In 1980 at the Lenin shipyard in the Polish city of Gdansk – workers formed a new independent trade union movement they called Solidarity – Solidarność in Polish. But not everybody on the British Left welcomed this development. In fact some were massively hostile.
In 1982, I was a delegate to the annual conference of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) at York University. At this time, the Marxist Militant group in the Labour Party controlled the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and had done so since the mid-1970s.
The party had hived off the students into a separate youth wing which was controlled by a group called Clause IV who, despite their name, had as their sole raison d’etre the objective of stopping Militant taking over the student organisation of the party. And that included opposing any motions at conference that looked remotely influenced by Militant’s political perspectives.
Hesitant to support Polish Solidarity
Poland was a good case in point. At the 1982 conference, the NOLS executive moved to recognise BOTH the official student union movement in Poland controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Solidarity run student organisation. This was opposed by Militant and Socialist Organiser who insisted that ONLY the Solidarity student body should be recognised and NOLS must issue a clear call to support Polish workers in struggle against the Stalinist regime.
Incredibly, a representative of the Solidarity student organisation was present at the conference but not allowed to speak until AFTER the vote had been taken. Conference then agreed with the NOLS leadership to recognise both the state-run student organisation and the opposing Solidarity movement.
The visibly shocked Solidarity representative stepped up to the lectern and declared: “You have just voted to recognise something that would be like a trade union run by Maggie Thatcher in this country!”
Stalinists dislike Polish Solidarity
So, why did this happen? Several reasons come to mind. One was the continuing influence in the very early 1980s of the Communist Party (CP) in student politics. NOLS had only recently extricated itself from a “Broad Left” with the Communist Party and the Liberal Party. CP members still regarded the Polish regime as ‘socialist’ and the USSR as a ‘socialist state’. So, Solidarnosc was viewed as a potentially reactionary movement against socialism.
In fact, there was a widespread view among those on the Left who still viewed the USSR as a beacon of socialism that Solidarity was a western plot. And subsequent data releases have shown that both the Reagan administration and Pope John Paul II, an anti-Communist Pole, were active in trying to support Solidarity in different ways. They undoubtedly saw the potential for the movement undermining Communist rule across eastern Europe.
But it’s simply not true to suggest that the CIA and Vatican CREATED Solidarity in Poland – this is the stuff of conspiracy theories. It also underestimates the level of opposition among Polish workers to the stifling dead hand of Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship.
And yet, from the right of the Labour party to the some on the ultra-left, there was a lack of enthusiasm among some on the Left for Polish Solidarity and the struggle of Polish workers for democracy and free trade unions.
Some on the Left may have felt uncomfortable that Solidarity’s leading supporters in the UK including virulently anti-Communist, right wing labour movement figures like Frank Chapple. He was the ex-Communist Party leader of the electricians union (EETPU) who after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 became an implacable enemy of both Communism and the Left in general.
However, the answer to that apparent conundrum was simple enough. Opposing Stalinism was something you could do from different standpoints. President Ronald Reagan wanted to bring down the USSR but that didn’t make him a Trotskyist. The only people who tried to argue that Reagan and Trotsky did have something in common were….Stalinists!
It wasn’t just NOLS that found it difficult to break with the Stalinists in Poland but also the Trades Union Congress. In 1980, it had opted for a fact-finding mission to Poland to find out what was going on. This fence sitting was in large part due to continuing connections between UK trade unions and state run unions in the Soviet-controlled eastern bloc.
For example, at the same time that the TUC was equivocating on Solidarity, about 150 British steel workers were being given a free holiday in the USSR as guests of the Soviet Metal Workers Union. In the middle of the Thatcherite long dark night of the 1980s, some on the Left couldn’t resist the warm embrace of Moscow.
It was left to the inheritors of Trotsky’s mantle to say ‘sod that’ and below are the motions proposed to conference that year from Militant and Socialist Organiser influenced college Labour clubs.