What Happened to Solidarity?

Against the Current, No. 30, January/February 1991

Ernie Haberkern

WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR with the headlines. Polish Solidarity has split in two. Lech Walesa is under attack by the Tadeusz Mazowiecki government which he put in power. The attack is led by the same political tendency—today organized as the Civic Movement/Democratic Action and formerly organized as KOR that first backed Walesa and was the main political force which made him the “dictator” they now denounce.

What is more, much of the criticism of Walesa is clearly justified. He is a highhanded “labor boss” whose methods of dealing with opponents and potential rivals leaves much to be desired. Even worse, Walesa appears to be capitulating to the reactionary and even anti-semitic sentiments that are growing in the working class as one response to the continued domination of the Polish economy and state by the old apparatchiks. These old Stalinists who have become born-again followers of Milton Friedman without changing their life-style or their political methods are clearly being protected by the Mazowiecki administration.

The working class is becoming more and more enraged and there is no political movement or tendency that can begin to explain what is happening.

The Western media has dearly lined up on the side of the Civic Movement/Democratic Action. The New York Review of Books printed a long article by Adam Michnik, who is effectively the group’s press secretary, bemoaning the “combination of chauvinism, xenophobia, populism, and authoritarianism, all of them connected with the sense of frustration typical of great social upheavals” that is now the great threat to democracy (Ju1y 19,1990). Michnik’s solution is an alliance between the former dissidents and their former oppressors in defence of compromise and “an open civil society” against what the Russians used to call the “dark masses.”

For most followers of the Western media, especially our ignorant and provincial American press, the leaders of the working-class movement in Russia and Eastern Europe, not to mention their followers, are faceless, nameless foreigners easily portrayed as threatening, vulgar members of a potential lynch mob. Lech Walesa is different.  He has a name which many Americans have learned to pronounce. We have even seen him on TV. He is a celebrity. And yet, the amazing thing is that there is not one voice raised—not to defend—but even to try to explain the behavior of the man who just a short time ago was invariably referred to as “Lech Walesa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace.” Yesterday’s hero is today’s traitor and every commentator in lockstep makes the same 180 degree turn without, apparently, feeling any need to explain anything.

Even the left seems to be taking the same line although, for obvious reasons, with more confusion.

On the one hand, if one thing is clear it is that the “populist” demand which Walesa is now, after some hesitation, adopting as his own, is the demand for a clean sweep of the holdovers from the old regime. In the words of one reporter the slogan is “mow the reds.”

On the other hand, the defenders of the Mazowiecki administration—and of compromise with the old authorities in the state and the economy—are the most outspoken defenders of the “capitalist road.” All the traditional anti-labor, antirevolutionary slogans of the right are trotted out. The masses must remain calm, there must be no attempt at “revenge,” what is needed now is social peace—and above all hard work and austerity on the part of the working class.

The slogans and tactics that were appropriate under the Stalinist regime cannot be allowed to be turned against the new “democratic” regime. That was appropriate when ‘we were dissidents. It is inappropriate now when “we are in power—or at least office. Michnik uses the sophisticated techniques of Western sociology and redefines democracy as consensus, respect for order and compromise, and ends up counterposing democracy to popular control:

“…the democratic idea and Christian thinking ate complicated: they do not pretend to give simple answers to the difficult questions of the age.”

Clearest of all was the Polish “man in the street,” a Mazowiecki supporter, who explained to Dan Rather that “Walesa was good for making revolution—like Lenin, but now we need someone who can administer the country.” Dan Rather forgot to ask him “someone like who?”

When confused the left, like everyone else, turns to familiar ideas and slogans, however outmoded they may have become. The anticommunist rhetoric of Walesa and those in the ranks of Solidarity who are supporting him or, more accurately, pushing him on, is frighteningly familiar. Michnik’s appeals for reason and calm are somewhat reassuring to a left that for thirty years has distrusted the working class and its basic economic demands—especially when they have led it into conflict with regimes that call themselves socialist.

Thus, in the Nation of September 10, we find Alexander Cockburn, who ordinarily has nothing but contempt for the Times or the New York Review of Rooks, echoing their attacks on Walesa and even going so far as to quote as a source Abraham Brumberg writing in the Washington Post. (When he wants to address a left audience Brumberg writes for Dissent.) Cockburn has not a word of criticism for Mazowiecki and company.

We all know what it means when the news media launch an attack on a “labor boss” during a critical strike. Most of us are not confused by the fact that the “labor boss” is, more often than we would like, a high-handed bureaucrat who is adept at cracking down on leftists or militants in his own organization. Neither are we confused when the “labor boss” is the same man who last year was, and probably next year will be, praised by the same media as a labor statesman’ should he purge a more militant opponent or denounce student protestors.

None of this is quite so confusing if we look behind the ideological smoke and ask the simple question Lenin once asked. “Who is doing what to whom?”

The crisis of the Stalinist system is so serious that the bureaucracy can only save itself by jettisoning the ersatz religion of Marxism-Leninism and even the legally-sanctioned monopoly of office by the Communist Party (CP). But they are not able to get rid of the party since there is as yet no other instrument available to them.

In every one of the Eastern European countries—excepting the case of East Germany’s absorption by West Germany—the old state apparatus remains intact. The military and the police are left unreconstructed. The ‘old boy network’ still runs the economy. Clearly the Communist parties are in disarray, in some countries split or dissolved and reformed under a new name; but the system is by no means dead.

Despite all the propaganda, ninety percent of industry in Poland remains in the hands of the state and the state remains in the hands of the old apparatus. The success of the “velvet revolution” depends on reconstructing a new apparatus out of the wreckage of the old and integrating former dissidents into it. That will take some time.

Perhaps the most bizarre demonstration of the reformers’ attitude came in January of 1990.(1) In Poland the popular movement demanded that the property of the Communist Party—its buildings, its presses, its resorts—be confiscated and returned to the Polish people.

The demand was eminently seasonable. Nowhere in Eastern Europe was the imposition of the Stalinist apparatus by foreign troops more universally unpopular. The victory of Stalin over Hitler and the Nazis was welcomed elsewhere in Europe, but not in Poland where people remembered bow the war had started. Poles knew Stalin as Hitler’s ally, not his conqueror. Even the Polish Communist Party would probably have opposed Stalinization had Stalin not had the foresight to dissolve the organization and “disappear” its leaders. This was an administration of “Quislings,” pure and simple agents of a foreign imperialism.

Yet the Mazowiecki government, based on the leadership of Solidarity and led by a preeminent Catholic intellectual, opposed the popular movement and defended the Communist Party’s rights to the stolen property. The pretext was that the new government was too moral to take “revenge” on the defeated Communist Party.

In his New York Review of Books article Michnik argues that there are only two roads open to the Polish revolution. One is that exemplified by Spain, where the agents and beneficiaries of Franco’s dictatorship were not threatened by the democratic movement but allowed to keep as much of their power and privilege as was consistent with a ‘Western style democracy. Some even became active participants in the process of “democratization.” The other alternative is—-Iran.

The Politics of Collaboration

In 1980-81 Michnik justified a policy of cooperation with the old apparatus on the grounds that any rash step would provoke Russian intervention. It is clear from the alternatives he poses today that Michnik fears not Russian troops but Polish workers.

This Fabian attempt to permeate the Stalinist state is a thought-out political program on the part of Michnik and his cothinkers. Four years before the strikes that led to Solidarity, Michnik described the recent founding of KOR in a long article in Soviet Survey in 1976 (Volume 22 No. 3/4). He explained that KOR was a coalition of two tendencies.

First, there were the representatives of Catholic laymen who, since the 1957 agreement between the Church hierarchy and the Gomulka administration, had played the role of a tolerated ‘opposition. The political and economic demands of the labor movement threatened to turn Poland into a democratic, pluralist, secular modern society that the Church hierarchy feared as much as the hierarchy of the Communist Party did.

Fear of such a future drove the bishops to take the lead in calling for moderation and dialogue. This policy began in 1956 and continued to be followed right through 1989. The primate of Poland denounced the strikes of 1980-81, argued for a government of national salvation throughout the period when Solidarity was legal, and sought a compromise during the period of martial law. The Vatican openly attacked Walesa and urged him to step down in 1983(2) and it disciplined the lower clergy who fought to keep the movement alive.

By 1976 the more sophisticated representatives of Catholic conservativism had come to believe that the hierarchy’s narrow defense of its traditional religious privileges and ‘morality’ was self-defeating. They understood that the church had to support the demands of the labor movement if it was to have any hope of preserving a traditional, Polish Catholic state. Riding the back of a tiger may be risky but once the tiger is out of its cage—and the Polish working class was clearly breaking out—you don’t have many options.

Second, according to Michnik, the other tendency in KOR was what was left of the Marxist revisionists of the ’50s and ’60s. These people believed that the bureaucracy had innate reformist tendencies and that an appeal to the true spirit of Marxism could provide a common ground with these reformers. They had been adherents of what in the West was called Deutscherism. Few East European revisionists themselves had looked to Deutscher as a theoretical guide. (His role as a semi-official spokesman for Gomulka certainly tended to undermine his appeal in Poland.)

Unfortunately, whether reformists or hardliners, bureaucrats responded to appeals to Marxist principles in much the same way that the Catholic hierarchy has always responded to appeals to return to the true teachings of Jesus. The methods of the security forces were not usually as spectacular as those of the Inquisition but they were effective in their own way.

After 1968, both these tendencies had to face the fact that their hopes for reform from within the regime were based on illusion. What they came to agree on was that the bureaucracy could be reformed—and that remained their aim—only if force was applied from outside. At the same time, if moderates hoped to prevent working-class discontent from exploding into a confrontation with the authorities that would destroy the Polish state they had to win the trust and confidence of the working class and its leaders.

That was the aim of KOR from its inception. The conflict between this reformist political movement and the militancy of Solidarity did not break out in the Summer of 1989. Rather, it began with the first wave of strikes in 1980, flared up openly at the first Solidarity congress, continued throughout the period of underground activity and ended up in a massive vote of no confidence, not only against the Communist Party, but also against the Solidarity leadership, in the 1989 elections.

This inchoate, spontaneous militancy, however, has not to this day found a political voice. It remains at the level of instinctive class hostility to “them?

Western leftists have often been puzzled and repulsed by the indifference of most Eastern European dissidents to the political ideologies of the anti-Stalin1st left in the West For East European intellectuals, however, Marxism as an ideology can mean only one of two things. Either it is a dishonest, sycophantic apology for a thoroughly discredited regime or an argument for an independent movement of the working class which will destroy that regime. Most East European intellectuals are contemptuous of the first and frightened of the second.

Bankers and Bureaucrats

The enthusiasm for the moderate reformers in Eastern Europe on the part of Western capital and its ideological aides-de-camp is tempered only by the fear that the reformers may be moving too fast.
Ever since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 it has been clear that Western diplomats, and even more importantly, Western bankers fear a popular explosion far more than they fear Stalinism. The road to what they call “democracy” is through economic reform. For them, political democracy is a plebiscitarian safety valve which can only work in a society where relative prosperity takes the edge off class conflict. In the words of the noted capitalist statesman, A. Hitler, “democracy is a luxury of rich nations.”

That is why they are perfectly sincere when they argue that a terrorist regime like that of a Pinochet, a Franco, a Sukharto or a Deng Xiao Peng is, in many situations, the only possible road to democracy. Where economic concessions are not possible all popular institutions have to be broken. It is the only way to restore the confidence of the international financial community.

The standard of living has to be driven down to a point where investment is once more profitable Only a ruthless dictatorship can do that Once relative prosperity is restored, “Western style democracy’ will become possible.3

It is this kind of reasoning that explains why some of the examples of reform held up as models have been the most repressive in the Communist and Third World countries. That is why Bush continues to defend Deng Xiao Ping and why he defended Nicolae Ceausescu’s increasingly mad experiment in Rumania until just before the end.

The paradox of the “collapse of communism” is that neither Eastern reformers nor Western capitalists can do without the services of the defeated bureaucracy.(4)

Since the early sixties the bureaucracy has become dependent on Western investment to finance concessions to the “consumerist’ demands of the population. The system cannot meet these demands on its own; the only alternative is the economic autarchy of the thirties and forties. That system depended on the kind of Stalinist terror that has not been possible since 1953. It is no longer possible even in China, as the fiasco of the Cultural Revolution proved. No sane person, of course, could desire a return to such a regime or propose to cooperate with those who do.

In the absence of a native capitalist class, however, there is no mechanism available to the foreign investors to reform the economic system in their image.(5) As in many Third World countries, servicing the debt eats up whatever surplus the country produces. The bureaucracy becomes a kind of tax farmer collecting whatever percentage of the debt it dares and raking some off the top.

The Western economies, in turn, become dependent on their clients, bearing out the truth of the maxim: “if l owe you five hundred dollars and can’t pay, I’m in trouble; if I owe you five billion dollars and can’t pay, you’re in trouble?

In reality, there is no way out of this trap of mutual dependence on the part of the two enemies. Hence the constant rediscovery, in fantasy, of the seeds of capitalism in petty entrepreneurs who have always flourished in the nooks and crannies of the system.(6)

A recent case that has been given some play in the press is that of Henry Stoklosa, the “bone dust king.”(7) Stoklosa is a former party member who was the only candidate to defeat Solidarity in last summer’s elections. He didn’t get a majority—Solidarity split and ran two candidates. Why Solidarity split is an interesting question that is not discussed in any of the articles describing the fascinating career of this Polish Horatio Alger. Stoklosa employs 210 people, and owns 100 trucks and one airplane. He deals in the ground-up remains of farm animals and refuses to hire union members because “politics doesn’t belong on the shop floor.” In the capitalist United States the only question would be whether the EPA or the NLRB would be the first to shut his cockroach capitalist outfit down.

The only other candidate for Polish capitalist of the year mentioned in the press was the Johnson & Johnson heiress, Barbara Piasecka-Johnson, who expressed some interest in buying the Gdansk shipyard–for patriotic, not economic, reasons. (She was a Polish emigrant) The deal fell through. Apparently, this particular lady bountiful wanted to cut wages and lay off a significant portion of the staff. The Solidarity local would have none of it.

These stories of crypto-capitalists in Stalinist economies have appeared in the press before In 1962, under Gomulka, the capitalist wave of the future was represented by a Warsaw cab company. I have never heard what happened to it.

Such operations cannot, of course, compete in the world market. Big operations like steel mills, automobile assembly lines or nuclear power plants will have to be run by the government, by multinationals that negotiate a deal with the government, or by joint operations. That is, business will be done in Eastern Europe as it has been done since Khrushchev’s time. The bargaining position of the bureaucracy vis-a-vis the international financial community has been undermined, but the basic relationship remains.

What is new, and important, is the collapse of the Communist parties and the police states that made their monopoly of power possible That was the result of the popular movement, however, not of the reformers or of their (Western suppliers. From their point of view it is a big gamble.

A more or less free political system has often acted as a kind of safety valve while economic power remains untouched. The danger is that people will take it seriously and demand that their representatives do more than talk. Hence the reformers’ admiration for “Western democracy” in which the electoral process is as complicated, ritualized, infrequent and unresponsive as possible.

For the same reason, many Western analysts still consider the “Chinese road to capitalism” safer.(8)

What Next?

The most difficult problem facing anyone trying to find out what is going on in Eastern Europe is the almost total lack of coverage of the labor movement there. In part, this is the usual myopia of the media. Only when labor threatens social peace does it become news.

In Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, the opposition was a reliable source of information until the Summer of 1989. Now the dissidents are in office and labor militancy is an obstacle to their utopian schemes for reforming the bureaucracy. They approach the movement only as a suspicious and untrustworthy ally if not an open opponent.

Their pronouncements on “the labor question” are propaganda as empty as that of the Stalinist regimes that preceded them. The rhetoric of “civil society vs. the state” tells you as much about the real movement as the old slogans like “the forward march of the working class under the leadership of (_____).”

What can be learned is mostly anecdotal. For example, one learns that the Solidarity local in Gdansk turned down the generous offer of Ms. Piasecka-Johnson despite the support of the government and Walesa. There are fairly frequent reports of strikes and demonstrations—the usual “guerilla war” form of class struggle—but any serious discussion of the internal politics of the union movement is absent.

A partial exception to this rule is the long article by Lawrence Weschler in his New Yorker article of November 13, 1989. Weschler, who also wrote a two-part series in the same magazine during the 1980-81 period interviewed a number of people, including Karol Modzelewski.

Modzelewski and Jacek Kuron coauthored an “Open Letter to the Party” in 1964.(9) Later Modzelewski was the press spokesman for Solidarity until he resigned in March 1981, in protest against Walesa’s unilateral cancellation of the general strike called for that month. In Weschler’s article he is quoted as bitterly opposing the government’s embrace of Jeffrey Sachs’ plan to turn Poland into another Bolivia in six months.

Modzelewski also reported on the widespread opposition by Solidarity activists both to the policy of the government and the direction of the union under Walesa. Opposition came from people as diverse as Anna Walentynowycz, the woman whose firing led to the 1980 Gdansk strike but who was purged by Walesa a few months later, Andrzej Gwiazda, an opponent of Walesa’s from a European social democratic point of view in 1981; and Marian Jurzcyk, the leader of Solidarity in Szcecin, a conservative Catholic politically and a militant industrially.

Interestingly enough, all three were reported to be involved in negotiations with the official Communist unions which, for demagogic reasons no doubt, played an oppositional role at times during the period of martial law.

Weschler also quotes a lay Catholic social worker whose hostility to the government’s austerity program is as bitter as Modzelewski’s. All in all, Weschler’s admittedly impressionistic report gives us a different picture from the usual media one of a Neanderthal working class threatening to overwhelm the lib-end defenders of “open civil society” and Judeo-Christian civilization.

What is taking place in Poland is clearly the revival of working-class militancy fueled by what Marx once referred to as the workers’ wretched, base material needs. Politically, the movement has been set back considerably. Its former allies among the reformist intellectuals have deserted it now that the power of the old-line Stalinists has been broken (at least for the time being).

Walesa and the others who attempt to articulate the anger of the Solidarity rank and file have no policy of their own. They direct their anger against what is left of the old CP while Mazowiecki and his supporters continue with the policy they have followed since 1980. They are reconstructing the apparatus by integrating the more “reform-minded” (read smarter) of the old party with the former dissidents. Walesa’s attacks, demagogic though they may be, make this much more difficult.

From the point of view of Mazowiecki and Michnik Walesa appears to be a pure wrecker. Walesa, on the other hand, is fighting for his political life. Hence the bitterness of the dispute.

So far, Walesa has not openly attacked the austerity program of the government Like everyone else, he has, on the surface, accepted the argument that social welfare programs, basic government services, food subsidies and health and safety laws are part of the sane “socialist’ system as bureaucratic planning, administered prices based on fantasy, and worthless currency. Both have to go if the Poles want to enjoy “capitalist’ prosperity.

In reality, like everyone else, Walesa knows that a brutal austerity program is the price extracted by the International Monetary Fund for international credit whatever social and economic system prevails in the beggar country.

How long this consensus will last as it becomes clear that substantial loans and investment are not forthcoming is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, the question is not whether you support Walesa personally or his (mostly non-existent) program, but whether you support the Mazowiecki administration’s betrayal of everything Solidarity stood for including political democracy.

If it had not been for Walesa’s breaking ranks, Jaruzelski would not have been dismissed and Poland would have remained with an unelected government long after the rest of Eastern Europe had completed the process of democratization.

Which Way Walesa?

While the Western media have picked up every outrageous statement Walesa has made, and he specializes in making outrageous statements, while the New York Times has even taken to making fun of his Polish, they have buried the fact that Walesa was the one who pushed for early elections and charged his former allies with trying to set up a new form of one-party state.

Walesa’s sin in their eyes is that he broke up the comfortable consensus and forced them to debate the issues in pub-lie. That was a progressive step, whatever motives Walesa may have had for taking it Whether Walesa takes the next step and openly rather than covertly supports working-class resistance to the austerity program remains to be seen.

Mazowiecki, according to the New York Times of November 17, 1990, warned Walesa against such a step as be simultaneously sent the army in to break up a strike for the first time since the collapse of Stalinism in Poland. It is unlikely that whoever wins the presidential election will be able to enforce the demands of international capital for further sacrifice.

Given the history of the last fifty years it should be obvious why it does no good to explain to Polish workers that all these problems will be solved under socialism. It probably wouldn’t even be wise to attempt such an argument were you to visit the country.

It will take some- time to rebuild a working-class political movement in Poland or Eastern Europe. All the old lessons will have to be learned again.

Polish workers are not the only ones who need to learn lessons, however. In the ’40 and ’50s the working class and the people as a whole in Eastern Europe carried on a large scale and, as we now know, successful resistance against the forced Stalinization of their countries by Russia’s occupying army. The failure of the left (and on more than one occasion the right) in the West to support that resistance was rationalized by pointing to the real and imaginary anti-semitic and reactionary tendencies in the population Poland was a prime target of this kind of smear. Anna Louise Strong devoted a whole book to the subject.(10)

The entire anti-Stalinist resistance was smeared by identifying it with the reactionary elements that like practically the entire population, were part of the movement Similar elements were found in all the resistance movements against Nazism too, but that fact was conveniently ignored.(11) Large sections of the liberal and left public fell for the line.

Today Michnik and his political kind throughout Eastern Europe are borrowing those same old Stalinist tactics to justify their betrayal of the movement that brought them to power. There is no need for the Western left to fall for it again.


  1. See New York Times, January 25 and 27, 1990.
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  2. See labor Focus, Vol. 16, No. 1-2, 13, for a report on the Vatican’s attempt to dump Walesa.
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  3. It would be beyond the scope of this article to investigate whether this particular utopian scheme can succeed. I am interested here only in looking at the sources of this ideological project in the class psychology of its proponents However, it should be noted that economic productivity and competitiveness seems more and more to rely on the skill, education and morale of the work force. How competitive can societies be expected to be if the working class is politically broken, impoverished and malnourished and even the middle class is driven to the edge of bankruptcy?
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  4. For a remarkably frank expression of this need see the series of editorials on Gorbachev by William Randolph Hearst in the San Francisco Examiner, June and July 1990.
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  5. This difficulty has been emphasized in some unexpected places. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle of November 17, 1989, Milton Friedman, in a talk cosponsored by the Cato Institute and The Pacific Research Institute, pointed out that in Chile the transformation to capitalism had been relatively easy (sic!) but that was because there had been a private investment and ownership class there all along. Professor Friedman pointed out that the transformation in Eastern Europe without this missing ingredient required more than a simple bloodbath.
    I have been unable to obtain a transcript of this talk after several months of trying and numerous assurances that it would be ready in a day or two. Someone more suspicious than lam might suspect that Professor Friedman’s speech has been discovered to be politically incorrect by somebody or other.
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  6. It would take us too far afield to describe the need for such graft in the bureaucratic collectivist systems. It is a necessary corrective to the plan and at the same time makes rational planning impossible since it functions as a black hole down which economic resources which are available on paper disappear. See Konstantin M. Simis, USSR: The Corrupt Society (New York Simon & Schuster, 1982), for a recent muckraking description of how this operation works.
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  7. See Reuters dispatch for June 5, 1989.
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  8. For an example of this kind of explicit defense of the Chinese model as preferable to the East European, see the New York Times of August 17, 1990.
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  9. This critiqued Poland’s five-year investment plan for 1966-70. The authors argued that the economic goal of rapid development of the industrial sectors (expanding the bureaucracy’s own power) were increasingly in conflict with the needs of the working class and its need for a decent living standard. This analysis pinpointed the tendency toward economic crisis of the bureaucratic states in production relations rather than in such secondary features as bureaucratic bungling, waste and corruption.
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  10. Anna Louise Strong I Saw the New Poland, (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1946).
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  11. It goes without saying that any serious political defense of such a movement has to repudiate the reactionary politics of some of its supporters. The same problem has arisen in every popular revolution and, for that matter, in most strikes. If I have not dealt with that whole question in this short article it is because the overwhelming support of the Western media for the anti-labor campaign of the new governments in Eastern Europe requires some effort to “bend the stick in the other direction.”
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January-February 1991, ATC 30