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Irving Howe

World Politics

A Letter from a Reader
on Poland: A Reply

(3 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 5, 3 February 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I want to begin my reply by restating our point of view on the Polish situation, for I think our correspondent misunderstands the position.

Poland is today ruled by a Stalinist puppet regime buttressed by Russian army bayonets; it does not have mass support in Poland. It couldn’t last a week were it not for the fact that Poland today is not an independent nation but rather a vassal dominated by the Kremlin. Opposed to this puppet government are the masses of Poles – of this there can be no doubt; all testimony points to it. A vast, scattered, heterogeneous opposition, which has the support of the vast masses of Poland, is forced to function as an underground movement. In this opposition there are various political strata including the petty bourgeois peasant movement led by Mikolajczyk and trade union and socialist elements. Attached to this opposition are also fascist and anti-Semitic elements trying to capture the opposition for their reactionary purposes.

Socialist Attitude

If we faced a situation in which there were a totalitarian Stalinist government and a fascist-dominated opposition, there would be no choice for. Socialists but equally to condemn both. They would have no alternative but to attempt slowly to-rebuild some small socialist circles. But today in Poland there is the possibility of Socialists becoming involved in a mass movement, the major purpose of which is the expulsion of the oppressive Stalinist army. This purpose being progressive and desirable, Socialists, we believe, should give critical support to and participate as an independent force in the opposition.

What critical support means concretely is that we aid the attempts of the opposition to break the totalitarian terror, to restore democratic liberties and to expel the Russian army. Socialists should certainly retain their organizational independence, as our correspondent urges; they should also retain and vigorously exercise their right to criticize politically, and attempt to take over the leadership of, the opposition resistance movement, but it would be self-defeating for Socialists to abstain from giving this critical support and from participating in a mass movement of opposition to the Stalinist totalitarian government on the ground that the fascists also try to gain control of its opposition. (It should be emphasized that Mikolajczyk is NOT a fascist; he is a bourgeois democratic politician. We must not be deceived by Stalinist propaganda into believing that the entire Polish opposition is fascist.)

To abstain from participation in this mass movement, the primary purpose of which is thus far to regain national integrity for Poland, is in effect to surrender the field to the reactionaries and fascists. The program which we propose does not in any way involve political identification with Mikolajczyk; it means that when Mikolajczyk, for whatever reason, fights for the restoration of democratic rights, we support THAT fight.

Nature of the Opposition

The crucial point is in the question asked by our correspondent: “Since the Mikolajczyk-led opposition is ... an agent of imperialism ..., then why is it assumed that this group represents the lesser of two evils?” A distinction must be made here. Mikolajczyk is an agent of Anglo-American imperialism, but the opposition movement which he leads – and leads, incidentally, most inadequately, as is indicated by his willingness to participate in the Stalinist government – that opposition movement is NOT an agent of imperialism. We therefore urge support of the struggle of this opposition for democratic demands and the expulsion of the Russian oppressors, while conducting a bitter struggle to free the opposition from Mikolajczyk’s politics.

Bess S. asks what is NEW in the situation. What is new is that the foreign oppressor is Stalinist imperialism and that we have to work out a tactical application to this new situation of our point of view on the national question in Europe – previously applied only to situations where capitalist powers were the imperialist oppressors. Socialists have in the past not hesitated to give critical support to and to work in movements for liberation against armies of occupation, while reserving political and organizational independence from the resistance movement. This resistance movement, since it involved great masses of the population, was a fertile arena for political activity. What complicates, though it does not basically change, the situation is that in Poland the occupying power is Stalinist totalitarianism and that fascist elements try to capitalize on the mass resistance.

Dangers of the Situation

Is there a danger that a successful resistance movement against Stalinism might result in a victory for the fascist fringe of the opposition? (And it is merely a fringe; the masses involved in and supporting the opposition are not fascists.) Yes, of course there is such a danger; politics is full bf dangers. But recall that in the French resistance there were also reactionary elements, notably those around de Gaulle. In that resistance there were also the French fascists headed by de La Rocque, with whom, of course, the French Socialises had nothing to do. But the vast mass movement generated by the resistance could not be controlled by de Gaulle, just as, in case of a similar victory in Poland, it would almost most certainly not be able to be controlled by Mikolajczyk.

Bess S. waves aside the simple example I offered: when a GPU man comes to arrest an opposition leader, do you support the arrest or try to prevent it? But that example is very important; it crystallizes one of the central issues involved in our position. As for the counter-question she poses, that is easy for us to answer. If a. fascist government tried to arrest. Stalinists involved in a movement of mass resistance against the fascist rule, then we would try to prevent the arrest of the Stalinists.

The reason why the above example is important was stated in my article in the following words: “Even if a socialist opposition to the Stalinist government were to deciare itself equally against both the Stalinists and Mikolajczyk, it would be forced in practice to cooperate with the opposition in defense against Stalinist terror.” We believe that Bess S. cannot evade this consideration and that her objections to our point of view are based on a misunderstanding of what we actually mean by critical opposition.

Further comment from readers is invited on this matter.

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