1980s >> 1982 >> no-940-december-1982

Poland: recession and repression

We see that, after all, society has not entered upon a new phase. Instead, the State has gone back to its earliest form, in which the sword rules without shame and club-law prevails

Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire.
Just such a tyranny rules in Poland today. It is no more socialist than Argentina is. It is a land where this autumn workers were murdered behind their impoverished barricades. A land in which a bus driver, walking home with his wife after work, was shot from behind in an empty street. A land where the unemployed, deprived of state benefits, rapidly fall into destitution. A land in which prisoners are often brutally beaten, sometimes tortured. A land where only the “security forces” and those they serve live free from hunger.

 

1982 was a year in which conscript miners in Poland sweated to produced 200 million tons more coal than in 1981. A number died in the effort. Following reports of dangerous levels of methane gas, military commissars threatened miners with court-martial for desertion if they did not continue work. Explosions killed at least 17 miners. The official report on two such “accidents” proved management’s guilt. [1] Conditions of work in the militarised mines are near to slavery: only two free Sundays a month, armed guards, and minimal safety precautions.

 

The recession, combined with crippling foreign debts and lack of foreign exchange, has brought industry almost to a halt. It is thought that real wages have fallen by 40 per cent, while the unemployment rate has reached 20 per cent. [2]

 

Polish economic problems are part and parcel of the recession which has hit East European “socialist” countries as hard as those in the openly capitalist West. This can be seen from the decline in the annual rate of growth. Czechoslovakia and Hungary arc now on a “zero growth” rate, while Romania’s claimed growth rate fell from 11 per cent in 1971 to 2½ per cent in 1981. Not one East European state managed as high a growth rate in the second half of the seventies as had been achieved from 1971-75. [3]

 

In the summer of 1981. desperate measures were being introduced. “Protected” industries were to have priority in obtaining raw material and labour, the “sacrifice” ones were to be run down. [4] “Profit maximisation” is a tacit admission that Poland is as capitalist as any Western country. Where profit exists, there is surplus value which comes into being from workers’ unpaid labour. It results from workers’ exploitation, and is an inevitable consequence of the wages system. There is no difference between the demand of the Polish government for “profit maximisation” and that of Thatcher’s government for “greater efficiency”. Both spell a demand for greater exploitation of the workers.

 

Unlike other rulers in a capitalist crisis, Jaruzclski and his junta hope to shackle the workers with tough new laws which would hinder effective strike organisation. In Poland, the 1981 draft law laid down that strikes would only be legal after approval by the majority of workers and after compulsory arbitration had failed. Afterwards, strikers would only get half-pay until lost production had been made up. Also, the Sejm could declare a 60-day moratorium on strikes if it decided that an economic emergency existed. The 1982 version is worse: many workers will not be allowed to strike under any conditions. [5]

 

For those “lucky” enough to be in work, it is close to forced labour. Many work 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, including Sundays and Bank Holidays. Parasites (the unemployed) can be directed into any kind of work, however unsuited. There is also forced labour, without pay. Workers can be drafted to other areas. Hundreds arc held in internment camps, including those who arc held merely because it is thought possible that they might, one day. break some regulation or other. There are many reports of serious brutality, even torture, and no inspection of conditions in the camps is allowed, even by the Red Cross. Families of internees suffer great hardship, alleviated to some extent by collections and other aid organised by Solidarity or the church.

 

Yet only two years ago. massive strikes in the shipyards and the coal mines of the south led to the formation of a nationwide union, independent of the ruling Party, backed by 80 per cent of workers. The workers expected that if they had an independent union, everything else would follow and they could coerce the government into implementing reforms. This belief lingers on. Solidarity leaders called for a general strike in June, and a recent statement declared that “it is still too soon to order a general strike” while not ruling this out at a later date. [6]

 

Lech Walesa and others who urged that the new movement should restrict its role to that of a trade union were unable to prevent it developing into a political opposition. This was mainly a consequence of the growing demoralisation of the ruling party, as heads rolled in corruption scandals, with many criminal charges and embarrassment over the economic mess. As in other countries, economic collapse led to political instability. Poland had four Prime Ministers in 1981, and recently Jaruzelski sacked five Economic Ministers. The economic crisis did not vanish when Solidarity was suspended.

 

Weak as the government was, there is much evidence that the rulers could not concede to Solidarity. At stake were the Leninist dogma of a vanguard Party with a leading role, the vested interests of corrupt. ambitious members of the Polish Communist Party (PUWP) with a finger in every nomenclatural pie. and the strategic imperative of ensuring that Poland remained a docile, loyal member of the Warsaw Pact; all these combined to make the Gdansk Agreement another “scrap of paper”, like the Helsinki Agreement on human rights. By January 1981, Solidarity stated bluntly that there had been a “blatant refusal (by the government) to honour its commitments. . . . The government is not fulfilling its promises given in August-September I980”. [7] There was little that Solidarity could do about this: its strongest weapon, industrial action, was weakened by the recession, and already it was having its work cut out trying to resist closures and redundancies.

 

Yet in the West, left wingers were claiming Solidarity’s existence as a great victory. A tendency to see in Solidarity whatever they wanted to see was shown by the Bennite wing of the Labour Party: “Solidarity — a model of workers’ democracy”. [8] Solidarity’s success would “demonstrate the enormous superiority of a nationalised economy combined with working class political power over the capitalist system in the West”. [9]

 

While Jaruzelski’s officers were preparing their coup. Chris Harman of the Socialist Workers’ Party raved:

Rarely has a workers’ movement historically been in a stronger position for making a bid to solve society’s problems by taking power into its own hands . . . Even within the army and the police, only a few hardliners would put up determined resistance to any serious attempt by the mass workers’ movement to bring the present chaos to an end by taking power. [10]

 

Neither in 1980 nor at any later date was Solidarity able to gain political power. At its strongest, when it surprised the government into signing the Gdansk Agreement making many concessions — on paper — Solidarity gained no political power and had no means of enforcing that agreement, other than by industrial action. But industrial action is at its weakest in a recession when workers fear the sack, while management need not worry about delayed orders since their order books are mostly empty. Without political power, Solidarity’s very existence was always at risk and its independence curtailed by fear of head-on conflict with the government.

 

Solidarity was also weakened by the fact that, rather than being simply a trade union, its membership included almost all sections of the population including “intellectuals”, shopkeepers, farmers and students. Its demands were mostly for Labour Party-type reforms. While some of these were of a welfare state nature, others were for economic reform in the “national interest”.

 

In 1981 this demand for economic reform became a specific demand for “marketisation”, for the abandonment of the central plan characteristic of the command economy, in favour of enterprise autonomy with a flexible response to market forces. Underlying this was the naive belief that, if left to itself, capitalism works. That is as unrealistic as the left wing expectation that central state planning can iron out the inherent anarchy of the system. Also, as some delegates at Solidarity’s Congress noted, marketisation would involve closures and throw their members out of work. Such a policy might be in the “national interest” but workers threatened with redundancy could hardly regard it as in their interests.

 

Another reform which Solidarity pursued in 1981 was the demand for “workers’ self-management”. In Britain, this was mistakenly seen by left-wingers as “workers’ control”. In fact, this demand was put forward as a result of the corruption, mismanagement and incompetence of top management who were appointed by committees of the PUWP. This nomenclature system was held by many Poles — especially those in middle management and in the universities — to be a major contributing factor in the economic collapse. Get rid of the nomenclature system and you get rid of managerial muddle, was their argument. Trying to abolish the PUWP’s treasured powers of patronage brought Solidarity into head-on conflict with the vested interests of the corrupt PUWP.

 

Neither “marketisation” nor the ability to elect the managing director and decide the policies of the enterprise which employ us could alter the fact that this system can only operate by making profits. Whoever manages capital in a capitalist world has to do the best they can to produce profits. This applies as much to workers elected to run an enterprise as it does to politicians’ nephews. Trade unions should not concern themselves with measures which aim to make industry more profitable: their concern should be to defend workers’ interests.

 

Solidarity was increasingly side-tracked from its original role as a trade union which, we must remember, could not change the system, even supposing that its members wanted such a change. In fact, the overwhelming majority did not demand fundamental change, only reforms “in the national interest”. Now they are pleading for talks with the government aimed at some sort of “entente nationale” or social contract.

 

The problem was summed up by Gdansk workers who struck in protest at the banning of Solidarity: “How can you do anything when they put a pistol to your head?” At all times the PUWP retained political power and with it control over the police and armed forces which, as we said before Jaruzelski’s coup, can be used, have been used and may be used again against the workers.

 

It is probable that other workers’ movements will be crushed, as Solidarity has been, until the demand for independent trade unions is backed by a class-conscious workers’ movement. Tragically, even if Solidarity had achieved all it demanded, Poland’s workers would have remained exploited wage-slaves, alienated from the means of producing and distributing wealth, suffering — as all workers do, East or West — from poverty.

 

Charmian Skelton
References
[1.] Solidarność: Bulletin d’Information (Paris), nos. 34 and 35, Sept.’82.
[2.] The same, no.35.
[3.] Problems of Communism, July-Aug. ’82; D.M. Nuti, The Polish Crisis — Economic Factors and Constraints (The Socialist Register 1981).
[4.] Nuti (as above); Government Programme for overcoming the crisis, July ’81.
[5.] Time 16 March ’81; The Economist 9 Oct. ’82.
[6.] Solidarność Bulletin 27 Oct. ’82; Time 1 Nov. ’82.
[7.] Solidarność: N.C.C. statement 11 Jan. ’81.
[8.] Socialist Challenge 7 Jan. ’82.
[9.] Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, editorial, winter-spring ’81.
[10.] Socialist Review, Nov.-Dec. ’81.
[11.] Financial Times 14 Oct. ’82.