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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.

Alexander Wielopolski, who ran Poland for Tsar Alexander II, said that “one can sometimes do something for the Poles, but with the Poles—never!” His attempt at enlightened despotism ended in public executions and the January Rising of 1863. The fall of Gomulka recalled the Wielopolski fallacy: without the confidence and cooperation of the working class and at least part of the intelligentsia, reform can become repression. But between Gierek and any uninhibited mobilization of the Poles into a reform movement, there stand a number of obstacles.

The first is the state of the Party, the question of power. The new leadership has already made many changes, and many younger men near the top whose exasperation with the previous regime led them into flirtation with Moczar have now thrown their weight behind Gierek. There remains however a nucleus of “hard men,” like the Warsaw city secretary Józef Kepa, ready to denounce nascent “Dubcekism.” To them, what should happen is “the completion of March.” Translated, this means the revival of the disciplinarian, nationalist movement which nearly unseated Gomulka after the student riots of March, 1968. Their influence is not easy to estimate, but they have no real program and little if any support either at home or “abroad,” in the Soviet Union.

The army also remains an uncertain quantity; the events of December, when certain commanders seem to have disobeyed Gomulka’s orders to intervene, won it a degree of political independence, and therefore influence. Gierek’s full authority over the Party will not be established until the Sixth Congress gives him a fresh and overwhelmingly reliable Central Committee. Czechoslovakia showed the danger for any provincial magnate, whether from Silesia or Slovakia, who tries to go over the heads of an unreformed Central Committee in the capital and appeal directly to popular feeling.

The second problem is the ingrained caution of the intellectuals. Decimated and demoralized by the persecutions of the last Gomulka years, neither the writers nor the journalists are anxious to take chances. The climate has eased greatly, and a new spirit is emerging—the rude old journalist Kisielewski again teases the mighty from his column, the film-makers are laying new plans, the expatriate poets and directors are drifting back from abroad. But, as someone has said, “You can give people a knife and fork, but then they have to learn to use them.”

Nobody expects or even clamors for the lifting of censorship. At the same time, and Gierek had said this too, a program of decentralizing authority and encouraging every Pole to use his own responsible judgment cannot work without a freer and more critical flow of information. In its reporters and commentators, who are more vigorous and sophisticated, when given their head, than in other socialist countries, Poland has a natural resource as important as its coal or copper.

There remain the workers. People are proud of them, but also afraid of them. They are honored for their courage, their openness, their tenacity and discipline during the critical months after the outbreaks in the north; for every week they stood firm and maintained their strike committees, the speed of the reform movement accelerated in the new Party leadership. They are feared, because they know their power and they might use it again. It was not only the private cognac hoard of the Szczecin first secretary which the workers smashed on the pavement; it was the whole apparatus of “substitution” through which a few thousand Party functionaries impersonated the workers and came to believe in their own impersonation. Everybody in Poland knows, in his heart, that what the workers did and demanded predicated the sort of socialist development which the Soviet Union has not experienced since the Twenties and does not intend to experience again, either at home or close by.

Meanwhile, the factories have been kept out of the news since the big textile workers’ strike at Lódz in February. But some news trickles through, giving a picture of constant small stoppages or threats of stoppage to win limited points like bonus reform, fairer distribution of company housing, proper clothes lockers.

Everywhere the local Party and trades union committees in the factories are changing their leaders. Meetings that used to involve a dozen people for a few minutes now occupy hundreds for hours. In these committees, initiatives are being taken, which the intelligentsia still postpones: in Wroclaw, the surplus offices have been taken over for housing; in the countryside, there has been a small but startling wave of collectivization (about fifty in the past four months) by educated peasants who amalgamate their holdings voluntarily; in Tomaszów Mazowiecki, workers have been countering redundancy in planning by their own schemes for higher productivity for higher wages.

There are also political demands. The weekly Polityka found two in every conversation: “We want to know more about what’s going on in this country, and we want to have influence in decisions which affect us.” A writer in Zycie Literackie salutes “the worker who said he was ready to work for a plate of soup as long as he wasn’t lied to.” These demands are only vaguely reported these days in the press, but a glance back to December and January, when the Baltic coast papers were influenced by the strike committees, shows that they are very concrete.

The demands in the factories—though not in all—were for less differentiation in wages and bonuses. They were for “cadre rotation,” i.e., for guarantees that every union and Party post up to the top would be liable to periodic re-election or replacement. They asked for separation of powers between Party and state: “Let workers’ self-government be real self-government…and state authority be real state authority,” said a worker in Szczecin. The Sejm (parliament) and its deputies should function independently, and the Party should supervise rather than administrate.

The demands were for newspapers which got their factory news from the workers as well as the management, and which were written in a way that ordinary people could understand. They asked for the destruction of the trades union bureaucracies, and for “independent unions loyal to the working class.” They asked for the punishment of those who had fired on them.

These points find a varied reception in the Gierek government. The requests for proper information, more participation, and less bureaucracy are accepted in principle, though how they will be met is not yet clear. An egalitarian system of rewards is not popular; anxious press discussions refer to it by the Russian word “uravnilovka,” as something exotic, incompatible with economic reform. In April, these anxieties received confirmation when some specialist workers in the shipyards downed their tools in protest against a cut in their bonus rate in favor of unskilled men.

Rotation of posts also remains uncertain. Gierek himself told a group of workers recently that he hoped to be the first leader of the Party to retire in a normal way. But he was speaking only for himself, and raising a rather different problem: the ancient tendency of the Poles—like the Irish—to look for a savior in politics who will restore the nation with the methods and the numen of a Roman dictator.

Polish history, he warned, had popularized “a somewhat mystical ideal of a political leader. He was expected to possess almost superhuman intuition, and the power to fly far ahead of his contemporaries and his people in his thoughts. We, Marxist-Leninists and men of the second half of the twentieth century, have a different, scientific, more realistic notion of political leadership.” The leader must work as part of a collective, using rational methods of prediction rather than intuition, “respecting control by the masses of the nation and seeking to win their approval, working in a way which means that when he retires from his responsible post he is not ashamed to look everyone squarely in the eye….”

This was more a rebuke to the romantic, authoritarian nationalism of the Moczar “fronde” than a promise to make all official jobs subject to regular re-election. Enlarging democracy will be done in safely traditional ways—the Sejm is rapidly coming to life and has evolved a modestly unpredictable session for parliamentary questions—and not through frightening experiments in working-class democracy at the base. The new trades union chief, Kruczek, is stiffly conservative in outlook, and a report to the latest plenary meeting of the Central Committee contained many angry references to “anarchistic elements” supposedly trying to exploit tension in the factories. At this stage, no institutional reform of the trades unions, no full revival of the free workers’ councils which sprang up after 1956 can be expected.

This is not October, 1956. The difference is not only that this time the Soviet attitude is so far benevolent—Brezhnev’s decision to concentrate on consumer industry and on the standard of living has much encouraged the Polish leaders—and that the political landscape is more confused. It is also that Poland in 1971 displays some of the characteristics of the USSR after 1937, a society shaken and depleted by years in which able and original men have been purged.

Too many people who should be commanding industry or planning the future of their country are still banished to the boredom of the accounting office in some small factory, or vegetating in the suburbs of Western universities. The day has not yet come when such men could return to public life, or return to Poland with a firm prospect of exercising their real qualifications. If Gierek can consolidate his own political control and if his measures to revive the economy show signs of success, the resulting confidence of the new leadership could afford a slow reinstatement of some of these “disinherited” talents. Until then, they wait, smoke too many cigarettes, and study the papers with detached interest.

There is much to encourage them in what has been promised: the separation of Party and state, the appointment of “experts” to the commissions, an end to the exhausting guerrilla activity against the Catholic Church, improvement in the standard of living, a commitment to more information. If Moczar is really down, that, too, is a solid ground for hope. But there are also discouraging symptoms: the repetition of the slogan that existing cadres can be used for the new tasks, the failure so far to publish—despite earlier assurances—the full proceedings of the English Plenum in February, or of the trades union council meeting. Such tokens keep doubt alive.

Mieczyslaw Rakowski, editor of Polityka, has been arguing for weeks with readers who send him intelligent and critical letters which they prefer not to sign. They ask why they should be reckless: to sign is no guarantee that the grievance will be put right, and even less a guarantee against reprisal by the local bureaucracy. Rakowski retorts that if the authorities and the public wait for each other to take the first risk, nothing will ever happen.

The socialist bloc in Eastern Europe seems to be waiting not so much for new Giereks as for the consequences of the December rising. The “new class” which has emerged upon the scene, threatening to scatter the professional actors who play its role, is none other than the industrial working class. In the high Stalinist years, the workers were enthroned and adulated, their elementary demands for social justice satisfied, their jobs made secure, their sons and daughters given priority in education. At the same time, the “leading role of the Party” which controlled and manipulated the trades unions was effectively disenfranchising them. After Stalin, even this titular supremacy of the working class was eroded. Economic conditions improved, but the self-perpetuating nature of the ruling bureaucracies, their fossilization into cozy interest groups concerned with privilege rather than representation, became steadily more glaring.

The turning point, reached only in the last few years, has been the introduction of “New Model” economic ideas, semi-liberal systems open to market forces. For the expert, the man with the diploma, this was emancipation and the chance to gain the influence and reward he felt he deserved. For the industrial worker, ignored in the general excitement, it looked very different. The old security was ending. Inefficient factories would close, work forces would be cut back in the name of productivity, incentive schemes would penalize the unskilled: the working class was to pay the price of reform, and yet possessed no democratic union structure to make its own voice heard.

It was that situation which lay behind the tension in Poland. The fuel which the sudden price rise of last December set ablaze was fear of “modernizing” measures like the new law on factory incentives, which seemed to threaten jobs and wages in the name of productivity. The outbreak in the shipyards was no “traffic accident” but the result of the most fundamental of contradictions: the impact of a new economic reality upon outdated political and industrial relations. Nothing was solved when—after December—Bulgaria and East Germany and Rumania rushed to raise wages, increase goods in the shops, and lower prices. For all the socialist countries, the lesson has been made clear: where there is radical economic change, there the workers will demand power over their destinies. The great question is whether the Communist parties will regard this as the authentic growth of socialism, or as a “Trotskyite” threat to their own ingrained habits.

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