PiS meeting in Krakow PiS meeting in Krakow on Poland's national independence day, 2016. Photo: Elekes Andor

Poland’s right-wing populists owe their success to liberal capitalism’s failure, writes Reece Goscinski

The Polish issue

The collapse of the Polish People’s Republic in 1989 and the transition to the Third Polish Republic gave many Poles an optimistic sense of the future. Yet recent political events in Poland have seen the country fall into an identity crisis hijacked by right-wing populists Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (The Law and Justice Party) due to the failures of liberal capitalism. This turn of events has led to the hosting of various far-right rallies, the persecution of women, migrants and the LGBT+ community, as well as an increased presence of the Catholic Church in the politics of Poland.

The issues swelling in Poland should be a concern for all socialists as the nation is providing a blue-print for right-wing populism in Europe. As Poland continues to redefine its identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialists should have an interest in the nation’s development and show solidarity with the social struggles taking place. Socialists should also assert the internationalism of workers issues such as lack of jobs, poverty, and insecurity as an issue of capitalism as opposed to being caused by marginalised groups. As the COVID crisis continues, it is highly possible that this style of politics may come to dominate not only in Poland but globally.

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Marxism and Polish nationalism

The issue of Polish nationalism and independence has been of central concern to Marxists since the 19th Century. In a speech commemorating the 1846 Krakòw uprising which protested the partition of the nation between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, Marx stated that the

“Krakòw revolution [had] set all of Europe a glorious example, because it identified the question of nationalism with democracy and with the liberation of the oppressed class” (Marx, 1848).

Again in 1882, both Marx and Engles in a letter to Karl Kautsky expanded further on the issue of Polish nationalism:

“Polish socialists who do not place the liberation of their country at the head of their programme, appear to me as would German socialists who do not demand first and foremost repeal of the socialist law, freedom of the press, association and assembly. In order to be able to fight one needs first a soil to stand on, air, light and space” (Marx & Engels, 1884).

Whilst Marx identified the progressive elements within the Polish nationalist movements, Polish Marxist Róza Luksemburg objected to the use of nationalism to liberate the working-class of the nation:

“In a word, the door would be opened wide to national struggles and nationalist organizations. Rather than a working class organized in accordance with political realities, there would be an espousal of organization along national lines, which often goes astray from the start” (Luxembourg, 1896).

Despite these contentions Polish nationalism has maintained a revolutionary element. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country, Polish nationalism played a key role in Władiyław Gomułka’s reversal of Stalinist land collectivisation policies, liberalisation of relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually Solidarność’ ability to end Soviet rule in Poland. However, recent developments in Polish nationalism have given way to a much darker shade of politics following trends in central Europe. Since 2015 Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party – PiS) have maintained majority control of the state pursuing continued privatisation, authoritative reforms of state institutions, and socially conservative policies in relation to the sexual orientation, immigration, and traditional Catholic values. In 2019 the Archbishop of Krakòw described the LGBT+ community as a new plague that is not red but rainbow and in the same year the newspaper Gazeta Polska issued stickers stating “LGBT free zone.” By 2020, the media rhetoric has become a reality as 90 Polish cities voted to declare themselves LGBT free zones and PiS backed presidential candidate Andrzej Duda topped the first round of the presidential elections. Poland has also hosted a series of far-right rallies to celebrate its national Independence Day. Slogans such as “Pure Poland, White Poland”, “Refugees Out”, and “God! Honour! Fatherland!” have become staple sentiments of the rallies supported by prominent politicians and international groups – such as the EDL – as Catholicism has aligned itself with white-Polish identity.

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Church and state

Polish national identity has long been intertwined with its Catholic heritage. The baptism of Mieszko I in 966 is coupled with the creation of the Polish state which is commonly referred to as the Baptism of Poland (chrzest Polski) (Kloczowski, 2000). During times of oppression and occupation, this shared religious identity had served as a vehicle of resistance with the Catholic Church sponsoring counter-cultural events and protesting constitutional changes – consider Jean-Paul II, Solidarność, and the fall of Communism. Whilst these notions seem progressive, Ramet (2017; pp. 8 – 9) argues the Holy See’s motivation has always been to protect the interests of the “Mother Church” as opposed to any calls for liberation. The late 20th Century saw Poland emerge as a modern liberal state which brought into question the intimate ties of the Church as well as Catholicism’s connection to Polish identity. For Ramet (2017; p. 9), PiS and its assertion of Catholic values has formed in response to the challenges of the separation of church and state advocated by liberal democracy. This reaction has seen the party attempt to legalise as much Catholic doctrine as possible whilst increasing subsidies to the church. This has led the state to take on socially liberal enemies in its attempts to determine modern Polish identity. 

In 2016 PiS proposed a bill outlawing abortion in a country with existing strict abortion laws–  abortion is already illegal with the exceptions of rape, incest, foetal abnormalities, and where the mother’s life is at risk. Following mass protests the proposition was eventually quashed but women’s rights charities have subsequently experienced raids by police and the confiscation of documents. Activists have also found themselves in court for protesting church doctrine as judicial independence is being challenged due to the government taking over the judicial appointments process. This allows the ruling party to fill the Judicial Disciplinary Chamber with sympathisers and rule it illegal for a Polish judges to question appointments resulting in further protests in January 2020. Whilst the initial abortion bill lost, the same bill re-emerged in 2020 with Duda agreeing to approve the legislation if it reached his desk. Using the COVID crisis as a justification for promoting these measures, protests again erupted in Warsaw despite lock down regulations. Further policies introduced to promote the nuclear family have included blocking access to emergency contraception and increased welfare payments for those with children.

The LGBT+ community have also been the target of recent state and church social policy. In 2019 violent scenes erupted at the Białystock pride marches as protestors were pelted with rotten eggs, rocks, and rosary beads. In conjunction with the marches, PiS organised a “family picnic” to counter the protests as the party leader Jarwsław Kaczynski referred to LGBT+ as an “imported ideology.” Presidential candidate Duda made a similar sentiment in his 2020 campaign as he launched the ‘family charter’ to “defend children from LGBT ideology.” Similar rhetoric was also applied at the height of the migrant crisis as Kaczynski referred to migrants as “parasites and protozoa.” Despite state and church hostility to the community, the mayor of Warsaw recently pledged to integrate LGBT+ sex education into the school curriculum which led to districts declaring themselves “LGBT free zones.”

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The policies and issues outlined determine the cultural battles resting at the heart of Polish politics today. As Rament (2017) argues, the right and the church are pursuing reactionary policies as a defence against the separation of church and state. In the words of former President and leader of Solidarność Lech Wałęsa:

“We have achieved freedom, everything should have returned to its proper place, including the church as it used to be in the past. This time priests haven’t returned to the religious field because they’ve started to enjoy their political roles.”

The Polish case and socialism

Whilst the case of Poland is somewhat unique in its extremity, its cultural confrontations are in no way different to the cultural tensions across all liberal democracies. An interview in the recent documentary produced by ABC Foreign Correspondent presented some interesting insights highlighting the internationalism of the problems outside of mainstream identity politics. When returning to the shipyard where Solidarność was founded, the trade union’s current deputy leader and PiS councillor argued:

“There’s a handful of people working, very few. In 1980 there were 1700 now there are only 700 . . . [Lech Wałęsa] did nothing for the shipyard. He did nothing to protest its closure. He did nothing.”

This betrayal and subsequent collapse of the centre-left in Poland allowed the populist rhetoric of PiS to infect working-class communities in the same way UKIP and the Conservatives have in Britain. Whilst the issues of poverty, lower standards of living, and insecure work remained central issues for the working-class, there has been a lack of articulation for these policies in mainstream left discourse. This has led to the continued alienation of international working-class communities from political discourse leading them to populist parties. The problems experienced by the working-class are international in nature and systemic to capitalist imperialism as highlighted by a Polish congregation member in a 2018 Newsnight interview:

“We were robbed. We have debts. Most of the rules were very poor, very bad. We were servants to the Western capitalists who come to Poland from 1989.”

As socialists we should show solidarity as events unfold in Poland and argue the situation is a universal failure of capitalism not minority groups.

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