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Colin Barker

Books are weapons

Solidarnosc: the missing link

(April 1982)

From Socialist Review, No. 42, 20 April–19 May 1982: 4, pp. 14–16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This month Bookmarks are reprinting Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski’s famous Open Letter to the Party, under the title of Solidarnosc: the Missing Link. Colin Barker examines its arguments.

If, as this series suggests, ‘books are weapons’, then Kuron and Modzelewski’s Open Letter to the Party (1965) is a gun that has remained buttoned in its holster. It has still to be fired.

Yet what a weapon. The Open Letter to the Party is by far the most impressive Marxist document produced from within Eastern Europe (or Russia for that matter) since the 1920s. It is, analytically and politically, much superior to its obvious rival, Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.

The circumstances of its production were dramatic. Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, its joint authors, were young academics at Warsaw University, and members of the University branch of the Polish United Workers Party (Polish CP). They had participated in the student movement that emerged in the course of the 1956 events in Poland, through which the old party regime was shaken near to destruction by a mass upsurge of worker and popular protest. Looking at Poland in the aftermath of 1956–57 they concluded that the popular movement had gained virtually nothing.

The ‘October Left’ of 1956 had permitted itself to be sucked into the orbit of the re-shaped bureaucracy and had thereby failed to give a proper socialist lead to the working class. As a result, the Polish ruling class had re-established its grip on Polish society. The path of ‘reform’ and ‘renewal’ to which the progressive wing of the Polish intelligentsia had looked in 1956 had, in reality, proved to be a path to the reconsolidation of the ruling bureaucracy’s grip on Polish workers.

The conclusion these two young writers drew was that what was needed in Poland was a working-class, socialist revolution, to overthrow the ruling bureaucracy and establish workers’ power. For this purpose, a new revolutionary socialist party was needed.

The Polish authorities moved swiftly and brutally to deal with two such dangerous young dissidents. They were arrested and expelled from the PUWP for possessing an unfinished typescript outlining their views, and – when they attempted to explain their arguments to their former comrades in Warsaw University branch by means of the Open Letter – they were arrested and charged with aiming to overthrow the state with force. For this ‘crime’ Kuron and Modzelewski were brought in chains to court, and sentenced to three years and to three and a half years in prison. In line with a long and honourable socialist tradition, they defended their writings in court, and – when sentence was announced – joined with a section of the spectators in singing The Internationale from the dock.

Fortunately for the world socialist movement, a copy of their Open Letter reached the West, and was translated into numbers of languages. In 1968, copies were circulated in Czechoslovakia. It rapidly became apparent why the Polish regime had responded with such ferocity: Kuron and Modzelewski had written the most far-reaching Marxist critique of a ‘communist’ regime yet produced by its own subjects.

The real power in Poland, the authors insisted, is the monopolistic property of those who head the State and Party. The great majority of Poles, the workers and peasants, have no direct way of influencing their rulers. Democracy does not exist in any meaningful sense. The rulers of Poland are ‘the central political bureaucracy’.

As Marxists, Kuron and Modzelewski insisted that it was not sufficient to analyse the political relationships in Poland – the only matter considered by Western political scientists. What is decisive is the form that the relations of production take.

Unlike previous Marxist critics of ‘communist’ regimes, such as Trotsky, Kuron and Modzelewski denied that state property had any necessary connection with socialism. In Poland and the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries, indeed, state ownership is the particular legal form through which class exploitation is organised.

The working class, they showed, receives in Poland no more than is necessary for their basic subsistence. (Indeed, some workers barely receive this.) There is no meaningful sense in which the workers can be said to ‘own’ the means of production in Poland. Rather, they are in the same position as the workers in western capitalist countries, in that they are forced to sell their labour-power to the real owners of the means of production – the central political bureaucracy. The actual labour the workers perform, and the product of their labour, belong to their rulers.

Central class goal

To the objection that the bureaucracy cannot be a class, they responded by pointing out that all the contrary arguments merely proved that the property of the bureaucracy is not individual property but ‘the collective property of an elite which identifies itself with the state’.

‘Since the state finds itself in the hands of a central political bureaucracy – the collective owner of the means of production and the exploiter of the working class – all means of production and maintenance have become one centralised national “capital”.’

And it is as a capital that the bureaucracy owns and directs the productive resources of Polish industry. It enforces into Polish production the same ‘class goal’ that is also found in western capitalist production: accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production. The central aim of the bureaucracy is to force the workers to produce the means whereby its national capital may be increased. On this basis the ruling bureaucracy seeks to enlarge the basis of its own rule, and maintain its own international position as against the rest of the capitalist world.

Given its central class goal, the bureaucracy seeks to hold down the share of national income passing to the workers to the historically necessary minimum, and to devote the maximum resources to expanding the national means of production. The aim of production in Poland is not the satisfaction of the population’s rising wants, but ‘production for the sake of production’.

Like the western capitalist class, Kuron and Modzelewski suggest, the Polish central political bureaucracy once played an initially progressive role, in the period after the war, in dragging the backward Polish economy forwards through forced industrialisation. This was achieved, as in the West, by expanding industrial employment and enlarging the. working class on the basis of a fiercely applied series of controls over the population, and the strict limiting of their consumption standards.

‘The nature of the task of industrialising a backward country called to life as a ruling class a bureaucracy which was able to achieve this task, since it alone, through its class interest, represented the interest of industrialisation under such conditions – production for the sake of production.’

However, by the mid-1950s, the main elements in that process of forced industrialisation had been achieved. Thereafter, the very existence of the bureaucracy and its rule became an increasing impediment to the further economic development of Poland. The bureaucracy’s class goal, and its monopolistic rule, became a fetter on society’s productive development. What further development required was a sharp shift in social and economic priorities, towards an emphasis on raising living standards and the level of popular consumption generally. But that need was not met: rather, the bureaucracy continued to exert its power to pursue its own class goal.

Just as Marxists in the West argue that the existing relations of production hold back the development of productive forces, so in Poland. The most obvious sign of this contradiction, suggested Kuron and Modzelewski, is the growing evidence of economic crisis in Poland. Growth rates were falling in the 1960s, and the economy was running into a number of ‘barriers’ to its further development: inflation, raw materials shortages, wasteful misuse of resources, difficulties in raising productivity, balance of payments problems. These signs of crisis were not accidental, but were the direct result of the exploitative social relations at the heart of Polish society, and the ruling class’s continuous drive to expand production for the sake of production.

The only solution to this impasse, they suggested, was revolution:

‘Production relations based on bureaucratic ownership have become chains hampering the country’s productive forces; with every day this continues, the crisis deepens. Therefore, the solution of the economic crisis requires the overthrow of these productive relations and the elimination of the class rule of the bureaucracy.’

It was not only the workers, but also the peasantry, who must benefit from such a social revolution. For the peasantry, too, is required to bear the costs of the bureaucracy’s class rule. Agriculture is stagnant, for it produces predominantly means of consumption for the workers, and the ruling class has no systematic interest in its development. The peasants are exploited, and peasant life is kept backward and underdeveloped.

The first major political manifestation of the crisis in Polish society occurred in the period 1956–57, in what the authors term ‘the first anti-bureaucratic revolution’. The revolution failed – principally because the Polish ‘October Left’ failed to meet the challenge of the period, in that it failed to put forward a working-class programme for the reconstruction of Polish society and failed to organise a movement around such a programme opposed to the rule of the liberal wing of the bureaucracy. As a result, the liberal wing of the bureaucracy was able to consolidate its position and push back such gains as the popular movement had achieved.

What kind of revolution?

The defeat of the 1956–57 movement, however, had solved nothing. The crisis was now general. Almost every section of Polish society – the workers, the peasants, the young people, the creative intelligentsia, etc. – was forced into opposition to the rule of the bureaucracy. ‘Revolution,’ declared the two writers, ‘is inevitable’.

What kind of revolution did Kuron and Modzelewski foresee and propose? Quite simply, their programme was a classic re-statement of the main arguments of revolutionary Marxism. The revolution must be internationalist in its perspectives, for the crisis is experienced throughout the Warsaw bloc, and in the West as well. The authors offer no utopian schemes for ‘socialism in one country’, but raise again the traditional socialist slogan ‘proletarians of all countries, unite!’

Central to their proposals is the argument for workers’ power, at factory level and at national level, organised through a system of Councils of Workers’ Delegates. They thus revive, at the heart of their programme, the idea that Marx celebrated in the Paris Commune and which took the name of ‘soviets’ in the period from 1917. For them, as for the whole of the genuine Marxist tradition, socialism begins with the direct exercise of power by the working class. The only way in which a majority class like the working class can exercise its rule is by the fullest democracy, hence the authors call for a multi-party system. Hence too, they reject the ‘parliamentary system’ – it offers no guarantee against dictatorship, and crucially, ‘it is not a form of people’s power‘. The whole system of parliamentary elections and government is a sham democracy, through which citizens lose their power to control politics.

Trade unions must be completely independent of the state, providing workers with the means to self-defence. The working week must be reduced, to allow workers time to educate themselves and participate in political life fully. The regular army must be replaced by a democratic workers’ militia, for ‘as long as it is maintained, a clique of generals may always proves stronger than all the parties and councils’ – sadly prophetic words, in the light of what happened in December 1981! The peasantry must have full political rights, and have the means to develop their farms properly – without forcible collectivisation, which is a method alien to socialism and suitable only for police dictatorships.

Only the working class can provide the social force capable to bringing down the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and of providing a decisive lead to the rest of exploited and oppressed Polish society.

In one respect, Kuron and Modzelewski’s Open Letter has been fully validated. Their argument that Polish society was being driven towards crisis was proved correct in 1970, as the leading figures in the bureaucracy admitted. In the 1970s, under Gierek, the Polish bureaucracy attempted to overcome the growing tendency to stagnation by borrowing capital on the western market in staggering amounts, only to see the crisis return in the late 1970s with redoubled strength. In 1970, also, the working class revolted – especially in the coastal areas. In 1976, again, in Radom, Warsaw and elsewhere, workers’ strikes and demonstrations rocked the regime. And, in 1980 and 1981, working class resistance to the Polish bureaucracy reached altogether new heights in the formation and development of Solidarity. The fundamental correctness of Kuron and Modzelewski’s argument was proven in practice.

Abandoning their best ideas

But, what of their programme for social revolution? They themselves, back in 1965, concluded their discussion of the needed programme for a workers’ revolution by asking if it would be realised. They stated, absolutely correctly,

‘That depends on the degree of ideological and organisational preparation of the working class in a revolutionary crisis and therefore also depends on the present activities of those who identify with workers’ democracy.’

Unfortunately, in the intervening years between their own writing of the Open Letter and the upsurge of Solidarity in the summer of 1980, Kuron and Modzelewski themselves had abandoned their own best ideas. They did not attempt to put into practice their ideas of 1965. Space does not permit a full discussion of the reasons for their change of heart (see Colin Barker and Kara Weber, Solidarnosc: from Gdansk to Military Repression for this). Suffice it to say that, ultimately, they made the same tragic error as many reformists before them: they urged the workers not to go ‘too far’ and in the process contributed to the very strengthening of the Polish state which permitted Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity with a military coup in December 1981.

Now, once again, Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski are in jail, along with thousands of the finest militants of the Polish working class. The worst aspect of the tragedy is that, fifteen years earlier, they had a better perception of the realities of Polish class society.

Even in their terrible hour of defeat, Polish workers will be thinking and learning. When next they rise – as they most certainly will – they could not be better armed than with the ideas of Kuron and Modzelewski’s Open Letter to the Party.

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Last updated: 22.9.2013