Karol Modzelewski was a student and political activist in 1956. He went on to co-write the Open Letter to the Party, which challenged Stalinism from the left and was key to setting up the Solidarity union. Karol answered questions from Socialist Worker
What was the atmosphere in the run-up to 1956?
After Stalin’s death the secret police were disorganised to a significant degree. The censor’s office let a lot through. People read [the radical journal] Po Prostu as well as socio-literary magazines.
Workers were among those who read them – they stood in line at the kiosks.
Without this breath of freedom – the disintegration of the fear which had paralysed everything, even conversations at home – the Poznan events would have been unimaginable.
Khrushchev’s “secret speech” was a shock. A decision was taken to print the speech and send it out to the numerous party organisations.
The copy I bought in the market – it was not cheap – was numbered higher than 20,000. The speech was an open secret. Of course, this added to workers’ confidence.
The Poznan events were the next phase in this earthquake. Poznan had all the features of a classic revolutionary uprising – from general strike to armed uprising.
I later met a young worker who had been in the officers’ school during the Poznan events. He was ordered to patrol the city. In his patrol one person had a machine gun and two pistols.
They came across some civilians, workers, one person with a machine gun and two with pistols. They saluted and went past.
Did anyone argue for Western style capitalism in 1956?
You must be joking. If anyone had said something like that in those times they would have been regarded as a madman or provocateur.
The crowd in Poznan sang both The Internationale [a famous revolutionary socialist anthem] and the Polish national anthem.
What role did the workers’ councils play?
The workers’ councils were the creation of workplace activists from September onwards. The movement was led from the FSO car plant. They were not created by strikes. It was a big movement. The Communist Party leaders feared it.
On the morning of 19 October, workers’ leaders demanded arms from the Party but they were fobbed off.
I was at the mass meeting outside the main gates of the FSO plant. Workers’ leader Lechoslaw Gozdzik told people they could go home and come back after dinner, but people wanted to stay and occupy.
He ordered arms to be given out, but there were only a few, so only the Party activists were armed.
The workers filled lorries with sand to block tanks, filled bottles with fuel and prepared metal castings to use as missiles.
In the evening we rode lorries from FSO to the Warsaw polytechnic, which was holding the first of its daily mass meetings.
There were a few dozen of us. Everyone except for me was a worker from FSO. The workers were greeted with a standing ovation.
Were there any political organisations independent of the Polish Communist Party?
Yes – there was the Union of Revolutionary Youth (RZM). This national organisation lasted only a very short time – from November 1956 to January 1957 before it was fused with state-run youth organisations.
The RZM had some 20,000 members. The majority, like me, did not belong to the Communist Party.
After the 24 October rally organised by the new Communist Party leader Gomulka, we knew we were in opposition. The Party had sent people home and now it would create “order”.