The mass strike in Poland 1980: Lessons for the future
"Forty years ago, in the summer of 1980, the working class in Poland made the whole world tremble. A massive strike movement was spreading across the country: several hundred thousand workers launched wildcat strikes in the different towns; it shook the ruling class in Poland and those in other countries".
That was forty years ago, but this "massive strike movement" pointed a finger to the future. These inevitable struggles that the working class would have to wage and the many lessons it would learn from this great experience are invaluable: taking control of its struggles, self-organisation, elected and revocable delegates, the extension of the movement, workers' solidarity, the general assemblies and broadcasting the debates over loudspeakers... this is what the workers' struggle in Poland was like: a struggle against the attacks on their living conditions, against the increase in meat prices and for wage increases. The organisation of this strike movement demonstrated what the working class is capable of. Poland 1980 was one of the great experiences of the workers' movement which shows our class that it can and must have confidence in itself, that its strength comes from being united and organised.
This movement also showed what the ruling class is capable of, the sophisticated traps it can set for those it exploits and the degree to which the bourgeoisies from all sides are ready to work together to crush the working class. The response that was mounted against the class struggle demonstrated once more the strength and Machiavellianism of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie. In the East and in the West, all possible forces were used to extinguish this dangerous fire and prevent it from spreading, especially to East Germany.
What happened in Poland in 1980?
The 1980 movement did not appear as a bolt from out the blue. On the contrary, the international situation was marked by the recovery of the class struggle since May 1968 in France. Even if the presence of the Iron Curtain limited any interaction between the struggles of the working class in the West and in the East, the same dynamic was at work either side. Hence, the 1970s in Poland were characterised by a strong development of combativity and reflection.
In the 1970s, forced by the economic crisis and the weakness of its state capitalism, the Polish government attacked the workers' living conditions: horrific increases in food prices were accompanied by food shortages, while Poland was continuing to export potatoes to France. "In the winter of 1970-71, the Baltic shipyard workers went on strike against the increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs. Initially, the Stalinist regime reacted with fierce repression of the demonstrations which resulted in several hundred deaths, particularly in Gdansk. However, the strikes did not stop. Finally, party leader Gomulka, was removed and replaced by a more ‘sympathetic’ figure, Gierek. The latter spoke for 8 hours with the Szczecin shipyard workers before convincing them to return to work. Not surprisingly, he then betrayed the promises he made to them at that time. In 1976, new brutal economic attacks provoked strikes in several cities, notably in Radom and Ursus. The repression left many dozens dead."
It was in this context and in the face of the worsening economic crisis that the Polish bourgeoisie decided to impose another increase in the price of meat by almost 60% in July 1980. The attack was direct, without the ideological coating that the Western bourgeoisies are capable of. It was characteristic of the brutal Stalinist methods of the regime and totally inappropriate in the face of a combative proletariat. The decisions of the Polish bourgeoisie would only provoke the workers' reaction. Based on the experience in the 1970s, "the workers of Tczew near Gdansk and those of Ursus in the suburbs of Warsaw went on strike. In Ursus, general assemblies were held, a strike committee was elected and common demands were raised. In the following days, the strikes continued to spread: Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, etc. The government then tried to prevent any further extension of the movement by making rapid concessions such as wage increases. In mid-July, the workers in Lublin, an important railway junction, went on strike. Lublin was located on the train line connecting Russia with East Germany. In 1980, it was a vital line for conveying Russian troops from East Germany. The demands of the workers were: no repression against the striking workers, withdrawal of the police from the factories, wage increases and free trade union elections". The movement spread, attempts to stop and divide it failed: the mass strike was underway. Within two months, Poland was paralysed. The situation was too explosive for the government to suppress. In addition, the danger was not confined within the Polish borders. In the coal-mining region of Ostrava in Czechoslovakia, and in the Romanian mining regions, in Russia at Togliattigrad, miners and workers were following the same path. "In the countries of Western Europe, if there were no strikes in direct solidarity with the struggles of the Polish workers, workers in many countries took up the slogans of their class brothers in Poland. In Turin, in September 1980, we could hear workers chanting: ‘Gdansk shows us the way’."
Faced with this danger of extension, the bourgeoisies of the world worked together to crush the movement. On the one hand, the movement had to be isolated and on the other it had to be misrepresented. The borders with East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were quickly closed. The international bourgeoisies worked hand in hand to shut down and isolate the movement: the Polish government feigned a radical distancing towards the USSR, the Soviet government threatened the workers by moving tanks to the border and Western Europe financed and advised Solidarnosc while international propaganda rallied behind Solidarnosc as a heroic, free and independent trade union.
This alliance of the various Western bourgeoisies with the Polish bourgeoisie proved fatal for the Polish mass movement. And it is for this reason that, contrary to the theory of the weakest link, the future revolution can only start from the central countries: "As long as the important movements of the class only affect countries on the periphery of capitalism (as was the case for Poland) and even if the local bourgeoisie is completely overwhelmed, the Holy Alliance of all the bourgeoisies of the world, led by the most powerful ones, will be able to establish a cordon sanitaire both economically and politically, ideologically and even militarily around the proletarian sectors concerned.. It is only at the moment that the proletarian struggle strikes the economic and political heart of the capitalist system:
- that the establishment of an economic cordon sanitaire will have become impossible, because it will be the richest economies that are affected,
- that the establishment of a political cordon sanitaire will no longer have any effect because it will be the most developed proletariat that will confront the most powerful bourgeoisie, only then will this struggle give the signal for the world revolutionary conflagration."
Illusions in democracy and trade unions: the weakness of the working class in Poland
The main weapon of the bourgeoisie would be the Solidarnosc trade union itself. Called on to playthe role of the "left-wing" of capital, a role it would perform "clandestinely" from 1982 onward, it diverted the struggle onto the nationalist terrain, serving the workers up to defeat and to repression. This trade union came out of the KOR (the Committee for the Defence of Workers') that emerged after the repressions of 1976 and was comprised of the intellectuals of the democratic opposition fighting for the legalisation of independent trade unions. It would have 15 of its members incorporated in the MKS (the inter-factory strike committee).
While "there was no trade union influence in the summer of 1980 at the start of the movement, the members of the "free trade union" would act to undermine the struggle. While initially negotiations were conducted openly, after a while it was claimed that "experts" were needed to work through the details of negotiations with the government. It became increasingly difficult for the workers to follow the negotiations, let alone participate in them, as the loudspeakers transmitting the negotiations had stopped working due to ‘technical’" problems. The work of sabotage had begun. The original political and economic demands (including wage demands) were diverted towards the unions' interests rather than those of the workers, with the recognition of independent unions to the fore. On August 31, the Gdansk Agreement, embodying the democratic and trade union illusions, signed the death knell of the mass strike. "Because the workers understood that the official trade unions were an integral part of the state, most of them now believed that the newly founded Solidarnosc trade union, with ten million workers, was incorruptible and would defend their interests. They had no familiarity with the experience of the workers in the West who had been confronted for decades with ‘free’ unions"."
Solidarnosc would perfectly assume its role as the fire-fighter of capitalism and extinguish the workers' combativity. "Democratic illusions were the ideal breeding ground for the bourgeoisie and its trade union Solidarnosc to carry out their anti-working class policy and unleash the repression.( ...) In the autumn of 1980, when the workers went on strike again to protest the Gdansk Agreement, having realised that even with a ‘free’ trade union on their side, their material situation had worsened, Solidarity was already beginning to show its true face. Once the mass strikes had ended, Walesa, as the leader, travelled all around in an army helicopter to call on the workers to urgently stop their strikes, saying ‘we don't need any more strikes because they are pushing our country into the abyss, we have to calm down’. Whenever possible, he seized the initiative from the workers, preventing them from launching new strikes." For a whole year, Solidarnosc did the job of undermining and preparing the ground for repression.
The Polish government “re-established order” during the night of 12-13 December 1981 and a “state of war” was declared: communication channels were closed down, mass arrests took place, tanks moved into Warsaw, and military checkpoints were erected across the country. "While no workers were beaten or killed in the summer of 1980 because of self-organisation and extension of the struggles, and because there was no union supervision over the workers, in December 1981 more than 1,200 workers were murdered and tens of thousands were imprisoned or driven into exile". The living conditions that would follow were worse than those imposed at the beginning of July 1980. During 1982, the combativity did not disappear, but it would be suppressed under the blows of a fierce repression coupled with the continual sabotage of Solidarnosc, leaving the Polish working class impoverished and forced into exile to sell its labour power.
The lessons of the summer of 1980
Despite this defeat, the experience of this workers' movement is invaluable. It was the highest point of an international wave of struggles and it provided an illustration of the fact that the class struggle is the only force that can compel the bourgeoisie to suspend its imperialist rivalries. The military action of the USSR in Afghanistan, which it invaded in 1979, was halted by the actions of the undefeated proletariat in the Eastern bloc. This clearly showed the power of the working class. This is what we need to reclaim:
"In the summer of 1980, the workers took the initiative in the struggle. Not waiting for instructions from on high, they marched together and held assemblies to decide for themselves the place and time of their struggles. Joint demands were put forward in the mass assemblies. A strike committee was formed. In the beginning, economic demands were to the fore. The workers were determined. They did not want to suffer a repetition of the bloody crushing suffered by the struggle in 1970 and 1976. In the industrial centre of Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot, an inter-factory strike committee (MKS) was formed; it was composed of 400 members (two delegates per enterprise). In the second half of August, some 800 to 1,000 delegates would meet. Every day general assemblies were held at the Lenin Shipyards. Loudspeakers were installed to allow everyone to follow the discussions of the strike committees and the negotiations with government representatives. At that time there were even microphones installed outside the MKS meeting room so that the workers present in the general assemblies could intervene directly in the MKS discussions. In the evenings, the delegates - most of them provided with cassettes with recordings of the debates - returned to their workplaces and presented the discussions and the situation in ‘their’ factory general assembly, returning their mandate to it. These were the means by which as many workers as possible could participate in the struggle. Delegates had to return their mandate, were revocable at any time. and the general assemblies were always sovereign. All these practices were totally opposed to union practices. Meanwhile, after the workers of Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot united, the movement spread to other cities. To sabotage communications between workers, the government cut the telephone lines on 16 August. Immediately, the workers threatened to extend their movement even further if the government did not restore the lines . The government backtracked. The general assembly then decided to set up a workers’ militia. It was collectively decided to ban alcohol as consumption was widespread. The workers understood the need for clear heads in their confrontation with the government. When the government threatened a crackdown in Gdansk, the railway workers in Lublin declared: ‘If the workers in Gdansk are physically attacked and if even one of them is harmed, we will paralyse the [strategically most important] railway line between Russia and East Germany’. In almost all major cities, the workers were mobilised. More than half a million of them understood that they were the only effective force in the country capable of opposing the government and that this strength came from:
- the rapid extension of the movement in contrast with what happened in 1970 and 1976 when it was worn down in violent confrontations;
- the self-organisation, that is the ability of the workers to take their own initiatives instead of trusting the unions;
- the general assemblies uniting their forces, controling the movement and providing the greatest possible mass participation in the negotiations with the government that was visible to all.
In fact the extension of the movement was the best weapon of solidarity; the workers did not just make pronouncements, they took the initiative in the struggles themselves. This dynamic made possible a change in the balance of forces. As long as the workers were struggling in such a massive and united way, the government was unable to carry out any repression".
Poland 1980 was one of the great historical experiences of the workers' movement, an experience that the proletariat must reappropriate in preparing its future struggles so that it will have confidence in its strength and its ability to organise itself, knowing how to develop solidarity but also being aware of the traps that the bourgeoisie is able to set, especially with the trade unions.
All the quotations come from the article: “Poland (August 1980): 40 years ago, the world proletariat repeated the experience of the mass strike” Révolution Internationale n°483 (July-August 2020)
The ICC has published numerous articles about the struggles in Poland. The following, from our International Review, are available online in English:
International Review 23
International Review 24
International Review 27
International Review 28
International Review 29
Note on the ICC’s intervention towards the mass strikes
During these events, as well as numerous articles in its press, the ICC also distributed three international leaflets, two of them translated into Polish.
The first, dated 6 September 1980, described the massive struggles of the summer, highlighting the power of the movement, its generalisation and self-organisation, denouncing trade unionism and insisting that the workers have no country. It was distributed in about ten countries.
The second leaflet, dated 10 March 1981, was distributed internationally but also translated into Polish and distributed in Poland by a delegation of comrades. It denounced the so-called “socialist” nature of the eastern bloc countries, putting forward an internationalist standpoint and exposing the activities of the different bourgeoisies and of the trade unions
The third leaflet was edited immediately after the proclamation of the “state of war” and denounced the ferocious repression, expressed our solidarity with the Polish workers and the necessity for solidarity from the working class internationally, while rejecting all the false responses of the world bourgeoisie. Comrades were able to distribute it to Polish residents in Paris and New York and to Polish sailors in the port of New York.
The delegation in Poland, after a number of discussions with Polish workers, was able to see for itself the scale of the illusions weighing on the proletariat, making it difficult for them to face up to the historic situation they faced – illusions above all in Solidarnosc and its promises of democracy and prosperity.