This project has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
(Grant Agreement n. 669194)
(Grant Agreement n. 669194)
Domestic turmoil in December 1970 brought about replacements in the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) and the government, a reorganisation of the decision-making process and a reversal of the previous national strategy.
Edward Gierek’s takeover of the party epitomised the generation change in the socialist leadership. The majority of the newly promoted politburo and government members had only entered politics after the Second World War or even in the period of de-Stalinisation. In addition, many members of this group came from an industrial background and were intended to occupy positions related to their professional experience. A higher degree and international experience became popular qualities among the leadership of the 1970s. For these reasons, both domestic and external observers quickly labelled Gierek’s cohort as “technocrats”.
Unlike his predecessor Władysław Gomułka, who in the late-1960s had concentrated policymaking in his closed circle of collaborators, Gierek aimed to reinvigorate the function of the PUWP politburo. Moreover, from 1971 economic matters were moved almost entirely from the party to the government. Despite the significant overlap between the two, traditionally the government gathered more professionals. New expert bodies such as a Commission for the Modernisation of Economy and State Functioning and the First Secretary’s personal advisor, were created. Many academics entered state bodies and external research institutions became a valuable source of expertise. Although a few influential politburo members, often also occupying positions in the government, remained critical in decision-making, the number of people and institutions participating in the process was larger than in the previous decades of socialism.
The new leadership proclaimed an economic strategy based on accelerated economic growth, consumption and an expansion of contacts with the West. Capitalist countries, above all in Western Europe, were seen as sources of technology, financing and as the preferred recipients of Poland’s exports. At the same time, the new economic strategy also brought about an improvement in the quality of life, increases in wages and better accessibility of consumer products, including ones arriving from the West. The economic agenda was accompanied by a renewal of diplomatic relations with Western states, liberalisation of the passport policy and loosening of censorship on Western culture. In comparison with other socialist regimes in the 1970s, Poland’s national strategy was the riskiest and the most ambitious.
The initial positive results of this strategy made the early 1970s a “belle époque” in the history of Poland’s socialism. The domestic support and positive reception it received allowed policymakers to disregard its adverse effects. It was not until price rises for basic food products in 1976 caused demonstrations that they acknowledged the difficulty of Poland’s economic situation, which manifested itself in a high level of indebtedness and rising amounts of imports from the West. Attempts at modifying the strategy proved ineffective, which allowed the foreign debt to grow and the domestic situation to further deteriorate. These developments paved the ground for a debt crisis and the emergence of the Solidarność movement in 1980. These two developments wiped out Gierek’s leadership and the national strategy of the 1970s.
The economic and political agenda of the 1970s had been the result of a consensus among different groups in the socialist elite. Newly-promoted party and government members interested in policy revision received support from academics, who since the late 1960s had pointed out the shortcomings of the previous economic plans, bankers, who called for foreign loans to be exploited, and the foreign trade apparatus, which was unchangeably interested in expanding contacts with the West. However, with the implementation of the new strategy and especially after the first signs of its weaknesses, debates and disagreements among the socialist elite emerged and gradually escalated.
As the body responsible for coordinating policy with other socialist regimes, the party usually set the ideological boundaries for debates and policymaking. The practical approach of state bodies, banks and foreign trade enterprises often clashed with the position of the PUWP officials. The tension concerning policy towards the European Economic Community (EEC) well illustrates this phenomenon. Western European integration represented a significant threat to Poland’s foreign-trade-based economic strategy. However, given the socialist regimes’ policy of not recognising the EEC, restrictions on access to the EEC market could not be overcome through negotiations. The state apparatus, especially the Ministry of Foreign Trade and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, consequently lobbied for the relationship with the EEC to be regulated. The party opposed this pressure and defended the common socialist front, going against Poland’s economic interests.
Disagreement also emerged over taking foreign loans. While the most influential politburo and government officials supported the policy of getting into debt, bankers, academics and experts in state bodies such as the Planning Commission quickly turned against this practice. From 1973, these groups regularly warned against taking more foreign credits, pointing out that an accumulation of them might result in bankruptcy in the second half of the decade. However, the party and government leadership members marginalised their views and accused them of being over-pessimistic and excessively focused on data.
Representatives of the industrial ministries in the government and the foreign trade enterprises linked with them fuelled the policy of loan-taking. Being interested in new modern investments, they regularly asked the government for more funds. Particularly in the second half of the decade, when production in many sectors became dependent on imports from the West, they pushed for additional credits. These requests regularly clashed with the opinions of bankers, academics and experts in the Planning Commission. Driven by a hope of a sudden improvement in the economic situation and afraid to admit the failure of the national strategy, the politburo and government leadership responded to this pressure and authorised foreign loans until the end of the decade.
At the same time, bankers and academics explored a possible remedy for the impending debt crisis, almost univocally recommending joining the International Monetary Fund and seeking debt rescheduling. However, the party rejected these proposals for ideological reasons. Instead, a newly emerged faction in the politburo believed that only closer cooperation with the Soviet Union could help Poland’s situation. Having gained substantial influence based on their criticism of Gierek and the 1970s national strategy, in 1980 this group took over power in the party.
* All the texts about Poland posted here summarise the research findings of PanEur1970s team member Aleksandra Komornicka, which are published as Aleksandra Komornicka, “From ‘Economic Miracle’ to the ‘Sick Man of the Socialist Camp’: Poland and the West in the 1970s”, in Angela Romano and Federico Romero (eds), European Socialist Regimes’ Fateful Engagement with the West: National strategies in the long 1970s (Routledge 2020).