Since the outbreak of strikes in Poland last July, the world has held its breath. Another Hungary? Another Czechoslovakia? Would another effort to liberalize a Communist country lead to another invasion by Russia?
The Poles themselves know how delicate the situation is. Jacek Kuron, a leader of the dissident Social Self-defense Committee, has said, "We must work to increase the area of freedom and to diminish the areas of totalitarianism, without exceeding the limits set by Soviet tanks."
GRASSROOTS REFORM The Poles are trying a new approach in their effort to liberalize a totalitarian country. In the past, liberals in Communist-ruled states have tried to open up the societies by taking advantage of rivalry within the ruling elite and siding with an out-of-power faction that could use the popularity of a more liberal program as a stick with which to beat the faction in power.
But Kuron and other Polish dissidents seem to have another idea. They want to see autonomous, energetic social groups grow up from the grassroots; these nonparty, nongovernmental groups would defend the interests of their members. The dissidents hope that the power of the independent social organizations will steadily increase and thus ever-larger portions of society can be reclaimed from the total control of the Communist party and the State. It is a vision reminiscent of Tocqueville and Kropotkin but colored by Poland's recent socialist history and the ruthless record of Russia in its borderlands.
Poland has a strong Catholic church and extensive private enterprise in farming (producing 80 percent of the country's food). So it is a country in which this program of de-totalitarianization through social self-organization might succeed, if it can anywhere. Lech Walesa, the leader of the independent Solidarity union, has pointed out that the Catholic church is recognized by the workers, both believers and nonbelievers alike, as providing a model for "moral justice and honesty" that they all find attractive. Thus, the Poles have some experience and examples to guide them.
Of course, the ruling Polish Communist Party hopes that the wave of group-organizing will die out. The neighboring Communist-ruled states are fearful as well that the Polish example will prove contagious. Radio Prague has been constantly repeating the theme in its broadcasts that "antisocialist forces…operating backstage" are working "to break up the social structure of the Polish People's Republic."
Leonid Zamyatin, head of the international information department in the Soviet Communist Party, also stresses the subversive nature of the structural changes taking place in Poland. He maintains, true to type, that foreign forces "are instigating some groups coming out against People's Poland to form…some structural units, to shape structurally and legally the existing opposition to the present socialist system."
In isolated Albania, the daily newspaper of the ruling ultraleft Communist Party even predicted editorially that "the creation of 'independent, self-managing trade unions' in Poland will serve as a springboard to pass into a complete capitalist anarcho-syndicalist system."
The worry of the Communist elites throughout Eastern Europe is well summarized in this revealing diatribe by Karel Horak, editor of Tribuna, a weekly published by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist party:
By using demagogic slogans about freedom and democracy, about the need to defend the interests and rights of the working class, about unrestricted freedom of speech and press for everybody, about the need to found "new, independent" labor unions and the like, [antisocialist forces want] to disorient and mislead the working class and the working people, win them over to their own political aims, destroy the unity of the working class, discredit the leading role of the party, legalize the political opposition, and thus create conditions for political pluralism and the destruction of the socialist political system.
The question that remains to be answered is, Is a socially pluralist Communist society possible? For that matter, since one of the principal demands of the striking Polish workers has been for a free press, is a free press possible under a system in which the government owns all the important productive machinery, equipment, and resources?
RIGHTS VERSUS RULE In considering the future of Solidarity and the proposed independent farm workers' union, no one should forget the fate of Poland's Agricultural Circles, which were promised the right to operate as self-governing labor unions when they were set up in 1956. But they were subsequently interfered with and regulated to such an extent that in practice they became government-controlled unions.
The problem is that, in the absence of a full system of private property rights, there is very little ground to stand on for a labor union that wants to be autonomous. A truly independent labor union with millions of members would not only be a major force in everyday Polish life and an important influence on the country's economy; it would also affect the legal structure. Solidarity will either have to possess rights against the government that amount in practice to private property rights, or it will be swallowed up by the State as the Agricultural Circles were.
In Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, all society is locked into a single system of totalitarian control. If the Communist Party allows large loopholes to appear in that system of control, and if those loopholes are considered by the public to be rights and not permissions, and if the public defends those rights against the State and the Communist Party, then in effect Communist rule has been overthrown.
As we have seen, the ruling Communist parties have been squalling and squawking about attacks on the socialist social structure every time freedom of the press or independent unions are mentioned. The real meaning of this is simply that these ruling elites, who in the past have controlled everything in society, are distressed that people in that society may succeed in fencing off a place on which to stand—a sphere of rights protected against government intrusion. This is what the Albanian Communists are talking about when they complain about the creation of "capitalist anarcho-syndicalism"; this is why the Communist leaders are understandably worried about social self-organization as a trend that could threaten the socialist State. This is why Russia may invade.
Williamson Evers is the former editor of Inquiry magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Can the Poles Prevail?".