'Prudence' or Cold Counter-Revolution? The 'Gomulka Way' in the Polish Revolution

Submitted by AWL on 24 September, 2013 - 2:21

In Hungary the fight was clearly, in the eyes of the world, a struggle between the united Hungarian people in revolution versus the Stalinist totalitarian power resting on Russian tanks. But in Poland the nature of the contending forces and the question of who is on which side have been far more obscured in the common view.

In and right after October the popular acceptance was that the Polish, revolution was headed by Wladislaw Gomulka whose democratic bona-fides were naturally guaranteed by the fact that he had suffered in jail from Stalin's hangmen for his "Titoist" deviations. Unlike the rash Hungarians, however, the prudent Poles, led by the wise Gomulka, knew how to get around the threat of Russian tanks and butchery. Gomulka did not try to fight the Russians head-on, thus giving them an excuse to unleash their massacre; no, he was too smart. Restraining the too adventurist elements among.the people, he extracted concessions from the Russians but didn't push them too hard; freedom was going to be gained gradually, piece by piece, with the Russians having to yield step by step because at no point was the wily Gomulka going to give them a handle for armed intervention. The Poles were going to get by skillful tactics what the Hungarians had.failed to get by force. This was the "Gomulka way" to win liberation while avoiding a blood-bath.

By the spring of 1957, it not before, it is already clear that something has gone wrong with this clever "Gomulka way."

The Gomulka regime is not advancing freedom, not even millimeter by millimeter, but rather repressing the revolutionary democratic elements more and more boldly and openly.

Press liberties are being removed rapidly, and the intellectual life of the country is moving in the direction of re-totalitarianization. The turbulent youth and students, who played such an important part in the October upheaval, are being put back in the straight-jacket of a state-controlled youth organization.

The revolutionary democratic left is being denounced as "revisionist" and dangerous, if not outright restorationist and reactionary. Stalinist leaders are being brought forward instead of scrapped (like Deputy Premier Zenon Nowak) or reimposed (like the former trade-union bureaucrat Klosiewicz, who once more gets a state job). Left-wing editors of the party and popular press have been arbitrarily fired, like Matwin of Trybuna Ludu or Korotynski of Zycie Warszawy.

The Workers Council system, which was a prime hope of the proletarian socialist supporters of the revolution in the factories, is prevented from expanding and from becoming a new organizer of the workers social power at the point of production. Gomulka is making his peace not only with the Polish Stalinists but also with the Russian rulers, most dramatically indicated by his approval of the hated Kadar regime in Hungary.

The revolutionary democratic left wing is beginning to talk about "cold Kadarisation." It begins to look as if the ''Gomulka way" is the way to put down a revolution without Russian tanks, rather than a clever way to make revolution without sacrifice.

But this too, while true, does not adequately summarize the nature of the Gomulka experience.

A basic problem of the revolution in East Europe is the interrelation between the two revolutions that compose it: the national revolution against Russian domination, and the social revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, including the native Stalinist bureaucracy.

The Hungarian Revolution was both; this fact gave it an undivided dynamism.

The fact that one could be separated from the other had first been shown in practice by the Tito-Moscow break in 1948. "Titoism" was and is national-Stalinism: the aspiration for national independence from Russian rule on the part of, and under the control of, native rulers on the basis of the same social system (bureaucratic collectivism) and the same political regime (totalitarianism) as exists in Russia itself. The satellite fuehrers of East Europe are branch agents of the
Kremlin; Tito went into business for himself.

'But for the masses, national freedom from Russian rule was ardently desired not only because the people detested Russian bosses alone; they wanted to get rid of all tyrants; it was clear that the Russian tyrants had to be thrown off first; this in itself-was worth cheering; This raised the question of disposing of native despots too, but does not take care of it. It is enough that it raises it.

That is why the national revolution tends to awaken the social revoluti6n even if they are not intertwined to begin with.

In Yugoslavia, the break with Moscow had come solely from above, as a result of the latter's overly crude pressure on the Tito regime; the. Yugoslav people learned of. the break with as much surprise as the rest of the world. They cheered, but as onlookers, not as participants or actors. Under these circumstances, the national element was kept most distinct from the social. Even so, the break with Moscow forced the Tito regime to begin a series of real social concessions at home (especially to the peasant mass, in the form of decollectivization and. lowered economic pressure), and of demagogic pretences at "democratization" which never went outside the framework of totalitarian politics.

The Polish Revolution was fundamentally different. It did not flow from a break with. Moscow at the regime level, but from a mass struggle from below against the regime, which in turn forced, a partial break with Moscow. In this way the Polish Revolution was a continuation of the process which had started in the great June days in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and not a continuation of the Tito pattern.

The Polish Revolution broke out as. a social revolution. A social revolution in any of the East European satellites must also, and automatically, be a national revolution against the. Russian power which props up the satellite regimes; but while a social revolution here must be a national revolution, the contrary is not true.


This is the background for a short formulation of what happened in Poland: A decisive section of the Stalinist bureaucracy went over to national-Stalinism in order to head off the social revolution, under the impact of the mass uprising from below.

The face of the social revolution was first thrust forward in the great uprising in Poznan of June 1956. It was all the more portentous in that it started in the factories, spearheaded by the steel workers, after which it was joined in by the whole population.

It was by no means an attempt at revolution; on the contrary, it began as a demonstration for higher wages. Still without becoming an attempt at revolution, it naturally developed into a violent struggle against the state power and its organs, particularly the secret police and party.

For it is of the very nature of Stalinism (bureaucratic collectivism) that any uninhibited mass movement from below has no other enemy to oppose than the omnipotent state itself. That is why under this system there is much less distance between quiescence or apparent quiescence on the one hand, and turbulent revolutionary struggle on the other, or why events tend to lead from one to another so rapidly and surely. It is an overhead cost, and fatal defect, of totalitarianism that as soon as the people feel the least measure of release from-the totalitarian straitjacket there are few further steps they can take without ripping the whole straitjacket to shreds, or trying to.

The Poznan uprising was a warning to the Stalinist bureaucracy led by Edward Ochab. (One difference between the Polish and Hungarian developments is that the Polish rulers got this advance warnings; the Hungarian Stalinists did not. Ochab in Poland was able to adjust, whereas Gero in Hungary was not. Hence it is a paradoxical fact that the greater depth and strength of the Polish movement - and it was more deep-going than the corresponding one in Hungary - was the very reason why the Polish pattern was marked by less violence, bloody struggle and dramatic crises than the


After Poznan, it was clear to the bureaucracy that revolution was brewing. The Poznan uprising was only the sharpest symptom. Among the students and intellectuals, reflected in ever more open utterances in the press, especially the cultural organs, voices of criticism, dissent, dissatisfaction and heterodoxy were daring to be heard; just as in Hungary the Petofi Circle was becoming a forum for free opinion.

What to do?

One could take the bull by the horns and crack down on these burgeoning tendencies, teach the most daring ones a lesson, shut their mouths with terror and blood. This-might work to begin with, or it might not; even if it worked, it might only eventually stir a more determined and violent assault by the people: even if it didn't, it was the more expensive way of doing it; even aside from this, it meant dropping all pretence at ruling with some support from below, it meant unleashing a terror such as the bureaucracy itself would have to live in fear of.

A storm was brewing, but wouldn't it be better to try to ride it out than to stamp it out? Or, to change the metaphor, when the people start marching, you get in front of them and lead them around, ever so carefully, to a point where they came from. If you don't, someone else will lead them to a more dangerous place.
The Polish bureaucracy split into two sections. One faction, which came to be called after its meeting place Natolin, held out for bulling it through, with the help of the Russian fist where necessary: undisguised Stalinism; the formula as before. The decisive section of the bureaucracy headed by Ochab kept their eyes fixed on Poznan and decided to ride along with the upheaval, to channelize it.

When the revolutionary street demonstrations and fighting broke out in October and the temperature of revolution began to rise, the Ochab leadership of the party had already started taking steps toward calling in Wladislaw Gomulka, to handle what was too hot for them.

Wladislaw Gomulka had been condemned as a "Titoist" after the 1948 break; before that he had been a leader in the post-war Stalinist totalitarianization of Poland, but how he was in disgrace and in jail, suspected of too much independence vis-a-vis Moscow. He was a "good Communist," that is, cut out of the same ideological cloth as Ochab or any of the other Stalinists; but he had credit with the masses as result of his arrest and record.. (That was true of Kadar in Hungary too, by the way; Kadar exhausted his credit in a different way.)


'Calling in Gomulka, however, meant going farther rthan just trotting out a leader who had not yet been discredited. It meant making a real concession to the mass ferment: the curbing of complete Russian domination, in order, to take some of the nationalist steam out of the looming social-revolutionary movement.

As we know from the experience of Titoism, such a step is not at all to be understood merely as a reluctant concession on the part of the Polish leaders. They are sincerely for obtaining a maximum measure of national autonomy from the Russians, to whatever extent this may be possible without endangering them; this is the "Titoist" component which is an inherent element among the motivations of every satellite regime, even the most subservient. The revolution developing, however, made this course not simply a desirable aspiration or dream but a possibility and even a pressing necessity. It was a pressing necessity in order to head off the social outburst. It was a possibility because, by pointing
to the threatening storm, they could hope to convince the Russians to agree to a reluctant acceptance of some "anti-Russian" steps as a lesser evil, that is, to some concessions on the national field. This is what happened in October on the occasion of the famous "Eighth Plenum" when Gomulka's installation was accepted all around.

Thus, by balancing between the revolution from below and the Russian power which overshadowed them, the new regime gained nationalist concessions (de-Russification of the army, ouster of the symbol Rokossovsky, etc.), though the.Russian troops still remained in the country. With the popular credit thus obtained, the regime swung into its drive to tranquillize the uncontrolled revolutionary ferment, and then, by degrees, to re-totalitarianize.

Their positive program was a national-Stalinism: that is, a bureaucratic collectivist regime run by, and operated for the benefit of, Polish totalitarians, not Russian ones, but in amicable alliance with the Russians and not without profit to them. They sought to convince the Russians by pointing to the threat of revolution; they sought to convince the. revolution by pointing to the Russians.


In order to stabilize this balancing act, the Gomulka regime (perhaps better called the Gomulka-Ochab regime) made its major new concessions not to the workers but to the peasantry (de-collectivization and drastic cut in compulsory deliveries) and to the Catholic Church (reinstitution of religious training in the schools, etc.), - thus the regime leaned across the workers and dissident intellectuals to find footing in the alien social forces represented by these two holdovers from the old society, without however fearing any serious pressure toward the restoration of the old capitalist

It is doubtful how long the regime can thus balance among, the contending social forces; and how long it can avoid drawing closer and closer to the unreconstructed Stalinists in a common front against the revolution which is the basic threat to both. In any case, what is essential is that at stake in Poland is not good or bad reforms bestowed by a good or bad leader, but rather the fate of a revolution, a mass upheaval which began by shattering the Polish totalitarianism, and which is still very much alive, though in retreat, as this is written.

In this, "our side" is the side of the revolutionary democratic left wing in Poland, including the workers and Communist militants and students who are denounced by the regime as "revisionist" because of their democratic socialist aims. We do not and cannot give them advice on tactics or "prudence," but their course, however "prudently" pursued, is the deadly enemy of the Gomulka regime.

They will be in the forefront to defend Poland under anyone's regime, including Gomulka's, against Russian
assault if it comes to that, but in Poland they cannot escape a fateful clash with the regime in their struggle to extend October to a social revolution – the democratic socialist revolution.