Chris Harman


The road to Jaruzelski

(March 1982)

From Socialist Review, No. 41, 20 March–19 April 1982: 3, pp. 32–33.
Transcried & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Summer before the Frost
Jean Yves Potel
Pluto £3.95

The Polish August
Neal Ascherson
Penguin £2.50

Solidarity, Poland’s Independent Trade Union
Denis MacShane
Spokesman £3.50

Five months with Solidarity
John Taylor
Wildwood £2.65

The Book of Lech Walesa
Penguin £2.50

Solidarnosc: From Gdansk to Military Repression
Colin Barker and Kara Weber
International Socialism 15 £1.95

Poland, Solidarity, Walesa
Michael Dobbs, K.S. Karol and Dessa Trevisan,
Pergamon Press £4.95 (pbk)

The publishing industry at last seems to have realised that something very big has been happening in Poland over the last two years. Unfortunately, the intervention of General Jaruzelski on 13 December last has already made much of what is in the first five of these books a little dated.

Potel, Ascherson, MacShane and Taylor all provide more or less journalistic accounts of the first few months of Solidarity. So by fitting together pieces of their differing accounts, you can begin to get some idea of the total development.

Each has its own angle – Denis MacShane writes as a trade union bureaucrat who praises Walesa as the skilful negotiator; Neal Ascherson as the left leaning Scot Nat who emphasises the progressive role of Polish nationalism; John Taylor as a clear writing but not highly theoretical Western socialist; Jean Yves Potel as the ‘anti-Leninist’ revolutionary (increasingly Pluto’s general stance) who can be very clear and informative when looking at the Polish church, but deeply obscure when he talks of the early years of a regime he still deigns to refer to as ‘socialist’, and deeply reformist when he praised Kuron and Modzelewski for abandoning the revolutionary views they held in the 1960s.

Without theory there can be no foresight. None of them shows any premonition of the defeat that Solidarity eventually suffered. Ascherson comes closest with a chapter Towards a national tragedy that sees the possibility that Solidarity and the regime will not be able to reach the compromise that he himself seems to want.

Potel has the advantage over the others of having been able to write an introduction to the English translation of his book after the imposition of martial law. In it he criticises the Solidarity leadership for ‘lack of stragetic preparedness’. Unfortunately, the main body of the book, which appeared in French before the coup, contains not a hint of such criticism – instead it defends the ‘spontaneity’ of the Polish process against those who would argue the needs for a clear Marxist pole of attraction within that spontaneity.

Poland, Solidarity, Walesa is a coffee-table picture book. The pics of workers in struggle are fabulous despite a massive overdose of Lech Walesa in various poses. The text is uneven, as you might expect from three different writers, and at points factually inaccurate. What applies to the other journalistic accounts applies very much to the text of this book as well.

The Book of Lech Walesa is quite different in origin to the others. It is a collection of essays on the Solidarity leader that first appeared, legally, in Poland itself a year ago. The individual essays have some interest in that they refer to events (the near revolution of 1956, the smashing of the students in 1968, the massacres of 1970, the strikes of 1976) which were previously taboo in the official Polish media.

But put together they are both very repetitious and create a quite nauseous cult of the individual (perhaps intentional, given the desire of much of the Polish intelligentsia this time last year to see Walesa’s moderate wing victorious within Solidarity). It is as if the thousands of other activists who risked everything to build the union were mere walk-on extras in Walesa’s rise to stardom.

Colin Barker and Kara Weber’s book is in a league of its own. Written in three weeks flat, it is the first book out which seriously looks at the whole period of Solidarity’s existence, from its birth to the coup. And it is written not just out of hindsight, but on the basis of an analysis which, long before the coup, warned that if Solidarity did not smash the Polish state, the state would smash Solidarity.

It provides a narrative account of the whole process, interspersed with more theoretical chapters which look at things like the class divisions which led to the strikes of 1980, the role of the church, the inability of the party to reform itself, the faults in the analysis of KOR, the state capitalist nature of Poland, the causes of the economic crisis throughout the Eastern bloc.

In it you will find the only real discussion on the ideas of Solidarity leaders which refers not just to Walesa and the occasional KOR leaders, but to the various ‘radical’ regional leaders who are now probably suffering most in the internment camps and prisons.

It is a must for all readers of Socialist Review – and at £1.95 is a real bargain.

If you want to follow it up with accounts that contain slightly different detail there is not a lot to choose between the others. In terms of price and length Ascherson is probably the best buy – although don’t take everything he says on trust (at some points I had to restrain myself from shouting out loud with anger at his view of historical events). Read Barker and Weber first!

Last updated on 5 October 2019