The first reaction to the military coup in Poland was shock and confusion, followed by a wave of indignation, anger, and protest. Protests are important, but they will lead nowhere unless an analysis is made of what went wrong and why. A defeat always contains lessons for the future. What are the lessons of the defeat in Poland?
According to the old U.S. cavalry manual, a commander might be excused for being defeated but never for being surprised. By this rule, almost everyone involved in the events in Poland stands condemned. The Polish counterrevolution of December 1981 was predictable, and yet it took the great majority of Poles unawares, just as it did most observers outside Poland.
It had always been assumed that an operation of the magnitude of the Polish coup, in which divisions were mobilized, and many hundreds of tanks and personnel carriers were moved from place to place, could not occur without some warning signs. But there were no warning signs, and this despite the fact that the operation was mounted not in the secrecy of Soviet military districts but in the semi-open society which Poland had become prior to December 1981.
The genuine intelligence failure was not, of course, the technical one of failing to pick up the radio traffic from the Polish Army High Command and the secret police; it was the conviction that something like this simply could not happen.
Before December 1981, it had been widely believed that the achievements of the Polish October were irreversible. If there were to be an attempt to do away with them, nothing less than a full-scale Soviet invasion would suffice. This belief in the lasting gains of Solidarity was common to “hawks” and “doves.” As both groups saw it, Solidarity had shown that gradual change in the Soviet empire was now possible. Thus Leszek Kolakowski: “The standard way in which Western politicians used to explain away their appeasement policy—‘Nothing can change in the Soviet bloc unless it starts from Moscow’—becomes less and not more credible. In fact, there is nothing in the history of empires to prove that their disintegration process cannot be given impulse from peripheries—and this is what is happening right now.”
The observation was not a priori false; the disintegration of empires has frequently begun on the periphery. But this did not mean that it was happening now to the Soviet empire. In fact, two hundred years of Polish history should have given Kolakowski and others pause: the Poles rebelled many times against their czarist oppressors but their uprisings had not the slightest impact on the Russian people. In 1981 a Polish independence movement might have prevailed, but only if the impulse had been coming from above, as it previously had in China and Yugoslavia, in Rumania and Albania. In other words, the movement might have succeeded if the key positions in state and party, in the army and the political police, had been in the hands of the rebels. This, of course, was not the case in Poland. While Solidarity had a great deal of moral support, it had no power.
Another reason for the misplaced optimism of many observers was the idea that the Polish game was, from the Soviet point of view, no longer worth the candle. True, the Soviet Union had legitimate security interests in Poland which it would not give up. But if the Poles behaved prudently, if they did not question the Soviet military presence, the Russians might be willing, in the end, to reconsider existing arrangements. Eventually, something like a Finlandized Poland might emerge, internally free, but part of the Soviet security system.
Shortly after the Jaruzelski coup, for example, George Kennan wrote: “Had Solidarity been willing to pause as recently as a month or two ago—to rest for a while on its laurels and to give time for Moscow to satisfy itself that freedom in Poland did not mean the immediate collapse of the heavens—it would already have had to its credit a historic achievement in the way of national self-liberation. But this, of course, is not the road that Solidarity, or at least part of Solidarity, took.”
Yet there is no good reason to assume that the Soviet Union had ever been willing to put up with the gains of Solidarity—not with those of November 1981 and not with those of November 1980. This is something we know now from the new rulers of Poland themselves. The basic flaw in Kennan’s argument goes further back—to the assumption common to all revisionist historiography (though not at the time to Kennan himself) that in 1946 Stalin did not really want to “Sovietize” Poland, that he only reluctantly moved in this direction after Truman had declared cold war on him. Obviously, if the Soviet Union had only reluctantly absorbed Poland in 1947, it might be willing to give it up in 1981.
But apart from the fact that the Sovietization of Eastern Europe was not undertaken reluctantly by Stalin,1 it was forgotten by Kennan and others that Brezhnev and his colleagues had made it clear, both in private conversations and in solemn declarations (notably the Brezhnev Doctrine), that they would never, if they could help it, let go of any territory occupied in 1944-45. If the Czars never voluntarily let go of Poland, why would Brezhnev and his colleagues, good Russian patriots, do any less? The idea that they would was based on a misreading of Russian history; in addition, it was based on a misreading of the character of the Soviet system. For as the Russians see it, “security” means not only territorial buffers but political ones as well. How then could they tolerate free trade unions in Poland and the political and cultural pluralism such unions imply?
That the coup came as a surprise in the West was due to a failure of intelligence, but that so many arguments were adduced in the West to justify the coup was due to gullibility. It is pointless to discuss these arguments in detail. They were mostly wrong, yet they were widely believed. One day historians will point to the indisputable fact that whenever a dictator has come to power in this century, there has been a widespread tendency to give him the benefit of the doubt, to look for mitigating circumstances; Mussolini is an interesting example. It is also true that some in the West felt relief when the news of the coup was received. Poland was the “headache of the West,” as Roosevelt once called it in an unguarded moment, and General Jaruzelski had at last provided a cure.
All this may explain the Church-knows-best argument which was invoked at first as an excuse for doing nothing. The Church was indeed well-informed and it moved, in the beginning, with great, perhaps exaggerated, caution. But the Church always behaves more cautiously than sovereign states. Not only does it lack “divisions” in the form of political and economic clout; its main concern over the centuries has been to survive. When the Church, after a week or two, became more outspoken in its condemnation of the military regime, those who had used it as an alibi for inaction shifted their ground to a variety of other specious rationalizations.
Governments were about as confused as the media. There was silence not only from the European capitals but also so much caution and restrained statesmanship from Washington that the President and his chief aides received praise from unexpected quarters (like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times). In France, notwithstanding many brave words in the press, Foreign Minister Cheysson, when he was asked whether the French government had any intention of doing anything, answered, “Absolutely not.” Ironically, the German Bundestag was the first Western parliament to pass a resolution critical of the Polish coup.
After about a week the Reagan administration and most of the American media became more outspoken. But there were also not a few voices still insisting that while events in Poland were unfortunate, because they endangered détente and provided fresh ammunition to the hawks, order in Poland had after all somehow to be restored. If the status quo in Europe were upset and the Soviet Union lost control over Poland, the results could well be disastrous. Moreover, a dialogue with the Soviet leaders was now even more urgent than before.
Sometimes these arguments were made by men of the Left, occasionally by right-wingers; in West Germany young Socialists and big bankers found themselves on the same side of the barricades.
All this confusion in the West was perhaps to be expected. After all, for most Americans and even for many Europeans, Poland was a faraway country of which they knew little. But why did the coup take so many Poles by surprise, and why was hardly any resistance offered?
Solidarity had developed almost overnight into a movement of many millions; like a mighty river, it seemed to sweep everything along with it. It was not a political party and there was no apparatus, but there was an enormous amount of enthusiasm and of the volunteer spirit. As every practitioner and student of politics knows, however, good will cannot possibly replace organization. Of course even a much stronger organization might not have helped. The mighty German trade unions collapsed like a house of cards in 1933 in the face of the Nazi onslaught; so did the Social Democratic party and even the Communists, who had an illegal apparatus and were, in theory at least, ready to operate underground. In general, democratic mass movements do not have much of a chance against modern dictatorships. Thus even a well-prepared Solidarity would probably have been defeated. But it was not prepared.
The possibility of a Soviet intervention had been discussed in the non-legal Polish press in 1980 and it had been assumed that this was likely only if Poland were to leave the Warsaw Pact or if the Communist party disintegrated altogether. The leaders of Solidarity had no wish to provoke the Soviets and they thought, a little naively, that the Russians and the Polish Communist leadership were willing to accept the Solidarity concept of a new Poland: a division of power among the party, the free trade unions, and the Church. The working class of the West had compelled capitalism to make concessions, and the Poles believed that Communism too would make similar concessions under pressure. Intellectuals like Jacek Kuron, who only a few years earlier refused to give any credence to the possibility of gradual change under Communism, had concluded by 1980 that such a chance existed and that the attempt should be made to enlarge the sphere of freedom within a totalitarian society. They accepted that Poland was not a sovereign country, that all important decisions were taken in Moscow, and that this was the root of all evil. But a cautious optimism had been growing since about 1976. Some improvement could be achieved.
What if the Russians invaded? This was held to be quite unlikely, partly because of Afghanistan. In any case, no special preparations were necessary since the Soviets would encounter popular resistance, just as the Germans had in World War II. The possibility of a coup from within was apparently not seriously considered, though it was thought that there would be constant Soviet pressure on the Polish leadership to take a much tougher line. Thus, no one was prepared when the army struck on December 13, and in the very first hours of the state of siege almost the entire leadership of the opposition was arrested.
Solidarity overrated its own strength and gravely underrated the power of its adversaries. The union had flourished during the eighteen months before December 1981 because the Communist party was so demoralized that it had virtually ceased to exist as a force capable of running the country. But there were other forces waiting in the wings to fill the power vacuum: the hard core of party diehards, the secret police, and the army.
Solidarity (and most foreign observers) had tended to ignore or discount these forces: how could they possibly prevail over the great majority of their fellow citizens? The army was, after all, a people’s army. Most of the soldiers were recruits—flesh of the flesh of the working class and of the peasantry. Surely, they would not shoot at fellow Poles: Jaruzelski himself had said so. In any event, secret policemen could not milk cows, nor could tanks do the work in factories. The counterrevolutionaries knew it and for this reason, la mort dans I’âme, they would not even try.
These arguments underestimated the number of potential collaborators of the counterrevolutionary party, and they exaggerated the difficulties involved in destroying a popular movement and holding the population at bay, at least in the short run. There was a substantial array of collaborators: the 150,000 regular army officers and sergeants, along with 100,000 internal-security forces and other police agents and paramilitary troops who had been indoctrinated over the years and kept in isolation from the masses. These people had not been infected by the democratic virus; on the contrary, they had become even more firmly resolved to “put an end to anarchy.”
In addition, there was in Poland (as in every East European country) a sizable stratum of people who had served the old order more or less faithfully, who by no means believed in the official ideology but who had become so identified with the status quo that they had to fight for it in a crisis—fight for their jobs, for their survival. Like the party diehards, they had nowhere to go; they rightly assumed that in a free Poland there was no room for yesterday’s bosses, censors, propagandists, gendarmes, and torturers.
There were quite a few of these, and their ranks were swelled by thousands of others—the spostati, the flotsam-and-jetsam of all social groups, disappointed officials who now saw a chance for rapid promotion, lumpen intellectuals who resented their more gifted colleagues, the eternally discontented, the opportunists of every kind ready to throw in their lot with the likely victor, criminal and semi-criminal elements—the scum found at the margins of every society: all far more numerous than is usually believed.2
It does not follow from all this that the Polish freedom movement was doomed from the very beginning and that the members of Solidarity were mistaken in launching their struggle in the first place. Unless some courageous people are willing to risk their freedom and even their lives, no tyranny can ever be broken. Kuron was right when he wrote in his “Program for a New Poland” (1977) that successful resistance was possible in a totalitarian system. But he failed to see that the very success of the opposition was its undoing. The ruling group could afford only those concessions which would not endanger its hold; beyond this the totalitarian regime could not go, short of committing suicide. If Solidarity had won over the army command, it might have been able to resist Soviet pressure, but this was impossible. Thus one is back to the starting point: the only successful revolutions in the Communist bloc are those carried out from above, not from below, and the revolutions from above are not usually democratic in character.
Organizationally, the December coup was an outstanding success. The preparations went on for many months, and must have involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Yet the leaders of Solidarity, who were so sure that little that happened in Poland would escape them, had not the faintest inkling. The details of the preparation of the coup are as yet unknown, but it seems highly likely that the initiative came from the Soviet Politburo which had given up hope that the Polish party was capable of suppressing Solidarity, and that the task was assigned by the KGB to the Polish secret police and a small group of trusted Polish leaders like Olszowski and Jaruzelski.
Although the Kremlin does not like political soldiers, who may develop an appetite for power and even independence (faithful Stalinists like Mao, Tito, and Enver Hoxha developed just such an appetite after donning military uniforms), a military coup was from the point of view of the Soviets the best possible solution. Certainly it was far better for the Russians than having to do the job themselves. A direct Soviet invasion would have entailed much greater political costs in relations with the West. And whereas the Poles might resist Russian troops, it was thought that they would be most reluctant to resist their own officers and soldiers.
It was also relatively easy to equip the generals with an ideology of sorts. The main element was nationalism with the stress on collaboration for geopolitical reasons with the Soviet Union.3 Secondly, populism—attacks on the “rich” and “corrupt” from the relatively liberal Gierek era, against intellectuals (most of whom are by definition suspect), Jews, Freemasons, and so on. As for the Church, it was to be treated gently, at least in the early stage; its turn would come later on, for its power would have to be broken to prevent a recurrence of the events of 1980-81.
The pseudo-Jacobinism of the fight against corruption is, of course, fraudulent: the present leaders have committed the same abuses as those who now find themselves in the dock. But the basis of the new regime is not really to be sought in the ideological sphere; it is a matter of naked power. Once, Communism stood for the political mobilization of the masses; today the aim is depoliticization by atomizing society, by trying to incite workers against intellectuals and against peasants, by providing entertainment from football to alcohol (the rulers may not be able to provide panem but they can still offer circenses), and by creating the impression that the new regime is omnipresent and resistance therefore hopeless.
Just as Solidarity and many of its well-wishers abroad underestimated the strength of the forces ranged against it, so they underrated the power and effectiveness of even a moderately modern dictatorhip. Even the discredited czarist regime dominated Poland without much difficulty; but for the Russian collapse of 1917, there would have been no independent Poland. Supervision and political control in modern societies is far easier yet. A hundred years ago, a terrorist who wanted to plunge a town into darkness had to go from house to house and smash every single lamp. A contemporary terrorist merely has to blow out a fuse in the central energy supply plant to achieve his aim. What is true for terrorism from below is equally true for terrorism from above. The counterrevolution simply disconnected the telephones and banned intercity travel, thereby putting Solidarity back to 1863, whereas the junta still had at its disposal all the modern means of communication.
What of the future? The army, it has been said, may destroy free unions, but how will it make the peasants and the workers work? On this point too the difficulties are exaggerated. The present situation in Poland is certainly not conducive to establishing production records. But it is also true that the majority of the population will go on following its daily pursuits. Poles do not want to starve and they will do at least a necessary minimum of work. Passive resistance in the fields and factories will not bring the government down.
One need not invoke visions of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or of Orwell, with armed police stationed in the factories, to conclude that the near-term outlook for Poland is grim. And not only for Poland: the economic barometer all over Eastern Europe indicates bad weather—even Czechoslovakia with its factories which resemble museums, even East Germany, even Hungary, the showcase of the Eastern bloc, are experiencing negative growth for the third year in a row.
Has, then, the return to a more repressive policy, a Stalinism without Stalin, become inevitable all over Eastern Europe? It is difficult to imagine that the Soviet leaders or their East European representatives actually want such a policy. It would be an admission of bankruptcy, and, worse yet, it would lead, as it did in the past, to purges and repression inside the ranks of the party. However, Communist leaders may not be able to think of any other way to maintain control. Some of them are quite willing to try far-reaching economic concessions deviating from the classic Leninist pattern of economic organization. But in present circumstances even sensible economic reforms would not produce results in the foreseeable future. Neo-Stalinism will not improve economic performance either, but it will at least suppress manifestations of discontent.
Nevertheless neo-Stalinism is likely to fail for other reasons. In the early postwar period, during the heyday of Sovietization in Eastern Europe, there was terror, but there was also idealism and enthusiasm, especially among the younger generation and the intellectuals. The sacrifices were deemed necessary to build a better tomorrow. Now that the harvest has been reaped, a repeat performance can no longer count on popular support. Furthermore, a working class has come into being far more educated and politically sophisticated than the workers of 1950, who frequently were only a little removed from the village.
Under these conditions, the only effective appeal is to nationalism. Yet in a period of genuine conflicts of interest (for instance, over the allocation of resources), nationalism in Eastern Europe is bound to be anti-Soviet in character. Moreover, there is bound to be conflict within the Communist leadership: the military and the secret police will demand representation commensurate with their real importance as pillars of the regime. Failures will generate friction between individuals and groups, scapegoats will be needed every little while. Poor Eastern Europe, even its dictators cannot be envied.
In all these ways, in short, the Soviet system is producing the internal contradictions which will eventually destroy it (as Marx ironically predicted would happen to the capitalist system). But it still remains true that repression may work for years to come. The question then arises of what, in the meantime, the West can and should do.
It has been asked why so much fuss has been made about Poland. After all, it was clear from the beginning that nothing could be done to help the Poles anyway. Poland had become part of the Soviet sphere at Yalta and no force in the world could dislodge the Russians.
The argument that nothing can be done about Poland is a half-truth. That no one intends to launch a war over Poland in the nuclear age goes without saying; nor is there any way to restore full sovereignty to Poland. But it is also true that the Soviets (and the Polish neo-Stalinists) could be made to pay a high price, not to “punish” them but as a matter of Western self-preservation.
By all rules, the instigators and perpetrators of the Polish coup should be on the defensive, but instead of a crisis of the Soviet empire, we face a crisis of the Western alliance. The reason is the unwillingness to accept that support for Poland is not a moralistic-romantic gesture but a political necessity. To be sure, Poland is also a moral issue; it is, as Marx wrote to Engels in 1856, the “external thermometer,” the yardstick by which the “courage and vitality” of political movements can be measured. Marx, whatever his faults, was not a naive man. He knew that the Czar would not lose much sleep because so many anti-Russian resolutions were passed in Poland or because of poems like “And Freedom Shrieked as Kosciuszko Fell.” But he also knew that speaking out against the forces of despotism was as important for the West’s own self-respect as for the Polish cause. The idea that states, in contrast to individuals, have “interests not sentiments” is true. But it is true only of declining nations—small in size and of little faith.
What then can be done about Poland? Above all, the facts have to be made known to the Eastern European nations and the peoples of the Soviet Union. Communist strategy in Eastern Europe is to deny political information to the population, to make it docile through ignorance and apathy. It is precisely in these circumstances that Western broadcasting services could play an enormous role.4
Secondly, there is the issue of economic sanctions. The pro-Soviet-trade lobby in Washington has been arguing for a long time that all sanctions are ineffectual. In Europe the pro-Soviet trade lobby is afraid that sanctions are so effective that they will lead to war, and that the West on the contrary should be interested in enlarging its trade relations with the Soviet bloc, because a prosperous Soviet Union will be far more inclined to pursue a moderate policy at home and abroad.
Yet it is clearly beyond the capacity of the democracies to make the Soviet bloc a going economic concern, especially at the present time, when they themselves face difficulties at home. Even if it were possible, it is doubtful whether the political consequences would be as beneficial as we are told. It is more likely that a further influx of Western capital and know-how would be used for purposes detrimental to Western interests (as indeed has already been the case in connection with the Soviet military build-up). A Polish author, Stefan Kisiliewski, recently noted that many of those who advocate closer economic ties with the Soviet bloc could not care less about “moderation” in Poland (or elsewhere); they are interested in profits, not freedom. It is doubtful that the court of history will find Kisiliewski guilty of libel.
To be sure, there is some weight to the argument that sanctions do not work. Sanctions have worked against small countries or those lacking some essential raw materials. A very big economy like Comecon (the combined economies of the Soviet bloc) is much less vulnerable. For this reason, interference with normal trade relations is unlikely to have decisive political effects.
On the other hand, economic sanctions do have a certain impact in certain conditions. Even the post-Afghanistan grain embargo, which President Reagan called “ineffective,” hurt the Soviet Union: the Russians got less grain than they wanted and they had to pay at least a billion dollars more for what they got.
A grain embargo over a prolonged period would certainly affect the Soviet economy and would perhaps even compel the Soviet leaders to cut down defense spending. But such a step would probably have to involve compensation for U.S. farmers (even though they have been doing very well in other parts of the world—1980 and 1981 were record years). It would also involve a major political effort to influence Argentina, Canada, and Australia to follow the U.S. example, or at least to reduce their exports drastically. Whether the Reagan administration is willing to make the effort is another question.
Even more serious is the issue of credits. Western bankers have been pouring billions into the Comecon economies. They were told by their political advisers that there was really no risk since the East European system was very stable and if the worst came to the worst there was always the “Soviet umbrella.” They were not told that East Europe had become a drain on Soviet resources for the last fifteen years and that Western bankers, through their massive credits, were helping the Soviet Union to maintain its empire. One could take a more detached view of these harebrained credits if the damage were limited to those responsible. In actual fact, Western taxpayers, directly or indirectly, will have to foot the bill—not to mention the political costs.
Today all East European countries (including East Germany and Hungary) face major financial difficulties. Poland alone will need about $20 billion during the next few years; by 1985 the Comecon hard-currency debt will have risen (according to the Wharton forecast) to $125-140 billion. Poland is already unable to repay the principal and interest on its debt; other Comecon countries will reach this stage within a year or two. Yet the Soviet umbrella is nowhere to be seen. Soviet economic planners apparently assume that the Western banks now have such a heavy stake in Poland and other Comecon countries that they cannot allow them to collapse.
Lenin’s famous dictum about foreign capitalists being willing to do almost anything for profit, including supply the rope for their own hanging, is thus being taken one step further: now that there is no profit anymore and Comecon cannot afford even to pay for the rope, Western capitalists are evidently ready to give them the money with which to buy it. John Barry, an economic commentator, has noted that Italy was shut out of the Euromarket (i.e., forbidden further loans) when its debt-service ratio reached 10 percent; in the case of Eastern Europe, Western bankers went on lending even when the ratio reached 25 percent or even more. True, they shut out Poland from the medium-and long-term credit market when Solidarity appeared on the scene. Should they give General Jaruzelski what they refused to Lech Walesa?
Some say yes. They argue that unless the West pursues a more positive policy combining carrot with stick, it will have no influence whatsoever on events in Poland. Therefore it should express its willingness to reschedule the loans on condition that General Jaruzelski and the Communists reach a new “social contract” with the Polish people. The sentiments are as praiseworthy as the idea is foolish. For if such a social contract were possible there would have been no need for the military takeover in the first place.
Since the Soviet Union dominates Eastern Europe, there is no sound reason why it should not be forced to accept full financial responsibilty for the policies pursued under its aegis. If it is unwilling to do so, these economies should be allowed to collapse. Yet some of the banks are by now captives of their own mistakes and they are willing to pour good money after bad if only to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.
There remain two further issues—the “export” of high technology via various “fronts” in Europe, and the Soviet-European gas pipeline. The former ranges from initial-guidance technology and high-energy laser mirrors to state-of-the-art computers and software technology. The illegal transfer or theft of such technology has been a major scandal; it is a matter for the FBI rather than the Secretary of Commerce to deal with. As for the gas pipeline, it is a European rather than an American problem, though of course it affects the future of the alliance. For those in Europe who even today behave as if they no longer have full freedom of action will certainly show even greater caution once their dependence on Soviet supplies increases. An overall Western energy policy could do much to reduce Europe’s vulnerability, but there has been no advance at all in this direction for years. On the other hand, some European industries at present in difficulties hope that the natural-gas deal will provide work for a number of years. It is a shortsighted approach, since the deal will not solve any basic problems and will only postpone hard decisions.
If peaceful, gradual change in the Soviet empire were possible, it would certainly be in the interests of the West to assist in the process. But the main lesson of Poland seems to be that only through violent spasms will significant change occur. In view of this reality, Western gifts to the Soviet bloc are contrary not only to the interests of the West but to the interests of the people of Eastern Europe as well.
1 See, for a recent demonstration, a book not yet published in the U.S., Victor Rothwell's Britain and the Cold War, 1941-1947 (London, 1982), based on hitherto inaccessible or unused material.
2 It would be instructive to compare the political, social, and psychological composition of the collaborators in Poland with those of Vichy, or in countries like Norway, Holland, or Belgium during World War II. There are indeed some striking parallels between the new Warsaw and Vichy. The official newspaper Trybuna Ludu on January 4, 1982 came out with the call for “Order, Work, Discipline” (only Pétain's “Family” was missing). There were also the time-honored attacks on Zhido-Masonstvo (Judaic Masonry), a grotesque accusation in view of the fact that there are only a few thousand Jews and even fewer Freemasons in Poland today.
3 There is such a tradition in Poland dating back to the late 19th century. Dmowski was the pre-World War I ideologist of Polish nationalism, who in contrast to Pilsudski advocated an orientation toward Russia. It can be argued that sixty years later—after the Soviet invasion of 1939, the Katyn massacre, and many years of Soviet domination—this is no longer a realistic doctrine. And indeed even Russia's partisans in Poland, from the Natolin group onward, have sometimes hinted that they did not really mean what circumstances compelled them to say in public.
4 For an extended discussion of this point, see my article “Reagan & the Russians” in COMMENTARY, January 1982.