Review: Give Us Back Our Factories!

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Barbara Zeluck

Rendez-Nous Nos Usines!
by Zbigniew M. Kowalewski
Translated (from Polish into French) by Jacqueline Allio
Editions La Breche, Paris 1985.

ZBIGNIEW M. KOWALEWSKI documents the direct working-class character of the revolutionary movement that Solidarnosc was … and continues to be. His account of the struggle that developed in Poland between August 1980 and December 1981, between Solidarnosc and the “totalitarian bureaucracy,” raises with great immediacy a host of political questions (only a few of which can be dealt with here) which I believe the revolutionary movement will find worthwhile to debate.

For his readers it is fortunate that the author, one member of the Solidarnosc leadership in the important Lodz region, was in France representing his union on December 13, 1981 when Polish prime minister General Jaruzelski, declaring a “state of war,” effected the arrest of almost all primary and secondary Solidarnosc leaders.

Escaping this round-up by chance, Kowalewski was able to play a major role in mobilizing French workers to support (now underground) Solidamosc as well as to accomplish the important task of political analysis that resulted in his writing Give Us Back Our Factories!

In a seemingly endless period of world­wide working-class retreat, the Polish working class organized in Solidarnosc provided evidence that previously atomized workers are capable of organizing themselves, of developing their own fighting strategies. For this reason alone it is to be fervently hoped that Comrade Kowalewski’s book will be translated and published in English.

According to Kowalewski, Poland is a society whose explosive contradictions can’t be contained. Every instance of working class revolt in post-World War II Poland (’56, ’70-71, ’76, ’80-81) was a spontaneous response provoked by the Communist Party-controlled government attempt to solve a mounting economic crisis through forcing down working-class living standards.

A society claiming to be “real social ism” since private property in the means of production has been abolished, but where “the bureaucracy has all the reactionary features of the former ruling classes-parasitism, waste of the social surplus, oppression and even exploitation of the direct producers-without having any progressive features . “

• A society where “the relations of exploitation” are based on bourgeois norms of compensation, i.e. the law of value, except when a dose of forced labor is administered.

• A society claiming to be a “planned economy” where raw and secondary material, spare part and energy shortages are endemic in industry, and food shortages result in part from industry’s failure to produce badly-needed agricultural implements.

• A society claiming to be a ‘:planned economy” where plant directors must (1) attempt to balance the “arhythmia” of the system of supply by significantly increasing the extraction of absolute surplus value and (2) artificially lowered “planned” production objectives to take into account the effect of the workers’ “hostility.”

In Kowalewski’s view the self­organization of the overwhelming majority of workers into Solidarnosc meant that it was both a union (carrying out a union’s usual defensive tasks) and more than a union, representing the general interests of the class (like a workers’ council or soviet), providing a model for a new form of society.

Theories of Self-Management

At the end of 1980 the Lodz regional leadership of Solidarnosc coined the slogan “socialization of management of the economy.” “On January 7, 1981 national Solidamosc’s leadership declared in a resolution on economic reform, ‘The new system must be founded on real worker self-management,’ as agreed under point 6 of the Gdansk accords.”

But the government soon made clear that what it meant was not that the workers themselves should elect Workers’ Self-Management Councils, but that already-existing bureaucratically-chosen bodies called “Conferences of Worker Self-Management” (KSR in Polish) should be used by plant directors as rubber stamps for the 1981 plans.

When the government’s intentions became clear, plant Solidamoscs all around the country began calling for the suppression of the KSRs and for the establishment of Workers’ Councils “elected by universal and equal suffrage, by a secret and if possible direct vote.”

Active participation by Solidarnosc leadership bodies was uneven from region to region. The Lodz leadership took the lead, emphasizing that the self­management movement of 1956 had failed when it allowed itself to be co-opted into co-management schemes and when it failed to break the bureaucracy’s monopoly of economic power at the central level. Because of the shortages of all basic necessities it was necessary for the ranks to act immediately, to impose self­management through mass struggle. Only direct democracy and the liberation of workers’ creative initiative could solve Poland’s problems.

The other tendency pushing for self management was the “Network,” created in mid-April by representatives of the 17 largest plants. In June the Network proposed, in counter position to what the government was saying, a “Law on Social Enterprises.”

Passage of such a law would have created a second, socioeconomic, self­ management chamber of parliament. This second chamber’s function would be to guarantee a new (“social”) form of ownership of the means of production, alongside the already-existing private, cooperative and state enterprises. This was conceived as a reform, basically leaving the existing system in place. As such it was subjected to endless negotiations between the Network and the government.

Most striking about the Network proposal was its emphasis on allowing the maximum play of market mechanisms. The Network experts argued that it was inopportune to demand more power for Workers’ Councils in this phase of the struggle, since the government would not agree to it, and that the free play of the market would create “space” for worker action later.

Uneasy allies that they were, all proponents of workers’ self-management agreed on the central importance of breaking the “nomenklatura,” The bureaucracy’s power to name plant directors. The government was immovable on this score.

Nearly 1,000 representatives of Workers’ Self-Management Councils met, under Network auspices, on July 8 in the Gdansk shipyards, constituting the first massive public expression of the self­management movement. It was there that a worker leader of Nowa Huta’s giant Lenin steelworks coined the slogan, “Give Us Back Our Factories!”

On July 12 the Solidarnosc leaderships of Lodz and Lublin convened a workers’ self-management conference which drew representatives from 300 self-management and union bodies from 15 regions. Starting with reports on theories and experiences of worker self-management on an international scale, this conference set up an ongoing coordinating body which became known as the “Lublin Group.” Emphasis was placed on tasks that could be undertaken immediately.

It was the Lublin Group which developed the idea of the “Active Strike,” an idea the Lodz leadership had proposed and started to popularize earlier in the year.

The Active Strike

Kowalewski’s scenario was that Solidarnosc self-management bodies, starting on the plant level but coordinated vertically up to and including nationally-instead of conducting “passive” strikes that shut down plants-would inaugurate “active strikes” with the aim of conquering economic power. During active strikes they would restart production selectively, they would reject all forms of subordination to higher bodies (such as industrial ministries), they would initiate their own supply distribution networks, guarantee the supply of food, medicine, essential materials, energy, transport and the carrying out of foreign contracts.

Two days before the first day of the hunger strike, in the midst of spontaneous strikes bursting out all over the country, on July 25 the Lodz leadership called on national Solidarnosc to begin preparation for an active strike. On October 23 the national leadership recognized the active strike as one form of union struggle, but still took no preparatory steps.

Referenda conducted during November by regional Solidarnosc bodies showed that-despite the demoralizing effect of the national leadership’s policy of trying to negotiate a compromise-the strategy of the active strike was winning more and more rank and file adherents, the most highly-politicized workers, who were prepared to fight.

All during the fall, while the government was playing for time, trying by hook or by crook to win agreement to its version of an economic “reform,” worker self-management councils were forming in more and more plants, self-management coordinating bodies were being established in more and more regions. Some were strong enough to control the plant directors.

Consciousness & Political Organization

Before proceeding further, a note of caution is in order.

Zbigniew Kowalewski, in his introduction, writes, “This book … a series of reflections … is nothing more than a contribution to the study of this revolution.” This statement would seem to account for the reader’s occasional difficulty in telling whether he is giving the views of Solidarnosc’s Lodz leadership (of which he was part) or his own view-and if his own, whether the view he held at the time of the event or the view he arrived at later, after further study and reflection. This would also explain some analyses which appear contradictory and unfinished. The author takes issue with western Marxists who maintain that, lacking a revolutionary party, the consciousness of the Polish working class could be no higher than “trade union consciousness.” If this may be true under capitalism, it is dead wrong in reference to societies where there is only one boss, the State, where, consequently, the union can exist only as a counter-power to the State, where all independent union activity is necessarily political.

He believes, in fact, that Lenin’s counter position of trade union versus political consciousness became an anachronism at the first (1905) appearance of ”self-management consciousness” evidenced by the workers’ creation of soviets.

The spontaneous Polish plant takeovers of summer 1980 and the creation of Solidamosc-which in spite of its central leadership became more than a union could not help being a counter-power to the state. This convinced Kowalewski that the Polish working class was objectively prepared to contend for power.

He agrees with others’ criticism of Solidarnosc for “neglecting the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy’s central political power” during the whole period that the working class was impetuously moving toward taking over the economy at all levels. But, in his view, the question is more complicated than many Marxists have believed.

In relatively highly-industrialized countries, a period of time during which workers are establishing their power in the workplaces—where they feel at home-must and will precede any move on their part toward political power.

In counter position to Lenin’s strategy of “re-establishing despotism within the factory” in 1918 through the system of “Taylorism/” Kowalewski expects that the working class, before moving toward state power, “will establish solid bases of workers democracy during work time,” i.e. workers self-management. This will avert the Bolsheviks’ terrible mistake, the introduction of a bureaucratic regime at the heart of the process of production–the mistake, the author believes, that paved the way for the tragedy of the bureaucratic counterrevolution.

Kowalewski understood that the “self-limiting revolution” strategy followed by Solidarnosc was doomed to defeat. His expectation that the “totalitarian bureaucracy” would permit a long period of dual power in the economy seems to be in contradiction with that understanding. He also sees a problem of time, time for the determined revolutionary masses to figure out how best to organize themselves to win. He seems to reject-at least he does not deal with-a leading role for a revolutionary party. In his one reference to the Bolshevik Party he describes it as an outside force which brought centralization and cohesion to the Russian soviets; he implies that Solidarnosc was superior to the Russian soviets in not needing such external assistance.

His formulation is that to speed working-class reflection, debate and development of a winning strategy, what is needed is a “current of militants.” They must be rooted in the movement, with a clear analysis of the system and of the revolution’s objectives.

It is not clear whether or not a group of union militants in the Lodz regional leadership to which he refers as having made important programmatic suggestions was such a “current” or not. (It is interesting to note that David Lewis, former General Secretary of the General Workers: Union of South Africa, in the April 1986 issue of Monthly Review (p. 48), seems to be arguing for a similar “current” within the movement.)

Differences Within Solidarnosc

Even Zbigniew Kowalewski, a Marxist and student of working-class history, was not prepared for the Polish party-army­government’s declaration of a “state of war.” He, like all currents within Solidarnosc (as well as the western radio stations) believed that there was a threat of Russian intervention in the Polish revolution. The differences were over how to prevent such an intervention-positions ranging from not asking for too much, to being willing to compromise so as not to appear unreasonable, to curbing militancy so as not to frighten the “moderates” in the party and government . . . to organizing a powerful mass movement to impose workers self-management.

Kowalewski’s study of history had convinced him that it was the determined defense of Warsaw during August 1944 that warned the Soviet Union not to try to tum Poland into a seventeenth “soviet republic” at the end of World War II.

The Lodz Solidamosc leadership was aware that the strategy of the “self­limiting revolution,” initially propounded by the intellectuals and experts, could only lead to defeat. More than any other leadership body they tried to find ways for the movement to escape from this framework.

But they did not raise the question of how to deal with the military power of the bureaucratic state; they did not come to the aid of police or soldiers’ attempts at independent self-organization. Kowalewski writes that this was because they feared that moving too far ahead of the rest of the movement would risk the unity of Solidamosc.

All currents within Solidarnosc seem to have suffered from the blinders of nationalism: they could not conceive of Polish bureaucrats making the decision to crush Solidarnosc militarily. Fellow Poles, they seem all to have reasoned, must be interested in solving the problems of Polish society; therefore, if we can succeed in reassuring them that we are in no way challenging their Russian allies, “the geo-political reality,” they can be convinced to cooperate in the establishment of a self-managed republic as the only possible way of salvaging the Polish economy.

In my view the fundamental problem was that no one seems to have had an analysis of the “totalitarian bureaucracy” as a ruling class, capable of preserving–and determined to preserve–its monopoly of both political and economic power.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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