Commentary Magazine

Countdown: The Polish Upheavals of 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980, by Jakub Karpinski; The Polish August, by Neal Ascherson; Polan

The Road to Solidarity

Countdown: The Polish Upheavals of 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980.
by Jakub Karpinski.
Karz-Cohl. 214 pp. $29.95.

The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution.
by Neal Ascherson.
Viking. 320 pp. $14.95.

Poland: Communism, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism.
by Michael Checinski.
Translated in part by Tadeusz Szafar. Karz-Cohl. 270 pp. $22.95.

There are many differences between the Solidarity revolution in Poland and previous East European upheavals, not the least of which is the indifference of the Poles to the possibility of Communist party reform. In the three most significant past Soviet-bloc revolutions—Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1956, and the 1968 Prague Spring—the forces attempting to forge a more humane and democratic system had their origins, in varying degrees, within the respective Communist parties. The men generally recognized as leaders of the reform movements—Nagy, Gomulka, Dubcek—were devoted Communists of many years’ standing. They in turn drew support from a younger generation of party members who believed that a true, liberal Communism could be achieved once Stalinist-imposed “deformations” had been wrung from the system.

In Poland, on the other hand, reform of the Polish United Workers party (PUWP), the name adopted by the Communists after World War II, was deliberately left off the agenda of the democratic opposition. Instead, emphasis was placed on the creation of strong, autonomous institutions capable of functioning free from party-state control. The most important of these institutions was, of course, the Solidarity trade-union movement.

This strategy proved remarkably successful. Although the degree of freedom and openness enjoyed during the sixteen months of Solidarity’s aboveground existence is not without precedent in postwar Eastern Europe, previous reform or revolutionary movements succumbed to Soviet military intervention or indigenous Communist repression much more quickly than Solidarity. Moreover, recent events—demonstrations, riots, job actions, the appearance of literally hundreds of underground Solidarity bulletins—clearly suggest that General Jaruzelski has been unable to destroy the opposition even eight months after the declaration of martial law. Here Solidarity has succeeded in remaining a viable opposition force precisely because of its independent, autonomous, and democratic structure.

The decision to bypass the party was unquestionably influenced by the Czech experience. The armed intervention by the Warsaw Pact forces in 1968 dispelled any illusions about the Soviets’ tolerance for experiments in new models of socialist democracy. Much more important, however, was the widespread perception that Communism in Poland was so thoroughly bankrupt, both as an ideology and as a practical system of governance, as to render any reform effort an act of futility. Thus when a group within the PUWP launched a campaign, much heralded by the Western press, to inject a measure of democracy into party affairs, the Solidarity leadership declined any involvement whatsoever. And, in fact, after a July 1981 party congress, described as the most democratic congress ever held by a ruling Communist party, the PUWP emerged no stronger, no more reform-oriented, or, for that matter, no more democratic, than before.

The three books under review all deal with the theme of the failure of Polish Communism. Jakub Karpinski, the author of Countdown, was an important figure in the intellectual opposition during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and he served several years in prison for political offenses before coming to the West. Countdown is a perceptive analysis of the four crises which preceded the revolution of August 1980: the 1956 Polish October; the 1968 student upheavals; the workers’ riots of 1970; and the brief workers’ protest of 1976.

A regime which experiences five major upheavals in the course of twenty-five years—three of which were serious enough to force a reshuffling of the political leadership—would ordinarily be expected to launch a reevaluation of its guiding policies and doctrines. Such revaluations—soul-searching, really—have indeed been undertaken periodically by the Polish Communist leadership, producing pledges for more openness, more responsiveness to popular needs, and cleaner government. Without exception—and usually quite quickly—the party has reverted to the practices which got it into trouble in the first place.

For example, the 1956 Polish October produced, albeit briefly, liberalizing changes which were in many respects comparable to those of the Solidarity period. Ambitious plans for the extension of industrial democracy through workers’ councils were announced. Censorship was drastically cut back, and the Polish press earned special distinction for its sympathetic coverage of the Hungarian revolution. Those party leaders responsible for the worst “excesses” of the Stalin era were supplanted by the followers of Wladislaw Gomulka, who had earned, unjustifiably, a reputation as a reformer principally because he was the most prominent victim of the Stalinist purges. Within two years the workers’ councils had been stripped of independent authority, and it took the regime only several months to reinstitute strict press censorship. As for Gomulka, the man once considered a strong “nationalist,” he moved steadily closer to the Soviet leadership, and in 1968 was a fervent advocate of the invasion which put down the Czech “independent road to Communism.”

Karpinski includes an account of the Polish response to the Hungarian revolution which is revealing insofar as it indicates the degree to which the Sovietization of Eastern Europe has twisted these societies. The coverage by the Polish press of the revolution has already been referred to; in addition, campaigns were launched to collect clothes and food for the embattled Hungarians, and blood donations for the wounded freedom fighters. Twenty-five years later no such outpouring of support has been forthcoming for the Poles. Instead, schoolchildren in East Germany, no doubt acting under party direction, have put together food packages for Polish children which reportedly include messages like: “My father works and we have everything; your father strikes and you have nothing.”



The conclusions one draws from Countdown are reinforced by The Polish August, and this even though the author, Neal Ascherson, a British journalist, is far less critical of Communism than Karpinski. Ascherson’s biases are most apparent in his discussion of the international context which has to so great a degree determined Poland’s political course. In a sense, Ascherson places the burden of responsibility for Poland’s current plight on the United States, since, he contends, it is America which triggered the cold war which in turn drove Stalin to impose the Soviet model on the countries of Eastern Europe. Stalin, he says, never really wanted a Communist-controlled Poland; rather, he would have preferred a pro-Soviet military dictatorship.

Furthermore, Ascherson does not seem to believe that there is anything inherent in Communism as a political system that would produce the Polish debacle. There is good Communism and bad Communism, and Poland simply has been unlucky enough to have gotten more than its share of the latter. The history of postwar Polish Communism is thus reduced to a series of “if onlys”: If only the U.S. had not brought on the cold war. . . . If only Gomulka had retained the democratic reforms instituted in 1956. . . . If only Gierek had capitalized on the popular support he enjoyed on succeeding Gomulka. Finally, and incredibly, Ascherson asserts that if only the party had been more completely purged during the Stalinist era, an obstructionist, middle-level bureaucracy would not have become a permanent roadblock to reform, and liberal change might have been possible.

On the other hand, Ascherson’s account of the events which led to the establishment of Solidarity, and his reportage of the first year of the union’s existence, is well done. Much of his assessment of the Communist party is also on target, especially his observation that the factionalism which plagued the party from its very inception guaranteed that only the most mediocre figures would rise to the top by a process of negative selection. For those who even today persist in the hope that the solution to the Polish crisis lies in the ascendancy of a reformist group within the party, Ascherson and Karpinski are timely reminders that a reform wing never really existed, at least not at the lop layers where power lies.

These facts go a long way toward explaining why Solidarity took so determined a stance (intransigent, according to some) in its bargaining with the regime. The Solidarity leadership knew from bitter experience the worthlessness of the vague pledges of change offered by the party; it demanded guarantees, written down and signed into law, and it was prepared to employ the most effective tactics at its disposal—usually the strike—to insure that negotiated changes were implemented.



Although it has not been a major factor in the various crises which erupted since the establishment of Solidarity, anti-Semitism has been a major issue in 20th-century Poland. Poland’s large Jewish population was practically wiped out during the Holocaust, and the Poles have never really come to terms with their own, shameful role in the destruction of the community.

Indeed, the phenomenon of what has been called “anti-Semitism without Jews” has figured prominently in the history of postwar Poland. The reason, according to Michael Checinski, is that the Communist leadership, egged on by the Soviets, made a conscious decision to exploit and manipulate anti-Semitic sentiments as a means of solidifying its tenuous control over society.

Checinski’s study is not without problems. The author, a former Polish military officer who was a victim of an anti-Jewish purge, tends to interpret every move by the Communists as influenced by or in some way associated with anti-Semitism. There is, moreover, insufficient analysis of the attitudes of the Polish people, as opposed to the party leadership, toward Jews in contemporary Poland.

This is, nonetheless, an engrossing study of one of the most repulsive chapters in the history of world Communism. For while there was a strong current of anti-Semitism in prewar Poland, it was never condoned or encouraged by the government. In addition, the socialist and democratic parties which existed during the brief period of the Polish republic had resisted anti-Semitism, at least in part because the Jewish issue was so often exploited to divide the potential constituencies of the democratic Left.

Checinski places much of the blame on the shoulders of the Soviets, who, he believes, manipulated the Jewish issue in order to deflect the chances of a renascent Polish nationalism. The fact that a number of Jewish Communists were placed in highly visible and politically sensitive positions in “People’s Poland” (especially in the security forces) is seen as a Soviet scheme to divert popular discontent with various repressive policies from the Communist party itself to its Jewish members. After Stalin died, the blame for the “distortions” of Communism was placed heavily on Jews, and a large number of Jewish Communists were purged from leadership roles and from the party. On several occasions, the Soviets themselves conducted purges of the Polish security forces, with Jews the major victims, and Checinski observes that even toughened Polish Communists were repelled by the virulent anti-Semitic language employed by Soviet officials in private discussions.

As for the Polish Communists, there was hardly a member of the party’s inner circle of leaders who did not in some way condone or lend support to the anti-Jewish campaigns which were periodically conducted between 1948 and 1968. One man in particular, Mieczyslaw Moczar, a shadowy figure once considered a possible successor to Gomulka, built a power base around his opposition to the influence of “alien” elements in Polish society, meaning Russians and Jews, but principally Jews. Gomulka, whose wife was Jewish, delivered a famous speech in 1967 in which he denounced a “fifth column” within Polish society, a clear reference to the country’s by-then tiny Jewish community. Similarly, Edward Gierek, soon to replace Gomulka as party chief, declared in 1968 that the root of Poland’s difficulties lay with troublemakers and “revisionists” who served “foreign interests,” i.e., Israel.

The 1967-68 anti-Semitic drive was initially provoked by the Six-Day war, whose outcome, Checinski says, was greeted with approval by ordinary people throughout Eastern Europe as an indirect defeat for the hated Soviets. But while other East European regimes dutifully obeyed the Kremlin’s orders and severed relations with Israel, only in Poland did the secret police dispatch a specially selected group of agents to jostle and jeer at Israeli diplomatic employees as they boarded the airplane for home. Meanwhile, official permission was given for the publication of such tracts as Zionism: Its Ideological Sources and Its Influences on Polish Medicine. (One such pamphlet, given wide circulation, is particularly noteworthy: it asserted that Jewish Stalinists who had been “conspicuous by their exceptional brutality” while in Poland were now, as Israeli citizens, treating the Arab population “equally brutally.”)

Checinski recounts a number of anecdotes concerning the wretched people who were caught up in what became a frenzied anti-Jewish witch hunt. One man, who was not Jewish, was accused of having falsified his ethnicity and was dismissed from his job as director of a rubber enterprise. Subsequently he proved the charges false, but it was to no avail; he had already been discredited, and the press refused to retract the earlier stories. At a pharmaceutical works, an aging, sick part-time worker was fired simply because he was the only Jewish employee, and the case was duly reported in the Warsaw press as a triumph in the struggle against Zionism. Those non-Jews who actively opposed the purge also risked having their careers destroyed. For example, both the Minister of Health and his deputy were dismissed for having spoken out against the anti-Jewish campaign.

It is testimony to the pathetic quality of the leaders of Polish Communism that, having eliminated essentially all vestiges of organized Jewish life from their country, they still attemped to blame subsequent disturbances—in 1970, 1976, and 1980—on “Zionist influences.” One can almost imagine that if every Jew in Poland wanted to leave, the regime would insist that one remain, as a scapegoat for the next, inevitable crisis.



Would things have worked out much differently for the Poles had they been able to choose a democratic form of government? Although previous experiments in democracy were not spectacularly successful, there is ample precedent among European countries with little democratic tradition—Portugal and Spain being two notable examples—to suggest that a non-Communist Poland would have proved more successful in every regard. Concerning anti-Semitism, the democratic opposition, including broad segments of the Solidarity leadership and Pope John Paul II, has gone out of its way to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to combat anti-Semitic sentiments in the society. It is the Poles’ great tragedy to have been burdened with a system that has provided neither bread nor freedom, and which has produced some of the most contemptible political leaders of recent times.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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