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 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-
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