Mass strikes in Poland 1980: The proletariat opens a new breach
“...the mass strike is not artificially ‘made’, not ‘decided’ at random, not ‘propagated’ ... it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions)
A breach has been opened in history which will never be entirely closed again: before the eyes of the whole world the working class in Poland has broken through the iron curtain to join the class struggle of all workers. Like 1905 in Russia, this movement emerged from the depths of the proletariat; its class nature is unambiguous. Its resolutely working class voice, its broad base and historical dimension make the mass strike in Poland the most important event in class struggle since the beginning of the reawakening of the proletariat in 1967-68.
The significance of this event goes beyond the still hesitant steps of May 1968 in France. At the time of this great lightning flash marking the end of the period of counter-revolution and the beginning of a new epoch of social turmoil, the potential of the workers’ movement was still undefined. Others spoke in place of the workers, like the students, for example, in revolt against the bankrupt values of a society shaken by the first effects of the crisis, but incapable of providing a solution. In the east, Czechoslovakia in 1968 reflected the nature of this early period: a movement in which the working class did not hold a major place, a nationalist movement dominated by a faction of the Party in power, a ‘Prague Spring’ of ‘democratic demands’ with no tomorrow. Although the movement in Poland in 1970 showed a much greater maturity of the proletariat, it remained little known and isolated from the general situation.
Today however the economic crisis of the system is a daily reality felt by the workers in their very being. It gives a more far—reaching and deeper significance to the events in Poland 1980: a whole country overwhelmed by a mass strike, by the generalized self—organization of the workers against austerity. The working class held centre-stage, going beyond the framework of economic defence to place itself, despite many weaknesses, on the social terrain, uniting the political and economic thrust as in all mass strikes. In reacting to the effects of the economic crisis, the workers in Poland have powerfully demonstrated that the world is a unity - all the governments of the world no matter what their ideological cover are floundering in the crisis and demand sacrifices from the exploited. The struggle in Poland is the best proof that the world is not divided into two different systems but that capitalism in one form or another reigns everywhere over the exploitation of workers. The strikes in Poland have dealt an enormous blow (and one that the future will reveal to be irreversible) to the credibility of the Stalinist and pro-Stalinist mystification of ‘workers’ states’ and the ‘socialism’ of the eastern bloc among the workers. Every time that workers in struggle anywhere in the world come up against the ideological or physical chains of Stalinism, the workers’ voice of Gdansk will be remembered. And the breach will only widen. The events in Poland can only be understood in the framework of the crisis of capitalism (see the article on ‘Crisis in the Eastern Countries’ in this issue) and as an integral part of the international reawakening of workers’ struggles.
In the west, class struggle has emerged with greater vigour in recent years confirming the persistence of the combativity of the working class: the steel strike in Great Britain; the dockers’ strike in Rotterdam; Longwy-Denain in France; the struggles in Brazil, are only the most obvious examples.
In the east, recent events are also part of a working class agitation which has been developing for several months, particularly the general strike that paralysed the city of Lublin in Poland in July and the strikes in the USSR (the bus drivers’ strike in Togliattigrad in the Spring which was supported by the solidarity of the car workers, for example). These events help to destroy the myth that the working class has been forever crushed in the east and that all class struggle there is impossible.
Today we are seeing the unmistakable signs of an increasingly general reaction to the manifestations of the world economic crisis. The strikes in Poland mark an immense step forward in international class struggle, by showing the fundamental unity of the proletarian condition and the proletarian solution. THEY ARE INDEED A HARBINGER OF THE BIRTH OF OUR POWER.
THE PROLETARIAT AND INTER-IMPERIALIST ANTAGONISMS
The fact that the rise in class struggle internationally has found a culminating point in an eastern bloc country has a great significance for the proletariat. The working class has just gone through a whole period of intense propaganda campaigns by the western bourgeoisie about the danger of war coming from the eastern bloc, the ‘war— mongers’ who are threatening the ‘pacifist’ west. On this level the lessons are very important and completely expose the lies about a homogeneous warrior bloc in the east against which all classes of western society must unite and mobilize to avoid future Afghanistans. By its struggle, the Polish proletariat has undermined the monstrous perspective which the bourgeoisie tries to present as the only alternative: choosing one imperialist camp against the other. The workers in Poland have put forward the only real choice over and above national frontiers: WORKERS AGAINST THE BOSSES, THE PROLETARIAT AGAINST CAPITAL.
The bourgeoisie of all countries felt the threat of the working class: faced with class struggle which tends to break down the very basis of capitalist society by revealing the fundamental contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class showed a sort of international solidarity in the heat of events which undoubtedly surprised the neophytes. Unlike Hungary in 1956 or even Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the western bourgeoisie took advantage of the situation to try to win new levers of power, this time we were treated to the edifying spectacle of all the world’s governments, east and west, offering their bucket of water to put out the proletarian fires. The west offered credits to Poland through pressure on German banks and the International Monetary Fund, western unions sent money, Russia granted credits - all of them hovering around the sick patient trying to see that Poland’s colossal debts would not prevent it from granting some crumbs to calm the movement. All of them had one aim, to preserve the status quo against the proletarian danger and its tendency to spread. It is impossible to know all the details of the bourgeoisie’s secret diplomacy but the ‘personal’ letters of Giscard and Schmidt to Gierek, from ‘President to President’, the Carter—Brezhnev telephone consultations, show the common preoccupation that the Polish workers awakened in the class enemy. In fact the events in Poland merely confirm a basic historical law of class society. When the bourgeoisie of both camps was frightened by the mutinies in Germany in 1918, after the example of the Russian Revolution, it stopped the first world war to avoid the break-up of its entire system. In the same way the determined and organized struggle of the workers in Poland against austerity, even if it was not an insurrectional one, temporarily pushed the question of inter—imperialist conflicts to the background by putting the social question on the immediate agenda. Inter—imperialist factors do not disappear and can only be temporarily pushed aside because the pressure of working class struggle is still sporadic and not mature enough for a decisive confrontation. But these events constitute the clearest proof that the potential of working class resistance is the only effective break on war today. Contrary to the claims of the left and others that we must supposedly first defeat the opposing imperialist camp (‘Enemy Number One’) and only then commit ourselves to the social struggle (remember the campaigns around the Vietnam War in the sixties), the events in Poland show that ~ proletarian solidarity in the struggle can make the threat of war recede.
THE BOURGEOISIE BACKS OFF
One lesson of this movement which will not be erased quickly is the fact that the workers’ struggle can make the bourgeoisie retreat nationally and internationally and can establish a balance of forces favourable to the workers. The working class is not helpless against the repressive forces of the exploiters; it can paralyse the hand of repression by a rapid generalization of the movement.
There is absolutely no doubt that the workers of Poland have drawn the lessons of their previous experiences of 1956, 1970 and 1976. Their praxis has revealed the collective reflection of the revolutionary class. Unlike previous struggles, particularly Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin in 1970 when street fighting was the most marked although not the only characteristic of the movement, in the 1980 struggle the workers consciously avoided premature confrontations and left no dead. They realized that their force resided above all in the generalization of the struggle, in organization and solidarity.
It is not a question of opposing ‘the street’ to ‘the factory’ because both are part of the struggle of the working class. But the street (whether it be demonstrations or fighting) and the occupation of factories (as a stronghold and not as a prison) are effective in the struggle only if the workers take the struggle into their own hands by generalizing it over and beyond sectional divisions and by organizing in a determined and autonomous way. Our force resides in this and not in any morbid exaltation of violence in and of itself. Contrary to the Situationist legends about burning and pillaging supermarkets or the Bordigists ‘Red Terror’ of Nosferatu, the struggle has reached a new level today by going beyond the stage of angry explosions; this is not because the workers in Poland became ‘pacifists’ under pressure from the KOR. At Gdansk, Szczecin and elsewhere the workers immediately organized defence groups against any possible repression, and were able to judge the weapons adequate for their struggle at a given moment. There are obviously no universal recipes valid in all circumstances but the proof is clear that it was the rapid extension of the struggle which paralysed the state.
There was a great deal of talk about the danger of Russian tanks. In fact the Russian army has never directly intervened in Poland neither at Poznan in 1956 nor during the 1970 and 1976 movements. This does not mean that the Russian state would not send their equivalent of the US Marines if the regime risked collapse and the movement was isolated. But today we are not in the Cold War Period (like in East Germany in 1953) when the bourgeoisie had its hands free to deal with an isolated uprising. Poland was neither a premature insurrection drowned in blood as in Hungary 1956, nor a nationalist movement in a border state tending to open up to a rival bloc. The struggle of the workers in Poland in 1980 takes place today in an epoch of working class potential in all countries, east and west. And in spite of the strategic military position of Poland the Russian state had to be careful. It was not possible to face the workers’ struggle with an outright massacre. All the more so since in 1970 in Poland the early brutal repression only served to generalize the struggle. Faced with a workers’ movement of the size and strength of 1980 the bourgeoisie backed off; the workers felt their power, gaining confidence in themselves.
POLAND 1980 SHOWS US THE WAY FORWARD
Starting from the same causes which provoke all workers’ strikes, a revolt against impossible living conditions, the workers in Poland mobilized against scarcity and a rise in food prices (especially meat). They spread the movement by solidarity strikes, refusing government pressures to negotiate factory by factory, sector by sector, and thereby avoided the trap that so many workers’ struggles in so many countries have fallen into these past few years. Above and beyond the specificities of capitalism’s attacks against the working class (here, massive lay—offs and inflation; there scarcity of consumer goods and also inflation), the same basic problems face the entire proletariat whatever the specific methods of austerity, whatever the national bourgeoisie it confronts. The struggles of the Polish workers will only serve their class brothers if all these lessons are gradually assimilated.
In 1979 in France the workers of the steel industry spontaneously and violently mobilized against the capitalist state which had just decreed a wave of lay—offs. It took two months for the unions to eliminate any possibility of an extension of the movement - particularly by ending the strikes in the Paris region - and to make the workers re—enter the legalistic and capitalist framework of negotiating lay-offs. The organization of the struggle was left in the hands of the union rank and file organisms, the extension of the struggle was limited merely to the steel industry, working class violence was derailed into nationalistic commando operations, such were the obstacles encountered by the working class which allowed the bourgeoisie to demobilize the combativity of the workers and to carry out its plans (see the article ‘France: “Denain, Longwy, Show Us the Way”, in International Review, no.17).
In 1980 in Great Britain, under pressure from the steel workers, the shop stewards took the initiative of forming strike committees. Despite the threat of massive lay—offs (more than 50,000 in British Steel), the demands were limited to wage increases; despite the existence of other sectors of the working class ready to struggle, the ‘generalization’ was limited to the less combative private steel industry. It took three months however to demobilize the workers ... the three months foreseen in the stockpiles of the bourgeoisie.
In these strikes the working class gained the experience of its strength but also witnessed the impasse of corporatism and of the specialization of demands by sector, or by factory; it saw the sterility of union ‘organization’. The movement in Poland by its massive character, its rapidity, its extension beyond categories and regions, confirms not only the necessity but the possibility of the generalization and the self-organization of the struggle. The movement in Poland went beyond the previous experiences and answered their weaknesses.
Unionists of all colours proclaim: “without unions, struggle is impossible; without unions the working class is atomized”. But the Polish workers have proved this a lie. The workers were never as strong as they were in the midst of this struggle because they had their own organizations born in the struggle, with elected delegates, revocable at any moment. Only when the workers ‘turned towards the illusion of ‘free trade unions’ were they led back into the capitalist order by recognizing the leading role of the state, of the Communist Party and the Warsaw Pact (the Gdansk Agreements). The events in Poland show the potential contained in all of today’s struggles and which would be more fully expressed if there were no social shock absorbers, the unions and the ‘democratic’ parties, to contain and demobilize it.
“The mass strike is an eternal moving changing sea of phenomena ... now it flows over the whole land, now it divides into a huge net of thin streams, now it rushes forth from under that ground like a fresh spring, now it is lost in the earth.” (R. Luxemburg, Mass Strike)
The economic weakness of capitalism in the east obliges it to adopt brutal austerity policies against the working class. Because it does not have the capacity to spread out the effects of the world crisis by attacking the proletariat gradually, day after day, piece by piece, industry by industry, as the western bourgeoisie has so far been able to do; because it cannot distort the workings of the law of value forever, the eastern bourgeoisie provoked the accumulated discontent of the workers. The rigidity and economic fragility of eastern state capitalism obliges it to fix food prices; by raising these prices abruptly and thereby lowering workers’ living standards in one blow, the Polish state sparked a homogeneous response from the workers (despite the fact of wage differentials imposed by the regime). the unity of the bourgeoisie behind the state in the east is also the economic and political reality in the west but it is hidden by a myriad of private bosses in apparently separate sectors. In fact, what the rigidity of the Stalinist system makes clear and easy to understand in the east will also be understood in the west after painful experience. The events in Poland are part of this experience. The true face of the decadence of the capitalist system will everywhere be shorn of its ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ mask.
On 1 July 1980, after a major increase in meat prices, strikes broke out at Ursus (suburb of Warsaw) in the tractor plant which was at the heart of the confrontation with the authorities in 1976 and in Tczew in the Gdansk region. In Ursus the workers organized general assemblies, drew up a list of demands, elected a strike committee. They resisted the threat of firings and repression and carried on work stoppages throughout the following period to support the movement
Between 3-10 July agitation spread within Warsaw (electrical supplies factories, printers), to the aircraft factory at Swidnick, the car plant in Zeran; to Lodz, to Gdansk. Workers formed strike committees, their demands dealt with wage increases and the cancellation of the price rises. The government granted wage increases: 10% on average, sometimes as high as 20%; often granted preferentially to strikers in order to calm the movement.
In mid-July the strike hit Lublin. Railroad workers, transport workers and finally all industries in the city stopped work. Their demands: free elections to the unions, a guarantee of safety for the strikers, keep the police out of the factories, wage increases.
Work started again in some regions but strikes broke out in others. Krasnik, the Skolawa Wola steel mills, the city of Chelm (near the Russian border), Wroclow, were reported to be affected by strikes in the month of July. Department K1 of the shipyards at Gdansk had a work stoppage; also the steel complex at Huta—Warsaw. Everywhere the authorities gave in and granted wage increases. According to the Financial Times the government established a fund of 4 billion zlotys in July to pay these increases. Official agencies were instructed to make ‘good meat’ immediately available in factories where work stoppages threatened. Towards the end of July the movement seemed to recede; the government thought it had stopped the movement by negotiating factory by factory. It was mistaken.
The explosion was merely incubating as the one week strike of Warsaw’s dustmen at the beginning of August showed. On 14 August, the firing of a militant of the free trade union movement, a worker known for her combativity and sincerity, provoked the outbreak of a strike at the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk. The general assembly drew up a list of eleven demands; proposals were listened to, discussed and voted upon. The assembly decided to elect a strike committee mandated on the basis of the demands which included: the reinstatement of fired workers, increases in family allowances, wage increases of 2000 zlotys (average wage: 3000—4500 zlotys a month), the dissolution of the official unions, suppression of the privileges of the police and bureaucracy, the building of a monument to the memory of the workers killed by the militia in 1970, the immediate publication of truthful information about the strike. The management gave in on the reinstatement of Anna Walentynowisz and Lech Walesa and on the construction of a monument. The strike committee gave an account of its mandate to the workers in the afternoon and informed them of the management’s position. The assembly decided to form a workers’ militia; all alcohol was confiscated. A second round of negotiations with the management began. The workers took over the loud speaker system so that negotiations would be open for all to hear. Soon they developed a system whereby workers outside could be heard by the negotiators inside. Workers seized the microphone and made their voices heard. Throughout the greater part of the strike and up until the last days before the signing of the compromise thousands of workers intervened from outside to exhort, to approve, or to reject the strike committee’s decisions. All the workers who had been fired since 1970 could return to the shipyards. The management granted wage increases and guaranteed the safety of the strikers.
On 15 August a general strike paralysed the Gdansk region. The Paris Commune shipyard at Gdynia went out. The workers occupied the shipyards and were granted an immediate increase of 2100 zlotys. They refused to go back to work, however, saying that “Gdansk must also win”. The movement at Gdansk fluctuated in a moment of hesitation: the shop floor delegates hesitated to go any further and seemed to want to accept the management’s proposals. Workers from other places in Gdansk and from Gdynia convinced the assembly of workers occupying the shipyard to maintain solidarity with them. There was a call for a new election of delegates who would be better able to express the general will. The workers from different plants in the region formed an inter-factory committee during the night of 15 August and elaborated twenty—one demands.
The strike committee then had 400 members, two representatives per factory; at the height of the movement there were between 800 and 1000 members. Delegations went back and forth from their factories to the central strike committee, sometimes using cassettes to record the discussions. Strike committees in each factory took care of any specific demands, the whole was co-ordinated by the central strike committee. The strike committee of the Lenin shipyards had twelve members, one per shop, elected by a show of hands after discussion. Two were sent to the central inter—factory strike committee and reported back twice a day.
On 16 August all telephone communications with Gdansk was cut off by the government. The central strike committee elected a presidium where the partisans of ‘free trade unions’ and dissidents predominated. The twenty—one demands settled upon on 16 August began with a call for free and independent unions and the right to strike. What had been point two in the eleven demands went to seventh place: the 2000 zloty increase for everyone.
By 18 August seventy-five enterprises were paralysed in the Gdansk-Gdynia—Sopot region. There were about 100,000 strikers. There were movements in Szczecin, and at Tarnow, eighty kilometres south of Cracow. The strike committee organized the food supply; power stations and food factories operated by request of the strike committee. The negotiations having become bogged down, the government refused to talk with the inter—factory committee. In the following days new strikes at Elblag, at Tczew, in Kolobrzeg and other cities broke out. On 20 August it was estimated that 300,000 workers were on strike. The newspaper of the Lenin shipyards, Solidarity, came out daily; printing workers helped to put out leaflets and publications.
On 26 August workers reacted with caution to the government’s promises and remained indifferent to Gierek’s speeches. They refused to negotiate until telephone communications were re—established.
On 27 August safe conduct passes for travel to Gdansk issued by sources in the Warsaw government were granted to dissidents so that they could go to the strikers as ‘experts’ and calm this upside-down world. The government agreed to negotiate with the presidium of the central strike committee and recognized the right to strike. The telephone lines were re—established. Parallel negotiations began at Szczecin near the border with East Germany. Cardinal Wyszynski called for an end to the strike; parts of his speech were shown on TV. The strikers sent out delegations to the rest of the country for solidarity.
On 28 August the strikes spread further. They affected the copper and coal mines of Silesia where workers have the highest standard of living in Poland. The miners, even before discussing the strike and agreeing on precise demands declared that they would stop work immediately “if the authorities touch Gdansk”. They went on strike for “the demands of Gdansk”. Thirty factories were on strike at Wroclow, in Poznan (the factories where the movement began in 1956), in the steel mills of Nova-Huta and at Rzeszois. Inter-factory committees formed in various regions. Ursus sent delegates to Gdansk. At the height of the generalization Walesa declared: “We do not want the strikes to spread because they will push the country to the point of collapse. We need calm to conduct the negotiations.” The negotiations between the presidium and the government became private; the loudspeaker system increasingly began to break down at the shipyards. On 29 August the discussions between the government and the presidium came to a compromise: the workers will be given ‘free trade unions’ if they accept: 1. the leading role of the Party; 2. the need to support the Polish state and the Warsaw Pact; 3. that the unions play no political role.
The agreement was signed on 31 August at Szczecin and at Gdansk. The government recognized the ‘self—managed’ unions; as its spokesman said: “the nation and the state need a well—organized and conscious working class”. Two days later, fifteen members of the presidium resigned from their workplaces and became officials of the new unions. Afterwards they were soon obliged to nuance their position because it was announced that they would receive salaries of 8000 zlotys. This information was later denied because of workers’ discontent.
It took several days to get these agreements signed. Statements from workers at Gdansk show them to have been morose, suspicious and disappointed. Some workers on hearing that the agreements gave them only half of the increase they had already obtained by 16 August shouted “Walesa, you sold us out”. Many workers did not agree with the point recognizing the role of the Party and the state.
The strike in the coal mines of Upper Silesia and in the copper mines whose aim was to ensure that the Gdansk agreements would apply to the entire country lasted until 3 September. Throughout September strikes continued: in Kielce, at Bialystok among the cotton workers, in textiles, in the salt mines of Silesia, in the transport services of Katowice. A movement of this magnitude does not stop all at once. The workers tried to generalize what they saw as gains, tried to resist the downward swing. We know that Kania visited the shipyards at Gdynia even before Gdansk because the workers there were reportedly the most radical. But of their discussions as of hundreds of others at other places, we know little or nothing at present because the press focused on Gdansk. It will be some time before the true richness of the movement can be measured so that we can go beyond the rather succinct points mentioned here.
The mass strike in Poland is part of the difficult and painful march of the emancipation of the working class — thought and consciousness becoming concrete, solidarity, the creativity of millions of workers. For all of us, these workers, at least for a moment, breathed the air of emancipation, lived solidarity, and felt the breath of history. The working class so scorned and humiliated in this world showed the way forward to all who aspire, however confusedly, to break the prison of bourgeois society by rallying them to the only thing that lives in this dying world: the force of the class conscious proletariat.
For those who think they are correcting the error of Lenin in What Is To Be Done? (where it is said that class consciousness comes to the workers from outside the working class) by maintaining like the PCI (International Communist Party, Bordigist) that the class does not exist without the party, the workers of Poland have shown this to be a lie.
In Poland as elsewhere and probably more than anywhere else the working class must be alive with discussions. Within the class, political circles must be crystallizing which will eventually give rise to political groupings of revolutionaries. As the struggle develops it poses with greater and greater sharpness the essential questions of the working class’ historic combat. It is to help answer these questions that the class creates its political organizations. The strike of the Polish workers shows once again that these organizations are not a pre—condition for struggle but that they develop as the expression of a class that exists and acts if necessary before these organizations arise.
How to organize? How to struggle? What demands to put forward? What negotiations to undertake? For all these questions which are posed in every workers’ struggle today the experience and the courage of the workers in Poland are an enormous contribution to the whole movement of their class.
“The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed ... they conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes...” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)
In the first mass strikes in 1905 the workers found it difficult to find their own ground. The workers went into the streets behind Father Gapon and the icons of the Orthodox Church, “consoler of the oppressed”, and not at the call of the Social Democrats. But in six months the icons became red flags. No-one can foretell the pace of the maturation of the conditions of struggle today but we do know that the process has begun. When the workers in the mines of Silesia stand before St Barbara, when the workers of Gdansk demand the right to hear mass, they are suffering from the weight of past traditions on the one hand and on the other they are expressing a grain of resistance to the desolation of modern life, a mistaken nostalgia because: “they recoil ever and anon from the infinite prodigiousness of their own aims” (Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire) But this mistaken envelope of their aspirations, the church, is not a neutral one. It is a formidable support for nationalism as can be seen in Brazil as well as in Poland. The Church unmasked itself to some extent before the most combative workers when it used its first chance to speak in thirty years to appeal for ‘order’ and a ‘return to work’. Nevertheless this trap remains to be destroyed.
Some myopic observers will see in Poland only workers on their knees singing the national anthem. But history can’t be judged like a photograph. The sceptics do not see the dynamic of the movement which will go beyond this. The workers will get rid of the national rag and the icons. We must not put ourselves in the position of the PCI Communist Programme or Battaglia Comunista or others who saw in May 1968 only some student games. If revolutionaries are only able to see reality when it is written in big letters all over the page then they will never be worthy of the method of Marx who was able to see in the proletariat of 1844 the future giant of history.
It is perfectly true that in Poland the actions of the dissidents have, especially since 1976, had an influence on the workers’ movement particularly in the Baltic region. It is difficult to exactly evaluate their influence but it seems that 20,000 copies of the bulletin Robotnik are distributed, creating a whole workers’ milieu around it. Often combative workers are attracted to the free trade union movement to protest against repression in the workplaces. The regime tolerates the Catholic opposition as well as patriotic reformers and intellectuals ever since it realized the need to defuse the workers’ combativity of recent years. The KOR (Social Self—Defence Committee) is quite explicit in its aims: “The nation’s economy is in ruins. Only a tremendous effort by everyone along with profound reforms can save it. Making the economy healthy demands sacrifices. Rising up against price rises will deal a terrible blow to the functioning of the economy ... Our task as the opposition is to transform the economic demands into political demands.” (Kuron)
Naturally the political dimension is absolutely vital to workers’ struggles. The mass strikes expressed in action this unity of economic and political aspects. But the KOR only plays on the workers’ desire to politicize their struggle. When Mr. Kuron and Co. and all the ‘experts’ who came to help the negotiations in Gdansk talk about ‘politics’ it is only to empty the struggle of its class content, to bury the economic fight against exploitation in favour of bourgeois politics and to put themselves forward as the loyal opposition of the Polish homeland. To ‘save the economy of Poland’ the workers at Gdansk lost more than half their economic demands. The opposition representing the interests of a wing of the Polish bourgeoisie which wants to create structures more able to “win the workers’ agreement to make sacrifices; to develop valid bargaining agents”. But the main body of the Polish and Russian bourgeoisies do not share this orientation and the evolution of the situation remains open especially if the new unions are not rapidly integrated into the state apparatus.
Fifty years of counter-revolution have so disoriented the working class that it has difficulty in remaining on a class terrain. In Poland the workers have opened an amazing breach in the Stalinist structure but they have put on the ‘costumes’ of the past with this demand for free trade unions, ‘real, true unions’ like those of the nineteenth century. In the minds of the workers, these unions probably represent the right to organize, to defend themselves. But this battle—cry is a rotten trap and it will turn against the workers. To get the right to organize in free unions, the Gdansk agreements had to recognize the Polish state, the domination of the Party and the Warsaw Pact. And this is not gratuitous. In our age of the decline of capitalism, unions have become part and parcel of the state apparatus, whether they are recent stillbirths like in Poland or whether they’ rely on the weight of long ‘tradition’ Already all the forces of the bourgeoisie have rallied around the free trade unions: some members of the strike committee have become officials; rules of order and all kinds of procedures have been established to tighten up the new structures; the Gdansk agreements speak of the commitment to increase productivity. With the offer of AFL-CIO (the main central union of the USA) aid, the international bourgeoisie in however small a way offers its contribution to binding and gagging the proletarian giant.
At the end of September the situation in Poland has not yet gone back to normal and the remaining combativity of workers is still slowing down the wheels of the state machine. But the illusions will be dearly paid for by the workers.
The ‘free trade unions’ are not a springboard from which to go further; they are an obstacle which workers’ combativity will have to go beyond. They are an ambush for combativity. The most combative workers have already perhaps felt this when they booed the Gdansk agreements. But they are still a minority and they are not the ones which the movement is putting forward at this state. The least clear, the most confused, the most Catholic elements hold centre stage. Walesa is a symbol and an expression of this stage in the movement; he will bend further into the state apparatus or be eliminated.
In the twentieth century only the vigilance and mobilization of the workers can advance their interests. It is a bitter truth and a difficult thing to realize that any permanent organ outside of the struggle period itself will inevitably be sucked into the gears of the state apparatus, in the east and the west. For example, we saw this with the workers’ committees in Italy in 1969 which were officially integrated into the union structure and ceased to be a workers’ instrument; and we see this with the various recuperation attempts by ‘rank and file unionism’.
In the twentieth century there is either capitalist stability or proletarian power. It is only in a period of pre—revolutionary ferment that permanent organs of proletarian power, workers’ councils, can be established because they defend the immediate interests of the working class while globally raising the question of political power. They thereby have the possibility of escaping the stranglehold of capitalist bounds. Outside of this period when struggle reaches such a pitch that it is permanent and thereby finds expression in the fully-fledged formation of councils and the movement towards insurrection, there can be no permanent organization of struggle serving the workers’ interests.
Today the decay of the capitalist system is so advanced that the working class can of course benefit from all the past sixty years of experience of struggle and from the maturing of the conditions of revolt. But unlike the situation in 1905 the working class is not up against the senile, rotting regime of the tsars; it is confronting state capitalism everywhere in the world, a more subtle and bloody enemy.
The bourgeoisie will try in its own way to draw the lessons of the Polish events for the workers of the world; it certainly cannot allow the events to speak for themselves. Bourgeois ideology has to try to recuperate the class movement by giving its ‘official version’ when things are too big to impose a news black-out. It has to offer a deformed version of reality to divert the attention of other workers. It has used and will use the Polish events right up to the hilt: in the east to show that workers must be ‘reasonable’ and bend to the austerity needs of COMECON; in the west to prove that the workers’ movement only wants the ‘democratic freedoms’ which bring such happiness and fulfilment to the workers in the west!
The events in Poland are not the revolution nor are they a ‘failed revolution’; although its dynamic went far enough to establish a balance of class forces favourable to the proletariat it did not reach an insurrectional stage which in any case would have been premature in the context of the world proletariat today. A whole period of maturation in the internationalization of struggles is necessary before the revolution can be directly on the agenda.
But this is all the more reason for revolutionaries to denounce the nightmares of the past, the traps which risk immobilizing the struggle. Today when we see all the agents of capital, the CPs, the Trotskyists, the left and leftists, the ‘rights of man’ et al applauding the obstacles to consciousness, revolutionaries must denounce them with all their energy and point the way forward.
The struggles in Poland in 1980 are a rehearsal for the future - they are full of the promise of tomorrow. The force of the events in Poland will perhaps wake up all the sceptics for whom May 1968 was nothing, all the professional denigrators of the working class, even in the proletarian milieu. History is moving towards a confrontation of classes, the counter-revolution is over and only with the courage and the hope of the workers in Poland can we fight effectively.
Only by understanding all the lessons of this historic struggle: the nature of state capitalism and the world economic crisis in the east and in the west; the ignoble masquerade of ‘democracy’ and electoralism; the integration of the unions into the state in the east and in the west; the creativity and self-organization of the working class in the generalization of its struggle, can tomorrow’s combatants of the working class say, when they go even farther forward: we are all workers from Gdansk.
25 September 1980