The Polish Crisis

The following is a resolution adopted by the 34th National Convention of the Socialist Labor Party, June 9, 1981.

During the summer of 1980 a series of events took place in Poland, starting with a strike of shipyard workers in Gdansk, which released revolutionary energies that had been pent up for decades and which were to leave an indelible mark upon the history of the class struggle worldwide. It is now clear that the struggle of Polish workers against the bureaucratic state and Soviet imperialism is laden with revolutionary potential for Poland, Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union. It is equally clear that this Polish struggle is of great historical significance and of enormous inspirational value to Marxist revolutionaries everywhere.

The pages of The People, other left press sources, and even the capitalist media have detailed the facts of this situation adequately during the past year. We need no repetition here of all of these details, but what is needed is a summary of some of the more salient facts.

First of all, it should be noted that for more than a decade the Polish working class has been dissatisfied with the state bureaucracy’s mismanagement of the economy and absolute refusal to adhere to even minimal principles of democracy. For years, the economy of Poland has been subjected to a lopsided developmental program that is based upon a costly industrialization (paid for by loans from foreign capitalist institutions) that has drained the wealth of Poland and left its agricultural production in private hands. This period has been characterized by severe food shortages, sharp reductions in social services and high food prices.

Expressions of criticism of the state were usually met with stark repression. The combination of economic instability and repression has led to broad-based and widespread uprisings in Poland on three occasions since 1970.

In 1970–71, there were food riots, seizures of industrial facilities by workers, attacks on Communist Party headquarters and random assaults upon the police in every major city. This near-civil war led to the collapse of the Gomulka government (which was headed by the old guard Stalinist Wladyslaw Gomulka) and its replacement by the administration of Edward Gierek.

In 1976–77, there was another series of disturbances and strikes over the state’s planned withdrawal of some, and reduction of other, food price supports.

By 1980, the situation once again became destabilized when the Gierek government announced that because of the pressure exerted by foreign creditors the Polish economy could no longer bear the burden of food price supports. This was accompanied by acute food shortages.

The firing of some workers who openly expressed their discontent and the arrest of others at the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard unleashed the pent-up fury of Polish workers. A strike committee was formed at the Gdansk shipyard, which was occupied by workers, and a strike was called. There followed a quick series of strikes accompanied by occupations at other facilities in Gdansk and in other cities of northern Poland. A coordinating central strike committee was then formed in order to unify the efforts of all strikers in the region.

Strikes and occupations soon spread throughout the country. Eventually the Polish state was forced to concede and to conduct negotiations with the workers’ representatives. The Gierek government fell and the movement of organized discontent even affected the ranks of Poland’s communist party, the Polish United Workers Party (PUWP).

From this series of strikes there arose a single union open to all Polish workers, now called Solidarity. This was an independent union, which exhibited evidence of direct and democratic control by its rank and file. It quickly demonstrated the potential to become a parallel authority to both the official state unions and the bureaucratic state itself in some instances.

Some of the key demands raised by Solidarity were: (1) for recognition of the independent union; (2) for the right to strike; (3) for an end to all privileges (such as special stores) for government officials, party functionaries and the police; (4) for recognition of the union’s right to control its own press; (5) for access to the media for those critical of the government; (6) for access to the media by all churches; (7) for release of all political prisoners; (8) for relaxation of all limitations on freedom of speech; (9) for limitations on the size of the police forces and the prosecutorial agency of the state; (10) for a guarantee that there would be no retaliation against any striker and that all strikers would receive full pay for the period of the strike; and (11) for a voice in the making of production decisions.

Unlike previous uprisings, which were disorganized and violent and which usually focused upon demands for a reversal of government pricing and distribution policies, this one was quite different. It was well organized and supported by the Polish masses. It directed its attacks squarely at both government policies and the undemocratic method by which they were arrived at.

The peasants of Poland, the majority of whom are private landowners, joined in the generalized movement of discontent demanding higher prices for their products and greater control over their marketing practices. Since the privately owned farms of Poland account for over 80 percent of its agricultural production, the peasant movement was a force to be reckoned with. Eventually the peasants formed a farmers’ “union” called Rural Solidarity.

Both Solidarity and Rural Solidarity were compelled to recognize the PUWP as the only legitimate political party in Poland, and to execute assurances that they would confine themselves to the realm of traditional trade union economic issues and avoid the field of political action entirely.

The Roman Catholic Church (the church of over 90 percent of Poland’s people) played a very important role in this crisis and clearly did so for its own reasons. Initially the church supported the workers’ struggle. It later moved into the position of mediator between the workers and peasants and the state. At this point, it began to negotiate its own deal with the state bureaucrats for access to television time and for an increase in building permits for more churches. It then began to urge moderation upon the workers and peasants—a lessening both of demands for changes in state policy and of the militance required to back up those demands.

The Polish church has always been an enormous force in society. During Poland’s long history of foreign domination, the church was the only organized force for Poles in their country. It thus became a nationalist symbol. Of course, it was always aligned with the interests of the autocracy and the military during the period preceding World War II. During the period after the war, when Soviet occupation imposed the PUWP government upon Poland, the church was still strong enough to survive and to prosper.

The Polish state initially vehemently resisted the workers’ demands and tried every means at its disposal to avoid recognizing Solidarity. This did not work and the state bureaucracy was forced to grant most of those demands. It then attempted simply to ignore the agreements that it had made. But this too failed. When the workers resisted, the Polish state, as it had throughout this crisis, raised the specter of Soviet invasion.

The Soviet Union menaced Poland through the issuance of condemnatory and belligerent statements and by threatening an invasion. With the assistance of Warsaw Pact forces allegedly on maneuvers, the Soviet Union ringed Poland with an iron hoop of military forces. And all of this was done in the name of rescuing a “socialist state” from destruction by its own workers. Behind this constant threat was the Soviet record of past invasions into East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

To determine what all of this means to the working class of Poland and the entire world and what it means to the socialist movement, it is necessary to analyze separately the various social and political elements involved in this crisis.

The Workers

There is no question that this movement is a bona fide manifestation of the class struggle. It is clear that the relation of the Polish bureaucracy to the means of production and distribution under state ownership is one of complete control and that as such this relation renders that bureaucracy a ruling class. It is equally clear that Polish workers do not exercise any degree of control or management of state enterprises and that consequently they constitute a distinct class in society.

These observations provide further proof in support of the Socialist Labor Party’s analysis of Soviet-type societies as “bureaucratic state despotisms.” They also confirm Marx’s dictum that the formation of unions is an instinctive defensive reaction by workers against the encroachments of the employing class.

The Solidarity movement is a bona fide organization of the Polish working class insofar as it defends workers’ immediate interests and seeks to limit the Polish state’s control over the means of production. As such, it deserves the support of Socialists everywhere.

However, it must also be noted that this movement has certain severe limitations.

First and foremost among these is its reformist perspective. While it is understood that the menace of violent and speedy Soviet repression makes it difficult and dangerous to advocate revolutionary change openly in Poland, there is no evidence that Solidarity would in any event raise the need for the destruction of the bureaucratic state and its replacement by a socialist order based upon working-class democratic control of the industrial process. Instead, it confines itself to criticizing government policies, is heavily influenced by reformist intellectuals (like Jacek Kuron of the KOR) and led by Lech Walesa, who is closely tied to the church.

The influence of the Roman Catholic Church in this movement is not crystal clear. But there can be no question that its influence can never be anything but pernicious insofar as it acts as a brake upon the militancy of the workers in order to curry favor with the PUWP bureaucracy. The influence of the church in combination with the influence of certain reformist intellectuals will act as a very definite constraint upon this movement, keeping it within the bounds of “communist” society.

Polish nationalism and its effect upon Solidarity is another factor to be considered. This can be a very dangerous element in that it induces the working class to view the ongoing struggle in terms of a Polish vs. Russian conflict, and it gives the church, and even the PUWP, another outlet for influence.

Finally, in considering the weaknesses of Solidarity, one must consider the nature of its leadership, which fully reflects those weaknesses. Lech Walesa—presently the principal officer of Solidarity—apparently lacks any definitive political perspective. He remains closely associated with the church and espouses a reformist-collaborationist line toward the state. The same can be said of other key leaders of this movement. This perspective, and the leadership it reflects, has already begun to take Solidarity down the self-destructive path of class collaborationism.

The Peasants

The peasants of Poland are basically a petty bourgeois element. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church among them is extremely powerful. The demands that they have raised in the course of this crisis evince the limited character of their commitment to this struggle. For example, the Rural Solidarity movement has demanded things like higher prices for agricultural products and the restoration of Catholic religious instruction in the schools.

There is clearly a basic conflict between the material interests of workers and those of peasants, which has been temporarily suppressed because of the need for a class alliance against the Polish state. Eventually this conflict will surface, the class struggle will again assert itself and Polish workers will have to confront the problem of the private ownership of the means of agricultural production just as they will have to confront the state’s ownership of the means of industrial production.

Consequently, this alliance between workers and peasants is solely the product of momentary need that bears a certain risk for the working class. The petty bourgeois and reactionary peasants make untrustworthy allies because it is possible that the state will readily grant them their demands in return for their support against the workers. It would be far easier for the Polish bureaucracy to grant the peasants higher price supports and Catholic education than it would be to allow workers to participate in the decision-making process in the planning of production.

The Polish United Workers Party

The PUWP is a typical Stalinist political formation. It was formed and placed in power by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Poland following World War II. Thus, while it purports to be a working-class political party, the PUWP’s rise to power amounted to an act of imposition and was not the result of any working-class mass struggle. It has become the embodiment of the Polish ruling class: the bureaucracy. And it reflects the interests of that class for the most part.

It is interesting to note, however, that during the height of the most recent crisis there developed a groundswell grassroots movement within the party that has the immediate objective of removing certain party officers and of introducing democratic reforms into the organization.

It is extremely unlikely that the PUWP can be salvaged by the working class and fashioned into an effective weapon of political struggle because of its Leninist foundation and its identification with the Polish state.

Here we encounter the problem of attempting to apply the De Leonist program of political and industrial organization of the working class to a noncapitalist (i.e., bureaucratic statist) society. The De Leonist two-pronged revolutionary organization was designed to meet the political terrain of a capitalist society where the ruling class and the state are separate entities and where the working class needs an organization that can confront the ruling class on both the political and industrial fronts. However, in a bureaucratic state the ruling class (the bureaucracy) and its political state are one. It is the state that owns and controls the industrial process. The one-party dictatorship is an expression of that fact. In short, there is no separation between the political and industrial fields. It can be argued that in such a situation the working class may not need a political party organized independently of its industrial organization. Of course, the workers will require a political organization to develop their political positions, but this may be an integral part of the industrial organization.

The Church

The Polish church had long been a partner with the aristocracy and the military in the repression and exploitation of both the workers and the peasants of Poland. As was noted above, it has shown remarkable resilience in having survived the establishment of the so-called communist regime after World War II.

Because of its influence among the Polish masses, the church is a force to be reckoned with by any workers’ movement. It is an inherently reactionary element in the social, political and cultural makeup of the country and, as such, has great potential to harm any revolutionary movement by affecting its mass base of support. An institution that was at one time the mainstay of a feudal ruling class, and which at another time collaborated successfully with a fascist military regime, and at yet another time survived the formation of a one-party CP dictatorship can never be trusted by any workers’ movement.

The Soviet Union

In the course of this crisis the Soviets have shown their true imperialist colors. But their position in this struggle is much different than the positions they were in during the earlier suppressions of uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Poland (1956) and the invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). In those crises, they adopted the position that their intervention was designed to assist “socialist” forces in the repression of bourgeois uprisings which were aimed at the restoration of capitalism. For example, in Hungary, Soviet troops were sent in to arrest allegedly unreliable and treacherous party leaders and renegade generals who were misleading the masses, and, in Czechoslovakia, they were there to arrest the entire party leadership of the CP because of its alleged attempted restoration of bourgeois democracy.

In this crisis, however, the Soviet bureaucrats may find themselves in the impossible position of having to send in their troops to crush what is obviously and primarily a workers’ movement under the guise of protecting socialism. This is probably one of the key reasons that the Soviet Union has not invaded Poland.

In threatening this workers’ movement with physical repression, however, the Soviet Union has left no doubt as to its ruling-class nature and its imperialist motivation.

Polish Nationalism

The Poles, because of their long and tragic history of foreign domination, have always been an extremely nationalistic people in modern times. This nationalism, of course, has a dangerously reactionary aspect and has previously (during the 1930s) provided the ideological backbone for a Polish fascist movement.

Polish nationalism, however, can also have a temporarily progressive aspect insofar as it has the potential for unleashing an anti-Soviet movement that can draw the masses into conflict with the Polish state—a conflict that transcends its nationalist limitations and moves on to the broader social questions.

We have the Paris Commune as a historical precedent for this kind of movement. It should be kept in mind that the workers of Paris in 1871 were initially motivated by a patriotic fervor, which dissipated during the struggle when they realized who their true enemy was.


In view of the above facts and their analysis, the Socialist Labor Party assembled in convention adopts the following position:

I. The workers of the U.S. and the world should extend full and unqualified support to the workers of Poland in their struggle with the Polish state and Soviet imperialism;

II. Solidarity as the organizational expression of that struggle is also deserving of support by workers everywhere with a full recognition, however, of its serious limitations;

III. The workers of Poland must move Solidarity beyond its present limits and on to the plane of direct class struggle against the bureaucratic ruling class and its political state;

IV. The workers of Poland must break with the PUWP and formulate a political perspective in harmony with an industrial union movement that has the objective of achieving direct worker democratic control over the productive process; and

V. The Polish workers’ movement must recognize the need for a political, economic and social revolution leading to the establishment of a socialist society in Poland.

Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • •

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