Ellis Garvey writes about the aftermath of the Polish People’s Republic and the current effects of neoliberalism on Poland’s younger generation
A new generation of Polish youth have grown up with little education on the successes that the PZPR had once achieved. The policies of Poland’s post-socialist right-wing governments have subsequently engulfed the nation under neoliberalism and a fundamentalist style-traditionalism.
But we must ask, how did this all begin? How did the so-called ‘trade union’, which US imperialism and European neoliberalism upholds as the greatest example of resistance, bring the country to such ruin for so many people?
The PZPR was formed following the second world war by partisans who followed the example of peoples’ democracies taking place during this time across Southern and Eastern Europe by many Communist and Worker’s Parties. The legislative Sejm was declared to be the highest authority and would be led by the newly formed Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), a merger of the Marxist-Leninist Polish Workers Party and the social democratic Polish Socialist Party, in a national front representing the various cross sections of Polish society. This allowed the working class to come together and allow a leading role to its tool of power to fight for their rights and fight for socialism using the state power as an organ for class rule as prescribed by Lenin in 1917. However, being birthed at the end of the war had many drawbacks. The Polish border was completely redrawn, and as a result, Poland had to deal with the consequences of this. Many were forced to migrate and the former displaced right-wing supporters of the old government caused many problems early-on which would end up having a lasting effect. This partially led to a crisis in Poznan during 1956, amongst other issues such as economic miscalculations, would lead into further problems.
Nationalisations took place providing the government with profits. The PZPR also received aid from both the USSR and the DDR to help rebuild the formerly war-torn country. However, only partial collectivisation took place and as a result. Poland did not have the levels of agricultural efficiency or the level of socialist consciousness in the countryside in comparison to the other socialist camp nations.
Following the death of Stalin, the former leader of the PZPR, Bierut, died of a heart attack upon responding to the secret speech. Bitter infighting arose in the aftermath of his death. Władysław Gomułka would arise to the ascendancy of First Secretary following a series of protests and civil unrest on a much more sovereigntist pro-thaw policies. These policies would include abandoning collectivisation altogether, liberalisation to the Catholic Church, removing pro-Stalin policy makers, easing of relations towards the civil sphere and withdrawal of Soviet Troops and special advisors.
Poland would see around 12 years of peace and relatively stable development as the economy and standards of living rose massively, and the state reaped the benefits of having a planned economy. However due to the inconsistent policies of the PZPR, by 1968, a new political crisis would emerge over anti-Zionism. Opposition amongst students and workers led partially by Kazimierz Mijal (former pro-Stalin central committee member of the PZPR) also accused the government of revisionism. Many became dissatisfied with the PZPR’s social and economic policies. In response, the government issued a mixed response however failed to address the problems of nationalism which would have repercussions. Only two years later Gomulka would resign, and this would lead to the moderate-reform minded Gierek who supported taking loans to develop technology in Poland and small-scale privatisation. Standards of living would rise until the oil crisis struck and prices where increased causing a series of riots which would eventually bring his downfall. His legalisation of Solidarity began a series of events which would undermine the whole system of the Peoples Republic entirely.
At the start of 1981 in response to the worsening social and economic unrest, Solidarity was thereby supressed, and martial law established headed by Jaruzelski a ‘moderate’ military general who would then attempt to change the image of the country. Foreign interference increased with meetings between the US and Western Governments with Lech Walesa, the head of Solidarity. An agreement was made to funnel funding to Solidarity and use any means necessary to undermine the PZPR and delegitimise it is political and economic system. Being no friend of the working-class Solidarity had always held anti-working-class sentiments with their open opposition to the Miners’ Strike in the UK and Lech Walesa’s open admiration of Thatcher. Solidarity was a useful method of dividing workers against workers and nullifying the working-class organs of power. The West imposed a currency embargo amongst other heavy restrictions which made the situation so much worse and greatly damaged to economic potential of the socialist camp, particularly the PZPR, which now, had to cope with the undermining of their economy owing to globalisation.
The USSR under Gorbachev would pressure the Polish government to accept roundtable talks with Solidarity which would eventually lead to its demise in ‘free elections’ which would then be dominated by the disproportionate influence of Solidarity and western interference methods. The PZPR would then collapse, and, with a loan from Gorbachev, it would be completely reformed into the Social Democratic Party.
What did the new Solidarity Government embark on?
Firstly, they would seek to punish and delegitimise the socialist period through introducing shock therapy. Far from solving the price hike problem, the introduction of rapid privatisation and limiting state interference led to a rise in prices by 300%-500% causing the Polish currency to become nearly completely worthless and without a safety net families struggle to afford the most essential of goods. Privatisation also made thousands jobless as the state lost its capital controls as Solidarity began to make Poland completely subordinate to the EU and its free trade and state investment policies. Many industries fled abroad and companies in Poland began to cut corners to make as much profit in the shortest amount of time and effort completely weakening the industrial potential Poland could have once had. Finally, as punishment to the PZPR their offices and buildings which where built largely self sustainably where sold off to real estate and the struggle to remove the past could be completed rapidly. The Warsaw Stock Exchange would get priority as the former HQ of the PZPR was turned into a stock exchange.
Brining us to today, Poland is a neocolony and much of its population have migrated due to poor economic conditions. Its right-wing government has outlawed communist symbols therefore criminalising Communist and Worker’s Parties. In Poland, the nation is completely under the reins of the corrupt members of Solidarity and guided by the fundamentalist Law and Justice Party who effectively rule as colonial governors for the multinational corporations which control the vast majority of Poland’s wealth. Using traditionalism and fundamentalism, the Law and Justice Party seeks to distract the country from the real problem of capitalism and instead direct the people anger towards the LGBT community and ‘violations of moral values’ which sees basic rights for women such as abortion more and more restricted as patriarchy is reintroduced. Poland, like Romania, has had a gigantic migration of people abroad to find work as Poland has become economically challenging for much of the youth.
The Polish People’s Republic is one rarely spoken about, so I interviewed Sebastian (pseudonym for political reasons), who was born in Poland and now lives in Sweden after his family moved. I asked him questions on what led to the collapse of the socialist system, the unheard voices in Poland’s opposition to neoliberalism and what has happened since.
Ellis: Hello Sebastian, it is a pleasure to speak with you
Sebastian: You too.
Ellis: What is it you think of when you look to the Polish People’s Republic?
Sebastian: When I think of the People’s Republic, I think of, like, a state with much more social security than now. I didn’t live in that period, but I’ve heard from some elders that they had built many hospitals for instance.
Ellis: What errors and successes were made specifically?
Sebastian: Well, I am not an expert on this very subject but, for example, my mom said that under the People’s Republic, everybody was employed and could find work.
Ellis: What does your family remember of the period leading up to the collapse?
Sebastian: My mom told me that my grandparents had more positive views of the past Poland than the current one. One thing that is worse is the healthcare system. Now everything is privatized and it can cost a lot. My grandpa for example had his own animals, a pig etc. and he was also a craftsman and really liked the fact the government supplied him with resources.
Ellis: Who do you put the blame on? Were there specific external and internal figures?
Sebastian: I do not really know, but the politicians from the period after are suspiciously rich and instead of using the masks we produced during the COVID crisis [for Poland], we sold them to China for a profit which was bad. So, I think about the greediness of the officials especially.
Ellis: Since then, how did things develop for your family?
Sebastian: My family, me, dad, and my mom, had a lot of financial problems indirectly forcing us to move to another country. It was going downwards because of the growing debt, until dad could find proper employment. But even with employment the pay is small compared to neighbours, around only 10k Swedish krona.
Ellis: What are your experiences like in Poland for you with regard to politics, economics, and social life?
Sebastian: I think people are obligated to follow certain unwritten rules which are self-obvious that I did not really see it in Sweden, and I was a bit confused as to why it was that way. Discipline was strictly applied in schools and at home. Everyone was obligated to know about Christianity and was going to church in school. I miss my old friends from back then, but life in Sweden is comparatively easier. Politically for most it is self-evident to not have ideas reminding of socialism, and if you do, you are faced with a lot of hatred. I cannot even comprehend how my family would react to my views. My mom and dad accept my views but look at them with disgust. You become alienated from the rest of society unless the bond with your close ones is strong enough to not lose them as well.
Statement from the Komunistyczna Partia Polski on the History of the Polish Peoples Republic:
“At the end of the 80 and at the beginning of the 90s the structural adjustment programs created by the international financial institutions were imposed on Poland. These economic reforms were supported both by the so-called “democratic opposition” that later formed the government, and bureaucratic leaders of the PZPR, who also embraced capitalism. The aim of the reforms was to reduce public spending and privatise the economy, what caused the huge unemployment and the collapse of the industry. Anticommunism became an ideological basis of the new authorities, used to divert attention from the social issues and put the blame for economic failures on “remains of communism”.”