H-Blocks And Solidarnosc

Solidarnosc and Workers democracy - Alan Hardman cartoon
Solidarnosc and Workers democracy - Alan Hardman cartoon

Chapter Eighteen


IN 1980-82 there were other vital issues of concern of which Militant took account. In Northern Ireland in 1981 the long-running conflict in the H-Blocks, the dirty protest and hunger strikes, were coming to a head. Much space was devoted by Militant to this issue with our Northern Ireland co-thinkers detailing the horrific conditions in the prisons.

The H-Block protests had been provoked by the withdrawal by the Thatcher government of prisoners’ ‘special status’. We said:

‘H-Block’, like all aspects of repression, is really a class question. But if the labour movement does not take it up it will be championed by bigots who will turn it into a sectarian issue. Opposition to repression, which is a fundamental duty of socialists, is not akin to support for the Provisionals. To oppose the horrific conditions of the ‘H-Blocks’ and Armagh is in no way to support the false methods of struggle which organisations like the Provisionals have taken up both in Ireland and Britain. (1)

We went on to point out that:

The labour movement must fight for the scrapping of the entire repressive apparatus. It must also take up the issue of those who have been convicted by the non-jury Diplock courts. (2)

Did this mean that Militant was in favour of the release of sectarian bigots? Despite the small forces of Militant Irish Monthly, no other organisation had attempted, as they had, to work out a policy in opposition to repression which would also get the support of the organised labour and trade union movement.

During the ‘Troubles’ unpardonable atrocities from both sides have been committed by sectarian bigots who are the enemies of class unity. Such would be the ‘Shankill butchers’, cut-throat assassins of innocent Catholics, or those who gunned down quite mercilessly ten Protestant workers at Bessbrook, South Armagh, in 1976. (3)

The proposal was therefore made for “a review conducted by the labour movement of the cases of all those convicted on offences arising out of the Troubles. On the basis of such a review, the movement should itself decide who should be designated as a political prisoner, so as to campaign for that person’s release.” Tony Saunois, on the NEC, won Labour’s support for a campaign along these principled lines.

Thatcher, however, remained inflexible in the face of the gathering protests of the prisoners. This resulted in May 1981 in the death of Bobby Sands, followed by the other hunger strikers. This in turn led to an intensification of sectarian divisions. 

Unfortunately, these came just at a time when the labour movement and working class of Northern Ireland, through strikes, occupations, anti-Tory demonstrations and other activity by the trade unions, had begun to unite Catholic and Protestant workers in action. A number of Northern Ireland trades councils were preparing to challenge the Tories and the bigots in local elections on an independent working-class basis.

Militant never shrank from describing conditions as they really were. A very vivid report followed a visit to a blanket protester in Long Kesh was by well-known Militant supporter, Bill Webster, who lived in Derry. It showed the horrific conditions at this time. 

As a result of this kind of intervention by Militant Irish Monthly supporters, a dialogue opened up between Militant supporters and some of the prisoners in the jails. Only through this kind of stubborn, consistent and heroic work has the ground been prepared for winning the Northern Irish working class to socialist ideas.


The other key development on the international arena was the drama unfolding in Poland. Huge strikes had convulsed Poland in the course of 1980. This compelled the Stalinist regime of Gierek to make some ‘democratic’ concessions. 

The workers’ protests had mushroomed under the banner of the newly-established ‘Solidarity’ (Solidarnosc). Such was the movement that Gierek was compelled to cede power to the military leader Jarulzelski. This was one expression of the utter rotting of the Polish ‘Communist’ Party. Militant pointed out in April 1981 that

despite naked threats of Russian intervention, regardless of the 90-day ‘truce’ on strikes between the government of Jarulzelski and the independent unions, and in the teeth of the opposition of their own leaders, enormous outbursts of anger, including local general strikes, continue to roll from one end of Poland to the other. (4)

The movement in March 1981 represented the biggest general strike witnessed in the post-war period in Poland or in Eastern Europe. Solidarity mushroomed into an organisation ten-million strong. This compared to the three million members, who formally belonged to the Polish CP. 

The Stalinist regime hung by a thread. In the conditions then obtaining in Poland it would have been possible to have carried through a political revolution, to have established workers’ democracy. However, the ‘Russian Bear’, the Russian bureaucracy, were threatening a military intervention unless Jarulzelski reined in the movement. 

The utter demoralisation behind the scenes of the bureaucracy was shown by the comments of a Silesian (south-west Poland) bureaucrat: “We have lost confidence in the Central Committee and our children have lost confidence in us.” (5)  At the same time we stressed:

Because the Solidarity leaders… have refused to pose the issue of peaceful political revolution to establish workers’ democracy. They must inevitably seek an accommodation with the ‘liberal’ wing of the bureaucracy. But basic demands for reform raise the need to end the corrupt totalitarian bureaucratic regime. (6)

The movement of 1980-81 in Poland clearly was in the direction of political revolution.

A Religious Cloak?

It is true that it was cloaked in religion. The Catholic Church was the institution which had, for want of an alternative, played the role over centuries of a kind of guarantor of Polish nationalism. It is also true that there were some pro-capitalist trends within Solidarity. But the overwhelming majority of Solidarity members and supporters at this stage did not look for salvation in a return to capitalism. 

Capitalism became an alternative only after the crushing of the movement by the military. Together with seeming advantages of capitalism during the 1980s boom this decisively changed the outlook of the Polish workers. At the last Solidarity conference in October 1981, one worker from the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk stated: “Some time ago everything was in our hands, all of Poland was watching.” (7)

The crucial question pointed up by this historic conference was the role of the Solidarity leadership. Militant’s correspondent who attended it reported that

the workers feel power slipping away from them. Instinctively, they are reaching out for a new way forward, for an alternative to the compromises of Walesa. They are seeking a road to genuine workers’ power. (8)

Unfortunately, time did not permit the emergence of a genuine Marxist current and in December 1981 the counter-revolution struck. Jaruzelski arrested the Solidarity leaders, ‘suspended’ Solidarity itself and declared strikes illegal “for the time being”. He attempted to take back all the gains and democratic rights conquered in the previous 17 months. 

Russian military intervention risked provoking a national uprising of the Polish people. By choosing to mobilise behind a Polish military figure the counter-revolution took the safest course. Walesa initially was reported to have been allowed to go free while the regime urged him to enter negotiations with Jaruzelski.

While there was considerable latent resistance to the establishment of military rule, at the same time the movement of the workers, because of the deficiencies of the Solidarity leaders, had arrived at a cul-de-sac. A certain weariness and exhaustion had set in which led to a temporary defeat. 

A new movement, which was to rise later in the decade, took an entirely different form from that of 1980-81. The Stalinist military counter-revolution had a big retrogressive effect on the outlook of the Polish workers. 

Not just the bureaucracy but the very idea of a planned economy received a big blow in the events of December 1981. From now on pro-capitalist tendencies would predominate, even in the workers’ movement and in the workers’ consciousness. 

This would be reinforced by the 1980s ‘boom’, particularly from 1984-85 onwards. It was for this reason that Thatcher received such a rapturous reception in Gdansk in November 1988, from the same workers who had moved to embrace the ideas and programme for workers’ democracy in the events in 1980-81. 

The crushing of that movement and the complete failure of the Stalinist Jaruzelski regime to develop society led to the collapse of support for the ideas of socialism and the planned economy. Infatuation with the ‘market’ became the norm.