The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
Wladyslaw Gomulka's place in Polish history is assured. He was a central, even if highly controversial, figure in Poland's politics in the postwar period. Gomulka ruled the country longer than any other Pole since the eighteenth century-including Jozef Pilsudski, who governed Poland through most of the interwar years.
Gomulka's political program, of course, was that of Pilsudski à rebours. Pilsudski epitomized the old Poland of the landed gentry. Even though he flirted with socialism he had little interest in social reform; his main concern was to maintain the country's independence. Pilsudski saw the main danger to Poland coming from the east and he was bitterly anti-Russian. Gomulka personified the new People's Poland. He was preoccupied with social progress, even if this entailed restrictions on the country's external freedom. In Gomulka's eyes the major threat to Poland was posed by Germany and he was a strong proponent of an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Yet, in terms of personal characteristics and political style, paradoxically, Pilsudski and Gomulka had a good deal in common. In private life they were both modest, almost austere, and their honesty was beyond reproach. Their public careers, moreover, showed several striking similarities. Both were men of strong views and considerable courage, who stood up for their convictions against all adversaries-both fought in the underground and knew the insides of many prisons. Pilsudski and Gomulka alike tasted moments of utter humiliation and great triumph; both were defeated and returned to power. And finally, both Polish rulers, as they grew older, became divorced from the people, intolerant of all opposition, and increasingly autocratic.
Gomulka emerged as a top political leader, on the ruins of Pilsudski's Poland, in the communist underground during World War II. From 1943 until 1948 he was Secretary General of the newly founded Polish Workers' Party. In this capacity he played a key role in helping to establish, despite formidable opposition, a communist system in the country. Yet, in contrast to the other Polish communist leaders, who were totally subservient to Stalin, Gomulka revealed himself fairly independent of Moscow. For this he was removed from power, disgraced and in 1951 imprisoned. He was spared from trial, and, in all likelihood from execution, by the death of Stalin.
His persecution had won Gomulka considerable sympathy among the Poles. The wave of popular unrest which swept the country in 1956 carried him back to power. The Poznan workers' riots in June of that year badly shook the communist régime. In July, Gomulka was readmitted to the Polish United Workers' Party arid in October was reflected its First Secretary. His return to power was a moment of great personal triumph: he was given almost universal support by the people. In 1956 the Poles knew there was no way back to the prewar era. What they wanted to accomplish were reforms within the existing system. They hoped that Gomulka would introduce such changes.
The reforms adopted by Gomulka, however, proved to be half-hearted. The most oppressive Stalinist features were eliminated: the rule of terror was curbed, the persecution of the Catholic Church ended and the collectivization of agriculture was abandoned. At the same time several objectionable aspects of the communist system were maintained: intellectual freedom remained restricted and no major economic reform was carried out. Moreover, after initial attempts to assert a more independent stance in foreign affairs, Warsaw once again fell into step with Moscow.
Gomulka's retrogressive policies soon led to disillusionment among the Polish people. Throughout the 1960s dissatisfaction turned more and more frequently into open defiance. In 1964, and again in 1966, bitter disputes erupted between the communist government and the Catholic Church. Ferment among the intellectuals and the students steadily gathered strength. In 1964 34 writers and scholars came out publicly against the restrictions on freedom of expression; in the same year the first arrests of students were made at the University of Warsaw. In 1966, after Professor Leszek Kolakowski openly criticized the decade of Gomulka's rule, more arrests at the University followed.
In February 1968 came the first explosion. The Warsaw branch of the Writers' Union protested against the banning of the play by the great nineteenth-century Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, because of its anti- Russian overtones. In March the Warsaw students joined in the protest and took to the streets. The youth at other universities throughout Poland followed their lead and the riots and sit-in strikes continued for three weeks. The students' rebellion was suppressed, but the tension in the country persisted.
Gomulka survived the crisis and at the Fifth Party Congress in November 1968 was reflected First Secretary, but his political influence was clearly waning. He was discredited among the people; dissatisfaction with the deteriorating economic conditions was mounting among the workers. Gomulka tried to stave off defeat by belatedly adopting some new policies. In 1969 he changed Poland's policy vis-à-vis West Germany. Early in December 1970, a Polish-West German treaty normalizing relations between the two countries and sanctioning the Polish western boundary was signed in Warsaw. It was Gomulka's last moment of triumph.
At the same time Gomulka attempted to cope with the catastrophic economic situation by launching substantial reforms. The move to link the cost of production with incomes was generally in the right direction, but by now the Polish economy was so run down that drastic measures were needed. The announcement of increased food prices on the eve of the Christmas holiday led to violent workers' riots in several coastal cities. As in 1956, the unrest in the country resulted in a change in the top party leadership. On December 20, 1970, Gomulka resigned as First Secretary and was replaced in that post by Edward Gierek.
The end of the Gomulka era, despite the swiftness with which it came, was not surprising. In a way, as is the fate of many politicians who remain in office too long, his era had ended even before he was ousted. In the last few years his program was growing increasingly obsolete. It was not only that as the years went by Gomulka had become more conservative; even more important was the fact that since he had come to power in 1956 the country had undergone a drastic transformation.
In the 1950s Poland was still badly shattered by World War II. The nation was settling down within its new boundaries and was recovering from its tremendous economic and human losses. The generation that had lived through the cataclysm of the war was wary of pushing the struggle against the communist régime too far, lest it explode into a full-scale revolution and expose them to new losses and sufferings. The fate of the 1956 uprising in Hungary-which demonstrated Russia's continued ascendancy in Eastern Europe and the inability of the West to change this situation-only strengthened those sentiments among the Poles. There was also a fear of a revived Germany, especially in view of the open claims to Poland's western provinces advanced by the German Federal Republic. At the climax of the popular upheaval in 1956, Premier Jozef Cyrankiewicz, in an address to the nation, emphasized that the alliance with the Soviet Union was necessary to protect Poland's western boundary. But, all in all, in the 1950s, the mood of the Poles tended to be quiescent.
In the 1960s several changes took place in Poland which eradicated the effects of World War II. The western territories were fully populated and integrated with the rest of the country. In the economic sphere not only were the war losses recouped, but very considerable progress was made. The old, predominantly agricultural society was transformed into an industrialized one. The human losses were also made good. The population is now approaching 33 million, but in contrast to the interwar period it is more homogeneous-there are no longer any significant minority groups. Today's Poland is a young country; almost half of its population is composed of people born since the war. Significant strides also have been made in the field of education. While in the entire interwar period 85,000 people received university degrees, in the years 1945-66 over 400,000 pursued higher education.
The changes which took place in the last decade have led to a marked revival of political aspirations, especially among the younger generation. They, of course, have no defeatist memories of the last war. They do not share the pessimism of their fathers and their passive acceptance of restrictions on freedom. It is by no means accidental that the first rebellion against the Gomulka régime was staged by the students. It is also characteristic that during the recent workers' outburst the fiercest fighting was in Szczecin which has the youngest population in the country.
The generation gap is accentuated by differences in education The young intelligentsia, seeking an outlet for their energies, have grown increasingly impatient with the narrow dogmatism and sheer incompetence of the older managerial cadre which frequently was selected on the basis of political reliability rather than professional competence. Although few people had the courage to say it openly, many would have readily agreed with a statement made in 1968 by a well-known writer, Stefan Kisielewski, that the country was run by ignoramuses. The realization that the new technetronic age, which Poland is still ill-prepared to enter, is at hand, made the young technocrats even more restless. In 1970 there was an animated debate in the press criticizing in no uncertain terms the economic stagnation of the country.
The young people also seem to be intensely nationalistic. They show a keen interest in Poland's history. In the 1960s two debates-the first over a collection of historiographic essays and the second over an historical film- stirred up a good deal of emotion in the country. In both, the continuity of national tradition and the need to reassert national pride were strongly emphasized. Even some aspects of the history of the Polish communist movement were rewritten in a more nationalistic vein. All in all, in the last decade a more assertive political climate emerged in Poland; from the point of view of domestic dynamics, the country was increasingly ripe for political changes.
In the 1960s, moreover, some hopeful changes for the Poles took place in the international sphere. The new round of de-Stalinization in the U.S.S.R. in 1961, the Sino-Soviet dispute, and at least a partial détente in East- West relations all contributed to the lessening of Russia's grip over Eastern Europe. The greater independence in foreign policy which has been assumed by Rumania, and the reforms which were undertaken in 1967-68 in Czechoslovakia, made many Poles hope for similar developments in their country. The students' slogans in 1968 called for "a Polish Dubcek." Indeed, had the new trends in Eastern Europe not been abruptly reversed by the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, Gomulka would have probably been removed from power earlier. The suppression of Czechoslovakia, however, only postponed, but did not eliminate, pressure for changes in Poland.
With the resumption of efforts toward an East-West détente in 1969, and especially with the launching of a new Eastern policy by West Germany, an international climate more favorable to Poland has been largely restored. The conclusion toward the end of 1970 of the Polish-West German treaty, sanctioning Poland's western boundary, was particularly important. It was characteristic that during the recent upheaval, in striking contrast to his attitude toward Germany in 1956, Premier Cyrankiewicz singled out the treaty with the German Federal Republic as an achievement of the Polish communist government. Obviously, it would not have been credible to play up the German threat several days after the widely publicized visit of Chancellor Brandt to Warsaw.
In the new circumstances Gomulka was increasingly at a loss. He was totally devoid of new ideas and made little effort to adjust his policies to fit the 1960s. He paid lip service to the younger generation, but the old cadre remained well entrenched in the key positions. Economic reforms were frequently debated, but moved forward at a snail's pace. Gomulka also did his best to dampen the revival of nationalism. He responded to the historical debates with the worn-out communist stereotypes. In foreign policy, the Gomulka government did not exploit the opportunities to win more leeway for Poland from the Soviet Union. Both in East-West relations and in the disputes among the communist countries-including participation in the suppression of Czechoslovakia-Warsaw trailed along after Moscow at every turn.
Seen in retrospect, the turning point in Gomulka's political fortunes probably came in 1961. The second, more thorough de-Stalinization campaign launched in that year by Khrushchev, and the split between Russia and China, created a situation which could well have been used by Polish leaders to carry out substantial reforms in the country. Gomulka, however, failed to exploit this opportunity; he was simply not interested in introducing any more changes in Poland. His stand in 1961 cost him public support. Until then many people still had believed that his course was influenced by pressure from Moscow. With this illusion gone, Gomulka was now seen by the Poles for what he really was-not a Stalinist, but still a communist in the old internationalist tradition. From then on the gap between the Polish people and Gomulka widened steadily. He became increasingly regarded as a spent force-a man who could neither cope with, nor indeed comprehend, the country's needs. Eventually, he had to give way to new people more attuned to contemporary circumstances.
The new political forces affected the ruling Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP) and gradually eroded the delicate equilibrium underlying Gomulka's position. The struggle in the party, like the tensions in the country at large, stemmed largely from the conflict between generations. In the last decade the PUWP membership more than doubled: in 1959 it was one million and by 1968 more than two million. While growing in size, the party was considerably rejuvenated, but its top leadership remained almost exclusively in the hands of old people. The key positions were occupied by the men who made it to the top with Gomulka in the 1940s: Kliszko, Spychalski, Loga-Sowinski and Strzelecki. In 1968 the average age of the members of the Politburo was 60. Moreover, friction between generations was aggravated by the educational gap. In a party apparatus composed of some 7,000 officials, in 1964 only 1,275-and even by 1968 only around 2,000-had completed their higher education. This situation led to a restlessness among many younger and better educated members which provided fertile ground for factional activity.
In the 1960s the challenge to Gomulka's status quo policy came from two groups within the PUWP: one led by Edward Gierek, and the other from the "partisans" led by Mieczyslaw Moczar. Each faction put forward a different program designed to appeal to different elements in the party and different segments of Polish society. Gierek was an influential figure in the PUWP- since 1956 he had been one of its Secretaries and since 1959 a member of the Politburo. His main power base was the quarter-million-strong Upper Silesian Party organization which he personally had led since 1957. Gierek never revealed any taste for either democracy or nationalism, in fact his attitude toward the Soviet Union did not differ much from that of Gomulka. However, his efficient management of the Silesian region, which was contributing roughly a quarter of Poland's industrial production, had won him considerable prestige among the technocrats and the workers.
General Moczar's power base lay in the security apparatus which he had controlled since 1956, first as Deputy Minister and then as Minister of Internal Affairs, and in the army, where his comrades-in-arms from the wartime communist partisan units occupied many key posts. In addition, since 1964 Moczar had been President of the 300,000-strong organization of the World War II veterans-from the communist as well as non-communist formations. The partisans also showed little sympathy for democratizationj but played up Polish nationalism. They emphasized the country's proud past, including its military tradition. Whenever expedient, they did not hesitate to revive the less appealing aspects of Polish nationalism, as in the crude anti-Zionist campaign of 1967-68, aimed at compromising Gomulka's Jewish supporters. As to the Soviet Union, the attitude of the partisans was somewhat ambiguous. In their official enunciations, of course, they stressed their devotion to Polish-Soviet friendship and their personal bonds of comradeship with the Russians forged on the battlefields of World War II. Yet, implicit in their program of national self-assertion was the promise of a more independent stand vis-à-vis the U.S.S.R. It was this last aspect of the partisans' program which won them popularity among a good many Poles.
The internal conflict in the PUWP was greatly intensified after the riots in March 1968. In the spring the partisans virtually openly challenged Gomulka. In July Moczar was elected to the Secretariat and, although only as an alternate member, to the Politburo; it appeared that he would soon make a try for the top party post. Yet later in the summer, and especially after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the partisans lost their momentum. At the Fifth Party Congress in November, with Gierek's full support, Gomulka was reëlected First Secretary.
Despite his formal success at the Congress, it was clear that Gomulka was no longer fully in control of the party. First of all he was dependent on continued support from Gierek. Second, Moczar's advance was arrested, but not reversed-he was not promoted to full membership in the Politburo, but neither was he demoted. Last but not least, Gomulka had to give in to pressure from the younger generation for a share in the top party leadership. Among the newly elected members of the Politburo two full members, Stanislaw Kociolek and Jozef Tejchma, were 35 and 41 respectively. The new men did not produce any coherent political program of their own, but they represented a new style of leadership. They were better educated and although they did not exhibit any liberal sympathies, they were reputed to be more pragmatic than the older generation.
The defeat of Gomulka in 1970 was administered by a coalition of those three groups and the spoils were divided among them. Gierek, as a reward for withdrawing his support from Gomulka, was given the post of First Secretary. In the place of the ousted Gomulka's supporters-Kliszko, Spychalski, Strzelecki and the economic expert, Jaszczuk-the partisans and the pragmatists introduced their own men. Moczar was elevated to full membership in the Politburo. Tejchma remained in his post; while two younger men, Jan Szydlak and Stefan Olszowski-who are 45 and 39 respectively-also entered the Politburo as full members. Indeed, to emphasize the broad base of the new leadership, the Army Chief General Wojciech Jaruzelski and Professor Henryk Jablonski, former Secretary General of the Academy of Science, were included in the top party body as alternate members.
The new leadership is truly "collective" and as such, probably rather unstable. Several former followers of Gomulka managed to remain at the top, but their days may be numbered. Trade unions' boss Loga-Sowinski, Foreign Minister Jedrychowski, formerly responsible for economic affairs, and former Premier Cyrankiewicz-all are likely to go. In their places both Gierek and Moczar will try to put their own men, and the rivalry between the two leaders may be revived. Yet, it is unlikely that either one of them will be able to consolidate fully his position. Both Gierek and Moczar are 57, and time is not on their side. The more they quarrel, the sooner they will be replaced by the pragmatists of the younger generation. The future in the PUWP clearly belongs to the Tejchmas and the Olszowskis.
The struggle in the Communist Party will be tied to the pressures in the country at large. In order to win popular support the various competing factions will have to attune themselves more closely to the wishes of the people. In this respect the early policy of the Gierek régime is symptomatic. Not only have the unpopular economic measures been withdrawn, but the workers' rights to participate in the process of political decision- making have been explicitly recognized. The adoption of effective methods of communication and even consultation with the masses has been promised. Gierek has also gone out of his way to assure the intellectuals that their opinions will be taken into account. And the new Premier, Piotr Jaroszewicz, in his inaugural address to the Sejm has called for full normalization of relations between the communist government and the Catholic Church.
Gierek has thus succeeded in temporarily appeasing the workers, but his position remains difficult. He has no choice but to continue with economic reforms in one form or another. The drastic overhaul of the economic system in the direction of greater market influence on production is a necessity. Otherwise, Polish products will not meet international competition, foreign trade will not expand, and without it the country's economy will remain stagnant. To undertake such reforms, however, would require that production be linked once again with wages and prices. This, at least in the short run, is going to be painful for the workers. In the economic sphere things will get worse before they get better.
The political situation in the country, moreover, continues to be tense. Despite the fact that the upheaval in 1970 was shorter and not as widespread as that in 1956, its long-term effects may be more profound. The Polish people could not fail to observe that by taking to the streets, for the second time they succeeded in removing from power unpopular communist leaders. Should conditions become unbearable, they may try to do it once again. Moreover, remembering how they were deceived by Gomulka in 1956, they are now unlikely to be satisfied by mere promises. They will judge the new leaders not by words but by deeds. Their expectations were well articulated by the Polish Primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who in response to Premier Jaroszewicz's appeal, called for the adoption of true democracy.
The dynamics of the internal developments also push Poland toward a more assertive nationalism. The revival of aspirations for a more independent stance in foreign affairs was already evident in the last decade; in the 1970s, with the younger generation on the ascendancy, Polish nationalist sentiments are likely to grow. This may well bring them into conflict with Soviet objectives in Central and Eastern Europe, with the resulting delicate interlocking of internal and external pressures.
Contemporary Polish nationalism is not anti-Russian. After the cataclysm of World War II the Poles have no desire to return to the Pilsudski era. They are conscious of their extremely vulnerable position between Russia and Germany. They are certainly mindful of immense Soviet power in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and with a large Soviet force present in East Germany since the end of World War II, Poland is surrounded by Soviet armies on all sides; a small Soviet garrison is also stationed on Polish soil. The Poles are not necessarily adverse to Soviet influence in that part of the world. They remember that the Russian armies freed them from occupation by Nazi Germany, even though this is tempered by recollection of the sufferings inflicted on them by the Russians. They certainly have appreciated constant Soviet support of the Polish western boundary. They are aware, no doubt, that even before its acceptance in the Polish-West German treaty the border had already been sanctioned by the Soviet-West German pact of August 1970. It is not, then, the intention of the Poles to cut their ties with the U.S.S.R. What they strive for is to readjust relations between the two countries to fit the new situation of the 1970s.
Paradoxically, if anti-Russian sentiments were to be revived among the Poles, this could be brought about most easily by the Soviet Union itself. By refusing to adjust Polish-Soviet relations to fit the new aspirations of the Poles, and especially by trying to intervene in their domestic affairs, Moscow might well make Polish nationalism acquire a sharply anti-Russian edge. Such a development might prove tragic. Soviet efforts to suppress changes in Poland could lead to another Czechoslovakia, or even a Hungary- for in line with their tradition the Poles would be prone to resist Russian military intervention with arms. The appointment of General Jaruzelski to the Politburo during the recent crisis may have been intended as a subtle hint to the Russians that, no matter what comes, the Polish Communists can better handle the situation on their own.
Good relations between the two countries, however, are important to the Soviet Union too. Poland is located on the strategically crucial border of the U.S.S.R.; she is also a lynchpin of the present international system in East-Central Europe. Deprived of access through Poland to East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet position in those countries would become untenable. This situation greatly restricts Poland's freedom of man?uvre in the international sphere, but it also provides her with a certain leverage vis-à-vis Moscow. Provided the Poles do not go too far, the Russians have every reason not to push them beyond the point of no return.
In the past, the Russians seemed to have appreciated the extreme delicacy of their relations with the Poles. In the late 1950s Poland occupied a unique place among the communist states in Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that no similar innovations were tolerated in other countries, the Russians closed their eyes to various internal changes which were adopted in Poland- notably the de-collectivization of agriculture and the special position of the Catholic Church. Had Gomulka tried to widen the scope of domestic reforms in the 1960s, especially by linking them to Khrushchev's second de- Stalinization campaign, he probably would have succceeded in getting away with them. And it was precisely his failure to keep probing the outside perimeter of their freedom which led to the Poles' disillusionment with Gomulka, and ultimately brought about his defeat.
The Soviet leaders were probably sorry to see Gomulka go. Only two years before, while attending the Polish Party Congress, Brezhnev had warmly commended Gomulka's policies. Yet, when the Polish leader had outlived his usefulness in keeping the country quiescent, the Russians did nothing to help him. During the crisis in 1970 they abstained from any overt interference in Polish affairs, and when Gierek visited Moscow in January he was warmly received by Brezhnev. Given the internal dynamics of the country, Gierek seems to have little choice but to revive the probing of the outside perimeter of Polish freedom. He has to win from Moscow a new lease on Poland's domestic reforms. Should he fail to do so, he is likely to be replaced by another communist leader who will identify himself more closely with the aspirations of the Poles. And in the process of readjustment in Polish-Soviet relations, the situation at each step will threaten to get out of hand.
Whether Poland and the Soviet Union will be able to evolve a stable equilibrium, and in so doing avoid an explosion of major proportions, will depend to a large extent on the future course of European diplomacy. For the problems in the relations between the two countries are more susceptible to resolution in a broader political framework than on a strictly bilateral basis. Indeed, in the past few years, and especially since the Budapest appeal of the communist leaders in March 1969, Polish diplomacy has been actively trying to promote such a framework in Europe. Taking its cue from the Soviet call for increased coöperation among all the European states, Poland has considerably expanded its contacts with various countries in the western part of the continent. The marked improvement in relations between Warsaw and Paris, and more recently between Warsaw and Bonn, has contributed to the emergence of a more relaxed climate in Europe. Poland has also assumed a major role as the proponent of a European conference. Polish diplomats have been canvassing support for such a meeting in the Western capitals on both sides of the Atlantic.
By applying themselves with such enthusiasm to the task of reducing East- West tensions in Europe, the Poles, it seems, are not only running errands for the U.S.S.R. but have reasons of their own. They see in these various diplomatic initiatives an opportunity to overcome, with Soviet approval, the barriers dividing them from the West. They want to obtain access to Western markets and technology, both of which they badly need in order to get their economy moving once again. They also seem to hope that a progressive deëmphasis on the formal alliance structure, especially if accompanied by troop reductions, and its replacement by growing multilateral coöperation among all the European states, offers them the best way to resolve their political difficulties with the Soviet Union. In this way bilateral Polish-Soviet ties would be gradually transcended by an emerging all-European system. The revival of traditionally strong Polish bonds with Western Europe, side by side with her continued coöperation with Russia, would go a long way to meet the objectives of a more assertive Polish nationalism in the 1970s.
Poland's return to Europe would also be of great importance in resolving East-West conflicts in that part of the world. Precisely because she is a lynchpin of the present system in East-Central Europe, such a development would have far-reaching repercussions throughout the entire continent. Conversely, a major explosion in Poland could be extremely damaging to the prospects for an East-West détente. For there can be no stable European system without Poland's active participation. Whatever the final outcome of the present political crisis in Poland, for better or for worse, one thing seems to be certain-with the end of the Gomulka era, Poland will play an increasingly significant role in the international sphere, as befits this dynamic and proud nation.