The bizarre ideological inversions which characterise the modes of expression of contemporary East European political movements serve to render invisible to the casual observer the real social character of these movements. For this reason alone most Western analysis of the recent events in Poland has conformed broadly to one of two stereotypes. First, there is the conventional wisdom of the Right according to which the two primary forces in the present surge of revolt are nationalism and religion. Second, there is the semi-apologetic view favoured by social democrats and Eurocommunists which sees the upheaval as a struggle for the ‘democratisation of socialism’. Both analyses contain of course a germ of truth: but whereas from the first standpoint it is impossible (and perhaps undesirable) to see the real social forces which express themselves faute de mieux in the traditional language of reaction, the second standpoint begs the most fundamental question about the character of the existing regimes of Eastern Europe.

What men do, what they believe they do and what they say they do are in general all different: these distinctions are a commonplace of social analysis. Yet the tension between action and belief is far better understood than the tension between belief and doctrine. Indeed it is probable that the latter tension has become important as a political phenomenon only since the advent of the technology of mass communication. The relative neologism ‘propaganda’ has become a semantic necessity in our own era in order to eliminate the element of ambiguity inherent in older words such as ‘doctrine’ or ‘ideology’.

Where the belief and the propaganda of a ruling class differ significantly, that class becomes the victim of a cynicism which penetrates throughout society. It is generally assumed that a contradiction of this kind between belief and propaganda represents an ideological dysfunction. This opinion derives from the tacit assumption that the function of propaganda is to convince the recipient of its truth. Such an assumption is, however, a priori unjustified: if the ideology of a ruling class serves to protect the existing order, then the only necessary function of propaganda is to induce a set of beliefs in the ruled which in no way threatens that order. Propaganda does not have to be believed in order to be effective.

The rulers of Poland, as of other East European countries, do not for the most part believe in the ideals of socialism or in Marxist theory: there is no evidence that they are even aware of Marx’s methodology. Furthermore, their propaganda resembles Marxism only in its phraseology. Not only are truncated versions of once-powerful revolutionary slogans arranged in a shameless pastiche alongside chauvinist sentiments and medieval superstitions, but the very meaning of the fundamental terms has been transformed beyond recognition. Thus, for example, the Polish words for ‘socialism’, ‘socialisation’ and ‘internationalism’ today designate respectively the existing social order, state ownership, and subordination to the interests of the Soviet Union. The term ‘anti-socialist force’ is used to denote any form of political opposition, while the word ‘anarchist’ is today reserved for those oppositionists who belong to some current of the European socialist tradition. These examples form part of a general phenomenon of conceptual embezzlement which reaches deep into the vernacular. It is an Orwellian process, which fundamentally limits people’s conceptual framework, rendering inexpressible a whole range of ideas. In consequence, these ideas vanish deep into the collective subconscious, from which they struggle to appear in periods of social crisis, often in the strangest of new clothes. The original meanings of the terms listed in this paragraph cannot now be expressed in Polish without complicated circumlocutions.

The official doctrine of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ rests on two basic assumptions: first, that the ruling party incarnates the objective interests of the working class and of the whole nation, and second, that the state is part of a great international proletarian movement. Social analysts of Eastern Europe are in general agreed that the persuasive value of this ideology is almost nil. Yet there is an inherent contradiction in their further conclusion that this ideology is functionally useless. The Polish émigré philosopher Kolakowski, for example, argues that Marxism-Leninism is considered by the party apparatus to be an annoying outgrowth which cannot be eliminated since its suppression would remove the ‘basis of legitimacy of the regime’. This explanation is remarkably unconvincing: what is the value of a doctrine ‘as a basis of legitimacy’ if no one believes in it? The solution to this puzzle is crucial to an understanding of the ideology of state collectivist society.

It is no accident that the ideas which are alienated by conceptual embezzlement are the ideas of Marxism and of the entire socialist tradition. This is the primary function of ideology in state collectivist society: for by this gigantic intellectual fraud the ruling class succeeds in cutting off the entire population from the only source of ideas which represents a serious potential threat to the social order. Formal censorship of traditional socialist works is certainly widespread and censorship of contemporary radical scholarship is almost total: yet this form of censorship is rendered nearly superfluous by the qualitatively higher form of censorship which conceptual embezzlement constitutes.

There is, however, one other fundamental reason for the rejection of Marxism by the majority of East European oppositionists: the traditional Marxist assumption that a post-capitalist society necessarily has a socialist character – an axiom which is common not only to the world’s two ruling ideologies but also to many independent socialist currents. East Europeans share it and conclude that the ‘socialist’ character of their societies is the source of their oppression, which is neither more nor less surprising than the complementary belief of most Western Marxists (living at a comfortable distance) that the fundamental production relations obtaining in the Soviet Union are socialist, albeit with certain ‘deformations’.

Those few East European socialists who have succeeded in piercing the veil of conceptual embezzlement have reached conclusions of a radically different kind. Although Marx himself failed to envisage the possibility of bifurcations in the historical sequence of modes of production, such a possibility is not a priori inconsistent with a Marxist perspective. In fact, the conclusion that state collectivist societies represent a new mode of production distinct from both capitalism and socialism seems now inescapable, given the historical evidence.

The particular forms which political opposition in post-war Poland has taken have been conditioned by a complex of very specific historical circumstances. The fact that state collectivism was imposed on Poland by a foreign power inevitably gave to any opposing tendencies a nationalist hue. Indeed, Poland’s tragic history of foreign domination has produced a situation in which every political tendency has tried to justify its position by claiming that its policy would maximise Poland’s national independence. The post-war regime itself has shown great adeptness in harnessing this nationalistic sentiment.

The second factor of fundamental importance in the development of the Polish opposition has been the existence of a strong Catholic Church. Since the Church was the only institution in post-war Poland with sufficiently deep social roots to survive as an independent force in civil society, all currents of opposition tended in practice – at least until 1976 – to work within the institutional cover of either the Church or the Party. This restriction has caused enormous ideological confusion and has in general impeded the emergence of clear political programmes.

Thirdly, the complete destruction of the pre-war Left by Hitler’s and Stalin’s purges, by emigration, and by co-option into the party apparatus, entailed the complete absence of any independent socialist tradition after the war. Thus the first generation of radical opposition came principally from within the Party, the opposition of the Church having in this period a largely atavistic character. Many of the best-known young intellectuals of the period of the 1956 revolt, such as Kolakowski and the economists Brus and Lange, belonged to this ‘revisionist’ current. These intellectuals had been educated in the Stalinist school, but were seeking a democratisation of the Party, more independence from the Soviet Union, and a more liberal interpretation of official doctrine. They constituted the left ideologists of the movement which brought Gomulka to power. Even during the turbulent aftermath of October 1956, however, they could not bring themselves to challenge in a radical way the nature of the regime or the role of the Party. Some of them retained a certain diminishing influence in the Party in the years of ‘normalisation’ after 1956, but the 1968 confrontation between the intelligentsia and the regime resulted in their expulsion from the Party; many were forced into exile. Its total failure not unnaturally discredited the revisionist programme, and the year 1968 effectively marked the end of this tendency within the opposition.

A more radical current of opposition began to emerge in the early Sixties. In January 1965, two young university teachers, Kuron and Modzelewski, wrote a courageous open letter to the Polish Communist Party in response to their expulsion from the Party. This lucid and original document was certainly not addressed to the party leadership: according to the authors, the existing form of society in Poland constituted a new type of class domination in which a ‘central political bureaucracy’ exercised an exclusive control over the means of production and the disposal of the surplus product. Such a system could be overthrown only by revolution and the establishment of direct democracy with a system of workers’ councils and a central council of elected delegates. In their vision of the future organisation of society the authors chose to emphasise several ideas which they saw as serving to secure the continuity of democracy: workers’ delegates would be subject to immediate recall, the right to form political parties in order to campaign for particular programmes would be guaranteed, and so on. Perhaps most interestingly, they stressed the necessity of a system of trade unions organised independently of the governing system of councils. Such ideas were not mere utopian fantasies: they had their origin in an analysis of the failures of the 1956 revolution.

Kuron and Modzelewski were certainly guilty of revolutionary optimism – a sin for which in the short term both they and their ideas paid dearly. They believed that state collectivism in Poland (and more generally in Eastern Europe) was at the end of its resources, and that revolution was not only inevitable but imminent. They seriously underestimated both the isolation of the radical intelligentsia and the ideological power of conceptual embezzlement. Yet in evaluating the history of the immediate post-war period they themselves had stressed facts which, twenty years after the war, were still an important source of strength for the Polish regime: ‘Production relations based on bureaucratic property insured rapid economic growth, and thanks to this the remaining classes and social strata within the bureaucratic system had real possibilities of improving their lot. Industrialisation opened the way to an improved standard of living and to higher material, social and cultural status ... despite coercion and terror, the bureaucracy found enthusiastic support from groups in all social strata.’

It was this legacy of social support which, in the revolutionary situation generated by the 1956 workers’ uprising in Poznan, had enabled the bureaucracy finally to tame the threat to its rule. In this situation the Party found a ‘liberal’ and ‘nationalist’ leader, Gomulka, to implement reforms which took the form of important economic concessions and a real, but temporary and partial democratisation of society. The attempt to collectivise the peasantry was abandoned and this was accompanied by a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. Censorship was temporarily eased. The party-controlled trade unions underwent some degree of democratisation, but never succeeded in emancipating themselves from the Party, which progressively regained control. By contrast, the independent workers’ councils which arose in 1956, and which were allowed to function freely for a certain period though without any real power, were gradually subordinated to the control of the unions and eventually suppressed. It took more than two years for the party bureaucracy to reestablish its hegemony over society. This hegemony was, however, bought at some financial cost to the Government: the period 1956-1959 saw a significant rise in the standard of living of the working class.

Far more than the fear of Soviet tanks, it was the reformist illusions both of the masses and of the radical intelligentsia which contributed to the failure of the 1956 revolution. As Kuron and Modzelewski wrote, in their open letter: ‘At the decisive moment the Left supported the liberal bureaucracy, the principal counter-revolutionary force. All the enormous authority which Left militants enjoyed was transferred to the new leadership. Thus the Left contributed to the maintenance in power of the bureaucracy and so prepared its own political death and the defeat of the revolution.’

One of the probable consequences of the collaboration of the left intelligentsia in the aftermath of the 1956 revolt was a considerable distrust of the intelligentsia as a whole on the part of the working class. This distrust was exploited by the regime to great effect in 1968. When, in March of that year, students and intellectuals confronted the authorities with street demonstrations on the issue of censorship and cultural freedom, their desperate appeals to the workers to strike in sympathy were largely unheeded. The regime was able to concoct a sufficiently potent mixture of anti-semitic, anti-intellectual and chauvinist propaganda to disorient the working class and so prevent any significant response. The protests of the intelligentsia were severely repressed: several thousand Jews and intellectuals were forced to emigrate, and many of the leaders of the protests, including Kuron and Modzelewski, were given prison sentences.

The period between 1969 and 1976 represented the nadir of the intellectual opposition. Many activists emigrated or abandoned politics. Revisionism was discredited, but so, too, was the revolutionary programme of Kuron and Modzelewski. Many former radicals abandoned Marxism and sought refuge in a rapprochement with the Church; their political ideas reflected a deep social pessimism, distrust of mass political movements, and a retreat into religious moralism. Some, such as Kuron, while claiming to remain faithful to their original socialist values, put forward strangely eclectic and ambiguous proposals as to the best methods of attempting to realise those values.

It is difficult, when reading the political writings of Polish oppositionists during the years after 1968, not to be struck by the conceptual confusion and intellectual timidity of most of it. There is a strong impression of self-censorship: the most fundamental questions about the future organisation of society are taboo, as if to evoke the possibility of change were to preclude it. An important factor here is the traditional antagonism between Marxism and Catholicism which I shall discuss later.

The remarkable demoralisation of the intelligentsia in this period is evidenced by its complete failure to react to the massive strikes in Gdansk which toppled Gomulka in 1970 or to the subsequent massacre of hundreds of workers. Furthermore, the prolonged repression of worker militants which followed Gierek’s accession to power elicited no significant solidarity from the intelligentsia. It was only in 1976, when a second powerful wave of strikes led to further repression, that a movement of solidarity arose among the intelligentsia. It was this movement and the activities it inspired which played such an important catalytic role in the events of August 1980.

Probably no aspect of contemporary Poland is so generally misunderstood, not least by many Polish intellectuals, as the role of religion.

The enormous ideological force of the Catholic Church, rooted in the overwhelmingly agrarian pre-war economy, prevented the Communist regime from destroying its existence as an independent institution in the years before 1956. Although the Church in the immediate post-war period was deeply tied to the ancien régime and, following the directives of the Papacy, engaged in a militant crusade against Communist ideology, after 1956 Church and Party agreed, in their mutual interest, to reach a modus vivendi. The state ceased its formal harassment of the Church, allowed the teaching of Catholic doctrine, and the publication by the liberal Catholic intelligentsia of such journals as Znak and Wiez, which were subject to considerably less stringent censorship than the rest of the Polish press. In return, an important section of the Catholic intelligentsia provided qualified support for Gomulka. The group surrounding Znak was in consequence allowed a small representation in the Polish parliament. In practice, this group acted as a loyal if largely extra-parliamentary opposition. The more conservative Church hierarchy, led by Cardinal Wyszynski, consoled themselves in the period of Gomulka’s rule by regarding the existing form of society as a temporarily irreversible historical aberration.

A subtle but fundamental change in the relationship between the Church and its congregation has, however, taken place in the course of Poland’s post-war history. In order to understand this it is necessary to be aware of the extraordinary socio-economic transformation which Poland has undergone in the last 35 years: before the war it was a predominantly agrarian country – it is now a modern industrial power. In 1938, some 60 per cent of the working population were engaged in agriculture; in 1980, this figure had fallen to 23 per cent. Today the industrial proletariat is by far the largest single class in Poland, and in terms of industrial production Poland is the tenth industrial power in the world. Furthermore, the regime’s disastrous agricultural policy has caused the younger peasants to migrate en masse to the cities. The remaining peasant population is elderly – 80 per cent are over 40. Yet the industrialisation and consequent urbanisation of society has not been accompanied by the decline of religion usually characteristic of such changes. Whatever the actual politics of the Episcopate, the Church’s privileged ‘independence’ from the state has meant that religious symbolism is now the only language capable of expressing ideas of social emancipation: a language symbolising at once the continuity of the Polish cultural heritage, the ancient struggle for national independence, and the identity of the individual.

The power of this symbolism was evident in the extraordinary mass political catharsis induced by the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope and his subsequent triumphal tour of his homeland: for several days, the major cities of Poland lived in the atmosphere of a carnival. A whole generation experienced for the first time a feeling of collective power and exaltation of which they had never dreamt. The party apparatus, with its omnipresent tentacles stretching into every corner of society, appeared in this brief historic moment as a mere cobweb. If religion in pre-war Poland was the opium of the people, it became in this moment the ‘heart of a heartless world’.

In the wake of the profound economic changes in post-war Poland there developed a real change in the social content of religion. This was accompanied by the rise among the new urban masses of a strong current of subconscious Protestantism. The failure of the Church hierarchy to adapt its rigid orthodoxy to the radically changed social conditions led urban Catholics of all classes to reject those aspects of religious dogma which they found intolerable, while in no way allowing this rejection to weaken their religious faith.

This phenomenon is reflected in contemporary attitudes towards such questions as divorce, contraception and sexual mores, which are similar to those prevailing in most Protestant countries of Northern Europe. At the same time, the decline of episcopal authority, combined with the continuing power of religious symbolism, led to a proliferation of small groups of radical Catholic intellectuals espousing diverse beliefs, often imported from other cultures. The emergence of this Catholic underground in the Sixties and Seventies, and its interaction with the left intelligentsia, has been one of the crucial factors in the development of an intellectual opposition since 1968. This collaboration has been more fruitful at a practical than an ideological level. In practical politics it has been conducted according to the principle of absolute solidarity in the face of a totalitarian power. But at a theoretical level it has not led to the creation of a common language capable of overcoming the phenomenon of conceptual embezzlement.

Ironically, just as a radical Catholic intelligentsia was beginning to make its appearance, the Catholic hierarchy itself shifted perceptibly towards a position of full accommodation to the existing regime. During the period of Gierek’s rule in the Seventies, pleased by Gierek’s less hostile attitude to the Church and sensing that a return to capitalism was becoming increasingly improbable, the Episcopate began to realise that church and state had a considerable common interest. The Church’s traditional commitment to nationalism, to the preservation of a patriarchal family structure, and to the values of hard work and social humility, accorded excellently with the political need of the state to maintain a fragmented and politically docile population. Indeed, it has often been useful for official propaganda to have a ‘non-Marxist’ source of authority to voice ideas which are awkward to express in Marxist terminology.

The sudden wave of strikes in 1976 and the subsequent repression placed the Church hierarchy in a difficult position. They did not wish to jeopardise their new relationship with the state, but they could not afford to ignore the appeals of the working class for fear of losing their authority. Their solution was to issue statements criticising police repression and the economic decisions taken by the Government, but making clear their disapproval of strikes and emphasising the duty of all citizens to work harder ‘for the common good and so as to maintain order in society’.

A similar pattern occurred in August 1980. At the height of the strike in Gdansk, Cardinal Wyszynski appeared on television to declare that ‘when there is no work the best economic system will fall in ruins.’ In an extraordinary homily on the subject of honest work, Wyszynski made a clear appeal to the workers to moderate their demands and abandon their strike. He also made some remarks critical of the Government, which were censored in the televised version of his speech. When the strikers at Gdansk learnt of this the next day, they assumed that they had been tricked about the rest of the content. In fact, the full text did not alter the sense of the remarks directed at the strikers – which, significantly, did not have any influence on them at all.

It will probably be left to a future generation of Polish historians, whose roots are in the working class itself, to document the promethean struggle of the Polish workers to achieve political consciousness in the ten years between December 1970 and August 1980. It would be hard for the present generation of the intelligentsia to record this hidden process since until 1976 they played no part in it.

The strikes in Gdansk and Szczecin in December 1970 had been provoked by years of austerity and a sudden and clumsy attempt on Gomulka’s part to cut consumption by increasing the prices of basic foods. But the workers, although distrustful of the Party, had not yet lost the illusion that the system was capable of operating in their interests. This is strikingly illustrated by the fact that a majority of the freely-elected workers’ delegates in the Szczecin shipyards during the 1970 strike were party members. The burning of hundreds of party cards during the sacking of the Party’s regional headquarters was the symbolic beginning of working-class emancipation from the Party. It was only from 1970 onwards that non-party worker activists began to appear in significant numbers, their ranks swelling rapidly after the new wave of strikes in 1976.

The 1970 revolt, which swept Gomulka from power and led to the installation of Gierek in his place, inaugurated a period of ‘totalitarianism with a human face’. Although Gierek could no more afford to allow any real democratisation of factory life than Gomulka, he realised that without substantial economic concessions and some pretence at ‘consultation’ the explosion of discontent could not be contained. Between 1971 and 1975, the standard of living of the working class increased rapidly. But Gierek did not keep his promise to the workers of the Szczecin shipyards to allow them to form an independent workers’ commission; and a combination of violent intimidation and corruption very soon led to the break-up of workers’ representation in the shipyards. In practice, ‘consultation’ meant nothing more than an increase in the number of lectures by high party functionaries to factory audiences.

The boom economy of the first half of the decade, financed by massive loans from Western capital, ended suddenly in 1976. Polish industry, hopelessly inefficient by Western standards, was incapable of producing economically the kind of high-quality manufactured goods which could be exported to the West in order to repay the interest on the loans. Instead, the Government exported badly needed foods. (According to an article in the magazine Fortune, entitled ‘What the bankers did to Poland’, by last year 92 per cent of Poland’s hard-currency export earnings was being spent on repayment of its loans.) When, on 25 June 1976, the Government tried to raise prices in order to counteract shortages in the internal market, there was a spontaneous wave of strikes and riots. The Prime Minister appeared on television the same evening to announce that the price increases had been annulled. Writing in 1977, Kuron noted acidly:

Totalitarianism with a human face is founded on the deception that the regime has something to give in exchange for the obedience of society. In fact, however, it yields only that which society extracts by its disobedience. This deception can no longer be continued. The political crisis which we are experiencing and which manifests itself as a paralysis of the regime is caused by the bankruptcy of the methods of rule which have been used since 1957.

The evident paralysis of the regime in the face of mass pressure, together with some particularly outrageous amendments to the Polish Constitution in the autumn of 1975, finally galvanised the intelligentsia into renewed activity. A letter signed by 59 prominent intellectuals, protesting at the changes to the Constitution, proposed in their place a quite different set of amendments, among which is to be found both the right to strike and ‘a guarantee that workers may freely elect their own professional representing bodies, independent of the party and the state’. In September 1976, in response to the continuing severe repression of workers who had taken part in the June strikes, a group of some dozen intellectuals formed a Committee for the Defence of the Workers, KOR.

From the outset, KOR was not interested in playing the role of a political party: its initial purpose was to provide aid to persecuted workers and their families. Nevertheless, in the four years of its existence, KOR has played an impressive role as a political catalyst – a role bearing little relationship to the size of its membership (now about thirty).

In the wider milieu of students and intellectuals who collaborated with KOR in collecting and distributing funds for the families of imprisoned workers there quickly sprang up several groups engaged in more overtly political activities. There was a mushrooming of illegal underground literature, known collectively as bibula; a ‘flying university’ was organised where dissident intellectuals gave lectures in private homes on a wide variety of subjects whose objective study was impossible in official institutions of learning. Among the many underground publications a special significance attaches to the pamphlet ‘Robotnik’ (‘The Worker’), whose first issue appeared in September 1977. This newsheet, launched by a group of KOR’s collaborators, was specifically directed at the working class and rapidly elicited the active participation of many workers in its production and distribution. Even though its circulation never exceeded a few tens of thousands, it provided a vital information link for the whole workers’ movement. Among the hundreds of worker militants who were drawn into the web of activity around ‘Robotnik’ several independent local foci emerged. One such focus was formed by a group in Gdansk in April 1978, who designated themselves ‘the Founding Committee of the Baltic Free Trade Union’. The historic importance of this group may be judged from the fact that it included at least five of the 19 members of the presidium of the inter-enterprise strike committee in August 1980; one of these was Lech Walesa.

The reaction of the regime to the spate of underground activity generated by KOR and its offshoots was two-pronged: in general, it treated dissident intellectuals with mild intolerance and worker militants with exemplary brutality. The members of the Politburo had read enough Marx to be aware that an alliance of the working class and the intelligentsia would be fatal. They no longer had the means to buy the workers’ acquiescence, but they hoped to retain the support of at least a part of the intelligentsia. In November 1976, fearing an explosion, a group of prominent party intellectuals, together with some liberal non-party intellectuals, formed an unofficial caucus, DIP, which was critical of government policies. Its aim was to explore all possible avenues for averting the debacle ahead. It was too late.

   Gentlemen! You are talking to different people! You are not addressing those who in December 1970 replied to the question ‘Will you help us?’ with the answer ‘We will!’

   We are different above all because we are united and no longer powerless.

   We are different because thirty years have taught us that your promises are not kept.

   Strike Bulletin, Gdansk, 27 August 1980

At 6 a.m. on 14 August, the workers of departments Kl and K3 of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk put down their tools. They had two modest demands: the re-employment of Anna Walentynowicz, a particularly popular militant who had been sacked for her underground activities in the Baltic Free Trade Union, and a wage rise of 1000 zlotys. On that morning was born an elemental force, a movement which has grown with measured deliberation, burrowing under and sweeping aside everything that stands in its way.

Viewed from a distance, the dynamic of this movement remains invisible. It is tempting to judge a social movement by the pronouncements of its leaders. Yet in a revolutionary process the leaders are often conducting a fuite en avant: some who cannot keep up the pace are left behind and are at once replaced by others. Such is the situation in Poland now.

Two days after the beginning of the strike in the Lenin shipyard, Lech Walesa proposed to the strikers that, in view of the director’s capitulation to the original demands, the strike be ended. This proposal was accepted and the director informed. Shortly afterwards, a young woman among the workers who were still congregating in the shipyard cried out that workers in other enterprises who had struck in sympathy had been betrayed by this decision, since their own demands had not been satisfied. Her impassioned speech created a furore, and sensing the mood, Walesa annulled the decision to end the strike.

Two weeks later, when the strike movement had spread to the whole country and a final agreement on the formation of an independent union was being negotiated in the Lenin shipyard, the Government made a last-minute attempt to divide the working class from the intelligentsia by agreeing to all the workers’ demands except the liberation of political prisoners, most of whom were associated with KOR. The presidium of the strike committee, under the influence of some liberal intellectual advisers from Warsaw, wavered on this last question. The intellectuals believed that the Government would not yield on this point and that to insist on it would be to court disaster. The problem was resolved by violent arguments between the presidium and the strikers’ delegates. The meeting finally demanded the unconditional release of all political prisoners. The prisoners were released.

These incidents attending the birth of the Solidarity movement, though hardly noted by the international press, typify a pattern of radicalisation from below which has been repeated at every stage of the development of the vast social movement now engulfing Poland.

It would be difficult to find in history examples of a ruling class more bereft of social support than the Polish political bureaucracy today. Finally denuded of its ideology, it can only watch impotently as ever-wider sections of society mobilise against it. With the obstinacy of a child playing in the tide, the regime has placed one obstacle after another in the path of the revolution: each in turn has been swept away in a fresh wave of radicalisation from below. Since there is no major social class to which it can turn for support, the regime has been reduced to attempting to co-opt sections of the leadership of Solidarity while issuing thinly-veiled threats of Soviet intervention: but mass pressure is at present so intense that the more conservative leaders of Solidarity cannot retain their influence if they ignore this pressure, while threats of intervention have been used too often to be effective with an increasingly militant and self-confident working class.

The principal political advisers to the leadership of Solidarity today come from three different milieus: KOR, the liberal Catholic intelligentsia and the Episcopate. Conscious of the threat of Soviet invasion, almost all are attempting desperately to define the limits of the revolution. The widely-differing conceptions of these limits have already led to serious signs of strain in this conjunctural alliance. From the point of view of Kuron, who is a founder-member of KOR and whose ideas have great influence among the activists of the democratic movement, the fundamental limits which must not be crossed in the present phase are determined by the necessity to preserve Party dominance over the central administration, the police forces and the Army – i.e. the institutional framework of state collectivism. Kuron believes that within these limits the democratic movement must struggle for autonomy in every other sphere of social life. He argues that the dynamic of the revolution can only be contained if these limits are clearly defined in advance. This historic compromise, of indefinite duration, would be based on the Polish people’s general consciousness of its provisional necessity.

The influence of the Episcopate is far more conservative. Paradoxically, the collapse of the Party’s control over society has lessened the political authority of the Church. On the other hand, by preaching moderation the Church has much to gain: in return for an attempt by the Episcopate to institutionalise and bureaucratise Solidarity, and thereby stem the growing radicalisation of the base, the regime would certainly be prepared to grant enormously increased influence to the Church. In effect, this is the last ideological trick available to the regime, which could thus cover the process of normalisation by a drastic modification of its ideology. The signs of a rift between the Church and the democratic movement were already evident in December, when the press representative of the Episcopate told foreign journalists that in his opinion the authorities would be justified in arresting certain ‘troublemakers’ and cited Kuron as an example.

Is Kuron’s compromise possible? It seems doubtful. Even if the theoretical construct, ‘state collectivism with a socialist face’, proved to be internally stable, the example this would set to the other peoples of Eastern Europe would be too powerful to allow the revolution to be contained within Poland’s borders. Whether or not the Soviet Union were to invade Poland in consequence, the Polish example would rapidly lead to a revolutionary crisis in the entire Soviet bloc. It seems probable therefore that the Soviet Union will intervene before this point is reached. But this is by no means certain. Attacked on all fronts and desperately weak internally, the Soviet regime has no rational policy in the present crisis. The consequences of intervention and of non-intervention would be equally disastrous. In this respect, there is no comparison with the situations in 1956 or 1968.

The strategy of the Western powers in the present crisis is not hard to discern through the clouds of official hypocrisy concerning support for the demands of the Polish workers (demands which in some instances have never been acceded to in the West). If the dynamic of the revolution is not halted by ideological subterfuge, the present confrontation will lead either to a brutal invasion and prolonged chaos in Eastern Europe or to a socialist revolution in several East European countries, including perhaps the Soviet Union itself. Neither of these possibilities is in the interests of Western capitalism. While both possibilities would involve huge losses in terms of the capital invested in Poland and incalculable consequences for the stability of Europe, the second would also destroy the vision of Communism which is the cornerstone of Western ideology and give a powerful new impetus to the Left in Western Europe.

In accordance with the doctrine elaborated by Kissinger’s aide, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, in the early Seventies, the Western alliance is using the full weight of its economic and ideological power to attempt to preserve the existing mode of production in Poland while using the weakness of the Soviet Union to increase its own economic penetration. This strategy is evident both in the large new loans which have been made to the Kania Government and in the incessant propaganda for the Catholic Church in the statements of politicians and in the radio broadcasts beamed to Poland.

The economic role of the West in the genesis of the present crisis is little known. Some 40 per cent of Poland’s trade is with industrialised capitalist countries. The estimated $25 billion which Poland today owes to the West was a few years ago described by bankers as a ‘dream investment’. Indeed, the financial terms which the West obtained from Poland in the Seventies compared favourably, according to Fortune, with those negotiated with many Third World countries. It is not difficult to see the advantages for a banker of a situation in which the brutal labour discipline necessary for the extraction of surplus value of this order is entirely the responsibility of a repressive apparatus which is called Communist. A little-remarked fact is that the consumer price ‘reforms’ last year, which triggered the first strikes in Poland in July, were demanded by Western bankers as a condition for the provision of additional loans.

According to Marx, the first political revolt to advance socialist demands occurred in Cracow in 1846. ‘From that moment onwards,’ he wrote, ‘all the mendacious sympathies of the wealthy of Europe were directed towards Poland.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 3 No. 7 · 16 April 1981

SIR: An inconsistency which seems important caught my eye in Michael Szkolny’s article ‘Revolution in Poland’ (LRB, 5 March). He makes a distinction between ideology and propaganda, arguing that ‘propaganda does not have to be believed in order to be effective.’ Two paragraphs later, he takes Kolakowski to task for his argument that Marxism-Leninism is an inconvenience to the Party in Poland, but cannot be removed because it is the basis of legitimacy of the regime! ‘What is the value of a doctrine “as a basis for legitimacy",’ asks Szkolny, ‘if no one believes in it?’ He has already answered that question himself: doctrine does not have to be believed to be politically effective. This is an insight which Kolakowski has already put more subtly: belief in Soviet and Eastern bloc propaganda, he points out, often amounts to belief in the political power it expresses, not in the independent truth of the information.

Peter Cramer
London SW11

Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981

SIR: In a letter in the last issue of the LRB Peter Cramer claims to have discovered an ‘inconsistency’ in my article ‘Revolution in Poland’ (Letters, 16 April). The alleged inconsistency centres on the fact that I criticise Kolakowski for his argument that Marxism-Leninism is an inconvenience to the Polish Party which cannot be removed because it provides the basis of legitimacy of the regime. ‘What is the value of a doctrine as a basis of legitimacy,’ I asked, ‘if no one believes in it?’ According to Cramer, I myself had answered this question when I previously asserted that doctrine does not have to be believed in order to be effective. I find this ‘insight’ of Cramer’s rather mystifying.

A doctrine may be effective as a means of social domination even if no one believes in it. On this we apparently agree. However, a doctrine has value as a basis of legitimacy if and only if it induces a belief that the existing social order is morally justified.

The final sentence of Cramer’s letter (‘belief in Soviet and Eastern bloc propaganda … often amounts to belief in the political power it expresses, not in the independent truth of the information’) appears to refer to Kolakowski’s observation that, hidden in the current usage of Marxist terminology in Eastern Europe, there is an implicit propaganda of terror which is quite distinct from the official doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Yet this allusive propaganda, while it may be politically effective, also does nothing to legitimise the regime. Furthermore, the formal use of Marxist terminology would merely be an encumbrance if all that were required were a language capable of inculcating terror. It is exactly at this point in their analyses that Kolakowski and others are unable to explain the extraordinary tenacity of Marxism-Lenism as an ideology of domination.

Michael Szkolny

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences