The Polish August: What Happened in Poland 
by Neal Ascherson.
Allen Lane, 316 pp., £12.50, December 1981, 0 7139 1469 6
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In the six months since Neal Ascherson’s intricate but lucid account of the rise of Solidarity was finished, Poland’s affairs have become the latest world-heroic saga. While the climax, Soviet invasion, seems to have been replaced by General Jaruzelski’s quite unforeseen takeover, myth has already taken on the force of history, and two themes are now becoming established: that the ‘extremists’ in Solidarity overplayed their hands, thereby challenging the Soviet Union’s interest in a friendly Poland; and that by inducing Jaruzelski to move, Moscow invaded by proxy. In assessing whether such claims are valid, Ascherson’s analysis is extremely valuable. It complements Denis MacShane’s recent book* and raises very wide questions about patterns of working-class revolt, and the role of intellectuals, in Eastern Europe since the arrival of the people’s democracies – questions which will not disappear whatever the fate of Solidarity.

Ascherson argues the essential unity of the Polish nation, in contrast with the disunity of its political order. Poland failed to achieve modern statehood (or indeed a modern economy) when it was reconstructed in 1918. It lacked an administrative class and succumbed easily to the dictatorship of Pilsudski and his successors. Even when the Communist Party was installed after the Second World War, it failed to acquire legitimacy. Bound to a recurrent cycle of remoteness, bureaucratisation, rigidity and collapse, it was condemned to have to take over any popular movement in order to survive at all – hence the curious ceremony Ascherson records at Gdansk, in December 1980, when the state honoured its working-class victims, shot ten years before.

Ascherson’s other major theme, the innate political wisdom of the Polish people, requires a suspension of disbelief. The ‘self-limiting revolution’ of the American subtitle looks like a marker set down for a future which will not now take place. There is, in fact, a contradiction between his highly realistic narrative and his idealism, which amounts almost to an emotional identification with the Polish struggle. The fact that, despite self-limitation, Church, Solidarity and Government together failed to hold back the forces driving them apart, does not, however, vitiate the narrative, or diminish the important questions which it raises.

By the end of World War Two, successive Soviet and Nazi occupations had left nothing of the political system except memories of a spectrum which had ranged from a near-Fascist idolatry of the nation to a Communism which, whether in thrall to Luxemburg or Trotsky, was invariably opposed to Lenin and Stalin; and a Church deeply and permanently entrenched after two centuries of defending Polish culture. In these circumstances, could the Communist Party, led by Gomulka, have become legitimate? Ascherson suggests that it could, by building on its part in the Resistance, and on the alienation of the vast majority from any legacy of the old dictatorship. What he calls Gomulka’s ‘authentic political project’ was, alas, overtaken by the Cold War; and in one piece of quite tendentious history, based almost entirely on Isaac Deutscher’s interpretation, he absolves Stalin of aggressive territorial designs in Eastern Europe. Elevation of the years 1945-48 into a ‘lost moment’, however, allows him to suggest both that Poland might have become unique among the people’s democracies in maintaining some independence from the Soviet Union, and that a sort of neo-corporatist centre might have emerged to bind together working class, Church and Party under Gomulka’s enlightened rule.

It is certainly true that Gomulka sought a ‘national way’, and he may have intended the sort of pluralism that the French Communist Party used to speak of in the early 1970s, meaning tolerance for parties of the Left; and, as Ascherson argues, he did create conditions in which the Stalin era was less bloody and shorter than elsewhere. But Gomulka always had to contend with the Moscow faction in the Party, and whatever gains Poland made economically before 1955, bad practices became endemic – lack of management skills, inadequate state investment, labour indiscipline – ensuring that the economy would remain backward and dependent on Comecon, despite Poland’s natural resources. Moreover, as soon as Gomulka stood in Stalin’s way, he was set aside. The Party subsequently failed to achieve the legitimacy Gomulka had sought. Diplomacy and the Rapacki Plan had been the only margin of manoeuvre allowed by the Soviet Union – until the Warsaw Treaty of 1970 finally secured Poland’s western frontier with Germany.

Bierut, Gomulka’s apparatchik successor, presided over the first cycle formed by the clash between what the Polish historian Wladyslaw Bienkowski calls ‘the dynamics of petrifaction’ and working-class discontent bubbling up into revolt, followed by police repressions. For all Ascherson’s faith, it is hard to see any Polish genius for restraint in these cycles of 1956, 1970, 1976, except perhaps for Gomulka’s brilliant handling of the Soviet delegations in October 1956, an essay in crisis management utterly different from that of Nagy in Hungary.

But space for a Polish way did exist, even before Khrushchev’s secret speech, for, unlike the Hungarians, the Czechs and even the Romanians, the Poles had no cause to quarrel with Soviet essential interests. Poland relied on the Warsaw Pact for defence against any Western-inspired frontier revision, and the ‘leading role’ of the Party was not contested. There did not yet exist, as there did elsewhere in Eastern Europe, an alliance of popular movement and intellectuals of the kind that emerged with the Czech Spring, nor a co-ordinated working-class opposition. As Ascherson notes in the first of his analytical essays, the various explosions, even as late as 1970, amounted to no more than riots and left no permanent succession in workers’ councils – to the dismay of Yugoslav commentators. Yet the Party did not take root. It lay outside the real nation, and somehow (though barely mentioned in this book) there grew up an army of 400,000 men. This was technically subordinate to Moscow, even after the Soviet Minister of Defence had been withdrawn in 1956, but – perhaps because of the influence of the former partisan, General Moczar, in the 1960s – apparently able to revive a nationalist ethos that had lain dormant since Pilsudski’s prime.

Ascherson’s picture circa 1960 is of a state too weak to instil real discipline, a Party degenerate almost from its inception, home for fat bureaucratic cats, a dead weight on a badly run and backward industry and agriculture. The Church survived persecution, the intellectuals had begun to decamp from the Party, and the ablest economists and administrators circulated in half-tolerated opposition, leaving only loyal but incompetent officials to cope with a hopelessly over-centralised machine. For all Gomulka’s success in protecting Poland from Hungary’s fate, his reforms were, like those of Bierut, doomed. Reimposition of ‘petrifaction’, not reform Communism or even efficiency, followed 1956. Meanwhile in Hungary, Kadar was employing his own economists, or learning from Poles such as Lipinski and Lange, ignored at home. Ascherson is perhaps hard on Gomulka for betraying the reforms promised in 1956: it was not, after all, 1980 – the Church remained hostile and Western authorities were, as events in Budapest showed, quite uninterested in supporting one Communist faction against another.

In these conditions, the Party may not have been reformable, so great were local vested interests, so backward the economy, and so low-grade the state organisation. This seems to be confirmed by the events of 1970 and 1980-81. The Czech Spring made little impact on an equally backward polity (student revolt in Warsaw having been brutally suppressed in March 1968). Part of Ascherson’s thesis is that there was as yet no link between workers and intellectuals. Frozen out altogether after 1968, and decimated by successive waves of anti-semitism, the intelligentsia only returned from the cold in the mid-Seventies, and were then no longer prepared to take a leading role like that of the Petöfi circle or the Czech Writers Union. Instead, they sought a prime mover in the working class, and reforms which – with their points of reference rooted in nationalism, and in a cultural revival endorsed by the Catholic Church – lay outside any conception of Socialism that the Party could share. Yet in these bleak years government took no advantage, and failed even to face up to the problems of an irrational food price structure. It survived in 1970 only by surrender, after an inadequate show of force.

Edward Gierek’s decade can be presented in different ways: either as economic success sabotaged by the oil crisis and the consequences of over-tempting loans held out by disingenuous Western bankers, or as hectic boom, unwisely stoked up, and followed by inevitable crash; either as a Westpolitik, shrewdly negotiated with the West Germans, or as mere submission to Moscow’s interests in Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Ascherson is favourable to Poland on both counts, while not denying that it remained sheer illusion to imagine either development could free Poland from the Soviet incubus. In any case, as yet another surrender to riot in 1976 showed, Gierek and the Party could neither repress nor deliver reform. This certainly helps one to understand the Government’s constant attempts to roll back Solidarity after August 1980, with each attempt followed by compromise. Divided between appeasers and hard-liners, the Party tended always to sabotage its concessions as soon as they were made. Yet in the end, in August 1980, the Gdansk agreements (which are given here in full) took place too late to choke off Solidarity’s ever-rising demands.

Ascherson shows clearly the substantive differences between August 1980 and 1970 or 1956, in charting Solidarity’s growth out of the Free Trade Unions of 1978. Concerned at first solely with the industrial workers’ depressed standard of living, it became a sophisticated popular movement, fuelled intellectually by members of KOR such as Jacek Kuron, until force of circumstance led it to attack the Party’s most treasured powers: its control over ‘leading and managing cadres’ (who had so obviously failed to produce enough tractors, meat or consumer goods), and finally its role within the state.

1980 differed also from the Prague Spring. Ascherson dates from 1975, and the argument over the new Constitution, the emergence of an amalgamated challenge by the Church, ‘in defence of the cultural values of the nation’, and by the once detached intelligentsia. This challenge appealed directly to an increasingly informed and coherent public opinion. Yet Gierek found himself unable cautiously to democratise because of the authoritarian wing of the Party, led by men like Stefan Olszowski who wanted to restore a sort of benevolent dictatorship. Though Ascherson would not agree, it might have been better if the latter had purged the Party in 1979-1980, rather than let public, Church and intellectuals debilitate it: the more so because, however carefully Gierek handled Cardinal Wojtyla’s elevation to the Papacy, the latter event aroused quite unrealistic expectations.

Ascherson tells the story in vigorous detail: how attacks on the Party came from below, within and outside; how the February 1980 Congress brought no remedy for political or economic problems; and how broad-based popular grievances culminated in a highly organised mass movement with KOR as its think-tank and publicity agency. By the time Lech Walesa presented Solidarity’s demands in August, the Polish state was in irons and the Party undone. Neither was subsequently able to provide the neo-corporatist organisation of State, Church and Trade Unions which might have served to create stability then, but which only reached the agenda a year later.

Long before Solidarity’s refusal to accept the ‘leading role’ of the Party, during the ‘Registration Crisis’, these developments negated much of Lenin’s doctrine, as the Soviet press continually pointed out. Worse, for Poland, they hampered the state in its attempt to revive prosperity. Quite unwilling to trust the authorities, Solidarity and the Church continued to try to extract maximum concessions while they could. Solidarity moved far beyond the workers’ councils of 1956 to the model of ‘free trade unions’ prescribed by KOR: Kuron’s vision of ‘free association’ as a means of regenerating the Party from outside was as radical as anything dreamed up by the Czech intellectuals. To have held back from such attractions would probably have required more wisdom and courage than Solidarity’s leaders or followers possessed. Physically, the Party was in ruins, its middle reaches depleted and frightened, its decisions, in Ascherson’s phrase, ‘less the result of deliberate choice than the random result of multiple bureaucratic collisions’.

Only at the end of 1980 did fear of political collapse and Soviet invasion force the more far-sighted clergy and Solidarity leaders to try and form neo-corporatist arrangements with the disintegrating party apparatus. For what now seems too long, they simply demanded reform from an adversary position. Frightened foreign bankers propped up the unstable pile of loans ‘to forestall invasion’ and congratulated themselves when Poland eventually applied, in despair, for membership of the IMF. Meanwhile the Party purge began – not at Olszowski’s instigation but as a result of popular outrage. The Party lost crucial conflicts, over Solidarity’s registration and over police brutality in November 1980. What appears to have shocked the Russians most was not that Solidarity could no longer easily control its membership, but that these events alarmed Poland’s neighbours, who were already upset by the country’s failure to deliver supplies of coal.

Ascherson asks how far could Solidarity and Church, sucked in at last by fear for the nation, accept responsibility for sorting out the mess? Could Solidarity find a level of formal organisation within the state, or could it, as some of the West European Left wildly dreamed, take over from the Party, as embodiment of the classic working class? This challenge raised a profound crisis within Solidarity (and brought some bizarre verbal interventions from the West, as sound Tories encouraged it to undermine its own government, while proposing stringent anti-union legislation for Britain). It was weakened by internal conflict between the rank-and-file activists who felt responsibility only towards an increasingly hungry and frustrated membership, and the leaders who finally accepted a dual role. At the Gdansk shipyard, on 16 December 1980, Lech Walesa stated: ‘We must accept full responsibility for the fate of our fatherland.’

This did not signify that ‘extremists’ were taking on the Soviet Union: rather that local Solidarity officials with limited experience, like the British shop stewards of 1917, were running into predictable conflict with the movement’s national leadership. Not surprisingly, Solidarity failed to resolve an endemic problem of modern trade-unionism. By comparison, the issue of Church and State in Poland seems easy, if intractable. In an interesting essay on worker organisation and the role of the intellectuals, Ascherson shows that by this stage KOR had ceased to be a motive force, and that its members had been dispersed as advisors, political dissidents no longer, across a broad-based popular movement. Further difficulties arose with peasant demands for registration as ‘Rural Solidarity’ – another deep cut in the Leninist model of government.

Ascherson believes that, by the end of 1980, the Poles had come to accept the need for a historic compromise – a ‘chance for the centre’, in the words of one influential article – and that the nation possessed enough wisdom for ‘self-limitation’. This, and his essay on intellectuals as a class in the new Polish order, look slightly devalued in the light of later events. During 1981, the national movement swelled in response to a Government and Party which seemed only able to delay or sabotage agreements, against a background of deepening social crisis. We must now presume that General Jaruzelski (prime minister after February 1981) waited, with the Army prepared, for this process to go too far.

It is worth asking why, in contrast with earlier cycles in the Bienkowski thesis, it was the generals and the Army who intervened. Ascherson suggests that Jaruzelski enjoyed a honeymoon in which Government managed to dissociate itself a little from the Party’s unpopularity. He himself seemed to embody a certain guarantee against Soviet highhandedness; and he was not directly implicated in the police brutality towards Solidarity at the Bydgoszcz prefecture in March 1981. Moreover, excruciating Soviet worries about the Party’s emergency conference in July, which looked like an open invitation to invasion (as in Prague in 1968), faded away when enough senior men of both factions in the Party were re-elected to the Central Committee. The threat of horizontal organisation and organised ‘tendencies’ within the Party receded, and it may by then have been hoped in Warsaw that the Russians would do no more than keep up the critical barrage and continue to isolate Poland morally and economically.

But it was the Party, not Solidarity, which was destroyed from within – by its patent failure either to re-establish order or to bring the factories under state control. Whatever Western bankers urged, work discipline and good management were not restored. A power vacuum existed, into which Solidarity advanced, probably unwillingly, moving away from the safe base of the Gdansk agreements, in order to ensure their observation, towards the institution of self-management on Solidarity’s own terms. Its Congress gave vent to openly political demands, while, quite separately, the Confederation for an Independent Poland aimed at real national independence. Finally, with its talk of a national referendum, Solidarity set itself up in substitution for the Party as the leading force in society. This, presumably, was the signal for Jaruzelski to give the prepared orders.

Whether the Soviet Union prescribed intervention, or whether Jaruzelski acted as arbiter, is a question Ascherson’s book cannot answer. It certainly indicates that Moscow fostered hard-line foci within the Party, and exercised economic pressure. But there is nothing here to substantiate the present American view – rather the reverse. Unfortunately, Ascherson does not give a coherent account of the Soviet point of view, except to distinguish in general terms between its rhetoric and a sort of underlying tolerance. Nor is there enough on which to base a judgment about the military élite. What were the generals taught at Staff College? What is their ethos, and attitude to Polish history? To whom do they see themselves as accountable? For thirty years, this relatively large army has stood on the sidelines, almost unnoticed except by a handful of specialists. These Generals do not look like the Greek Colonels or the Portuguese Captains, nor does Jaruzelski seem a Pinochet. The best comparison may be with the German generals of 1918 who, at great cost, nevertheless saved the nation from total defeat.

Beyond this lies speculation, about how, when, and if at all, the generals will hand over, and to whom. Precedents suggest that bayonets are not much good at digging out coal, nor at winning the sort of political consent denied for 35 years to the Polish Communist Party. Without the governing instruments and basic economic resources available to Kadar in Hungary after 1956, ‘Kadarisation’ is unlikely; and the longer Jaruzelski continues in power, the more chance Solidarity has of establishing a clandestine identity and of frustrating the imposition of industrial discipline. Nor are the generals likely to be able to enlist KOR’s survivors, even though these people appear to have been treated less badly than the leaders of Solidarity. On the other hand, the Church has not come out in vigorous opposition. The Vatican has been here before, in its long history, and made concordats with other nationalist military leaders. The least likely outcome seems to be restoration of that popular democracy which some Western Communist Parties and many of the European Left were dreaming that Solidarity might perpetuate.

But could the Soviet Union co-exist with a semi-permanent military dictatorship, based perhaps on Pilsudski’s model? It is not at all clear yet what are the relations now between Army and Party, although it seems that control of the latter is still disputed between hard and soft-liners – Olszowski and Siwak on one side, Fiszbach and Kubiak on the other. The Party could creep back to power as the only organ capable of running Poland’s economy, or it could be left debilitated and moribund, as a sort of adjunct to a military council, as the Falange was to Franco. There is not much in Soviet history to give guidance, for or against: but it is not easy to rebuild a Communist Party from scratch, as the Soviet Union has found already in Afghanistan, and it may be preferable to accept a regime in which the Party plays only a priestly role, so long as Russia’s tangible interests are preserved.

The whole trend of Ascherson’s narrative, as opposed to his deductions about what might have been, indicates that there was never any chance of Poland escaping Comecon or Warsaw Pact obligations, even if a neo-corporatist format had come into operation. In the harsh climate today, Jaruzelski may never become a Tito, but he could find enough margin of manoeuvre to play Ceausescu in uniform. The Reagan Administration have put into effect what look like contingency plans for a Russian invasion, even though the invasion has not taken place. Much of the Western press (in sharp contradiction to the Pope’s caution) heightens the drama of tyranny and even blames the Church for not organising resistance. Do the Poles prefer invasion and Russian tanks? We might ask who is served by reviving this Cold War Manicheism? Has the Soviet Union not shown more restraint than in 1968? Why should Poles listen to calls for ‘resistance’ made with lethal levity by a West which put out similar noises to Budapest in 1956, and utterly failed to back them up?

Behind all this lie two much deeper questions: to do with the nature of trade-unionism and the possibility of reforming Communism as a political system. Solidarity followed, at breakneck speed, a classic Western pattern of relations with the state (Ascherson makes a perceptive comparison with the Comisiones Obreras in Spain), and it is not surprising, given the chaos of the economy, that it should have failed to find a modus vivendi. This advances our knowledge of Poland, and of the reasons why Lenin prescribed his model, but not our knowledge of the multiple possibilities elsewhere.

As for the reforming of Communism, Ascherson believes, as his criticisms of Blazynski’s Flashpoint Poland and David Irving’s Uprising make apparent, that Poland could have found a special way between Communism and Nationalism: that ‘Polish Communism could, in spite of its past failures, find within itself the power to create a new synthesis of socialism and democracy which had never been seen in Europe.’ Each recent crisis – 1970, 1976, 1980-81 – was soon shown to be a crisis of the system, which could not change yet was unable to suppress the challenge. Now the system appears to have been replaced, at least temporarily. This sequence is not directly comparable to the experience of any other country in the Eastern bloc, where reform or repression have, in the practical sense, worked. It says more about Poland than about Socialist societies in general. Blazynski’s conclusion that Communism cannot be reformed, and that its false hopes must be destroyed, since the war between liberty and Communism knows no truce, is neither proved nor disproved.

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