Chris Harman


Solidarity at the cross roads

(September 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 35, 16 September–16 October 1981: 8, pp. 9–10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman looks at Poland one year after the Gdansk agreement

The first anniversary of Solidarity was an event few of us expected to see. We thought the Polish workers’ movement of last summer would either be smashed by Russian tanks, as were the Hungarians and the Czechs, or would be strangled by the internal bureaucracy – a fate that befell the Poles themselves in 1956-7. Instead, the independent workers’ movement is still alive and kicking.

Yet all is not well within Solidarity. All the signs are of a leadership which is confused and divided. One week it calls for a cessation of all strikes and for workers to volunteer to work Saturday shifts for nothing; the next it tells printers throughout the country to stop the government presses. Reports of the national meetings of Solidarity tell of sharp differences between radicals and the moderates led by Lech Walesa (Financial Times, 14 August 81). At the same time, ‘fears are mounting in the Solidarity leadership that events are moving beyond the union’s control.’ (FT, 13 August).

Many of the local strikes – for instance, the strike in Radom for a full inquiry into the repression of 1976, the print strike in Olsztyn over TV ‘slanders’ on the union, the Gdynia dockers’ refusal to move food destined for export – have been taking place despite the clear disapproval of the majority of the national union leadership.

The confusion inside the Solidarity leadership follows from the basic strategy almost all activists in the movement shared a year ago – the idea that what had to be done was to build a countervailing power to the regime, which would work for workers’ interests but which would not do anything to overthrow the regime.


The strategy was justified with references to ‘the need to take account of the international situation’ (i.e. the Russians). But it is by no means a new strategy in terms of the history of the international workers’ movement. It is a version of classic syndicalism – the belief that workers’ problems can be solved, by building up strong union organisation, without paying any heed to the question of state power.

It has always been a strategy that can work ... up to a certain point. A weak workers’ movement can often build up its strength without having to worry about national politics. All that it needs are militant tactics in particular local struggles – and such militant polices are quite compatible with syndicalism. The problem comes when the power of the unions has been built up.

In Britain in the years 1910–19 syndicalist ideas inspired a whole generation of activists inside the trade union movement, some of whom gained national influence. It played a very important role in building union strength to an unparallelled degree. But then in 1919 came the moment of truth. As the miners’ leader Bob Smillie told it to Aneurin Bevan, the leaders of the three most powerful groups of unions were summoned to see the prime minister, Lloyd George.

‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps ... If you carry out your threat to strike, then you will defeat us.

‘“But if so,” went on Mr Lloyd George, “ have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, if you have, are you ready?”

‘From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were.’ (In Place of Fear, pp. 10–21)

Now, the British trade union leaders of 1919 were a pretty spineless lot. But what is remarkable is that history repeated itself 17 years later, and with syndicalist leaders of an undoubtedly revolutionary hue. Ronald Fraser tells, in his book The Blood of Spain of a near identical meeting in the summer of 1936 between the bourgeois president of Catalonia, Companys, and the leaders of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT. Among those leaders was the organiser of several terrorist attacks and of three insurrections, Durrutti.

The CNT-led workers of Catalonia had just completely smashed the fascist coup in that part of the Spanish state, in the process arming themselves, disarming the police and taking over the factories. Companys told the CNT leaders he recognised that because of this, their organisation wielded effective power and that he had no choice but to offer them state power. Without hesitation the syndicalists told him they would not accept the offer, but instead would cooperate with his government.

Deepening crisis

Solidarity’s syndicalism is now facing the same dilemma. The regime is weak, incapable of either continuing in the old way or of launching itself along a new path. Yet the economic situation alone does not allow it to stand where it is. Its Western creditors on the one side, its Russian overlords on the other, are urging it to take bold action. Yet it cannot. As one of the more radical of Solidarity’s leaders has put it:

‘There is no programme in Poland for developing the country. No-one knows where to start. All the actions taken are chaotic and haphazard, impossible to put into effect in the long run ...’


There is, however, one thing the regime can do in this situation. It can repeatedly throw the ball back into Solidarity’s court.

It can say to the union leaders: the country is in deep crisis; neither the Western bankers nor the Russians will bail it out; if you insist on pushing your members’ claims, the crisis will get deeper still, threatening the collapse of whole industries and hunger on a very wide scale; if that happens, both the state and the unions can be destroyed.

Because they are not prepared to bid for power themselves, the leaders of Solidarity do not know how to respond.

The so-called ‘moderate’ wing around Walesa is, under the influence of the Church, making the classic syndicalist about-turn. A year ago the union was born out of strikes in reaction to food price increases; now it is urging acceptance of even larger price increases. In December and January it showed its real strength in the fight against Saturday working; now it is urging workers to give up their free, Saturdays.

Above all, the union was indestructible because as an alternative to the regime, it became the focus for the aspirations of all the exploited and oppressed sections of the population. Now the Walesa wing is trying to disown the actions of those who identify with it, as Walesa urges people to ‘approach problems as citizens, not merely trade unionists’.

The self-management movement

Within classical syndicalism the response to the dilemma posed by state power was not always quite as we have described it. There was a somewhat more radical alternative – but it was one which evaded rather than solved the problem. It involved turning away from the crisis of society at large and instead concentrating on taking power at the most local of levels alone: in the case of Spain in 1936 building local collectives, socialising local industry, forming local defence militias, but ignoring the national issues.

Such seems to be the predominant mood among the ‘radicals’ in Solidarity today. They have developed a very extensive movement for self-management in the factories. The ‘Network’, as the movement is called, succeeded in July in organising a national meeting of representatives from 1,000 plants. It sets itself the aim of replacing plant managements associated with the old order by workers councils. A founder of the movement, Jacek Merkl from the Gdansk shipyards, says the aim is the ‘transformation of state ownership into social ownership’ (quoted in FT, 28 August).

This is a much healthier response than that of Walesa. It counterposes a continuation of class struggle to class collaboration.

But from a working class standpoint there remains a fault in the self-management approach. The crisis of the economy requires more than just the seizure control at the local level. It requires the imposition of national solutions. Workers can struggle successfully to take over the individual plants in a locality – and still be demoralised and turned one against another by the national food shortages, the national resources wasted as Poland’s contribution to the Warsaw Pact, the national destruction of jobs as new investments are cancelled.

The problem of power

These questions cannot be dealt with unless you talk in terms of a struggle for power at the centre as well as in the localities, a struggle to replace the mechanisms of state capitalist competitive accumulation by those of socialist production for human need.

Revolutionary socialists in the West have learned the hard way that it is no good having a revolutionary ‘programme’ without having the working class self activity to enforce it. But in a situation of deep social crisis, the converse can also apply; the self activity means nothing unless it is raised to self-conscious self-activity, directed to solving society’s problems by the imposition of revolutionary measures.

That was why Lenin could write a book shortly before October 1917 called The coming catastrophe and how to avert it, saying that unless the revolutionary working class took power and imposed its programme, the disintegration of society could pull the working class down with it.

In Poland today the same danger exists. Without a working class struggle for power, all the bitterness engendered by the crisis – until now channelled behind Solidarity – can fragment in a thousand directions, People in one locality can begin to blame workers in another locality for their problem. The peasants can turn against all those living in the towns, including the workers. Those in the small factories can turn against those in the big factories. And in that situation, old traditions can blind people to their real interests.

Such is the real chaos that can threaten Poland – a chaos which will be encouraged by certain ‘hard liners’ in the regime who would hope to build a popular base for themselves out of nationalists and anti-semitic demagogy.

It is impossible to see what the eventual outcome would be then. It might be an authoritarian nationalist regime. It might be a Yugoslavia type ‘managerial’ state capitalism in which individual managers would sacrifice workers to the competition between themselves. It might even be that in the chaos, the Russians would feel strong enough to intervene. But in any such eventuality, everything gained by Solidarity in the last year would be lost.

Such an outcome is still far from inevitable. The workers’ movement still has the strength and the prestige to pose an alternative. The only thing that is preventing it doing that is its own subjective condition. The heritage of Stalinism means that the ‘radicals’ in Solidarity do not have the traditions of genuine Marxism that would provide them with a real notion of workers’ power or the theory that would explain the alternative to state capitalist crisis.

Last updated on 5 October 2019