Solidarity’s Wrong Turn

So, nine years after it was formed as the first independent trade union in Eastern Europe since the war, Solidarity has now supplied a Prime Minister for Poland. Remarkable as this development is, it is nevertheless a fateful mistake from a working class point of view for an organisation formed as a trade union to get involved in government.

This is because the exercise of government power and trade union action are ultimately incompatible. Governments, whatever they might originally intend, have to give priority to maintaining or restoring the profitability and the international competitiveness of industries, whether private or state-owned, situated in the country they are governing. Trade unions, on the other hand, exist to defend workers against the downward pressures that are constantly exerted on their wages and working conditions, whether these come from employers or governments. Those Solidarity members who have entered the government in Poland have put themselves on a collision course with the membership of Solidarity as a trade union. However sincere they may be, they have betrayed the original aim for which Solidarity was established by ordinary workers in 1980, as will become clear when they find themselves, as they will, obliged to oppose wage demands and strikes.

It is true that Solidarity eventually developed other aims, like trade unions everywhere (after all, most trade unions in Britain made the mistake of associating with the Labour Party). Opponents of the regime realised the potential of a movement supported by millions for bringing about changes, and Solidarity’s original working class leaders came to be surrounded by “advisers” and “experts” and “Catholic intellectuals”. These people had other aims than the mere defence of wages and working conditions. They wanted an end to Polish dependence on Russian imperialism, freedom for the Catholic Church to do what it wanted and, on the economic field, a more market-oriented economy and more freedom for private enterprise.

The class structure or Polish society
Solidarity, though far from being a socialist organisation even nominally, realised very quickly that Poland was a class-divided society in which the working class was oppressed and exploited and not a society in which, as the regime’s propaganda machine claimed, the working class ruled through its vanguard, the Polish Communist Party. The exploiting and oppressing class was identified as being the nomenklatura – those filling the top posts in the Party, the government, industry and the armed forces, reserved for Party nominees and carrying with them various material privileges – and the Communist Party was identified as the party of this class and not the working class as – it mockingly pretended.

The class situation in Poland has not been better analysed from within the country than by Jacek Kuron (now a Solidarity MP, whose name was even one of the three proposed by Walesa to General Jaruzelski for the post of Prime Minister) and Karol Modzelewski in the Open Letter to the Party they wrote in 1968 (earning themselves a three-year jail sentence):

“In our system, the Party elite is, at one and the same time, also the power elite; all decisions relating to state power are made by it and, in any case, at the top of the Party and state hierarchies there exists, as a rule, a fusion of responsible posts. By exercising state power, the Party elite has at its disposal all the nationalized means of production; it decides on the extent of accumulation and consumption, on the direction of investment, on the share of various social groups in consumption and in the national income; in other words, it decides on the distribution and utilization of the entire social product . . . The worker is thus exploited, because he is deprived of the ownership of the means of production; in order to live, he must sell his labour. From the moment he performs that act, which to him is indispensable, i.e., when he sells his ability to do a given job in a given time, his labour and its product no longer belong to him but to those who have bought his labour, the owners of the means of production, the exploiters. To whom does the worker in our country sell his labour? To those who have at their disposal the means of production, in other words, to the central political bureaucracy.”

The class Kuron and Modzelewski call here the “central political bureaucracy” is the same as what everyone in Poland now calls the nomenklatura. It was a class that was imposed on Poland by the Russian army after the last world war as a mirror-image of the Russian ruling class. Through its party, the Communist Party, it has ruthlessly governed Poland for the past forty years, jailing opponents and brutally suppressing strikes by discontented workers.

The Rise of Solidarity
Then came August 1980 when, in a manifestation of mass working class discontent with their exploitation, millions of workers throughout Poland went on strike. Unable to suppress this by armed force, the government had to agree to negotiate with the representatives of Solidarity, the union the striking workers had formed. But the Polish ruling class had still not given up its desire to rule by dictatorship. Egged on by the Russian ruling class who feared that things might get out of hand and Poland escape from its sphere of influence, the government declared martial law in December 1981 and banned Solidarity. Its leaders, including Walesa and the present Prime Minister Mazowiecki, were rounded up and jailed or sent into internal exile.

Solidarity, however, continued to exist and, still supported by millions of workers, went underground. Meanwhile Poland’s economic situation continued to worsen. In the 1970s the Polish government had borrowed heavily from Western banks in order to finance investments and imports of consumer goods, hoping to be able to pay off these debts from the increased exports it expected to follow from its investments in new equipment. Then came the world slump; the exports failed to materialise and Poland found itself reduced to the status of a Latin American debtor country .Living standards continued to fall, and rations became smaller and smaller and spread to more and more goods.

Under these circumstances working class discontent grew, culminating last year in the biggest strike wave since 1980. The Party and government, now completely discredited, realised that they were going to have to negotiate again with Solidarity. So weak was their position that they had to concede not just the re-legalisation of Solidarity but a revision of the Constitution.

The agreement, reached in March, provided for elections to be held this June but elections of a special kind in that the Communist Party (and its satellite parties) was guaranteed a majority in the lower house, with 60 per cent of the seats being reserved for them. Elections to the new Senate, on the other hand, were to be completely free. In the next elections, to be held in four years time, there were to be no reserved seats in the lower house either.

The results of the election confirmed that Solidarity enjoyed overwhelming support and that the Communist Party had no support outside the ranks of the nomenklatura. All the seats in the Senate save one (which went to an independent oppositionist) and the 35 per cent of freely-elected seats in the lower house were won by Solidarity (the other 5 per cent had been reserved for some Catholic representatives). The Communist Party even failed to win on the first round all the seats reserved for it since a number of their candidates, including the outgoing Prime Minister Rakowski, failed to achieve the 50 per cent of votes cast required to be elected.

In Office but Not Power
This result was embarrassing, both to the government and to Solidarity since it undermined the compromise deal whereby the Communist Party would be allowed to rule until further elections in four years time. The way out favoured by the Polish ruling class was a coalition between their party and Solidarity, with Solidarity as the junior partner whose role would be to defuse working class discontent while highly unpopular measures, involving price rises and redundancies, were pushed through. But Solidarity was not prepared to be used to bailout the regime in this way.

This refusal placed the Polish ruling class in a dilemma since the only option now left was to allow Solidarity a larger share of power, but could they be trusted? After all, hadn’t Solidarity identified them as the class enemy and hadn’t they spoken of dismantling the whole system of patronage and privilege from which they benefited? In the end they decided to let Solidarity form a government while retaining key ministries for their own direct political representatives – the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior which together control the coercive forces of the Polish state. In addition, the President, General Jaruzelski, retains considerable powers. But even though the Solidarity government will be in office rather than in power, it will still have to assume responsibility for running Polish capitalism, inevitably against the interests of the working class in Poland. This of course is the plus side for the Polish ruling class. They will still be able to use Solidarity to defuse working class discontent while the unpopular measures, necessary to restructure Polish capitalism and render it internationally competitive again, are implemented.

Already, even before the Solidarity government came into office, Solidarity politicians were urging workers not to rock the boat by going on strike. The Financial Times (19 August) reported that in a debate in the Senate the previous day

“Senator Leszek Pietrowski, the Solidarity Senator from Katowice, appealed to striking miners in his constituency to return to work in the name of their feelings for Solidarity. ‘We can’t strike when Solidarity is beginning to rule the country’, he said“

More, much more, such talk will be heard over the coming months. Indeed, it is probable that Walesa refused office precisely so as to be able to use his influence with the trade union side of Solidarity to get workers to accept the austerity measures that the Solidarity government will be imposing on them.

Transition to Private Capitalism?
A Solidarity government, despite its trade union origins, will do – can do – nothing to further the interests of workers in Poland. However, committed as it is to an economic programme that amounts to the transformation of Poland from the bureaucratic state capitalist country it has been since 1948 into the sort of mixed private and state economy that exists in the West, the Solidarity government could well take steps that really would undermine the position of the nomenklatura, benefiting instead the growing private capitalist class – the zloty millionaires, as they are known – that exists in Poland.

Earlier this year the Financial Times (13 January) published a revealing article by Jan Winiecki, who lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, which amounted to a blueprint for a transition from bureaucratic state capitalism to free enterprise private capitalism. Discussing the “critical mass of changes that must be made at the beginning to get things moving towards the market system”. Winiecki argued that:

“an elimination of the nomenklatura Communist apparatchiks’ privilege to appoint managers at all levels of economic management is the crucial, though politically most difficult, component of the critical mass. Elimination of the nomenklatura is not an end in itself. It is simply a prerequisite to establishing some sensible property rights in place of the chimera of ‘social’ ownership.”

In other words, the monopoly control over industry currently exercised by the nomenklatura – supposedly in the name of society but in reality in their own interests as a class – should give way to monopoly control exercised by private capitalists enjoying legal ownership rights over industry.

Realising that the nomenklatura are not likely to accept without a struggle what amounts to their dispossession, Winiecki proposed that:

“If the nomenklatura cannot be beaten it can still be bought out. Party apparatchiks and high level bureaucrats (or most of them) should be offered high compensation for leaving their positions, which would then be abolished.”

Actually, if they see that the bureaucratic state capitalism of which they are the beneficiaries really is going to be abolished, this could be an attractive deal for them. They could use their “high compensation” to convert themselves into private capitalist investors and continue to live the life of parasites on the workers to which they have become accustomed.

Only history will tell whether Poland will take this road or whether some other compromise will be worked out between the two sections of the capitalist exploiting class there – the nomenklatura and the zloty millionaires – but one thing is clear. Such a change in the composition of the exploiting class has nothing to offer the workers who sacrificed so much to establish Solidarity as a trade union.

Leave a Reply