Poland: Solidarnosc’s rise and fall

Poland after 1945

Twenty-five years ago widespread discontent amongst the working-class against the Stalinist regime in Poland found expression in the formation of the mass trade union movement called Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Here Alistair Tice examines Solidarnosc’s meteoric rise, its contradictions, political divisions and missed opportunities for revolution, before it was suppressed under martial law, and, from Poland, Paul Newberry, explains the situation today, 15 years after the restoration of capitalism.

Solidarnosc’s rise and fall

Before World War Two, Poland was a semi-feudal country dominated by foreign capital and ruled by a dictatorship. Under Nazi occupation, Poland lost one-fifth of its population and industry was destroyed.

With the Red Army defeat of the Nazis, a Stalinist state came to power at the end of the war. On the basis of a nationalised and planned economy, industrial production increased 13-fold.

From 1951 to 1972 national income grew by an average of 7% a year. With this growth came big improvements in living standards, health and education. But economic growth was already slowing by the 1970s because of the bureaucracy’s inability to meet people’s needs through a system of ‘diktats’ and crude targets. This resulted in shortages, queues and price rises, which triggered uprisings in 1970 and 1976.

Attempts by the regime to kick-start the stagnating economy through market mechanisms and western loans only made things worse. By the 1970s, price subsidies were consuming a third of the state budget. It was the attempt to cut these subsidies again in July 1980 that led to the movement from which Solidarnosc developed.

By the late 1970s, Poland’s economy was stagnating, even in decline. In fact, in 1979, national income fell by 2% according to the official figures, an unprecedented admission in a Stalinist state.

The ruling Stalinist bureaucrats had sought big price rises in 1970 and 1976, which provoked near uprisings, forcing the withdrawal of the price rises and an increase in subsidies, which only exacerbated the economic crisis.

On 1 July 1980 the government increased meat prices again. This led to scattered protest strikes for higher pay.

But in the Baltic coast port of Gdansk, where hundreds of workers had been shot dead in the 1970 uprising, management moved to nip any protests in the bud by attempting to remove potential “troublemakers” including long-time workers’ activist Anna Walentynowicz who was sacked.

This had the opposite of the intended effect. 15,000 workers in the Lenin shipyards went on strike. All the workers’ demands were conceded, but a mass meeting rejected the strike committee’s recommendation to go back to work and voted to stay out with other workers until their demands were met as well.

Within a few days, effectively a general strike paralysed all the Baltic Coast towns. An inter-factory strike committee was established with delegates from over 500 workplaces.

One small incident demonstrates that it was the workers who were now the real power in society: a woman from the fish canning plant approached the strike committee appealing that ‘the people must have food’. So workers at another plant temporarily returned to work to produce the 120,000 cans needed so that fish in the canning plants could be distributed to strikers, rather than the being allowed to go bad.

The regime wanted to crush the movement. They moved troops outside Gdansk. But workers sent delegations to fraternise – the troops became unreliable. Army leader, General Jaruzelski, at that time advised the government not to try a military solution.

Consequently, the government was forced to concede even more to the wider demands of the strike, including the release of all political prisoners, reduction of press censorship, publication of the workers’ demands, the right to strike and form free independent trade unions, as well as better health services, maternity leave and pensions.

From this victory in Gdansk and the Baltic Coast, the strikes spread throughout Poland – all industrial centres including the capital Warsaw were affected.

Silesian coalminers forced the government to agree that the ‘Baltic Agreement’ won in Gdansk should apply to workers throughout Poland.

Within a few months, 10 million workers (out of 13 million employees) had left the ‘official’ state-run unions to set up their own independent unions under the umbrella of ‘Solidarnosc’. Peasants and students set up their own committees. Even 40,000 police set up an independent union!

In an opinion poll at the time, 83% of the population said they were in support of the strikers.

In effect, there existed a situation which Marxists describe as ‘dual power’. That is, real power lay in the hands of the workers who were challenging the right of the old, official state power to rule. The regime was forced, due to its weakness, to make huge concessions. It hoped that in time it would be able to buy off some of the workers’ leaders and exhaust the movement, in order to strike back later.

At this stage, the movement was not anti-socialist as both the Stalinist regime and the Western politicians tried to make out for their own individual reasons.

The workers’ economic demands quickly passed over into political demands against the repressive nature of the regime: for free trade unions, against press censorship and freeing of political prisoners.

There was also anger at the privileges of the ‘Communist’ Party elite, a few of whom were scapegoated by the regime, such as the former head of Polish state TV who was tried for embezzlement. He had amassed a country villa with a sauna and swimming pool, a lavishly adorned bed that cost £50,000, seven cars, two planes, a helicopter, two yachts, a 42 bed roomed country estate, 32 full-time domestic staff, and use of a private island in the Mediterranean and a safari lodge in Kenya!

Workers didn’t want the restoration of capitalism but to democratise the ‘socialist’ system. As one worker-delegate expressed it: “We speak on behalf of the 40,000 workers of the Lenin steelworks… Today our union has 7 million members. We are the majority of the working people of Poland who believe that socialism is a system of social justice and that it is possible to restore the highest values: truth, justice, recognition for honest work and respect for man. Our activity does not impair the foundations of socialism in our country. We have only condemned those who have distorted its basic tenets.”

In effect, workers were striving for a political revolution, that is the overthrow of the corrupt one-party totalitarian ruling elite, the Stalinist bureaucracy, whilst maintaining and democratising the nationalised, planned economy through workers’ control and management.

But at this time, there did not exist in Poland, a conscious organised Trotskyist force, that could give expression to these instinctive ideas. Trotsky, who had been the co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 October socialist revolution in Russia, subsequently fought against Stalin’s dictatorship and called for a political revolution to overthrow the ruling bureaucracy.

Instead, some of the Solidarnosc leaders fell under the influence of other ideas and social forces, in particular of the Catholic Church and dissident intellectuals.

The Catholic Church in Poland was seen as a symbol against centuries of national oppression and was the only legal semi-opposition tolerated in this Stalinist dictatorship. Portraits of the Pope hung outside the shipyards alongside those of Karl Marx!

The dissidents held sway because of their past opposition to the regime and the repression they’d suffered for it.

Each urged restraint and compromise on the Solidarnosc leaders. They advised workers “not to go too far” and “keep within necessary bounds”. In particular, they feared provoking a Russian invasion, such had occurred against workers’ uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Lech Walesa, the leader who came to personify Solidarnosc, was especially susceptible, claiming to be “non-political”.

Consequently, the Solidarnosc leaders accepted a ‘compromise’ solution. They had won huge concessions but accepted “the leading role of the Communist Party”. In other words, Solidarnosc would not interfere in politics or challenge the bureaucracy’s right to rule. And they signed a 90-day truce (no strikes) in spring 1981 at the very moment when there was renewed workers’ anger and calls for a general strike.

This gave the regime (General Jaruzelski was now head of the Party and government as well as the army), the breathing space it wanted, which it used to sabotage the economy through redundancies, cut the meat ration and raise bread prices, which began to demoralise the workers’ movement.

Even the Solidarnosc leadership, in their report to their September 1981 congress, recognised, “To our moderation, they respond with still greater aggressiveness.” At that congress a minority argued that the union should demand democratic control over the economy, but they were defeated.

The Stalinist dictatorship could not tolerate free trade unions let alone elements of workers’ power. Unlike capitalists who ultimately gain their power from owning wealth, the Stalinist elite could only rule so long as the working class was passive, hence their opposition to any real democratic rights. Despite their own leaders, Solidarnosc could not help but be political – to pursue economic and democratic demands they were forced to challenge the bureaucracy’s privileges and repression.

For 18 months the workers could have taken power, peacefully without violence or civil war, such was the strength and support of Solidarnosc and the weakness of the regime. The international effect would have made it almost impossible for Russia to intervene, especially as the Polish army would most probably have fought with the workers against foreign invasion.

Instead, the continual appeals to moderation undermined workers’ confidence that all their efforts could achieve real lasting change.

And on 13 December 1981 Jaruzelski struck. Using the military and secret police to do the dirty work, a military coup was carried out. Solidarnosc was banned, leaders arrested, strikes declared illegal, all concessions withdrawn and martial law declared.

Workers did resist – shipyards, mines, the Ursus tractor factory, car plants all went on strike – but their actions were isolated and fizzled out. The movement became disorientated and demoralised, the defeat that much greater for having been so near to taking power.

The coup was applauded by the western democracies, the banks and politicians, who welcomed the restoration of stability and a chance to get their debts paid back!

This inspiring and heroic struggle by Solidarnosc shows that the first movement of workers was in the direction of political revolution, as happened later in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989, but without a conscious leadership was not carried through.

The impact of the coup, martial law and repression, the demoralisation and disillusionment at defeat, the continued collapse of the Polish economy and the seeming capitalist boom in the west in the 1980s, all combined to throw back, even reverse, the socialist consciousness of the Polish workers. In addition the collapse in the mid-1970s of the military dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain allowed western leaders to claim that they were the real supporters of democracy, while ignoring the dictatorships they still supported in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A graphic indication of this was in 1988, on a visit to Poland, Margaret Thatcher was cheered by Gdansk workers as was US President George Bush senior the following year!

Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa even declared, “We will build America here in Eastern Europe.” It’s a historical irony that the Solidarnosc leaders went over to support the restoration of capitalism at exactly the same time as the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy in Poland, Eastern Europe and Russia, for their own reasons, reached the same conclusion.

Jaruzelski, under cover of the military dictatorship he imposed in the early 1980s, began this process. Then, faced with renewed workers’ militancy in 1988, the regime moved to re-legalise Solidarnosc and use it try to hold back workers’ struggles. But the Stalinist elite itself was becoming increasingly isolated and eventually mostly agreed to work with the Solidarnosc led government that had been formed in August 1989 to restore capitalism. Lech Walesa, due to his authority as Solidarnosc leader, was elected President of Poland in November 1990, and used increasingly authoritarian powers to push through privatisations.

Instead of America being built in Poland, US firms were invited to buy Poland up! As a measure of how discredited Walesa became through his association with capitalist free market policies and authoritarian rule, he was narrowly defeated when he stood for re-election in 1995 and received only 1.01% of the vote when he stood again for President in 2000. Solidarnosc’s political party was wiped out in the 2001 parliamentary elections, and today the Solidarnosc trade union exists as a shadow of its former self trying to resist the effects of the neo-liberal policies it ended up promoting!

Polish workers can draw inspiration from the Solidarnosc movement of 25 years ago, as they struggle today to rebuild fighting trade unions and create a new workers’ party in the future, capable of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a democratic socialist society.

Poland today after 15 years of capitalism

On the surface, it may seem to visitors to Poland that the market reforms of the 1990s were a success.

Paul Newberry, Poland

Gone are the queues for basic necessities outside empty shops. Nowadays the stores are overflowing with goods. In fact, the modern shopping centres around Warsaw don’t differ in any way from those in the west either in quality or price. However, behind the impressive shop displays and luxury cars on the streets of Poland’s capital, the reality is quite different. There is one small problem that the admirers of Poland’s market reforms conveniently forget – the vast majority of the population can’t afford to buy the goods in the fancy shops.

The restoration of capitalism in Poland, ushered in by the Solidarity-sponsored Balcerowicz Plan at the beginning of the nineties, was catastrophic for Polish workers. In the first year, 1990, GDP fell by over 10%, twice what Balcerowicz expected. Industrial output fell by over 25%. In 1991 GDP fell by a further 7.5%. It was only at the end of the nineties that GDP reached the level of 1989, that is, before the introduction of the market. Hardly a success story! Even today, GDP per head in Poland is still only one fifth of that in Britain.

For workers the collapse of the economy caused by capitalist restoration meant a driving down of real wages and the appearance of mass unemployment – a phenomenon previously unknown in Poland. Today unemployment stands at around 20%, whilst workers often earn as little as 150 euros a month.

The mass privatisations which accompanied the restoration of capitalism led to massive job losses. In most cases the enterprises were sold off at a fraction of their value either to friends and family connected with the political elite or to businessmen in return for generous bribes. In the state-owned enterprises workers enjoyed cheap, subsidized holidays and children’s camps, as well as cheap housing provided by the company. Privatisation meant the liquidation of such benefits and in many cases the selling off of the flats to private landlords. This year the government introduced a bill liberalising rents in the private sector, which will make thousands more working class families homeless.

The introduction of capitalism also meant the destruction of the welfare state. The health service has been decimated due to chronic underfunding of state hospitals and the chaos caused by the introduction of the internal market. Benefits and pensions have also been slashed. However, only a minority of the unemployed are entitled to benefits anyway.

Employment in mining has been reduced from 450,000 to 142,000. In Walbrzych, a mining town in the south of Poland, unemployment runs at over 50%. In conditions reminiscent of the nineteenth rather than the 21st century, unemployed miners and youth are forced through poverty to risk their lives working illegal mining shafts, tens of metres underground using makeshift props to secure the tunnels. Every few months a tunnel collapses, killing or seriously injuring workers.

“At least in the Polish People’s Republic we didn’t starve. We had work and a roof over our heads” is an opinion that you often hear when talking to workers. No surprise then that last year, Edward Gierek, the former leader of the Polish United Workers Party (the “Communist” party) in the 1970s, topped a poll to find the greatest Polish statesman, beating the legendary leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa. In another poll, a majority of Poles felt that life was better in the 1970s.

However, the solution for Polish workers is not a return to bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy, which is what existed in the Polish People’s Republic. Instead, what is needed is a planned, nationalised economy under democratic workers’ control and management. Then the economy can be organised to meet the needs of ordinary working people instead of making profits for the small business elite and the international corporations.

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August 2005