The following was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 12 (Spring 1981).

Poland: Church and State vs. Workers

Since the momentous strike wave of last summer, the struggles of the Polish working class have continued in a subdued form under periodic threats of a Russian invasion. The strikes, notably the general strike led by the Inter-Factory Strike Committee (MKS) in the city of Gdansk, won significant economic and political concessions from the ruling bureaucracy. (For a Marxist analysis of the events leading up to the Gdansk Accords of August 31, see the special issue No. 10 of Socialist Voice.) But in the succeeding months, the workers’ reformist leaders and the government have maneuvered back and forth trying to establish a new mode of class stability in the crisis-ridden country.

These maneuvers are almost universally portrayed in the West as a struggle between the forces of democracy and the forces of repression. “Repression” stands for the Polish regime and the Russian army behind it, and “democracy” means the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union led by Lech Walesa, together with the Roman Catholic Church, the intellectuals and their supporters in the West. A single moment’s reflection should make any critical observer suspicious of an interpretation that sees Ronald Reagan and the reactionary Pope as heralds of progress. Some leftists have taken this alignment to mean that the workers’ struggle itself is wrong or even “counterrevolutionary." To cut our way through such confusionism requires a specific class analysis of the forces at work.

Take the role of the church, which holds the nominal allegiance of 90 percent of the Polish population. Everyone knows how workers’ spokesmen like Lech Walesa and Anna Walentynowicz used the crucifix as their symbol and met publicly with the Pope, Cardinal Wyszynski and other Catholic politicians. Everyone knows of the pious sentiments expressed by the Polish Pope in support of the aspirations of “his brothers” at home. And so everyone has assumed that the church and the workers stand on the same side in the struggle against a repressive government. But if this is true, why did the government on November 21 appoint a leading Catholic politician as Deputy Prime Minister – in charge of family and social affairs, no less, a subject on which the Pope has notoriously oppressive views? Why did a church spokesman on December 12 denounce the opposition groups for endangering the country? These troubling questions have confused all the bourgeois commentators, who find no need to penetrate beneath the surface of events.

Polish State is Capitalist

The leftists who take sides against the workers’ movement only turn the same confusion upside-down. For the bourgeois observers, the traditionally conservative church is expected to be hostile to a “communist” regime – and the leftists agree, differing only on which side to support. Their common fallacy is that there is something communist about the rulers of the so-called workers’ states of Poland and Russia. On the contrary, as Socialist Voice has frequently argued, any state in which a proletariat exists and is exploited by an alien ruling class is capitalist, whatever the degree of state ownership of industry. And the rulers, despite their historical origin in the working-class movement, are state capitalists, not communists.

When the Communist Parties were a proletarian revolutionary force in the late 1920’s (and earlier, when socialist parties began to organize the working class for socialist revolution), the church held an openly hostile and even repressive stance. In many countries, including Poland, it lined up squarely behind militaristic and fascist regimes that crushed all attempts at working-class independence. Naturally, the church took a hostile view towards the seizure of state power in Eastern Europe in the late 1940’s by the Communists. The fact that these parties were now dominated by the counterrevolutionary Stalinist regime in the USSR did not yet alter the church’s attitude, since the property-owning church was tied to the rest of the traditional bourgeoisie which was ousted in the wake of the Soviet Army’s occupation following the defeat of Germany.

The church was even persecuted by the new Stalinist regime, as were all opposition elements, especially those of the working class. But the Stalinists’ attitude shifted after the 1956 working-class uprisings in Poland and Hungary. Throughout Eastern Europe, Russian rule was shaken under the blows of the workers’ revival. The underlying weakness of the Stalinist form of capitalism became evident, and the Russians were forced to make concessions to their satellite states. Having already eliminated the traditional bourgeois parties, they still tried to deal with every bourgeois force that held influence among the workers. In Poland this meant the church above all.

Church's Reactionary Tradition

The church, formerly hated by working-class militants and socialists, had been partially legitimized in their eyes by the regime’s persecution. In addition, the government moved to win the support of the large Polish peasantry by restoring its right to own and farm small plots of land; and the peasants traditionally look to the church as their political defender. As a result, the regime struck a deal with the church in order to seek legitimacy and ideological support for itself (in which it granted the church the right to conduct religious education in state schools). The church, in turn, was willing to support the current rulers in preference to any genuinely socialist force emanating from the proletariat. The unholy alliance, forged in response to the workers’ struggle in 1956, was cemented subsequently by the continuing class uprisings of 1970, 1976 and now 1980.

The church’s reactionary politics, which are taken as evidence of its underlying opposition to the Polish Stalinist regime, frequently have brought it into outright anti-Semitic campaigns; church elements were noted for this during the pre-war Pilsudski regime. Since World War II, however, it has been the regime itself that has encouraged anti-Semitism – this filth has been a cause for church-state unity, not antagonism. The Stalinist state tolerated and welcomed the support of the right-wing Catholic group known as Pax led by Boleslaw Piasecki, a notorious anti-Semite and pro-fascist from the 1930’s. The state itself has forced into exile nearly every remnant of Polish Jewry that survived Hitler. General Mieczyslaw Moczar, who recently rejoined the Polish Politburo, was responsible for the openly anti-Semitic campaign of the 1960’s.

There have been ups and downs in the unholy alliance since 1956, but the church played its role aptly during the 1980 strikes, the most massive of all. At the height of the August strike wave, the church called on the workers to go back to work. The workers paid no heed, but the Party leadership hailed the church’s “stabilizing” role. Throughout the summer and autumn, the church reinforced the nationalist elements among the workers and in the petty-bourgeois opposition and thereby did its best to keep the workers’ movement within reformist bounds. The December 12 statement, issued after a suitably pompous convocation, invoked the authority of the Pope and then declared: “It is forbidden to undertake actions that could raise the danger of a threat to the freedom and statehood of the fatherland.” The government could not wish for anything stronger.

For such reasons, we wrote in Socialist Voice No. 10 that in Poland “the Church is a reactionary bastion of the ruling power.” This analysis was specifically cited and challenged by the Spartacist League in the October 31 Workers Vanguard, who went on to credit us with “at least … the virtue of an upside-down consistency in claiming that this state power is ‘capitalist.'” And earlier the Spartacists had written that “the idea that the church (and Western bankers) are four-square behind the Soviet-bloc bureaucracy is a ‘state cap’ myth” (Workers Vanguard, September 19). The Spartacists allow for a “temporary coincidence of interests, perhaps,” but insist that there is a fundamental class difference between capitalist businessmen and priests and the presumably proletarian Stalinists.

The Spartacists are partly right on one point: there is a link between a class analysis of Polish society and an understanding of the role of the church, and our view is certainly consistent. But they are right on nothing else. For example, if the supposed class difference between church and state (really differences between different forms of capitalism) were the fundamental ones and the current “coincidence of interests” only temporary, the church would act differently. It would encourage the workers’ confidence in the oppositionists, even if it occasionally criticized their tactics. It would, through its spokesmen outside of Poland, back up interventionist statements by right-wing warmongers in the West. It would not have made its recent ringing and unqualified statements of support to the regime and hostility to the more radical workers who are growing angry at Walesa’s conservatism. And it would not have specifically chosen to criticize the statement attributed to a spokesman for the KOR, the social-democratic opposition group, for reportedly believing that “opposition elements would try to gain power gradually, not immediately, out of fear of provoking Soviet intervention” (New York Times, December 13). Such a statement would coincide exactly with the church’s supposedly fundamental views.

Spartacists Dispute Church Role

Nor are the Spartacists correct in suggesting that a state capitalist analysis requires us to imagine that the church stands “four-square” behind the Polish bureaucracy in the abjectly uncritical style of, say, the U.S. Communist Party. There are significant policy differences within the Eastern bloc ruling classes just as there are in the West, and the church as a rule is closely tied with the reformist wing of the Polish bureaucracy now led by Prime Minister Kania, the wing that prefers to allow some “democratic” accommodation to the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and the aristocratic layer of workers. (Nevertheless, the church also deals with the conservative, anti-Semitic bureaucratic wing when necessary.) Whatever its internal political preferences, the church does stand four-square behind the state when the latter is endangered by a working-class movement. It always tries to wield its influence with the backward workers to preserve the state’s power. It prefers peaceful methods to outright suppression, but it backs the state against the workers, and that is fundamental.

Of course, the church hierarchy might really prefer to see a return to pre-war capitalism or, even better, to the medieval Dark Ages. Non-Marxist class forces always hold images of the world they wish to achieve which is at variance with their actual social role; if they did not, they would lose their own self-justification and their ability to hold a mass following. Early Protestants wished for a return to the feudal days of the church which was being corrupted by rising capitalism; instead, they furnished an ideological vehicle for capitalist revolutions. Today social-democrats and Stalinists in the West desire a socialist world but in practice join bourgeois parties that stand for the maintenance of capitalism. That is the role of the Polish church too. Marxists call these world views “false consciousness” or “ideologies”. The Spartacists call them the truth. The material reality becomes “coincidence” and the ideology becomes determinant. Spartacism is Marxism upside-down – that is, idealism.

The church is indeed a bastion of the ruling Stalinist power. The Spartacists fail to perceive this because they too cannot support the Polish workers against their overlords. They see the possibility of “bourgeois counterrevolution” coming from the workers’ movement because of its illusions in the church; they refuse to recognize the fundamental fact that the Polish state, far more than the workers, depends on the church for support.

For all its ideological hostility to the church, the Spartacist League finds itself in agreement with Wojtyla and Co. in its staunch defense of the ruling class in Poland. When it comes to a choice between the workers, whom they accuse of “demanding the biggest free lunch the world has ever seen” (Workers Vanguard, September 5; cited in Socialist Voice No. 10, p. 12), and the “deformed workers’ state," the Spartacists choose the bosses. In reality, it is not the church that the Spartacists reject but the workers’ demands.

The Polish workers are learning in the course of their struggle that the church’s deeds speak louder than its ideological pretensions to be concerned for “democracy” and popular welfare. They will learn as well that the pretensions of various phony socialists from KOR to Spartacism are equally misleading.

While the Spartacists’ support to the ruling Stalinists is obvious but unacknowledged, the Workers World Party is more open. The WWP refers to the “so-called ‘workers’ movement” and openly encourages a Russian invasion to preserve Poland’s “socialist” characteristics. Its main justification for this position is again the role of the church: the church is counterrevolutionary, so anyone allied with it is too. As for the mounting evidence that church and government stand together, the WWP dismisses it with the claim that the church is only conspiring to gain time for a peaceful counterrevolution without the threat of Russian troops. If this were true, the ruling wing of the government, allied with the church, would also be counterrevolutionary. Only the Russian Stalinists and their Polish allies would be “revolutionary." Such a conception amounts, as we will show, to support for world capitalism against proletarian revolution.

For one thing, the church is not acting alone. Granting that it does in fact reflect the aspirations of Western imperialism in Poland, it still stands for the preservation of stability against working-class explosions – the common policy of Moscow and Washington in Eastern Europe and everywhere else. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor who is known for advocating a tough anti-“communist” stance against Russia, made a point of stating in December, when the threat of a Russian invasion was much in the news: “No one is interested in upsetting the existing international arrangements or threatening the legitimate security interests of any party” (New York Times, December 5). That is, the agreements signed at the end of the Second World War at Yalta (and recently reinforced at Helsinki) are still operative. These deals gave the Russian imperialists control over Eastern Europe, including Poland. They were cemented further when President Lyndon Johnson gave Russia a free hand in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as President Eisenhower had done in Hungary in 1956. The Western imperialists will talk tough but leave “existing international arrangements” alone.

Western Capitalists Praise Walesa

Brzezinski also said that “my expectation and certainly hope is that all of the parties in and around Poland will exercise restraint, moderation and compromise.” That was directed at not only the Russian and East German armies on Poland’s borders but also – in fact primarily – at the workers’ leaders. Workers’ rebellions in Eastern Europe make great propaganda for the West but also dangerous instability. And the reformist leaders follow the same line. “I call on Poles to take full responsibility for the fate of our country. I call on them to maintain peace and order, to show reason and common sense and watch over the country’s security and sovereignty,” said Lech Walesa, speaking at the important rally in Gdansk in December commemorating the shipyard workers murdered by government troops in 1970 (Washington Post, December 17).

Walesa, Kania, Wojtyla, Wyszyinski and Brzezinski stand shoulder to shoulder, warning the Polish workers to restrain themselves. Not only because of the Russian threat, as Workers World would have it, but because the Stalinist state is desperately weak and needs all the help it can get. The economy is in shambles (industrial growth was negative in 1979 and obviously no better in 1980; the debt to the West is now reported as $23 billion), and the popularity of Solidarnosc (it now has 8 million members, or three-quarters of the work force!) shows that the organized workers could shut down the economy at will. And if they can do that, why stop short of overthrowing the government? The possibility of a working-class revolution looms in every bourgeois mind, so the workers must be urged to show restraint. Business Week magazine (January 12), a voice of American capitalism, joined the chorus praising Walesa’s extraordinary moderation and “responsibility," and sighed with relief that “the strike fever is fading.”

Reformists Favor Decentralization

The consensus even extends as far as Moscow. When the Russian propagandists complain about “anti-socialist forces” running amok in Poland, it is not the church that they are afraid of, but the workers. The threat of military invasion is the major weapon the Russians have, but they are not eager to use it. Using troops to suppress the workers would meet with armed resistance, undoubtedly a general strike throughout Poland and the probability of working-class unrest elsewhere in Eastern Europe. As well, Western and Japanese capitalists would almost certainly have to break off, or at least reduce, the profitable economic collaboration that the Russians depend on to modernize their industry. Neither Washington nor Moscow looks forward to this. So the Russian rulers too denounce “provocative demands” by Polish workers which “would lead to further dislocations within the Polish economy and to increasing tensions in the domestic market” (Tass report quoted in January 2 New York Times). The tone is different from that of Business Week and Brzezinski, but the content is the same.

There is one difference between the Russian rulers and their fellow law-and-order advocates. The church, the Western bankers and the Polish reformists under the threat of the masses now speak of the need for “democratization” of the regime – as did Gierek before them in response to earlier workers’ unrest. Straightjacketed by a collapsing economy and fearful of any input by the workers, they seek ways to open up Poland to market forces even more than at present. This is not counterrevolution, since the country is already capitalist. It is a recognition that a certain devolutionary tendency is necessary if the inefficient and brittle state capitalist economies can even hope to remain viable. This means more joint enterprises with the West and further interpenetration with the world market and banking system.

This development is linked to a critical point we have made before (unique to our theory of state capitalism and opposed to the anti-Marxist alternatives): the tendency toward devolution is inevitable. Nationalized property in the major means of production is a proletarian form whose progressive social content can be achieved only under a workers’ state; under capitalism it clashes with the law of value that governs the state capitalist bloc just as it does the West. Nationalized property can act as a prop for the law of value in the short run, but they inevitably collide over time. Hence the conflict between public and private sectors in the West and the push toward decentralization in the East. This does not mean re-privatization so much as more leeway for competition. It also means decentralization on an international scale, a decline in Russian domination of the Eastern bloc. Hence Russia’s objection. But the tendency toward devolution operates in Russia as well, even if more slowly than in the satellites.

The trend towards devolution under Stalinism is inevitable, but there is a built-in contradiction. The workers, at the start of a struggle, are frequently lured by the reformists’ ideas of decentralization and anarchistic pluralism, falsely called democracy, because they want the Stalinist dictatorship off their backs. This is dangerous for the rulers, reformists and conservatives alike, because in the course of struggle the workers are nevertheless liable to recognize the need for central control over the economy in order to reorient production and trade in the interest of the working class. The tendency of the proletarian struggle eventually asserts itself against devolution in favor of their own centralized state.

Concretely, the workers will oppose the devolutionary tendency especially when it becomes obvious that it will mean the appearance of the traditional crises of capitalism, notably mass unemployment and rampant inflation. They will have nothing in common with the oppositional conservative wing of the bureaucracy, which can only turn to the Stalinist alternative, the tightening of police measures to discipline the workers when economic forces like unemployment are unavailable. “Leftists” like Workers World, who counterpose Russian “socialism” to the “counterrevolution” of the reformists and the church, therefore stand only for a decaying form of state capitalism dependent on mass repression. Their more confused cousins in the Spartacist League (who did not know what line they would take when questioned about a possible Russian invasion last fall!) can ritualistically denounce Stalinism but are being forced by their politics into a similar position.

Polish Struggle Continues

In periods of deep working class unrest, the devolutionary tendency of the Stalinist economies runs into the extreme danger of proletarian socialist revolution. Under the surface that is what is occurring in Poland today. That is why the Walesa’s, the church and KOR in their own ways are increasingly anxious to see the process slow down; they are looking for a deal with the state. That is why the state reformers around Kania will never break fundamentally with the reactionaries, and why Moscow will not let them go too far. All wings of capitalism feel the material need to join together against the workers (even if their particular interests and rivalries don’t permit them to) in the face of potential proletarian revolution.

The Polish class struggle will continue in militant fashion despite the urgings of Walesa and Co. because the capitalist crisis offers the workers no alternative but to defend their livelihoods. Tremendous gains have already been won, above all the creation of the Gdansk MKS, a genuine workers’ soviet that in its organizational form already raised the question of workers’ power. Advancing the struggle means that the subjective factor, the workers’ political consciousness, can develop to the extent that the objective factors already have. The possibility of creating a revolutionary, genuinely communist party lies along this road. A Russian invasion would be aimed at crushing such developments in the bud. In this light, the position of “leftists” who support or apologize for the Russian military will be nothing but criminal betrayal of the working class and socialism.