Speaking to the Sunday Times (London), on August 31, 1989, a Polish journalist observed: "Since the war, this country has been run by a succession of different methods. First we had sheer Stalinist terror and then the mobilization of idealism which was gradually dissipated under Gomulka. When Gierek came to power, he tried a new formula – technocracy and consumerism. But he combined it with autocracy, and the mix simply did not work. Technocracy must be controlled and channelled by democracy.’ At that time, his account was accurate but it gave only a superficial explanation of the Polish situation.
What the journalist failed to say was that the transition from one method of domination to another (the next) was made under pressure from workers’ uprisings, and that each "new system" was a response to these uprisings. Resumption of work was the authorities short-term goal; restoration of the complete domination of capital was the long-term goal. The authorities were forced to make economic and political concessions every time. And Although, over the years, they tried by various repressive means to reimpose the yoke of exploitation on the workers, they were not able to erase from the workers’ memories the fact that a mass movement had caused capitalist power to back down.
In a certain sense, recent events in Poland are the direct resuIt of the 1956 insurrection. On June 28, 1956, the eruption in Poznan dramatically revealed the Polish workers in struggle. At first, the repression was bloody and brutal, but after Gomulka (who had been ousted under Stalin) returned to power, the rulers skillfully managed to manipulate all currents of "liberalization" and of "struggle" so as to use them against both the workers and the revolutionary committees which had been set up. The climax of this period was Gomulkas return to power in October 1956.
At that time the political class thought it wise to define what it called "the Polish road to socialism" Gomulka legalized workers councils only to gradually empty them of all content. Furthermore, he channelled part of the surplus value extorted from the workers (which was then assigned to basic industrial investments in heavy industry) into the production of consumer goods in an attempt to raise the standard of living. So here was a Communist Party, under pressure from the class struggle, recognizing workers’ interests and accepting their intervention in economic decisions, namely in the disposition of their labor. Another of the Party’s retreats had equally great consequences for later events: a numerous peasantry (more than 30% of the population) recovered their lands in the form of private property, Although with certain restrictions.
This situation could have determined a form of capitalist democracy which would have served the global interests of capital within the framework of the Polish state. Progressive elimination of the peasant class in the transition to capitalist agriculture, industrial development with the proletarianization of the ex-peasants, transformation of the ruling class into a pro-managerial class – all this might have appeared as the "free and natural" development of the system. But the Russian domination, both strategic and economic, forced the retention of the Leninist model of Party domination, a Party claiming to centralize all decisions and to determine the rhythm of economic growth, which in a class society is absolutely impossible. A fundamental conflict developed and intensified over the years: economic constraints were liberalized, especially those which allowed enterprise managers to make decisions appropriate to the interests of capital. But none of this implied the restoration of Western-style political liberties. Hence, this fundamental conflict, which became more violent and visible as industrialization proceeded, took the form of a confrontation within the ruling class itself. The world-wide crisis of capital made the problems more severe and the rulers’ inability to resolve them opened the way to the workers’ actions. Three overt worker revolts, in 1970, 1976 and 1980, demonstrated the system’s inability to resolve this conflict. In addition to its own crisis, the capitalist class had to deal with power relations which favored workers who did not want changes in the system to be made at their expense.
The workers’ insurrection of 1970-71 has undoubtedly had the most profound effect on the current generation of Polish workers. But it was just as instructive for the capitalist class because it exposed the internal contradictions of the system and gave rise to a generation of reformists. The December 1970 insurrection did not appear out of the blue. In their opposition to a capitalist class whose domination still emanated from an all-powerful Party, the workers responded with resistance on a day-to-day level which was often camouflaged but which became increasingly open in a society where industrialization turned enterprise managers into flaccid administrators because they had so little power. Thus, over the years, there developed a crisis endemic to the system – a crisis whose solution theoretically would involve economic adjustments (in prices and wages) as well as structural ones (internal reorganization with a different power distribution inside the capitalist class). Such reforms were, however, constantly postponed in order to assure social peace and also to maintain the equilibrium among the ruling class clans who served the Party.
By the end of the 1960s, the crisis had become more acute and was accentuated by more frequent, but locally isolated strikes, and by the student movement of March 1968. The repression unleashed against this revolt, which the workers had not joined, did not put an end to the strikes. In the course of the winter of 1969-70, the strikes spread, especially in response to attempts to make reductions in wages. The strikes made the authorities increasingly cautious in undertaking what was becoming increasingly urgent.
Thus, backed into a corner, in December 1970 the authorities resolved to strike a blow; it was hatched by the same Gomulka crew which had "settled" the 1956 crisis but the credibility this crew had enjoyed at that time was exhausted precisely because of this settlement. The attack was aimed against the workers alone because this seemed to be easiest, and it was launched on two fronts: wages and prices. The attack against wages took the form of changing the work norms. This did not have a unifying effect on the struggles; if struggles did resuIt, they remained localized and isolated since each factory developed its own form of resistance. (The capitalist class undoubtedly learned from the insurrections of East Germany in June 1953 and of Hungary in November 1956, which originated in response to extensive and abrupt changes in work norms.) So it was not surprising that when the government announced an adjustment in prices on December 13, 1970, there was a strike in progress at the Gdansk naval shipyards precisely over the determination of wages. The price hike which was to affect the entire country and a great variety of products turned out to be the unifying element of the struggle.
The price increases affected mainly foodstuffs of basic necessity and were as high as 30%. This was more than enough to provoke a wave of protests which rapidly turned into riots. After December 14, the strike which had been under way at the Gdansk naval shipyards quickly spread to many factories throughout Poland and became a generalized worker rebellion which the capitalist class managed to subdue only by repealing, in succession, all the measures which had given rise to the rebellion.
There were three stages to the struggle, in a dialectic of the working class versus capital. As in Poznan in 1956, the first stage was a frontal attack against the regime. Workers came out in the streets to emphasize their demands; since their delegates were rebuffed and even arrested, and since the authorities refused any dialogue and resorted to violence and deceit, workers in many places congregated outside the local Party headquarters which they viewed as centers of power, took them by storm and set fire to them. This is what happened in the two large BaItic port cities, Gdansk and Gdynia, where the advance flank of the proletariat was the shipyard workers of these cities. Here, in spite of some continuing guerrilla urban warfare, the workers for a time essentially took over the cities. In Gdansk, on December 15, the local police and militia gradually drove the workers toward the naval shipyards; the workers proceeded to occupy the shipyards, but for a short time only because they were forced to evacuate them on December 17.
In Gdynia the strike was more confusing; as in Gdansk, a strike committee was set up, but after December 16, the shipyards were occupied by the army. On December 17, following an appeal broadcast on the radio the night before by one of the local Party leaders, the workers assembled early in the morning to resume work. They were met with a fusillade; a massacre ensued. This was followed by widespread fighting throughout the city and street clashes which finally ended with the police and army resuming control of the city. More than three hundred of the insurgents were killed. After this, in Gdynia too, the workers withdrew to the factories. In a number of Poland’s industrial cities, similar events took place: strikes, demonstrations, fighting, but none of those cities experienced the violence or the tragedy of the events on the BaItic coast. The situation which developed in the coastal cities is hard to define: the workers, to all appearances, went back to the shipyards and their jobs, but control over what went on seemed to lie more with the strike committees than with the rulers. It was in another port city, Szczecin, that the second stage would emerge. Only three days after the Gdansk uprising and on the same day as the Gdynia massacre, the Szczecin workers at the naval shipyards called a solidarity strike. Having learned from experience, they first of all set up a strong organization for struggle: a workers’ assembly and a workers’ committee made up of elected representatives from every sector in the factory. Together they drew up a list of twenty-two demands to be discussed with the appropriate authorities. The refusal to hold discussions led to a street demonstration which, like in Gdynia and Gdansk, brought the workers to the local Party headquarters, which was set on fire. Here, too, a sort of urban guerrilla warfare broke out in the city. One might have thought it was a repetition of the situation in Gdansk and Gdynia. In fact, it was almost the opposite. There was nothing impromptu here; the resistance organization did not follow, but preceded defeat in the streets. In this sense the fighting inside the city was simply a tactic in a much broader approach. In order to make this clear, the workers’ committee transformed itself into a central strike committee which took charge, not only of the struggle and negotiations, but of the organization of the activity of the region as well. This step in advance created a situation which was reproduced in other industrial centers, notably in Gdansk and Gdynia where the same organizational structures and the same type of demands appeared. The spread of this situation seemed to threaten the power of the capitalist class enough to warrant ousting Gomulka and replacing him with Gierek. Though apparently victorious in the streets, the government nevertheless had to try to palm off this change of ruler as a "victory" for the workers’ struggle and thus try to put an end to a situation dangerous for the system as a whole. For the capitalist class, Gierek was the man of the technocrats who were in opposition to the politicians of the Party; the fact that he was reputed to be a "reformer" aroused hopes that he was also "the man of the hour," capable of getting the workers to listen to reason and to accept the new economic and social conditions against which they had rebelled.
The struggle moved from the streets to the places of production; it was this terrain that Gierek chose for the second act, when he initiated a social repression in place of the bloody repression of the preceding days. The curtain opened with what was mentioned earlier: the presentation of Gierek as "the man of the workers’ rebellion." But a Gomulka-type coup did not work a second time; the workers were not taken in and continued their struggle. The number of walkouts increased almost everywhere and, a week after the revolt, the strike committees were still more or less in charge wherever they existed. They even began setting up direct contacts throughout Poland. This situation continued into January 1971; the Szczecin and Gdansk committees repeatedly demanded that the head of the government, Gierek himself, come to them to discuss the workers’ demands. This is what he and his entourage finally did on January 24 and 25, 1971, since he was backed into a corner. In appearance, he acquiesced to one of the workers’ central demands. For the head of the Party which claimed to be the direct emanation of the working class to come to the workers
and face a strike committee of more than five hundred workers delegates (a real emanation of the workers), was more than a humiliation; it was an acknowledgment that the Party was an institution that had no connection whatsoever with the working class, and that it was neither more nor less than an ordinary capitalist exploiter which ruled over workers’ destinies. But this humiliation was a tactic which furnished capital with a victory. Gierek’s "courage" and "understanding" in confronting the anger of the workers cost him very little since the police and the army had encircled the shipyards and were ready to intervene. From this position of strength, by granting a few concessions, he was able to obtain two crucial results: the workers agreed to the price increases and agreed to return to work. In effect, this agreement deprived the workers of both their weapon – the strike-and. the principal grounds for their action – the price increases. A few days later, the lowest wages were, in fact, raised; the rest of the promises remained a dead letter. But, in spite of all that, a new situation had been created. A journalist for Le Monde wrote on February 5, 1971, "The new leader of the Polish Party created a precedent whose extreme consequences could influence certain established norms in this country’s internal relations. One of these norms determines the form of contacts between the Party leadership and the working class and it does not include direct dialogue between the head of the Party and the strikers.
The rulers considered the play to be over; however, it was not. A third act was to follow. Although most strikes were settled at little cost to the system, during the week of February 7 – 13, a strike broke out among the women textile workers of Lodz. The textile factories were occupied; before long, the city was barricaded. Strikes then reappeared in other cities, particularly in Szczecin., where the workers were becoming aware of the nature of the governments promises. It looked like the Szczecin scenario would be repeated; the rulers had to come to Lodz to negotiate with an imposing workers’ delegation. But this time they had to back down on things they had been unwilling to concede before: all the December price hikes would be cancelled, but the wage increases granted since December would stand.
For the entire Polish working class, this was an unprecedented success in having its demands met, but it was no more than that. The workers saw that by striking they were able to make the government back down, but they reaffirmed the legitimacy of this very government when they laid down their arms. Because of this and because of their overconfidence in their "victory," they would experience severe repression, directly and indirectly, in subsequent years. No ruling class would suffer such agonies for the purpose of retaining the very substance of its class domination without seeking to consolidate its position through a repression combined with structural changes which could prevent such a situation from recurring. This explains why the rulers carried out repression with one hand while with the other they tried to initiate changes which, in their view, would consolidate the system.
The new ruling clan – Gierek backed by the technocrats of The economy – tried to get out of the impasse by using Western capital and technology to embark on a modern industrial development. The new leaders obliged the peasant class to furnish foodstuffs at low prices; they also encouraged the growth of a middle class of small businessmen. In other words, the Polish capitalist class sold the Polish workers’ labor power to Western capital by subsidizing their reproduction with inexpensive national agricultural products (or, at least it hoped to) – this in order to invest in modern processing industries. Even this very timid economic adjustment resulted merely in strengthening the privileged layer of the new capitalist class. The international economic crisis would thwart the attempt to cross the threshold of capitalist productivity solely by means of modern technology. The workers, restricted to the same condition of dependence and to a low living standard, resisted daily and refused to "participate" – which led to a very low level of productivity. Most of the peasants remained at the level of a closed economy, with no access to modern techniques of production for exchange, and although they produced willingly for the market, quantities were small and prices, high.
Nevertheless, after five years of adaptations which furthered a capitalism of consumption and links with international capital, the capitalist class seemed to think that a new reform of the economic and social organization would give it sufficient leverage to attempt to win what it had not been able to win earlier. But the class struggle had not ended; on the contrary, the attempts to modify the conditions of exploitation of labor connected with the new economic orientation intensified it. The new orientation again made it urgent to reform the entire price structure. The reform measures were announced on the evening of June 24, 1976. No one was fooled by them: they involved taking from workers the part of the surplus value needed for the "modern" development of capital. The strike which erupted on tune 25 all over Poland, from Gdansk to Katowice, lasted just one day. It had its most open expression in the Warsaw region, in the sectors of newly established manufacturing industries; at the Ursus tractor factory, at the Zoran auto factory in a `Warsaw suburb and in the entire city of Radom, 130 kilometers from Warsaw. At Ursus and Zeran, factory organizations were immediately formed and they quickly undertook actions which affected vital interests (railroads, highways). This appropriation of social space was a turning point in the struggles and anticipated events of a few years later. In Radom, by contrast, there was a repeat of what happened in Gdansk and Gdynia in December 1970; the workers overran the city, set Party headquarters on fire and then carried on guerrilla warfare in the streets. While in 1970-71, more than a month and three waves of strikes were needed to revoke the price hikes, this time one day was enough. On June 25, at 10 p.m., the government announced that the increases were annulled. The outburst of joy which followed was of brief duration since, this time too, repression was soon unleashed. But capital had been transformed as well as class relations; just as new methods of struggle had appeared, new social and political phenomena would arise.
Already in 1970, in the West as well as in Poland, observers were saying how incredible it was that simple questions of wages and prices could unleash movements which threatened the system to its roots; all this could easily be avoided by estab lishing "democratic" unions. Olszowski, a Party leader who favored "liberalization" of the economy as well as strict political control, declared at that time: "The Polish people are so well developed and educated, have so much culture, that the lack of democratic structures has become a caricature which is no longer tolerable." Further industrialization (and more industries using modern productive techniques) created a new mentality for both workers and managers; as the political impasse became more and more obvious, two opposing views of theory and action emerged. Among the rank-and-file there was a will to fight in order to maintain the standard of living and to obtain more. Within the bureaucracy, there was growing criticism accompanied by proposals which would allow the system to change while preserving class distinctions.
After 1970, the growth of a protest movement incorporating diverse elements created conditions favorable to setting up associations of defense and coalition. A dialectical relation was established between the two positions, largely through the mediation of intellectuals; the class struggle sharpened the internal critiques and encouraged their open expression; the internal critiques softened the repression and promoted the growth of horizontal networks of association, solidarity and exchange of information (existing institutions such as the Catholic Church and possibly certain Party organs were able to play a role in this development). All these associations were inextricably linked to the direct actions of the workers. The importance of these associations in extending, unifying and coordinating the movement is difficuIt to ascertain; it is easier to trace how they emerged and developed from the rankand-file movements in order to become direct auxiliaries of the capitalist class.
These are the circumstances which, following the movement of June 25, 1976, gave rise to the KOR, Committee for Defense against Repression, which was initially set up solely by intellectuals and after 1968, by embryos of "free" unions which took as long-term goal the establishment of rank-and-file associations on the model of the comisiones obreros in Spain under Franco. (It was obviously well concealed that these comisiones obreros, created by the rank-and-file, had been colonized by the Spanish Communist Party which turned them into its union apparatus; the irony is that the Polish militants – hostile to the Polish Communist Party – undoubtedly harbored the same hopes as their adversaries of transforming the Polish comisiones obreros, which they wanted to stimulate in the rank-and-file, into a union which they would control.)
In April 1978, the founding charter of the underground unions of Northern Poland contained the following totally unambiguous declaration: "Only free unions and associations can save the state, since only democratization can lead to the integration of the interests and the will of the citizen with the interests and the power of the state." Lech Walesa was among the signers of this charter. In 1979, ten Party experts submitted a 150-page report which warned Gierek about the need to change the country’s official policies; they reported a growing rift between the government and the population; they thought that a more independent press and worker representation. worthy of its name – namely, political reforms in conjunction with economic reforms – could help avoid the worst. They described this "worst" as an explosion more violent than any since the war. In Gdansk, on July 4, 1989, at a "working" meeting of the local Party committee, Kania, a member of the Political Bureau, declared that "the Central Committee can no longer control the economic crisis; it is disastrous, and shortages may soon affect meat and bread." As he spoke these words, the explosion had already begun; but no one knew that in violence and scope it would truly exceed anything Poland had experienced since the war.