In 1921, the 10th Congress of the Bolshevik Party succeeded in choking a young voice—the voice of the Workers’ Opposition, a small group inside the party which called for direct control of workers over industries, introduction of a more egalitarian policy in wages, freedom of criticism for the workers, fight against bureaucratic party administra¬tors and recognition of the creative initiative of the pro¬letariat.
About 60 years later, voicing the same demands, industrial workers of Poland launched a movement that has led to the creation of ‘Solidarity’—the first independent trade union free of either party or state control in the socialist world. The Workers’ Opposition in Russia was snuffed out by the clouds of smoke from the Red Army cannons that crushed the Kronstadt uprising. Poland’s Solidarity however is still surviving—unsure of its future, operating under the looming shadow of a belli¬gerent Soviet Union ready to march its troops into Poland. Yet it has been successful to some extent in wresting econo¬mic and democratic benefits for Polish workers from a weak and divided government in Warsaw bolstered up by the military.strong>
Solidarity walks a tightrope—pushing its demands to the extent that they do not challenge the supremacy of the Communist Party in the state’s adminis¬tration and its alignment with the Soviet Union. We are watching with interest, waiting to see how far the experiment succeeds in changing relations between the state and the working class in a socialist country, in enabling the workers to run their own lives without the help of the party bureaucracy and outmoded dogmas. Although lacking any alternative theory of socia¬lism, Solidarity has raised certain fundamental questions—questions that go back to the early days of the socialist movement—by raising de¬mands which began with day-to-day problems of Polish workers but which have gone beyond solution within the present orthodox structure of a centrally administered eco¬nomy and party-administered political system. Will the Solidarity experiment become a catalyst for an ideological change in the international working class movement?
The book under review does not go deeply into the ideo¬logical implications of the Solidarity movement. But it is a lucid historical account of the movement, and skirts round some of the theoretical pro¬blems posed by Solidarity. Its biggest contribution lies in putting the movement in its proper perspective— stressing its spontaneous working class origins, the secular and ‘non-political’ (in the sense of not being aligned to any particular political party or trend) character of its leadership, and its efforts to avoid a head-on collision with the Communist party and the government—factors which are often obscur¬ed by reports in the Western press,, which have over-empha¬sized the religious and anti-Soviet aspects of the move¬ment.
The success of Solidarity can¬not De isolated from certain historical factors that are unique to the Polish situation. First, to quote Denis Mac-Shane:
After the war the Com¬munists placed great empha¬sis on schooling. Many of Solidarity’s leaders, still aged only in their twenties and thirties, have had very good schooling that lasted until they were sixteen or eighteen… Poland’s schools have produced a generation of workers much better equipped to question and challenge the organization of economic and social rela¬tions in the country.
Secondly, unlike other East European countries, workers in Poland have a long history of struggle against the state—struggles which have often led to changes in the government. MacShane traces the history of this struggle, from 1956, when a workers’ strike in an engineering plant in Poznan—leading to police firing and death of 50 workers and escal¬ating demands by workers all over Poland for major econo¬mic benefits and greater politi¬cal freedom—was climaxed with the replacement of the old government with the nationalist liberal Communist Wladyslaw Gomulka; through 1968, when Gomulka’s decision to push through food price increases to salvage a crisis-ridden Polish economy sparked off strikes, followed again by army firing ending in massacre of hundreds of workers and leading to the fall of Gomulka, to be replaced by Edward Gierek; through 1976, when Gierek’s decision to increase food prices again provoked a wave of sit-down strikes all over Poland, forcing the government to withdraw the price increases—accompani¬ed, of course, by repression of the workers’ leaders. But, as MacShane points out, Polish workers from their past ex¬perience learnt that ‘they had the power to defend their living standards, by stopping price rises or by gaining wage in-creases.’ It is this experience which helped them to go beyond strikes and introduce in their next phase of struggle two new elements: organization and politics.
Thirdly, the traditional natio¬nal spirit of the Poles—which, always had an anti-Russian twist, because of historical factors like Tzarist domination in the pre-Revolution era, the Stalin-Hitler pact that divided Poland, the decimation of the old Polish Communists in the 1930s by Stalin’s secret police in Moscow and the alleged massacre of Polish army officers by the Red Army immediately after occupation—sustained the Polish workers’ hostility towards a Soviet-backed Com¬munist Party bureaucracy. The Catholic Church in Poland played an important part in this. According to MacShane:
For thirty years the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, represented for many Poles the enduring symbol of their country’s difference, and its refusal to be subjected to Soviet hege¬mony.
The foolhardy Stalinists in Moscow and their ham-hand¬ed agents in Warsaw contribut¬ed their bit to the sustenance of the hold of the Church. MacShane says:
The Communist rulers of Poland, provided the Catho¬lics with something approa-ching the figure of a martyr through their early perse¬cution and imprisonment of Wyszynski.
This brings us to the fourth factor which was conducive to the growth and spread of Solidarity in Poland. Unable to destroy the influence of the Church—which became the centre of the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression—the State was compelled to tolerate it and allow some liberties after the de-Stalinization of 1956. Clubs of the Catholic intelligentsia in Warsaw, Cracow, Wroclaw, Poznan and Torun provided meeting places for non-commu¬nist intellectuals from different disciplines to exchange ideas and forge links. Discussions were not confined to religious topics, but extended to ques¬tions of economics, politics, history and culture.
The tacit concordat bet¬ween the State and the Polish Church created a space, not just for Catholics, but also for lay intellectuals who discussed secular sub-jects….Long before August 1980 (when workers at the Lenin shipyards at Gdansk went on strike demanding the reinstatement of two popular trade union leaders, one of them being Lech Walesa, the future leader of Solidarity; a wage increase; cancellation of meat price rise; and the right to form independent unions, among other things), in the big university towns there already existed an experienc¬ed cadre of intellectuals associated with the Catholic Church which had the ex-perience and the confidence to know that forms of organization and expression independent of the State and Party were perfectly pos¬sible.
What began at Gdansk in August 1980 soon spread to other areas of Poland. A Committee of Free Trade Unions for the Baltic- Coast, formed there in May 1978, set the spark. Walesa, born in 1943 in a small village called Popow between Warsaw and Gdansk, who was working before his dismissal as an elec¬trician in the Lenin shipyards and had been active in trade union politics, was chosen by the workers of Gdansk for negotiations with the govern¬ment. According to Mac¬Shane:
…if one strips away all the excessive Western hero-wor¬ship of Walesa, you find a’ very tough, determined working class representative afraid of no one…equipped with a canny sense of how far to go and which issues to push and which to Jeave alone.
As in the past, the August 1980 upheavals, marked by strikes all over Poland which brought the country’s econo¬my to a standstill, led to a change in the government with Gierek’s stepping down. The Gdansk Agreement, sign¬ed between the striking wor-kers and the Polish govern¬ment on August 31, 1980, had far- reaching consequences. It acknowledged the right of the Polish workers to ‘create new union organizations, which will run themselves,’ to ensure that the ‘right to strike’ is guaranteed by the new trade union law, to see to it that ‘the radio and television as well as the press and publish¬ing houses must offer expres¬sion to different points of view,’ to increase wages gra¬dually and to guarantee other benefits like health services and improved working con¬ditions.
But more important than the wage increases which any¬way evaporated with successive price rises caused by the basic crisis of the Polish economy—was the sense of confidence of the workers in their solidarity, ‘a sense of gaining some power over their own lives.’
Solidarity did not start from scratch. MacShane attaches an important role to the Polish intelligentsia —lawyers, stu¬dents, teachers and artistes—who in 1976 formed the Komited Obrony Robotnikow or KOR (Workers’ Defence Committee) to help workers who had been dismissed from work and the families of the imprisoned through legal and other forms of aid. The KOR and its paper Robotnik had provided a Leftist centre—unlike the Church which was the rallying point of the non-Communists and religious people—for opposition to the establishment. MacShane re¬fers to the tussle between the KOR supporters and the pro-Church people, both of whom are represented in Solidarity. The intellectuals, however, have confined their role in Soli¬darity activities to that of ad-visers with suggestions. The ex¬perience of the past, when in¬tellectual activists had taken over the leadership of trade unions and become bureau¬crats, alienated from the real problems of the workers, still acts as a sobering influence on the KOR people and intellec¬tuals working with Solidarity. This living link between the industrial proletariat and the intellectuals, absent from the 1968 student-dominated move¬ments of Europe, is an impor¬tant source of sustenance to the Polish struggle.
With a wide network of branches, organized around regions rather than industries, Solidarity has been able to rally workers from all fac¬tories in particular regions on specific demands that are often national, thus’ involving workers in wider issues instead of keeping them confined to their plant-level problems. But, as MacShane rightly points out, the future success of Solidarity is bound up with basic economic reforms in Poland, and the
Polish economic crisis—the country is plagued by shortage of raw materials affecting industrial produc¬tion, a shrinking export market and a growing ex¬ternal debt—cannot be solved outside the frame¬work of a general political settlement.
The present Communist gov¬ernment of Poland has been postponing taking a decision on a package of economic re¬forms. Neither Solidarity nor MacShane have touched the more fundamental question; what political change could help Poland to come out from its present economic doldrums? MacShane, an official of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, looks at Solidarity from a purely British trade unionist’s point of view—the ideal of workers collaborating with industrialists in increas¬ing production, without ‘any spectre of class conflict haunt¬ing the relationship. Thus, he thinks:
…part of the reason for the successful growth of post¬war Western capitalism… was the existence of strong trade unions that put firms under constant pressure to produce as efficiently as pos¬sible under the pressure of, constantly rising labour costs.
Should the Polish economy opt for these motivations of a capitalist system? Already in the name of ‘socialization of private means of produc¬tion’ the ruling Communist party in Poland, like its coun¬terparts in the Soviet Union and other East European countries, is running a sort of ‘state capitalism’. To sustain it the Party in Poland now has taken recourse to military rule. Will a new generation of Communists depart from this and dare to allow workers to run the economy?
The Solidarity movement is an important stage in the long history of sporadic uprisings by workers and intellectuals in East Europe against the fail¬ures of an oppressive system that masquerades as socialism. Although the Solidarity lea¬ders take pains to assure the Polish Communist Party that they accept the authority of the Party in administering the country, one wonders how” long they can keep away from challenging the Party which, thanks to its long record of bureaucratic and anti-working class behaviour has forfeited the right to represent the workers. Either the Polish Communists will have to change—giving up their grudging allegiance to Mos¬cow and moving nearer to the national and working class sentiments—or the radical Polish intellectuals will have to come up with an alternative blueprint for changing their society.
Sumanta Banerjee is Delhi-based journalist.