As these lines are written, reports from Poland indicate that a resolution of the two-month conflict between the workers and the government is about to be resolved. If this is so -- and if the resolution holds -- it will surely prove that the bleak speculation by some Western observers that the workers have been getting a trifle "heady" and that (as one distinguished American ex-diplomat put it) it is time for them to "cool it" were resonantly off the mark.
The firmness displayed by the strikers has definitely not been due to an excess of zeal or lack of realism. Their tactics have proven remarkably sagacious. The advice offered them by their allies from the ranks of the intelligentsia has been enlightened and constructive. And the government has proved equally wise in pursuing the dialogue. The final outcome may thus benefit not only the persevering workers, but the country as whole.
This is not to say, of course, that the "worst-case scenario" is to be entirely ruled out yet or for the future. Still, those who have been prone to dwell on it should ponder some lessons of recent history. True, Soviet troops drowned the Hungarian uprising in blood, suppressed the Czech experiment of "socialism with a human face" and installed a revoltingly submissive regime in Afghanistan.
Yet, in all these cases, especially in Eastern Europe, the Soviets acted (from their point of view, of course) in extremis: they were ready to come to terms with sweeping reforms but not with the collapse of a one-party regime and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. In 1956-58, for instance, Soviet troops remained in the barracks while Poland was in the grip of changes, some of them remarkably similar to those advocated today: i.e., a drastic decentralization of the economy was openly discussed; genuine workers' councils sprang up spontaneously and were legalized shortly thereafter; the parliamentary system was loosened so as to allow greater participation by non-communist groups and individuals; new student and discussion groups came into being. By 1958-59, most of the policies were rescinded: to mention but a few, the workers' councils were absorbed in the so-called Conferences of Workers' Self-Management, the discussion clubs were closed down, the Sejm (parliament) resumed its rubber-stamping functions. Yet all these -- and subsequent -- reversals and policies were instituted not on Moscow's orders but by Gomulka and his successor, Gierek, who used the threat of Soviet intervention for the purpose of further consolidating their own personal rule and the monopoly of the Communist Party.
The Polish workers and dissident groups have known this, and it is this knowledge that has strengthened their determination not to settle for empty promises, for cosmetic changes, for yet another reshuffle of the party leadership, for concessions that no sooner given are revoked; and not to succumb to the dire reminders about their "neighbor to the East." For nearly 30 years, the workers (and the peasants) have had to pay for the party's lopsided economic policies and for the cozy benefits enjoyed by the managerial and political elite. They have been offered palliatives, optimistic prognoses, instead of the unvarnished truth, and scapegoats for failures for which the party itself was responsible: individual "comrades who have broken away from the party and betrayed its trust," officials who transcended their orders, intellectuals bent only on furthering their own narrow interests, and so on.
Clearly, this will no longer do. And this is why, too, the workers have insisted -- with remarkable popular backing -- not merely on economic concessions but (as explicitly spelled out in the 21 demands of the Interfactory Strike Committee) on lasting changes of a social and political nature, all of them aimed at securing popular participation in the affairs of the country, a respect for truth, a climate of confidence as the imperative conditions for solving Poland's mammoth economic problems. And if they show what some may think is a singular lack of concern about the possibility of Soviet reprisals, it is not only because they have heeded their own leaders' call for patience, firmness and lack of provocative actions, and not only because they have perhaps a more realistic grasp of Moscow's fundamental concerns than do some of their friends in the West, but also because they are aware of dealing with a party that at long last seems willing to establish a genuine modus vivendi with the rest of society, if only because any other path could lead to a catastrophe of incalculable magnitude.
A party that for years (as is now officially admitted) dealt with its critics through subterfuge and demagogy (not to speak of outright brutality) can hardly be expected to change overnight, which is another reason why the negotiations in Gdansk have been both painful and painstaking -- and why any pressure on workers to settle for less would have benefited only those forces within the party that are eager to settle for nothing. Only a few weeks ago, the party press still spoke fancifully about "occasional work stoppages," most of them due to regrettable misunderstandings between individual workers and management. ("Recently," said one paper, "there have been cases where workers, after mutual clarification, brought the director bouquets of flowers" -- this after nearly 100,000 workers had already downed their tools). It is only within the past two weeks that the press and the party leaders themselves -- notably Gierek -- have finally admitted the depth and scope of their disastrous mistakes, and conceded that the time has come not only for radical economic but political changes as well.
Heads, of course, have rolled again, but in contrast with the past, some of the people who are now brought back enjoy considerable credibility, having been sent packing in the past precisely for their scathing criticism of party policies. We have not listened to these comrades, admitted Gierek, rather ruefully. If they are listened to now, if they are given the authority to implement their recommendations, the authorities may well be in a positiion to "meet the workers' demands more than halfway" (Gierek's words): not only to make trade unions truly representative of workers' interests but also to abolish the economic and social privileges for high party and government officials; to enact meaningful economic reforms; to allow dissident publications to exist not only de facto but de jure -- and to do it within the framework of the present political order. The Soviet Union will not be pleased. But in a changing world, Moscow has had to live with unpleasant realities, of which a freer -- and thus gradually more contented -- Poland would surely not be the worst of all.