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Reforming the Party in Poland

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The various Communist parties in East-Central Europe experienced several waves of transformation -- or attempted transformation -- between 1945 and 1989. A "thaw" would come, and reformers took over, followed by a crackdown and the return of the hardliners. Often the Soviet Union was a prime mover behind the crackdown, either directly in the case of East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) or indirectly through behind-the-scenes pressure as in Poland (1981).

The declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981 not only brought an end (temporarily) to the official activities of the Solidarity trade union. It also dealt a heavy blow to reformers within the Party. After the major strikes in Ursus and Radom in 1976, a group within the Party had emerged with the aim of liberalizing the apparatus. The group was officially called struktury poziome -- a rather bureaucratic-sounding title that means "the level of structure" -- but they were informally known as poziomki or "wild strawberries." They were red, in other words, but not your garden variety.

Hieronim Kubiak was a member of this group, which hoped to convene an extraordinary Party congress in 1980 to advance their goals. He would eventually become a member of the Politburo representing the reform wing. "As a lone man, I was not so important," he told me in a conversation this August at a restaurant near the main square in Krakow's Old Town.

I could do something only because there were plenty of people similar to me. We'd been working together from the time we'd been students. We were also against Martial Law. After the Congress, we wanted first of all to make such changes that people could accept the system of their own free will. Of course it was a dream. But if we were dreaming, I am not ashamed of it.

Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had taken over the position in February 1981, made the final decision to declare Martial Law in December of that year. He argued that the measure was necessary to prevent a Soviet invasion. Whether the Kremlin ever had such an intention, it had been putting a great deal of pressure on Jaruzelski to suppress the opposition.

The declaration was devastating for Kubiak. "When it became obvious that Martial Law was unavoidable and later at the beginning of Martial Law when some strikers in Silesia were shot, we decided to withdraw from all of that. I wrote a letter to Jaruzelski telling him that this was not my dream, that I was not going to support it," he recalled. "Jaruzelski said, 'Yes, but if you will go, who will stay with me and help me to do any of these reforms?'"

Kubiak stayed on -- to oversee reforms in the educational and cultural realms. "As the secretary of the Central Committee after the 9th Extraordinary Congress, I was responsible for higher education and also for culture," he continued. "How could I tell Jaruzelski that all these things meant nothing to me, that I was leaving? But it was already after soldiers shot workers. I am from a workers' family. I am not an aristocrat. Workers mean something very important to me, and I'm not joking. I was freed by Jaruzelski to do what I wanted to do a month later after the Sejm made the decisions."

We talked about his experience in the Party prior to 1976 as well as the critical years between Martial Law and the Round Table negotiations in 1989. We talked about the role of nationalism in Poland as well as the impact of EU membership. But first, he told me several fascinating stories about the time he spent in the United States, thanks to Bobby Kennedy.

The Interview

I'd like to ask you about the struggle in the 1980s between reformers and the non-reformers. You managed to survive thanks to Jaruzelski.

I was involved very much in the students' movement in October 1956. Later in March 1968, I was personally offended by my own country over what happened with Jews. I'm not joking. My wife was a Jew. She decided that she would leave Poland and not wait to be kicked out. It was a very dramatic moment for me because she decided to go alone.

Your wife left in 1968. Did she come back?

Only after the political transformation of 1989. She left for Italy. There was a lot of Polish political immigration. She had contact with some former friends of mine. It was very dramatic for me in 1968. Neither she nor I expected that we would divorce. But because of that, I was informed from the inside in 1968 about almost everything.

Later, in December 1970, there was a wave of strikes on the seashore in Gdańsk and Szczecin. At that time, a group from my generation decided to change a lot here in Poland and prevent any more shootings of Polish citizens by Polish soldiers. I was invited at that time by the new vice prime minister to be his advisor. It didn't last a very long time, not more than half a year. At that time, I was asked to prepare an opening to Polish political emigrants because of my experience in the United States. Because of all these times -- 1956, 1968, 1970 -- I was not alone. I had a lot of friends from the Polish Students Association. Again in 1976, there were strikes at Ursus and also in Radom. Again, we tried to learn what was going on and what we could do. On the basis of that, a movement inside the Party emerged that was called poziomki, which is the name of a small red fruit, wild strawberries. The formal name was struktury poziome, which means "the level of structure."

We decided in 1980 that we had to organize support for an extraordinary Party Congress. We wanted to change the Party. At that time, struktury poziome were organizing in all Polish universities but also in a lot of factories. On the basis of that we were able to force the Central Committee to decide to call an extraordinary congress of the Party. But we were also influencing the process of elections of delegates to that Congress. By the time the Congress began, we were able to control almost half the delegates. Because of that, I became chairman of the programming committee, and we were able to reject some very conservative people trying to be elected to the Central Committee.

I wasn't prepared for such a course of events. It was June/July when the Congress happened. I was in contact with Wayne State University. I was prepared to go there for half a year in September 1981. My personal plans were not related at all to official state or Party duties. But when we were able to stop some conservative people from entering the leadership of the Party, Kazimierz Barcikowski said to me, "If you've gone this so far, you have to stay and fulfill your duties." That was the reason I became a member of the Politburo.

Then there was the question of who should become first secretary. Stanislaw Kania was a Party member who decided to fire some conservatives inside the Party. We decided to help him a little with the structures. The delegates decided to elect the first secretary and not to accept someone already appointed. But for elections, we had to have at least two candidates. We had a conversation with Kazimierz Barcikowski, telling him that he should help us now: Kania would be one candidate, but he would be the second candidate. During World War II, Barcikowski had been a young Armia Krajowa soldier. Later he was involved in Party activities, but always as a reformer, including in Krakow when he was the first secretary for a short time. I didn't know at the time but he was also involved in the Masons. There is a custom in the Masons that if you don't want to inform others that you are member, they will keep it secret, but 100 days after your death they will publish an obituary saying goodbye to their brother. That's how we found out. He was secretary of the Central Committee, a member of the Politburo, and for a short time even vice premier of Poland. He died four or five years ago, and that's when I found out.

As a lone man, I was not so important. I could do something only because there were plenty of people similar to me. We'd been working together from the time we'd been students. We were also against Martial Law. After the Congress, we wanted first of all to make such changes that people could accept the system of their own free will. Of course it was a dream. But if we were dreaming, I am not ashamed of it. Jaruzelski was prime minister of Poland at that time, in the second half of 1981. The first secretary of the Central Committee was Kania. But under the influence of the Soviet leaders and also because of the complexity of the situation in Europe and Poland (where the threat of the civil war was very real), the conservative part of our Party decided to change the first secretary, and the man who should change it was Jaruzelski, as the prime minister. Today, it's almost impossible to believe, but as a general, the minister of defense, and the prime minister, Jaruzelski at that point was a symbol of change. He wanted change.

When it became obvious that Martial Law was unavoidable and later at the beginning of Martial Law when some strikers in Silesia were shot, we decided to withdraw from all of that. I wrote a letter to Jaruzelski telling him that this was not my dream, that I was not going to support it. That was the second time he did something for me. He said, "Yes, but if you will go, who will stay with me and help me to do any of these reforms?"

The social milieu in which I was involved -- the group of still-young scholars of the social sciences -- we wanted to change the law concerning Polish universities. This was before Martial Law, as part of the 9th Extraordinary Congress. Before World War II, the universities had considerable autonomy. Have you seen the chains on some streets around Jagiellonian University here in Krakow? The chains are a symbol of autonomy. You could cross the border when there were chains on the street only when the chancellor gave permission. That showed that we were autonomous. In the 1950s and 1960s, much of this autonomy was destroyed. We wanted to reestablish it in the 1980s, especially as part of the Congress program.

There was a group here in Krakow headed by the former rector, Józef Andrzej Gierowski. He was the chairman of the informal team of which I was also a member, which prepared the change of law on Polish higher education in such a way to reestablish autonomy. That meant, first of all, that we -- those who work at the university -- would have the right to choose the chancellor and the rector. We prepared the change of this law concerning school autonomy, in a team -- as I already mentioned -- headed by Gierowski, for the Polish parliament to discuss on May 3, 1982, which is a symbolic day in Poland. But that was already after the declaration of Martial Law. Jaruzelski said to me at that time, "You can leave if you like, but please remember that the law on which you have been working, and which is so important for you and colleagues, will be discussed on May 3 in the parliament. So stay until then." Of course there's always a price to be paid for such a decision. But I decided that it was important to stay.

The other reason to stay had to do with Polish symbolic culture. It was a time of huge inflation. The money that was coming to institutions of symbolic culture -- theater, movie, music -- was lower and lower because of inflation. But there was a chance to change the law so that money given by the state to institutions of culture took into account the level of inflation. It would be discussed also at beginning of May. As the secretary of the Central Committee after the 9th Extraordinary Congress, I was responsible for higher education and also for culture. How could I tell Jaruzelski that all these things meant nothing to me, that I was leaving? But it was already after soldiers shot workers. I am from a workers' family. I am not an aristocrat. Workers mean something very important to me, and I'm not joking. I was freed by Jaruzelski to do what I wanted to do a month later after the Sejm made the decisions. The second decision concerning culture created a National Council of Culture, which was also to a large extent autonomous and included many Polish scholars and cultural figures.

But 1981 was important for us still from another point of view. There are two different ways of dealing with the disappointment of a huge part of society. One is to use force to stop the protests, which also might involve shooting. The second is to introduce changes that could remove the causes of the disappointment. The autonomy of schools and the National Council of Culture were part of what we wanted to change. But of course it was not enough. The question remained: to what extent could Polish workers organize trade unions of their own? An independent union? And this was the question of Solidarity.

I want to ask about political polarization. There's a lot of controversy when I talk to people about Adam Michnik and particularly his article about General Kiszczak. The Round Table negotiations took place in 1989 between the two sides, and they were successful. But there is still so much political polarization focused still on 1989-90.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.