From the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Polish strikers, in forcing the government there to allow them to organise into independent trade unions with the right to strike, have once again exploded the myth that class and class conflict have been abolished in countries like Poland and Russia. They have completely undermined the ideological justification given for their dictatorship by the ruling “communist” parties in these countries. For, if such parties represent and govern on behalf of the working class, as they claim, why have the Polish workers had to set up a separate organisation to defend their interests? And who do they have to defend themselves against, if not some other class on whose behalf the so-called communist and workers’ parties of East Europe really govern?
That Poland is a class-divided society there can be no doubt. One of these classes is easy enough to identify: the working class itself, those obliged to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary in order to live. There is also a class of small peasants and traders, some of whom have in recent years evolved into “zloty millionaires”. But these private capitalists do not own the most important means of production—the factories, the steelworks, the shipyards, the mines and the other places where the bulk of the wealth is produced.
These are monopolised by a group which is more difficult to identify, since, unlike the private capitalists of the West, its members have no legal titles to say that they are the owners. Their monopoly of the means of production is nevertheless just as effective and, as in the West too, rests on control of political power.
Jacek Kuroń, one of today’s prominent Polish dissidents (who was arrested for the umpteenth time during the recent events and only released as part of the strike settlement) called this group, in an open letter he wrote to the Polish Party in 1965 with Karol Modzelewski, “the central political Bureaucracy”. Milovan Djilas, who had himself been a member of this class in Yugoslavia, had previously called it the “new class”. We ourselves would prefer some such term as “state capitalist class”, but the definition given by Kuron and Modzelewski is clear enough:
In our system, the party elite is, at one and the same time, also the power elite; all decisions relating to state power are made by it and, in many cases, at the top of the Party and state hierarchies there exists, as a rule, a fusion of responsible posts. By exercising state power, the Party elite has at its disposal all the nationalised means of production; it decides on the extent of accumulation and consumption; on the direction of investment, on the share of various social groups in consumption and in the national income; in other words, it decides on the distribution and utilisation of the entire social product.(An open letter to the Party, p. 7)
It is to this class that the workers sell their labour power (not labour, as the translation below says) and which exploits them:
To whom does the worker in our country sell his labour? To those who have at their disposal the means of production, in other words to the central political bureaucracy. On account of this, the central political bureaucracy is the ruling class; it has at its exclusive command the basic means of production; it buys the labour of the working class; it takes away from the working class by force and economic coercion the surplus product and uses it for purposes that are alien and hostile to the worker in order to strengthen and expand its rule over production and society. (P. 15)
The same state capitalist system which exists in Poland also exists in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Albania and other such countries. There too the means of production are monopolised collectively by a “Party-state power elite” which exploits the working class.
The striking workers of Poland have achieved an important victory. For the first time the rulers of a state capitalist country have been forced to recognise an independent workers’ organisation and to negotiate wages and conditions with it. There have of course been strikes and riots in state capitalist countries before, including in Russia itself, which have compelled the authorities to make concessions over wages and conditions. This is what happened in Poland in 1956, in 1970 and in 1976, but at the price of the deaths of a number of workers shot down by a government supposedly ruling in their interests. The formation and recognition of a permanent workers’ body to negotiate with the ruling class represented by the authorities, however, represents a new advance in trade union consciousness.
The joint strike committee which coordinated the general strike in the Gdansk area (where at least fifty workers were shot when the unrest of 1970 was suppressed) was an embryo trade union and demonstrated a fairly high degree of trade union consciousness. Learning the lesson of the strikes and riots of 1956, 1970 and 1976 which achieved wage increases and other concessions, but left the workers without any means to defend them, the committee put the recognition of a permanent workers’ economic defence organisation before the demand for a wage increase. And, by their determination and with the support and solidarity of workers in other parts of the country, they achieved this aim. The strike committee also seems to have realised that the “workers councils” set up in Poland after 1956 and still existing in Yugoslavia were no substitute for an independent trade union. In fact such councils are only a trap to get workers to participate in their own exploitation and the ruling class of Yugoslavia must be just as worried by the Polish developments as those in the other state capitalist countries of Eastern Europe.
Poland already has organisations called “trade unions” but these are not formed to defend wages and working conditions, but state institutions, along the lines of Hitler’s Labour Front, for controlling and disciplining workers. Their leaders are full members of the “Party-state power elite”, enjoying the same bloated salaries, special shops, housing, prizes and the likes as other members of the privileged class in Poland. Let it be said in passing that the attitude of the General Council of the TUC in Britain in maintaining relations with these so-called “unions” (as indeed with other similar organisations in other state capitalist countries) was quite disgraceful, and perhaps revealing of the aspiration of the TUC leaders to win the same sort of privileged state positions as enjoyed by those they evidently feel to be their opposite numbers in Poland.
What has happened in Poland was predictable—and will happen sooner or later in other state capitalist countries too—since, as we have always held, no dictatorship, however totalitarian or brutal, can permanently suppress working class consciousness. Trade unionism is an inevitable product of capitalism, arising out of the very social situation of the workers under it, as wage and salary earners forced to sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. They are also forced by the same economic necessity to try to sell their labour powers at as high a price as possible—and sooner or later come to realise that “unity is strength”, that it is better to band together and collectively negotiate a price with the employers than to let them fix it unilaterally, as happened in most industries in Britain in the last century and as still happens in all state capitalist countries today—except, now, in Poland.
But trade union consciousness, necessary though it is, is far from being the same as socialist consciousness. It is no more than a recognition that the workers need an organisation to try to ensure the sale of their labour powers on the best terms that market conditions permit. To be a good trade unionist you don’t need to be a socialist and in fact, by all-accounts, the Gdansk strikers were Polish patriots and devout Catholics. This did not prevent them adopting the right tactics to win an important concession from their state capitalist masters, but it almost certainly means that they will make mistakes in the future. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether the Catholic Church will try to take over the new independent unions through some organisation like “Catholic Action” in this country.
Trade unions are no threat to the continuance of capitalism, not even to the state capitalist regimes in countries like Poland and Russia. Trade unions are in a sense useful, even to capitalist employers, as a means of channelling workers’ discontent in an orderly and peaceful way, as some of the more intelligent members of the Polish ruling class have come to realise (or have been forced to realise). Their counterparts in Russia seem to be more shortsighted but then no ruling class has conceded the right to organise and strike except under pressure from its workers. And until the workers in Russia react the ruling class there can be expected to maintain its repressive attitude.
Congratulations, then, to our fellow workers in Poland on winning the right to organise independently. But they must realise that trade union action, though necessary, Is essentially only defensive and that if they don’t want to keep running fast just to stand still (which, we fully appreciate, is not so bad as falling back because you are not allowed to run fast) then they must think in terms of acting in conjunction with their fellow workers in other countries to abolish the wages system.