1943: An Independent Communist Party in Occupied Poland?

In 1938 the Communist Party of Poland (Komunistyczna Partia Polski, KPP) was dissolved on Stalin’s orders. Around this time a number of Polish revolutionaries broke with Stalinism and came to the conclusion that a new communist party had to be created in its place. In 1943 they made the initial steps towards creating that party – although they failed, and never developed a coherent political alternative to Stalinism, their story represents an interesting episode in the difficult search for revolutionary perspectives, and the chronology of events mirrors the experience of our political ancestors, the Internationalist Communist Party, formed in Italy in 1943, likewise amidst Stalinist and Nazi terror.

Dissolution of the KPP

The Great Purges of the 1930s decimated some of the best elements of the Polish communist movement.(1) Those who were unlucky enough to reside at that time in the USSR (often because they fled from Poland, where communist activity was de facto illegal) met a tragic end in the prisons and gulags of the Stalinist regime. Repression touched both the leadership of the party as well as its rank and file, and even those loyal to the Stalinist clique. By 1937 thousands of Polish communists were dead, shot for so-called “anti-Soviet activities”. And, to drive the point home, in 1938, under unclear circumstances, the Comintern sent out a directive to completely dissolve the KPP on Stalin’s orders. The fact that the USSR, by that point a major imperialist player, already had bigger plans for Poland may explain the decision. On 23 August 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed by Nazi Germany and the USSR, and it included a secret protocol which divided Poland into German and Soviet “spheres of influence”. The existence of a communist party in Poland would have complicated matters for Stalin. This was only another manifestation of the fact that “socialism in one country” was all about the construction of a state capitalist entity capable of holding its own in the imperialist world order.

As such, those who survived the purges (often because they were instead stuck in Polish prisons), had to deal with the new realities. Rumours of massive repressions in the USSR slowly spread into Poland, but many did not believe them at first. After all, how could such a thing happen in Russia, the land of the October Revolution, of all places? Most chose to follow party discipline, ceased activity and awaited new orders from Moscow. Only a few chose to disobey — among them Teofil Głowacki and Leon Lipski.

Teofil Głowacki (1906-1971, born in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski) was from a young age active in socialist youth organisations, soon joining the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, PPS). In 1931, being sympathetic to the communists, he moved to the KPP. He was jailed a few times in the 1932-1935 period.

Leon Lipski (1902-1943, born in Zagłębie Dąbrowskie) took part in the movement of workers’ councils in Poland (1918-1919) while still a teenager. He joined the KPP around 1920. He became an important figure in the party, and was jailed multiple times for his activities (between 1919 and 1938 he spent seven years in total across different prisons).

When the instruction to dissolve the KPP reached Poland, Lipski was the only high ranking member who publicly objected. He could not accept the assertion that the party had been infiltrated by “a gang of spies and provocateurs”. In the final issue of Czerwony Sztandar (Red Banner) he published an article calling all party members to continue their political work as normal. The article did not include any critique of the USSR, but Lipski had disobeyed a direct order from the Comintern. For this, he was ostracised by his former comrades who had him reported to Soviet authorities. Lipski was now counted among the “provocateurs”.

After the German siege of Warsaw, like many others, Lipski fled east to Soviet-controlled Poland to escape the Nazis. There however he was arrested by the NKVD and placed in a prison in Minsk, where it is alleged he met Głowacki. Soon the two came to the conclusion that a new communist party had to be created, that it could be recruited from within the ranks of the dissolved KPP and the left of the PPS. The new party was to be independent of both the Polish government-in-exile and the Comintern (controlled as it was by the Stalinist regime) — a party ready for a potential revolutionary outbreak in the aftermath of the war. When war between the USSR and Nazi Germany broke out in 1941, the inmates of the Minsk prison were to be evacuated and transported to a gulag within Russia. However, during the evacuation Lipski and Głowacki managed to escape and instead went West again, towards Warsaw. There they hoped to realise their plan. To this end, in 1942 Głowacki with help from Lipski started Lewą Marsz (Left March, after Mayakovsky’s famous poem), a socio-literary magazine which under the guise of cultural critique began attracting sympathisers. Or at least so the story goes — historical sources are contradictory about the relationship between Głowacki and Lipski, and to what degree the latter was involved with Lewą Marsz and its political line (some allege they were close comrades, others that Lipski only provided printing materials, and some, like Głowacki’s autobiography, don’t mention Lipski at all). Nevertheless, both Głowacki and Lipski were now in Warsaw, and Lewą Marsz was published from mid-1942.

Political Forces in Occupied Poland

The occupation of Poland did not totally destroy the political life of the country, but simply pushed it underground. Many pre-war parties and organisations of both the left and the right went clandestine, and reorganised themselves behind the backs of the occupiers, often in military fashion. Most eventually joined forces with one of the big political centres — either the London-aligned Polish Underground State with its Home Army or the Moscow-aligned State National Council with its People's Army.

The PPS was the biggest force claiming the socialist label. It was a party with a long history — founded in 1892, it took part in the 1905 revolution and helped to win Polish independence in 1918, its ex-member Józef Piłsudski becoming the main political figure of inter-war Poland and its military dictator after a coup in 1926. As opposed to the internationalist Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy, SDKPiL), the PPS represented the social-patriotic current of the workers’ movement, that is, it put national independence before the immediate struggle for socialism. Upon its transformation into a clandestine organisation with its own armed wing in 1939, when it became Freedom, Equality, Independence (Wolność Równość, Niepodległość, PPS-WRN), many on the left of the party, as well as all those deemed unreliable, were excluded from the process and de facto expelled. The purged party, along with the Stronnictwo Ludowe (agrarian populists), the Stronnictwo Narodowe (nationalists), and the Stronnictwo Pracy (Christian democrats), made up the Polish government-in-exile, based in London and part of the Allies. The Polish Underground State, which was its representative in occupied Poland, had its own armed wing, the Union of Armed Struggle, created in 1939 and in 1942 reorganised into the Home Army, an anti-Nazi umbrella uniting anyone who “pledged allegiance to the Fatherland”, be they democrats, nationalists or syndicalists.

The other force was the scattered and disorganised remains of the KPP. Some joined the volunteer brigades set up by the PPS to help defend Warsaw from the Nazi invasion.(2) Some set up smaller groups out of the KPP milieu which, without directives from the Comintern, came up with different positions on the war but remained politically chained to Stalinism. In 1941, following the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany, the Stalinist regime had use for its Polish supporters once again, and a number of militants and agents were parachuted in from Russia to occupied Poland with the aim of creating a new Moscow aligned party. By 1942 this Initiative Group managed to unite many of these local groups to set up the Polish Workers' Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza, PPR). This was to be the arm of Moscow in Poland, tasked with working towards the creation of a “people’s republic”. Like with the KPP before it however, the PPR was from the beginning plagued by internal power struggles and slightly differing attitudes towards Moscow (which partially explains the various subsequent intrigues, executions, and purges within the party — see for example the mysterious death of Marceli Nowotko, or the later expulsion and imprisonment of Władysław Gomułka).

In the brutal conditions of the occupation, only a few organisations tried to chart a more independent course. Stanisław Dubois, a popular PPS member since 1918, was one of those left out of the PPS-WRN. Around October 1939 he, along with the brothers Jagiełło and members of pre-war socialist youth groups and red scouts set up their own organisation — Barykada Wolności (Barricade of Freedom). Rallied around a newspaper of the same name, it denied the PPS-WRN the right to exclusively represent the socialist movement. The group was hindered by political divisions, with some soon re-joining the right of the PPS, and some joining the ex-KPP groups. But those who remained in Barykada Wolności, and wished to still remain independent of both the PPS-WRN and PPR, reorganised themselves in September 1941 to form the group Polscy Socjaliści (Polish Socialists) with their own militia.(3) Other groups which were at least to some degree independent of the PPS and PPR included the national-syndicalists of Związek Syndykalistów Polskich (Union of Polish Syndicalists) and the anarchists of Syndykalistyczna Organizacja „Wolność” (Syndicalist Organisation “Freedom”) as well as the Jewish socialists of the Bund and left Zionists in groups like Poalej Syjon (the latter two, together with elements of the PPR and other Jewish groups, would later join up in the Jewish Combat Organisation, which would play a key role in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). In practice, all would eventually align themselves either with London or Moscow.

Towards a New Workers’ Party?

Internationalist communist tendencies in 1940s Poland were weak or non-existent — the left communists of the 1920s who could have provided alternative political perspectives, like Grzech and Domski, failed to regroup following their expulsion from the official communist movement and perished in the purges.(4) As such, Głowacki and Lipski searched for a solution in what was familiar. On the pages of Lewą Marsz Głowacki drew a balance sheet of the political traditions of the SDKPiL and the PPS, and the failures of the KPP. This was no easy task. The party which had provided them with a political education for the past twenty years had suddenly ceased to exist, so Polish communists were groping in the dark.

The conclusion Głowacki and Lewą Marsz arrived at however was to form a new party which would once and for all find a middle ground between the struggle for socialism and for national independence — “in the fight for independence and socialism the masses of workers should be led by a revolutionary socialist party that is theoretically strong, organisationally solid, hardened in battle, and independent of factors both internal and external”. No group has ever solved this contradiction in a way that satisfies both aims, and as history shows, sooner or later one or the other aspiration must be discarded. Furthermore, while they recognised the Comintern had become a tool for the realisation of Russian state interests, they applauded the very policies which were an expression of those interests: the political formula of the “workers’ and peasants’ government” and the tactic of the united and even popular front, which according to them “corresponded to Polish conditions” and “brought great results for the KPP”. They dismissed Domski’s opposition to these policies as ultra-leftism. In other words, while wanting to break out of the confines of the PPS and the PPR, they at the same time reproduced many of their errors (later we’ll see how, despite their political evolution, those mistakes spelled their doom).

In order to find the new cadres, Głowacki looked for sympathetic elements among the left-socialists(5) of the PPS, while Lipski searched among the scattered communists of the dissolved KPP. Głowacki was more successful, though not in the way he expected. He joined the Polscy Socjaliści, which he intended to split, but the split occurred along different lines — by March 1943 the right wing majority of the Polscy Socjaliści decided to re-join the PPS-WRN, and took with it most of the militia. Instead of splitting the Polscy Socjaliści himself, Głowacki was in fact now one of the leading members of what remained of them. Lipski was less fortunate. Already under supervision of Stalinist spies, for publicly opposing the dissolution of the KPP back in 1938 and for allegedly helping to publish the journal Lewą Marsz, he was now added to their hit-list for trying to propagandise among the PPR rank and file. On 21 June 1943 he was shot by “unknown assailants” on his way to work. The order came from the very top of the PPR, from its First Secretary Paweł Finder, and possibly even from Moscow itself.(6) Whether Lipski was truly on board with Głowacki’s project, or whether this was simply another rumour spread to justify his murder by Stalinists, we’ll likely never know.

In any case, Głowacki now decided to make Polscy Socjaliści the revolutionary party he wished to see.

Robotnicza Partia Polskich Socjalistów / PPS-Lewica

Głowacki’s efforts soon seemingly paid off. At the Second Congress of the Polscy Socjaliści (April 1943), following all the splits, the remains of the group adopted a new political approach and agreed to change their name to the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists (Robotnicza Partia Polskich Socjalistów, RPPS). At the time, the RPPS had some 2,000 members and a partisan force which numbered a few hundred combatants.(7) At the Third Congress (September 1943), Głowacki, along with the likes of Jan Mulak, Piotr Gajewski and Stanisław Rogens were elected to the central committee (from which Edward Osóbka-Morawski, who advocated collaboration with the Stalinist forces, was now excluded). The political perspectives of the RPPS briefly took a more internationalist turn.

Here it’s worth summarising the decisions of the congress as reported on the pages of the RPPS paper Robotnik (The Worker). The party declared its opposition to both Anglo-American and Soviet occupation. It recognised that, if in the course of the war the Anglo-Americans were to come to a compromise with the USSR, then Poland would become a bargaining chip in the new imperialist re-division of the world — the only thing that could upset that scenario would be socialist revolution in Europe. Writing in September 1943, the RPPS was particularly inspired by the strikes and demonstrations taking place in Italy and put its hopes in the emergence of a revolutionary movement in Germany. In Poland, the RPPS recognised three distinct political camps: 1) the party of reaction, in the form of Christian and national democrats, agrarian populists and the PPS-WRN, backed by the Home Army, 2) the party of the Polish proletariat, in the form of the RPPS, 3) the party of Soviet influence upon the Polish proletariat, in the form of the PPR. The RPPS believed itself to be the “only movement to count on the revolutionary forces of workers and peasants themselves”, and stood in the conviction that “the Polish proletariat, based on the European proletariat, will deal with its own bourgeoisie”. To that end, it called for the creation of workers’ and peasants’ committees as organs of socialist rule, which would unite workers across political tendencies, take over workplaces and land from the bourgeois state, capitalists and landlords (or, in the context of the occupation, prevent workplaces from falling back into the hands of the native bourgeoisie after the retreat of the occupiers). These committees (essentially workers’ councils or soviets) would constitute the local government and would choose delegates for an All-Polish Committee of Workers’ and Peasants’ Delegates. As they wrote:

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees are the historically proven, most convenient, democratic and direct form of exercising power by the working class and, at the same time, an organ of control over the Workers' and Peasants' Government which emerges as a result of the revolution.

At the time, the PPR, through its publications such as the Trybuna Wolności (Tribune of Freedom), alleged that the Third Congress signified the RPPS had turned towards Trotskyism. Of course most Trotskyists during the war defended the USSR as a “degenerated workers' state” and celebrated the advance of “Trotsky's Red Army”, so in reality the RPPS, by opposing Soviet occupation and understanding that the USSR would play a key role in the imperialist division of post-war Europe, went a step further (that said, the assumption that the USSR, which they did not outright identify as imperialist, would tolerate the existence of some independent “Polish Socialist Republic” that would instead join a “Socialist Federation of Western Europe”, can be described as nothing less than naive).

Towards the end of 1943, political divisions in the RPPS reached a boiling point. The left-socialist current in the organisation gradually became weaker, particularly when its leader, Stanisław Chudoba, was shot by the Gestapo. Meanwhile, the current around Morawski, ignoring party directives, began discussions with the PPR. The PPR, looking to challenge the Polish government-in-exile, set about forming an incumbent popular government, the State National Council. Morawski’s faction agreed to join the State National Council, for which they were expelled from the RPPS. Morawski however did not want to give up the RPPS name so between December 1943 and May 1944 there existed two RPPSs in Poland: one associated with Morawski, in alliance with the PPR, and one associated with Głowacki, which still tried to chart an independent course.

It might seem that Głowacki’s RPPS was now well placed to develop towards internationalist perspectives, but in fact the opposite happened. While the RPPS considered itself the only party to truly represent the interests of the Polish proletariat as opposed to the PPS or the PPR, it still wished to form the mythical popular front which would carry out a democratic revolution against the Nazi occupation. And it did so through military alliances. In April 1943 Głowacki’s RPPS helped to set up the Polish People’s Army (Polska Armia Ludowa, PAL), a military organisation formed by uniting the RPPS militia with a number of other underground partisan groups that refused to join the Home Army or the Stalinists. The RPPS welcomed the creation of the PAL as the “armed forces of the Polish working people, whose aim is to fight for an Independent Poland and the social liberation of the Polish masses”. By November 1943, the PAL officially became the armed wing of a popular front coalition called the Consolidation of Democratic and Socialist Parties (Zjednoczenie Stronnictw Demokratycznych i Socjalistycznych, ZSDS) which, while calling for land reform and the “socialisation of all the major industrial and commercial enterprises”, stated that its “most important task is the struggle for Polish independence”. In February 1944, the ZSDS was further expanded and converted into the Centralisation of Democratic, Socialist and Syndicalist Parties (Centralizacja Stronnictw Demokratycznych, Socjalistycznych i Syndykalistycznych, CSDSS) which, as the name implies, came to unite various democratic, socialist, and syndicalist groupings. Its aim was the formation of a left-wing government, independent of both the Polish government-in-exile and the USSR, and Głowacki became its general secretary. Through its new military alliances, the RPPS quickly abandoned the aim of socialist revolution and of being the “only movement to count on the revolutionary forces of workers and peasants themselves”. The notion of worldwide socialist revolution dissolved in the nationalist and anti-fascist programme of setting up an independent democratic Polish state first. As such, the Third Congress was to be more of an anomaly, rather than a new beginning.

The reasons for this were obvious. Głowacki’s politics were always a mix of two conflicting currents which he sought to unite: the internationalist one of proletarian independence, and the nationalist one of national independence. His left-socialist baggage, which ultimately sees the proletarian party as one of government rather than one of revolution, made it all the easier for the RPPS to prioritise national liberation when material conditions for revolution seemed distant. In January 1944 a member of the RPPS, Alfred Przybój-Jarecki, went to the industrial parts of Germany to survey the strength of its revolutionary forces. His report made it clear that the situation in Germany was miserable, that the working class there remains powerless and under the watchful eye of a police state. So by 1944 the internationalist argument within the RPPS lost its basis — if European wide socialist revolution was no longer on the agenda, only the democratic struggle for the liberation of Poland seemed viable for the moment. To this end, the RPPS turned its attention to uniting democratic forces in Poland, in effect relegating the struggle for socialism to the future, just like the original PPS did in the past. If the military forces of the PPS-WRN (allied with the West) and the PPR (allied with the East) were growing, and if Głowacki’s RPPS, which had no backing from the outside, wanted to compete with other political tendencies for government power, it had to find allies somewhere within Poland.

In May 1944 Morawski organised the Fourth Congress of the RPPS (May 1944) which condemned the decisions of the Third Congress as “pseudo-revolutionary phraseology” and of course excluded Głowacki and his section of the RPPS. That same month, the PPS-WRN reverted back to its original name, the PPS. In response to both events, Głowacki’s RPPS changed its name to PPS-Lewica in June 1944, harking back to the historical organisations of the left-socialist wing of the PPS in years 1906-1918 and 1926–1931. As such, there was now the PPS, the PPR (with the support of Morawski’s RPPS), and Głowacki’s PPS-Lewica.

On 1 August the Warsaw Uprising broke out.

Warsaw Uprising

By 1944 workers in Poland were ready for change. Radical moods spread in the cities and workplaces terrorised by the Nazi occupation. Most political groups, including the underground Polish state, knew that serious social change would have to take place after the war was over, that the Second Polish Republic (1918–1939) was not coming back. But which political formation would stand at the front of these changes? The Polish government-in-exile was worried the USSR and the PPR were taking the initiative. On 21 July 1944, the PPR-led State National Council set up the Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego, PKWN). The PKWN, with Morawski now among its leading members, proclaimed a manifesto which promised land and social reform. At the same time, General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski sent a message to the Polish government-in-exile in London that quick action had to be taken to “take away the Soviet’s initiative for social reform”, that the Polish government-in-exile had to introduce legislation that would inspire full confidence “among the broad masses of villages and towns”.

On 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising, planned in secret by the Polish government-in-exile to pre-empt the arrival of the Red Army, broke out. The Polish Underground State announced its own programme, which promised political equality and social justice, land reform and socialisation of industry, and acceptance of factory committees as a form of workplace democracy. It was a clear attempt to one-up the PKWN. In 1953 Bordiga would write:

[The Polish proletariat] which in 1905 held their own against the Czarist troops ... rose up during the Second World War in a desperate attempt to take power in the martyred capital against the German and Russian General Staffs, ending up just like the communards of Paris, who fell in the crossfire of their enemies.

Bordiga, 1953

The Warsaw Uprising, following years of brutal occupation, received a degree of popular support, which at times gave it a spontaneous form. But Bordiga's characterisation of it as “proletarian” and resembling the communards is inaccurate. While certainly heroic, the uprising was led by the Home Army and comprised of groups representing all political tendencies and classes. Unlike the Paris Commune, no independent working class organs were created in the process. In fact, the working class was distrusted by partisan leadership and used as cannon fodder for the political manoeuvres between imperialist interests.

Many different political formations took part in the uprising from across the political spectrum. Out of those claiming the socialist label, the PPS, the RPPS, the PPS-Lewica, the PPR, the national-syndicalists and anarchists all played a role. In the course of the uprising, Głowacki’s PPS-Lewica and the PAL took a small but active role in the fighting and began to collaborate with different groups, even including the Home Army, the PPR, Morawski’s RPPS, as well as agrarian populists. On 26 September 1944, PPS-Lewica joined the Powstańcze Porozumienie Demokratyczne (Insurgent Democratic Agreement), together with the PPR, RPPS, national-syndicalists and anarchists, the Bund, and a number of other groups which accepted the terms of the PKWN (to his credit, Głowacki himself did not take part in the discussions leading up to the agreement). At one point Jerzy Walter-Jeżewski, another member of the PPS-Lewica, came up with a plan for a “revolutionary transformation of the uprising” by setting up “committees of the poor” (made up of those most affected by the uprising). Jeżewski and some other PPS-Lewica members managed to create a few of these committees, but as more and more of the civilian population fled Warsaw, this desperate plan was abandoned. In the end, lasting for over two months (despite the original plan to hold out for just a few days), the uprising nevertheless failed, the rebels were decimated (including the PPS-Lewica and the PAL) and the Nazis began the wholesale destruction of the city. Whether the Red Army was unwilling or unable to cross the Vistula in numbers is a question hotly debated by Russian and Polish nationalists. What is true is that the Red Army did not enter Warsaw until January 1945, by which point there was little left. Stalin and his forces came out victorious, and only organisations which fitted his vision for Poland were strengthened on the back of the Red Army: the PPR, which would assume power, and a reformed PPS (now purged of its London-aligned leadership), which would give the new government a democratic veneer. Others were dealt with by the NKVD.

In June 1945 the Provisional Government of National Unity, a coalition government led by the PPR, whose Prime Minister became Morawski (formerly of the RPPS, now in the reconstructed PPS), came to power under the watchful eye of Stalin and was officially recognised by the West. Between 1944 and 1948, the new government restructured the political system in Poland, nationalised industry, divided the land, reformed healthcare and education. There was armed resistance from elements of the Home Army and right wing militias, which in some regions resembled a civil war. At the same time, mass expulsions of Germans as well as forced resettlement of Poles, Belarusians, and Ukrainians took place and borders were changed, which meant that, for the first time in history, an ethnically homogeneous Poland was created (Polish Jews already having been exterminated during the Holocaust).

However, as the end of the war was approaching, another social force came into the picture.

A Workers’ Revolution?

Between 1944 and 1947 the working class movement in Poland underwent a revival. Trade unions and cooperatives were being clandestinely re-organised and, more significantly, awaiting a German retreat, workers began to secretly prepare for the takeover of factories and workplaces by setting up underground councils and committees. Some gathered arms to defend their workplaces from sabotage, theft and the eventual comeback of their native Polish capitalists. The question now was, what role would these potential organs of workers’ power really play? Would the councils and committees simply share power with a new capitalist government until they were not needed any more, or would they organise to take power directly into the hands of the working class? All was up in the air. Głowacki and his group, who envisaged just such a post-war scenario, would not have any influence over these events.

In the ashes of a country devastated by war and occupation, state structures had to be re-built. Factory councils and committees formed all over Poland, mirroring the situation after the First World War, and could briefly exist in that power vacuum. In the 1945-1948 period there were almost a thousand documented strikes, the great majority around economic demands (over wages, provisions, bonuses that were too low or quotas that were too high).(8) The usual route for resolving these would be negotiation (striking workers on one side, trade unions, management and party members on the other), or new elections to factory councils, if that didn’t work, the PPR and the PPS would mobilise members to scab, strikers could be sacked or arrested, or, in rare cases, dispersed by guns. However, to some degree the PPR, which grew to more than 1 million members, tried to ride that wave. Local party cells would sometimes call strikes themselves, for example against re-privatisation. Workplaces taken over by workers were nationalised to legitimise the act. National councils were set up as local forms of government, which included representatives from various factory committees and councils, workers’ militias, trade unions, parties and cooperatives. In the eyes of many rank and file PPR activists, who at times did show independent initiative from the party's Central Bureau in Moscow, these national councils were to fulfil the same role as soviets did in Russia. Meanwhile, the factory committees would “become the basis of people’s power in the factories and workplaces, [and] finally return production to its rightful owner — the worker” — as one PPR district committee put it.

These aspirations were sometimes reflected in official PPR propaganda. But the soviets in 1917 were created by workers and their organisations as part of a revolutionary wave, and chose to centralise and send delegates to a newly formed central body, the Congress of Soviets. The national councils in Poland worked the opposite way. The State National Council, which held both legislative and executive powers, was formed on the night of 31 December 1943 and the first national councils only started appearing over the next few months. A central body, destined to become the new government, existed before any local organs. And while the idea of national councils proved popular, and workers went about setting them up, from the beginning they were designed to be sidelined. Real power was in the hands of the State National Council, the councils simply gave legitimacy to the new state institution. Where representation for factory committees was allowed, it was with the intention to recuperate them. Another issue was the social and political composition of the national councils. These organs, as the name implied, were meant to represent the whole nation and not just the revolutionary working class. Their stated aim was to "rebuild the emerging Polish State", not realise workers’ power. And while at first they included members of multiple parties and groups, even including the Home Army, the PPR soon came to dominate them, often through questionable methods. Even at factory level, the days of councils and committees were likewise numbered, when in May 1945 the new minister of industry and commerce, Hilary Minc, announced the new course:

In the period of the country's liberation, collective bodies were created as a form of enterprise management … This form was appropriate during the period of securing and taking over enterprises, but is no longer appropriate at present … As soon as possible we need to transition in an organised way from the current management forms to a management that is permanent and fully responsible for the fate of the enterprises.

Stalinism proper arrived in Poland in 1948. Under directives from Russia, the PPS was merged into the PPR to form the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, PZPR). Under the pretext of democratisation and getting rid of class enemies, the new party, the trade unions and the cooperatives were purged of all suspect elements. Even Morawski was dismissed from his government post in 1949. Stalinist terror was fully unleashed, with arrests, executions, and spying on the populace. Independent politics, culture and organisations, even those of the workers, were actively combatted. Party, State and Nation became the order of the day. All management positions were taken over by the party bureaucracy. Strikes were no longer tolerated. Labour discipline and competition was brought back into workplaces. Factory councils and committees were suppressed or made completely powerless, becoming empty shells to realise party policy (like labour competition) or simply transformed into the lowest rungs of the trade unions. With that, workers lost their voice. The PZPR now had exclusive control over the trade unions, factory committees, national councils, workers’ militias and even other parties. So after 1948 the only real chance of partaking in political life was to be a member of the PZPR. All other tendencies active in the cooperative movement or workers’ committees — anarchists, syndicalists, left-socialists — were suppressed. Although much of Poland was still in ruins, the state did manage to rebuild the economy and infrastructure of the country. But it wasn't on any communist basis — money, commodity exchange, classes, borders, the army, and the state were all still intact. Despite some of its rhetoric, which made the party so appealing to hundreds of thousands of workers and motivated them to take part in reconstruction, the programme of the PZPR was one of state capitalism. The party became the state and controlled all aspects of life. And it buried the movement which it claimed to represent.


At the moment when a real alternative within the workers’ councils and committees was most needed, when the working class could have challenged all factions of the ruling class, an independent and internationalist party of the proletariat was missing. The PPS-Lewica was decimated by its decision to take part in the Warsaw Uprising, and dissolved at the beginning of 1945. Those who survived the war and remained politically active, like Głowacki, simply entered the reformed PPS, giving up all their former aspirations, only to be then expelled in 1948. After his expulsion, Głowacki was arrested in 1949, tortured and forced to make false statements (although it is said he resisted well). He didn’t leave prison until 1955. Following Stalin’s death, and the period of temporary “liberalisation”, he served as a member of parliament in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, leaving his revolutionary past behind.

Despite the lack of political organisations, class struggle did not stop in Poland. A workers’ insurrection took place in Poznań in 1956, and workers’ councils made a comeback. The party bureaucracy had to give in to some of the demands of the movement, but soon the workers’ councils were again suppressed. The dreams of the Polish October turned out to be short-lived and it wasn’t until the ‘60s that a new generation of communists, betrayed by the empty promises of 1956, began to question the system from a Marxist standpoint again, starting anew.(9) With each new wave of class struggles prompted by economic and political crises of the Polish regime (1944, 1956, 1971, 1976, 1981) working class self-organisation would come back to haunt the state in which workers supposedly had a “leading role”.(10) In each case however, the subjective factor — a revolutionary political organisation — was always missing. This was a task which at one time revolutionaries in Poland dedicated themselves to in the harshest of conditions, amidst Nazi and Stalinist terror. But, in the crises to come, it is up to internationalist communists today to complete that task on a much firmer political basis.


October 2020

(1) On the history of the KPP see: A Brief History of the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland

(2) Robotnicza Brygada Obrony Warszawy (Workers' Brigade of the Defence of Warsaw) comprised some 6,000 workers and at first carried out only supportive duties. To the dismay of many workers, the brigade was poorly armed (only given proper access to weapons a day before capitulation). When news of capitulation spread, and the Polish government was evacuated, workers felt so betrayed that during an impromptu demonstration they were ready to lynch their officers and only an intervention by Marian Kenig, a PPS member of high standing, prevented it.

(3) Polscy Socjaliści even had a presence in the Warsaw Ghetto of some 40 members, before arrests and killings put an end to their activity. There they published a separate bulletin in addition to their main publications and organised military training.

(4) On Grzech and Domski see: Who were the Grzechists?, Grzech and Domski at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (1922) and Domski on the Polish-Soviet War (1920).

(5) By left-socialist we refer here to those who in the ‘20s and ‘30s oscillated between the Second International and the Third International. The most notable examples are the USPD in Germany, the ILP in Britain and the POUM in Spain.

(6) In 1963 Lipski was “rehabilitated” by the Polish government. His death resembles that of the murders of Fausto Atti and Mario Acquaviva by Stalinist hatchetmen. (See: The Murders of Fausto Atti and Mario Acquaviva) To add to the tragedy, a few years prior, Lipski’s brothers, Ludwik and Antoni, both communists, were murdered during the purges in the USSR (it is unknown whether he ever found out what happened to them).

(7) In comparison, in 1942 the PPS-WRN had 10,000 members, while the PPR some 4,000 members, but, unlike the RPPS, in the following months both grew at a much faster rate.

(8) Solidarity strikes, with workers repressed in the same or other factories, also took place – the biggest of those happened in Łódź, an industrial city, when 30,000 workers walked out over a rumour that a PPR member had shot striking women workers. Some strikes did have reactionary character however — also in Łódź, following a pogrom in Kielce in July 1946 in which around 40 Jews were killed, workers took strike action after a fake condemnation of the pogrom supposedly agreed by the workers was published in the papers, in the course of events some workers even raised the demand to free those accused of carrying out the pogrom.

(9) Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski wrote a scathing Open Letter, addressed to the rank and file of the PZPR, which questioned the communist character of the party and state, and called for a new movement of workers' councils and a new communist party. (See marxists.org) However, just like Głowacki and Lipski before them, Kuroń and Modzelewski never managed to create a revolutionary organisation, and, by the time of the next workers’ upsurge, had abandoned Marxism altogether.

(10) See Solidarność: Trade Unionism or Self-Organisation? and the pamphlet The Year 1956.

Saturday, October 17, 2020