Social revolutions are not simply called into existence by organisations. They occur through the interaction of two forces: on one hand through the breakdown of existing state apparatuses and, on the other, through the simultaneous growth of a demand, among the widest strata of the population, for a new way of living whose realisation demands the radical re-shaping of political institutions. Social revolutions are not the same as coups d’etat, mere alterations at the top of state and society. They alter the fundamental relations of people in social production, and they alter the very goals of that production. The starting point of a social revolution is the more or less abrupt destruction by the mass of the population of the existing institutions of state power, and their replacement by a new form of state.
That, for a period, the Polish state was in disarray is beyond question. Many of its fundamental institutions were severely disrupted. Not all of them, however; in particular, the army and the security police were immunised to a large degree from the wave of popular radicalism and struggle. Without their internal breakdown, no revolutionary situation could exist, and no revolution was possible.
Opportunities to contribute to the internal fragmentation of the armed forces were missed. When the police began to demand their own Solidarity unions, there were a few banners and demonstrations in support. No serious effort was ever made to organise large demonstrations outside the local police stations in support of police unionism. The army, whose lower ranks are mostly working class and peasant conscripts, never had any significant agitation directed at them. When young soldiers whose ‘demob’ time had come, in October 1981, were told they had to stay in the army for a further two months, there was no wave of agitation in their support.
Neither of these main pillars of state power could have been undermined except through the development of a determination, within Solidarity itself, to push for the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Soldiers and police do not lightly mutiny. Their internal cohesion as armed bodies of the state will only break down if their rank and file become convinced that the workers’ movement intends to ‘go all the way’, and if they themselves are also inspired with the hope and idea of a radically different society. But that depends on the workers’ movement – on its readiness to agitate in the forces, and on its readiness to confront the armed forces directly. As this did not happen, we have to say that in one sense a revolution in Poland was never on the cards. A revolutionary situation did not exist. But, if we may make the distinction, a pre-revolutionary situation did emerge in the aftermath of August 1980, in that the conditions for a full revolutionary situation were created by Solidarity’s rise and development. Whether the possibility would become actuality depended on Solidarity’s politics.
It was not belief in the virtues of the existing situation which held Solidarity back. It was, rather, disbelief in the possibility of success. What in Polish code-language was called ‘our geo-political situation’ was seen as the fundamental barrier to revolution. In Hungary and in Czechoslovakia, with different degrees of brutality but nonetheless with armed power, the Russian forces had put paid to popular aspirations for social and political change. The possibility of Russian invasion was a permanent background to popular awareness in Poland. It was an ever-present reason for ‘holding back’, even though ‘holding back’ was again and again made impossible by the seriousness of the crisis and the urgent pressure from the rank and file for action.
The truth is that the Russian threat became a mental impediment to action. Not for nothing do the DiP group refer to it as ‘a dull, dark and ubiquitous factor paralysing the will’.  The universal assumption both inside and outside Poland was that the overthrow of the regime by Solidarity would be followed by Soviet military intervention. But the issue is by no means so clear-cut. The reasons tor the Kremlin going in are fairly obvious. The subjection of Poland to Russian hegemony was, and remains, of central importance to the division of Europe between the super-powers at the end of the Second World War. An independent, workers’ Poland would cut Moscow’s most direct lines of communications with the massive concentration of Soviet troops in East Germany; the example would be an inviting one for the rest of eastern Europe, and dependent nationalities on the USSR’s western borders such as the Ukraine and Estonia, to follow.
But at the same time the reasons which have kept the Russians out of Poland since August 1980 would still be there. Soviet invasion would have destroyed the cornerstone of Brezhnev’s foreign policy, his attempt to play off western Europe, and especially West Germany against the US; it would have led to the collapse of the crucial gas pipeline agreement linking Siberia to western Europe; and it might have caused the western banks to call in not only their loans to Poland, but eastern Europe’s entire foreign debt of nearly $70 billion. Finally, there would have been the sheer military difficulties of such an operation: Poland is a much larger, more populous, and more industrialized country than Hungary in 1956; nor did there exist in Czechoslovakia the massive, organized workers’ movement bitterly opposed to the invaders that the Russian tanks would have faced in Poland. Nor did the Kremlin have to bear the burden in 1956 or 1968 of a difficult, bloody and expensive low-intensity war in Afghanistan. The same reasons which have made Washington reluctant to attempt the overthrow of popular leftist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua when they had earlier easily destroyed a mildly reformist government in Guatemala would have caused the Kremlin to hesitate in the face of a workers’ Poland.
At worst, if the Russians had invaded, the outcome might have been defeat. But wasn’t this anyway what happened as a result of Solidarity’s leaders pursuing a non-existent compromise? The only difference is that the repression is being administered by Polish rather than Russian soldiers. Of course, a defeat at the hands of the Kremlin would have been much bloodier, because Polish workers would have fought a Soviet invasion. But blood shed in a struggle where the balance of forces is known, when the possibility of victory exists, is less terrible than when it is shed in the course of a definite defeat, such as that in December 1981. For a Russian invasion could have been defeated. Polish workers, having overthrown their own ruling class, would have been ready and prepared for such an invasion in a way that they were not for Jaruzelski’s coup. And they would have had arms and those soldiers won over in the course of the revolution fighting by their side. Finally, they would be able to appeal to the workers of the rest of the eastern bloc, who also suffer from economic stagnation, food shortage, rising prices, exploitation, lack of freedom, The Kremlin might have found that it had entered a Polish quagmire far more dangerous than that in Afghanistan, one that fatally undermined its empire.
At the very least then, the balance of the argument about the practicality of a revolutionary attempt is undecided. But what else could it be? What was never undecided was the balance of arguments about the reformist strategy. It never stood a chance.
There are those who protest at the use of ‘violence’ that is inherent in a revolutionary perspective. But they are one-sided. They count the violence of armies and police, of street-fighting, but not the violence that results from refusal to challenge the state. In the coming years in Poland, there will be many unnecessary deaths. Children will die for lack of adequate nourishment, old people of hypothermia, patients for lack of medical supplies, workers from unsafe factories and from diseases caused by Poland’s polluted environment. Many others will have their days shortened by misery, poverty and despair. How many mutilations of body and spirit will there be, because the revolution did not happen? They belong in any honest balance sheet.
As it is, the issue of social revolution has only been postponed. It has not been avoided. Sooner or later, if the military machines of Moscow and Washington are not to wipe out billions of people, their power has to be struck from their hands. The issue before the workers – not only in Poland – for the present epoch remains that of world war or world revolution.
But questions about revolutionary possibilities can never be assessed in the abstract. They must also be measured against the real development of the actual movement. And here it is important to remember that Solidarity itself developed considerably from its beginnings in August 1980. Most certainly, when it began. Solidarity was not a revolutionary movement. The strikes and occupations of the summer of 1980 did not formulate demands for revolutionary change, but only for ‘concessions’ from the regime. Then, the universal hope of Polish workers and their supporters in other strata was that these concessions would be achieved within the existing system. At that point, the hopes of the movement coincided with the theory of the reformists.
But, over the next few months, Solidarity members discovered that the gains they thought they had made in August were not yet achieved. The regime, as events proved, would not grant their desires. In the process of discovering that, Solidarity changed. First, its membership became more militant about their original demands, and, second, they formulated additional demands as their Movement deepened. In the process, the character of Solidarity began to be redefined.
This shift came with its discovery that, if it were not to be discredited in its own members’ eyes, Solidarity could not simply be a ‘trade union’. That, assuredly, was how it started out. John Taylor writes about Solidarity’s leadership in the autumn of 1980:
... the praesidium members I got to know in Gdansk ... were at the time genuinely content to confine themselves to establishing fully independent self-governing trade unions. That is, unions which enjoyed the whole range of civil liberties conceded in the Gdansk agreement without which they could not operate effectively, i.e. legal limitation of censorship, freedom of publication, access to the media, an end to the repression of dissident opinion. According to this view, Solidarity would remain a countervailing power, outside the party but within the framework of a socialist society, one which would give voice and muscle to the interests of workers. It would become established as a permanent, defensive, loyal opposition. 
If, Taylor reports, you pressed the Gdansk activists for more detail, in the autumn of 1980, on what they meant by economic reform and self-management, they said, ‘Look, we are not the government. It is up to the government to produce its proposals and then we will criticise them – or rather, our experts will help us criticise them.’ 
At the start, Solidarity was a trade union, albeit one which transcended the ‘normal’ limits of unionism by such things as its defence of the arrested KOR members. But the scale of the economic deterioration, and the bureaucracy’s refusal and inability to solve the crisis, placed the leaders of Solidarity in a position where they were forced to take initiatives and to shoulder responsibilities they had tried to evade. Then the issue shifted. They no longer called Solidarity simply a ‘trade union’, but – more vaguely – a ‘social movement’. And the question Solidarity activists had to grapple with became more difficult: should they take on responsibilities without also having political power, or should they actually take power and with it responsibilities? They never managed to solve the problem, within the framework of reformist thinking. The issue of Saturday working in the mines illustrates the dilemma: Solidarity couldn’t exercise responsibility for the economy without also exercising power – over the destination of coal production. Its members’ militancy wouldn’t allow less. Yet any and every exercise of power by workers brought them up against the power of the state, which couldn’t allow Solidarity to solve the crisis without itself abdicating.
The problem of power, however, became an ever more urgent one as the crisis deepened. Hence the expansion of Solidarity’s political demands, especially in the months between the collapse of the March general-strike call and the December military coup. In that period, Solidarity began, with growing urgency, to consider the necessity of re-shaping the state and the industrial management system.
In practice, as we have tried to show, this process did not bring Solidarity to a revolutionary position. But the manner of Solidarity’s development was not determined in advance. The logic of development was revolutionary, even if the participants did not fully recognise it. The reason why, for such an agonisingly long period, Solidarity remained trapped within the confines of reformism – though a more and more radicalised reformism – was, quite simply, that there was no one around to suggest anything more coherent. Which is to say that there was no revolutionary socialist organisation in Poland. And that is the heart of the problem.
Because of the influence of the reformist framework, and the absence of any revolutionary critique of that reformism, no systematic attempt was ever made to spread the idea that the workers should take power for themselves – though the idea would have fallen on anything but stony ground. No effort was ever made to engage in socialist re-education, to challenge the Stalinist perversion of Marxism.
Yet what opportunities there were! The whole movement was, through its own practice, rediscovering the heart of revolutionary Marxism, the doctrine of working-class self-emancipation. It was re-learning, in struggle, ideas and organisational forms that belong to the greatest traditions of socialism. All that was needed was to break the workers’ prejudice against thinking in terms of this language. No attempt was made – though opportunities presented themselves on several occasions – to carry out agitation in the armed forces, in the police, etc. The nastier aspects of Polish nationalism, such as anti-semitism, resurgent in Poland, were never directly attacked.
The very different sources of support that Solidarity won in the capitalist west were never critically examined in terms of their class character. The role of the Church was never subjected to any searching and critical examination. Nothing was done, in any serious way, to develop links with possible allies in other east European countries – difficult though that would have been, admittedly.
Historical ‘ifs’ are a dangerous sport. Yet, if a small revolutionary organisation, with sufficient clarity of ideas and internal coherence, had existed in Poland in the summer of 1980, its chances of expansion both in membership and influence would – in the last months of 1980 and throughout 1981 – have become ever more favourable. Such an organisation need not have been a very significant force at the start. The experience of KOR itself, which had a bare handful of members from 1976 to 1980, is sufficient witness to what can be achieved by a small but determined group in Preparing the way – and providing the politics for – a massively larger movement. Poland’s tragedy provides socialists with a measure of how far we still have to go. The influence of reformist ideas in Poland was no accident, but was the outcome of the weakness of revolutionary Marxism in the world, west as much as east. There will be many more battles before that begins to change. 
There will be those who refuse to learn anything useful from the Polish defeat. For them, it is the wildest sectarianism to consider that a revolutionary socialist organisation was needed in Poland – and especially to imagine that it was needed as far back as August 1980 and before.
Yet the whole tendency of development within Solidarity was such as to bring up, more and more sharply, the question of taking power. The KOR activists, to the bitter end, seem to have resisted the idea that power should be seized by the working class, yet they were forced to recognise that their former perspectives were not working. The 1st August issue of Robotnik carried a ‘round-table discussion’ between Jan Litynski, Jacek Kuron and Zbigniew Bujak, in which all the participants say that Solidarity had reached an impasse. Litynski could see no way forward, when Solidarity could no longer put demands on a regime that was falling apart. Bujak declared that the movement was weakening: in the beginning it had been based on an impeccable hatred against the power-system, but this wasn’t enough now – ‘New motivations’ were needed. The members no longer understood the leadership’s tactics. Kuron spelled out his views in a speech to the 24–26 July National Commission of Solidarity. The bureaucracy, he suggested, had no means of of solving the crisis, for it was split and weak. ‘The old order has been destroyed but there has been no attempt to build a new social order.’ The economic collapse was continuing. But he rejected proposals to take power, to form a party, to call for free elections. The revolution which was happening should continue to be ‘self-limiting’. ‘Time,’ he twice asserted, ‘is working for us’. Yet his positive proposal was that self-management should be pushed ahead, so that the workers’ movement should take effective control of the economy. 
The position was riven with weaknesses. The truth is that the whole state machine was not in tatters: the armed forces of the Polish state remained unified. And to reject taking power, while urging – and in a statified economy! – that Solidarity assume effective control over production through self-management organs, was in any case to push the movement into head-on confrontation with the state. It was to propose a social revolution without its necessary political complement. Kuron’s whole position – which confused the question of a workers’ party by suggesting that it must lead to Stalinism, which mis-estimated the significance of the state’s disarray, which simultaneously urged the movement forward and urged it to be restrained – was reminiscent of the muddles of syndicalism.
Yet the only challenge to it came from the right. No clear revolutionary alternative was ever proposed.
Finally, in the last days before the coup, the whole reformist position was rejected – in outline, at least – by Solidarity’s whole leadership. Even Lech Walesa, who to the end remained as much a barometer as a leader of the movement, agreed. Bitterly acquired experience finally broke the stranglehold of ‘self-limitation’. But it was too late. The re-thinking was just beginning. A large part of the final meeting of the National Commission was devoted to discussions on setting up a provisional government ‘from below’.
But an insurrectionary perspective – and it is difficult to see how this last position could develop as anything else – cannot be adopted, and carried through, in a matter of a few days. It implies a total reorientation of political thought and action, different forms of organisation, different kinds of leadership. It has to be prepared – not merely technically, but above all politically.
The tragedy is that the ruling class was ready to strike first. Its forces had been a long time in preparation.
The opposition was not prepared. Sixteen months of struggle had taught the finest trade-union movement the world has ever seen a host of lessons, which have yet to be assimilated by workers across the globe. But so many of those lessons were, in outline, ones already painfully learned by other workers’ movements in other times and places. Tragically, there was no organised repository in the shape of a party acting as even a small memory bank for the working class, to offer means by which the learning might be speeded up a little. Where was the voice that might have said ‘self-management is a delusion without state power’? Where was the voice to point out that demanding free local elections without a state under the direct power of the workers would mean nothing – except a brutal response from the bosses’ state? When Lech Walesa cried, only days before the coup, ‘They’ve just been thumbing their noses at us!’, why had no national workers’ news-sheet been making just this point for weeks and months before, to the widest possible audience within Solidarity? Who was there to challenge KOR? Or the Church intellectuals? Or the whole influence of the Professionals of the ‘Warsaw society’?
The military coup represents a major defeat for Polish workers. In place of Solidarity, Jaruzelski has imposed atomisation on the working class – so great that, at the onset of the coup, three people speaking together in the street risked arrest as an illegal meeting. Thousands of Solidarity leaders and advisers were arrested and interned. Militant workers, in the plants that resisted, were arrested and gaoled in summary ‘trials’. Silesian miners and others were shot and beaten to death. Others were severely beaten. Tanks and armoured cars patrolled the streets. The telephone network was shut down, travel on public transport tightly controlled. The armed forces took over press and TV and jammed foreign broadcasts. The borders were closed.
The workers lost, not just their political gains, but their economic ones too. Price rises of several hundred percent were announced, ‘free’ Saturdays abolished, extensive unemployment imposed.
But the Polish defeat is also a defeat for workers across the rest of the world. Throughout eastern Europe and Russia workers were discussing Poland in 1980 and 1981. The Kremlin was clearly deeply alarmed: while they never jammed western broadcasts on Afghanistan, the August 1980 strikes were more than they could stomach having discussed on the airwaves. We cannot know how workers throughout the Warsaw Pact viewed the Polish struggles, but perhaps it was with a mixture of hope and cynicism: hope that the Polish workers might be opening a way for them too; and cynicism, a feeling that the system was still too strong. The coup will have reinforced any mood of cynicism and defeatism, to the relief of the other East European rulers.
Western opposition movements will also feel the effects of the Polish coup. Solidarity had furnished the left in Europe and America with an important reply to the ‘better dead than red’ arguments of their rulers. Certainly, Solidarity helped movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to grow. Now, the Right’s case will seem stronger. And the coup will have taken away the ‘emulation effect’ of Solidarity on other labour movements: in the summer of 1981, when Ronald Reagan had 12,000 air traffic controllers sacked and their leaders arrested for striking, many American workers made powerful comparisons between the ‘free’ West and ‘communist’ Poland. Solidarity and its famous logo had rapidly become an internationally recognised symbol of workers aspirations to freedom and control. We are all diminished by its crushing.
In the preceding pages, we have tried to show something of the way the Polish workers learned, through bitter experience, a whole series of magnificent lessons. It was that learning that made Solidarity such an advanced movement. And the learning continued after Gdansk and the signing of the ‘21 points’. Solidarity – even if it did not complete the process – was changing its own self-conception as it members were forced, with ever greater urgency, to debate and face up to the unavoidable question of power.
In one sense, the coup stopped that process dead. In another, the coup itself will prove to be a mighty educational experience. The lessons learned will be both positive and negative. The positive side will include the recognition that, next time, the movement must go further and faster, aiming higher and harder. The coup may also have had the effect of undermining the cross-class nationalist sentiment that was a source of both strength and weakness in Solidarity. The question of the need to carry the political arguments into the army and police forces will have been sharply posed. The role of the Church will have been questioned by some: certainly tens of thousands of Polish workers will have watched with disgust Archbishop Glemp’s appeals on TV at the time of the coup.
But there will also be a negative side. Many will feel, despairingly, that no movement can ever win, that the state is too strong. Some will blame Solidarity, like those insidious western commentators who – siding in practice with Jaruzelski – blame the movement for ‘going too far’. For a period, despair and cynicism will probably prevail, and to that extent Jaruzelski’s forces will win. In the short run, the defeat will count for more.
But not for ever. The scale of the crisis is too severe. The new regime may hope to emulate Kadar, but it took him ten years to re-stabilise Hungary after the 1956 revolution was crushed – and Kadar’s success depended on his ability to raise living standards. Jaruzelski’s regime must not only get production restarted, it must pay back £27 billions of debts to the West plus an unknown amount to the rest of Comecon.  There is little hope of improvement under Jaruzelski for the Polish workers for a very long time. Indeed, even to start production again, the regime must borrow more if it can. And the crisis is now world-wide, so there is less chance for growth.
Other Warsaw Pact countries are also having difficulties with their economies, and their debts. The Polish crash has made their prospects still more difficult, for they need Polish machinery, coal and other inputs into their own production cycles. It may well be that the torch which, temporarily, has been knocked from the hands of Polish workers will be picked up and carried forward by workers elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. The signs of restiveness and struggle are growing everywhere.
And the Polish workers will rise again. They have taken on their bosses and shaken their rule four times in two-and-a-half decades – quite apart from the student movement of 1968. The workers of Poland know that they have the potential. They know too that the regime is utterly bankrupt. If Jaruzelski has won this battle, it was by force alone; Gomulka’s new regime in 1956, and Gierek’s in 1970, both took over with some degree of popular support, while the military cannot count on anything but fear and bribery and toadying to sustain them.
What will count for everything, next time, will be ideas. The implications for socialists are extraordinarily important. It is, of course, our duty to do what we can to defend and assist the battered movement in Poland, and to rescue its defence from the forces of the western right into whose hands it has – shamefully – been falling. But we have to go further. We must do whatever can be done to assist the development, in eastern Europe, of revolutionary socialists committed to the overthrow of the regimes, to the rule of the working class itself over society, and to consistent internationalism. We should not exaggerate the possibilities, but we should do what can be done – with the forces available.
And that last qualification connects with our last point. Our job is to ensure that when next oppositionists from eastern Europe look to the West in hope of assistance and ideas, they see not only the bankrupt ideas and organisations of reformism and Eurocommunism, but developing revolutionary workers’ parties. The problem of Poland is, in the most direct sense, our problem – here, and now.
120. DiP Report, op. cit., p. 104.
121. Taylor, op. cit., pp. 41–2.
122. Ibid., p. 37. Or there was the chairman of Katowice Solidarity, in December 1980: ‘We cannot be drawn into a situation of letting the government come to us and ask what we, Solidarity, propose for the democratic reforms. That is not our business. They are trying to saddle us with sharing the government and responsibility for this country. We can do it as individual citizens, but not as the union. That what we have a government for, and on that score they will have to give an account of themselves.’ (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe IV, 4–6, p. 41)
123. Anti-semitism needed to be openly confronted. Apart from the PUWP itself, another source of this was, as we have mentioned, the KPN (Confederation for an Independent Poland). KOR, at least, was worried about KPN growth. The tragedy is that, because the KPN did not draw back from the prospect of a struggle against Russia, it influenced some of the most radical layers within Solidarity. Revolutionary Marxism could have met the militant aspirations of this layer, without any concessions to anti-semitic and anti-gypsy filth.
124. One difficulty which socialists in Eastern Europe face even more sharply than those in the West is the corruption of language that has occurred as a result of Stalinism. All manner of terms have lost their normal reference – ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, ‘working class’, ‘party’, ‘Marxism’, ‘Leninism’, ‘revolution’, ‘internationalism’, ‘socialism’ etc., etc. East European political jokes catch this a good deal. Revolutionaries will have to restore the proper meanings to old terms, or discover new ones as they try to argue their ideas. Additionally, the corruption of official politics has also tended to cut militant workers off from international working-class traditions, and has made them idealise the states of western capitalism. The spirit of rebellion against the regime can thus be perverted into such manifestations as support for the Americans in Vietnam -because the government opposed it. Lenin’s slogan – ‘Patiently explain’ – has never been more relevant.
125. Der Spiegel 34, 1981. Thanks to Geoff Brown for a translation.
Last updated: 22.9.2013