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Poland’s Counterrevolution: A Standard Narrative

A version of this article by Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz appeared as: “Poland’s Counterrevolution: A Standard Narrative,” a review of Andrzej Paczkowski’s Revolution and Counterrevolution in  Poland, 1980-1989: Solidarity, Martial Law, and the End of Communism in Europe (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015), The Sarmatian Review, vol. XXXVII, No. 1 (January 2017): pp. 2060-2064.

Revolution and Counterrevolution in PolandAndrzej Paczkowski’s serviceable monograph on Poland’s crisis in the early eighties, Wojna polsko-jaruzelska: Stan wojenny w Polsce, 13 XII 1981-22 VII 1983 (Warszawa: Prószyński i ska, 2006) has now been translated into English as Revolution and Counterrevolution in Poland, 1980-1989: Solidarity, Martial Law, and the End of Communism in Europe (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015). Whereas the original was a serious contribution to our understanding of the Communist state of emergency, the English-language version, in particular, the addendum, fails to transcend the platitudes about a “dialogue” between the moderates of the government, on the one hand, and Solidarity, on the other, and the putatively resulting victory of “democracy” in 1989.

The author tackles the subject matter in a straightforward chronological manner. First, he describes Poland on the eve of “Solidarity” as “the weakest link” of the Soviet Bloc which, therefore, was able to generate anti-Communism’s greatest mass national liberation movement, nearly 9 million people strong “Solidarity,” including perhaps a million party members. Next, he retraces the preparations for the crushing of the Polish freedom movement both in Moscow and Warsaw as well as the antecedent maneuvers in other “fraternal” countries of the Soviet Bloc and in the West. Then, Paczkowski focuses on failed Communist attempts to coopt and emasculate “Solidarity” (Operation “Renaissance”) by enlisting the assistance of the union’s leader, Lech Wałęsa. Martial law and red violence spawned an anti-Communist underground and a civil resistance. Mass movement transformed into a series of decentralized, clandestine organizations. It was non-violent for the most part, although a few hard core patriots resorted to active, even armed opposition.  However, though there were self-defense groups active during street demonstrations, the bulk of underground activity consisted of self-help operations, including a massive clandestine press endeavor.

A stalemate resulted.  The Communists were incapable of exterminating “Solidarity.” The latter failed to elucidate and execute any program that would bring victory either before or during martial law. For instance, the idea of a “self-governing republic” was “a utopia of sorts” (p. 20). This was mainly because of the Communist regime’s monopoly of force, but also because after martial law most Poles, frightened by the red display of sheer power, withdrew their active support from “Solidarity,” while denying it to the puppet government. Most accommodated with it rather realistically, and some cynically. Only stalwarts remained in the active opposition. Even though there were tens of thousands of them, they failed to overcome the totalitarian state (which, curiously, Paczkowski calls “authoritarian,” or “ideocratic authoritarianism,” p. 17, 20, 320). Around 1986 Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev intervened and encouraged Wojciech Jaruzelski to negotiate a “national concord” with leftist advisors to “Solidarity.” At a series of confidential Round Table talks, self-anointed progressive elite spoke for the national liberation movement and struck a deal with the Communists. Thus, deterministically, parliamentary democracy resulted in Poland. And the Soviet Bloc fell apart.

For the most part, in the core of his monograph, the historian is incisive, engaging, and realistic. He should particularly be praised for underscoring the capital significance of the Catholic Church as both a primary base of the anti-Communist resistance and the chief representative of “Solidarity,” nay, the Polish nation, before the red puppet regime in Warsaw (p. 80, 223-236). His unequivocal assessment of Pope John Paul II as cardinal catalyst for freedom must be greatly appreciated (p. 248-249). Yet, there are some serious bones to pick with Paczkowski’s narrative.

First of all, the author fails to define crucial terms he apparently takes for granted. What is revolution? And what is counterrevolution? (p. 148). This should have been explained in the introduction. Paczkowski writes about “the revolutionary spirit” in the Communist party reignited because of the crushing of “Solidarity” (p. 144). So were the Communists revolutionaries? Yet, elsewhere, it is plain that the author considers “Solidarity” to be “revolution” (p. 11, 283). However, he never really defines it so precisely. Was it a “revolution”? The author calls “Jaruzelski’s martial law… a self-limiting counter-revolution,” as a pun to Jadwiga Staniszki’s famous depiction of “Solidarity” as “self-limiting revolution” (p. 148). The historian sometime confuses the issue by freely quoting Communist sources, without an explanation, which label the Polish liberation movement as “counterrevolutionary” (p. 55, 131). As a matter of logic, it was.  Anyone who opposes Communism is counterrevolutionary and it should be viewed as a complement. “Solidarity” did not just aim to overthrow the existing order. It wanted to restore “normalcy” (niech będzie normalnie, as in “truthful history teaching” p. 19), that means the status quo ante, i.e., before the Soviet occupation and its imported revolution. Hence, “Solidarity” was counterrevolutionary par excellence.

Second, the chasm between the core part of the monograph and its peripheral addendum is stunningly jarring. Whereas the core is impressively researched (even if one does not need to agree with some of the interpretation provided), the addendum lacks depth. There are jarring lacunae in his methodology. For example, until the imposition of martial law in December 1981, Paczkowski virtually ignores the secret police and its agentura (p. 56, 141). When he does note its presence, the historian appears tacitly dismissive of its importance because of mass recruitment methods: “secret informers… were actually only of little operational value, if any” (p. 93).  Surely at least a few of the multitude recruited proved to be valuable. It is also condescending to the reader when Paczkowski pooh poohs the opinion of the head of the KGB mission in Warsaw General Vitalii Pavlov that “there were secret SB [Służba Bezpieczeństwa, secret police] informers ‘at all levels of Solidarity'” as “exaggerating greatly” (p. 140). It was no exaggeration. There certainly were. It is little wonder that Paczkowski’s treatment of Lech Wałęsa’s as TW Bolek (tajny współpracownik) is inadequate (p. 149-150).

This cavalier attitude toward the agentura is like ignoring the importance of spies and intelligence (Enigma anyone?), while narrating the history of the Second World War.  At any rate, after 1983, the neglect of the secret agents returns to an extent. Yet, while discussing the technicality of clandestine printing, Paczkowski is forced to admit that secret police informers were “numerous” but “that the SB consciously did not make uses of all the information it had at its disposal, nor its destructive powers” (p. 245). But then, after still well-scrutinized 1983, the work becomes a flaccid chronology rather than a trenchant analysis.

Third, the author at times promotes the myth that “Solidarity started the process of dismantling communism and saw it through to the end” (p. viii). That’s giving the movement too much credit. It was a major irritant but it lacked the capacity to destroy the Soviet system by itself. Later Paczkowski admits that “Solidarity” was incapable of winning in Poland. His most realistic appraisal is that “Solidarity” was a “contributing factor” to the end of the Cold War and that “without the events that occurred in the Soviet Union as a result of Gorbachev era reforms… the communist system in Poland probably would not have fallen when it did, nor in the way it did” (p. xii-xiii). But he still insists, sans proof, that without “Solidarity” Gorbachev would not have been forced to “change” the system. But the sources of glastnost’ and perestroika were internal Soviet, and not external Polish. Poland’s widespread pathologies were not crucial for the USSR in this calculus in the 1980s, just like North Korean widespread insanity is not cardinal for China now.

Further, Paczkowski’s leftist bias surfaces already when discussing the 1970s. The historian’s depiction of Poland’s “democratic opposition” as a moral force of up to 3,000 is quite accurate as we can attest from autopsy. Yet, to dub the post-Stalinist and neo-Trotskite Communist and leftist dissidents as “anti-totalitarian, anti-communist” is rather curious, if inaccurate. At that time, they were still busy fantasizing about reforming “real socialism,” and not about democracy and independence. They evolved to liberalism only in the late 1980s. Next, forgetting Kazimierz Świtoń, who created Poland’s first free trade union under Communism, is inexcusable.

On the other hand, Paczkowski’s landscape of the underground is very helpful, in particular its different hues. His thesis about discontinuity between legal and illegal “Solidarity” and other clandestine groups is debatable (p. 165). That new groups arose in secret is true enough but there was always a core of activists, usually in the leadership, who had had prior anti-communist experience. However, the author imparts the spirit of the secret world very well; one can only wish he was less dismissive of those of us who wanted to fight against the communists with arms in our hands. It is true that we were young and silly and potentially destructive. “Undoubtedly many members of the numerous youth groups dreamt of launching urban guerrilla warfare” (p. 181). The author is quite clear about this, even jeering as when he refers to “a bombastic name… the Armed Forces of the Polish Underground” (p. 166). What else would young people call themselves? Invoking the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet war and post war underground was genetically encoded for us. One wishes there was equal clarity in Paczkowski’s referring to the Communists as Communists instead of as “Polish forces” (p. 38). Sure, they were ethnic Poles, but they were at the same time anti-Polish forces like all colonial troops who are pitted against their own countrymen.

The historian argues also that Communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski (whose own early connections to the Soviet military intelligence and its Warsaw counterpart are once again curiously omitted, p. 74) introduced martial law under Soviet pressure but that was pretty much his decision and design. This is problematic. The idea that the Soviets, who wanted to invade initially, dismissed the idea of direct intervention totally and, instead, counted only on their Polish comrades requires further examination. In times of crisis in particular politics is always dynamics. There is never a done deal. The Red Army withdrew from Budapest in 1956 only to return a few days later. It was not a rouse; it was a change of mind. Likewise, in 1979, Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies vowed not to inject Soviet troops into Afghanistan and stressed that the Afghan reds would have to solve their crisis themselves. Yet, a few months later, Moscow intervened in force. Had Jaruzelski failed to execute his orders, Brezhnev would have stepped in most certainly. In this context, Paczkowski’s opinion rings rather bizarre that “after December 13, Moscow was more dependent on the martial law team than the Polish generals (and secretaries) were on Moscow” (p. 263).

The bulk of the author’s problems occur in the addendum, in particular while discussing the Round Table and its aftermath. His analysis of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev is rather week and so is that of the USA and the “transformations” in the Warsaw Pact countries. It is not much better regarding the tail end of “people’s” Poland. Here is where one cringes at Paczkowski’s alleged parity between party “hardliners” and “Solidarity” opponents of the Round Table (p. 292). Mocking the notion that there were “secret agreement” at Magdalenka because “a representative of the Episcopate always attended the meetings” is silly (p. 294). What about when he went to the bathroom, if we can allow ourselves a bit of levity too? There are certainly ways to arrive at confidential arrangements under any circumstances. And one marvels at the historian’s slick contortions as when he admits that “the opposition’s negotiators did not even try to propose holding a completely democratic elections [emphasis MJC]” (p. 294). Has anyone ever heard about an incompletely democratic elections? Or a partial pregnancy? Why not say that at the Round Table the leftist part of “Solidarity” leadership agreed to a falsified election? In this context, what does it mean that “some of the radical opposition groups had called for a boycott” of the rigged elections (p. 297)?

It is telling that in Poland in June 1989 pro-democracy groups were stigmatized as “radical.” In fact, a friend at the University of Poznań who publicly called for a free election was branded, of course, „a fascist.” To argue that because “Solidarity” was born in 1980 therefore freedom issued from the Round Table agreements in 1989 strains the imagination. It is a non-sequitur. I unveiled the secret of the transformation in my Intermarium (2012). Suffice it to say that, like Jaruzelski, Gorbachev wanted to save Communism and not destroy it.  However, the genie was out of the bottle, the Kremlin lost control, and the Soviet Bloc imploded. Without this the Round Table deal, as every “socialist renewal,” was eminently reversible. One wishes Paczkowski realized that.  

A word on the translation is in order. It is rather readable, although one wishes that Christina Manetti (“who coped admirably with my style, even though it can sometimes be rather Baroque, p. xiii”) eschewed, for the sake of clarity, copying the author’s ways too closely. For example, on occasion, Paczkowski embraces Communist semantics, as when he writes that the riot police “unblocked” an enterprise. In human language it means the reds broke a strike with violence during one of their “pacification” operations (p. 88). We do not write about “resettling the Jews in the East,” but, rather,  about the Holocaust.

There are a few technical confusions. E.g., should it be officers or officials of the MKS (p. 14)? To refer to Politburo members as “colleagues” and not comrades is rather awkward (p. 25). The proper name of this particular institution was “The Main Politial Directorate of the Polish People’s Army,” denoting that it was not a Polish military, but a Communist one. “Reasons for the judgement” at a court in English is a sentence or a sentencing brief (p. 107). To “verify (screen)” or “verified” should be technically to vet or vetted (p. 112, 114); bezpieczniki can be better translated as fuses and not “safety catches” (p. 272). To translate niedochodowa as “unremunerative” sounds unwieldy unlike unprofitable (p. 291). In the military a general does not have “a personal secretary,” and thus General Viktor I. Anoshkin was an aide de camp to Marshal Viktor G. Kulikov (p. 328 n. 2). There are also a couple of annoying typos, e.g., “wrecklessness,” instead of recklessness (p. 67), and it should be Darłówek, and not „Darłowko” (p. 99), Polmos and not Polmo (s. 110).

All in all, we should appreciate the core part of Paczkowski’s work, even as we take it with a pinch of salt to counter his liberal bias, while cheering him to bring the addendum up to a higher standard befitting a scholar of his stature.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 25 July 2016