Analyse the factors that contributed to the emergence of a workers’ opposition movement in Communist Poland in the period 1956-1981. After World War II, the official communist party dominated all aspects of Polish politics, which soon became an issue with not only the working class of the country, but also the intellectual and educated Polish community. Between 1956 and 1981, there was an emergence of workers’ opposition against the communist party in Poland due to the blatant oppression and desperate living conditions of many of the Polish workers and their families. Workers demanded rapid change in policy from the party because the workers believed the government had been misleading in their political agenda and had steered to a policy of simply ignoring the plea for more democratic rights. Other factors that contributed to the opposition include deplorable economic conditions throughout the country, Catholic Church leaders support, and a massive attack on the government by Polish communist intellectuals.
The massive disconnect between the communist party’s policy and the desire of the people was a factor in the emergence of the entire opposition movement. The communist party originally had promised the Polish workers that it would be a government that put the needs of the working class before all others, but over time it became obvious the government was following a policy of dictatorial political repression. When the Polish working class attempted to make its “voice heard” in Poznan during a protest against communist rule, several dozen workers were killed in the government’s suppression of the strike. Marketed in a governmental propaganda piece as an “exciting and uncommon” event, they promised that the party was “united with the nation.” (Doc 1)
Edward Gierek, head of the Polish communist party, addressed the issue as a whole by demanding that the Polish workers not “demand that kind of democracy” and translucency with the government, further alienating the workers’ basic interests with the party’s agenda. (Doc 3) Not only did the party choose to actively ignore pleas from protests, but it also disregarded political platforms written on wooden boards and hung on hates of worker shipyards, which included demands such as a “guarantee of freedom of speech, the press, and publication.”(Doc 9) The relentless party was determined to extinguish and destroy any “thorn in the side of the administration,” despite them being peaceful, model activists with the desire to simply “defend others.” (Doc 8) The disconnect with the party helped unite all of the desperate Polish workers and was a major factor in the emergence of the opposition movement.
Another major factor in the advent of the opposition movement was the fact that the movement and the dissidents received support from Polish, communist intellectuals and international communists and human right activists. Very aware of the fact that the communist party was not only not keepings its promises to the people of Poland, but also deviating from traditional communist practice, Polish communist intellectuals were pushed to overtly critique the party leaders. Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, professors at Warsaw University and Polish communist party members, wrote an open letter to party members addressing their concern that the party had lost its roots. They make the claim that the working-class rooted communist party is now aristocratic and corrupt.
The letter conveys a stinging inditement of the communist party and demands that there be a “creation of a new system where the organized working class will truly be the master of its labour.” (Doc 2) Kuron and Modzelewski are most likely trustworthy sources because they are members of the communist party yet take a critical view of the party. They have seen the issues that they are condemning personally. Intellectuals and supporters abroad shared similar sentiment with the professors though, claiming that they too wanted to see change and an abolishment of the “completely fictitious” unions that existed. (Doc 4) The intellectual and party member support helped the workers’ movement gain serious momentum.
A major factor in the emergence of the workers’ opposition movement also was the support of the Catholic Church and the Pope specifically. In September of 1976, the bishops of the Catholic Church in Poland called for the government and party to “fully respect civil rights and conduct a real dialogue with society” while also demanding that they stop all repression of workers involved in the protests of June 1976. (Doc 5) The fierce and somewhat scolding tone in which the demands are made show the Catholic Church’s unwavering support for the Polish workers’ opposition. It is not surprising, however, that a group of Catholic bishops would demand better treatment for the Polish workers because, as members of the church, they would naturally be in favour of social justice.
The value of having the Catholic Church support the movement manifests itself in the fact that the Polish communist party begins to require all teachers to tell students that the pope is “an enemy” and “dangerous” man who only wishes to charm the crowd. (Doc 7) This response to the pope’s support demonstrates that the party itself realised that the church could have tremendous impact on the turnout of the opposition. By the 1980s, a coalition of independent trade unions, known as Solidarity, was established in Gdansk. The photograph of Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders kneeling at a Catholic mass clearly reflects the critical impact the church had on the success of the workers’ opposition, reminds one how Poland’s communists, and therefore anti-religious movement, was fading, and demonstrates how Catholic tradition is and always has been deep rooted in Polish culture and tradition. (Doc 11)
The last major factor in the advent of the workers’ opposition movement was the realization by the workers that the communist party was failing them economically and that their quality of life had drastically diminished. The state of the Polish economy had reached such lows by 1980 that the Interfactory Strike Committee released a list of demands to the communist party. They included points that the committee saw necessary in order for workers and their families to be able to live, work, and prosper in peace. They demanded that the party accept “free trade unions” along with a “full supply of food products for the domestic market,” in which they were of dire need. (Doc 9) Marek Langda, a Polish photographer employed by the Central Photography Agency, took a picture of a Warsaw grocery shop interior in which the shelves were practically empty.
This government agent’s purpose in the picture was not to inform the people, but to shed light to the party officials on the true economic problems the Polish people were facing. (Doc 10) In fact, despite the voluntary contributions from Polish communities abroad, many families in different cities with many dissidents were still receiving an average yearly aid much lower than the average yearly pay of an industrial worker in Poland and were struggling to make ends meet. (Doc 6) These last major factor, because they affected so heavily the workers’ families and wellbeing, were a large impetus in the emerging opposition movement of the time.
Ultimately, the emergence of the Polish workers’ opposition was a result of several, but all very critical, factors. The Communist Party continually denied the working class a voice in government, usually either ignoring the protests or declaring that what the protestors wanted was impossible to give. After having their quality of life decrease drastically between 1956 and 1981, Polish workers usually were then also imprisoned or fired from their jobs for opposing the ruling party, which fuelled the anger and opposition movement. Finally, the church and intellectuals provided the movement reason and support from those with social class weight. Just as General Jaruzelski said years later, it remains true that one must look at these events remembering that “such powerful social and political movements” carry “its leaders more than the leaders it.” (Doc 12)