The greatest and most sustained popular upsurge in Europe for decades has left both bourgeois and working-class opinion in the West profoundly bewildered as to its basic historical meaning. A standard formula—used by both The Times and miners’ leader Arthur Scargill—has been that Solidarity was an excellent thing but that it was going too far, or travelling too fast. Yet the deeper implicit worry on all sides was not so much the speed or extent of Solidarity’s journey, but its point of departure and the nature of its ultimate destination. The main purpose of this article is to try to discover the answer to this question. A second aim will be to try to explore the issue of Solidarity’s defeat in December 1981: why it was possible for this huge mass movement to be driven underground by the imposition of martial law.

What follows is not an attempt to encompass the history of Poland between 1980 and the beginning of 1982. Our analysis will omit serious considerations of important regions and dimensions of the story: notably the peasantry and Rural Solidarity, internal Church politics, events in the Sejm, international reverberations and so on.footnote1 Throughout, the focus of our attention will be on Solidarity, its antagonist and the main intermediary political forces within Poland.

The fundamental feature of the Polish upheaval that has been so difficult for socialists (and anti-socialists) in the West to grasp has been the fact that the Polish workers combine a tenacious political opposition to continued monopolistic rule by the Polish Communist Party (pzpr) with a no less tenacious defence of a group of rights never guaranteed by any capitalist state. Opposition to a pre-democratic political order is less difficult for people in the parliamentary states of the West to grasp than the fact that the workers in Eastern Europe possess certain post-capitalist social rights (whose preservation is, in the end, of critical importance in the stable maintenance of these states). We must therefore begin by looking at these social rights to which East European workers are strongly attached, and which, for obvious reasons, bourgeois writers working within the cold war consensus tend to gloss over.

The starting point of any serious analysis of East European societies is that the decisive means of production within them are nationalized, and with the suppression of the class of private capitalists has gone the suppression of the capitalist market as the regulator of economic activity. Instead, the forms of economic activity become matters of political struggle and political decision. The distribution of factors of production and the ways they are related to each other are decided, and can only be decided, by the predominant powers in the political field. Indeed an enormously wide range of socio-economic issues excluded from the political system’s jurisdiction by capitalist class relations are brought within the field of politics by the nationalization of the means of production. The distribution of wealth and income and the entire price structure become matters for political manipulation, together with the length of the working day, the intensity of work, the extent of unemployment, and the allocation of investment resources.

In the classical Marxist conception of socialist transition, the nationalization of the economy would be accompanied by its socialization through the political control of the working class in a new type of democratic regime. This has, of course, not happened in Eastern Europe. Instead, the political field has been occupied by a monopolistic Communist Party while all other political trends have been excluded from the political system. Within the political system power is concentrated in the hands of an elite of party and state officials, essentially appointed from above to these positions through the so-called nomenklatura system. All instruments of state power are tightly controlled by the party elite and members of the party are not allowed to engage in any organized struggle for alternative policies to those of the party leadership.

All this is widely recognized by socialists and non-socialists alike in the West. But the conclusion that has traditionally been drawn from this, particularly by devotees of American totalitarian theories of East European states, is that the regimes are virtually omnipotent, that they have near total freedom to mould an atomized mass in any way they please. Yet for Marxists such notions are absurd. The party–state leaders of Eastern Europe do indeed wield enormous power, but within a framework of socio-economic relationships established when the new states were constructed in the late 1940s, a framework which places strict limits on the exercise of this power.

It would be possible to conceive of nationalized property relations co-existing with massive unemployment and the progressive immiseration of the working class. This is a theoretical possibility, but it does not describe the actual history of these states. In practice, nationalized property has entailed a number of social and economic corollaries: full employment and economic security; very low and largely stable prices for essential items such as food, housing, transport etc.; rising living standards; a large and generally growing degree of social egalitarianism (in comparison with capitalist states); a lower level of work intensity; and, for a minority of the manual working class, prospects of social privileges and upward mobility considerably greater than under capitalism. Moreover, the rule of the party requires a degree of active involvement by its members, and corresponding recruitment from the working class, at every level in the workplace and the locality in order to invigilate and propel the plan.