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Beware of the Respectable Left
Getting mainstream respectability comes at the expense of the truth
Jacobin magazine humbly markets itself as “a leading voice of the American left.” The publication has in reality firmly established itself as the voice of a peculiar brand of 21st-century State Department Socialism, which almost uniformly advances the interests of US foreign policy in the name of promoting progressive economic reforms.
In addition to consistently pushing pro-imperialist positions in its editorial line, Jacobin has repeatedly co-sponsored events with activists funded by the US government’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a CIA cutout created by the Ronald Reagan administration.
But in August 2020, Jacobin took its pro-imperialist form of social democracy to a whole new level, praising Solidarność, a CIA-backed labor union that was used by Washington to overthrow Poland’s actually existing socialist government.
“40 years ago this week, Poland’s independent trade union movement, Solidarność, burst onto the scene after a wildcat strike wave,” Jacobin tweeted triumphantly on August 24. “The movement directly challenged the Polish Communist regime, which temporarily granted Solidarność freedom to organize.”
What Jacobin did not acknowledge is that Solidarity was in fact largely a vehicle for a CIA covert regime-change operation. Ronald Reagan proudly referred to Solidarity as an anti-communist “weapon,” and it was a key instrument in the successful US operation to eradicate socialism in Eastern Europe.
Reagan and Pope John Paul II Team Up To Overthrow Socialism in Poland
The Reagan White House, CIA, and newly founded NED strongly supported Solidarity, alongside the conservative Catholic Church under right-wing Pope John Paul II. Together, they used the union as a tool to destabilize and overthrow the Polish People’s Republic and its ruling Polish United Workers’ Party.
This historical fact is not up for dispute; it is a matter of public record.
Renowned journalist Carl Bernstein reported in a bombshell TIME magazine cover story in 2001, titled “The Holy Alliance,” that Reagan and the Pope met in the Vatican Library in 1982, where they “agreed to undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire.”
Bernstein had first detailed this anti-communist “holy alliance” in his 1995 book “His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time.” But for his TIME report, Bernstein interviewed all of the top Reagan administration officials involved in the regime-change plot, who openly boasted of their involvement.
Reagan’s national security advisor, Richard Allen, proudly called it “one of the great secret alliances of all time.”
Reagan himself told Bernstein bluntly that their goal was to topple the Polish government, and that “Solidarity was the very weapon for bringing this about.”
Bernstein explained in TIME:
The operation was focused on Poland, the most populous of the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and the birthplace of John Paul II. Both the Pope and the President were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the U.S. committed their resources to destabilizing the Polish government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981.
Until Solidarity’s legal status was restored in 1989 it flourished underground, supplied, nurtured and advised largely by the network established under the auspices of Reagan and John Paul II. Tons of equipment — fax machines (the first in Poland), printing presses, transmitters, telephones, shortwave radios, video cameras, photocopiers, telex machines, computers, word processors — were smuggled into Poland via channels established by priests and American agents and representatives of the AFL-CIO and European labor movements. Money for the banned union came from CIA funds, the National Endowment for Democracy, secret accounts in the Vatican and Western trade unions.
Lech Walesa and other leaders of Solidarity received strategic advice — often conveyed by priests or American and European labor experts working undercover in Poland — that reflected the thinking of the Vatican and the Reagan Administration. As the effectiveness of the resistance grew, the stream of information to the West about the internal decisions of the Polish government and the contents of Warsaw’s communications with Moscow became a flood. The details came not only from priests but also from spies within the Polish government.
The key Administration players were all devout Roman Catholics — CIA chief William Casey, Allen, Clark, Haig, Walters and William Wilson, Reagan’s first ambassador to the Vatican. They regarded the U.S.-Vatican relationship as a holy alliance: the moral force of the Pope and the teachings of their church combined with their fierce anticommunism and their notion of American democracy. Yet the mission would have been impossible without the full support of Reagan, who believed fervently in both the benefits and the practical applications of Washington’s relationship with the Vatican. One of his earliest goals as President, Reagan says, was to recognize the Vatican as a state “and make them an ally.”
The Reagan administration funneled more than $30 million to Solidarity. Through CIA front groups, anti-communist Western labor unions, and the Catholic Church, the United States provided training, aid, food, shelter, and supplies to the union’s leaders and supporters.
The “principal policy architect” of the regime-change scheme in Poland, Bernstein reported, was notorious CIA Director Bill Casey, who simultaneously was running massive operations in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan. In Nicaragua, he was the architect behind operations to arm, fund and train the Contra death squads to kill and torture villagers in Nicaragua. In El Salvador, the junta government gang-raped nuns, murdered at 67 catholic priests, including archbishop Romero.
Bernstein detailed how the CIA director used anti-communist Western “democratic socialist” organizations — the kind that Jacobin magazine and its followers lionize — as “instruments of American policy” to push right-wing policies:
In Poland, Casey conducted the kind of old-style operation that he relished, something he might have done in his days at the Office of Strategic Services during World War II or in the early years of the CIA, when the democracies of Western Europe rose from the ashes of World War II. It was through Casey’s contacts, his associates say, that elements of the Socialist International were organized on behalf of Solidarity — just as the Social Democratic parties of Western Europe had been used as an instrument of American policy by the CIA in helping to create anticommunist governments after the war. And this time the objective was akin to creating a Christian Democratic majority in Poland — with the church and the overwhelmingly Catholic membership of Solidarity as the dominant political force in a postcommunist Poland. Through his contacts with leaders of the Socialist International, including officials of socialist governments in France and Sweden, Casey ensured that tactical assistance was available on the Continent and at sea to move goods into Poland. “This wasn’t about spending huge amounts of money,” says Brzezinski. “It was about getting the message out and resisting: books, communications equipment, propaganda, ink and printing presses.”
The American embassy in Warsaw became the pivotal CIA station in the communist world and, by all accounts, the most effective.
The Solidarity office in Brussels became an international clearinghouse: for representatives of the Vatican, for CIA operatives, for the AFL-CIO, for representatives of the Socialist International, for the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which also worked closely with Casey. It was the place where Solidarity told its backers — some of whose real identities were unknown to Solidarity itself — what it needed, where goods and supplies and organizers could be most useful. Priests, couriers, labor organizers and intelligence operatives moved in and out of Poland with requests for aid and with detailed information on the situation inside the government and the underground. Food and clothing and money to pay fines of Solidarity leaders who were brought before Polish courts poured into the country. Inside Poland, a network of priests carried messages back and forth between the churches where many of Solidarity’s leaders were in hiding.
Right-wing Polish-born CIA analyst Richard Pipes, who would go on to became a prominent anti-communist historian, also participated in the Reagan administration’s Solidarity plot (his son, Daniel Pipes, would later establish himself as a major American neoconservative activist).
Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig revealed that the National Security Council had prepared “sanctions that would have been crushing in their impact on Poland.” Pipes noted that the “object was to drain the Soviets and to lay blame for martial law [in Poland] at their doorstep,” telling Bernstein that the “sanctions were coordinated with Special Operations (the CIA division in charge of covert task forces), and the first objective was to keep Solidarity alive by supplying money, communications and equipment.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-born anti-communist hardliner who had served as Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor and helped birth the pro-Mujahideen policy in Afghanistan, was likewise involved in the Reagan administration’s Poland operation. He stressed that, thanks to the US government’s efforts, “this is why Solidarity wasn’t crushed.”
An anonymous CIA analyst gushed in an interview with Bernstein, “In 1991 Reagan and Casey got the reordering of the world that they wanted.”
Jacobin heroizes CIA’s anti-communist weapon
You wouldn’t know any of these facts if you only read Jacobin.
The Jacobin article glorifying Solidarność, titled “The Triumph and Tragedy of Poland’s Solidarity Movement,” curiously did not once mention the CIA, nor the NED. It didn’t even hint at any of this extremely important historical context.
The piece is yet another example of anti-communist historical revisionism published by Jacobin — alongside the magazine’s hagiography for liberal anti-communist Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), whitewashing their historic betrayal of the socialist movement by supporting the imperialist mass slaughter of World War I.
The author of the Solidarity puff piece is David Ost, a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who dedicated an entire book to heroizing this CIA-backed union, titled “The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe.”
In the acknowledgements section of this book, Ost revealed his research was funded by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Cold War institution co-founded by the US State Department and the Ford Foundation (an infamous CIA front) in order to facilitate academics’ trips to the Eastern Bloc, so they could produce anti-communist scholarship on the ground, behind the Iron Curtain.
Ost’s research was similarly financed by the State Department’s Fulbright Program and the US government-funded National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER), which boasts that it “has produced direct benefits for U.S. policymakers, the academic community, nonprofit organizations and American business,” and has “been involved in bringing to the attention of Congress and the executive branch the national interest served by the exchange of ideas among professionals in academia and government.”
Consistent with this background, Ost romanticized Solidarity in his Jacobin article as “one of the great left-democratic social movements to have occurred since World War II,” while demonizing the actually existing socialist governments in Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries as evil “state-socialist” “regimes” (the word regime is of course never used to refer to authoritarian, right-wing, racist Western capitalist states).
Ost did briefly concede that “Solidarity saw the Catholic Church as a great ally,” but immediately downplayed this fact, writing, “While Solidarity might have venerated the Church, the Church itself was quite wary of Solidarity’s radicalism.” However, he didn’t mention that the Catholic Church was worried about the anti-semitism spewed by some of the hardliner’s in Solidarnosc
He did also mention once in passing that “Capitalist governments rushed to support it [Solidarity],” and that “Western governments followed Cold War logic in supporting the movement,” but promptly denied the significance of this, as if it were just a minor, incidental detail.
What Ost did not reveal is which capitalist governments supported Solidarity, and what specific Western state institutions did so — like, say, the Central Intelligence Agency, which had just overthrown Chile’s democratic socialist President Salvador Allende a decade before.
Instead, Ost insisted Solidarity “seemed to want nothing but a democratic workers’ state.” He then added approvingly, “No wonder many Western Trotskyists cheered Solidarity on as the harbinger of the anti-Stalinist workers’ revolution for which they had been waiting.”
Trotskyites have a long history of allying with imperialism and Western capitalist governments against actually existing socialist governments in the Eastern Hemisphere and Global South, which they invariably demonize as “Stalinist” and not truly socialist, because their academic theoretical purity always trumps material reality, and because Marxism for them is a perpetual game of No True Scotsman.
The closest thing that comes to criticism of Solidarity in the Jacobin article is a passage in which Ost recounted:
I remember being in Warsaw in 1984, attending seminars of prominent pro-Solidarity economists and intellectuals, who were all singing the praises of ‘property rights.’ The underground publishing house Nowa devoted scarce resources to produce a samizdat copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. In 1981, my copies of books on self-managing socialism had been in strong demand among union intellectuals; now, however, everyone just wanted me to tell them how capitalism ‘really’ worked.
But Ost did not explain why that political shift happened. He took the lazy way out, instead blaming repression by the “state socialism” of Poland’s government and the martial law it imposed in 1991 — while erasing the fact that the Reagan administration’s CIA operation intentionally goaded that crackdown, as was clearly revealed in Carl Bernstein’s Time magazine report.
In lieu of a materialist analysis of how Solidarity was financially bankrolled by Western capitalist institutions and thus beholden to their political interests, David Ost resorted to an idealist analysis of the ideological views of Solidarity’s leaders, blaming their personal “desire to curry favor with Western decision-makers; and a changing philosophical assessment.”
For Ost, the embrace of neoliberal economic policies was a personal choice made by Polish opposition leaders, not a political exigency baked into US imperialist policy.
In the 3,000-word article, Ost only mentioned Ronald Reagan once, cursorily, in the context of the rise of neoliberalism and the “assaults on trade unions” he and Margaret Thatcher oversaw.
This raises an interesting question: While Reagan was overseeing a brutal attack on unions at home, why would he simultaneously support what Jacobin would have us believe was a great progressive union in socialist Poland?
This question was left totally unaddressed. Ost declined to tell his readers that “the Gipper” Reagan was Solidarity’s biggest fan.
In a tweet promoting Ost’s article, Jacobin magazine went so far as to trumpet, “Poland’s Solidarity trade union was one of the most impressive workers’ movements in postwar Europe.”
So why would one of modern history’s most notorious enemies of workers and their unions, Ronnie Reagan, support an “impressive workers’ movement”?
Jacobin avoided this contradiction by refusing to even acknowledge that it exists, erasing inconvenient historical facts.
In the end, Jacobin’s problem with Solidarity is not that it was a regime-change weapon used by the US empire, but rather that, after overthrowing Poland’s actually existing socialist government, the union took a predictable right-wing turn.
David Ost conceded in his article, Solidarity is a tool of Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party government, allied “with all the illiberal, anti-democratic, anti-immigrant, homophobic, protofascist policies and practices that the party has been promoting.”
US leftist groups continue to model themselves after Poland’s CIA-backed Solidarity today
During the Cold War, opponents of regime change in communist Poland, and elsewhere, warned that this was exactly what would happen: After overthrowing socialism and imposing neoliberal shock therapy, US and Western European imperialism would facilitate the return of fascism, just as they had fostered its rise in the 1930s.
But the self-declared "democratic socialists" at Jacobin are blinded by their obsessive desire to seem "respectable" to the mainstream culture that they mirror the all-consuming hatred of communism that comes from the mainstream press. They eagerly drunk the Cold War kool-aid, and apparently see no problem in praising a CIA-backed group that was used by the Reagan administration to destroy actually existing socialism.
Even by the standards of the State Department Socialists at Jacobin, such blatant whitewashing of the historical record is jaw-dropping.
Yet Jacobin is not the only US left-wing institution that applauds the historical legacy of Poland’s Solidarność. An American Trotskyite group that still exists today even shares its name, Solidarity. The US version of Solidarity explicitly stated in its founding statement in 1986 that it was inspired by the CIA-backed Polish group.
Solidarity sang the praise of “the Polish workers and their movement Solidarnosc against the ruling bureaucracy,” declaring, “It is the tradition of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, of the Solidarnosc movement and others that will arise to follow its example—not the regime of Poland and the USSR or other Eastern European states—which represent the struggle for socialist freedom and the socialist future of humanity.”
Today, many members of Solidarity have joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest self-identified socialist organization in the United States, which is closely linked to Jacobin and shares much of its political line.
One of the principal leaders of the US version of Solidarity, activist Dan La Botz, has established himself as a prominent voice inside DSA, where he has advanced a fanatical hatred of Nicaragua’s democratically elected socialist government, ruled by the Sandinista Front.
At events co-sponsored by Jacobin and DSA, Solidarity leader La Botz has openly called for US leftists to campaign to overthrow Nicaragua’s government, even while admitting that “there is virtually no left among the opposition” and that there is “little likelihood of an outcome to the rebellion that goes beyond a more democratic capitalist regime.”
La Botz has repeatedly contributed to Jacobin magazine. He is also a member of the editorial committee of the DSA’s official publication, Socialist Forum, and even carved out a coveted position on DSA’s International Committee.
These historical echos highlight the biggest irony in the Jacobin article on Solidarność. In the introduction of the piece, David Ost wrote, “The contemporary left can still learn a great deal from its experiences and from its evolution.”
Indeed, the contemporary left can learn a great deal about Poland’s Solidarity union — a great deal specifically about counter-insurgency, and how the CIA and US imperialism co-opt what seem like ostensible leftist movements and organizations and use them as what are functionally right-wing weapons to overthrow existing socialist governments and install neoliberal regimes.
That is one of the most important historical lessons of the Cold War. And it is one that the virulently anti-communist social democrats at Jacobin have stubbornly refused to learn.