THE POLISH AUGUST by Neal Ascherson
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THE POLISH AUGUST

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Scottish journalist Ascherson's analytical history of political upheaval in communist Poland is mostly successful even by the harshest test--as background for understanding the recent army clampdown. His narrative is structured around a series of cycles: in each case, popular protest and desire for social change, running up against a Party and government bureaucracy with entrenched privileges (a legacy of Stalinism that, unlike outright secret-police tactics, has never been expunged), periodically bursts its barriers and produces a change in leadership initially responsive to popular demands; but in part because it cannot completely meet those demands, the new leadership hardens into another barrier to change--thus inducing another cycle. The first cycle was not altogether an internal matter. Though Ascherson carefully eschews the argument that Poland's communist regime was entirely imposed from without, he notes that the postwar communists faced difficult problems--the thorniest of which was Polish nationalism. Fighting the image of themselves as Moscow agents, Gomulka and his colleagues tried to fashion a broad-based regime incorporating the peasantry, the small Polish proletariat, and non-communist socialists. A mixed economy was devised; but the political set-up effectively excluded all but communists from the government. When the Marshall Plan was announced, Gomulka had to follow the USSR in rejecting it--thus assuring Poland's participation in the Cominform. A period of Stalinization followed, complete with Gomulka's Moscow-inspired removal from power and the introduction of forced collectivization and industrialization along Soviet lines. The result was the first outbreak of protest strikes in 1956, the restoration of Gomulka, the return of land to the peasants, and the first experiments with worker participation--all to forestall the need for a Soviet occupation of the country, like the one that occurred that year in Hungary. (It was Poland, Ascherson notes, that championed the idea of a decentralized economy that has taken hold in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; but long-standing Polish fear of political decentralization blocked the realization of its economic theory.) The cycle initiated in 1956 came to a conclusion with the hardening of Gomulka's regime in the late '60s, and a new cycle began with the strikes of 1970--and so on to still another cycle, set off in 1980 with the rise of Solidarity. Today Poland cannot meet popular economic demands because it is in hock to Western bankers (the result of high prices for capital goods imported in the '70s, along with wage concessions granted then); and it cannot meet popular political demands because of the Soviets. So genuine reform cannot run its course. The recent clampdown therefore becomes comprehensible and foreseeable--though Ascherson does not, in his analysis, take account of the army, which has emerged as critical above Party, trade union, and Church. Withal, an extremely valuable study.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking