The Poznan uprising of June 1956 sparked a mass movement in Poland and set in train the events leading towards the revolution in Hungary later in the year.
In both countries workers fought a system where the state was also their employer – a system of state capitalism.
The repressive regimes founded in Eastern Europe after the Second World War were dictatorships modelled on Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
But following Stalin’s death in March 1953 there was a relaxation of the terror, both in Russia and in its Eastern European satellites. The rulers of these regimes wanted to end a situation where even they lived in fear of arrest and torture.
They also wanted a more modern economic system that could compete with Western capitalism. The brutal slave labour camps, in which millions were held, no longer fitted with the needs of the state capitalist rulers.
However even after Stalin’s death some of the more conservative rulers resisted change.
In February 1956, the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” to a closed meeting of ruling apparatchiks.
His “revelation” that Stalin had been a brutal mass murderer was a signal to the rulers in Eastern Europe to continue the process of carefully managed change.
Reform from above in Poland – for example, an amnesty that saw 28,000 political prisoners freed – helped create a climate in which workers were more confident to resist.
At the Zispo locomotive manufacturing plant in the city of Poznan there had been signs of unrest for some years, with workers protesting against low wages and high work rates.
In 1956 they were further incensed when they found that too much tax had been deducted from their pay.
On 28 June that year, the factory siren was sounded to announce a strike and workers went out onto the streets. They formed flying pickets, going from factory to factory bringing more workers out.
Workers in the print, transport, textile and cigarette industries made their way to Stalin Square in the city centre.
Some 100,000 workers and their families gathered on the streets. A police station was taken over and the city’s Communist Party headquarters were trashed.
Groups of demonstrators headed for the most hated symbols of oppression – the secret police headquarters and the prison. Workers stormed the prison, released more than 250 inmates and armed themselves with weapons from the prison armoury.
When the Polish army was sent in to restore order, workers fought back with petrol bombs, forcing or persuading soldiers to abandon their tanks.
By the next day most of Poznan was on strike. Workers demanded bread and freedom. They also raised slogans such as “Russians go home”. Poland was no colony, but Russia dominated the country and had tens of thousands of troops stationed there.
On the second day the workers of Poznan and their families were overwhelmed by military force – 10,000 troops and 400 tanks and armoured vehicles were needed to put down the revolt. It is thought that almost 80 people were killed.
Initially the response of Poland’s rulers to the uprising was harsh and unequivocal.
Prime minister Jozef Cyrankiewicz announced during the rising that “any provocateur or madman who lifts a hand against the people’s government should be certain that his hand will be hacked off by the people’s government”.
Soon a more conciliatory line was taken. “Reformers” within the Communist Party leadership warily encouraged the movement, seeking to use it against more conservative elements who sought stronger ties with Russia.
But the movement constantly threatened to go far beyond what these leaders would allow.
Workers’ councils were elected in the factories. Radical young workers’ leaders, such as 25 year old Lechoslaw Gozdzik of Warsaw’s FSO car plant, and intellectuals and students, such as Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, worked to spread the councils.
On 19 October, Khrushchev flew into Poland as Russian troops converged on the Polish capital Warsaw and Russian warships appeared off the coast of Gdansk.
In the factories workers prepared to fight off any military intervention, requesting arms from the Polish Communist Party. The party refused their request.
The reformers’ choice for party leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, chose this moment to assert his leadership, while also promising Khrushchev that he would not allow the system to be endangered by workers’ struggles.
Khrushchev backed down and the next day his delegation returned to Moscow.
Three days later, on 23 October, a mass demonstration took place in the Hungarian capital Budapest, inspired by the Polish movement.
The Hungarian revolution had begun – only to be bloodily crushed weeks later by Russian tanks. In Poland, the first two days of the Hungarian revolution were marked by the release from prison of those involved in the Poznan uprising.
On 24 October, Gomulka, now the leader of the Communist Party, addressed a jubilant crowd in Warsaw. He told the crowd, “Enough rallies! Enough demonstrations!”
Some of the worst symbols of Stalinism were removed, but at the same time Gomulka sought to curtail the mass movement that had helped bring him to power.
A year after the uprising the most radical journal “Po prostu” (“Quite simply”) was shut down, sparking four days of rioting in Warsaw.
The magazine had dared to debate the way forward for the movement, and contained arguments for “all power to the councils” – harking back to the slogans used in 1917 by the Bolsheviks under Lenin.
In April 1958, the workers’ councils were formally extinguished. By then the right to strike had already been withdrawn.
Stability had been restored. The lesson, one which holds good today, is that our movement needs political independence from the bosses and the government – no matter how friendly they may seem at any given time.