A phone-in programme on a London commercial radio station; Mike Dickin — the interviewer—invites a caller from the Home Counties to have her say. “If you ask me”, she says, “these militant trade unionists in Poland are being whipped up by the Communists”.
The interviewer is confused: “But it’s the Communists they’re striking against”, he informs her. “Yes, it’s definitely the Communists”, she says, without listening ,to a word (as is the tradition on phone-ins). “These Communists have no respect for other people’s property”. Mr. Dickin verbally scratches his head: “But the Communists own the property. And it belongs to everyone. And . . .".
And there we must leave the poor man, suffocating in his own ideological vapour. Had he been a regular reader of the New Communist Party’s weekly paper, The New Worker, the headline on the front of the 22 August 1980 edition would have added to his confusion: “COMMUNISTS SLAM DGANSK WRECKERS” it said, and then went on to explain that “Irresponsible individuals, anarchic and anti-socialist groups are attempting to exploit work stoppages in the Gdansk coastal region of Poland for their own ends”. And just to make clear quite how much. “Communists” are opposed to strikes, the article goes on to quote the Prime Minister of People’s Poland (sic), Edward Gierek:
Strikes will not change anything for the better here. On the contrary, they multiply the difficulties in the supplies and production, they disturb the normal life of our society.
To some this may seem odd: here is Mr. Gierek, a so-called Communist, opposing strikes much the same as Margaret Thatcher, who says that she is an out and out supporter of capitalism. But then, Thatcher is not always opposed to striking workers, for it was she who was telling the gin and tonic brigade at the Tory Conference last October how much she admired and supported the Polish strikers. The TUC would be delighted if such enthusiasm could be mustered by the government when British workers go on strike. But then, the TUC is not exactly unambiguous when it comes to striking workers in Poland.
Long before the workers of Gdansk had the audacity to go on strike against their dictators, the Polish government-run CRZZ (Polish Central Council of Trade Unions) had invited a delegation of TUC chiefs to visit the Stalinist Paradise and see state capitalism in action. But when the Gdansk workers started getting bolshie, questions were asked about whether the TUC team should go.
While hacks like David Basnett spoke at the TUC Conference in Brighton about the “recent distressing events in Poland", others diplomatically wrote out a resolution saying that the TUC delegation should go to Poland, but must call in and pay regards to the lads in Gdansk while they were there. The CRZZ go: to hear of this and the trip was cancelled. So, to put it all into perspective, Thatcher cheered the struggling Polish toilers, Gierek told them to go back work for the sake of the nation, the CRZZ supported the employers against the strikers and the TUC attacked Thatcher for not supporting workers —while some of them praised Gierek for being a great friend of the working class.
It is not confusion which led to so many people saying things at one moment which they condemned at another, it is the hypocrisy of a system which gives power to the few on the condition that they are able to deceive the majority. Poland is part of the capitalist system, the difference between it and Britain being that in the former the means of wealth production and distribution are owned and controlled by the state, whereas in the latter they are owned partly by private shareholders and partly by the state.
The hallmark of capitalism is that those who produce all the wealth—the working class—are exploited during the course of production by an owning class who pay them less than the value of what they produce. The profit which the employer obtains is the main objective of production. So, when workers ask for higher wages the employer must resist such claims in order to defend that profit. The inevitable antagonism between the worker—who needs wages in order to live—and the capitalist—who receives rent, interest and profit—manifests itself in a continuous class struggle.
As long as there is class ownership of the means of living this class struggle cannot be eradicated, in spite of the pretence that workers and capitalists have a common interest. In the state capitalist countries of Eastern Europe this pretended unity between classes is given the label "socialism”. Just as Hitler called bus fascist regime “National Socialist”, so the Party bureaucrats who live off the profits in state capitalism have created the ideological illusion that they have socialism. There is a class division in the so-called Communist countries, but some workers in the West have misguidedly been taken in by the claims of the rulers.
Since the war
To understand recent events in Poland it is necessary to consider the country’s history. The workers of Poland faced some of the worst atrocities of Nazi rule during the Second World War. In the Warsaw Rising of 1944 the section of the Polish Resistance which not only opposed Nazism, but also rejected the Moscow-instigated National Home Council, headed by Bolestaw Bierut, was massacred. In July 1944 the National Home Council became the Committee of National Liberation; in June 1945 this became the Provisional Government of National Unity, which declared Poland a “People’s Democracy”.
That not all of the Polish people wanted their new Stalinist-imposed government was demonstrated by the armed resistance to it which lasted until 1947. In January 1947 a “Democratic Alliance”, comprising the Communist Party of Poland and the Socialist Party of Poland, won 9 million out of 12.7 million votes in the last election that Poland has had in which more than one party was allowed to stand. After the election the leader of the opposition Polish Peasants’ Party was exiled and the Socialist Party consumed by the Stalinist Communist Party.
For ten years the Poles, having got rid of the Nazis, then suffered all the dictatorial repression of a Stalinist regime. In 1956 there began a brief period of “de-stalinisation” following the deaths of Stalin and Bierut. This liberalising of the regime was partly in response to demonstrations by workers in Poznan in June 1956. The new Prime Minister, Wladyslaw Gomulka —who had been imprisoned by Bierut in the 1940s for being too “liberal” — was no friend of the Polish workers when they voiced any objections to the dictatorship which he headed.
In 1968 a wave of student demonstrations, which demanded freedom of speech and publication, was suppressed and several of the prominent participants were imprisoned. In December 1970 workers in the Baltic ports went on strike in protest at increasing food prices. They demanded the right to organise in their own unions so as to negotiate with the government over wages—a right they were denied by the government, which said that if the workers wanted to negotiate they should do so through the government controlled unions!
When the Baltic workers refused to accept the government’s answer and organised demonstrations through the streets of Gdansk, the government responded by sending in their uniformed thugs— the “People’s Army" —with instructions to shoot down anyone who disturbed their law and order. Fifty-five Polish workers paid with their lives. Again, in July 1976 workers demonstrated against increased food prices and were violently suppressed. There is nothing new about such a reaction by the ruling class at times of working class dissent. In 1819 workers in Manchester were murdered on the streets when they posed a threat to the dictatorship of their masters. The same in 1834 in Tolpuddle when workers were deported for joining a union. The uniforms of the state bully-boys may be different, but it is all the same class struggle.
On 1 July 1980 the Polish government increased the price of meat. With queues in the shops, chronic shortages of basic requirements facing most working class families and rumours everywhere that Communist Party officials were stockpiling commodities and gaining privileged access to them, the patience of the Polish workers expired. In a spontaneous demonstration of concern for their material interests, reminiscent of the strikes which spread throughout Tsarist Russia in February 1917, the workers began to fight back. This time they were careful not to fall victim to the guns of the state dictatorship; they realised that the first step to liberation must be the organisation of their own, democratic trade unions. Bernard Guetta, who was in Gdansk throughout the summer of 1980, reported in Le Monde what he saw:
Talking to six strikers sitting in the sun, we soon gather a crowd. When one of them answers, they all voice their approval. “Why are you on strike?” “When things are going that badly, you have to. Meat queues, unions that never do a thing for us, the government always lying and deceiving us—that’s enough! We’re not allowed discussion, we have no information, if we’re politically active we always have to suffer for it.” “What do you hope to achieve?” “Concrete improvements.” “What would be the most important?” “First the free trade unions, then the question of food and wages. We must have unions that are prepared to defend us.” (19/8/80).
The union which these workers established, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), was a well-organised and democratic union of workers, who deserve the support and admiration of the workers of the world. Guetta reports a typical instance of their democratic practice which could serve as an example to trade unionists in Britain:
At 5 p.m. the talks with management are resumed at the Lenin yard. In the big coference room, under the central gaze of Vladimir Illyich on his pedestal, the Director and his assistant directors face 110 delegates representing 17,000 of their comrades. Twenty of them are members of the strike committee and known militants of long standing. The others were elected in their own shops and are novices. Outside, with the benefit of loudspeakers, the rank and file do not miss a word, and since the amplification works both ways, their comments are heard in the negotiation room. Disagreement is soon established: the management refuse to grant any more than 1,200 zlotys and the workers want the 2,000 they asked for. A few moments later, an appeal for reason by the Prime Minister is not even listened to. “I’ve better things to do than listen to all this twaddle again,” mutters one worker. (Le Monde, 19/8/80)
The question is, will the limited victory of the Polish workers lead to “better things”? That there has been a victory — albeit possibly temporary — is beyond doubt. The workers have won the right to form independent trade unions. By November 1980 “Solidarity had at least 10 million members in a country of 35 million.” (Sunday Times, 18/1/81) Dissident groups like the Polish Committee for Self-Defence (KOR) are now able to operate openly, which means that any genuine socialists in Poland would now be in a position to organise in the open. There are presently between twenty and forty anti-government publications in Poland and “some books and periodicals are being reprinted abroad and smuggled back to Poland, together with books written and signed by writers and essayists living in Poland, but openly published in emigre presses.” (Tadeusz Szafar, in Survey, Winter 1980). Copies of a statement from the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Great Britain have been translated into Polish and sent to the strike committees. Political questions are once again being discussed in the factories, farms and streets of every Polish town and village. For all of that to have happened in an East European state capitalist country is a victory which should not be ignored.
The main lesson that Polish workers must learn is that they are operating under capitalism To win the final battle they must understand how the system works. Some of the Polish rebels have naively assumed that they are living in a socialist society and that their troubles would be over if only they could transform Poland into a western-style capitalist state. They are often strengthened in this belief by the so-called intellectuals.
Poland is also a staunchly Catholic country: 80 per cent of Poles follow the ignorant superstitions of the Polish Pope. It is vital for the Polish workers that at all time they substitute a concern for their own material advantage for their religious beliefs. In the early days of the British labour movement vaguely socialist ideas were mixed with religious ideals, but in time the latter declined. Similarly, it is encouraging to note that when the strikes were in full swing in Poland “even an appeal by the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszinski, could not get the strikers back to work.” (Guardian 1/9/80)
The Polish working class must learn that strikes can only be a limited defence weapon within capitalism. Working class problems cannot be solved by trade unionism. The Polish nation may be likened to a large trading company, with the state bureaucracy the board of directors. As with any capitalist board, it can only concede to the workforce as much as is profitable for the smooth running of the company. As a trading company, Poland has major economic difficulties. It owes over 20 billion dollars to the West as a result of importing equipment and technology:
Poland . . . now occupies tenth place in world, and sixth place in European, industrial production . . . If this growth is to be sustained, a prerequisite will be efficient and uninterrupted production. The last few months, however, have seen widespread industrial unrest in Poland, and at one point workers were on strike in over fifty plants and factories throughout the country. And the upshot of this has been a 15% pay rise granted to workers — which will cost the government an estimated £60 million. (Industrial Purchasing News, September 1980)
Increased productivity and increased profitability matters more to the defenders of Polish capital than the needs of the working class. The Polish coal industry is a good illustration of this. In 1979 Poland exported 41.4 million tons of coal, amounting to 20 per cent of all the country’s production; 26 million tons was exported to the West. British imports of Polish coal increased by 50 per cent, and 70 per cent of the coal used by the British Steel Corporation was imported from Poland “on straightforward grounds of price and quality.” (Industrial Purchasing News, September 1980). In August 1980 thousands of coal miners in the Silesian region followed the example of the Gdansk shipbuilders and went on strike. One of their main demands was for improved mine safety:
The number of mines on strike has nearly doubled after an underground accident at the Halemba Colliery, near Katowice, in which eight miners were killed and eighteen injured. The accident is the latest in a series of mine disasters in southern Poland which have caused the deaths of sixty miners over the last year . . . Many miners blame declining safety standards on a new shift system introduced last year with the aim of ensuring a continuous 24-hour operation at the coalface. Critics of the new system claim that proper maintenance and repair of the mines have been sacrificed to increased production. (Guardian, 3/9/80)
The Polish ruling class, like their counterparts in the West, will go to any lengths to increase production, export more and pay their creditors. If this interferes with the well-being of the miners who dig the coal out of the ground it is too bad. Meanwhile, the workers want more pay and better conditions. This is class struggle. In the short-term it is useful to the workers to form trade unions and negotiate with their bosses, but such negotiations will never resolve the fundamental antagonism between wage labour and capital.
Nearly three quarters of all land in Poland is owned by peasants, who produce about 80 per cent of all Polish foodstuffs. For 35 years they have successfully resisted the State’s attempts to collectivise the land. As long as production for the market continues, the land-owning peasants will resist the workers’ desire for cheap food. The Polish government has three problems: how will it increase production, feed the workers and pay its creditors? Like any capitalist government, it will fail. Some Western economists have suggested that the EEC countries should give financial aid to the Polish ruling class. The USA has already invested 3 billion dollars in Polish industry. All that this shows is that capitalists of the world, despite national and ideological divisions, have a common interest.
The Polish rulers fear the class consciousness of their subjects no less than Thatcher, Reagan and Brezhnev do. Nothing hurts a capitalist so much as a worker who is beginning to think. Predictably, they offer reforms in order to pacify their wage slaves:
The Party . . . will fight against transgressions of social justice and it will tackle the reforms of the economic system. (Polityka, the Polish CP weekly paper)
We’ve all heard that promise before. And we’ve all heard this one too:
The Party, however, rejects the possibility of any compromise with the forces which are against the foundations of our system. (Polityka)
Our system? The capitalist system. The forces which are against it? Socialists or communists — the words have the same meaning. Why are we against it? Because we are workers and capitalism cannot be made to run in our interests. In Poland our fellow workers have won the right to strike. The next step? It is for the workers of all lands to join together in real solidarity, not merely to ask for a bigger slice of the cake, but to take over the bakery.