Poland: Behind the Crisis (1982) : Imperialism and Papal Politics

Imperialism and Papal Politics

OCTOBER 18, 1978

In the midst of all the hullabaloo and blazing headlines about the "surprise" over the selection of a Polish archbishop as the new Pope, it shouldn't be overlooked that it was the U.S. delegation to the cardinals' conclave that made the nomination.

This fact wasn't in the headlines. It was tucked away in a rather obscure paragraph in the Washington Post (November 18, 1978). "The Polish cardinal had in fact been proposed by the Americans," says the paper, presumably as a way out of the impasse created by the struggles among the Italian candidates.

Nor is it surprising that the source for this information is given as French Cardinal Jean Guyot of Toulouse. France, it should be remembered, is one of the imperialist powers more independent of the U.S.

Another point that seems small but looms large under the circumstances is that the only one able to accurately "predict" who would be selected was an American, George Williams, head of Harvard Divinity School. His intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Vatican and his personal association with the Polish prelate can be presumed to have stimulated his "clairvoyance."

Thus the centuries-old tradition of selecting an Italian pope was breached not because of creative, innovative, and imaginative ideas coming out of the College of Cardinals, but because of the severe pressure of U.S. finance capital.


One of the most pervasive myths regarding the Catholic Church is that its sole purpose is "to tend to the spiritual needs of the people." In reality the Church is, and for most of its existence has always been, a profoundly political organization.

Another myth, no less pervasive than the first one, is that the Church is "above the battle" in regard to the class struggle. The truth of the matter, however, is that the Church has always been allied with, or an instrument of, one or the other of the possessing classes.

During the medieval period and up to the advance of the bourgeoisie it was allied with the landlords against the peasants enslaved as serfs. With the advance of the bourgeois social order and the rising might of the capitalist class, the Church and the ecclesiastical order came under sharp fire from the ideologists and politicians of the new possessing class.

When classical feudalism was overthrown, the Church slowly veered toward and was finally won over to the bourgeoisie. From then on it became an ideological and political defender of the new ruling class. It has been a reactionary opponent of liberal elements in the bourgeoisie, however.

At other times it has been involved in inter-ruling class struggles: how best to deceive the masses; how best to hold them in subjection; how to teach the masses humility and submission in the face of the aggressiveness and growing might of the giant industrialists and financiers.

It is impossible to weigh the significance of the new Vatican selection without taking into account these pertinent historical facts for it may have far-reaching importance in the world struggle of the imperialist ruling classes against the workers, the oppressed people, and the socialist countries.


The bourgeois press of the West, particularly that of the U.S., has literally pulled out all stops in praise of the Vatican's new selection to head the papacy. Much of the ruling class press has indulged in broad speculation on how the new Polish Pope will deal with Eastern Europe and the West European Communist parties.

Some regard the selection of Pope John Paul II as nothing less than a coup, a stroke of genius which will do much to dismantle and destroy the fragile socialist foundations in Eastern Europe via a "revitalized" and "vibrant" Church aided by new inspiration from the Vatican. Like many other diplomatic and political maneuvers of imperialism since the end of World War II and the emergence of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, this one, contrary to the expectations of the capitalist press, may fall wide of the mark.

It is also possible that the Vatican, in its attempt to overreach itself and in its haste to do the bidding of international finance capital, will meet unexpected resistance.

There is no question, however, that in the worldwide struggle between imperialism and the socialist camp Eastern Europe is vulnerable to imperialist penetration-economically politically and ideologically. And this is probably more true of Poland than other socialist countries.


In Western Europe the bourgeoisie, when it was a revolutionary class in the eighteenth century, did much to undermine and expose the reactionary character of the Church and to combat religion in general. This was part of its progressive role in carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. "In the West," said Lenin, "this task was to a large extent performed or tackled by bourgeois democracy in the epoch of its revolution. In Russia," he continued, "because of the conditions of our bourgeois-democratic revolution, this task falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class." (Lenin's "Attitude of the Workers' Party Towards Religion," May 1909.)

What Lenin said about Russia in general applied even more so to Eastern Europe. The bourgeois revolution was never consummated in Eastern Europe. The landed gentry, especially the big landlords, in union with the Church held complete sway over the masses. The rising bourgeoisie in Eastern Europe was only too glad to join the landlords and the Church and perpetuate an unholy trinity of exploitation, oppression, and ignorance over the masses.

It is to be remembered that it was only by virtue of Napoleon's armies that feudalism in its classical form was abolished in some parts of Eastern Europe. But basically the class structure and the political weight of the ecclesiastical authorities remained a heavy weight on the shoulders of all of society and it was only in the wake of the October Revolution that attempts to overcome it by revolutionary measures were taken. Unfortunately, they floundered under the prevailing difficult conditions.

The early Polish Marxists of Rosa Luxemburg's era, and later the Communist Party of the early 1920s, fought splendidly as the vanguard of the proletarian struggle in Poland.

Unfortunately, they too were not equal to the tasks imposed by the severe conditions of their time. Moreover, they did not avail themselves in time of the rich experience of Leninist strategy and tactics to promote the proletarian class struggle. This was especially true of Luxemburg who disregarded Lenin's teachings on the national question and defied his position on self-determination.

The liberation of Poland from the Nazi invasion unleashed by Hitler was accomplished in the main by the revolutionary intervention of the Soviet armed forces. The resistance of the Polish people against the Nazi invasion was strong, formidable, and heroic. But it was an auxiliary force to the main element in breaking the back of Hitler's invasion, which was the Soviet Red Army.


That would not in any way have militated against the healthy construction of a socialist state had this been done in the spirit of revolutionary class struggle, in the spirit of awakening and stimulating mass working class and peasant initiative, had free rein been given to the creative forces inherent in the proletariat and their peasant allies in the struggle against the sinister forces of bourgeois reaction.

However, the intervention of the Soviet forces was carried out in a military-bureaucratic fashion which tended to stifle initiative, especially of the workers and peasants. Moreover, the liberation was carried out in the spirit of compromise with Western imperialism which laid claim to Poland as part of the "free world," a claim which it has never renounced to this day.

If anything at all it inhibited the revolutionary process in Poland and gave a longer lease on life to the forces of bourgeois reaction under the cloak of religion and in the form of the Church hierarchy, it was the continuous compromising with the West in an effort to make the new Poland look "democratic" in the bourgeois sense of the word. Only history will be able to tell to what extent such compromises were necessary if at all.

Thus a large residue of reaction remained untouched during the entire course of the Liberation and the revolutionary struggle against the old regime in Poland. It was not the kind of thorough-going revolutionary class struggle which, if once unleashed, has the potential of making a clean sweep and a final reckoning with the bourgeoisie and its allies. Purely administrative and arbitrary measures unrelated to the mass struggle were taken from above, especially against clerical authorities, and had the effect of antagonizing large sections of the rural population and some sections of the urban population. In any case, they proved ineffective, and served to strengthen reaction and encourage international finance capital to make more and more inroads.


The Church became the principal bastion and rallying ground for bourgeois and reactionary elements. When the uprising of 1956 occurred, it made retreat by the socialist government inevitable in many fields.

Most significantly, the retreat in agriculture from collective farming back to bourgeois individual farming, which today accounts for as much as 90% of agricultural production in Poland, gave the Church a tremendous opportunity to ingratiate itself with the rural population and the peasants in particular.

The Church now regards itself as the defender of the rights of the peasantry, when in reality its interest is to defend and expand the rights of the rural bourgeois elements, the new petty-bourgeois independent artisans in the urban centers, and a good part of the disloyal and disaffected elements in the state and party apparatus.

Since the 1956 rebellion, all the efforts of succeeding socialist administrations to accommodate with the West and grant more and more concessions to the Catholic hierarchy have served to embolden domestic reaction and its imperialist masters abroad. At the same time this has continually weakened the socialist foundations of the country, notwithstanding tremendous technological and industrial progress as well as very substantial improvements in the standard of living of the broad mass of the people.

It should be remembered that the Catholic hierarchy, having become a legally recognized entity in Poland, demagogically appropriates all the improvements made in the living conditions of the mass of the people to its credit while at the same time it carries on an underground war of obstruction to socialist construction.

Twenty thousand priests for a country with less than 35 million people! What does this mean in a socialist country like Poland? It means 20,000 full-time political activists, cadres, against socialist construction in general and Marxist-Leninist ideology in particular. The clerical bureaucracy grows stronger and more numerous every day and consumes an ever larger portion of the gross national product of socialist construction. All this has emboldened the Vatican to take the plunge which it did in naming Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.

While some in the bourgeois press present the new Pope as a pragmatist and conciliator in matters relating to the socialist countries and the international workers' movement, others see him as a hard-line anti-communist more likely to seek confrontation with the Polish government rather than conciliation. At any rate, it is interesting to note that the ultra-rightists in the U.S., such as the industrialist James Buckley, former U.S. Senator from New York, Senator Moynihan of New York, and Carter's "National Security" adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, were quick to see the political aspects of the papal selection, particularly as it refers to Eastern Europe and communism in general.


The worst aspect of all this for all genuine communists concerned with the struggle for socialism is the initial reaction of the Polish government itself. It is understandable that for the moment at least both the party and the government may be in a defensive position in the light of the Vatican. imperialist maneuver of selecting a Polish prelate as Pope, and the nationalist frenzy that the imperialist press is trying to create by flattering the Polish people with the selection.

(Of course, the Vatican would never have thought of a Polish citizen even as doorkeeper at the time Hitler's hordes were subjugating Poland. But why would the imperialist press remember anything like that?).

No less than Edward Gierek himself, the First Secretary of the Party, sent a congratulatory message to the new Pope. He said, "We express our conviction that the election of the new Pope will contribute to the further development of relations between Poland and the Vatican."

However, at a mass attended by some 5,000 people in Krakow, one of the city's bishops prayed for "God to grant the church in Poland the struggle for human rights," which is a way of throwing down the gauntlet to the government. Clearly this bishop doesn't see the "development of relations" the way Gierek does.

The whole business of dealing with the Vatican, of recognizing it as a diplomatic power, and the way the party deals with the Church and religion in general is in complete contradiction to the Leninist conception of the struggle.

In May 1909 when the political reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution was still relatively strong but running out of steam and the forces of clerical obscurantism had raised their head, Lenin took time off to write an article critical of a speech made by a Bolshevik deputy in the Duma. The article is pertinent to the present course of the Polish CP leadership.

"By declaring from the Duma tribune that religion is the opium of the people," Lenin says, "our fraction [the Bolsheviks] acted quite correctly, and thus created a precedent which should serve as a basis for all utterances by Russian Social-Democrats on the question of religion. Should they have gone further and developed their atheistic arguments in greater detail? We think not. This might have incurred the danger of the fight against religion being exaggerated by the political party of the proletariat; it might have resulted in obliterating the difference between the bourgeois and the Socialist fight against religion. The first duty of the Social Democratic fraction in the Black Hundred Duma has been discharged with honor.

"The second duty," Lenin 'continues, "and perhaps the most important for Social-Democrats -- namely to explain the class role of the church and the clergy in supporting the Black Hundred government and the bourgeoisie in its fight against the working class -- has also been discharged with honor. Of course, very much more might be said on this subject. ..."

"The third duty," Lenin goes on to say, "was to explain in full detail the correct meaning of the proposition so often distorted by the German opportunists, namely that 'religion is a private matter.' This, unfortunately, Comrade Surkov did not do."


What Surkov should have made clear, Lenin said elsewhere, was that "religion should be a private affair as far as the state is concerned, but under no circumstance can we regard religion as a private affair as far as our own party is concerned. The state must not be concerned with religion, religious societies should have no connection with the state power. Everybody must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases or not to believe in any religion at all that is to be an atheist, as every Socialist usually is."

Now, no one would expect Gierek, when called upon for a statement on the selection of the Pope, to carry out the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist position which Surkov did so splendidly by comparison in his first two duties -- explaining that religion is the opium of the people and explaining the class role of the church and the clergy. Indeed it would be surprising in the light of the current situation to expect him to take a revolutionary position on these two highly critical and sensitive issues, which were no less critical and sensitive in 1909 for Deputy Surkov in the reactionary Black Hundred (Ku Klux Klan) Duma.

But the least he could have done was to make the "mistake" that Surkov did, by asserting that insofar as the Pope's selection is a religious matter, it is a private affair. And he could have added that insofar as it is politically motivated, the Polish government will resist any attempts by foreign powers to interfere in the internal affairs of Poland. However, to have sent a congratulatory message was to validate brazen imperialist interference.

Gierek might just have said, "Religion is a private matter," when asked about the selection of the Pope. Although it would not have satisfied Leninist standards of communist conduct in relation to the papacy, it at least would have shown a slight contempt for an antediluvian institution which parades around as a world authority on moral and ethical affairs when in reality it is merely an instrumentality of international finance capital.

In this role the papacy is a reactionary force not only against Polish socialism but against the worldwide struggle of the working class and the oppressed.


There is a significant current of political thought, both in the Western CPs as well as in the summits of some of the ruling parties in Eastern Europe, which holds to the thesis that coexistence with the Catholic hierarchy and with elements of the bourgeoisie make a peaceful evolution into socialism possible. With respect to the Catholic Church, they may well say that the Church, as we pointed out earlier, was an instrument or ally of previous ruling classes and that it had shown an ability to adapt itself to new conditions.

This current of political thought overlooks the fact that the Catholic Church as a social and political phenomenon adapted itself to and became an instrument of possessing, exploiting, and oppressing classes, not of the dispossessed, oppressed, and exploited. Moreover, it completely disregards the growing acuteness of the worldwide struggle, the increasing aggressiveness and brazenness of imperialism, with its inability to accommodate itself or adjust itself to the peaceful transformation of capitalist society into socialism.

Whichever way one looks at it, a showdown between the forces that are genuinely struggling for socialism, to fully transform Poland into a socialist society, and the regressive forces of bourgeois reaction, hidden as well as open, will ultimately become inevitable. The destiny not only of Poland but of Eastern Europe and other socialist countries is tied to the outcome of this struggle.

Unquestionably the ongoing world struggle between imperialism on the one hand and the socialist countries, the world working class, and the liberation movements on the other will in no small measure contribute to the outcome.

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