Poland, 1956

Having failed to persuade the Polish peasantry to collectivise, the government adopted instead, a policy of systematic discrimination and harassment against private farmers. The peasants responded with sullen passive resistance; bad harvests and reluctance to plant crops or breed livestock reduced agricultural production. Acute shortages of food and goods in the shops began in 1951, and rationing was introduced. In January 1953, a general price rise was decreed without significant public protest. Real living standards declined 36 per cent between 1949 and 1955.

The following story is excerpted from Neal Ascherson’s The Polish August:.

‘In the summer of 1956 .. the World Youth Festival was held in Warsaw. For the young this was a moment even more marvellous than the political upheaval of the following year. ... thousands of French and Italian, Brazilian and African students and young people poured into the city. They brought with them not only the truth about living conditions in the West, but their clothes, their music, their way of talking. They burst in like a relief force, after six years of total isolation from the non-communist world. They left behind them a furious impatience for change and a determination that such isolation must never return.
‘The ZMP [Union of Polish Youth] had taught them enthusiasm, self-confidence and a certain critical arrogance which they now turned against the Party leadership and its tired dogmatism. ... To them, the opposite of Stalinism was not a return to capitalism or the pre-war system but a democratic, open socialism in which the press was free and the government did not tell lies’.
‘[First Secretary] Boleslaw Bierut died in Moscow, two weeks after hearing Khrushchev’s speech, and when Khrushchev came to Warsaw for the funeral he took the opportunity to interfere and without success ... suggested that the Party would be more popular if there were fewer Jews in its leadership ... this crude proposal appalled many people who normally would have been prepared to follow a Soviet instruction ... The text of Khrushchev's Twentieth Congress speech was distributed throughout the Party for discussion, and the calls for radical change within the Party at once became a clamour.
‘It was at this point, in June 1956, that workers of Poznan rebelled. Poznan, the main industrial city of west-central Poland, had been the centre of Polish resistance to the Prussian-German occupation in the nineteenth century, and it had a large, experienced working class with strong traditions of trade union activity. The 15,000 workers at the Cegielski engineering plant (which had been named after Stalin a few years before) were exasperated by long and fruitless efforts to reverse new production targets and to gain higher wages. A protest march on 28 June turned into a street demonstration; the crowds, now numbering over a hundred thousand, were unable to get an answer to their grievances and rioting began. In a day and night of street fighting with the security police and the army, nearly eighty people lost their lives and thousands were injured. ...
‘The shock of Poznan heaved the whole Polish situation into crisis. At the base, Party membership began to dissolve. Party groups in the factories realised that of they did not start fighting for a better standard of living, they too could be caught between worker revolts and the guns of the Internal Security Corps’.
‘[A number of concessions were decided at the July Plenum]. The reform communists were already in touch with Wladyslaw Gomulka, supported by those leaders who cared little for Gomulka’s views but were now convinced that he must be brought back into the Central Committee as the last chance to halt the disintegration of the Party’s authority. Gomulka however held out for better terms: his restoration as First Secretary and the removal of his enemies from the Politburo. ... [the reformers] began to organise in the factories. [Starting in the big car factory in Zeran], worker councils spread across Poland, at once became powerful centres of revolutionary debate, challenging and criticising the Party leaders sent to remonstrate with them. Influenced by the Yugoslav example of workers’ self-management at plant level, the workers’ councils also claimed the right to manage their own enterprises ... The workers’ councils, at joint mass meetings with the students, now called for [Gomulka’s] return to power’.
‘On 19 October, with public excitement at a peak, the Eighth Plenum met. Gomulka was present. But so, neither expected not invited, was Nikita Khrushchev and most of the Soviet leadership, who had flown to Warsaw that morning.
‘There ensued twenty-four extraordinary and decisive hours. ... Troops moved up to the borders, and Soviet armoured and motorised units stationed in Poland emerged from their bases and converged on Warsaw. In response, the Party called the workers to armed readiness. Polish troops took up defensive positions ...
‘Early in the morning of 20 October, Khrushchev began to accept the situation. Gomulka had proved unshakeable, and the PUWP Politburo had continued to back him up ... Khrushchev received assurances that criticism of the Soviet Union in the Polish press would be suppressed, and that Poland would remain in the Warsaw Pact ... In return, he recognised that Gomulka would now lead the PUWP ... later that day, he and his boarding party ... flew home’.
‘The Party extended the rights of the workers’ councils in July and agreed to give them full legal recognition in November 1956 ... But in reality Gomulka had little more enthusiasm for workers-control socialism than did Khrushchev ... The Polish workers submitted to a slow grinding down of the councils into purely economic bodies and finally in 1958 into the bureaucratised impotence of the Conferences of Workers Self-Government’.


extract from Stalinism: Its Origins & Future by Andy Blunden, 1993: Volume II, Chapter 2, section 2