that ‘Polish people are being guided by undesirable emotions’ and urged them to work ‘for the good of the country.’

The Solidarity leadership responded to this rise in activity by the rank and file by trying to cool things down. At Czestochowa, on strike alert over food rations, they said, ‘We want action to be as moderate as possible. We do not want people to take to the streets.’ The Financial Times reported that Walesa was battling to prevent radicals taking action over food shortages which might deliver a crippling blow to the Warsaw government. He appealed for an end to the protests. Solidarity, in an effort to head off the pressure from below, announced a boycott of the August ration cards in response to the reduced allowance. The call was widely supported. It caused little additional hardship, for most people had ample spare coupons left from previous months that they had been unable to spend. What, they asked, is a Polish sandwich? Why, a meat coupon between two bread coupons.

Solidarity’s appeals for an end to the protests did have some effect: the level of protest died down a little, though never entirely. The tension between the leadership and the memberships in the regions, however, simmered on. ‘Solidarity officials,’ reported the Financial Times, ‘in the regions and factories are openly critical of Lech Walesa for not moving in now to fill the power vacuum created by the communist party’s loss of authority.’ [82]

Hardly had one section of workers been talked back to work than other groups started coming out on strike. Workers were tying issues together, shifting from economic demands to others, as the crisis bore down on them. The union began linking questions of ‘fundamental reform’ to the question of handling the crisis, demanding its own commissions to control food production, distribution and sale. At Krosno, a rally started out with ration demands and proceeded to agitate, additionally, for ‘greater factory worker autonomy.’

The crisis had spread to engulf every commodity. Petrol queues were a mile long or more, and Poles now joined any queue whether they needed the goods or not. Customers in shoeshops would buy any size going, without bothering to try them on: they would come in handy for bartering later. The issue of supplies forced workers into a host of local strikes. Ignoring the leadership’s calls for a halt, the towns of Piotr Trybunalski, Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Niewiadow and Zyrardow struck. Many of these ‘local’ strikes were very large: 180,000 joined a one-hour general strike at Jelenia Gora; and 14,000 women textile workers at Zyrardow occupied the mills, ‘openly weeping, saying they had no food for their children’. Those women were to stay in occupation for three weeks, despite Walesa’s pleas and a convoy of Russian military vehicles that rumbled past their windows for a whole intimidating day. [83] At one point in late September something like two thirds of Poland’s provinces were affected by strikes. The issues in the strikes varied, and changed, from urgent demands for food to national political and economic issues. At Koszolin workers proclaimed a strike alert in support of ‘a social council to supervise production and distribution’; near the Russian border they threatened to halt coal trains headed for the USSR if the food situation did not improve.

In the third week of October, the Guardian reported: ‘Strikes and threats of strikes continue to dominate Poland, despite earlier promises by Solidarity that they would try to avoid a possible showdown.’ And, a week later, ‘the growing strike wave appears to be the most serious since Solidarity was formed in August 1980.’

While the workers, all across Poland, were raising implicit and explicit demands that Solidarity act, Walesa and the praesidium did everything possible to pursue appeasement with the regime. But it was not only the Walesa group who saw the strikes and demonstrations as a threat to the possibility of compromise. So too did some of the old KOR activists who had developed the theory of the ‘self-limiting revolution’ the previous year. Litynski saw the hunger movement as a totally negative phenomenon, describing it as ‘a danger the union has not known how to avoid’ which ‘risks degenerating into unofficial strikes’. Even the radical Szczecin delegation to the Solidarity Congress suggested, when criticising Walesa for doing nothing about food price increases, that the union should offer to accept the rises in return for access to the media.

Many of the ‘politicos’ in Solidarity just failed to understand that the union’s strength came from its ability to provide a focus for people who were beginning, for the first time ever, to struggle to control their own circumstances, however clumsy their endeavours. In repudiating these struggles, they were undercutting the very process of radicalisation that provided their sole support. Their disdain for ‘economism’ was a disdain for the very processes by which masses of workers, often the most oppressed, were becoming open to political ideas. In struggle, workers shift rapidly from ‘economic’ to ‘political’ demands, and back: the condition for that leaping, forward movement is the mass struggle.

The wave of marches, strikes, demonstrations and occupations of the summer and autumn could have been a source of massive new power and life for Solidarity. But that could only occur to the extent that a nationwide tendency developed within the union – a party, in effect – prepared to give support to each separate struggle, despite the praesidium’s opposition, and willing to draw them all together mto a single movement challenging the state power and the praesidium’s compliance with that power.

But ‘spontaneity’ alone is not sufficient, nor anger, nor desperate need. Without such a centralising effort, the wave of struggle was bound to die down, in disappointment and exhaustion. Wage rises could not supply food: if the food stores were empty, the queues just became longer. The problem was not simply to get bread, it was the bakery the workers needed – and that was beyond their control, and was beyond Solidarity’s ambitions to take it.

The government argued day in and day out that the strikes were worsening the supply situation. At first people refused to listen. Those involved in the strike wave knew they had no choice but to fight. But, as sections began to return to work, some of them began to believe the regime, and to criticise those still on strike. And why not? After all, Solidarity’s own praesidium was saying, in effect, much the same as the regime. Within Solidarity’s own ranks, the signs of confusion and demoralisation began to appear. The strike wave reached its peak at the end of October, and then declined quite rapidly. Five weeks later, one representative told a national delegate meeting that, whereas previously no one had believed the regime’s lies, now a third of all workers counted Solidarity, as well as the government, as being to blame for the crisis. Karol Modzelewski argued ‘The union is not as strong as it was. It is weaker, and every activist knows it.’ On November 8th, a poll reported that only 30% of people were ready to participate in a general strike.

In turning their backs on the ‘narrow’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘economistic’ movements of their rank and file members against plain material privation, the Solidarity leaders had also ensured that some at least of these workers turned away from the union in disappointment. Yet the National Commission never seems to have recognised the realities of the situation. It developed in November a tremendous series of plans, whereby every plant and region was to form a Union Winter Aid Committee to coordinate efforts to get the population through the miseries of the coming winter. The plans were brilliant – on paper. [84] To carry them into effect, the union needed only one thing: state power. And it had rejected the possibilities its own members had given it, through their struggles, to move towards that necessity.


57. Robotnik 1, August 1981.

58. Gdansk Solidarnosc, Biuletyn Informacyjny, nr: 4/33/81, 30 February 1981.

59. Guardian, 22 January 1981.

60. Guardian, 29 January 1981.

61. Guardian, 19 February 1981.

62. Guardian, 25 May 1981.

63. Solidarnosc, Congress Post, 1 October 1981.

64. Robotnik, op. cit.

65. Speaking to the Warsaw region of the union, quoted by Kuron in Robotnik, ibid.

66. Robotnik, ibid.

67. Gdynia Solidarnosc, Biuletyn Informcyjny, 16 April 1981.

68. Servis magazine, published by Gdansk Polytechnic, 24 July 1981.

69. Ibid.

70. Il Manifesto, 20 October 1981. The praesidium was in fact chosen with little regard for democracy. Solidarnosc described the election as an invitation by Walesa for volunteers who would be ready to ‘live in Gdansk and put up with me’. One eye-witness reports ‘our leader’ as hand-picking his team and vetoing several nominations by announcing that he would not work with them.

71. Quoted in Socialist Review, December 1981.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Cited in Labour Focus on Eastern Europe IV, 4–6.

75. Odrodzenie (Rebirth), nr. 10/11, 11–18 September 1981.

76. NTO monthly (Warsaw) 7/19, 1 June 1981.

77. Solidarnosc, nr. 22, 28 August 1981. One miner said, ‘Before August, as I went into the mine, there was always some appeal hanging by the entrance from the management or the Party, urging us to work. Now this appeal might as well hang in the same display case. What guarantees have we got that this coal will go to the farmers?’

78. Program NSZZ Solidarnosc, published as a supplement in Solidarnosc, nr. 29, 16 October 1981.

79. Robotnik, op. cit.

80. Solidarnosc, nr. 35, 27 November 1981; Solidarnosc, nr. 34, 20 November 1981; Robotnik, op. cit.

81. Cited Guardian, 4 August 1981.

82. Guardian, 29 July 1981; Financial Times, 14 August 1981.

83. Solidarnosc, nr. 22, 28 August 1981.

84. References from Solidarnosc, nr. 32, 6 November 1981; Guardian, 21 and 27 October 1981; Robotnik, op. cit.; and Bulletin (Information Centre for Polish Affairs, London), no. 18/81.

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