‘Nobody can say yet whether this year will enter history as the year of the victory of the socialist model of liberty . . . or as that of a new collapse.’ Zycie Warszawy, 6 December 1980

The tremors that shook Poland during the ‘hot’ summer of 1980 precipitated an autumn full of tensions, hard bargaining, trials of strength, strikes and compromises. At the impressive and extraordinary ceremony at Gdansk on the 16th of December, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the shooting of shipyard workers, the main protagonists in the previous dramas—the new trade union Solidarity, the Church and the government—seemed to have achieved a tentative reconciliation. Nonetheless the way ahead remains unclear and uncertain. There is no question of going back to the old days when the country was ruled by simple fiat of the party hierarchy. If previously every city and town, every industry and every plant was governed by a decree from above, today those issuing decrees must carefully ponder all possible objections which may be raised before they adopt any economic plan, determine the level of productivity, fix wages and prices, or take decisions on educational or cultural policy. Suddenly everything has become arguable and open to debate. The party’s former monopoly over economic policy is now shared with Solidarity, while the Church has extended its access to the media and its privileges within the educational system. The party itself has been shaken by the events and it is unclear if the leadership can restore its dominance within its own apparatus—much less within society at large. The working class that moved to the forefront of the political scene—uncowed, self-confident and conscious of its power versus the employerstate—has shown its unity and determination. In its historic conflict with the State it wrested significant reforms from a party whose leaders seem to have fallen into shock at the sight of the big battalions facing them. The workers maintained the initiative throughout the contest and the response to their demands was surprisingly quick, without prolonged bureaucratic haggling; even, here and there, tinged with a stealthy admiration. The fear that the concessions granted may be ‘eroded’—to use a fashionable word—is not without foundation. But even more ‘eroded’ has been the authority of a party which emerges out of each successive contest more shaken and in deeper crisis.

The upheaval of 1980 was preceded and prepared by the events of 1956, and more recently by the crises of 1970 and 1976. These occasions have all demonstrated that even under one-party rule it is still possible to bring about changes at the top by militant pressure from below. In 1956 Gomulka, who had been in Stalin’s days under a virtual house arrest, assumed power by the will of both the ‘liberal’ wing of the party as well as by that of the broad masses of the working class and the intelligentsia. Fourteen years later he was ousted during the great strike wave of workers on the Baltic coast which he had tried to suppress with force of arms.footnote1 The once acclaimed ‘Comrade Wieslaw’ was chased away amid the sound of police and army bullets turned against the workers and in the glare of fires burning down the party headquarters in Gdansk. At this point Edward Gierek was despatched post-haste from his stronghold in the mining district of Silesia to the Baltic. He won the confidence of the striking workers through his ability to project himself as ‘one of them.’ Indeed he was a former miner with a long and admirable background of proletarian militancy; in his youth he had worked more than twelve years as an immigrant labourer in French and Belgian pits, while fighting in the ranks of the Communist parties of both countries. After 22 years he returned to Poland again only in 1948. He must have been regarded with distrust in Moscow as the only Polish Communist leader with a Western background. ‘I am not afraid of you, comrades. . . . since you know what I am—OK? I am a worker. If we workers can’t reach an understanding, who can?’ Thus he spoke to the Szczecin strikers a decade ago. About the shooting incidents he said, ‘We condemn such things.’ He and the party seem, in fact, to have remembered the lessons of 1970, and a ‘no shooting’ policy has been strictly adhered to by Gierek’s successor, Stanislaw Kania, formerly in charge of security and the army, who became the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers Party (pzpr) on 6 September.

The cooperation between the workers and the intelligentsia, so important in the latest stage of struggle, dates from September 1976. At that time the government, under the pressure of concerted protests and threats of a general strike, rescinded unpopular price increases but proceeded to victimize the most active militants. A group of prominent lawyers, professors, lecturers and writers set up a Workers’ Defence Committee (kor), ostensibly as a semi-charitable organization providing financial and legal aid for victims of persecution as well as monitoring and exposing the worst cases of corruption and police brutality. kor is by no means a homogeneous body, although most of its members profess some sort of socialism. It has become a principal thorn in the flesh of the authorities who, anxious to make some show of adherence to legality and afraid of antagonizing the most articulate segment of society even further, have confined themselves to sporadic arrests and harassment. One of the most harassed has been, of course, the spiritus movens of the whole enterprise, Jacek Kuron. Kuron is a man of courage and impressive energy, who has already endured two long sentences in prison. During Gomulka’s leadership he was, together with K. Modzelewski and a few other friends, deprived of liberty for circulating an ‘Open Letter’ to the party in which they exposed the bureaucratic ossification of the regime.footnote2 It was a cogent critique from the left, consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Bolshevik Opposition (and especially of Bukharin) of the late twenties. Moreover it was reported that after their sentencing, Kuron and his comrade defiantly sang the Internationale in court. Such a gesture on his part would be unthinkable today. He has moved towards social democracy, the Church and a nationalistic position. Michnik, now his close collaborator, has very explicitly stated in a letter to Figaro (the right-wing Paris daily) that Kuron should not be judged today on the basis of the views which he held fifteen years ago and which he has now definitely abandoned.

One of the activities of the kor at the end of the seventies which received considerable attention in the West was the creation of the so-called ‘flying universities’. These were clandestine popular gatherings addressed by dissident academics on subjects banned from the curricula of the official universities and schools. They were partially inspired by an old patriotic tradition dating back to the nineteenth century when partitioned and subjugated Poland fought against the forcible Germanization and Russification of her youth. To keep alive the vision of a sovereign and independent Poland and to preserve her cultural heritage was then, as now, the main aim of secret schools and universities. Since its inception kor has, however, been considerably enlarging its activities. It launched a number of samizdat publications and acted as a midwife to a multitude of committees: to defend peasants’ rights, to protect believers, to unite students, and so on. By the end of the seventies it had demonstrated its obvious value to the working class and achieved a much closer contact and coordination with factory activists. The semi-clandestine newspaper Robotnik (The Worker), edited by a group loosely connected with kor, played an important role in disseminating information which the government wished to suppress, coordinating strike action and often ensuring vital liaison between various local and regional strike committees. This undoubtedly increased the awareness, unity and solidarity without which there could not have been the same degree of common action. According to reports, the circulation of Robotnik jumped from the impressive number of 10,000 to the astonishing number of 50,000 during the turbulent months of August and September, while the paper, passed hand to hand, must have been read by many thousands more. kor has also been able to mobilize public opinion in the West by maintaining close relations with sympathizers abroad. It now has, for example, an ‘accredited’ representative to the Socialist International.