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.footnote 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.

The aim of this article is not to deny either the connections with 1970–71 or the important peculiarities of Polish society and politics. But it attempts to show the way in which the largely misunderstood crisis in the winter of 1970–71 produced a political dynamic whose contradictions are both specific to the 1970s and highly characteristic of the problems besetting other East European régimes in the second half of this decade. Furthermore, the interlocking of these essentially international contradictions of the bureaucratic régimes in Eastern Europe with the peculiarities of Polish society has produced a highly explosive conjuncture in Poland and one that will increasingly demand the attention of the revolutionary left throughout Europe.

The events of June 1976 were not a re-run of the strike movement at the end of 1970. But the political relationship of forces within which the Gierek leadership has had to operate right up to the present was shaped in a profound and concrete way by the working-class offensive which began on the Baltic coast in December 1970. For this movement was a good deal more than a sudden elemental explosion replacing one face at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid with another. A number of features of the workers’ movement in what we might call, for the sake of brevity, the ‘Baltic crisis’ need to be stressed.

First, there was the extraordinary scope and dynamism of the working-class upsurge. On 12 December, a Saturday, the Council of Ministers announced increases in food prices averaging about 30 per cent. The following Monday morning, 3,000 workers held a mass meeting at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk on the Baltic.footnote1 When union officials refused to take any action against the price increases, the workers struck and marched to the local radio station to try to broadcast an appeal to the local population. Blocked by the militia, the crowd of shipyard workers marched on the city’s Party headquarters shouting ‘Bread’ and ‘The press is lying’. The police attacked and the crowd attempted to burn down the building. The next day Gdansk was in the throes of a popular uprising and the strike movement spread to Gdynia and Elblag, where the masses also stoned the Party headquarters. The workers of Szczecin also struck, and on Wednesday the 16th strikes swept through the Katowice area in Upper Silesia and work also stopped in Poznan. The movement was no longer confined to the Baltic. On the 17th there was a massacre of workers in Gdynia and further deaths of workers in Slupsk. At this point a full-scale working-class mobilization in Szczecin took the leadership of the movement, under the direction of the strike committee at the Adolf Warski shipyards. By the evening of Thursday the 17th tanks were entering the main Baltic ports, while the movement of strikes and demonstrations spread to Wroclaw and Cracow. Every town in the Baltic region, including Starograd and Malbork, was on strike. On Friday the 18th many of the large factories in Warsaw, including the famous Zeran car plant that had led the workers’ movement in 1956, downed tools. The leaders of the strike committees in Warsaw proclaimed a general strike for Monday 21 December.footnote2 At this point, over the weekend of 19–20 December, the Central Committee met and removed the already sick Gomulka, declaring Edward Gierek the new leader of the Party.

But this did not end the movement; it was only the beginning. Gierek announced a whole series of economic concessions in the Sejm on 23 December: a promise not to raise prices further during the next two years, a new bonus scheme, seven billion zloty worth of allowances for low-income workers, a crash housing programme, etc.footnote3 These did not end the movement. The strike committees remained in operation and organized repeated strikes on the Baltic to press for sweeping political changes. On 24 January, in the midst of an occupation-strike by the Szczecin shipyard workers and continuing strikes in other parts of the city, Party Secretary Gierek and Prime Minister Jaroszewicz arrived to discuss with a mass meeting of strikers for nine continuous hours.footnote4 By offering further concessions, Gierek was able to end the Szczecin strikes. But this did not stop the movement. The strike committees in Szczecin and Gdansk were transformed into workers’ committees, which continued to hold sway as the workers’ elected leaders in the shipyards.

They maintained their authority also over the working class in the surrounding areas, holding a large number of mass meetings in factories throughout the Baltic region, and supervising new trade-union elections in the shipyards. The régime had frozen prices, but at the rate fixed by Gomulka in December and not at the pre-December levels. In addition, the working class was raising a series of political demands for trade-union and press independence, as well as a mass of economic and social grievances. Gierek had declared that it was utterly impossible to return to the old price levels of 1966 but the movement was not receding. Gierek tried to defuse the ferment in Gdansk by holding a further meeting with the workers there, but still the workers organized and pressed their demands. Strikes were continuing in other parts of the country, notably at the large tractor factory at Ursus near Warsaw, where Party leaders tried in vain to persuade a meeting of strikers’ delegates to return to work.footnote5

Then on 11 February over 10,000 mainly women workers at seven textile factories in Lodz struck, and by the next day Poland’s second largest industrial city was gripped by a mass strike. Gierek pleaded for trust and patience but without effect. On the evening of 14 February, Prime Minister Jaroszewicz arrived in Lodz together with three other Politburo members to meet the strikers. After a farcical incident whereby Jaroszewicz discovered that the enthusiastic mass meeting he was addressing in the city’s main theatre was packed with Party functionaries posing as strikers, the Prime Minister was eventually taken to a meeting of delegates from the occupation strikes at the Marchlewski works and remained discussing with the workers throughout the night. The next morning Jaroszewicz left the factory empty-handed: the Lodz workers had refused to budge from their basic demands, especially that calling for a return to 1966 price levels. In the meantime, Gierek had hurriedly met the Soviet leaders and on 15 February Warsaw Radio announced that, thanks to a Soviet loan of 100 million dollars in hard currency, the Party leadership had decided to impose a two-year price-freeze at 1966 levels. The Party had capitulated to the Lodz workers while the strike was in full swing and after the failure of negotiations. Even then the Lodz strike did not end until two further days had elapsed.footnote6