The following was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 15 (Winter 1982).

Polish Workers Under Siege

With the country poised on the edge of economic collapse, the biggest strike wave since August 1980 has broken out over Poland – and the leadership of the mass workers’ movement Solidarity, echoing threats by the government, is treacherously maneuvering to halt it. At a time when a decisive program is needed to end the misery, when bold action is called for to maintain the momentum of the year-long workers’ struggle against an enfeebled state capitalist regime, Solidarity has taken the opposite course. The reason is that Solidarity’s leaders are committed to capitalist reforms rather than working-class revolution, a program that can lead only to catastrophe.

At the first national congress of Solidarity held in September, the several wings of the leadership combined to adopt a program of reforms designed to woo the ruling Communist Party into strengthening the state. This strategy is handing the initiative back to the government, enabling it to begin recovering the authority the workers had seized from it. The reformists are setting the stage for the demoralization and defeat of the working class, not by the present “moderate” government but by a resurgent fascist-like wing of Polish Stalinism and its Russian overlords.

The regime took full advantage of the initiative granted it by Solidarity in the weeks after the congress. Army general Wojciech Jaruzelski, previously appointed defense minister and then prime minister, took over the party leadership. Although he remains a moderate at least for the moment, the change was the result of increasingly vocal pressure from the hard-liners encouraged by Moscow. He then extended military tours of duty and sent teams of troops around the country to distribute food, organize transport and above all to combat “provocations” by strikers and union activists. This move was aimed at placing the blame on Solidarity for the economy’s disruption and winning support for the discredited party, which was responsible for the exacerbated crisis.

In Poland today shops are empty, there are three-day food lines to get meat, barter is replacing the worthless zloty, vital medicines are unavailable except by bribery with U.S. dollars (Poland’s unofficial but real second currency), whole factories do not function because of the lack of Western-made parts, and regular blackouts are planned under a severe power shortage – the only planning the so-called “planned economy” is capable of. The debilitating food shortage is the viciously circular outcome of Poland’s version of the “scissors crisis” so familiar to Marxists. The peasant farmers withhold their products from the cities because the money they are paid buys nothing; workers spend half their waking hours hunting for food supplies and thereby are forced to cut back production even further.

The precipitating cause of the collapse was the Gierek government’s policy in the 1970’s of plunging an already weakened economy into debt to buy industry and technology from the West in the utopian expectation that the imports would quickly pay for themselves. This was a desperate attempt to buy off the Polish working class and prevent uprisings like those that had shaken the regime in 1956, 1970 and 1976. And like the “voodoo economics” that U.S. policy makers are currently carrying out, it could only mask temporarily the underlying decay and inevitable crisis that every capitalist society faces in the epoch of imperialism, when capitalism survives only as a menace to the forces of production.

Whether or not the party succeeds in blaming the crisis on Solidarity, it seems clear that the union is beginning to lose the confidence of many workers. Since its congress, mass strikes have broken out against the hopeless conditions, in defiance of union spokesmen who continually urge caution. Twelve thousand women textile workers on strike in Zyrardow near Warsaw complained that Solidarity leaders were uninterested in solving the food crisis (New York Times, October 21). More than 150,000 workers in 400 factories in the province of Zielona Gora on the East German border struck to get oppressive provincial officials dismissed; the local union spokesman commented that the national leaders’ call to end the strike was “stupid,” and vowed to “carry on, no matter what they order” (New York Times, October 25). The mood of growing anger against both party and union was summarized by a party member in the industrial center of Lodz: “They’ll burn down the party headquarters and then set about the Solidarity building” (Economist, September 26).

Solidarity even went so far as to call a one-hour general strike on October 28 whose primary purpose was to control the numerous local outbreaks that had spread to three quarters of Poland’s provinces. And when this maneuver failed and the strikes continued, Solidarity’s head Lech Walesa threatened that the union would take “disciplinary measures” against them.

Behind Solidarity's Reformism

Solidarity’s unwillingness to act against the government follows from its leaders’ assumption that they can pressure the government for reforms but must do nothing to bring it down or challenge its right to rule. This assumption has been part of the ideology of the intellectual dissidents like Jacek Kuron of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) all along; at the time of the mass strikes of August 1980 that created Solidarity, it meant turning the Inter-factory Strike Committees (MKS’s), the nascent organs of dual power similar to the Russian workers’ soviets of 1917, into mere trade unions with economic reform programs only (see “Polish Workers Shake the World,” Socialist Voice No. 10). The policy was motivated aloud by the fear of an invasion by the USSR to crush the workers; however, a Russian invasion became less likely as the workers’ confidence and solidarity advanced. On the contrary if the present trend continues, the Russian rulers may well be able to sit back and let their Polish underlings crush Solidarity without risking outside intervention. No, the real reason for the reformists’ conservatism is what it always is: the fear that a full-scale proletarian revolution would destroy not only incompetence and mismanagement but the whole fabric of capitalist exploitation.

There is a class basis for Solidarity’s reformism. Most of the prominent spokesmen for the reform schemes were identified as professors or other intellectuals. Most of the delegates to the September congress were not the leaders of the militant movement of the glorious summer of 1980. According to a report by a social-democratic sympathizer of Solidarity’s leadership, Adrian Karatnycky, in the September 30 New Republic, “many of the early strike leaders have lost their places to more cautious types.” At the congress, there was “an overrepresentation of the technical intelligentsia, lower-level managers…” He cited sociologist Ludwik Dorn: “They are stabilized workers, members of Poland’s middle class.” Speeches by rank and file workers at the congress, angry at the leadership’s alienation from the workers, made the same point.

With these elements in the saddle Solidarity cannot be a revolutionary vehicle; it is rather pursuing a fantasy, a return to stability and an end to class polarization. That is why the congress issued its program of reforms and its calls for free elections. Contrary to the slanders by the Polish and Russian rulers and their sycophants in the West, these resolutions were not designed to destroy the pseudo-socialist system. The leaders are counterrevolutionary because they seek to shore up the Stalinist state, not overthrow it. Karatnycky provides an accurate interpretation of what Solidarity is about:

Solidarity has likewise called for open election to the local and national government. But this push for broader freedoms should not be viewed as an attempt to seize total power. Rather, its purpose is to strengthen the government apparatus – a strengthening that cannot take place, however, without a restructuring and opening up of that apparatus. Poland has begun to fulfill Marx’s prediction of the withering away of the state; the irony is that Solidarity is finding it can’t get along without one. In the view of Adam Michnik, a young historian and founder of the Workers’ Defense Committee, “The government apparatus is without power. It is a paper tiger. The government has no means for implementing its decisions. What we need to do is to create a situation in which the trade union is able to deal with a real partner.”

Lech Walesa, too, is quite open about it. He recently told the press of the need to “rebuild the authority of the government.” He has even hinted at the possibility of Solidarity entering a coalition regime with the present rulers. The real irony is that the reformist social democrats in Poland and abroad find themselves in defense of the Stalinist state apparatus they so often fulminate against. The fundamental allegiance of all forms of reformism to the preservation of even their most hated forms of capitalism has been brought to light by the Polish workers’ struggle as never before.

Of course, the decay of the Polish government has nothing whatever to do with the withering away of the state predicted by Marx. Marx was referring to genuine workers’ states on the road to socialism; what is happening to the Polish rulers is the exposure of their inability to “rule in the old way” that Marx and Lenin noted as one of the pre-conditions for a revolutionary situation under capitalism. What Solidarity is now doing is preventing the ripening of the other vital pre-condition, the workers’ revolutionary consciousness. And if Solidarity is successful in reforming the regime (from either inside it or outside), the result will be to strengthen the government apparatus; it will put teeth back into the paper tiger and pave the way for the bloody suppression of the workers.

Solidarity’s proposed reforms revolve around decentralizing the economy into the hands of enterprise managers elected with the workers’ approval. This would only replace one form of capitalist crisis, the inefficiency and technological backwardness of Stalinist state capitalism, with another, the unemployment, inflation and looming depression of the West. This will do nothing to solve the crisis; moreover, it will get the ruling Stalinists off the hook. The Polish rulers themselves have been proposing the same sort of devolutionary reforms that Solidarity wants; their hope is to use various incentives and simulated market devices to achieve technological creativeness, greater productivity and lower labor costs. Such experiments have been tried before in Hungary and Yugoslavia, with temporary successes in times of prosperity. But now Yugoslavia has skyhigh inflation and unemployment rates, and the situation can only worsen, given the international economic crisis.

If Solidarity takes the responsibility for these schemes it will deserve the blame it gets from the workers when they learn that rationalizing the appropriation of surplus-value is not in their interests at all. As we wrote in Socialist Voice No. 12:

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 interests of the working class. The tendency of the proletarian struggle eventually asserts itself against devolution in favor of their own centralized state.

What Is To Be Done

The program for a workers’ state is what the leadership of a genuine workers’ movement should be fighting for, and what revolutionary Marxist workers in Poland should be raising in Solidarity and in every action and organization of the workers. For without it the Polish workers are caught in a bind. National general strikes under Walesa’s leadership are sold out or used to divert militancy. Sections of workers are growing resigned, while others are left conducting local struggles without tangible lasting victories. Solidarity’s leaders engage in endless palaver about sharing power in the factories as a substitute for material needs. A different proletarian strategy is vitally necessary to halt demoralization and decimation.

Let the workers win control in the only way possible: seize the factories and run them! Reconstruct the MKS’s now to carry out these tasks! Distribution of food and other goods must not be left to the government and army to manipulate shortages. The MKS’s must take these tasks over to manage production, credit and distribution. This calls for centralization in a permanent workers’ congress for overall political control.

Such a strategy can win the workers’ movement away from the leadership of capitulatory aristocratic layers who are, in effect, agencies of the capitalist state power within its ranks. Solidarity is no vehicle for socialism, although it is an arena that can be won. The MKS’s, the councils for action, can tap the deeper layers of the rebellious proletariat.

Today, hundreds of thousands of workers are on strike for defensive reasons, forced by Solidarity’s inaction in solving the crisis. These strikes, and the right to strike, must be defended. But a better answer is at hand, the MKS. Naturally, the state will not tolerate the dual power character of the MKS’s and the workers’ mass actions and seizures. A genuine general strike will be necessary. Defensive in origin, it would soon go over to an insurrection.

The revolutionary strategy of seizing the factories and building workers’ councils is poles apart from the conception of “active strikes” put forward by Walesa and other reformists. In such a “strike” the workers keep working but distribute their output as they see fit. As presented by Walesa this was just a scheme to get strikers back to work: it was not recommended as a tactic for non-striking workers! For many workers, however, it is a desperate attempt to find some solution to the crisis. But it is an attempt that, by itself, is sure to fail. Only an open challenge to the state provides a real answer.

No matter what happens short of total capitulation, the workers’ movement will have to defend itself militarily. It is critical to take control of the armories and obtain arms. The movement must appeal to the soldiers of the Polish army (and to Russian and other Warsaw Pact troops stationed in Poland) to ally with the workers; come to their aid and give them additional arms.

Further, the workers councils would announce the cancellation of all debts to the Western and Russian imperialists and appeal to the workers of these countries to send aid and food unconditionally. They would promise technological support to the peasants and urge the voluntary collectivization of farming in the interest of greater productivity and less wasted labor. And they would make the word Solidarity ring true by declaring an alliance with all workers, East, West and South who fight against oppression and imperialism. Worker unrest is spreading throughout the Stalinist empire; West Europe also faces turmoil. There is no economic solution within the bounds of one nation. The collapse of Poland once again proves the necessity of internationalism.

The threat of a Russian invasion to smash the workers is real, of course, but must be assessed accurately. It would cost Russia a fortune. Further, the USSR depends upon its economic ties with the West, and Moscow is very frightened of an invasion that would push West Europe deeper into the U.S. pocket and end all schemes for détente.

More significantly, given the spread of economic crises throughout Eastern Europe, a Russian attack on Poland could easily trigger sympathy strikes and rebellions in neighboring countries. A revolutionary policy by the Polish workers that strengthens their class ties across the borders is the best political defense. There is still no guarantee against an invasion, but any other strategy aimed to avoid a Russian attack is absolutely sure to lead to the crushing of the workers’ movement.

The most advanced workers in the struggle, those who see the need for a revolutionary program and strategy, would form the nucleus of a revolutionary communist party to fight for them, in Solidarity and out. This is not only a route to the socialist revolution – it is also the only way forward for the workers’ struggle. Anything else spells demoralization and defeat. There are already currents of reaction in Polish society: the Pilsudskian nationalists who cannot tolerate an independent labor movement any more than their idol did, the anti-Semites encouraged by the ruling party who are the first to vilify every step forward the workers make.

As for the support by the Pope and the Polish Church for trade unionism, let nobody be fooled. They serve to defend the existing social order by expanding their own influence and have backed Solidarity only for that purpose. Their constant calls for moderation, their constant whisperings of advice to Walesa, and the explicit Papal statement favoring the trade unions as a means of preserving the present social system have had an effect. When it comes to a choice between the state, even the Stalinist state, and working class revolution, there is no question which side the Church will be on. It will connive with the Stalinists even through crocodile tears for its “beloved Polish people,” just as pro-Nazi fascists linked with the Polish Church ended up supporting the Stalinists’ fascist-like wing years ago.

Solidarity’s reformism and inaction can only buttress these forces. The program of moderation and reform will only be accepted by the rulers as a decoy: as soon as the workers are demoralized the bosses will strike back. Their only course ultimately is to restore fascist-like central political power. There is no decentralizing solution, no possible power sharing. Either the workers or the state must be crushed.

There were open right-wing nationalists even more conservative than Walesa, the Confederation for an Independent Poland (KPN), operating at Solidarity’s congress. These reactionaries presumably reflect the most aristocratic layers. As well, there apparently are leftist wings of Solidarity that oppose the reformism and total devotion to the Church of Walesa and his middle-class intellectual advisers. According to the Western press, the most outspoken radical is Jan Rulewski, the union leader in Bydgoszcz whose beating by the state police led nearly to another general strike last March. Rulewski clearly stands on the left. At a July meeting of Solidarity’s National Coordinating Committee, he recalled an earlier revolutionary situation:

I have the impression that it is 1917 and I am at rallies in Moscow and Petersburg where Lenin is appealing to workers’ and soldiers’ councils. As he did, we are taking power. We are finally fulfilling the slogans for which mankind has been waiting. (Solidarnosc Bulletin, October 1981)

Rulewski reportedly also believes that Russia cannot afford to invade militarily if Solidarity remains strong. He has also called on Solidarity to declare itself a political party to “guarantee democracy in this country” (New York Times, October 13). The meaning of this abridged statement is not clear; however, Rulewski has also stated that “the Catholic Church has proved to be the best ally and we will continue this cooperation” (New Statesman, August 14). This shows that his understanding of the situation is not a Leninist one but instead is based on the idea of a “democratic” debate among the existing forces.

Bolshevism Incarnate

There are small forces who consider themselves Trotskyist operating in Poland today, but they are still marginal and to our knowledge they lack a thoroughgoing revolutionary perspective. The “deformed workers’ state” theory of Trotsky’s epigones has proved bankrupt. In practice it becomes just another reformist rationalization. The absence of revolutionary communism, however, can change quickly, given the pace of events and the massive proportions of the proletarian movement which has proved its willingness to fight despite and against a miserable leadership.

The reason for the lack of genuine Marxist currents in Poland (aside from their demise generally throughout the world) is painfully clear. Despite the long history of Marxism and revolutionary communism in pre-war Poland, the Polish Communist Party was annihilated by Stalin in order to replace it by a crew of bureaucratic yes-men who could be trusted to betray the Polish workers to Russian overlordship. And nearly forty years of Stalinist rule in East Europe has been sufficient to discredit the name of Marxism and Leninism in the eyes of many workers. The task of Polish Marxists is consequently exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, it cannot be avoided in favor of the diversions that are advocated by pseudo-Marxists in the West. The results of syndicalism and schemes for “workers’ control” under capitalism are only too plain in Poland: they are embodied in Lech Walesa and the more radical Solidarity leaders who pose every solution but socialist revolution to the Polish catastrophe.

Genuine Trotskyists do have one inestimable advantage. The overwhelming fact bringing Poland to the attention of the whole world is the massive working-class struggle that forced the governmental apparatus to its knees. That fact is Bolshevism incarnate. The Polish upheaval proves the power and organizational capacity of the working class, even under conditions of dictatorship, and it has naturally inspired workers everywhere: Solidarity Day in Washington in September was only the latest example. On the other hand, the efforts of all the non-Marxist currents inside and outside Solidarity to crush or to hold back the workers’ struggle shows that only Marxism can lead it to its conclusion, the genuine socialism of equality, democracy and abundance that the workers are striving for. The Polish workers in practice have provided the greatest confirmation of Marxist beliefs in many years. Marxist workers in all countries now have the task of reconstructing the revolutionary international and its national sections everywhere, to lead that struggle to victory.