The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution with a new afterword, by the Viking Press in April.)
Poland Today: The State of the Republic
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…
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