Polish Communist Party - down but not out

Who is governing Poland now -- the communists or the generals? And, if the latter, for how long?

It could be, as a leading member of the government said Jan. 12, ''a matter of weeks.'' Nothing is clear yet.

Twenty-one top-ranking officers from the armed forces make up the Military Council of National Salvation, which took over the country when martial law was proclaimed Dec. 13.

At present its word is law -- in everything from the operation of military administration in terms of troops and tanks (and riot police) down to the nuts and bolts of every corner of every Pole's life.

Will the council last, as chairman General Jaruzelski said, only as long as it takes to restore ''law and order'' and clean up the radical opposition, while the battered Communist Party picks up the pieces to try a fresh start?

All the council's members are longstanding members of the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP), to use the party's official postwar name.

Jaruzelski himself became a party member soon after the war, when he was a junior officer, even though his family had been landed gentry and he had gone to Jesuit schools.

He has been a member of the Politburo since 1968. Since Oct. 18 he has served as head of the party as well as of government, and been defense minister to boot. He has rarely been seen out of uniform since he became prime minister nearly 12 months ago.

But, politically, which of his roles comes first under military rule?

On the face of it, it is the Army that is making or approving all decisions. There is no visible sign of an early break in the deadlock to dialogue with Solidarity and the Roman Catholic Church.

The party's claim to the ''leading role'' in all spheres of society in the orthodox communist pattern was in tatters when General Jaruzelski decreed martial law almost five weeks ago.

Since then the party has to all intents and purposes gone out of business, although its central apparatus has apparently remained intact. Solidarity had badly underestimated this.

Only one Communist Party in postwar Eastern Europe has suffered a worse eclipse under crisis than the PUWP. In 1956, after the crushing of the uprising, the Hungarian party mustered only 103,000 members out of 900,000. It took four years to get back to 400,000.

In 1968, 200,000 resigned from the Czechoslovak party after the Russians moved in. Another 300,000 were purged in the ''normalization'' instituted by the post-Dubcek regime in 1969. But this was nothing like the Polish party's disintegration. The Czechoslovak party still had about 1 million members; it has since rebuilt its numbers.

All last year, the Polish party was falling apart. Its leadership was losing credibility with society at large, especially with the workers who formed its power base.

The show of internal democratization at the party's July congress brought a brief slowdown in decline. But, by December, officials were admitting that membership had slumped further. In four months it dropped from 3.2 million to at most 2.5 million.

The drain has accelerated, with party cards being returned from all areas of the country. Some reports say membership is now below 2 million.

Many of the dropouts are those younger men and women who were optimistic enough last summer to ''give the party a chance.'' They became candidate members but now have given up in despair.

At the Central Committee's last meeting, Nov. 27-28 (it has not met since the emergency began) a Politburo member presented a grim picture of organizational disarray, ideological and political ''emasculation,'' a paralysis of local party units, a party riven from top to bottom by factions and internal conflict and no longer functioning as a coherent force.

Despite all this, it would be wrong to underestimate the communist essence of the military council, or to see it as some sort of ''junta'' in the Latin American mold, seizing power and intending to hold on to it indefinitely as long as there is a reformer or a Solidarity unionist in sight.

Or to see the party as down for the ''final count.'' The Russians will not allow that to happen.

Nor, say most outsiders who have observed him in action since last February, is General Jaruzelski to be seen as some kind of ''Bonapartist.'' There is no record that any of the top military men around him have personal political ambitions, either.

One cannot tell how long they -- or they and the party -- will maintain martial law or any part of the emergency regulations before returning Poland to civilian rule. But there are some first small pointers to suggest Jaruzelski and his closest associates are thinking about it and about what will follow martial law.

Jaruzelski has several times said the reform process will be resumed once stability in the country is achieved. But he indicates reform will be tailored much more strictly to the ''socialist'' Constitution and state and to its communist alliances.

He has promised to present the nation with a program. Presumably he will do so when he addresses parliament, which is scheduled to meet Jan. 20 for the first time since the emergency.

A mildly encouraging start is being made on economic reform. This includes a timetable for price restructuring that is bringing much higher consumer prices and other unpalatable essentials that have always brought crises in the past. The idea may be to get the worst of these over while military disciplines still prevail.

There are indications that the party is trying once again to build on the middle ground (which former party leader Stanislaw Kania tried but failed to do) between the out-and-out and often-unrealistic liberals and the Russian-approved hard-liners.

The provincial party secretaries at Gdansk and Katowice - the two areas where resistance to martial law was most violent -- have just ''resigned.''

They represented those two opposite trends in the upper leadership and their departure recalls the July congress, when both extremes were clipped back. (Both men have been replaced by economic experts, which suggests further emphasis on that aspect of reform.)

Since the congress, the hard-liners had made a considerable comeback. But if the middle ground is to be enlarged and the neo-Stalinists kept at bay, the ''liberals,'' too, must be kept within bounds.

The hopes of party recovery seem to depend on a group of eight or nine generally like-minded moderates who are believed to be making policy behind the outwardly militarized scene that is Poland today.

They are more or less balanced between the military and the politicians. All, of course, are communists. They may be pivotal to Poland's future, so it is worth taking a look at them individually.

* At their head is General Jaruzelski. As defense minister he opposed the use of the armed forces in the 1970 crisis and again in August 1980. He has consistently upheld reform and dialogue and, despite martial law, gives a strong impression of remaining committed to it.

* Deputy Defense Minister Florian Siwicki, a friend of Jaruzelski, is deputy chairman of the military council.In addition Jaruzelski has called in three other deputies in this ministry.There are three key political figures:

* Stefan Olszowski, a Politburo member who though unequivocally doctrinaire, has been too much labeled as a hard-liner. In a crisis-racked year, his voice was often the most realistically cautioning to be heard.

* Kazimierz Barcikowski, also in the Politburo, was the skillful negotiator of the agreement with Szczecin shipyard workers.

* Mieczyslaw Rakowski, for years an outspoken reform member of the party committee, was picked by Jaruzelski last February to be his close political adviser as well as vice-premier.

(This ad hoc group is completed by Vice-Premier Janusz Obodowski, who is its economist.)

The approaches of these three important politicians differ. But, those who know them say they have enough in common to make political virtue out of necessity, with liberal and conservative moving closer to the center, which is the only hope for a revival of the party.

It is extremely unlikely, as some have suggested, that communist rulers, whether in the Army or the party, will countenance a plurality of parties. They may grant a little more substance for the Peasant and Democrat groups and some enlargement of Roman Catholic representation, all already in parliament.

But no matter how bad the ''state of the party'' is, it is not going to accept anything resembling a ''socialist'' rival. Nor - and this is the problem with which it must soon come to grips - is it ever going to regain lost ground without making some convincing accommodation with the mass of the workers and the union leadership of their choice, and with the Catholic Church.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Polish Communist Party - down but not out
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today