Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski

Published in Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzelini, eds. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, pp. 191-207.

Strike, Szczecin, 1980

By Stefan Cieślak (Archiwum autora) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Give Us Back Our Factories!

Between Resisting Exploitation and the Struggle for Workers’ Power in Poland, 1944–1981

Mode of Exploitation and Workers’ Resistance

The Soviet-dominated People’s Republic of Poland, [1] which existed from 1944 to 1989, was one of the transitional social formations between capitalism and socialism to emerge on the periphery of the world capitalist system. This periphery lagged behind the Western center in the historical process of industrial revolution (Aldcroft 2006). Poland’s dependent capitalist system between the wars had hindered the nation’s industrial development ; consequently, its overthrow by the Red Army after World War II allowed this delayed revolution to occur. In the newly industrialized People’s Poland, the commodities exchange ceased to be the general form of social relations, but bureaucratic domination blocked the transition to the new planned relations. This domination was based on a double set of contradictions : between the overthrow of capitalist domination on a national and regional scale and its prevalence in the world system; and between the suppression of capitalist relations of exploitation and the persistence of the productive forces fused in the crucible of these relations. The more the productive forces had adapted to capitalism, the more they hampered the development of relations of nonexploitation (Rey 1977, 130; Rey 1985, 131; Turchetto 1995 and 2007).

The bureaucracy was not a genuine dominant class but a parasitic stratum (Post 2000); its political domination was not rooted in a specific mode of production, yet it was able to extract surplus labor from the workers. The exploitation to which the workers were exposed was but a pale reflection of the dominant relations of production in the world capitalist system. The inability of the bureaucracy to develop new productive forces, or to “really subsume” those that it disposed of, generated strong tendencies toward the overexploitation of labor power (the extraction of absolute surplus labor) and desocialization of productive forces (see Marx 1982, 1021, 1024).

The use of pallets that produced a technical revolution in construction transport is a good illustration of this desocializing tendency inherent to bureaucratic domination. At the end of the 1970s, after fifteen years of efforts by six government commissions in charge of introducing pallets into the economy, the transportation of bricks continued as follows: instead of being placed on pallets in the brickyard at the beginning of the whole chain, they were loaded by hand into train wagons, unloaded by hand at the station of destination, then loaded by hand into trucks, unloaded by hand from the trucks at the building site, and only at the end—when the manual process ran into an insurmountable technical obstacle—were the bricks finally placed on pallets so that a crane could lift them to the eighteenth floor of a skyscraper under construction (Kuśmierek 1980).

Ticktin has stated, ironically, that to sector I (producing the means of production) and sector II (producing the means of consumption) the political economy of “actually existing socialism” added an ever-expanding sector III: the repair of the means of production. When a reduction in the number of workers operating the machines occurs simultaneously with an increase in the number of workers repairing them, the contradiction between the requirements for socializing the productive forces and the atomization prevailing in the labor process becomes practically insurmountable (1973). One of the manifestations of this contradiction was the low or null use value of the massive production of the means of consumption and production in which the social nature of labor did not materialize. Another, during the final phases of production plans, was the global scarcity of the forces, means, and objects of labor on the one hand, and on the other, the overabundance of the same in the enterprises that had stocked, underutilized, or kept them in reserve during “dead times,” awaiting “strong times.” The over-demand of labor power in the enterprises guaranteed full employment, which in turn was the decisive factor legitimizing “actually existing socialism” (Pravda 1981, 46).

The forms of the labor process, inherited from capitalism and subsumed under neither the bureaucracy nor the working class, were strained by the contradiction between the permanent tendency to overexploit labor power and the likewise permanent tendency to resist this exploitation. Workers’ resistance took the forms of a high labor turnover, absenteeism, and a wide-ranging although partial workers’ control of the labor process. Filtzer (1986) has shown how extraordinary was the speed and range with which the new working class, having recently arisen from the Stalinist industrial revolution, assumed what Arnot (1981, 1988) has called “negative workers’ control.” Although atomized, it was a way for an individual worker or a small workers’ collective to appropriate a certain amount of the labor time, to determine the work pace, to avoid complying with tasks and norms or applying rationalizations and innovations, to enforce being paid on a time basis while working on a piece basis, and so forth. When confronted by this “negative workers’ control” over the labor process, the Tayloristic form of work organization that the bureaucracy had borrowed from capitalism produced what could be described—resorting to a blatant contradictio in adjecto— as an “arrhythmic Taylorism” (URGENSE 1982).

Workers resorted to the weapon of the strike only when the increase in the overexploitation of labor was so strong that the conventional methods of “negative workers’ control” were unable to neutralize or counter that increase. Mass strike movements were the principal means for accumulating forces, fighting capacities, and experiences. A qualitative leap in the process of “class accumulation” occurred in the event that workers occupied factories. Independent of the demands of the strikers, every sit-down strike went beyond the limits of the bureaucratic regime by posing in a practical manner the question of who was to run the factories: the bureaucrats or the workers? If the sit-down strike raised this question episodically, workers’ councils elected by all the workers of a given enterprise raised it permanently, by instituting a counterpower opposed to bureaucratic management and constituting an organ of struggle for workers’ self-management (cf. Trotsky 1977, 146). The historical experience of the workers’ movement in People’s Poland has confirmed that “class struggle is a process producing the working class” (Lebowitz 2003, 179–184), and that the struggle for and the exercise of workers’ control “must be seen as a preparation for situations of ‘dual power,’ in connection with the conquest of the whole political power” (Panzieri 1976, 23).

The First Political Expropriation of the Working Class: 1945

In 1944–1945, the liberation of Poland by the Red Army and the assumption of power by a Stalinized workers’ party led to the overthrow of the capitalist political and economic regime. Already during the Nazi occupation, German imperialism had generally expropriated the Polish industrial bourgeoisie. The defeat of this imperialism coincided with the generalized demand for the nationalization of the main means of production. The widespread practice by workers, begun in the wake of liberation, of taking over abandoned enterprises and reopening them under the direction of ad hoc “works councils” (rada zakładowa), garnered the support of the new state power in gestation. Still very weak, the new state had no choice but to count on the organizational and productive initiative of the workers as a decisive factor in the industrial and economic reconstruction of the country.

Nonetheless, for numerous Communist and left-wing Socialist cadres, this was not a pragmatic but rather a programmatic issue: they wanted all industrial power to be handed over not just to the new state, but to the working class itself. However, the February 1945 government decree on works councils barely gave them limited rights to participate in the management of enterprises. When the decree came into force in May, eleven days later it was annulled by an instruction from the Ministry of Industry enforcing the full and exclusive singular power of the chief manager over an enterprise. This illicit act represented a huge blow by the bureaucracy that was quickly consolidating itself inside the economic state apparatus. The works councils, deprived not only of any capacity to manage the enterprises but also of any right to comanagement, were incorporated into the labor unions, which were soon transformed into “transmission belts” for the governing party and, in fact, for the state apparatus (Gołębiowski 1961; Kowalewski 2007). The defeat of this first self-management movement of the working class was soon followed by strike movements against food shortages, low wages, the rise of production quotas, and the lengthening of the workday (Kamiński 1999).

Eventually, by overcoming the large obstacles that dependent capitalism had placed in the way of the development of the productive forces, it was possible to achieve an extensive industrialization of the country. Between 1950 and 1956, the number of industrial workers increased by 70 percent. Between 1938 and 1958, the proportion of the industrial labor force with respect to the total active population more than quadrupled. The new working class diluted within its ranks the “older” working class that was the bearer of the class practices, experiences, and memories of struggle. The new working class lent itself rather easily to the increases of exploitation through Stakhanovism [2] and “socialist emulation,” but it also learned to resist through “negative control” over the labor process, and to use, in a rudimentary fashion, the weapon of the strike. Between 1951 and 1953, during the most intense phase of industrialization, a new wave of strikes took place.

The power of the bureaucracy, which was politically organized in the framework of the Polish Unified Workers’ Party (PZPR)—the backbone of the state machinery— revealed itself to be much more fragile than it appeared.

The Workers’ Council Movement: 1956

In June 1956, the city of Poznan witnessed Poland’s first use of the mass inter-enterprise strike combined with street demonstrations. One hundred thousand workers held a rally in the public square. There were also attempts at armed insurrection by the new working-class elements, but they were not supported by the older class. The bureaucracy responded with the occupation of the city by ten thousand troops and three hundred sixty tanks. There were fifty-eight deaths. However, the onset of a serious political crisis of the bureaucratic regime prevented even those who took up arms from being condemned to prison (Jastrząb 2006).

Barely four months later, the working class erupted again, with its more advanced sectors organizing democratically elected workers’ councils (rada robotnicza). This time, during the dramatic days of October, these councils actively and decisively intervened in a new regime crisis. Armored columns of the Soviet Army were marching toward Warsaw from their bases in the western part of Poland. Under the direction of Lechosław Goździk, a young Communist leader of the Warsaw auto works, the workers’ councils acted in alliance with the student movement, the reform anti-Stalinist sectors of the PZPR, and the troop commanders of the Ministry of the Interior, ready to resist a possible Soviet military intervention.

The main objective of these workers’ councils was to establish self-management as the basis for workers’ and socialist democracy. A general point of reference was the Yugoslav “self-management socialism.” For the radical left—the so-called October left—that headed the movement, the key issue to be resolved was: who should control the means of production, the bureaucracy or the working class? “Within the ideological systems of the radical left the concept of the working class was fundamental. The working class was the most important sector of society, the vanguard and the driving force of the transformations that could lead to an exploitationless and classless society. The ‘October left’ was convinced that only the workers that took into their hands the means of production could achieve political democracy” (Friszke 2010, 29, 32). “If workers’ councils emerged that could take power within the enterprises, then a real revolution could take place and power . . . would shift from the bureaucracy to the organized workers” (Kuroń 2002, 31).

The Law on Workers’ Councils, which was passed in the Diet (parliament) in November 1956 under pressure from the October left and the working-class movement, established that “the workers’ council manages the enterprise in the name of all the workforce.” Many other articles of the same law limited its reach when not overtly contradicting it; regardless, its passage was a great victory. However, the new leadership of the PZPR, headed by Władysław Gomułka, prevented any coordination of the workers’ councils or the establishment of a Workers’ Diet or a Chamber of Self-Management that could take over the democratic management and planning of the national economy. Gomułka also repressed a strike by streetcar workers in Łódź and shut down the weekly Po Prostu, the organ of the October left, when it was about to launch the slogan “All power to the workers’ councils” (Łopieńska and Szymańska 1986).

These councils were active in more than 3,300 enterprises. In December 1958, the Diet passed a new law on workers’ self-management that not only diminished the councils’ role to the level of “organs of co-participation of the workforce in the management of enterprises,” but also forced the councils to share the “co-participation” with the committees of the party organization and the bureaucratized labor union. Thus, by disempowering them, the law condemned the workers’ councils to a slow but sure extinction (Sowa 1979).

During the so-called “small stabilization” of the Gomułka regime, based on price-wage stability, the standard of living of the workers and of the population in general improved. Between 1957 and 1960, real wages increased by 20 percent and strike activity diminished to a quarter or a fifth of what it had been in the period before 1956: from around eighty or a hundred strikes down to about twenty strikes a year.

Blood Wedding on the Baltic Coast: 1970

During the first years of the 1960s, at the University of Warsaw, student groups of left opposition began to emerge, led by two former militants of the October left, Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski. In 1965, the circulation of their “Open Letter to the Party”—a critique of the bureaucratic regime, a call for an antibureaucratic revolution, and a program for the institutionalization of a workers’ democracy organized through a national system of workers’ councils—was the cause for the first imprisonment of Kuroń and Modzelewski (Friszke 2010, 81–353). Fifteen years later, the “Open Letter,” little known outside the immediate political circles of the authors, would serve as a political and programmatic reference for some of the militants and leaders of the Solidarity labor union, even though the authors themselves had by that time renounced its contents. For this reason, Barker (1982) was correct in seeing in this letter the “missing link” of the prehistory of Solidarity.

In March 1968, the political group headed by Kuroń and Modzelewski unleashed a student rebellion for socialist democracy at the University of Warsaw that spread to all the universities in the country. It was the only mass movement in People’s Poland that did not arise within the working class (Eisler 2006; Osęka 2008; Kowalewski 2008a; Friszke 2010, 472–883). Although the student movement called for their support, the workers remained largely quiet until their own uprising in December 1970.

As a protest against rising prices of consumer basics—increases of between 16 and 31 percent—mass strikes combined with demonstrations and street fighting were detonated in the industrial cities of the Baltic Coast, mainly in Gdańsk and Szczecin. The police and the army intervened and killed forty-four people. In Gdańsk, where the building of the provincial committee of the PZPR was besieged and set on fire, the main instigators of direct actions during the struggles against the repressive forces were the youngest workers. Their lack of experience in mass struggles was a deciding factor in the unfolding of the uprising in the city. In some places, a semi-insurrection took place, and a local dynamic of “dual power” was created. In Gdynia, where the uprising was better organized and articulated by workers than in neighboring Gdańsk, the municipal authorities were forced to reach an agreement with the city strike committee and essentially handed over the local government. The immediate response by a regime that perceived the danger of the establishment of local workers’ power was the massacre of eighteen workers by armored army troops (Domański 1991; Eisler 2000a).

In Szczecin, during the street fights, crowds of workers set fire to the buildings of the party’s provincial committees and labor unions and took the police headquarters by assault; thirteen workers were killed and twenty eight armored vehicles destroyed. Street fighting ceased with the outbreak of a general strike, combined with factory occupations. This was the first mass sit-down strike in People’s Poland and the first time that the right to freely organize in labor unions was demanded. The city strike committee, with its headquarters in the Warski shipyard representing worker forces from more than 120 enterprises, established a veritable workers’ power in Szczecin. Despite an army siege and strong repression, the “dual power” dynamic in the city was able to prevail for five days (Głowacki 1989; Paziewski 2000, 2008; Węgielnik 2010a). As a result of the uprisings, Gomułka was forced to resign, discredited as he was for having authorized the intervention of the army and the use of firearms against the working masses. He was replaced as the head of the PZPR by Edward Gierek, the powerful party boss of Upper Silesia, the largest industrial center of the country. Gierek recognized the working-class nature of the uprisings on the Baltic Coast; he also acknowledged the need to reestablish the party’s ties with the workers and to reform “actually existing socialism.”

The rebellion came to an end, but when new strikes were organized in Szczecin a month later, in an unprecedented gesture Gierek went to the Warski shipyard and personally participated in long debates with the delegates of the strike committee. He also met with the workers’ delegates in Gdańsk, promising to “develop the country, strengthen socialism, and improve the workers’ standard of living.” He also promised that the people would never again be fired upon (Wacowska 1971; Węgielnik 2010b). However, it wasn’t until the great strike of February 1971 by fifty-five thousand women workers of the textile industry in Łódź that Gierek was forced to revoke the price increases decreed by Gomułka (Mianowska and Tylski 2008).

Barely a month after the rebellion of the Gdańsk workers, democratic elections were held at the Lenin shipyard to revive all three bodies of the tripartite Conference of Workers’ Self-Management, established by the 1958 legislation: the workers’ council, the enterprise council of the labor union organization, and the enterprise committee of the party organization. In the Northern shipyard, also in Gdańsk, forms of workers’ self-management emerged at the level of brigades. In the Warski shipyard in Szczecin, the strike committee became an independent democratic representative body called the “Workers’ Commission.”

The Workers’ Commission’s main task, which Gierek approved, was to monitor the elections to the bodies of the Conference of Workers’ Self-Management to ensure that they were held in a democratic manner. Elections to the conference bodies were also held in many other Szczecin enterprises. After three weeks, the Workers’ Commission was formally dissolved, but it continued to function informally and some of its leaders were also active in the shipyard union council. During the official celebration of May Day in Szczecin, the former Workers’ Commission organized a “black march” to protest the impunity of the perpetrators of the bloody repression of December, but afterward the informal commission slowly disintegrated due to severe blows struck by the political police, including murder and attempted murder (Bałuka and Barker 1977; Krasucki 2007; Węgielnik 2009, 2010c).

The first half of Gierek’s decade witnessed an explosive economic expansion. Real wages and salaries increased by 42 percent, but at the same time there was an unprecedented growth in social inequality: 30 percent of the population now lived below the poverty line. The central political power—composed, in this regime, of the state political bureau, the Central Committee of the ruling party, the government, key ministries, and bureaucratic economic agents—lost its control, already precarious, over the balance of forces among the different “branch and territorial pressure groups” within the bureaucracy.

The powerful groups in control of heavy industry exercised immense pressure on the accumulation fund, greatly strengthened by Western loans; consequently the consumption fund was reduced and bureaucratic planning disrupted. The foreign debt to capitalist countries increased twenty-five-fold and stifled the economy, while chaotic investment drove it into disarray and the massive reorientation toward exports strangled internal consumption.

The potentiality for extensive industrial development was clearly declining, as it was based on the extraction of absolute surplus labor. Bureaucratic domination, increasingly holding back the development and socialization of the productive forces, prevented intensive development based on the growth of labor productivity. The effect was to systematically wear down the labor force through the extension of the workday and the intensification of work. As one example, the workday of the miners was extended to eleven hours with a six-day week, and forty-two Sundays a year. During the second half of the decade, an acute socioeconomic crisis broke out, eventually provoking a revolution at the end of the decade. Its motor was the contradiction—exacerbated by the accumulation of other contradictions that fused together into an explosion—between the increasing tendency toward the social appropriation of the means of production and its management by a parasitic stratum. Strike activity rose again, approaching the levels of the 1940s and ’50s.

The most important movements were the strike actions and demonstrations in June 1976 against price increases, which took place simultaneously in the industrial cities of Radom (where a general strike broke out, the party’s provincial committee building was set on fire, and street fights against police forces occurred); Ursus (a suburb of Warsaw, where the workers blocked the main national and international railways); and Płock. This time, the government immediately revoked the price increases, the army did not intervene, nor did the police fire on the multitudes, but the detained workers were savagely beaten and dozens of workers were condemned to several years of imprisonment (Pawłowicz and Sasanka 2003; Sasanka 2006; Sasanka and Stępień 2006). The antiworker repression reactivated the former left-wing opposition that, crushed during 1968, had renounced its Marxist inspiration and antibureaucratic revolutionary program. On a purely democratic basis, the revived opposition formed the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). The underground newspaper Robotnik (Worker), published by one of its sectors, helped prepare the ground for the emergence of an independent workers’ movement.

A Workers’ Revolution: 1980–1981

On July 1, 1980, the government decided that all meat products provided in the cafeterias and kiosks of the enterprises—very scarce due to the economic crisis—were to be sold according to “commercial” prices, much higher than regulated prices. This was the proverbial “spark that ignites the prairie fire.” It incited a huge wave of strikes in July in Lublin and in August in Gdańsk and Szczecin. In Gdańsk, the slogan hung on the gate of the Lenin shipyard read: “Workers of all enterprises, unite!” Meanwhile, in Szczecin the slogan in the meeting hall of the Warski shipyard strike committee stated: “Yes to socialism, no to its distortions.” The strikes spread to the other industrial centers of the country.

Accumulated historical experiences of repression translated into significant changes in the behavior of the strikers. This time the workers, having learned from the bloody repressions and chaotic developments of the uprisings in 1970 and 1976, decided not to take to the streets. Instead, they revived what the Szczecin workers had done years before: they occupied the factories, where they were able to self-organize, exercise control over the struggle, and discuss and decide democratically how to fight. The first of the twenty-one demands put forth by the inter-enterprise strike committee of Gdańsk was to legalize the labor unions independent of the party and of the employers, and the second was to guarantee the right to strike.

Paralyzed by its own internal crisis, the regime refrained from using force. First it accepted negotiations, under strict monitoring by the striking workers, with three inter-enterprise strike committees: the Gdańsk and Szczecin shipyards and the coal mine in Jastrzębie-Zdrój. Then, in the agreements reached with these committees (August 30–31 and September 3), as well as with the inter-enterprise workers’ committee based at the Katowice steelworks (on September 11), the government accepted all demands, including the more radical ones. The agreements stated: “The necessity is acknowledged of creating new, self-managed labor unions, genuinely representing the working class,” and “the new law on labor unions will guarantee workers the right to strike” (Paczkowski and Byrne 2007, 66–80). Almost immediately, based on these inter-enterprise strike committees, all over the country workers organized inter-enterprise constituent committees or inter-enterprise workers’ commissions of a new, independent, self-managed labor union, Solidarity (Solidarność). These regional committees and commissions supported the buildup of the new union in all workplaces.

Solidarity went beyond the traditional limits of industrial unionism by prioritizing the unity of the working class, over and above its sectoral interests. It was not a confederation of branch federations but a national federation of regional union organizations; the regional organizations, in turn, federated the workplace union organizations. This unique form of organization gave the Polish workers’ movement an impressive capacity for mobilization, struggle, and exercise of a counterpower.

The new union intended to rediscover and reproduce internally the classical principles of workers’ democracy. The regional general assemblies of delegates were sovereign bodies: they freely made all the fundamental decisions on the regional level and elected the regional leaderships, which were charged with putting these decisions into practice. In turn, the regional leaderships responded to and were subordinated exclusively to the regional assemblies, rather than to the national leadership. The regional assemblies also ratified the decisions made by the national commission of Solidarity, composed of the regional delegates, in order to confirm the validity, timeliness, and regional feasibility of these decisions. At all organizational levels the union leaders were democratically elected; they were accountable to the electorate and were revocable at all times (Garton Ash 1983; Barker 1986; Kowalewski 2008b). In the course of its formidable and sudden rise and expansion, Solidarity would organize more than nine million wageworkers, around 55 percent of the total, marginalizing the former bureaucratic unions.

The possibility, sought by “moderates” on both sides, of a conflicting but lasting coexistence with the bureaucracy revealed itself to be mere illusion, as tensions and confrontations multiplied and became more severe. It was necessary to launch warning strikes and threaten longerlasting ones in order to achieve a number of basic demands: wage increases that had been promised, the legal recognition of Solidarity without needing to mention “the leading role of the PZPR” in its bylaws, Saturday as a day off, free access to the mass media, and more. In October 1980 and again in March 1981 an indefinite general strike with factory occupation was almost declared. If one of these two strikes had taken place, the consequences would have been difficult to predict; most likely it would have led directly to a revolutionary crisis. The bureaucratic regime, profoundly destabilized and afflicted with internal contradictions and sectoral disputes, had gone off course. The PZPR lost control of its constituency: half its members had joined Solidarity, while many of its grassroots organizations became autonomous, coordinating with one other to form horizontal structures, and frequently allying with the independent union.

Once again, Poland was threatened with the possibility of Soviet military intervention. “In the history of socialist societies this was the most serious crisis in which labor relations . . . became the focus of a struggle for solutions to the economic crisis and for political power” (Petkov and Thirkell 1991, 183).

The Struggle for Workers’ Self-Management: 1981

In many enterprises, the workers expelled chief executives, blocked new bureaucratic appointments, and questioned the bureaucratic management of the industries. Among the union militants and workers unionized within Solidarity, the conviction was widespread that in People’s Poland the legitimate collective owner of the means of production was the working class, and that it was necessary to wrench those means away from the bureaucracy. A new refrain emerged: “A union is to defend; we also need a workers’ council to manage.”

In January 1981, the Łódź regional leadership of Solidarity declared its refusal of any attempt to reanimate the defunct Conference of Workers’ Self-Management, and in general of any idea that the workers “co-participate” in the management together with the bureaucracy. The Łódź leadership became the first to call for the struggle for a “true workers’ self-management,” which it defined as “the transfer of all power in the enterprises to the workers’ councils” (Kowalewski 1981a; Phelps 2008). The stand taken by this regional union leadership, which included a reference to the workers’ council experience of 1956, was to have a very strong influence on the organization and development of the movement for workers’ self-management throughout the country. In the factories of Łódź and many other regions, the workers, relying on the support of the Solidarity union organizations, began to organize “constituent committees of workers’ self-management” and to elect workers’ councils(rada pracownicza).

By July 1981, the growing movement for workers’ self-management on the national scale began to group itself around two different tendencies. One, the Network of Solidarity Union Organizations of the Leading Enterprises, was headquartered in Gdańsk. It demanded that “workers be given back their factories” and proposed a legislative act called the “Law of the Social Enterprise.” The legislation supported transferring the management of public enterprises to the workers’ councils; it did not propose that they undertake the management of the entire national economy, but suggested substituting the imperative central planning with an indicative model, and broadening the commodity relations. The other tendency, the Interregional Initiative for the Cooperation of Workers’ Councils, met in Lublin. This tendency encouraged the establishment of regional coordinations of workers’ councils and then of a national coordination in order to build, from the bottom up, an integrated system of councils that would take into its hands the management and planning of the development of the entire economy and society. It also demanded the institution of a second chamber in the Diet, the Chamber of Self-Management, conceived as a workers’ parliament. If this goal were attained, it would have meant taking “dual power” to the highest level, and posing the question of not only who was to run the enterprises, but also who was to run the state.

At the outset, the balance of forces between these two tendencies was more or less even; however, the balance began to tip toward the second tendency as it gained more and more support from the grassroot militants of the movement for workers’ self-management. As of the autumn of 1981, this tendency held the leading role in the movement (Kowalewski 1985, 1988; Jakubowicz 1988).

The First National Congress of delegates of Solidarity, which took place in Gdańsk over two sessions in September–October 1981, was the most representative and democratic assembly in the history of the Polish workers’ movement. It also served as a grand arena for the struggles between the tendencies within the movement. The question of workers’ self-management became the main issue of the debates in the congress, as well as the main theme of confrontation between the congress and the regime. At the time, workers’ councils were active in about 20 percent of public enterprises, particularly the largest ones, located in the greatest concentrations of the industrial proletariat. The more radical of the two tendencies was moving full speed ahead. Its standpoint provided the basis for the historical programmatic resolutions adopted by the congress. In these resolutions, Solidarity demanded a democratic socioeconomic reform at all levels “associating planning, self-management, and the market,” which could be “put in practice solely as a result of the mass workers’ movement.” “The fundamental unit of organization of the economy is to be the social enterprise, managed by the workers’ council and operationally led by the director appointed by the council on the basis of a contest and revocable by the former. . . .The reform must socialize planning. The central plan should reflect the wishes of society and be accepted by it. For this reason, the debates on central planning should be made public. . . . The true workers’ self-management must be the fundament of the Self-Managed Republic” (Solidarność 1981).

The path being opened was quite clear. The self-managed republic should be built according to the “model of the ‘workers’ councils’ inherited from one of the most fruitful currents of European socialism”; and “in order to guarantee better allocation of the collective benefits in favor of wageworkers, as well as a true social democracy in the enterprises. . . . The workers should constitute the fundament and the summit of all future political edifications” (Bafoil 2000, 81). It was the highest point ever reached under “actually existing socialism” by the working-class “moral economy” (Rossman 2005).

The first session of the Solidarity congress ended with a vote on a resolution that triggered a panicked reaction from the regime. In this resolution, denounced by the regime as unconstitutional, the congress warned that if the Diet adopted the laws on workers’ self-management and enterprise as proposed by the PZPR, Solidarity would call to boycott them. Frightened by this challenge, an important sector of parliamentary deputies opted not to vote on two bureaucratic projects unless a compromise could be reached with Solidarity and its approval be guaranteed. For the first time, the regime ran the risk of losing the majority vote in parliament, which had always been assured by a landslide. Its disintegration was accelerating.

To the astonishment of the majority of the delegates, the president of Solidarity, Lech Wałęsa, took advantage of the intermission between the sessions of the congress to come to the aid of the regime. In violation of the principles of union democracy that governed Solidarity, and in violation of the sovereignty of its congress, Wałęsa negotiated an agreement with the Diet that portended an enormous setback for the movement for workers’ self-management.

The day before the inauguration of the second session of the union congress, the Diet passed the laws under dispute, in order to place before Solidarity a fait accompli. The second round began in a storm: many of the delegates denounced the agreement reached by Wałęsa, subjecting him to relentless criticism that undermined his leadership—which, until then, had been unquestioned. The legislative action was considered a declaration of war. In response, by a great majority of votes, the Solidarity congress adopted a new resolution proposed by the radical sectors. It declared that the union would unconditionally support the struggle for true workers’ self-management, according to the will and aspirations of the workers. It also proposed to organize of its own accord a national referendum, so that the workers could democratically choose between the laws enacted by the Diet and the project supported by Solidarity.

At the same time, Solidarity’s regional office in Łódź decided to activate and radicalize the struggle for workers’ self-management by applying the tactics of the active strike (also known as the “work-in strike”). The tactics consisted of launching a large strike movement with factory occupation, led by the union. The movement would advance from a passive occupation to an active one, from a “sit-down” to a “work-in.” This meant that during the strike production would be retaken by the workers, initially under the direction of the strike committees, then the power over the enterprises—conquered through direct action—would be handed over to the workers’ councils (Kowalewski 1981b). The idea found a favorable response in many sectors of the union. The Łódź regional organization was relying on the Solidarity organizations in other regions to follow the same course, and prepared to launch the strike. For Kennedy (1991, 101) there is no doubt that “Kowalewski is right to argue that a regional active strike in Łódź would have brought other provinces into the struggle,” and that “the active strike was, as Kowalewski acknowledges, a revolutionary strategy” that “effectively abandoned Solidarity’s self-limitation.” The regime denounced the idea as an open attempt to seize political power; it was also strongly criticized by Wałęsa’s moderate followers, who defended the strategy of the so-called “self-limited revolution,” which should not pose the question of power. Yet the relation of forces in the “civil” battlefield was increasingly moving in favor of the independent workers’ movement, which was becoming more and more radicalized (Kowalewski 1982).

But the active strike was never launched, because the regime acted faster by declaring martial law. Without the leadership of a workers’ party that could guarantee political guidance in accordance with the dynamics and aspirations of the working class, and in an unfavorable relation of forces on the international level, the movement was incapable of resolving the question of power. The bureaucracy proved capable of doing so, but only by shifting the confrontation from the civil arena to the military battlefield, where it held overwhelming supremacy, and where the mass movement found itself defenseless.

On December 13, 1981, the Military Council of National Salvation was formed ad hoc, completely outside the constitutional order, under the direction of the first secretary of the PZPR and prime minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. The military council decreed a “state of war” or martial law, confined nearly ten thousand Solidarity activists in internment camps, surrounded all the occupied enterprises with tanks, and crushed the working-class movement. The workers were unable to recover from this defeat, which nine years later resulted in the restoration of capitalism in Poland.

As Marx would have put it, “by deed instead of by argument” the struggles for workers’ self-management in Poland “have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands,” and that, for a time, “in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class” (Marx 1985, 10–11; cf. Lebowitz 2003).

Translated from the Spanish by Marco Gomez


[1] This was the official name from 1952–1989.

[2] Named for Alexey Stakhanov, a Soviet coal miner in the Donets Basin whose team in 1935 increased its daily output sevenfold, Stakhanovism was officially aimed at increasing industrial production by the use of more efficient division of labor and working techniques. In actuality it was aimed at drastically speeding up and intensifying human effort, analogous to demands placed on workers in capitalist enterprises. Stakhanovism resulted in low-quality products and disorganized production processes and was massively resisted by workers as a means of brutal overexploitation. Its use lapsed gradually after Stalin’s death.


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