When we observe the current political scene in Europe, we get the impression that something has gone very wrong. We can see that we – the left – have made many serious mistakes and that our weakness has given new opportunities to right-wing movements and parties.
The collapse of the USRR and Eastern European Bloc led to a new situation for the left in Europe. The deepening crisis of the welfare state in Western Europe and the radical transition to capitalism in the East posed great challenges for the European and international left. The implementation of neo-liberal programmes by social democratic parties, combined with the weak radical left, allowed for the rise of the nationalist and far-right once again. The other important aspect which made this possible was that the left did not sufficiently defend its historical achievements from attack by various groups of right-wing historians and politicians.
Although the situation differs from country to country, there are some common features throughout Europe, particularly in its eastern part. It is worth looking at the example of Poland, which has followed closely the course set by Orban in Hungary and adapted his example to the Polish reality.
Up until 2015 all the parliamentarian political forces in Poland had followed the neo-liberal road guided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The most important goal for successive governments was economic growth and deepening the integration into the EU and NATO. For all governments it was very important to become a leader in the transformation, with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic competing for this position.
Although Poland was one of the ‘winners’ of the transition in Eastern Europe, the transition still had hugely negative effects for millions of Poles. Large social groups found their social position worsen and were excluded from the gains of the transition, consequently abstaining from the democratic process. Another major negative factor was that when the left were in power it did not significantly improve the living standards of the population. Particularly during the second government formed by the social democratic Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), from 2001 – 2005, the neo-liberal reforms were continued and the vote for the SLD fell from over 40% to 11% and the left have remained on the margins ever since. This has allowed for the dominance of two parties from the right: Citizens’ Platform (PO) and the Law and Justice Party (PiS).
Only narrow groups of society gained the benefits from the transition, with the social costs placed on the shoulders of the majority. Even when some radical populist and nationalist parties shared power with PiS from 2005, the course of reform was not significantly changed. This strengthened the hegemony of PO and PiS who have dominated Polish politics for over a decade.
In 2015 there was a breakthrough. The presidential and parliamentary elections were huge victories for the right wing forces. For the first time one party (PiS) won an overall majority in parliament and during the same year they also won the Presidency. Also a new populist right-wing party (including some open right wing nationalists) entered parliament: Kukiz15. Both right-wing parties, the national-conservative PiS and the national-liberal Kukiz15, have come to power on anti-system and anti-establishment slogans. They have promised that Poles will receive the gains of economic growth and that they will eliminate the pathologies of the past two decades. The centre and left wing political forces did not manage to convince voters to support their moderate programmes. The liberal PO, which had ruled for two terms, was forced to give up power and for the first time the left did not manage to enter parliament. PiS won enough votes to rule on its own, with Kukiz15 declaring that they will play the role of a “soft opposition” and that they will support government in their attempts to introduce systemic changes.
Since 2015 the PiS government has carried out the biggest social transfer in over twenty five years. PiS has introduced a significant programme of child benefits for families called 500+; shortened the retirement age extended by the former government; given free medicine for people over 75; and fought for stability of employment and decent salaries. PiS has begun to portray itself as a party defending ordinary citizens from the pathologies of business and public life. The social programmes are part of their wider strategy of state renewal in the spirit of conservative values (e.g. omission within the 500+ programme of single mothers, opposition to state funding for in vitro treatment, lowering pensions for those involved in building the previous system). This change is accompanied by the appropriation of the public media, politicisation of the judiciary and prosecutor’s office, surveillance of citizens, lack of respect for women and minorities, hostile attitude towards refugees, etc. Poland is more and more becoming reminiscent of a police state. The ruling party is increasingly talking about changing the constitution (adopted in 1997 – as a national compromise), which they term ‘post-communist’. The paralyses of the state can make this task much easier.
The idea of introducing a constitutional change was not the leading theme of the PiS election campaign, but was of fundamental importance to the electorate of Kukiz15. PiS, during their two years of governing, have shown that it is possible to make far-reaching changes without changing the constitution. However, their successes to date, alongside their wish to win over the electorate of Kukiz15, have led to public declarations about trying to introduce constitutional change before the next elections. This is particularly important as both political groups have similar electorates, which are made up of both moderate conservatives and extreme right wingers.
The government has increasingly promoted conservative and reactionary policies concerning refugees and has unleashed a wave of nationalism and racism in the country. They are also using de-communisation (changing street names, proposing to outlaw the small communist party, etc.) as a way of attacking the left and demonizing anything connected to the previous system.
The divided and disorganized opposition has not been effective in opposing this, although some of the more extreme policies of the government have at least temporarily been stalled. The uncritical attitude of the opposition, towards the unpopular institutions of the Third Republic, is not understood by many citizens. Many country-wide protests of women, different occupational groups, representatives of local governments have been organized. The black protests organized against the proposal to completely outlaw abortion were extremely large and organized around the country. These brought a small and perhaps temporary retreat by the government on this issue. Furthermore, the government’s recent proposals to reform the courts were also met with huge demonstrations around the country that led the President to partially break with the government and veto two of its proposals. It is to be seen whether this can develop into a social movement that is capable of seriously challenging the government.
It is regrettable to say that the Left has not been able find its place in this situation and lead the protests against the government. The inability of the left to present a viable alternative to the neoconservative and neoliberal projects is only deepening its present crisis. The left faces the dilemma of whether it should join in demonstrations led by liberals against a government that is introducing some progressive social reforms. The left is divided on this. Some parties such as the SLD and Greens have joined the opposition protests, although they have not led them. Other parties such as Razem initially refused to join the demonstrations and organized some smaller ones themselves. However, recently even Razem have participated in the joint pro-democracy protests.
One of the major problems remains that the left is divided. Razem and the SLD do not cooperate with each other – Razem accuses the SLD of being a post-Communist neo-liberal party. Razem has tried to present itself as the third force in Polish politics, but has so far only had limited success in this. The SLD is orientating to its older core electorate and cannot extend its support beyond this. With the left remaining outside of parliament it is becoming more marginalized and not visible in the public debates.
There are some new initiatives that offer some positive perspectives for joint activities of the left against both neo-liberalism and right-wing conservatism. This includes the project for a new Fifth Republic (www.piatarzeczpospolita.pl) and a letter circulated by the left-wing scientific journal “Theoretical Practice”, around the same topic. Naprzód assesses this initiative positively and this letter is reproduced below.
The ruling party in Poland favors the radicalisation of social sentiments. The new historical narrative; the move towards authoritarianism; the building of a climate of national pride; and intolerance to minorities and those with different opinions may have tragic consequences.
However, this new situation creates a lot of possibilities for the Left. For the first time in over two decades we can discuss issues such as privatisation, re-privatisation, restriction of private property, the necessity for state investment and many other things. Previously, a doctrinal approach had prevailed, which closed discussion on such issues. The challenge for the left is to break the divide between a liberal and conservative right and offer an alternative that extends social rights and protections but also defends democratic and civil rights.
Below we reproduce a letter written by the journal “Theoretical Practice”, which has been signed by many activists from different parties, organizations and movements in Poland. The Polish version and list of signatures can be found here.
A spectre is haunting the streets – the spectre of another Republic. All the forces of the old Third Republic are engaged in a holy war in order to defend the old order. However, this spectre leads us beyond the alternative of the old order and the creeping authoritarianism that is trying to overthrow it. The old order of the past 28 years has effectively prevented the democratisation of public life; any alternative to neo-liberal economics; or questioning the parasitical position of the political and business elite. We appeal to the left, which has consistently been marginalised by this alternative, not to exorcise this spectre but to help it to come into existence.
The rapid appropriation of the state and the dismantling of the institutions of liberal democracy, are extremely disturbing for us. The present change of personnel in the courts, subordinated exclusively to the interests of the ruling party and not its citizens as PiS claims, has rightly sparked a wave of protests. In our opinion the ease with which the Third Republic has collapsed confirms the diagnosis that the political and economic transformation in Poland had an extremely weak social base. Therefore, any defense of the status quo in these conditions is not only dangerous but above all impossible.
The discredited politicians of the present opposition are associated by a significant section of the population by their anti-social policies; superior and elitist tone; and lack of a programme that could in any way improve the lives of the majority of the population. These are extremely weak defenders of democracy. Democracy is not just a collection of abstract values, free elections, a pluralistic media or fair courts. Above all, it involves real social inclusion and an effective state with which citizens can identify and feel they are being represented by politicians. During the past 28 years the Third Republic has not been able to provide this.
The Third Republic has not fulfilled the promises that were made at the end of the Polish Peoples’ Republic. The ideals of the Solidarity movement and the demands made in August 1980 were not reflected in the shock-therapy reforms which introduced a programme of wild privatisation and the deregulation of the labour market. Since the Third Republic has not fulfilled its promises so it is time to bid it farewell and to declare the need for a new Republic. If we help to defend the old order then it will be Jarosław Kaczyński (leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party – PiS) who will build it for us.
It is not possible to effectively defend democratic values without winning the support of at least part of the electorate that are disillusioned with the Third Republic. Such people supported PiS in the last elections, were lured by the radical rhetoric of the populist politician Paweł Kukiz or simply did not vote. The ruling party is aiming to divide Polish society between the ‘elite’ and the ‘people’. This is why it is targeting judges, artists or opposition politicians and simultaneously introducing some important social reforms that benefit the majority of the population. The present narrative of the liberal opposition – demonising the PiS electorate, and accusing it of being ‘bought off’ by the ruling party - does not break with the PiS narrative and only reverses the roles of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in society. Such an attempt to restore the elite excludes the possibility of winning over to the democratic project those that have welcomed the government’s social programmes in areas such as child benefits, the minimum wage and reducing the pension age. Before the elite start to accuse ordinary people of selling themselves for the government’s new child benefits, we ask them why they sold out these people for their own privileges. We are all now paying for the elite’s 28 years of privilege.
We are appealing to left-wing circles because we believe that it is only possible to defend democracy in its broadest sense - which is closest to the ideals of the left. We are speaking here of a formula that takes into account the injustices upon which the Third Republic was built. In order to develop this, the left must speak with its own voice and clearly differentiate itself from liberals and not be afraid to criticise the old order or propose solutions of its own. It is not enough to demonstrate with the representatives of the elite. In such a scenario the spectre of change will be overshadowed by the media and the establishment and the opposition will continue to be dominated by the neo-liberal tirades or sexist jokes made by politicians from the liberal camp, who will seek to weaken the left.
The current situation in the courts is a good example of how the postponement of reforms has resulted in many citizens not feeling that they live in a state with a legal system that protects the interests of the weak. The ruling party deploys the rhetoric of ‘returning the state to the people’, whilst actually reforming it for their own interests. Despite this the left should not evade the issue of reforming the courts but rather present their own vision of how they would carry this out.
We have decided to sign this letter because we believe that in the coming period the left will once again play a role in shaping an alternative to the old order. Right-wing authoritarianism will feed on the liberal opposition and its resistance will strengthen support for the government. Only the left can break this closed circle and – whilst avoiding opportunistic political calculations – it should take inspiration from political parties and social movements in other countries that have dared to declare that another form of politics is possible. We are inspired by the presence of large numbers of young people on the recent demonstrations in defence of the courts. They do not hold much trust in the old political elite. The role of the left should be to convince this young generation that the survival of democracy depends upon them and whether or not they act in the interests of the whole of society. They should realise that it is possible to build a state that does not rest upon class hatred, discrimination against women and minorities, or serving the millionaires, Church and the privileged casts. We should say to them together – regardless of our differences – that another Republic is possible.