International class struggle: Workers’ struggles in Poland

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Once again the proletariat of Poland, faced with an unbearable degradation of its living conditions, has taken the path of class resis­tance: its struggles of the second half of Au­gust 88, following those of the spring, are the most important since the movement of summer 1980. Once again the bourgeoisie has shown its skill in leading the workers' militancy into an impasse, thanks to a remarkable division of labor between the government and the opposition forces headed by Solidarnosc. These struggles are an appeal to the workers of all countries, particularly the most developed ones: because of their breadth, their determina­tion, their combativity, but also because only the proletariat of the most advanced countries, and especially of western Europe, is able to indicate how to fight the traps and mystifications which got the better of the workers in Poland.

Poland: 31 August 1980 - 31 August 1988

Separated by 8 years, two meetings between government authorities and the ‘representatives' of the working class symbolize the evolution of the social situation and the balance of class forces in this country.

On the government side the actors have changed. The minister of the interior in 88, Kiszczak, has replaced the vice-premier minister of 80, Jagrelski, but the job is the same: to represent the highest echelons of Polish national capital. Facing him, on the other hand, we have the same Lech Walesa, but in August 80 he was mandated by the organ formed by the working class in the course of its strikes, the MKS (inter-factory committee), while today he no longer represents the working class in struggle, but the national capital as well.

In August 80, the working class, in a strug­gle which to this day remains the most important one since the historic resurgence of the world proletariat at the end of the 60s, had really managed to force the bourgeois state into a mo­mentary retreat. Today the formidable militancy the workers have displayed for several months, and more particularly this August, has been de­railed and tied down by the sordid maneuvers of its enemies - the government and the party in power (though the latter is still called ‘the Workers' Party') and the organization which de­spite (or rather thanks to) its legal non-exis­tence, still enjoys the confidence of the work­ers: the trade union Solidarnosc.

On 31 August 1980, Lech Walesa was simply the mouthpiece of the workers in struggle, who could at any moment control the negotiations he was involved in with the government, which had been compelled to present itself at the workers' main bastion, the Lenin shipyard. On 31 August 1988, the same Lech Walesa was in a meeting, behind closed doors in a government villa in the best neighborhoods in Warsaw, with the minister of the interior, ie the government's specialist in the maintenance of capitalist order. These talks had one aim: to find the best way to re­ establish this order, which had been put into question by the workers' strikes.

On 31 August 80, Walesa called for a return to work because the government had conceded to the 21 demands elaborated by the strikers. On 31 August 88, he took advantage of the popularity he still enjoys among the workers to call on them to end their movement in exchange for vague promises about a ‘round table' which would look into the question of ‘trade union pluralism', ie the pluralism of organs whose task is to control the working class and sabotage its struggles. This is the reason why, whereas on 1 September80 the strikers went back with the feeling of having won som3thing, this time it took Walesa a good part of the night to convince the Gdansk inter-factory strike committee to call for a return to work, and a whole morning to get the workers of the Lenin shipyard to end their strike, while in other towns the strikes continued until the arrival of the ‘flying fireman'.

In brief, in August 80, the working class had obtained a victory (a provisional one certainly, but what other kind can their be in the present period?); in August 88, it suffered a defeat.  

Must we conclude from this that there has been a general retreat of the working class in all countries? Is this what the recent events in Poland tell us about the evolution of the balance of forces between the classes at a world-wide level?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the recent struggles of the proletariat in Poland provide a clear confirmation of the whole perspective put forward by our organization for 20 years: more than ever this is a time of the unfolding and intensification of the class struggle, and the conditions for this have continued to develop since the beginning of the historic resurgence two decades ago.

The inexorable aggravation of the economic crisis and the intensification of capitalist attacks

At the origin of the workers' struggles which have shaken Poland in recent months are the in­credibly brutal attacks on the living standards of the working class. Thus, at the beginning of the year the government decided that on the ­first of each of the following months, February, March, April, there would be a series of massive rises in the price of food products, transport services ... The rate of inflation in this period rose to 60%. Despite the wage increases which accompanied these rises, there was still a 20% loss in income for the population. In one year, certain prices were overturned several times: rents were doubled, the price of coal was multi­plied by three, the price of pears by four, linen shoes for children by five, and these are only a few examples among many. What's more, because of shortages (eg meat, children's milk, toilet paper) many basic goods have to be bought on the black market or at the ‘Pewex'. The dizzying price charged on the black market brings the average wage down to 23 dollars a month. In these conditions it's not surprising that the authorities themselves recognize that 60% of the population lives below the breadline.

This poverty is felt in a particularly harsh manner by the young workers who have formed the most determined battalions in the recent strug­gles. According to Tygodnik Mazowsze, Soli­darnosc's clandestine weekly in Warsaw, the young workers are "a generation without perspectives".

"The lives that they lead are a nightmare. Their chances of finding housing for themselves are practically nill. Most of them live in so called apartments supplied by the enterprise. Often six of them are crammed into two bedrooms. A couple with three children lives in a small room and a kitchen four meters square which only has cold water."

This unbelievable deterioration of the living conditions of the working class, in spite of (or rather because of) all the various ‘economic re­ forms' pushed through by the regime over a num­ber of years, can in no way be considered as ‘exception' or a ‘particularity' reserved for Poland or the other ‘socialist' countries. Even if in this country it takes on an extreme caricatured form, because of the acute level of the economic crisis there (Poland's foreign debt has risen to some $50 billion, $39 billion of them owed to the western countries), we find the same thing in all the eastern European countries and in the most advanced countries. In the USSR, for example, shortages have never been so catas­trophic despite the price rises which were supposed to make them disappear.  The famous ‘perestroika' of the economy is totally absent from the fridges, as has been humorously re­marked by the inhabitants of the ‘fatherland of socialism'; and in the same vein ‘glasnost' means mainly that you can see so well through the shop windows because there's nothing behind them. What is above all underlined by the strikes in Poland and the economic catastrophe that feeds them is the bankruptcy of the poli­cies of ‘perestroika' so dear to Gorbachev. And there's no mystery in any of this: whereas the economies of the most advanced countries only give the illusion of a certain stability by means of a headlong plunge into the abyss of astronomical debt, it is the weaker economies, like those of eastern Europe, and of Poland in particular, who are the first to pay the price of the world-wide collapse of capitalism. And no ‘restructuration' can change this. Like ev­erywhere else in the world, the ‘economic re­forms' can only have one consequence: new and still more brutal attacks on the living conditions of the working class.

Thus, what is clearly illustrated by the pre­sent situation in Poland is the insurmountable nature of the crisis of capitalism. The eco­nomic disarray of this country, the pauperization this means for the working class, simply indicate the direction which is also being followed by the most advanced countries, the ones which have up to now been most ‘spared' by the crisis.

For the working class, one way forward: The development of its struggles

The second lesson we have to draw from this situation is that, faced with the irreversible collapse of the world economy, faced with the unceasing growth of capitalist attacks, the working class of all countries has no choice but to take up and develop its struggles. And the struggles of the workers in Poland once again prove that this is indeed the path being followed by the world proletariat.

The recent struggles in Poland are particu­larly significant in this respect. In this country, in the wake of their magnificent strug­gle and their initial victory in 1980, the work­ers suffered a smarting defeat which was concretized by the ‘state of siege' set up in December 81. Tens of thousands of workers were put in prison; their resistance was broken by force, with dozens of them losing their lives. They had to put up with beatings and other kinds of ill-treatment, with years of police terror, per­manent surveillance and persecution. If they still tried to resist the attacks of capital, they risked losing their jobs, their lodgings, or even being thrown in prison. And despite this enormous pressure, despite the demoralization which has weighed on many of them since 81, last spring they once again took up the struggle against the new round of economic attacks. Not at all disarmed by the failure of this first at­tempt (when all of Walesa's skills had to be used to convince the young workers of Gdansk to go back to work[1], they again hurled them­selves into the fray this summer, in a much wider movement than the previous one. This il­lustrates one of the major characteristics of the present period: the acceleration of history under the pressure of the aggravation of the economic crisis, which at the level of the class struggle is manifested by a tendency for waves of struggle to be increasingly close together in time.

This movement had begun on 16 August in a spontaneous way in the heart of the Polish work­ing class, the mines of Silesia. This was par­ticularly significant because it affected one of the oldest and most experienced sectors of the working class - and one which traditionally has been most ‘'coddled' by the government (higher wage s and rations), mainly because of its eco­nomic importance (coal is the country's most im­portant raw material and source of energy and represents a quarter of its exports). Neverthe­less these workers demanded big wage increases (up to 100%, a figure never before raised in Poland). Day after day the movement spread to new mines and to other regions, notably Szczecin where the port and transports were paralyzed by strikes. Everywhere, the push for a strike was very strong, notably from the young workers. In Gdansk, at the Lenin shipyard, a beacon for all the workers of the country, the young workers again wanted to come out despite their setback in May. Again Walesa played the role of a temporizer. But on Monday 22 August, he himself could do nothing but call for a strike which im­mediately paralyzed the Lenin shipyard. In a few hours the strike spread to Warsaw (the Huta Warszawa steelworks, the Ursus tractor factory), Poznan, Stalowa Wola and other enterprises in Gdansk. Between 50,000 and 70,000 workers were on strike. On Tuesday 23 August, the strike continued to spread, particularly in Gdansk, to other shipyards, and to new mines in Upper Sile­sia. The working class seemed to be renewing the dynamic of the summer of 1980. But in fact the movement had reached its zenith and it began to fall back the next day, because this time the bourgeoisie was much better prepared than it had been 8 years before.

The defeat of the movement: Government and opposition divide up the work

It's possible that the government was sur­prised by the breadth of the struggles. How­ever, its conduct throughout the period they lasted showed that it had learned a great deal since the summer of 80 and that at no point had it been overwhelmed by the situation. Each time a new enterprise came out on strike it took care to encircle it with a cordon of ‘Zomos' (special anti-riot units). Thus, each workplace occupa­tion became a trap for the workers in struggle and prevented them from entering into combat with their class brothers and thus from unifying the movement, from forming a single battlefront. Repression and intimidation weren't limited to this. On 22nd August, the day the movement was extending the most, the interior minister, gen­eral Kiszczak, appeared in uniform on TV to an­nounce a series of measures aimed at blocking this extension: establishment of a curfew in the three regions most hit by the strikes; Katowice, Szczecin and Gdansk; any person ‘external' to an enterprise on strike would be removed and would risk imprisonment. He accused the strikers of being armed and raised the specter of a "bloodbath." At the same moment his performance was backed up by the one on Russian TV which put out pictures of striking enterprises and accused the strikers of being "extremists who exert pressure and threats on their comrades through illegal strikes." The iron bars with which workers equipped themselves to respond to a pos­sible police intervention were presented as the instruments used in these ‘threats.' Thus, when it's a question of dealing with a movement of the working class, Gorbachev sets his ‘Glasnost' to one side and uses the classical language of Stalinist terror: the workers in Russia must on no account get any ideas about imitating their class brothers in Poland and the latter must understand that they can expect nothing from ‘liberalization' (in any case they couldn't have had too many illusions since Gor­bachev visited Poland at the beginning of July and said that the Polish people "should be proud to have a leader like Jaruzelski," whom he referred to as his "personal friend."

The threats did not remain purely verbal. They were backed up by actions: Silesia was cut off from the country by army and police barri­ers; every day the Zomos intervened in new en­terprises to dislodged the workers (notably in Silesia where, below ground, the miners lacked food, medicine and blankets); arrests multi­plied.

These hit strikers but also members of the opposition and in particular leaders of Soli­damosc, such as Frasynink, the head of the union in Wroclaw and a member of the national leadership. In the first case the aim was to pressure the strikers to go back to work and to dissuade other workers from joining the struggle. But arresting the union leaders had an­other aim: to make Solidarnosc credible so that it could fully play its role of sabotaging the struggle. For once again the defeat of the workers derived above all from the action of trade unionism.

The anti-working class aims of Solidarnosc were defined candidly in May by Kuron, one of the main ‘experts' of Solidarnosc and founder of  the former KOR:  

"Only a government which had the confidence of society could stop the course of events, and call for austerity in the framework for reforms. What's really at stake in the present battle is the constitution of such a government." (interview with the French paper Liberation, 5 ­May 1988).

You could hardly be clearer: the goal of Soliarnosc is the same as the government's: to make workers accept "austerity."       

This is why, right from the beginning of the movement, the union was actively sabotaging it. One of the essential components of its strategy was to divert the workers' attention into a dead end. Whereas the movement began around wage demands, Solidarnosc threw all its weight into ensuring that there would be "only one demand: the ­legalization of the trade union." Thus, when Walesa called for a strike in the Lenin shipyard on 22 August, it was with the slogan: "no more joking, we want Solidarnosc now" - as if the workers' defense of their most elementary living conditions, their resistance against misery, were just jokes. For his part, the reputedly ‘radical' president of the Lenin shipyard strike ­committee also affirmed: "The only demand is the reestablishment of Solidarnosc."

Solidarnosc launched its appeals to the strike in a very selective manner. On the one hand, in many of the places where there was a very strong pressure for a struggle, Solidarnosc took care not to call for a strike; in order to keep the lid on the workers' militancy, it declared ‘a state of preparation for a strike', or else threatened to call for a strike in case the authorities unleashed a general repression - which they obviously avoided doing. On the other hand, the direct call for a strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, which since the summer of ‘80 has been a symbol for the whole working class in Poland, was also part of a maneuver. It's one of the enterprises where Solidarnosc is best implanted, notably because Walesa worked there; because of this, it would be easier to ­get workers there back to work, and this would in turn have a symbolic value, since in the rest of the country the workers would have the feel­ing that they could only imitate their comrades in Gdansk. Furthermore, at the Lenin shipyard, in order to facilitate this return to work, Walesa did all he could to present the strike as a calamity, inevitable only because of the bad will of the government which had refused to listen to its repeated calls for negotiation:

"I wanted to avoid the strikes. We shouldn't be on strike. We should be working. But we have no choice ... we're still waiting for serious dis­cussions," (22 August).

And in fact, in order to tire the workers out, the government and Solidarnosc played a cat and mouse game with each other for over a week, both giving proof of their ‘intransigence' on the question of trade union pluralism (thus polarizing the workers around a false question. This carried on until both parties ‘accepted' to meet each other to discuss "without taboos" (sic) about the agenda of a hypothetical "round table" which would get together, of course, when the workers had gone back.

Thus, the total complicity between the authorities and Solidarnosc is obvious. It is even more obvious when you know that one of the favorite sports of the leaders of Solidarnosc is to pass with impunity through the police cordons cutting off the enterprises and regions in struggle in order to join strikers, as in the case of Jan Litynski, founder of KOR and responsible for Solidarnosc in Warsaw, who managed to join the strike committee of the Silesian mines and become its most important ‘expert', and of Lech Walesa himself who ‘climbed the wall' into the Lenin shipyard. Really: the Polish cops are so inefficient.

As always in Poland, the Church participated in the division of labor; it could even afford the luxury of ringing out two tunes: the moderate tune of the chaplain of the Lenin shipyard who, on the eve of the strike, adopted a position against it, saying it would "set fire to Poland", and the ‘radical' tune which gave its full support to the strikers and their demand for ‘trade union pluralism.' Even the forces of the official power made play of their ‘disagreements' in order to disorient the workers. Thus on 24 August, the official unions, (OPZZ), whose president is a member of the political bureau of the Party, warned the govern­ment that it must "listen to their opinion" on the threat of calling a general strike. Jaruzelski must have been really scared.

Finally, thanks to these maneuvers, the bourgeoisie got what it wanted: a return to work without the workers having won anything. It was an important defeat for the workers which will leave its mark. It's all the more a defeat in that the sabotaging work of Solidarnosc, as an organization, has not been exposed - it was Walesa, who's always ready for this kind of job, to appear as the one who ‘sold out the strike'. His popularity will no doubt have lost a few feathers, but ‘you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs'. The essential thing is that the majority of workers still have their illusions in ‘free' trade unions. By refusing to legalize Solidarnosc (while in fact Solidarnosc is already well-established, with numerous weekly papers, collection of dues, regular meetings of its leaders - all that is ‘tolerated'), by continuing to ‘persecute' its leaders, the official power has made its own contribution to these il­lusions.

In Poland as all over the world, the perspective is above all one of class confrontations

August 80-August 88: the comparison between the results of the strikes in these two periods thus seems to indicate a very tangible retreat in the strength of the working class. A superfi­cial examination of these two moments of strug­gle could confirm such a view: it's true that eight years ago the working class was able to wage much more massive and determined struggles; it's true in particular that in 1980 it managed to create an organization which allowed it to control its struggle right up to its victory. But you can't stop at these elements on their own. In reality, the present weakness of the working class in Poland is fundamentally the expression of the political strengthening of the bourgeoisie in this country, just as the work­ers' strength in August 1980 was largely linked to the then weakness of the ruling class. And this strengthening of the bourgeoisie today is due, much more than to the increased subtlety of the country's leaders, to the existence of a structure for controlling the working class, a structure that was absent in 80: the trade union Solidarnosc. This was expressed very well by Kuron: "Contrary to July-August 1980, the oppo­sition today has at its disposal organized structures capable of controlling events, " (ibid).

In fact the working class in Poland is today confronted with the same kind of traps that the workers in the most advanced countries have been coming up against for decades. It's precisely because it has not yet had this experience that it could be trapped in this way by the maneuvers of trade unionism after its remarkable struggle of the summer of 1980. But the other side of this is that the whole experience accu­mulated by the proletariat of the great capital­ist metropoles, notably in western Europe, is now permitting it gradually to extricate itself from the grip of the unions (as we saw in the railway strike in France at the end of ‘86, or in Italy in the school sector in 87), and more and more to control and unify its struggles as did the Polish workers in 80. But when the workers in the west have really managed to do this, the bourgeoisie won't be able to make them go backwards as it has with the proletariat in Poland. It is thus these more advanced sectors of the world working class which can show the way forward for their class brothers, particu­larly those in Poland and Eastern Europe.

The struggles of summer 88 in Poland in no way indicate that there has been a retreat in the class struggle on an international scale. On the contrary they are testimony to the enormous reserves of combativity in the proletariat to­day. This combativity isn't wiped out by par­tial defeats - indeed it only accumulates more with the intensification of capital's attacks. Similarly, the strength of trade unionist, demo­cratic, and nationalist illusions weighing on the proletariat in Poland serves to highlight the steps that have been accomplished by the big workers' concentrations in the decisive centers of western Europe, and thus by the world proletariat as a whole; it thus demonstrates that the international working class is advancing towards increasingly autonomous, powerful and conscious battles.

FM  4.9.88.



[1] On the strikes in the spring in Poland and their sabotage by Solidarnosc, see IR 54.

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