Poland: 50th anniversary of the workers uprising on the Baltic coast

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the December 1970 workers’ protests against Poland’s Stalinist regime and the bloody massacre known as “Black Thursday”.

Paul Newberry, Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (ISA Poland)

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the December 1970 workers’ protests against Poland’s Stalinist regime and the bloody massacre known as “Black Thursday”. Sparked by food and fuel price hikes, the strikes and mass protests quickly turned into a mass workers’ revolt, spreading along the Baltic coast cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, Szczecin and Elbląg and gaining support among the miners as well as workers in Wrocław, Warsaw and other cities.

The December events are an amazing example of the speed and potential that existed for the political revolution in the Stalinist states. What initially started as protests around economic demands developed within days into a workers’ uprising aimed at challenging the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, it should be stressed that at the same time not one demand appeared calling for the restoration of capitalism.

Nevertheless, in panic, and fearing a full-blown working-class uprising with the potential to overthrow the ruling bureaucracy, the regime sent in the tanks and drowned the revolt in blood. During the revolt, 19 government buildings were set on fire, including the buildings of the ruling party in Gdańsk and Szczecin. As a result of street fighting 10 tanks, 18 armoured vehicles, 7 military cars and 51 militia (police) cars were destroyed. Protesters were shot at by soldiers with machine guns, shot at from helicopters, and run over by tanks. According to official figures, 45 people were killed and 1,165 were injured. However, estimates of the real scale of the tragedy range from a hundred to hundreds of deaths.

Formation of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe

The Stalinist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Red Army stepped into the void created by the retreat of the Nazis from the occupied territories. Initially creating popular front type governments with the “shadow of the bourgeoisie” — with liberal, “radical”, socialist and peasant parties — the Communist Parties reserved for themselves control of the repressive organs of the state in order to suppress any independent movements of workers. However, soon the logic of the situation forced them to liquidate landlordism and capitalism and establish regimes in the region in the image of Stalinist Russia. These were grotesque distortions of socialism from the outset — instead of a workers’ government based on democratic workers’ councils or soviets, a Stalinist bureaucracy ruled with the iron fist of dictatorship.

Nevertheless, based on a planned, nationalized economy, and with the enthusiastic sacrifice of workers, who were eager to rebuild their countries after the destruction of the Second World War, these regimes initially enjoyed rapid economic growth. This was a period of extensive economic growth — of increasing the quantity of inputs (labour and raw materials) in order to increase the quantity of output. Peasants were recruited into the ranks of the working class and new factories and housing were built, such as Nowa Huta — a model working-class town and massive steel plant built from scratch on the edge of Kraków.

But after some time, when the task shifted to intensive economic growth (increasing productivity), problems began to arise. Trotsky explained how the struggle to increase productivity in a planned economy requires a democracy of producers, i.e. the working-class, who are able to control and check the plan at every level. As the economy becomes increasingly complex, the question of quality and workers’ democracy becomes critical. In contrast, the chronic mismanagement, waste and corruption as a result of bureaucratic rule act as a brake on economic growth and are incompatible with further development.

Growing political and economic problems

In the 1950s the bureaucracy was grappling with this problem of raising productivity and attempted to introduce economic reforms. At the same time, there was growing unrest among workers, most notably a workers’ uprising in Hungary in October 1956 that almost overthrew the stalinist regime.

Earlier, also in 1956, Polish workers’ protests in Poznań were brutally repressed, with dozens of workers killed. In the aftermath of Poznań, the Polish bureaucracy decided on a change of strategy. Wage rises were announced and the leadership of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR — the ruling communist party) was changed. Gomułka, a veteran communist who had only been released from prison in April that year, became the party’s First Secretary in October.

The liberalization that followed, known as Gomulka’s thaw, offered more autonomy and incentives to lower-level bureaucrats and technocrats. As a concession to the peasants, Gomułka dissolved most of the collective farms, redivided the land and put it back into private ownership. As a result, Polish farming remained backward and inefficient.

Despite, but also because of Gomulka’s reforms, in the 1960s the economic problems began to accumulate. In order to import the capital goods needed to modernize the economy, Poland needed foreign exchange. This meant boosting food exports, which were Poland’s most important exports. But due to Gomulka’s fragmentation of the land in 1956, agricultural productivity was low and chronically inefficient. As if this pressure to export foodstuffs, combined with the backwardness of Polish agriculture was not enough, in 1969–70 drought, followed by a severe winter and then spring flooding exacerbated the situation, leading to a dramatic drop in agricultural production.

Food intended for export was diverted to domestic use, increasing the country’s foreign currency deficit, but still there were food shortages. This sparked a miners’ strike in Katowice in August 1970 and women rioting in supermarkets. The conflict was quickly resolved when extra consignments of meat were miraculously found in Warsaw and sent to Katowice to calm the situation, but weeks later strikes also broke out in Warsaw.

Price rises in December 1970

The government was caught in a vice — one third of the state budget was going on food subsidies, the foreign exchange deficit was growing, and it desperately needed to import capital goods to develop the economy. So finally in December, just before Christmas, the government announced it was raising the prices of fuel and food. But it did it cynically, euphemistically calling it “price regulation”, with the first pages of newspapers devoted to information about price decreases of certain manufactured goods as a result of this “price regulation”, such as the “Lazuryt” television set, which hadn’t been produced for two years! News about the price increases of food and fuel were only found on page two of the newspapers.

The price of fish went up by 12%, meat and meat products by 18%, flour by 16%, milk by 8%, barley, which was a staple, by 31%, jam and marmalade 37%, and coffee 92%. Fuel prices also went up, including coal by 10–14%

Even before the price hike in 1970, Polish workers spent over half their wages on food, so when the price hikes were announced just before Christmas along with fuel price increases at the start of winter, workers were outraged. What good was a price decrease of a television that couldn’t be found in any shop, or other manufactured goods that they couldn’t afford anyway, when food and fuel prices were being raised so high? But it was the poorest, younger workers who were hardest hit and who in desperation were the first to go out onto the street.

They demanded the withdrawal of the price increases or financial compensation for everyone affected by them. There were even demands to “flatten” wages — for equality of pay between white-collar and blue-collar workers. Above all, this meant in practice an end to the bloated privileges of the bureaucracy.

Workers’ anger spills out onto the streets

As is often the case when confusion reigns on the street, it is difficult to gain a full picture of exactly what happened in the days that followed. Not only are there contradictions in the second — or third-hand accounts of the events, but also in the accounts of eye-witnesses themselves. This is even more so due to the terror that followed, the propaganda of the regime, and the passing of 50 years. However, it is possible to put together the pieces and present a rough sketch of the course of events.

On 14 December thousands of workers on the morning shift of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike in response to the price hikes. First, three thousand of them marched to the offices of the plant’s management. They demanded the withdrawal of the price increases, the regulation of the wages and bonus system, and the removal of the ruling group from power.

Since they were unable to get their demands met, they then marched towards the city centre. They sang the Internationale as they marched to the party headquarters of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) in the afternoon. Along the way they were joined by more workers and youth until they numbered over ten thousand. The mood was angry but peaceful. At this stage the protesters were leaderless and still lacked organization. Later, they marched towards the Polytechnic to convince the students to join them, then to Polish Radio to try to get their demands broadcast. After several hours of marching they were attacked by the militia (Polish police) with tear gas. They defended themselves by throwing stones and steel bolts. Later they organized an outdoor rally which was joined by hundreds of students. That evening the authorities cut off all telecommunications between Gdańsk and the rest of the country.

The next day, on 15 December, the revolt escalated. The workers now had a strike committee, which announced a general strike. Despite being cut off from the rest of the country, the strike spread not only to other workplaces in Gdańsk, but also to other towns along the Baltic coast — to Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin, where workers also set up strike committees. The shipyard workers of Gdańsk once more took to the streets. It was then that the first fatalities were recorded — soldiers fired live ammunition at demonstrators, officially resulting in 5 deaths. Rioting broke out, shop windows were smashed and looted (according to some witnesses this was the work of police provocateurs deployed in the crowd), and the party headquarters were set alight. In response, the regime announced martial law for the region and imposed a curfew. Meanwhile, there were clashes in Elbląg and the strike spread to yet another Baltic town, Słupsk. Over the period 14–19 December protests, although smaller, also spread inland — to Warsaw, Wrocław, Białystok, Kraków, Wałbrzych and Nysa — where a total of 20,000 workers went on strike.

On 16 December the workers in Gdańsk announced an occupation strike. But when they tried to go through the main gate to protest, they were met with gun fire from soldiers who had blockaded the plant. According to official reports, 2 were killed and 11 injured.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Gdynia the situation was relatively peaceful. The strike committee negotiated with the the Chairman of the Presidium of the Municipal National Council, who was the only official representative of the authorities to listen to the workers and recognize the protest as legal. They presented him a list of demands, which he promised to deliver to deputy prime minister Stanisław Kociołek, on condition that the protesters dispersed and went home.

The workers demands included an adjustment of the wages of workers to the latest price increase, increasing the minimum wage (affecting in particular the lowest-earning women), a reduction in the differences of wages between blue-collar and white-collar workers (including the demand that a director of an enterprise should not earn PLN 1,000 more than an employee with a higher education). However, that night members of the Gdynia strike committee were arrested. Also that evening, deputy prime minister Stanisław Kociołek appealed on radio and television to the workers of Gdynia to go back to work, arguing that the protests had ended in Gdańsk.

Black Thursday

In the morning of 17 December, known as “Black Thursday”, workers in Gdynia returned to work following the deputy prime minister’s appeal. However, the largest workplace in Gdynia — the Paris Commune Shipyard — was blocked by the army, who were waiting in ambush. The unarmed workers were machine-gunned in cold blood as they got off the train and turned up for work. According to official reports 10 were killed and hundreds injured. The body of one of the killed workers, 18-year-old Zbyszek Godlewski, immortalised in a protest song as Janek Wiśniewski, was carried on a door at the head of the march through the city and became a poignant symbol of the massacre.

Street fighting broke out, and the army and militia killed people in cold blood on the streets. One of the victims, a 15-year-old boy, was shot in the back of the head as he was running away from the fighting and to the safety of his school yard.

Street fighting and a city-wide general strike also broke out that same day in Szczecin. The party building was set alight and the militia and army attacked protesters, with 16 killed and 100 injured, according to official figures. A city-wide strike committee was set up — the embryo of a workers’ council or soviet — which linked together 120 workplaces. According to reports, workers and soldiers began to fraternize, and slogans critical of the authorities were displayed on army vehicles.

From 17 to 22 December, the workers were in control of Szczecin. The western press and even some of the members of the Political Bureau of the ruling party referred to the situation as the “Szczecin Republic”! The authorities responded by completely cutting off the city from the outside world and introducing a curfew. Despite the brutal repression, they were only able to end the strike on 22 December, after signing an agreement with the strike committee. However, Szczecin continued to seethe for weeks.

Repression and concessions

The December events show the terror felt by the bureaucracy and the lengths it was prepared to go to hang onto power. Between 14–19 December 1970, apart from 9,000 militia, in order to suppress the protests in the coastal cities, the authorities also deployed 61,000 soldiers, 1,700 tanks, 8,700 armoured vehicles and 108 planes and helicopters. Officially, there were 45 killed and 1,165 injured, although this is obviously an underestimation of the true scale of the massacre. There were 3,000 arrests and countless beatings.

The callousness of the regime was even extended to the families of those killed, who were forced to bury their dead in the middle of the night with only the closest relatives present. Many families were forced to move to other parts of the country.

However, repression in itself was not enough to quell the revolt — the bureaucracy also had to resort to concessions. As early as 20 December, Władysaw Gomułka, the First Secretary, was forced to resign, officially due to health reasons, and was replaced by Edward Gierek, a former miner. Although he had been a member of the Political Bureau for several years, official propaganda immediately began to present him as a completely new face. Gierek had a different style than Gomułka and talked about mistakes that had been made by the leadership, instead of simply demonizing the workers.

Within days the minimum wage was raised. However, the price rises were not withdrawn immediately, and anger continued to simmer under the surface for weeks after the revolt was crushed. On 22 January 1971 a strike broke out once again in Szczecin shipyard. This time, instead of repression, the regime sought compromise. In an unprecedented move, Gierek met the strikers personally. However, the price hikes were only finally withdrawn on 1 March 1971 under pressure of further strikes.

The legacy of December 1970

The change in the leadership also meant a change in economic policy. The regime borrowed heavily from the West, but rather than raising productivity and modernizing the economy, the loans were mostly diverted to funding increased consumption in order to buy social peace. However, after several years, the economy once again began to flounder, sowing the seeds for new, more far-reaching protests.

Although the uprising on the Baltic coast ended in bitter defeat for the workers, it ultimately laid the basis for the strengthening of independent working-class organization. The demand for free trade unions, which first appeared in December 1970, took root in the consciousness of workers and found practical expression in the development of independent working-class trade unions in the 1970s.

When strikes broke out in August 1980 in Gdańsk, at the outset the movement was at a higher organization level than in 1970 and was able to bring the regime to its knees without bloodshed. Unfortunately, a revolutionary leadership had not been developed over the ten years since the December uprising. The majority of workers in 1980 still instinctively yearned for socialism with a human face, as reflected in the famous 21 demands of the strikers. However, instead of aiming for the seizure of power by the inter-factory strike committees, the goal of the movement’s “advisors” — lawyers, intellectuals and oppositionists — was to pressurize the regime into granting concessions. This strategy of compromise led to the defeat of the movement in 1981, with the introduction of Martial Law, and due to the growing illusions in the capitalist West, it ultimately led the movement towards the blind alley of capitalist restoration in 1989.