Socialism and the struggle for self-determination in Poland always went hand in hand. However, every time the country regained its autonomy it ended up rejecting democratic and egalitarian ideals. This was the case after Poland gained its independence in 1918, following over a century of foreign rule. In the nineteenth century socialist activists, including Józef Piłsudski, actively participated in the struggle for independence. However, in 1926, Marshall Piłsudki, who by then had rejected his earlier commitment to socialism, led a military coup. The regime which emerged was known for its repression of political dissent and brutal massacres of striking workers and farmers. A similar fate befell Poland following the end of the Second World War when the emergent communist regime became a horrifying caricature of the what it claimed to represent. In this article we remember Poland’s left-wing individuals and movements silenced under the communist regime (1945-1989), people who have been increasingly misrepresented or forgotten about. In examining their oppression, we also discover the lost socio-economic opportunities of a country that continues to be plagued by massive inequality and corruption.
The end of the Second World War and arrival of Soviet brutality
After freeing itself from Nazi occupation, Poland immediately fell under Soviet influence. Communism was imposed by the Red Army rather than brought by the masses. Given that socialist parties won electoral victories in Britain, France and Yugoslavia in 1945, and the growth of socialist movements in Poland at that time, it is poignant to consider what could have happened had free and fair elections followed the end of the war in Poland. There was certainly opportunity for a democratically-elected socialist government, independent from Soviet communism, to emerge. Allowing for such an opportunity, as we know, was simply unacceptable to Stalin.
Polish socialism traditionally contained two ideals: workers’ control and national independence. Communist rule in Poland went against both of these principles. The reality of communist rule was state ownership and rule by cadres. There were no independent trade unions to truly represent the interest of the workers. Moreover, the Polish People’s Republic was politically and economically dependent on the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the outspoken atheism and anticlericalism of the ruling communists was in conflict with the majority of the country’s Catholic faith at that time.
Silencing socialist dissent and brief socialist victory
Jacek Kuroń was born in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1934 into a left-wing family. As a young man he joined the Polish United Worker’s Party (PZPR), the ruling party throughout the communist period (1945-1989), before growing disillusioned with the regime. He eventually emerged as a leading figure in the struggle against Soviet-style communism.
In 1964 Kuroń, together with Karol Modzelewski, wrote An Open Letter to the Party in which they criticised the communist party for betraying Marx’s principles, and advocated a system of workers’ democracy. Kuroń and Modzelewski argued for democratically-elected workers’ councils, independent from the centralised party bureaucracy. Both were arrested and imprisoned for this expression of dissent.
In 1976, Kuroń co-founded the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) which assisted striking workers by providing legal and financial aid to political detainees and their families. He participated in the 1989 Round Table talks that eventually led to democratic elections and the collapse of communist rule.
After the end of one-party rule in 1989, Kuroń was Minister of Labour and Social Policy on two occasions, in 1989-1990 and 1992-1993. To this day unemployment benefits in Poland are colloquially referred to as kuroniówka, literally meaning ‘Kuroń’s soup’, in memory of the charismatic politician committed to socialism for and by the people.
Kuroń passed away in 2004. He remains an inspiration for new generations of progressive activists.
A mass workers’ movement crushed by neoliberalism
The early socialist dissent led by figures such as Kuroń led to the emergence of the independent trade union Solidarity (Solidarność). The organisation, which inspired mass movements around the world, was in its inception a worker’s movement. The union emerged in 1980 during a strike by workers from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Their demands included recognising the right to form independent trade unions and improving the situation of workers.
The Soviet-backed government conceded to the strike’s demands in August. However, in December the following year, martial law was introduced by the regime. As a result, Solidarity was made illegal; its leaders were arrested, and the movement driven underground.
The neoliberal transformation of the movement came later, in 1989. The banner of Solidarity soon became associated with its dominating right-wing elements, as the mass workers’ movement it had originally been disappeared. Western neoliberal leaders of course played their part. Thatcher and Reagan supported the right-wing nationalist factions of Solidarity, and its leader, Lech Wałęsa. The IMF supported free-market reformists like Leszek Balcerowicz, who led one of the most radically neoliberal plans for economic transformation known as the ‘Balcerowicz Plan’. As a result, unemployment rose almost overnight, and inflation skyrocketed. Poland’s transformation into a market-oriented economy remains controversial to this day.
In 1980, the emergence of a workers’ movement had marked a real opportunity to create socialism with a human face in Poland. Martial law and Stalinist oppression prevented its development. By the time the regime fell, the movement allowed itself to drift from the socialist principles backed by its own people, in favour of a radical free-market agenda that would end up damaging the livelihoods of those it claimed to represent.
From one doctrine to another
Probably no one was more outspoken in their criticism of both communist rule and the neoliberal transformation that followed than Karol Modzelewski, the co-author of the Open Letter to the Party alongside Kuroń. Like Kuroń, Modzelewski was a member of the communist party before rejecting its brutality and corruption.
Modzelewski was imprisoned multiple times for his anti-communist activity. He was arrested, together with Kuroń and other socialist peers, for his involvement in the students’ strikes of March 1968. He also took an active senior role in the workers’ Solidarity movement during the 1980s. As one of its leading figures, he was arrested and interned following the imposition of martial law in December 1981.
After 1989, Modzelewski co-founded the Labour Union, a party which absorbed much of the disillusioned left of the former Solidarity movement. He was an outspoken critic of the liberal free-market transformation and global neoliberalism until he passed away in 2019.
In his criticism of capitalism, Modzelewski gave us memorable quotes such as
I would not have spent eight and a half years in prison for capitalism, nor even a month or a week. It’s not worth it.
In the last years of his life, Modzelewski spoke out against the incumbent Polish government’s attacks on democracy and independent courts. He also warned of the growing threat of Poland moving towards a police state.
The legacy of Polish socialist movements is more important than is often taught. Poles are once again out on the streets protesting for freedom, human rights and democracy. A change in political leadership is not sufficient – people’s demands must be met. What leaders like Kuroń and Modzelewski understood is that a prosperous Polish state is found in democratic principles, workers’ empowerment and minority rights. Structural change, economic as well as political, is required.