The Polish Revolution of 1918-1920: What happened and why did it fail?

This year is the 97th anniversary of the 1920 Kiev Offensive by the Polish Army and the decisive defeat of the Soviet troops at the Battle of Warsaw: an event of great historic importance that marked a turning point in the course of the European revolution. This front of the Russian Civil War was a grave and important test for the Bolshevik Party, sparking daily and intense debate throughout its ranks.

The Bolsheviks knew that if they were to achieve success in these battles, they would be able to give a significant boost to the forces of the Polish, German, Hungarian, and ultimately European and world revolutions.

In Poland today, the right-wing President Andrzej Duda (during this year’s anniversary celebrations) publicly subscribed to the idea behind the alternative name of the battle: the “Miracle at Vistula”. According to this myth, the Virgin Mary herself aided the Polish army in the holy fight against the godless Bolshevik hordes. Duda explained that he is “not hesitating to state, which is what the strategists and officers of the Polish army also thought at the time, that the breakthrough did occur on the day of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Such a divine intervention was, unfortunately, nowhere to be seen 19 years later as German and Russian tanks rolled through Polish fields at the commencement of the Second World War. In any case, we should leave Duda and his colleagues to their appeals to the heavenly legions once more, while we draw lessons from this turning point that changed world history.

Poland hero public domainJerzy Kossak interpreting the myth of holy intervention during the battle (1930). / Public Domain

The question of independence

The declaration of Polish independence in November 1918 was preceded by 123 years of partition of the country by the three great powers: Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Tsarist Russia. Without understanding the character of the national question arising from this partition and how the First and Second international dealt with it, it is impossible to understand the mood of the Polish workers during the Russian Civil War and the Soviet offensive of 1920.

The independence of the Polish state was mulled over and fought for by a range of classes: nobility, lesser nobility, the rising bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, with sections taking the lead temporarily in one period before transferring the initiative to another. The ruling classes across Europe periodically switched their positions in this turbulent and economically transformative period. In the end it was clear, that the only class to remain consistent in its revolutionary aspirations was the proletariat. But the flames of revolt in Poland could never be extinguished. “The Poles are always conspiring,” writes the brilliant Polish historian of the uprising of 1831, Mochnacki. “If they fare badly they revolt to shake off the yoke. They revolt because they cannot help revolting. But if they are doing well they revolt because they can afford it.”

The concrete reality of the struggle, however, cannot be reduced to the abstract idea of the “nation”. In fact, in its initial stages, the struggle for independence was restricted to a small section of the nobility, fighting with methods corresponding to its class character: a guerrilla war of small battles conducted by a small minority. This minority was unable to gain the support of the peasants they exploited and were unable to ally themselves with the rising bourgeois, who were seeking to replace the nobility as the leading force. These and other factors led the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie to debate the reasons for the partition in the first place, and the inability of the nobility to break with it. As such, the emerging petty-bourgeoisie began to blame, within the limits of their own class perspectives, the nobility for the general situation. In turn, parts of the petty-bourgeoisie (the early Polish Socialists) oriented themselves to the struggle for social reform, which gave them a veneer of ‘socialism,’ despite their petty-bourgeois class character.

The First International and Poland

The formation of the First International in fact originated with the international movement of solidarity with the Polish Uprising of 1863, which had been bloodily suppressed by the Russians. The International Workingmen’s Association, and above all Marx and Engels, never stopped advocating for the Polish cause despite intense debate regarding the complex interconnections of the Polish struggle with the wider questions posed by the development of the revolutionary struggle in Europe.

The First International was extremely heterogeneous in composition, ranging from petty-bourgeois revolutionary nationalists like Mazzini to anarchists like Bakunin and Proudhon; utopian socialists, and the British Trade Unions. Marx and Engels - the IWA’s main theoreticians - had to go through a long period of struggle with different tendencies to firmly establish the ideas of scientific socialism within the International.

Marx and Engels were advocating support for Polish independence in spite of the reactionary character of the Polish aristocrats leading the national movement at that stage. This was because because the struggle for Polish independence objectively undermined the power of the most reactionary force in Europe at that time: Tsarist Russia. On the other side of the argument were Proudhon and his followers, who denied the importance of the national struggle altogether, by declaring nationalities to be antiquated prejudices.

It is ironic that the establishment of the International - such a gigantic step forward for the revolutionary forces of the working-class - sprung out of the wave of workers’ solidarity with the Polish Uprising. The Polish national struggle occupied a central place in European politics throughout the 19th century (in spite of Proudhon’s idealistic prejudices) and also deeply affected the working-class movement. As Engels pointed out, the Polish people, by their heroic struggles against Tsarist Russia, on several occasions saved revolutions in the rest of Europe, as happened in 1792-94 when Poland was defeated by Russia but in the process saved the French revolution.

The circus of Proudhonists, spiritual ancestors of modern day Anarchists, which opposed Polish independence on the basis of their opposition to any and all states, has today been reduced to nothing but a curiosity. In any case, based on serious observation, Engels wrote in 1868 a series of articles for The Commonwealth, the organ of the IWA, answering many questions in more detail, and correctly outlining the complexity of the Polish national question in relation to the revolutionary tasks on the agenda in Europe and the necessity of a concrete analysis of each element in the equation from an internationalist standpoint. In short, making all small nationalities independent states would be reactionary; that is, simply not beneficial for the European working-class in its revolutionary struggle. Poland’s independence was then supported on the basis of acting as a “dam” against the most reactionary force in Europe, that of Tsarism, which would seek to strangle the European revolution.

The rising importance of the working-class

This perspective, correct at that time, was changed by the events of 1871, which marked the end of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie. The emphasis was switched – even in relation to Poland – towards the revolutionary working-class, which would play the decisive role in future upheavals. The policy, reflecting the growth of Polish distilling and textile industries, recognised that – following developments led by the nobility in the past insurrections – the Polish working-class did not fight for the same ends as its nobility. Instead, it would pursue its aims beyond the limitations of a national struggle, in alliance with the international working-class. As a result, the question of forging class unity between the Polish working-class and the nascent Russian working-class gained increased importance.

The Polish section of the Second International was formed in 1892. The PPS (Polish Socialist Party) from its inception was dominated by petty-bourgeois nationalism, thus provoking the split of the Marxist wing of the party, whose leader was soon to become Rosa Luxemburg. They formed the SDKPiL (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Lithuania and Poland) in 1893.

The young party was divided into two factions in relation to the national question, with one section taking the standpoint of Rosa Luxemburg. Her position had radicalised in the struggle against petty-bourgeois nationalism to the extent of reaching the wrong conclusion, by failing to understand the need to defend the right of the Polish people to pursue self-determination. The other camp followed Marchlewski’s position, more in agreement with the approach of Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. The important discussion between Lenin and Luxemburg on the National question is full of key lessons for revolutionaries today.

Although Rosa Luxemburg’s position was fundamentally wrong – an abstract position – she and her supporters were genuine internationalists motivated by the need to combat the reactionary petty-bourgeois nationalism of Pilsudski's so-called Polish Socialist Party, which consciously strove to separate the Polish workers from the Russian workers. A Russian author, Ivan Krylov, ended one of his fables with the following: “The eagle can come lower than a hen on the barn, but no hen can ever reach the heavenly realm.” There’s no doubt that Rosa’s role as a working-class revolutionary makes her the great “eagle” in this analogy, whereas desperate opportunism had reduced the reactionary wing of the PPS to a powerless “hen on the barn”.

“Socialist” chauvinism

The PPS split once more in 1906 on the question of independence and also the pursuit of Socialism. A leftward-moving faction called The Left adopted centrist and eventually revolutionary positions, ultimately merging with the SDKPiL to form the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland in 1918. A right-reformist faction called the Revolutionary faction – but mockingly called the Moderate faction by the Left – was more interested in achieving immediate independence and establishing a bourgeois parliamentary democracy on the basis of social reform.

Polish revolution 3 public domain1905 Revolution in Lodz, with the banner of the Polish Social Democracy (aligned with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party). / Public Domain

With the awakening of the working-class into political life (defining itself as a class movement by 1886) the Polish question was addressed in response to events. These included the unity of the Polish and Russian proletariat, emerging in their struggles (most notably in connection with the Russian revolution of 1905-06), and the hostile ideas of bourgeois patriotism. The period certainly spawned serious and complicated theoretical challenges for the Polish Communists. In turn, Poland has produced some of the most outstanding revolutionaries in Europe during this period, most notably Luxemburg, Dzerzhinsky, Radek and Marchlewski.

Following the period of struggles, strikes and upheavals by the working-class, the question had been blown all over the country once again by the mighty storm of the Great War. Curiously, there existed a strata of Polish Socialists who sought a shortcut by repeating Marx’s pre-1871 position in an abstract way, in turn signifying their mistrust of the now present revolutionary potential of the Polish – and Russian – proletariat.

On the other hand, there was an alignment of the Polish Socialist Party – that is, the right wing faction affiliated with the Second international – towards German imperialism, to the extent that the PPS supported Jozef Pilsudski’s Polish Legions, which fought on the side of Austro-German imperialism during the First World War. Criminally, the chauvinist PPS built a barrier against the workers of Russian Poland: 2.5 million people, including 500 thousand soldiers. Many of these were later some of the most dedicated participants in the Russian Revolution. The atomisation of the reformist movement towards such tendencies expressed the theoretical capitulation to social chauvinism of the Second International during the War. The extreme chauvinism of the PPS was never combated by the Second International, and this further contributed to the hopeless rot of the leadership of the Polish Socialist Party, in line with its European counterparts.

Impact of Russian October

In 1917, the October Revolution in Russia put into practise the positions defended by Lenin in 1903, namely: defence of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, up-to-and-including separation. This policy was extremely important in consolidating the Soviet revolution in Russia by winning over the support of workers and peasants of many oppressed nationalities of the former Tsarist empire, who supported the Bolsheviks during the Civil War. It was also the only way to show in the language of concrete facts that the working-class had no interest in perpetrating national oppression after conquering state power.

But Lenin’s position cannot just be reduced to the defence of the right of self-determination of oppressed nations. The necessary corollary to Lenin’s position was the defence of the unity of the working-class and the duty of revolutionary Marxists of oppressed nationalities to oppose petty-bourgeois nationalist prejudices among their own people that could break the unity of the working-class. This articulated position succeeded in winning the battle for a voluntary Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics.

Like Marx before him, Lenin outlined the necessity to take into account the contextual requirements of the moment, rather than advocating for the parties of labour to support separatism everywhere. At the same time it highlighted the need for an international working-class struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Such a position, exercised for years by the Polish Marxists of the SDKP (affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) resonated with the working-class, even finding traction among the social patriotic layers of the Polish Socialist Party. However, to achieve it would require a break with capitalism, something that the Second International was not prepared or able to do.

1918 Polish independence

During the course of the War, Germany conquered large parts of Poland and established a puppet Polish regime in November 1916. Ultimately, the Polish bourgeoisie used the opportunity of the collapse of Germany and the German Revolution of November 1918 to establish its independence. It did so on the basis of an insurrection and a series of small wars with neighbouring countries to establish a bourgeois republic. The Second Polish Republic was born weak and unstable. The right-wing PPS was placed at the head of the new government.

The declaration of independence was staged amid earth-shattering revolutionary events. On the back of the tradition of the 1905 revolution and following the example of the Russian and German revolutionary workers, at least 100 workers’ and peasants’ deputies councils – representing 500,000 workers and peasants – were established throughout the Polish territories. This was done on the initiative of the SDKPiL and the PPS Left, which soon merged to form the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland. Other workers’ organisations and parties competed for influence within the councils as well, including the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), the Bund in Poland and the National Workers’ Union.

Paralysed by important disputes over the political and economic future of the newly independent Poland, the workers’ councils failed to create an elected national leadership. The most numerous and radical councils were located in Krasnik, Lublin, Plock, Warsaw, Zamosc and Zaglebie Dabrowskie; some of them set up their own military self-defence units: the Red Guards. Episodes like the short-lived Republic of Tarnobrzeg, proclaimed on 6 November 1918, showed how these workers’ councils would inevitably lead to a dualism of power that could be resolved only by the working-class conquering political power or by the Polish bourgeois forces dismantling these organs of workers’ power.

The bourgeois forces rallying behind Pilsudski clearly shared this view and succeeded in having the workers’ councils dismantled by July 1919, thanks to a combination of the withdrawal of the Polish Socialist Party (which in many cases had a majority in the councils) and suppression by the Polish government. The councils were correctly regarded by the Polish bourgeois as a barrier to the formation of a bourgeois Polish state.

In order to tame the revolutionary spirit displayed by the Polish workers and buy itself time, the so-called people’s government, initially headed by Ignacy Daszynski introduced reforms within the capitalist framework, including but not limited to women’s suffrage and the 8-hour working day. These acts were able to temporarily minimise the intrinsically motivated struggle of the working-class towards emancipation. The Polish working-class, although very observant of the European revolution, was still testing out its own national reformists. However, with the inevitability of the Polish labour leaders turning into counter-reformists in response to the pressures of capitalist crisis, the working-class would doubtlessly start reaching revolutionary conclusions very swiftly.

The revolutionary process could be accelerated given inspiration from the successes of the Russian Revolution. In fact, two parallel governments were proclaimed, one in Warsaw and the Soviet Republic of Lublin in the East of Poland. The Warsaw government, led by Daszynski and Pilsudski, came out with substantial concessions to draw the Lublin workers towards it.

Eventually, the workers of the city were crushed by Pilsudski himself, as they resisted the coming of inevitable betrayal by the PPS. With the experience of its past struggles, both of legal and illegal character, the Polish working-class was (and still is) capable of enormous revolutionary sacrifice. The revolutionary possibilities were clearly titanic, and a movement of the Polish workers would be merciless to the inexperienced bourgeois ruling class. On the other hand, the lessons drawn from the partition period, and the burning memory of Russia’s oppressive measures, such as Russification, had left many of the workers with a strong sensitivity towards any big power games which could influence Poland’s sovereignty even in the slightest degree.

Here we can briefly gain familiarisation with the nature of Polish proletarian consciousness by 1920, shaped by its long-term memory. It contrasts to the Russian or German workers’ consciousness of the time. It is built by great stories worthy of more than a mere section of an article. Through careful study this consciousness was understood by many Bolsheviks, including but not limited to Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek, and Klara Zetkin. They put forward a perspective that is not often brought up, for the sake of simplification. With the benefit of hindsight, considering the developments of the war, the brief establishment of Soviet power in Poland and the general lessons of the following ebb, they have been proven right.

Following the conclusion of the Great War, the whole geographical alignment was completely redefined according to the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. This had a fundamental impact on Poland’s borders, which were being drawn up, connecting the three parts occupied by the mighty empires. The national bourgeoisie was once more split accordingly to the character and the size of these borders. Emerging as the commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces, Jozef Pilsudski knew that the doors to eastward expansion were wide open. The degeneration of the former leader of the Polish Socialist Party can be summed up in an episode in which he was confronted by an old comrade about some issue, addressing him as Towarzysz (comrade), in accordance to pre-independence struggles. In response, Pilsudski asked to be called Pan (Sir) instead of Towarzysz, explaining that “We were on the same train heading towards socialism, however, I got off the ride at the ‘independence’ stop. I will go on my own from here”.

Following the treacherous footsteps of the Hendersons, the Clyneses and the MacDonalds of the Second International – more loyal to the bourgeois order than to the working-class – he was naturally orbiting around the idea of a national coalition government. This was impossible at first due to the strong initial opposition from the Endecja (National Democrats, right-wingers led by the opportunist Dmowski) and even within the rank and file and the parliamentary wing of the PPS. Throughout his actions during the course of the new Polish state’s expansion into Ukraine and Belarus, and in fact the whole war, Pilsudski’s prestige was saved and immortalised by bourgeois propagandists and historians as a key figure that indeed oversaw building a “dam”. However, this was not against Russian reaction but the Russian revolution.

Polish revolution 3 public domain“The return of commander Pilsudski” on the front page of Kurjer Warszawski. Pilsudski is pictured saluting, third character from the left. / Public Domain

The optimistic aspirations reflecting a strongly redefined status of the Polish bourgeoisie were encapsulated in the pursuit of intermarium. That is, of a nationalistic expansion, emulating a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth-style federation of various nations from the Baltic to the Black Sea, acting as a new power to counter the might of Russia in the region. The invitation to this new union was naturally rejected by the bourgeoisie of countries such as Lithuania or Finland, which had only just regained their independence, and the Ukrainians under Symon Petlyura, who were still trying to entrench their positions in face of the threat of Ukrainian Bolshevism.

Thus, the carrot was replaced by the stick, and Pilsudski decided to go through formalities but only after the Polish White Guards were in control of Vilnius, Lviv and Kiev. It is in the areas surrounding Vilnius where the first, albeit not very serious, confrontations occurred between the Red Army and the Poles, after power was being tossed around like a hot potato to the Soviets, Polish nationalists, the German army in agreement with Pilsudski, and finally to Pilsudski’s forces themselves. Thus, the northern front was becoming more and more of a serious factor in the calculations of both the Red and the White armies.

However, at that time, during the summer of 1919, the revolutionary forces were forced to be more concerned with defending the surrounding areas of Petrograd from Kolchak. Belarus was occupied, and the peasants in particular, faced with requisition of their land, provided a serious base of underground resistance against the Whites.

After Kolchak’s defeat, the spotlight was moved onto other leaders, including Pilsudski. However, it was well known that the reactionary forces of the Russian Whites and their potential victory would not be beneficial to the interests of Polish independence. After all, the Russian Whites’ leadership was made up of elements who enforced brutal Russification and national oppression in the Polish territories in the past, and continued to do so. Expecting anything more from them than (perhaps, the concession of a small satellite state) would have been wishful thinking, even if we put aside the fact that reaction would have taken the form of Russian fascism and projected its revengeful rage on the old minorities of Tsarist Russia – especially the Poles. The prospect of a White victory was indeed grim and completely incompatible with the aspirations of any national minority, even for the Polish bourgeois, who would rather see Russia in a state of fragmentation and anarchy. For this very reason, Pilsudski initially refrained from backing Denikin in South-West Russia, at least until the Bolsheviks started to gain the upper hand towards the end of the year.

It is worth remembering, that the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic was the initiator of multiple peace talks, sending several delegations headed by Julian Marchlewski, who was given authority by the Bolshevik Party to accept peace even if it meant far-reaching concessions. The Polish authorities, dizzy with success following the occupation of Vilnius, thought the door was still wide open for further expansion. They swiftly rejected any peace with the Bolsheviks and renewed their offensive by November 1919. Peace negotiations were attempted by the Bolsheviks frequently until late spring of 1920. In the words of Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for foreign affairs of Soviet Russia: “The politics of RSFSR in relation to Poland doesn’t base itself on momentary military or diplomatic combinations, but on the principle of unswerving, inviolable right to self-determination. RSFSR recognises, and continues to recognise without any reservation, the independence and sovereignty of the Polish Republic, and recognises it in the first moments of the creation of a sovereign Polish state”.

The attitude of the Bolsheviks in these talks and statements reflects a clear and honest desire for peace – a key policy of the Bolshevik party – which was rejected on the basis of Pilsudski’s dream of an expansionist march through Ukraine. Once again, the attitude by the bourgeois towards independence, peace and democracy reflects not a shred of honest consistency, but a speculation towards emboldening the power of their class. The only consistent guardian of peace in this war could only be the revolutionary alliance of the Polish, Ukrainian and Russian proletariat.

After gaining the upper hand by signing an agreement with Petlyura, Pilsudski ordered his troops to march on Kiev. The Red Army wasn’t as strong in this area, thus reinforcements were being dispatched from mainland Russia. On May 5th, Lenin made the following speech to the soldiers, of which the transcript was printed in Pravda:

“Comrades: You know that, instigated by the Entente, the Polish landowners and capitalists have forced a new war on us. Remember, comrades, that we have no quarrel with the Polish peasants and workers; we have recognised Poland’s independence and the Polish People’s Republic, and shall continue to do so. We have proposed peace to Poland on the basis of the integrity of her frontiers, although these frontiers extend far beyond the purely Polish population. We have agreed to make all concessions, which is something each of you should remember at the front. Let your attitude to the Poles there prove that you are soldiers of a workers’ and peasants’ republic, that you are coming to them, not as aggressors but as liberators. Now that, despite our efforts, the Polish magnates have concluded an alliance with Petlyura, launched an offensive, are approaching Kiev, and are spreading rumours in the foreign press that they have already captured Kiev—which is the sheerest fabrication since only yesterday I was talking on the direct line with F. Kon, who is in Kiev—we say: Comrades, we have been able to repel a more terrible enemy; we have been able to defeat our own landowners and capitalists, and we shall defeat the Polish landowners and capitalists too! All of us here today should pledge ourselves, give a solemn promise, that we shall stand as one man so as not to allow a victory of the Polish magnates and capitalists. Long live the peasants and workers of a free independent Polish Republic! Down with the Polish magnates, landowners and capitalists! Long live our Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Army!(The mighty strains of the "Internationale" and cries of "Hurrah"drown Comrade Lenin’s final words.)”

The war started to take up the front pages of newspapers worldwide, as a direct confrontation between the Polish Republic and the Red Army was being prepared. It need not be said that there was a complete lack of support for the Polish Army by the Ukrainian masses. This gave further momentum to the Red Army and guaranteed a swift departure of the Polish forces from Ukraine. Thus, the character of the war from the Bolshevik perspective, ceased to be defensive and, after intense debate, they agreed to make it a “revolutionary war” that would act as a base of support for the revolutionary movements in Europe. These arguments were put forward by Lenin and Bukharin and represented the majority of the CC of the Bolshevik Party, whereas a minority consisted mainly of Trotsky, who recalled it in chapter 37 of My Life:

“There were high hopes of an uprising of the Polish workers. At any rate, Lenin fixed his mind on carrying the war to an end, up to the entry into Warsaw to help the Polish workers overthrow Pilsudski’s government and seize the power. The apparent decision by the government easily captured the imagination of the high command and of the command of the western front. By the time I paid my regular visit to Moscow, I found opinion strongly in favour of carrying on the war ‘until the end.’ To this I was resolutely opposed. The Poles were already asking for peace. I thought that we had reached the peak of our successes, and if we went farther, misjudging our strength, we would run the risk of passing beyond the victory already won to a defeat.”

Trotsky was, by any means, familiar with all layers of the Red Army, but also with Marchlewski’s sober understanding of the Polish situation as premature for revolution, and so he disagreed with the further advance. Only Rykov took his side in the CC of the Bolshevik Party. On the other hand, Lenin was misinformed by overly optimistic reports by the cadres of the Polish Communist Party. The bulk of the masses were still in the grip of the reformists.

However, regardless of the incorrect assessment of the situation, it is important to remember that the advance by the Red Army had a purely revolutionary class character, not a nationalist one. Further comparisons can be made with the substance and even the propaganda of the 1939 Soviet invasion. The aim of the Bolsheviks in 1920 was not to incorporate Poland into Russia, or even impose the Soviet Regime on it, but to aid the Polish proletariat itself in taking power and give it a boost in doing so.

In any case, the decision was made, and the Red Army moved on to a counter offensive. For 23 days, the Polrevkom (Polish Temporary Revolutionary Committee) was based in Bialystok, essentially expressing the embryonic developments of a short lived Polish Soviet Republic.

The Polish Revolution

Sources relating to the Polrevkom are scarce. Many first-hand accounts, such as newspapers or notes, were lost during the Second World War. The official paper of Soviet Poland, Goniec Czerwony, is also a rarity, and regardless had a very agitational character. The origin of the committee itself goes way back to recruitment and training of Polish Bolsheviks who played key roles in the revolution – Grzelszczak, Krolikowski, Budzynski or Bitner, to name a few.

The close communication between Polish Communists in Russia and Poland acknowledged a sense of urgency, with the formation of multiple organisations aiming to agitate among the workers and soldiers. Divisions led and manned by Polish workers were taking part in the civil war as an embryonic Polish Red Army. Its development never reached a mass character due to its isolation from the important sections of the workers in Poland. For this very reason it also faced many issues with morale. It was opposed to the appointment of former tsarist officers and also to fighting against the Polish White Guards. The Bolshevik propaganda, both from the outside and the inside, of the Polish army was not too fruitful. The consciousness in Poland was on a different level. This was understood by the Polish Red Army, representing the cadres of the working-class, who were eventually moved to the south of Russia to fight Wrangel’s armies instead.

In any case, the Polish Revolutionary Committee was chaired by Julian Marchlewski, who also fulfilled duties of a propagandist and agitator. The reason behind his appointment, as opposed to the better-known Felix Dzerzhinsky, was because Felix had by this point been given a complete slating by the Polish bourgeois press, as a leader of the Soviet Cheka. The committee first started assembling a week before its arrival in Bialystok, where they based themselves at the expropriated Palace of Labour. Its aims, as stated in its first printed appeal, were: “To lay the foundations of the future Polish Soviet Republic, up until a worker-peasant government has taken power in Poland definitely”. The bulletin also contained announcements of the future policies of the new government, which would be the establishment of worker and peasant soviets, nationalising the main branches of industry, the land, forests, etc. In essence, despite doing pioneering work in unknown circumstances, it was building the subjective factor in time for the revolutionary events which were just around the corner.


Polish revolution 3 public domainThe Polish Revolutionary Committee in August 1920. Among others, in the centre: Felix Dzerzhinsky, Julian Marchlewski, Feliks Kon. / Public Domain

A mass rally in support of the new revolutionary government took place on 2 August 1920. Marchlewski, Tukhachevsky and Stepanov made speeches representing accordingly the Polrevkom, the Red Army and the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. The rally was succeeded by a demonstration of the railway workers, which supported the committee with the biggest enthusiasm. The propaganda work in the immediate period was carried out through the production of a paper, edited by Feliks Kon, reporting news from the front, the international labour movement, as well as local stories and announcements. The committee also produced leaflets and posters, inspired by an internationalist spirit, highlighting messages of support from the British, French and German workers towards a Polish revolution. The strike by the English dockworkers of Dover, blocking British supply lines to Pilsudski’s army, was an example of international solidarity. The paper played a key role as a point of reference that helped transform the consciousness of the workers in Bialystok and Eastern Poland in support of the revolution.

Nevertheless, the necessity of peasant support was noticed by the committee and even by Lenin himself. However, the demand of immediate redistribution of the land sparked a debate. It concluded that the Committee would appeal to the peasants, explaining that the land will be redistributed, but first Warsaw must be taken by the workers, so that collectivisation may take place without the pressure from the proximity of a war front. This was a key factor in the scepticism of the local peasants.

In one of the issues of the Goniec Czerwony, the inevitability of the victory of the Polish masses was announced, and the soldiers were called on to turn their guns towards their officers. Although Marchlewski was busy visiting newly liberated towns, on 8 August, a mass rally was organised in Bialystok once more for the first celebrations of the “Workers Liberation of Poland Day”, which surpassed the numbers of the first rally and was concluded with the singing of the Internationale in Polish, Yiddish and Russian. The committee had its base of support among the workers, and especially the Jewish and Belorussian minorities.

The peaceful character of the takeover indicated that, with time, the revolution would gain significant support from the peasants and the better-off workers. On the other hand, the workers to the west of the borders of Soviet Poland were familiar only with the slanders of the Nationalists and the Reformists, in one chorus accusing the committee of an unlawful coup, and creating an instrument for the Russian annexation of Poland. The objective situation was not yet in favour of the Polish Communist Party. The workers of Western Poland did not rise up, and the revolutionary development was dealt a crushing blow after the Battle of Warsaw was won by Pilsudski’s White Guards.

As Pilsudski’s armies were getting close to Bialystok, one last issue of Czerwony Goniec was released, in which the editorial board announced the inevitability of a Polish and worldwide socialist revolution. Once the troops entered the city, there were riots between the local Bolshevik sympathisers and citizens supported by the army and the police. These were later incited into a series of anti-Semitic pogroms in the short term, and mass murder of Red Army prisoners of war (POWs) in the longer term, resulting in 17,000 deaths in three years in the concentration camps, the biggest one being in Strzalkowo.

The committee, which curiously was never formally dissolved, was evacuated into Soviet Russia. All but one of the members of the Polrevkom, (that is, all those who didn’t die earlier from natural causes), were among the first victims of the Stalinist Great Purge in 1937. This was also the fate of most of the cadres of the Polish Communist Party. In Moscow alone there were 3,817 Polish Communists, many of them veterans of the October Revolution, who had sought refuge from the Polish bonapartist dictatorship. Of these 3,817, only around 100 survived the Purges. By 1938, the Stalinist Comintern dissolved the Polish Communist Party.

The complete destruction of the most advanced Polish workers, both by hand of the Stalinists and by the Nazis, meant that by 1945 Moscow had to orchestrate a new Polish Communist Party out of thin air. This had further implications for the inability of the Polish “Communist” bureaucracy to connect and understand the mood of the working-class. Excessive reliance on the faithful secret police led to mercilessly antagonising the Polish workers. All these factors hardened the Polish workers, but without a revolutionary point of reference, which had been physically purged, they were left with little more but scepticism. Now, after more than two decades since the collapse of so-called Communism, the present scepticism is wearing off on the basis of experiencing capitalism. The necessity to defend the genuine ideas of Marxism without any distortions, the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, Julian Marchlewski and Trotsky, is of vital importance.

The 1920 war continues to exert an enormous effect on Polish consciousness to this day. Trotsky and others were right to notice that the offensive presented significant risks, as the consciousness of significant layers of Polish workers’ had not yet caught up with the events to resonate with the Red Army’s advance. The Left Bolsheviks of the time, such as Bukharin, had a schematic view of a revolutionary war, not taking into account fully the specific circumstances of the Polish national question. They got drunk with the early success in Ukraine and planned a raid as far as Paris and London, to which Warsaw would have been only a first step. The gears of the war did not correlate with the gears of proletarian consciousness, which in Trotsky’s words, cannot be measured by the same yardsticks. He also said:

“The error in the strategic calculations in the Polish war had great historical consequences. The Poland of Pilsudski came out of the war unexpectedly strengthened. On the contrary, the development of the Polish revolution received a crushing blow. The frontier established by the Riga treaty cut off the Soviet Republic from Germany, a fact that later was of great importance in the lives of both countries. Lenin, of course, understood better than anyone else the significance of the ‘Warsaw’ mistake, and returned to it more than once in thought and word.” (Leon Trotsky, My Life, Chapter 37.)

A series of misjudgements, from the local level of the Communist Parties in Poznan and Warsaw, to the highest levels of the Bolshevik Party, opened up a crisis of leadership. Despite unseen heroism and unity of action between Polish and Russian Bolsheviks, the political development of the subjective factor (the revolutionary leadership) was not evenly distributed. The Polish revolution fell, but the sacrifice of thousands of Polish workers for the dream of a Polish Soviet Republic, as part of a World Soviet Federation, free from the horrors of Capitalism, is part of the history of the Polish working-class and will be rediscovered.

The Polish workers did not deserve the bureaucratic caricature of Socialism built by the Stalinists after the Second World War. The Stalinist bureaucrats, who immediately expropriated from the working-class of Poland any semblance of political power, showed soon enough that their commitment to socialism was but a smokescreen to hide their own petty interests and privileges. Many of these same bureaucrats turned into the best managers of capitalism as soon as Stalinism collapsed. A few decades of a capitalist regime in Poland are undermining the illusions that so-called democracy (i.e. capitalism) is be more beneficial to the mass of the Polish people than so-called communism (i.e. Stalinism).

Direct experience of capitalism is part of the necessary learning process for the working-class. In the conditions unfolding before our very own eyes, a genuine Marxist organisation, based on a serious political development in the theory of Marxism, could begin developing, starting from a few educated Marxist cadres and soon turning quality into quantity. An organisation, through which the Polish workers might liberate themselves from the yoke of foreign and domestic capital, could finally emerge on the basis of the great revolutionary history and ideas, whose time has now come.

 Polish revolution 6 public domainA poster of the Bialystok Soviet. “Long has, in the claws of the white eagle, moaned the proletariat of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Today, the workers of villages and cities are freeing themselves from the chains of oppression and exploitation. Under the blows of proletarian hammers, the Poland of the Capitalist and the gendarme is falling apart, the white eagle is dying. Under the red banner, a new one is being born – SOVIET SOCIALIST POLAND. LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!” / Public Domain

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