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Poland After the Uprising

It is always fine weather for the first of May parades in Poland, just as it always pours with rain for the Church’s festival of Corpus Christi. The weather man on television, a habitual optimist who always wears sunglasses, said he would eat his umbrella if a drop of rain fell in Poland on the first. None fell. The enormous Warsaw crowd ambled past the new Party leaders for three hours in its spring clothes. Yet this was a new kind of May Day parade. There were no portraits of the Party and state leaders; Edward Gierek and his men had discouraged them. Instead portraits of the distinguished and sometimes controversial dead wobbled past the tribune: Rosa Luxemburg, Kostrzewa, and some of the other prewar Party figures executed by Stalin, Swierczewski, who commanded in Spain, even Kosciuszko.

There was none of the cheerleading which the loudspeakers used to bawl down at the crowds, and the slogans themselves have changed. Some saluted the eternity of Polish-Soviet friendship. Most were a somewhat dazed effort to summarize the cataract of words about efficiency and productivity and hard work which has been pouring down on the nation since the rising of workers in December. “Conscientious Work is the Expression of Patriotism” said one, and “Automation is the Foundation of Productivity” said another, carried by Polytechnic students.

But there was a difference between the students and the workers which caught one’s eye; while the students and youth movement (ZMS) contingents had been efficiently marshaled and provided with mass-produced placards, some of the factory crews had made their own. The men and women from the Zeran car works brought cartoons mocking the muddles on the assembly line or the queues in the canteen. With their children riding on their shoulders, they stopped for minutes at a time in front of the tribune to stare and grin at Gierek and the “new men,” and to wave.

The old, fierce slogans about West German militarism and revanchism have disappeared without trace. Only in one place in Warsaw, on the little palace which houses the veterans’ organization (ZBoWiD), there hung a sullen banner proclaiming that “we do not forgive, we do not forget, the crimes of the Hitlerites….” ZBoWiD is one of the power bases of Mieczyslaw Moczar, once apparently the most powerful man in Poland and the leader of the nationalist, “anti-Zionist” campaign which Le Monde delicately used to call “les forces montantes.”

Moczar is now, by all the signs, descending. A heart attack removed him to the hospital in April, and his functions as Central Committee secretary responsible for security have been given to the relatively unknown Stanislaw Kania. In Kania, described as “a decent man” by acquaintances, Gierek has acquired somebody young enough and unscarred enough to be dependent upon him; he has begun the tricky process of bringing the whole security apparatus back under effective Party control.

The anti-Zionist campaign itself, that grotesque hounding of “cosmopolitan” Jews who were deliberately cast as scapegoats for all the failures and frustrations of recent years, had effectively died down long before December, but not before it had purged talented men and women from every department of public life—the universities, journalism, and the diplomatic service were among the worst hit—and driven thousands of Poles of Jewish origin into immigration. Today, although there is no official condemnation of the campaign, there is among many Poles a bitter awareness of the damage it did to Poland’s international reputation and a hope—expressed in private—that some of those who left might return. The campaign failed to spread active anti-Semitism among ordinary Poles, who now tend to regard it as something of a national humiliation.

Poland in the spring of 1971 is a different country, but not yet a new country. Ears are still ringing from the blast of the December explosion, and the subsidiary eruptions of January and February. There are still vibrations. Nobody can be sure, yet, what is safe to do and how much strain the fabric will take.

Between December and February, Poland experienced the first working-class insurrection to achieve even partial success in a socialist country. In Gdansk the shipyard workers sang the Internationale as they stormed the district Party headquarters. In Szczecin, the strike committee in the Warski shipyard developed into a “Szczecin Commune” which kept order in the city and organized power supplies during the general strike. This was not a Catholic or a nationalist affair; it was directed neither against the relationship with the Soviet Union nor against the Party. It was the maturity and steadiness of this workers’ movement, even more than the tragedy of the scores and perhaps hundreds who died, which made it formidable and historic.

In Poland I found little inclination to reflect on the meaning of December for international socialism. The explosion tends to be seen as a catastrophe which brought much good with it and in which there are matters to be proud of, but a catastrophe nevertheless. The blindness and obstinacy of Gomulka’s leading group brought Poland to the point at which elementary human needs could only be bought with human lives. The independence of the nation, so dangerously won in 1956, was brought into question. The reaction to December was not exultation but anger and a sense of shame.

I talked all through the night with strangers,” a friend said. “I met industrial workers for whom it wasn’t the rise in meat prices which hurt—it was the rise in the price of lard. It was lard, on bread, which was their main fat source. I met a Warsaw bus driver who was working eighty hours a week and had been too tired to make love to his wife for longer than he could remember; to keep level with the new prices, he would have been working ninety hours.” Only in the following months, when the old clique had gone and the planning for recovery had begun, did it become clear how profoundly demoralized and misgoverned Polish society had been during the previous few years.

It has remained the style to write of Edward Gierek as an efficient organizer, even after the Sixties obliterated his image as one of those “unpolitical technocrats” whom the Western European press expected to do so much in Eastern Europe. The relative prosperity of industrial Upper Silesia, which Gierek ran as his own Party fief for so many years, certainly testifies to his efficiency. It does not imply that Gierek despises politics, or is easily seduced by a computer. Somebody who knows him said: “Gierek is actually a much more emotional man than Gomulka. He is susceptible. It was Gomulka who produced instant decisions, who came to behave mechanically.”

Gierek is a large, pallid man with gray hair en brosse, and small and watchful eyes. His speaking voice is sonorous, with a rolling exhorting rhythm which has something Gaullist about it. He spent twenty-two years in the West, in the grim, rainy coalfields of Picardy and southern Belgium. He has tried to give the miners of Silesia the kind of security and confidence for which their comrades in Lens or the Bassin du Centre still struggle. To do so, he has had to use enough political skill to keep the instant-decision-makers of Warsaw at arm’s length.

His resolve is to raise the Polish standard of living by 25 percent in five years, by whatever means are necessary. This in itself is a highly political decision. There can be no free play of market forces, or “natural growth.” Gierek talks about “centralization of planning and decentralization of authority.” A beginning has already been made. The wage rise and the cancellation of price increases have been followed by Politburo directions which alter the whole industrial strategy away from new heavy industry projects in new regions and toward concentrated investment in consumer industries in existing centers.

Only 70 percent of the investments planned by Gomulka for this year will be carried through; wherever a project has only begun or does not promise rapid returns, work on it will stop. Instead, Gierek is trying to introduce the “Silesian” system of full three-shift capacity into the rest of Poland, into Warsaw where machines run on an average of only eleven hours in twenty-four. The capital suddenly needs 30,000 more skilled workers, and the Soviet Union will help to supply the necessary extra housing for them. Stores kept open at night and morning TV programs, which Gierek provided for the night-shift workers of Katowice in Silesia, will spread to Warsaw.

The boldest innovations are in agriculture, and it is here that the Poles are most alert for whispers of criticism from the Soviet Union. Polish agriculture reverted to the peasants in 1956. Seen from the air, the lean strips of the Masovian plains seem a mosaic of many-colored matchsticks. Townspeople plagued by food shortages imagine the peasants stuffing their mattresses with hundred-zloty notes, but the farmers themselves—and the new leaders in Warsaw are increasingly of peasant origin—know that life on five hectares is often brutish and short. Gierek has now abolished the system of compulsory delivery quotas to the state, and he is going further: an efficient farmer will be encouraged to acquire the land of a less efficient one. More productive agriculture in a free market should solve the food problem, while a fresh supply of labor from abandoned holdings would enter the cities to work in heavy industry. At one leap, Poland has come close to the Western European agrarian economy created by the Mansholt Plan, in which small-holding farmers have been condemned to slow extinction.

For the future, there is the Commission. Poland has called a court of inquiry into itself, in the form of ten teams of experts assembled by the Politburo to study “the directions of modernization of the functioning of the economy and state as a whole.” Everything, including the role and rights of radio, press, and television, will be studied, and reports will be submitted in a few months’ time to be circulated—it is hoped—as documentation for the crucial Sixth Congress of the Party at the end of the year. The members of the Commission include some of the most able people in Poland; the educational commission under Professor Szczepanski is already said to be considering a single-school comprehensive system from the ages of seven to seventeen, and the doubling of the university population. The committee on media is weighing the notion of a censorship whose existence and rights are defined by law.

Will the reports of these commissions be adopted in whole or in part, and will they be published? Nobody can be sure. There are some discouraging precedents. In the late Sixties the reports of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences fell on the deaf ears of Novotny; and the vogue in Poland after 1956 for employing sociologists in the economy produced little more than Professor Ossowski’s gloomy remark that “the relation of the state to the sociologist is that of the drunk to the lamp-post: it wants support, not light.” In general, the question of how far good ideas and innovation can make headway against the tangled reality of politics raises a more fundamental problem of the Polish situation today: the problem of confidence.

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