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New Left Review I/101-102, January-April 1977


Peter Green

The Third Round in Poland

At first sight, the victorious Polish workers’ strike against price increases in June 1976 was a dazzling example of Marx’s observation about historical repetitions: the first time, on the Baltic in 1970, as tragedy; and now a farcical re-run of Gomulka’s attempt to cut living standards by raising prices. [*] This article is taken from a much longer work on the political crisis in Poland, due to appear as an nlb book later this year. This extract omits all but passing references to such crucial elements in the evolving configuration of forces as the Polish peasantry, the intelligentsia, the church and the Soviet leadership. The article as it stands is thus inevitably one-sided in its concentration upon the relationship between the Party leadership and the working class. Nevertheless, this relationship remains in my view the central, determining element in the Polish crisis, and thus justifies the selection of material for the space available. The same issue, the same working-class response, and the same climb-down by the régime. The only difference seemed to be the hectic pace of the spectacle the second time round, with the Prime Minister reappearing on tv within the space of twenty-four hours to directly contradict his earlier sober announcement in even more solemn tones. Otherwise, the reader of the Western press might think, nothing in Poland has changed. Economics and politics have remained fixed in the same mould as at the time Gomulka made his hurried exit. This impression can be easily reinforced by the knowledge that Poland, with a population almost as large as that of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary put together and with the second largest Communist Party in the Soviet bloc, differs in a number of important respects from other East European countries. The wave of Stalinist terror that swept the Communist Parties of the Soviet ‘buffer’ zone at the end of the 1940s touched the Polish United Workers’ Party (puwp) less than almost any other—its leading ‘Titoist’, Gomulka, was not even put on trial, much less executed. Above all, in October 1956 a sweeping mass movement that brought Gomulka to power in the face of bitter Soviet hostility resulted in a number of changes that subsequently marked Poland off from its neighbours: most importantly, an agriculture still overwhelmingly in the hands of private peasant proprietors; a strongly entrenched Catholic Church; the only genuinely independent group of Parliamentary deputies in Eastern Europe—the Catholic Znak group in the Sejm; and an intelligentsia with considerably more freedom of expression than is the norm in the rest of Eastern Europe. All these undoubted peculiarities of contemporary Poland can lead the casual observer to believe not only that little has changed in the domestic configuration of forces, but also that Polish politics is a law unto itself. Unusual events can happen in Poland that could never be tolerated in other East European states, and ipso facto the recent upheavals in the summer of 1976 have no general significance for East European politics as a whole.

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