Thatcher, Poland and a false dichotomy

The death of Thatcher has resulted in mixed reactions in the UK.  In Poland I’ve seen a smidgeon of praise for her, including from Donald Tusk who follow the standard western right-wing line of her being “against communism” and her “support for Solidarity” and her eventual “victory”.


Accepting this narrative would require one to see contradictions in Thatcher’s actions in Poland.  First, let’s look at this video:

That was in the November of 1988.  This is the incident which is used to show her “help”.  Now, I’m not saying that Solidarity did not gain from her visit.  That hundreds of workers were chanting her name, and that people like Archbishop Jankowski were praising her contribution to Solidarity shows that she did have a beneficial impact upon Solidarity.  In that November aid was offered to the Polish government on the condition of talking with Solidarity.

She wasn’t always so helpful towards Solidarity, though.  1981 saw the  martial law come via the PM Wojciech Jaruzelski (who as Minister of Defense had ordered Polish troops to enter Czechoslovakia in 1968) , whereby thousands of opposition activists were interned without charge as up to 100 people were killed.  Solidarity was itself declared illegal in 1982.

Thatcher was to be one of various western leaders who would do speeches in 1982 supporting Solidarity, but the period prior to the imposition of martial law saw her, as shown by the release of confidential German documents in 2012 to be “suspicious” of Solidarity, that she only backed Solidarity out of “respect for public opinion” and that in a usual situation the British government would be “on the side of the Polish government”.  There was talk within the British government of helping the Polish government in repression against Solidarity if they get “out of control”.  It could be argued that the lack of threat of reprisals against a potential imposition of martial law by the British government contributed to the likelihood of its existence.  This was a dire time for Solidarity, and regarding Thatcher, they were walking alone when they most needed help.

This interesting article from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation of all places offers an explanation.  Her opposition towards sanctions against Poland appears to be grounded in her concern for British businesses in the Soviet Union who were part (along with US firms) of building a gas pipeline in Siberia.  In other words, she didn’t want to annoy the Soviets.

Now we come to the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85.  This was a very bitter strike, very symbolic in attacking not just the coal industry, but trade unions in general.  Thatcher arranged that coal be brought from Poland so that there would be stockpiles, thus helping the UK government to win against the miners.  What that means, therefore, is that Thatcher was happy to do a deal with Jaruzelski.  (Indeed, she was full of praise for him.)


Bear in mind that the Polish government had a very high foreign debt (over $20bn) at that time.  In fact it was the bad financial situation of the 1970s that contributed greatly towards the establishment of Solidarity in 1980.  To quote Norman Davies, “By 1976, it was clear that a depressed world market did not need substandard Polish exports, and that Polish industry was too inefficient to produce them at any rate.  […] It was surprising that the regime lasted as long as it did“, (italics added by myself).  Now, the world market in 1984 was not in so strong a depression (though most western countries were either in recession or just coming out of it), but the fact is that, when the government of Poland needed financial help in order to keep afloat, the government who had just a few years earlier had led to the death of opponents, Thatcher came in and helped them out.

Now, this article shows that Solidarity members were supportive of the miners on strike in the UK (Wałęsa was as well, though critical of miners’ violence, and was respectful of Thatcher.  I’ll come back to him later).  For example:

 “The underground Provisional Co-ordinating Committee of Silesian miners sends you fraternal greetings and our support and solidarity for your struggle for the right to work

“We will do everything possible to support your struggle, including in action. The protest we have sent to the Polish government and Parliament is an initial measure taken in support of your struggle”.

(Solidarity miners in Silesia)

 “The slave labour of the Polish miners serves to break the resistance of the British miners.

“British miners! In the prevailing conditions of terror, the. Polish workers movement is at present not in a position to undertake protest actions. But you may be certain that we are in solidarity with you”.

(Solidarity members in Warsaw)

 “Neither the British government’s mounted police charges nor its truncheon blows, any more than the Polish junta’s tanks or rifle fire, can break our common will to struggle for a better future for the working class.”

(Solidarity members in Upper Silesia)

Wojciech Jaruzelski was therefore a scab whose decision to sell coal to Thatcher helped her to win the strike.*

Coming back to Thatcher’s visit in 1988 and the help it gave to Solidarity, one has to see that visit in the context of the time in Poland.  Foreign debt was that year $39bn (despite the lack of British sanctions).  The PRON attempt to gain the regime support was failing dismally.  There were food shortages.  The case of Father Popiełuszko was illustrative of a failing regime.  That, for the first time ever in post-1945 Polish history the government were forced to admit that someone had been killed by its members and that these were put in prison showed a crumbling regime.


That is the context of Thatcher’s visit in 1988.  To listen to some right-wing commentators, it’s as if she was playing for Solidarity and scored the winning goal.  No.  Solidarity were already winning.  It’s as if that she came on in the 86nd minute and helped to energise the team to hold that lead.  The spring and summer of 1988 saw many big strikes in Poland, and the effect was such that the communist authorities had to admit defeat and ask Wałęsa to ask strikes to go back to work.  Out of this grew the Polish Round Table Agreement, from which came the end of communism.  To use another metaphor, Thatcher was Sean Connery in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, coming into the film right at the end.  Perhaps she simply saw which way the game was going and decided to get in the good books of Solidarity.

I don’t wish to downplay her role in helping end the communist state, but the fact is that her role was minor, compared with Solidarity, the Polish pope, the effect of Gorbachev and Jaruzelski himself.

A false dichotomy

There is seemingly a contradiction in Thatcher’s behaviour regarding Poland.  How can someone who clearly works for capitalism do something that helps a communist state to last longer?  How can someone so concerned with “personal freedoms” effectively countenance communist production and at the same time the poor pay of Polish miners?  Even those Thatcher fans who manage not to ignore Thatcher’s support of Pinochet (of which more underneath) call it an “aberration”, when in fact, what she did in Poland and Chile is entirely consistent with her work as a class warrior on behalf not just personally on behalf of individuals who she trusted, but also impersonally on behalf of capitalism in all its contradictory, bringing riches-and-poverty, liberation-and-captivity, life-and-death self.**

It’s this that enabled her to do deals with Jaruzelski for her own benefit.  It’s this that enabled her to support Pinochet, including for his free-market policies.  It’s this that say her brand Nelson Mandela a “terrorist“.  It’s this that saw her support the Khmer Rogueafter they had done a genocide.  It’s this that saw her call Suharto a “friend“.  (It’s similar with Reagan, after whom a square is named here in Wrocław; see the impact of his work in Central America.)  As I wrote here, the pre-civil war Spain shows us capitalists and fascists working together, something respected by Maciej Giertych, a Polish MEP free-marketist, who is a fan of Franco and Salazar.  It’s not personal, it’s just business.  It’s capitalism.  Even if that involves dealing with communists like Jaruzelski and the Khmer Rogue.  Even if relative and absolute poverty increase in the UK she can justify her rule due to the benefits received by others.

Of course, unlike Franco and Pinochet, she didn’t set up concentration camps.  On the authoritarian scale she’s not as high up as them, but under her the British police got politicised against what she termed as “the enemy within”, she created a culture of impunity that contributed to the cover-up of the police’s culpability for the death of 96 Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough disaster and was criticised for “bullying” colleagues.

The Battle of Orgreave

The Battle of Orgreave

The question isn’t whether someone or something is communist or capitalist.  The question are rather, can people protest without facing police violence, do workers receive good pay, are states working against minorities (see the UK and Poland), are workers represented democratically and have a say in what happens to the produce they make***, are institutions authoritarian?  The answers in Jaruzelski-era Poland and Thatcher-era GB are pretty similar, even if the extent to the answers are different.

Speaking of authoritarianism, Wałęsa himself was to prove to be anti-democratic  and a scab (he said last year that a strike somewhere in Poland should end and that the police should intervene, I can’t find a link for that story though).  Bożena Keff here (on pages 18 and 19) believes Solidarity to be less than democratic, in that she shows how RC members of Solidarity betrayed women members after 1989.  Note how Archbishop Jankowski in the video praises Thatcher for being a “strong leader”.  Communism has gone from Poland, but authoritarianism remains.****

In other words, in order to understand Poland now (and most western people are stuck in 1989) we need to look beyond this standard mindset.  Lewica Wolnościowa and are just two organisations Polish that are leading the way.

* In addition to financial input that Jaruzelski received, states that called themselves communists have right from the start been happy to have deals with businesses (for example).  Here I’m looking at left-wing criticisms of Stalinism and Real Socialism.

** This offers lessons for people opposed to Thatcher.  Rather than seeing her as evil, or even as ground-breaking, it’s more fitting to see her as an embodiment of capitalism, a capitalism that isn’t like the X-Files (maintained by secret men behind closed doors) or The Silence (a demonic force which controls us)  rather, we are capitalism.  We gain (as Marx knew) benefits from it.  We maintain it.  An effective left-wing criticism of capitalism requires a handling of this irony.  This enables us to understand why some people ignore all the bad that happened through her, in that they concentrate on the good.

*** Not just with workers’ representation only via party members in Poland, but also I question whether the British trade union system was effectively democratic, in that I believe positions of power to corrupt people, and prefer collectives.

**** The standard line is to blame communism for authoritarianism in Poland.  There is truth in this, but I believe it owes itself to an old mindset of people such as parents, priests, politicians, professors and, err.. something else beginning with “p” should have more respect.


The social construction of sexuality

The Wrocław museum for contemporary art has very interesting events, and yesterday I attended one entitled “The social construction of sexuality” which was to mark the publication of the Polish translation of the book with the same name as the title of the evening  by Steven Seidman (Polish “Społeczne tworzenie seksualności“) with forward by Jacek Kochanowski, who gave the lecture last evening.


During the talk Jacek Kochanowski spoke of how sexuality as is considered to be in Poland does not reflect the reality of the different sexualities in Poland.  As he said, it is a fact that there is a great diversity, which can involve not only sex only involving men or women but also fetishisation and heterosexual darkrooms (a migrant cultural element from gay culture).

I was attracted to this event as I am interested in the issue of normality (my last article was on the sexist nature of normality in Poland).  Kochanowski spoke of how the clear model in Poland which is expected of sex is that not only does it only involve a male and a female, but also it must involve an orgasm (largely involving the male) in order for it to be called sex.  Furthermore, this sex is not for pleasure but for procreation.  Such a sex requires a dominant person and a passive person.  Anything outside of this is outside of the “norm” and is therefore viewed with suspicion, this then being one of the reasons behind homophobia in Poland.  Of course, this view is largely influenced by the official policy of the Roman Catholic church (even if not always followed by its members).  This has of course obvious consequences for women, reduced to orgasm- free sex and being child-bearers.

Of course, this isn’t restricted to Poland.  I’ve heard such stuff before in GB and in my church some conservative evangelicals will focus on the “man and woman having sex” norm, though less so with regards to procreation but more with regards to “being one” in a marital relationship.  But anyway, I found it a useful contribution to the nature of normality in that morals get attached to the norm.  What is normal is moral, what is “abnormal” (even if involving consenting adults) is immoral.

I believe it to be useful to focus not just on the issue of rights, saying that “this and that” should happen, but also on focussing on the social construction of normality.  To add to what Kochanowski said, it is simply not true that all people born in Poland are things like Roman Catholics (I know plenty Orthodox and some Protestants, as well as atheists) or meat-eaters (I hardly know any meat-eaters).  That one particular norm is considered to be representative of all people in Poland says a lot about power and domination (ironically enough, giving the subject).

Another aspect that interested me about the lecture and then talk is the nature of auto-aggression by the gay male in Poland.  In that the norm is to be heterosexual, dominant and macho, being gay is tied up with not being male.  This is somewhat new for me.  Part of gay culture as I know it does involve macho-men, not men seeming to reject their male nature.  Hence the use of things like leather, things that accentuate the male body.

Of course, I am speaking from the position of dominance.  I am heterosexual and married.  People like me are seen on advertising and films.  Bearing that in mind, I have the following contribution: I once attended a workshop on homosexuality led by a gay friend who informed us of the different parts of identity, being the biological sex (if it is clear which one one has), the gender role in society, the clothes one wears, the biological sex(es) that one is sexually attracted to, ones sexuality (meaning how I express ones biological sex or ones desire for sex, such as through the clothes one wears, body posture and the contact that one seeks for, such as men playing football together).  A man can wear women’s clothes and be heterosexual.  A woman can be a manager.  A man can be gay and be macho.  A heterosexual man can like the physical touch of other men (even if it takes a few drinks to get to that state)*.

Perhaps I have the wrong impression.  That being LGBT is even further from being the “norm” in Poland than in other countries I have lived in means that I have a very small relation to LGBT culture.

In any case, I recommend the Wrocław museum of contemporary art.  (Hence my last review of an event there.)

I plan to return to the theme of “normality” in the future.

* Later my wife told me of a documentary she saw of interviews wth female sex-workers, who said that often men wanted someone to happen in the way of anal stimulation (i.e. happening to them).  This was something they were ashamed about and therefore were asking sex-workers for this, rather than their wives.  A men having pleasure on or in his arse is seen as being gay, and therefore the men in question didn’t also want themselves to be thought of being gay.  Certainly, I’ve heard before about heterosexual men liking not only being stroked on their arse, but also being anally penetrated by women one way or another.  This offers of course another way in which women can rape men.

This offers an interesting light on the nature of men and women relations, in that part of male homophobia is born out of the fear of being raped.  Here I’ll admit something.  As a child I was brought up in a homophobic culture and “queer” was a term of insult.  I remember rumours of people being gay and feeling a fear, a fear that I now realised was out of a fear of being raped.  “Backs to the walls, lads” we said.  I remember years later seeing Julian Clary on a TV show where an older man said “I’ve got no problem with you being gay, just don’t try anything with me”, to which Julian Clary replied “You should be so lucky!”  Here there is an assumption that all gay men want sex with all men (said for example about gay footballers, “surely you can’t shower with them”.  Here of course nakedness is mixed up with sex.  Like Kochanowski, I’m a fan of naturist areas.  Eastern Germany’s good with that).

I wonder whether this fear that all gay men want sex with all men is a projection.  My wife told me anyway that in this sense men are confronted with how it is possible for women to feel, in that any man can be a rapist.  (Of course, as I just demonstrated, it goes for women as well).

“Never again communism?” A review

I saw an advert for a book “Never again communism?  On left-wing criticism of Stalinism and Real Socialism” (“Nie wieder Kommunismus?  Zur linken Kritik an Stalinismus und Realsozialismus” ) and was intrigued by the chance to read a collection of left-wing criticism of Stalinim.  Following on this blog will be an irregular series of articles which looks are various issues raised in the excellent book that offers many insights for the critical left-winger.

Now, you can rest assured that the aim of these articles or of this blog is not to have you, by the end, defending Stalin, rounding up our enemies and putting them against walls.  Nah, this isn’t about white-washing what has happened in the name of communism; that’s the very point of the book.

The introduction by the Gruppe INEX to the book says as much: “Anyone who speaks today about communism is not allowed to keep quiet about Real Socialism or Stalinism”.  It goes on in rejecting a possible distancing of the theory from the praxis, “It is obvious that Stalinism and Real Socialism were thought to be an actualisation of the communist idea and up until their end was connected to impulses out of the communist idea”.  Christian Schmidt goes on: “The communist heritage, the communist task was an […] idea for the demand for a society free from exploitation and tyranny.  […] one can see (however) that all societal experiments to realise communism were not free from exploitation and certainly not free from tyranny”.

Why then, to be interested in this book, and in communism?  Well, for me, as I said, it isn’t about me being on a journey towards being a communist , rather, the question does come as to why something which aimed towards emancipation and an end to exploitation turned into, as it says on the back cover, “a praxis of repression and terror”.

As regular readers of this blog should know by now, I am not uncritical towards the left.  In one book I have Bob Avakian and Bill Martin speak of Stalin, actually employing the metaphor “you don’t make an omlette without breaking any eggs” and goes on to speak up for forcing Chinese academics to work in fields as that would be “good for them” (some communists I know do speak of “if I had power I would ban religion/football”). Otherwise, unconditional support (not just by communists)  is given to the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavrez despite their involvement in the jailing of people with different political views,.

As is said in the introduction, a lack of critical analysis from some members of the left regarding communism is due to defensiveness.  A hangover from the Cold War is that the ideological campaign of battling communism and indeed any alternative to capitalism.  Cuts to public services and opposition to free health care in the US are part of this.  Things like rights for workers, egalitarianism, human rights, pro-migrationary policies and the such are decried as “communist” or “unrealistic”.  The assumption held by many is that there “is no alternative” to that which we have.  In this context the lack of criticism to what has happened in the name of communism and socialism can be understood.

Why am I interested in this book?  Well, a bit of a personal biography: I was brought up in a council estate during the Thatcher years.  That wasn’t going to make me right-wing.  I joined the Labour party and was one of those who was active during the 1997 election which Labour won.  My politics became clearer and I started calling myself a socialist.  The atmosphere of the time was very influential and I accepted wholly social democracy.  18 years of Tory rule got me supporting the premise of the main challenge to that and its reoccurance, and therefore I unconditionally supported New Labour.  The recent years (including an anti-immigrant policy of the Labour government), largely the cuts and response to them, coupled with my growing awareness of the limits of social democracy in the face of capitalism (say, intense and successful lobbying by oil businesses in the face of climate change) have got me wondering about alternatives and here I am not thinking of communism (sorry to disappoint fascist activists quick to call all anti-fascists “communists”)  but whether there are alternatives to social democracy (said I, the member of a social democrat party).

Another thing, I know of some communists who are good people; they share many wishes as myself, and are very much anti-Stalinist.  In GB some stayed as communists despite everything because they still believe in the ideal, and see this as possible (possibly not via a state apparatus).  Even if I don’t want communism myself, I see how communism is not a black-and-white matter.

That I live in Poland makes this all more important.  Many western commentators, when Poland comes into the conversation will shake their heads and say solemnly “Things were bad before 1989, but now Poland is free”, making out that *everything* got better in after 1989, or that anything bad that came into being or remained after 1989 must be ignored.  Of course, I don’t know any people in Poland who want a return to communist state rule.  That does not however rule out criticism of capitalism (millions spent on unprofitable stadiums while people go hungry or rising rents which lead to more homelessness, the abuse of asylum seekers), with the consideration of yes, alternatives, and considerations of how was it that there were people in Poland who wanted communism, and were supportive of the regime and that things worked out as they did, with food shortages,  the murder of opponents and so on.

I also wish to avoid the Autobahn argument.  Yes, Stalinist and Maoist rule in the Soviet Union and China did bring things like greater literacy.  While these things need to be taken into account, they cannot justify Stalinist and Maoist rule.  Let’s be real about this, without the need to try to find easy “knock-out” arguments to close discussions.

Therefore, future articles will look at different focuses of the “Never again communism?” book, such as:

What kind of repression and terror took place (the “skull-cities of socialism”), nationalism in the Soviet Union (and what Lenin had to do with this), communism and gender emancipation (including for transexuals) in Russia during the 1920’s, Stalin’s state capitalism, pre- and post-revolution criticism of Leninism and Stalinism, GDR-antifascism and what that had to do with taking the focus away from the Shoah.

Additionally is something I find useful, namely, “Left-wing members who are really interested in alternatives to the market and the state must discuss possibilities for democratic decision-making in production and distribution.  […] (Such considerations) cannot be delayed as to the time of revolutionary changes.  It is necessary to develop, when possible, concrete ideas in the Here and Now and when possible, to try them out in order to see what chance they have as to their application”.

Developing alternatives to capitalism requires us to be realistic, to not assume that we have all the answers, to not shy from looking at the history of what happened when people tried to set up alternatives.

The next article in this series will look at the chapter “In the dead-end; the real existing nationalism in the Soviet Union” written by Che Buraškas.