The last three months of 1989 saw the transition of Poland from a Stalinist regime to a country led by a “Solidarnosc” led government. Rather than lead to stable developing capitalism, Poland is now governed by the right-populist “Law and Justice” party. Each year on 11th November, Warsaw sees the largest far-right demonstration in Europe.
Paul Smith from Alternatywa Socjalistyczna, the CWI in Poland explains why far-right and reactionary ideas have developed.
The racist chants and nazi salutes during the recent Euro 2020 qualifying match between England and Bulgaria are a reminder that in many of the former Stalinist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the far right is on the rise. But racism is not just a problem of a few football hooligans – in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic racist abuse and physical attacks are part of everyday life for the Romany people. The scapegoats in the region are also gays, communists, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, or simply foreigners.
In some countries, such as the Baltic states, anti-Russian sentiment is fuelling the rise of right-wing nationalism, in others, this is less the case and more a reaction to neoliberal policies expressed as anti-liberal and anti-EU sentiment.
Until recently, Poland was held up as an example of successful transformation into a liberal democracy. Now the country has an authoritarian, right-wing populist government.
Every 11th November the Polish nationalists mobilise tens of thousands on the streets of Warsaw to celebrate Polish independence. It is the biggest demonstration of the far-right in Europe. Flags and banners carry racist and xenophobic slogans as well as the falanga – the symbol used by Poland’s inter-war fascists. Demonstrators chant “Refugees out!” and “Pure Poland, white Poland”. Many wear t-shirts declaring “Death to the enemies of the fatherland”.
Just as Donald Trump inflames hatred and prejudice with his xenophobic speeches, so too do the right-wing populist politicians in Eastern Europe. The leaders of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – Jarosław Kaczyński, Victor Orban, and Andrej Babiš – have all played the anti-Muslim and anti-refugee card, exploiting the fears of a section of their populations, and in the case of Orban and Babiš, also encouraged anti-Roma feelings. Recently, Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) has also whipped up fears about the threat of “gender ideology” and the LGBT movement.
But while these leaders have fanned the flames of reaction, the roots of the growth of reactionary ideas and right-wing populism are much older and are found in the legacy of Tsarism, the inter-war regimes in the region, the Catholic Church, and Stalinism.
Tsarism and the inter-war regimes
Anti-semitism was rife across Europe before the First World War, and in the Tsarist empire, which covered Eastern Europe, as well as Poland, it was used as a divide and rule tactic. After the first Russian revolution in 1905, Tsarism set up the ‘Black Hundreds’ to carry out pogroms against Jews and other minorities and smash workers’ organisations. In response, workers and the Jewish community organised self-defence.
During the revolutionary upheavals at the end of World War I and in the wake of the collapse of the Tsarist and the Austro-Hungarian empires, the working class attempted to take power in several countries of the region and link up with Soviet Russia. It failed, not because of a lack of determination, but because a revolutionary leadership had not been forged that could see the revolution through to success. Instead, the bourgeoisie gained the upper-hand and independent capitalist countries were established.
The inter-war period
The course of events differed in each country, but sooner or later led to the establishment of nationalist conservative regimes. In Poland, regaining independence in 1918 after 123 years was seen as a step forward by Polish workers, despite the capitalist nature of the new state. This sidetracked the revolution by strengthening patriotic feelings among workers. After a short period of parliamentary democracy and chaos, Piłsudski and his “Sanation” movement established his authoritarian regime in 1926.
In Hungary, Horthy established his authoritarian nationalist regime on the back of the pogroms carried out to smash the workers’ movement after the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed in 1919. The national conflicts that had dominated the region before the first war remained unsolved, and new ones emerged whilst the national bourgeois in these countries was too weak, and the economies too under-developed to resolve any of the problems facing the working people of the region.
In the 1930s the reactionary bonapartist “sanation” regime increasingly resorted to anti-Semitism as a method of divide and rule. It allowed the existence of segregation in Polish universities in the form of the so-called getto ławkowe (“ghetto benches”). The even more right-wing National Democrats and the Catholic church promoted the idea of żydokomuna (“Judo-Communism”).
As in other countries in the region at that time, torn between the development of Stalinism in the USSR and fascism in Germany, the organization of resistance to these poisonous ideas was both difficult and dangerous but there are many examples of how trade unions and left organisations, as well as the Jewish community itself organized to defend themselves from these attacks.
When World War 2 broke out, whilst there were Poles who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, who blackmailed and ultimately betrayed Jews who were hiding, there were numerous examples of Poles risking their lives to hide and rescue Jews. Many Jews refused to simply accept their fate, tens of thousands across Eastern Europe formed and fought in partisan units, whilst in 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto waged a heroic uprising against the Nazi plans to deport the Jewish population to the concentration camps. Later, the Polish Underground organized the Warsaw uprising in 1944, which was disgracefully betrayed by the Red Army, which refused to come to the aid of the resistance, until the German army had destroyed the resistance itself.
Legacy of Stalinism
The Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe that were formed after the Second World War were neither socialist, nor communist but were deformed from the outset. Capitalism and landlordism was abolished in the countries occupied by the victorious Red Army, but an economic system was established in the image of degenerated Soviet Russia – a bureaucratically planned, nationalised economy with a brutal, repressive state apparatus in the hands of party bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, the traumatic experience of repression under these brutal regimes and their failure to guarantee at times even the basic necessities are the reason why many Poles and other people from Central and Eastern Europe still hold strong anti-communist feelings today. Unfortunately, the anti-Jewish campaign by the Stalinists in Russia itself, bolstered by the fact that some prominent Communist Party members during the Stalinist times in Poland were of Jewish origin fueled support for these reactionary ideas, which survive today in Poland,
But initially, despite the huge waste due to the role of the bureaucracy, the economies in these countries grew rapidly. After the initial rebuilding of these war-torn countries had been completed, the tasks of economic development became more complex. It was necessary to shift from extensive (quantitative) development – consisting in increasing output by, for example, building more factories and employing more people from the countryside – to intensive (qualitative) development, requiring growth in labour productivity by adopting new techniques and technology. But as Trotsky pointed out, “Under a nationalised economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.”
And so the economies began to grind to a halt as the bloated bureaucracy was unable to further develop the economy. Without the oxygen of democracy, planning increasingly turned into its opposite – chaos – as arbitrary bureaucratic decisions, petty pilfering, but above all, large-scale corruption among party officials threw a bagful of spanners in the works.
Discontent grew, and mass protests and movements attempted to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracies in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries of the region.
In Poland, Martial Law was introduced in 1981 after the failure of the ‘Solidarnosc’ movement to overthrow the regime. However, the military police dictatorship was unable to get the economy out of the quagmire. Instead, the economic collapse worsened, there were shortages of even the most basic items needed for everyday life, and massive queues for hours in freezing temperatures. This experience strengthened anti-communist feelings and still has an impact on consciousness in Poland today.
Increasingly, both the opposition and the bureaucracy, but also working class people saw market solutions as the way out of the catastrophe. Towards the end of the 1980s, realising it was unable to resolve the crisis, the bureaucracy looked to market reforms as a solution. But lacking support in society, it decided on a power-sharing deal with the ‘Solidarnosc’ opposition. However, this set in motion events that were out of control of the bureaucracy.
A ‘Solidarnosc’ government was formed in 1989 and immediately set about restoring capitalism with shock therapy. Hyperinflation gripped the country, reaching as much as 600%, production collapsed as factories closed, and unemployment reached 20%. The state’s assets were looted by international capital, by the former Stalinist bureaucracy, which started to reinvent itself as a new capitalist class, and by part of the officials from ‘Solidarnosc’. Whatever was deemed to be able to make a profit was privatised, and the rest was written off as unprofitable and closed down.
Polish GDP fell by 10% in the first year of the restoration of capitalism and by a further 7% in the second year. The effects of capitalist restoration were similar and in some cases even more dramatic in the other countries of the region.
Only in the second half of the 1990s did the economy begin to grow and slowly recover to the pre-capitalist level. The cost, however, was huge. With capitalist growth came growing inequality and exclusion, which became especially acute in the east of the country.
Development of Polish capitalism
Capitalism was unable to develop all of the economies of the former Stalinist countries – some, as in the former Yugoslavia, were ripped apart by national divisions and slid into bloody civil war, during which gangster “businessmen” made huge fortunes. Others experienced years of economic crisis and stagnation or became classified as “failed states”.
However, the countries that were located more favourably in relation to the West European and particularly German economy, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, began to develop from the mid to late 1990s. As these newly capitalist economies grew, they became more integrated with global capitalism, and in particular, with the supply chain of German industry.
In Poland, it was mainly the west of the country that developed, while the east stagnated. Special economic zones were established that benefited foreign capital, offering cheap, skilled labour, and tax benefits on the doorstep of Germany. Although not officially, in practice, trade unions were outlawed in many of these factories, something still practiced today.
Foreign capital poured into Poland and very quickly began to dominate the banking sector. By 2015, foreign capital had a 70% share of the Polish banking sector. In comparison, the EU average is just 30%. The dominance of foreign banking capital is similar throughout the region.
From 2001 to 2007, Poland and the other emerging economies of the region grew quite rapidly, with Poland recording GDP growth as high as 7%. During this time many of them joined the European Union and received a further boost in the form of EU funds, which were mainly spent on improving road and rail infrastructure for the benefit of western capitalists investing in the region.
However, the global economic crisis of 2007-2008 was particularly severe for Central and Eastern Europe. The economies of Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic declined sharply. Austerity measures provoked large street protests, and in Latvia even riots.
With no workers’ parties capable of presenting a socialist alternative to the capitalist crisis, the right-wing gained power in some countries. In Hungary, the authoritarian right-wing populist Fidesz party led by Victor Orban came to power in 2009. At the same time, the far right Jobbik party, with fascist elements and a para-military organisation won 16% of the vote in parliamentary elections, and then 20% and 19% in the 2014 and 2018 elections.
While all the other economies of the region contracted, Poland was the only country in Europe to avoid recession. Nevertheless, Poland suffered a sharp slowdown, and Polish workers were also forced to tighten their belts. Wages were frozen and Donald Tusk’s neoliberal Civic Platform government raised the retirement age. Flexible working on so-called “trash contracts” became the norm for millions of Polish workers.
In autumn 2013, the three main trade union federations organised a joint demonstration of over 250,000 workers against the government’s policies. There was an angry mood aimed against the ruling party – Civic Platform, but despite widespread support for the idea of a 24-hour general strike, the trade union leaders failed to take the movement forward.
The lost opportunity to escalate the action and the absence of a workers’ party that could give a political lead opened up a political vacuum. This allowed Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice to channel this mood behind its nationalist, right-wing populist agenda, exploiting the opposition to neoliberalism, the anger about how the transformation had been carried out, and the role that Western capital had played.
Because of the history of Poland and the neo-colonial nature of European capitalism’s presence in the economies of former Stalinist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, this nationalist propaganda fell on fertile ground, particularly among the youth, the frustrated, and the excluded, but also among many workers.
This fertile ground was also prepared by the ideological onslaught of the last 30 years. From the beginning of the transformation, capitalism served Polish society a poisonous mixture of nationalism and religious fundamentalism in order to hide the underlying causes of the social problems that capitalist restoration generated. The Catholic Church was given a key role to play in this, and this role was stepped up when religious education (usually taught by a Catholic priest or nun) was introduced into schools in the early 1990s.
But despite playing the nationalist card and exploiting anti-immigrant feelings, one of the key factor’s behind the electoral success of Law and Justice in 2015 was the promise of reforms benefiting Polish workers. Since coming to power, Law and Justice has strengthened its support by introducing a new child benefit, which has significantly improved the living standards of many working class families, and by lowering the retirement age. In addition, the so-called “repolonisation” of the banking sector, consisting in the acquisition of foreign-owned banks in Poland by state-owned entities and the National Development Fund, has increased the stake of Polish capital in the banking sector to over 50%.
This year, faced with a slowdown in Poland’s main export market – the EU – and a parliamentary election in mid-October, the government has introduced a fiscal stimulus worth roughly 10 billion euro (2% of GDP). It consists of an extension of the child benefit and extra payments for pensioners. Additionally, the government has recently promised to gradually raise the minimum wage, starting from the beginning of next year, to reach a significant 4,000 zlotys per month (roughly 900 euros) by 2023.
But despite introducing social reforms that are benefitting the working class, Law and Justice is still pro-capitalist and vehemently anti-communist. It is trying to lean on part of the unorganised and rural working class, in order to rebalance the relationship of forces between national capital, on the one hand, and international capital on the other.
At the same time, Law and Justice is moving towards more authoritarian forms of rule. It has undermined the “independence” of the courts, attacked NGOs and private media (on the pretext that they are controlled by foreign capital) and uses the state-owned television and radio stations as party mouthpieces.
In a series of anti-communist attacks, sections of the left have been harassed by the authorities and some left-wing websites have been closed down. After a private television station reported that a fascist group had celebrated Hitler’s birthday in a forest in Poland, the government reacted by attacking “communists”, arguing that it was necessary to fight totalitarianism on both sides. As a result, there are now plans to outlaw the possession of Marxist literature.
Striking trade unionists have faced victimisation and have been vilified by Law and Justice and in the state media. At the same time, the trade union ‘Solidarnosc’, whose leadership supports the government, has been used in a strikebreaking role, both in the case of the teachers’ strike and the strike in the state-owned airline PLL LOT. In the case of the teacher’s strike, hundreds of teachers resigned from ‘Solidarnosc’ and joined ZNP, the union that organised the strike.
Plans to introduce a total ban on abortion and make access to contraception more difficult provoked huge protests 3 years ago. Although the government backed down on these plans, women’s rights activists have faced repression for “offending religious feelings”.
As a result of the attacks on abortion and other reproductive rights and the mass movement to stop them, women are becoming increasingly left-wing. This is particularly the case among young women, who fear the loss of control over their bodies and that Poland is drifting towards becoming a theocratic state. On the other hand, at the moment, young men are more likely to succumb to reactionary propaganda and support the right wing populists and the far right.
Rise of the far right
The far right had been growing in Poland for several years before Law and Justice came to power as a result of the years of nationalist poison and religious fundamentalism, the growing discontent in society, and the lack of a genuine workers’ party that could provide a left alternative to channel that anger against capitalism.
In the recent period, the anti-immigrant, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric of Law and Justice politicians and the Catholic bishops has accelerated this process. Meanwhile, the number of attacks on foreigners and LGBT activists is rising. This year the police stood by and watched as the far-right attacked several Pride marches. At the same time, anti-fascist protesters have been brutally attacked by the police.
Like in Hungary and other countries of the region, anti-semitism is quite widespread and historically deep-rooted in Polish society. However, over the last year Kaczyński and Law and Justice have exploited these deep-seated prejudices and helped anti-Semitism become more mainstream.
A cult has also been created around the so-called “cursed soldiers” – the reactionary, anti-communist Polish partisans who fought the new Polish authorities after the end of World war 2, often murdering civilians in the process. This year, Prime Minister Morawiecki even put flowers on the graves of far-right partisans who collaborated with the Nazis during the war! At the same time as this, the government was attempting to restrict free speech with a new law that threatened with a jail sentence anyone who suggested that Poland or Polish citizens had committed crimes against humanity or had been complicit in the Holocaust.
In Poland, the far right doesn’t enjoy such strong electoral support as Hungary’s Jobbik. This is partly thanks to the populist reforms of the Law and Justice government, which has channelled the discontent, and also due to the ultraliberal programme that they support. Nevertheless, Konfederacja – a coalition of fascists and ultra-liberals – won 6.8% of the vote and 11 seats in parliament. However, at the moment the main danger of the far right in Poland consists in their use as an auxiliary weapon of the state to smash the left, divide workers and possibly in the future to attack the workers’ movement.
Recently, the UN demanded a detailed report from Poland on what it is doing in the struggle against racism and called on Poland to ban groups that promote racist and nationalist discrimination, such as ONR and All-Poland Youth. Meanwhile, the Church gives its blessing to these very groups. This year it has organised special masses and pilgrimages for members of these groups. Moreover, numerous bishops and priests publicly praise far right groups and encourage aggression, homophobia and discrimination.
Law and Justice has also consciously encouraged the far right to develop. The far-right organisations that the United Nations has warned about are treated as “good patriots” and allowed into the schools to agitate among the youth. The far-right is gaining influence in the state apparatus, especially in the police and armed forces. A new territorial army has been created by the Ministry of Defence based mainly on “patriotic” groups and individuals. They are now being trained, armed and paid by the state. Besides the task of defending Polish territory, the Ministry of Defence announced that they may also be used to disperse protesters in the future, possibly with the use of live ammunition.
However, with strong electoral support thanks to its social reforms, PiS is leaving the far right on standby at the moment. But with the global economic crisis on the horizon, the class struggle is likely to intensify in the coming period. This year’s teachers’ and health workers’ protests will continue this autumn. In the new year new workers’ protests and strikes will erupt.
Despite the government’s fiscal stimulus, Poland will find it difficult to weather the coming storm. Even if it manages to avoid a recession, like the previous Civic Platform government in 2009, PiS will be forced to make cuts. Cutting or abolishing the “500 plus” child benefit programme would undermine the government’s support. Similarly, restoring the retirement age to the previous higher level would result in a backlash that would lead to a generalised movement of the working class.
At the same time, without a workers’ party presenting an alternative to capitalism, there is a danger that the far-right will continue to grow. That is why the anti-fascist movement must campaign on the social issues that create the discontent which fascism and nationalism feed on and link up with workers in struggle. Using moral arguments is not enough in the fight against the far right. Alternatywa Socjalistyczna argues that an alternative to privatisation and unemployment must be presented, offering jobs and homes, not nationalism and hate. We need a programme that can guarantee a decent, free health service and education system, and a massive programme of building council housing. This is the way that workers and youth can be steered away from the mistaken path of nationalism. Above all, in Poland and the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, the working class desperately needs a party that will represent its interests, a worker’s party based on a fighting socialist programme.