Workers unite, east and west!

Author: 

John O'Mahony

In mid-1984, during the year-long miners’ strike, the Sunday Mirror printed an account of an interview with Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa in which Walesa appeared to side with Margaret Thatcher against the miners. Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) commented. A translation of this article appeared in the underground Trotskyist press in Poland in 1984.

The Sunday Mirror headlined the piece “Why Scargill is wrong — by Lech”. Quite a lot of Solidarnosc’s friends in Britain were shocked and its opponents, semi-opponents and outright enemies — of whom there are a very large number in the British labour movement — seized on the article. It is cited again and again by labour movement activists to condemn Solidarnosc.

What did Walesa say? That is less clear than the Sunday Mirror’s headline suggests but I will quote the Sunday Mirror.

Walesa is quoted as saying:

“The miners should fight, but with common sense — not with destruction. Because whatever is destroyed has to be rebuilt. I disagree with any violence. The workers should demand the maximum, but not at the risk of bankrupting the employer.”

Also: “Go into the matter carefully and assess how much one can squeeze. But without destroying. It is forbidden that ambition takes precedence over hope. Trade union activists should lock away their ambitions. They should calculate on their computers how much they can get but, I repeat, not at the sake (sic) of destroying the structure.”

The journalist then says that Walesa expressed “much respect” for Margaret Thatcher and quotes him: “With such a wise and brave woman, Britain will find a solution to the strike.”

Now it is by no means impossible that Walesa would condemn trade union “violence” or produce this rather vapid philosophising on realistic trade unionism. And he may well, because of her strident rhetoric against the USSR, Poland’s overlord, think Margaret Thatcher is wise and brave.

These views would identify him as right wing or soft left if he operated in the British labour movement.

But for many on the left it isn’t a matter of disagreeing with Walesa. They question Solidarnosc’s right to exist. They seize on things like the Sunday Mirror article to support the grotesque idea that the entire Polish labour movement is reactionary or “counter-revolutionary”. They adopt a soft, tolerant or even friendly attitude to the Jaruzelski regime which has been trying to destroy the Polish independent trade union.

Lech Walesa may — or he may not, as we shall see — have given the Sunday Mirror the comments which were used against the miners. We know for certain that Jaruzelski has sent scab coal to help Thatcher, increasing by three times Poland’s exports of coal to Britain since the miners’ strike began.

So Walesa may have made a few Neil Kinnock-like comments to the Sunday Mirror criticising miners’ violence and Arthur Scargill’s ambition. The conclusion does not follow that Jaruzelski — who gives Thatcher scab coal — was therefore justified in banning the Polish trade unions and attempting to destroy them!

Solidarnosc miners in Silesia sent [UK miners] a message:

“The underground Provisional Co-ordinating Committee of Silesian miners sends you fraternal greetings and our support and solidarity for your struggle for the right to work.

“We will do everything possible to support your struggle, including in action. The protest we have sent to the Polish government and Parliament is an initial measure taken in support of your struggle.”

And the Inter-Factory Network of Solidarnosc in the Warsaw area:

“The slave labour of the Polish miners serves to break the resistance of the British miners.

“British miners! In the prevailing conditions of terror, the Polish workers’ movement is at present not in a position to undertake protest actions. But you may be certain that we are in solidarity with you.”

David Jastrzebski, president of the Solidarnosc committee in Upper Silesia, sent this letter “to the striking miners of Great Britain”:

“Our organisation sends you full support for your struggle. We are full of admiration for your stance and your unfailing willingness to struggle. We believe you will achieve your goals.

“Neither the British government’s mounted police charges nor its truncheon blows, any more than the Polish junta’s tanks or rifle fire, can break our common will to struggle for a better future for the working class.

“We appeal to all members of Solidarnosc to support your struggle. Only the international struggle of the mass of workers can decide our fate.”

To Arthur Scargill personally Jastrzebski wrote:

“Allow me to send you the expression of my support and my enthusiasm. For many weeks you have represented the interests of your trade union with dignity.

“At the same time I ask you to consider our own difficult situation — activity which is clandestine and under totalitarian threats — which means that there are many things we cannot resolve rapidly, often for security reasons.

“In the coming weeks we will send you greetings from other organisations [of Solidarnosc] which support your struggle.

“I wish you the best and above all victory. I ask you to send our greetings to all British miners and our best wishes.

“Personally. I am convinced that thanks to the attitude of your trade union victory is within your grasp.”

In any case, to repeat, whatever Walesa might say against “violence” or against Arthur Scargill is irrelevant to the right of the Polish workers’ movement to exist.

Our duty to defend its right to exist cannot depend on the opinions of one of its leaders — or of Solidarnosc itself.

There are many in our own unions and in the Labour Party who condemn the miners and would like to cut Arthur Scargill’s throat. We denounce them of course — and we organise against them. Only a suicidal maniac would conclude that trade unions, because they are led by right-wingers, forfeit their right to exist. Yet that is the underlying idea of those who pounce on Walesa’s interview and say “We told you so” about Solidarnosc.

Walesa is quoted saying things against a section of the British labour movement — therefore it is right for the Stalinist dictatorship to destroy the Polish labour movement? It is preposterous.

Solidarnosc is a great working class mass movement, which had ten million members when it was outlawed in December 1981, 18 months after coming into being.

It is a unique movement. Never before have independent trade unions emerged in any Stalinist state.

Such a movement will span an immense range of opinions as ours does. The British labour movement has Labour Party right wingers, Liberals, SDPers, Tories, racists, some fascists and… Stalinist supporters of foreign anti-working class dictatorships like Jaruzelski’s.

Our movement — unlike Solidarnosc — is led by a quite distinct caste of materially privileged bureaucrats. We propose to change it politically, reconstruct it, democratise it — not help the “reforming” Tories put it down.

Nor can it make any difference that industry is nationalised in Poland and Jaruzelski can perhaps claim to be defending nationalised property.

For socialists, nationalisation is a means to an end, not the end: the end is socialism. The liberation of the working class from capitalist exploitation and from state tyranny.

Nationalisation is necessary for socialism, but it is not socialism, nor the only condition for socialism!

In the Stalinist states nationalised property is controlled by privileged bureaucrats by means of a state tyranny over the people which is unparalleled in history.

The Polish labour movement was born in conflict with a state tyranny much of whose power over society comes from the state’s control of the means of production.

Even if Solidarnosc leaders, in reaction against Stalinism, come to advocate restoring capitalism, that could not lead working class socialists to side with a Jaruzelski standing for nationalisation and “socialism” against “counter-revolution”.

Real socialism, which liberates the working class, and therefore society, from both exploitation and state tyranny, can only be created by the working class itself, acting in freedom.

The Polish labour movement — even making terrible errors — is a great deal more important to socialism than is nationalised property under the control of a tyrannical bureaucracy, parasitic on the labour of the workers, and holding them in a police-state vice.

The right of the labour movement to live, its ability to grow and to discuss its experience and its programme for society — nothing in Poland, or in any of the Stalinist states, has a greater value than that, for socialists who base themselves on the first letter of the socialist alphabet, formulated by Karl Marx as follows:

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves”.

In fact it is by no means certain that Walesa said what the Sunday Mirror puts in his mouth. In so far as I can find out, an interview was in fact given by Walesa to Robert Eringer who is an American or Canadian freelance journalist.

The quotes are all just snippets, too short for any context to be discernible. It is not indicated to what questions Walesa was responding. You have to take it on trust that Walesa is not being quoted out of context by the interviewer, or by the office sub-editor who gave the article its final shape.

Many oppositionists in East Europe and the USSR — and probably Walesa — do have a friendly attitude to people like Thatcher and US President Reagan because they are strident enemies of the Kremlin. Their attitude is: my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Oppositionists in the East who favour the West are merely a mirror image of those workers in capitalist society who adopt a friendly attitude to the Stalinist dictatorships. Our Stalinists and quasi-Stalinists see only everything negative in the West and think nationalised property is working class socialism in the East. So they favour the East.

The oppositionists in the East see that there is personal freedom in the west, the right of the workers to organise
trade unions and political parties and to publish more or less what they like. That, in contrast to the arbitrary
state tyranny in the Stalinist states, there is the rule of law. So, they idealise the west.

Both views are one-sided and false: indeed, the easterners’ view is probably less one-sided and less false than that of the Stalinist workers in the west.

It is no small difference, after all, that in the advanced capitalist countries we have won the right — through centuries of struggle — to organise freely, while everywhere in the east the workers are subjected to a savage repression which nips in the bud every stirring of independent working class activity and jails or kills its organisers.

It is easy to understand why the eastern oppositionists and, especially, the fighters for free trade unions in a Stalinist state, might idealise the advanced capitalist countries. They shouldn’t, of course.

We who live in a country like Britain know how hollowed-out much of the freedom and democracy is, where the multi-millionaires rule, backed by an anti-working class state. We know that the workers are savagely exploited under capitalism and have to fight every inch of the way, as the miners are having to fight now.

Scargill’s hostile comments on Solidarnosc will have been used by the Polish media against Solidarnosc just as the Mirror used the Walesa interview against the miners.

Scargill said at a meeting in Sheffield a couple of months ago: “I think I owe Lech Walesa an apology”.

In any case, he owes Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc basic working class solidarity.

We need independent working class politics east and west. Workers, east and west, should support each other against the oppression of both the capitalist and Stalinist systems. We need consistent international working class solidarity.

For the British labour movement that must mean:

• Active support for Solidarnosc.

• Support for free trade unions in all the Stalinist states and for those trying to organise them.

• Breaking off “fraternal” contact between the TUC unions and the police-state fake unions which exist in the Stalinist states.

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Comments

Lech Walesa Interview, Sunday Mirror

Lech Walesa was accurately quoted. A longer version of my Walesa interview (Q & A style) appeared simultaneously in The Toronto Star. (I interviewed Walesa in person at his Gdansk home with two translators to be certain of his precise words.)

political points stand

Robert, that doesn't alter the political conclusions to be drawn. I don't know what your own politics are but for us it was - and to a lesser extent still is - a matter of battling a current in the British labour movement for whom the Stalinist rulers of Eastern Europe could no wrong, even when they were scabbing on the miners in 1984.

John O'Mahony in his article makes clear that the duty of the British trade union movement to defend Solidarnosc against the Polish state and its apologists here does not hang on the accuracy or otherwise of Walesa's comments and that the difficulty in determining their accuracy lies mainly with "the office sub-editor who gave the article its final shape" by reducing them to "snippets, too short for any context to be discernible".

As I'm sure you know, The Mirror titles at the time were owned by Robert Maxwell, a supporter of the right-wing in the Labour Party who therefore had his own reasons to use Walesa's comments against the NUM.

scabbing

I don't think 'scabbing' is an accurate way to describe the Stalinist state's behaviour in the strike. It infers that they were somehow on our side/part of our class to start with?

not scabbing

Yes, Lawrie, you're right there. I agree it was loose language the inference of which struck me in the same way it did you after I'd posted. I was going to say 'undermining' but it seemed like a bit of a pun, 'supplying coal to help defeat the miners' is what I meant.