Turning the tables?

Andy Zebrowski (1988)


Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 113, October 1988, pp14-15.

Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 5 december 2001.



THE SECOND massive wave of strikes this year has shaken the Polish regime to such an extent that it doesn't know which way to turn. Poland's leader, General Jaruzelski, is reported to be extremely depressed. He has said that the memory of martial law is, "a thorn in my side".

The regime has been forced to begin talking about recognising Solidarnosc for the first time in seven years. And it fears future strikes since the workers have not been defeated but persuaded back to work on the strength of the promises to legalise Solidarnosc.

Already, talks between Poland's top policeman General Kiszczak, Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, and representatives of the church and intellectuals, have taken place to plan the more formal Round Table discussions in mid October.

Poland's rulers are clearly hoping for some kind of Polish social contract, but they also fear that any moves they make in this direction can encourage workers to organise and fight.

What is the background to the Round Table? How will it affect the opposition?

To answer these questions we have to start with the developments in the opposition to Jaruzelski since martial law in December 1981. The defeat of the workers movement was never as crushing as that in Chile in 1973 when thousands were butchered. The Polish generals simply didn't have the same basis of support in the middle classes that their Chilean counterparts had.

For years the regime maintained a hard face towards the opposition, keeping Solidarnosc leaders in prison and feigning indifference to the underground union. At the same time it didn't dare make big enough inroads into workers' living standards for Polish state capitalism to pay off its debts and compete more effectively in the world economy.

Whilst fearing the workers the regime felt more confident with their leaders. Two factors led Jaruzelski, to ease up on the Solidarnosc leadership. Firstly, the leaders were cut off from their former base in the factories and presented less of a threat. The widespread idea that strikes were not the answer for Polish workers increased the regime's self assurance.

Secondly, the creditor nations of the West put pressure on Jaruzelski to ease up on the opposition. Reagan and Thatcher claimed they were interested in "human rights". In reality they simply felt that they could gain more influence in Poland through cultivating Solidarnosc advisers and church leaders. The result was the two amnesties of 1984 and 1986.

The Round Table probably has support from the most important quarter of all as far as the regime is concerned – Moscow. Changes in the USSR have always exerted a powerful influence on the domestic policies of rulers of the eastern bloc countries.

Throughout 1987 Gorbachev's glasnost encouraged the Polish leadership to seek ways of co-opting the opposition. Gorbachev's perestroika added impetus to Jaruzelski's own plans for restructuring – the "market" was the Moscow approved panacea.

Jaruzelski's talk of market reform encouraged the Warsaw intellectuals and people like Zbigniew Bujak, a genuine workers' leader thrown up in the Solidarnosc months. They began hinting at the necessity of an anti-crisis pact last December without even demanding the relegalisation of Solidarnosc.

Even before the May strikes Walesa was prepared to begin the process of talks with the government. During his second round of talks with Kiszczak in mid September Warsaw Radio proudly stated,

"Several months ago it was an open secret. Preliminary talks were held to prepare for a meeting between government representatives and the so called opposition with the participation of Lech Walesa, among others. The April, May and August strikes made that meeting impossible."

These strikes have changed the anti-crisis pact into the Round Table/social contract. In Britain it took four years of a workers' strike offensive to convince the employers that a social contract was necessary. In Poland the resurgence of strikes, the memory of 1980-81, and the threat of further struggle is putting pressure on the regime to speed things up.

The August strikes have caused the regime's unity to crack. Prime Minister Messner, who resigned together with his cabinet on September 17, was the scapegoat. But the resignation also meant that Jaruzelski's own position is now less secure because Messner's departure showed up the shakiness of the regime.

It is impossible to analyse the clashes and alliances between Poland's rulers with any degree of accuracy. It may even turn out that the social contract idea will be dropped. The bureaucrats are manoeuvring against each other whilst workers are becoming more confident.

The discredited official unions have tried to convince workers that they are genuine, even posing as strike leaders. Immediately before Walesa's second talks with Kiszczak, Polish Radio reported four instances of very short strikes which were sorted out by negotiations between the official union and the management.

The cabinet's resignation had been first mooted by Adam Miodowicz, the leader of the official unions, the first time a state organisation has made such a call.

Polish Socialist Party leaders told SWR in the week after the strikes were called off that the dominant figure opposing Jaruzelski seems to be General Kiszczak. This seems to have been borne out by the fact that Kiszczak abstained on the resignation vote. The first time he has publicly shown opposition to Jaruzelski.

It was Kiszczak who appeared on TV to frighten the strikers with force when he imposed a curfew on the same day that armed police broke into the tram depot at Szczecin. But it was also Kiszczak who led the round table moves when it was clear that the workers in the core areas of the strikes were becoming more determined to carry on the fight.

Lech Walesa – regarded almost universally as the leader of Poland's workers – has his own reasons for supporting the Round Table. He wants the legalisation of a permanent opposition to Jaruzelski.

In both May and August he joined the young occupiers of the Gdansk shipyard. He was able to persuade the striking workers to go back to work, although not without difficulty. At Gdansk his fellow workers gave him a cool reception, with some heckling and calling him a traitor. At the Manifest Lipcowy pit the strikers argued with him for eight hours before agreeing to go back to work, but only once a no victimisation agreement had been signed.

The question is, will he insist on the recognition of Solidarnosc as he promised the strikers?

During his second talks with Kiszczak he said in an interview:

"I think we have to tackle first the problems eventually leading to a settlement of the Solidarity issue, but without delaying the tackling of problems of national importance: economic, social and political, not necessarily related to Solidarnosc."

His words outside the church of St Brygida in Gdansk immediately after he stopped the strikes, show how far his views don't represent the interests of the workers he leads:

"Poland does not need strikes. I know that we need a struggle but it must be a struggle which does not turn against us ... I extinguished the strikes and I will extinguish any others that happen."

Nevertheless, because of the determination of the strikers Walesa was forced to take some of the strike leaders with him to the talks with Kiszczak. Walesa dismissed protests with the bland statement, "We lost the procedural point, but the issue of Solidarnosc is as good as settled."

What the regime would like is for Solidarnosc to be legalised but left without teeth.

But the workers haven't suffered a serious defeat so any moves to renege on the promises already made may result in future strikes.

An idea of what could be on offer was given in the Financial Times of September 27 – an extra chamber in parliament and places for Solidarnosc nominees (with a permanent inbuilt majority for the government parties, of course).

The regime is no longer faced with just the old Solidarnosc leaders. A new generation of workers' leaders – workers who were too young to be involved seven years ago – came to the fore. The best of the old leaders, people who had been sacked for Solidarnosc activities, were also involved.

For instance, in Warsaw last month three workers were charged with creating public disorder by instigating a strike at the Warsaw steelworks, Huta Warszawa. All of them had worked in the plant in recent years.

Last year the general rightward drift in political ideas encouraged the formation of several right wing Catholic and nationalist parties. But among the minority committed to building up workers' fighting strength, the most important development has been the birth of the first significant socialist party in the eastern bloc, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS).

Its members were the first to spread the solidarity message as the first strike wave gained momentum in April. In every locality they organise local Solidarnosc structures with worker militants, producing factory bulletins and newspapers. They organise street demonstrations with young workers and students who have all kinds of political ideas – anarchists, pacifists, greens. They know every one in their area who wants to be involved in opposing the regime.

In struggle there is no question they are totally committed to the working class. But the practice of the party is not matched by a clarity of ideas. Many of its activists half accept the notions of market reform and national reconciliation preached by the rest of the opposition.

In Poland the more rightwing you are the more the market takes precedence over anything else. But even the left in the PPS shares in the illusions in Western capitalism, believing that parliamentary democracy creates improved living standards for workers. The illusions in parliament can lead to disaster if the regime starts creating new political institutions.

The PPS has a line of vehement opposition to the Round Table talks, seeing them as a way of disarming the working class. It is also grasping the opportunities to organise at grass roots level which the present situation provides.

Zuzanna Dabrowska of the PPS told SWR that "Solidarity founding committees are becoming much more widespread. This means that militants are involved in collecting petitions and can gauge the true support for Solidarity."

When their members are repressed they use it to spread their political message. One hundred demonstrators, organised by the PPS, marched to the trial in Wroclaw of three of their leading members accused of instigating strikes in May. On their placards they had "Kiszczak – Let Go" and "The table with broken legs."

We have to hope that the best PPS members develop a clarity of ideas to match such excellent fighting slogans.

Andy Zebrowski


Last updated 5.12.01