The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The Party-State and Society during the
Solidarity Period

THE CRISIS OF THE POST-STALINIST REGIME, 1970–1980

The crisis that engulfed Poland during the second half of the 1970s was a reflection of the multi-dimensional process of decay of state socialism. In December 1970 Edward Gierek came to power as a direct result of the worker rebellion against Gomulka's economic policies. Gierek skillfully calmed the worker protests by freezing food prices and scraping the unpopular economic reform. He stabilized the political situation by advocating direct relations between the party and society and a “frank direct dialogue” with all social groups concerning the country's economic and social problems. Moreover, Gierek hoped to rejuvenate the image of the Communist party as the party of economic prosperity, rejecting Marxist orthodoxy and remaining open to economic and political innovations. The political style of the new leaders was a notable departure from the narrow-mindedness of Gomulka's regime. According to George Sanford: “Gierek's programme of economic prosperity and consumerism and reforms designed to improve the political, economic, educational and local-government structures within the existing framework of PUWP hegemony produced a mood of cautious and realistic optimism. This was strengthened by a four-year economic boom and by Gierek's personal popularity, justly gained in this period, as a result of his direct, man-to-man approach and efficiency as a political leader.” 1

Initially these policies were very successful. During the first half of the 1970s, the average income in Poland rose by 40 percent, there were greater varieties of foods and consumer durables on the market, housing availability and transportation were greatly improved. At the same time, the regime made some concessions to the farmers by eliminating hated compulsory deliveries of agricultural products for low, state-set prices and by extending the state health system to the countryside in 1972. The intelligentsia gained some breathing space when the anti-intellectual campaign that followed the events of 1968 subsided under the new party leadership and a new policy of accommodation with the church was introduced. Yet during the second half of the 1970s, Poland's economy began to decline, dashing the high expectations of the first half of the decade. Frustrated expectations have often been seen as one of classical preconditions for revolutionary upheaval. Following this argument, Jacek Kurczewski wrote that the 1980 crisis was not “a rebel

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