Crux of Poland's crisis -- erosion of the Communist Party

Question: Could Brezhnev become a member of Solidarity? Answer: No. Because he doesn't recognize the leading role of the Polish Communist Party.

This Polish joke says it all. The hovering threat of Soviet invasion is there, plus the erosion of the authority of the Polish United Workers' (Communist) Party and -- most surprisingly -- the urgent efforts of the Polish liberalizers to shore up the despised party.

The Polish Communist Party is, in fact, the crucial issue for the Russians and therefore for the Poles.

There is no hint of Poland's wanting to leave the Warsaw Pact or endangering Soviet lines of communication to East Germany or abandoning socialism (as, indeed, there was no hint to such actions in Czechoslovakia in 1968).

There is no Soviet objection to whatever economic reform the Poles come up with (as there was little Soviet objection at the time to the Czech economic reform of 1968). The main danger the Russians see in the current Polish democratization is therefore neither military nor economic nor ideological.

It is political. The specter haunting Soviet communism is the loss of the dictatorship of the Communist Party inherent in the rise of Poland's vociferous autonomous trade union, Solidarity. This "pluralism" -- to use the word that no Pole dares mention in print these days -- threatens the power positions of party apparatchiks in Poland. And by example it threatens the power positions of party apparatchiks in the Soviet Union.

In the analysis of a number of politically engaged Poles then the key questions are: What is happening to the Polish Communist Party's command of the country and to the top leadership's command of the party? Are they in a state of terminal disintegration, or can they be resuscitated?

The future of Poland -- and the strategies both of party hard-liners and of reformers inside and outside the party -- hangs on the answers to these questions.

The current strategy of the hard-liners is to create a state of constant crisis and confrontation with the free trade union solidarity -- and, curiously, thereby to demonstrate the weakness of the party. the aim is to convince party reformers of fence-sitters -- and also the Russians -- that compromise with social forces outside the party only leads to more and more demands, to "chaos and anarchy," to destruction of the party. The only remedy would be suppression of the militants inside Solidarity by force, probably by use of special police units (since the regular police and Army could not be relied on in the present climate), backed if necessary by the Soviet Army.

The strategy of the reformers, on the contrary, is to demonstrate the potential strength of the party if it can only rid itself of the hard-liners and harness the fresh energies appearing both in Solidarity and among rank and file party members.

Both strategies are fraught with danger. The hard-liners' tactics risk inviting an ultimate Soviet intervention in support of factional infighting in the Polish party. The reformers' tactics also risk triggering an ultimate Soviet intervention -- for it was precisely the Czechoslovak Communist Party hierarchy's embrace of political democratization that so frightened the Kremlin in 1968.

The maneuvering of the two camps has not yet run its course. For now both sides are primarily trying to adjust day by day to the continuing decay of the party.

That decay is everywhere evident. The most obvious symbol of it is Solidarity itself, which from the beginning has represented far more than just a union to improve workers' pay and jobs. From the time Poland's red and white flag (rather than the red communist flag) appeared in the struck Gdansk shipyard last August, Solidarity has had the patriotic aura that Poles never really accorded the Polish Communist Party -- a body they regarded as subservient to their historic adversary, the Russians.

So far 1.7 million of Poland's 3 million Communist Party members have joined Solidarity -- and signs indicate that the vast majority of these give first loyalty to Solidarity rather than to the party. Significantly, workers in the 162 largest factories that the party once organized as its vanguard and gave special privileges to are now a strong force for radicalism within Solidarity, and party cells have virtually ceased to exist in many of these factories. So many workers also deserted the party-directed official trade union that it had to disband as a national organization.

Significantly, too, the demands of various local Solidarity chapters often include -- as in the case of a one-hour work stoppage near Katowice this week -- demands for resignation of local government and party officials. In a surprising number of cases these demands have been acceded to.

Hardly less of a challenge to the party's command of society is the evaporation version of the Soviet "nomenklatura" system since the birth of Solidarity last summer. Under this system the party used to fill senior executive positions in industries, universities, social organizations, and all other important nonchurch institutions with its own approved nominees. By now, however, even this system has ceased to function in many parts of Poland.

Thus in some universities party bureaucrats who were rectors have already been replaced by real scholars selected by the faculty. In a number of industries authoritarian managers have been replaced by executives more willing to consult with Solidarity.

Everywhere, there is a burgeoning of new groups organized spontaneously from below, without reference to party direction. In one of the hottest current disputes farmers are occupying government buildings in Rzeszow to try to win registration of a "Rural Solidarity." the five circles of independent Roman Catholic intellectuals that were tolerated before August have expanded into more than two dozen groups. Professors from the underground but open "flying university" run by dissidents over the past few years have begun lecturing to formal university classes.

The nationwide Socialist Union of Polish Students no longer functions and has been replaced by diverse local clubs at different universities and in towns. Students at some universities have voted Marxism-Leninism or the Russian language out of the compulsory curriculum -- and have been restrained only by cooler heads.

In the existing professional organizations, too, new leaders have been voted in who do not accept party fiat. The new chairman of the writers union elected at the end of December is Jan Jozef Szczepanski, a roman Catholic author who previously could not be published officially. The chairman of the journalists' union is Stefan Bratkowski, who for seven years had been deprived of all official positions because he favored liberalization. The new chairman of the Warsaw journalists union is Jacek Kalabinski, a radio commentator known for his refusal to broadcast lies.

The spreading democratization does not always serve to strengthen the traditional champions of liberalization, of course. The animators and documentary makers are now demanding their share of executive positions in the film association that before this has been dominated by its feature filmmakers, and especially by the association chairman, Andrzej Wajda, the noted director and dissident supporter. (The Catholic church is not altogether happy about the demands now being put to it by its new employees' organizations.) The same phenomenon can be seen among associations of lawyers, university professors, and university assistants.

To the old party hierarchy there is another problem today that is fully as distressing as the slippage of social organizations out of the control of the party. That is the new assertiveness, within the Communist Party itself, of rank and file members as against the 3 percent of professional party bureaucrats that constitute the "apparat." In the ideological jargon, this is an erosion of Leninist "democratic centralism" or the rigid discipline from above of all policy, expressed opinions and personnel decisions within the party.

In gross violation of this precept, numerous local party cells are now calling for free, secret elections of party secretaries at local, then regional, then national level. This reportedly touched an especially raw Russian nerve; the Kremlin is said to have objected strenuously to any free elections within the Polish party. Numerous local or regional party organizations have also been following the heresy of "horizontal coordination" in preparing proposals for next spring's party congress, without waiting for directives from above.

This prospect, informed sources say, moved the Kremlin to send a special delegation to Warsaw to call a halt to such undirected initiatives. Numerous old-style authoritarian party secretaries are currently sitting in their offices with nothing to do and no one to obey their orders.

Some local party secretaries -- like Gdansk's Tadeusz Fiszbach -- are coping with the new situation by cooperating with Solidarity and other social forces. And the top communist leadership, in particular party chief Stanislaw Kania, is trying to adjust the party to the new circumstances. In line with this attempt at least 29 of the 49 regional party secretaries have been replaced since August with new people who are presumably more responsive to grass-roots initiatives.

The party is hamstrung by a dearth of competent personnel, however. For decades young men of talent have avoided the party and gone into the church or the theater or academia instead. Symptomatically, for months Mr. Kania could not find anyone who even wanted to become party secretary of Warsaw city.

In this situation the very survival of the Polish Communist Party is at stake -- and with it the survival of Poland as it exists tod ay.

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