A Brief Rejoinder to Polish Politics Today

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Ernie Haberkern

SAM FARBER, IN his reply to my article What Happened to Solidarity, seems to be most disturbed by my description of KOR as “reformist” He reacts almost as if I were using the term as a swear word: an epithet like fascist pig,” only not so rude. It is, of course, true that many would-be leftists use the term that way. I do not.

By reformist I mean someone who consciously rejects the notion that the fundamental social and economic relationships of society have tobe confronted if meaningful change is to occur. In particular, in any modern industrial society, that means someone who rejects the idea that the working class has to establish its power in the state and the economy by radically democratizing both.

Since I am not a reformist, I think that anyone, however courageous, principled and humane who accepts the limitations imposed by the existing system will, in any serious crisis, have to be the one to defend the existing society against the movement that he or she leads. In a serious crisis, only the most principled and courageous of reformists is in a position to betray the movement. Either that or cease to be a reformist, which sometimes happens.

If I were asked to point to a contemporary example that argued for my case, I would point first to Solidarnosc. My second case would be the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. I thought everybody knew about the ClO which is Sam’s other example. Obviously, in all three cases, the movement in the beginning presented all sorts of possibilities. And it is certainly not inevitable that individual leaders or groups will remain reformist in a crisis. If all popular movements were foreordained to defeat and betrayal, then revolutionary politics would be a waste of time.

Nevertheless, that is what happened in each of these cases. If we want to understand the causes of the defeat and explore a way out it is not enough to point to the bright potential of the movement at its beginnings.

Some of Sam’s arguments make clear that he misses the point I was making. I didn’t claim that KOR was dominated by former Communist Party revisionists. I paraphrased Michnik’s article, which argued that KOR was a response to the failure of both the revisionists’ and the realpolitiker of the ZNAK group. The point was not to take Michnik’s article as a definitive history of the movement but to illustrate what Michnik’s own politics are and have been for fifteen years. His is the most thought-out and consistent politics of the tendency and that is why his article of 1976 is important even if its history is distorted or even pure bunk.

What that article proves is that Michnik from the beginning held out the perspective of reforming the system rather than challenging it, of opening up space in that nightmare world not in replacing it. The working-class movement that was to destroy Polish Stalinism is mentioned in one paragraph albeit in glowing terms. It is the workers’ bravery and strength that is praised, however. Their assigned role is to open up space for others.

I know of no Solidarity spokesman then or now who opposed this perspective. Some were worse. My favorite quote is that of Edward Lipinski:

“Socialism means public ownership of the means of production. What we have to ensure is that the management of those public assets is in the hands of men educated at the Harvard Business School—not half-educated bureaucrats in the planning Ministry.” (“Poles Look Enviously at Hungary,” Financial Times, November 11, 1980.)

Any adherent of the program summed up in these words has to oppose independent working-class acfivity; not, however, because of the Russian threat, which was real in 1980 but is no longer so. Any independent working class movement, especially in an economy in crisis, would threaten such a technocratic utopia As my article pointed out, and Sam ignores, working-class hostility to that program nearly blew up the first Solidarity congress in 1981. It did not suddenly appear in 1990.

In his concern to bolster the reputation of the liberals in KOR, Sam has accepted as gospel their portrait of Lech Walesa as a proto-fascist. Now, I know that Sam does not use that term. Neither do Michnik and company. To state the thesis that boldly would prejudice the case. Hence the use of circumlocutions like “plebiscitarian populism.” But what else is the point of the comparison with Juan Peron? I don’t want to quibble about the defining characteristics of fascism, proto-fascism, bonapartism etc. The relevant point here is that all of these “plebiscitarian populism? had economic and institutional bases of support outside the popular movement they were manipulating. They were not dependent on the now movement, it was dependent on them. In the case of Peron—as well as Louis Bonaparte and Josef Pilsudski—it was the army that was their real base.(1)

Lech Walesa has no such independent base. He is simply a reformist labor leader caught, like the leadership of the German Social Democracy in the 1920s, in a situation where there is no reformist policy possible. I would not have supported him for the same reason I would not have supported the German Social Democrats. He can do nothing but disgrace himself and the cause and movement he represents. Sam thinks I am too soft on hint What I said was that “be is a high-handed labor boss … who appears to be capitulating to reactionary and even anti-semitic sentiments.” I doubt that Walesa’s supporters would have put such a recommendation on their leaflets even if they were more regular readers of ATC than they probably are.

“I do not believe, however, that Walesa is a proto-fascist If Sam thinks he is he would have to explain why Walesa and, according to him, Pinior took a “plague on both your houses” position in a campaign where a proto-fascist Peronista was running against representatives of bourgeois democracy. Such a stand has always proved disorienting to the movement in the past, most often suicidally so.

Walesa, like his German predecessors, cannot help but fall between two stools. He cannot meet the demands of his followers—no one can in the current state of the economy—but he is too dependent on them to win the trust of the bankers. That is why the media generally backed Mazowiecki and repeated the attacks on Walesa. Sam thinks Walesa is more pm-capitalist than Mazowiecki. The bankers didn’t buy it They know better than toy much attention to the promises of a politician or a loan applicant Throughout Eastern Europe, and the financial community, everyone got one message out of the Polish elections. The “Polish solution” was too drastic. Good.


  1. There was a Peronist or Pilsudskist opportunity in 1981. Prominent Solidarity leaders were for a National Government based on the Church, Solidarity and the army represented by Jaruzeiski who then enjoyed considerable support inside Solidarity. That historical opportunity passed and the potential Stalinist Pilsudski is in retirement. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s major contribution has been to destroy the reputation of the Polish Army.
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May-June 1991, ATC 32