Poland’s unfinished revolution

Issue: 147

Andy Zebrowski

Jack M Bloom, Seeing Through the Eyes of the Polish Revolution: Solidarity and the Struggle Against Communism in Poland (Haymarket, 2014), £20


On 31 August 1980 the Polish government was forced to sign an agreement in an occupied shipyard with the leaders of the workers’ movement that was to become known as the 10 million strong union Solidarity (Solidarność).

If you examine the photographs of that historic event two things strike you. The first is the huge, almost comical, pen wielded by Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the workers’ delegation. If you look more closely you can also see, standing in the corner, to the right of the signatories table, a larger than life statue of Lenin. The place was the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk on the Baltic coast. For the workers the Lenin statue was a symbol of their oppression. The person in history who was associated most of all with turning the slogan “All power to the soviets” into reality was being used as a logo for state bosses who were now panic-stricken at the rebirth of soviets. This time they were called ­inter-workplace strike committees (MKS). A revolution was in its first stages.*

Jack M Bloom, a historian of the American civil rights movement, shows us this revolutionary process from the perspective of its participants. His book is based on a series of interviews he conducted in the 1980s—mainly with activists and leaders of Solidarity, but also their opponents in the secret police and government.

Bloom divides the book into three basic sections. In the first he provides a history of the industrial and agricultural development of Poland from the Second World War up to 1980. This section also includes accounts of historic workers’ and student struggles. The centrepiece of the book is, of course, the 16-month period of the Solidarity movement starting from the Gdańsk shipyard occupation and ending with the introduction of martial law in December 1981. The final part deals with the period when Solidarity activists were imprisoned and forced underground, right up to the first partially free elections in June 1989.

Bloom tells us that he: “managed to track down and speak with participants and eye-witnesses to each of the key events before, during and after 1980. Indeed I know of no other study of this movement in Poland that has covered as broad an array of participants from such diverse geographical backgrounds in relation to such historical events” (p16).

His interviews with 150 participants (half of whom are directly cited) are indeed the main strength of the book. From the beginnings of the Solidarity movement we learn that young conscripts in the army were influenced by the workers: “The troops had not been—and often could not be—isolated from these events. Kazimierz Graca, a miner, was serving in the military in Gdynia at the time: ‘We knew everything that was going on because the barracks in which I lived were just opposite the Paris Commune Shipyard. Until 3:00 we listened to official indoctrination, and after 3:00 we got leaflets from the strikers’. Of course, there was always the possibility of bringing in troops who had been less infected by the events on the Baltic Coast from elsewhere in the country. But as intended, as more sites joined the strike, such a strategy became more problematic” (p176).

Bloom shows that from the beginning workers were more determined than many of their intellectual advisers. Writing of the demand for free trade unions he quotes left wing economist and adviser to Solidarity Tadeusz Kowalik: “I did not meet a single striker or delegate who was willing to compromise on this issue” (p162).

It is true that intellectuals in the movement advised caution too often. But it is not true that worker leaders were automatically more radical. One of the best examples of this is the general strike that was to be held on 31 March 1981 but was called off by Lech Wałęsa, a worker. As a result of this Karol Modzelewski, who was not a worker, resigned in disgust from his post as Solidarity spokesperson. The key divisions were political. A Marxist organisation that could unite workers and intellectuals in putting forward a revolutionary strategy was needed.

Bloom rightly sees the March events as a key turning point in the movement. Afterwards workers were never to feel so powerful again. In the run up to the general strike workers had controlled society and the government could not rely on the army.

Bloom writes: “As Onyszkiewicz recalled, workers ‘prepared like they were going to war’. They brought food and sleeping bags to their factories and, in some instances, they prepared weapons.” And: “Aleksander Krzystosiak recalled: ‘We had all the petrol stations under our control, all the phone exchanges, all the cars of all the factories and at that point society was psychologically ready for the final battle with the Communists” (p226).

Since this was the high point of the movement, I would have liked Bloom to have provided more quotes from workers involved in occupations at that time, instead of the less than a page that we get. Nevertheless the examples he provides throughout his history are genuinely ­fascinating.

But for a book whose subtitle is “Solidarity and the Struggle Against Communism in Poland” it is rather strange to say the least that Bloom does not tell us what Solidarity was fighting against. What was this Communism? Bloom does not say (I share the view of this journal that Poland was a bureaucratic state capitalist society).

This becomes more important when we look at the crucial year 1989, when the Polish events were accompanied by revolts in the other Eastern Bloc countries. Suddenly it became clear that Communist Party rule was finished. This change is known in Poland as the “transformation”. Throughout the world it is seen by the mainstream and many on the left as the move from a non-capitalist, socialist or at least partially socialist society to capitalism. What does Bloom think? Referring to the transformation his book ends with these words:

“The new market economy that the government quickly jumped into opened up opportunities for many, especially in the cities, where there is lots of evidence of new wealth. But it has also meant poverty, as the safety nets and social supports were taken away and people were left on their own. The weak and vulnerable suffered, even as others prospered. For those left out of the new system, Communism may still appear enticing. But it is gone for good” (p385).

We are not told what this thing is that may appear enticing and is “gone for good”. But Bloom is right to strike a positive note. It was a step forward to win the right to legal trade unions with the right to strike, elections, a free press and free speech even if these rights are subject to the restrictions we see in any Western capitalist society. Mass unemployment weakened the trade unions in the 1990s but fighting to stop these rights being eroded is necessary—they are not trivial.

Not to be too pedantic but I noticed three important errors. The author refers to the invasion of Hungary instead of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (p9). He also says Polish troops joined the USSR in crushing the Hungarian uprising of 1956 (p52). They didn’t: Poland was almost invaded itself at the time and the Polish army was seen as unreliable. There had been a workers’ uprising in the Polish city of Poznan earlier in the year and the Hungarian Revolution was itself sparked by a demonstration in solidarity with events in Poland. Bloom states that even before Lech Wałęsa’s presidency “the entire Soviet empire imploded” and “all the nations under Soviet domination since World War II went their own way” (p380). Not quite. Wałęsa became president in December 1990; the dissolution of the USSR took place in December 1991.

Something more must be said, however. The transformation of 1989 was neither an advance nor a retreat in terms of the continued capitalist exploitation of workers. Indeed, the transformation allowed an increase in exploitation.

Although it was first published in 2013, the book reads as though it was written 20 years ago. Bloom cites literature from the 1980s extensively, including Polish language texts, but in the references section there is not much from the 1990s and hardly anything from after the turn of the century.

For a book based on accounts from eyewitnesses to historic events it is a pity that Bloom did not interview people who were involved in trying to build a radical left at the end of the 1990s. He does cite Jóżef Pinior, one of the leaders of underground Solidarity in the 1980s, but does not mention that at the time of the transformation Pinior regarded himself as a Marxist and then, briefly, became a Trotskyist. He also set up the Socialist Political Centre to attract people to a revolutionary outlook. The young people who created the Polish Socialist Party—Democratic Revolution (PPS-RD) which Pinior was involved with are also not mentioned. This grouping of some 150 young people was formed by activists involved in the two strike waves in 1988. These strikes forced the government to legalise Solidarity and set up the round table talks where the first partially free elections were agreed.

In December 1988 the PPS-RD organised a 15,000-strong demonstration in Wrocław under the slogan “Jaruzelski must go” (army general Wojciech Jaruzelski had introduced martial law in 1981 and was still Poland’s leader). A month earlier they had greeted Margaret Thatcher with leaflets entitled “Work and bread for Polish and British miners”.

What kind of society could Solidarity have created? In 1980-81 most hoped for a Poland with a legal trade union movement which could lead to a steady improvement in conditions. In 1989 they realised they could have a parliamentary democracy and were persuaded that if they exercised restraint and suffered increasing poverty and unemployment, the result after only a few years would be a society with living standards equal to the best in the West. After 25 years many Polish workers are indeed “enjoying” Western living standards—some 2 to 3 million of them have emigrated in search of work.

In the 1980s workers needed, in order to eradicate exploitation, a revolutionary strategy based on Leon Trotsky’s permanent revolution which links the fight for democratic rights with the replacement of capitalist class rule by workers’ democracy. Today in Poland as elsewhere a revolutionary strategy is still needed and so, therefore, is revolutionary organisation. Read this book for an inspiring account of events, but you’ll need to complete the analysis.

* It is not true that nobody in Solidarity understood the connection between soviets and the MKS. At a meeting in Warsaw in 1990 I remember asking one of its leaders, Andrzej Gwiazda, if the MKS were soviets. He replied: “Of course.” But it is one thing for some people to have known that, quite another to want to turn that historical link into a revolutionary programme of action. Remember, Poland was in an imperialist bloc dominated by a state known misleadingly as the Soviet Union.

See Andy Zebrowski and others, “Solidarity at the Crossroads”, International Socialism 41 (Winter 1988).

For a brief summary of the 16 months of Solidarity in 1980-81 see Colin Barker, “25 Years Ago: The Rise of Solidarnosc” (International Socialism 108). For more extensive accounts see Colin Barker and Kara Weber, “Solidarność: From Gdansk to Military Repression” (International Socialism 15), and Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81 (Bookmarks, 1986); Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, 1945-83 (Bookmarks).

For the “transformation” of 1989 see Chris Harman, “The Storm Breaks: The Crisis in the Eastern Bloc” (International Socialism 46) and Alex Callinicos The Revenge of History—Marxism and the East European Revolutions (Polity).