For a period of eighteen months, Poland was no longer a real state; authority was constantly scoffed at and the economy seemed to be adrift. There were constant strikes and threats of strikes, often over seemingly minor issues but ones which were so explosive and so central to the interests of capital that the rulers (Party, union, Church, etc.) had to stifle their disagreements and join forces in order to hurry to the location and attempt difficult negotiations which almost always ended in capitulation to the workers.
No state, in the West or in the East, could have tolerated for long a situation where strikes obliged it to dismiss high public officials, to reassign the function of public buildings, to make the rich return ill-acquired wealth, to halt proceedings against persons revealing state secrets. And to make matters worse, the economy increasingly suffered from the effects of the international crisis and the class struggles. The workers thought only of their own interests and not at all of the "general interest" – the interest of capital. The rulers were completely incapable of making the slightest improvement; the only remedy familiar to them – making the workers work harder for less money-could not be applied. On the contrary, the rulers were having to accept less work for more money. Repercussions were particularly serious at the international level. The Polish capitalist class was unable to fulfil commitments it had made in previous years and it was reduced to begging to its creditors like an importunate debtor. Before any reform projects managed to see the light of day, they were rendered ineffective because of the class struggle, which also prevented a consensus within the capitalist class itself. Since it could not prove that it had the situation under control and would be able to guarantee profits in the future, the Polish capitalist class encountered only hesitation and delays when it approached the international capitalist class. And although this international capitalist class seemed to agree pretty well on what should not be done (in order to avoid yet greater difficuIties), it too was uncertain about what should be done.
One thing was clear: the class struggle had compelled the capitalist class to drastically revise "priorities." Supplying goods for immediate consumption took precedence over investments, food imports were increased, significant concessions were made to independent peasants. Nevertheless, the class struggle did not subside and it intensified yet more the problems that capital could not resolve.
In the December 7, 1980 Sunday Times (London), Kuron declared,
"The Polish tragedy does not consist of the fact that we are under a superpower but that the superpower has nothing to offer us."
His sentence can be made plural: the superpowers have nothing to offer Poland. In fact, they demanded a great deal from Poland: the maintenance of relations in which Russia had a privileged status, the repayment of debts to Western capital, which presupposed continued trade relations with the West. In other words, the superpowers demanded that the Polish workers continue to support the burden of "obligations" toward Russian as well as Western capital.
Capital was in crisis in every part of the world. Everywhere the fierce race for profits through competition as well as speculation was gradually eliminating the concessions the ruling class had made to win over one section of the working class. In the West, capital’s setback was marked by the disappearance of the ideology of indefinite growth and by the elimination of all the participation schemes which had originated at the onset of the crisis. Capital could no longer burden itself with onerous attempts to lure workers into saving the system. By now it was quite clear that if the system was to be saved, it would be in opposition to the workers, and that policies at the governmental and enterprise level would represent capital’s own interests and no others. The only function of institutions like unions, which formerly collaborated in and often initiated various forms of self-management, would be to negotiate layoffs, distribute minimal welfare relief and administer poverty. The class struggle would grow more intense, especially in countries like Poland, which had been counting on the continued expansion of world capital and were hit by the economic crisis at a critical period in their industrial development. Just as one wonders if there is a role for bourgeois democracy in countries like Spain and Brazil, one wonders if there is any chance for reform in Poland, even though the class struggle provided the outline for one as sketched above
One might be tempted to think that the answer to this question lies in the Eastern branch of capital. Many people think that the form of domination by capital in these countries might permit political solutions to have more impact over the hidden movement of capital. In the Eastern bloc, and particularly in Russia, capital’s development is concealed by the institutional facade, by the pretensions of the planning institutes, and by the enormous mass of propaganda produced by bureaucrats who are its most gullible believers. In some ways the Polish crisis can be seen as the crisis of the entire Eastern branch of capital. Russia was experiencing the same inability to adapt its structures (even though a large part of capital had gone beyond the level of formal domination), the same backwardness in agricultural production (in spite of the facade of almost complete collectivization of the land), and the same internal conflicts in the capitalist class between the backward ones advocating totalitarian political methods and the "progressive" ones seeking methods appropriate to the real domination of capital. One-half of Poland’s trade was with the West, and this fact has sometimes been used to explain the social crisis in Poland, but this is certainly not the case with Russia. It was rather the movement of capital itself which prompted the demands for structural changes involving enterprise "autonomy," along with all the debates and infighting between clans, that we saw in Poland. In Russia, too, the same class struggle has been developing, expressed most notably by a tenacious resistance to any increase in productivity, and using methods which are as varied as they are ingenious. From this standpoint, the assertion that the Polish crisis could furnish a solution to the crisis of the Russian system seems valid. Might Poland be a testing ground for a reform of the Eastern branch of capital?
This perspective considers only one part of capital’s larger problem in the Eastern branch. And it treats the Russian system of planning as a model of management of capital which is superior to the Western model and which could, with some adjustments, resolve a problem which capital in the West is seemingly unable to resolve. To some extent, what is happening in the Eastern countries today is a sort of double setback to the "socialist" system, namely to the system of management and development of capital (exploitation of wage labor) which is based on complete centralization and its corollary, the planning of the entire economy. This system has shown itself to be as incapable as any Western "democracy" of making internal changes, of adapting its political and social structures to its development and its technology, and this inability has led to serious and dangerous political crises. Furthermore, this "socialist" system has shown itself incapable of solving, or even foreseeing and facing the central problem of capital, the problem of crises; it is unable to do the very thing that was supposed to justify the existence of this society that had supposedly put an end to the capitalist system. Behind the facade and the pretensions of half a century of propaganda, Russian centralized planning (like its reformist Social Democratic counterpart in the West) shows that it is completely dominated by the real movement of capital. The slow-down and cessation of growth in Russia is the same manifestation of crisis as in every other country. In Italy, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain or South Korea, no one would consider holding the regime or any ruling political faction responsible for effects of the economic crisis. Today, no one claims that any of these countries possess a remedy to the crisis other than to destroy working class resistance to increased exploitation; and if this fails, to face the destruction of capital.
It is striking that since the coup in Poland, it has been almost impossible for the government to follow a clear-cut course, to choose between direct repression or a reformist approach. One can find an analogous situation in the Western democracies which, unable to proceed resolutely along one path or the other, are reduced to constant procrastination. In Poland, the path of direct repression – either by internal methods using the union and/or the police, or by external means using Russian intervention-could not be used basically because of the class struggle (in all its forms), which made recourse to any violent solution very risky, more destructive than beneficial for everyone, and as dangerous for the precarious equilibrium in the West as in the East. In addition, having been invoked repeatedly, it had lost its deterrent power. As for the reformist approach, we have seen that it was present at all levels. From the start, it considered measures appropriate to advanced capitalist countries, but nothing came of them since any reform was caught in the squeeze between the class struggle and opposition from a privileged sector of the capitalist class.
At the international level, new policies were adopted day by day with a view to relieving tensions. There was obvious agreement between East and West to grant credits and assistance in the hopes of disguising the economic failure and of saving what could be saved:
"It is in the bankers’ interest to continue to extend financial support to Poland... If money was refused, Poland might have defaulted on existing borrowings which would have meant considerable losses for a number of major international banks... In the present situation the banks have little choice but to make the best of a difficult problem... The banks do not expect long term political or economic disruptions to result from the present wave of strikes" (Financial Times, August 27, 1980).
Polemics over possible intervention by Russia made the same point. The Financial Times of November 27, 1980 stated:
"There ought to be a common interest in preventing anarchy and then perhaps escalation. It is a lot to ask especially of Russia but there should now be an East-West dialogue on what is going on. A western aid consortium is not impossible in return for the guarantee of greater Polish freedom."
(We have already described what such "freedom" means in capitalist terms.) But as another article in the Financial Times noted in regard to both Poland and the Iraq-Iran conflict, "Such conflicts are in no one’s interest yet nobody knows how to stop them." This is what emerges most clearly in any situation involving capital; wherever a crisis erupts, no matter what specific features characterize the individual state, one encounters the same uncertainty between the forces which defend the interests of capital, the movement of capital itself and the class struggle. The class struggle in its various forms manifests itself in any case, whether openly or underground, and to such a degree that it spoils the day-to-day solutions adopted by the ruling class to protect its interests. On December 5, 1980, the Financial Times offered clear advice on what capital should do in Poland:
"The best way to deal with Poland is to internationalize it and to seek a peaceful solution through international cooperation."
The internationalization of aid to Poland is an admission of the weakness common to both branches of capital in the face of the economic crisis and the class struggle. The commitment to prop up Poland so it would not become a powder-keg could not be assumed by one country alone, but needed the cooperation of all capitalist countries. It is obvious that "saving Poland" meant saving Polish capital. Internationalization was first and foremost a common agreement to defeat the class struggle in order to make the workers again accept the legal status of their exploitation under conditions appropriate to "their" country. Since the return to "normalization" of exploitation involved profits, this also meant the protection of all economic and financial interests and the assurance that everything could proceed on a secure basis. With all appropriate qualifications, this can be compared to the international cooperation (including Russian) which smashed the Spanish workers’ uprising in 1936-37.
Poland experienced the same intervention. Under the combined effects of the world economic crisis, the class struggle and the blockage of any reform, the country drifted steadily toward economic bankruptcy. The debts owed to the West and to the East reached record heights; the gross national product declined by 20% in two years. In the December 14, 1981 Newsweek, a French financial expert perceived a monetary crisis, a crisis in balance of payments, a crisis in industrial structures due to dependence on foreign markets both for supplies and for outlets, and an agricultural crisis (one typical of "noncapitalist" agriculture), complicated by a crisis in urban-rural relations. His conclusion was that the West had "an interest, perhaps an obligation, to reduce the risk of what could be the worst bloodbath in Europe since the Second World War." When the representatives of capital talk like this, they are not thinking of a world war, but of a bloodbath like the one ending the Paris Commune, and of its innumerable and unforeseeable consequences in a modern, industrialized world.
lf all else fails, this onerous task falls to Russia which, in the guise of defending its strategic and imperialist interests, serves as capital’s watchdog in this part of the world. Russia was not, however, in a position to intervene directly, as it had in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968; the dimensions of the Polish problem were completely different. Poland ranks eleventh among world powers and this country of 36 million people experienced a class struggle which lasted eighteen months and which could not be vanquished. Furthermore, Russia could not intervene because Russia itself was in the midst of a crisis. As suggested earlier, the Polish situation pushed Russia further toward ruin. Russia too was on the threshold of an economic reform whose initial features appeared on January 1, 1982, when there were significant price increases. Thus it also saw the advantages of a peaceful solution reached through cooperation among capitalisms, as was suggested by the Financial Times.
In fact, Jaruzelski’s intervention on December 13, 1981, was greeted as the last attempt to avoid the worst. "Western reactions to the actions of the Polish authorities have been surprisingly calm," commented the same Financial Times already on December 15. A German banker drew the unambiguous conclusions for capital:
"What I say may be brutal, but I think that it was no longer possible for the Polish government to govern the country. Goal production had been considerably reduced, exports were only 20% of what they had been, the country had practically come to a halt. I now see the likelihood of Poland’s returning to a more normal functioning and this could be a good thing for the banks."
In reality, the West as well as the East helped Jaruzelski put his house in order. Russia, doubly concerned, provided material assistance to the army and police in carrying out their mission for capital. Russia saw to it that there were contributions from the Comecon countries, especially from East Germany which by then was something like a rich relative and had, more than Russia, a direct interest in the "normalization" of its next door neighbor (no revolutionary contagion, more coal). The West roused itself to "save Poland" with a deluge of hypocritical tears and hatred which were processed by the medias. The facade of humanitarian concerns quickly evaporated behind sordid discussions concerning "food assistance," extension of the debt, new credits and fierce competition for markets in the Eastern countries. One thing was clear; no-one did a thing to diminish the harsh repression which fell on the Polish workers or to hinder the attempt to "get the economy going" so that Poland could fulfil its obligations toward capitalist countries in the West and East.
Poland was not the worst defaulter on debts. (Debts in 1982 in billions of dollars: Brazil $88, Mexico $85, South Korea $39, Argentina $38, Poland $25.) Poland’s debt disturbed Western Europe more than it did the US; this explains the difference in response to the so-called economic sanctions. The concern of the lending banks was not so much the "bankruptcy" they cried so much about; a portion of their loans was guaranteed by their own governments or by special organizations. (In the US, for example, the government quickly repaid its banks the entire amount overdrawn by Poland.) Jaruzelski was a savior to banks, and in financial terms the West gained much more than Russia. The February 1, 1982 Financial Times stated explicitly:
"The West is right to withhold trade credits and rescheduling of debts not as a punishment but because Poland in a state of profound political conflict is a much worse risk than a Poland which is, within limits, at peace with itself. Sooner or later that means reform."
Beneath all the bombast, this was the reality of capital. International capital was waiting for the fire to be extinguished, or at least contained, so it could determine how things could be made secure at the financial level. Just as in Poland’s internal affairs, these spokesmen were neither politicians nor economists but financiers, those who expressed capital’s direct interests. Finance Minister Krzak, Poland’s representative in all the discussions dealing with the country’s debt, said,
"We speak a common language of roll-over, revolving credits and interest accumulation ...We never talk about politics when negotiating with Western bankers."
Having backed Poland up against a wall, the international financiers looked to their national counterparts to carry out the expected task, to assure adequate social peace so that the country would again be a solvent client. (In September 1982, this solvency was still doubtful since for 67% of Poland’s imports, cash was required; in 1981, cash was required for just 28%.) As mentioned earlier, the economic confusion itself was responsible for reducing demand for imported goods and this had a snowballing effect, since the lack of parts or of raw materials further diminished this demand. Poland was able to begin paying part of its debts by exporting raw materials. Attempts to direct foreign trade toward Comecon countries succeeded in shifting only 9% of the total.
The aim of capital is to increase capital; an industry operating at half capacity cannot generate the requisite profits for self-financing and for Western banks. Nevertheless, the sole capitalist solution to the Polish crisis was "to get the machine working again." This situation could not continue indefinitely; regular sources of supplies were needed for the machine to operate "normally;" a minimal consensus on the part of the workers was needed for them to agree to their own exploitation. The rescheduling of the debt in 1983 and the hesitant recourse to new credits for the re-launching of certain "modern" projects demonstrated the commitment to resolve the economic crisis with assistance from international capital. This meant that the Polish proletariat would be largely responsible for bearing the costs of the restoration, and also that the proletariat in every country would be increasingly exploited to underwrite part of the losses imposed on capital as a whole by the deferred debts and new credits. For the moment, capital has scored a point in Poland. But has it really won? Everything remains to be done; first of all, Polish workers have to produce "normally" (namely in conditions appropriate to present-day capital). Internationalization could come through direct financial channels; it could also come through political channels in a repartitioned world where it would be easier to directly repress the workers. If capital sees the solution to the Polish crisis in internationalization, this is also the path for class struggle – but not in the form of "solidarity with the Polish workers," which would remain nothing but an ineffectual intention.
As long as each branch of capital fears that the repercussions of a violent clash in Poland would upset the precarious equilibrium of its power relations with its own workers, harsh solutions are unlikely in Poland. The outcome depends on the effects of the international economic crisis, of which the Polish crisis is one manifestation; it also depends on struggles of workers everywhere within their own countries. This is the surest path toward the internationalization of struggles in response to the internationalization of their repression in Poland.