Poland a nation poised on the brink
IT IS a cold, late October day in Southern Poland, and the first snow of the winter has just begun to fall. In the industrial town of Nowa Huta, only two things break up the monotony of the miles. of grey lines of flats and factories.
One is a great figure of Lenin. striding uncertainly between the boring lines of buildings supposedly inspired by him. The other is the true heart of the town — a spectacular and glorious Catholic church, built against official opposition over the last two decades.
Inside the church there are no seats. Thousands crowd in to hear Mass seven times every Sundae. shaking the snow off their hats and boots before standing on the sloping marble floor under a Christ figure which scums to he literally tearing itself upwards from the cross.
And it was these people in Nowa Huta, which was originally built as the atheist dream city of the future. who were amongst the first to go on strike in solidarity with the Gdansk shipyard workers in August.
The staggering success of the new movements which have brought reforms in peace was in many ways due to the Polish Catholic Church. With eight out of ten Poles going to church regularly. and a Polish Pope in the Vatican. the Catholic Church is possibly more influential in Poland than anywhere else in the world. And the State has positively courted the favours of the Church.
Demands for the Mass to be broadcast and for less Sunday working have been granted, and it:171 OtdOWSki. a Catholic deputy in the Polish "Parliament" has been appointed a deputy Prime Minister.
The Church has gained enormous ground in Poland since the papal visit last year. Many people there told me that it is now trendy to be a Catholic: even party members no longer have to hide the fact that they go to church. And the influence of that visit can be seen in several deep ways. The nation has found a focus for unity, Nobody in Poland would claim that the joy and hope inspired by the Pope's visit caused the strikes in 1980. The workers in Poland have rattled their chains twice before in the last ten years. But on those occasions. in 1970 and 1976. violent strikes were put down by violent action. This time the strikes were always peaceful. By their restraint and responsibility the workers pulled the rug from under the feet of the government. It was as good as spiking the guns with flowers. And-much of the solidarity and restraint which the strikers have drawn on in their long battle for justice comes from the Church, which has constantly played a dual role in the months of crisis.
On the one hand the bishops have urged caution and restraint. And of course statements like this have received the approval of the authorities.
When Cardinal Wyszynski warned of the possible consequences of extremist action, speaking at the national shrine of Jasna Gora at the height of the crisis. that part of his sermon received nationwide treatment in the media.
On the other hand the Church has given its full support to the demands of the new unions. A statement by the bishops which backed the strikers was made on the same day as the Cardinal's sermon in August.
The Church has been able to help in very positive ways as well. Nobody could have failed to have been moved by the sight of striking shipyard workers letting priests into their stockade at Gdansk to say Mass.
But the Church has also provided the free trade union solidarity with a working model of non-political social organisation in a communist country.
There are in fact close ties between Solidarity and the Church. Lech Walesa, Solidarity's leader is a devout Catholic who has described Cardinal Wyszynski as one of his most trusted advisers.
Free trade unions do not represent a political opposition, and as long as the unions stick to specific demands then the State has been unable to resist them. Especially since the unions have been able to back up those demands with industrial action which can paralyse the alreadycrippled Polish economy.
The initial response of the State in the autumn was remarkable. Edward Gierek was disgraced, and many members of the government which had ruled Poland for a decade went with him. The new government admitted that there had been mistakes, and then claimed that the new unions were part of the continuing Marxist revolution. The implication, as Deputy Foreign Minister Marian Dobrosiclski told me, was that all would be resolved by dialogue: "In order to come out of such a big crisis there are different views. But this is in my very deep conviction a common search for the best solution, and not an attempt to fight each other."
One good example of the union's non-political status is the issue of meat. Solidarity want cheap meat or they want wagerises to cope with inflation: but they do not want to get involved in the problems of meat distribution. As Walesa told me: "That is the State's responsibility,"
So this strange brinkmanship continues: the State publicly wanting open dialogue and continuing the historical process of the dialectic towards the socialist
• rnillenium, and privately trying to find ways to restore confidence and order. Meanwhile Solidarity continues to insist that it is not challenging the supremacy of the State or the authority of the people's party. At the same time it is busily signing up as many members as possible, and engaging in what are in one sense political discussions, although never admitted as such.
Both sides could go over the brink. The Politburo could lose the confidence of the Party machine by being forced to go over their slow bureaucratic heads to get things moving again. Or the hotheads in the union movement could make more overtly political demands. as happened in November when there was nearly a rash of strikes over the government's refusal to set up ajoint/union party committee to look into the working of the secret police.
For the moment the process of consolidation goes on. Only ten days before Christmas the Church once again urged restraint. A letter read from pulpits said: "We must not risk losing our sovereignty by irresponsible actions." And every move is of course being watched closely by the Kremlin and the leaders of the other Warsaw Pact countries.
In the opinion of Jerzy Turowiez, the Editor of one of Poland's leading Catholic newspapers they have reason to be worried.
With the humourwhich is one of Poland's greatest strengths he told me: "I hope the contagion will spread, but not too fast. Let's get the Polish situation stabilised first. But as Christians we must think that what is good for us may be good l'or our neighbours."
Dave Levi, is a reporter with London Broadcasting Company ILBC). Hr visited Poland recently.