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The Polish Revolution

The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution with a new afterword, by the Viking Press in April.)

by Neal Ascherson
Penguin (London), 318 pp., £2.50 (The Polish August will be published in the United States, (paper)

Poland Today: The State of the Republic

compiled by “The Experience and the Future” Discussion Group, with an introduction by Jack Bielasiak
M.E. Sharpe, 231 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Lenin’s main theory was based on the thesis that left to themselves the workers would never carry out a revolution. Unless the idea of revolution was put into their heads by clever intellectuals (“brought from the outside,” as Lenin put it) workers would content themselves with “trade-unionist” demands for better wages and working conditions. So far as revolution in the developed, free-market, capitalist societies is concerned he seems to have been proved right. Engels had already pointed out toward the end of his life that the working class was achieving far more by means of the ballot box and peaceful action than it could hope to gain by violence. In advanced societies of the Western world workers organized in powerful, independent trade unions, exercising the freedom available in a democratic system, have won for themselves high standards of living and are for the most part not very receptive to revolutionary appeals. These emanate in the main from intellectuals, cranks, and from those ambitious demagogues who hope to achieve, by hoodwinking the workers to take political action to overthrow the established order, the kind of power for themselves that they cannot hope for under a democratic regime.

Where Lenin was palpably wrong was in the type of case he probably never seriously considered—the revolt of the workers against a so-called “workers’ state”—that form of state capitalism in which privileges go to the Communist Party officials and the tens of thousands of toadies and hangers-on of the corrupt leadership, with the workers a long way down the list. It does not require an intellectual to explain to a worker of even the most limited imagination that what is called a “workers’ state” is, in fact, as far as he is concerned, a sham in which he counts for little.

This fact was clearly recognized in March 1921 by the sailors and garrison of the naval base of Kronstadt. They rose against the entrenched privileges and monopoly of power of the Communist Party and demanded elementary freedom of action for workers and peasants, and an end to communist restrictions on their lives. The communist answer to this challenge was straightforward: the insurgents were mown down in the streets, and those who survived were massacred in the cellars of the Cheka. The entire Communist Party (outside Kronstadt), without any known exception, approved of this operation. It is ironical to reflect that the man in charge of putting down the revolt, and who continued to justify his action, even in exile, was Trotsky, the eponymous hero of so many modern revolutionary enthusiasts.

In Poland, the workers have so far revolted three times against the “workers’ state”—in 1956, 1970, and 1980. On the first two occasions, the communist government appeared to make far-reaching concessions, and then cheated and went back on them. Now, as 1982 begins, it looks as if history is going to be repeated. In his excellent new study of recent events in Poland and the background to them, Neal Ascherson blames Gierek for failing, after 1970, to make such institutional changes as introducing “shop-floor democracy or a more autonomous trade union system.” But are such changes compatible with the survival in power of a small, privileged Party clique whose sole “legitimacy” is based on the threat of a Soviet invasion? Such a regime can only hope to survive by periodic repression and the reversal of any concessions made, looking for support not to public opinion but to well-rewarded security forces and to Party toadies who carry out the leaders’ behests.

The nature of the Polish regime in the era of the Gdansk revolution of August 1980 appears most clearly from Poland Today: The State of the Republic, a remarkable report prepared in 1979 by a group of Polish intellectuals in various walks of life, and forwarded to the authorities in the (somewhat naïve) hope of influencing the communist leadership to modify the regime. The criticisms of the group, whose members provided the bases of the report by responding to a questionnaire which sought to ascertain what was wrong with Polish society, and how the faults could be remedied, was ignored by the government, and its activities, which had hitherto been tolerated, became hampered. So a wider poll of intellectuals was organized, and a second, shorter report prepared (in samizdat conditions), dated May 1980, which contained a number of recommendations for restoring health to Polish society and the Polish economy: these included observance of legality, freedom of discussion, relaxation of censorship, truthfulness of the media, and the like. It is difficult to see how a communist regime could have adopted any of these suggestions with any hope of survival.

The main interest of this extraordinary book lies in the overall indictment of a communist-ruled society which the first and longer report contains, an indictment which applies as much to the Soviet Union as it does to Poland. It is only necessary to list a few of the items to see how close the parallel is: an alienated leadership; a despondent and apathetic society, seeking refuge in alcoholism; the absence of genuine dialogue between the rulers and the ruled; a dishonest and corrupt legal system, in which the judges lack independence and the law is continuously flouted by those in a privileged position; extreme social inequality; and, above all, the official lying and sham that permeate all society. It should be emphasized that the whole of this first report is based on high regard for true socialist principles—there is no hint of a desire for the restoration of capitalism. It is, perhaps, a little surprising that amid all the criticisms of the communist regime there is no word of condemnation for the anti-Semitism (conventionally disguised as “anti-Zionism”) which is constantly resorted to by Polish communists when they see any advantage in doing so.

The parallel with Soviet society raises the intriguing speculation whether a workers’ revolt is to be anticipated in the USSR. After all, Soviet workers are probably materially even worse off than Polish workers. But there are a number of reasons why an “August 1980” situation is unlikely in the Soviet Union, at any rate for some time to come. As the logician-turned-satirist Alexander Zinoviev is never tired of pointing out, Soviet workers have not done too badly out of the regime—they can get by with very little effort at work, they enjoy security, many learn to fiddle the system with profitable results, and even if living standards are low, they have risen in past years and there is hope that they will continue to improve.

There are other reasons, too. It is, after all, their own regime, not one imposed by a hated neighbor, and moreover it is a government that, by its expanding military might and growing influence on the world stage, provides agreeable gratification of nationalistic pride. Perhaps Russians are more patient than Poles. Perhaps Poles have a more conscientious attitude toward work. It may be also that Russians are less sensitive than Poles to what Mr. Ascherson describes as the “central charge” against the Party in 1980—not trampling on human rights, ruining the economy, or being too subservient to the USSR, though all these charges were made, but “that the Party had divided the nation, and set Pole against Pole.”

There is also no equivalent in the USSR of the Catholic Church in Poland. The Church is not a subversive or “counter-revolutionary” force. But its very existence, in view of the widespread support that it enjoys, and its symbolism in Poland’s link with Western civilization (much strengthened by the election of a Polish Pope), has played a powerful part in keeping alive ideals and standards which are difficult to reconcile with a Communist regime.

As one of the shrewdest correspondents on Polish affairs, Mr. Ascherson can draw on a good deal of experience for his narrative, which takes us up to mid-1981, when it was becoming obvious that the compromise under which the Party retained formal monopoly of power, “while Solidarity guarded the achievements of Gdansk and the interest of the working class,” would not work. The accusations that Solidarity was setting itself up as a rival political force to the Party, which were widely publicized (especially in the Soviet press) after the introduction of the military dictatorship, are no doubt largely spurious. But it would be surprising if a communist regime could hope to survive as such while an independent trade union movement, attracting thousands of members of the Communist Party to its ranks, was in operation at the same time.

Mr. Ascherson quite rightly makes the point that the Gdansk revolution was necessarily “incomplete” and had to remain so, and was consequently the more vulnerable. Logically, its outcome should have been the overthrow of communist rule. But that this extreme result was impossible, because it would almost inevitably provoke a Soviet invasion, with all its disastrous consequences for Poland, was recognized throughout by Solidarity, and acted as an unnatural restraining influence. Of course, there were some extremist elements within Solidarity, very useful to the Party. Indeed, Mr. Ascherson advances some evidence to suggest that it was an element of Polish Politburo policy to provoke the extremists into action so as to provide an excuse for going back on the Gdansk agreement.

I find one aspect of Mr. Ascherson’s argument unconvincing. He maintains (in mid-1981) that since the working class is not intent on seizing power owing to a patriotic reluctance to provoke Soviet intervention, the real heirs to the gains of 1980 are most likely to be the intelligentsia. Apart from the fact that this contingency looks most improbable six months later, this view of the intelligentsia’s role in a revolution seems to me to bear little relation to what happened in Poland. It is more reminiscent of the doctrine of the Polish semi-anarchist Machaiski (who had some influence in Russia) to the effect that the workers will always be betrayed by the intellectuals, who will use them as the battering ram of the revolution and then cleverly trick them out of the power that should be theirs. But Mr. Ascherson’s evidence does not remotely suggest that such a situation existed in Poland.

He does argue that, though the Gdansk revolt would have happened without intellectual influence, the members of KOR (the intellectual support group for the workers’ revolution) did try to push Solidarity (in true Leninist fashion, and, it would seem, under direct influence of What Is to Be Done?) in the direction of political demands. But he also emphasizes that the intellectuals were at no point in a leading position. They provided advice rather than leadership, usually counseling on the side of moderation.

One of the most important tasks with which the West is faced (or should be faced) is to assess the reasons for the obvious Soviet reluctance to intervene militarily for so long, while communist rule seemed to be in a state of collapse. Perhaps the magnitude of the undertaking, particularly the manpower that would be involved, was one factor—on the assumption that the Polish armed forces would resist the Soviet army, in spite of the integration of the Soviet and Polish forces in the Warsaw Pact, and the long training which most Polish officers undergo in Russia. Mr. Ascherson takes the view that at the time of the Seventh Central Committee Plenum of the Polish Party, which met on December 1, 1980, Soviet troops were poised to invade and were deterred by warnings from the US and the EEC that an invasion of Poland would result in an end to détente and to commercial relations.

If this was indeed so, and it seems very probable in view of Soviet dependence on imports of grain and technological equipment from Western countries, the threat may no longer have seemed so daunting in December 1981. US grain shipments were assured for the immediate future, and a deal with West Germany concluded for the exploitation of Soviet natural gas which may offset Soviet fears of an anticipated oil shortage within the next few years. President Reagan’s recent announcement of economic sanctions imposed by the US on the Soviet Union may at the least have the effect of raising some doubts in the minds of the Soviet leaders of their ability to pursue their policies, as up till now, with complete impunity.

The danger of a satellite’s escaping from the Communist Party stranglehold, with the consequent possibility that the infection would spread within its own borders, must seem very frightening to the Soviet leaders. For the time being, KGB troops can still be relied on to fire on workers who very occasionally risk (unpublicized) strikes. But for how long? And so an alternative to the invasion of Poland had to be found, in the ingenious form of an assault on Solidarity in the guise of martial law, so as to make it look like a wholly internal affair.

No one who has followed Soviet reaction to events in Poland can seriously doubt that the imposition of martial law and consolidating the reign of the security forces were moves planned and coordinated with the Soviet authorities—after all, no important step in the checkered relations between Solidarity and the Party has hitherto been taken without some form of consultation between the Polish Party and the Soviet leaders. Visits of high-ranking Soviet officers in recent months can also not have been accidental. Evidently the Soviet Union hopes that by these means it can achieve the benefits of an invasion without the odium which open military action would arouse.

No one can predict, as we enter 1982, what course events in Poland will take in the months to come. But it is already possible to discern the general outline of what the leaders hope to achieve: the elimination of Solidarity as a rival political force, and the reduction of the Party to an obedient clique of sycophants by the removal of all (as one press report puts it) except the careerists and the Stalinists. For communist rule cannot effectively operate without an obedient elite, which in return for material benefits will unthinkingly carry out the behests of the top leaders. If this principle is surrendered, the survival of the whole system of rule through control over privileges is endangered, and with it the mechanism which secures for the Party its monopoly of power.

It is probably true, as Mr. Ascherson notes, that “a slow-burning fuse” was lit by the government’s acceptance of Point 12 of the Gdansk agreement, that “leading and managing cadres” should be selected on the basis of ability rather than Party affiliation. It may well be that Solidarity’s fate was sealed in the late summer of 1981 when it adopted the principle of workers’ self-management, including the right of employees to select or veto their directors. Every communist leadership will occasionally throw a few particularly corrupt or inefficient officials to the wolves in order to keep up its pretense of integrity and efficiency. But to jettison the Nomenklatura system, which enables the Party hierarchy to appoint its nominees to all commanding posts in all institutions in the country, would spell the end of Party rule by depriving it of one of its vital instruments of control.

Have the suffering and the courage of the Polish workers, which have aroused worldwide sympathy and admiration, been in vain? Not if the main lesson has been learned by the Western powers. This lesson is that action in defense of freedom in the world must be directed at the real enemy of that freedom—the Soviet Union. Not military action, of course—no one but a lunatic would advocate that. But economic action, which exploits the greatly superior material wealth of the combined countries of the Western world and denies to the Soviet Union the means to develop its military power with Western aid, which it at present enjoys. We are a long way from the kind of agreement between all the Western powers which is required before such a policy can be fully implemented. President Reagan has taken the first step. But if we are not to stagger from one defeat by the Soviet Union to the next, we have no time to lose in trying to secure the kind of coordination of aims that will ultimately make a joint economic policy of the Western world toward the Soviet Union possible.


A Fourth Time April 15, 1982

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