Poland, People’s Republic Of

Poland, People’s Republic Of
   Following the success of the Polish resistance to the Third Reich in World War II, a Soviet Union–sponsored communist regime emerged in Poland and ruled for over 40 years. Though predominantly following the orthodox MarxismLeninism espoused from Moscow, there were a number of departures, and dissent remained, as expressed in the 1956 Polish Uprising and later the Solidarity movement. January 1947 saw Poland’s first postwar parliamentary elections, heavily under Soviet influence, return a Democratic Bloc government with 384 of 444 seats going to the communist Polish Workers Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza—PPR). Eight months later Wladyslaw Gomulka, who also held the position of general secretary of the PPR, became prime minister, and set about merging his party with the Polish Socialist (Social Democratic) party. This was achieved in mid-December, signaling the foundation of the Polish United Workers Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza—PZPR), and at the same time the subordination of the only other party pursuing a socialist agenda and the working class vote to the Marxist program of the former PZPR. The monopoly of political power accomplished, the PZPR immediately set about implementing Stalinist measures. Industry was speedily nationalized, a collectivization plan launched, and police terror initiated to quash perceived oppositional activity. Josef Stalin, seeking to tighten the Soviet grip on its satellite states, instigated a purge of leading party, “opposition” and military members, the foremost casualty of which was Gomulka, replaced as general secretary in 1948 by Bolesław Bierut, and then arrested in 1951. This rush toward Stalinism also saw Poland become a founding member of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), and in 1955 came adherence to the Warsaw Pact. In 1952 the Polish parliament, the Sejm, adopted a new, Stalinist, constitution. This was identical to that the Soviet Union had embraced in 1936, and in its renaming of the country as the People’s Republic of Poland formally placed it alongside the other Soviet satellite states of the Eastern Bloc. The “People’s Republic” moniker, decreed Marxism–Leninism, applied to those countries placed in between the historical stages of capitalism and socialism. The constitution called for the industrialized working class to act as the guiding light of the revolutionary movement, and work in unison with the peasantry to achieve the goal of communism.
   However, the regime was soon to move away from rigid Stalinist policies. Alongside growing domestic unrest, primarily at the government’s sudden decision to impose price increases, the death of Stalin in 1953 and his subsequent denunciation by Nikita Khrushchev resulted in the 1956 Polish Uprising. The outcome of this turmoil was the reappointment of Gomulka, released from prison in April 1956, as general secretary of the PZPR following the death of Bierut. Gomulka immediately proceeded with efforts to calm Polish unrest by rescinding the price increases. He then condemned the extremes of Stalinism, axed a number of orthodox Soviet leaders of the Polish government and military, allowed the reversal of collectivization and relaxed censorship on media and academia alike. Despite this early reformist agenda, by the beginning of 1960 Gomulka was gravitating more and more toward Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy. Relations between church and state hit a fresh nadir after the 1959 banning of religious instructions in schools, intellectuals faced repressive cultural policies that prompted the infamous 1964 “Letter of 34” censuring governmental interference in the arts, and in 1966 the PZPR attempted to limit the influential Catholic church’s Millennial Celebration with the state-sponsored propagandistic Millennium Celebrations. There was, too, a 1968 pogrom of Jewish party members following the Arab–Israeli war, called for by Gomulka after Polish intellectuals had delighted in Israeli victory, thus, held the leader, making them part of a Zionist conspiracy. Such repression, as in 1956, was followed by rioting, chiefly among students demanding an end to intrusive party censorship. Having successfully put down these stirrings, the Gomulka government further indicated its support of Soviet orthodoxy by assisting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that sought to halt the reformist 1968 Prague Spring and avowing its approval of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Yet, Gomulka’s position was by no means secure, and when in December 1970 a wave of government price hikes was announced, protests emanating from the militant Gdańsk shipyards spread and brought an end to his leadership.
   His replacement was Edward Gierek, whose first task on taking up the role of general secretary was to remove troops Gomulka had sent in to repress demonstrations. Having achieved this, like his predecessor had in 1956, Gierek reversed the price increases, and consented to a pay increase for industrial workers. The new leader also promoted initiatives to breed openness within the PZPR, and embraced a consumer- oriented approach to economics that saw trade with the West increase and the acceptance of aid from the United States and West Germany. It was these links to the western economy that resulted in a harsh economic downturn in Poland, though, as the 1973 oil crisis prompted a fall in Polish prices. As ever, in 1976 the government responded to economic decline with price rises that, true to form, were reversed following mass demonstrations, chiefly in Radom. There followed a surge in rebellion and opposition to the regime over the coming years. In September 1976 the anti-government Workers’ Defense Committee (Komitet Obrong Robotników—KOR) was founded, and various intellectual groups calling for the government to adhere to the human rights pledges undertaken in its 1975 signing of the Helsinki Accords surfaced. This revolt was accompanied by a resurgence in power of the Catholic church that culminated in the rapturous visit to Poland of the first Polish pope, John Paul II. The most prominent oppositional movement, though, was still to come.
   The Solidarity trade union, led by the charismatic Lech Walesa, was born out of the August 1980 strikes that had occurred in reaction to the Gierek government’s demands for an increase in consumer production. Such was the magnitude of worker support for Solidarity that, in a firm break from orthodox Soviet policy, the government was forced to officially recognize and legalize independent trade unions in the Gdańsk Agreement of 31 August. Among other pledges, this document guaranteed the right of workers to take strike action, and loosened PZPR press and religious censorship. Gierek resigned in September, reputedly because of ill health, to be replaced as general secretary by Stanislaw Kania. Meanwhile, Solidarity gained prestige, power and huge popularity. It forced the government to announce a maximum working week of 41.5 hours, helped construct an agricultural trade union, Rural Solidarity, and gained such widespread support that at its first national congress in September 1981 it was able to announce that nine million Polish workers had joined their union, many having defected from the PZPR. Furthermore, governmental censorship of the media fell to its lowest level yet in the communist era, and elements of self-management, like those employed in Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, entered much of Polish life. In Moscow, alarm bells began to ring as the enormous influence of Solidarity in brokering these changes became clear. At the end of 1980, Soviet troops were deployed adjacent to the Polish border, their maneuvers sending out a clear threat that further departures from the orthodox Marxist–Leninist program could lead to military intervention. A continuous state of tension prevailed through 1981, with government repression of principal Solidarity figures and further exercises inside Poland from Warsaw Pact forces. In October, General Secretary Kania was replaced by Wojciech Jaruzelski. With the Soviet Union baying for the PZPR to stifle the rapidly budding Solidarity, one of Jaruzelski’s first acts was to place Poland under a state of Martial Law. Thousands of Solidarity organizers were immediately arrested, the group made illegal, and government troops sent into industrial workplaces to quell any resistance. The period also saw the PZPR-led banning and destruction of all organized trade union groups. Martial Law was proclaimed officially over in December 1982, but with pivotal individuals such as Walesa free once more to spread ferment, and the spirit of Solidarity merely dampened rather than drowned, the threat to communist hegemony in Poland remained real. As the decade progressed, reformers inside Poland attracted increasing support, and in 1986 Jaruzelski was forced to begin a program to banish Muscovite hardliners from the PZPR. Two years later the government made a tectonic plate-shifting announcement ushering in reforms to move Poland from a planned, subsidized economy toward the free market. The PZPR administration had come under scrutiny and criticism throughout the decade, as economic measures had resulted only in price increases and deteriorating living standards. Alongside this unrest, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives in full swing the Polish government had little option other than taking such radical action in order to attempt to retain power. Concurrently with economic reforms, the government allowed an independent cultural and intellectual scene to flourish, and for the first time since the conclusion of World War II genuine freedom of speech existed.
   In such an atmosphere of flux, encouraged by the still illegal Solidarity, mass strikes erupted across Poland in the summer of 1988, and the government, apparently at breaking point, consented to negotiations with Walesa. After the initial talks in August 1988 broke down, the historic “Round Table Talks” between Solidarity and the government proceeded in February 1989. The PZPR, grappling to hold onto office, offered Walesa and his union the chance to join the government. Having rejected the invitation, the upper hand was with Solidarity, and it seized the opportunity to the extent that by April an agreement had been thrashed out that granted political pluralism, freedom of speech, and most importantly free elections. These elections, held in June, returned an overwhelming Solidarity victory, and in August Tadeusz Mazowiecki was made prime minister of Poland’s first noncommunist government for over 40 years. In January 1990 the PZPR was formally dissolved and replaced by the Social Democracy of the Polish Republic, and as elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the reign of Marxism–Leninism was categorically over.
   The Marxism–Leninism practiced during the communist era in Poland was not always entirely in line with the orthodox doctrine emanating from the Soviet Union. Unlike in other Soviet satellite states, collectivization was never undertaken with any particular gusto, and at a number of junctures some relative intellectual autonomy appeared. There were repeated periods of unrest and protest that often led to the gaining of concessions from the government, and a vibrant youth culture emerged that was later to inform and encourage the movement to bring an end to communist rule. Opposition groups such as the KOR and Solidarity existed and often thrived, and along with the influence of the Catholic church ensured that the PZPR failed to attain political monopoly on the scale of other communist parties in the region. By the 1980s, with the collective Polish psyche deeply distrustful of Marxism–Leninism, the PZPR adopted a more pragmatic, opportunistic approach to governance that was more in line with western conservatism than communism. Polish Marxism, while in the main carrying out most Soviet diktats, did retain some independence, perhaps chiefly because of the country’s historical tradition of dissent and opposition. It remained until its demise inside the Soviet umbrella, but not without distortions.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.