8. Poland Erupts

Poland Erupts

"The working class could not be the leading and most progressive section of the nation if reactionary forces were able to find support in its ranks. 'Agents provocateurs' or reactionaries have never been the inspiration of the working class; they are not and they never will be."
Gomulka, Polish Facts and Figures (November, 1, 1956).

At the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, held in February 1956, Krushchev's 'revelations' about Stalin caused a political earthquake. The foundations of every Communist party in the world were shaken. It will be decades before they are repaired - if ever they are. Were the 'revelations' a 'tactical mistake'? Had the Russian bureaucrats not realized that, by de-godding God, the faithful might begin to question the whole theology proclaimed by his disciples?

Did Krushchev know of the ferment growing in Poland and Hungary even before the 20th Congress? Did he know that this was affecting the Polish Communist party itself? Did he understand its potential danger both to his own regime and to those of his satellites?

In Poland on the morning of June 28, 1956, the workers at the Zispo locomotive factory in Poznan struck. They walked out onto the streets. This was not done on impulse. Many weeks earlier a committee had been elected. It had presented the management with a list of demands. Some were predictable. They wanted pay increases, lower prices and lower piece-work norms. The management was startled, however, when these 'common workers' criticised the way the factory was being run and demanded a different organization of work in the various shops. To question managerial infallibility in deciding what the workers were to do, and then to demand reorganization of shop floor production, struck at the very roots of the system. The managers did not go up through the roof. They did what their Western counterparts would have done: they adopted delaying tactics and called them 'negotiations'. These dragged on, without result. The workers eventually saw through them. In their thousands they took to the streets.

As the news spread, workers assembled in other plants. They voted to join the movement. The political character of the demonstrations then became apparent. Posters carried in the processions demanded such things as "Freedom and Bread!", "Out with the Russians!" and "End Piecework!"

Other people, taking their lead from the workers, joined in. As far as Poznan was concerned, the demonstrations soon showed the features of a full-scale uprising. Russian tanks and troops surrounded the city, but did not move in. The Government brought in Polish tanks whose crews did as they were told. Workers' blood flowed in the streets. After two days, the revolt was crushed. The Zispo factory management had their 'right' to manage inscribed in blood. There were 'sympathetic' strikes in several other towns, but they were quickly isolated by the police and did not reach similar proportions.

Shocked and confused, the Polish bureaucracy blamed the uprising on 'provocateurs ', on 'secret agents employed by the United States and Western Germany'. But on July 18, at a meeting of the Party's Central Committee, Edward Ochab, the First Secretary, said: "... it is necessary to look first of all for the social roots of these incidents (in Poznan) which have become, for the whole of our Party, a warning signal testifying to the existence of serious disturbance in the relations between the Party and various sections of the working class."

Ochab went on to explain that about 75% of the Poznan workers had suffered from a fall in wages, while the piecework norms had increased. By giving only economic reasons for the uprising, Ochab was seeking to play down its important political aspects. His statement, nevertheless, appeared to reflect a more positive attitude to the workers' demands. It no doubt prevented further immediate uprisings in a nation still seething with discontent.

After Poznan, the demand for change increased. The badly shaken leadership tried to evolve a new policy - a 'Polish road to socialism'. Some anti-Stalinists were given posts in the Party. Gomulka, excommunicated and imprisoned in 1951, and under house arrest since 1954, was brought back into communion with the Party. He was issued a brand new membership card.

The attitude of the Polish leaders differed from that of the Communist hierarchy in the rest of Eastern Europe. [45] This worried the men in the Kremlin. So, while the Polish Communist Party's Central Committee was still in session, reviewing the Poznan events, the Russians sent their Premier, Marshal Bulganin, to Warsaw. He came to enforce the Russian line that Poznan was the work of "Western agents and provocateurs". The Central Committee showed him they would not stand for outside interference. As soon as Bulganin arrived, the Central Committee meeting was suspended. After the formalities, it was politely suggested to Bulganin that he make a tour of the provinces. He agreed. The Central Committee then resumed its session. As soon as Bulganin returned to Warsaw, the Central Committee meeting was again suspended. The session was not resumed until he had finally left for Moscow. Bulganin's visit only succeeded in increasing anti-Russian feeling among the Polish people.

At the end of September, the first trials began. People were charged with 'anti-Socialist' activity during the Poznan riots. The trials were less of a farce than those of pre-Poznan days. The defence was allowed some freedom. The sentences were relatively mild. In October 1956, the Government announced the postponement of further trials.

On October 19, another meeting of the Central Committee was convened, primarily to elect Gomulka Party leader. As the Committee met, it was reported that the Red Army in Poland had begun large-scale manoeuvres. Armoured units were moving towards Warsaw. While the Polish leaders were asking themselves whether this was some kind of threat, the answer walked in on them - Krushchev himself accompanied by a formidable detachment of the Kremlin 'Old Guard': Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich and a smattering of generals. The news spread quickly. The workers formed groups and armed themselves. Their groups kept in close contact with the Polish Army.

Crisis point had been reached. The air was electric with the tension. Precise details of the clash between the Central Committee and the Krushchev circus are not yet known. But the main reason for the visit is known. Above all else, the Russians insisted that, in the elections that were about to take place, Marshal Rokossovski should retain his posts of Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army. Gomulka refused and despite threats did not give way. He knew that in standing up to the Kremlin, he not only had a big majority of the people on his side: the workers, peasants and students. He also had a considerable proportion of the bureaucracy and of the Army behind him.

A war between Russia and Poland was the last thing the Kremlin wanted. The Russians did not insist. The Red Army was not called in. Krushchev knew that whatever Gomulka's attitude might now be, he would later be compelled to call on Russian help, both to maintain the Oder-Neisse frontier and to assist the Polish economy, which was in a chaotic condition. Within 24 hours, the Russians returned to Moscow. The following day, October 21, the Polish Politburo was elected. As expected, Gomulka became First Secretary of the Party. Changes in the Government, the Army and the Party were immediately initiated. Rokossovski resigned and returned to Moscow (where he was at once given the post of Russian Minister of Defence).

Gomulka had triumphed only in so far as he represented the national aspirations of the Polish people. The base of his rule was still extremely narrow. He represented the interests of the Polish bureaucracy. Following the independent action taken by the Polish workers, and their insistent demands for a greater share in the management of their own affairs, the basis of the bureaucracy - even purged of its pro-Russian elements - remains both weak and unstable. An attempt to broaden the basis of the regime led Gomulka into an alliance with the ex-propertied class, through the Catholic Church. In exchange for a partial restoration of its former property and privileges, the Church threw its influence behind Gomulka. God and Gomulka were brought together through a joint fear of the working class. It is a temporary alliance - a mutual expedient. When the Polish workers take to managing their own affairs, they will put all these parasites right out of business.