Polish political life came full circle on Edward Gierek today and thrust him from power with the kind of raw force associated with the miners who for so long represented his political base.
Edward Gierek was a son of the mines. Born to a mining family, he took his first job at age 13 working the hard coal that underpins Poland's industrial economy. When worker riots shook Poland a decade ago, it was from the mining capital of Katowice that Gierek emerged to replace Wladyslaw Gomulka at the top rung of the country's political ladder.
It must have been with a deep shudder, then, that Gierek looked upon the miners and steelworkers of his native Silesia last week as they added their powerful voices to the demands for basic change in Poland.
For a decade the 67-year-old Communist Party leader had walked the political razor's edge, turning West for vast financial credits and East to Moscow with expressions of political fealty, turning almost paradoxically to the powerful Roman Catholic Church as a partner in building the new Communist Poland. Finally, he turned to the country's workers with promises of change and a better life, demanding discipline and loyalty in return.
It was a first-class political act, one that sought to calm widespread discontent and bring about economic reform without challenging the power and control of the Communist Party. Poles only had to look south to Hungary and Czechoslovakia to see what happens when reformers tamper with the basic structure of party power.
In the end, it was a simple matter of failing to hold the line on the price of meat that ended Edward Gierek's political life. Like a volcano, the discontent erupted into widespread demands for independent unions, an end to censorship and greater freedom of expression.
First the shipyard workers of the Baltic Coast mounted their challenge, and it was Gierek who went on television to cave in to their demands for the sake of political peace. But it all came too late, for the miners of Gierek's own Silesia quickly said they, too, wanted the new rights, and with their chorus Gierek's political career came to an end.
For all his drive to rejuvenate Poland with Western technology and credits and despite his apparently deeply felt concern for workers' living standards -- a concern often lost in state-oriented Eastern Europe -- Gierek was a creation of the Communist Party.
His family left Poland in 1929 after his father was killed in a mining accident and young Gierek went to work in the mines of France. It was there that he joined the Communist Party. Forced to leave France three years later for participating in a strike, he returned to Poland, only to leave again in 1937 for Belgium, where he spent the war years working in the mines.
Gierek returned to Poland in 1948, earned a degree in mine engineering and started his career in the Polish Communist Party in Katowice, where he rose to a position of undisputed power and widespread popularity fueled by his ability to speak the language of the men of the mines.
In December 1970, when the workers in the Baltic ports of Gdansk and Szczecin rioted against the Gomulka regime, it was to Gierek and his Silesian cohorts that the Polish party turned to salvage its popular control.
The new leadership promised change. Going to the workers, Gierek promised a new openness and voice for the people in the councils of the party. He promised a new start for the country's troubled economy, seeking to bring the type of relative prosperity that had secured his base in Silesia to workers elsewhere in the country.
The turmoil that swept away Gomulka subsided and Gierek turned to the task of bringing about the changes he had promised, and the only place he could get the necessary financial backing was in the West. By the end of last year Poland was in debt to the West by almost $20 billion, dollars that had gone to buy new technology, food and other items necessary to upgrade living standards. Polish exports were growing, but more and more export revenue had to go to pay back that Western debt -- $7 billion yearly by the end of 1979.
It all proved to be an inescapable circle. As living standards improved, there were demands for more and more meat and better foods. But Poland had to export some of its meat to gain badly needed foreign exchange to pay its debts and buy more technology that would make its industry more efficient.
All the while, the turning outward had its effect on the country's political life. Economic prosperity brought with it pinpricks of pressure for more political openness, pressure far more troublesome to Gierek's more conservative colleagues -- and to Moscow -- than the carefully prescribed economic reforms that left the country's centralized planning system essentially unchanged.
A little more tolerance of dissident newspapers, a few more Poles allowed to travel in the West, and always the imposing presence of the Roman Catholic Church -- all of these things had a cumulative effect.
The role and influence of the church, vastly increased by a Polish pope in the Vatican, complicated Gierek's task enormously. In a complex fashion, the church offered an alternative to the influence and appeal of the party. How that influence played itself out in Gierek's final days remains an unfathomed aspect of the Polish drama.
In the end, Gierek's unwillingness or inability to bring about basic economic or political reforms led to his downfall.When he was forced to grant independent unions to the shipyard workers -- a step that offered an institutionalized counterpoint to full party control -- Gierek was forced to look for scapegoats. Several top political and party figures lost their jobs. l
When the miners and steelworkers demanded and received similar rights, there was no one left to go but Gierek himself.