Polish People's Republic
The Polish People's Republic (PPR) was a socialist state ruled by a Marxist-Leninist government from 1947 to 1989, and was the first nation in the Eastern Bloc to abandon communism. The PPR complex nation, with a fraught political history. The nation was plagued by internal contradictions and conflicts, due to several factors, including the prevalent influence of the Catholic Church, and the fact that there had never been a true socialist revolution in Poland; rather, the PPR was established by means of external influence from the USSR. Despite this, the PPR had a number of impressive achievements, which should be celebrated.
Economic and Industrial Development
Prior to WWII, Poland had been lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of industrial development. To make matters worse, WWII had utterly devastated the country's cities and economic centers, leaving the economy in ruins. According to the 1948 United Nations Statistical Yearbook, Poland's industrial output in 1945 was only 48% of what it had been in 1938 (pg. 126). This reflects the damage done to the Polish economy by WWII.
After the socialist system was in place, the economy began to grow rapidly. The 1948 UN Statistical Yearbook shows that Poland's industrial output in 1948 was already 153% of what it had been in 1938 (pg. 126). This means that industrial output grew more than 300% from 1945 to 1948 (combining post-war recovery with the introduction of the socialist system).
This growth continued for several decades. The 1978 UN Statistical Yearbook shows that industrial output in 1977 was 193% of what it had been in 1971, compared to only 44% in 1960 (pg. 168). This comes out to an almost 500% increase in industrial output between 1960 and 1977 (more than doubling between 1960 and 1970, than increasing by 93% from there). This demonstrates the immense productivity of the socialist system.
Before the Communists took over, Poland was a terribly unhealthy nation. According to the University of Bath (one of the top-ranked research universities in Great Britain):
Before World War II (WWII) Poland was one of the countries with the poorest health in Europe. In the 1930's life expectancy in Poland was around 46 years for both sexes; in the same period in Germany it was over 61 years. Infant mortality was estimated at the level of 150 deaths per 1000 live births. The situation was exacerbated by WWII; between 1939 and 1945 life expectancy in Poland fell by 20-25 years.
These statistics are verified in the 1948 UN Statistical Yearbook (pg. 58), which included data from 1931 onwards, reflecting the poor healthcare conditions in pre-communist Poland. Once the socialist system was in place, things began to improve rapidly. According to the University of Bath:
The health transformation that took place in Poland after WWII proceeded very rapidly. Control of infectious diseases and infant mortality became a state priority in the post-war Polish People’s Republic... Life expectancy in Poland increased to 70 years and infant mortality decreased to 30 deaths per 1000 live births.
Thus, we can see that life expectancy was increased by decades, and infant mortality fell by eighty percent. These changes (and similar ones in other socialist nations) led to Central and Eastern Europe nearly closing the healthcare gap with Western Europe, which had been so pronounced before socialism:
The epidemiological transition that in the United Kingdom or Germany took almost a century, in Poland, and many other Central and East European (CEE) countries, occurred in the two decades following WWII. This process led the CEE region to almost closing the health gap dividing it from Western Europe in the 1960's.
On the downside, the Polish People's Republic saw rapidly increasing consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, which led to increased rates of preventable death. This problem also occurred in other nations in the Soviet bloc:
In Poland the consumption of vodka and smoking prevalence reached some of the highest levels in Europe. This dramatic increase in exposure to lifestyle risk factors (an increase in cigarette sale from 20 billion cigarettes per annum after WWII to around 100 billion in the 1980's, and an increase of alcohol consumption from 3 liters per annum to nearly 9 liters in the same period), led Poland and the CEE region to a health catastrophe caused by the rise of chronic diseases.
Despite these problems (which were not the result of socialism, but rather of excessive drinking and smoking), the healthcare achievements of the Polish People's Republic remain impressive.
Pre-communist Poland saw widespread illiteracy and lack of education. According to a 1935 article from the Polish magazine New Courier (not to be confused with New Courier of Warsaw, a Nazi propaganda outlet founded in 1939):
In Polesie in the Kobrin poviat, less than 75 percent write and read in towns, and only 52% in the countryside. In Kosowski poviat, 82% in small towns, and 43% in rural areas. In the Koszalin poviat, where there are no cities, there are only 30 percent who can read and write.
Polesie is in fact one of the areas of the Commonwealth that is economically and culturally neglected, but, it should be remembered, not the most neglected. Unfortunately, data from the poviats of the Warsaw Province, i.e. from economically quite high standing and in orbit of the capital's influence, show that the condition is not much better there either. In the Płońsk poviat, 73% write and read in cities. population, 68% in the countryside 77 percent in Sierpc and 68 percent in Ciechanów 80% (cities) and 70% (village).
Census statistics are current today just as much as they were three years ago. And the figures of this statistic are not only dangerous, they are terrifying.
After the communist takeover, the educational system was drastically improved. The level of illiteracy was drastically reduced. According to the Polish Encyclopedia published by PWN (the top publisher of scientific and scholarly reference works in Poland):
As early as 1960, the census showed 645,000 total illiterates and 270,000 semi-illiterates among those over 50. In 1988, the illiteracy rate in Poland was 2%.
While PWN places the pre-communist literacy rates a bit higher than the New Courier, we can still see the drastic improvement to the educational situation made under the communists, particularly in rural areas.
Women made major gains in the Polish People's Republic. Reproductive rights and abortion are a major example of this. Prior to the communist era, abortion was only legal in cases of criminal sexual activity. According to the Brown Political Review:
At the beginning of the 20th century, abortion was illegal under any circumstance in Poland. But in 1932, Poland enacted a code that legalized abortion in the cases of a criminal act, namely rape, incest, and underage sex. This was the first abortion law that condoned abortion in the case of a crime. The law remained on the books from 1932 until 1956.
However, it was only in the communist era that abortion became completely legal, as well as freely available:
In 1956, the Polish Sejm (the lower house of parliament), in keeping with Communist Party orthodoxy, legalized abortions when women expressed “difficult leaving conditions”. During the 60's and 70's, abortion became freely available in both public hospitals and private clinics. While the Soviet system encouraged mothers to carry the child to term, the law left it to physicians to decide whether abortion should be performed and largely guaranteed easy access to the operation.
Even reactionary commentators acknowledged the gender equality of the communist era. According to the Guardian:
Stamped into the DNA of this society, from the postwar years until 1991, was that everyone had to work; for that, there had to be equal access to education, childcare (which was mainly attached to workplaces) and care for the elderly.
Employment for women was extremely high in the communist era, and it fell drastically afterwards:
Throughout the communist years female workforce participation was incredibly high, often cited at 90%... As communism collapsed, participation fell to 68% and it now stands at 45%.
One Polish woman is quoted as saying:
"The regime made absolutely no distinction between men and women. I never even thought about the division – all advance in society was open to men and women equally. "As far as education is concerned it was absolutely equal, to the extent that at the technical universities – the very high-standard engineering universities – I think 30% of students were women" (this was in the 1960's – engineering courses at Imperial College London still have a male to female ratio of 5:1 today).
Keep in mind that this Guardian article is written from a firmly anti-communist perspective, and even still it acknowledges that the "end of communism in Poland hasn't helped Polish women." This demonstrates the improvements in women's rights made under the communists.
The Polish People's Republic was hardly a flawless nation. It had numerous internal conflicts, due to the reactionary social influence of the church, as well as the fact that Poland's socialism did not originate with an internal revolution, but rather with external Soviet influence. Still, socialism in Poland managed to greatly improve the health of the population, develop the economy at a rapid pace, and greatly improve the education system.
In short comrades, we should learn a few key lessons from the Polish People's Republic:
- Revolution must be autonomous, and come from the people themselves; liberation cannot be imposed, or it will become distorted.
- Even in such non-ideal conditions, socialism is capable of providing superior economic development and quality of life when compared to capitalism.
- It is essential that a revolution should focus on expunging reactionary elements from the national culture, to avoid a similar situation to Poland, where the Catholic Church largely controlled the social sphere. However, we must also avoid going too far in this, and persecuting religion and religious people. The revolution has no quarrel with people's personal beliefs; it is reactionary religious institutions (such as the Catholic Church) which must be opposed.
These are lessons which must be learned.
- University of Bath | Health in the Polish People's Republic
- New Courier | Thirty Percent Illiteracy
- PWN Encyclopedia | Illiteracy
- United Nations Statistical Yearbook | 1978 Issue
- United Nations Statistical Yearbook | 1948 Issue
- Brown Political Review | Reproductive Rights in Poland
- The Guardian | End of Communism and Polish Women