Jan Litynski, thirty-four years old, studied mathematics at the University of Warsaw and has been active in the student and opposition movements in Poland since the late 1960s. He is one of the co-founders of the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR) and a member of the editorial board of the uncensored newspaper Robotnik (The Worker) published in Warsaw. This interview took place by telephone on September 2, a few hours after Litynski and other leaders of KOR were released from jail.
ABRAHAM BRUMBERG: How do you assess the events in Gdansk?
JAN LITYNSKI: As an immense success, not only for Gdansk but for our whole society. This sense of success is something that no one will ever be able to take away from us. We have succeeded in accomplishing our most important demand, that is the right to free and independent trade unions, and if unions can succeed in establishing themselves, we shall eventually be faced with a genuinely free trade union movement outside the official one. This is of extraordinary significance, for it means that one of the most important teeth of the system has been effectively knocked out. The free trade union organization is to be organized along federal lines and will thus be wholly at odds with the existing social and political system in Poland.
Q: Then how do you expect the Soviet Union to react? Doesn’t this development pose a danger—as Soviet newspapers put it bluntly in the last few days—to the very basis of “socialism” in Poland?
A: Of course this danger is always there. But it seems to me that we have now reached some kind of understanding between the government and society, and that the Soviet government must now come to terms with certain changes in Poland. It is forced to be realistic. Polish society—and particularly the strikers—did not come out against Communist power as such, but simply refused to obey it. They said, in effect, we’ve had enough of the way the government has run this country. At the same time, the Poles accept, because they must accept, the existing state of affairs in Poland. I believe Moscow, too, will have to accept this new situation—that Poland will remain in the Warsaw Pact, a member of Comecon, a member of the Socialist camp, and that the Communist Party will remain in power—but that it will be in some respects a different Party. Poles are perfectly aware of the limits that cannot be overstepped. For the time being. I emphasize, for the time being.
Q: In an article that appeared in the German weekly Die Welt on August 18, Mr. Kuron of KOR spoke clearly about the possibility of Soviet military intervention. On the other hand, he says that he does not believe that the Party is willing to introduce far-reaching, necessary economic and political reforms or capable of doing so. If this is the point of view of Mr. Kuron and, I suspect, of KOR in general, then how can you possibly believe that these reforms will actually be put into effect? When I was in Poland two years ago, KOR people said to me again and again: “We cannot expect anything from the Party.”
A: True. We cannot expect anything from the Party, with one exception: at times of tremendous stress, ‘when it is seriously threatened with the possibility of Soviet military intervention, the Party will have the common sense—or I should say, the sense of self-preservation—not to do anything that may lead the country into a catastrophe. And as it turned out this assumption proved to be correct: the Party did show a sense, a minimal sense, of realism. This realism and sense of self-preservation is the one thing that the Party leaders and the population as a whole have in common.
Q: Do you mean to say therefore that the Party is capable of change?
A: I would put it somewhat differently: the Party’s behavior can change even if the Party itself does not. Its behavior must be guided by some concrete facts; and the overriding fact today is that the Party no longer can ignore the wishes of the population. What is of paramount importance is that the society has now succeeded in changing the behavior of the Party. After all, it is not all that different from 1956, is it? In 1956 the Party had to accept private farming. Now it must accept the existence of trade unions.
Q: Are there in the Party people and groups that are prepared to introduce these various basic changes, economic and political?
A: I think so. There is no point talking about the Party as some kind of a monolith. Let’s talk, rather, about the policies and about the leaders. We know that among them are people who want to bring about democratic reform. They don’t want to plunge the country into utter chaos, and they are sufficiently wise to realize that the only way to avoid this is to maintain some kind of a dialogue with the population. This dialogue can now take place through the free trade unions.
Q: What makes you think, then, that you will not be faced with the same situation as in 1958-1959, when all the promises that had been made two years earlier turned out to be so much hot air?
A: Sure, many of the Party leaders may cherish this dream, but it’s only a dream, for the difference between now and then is basic. In 1956, the Party was forced to make certain concessions. The population, as it resigned itself to accept all these concessions, refused to maintain pressure on the authorities. It failed to create its own autonomous organizations. Today it is just the opposite: groups in society force the authorities to give in to their demands. And that’s the crucial difference. The current changes have not come from above, as a result of some intraparty struggle, but from below. This is something the whole population seems to be aware of. Nobody’s shouting today, “Long live Gierek,” as they cheered Gomulka in 1956. They believed in Gomulka. Now everybody knows you cannot trust the leaders, but that you can present them with realistic alternatives. And this is why we now have a better chance to transform our society than ever before.
Q: How can a one-party state tolerate true pluralism?
A: Nobody in his right mind will claim that we can have true pluralism in Poland today. But I can give you a specific example. In 1976, when KOR came into existence, most people said that it was an act of idealists and hotheads. After a while, all sorts of unofficial publications began to appear and proliferate. If anyone in 1976 had said that you could have a paper like Robotnik—on which as you know I work—with a circulation of 40,000, he would have been called a lunatic by everyone, myself included. Like it or not, the authorities have had to accept the existence of an unofficial press with thousands of copies distributed throughout the country. Similarly, they now have to accept the existence of trade unions and possibly, before very long, the existence of similar autonomous organizations of the peasants. At the same time, I’m convinced that the majority of Poles know that they cannot challenge the fact that the Communist Party is in power; certainly not in the foreseeable future.
Q: But can the Soviet Union, in the long run, come to terms with the situation that has, as I need not tell you, great implications not only for Poland but for the entire Eastern European bloc? If the contagion spreads—then what?
A: Of course, if the very survival of the Communist regime were at stake, Poland would surely be threatened by Soviet intervention. But it seems to me that at this point it is not at all in the interests of Moscow to send its troops to Poland.
Q: In the short run, perhaps not. But in the long run it hardly seems in the interests of the Soviet Union to sit back and watch the gradual pluralization and democratization of Poland and eventually possibly of other Communist countries.
A: All right, let me give you another example. The demands of the workers in Gdansk did not touch upon the fundamental political conditions in our country. They had nothing to do with the problems of Polish independence or its relationship with the Soviet Union. That’s the rub. I think this clearly illustrates that the Polish population as I said before knows the limits and will not attempt to fight for something it cannot possibly attain. The danger point is the possibility of Soviet military action. I think the Poles will always keep that in mind and in all cases stop short of this danger point.
Q: How fully did the Church support the workers? There have been conflicting reports here about the broadcast of Cardinal Wyszynski.
A: Precisely what the Primate did or did not say is really not at issue. In general it seems to me that the Catholic Church over the past thirty years has displayed so much wisdom, common sense, and realism, that we are fully entitled to trust it. I’m absolutely convinced that the Church will never do anything that might prove harmful to the interests of the nation. Its actions over the years certainly bear this out.
Q: For Americans the sight of workers singing first the Internationale and then religious songs, and attending mass in the shipyards, was altogether new.
A: In Poland not only believers but most people are profoundly tied to the Church. The singing of religious songs is an expression of faith as much in the metaphysical sense of faith in God as it is of faith in the Catholic Church as a true defender of the rights of the Polish people.
Q: What are the prospects for lifting censorship?
A: The authorities and the workers agreed that the institution of censorship would not be abolished but that a new statute soon will be promulgated which will strictly spell out what censorship can and cannot do. What is important is that from now on it is possible to struggle openly against the government’s censorship—that the press can no longer be a mailbox where you deposit one thing, and out comes something else entirely.
Q: Will the authorities legalize such uncensored publications as, say, Robotnik and others?
A: No, and moreover we will not raise this demand. We will just continue to act outside the censorship as we have until now.
Q: Will the population accept austerity and the curbs on consumption that all economists agree is the only way out of Poland’s present grave economic situation, in which it owes $20 billion in foreign debt?
A: I’m convinced that people understand the situation and that they will resign themselves to temporary hardships. This is especially true for certain segments of the working class, say skilled workers. This will be so if the people have a real sense of perspective, of changes that will bring about a more normal existence. This has not been true until now, but if this feeling that we are finally moving again sinks in, I think most people will go along with temporary deprivation.
Q: What about Party people who are deeply opposed to concessions and reforms? Will they continue to oppose them?
A: Party policy in general from now on will be to dilute the concessions and the achievements of recent weeks, and to resist their further spread. I think this policy is bound to fail now, and I hope it will fail in the future as well.
Edward Lipinski, who recently celebrated his ninety-second birthday, is one of the most distinguished of Polish economists, the former president and now honorary president of the Polish Economic Society, author of nearly 200 books and monographs, many of which have been translated into Western languages. He received his PhD at the University of Zurich before World War I. A member of the Polish Socialist Party since 1906, he was deeply opposed to its merger, in 1949, with the Communist Party, from which he was expelled. Since the 1950s, Professor Lipinski has been one of the most important leaders of the opposition movement in Poland. In 1976 he was a founder of KOR and has been one of its most prominent members. What follows are excerpts from a telephone interview, on September 1.
ABRAHAM BRUMBERG: Today’s Pravda contains a vehement attack on the political demands of the Polish workers, attributing them to the agitation of local and foreign “anti-socialist elements” and insisting that the Soviet Union would not tolerate any “demands that threaten the interests of the state.”
EDWARD LIPINSKI: Similar articles have been published in the press here in Warsaw too. But no such demands as the ones you’ve just referred to have been raised by the workers or by the dissident groups. Both the political opposition and the workers have repeatedly said they want to continue the alliance, on friendly terms, with the Soviet Union—that what we want is simply more democracy, more independence to run our own affairs, an end to being dictated to.*
That is not to say we do not have real differences within the opposition. In KOR, for instance, you have liberals, conservatives, Catholics—including several priests—and socialists: we are in fact the collective representative of all viewpoints in our society—all, that is, except for the Stalinist point of view. Given the maturity and the sophistication that Polish working people and the dissident groups have shown I don’t believe the Soviet Union would intervene.
Q: In 1968 similar views were put forward in Czechoslovakia—and you know the results.
A: A repetition of the 1970 situation in Poland, when the Polish army fired at striking workers, is unthinkable now. As for the Soviet leaders, it seems to me that they must realize they are faced with a substantially different situation.
Q: And if the Polish demands should become more extreme?
A: If there were demands, say, for independence from the USSR that led to public demonstrations and protests that appeared insurrectionary, this might indeed be taken as a serious provocation. But in Poland today, I must emphasize again, I see no evidence at all of a mood favoring insurrection.
Q: In the mid-1950s, you were a severe critic of the Party’s agricultural policies. You were against forcing farmers into different patterns of land ownership and you wrote: “If planning is centralized this leads eventually to the omnipotence of bureaucracy and to political autocracy.” What of the agricultural situation now?
A: The government’s policies have been so disastrous that we have had to purchase meat, grain, and feed from abroad. There seems some growing awareness of what must be done—for example to help peasants buy machines and building materials and fertilizer; to regulate the prices of meat and grain purchased by the state. And in general to abolish discrimination against individual farmers. There are some in the Party who see this but I can offer no assurances they will prevail.
Q: And the economy generally?
A: The economy is in a crisis. We are burdened with a $20 billion debt and must borrow more to repay it. There is no money for imports. Consumption has to be cut back because production depends on imported machines and raw materials. We are forced to export everything that can possibly be exported. The crisis is so deep that it will take years to deal with it. And it can only be surmounted by temporarily lowering the standard of living of the entire population. After all, somebody must pay for all these debts.
Q: Is it a matter of undertaking specific economic reforms?
A: Many reforms have been seriously proposed for many years and never put into effect. It would be pointless to go over them all now. The principal thing is to win the confidence of the country, to introduce the necessary political reforms, to put an end to an economic policy that has been extraordinarily wasteful and unjust to most of the population. If Polish workers and peasants feel that they are not the only ones penalized for the ruinous past policies—and if they feel that their participation is sought and not coerced, and that their demands receive a hearing, they will be prepared, in my opinion, to accept the necessary sacrifices. What we’ve just seen in the streets of Warsaw—people crying with joy at the Gdansk agreement—suggests to me something of the readiness of the population to take part in society if they finally feel they have a share in running their affairs.
Q: On August 24 KOR issued an appeal to the West, urging, among other things, that economic aid to Poland be continued if not increased. Do you think that further credits to Poland will benefit the whole country and should these credits be provided—as some in the West insist—only on certain conditions?
A: The Western countries should come to the aid of Poland. As for conditions, first, the forthcoming CCSCE meeting in Madrid should certainly be used by the Western countries and the United States—used above all to press the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries to faithfully carry out the Helsinki Agreements on human rights. Second, economic aid should be given on the condition it be used to pay back our loans and make it possible to buy feed and grain—and not to buy new machinery.
Q: You seem fairly optimistic.
A: I am a born pessimist, yet the most significant of the recent gains—the creation of free independent trade unions—gives me some hope. If the trade unions should actually come into existence, this will mark a radical change, one that will be impossible to reverse without risking an explosion far more dangerous than the one which has just taken place. Only recently I thought that the Polish working class was still atomized, without leadership, without a press or trade unions of its own. I now see a different worker. The young people of today’s industrial proletariat have gone through a remarkable process of self-education—despite the fact that what they read in the official press is little more than disinformation, meretricious and on a truly childish level. They have acquired their political education every time they have had to queue in front of a store. They have been forced to ask themselves why there has been an endemic shortage of meat, or of decent housing, or of nurseries for their children; why the industry of the country has been in such a deplorable state; why there have been such glaring social injustices. They have learned more quickly and profoundly than I would have thought possible. Look at the leader of the strikers in Gdansk [Lech Walesa]—a man of extraordinary political wisdom and ability to lead others. Only three weeks ago I doubted the workers would draw up, and insist on, real political demands. I’m glad to have been forced to change my mind.
October 9, 1980
The text of Lipinski’s well-known open letter to Edward Gierek in 1976 is relevant here: “we have continued to cling desperately to the Soviet political system for the sake of consolidation of power . The imposition of the Sovietstyle system [on Poland] caused grave damage to our social and moral life. It was a great disaster in our national history. We are obliged to go along completely and unconditionally with Soviet foreign policy; we are no longer an independent element in world politics, and that is often against our interests” (Survey, London, Spring 1976, pp. 194–203). ↩