Understanding the Polish Situation

Poles are tired. You can see this everywhere: on the streets, in shops, places of work, schools and universities. There is deep frustration, anger and cynicism about the political system. However, we also have to look at the situation from below, from the streets, where we are seeing protest movements arising like that of the students last year, and the nurses this year.

Crisis of Legitimacy

Poles are tired. You can see this everywhere: on the streets, in shops, places of work, schools and universities. There is deep frustration, anger and cynicism about the political system.

At the end of 2005, PiS - Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) - won the elections to the Polish presidency and parliament. Lech Kaczyński became President, and after much manoeuvring, his twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński, became Prime Minister in July last year. The government is a coalition made up of the PiS, the catholic nationalist LPR - Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families) - and the right wing populist Samoobrona (Self-Defence).

After little more than one year in office, Jarosław Kaczyński has opinion poll approval ratings of around 25%, which makes him the most unpopular Polish Prime Minister since 1989. His negative ratings are nearly 70%. The ratings for the government as a whole are even worse, and President Lech Kaczyński is only slightly more popular.

Only 28% of voters surveyed say they intend to vote in the next elections. This is even less than the 40% who went to the polls in 2005.

Moral Revolution

The Kaczyński brothers promised that they would introduce a "moral revolution" and that their policies would be governed by principles of social "solidarity". The word solidarity has very powerful associations in Poland because of the strike movement which began in August 1980 led by the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union. In its origins (although certainly not by 1989) this was a genuinely participative workers' movement in which many progressive ideas were debated. Despite being heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and nationalist ideology, the early Solidarność called for "socialism without distortions" and rejected capitalism.

The Kaczyńskis claim to be the true heirs of the traditions of Solidarność. They claim (which is true) that the interests of the Polish people were betrayed in 1989 in the so-called "round table" negotiations. These negotiations were between the leaders of Solidarność such as Lech Wałęsa, and the Stalinist ruling party known as the PZPR - Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (Polish United Workers Party). The result was the dissolution of the Polish People's Republic and the establishment of the 3rd Republic. The Kaczyńskis say that they will bury the shameful 3rd Republic and build a 4th Republic.

What is true in all of this is that the Polish people were betrayed in 1989. They were betrayed by the reintroduction of capitalism. They were promised that Poland would flourish. It would become a land of milk and honey, everyone would drive expensive cars etc. People were told to "get rich" - the main slogan used by the new ruling class in the early nineties. Unfortunately, not many followed this advice! "Shock therapy" under Leszek Balcerowicz, the Polish Mrs Thatcher, the first finance minister of the 3rd Republic and then long-serving president of the Polish National Bank, have led to a society that is the very opposite of the ideals of the original Solidarność.

Millions have been impoverished and demoralised and on their backs a privileged elite has formed who live in their gated communities safely cut-off from the surrounding population. Many of those who have lost out since the so-called "transformation" in 1989 voted for PiS, LPR and Samoobrona in 2005. The (actually only moderate) success of these parties in the elections can be explained by the fact that they consistently criticised everything that had happened in Poland since transformation. Apart from that, what also helped them was that they distanced themselves from the neo-liberal agenda of the other main contender to win the elections: PO - Platforma Obywatelska (Citizens' Platform) - for example by attacking the PO's flat tax proposal. It is also worth noting that one of Samoobrona's slogans was "Balcerowicz must go!".  

But it was enough to read their election manifesto to see that the anti-neoliberal marketing was just a smokescreen. The Kaczyński brothers are not opposed to capitalism or neo-liberalism. According to them the big mistake of 1989 was the so-called "thick line" that was drawn under the past which meant that former PZPR bureaucrats and state officials were allowed to take leading positions in the 3rd Republic. This was symbolised by the fact that the first President of the 3rd Republic was General Wojciech Jaruzelski who had introduced Martial Law in December 1981 and outlawed Solidarność. All this was wrong according to the Kaczyńskis, because these "communists" were the anti-Polish agents of the Soviet Union who would always betray the Polish people. What was needed in 1989 was a thorough "de-communisation" of the country both in terms of removing all traces of corrupting communist ideology, and putting the running of the country firmly into the hands of honest patriots. Since this was not done in 1989, it has to be done now. The economic system does not need changing, just the people running it. This is the "moral revolution"! Surprise, surprise: the new "moral" people just happen to be Kaczyński supporters.

Anti-communist Propaganda

In the worldview of the Kaczyńskis and their allies the terms "communism" and "socialism" are synonymous with inhumanity, treachery, anti-Polishness and corruption, and they feel as if they have been called upon to rid Poland of this cancer once and for all.

In April of this year there was a discussion in the European Parliament concerning a proposed condemnation of Stalinist crimes. The comments of a leading Polish historian from Warsaw University concerning this are very revealing. In a newspaper interview for the pro-government Rzeczpospolita newspaper he said that to call these crimes "Stalinist" is incorrect: "That is an old communist tactic begun by Khrushchev: communism is a wonderful ideology, deformed by the terrible Stalin. What about the crimes of Lenin? What about Poznań 1956? What about Martial Law? We can't compromise on this. We must demand the condemnation...of communism and not some "Stalinism" as a criminal and genocidal system."

Unfortunately, such dishonest attempts to identify Leninism and socialism with Stalinism are characteristic of the Polish media, schools and universities, not to mention the Catholic Church!

The Polish People's Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa - PRL) is presented by the government and the mainstream media as a dictatorship comparable to that of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. This is clearly a ridiculous and historical myth, but it suits the propaganda aim of equating leftist ideologies with that of Nazism. At the same time we need to be very clear that events such as Martial Law in 1981 were indeed crimes against workers' democracy and thus ultimately prepared the way for capitalist counterrevolution in Poland.

Social Solidarity?

In terms of their philosophy of social solidarity the Kaczyńskis promised intervention (vaguely defined) to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. But the inability and unwillingness of the government to do this is becoming more and more obvious. One of their more notorious acts has been the introduction of a one-off payment of 250 Euros for the birth of each child. But in the context of an almost complete absence of financial help for families in the 3rd Republic this can only lead to unwanted births and an increase in the number of abandoned children.

The government shows habitual arrogance towards ordinary citizens - sanctioning police surveillance and brutality against strikers and demonstrators. When nurses, as part of a desperate nationwide protest this summer against catastrophic conditions in the health service, occupied a room in the Prime Minister's office he said that they were criminals and that he would not negotiate with criminals. Of course, the nurses union was accused of being controlled by communists who wanted to precipitate a political crisis. And now after the failure of negotiations the health minister has announced that he is going to close down some key hospitals and that the blame for this falls on the striking doctors and nurses.

In the schools the only ideas that the LPR education minister Roman Giertych comes up with relate to increased discipline, investigations of under-age sex, the banning of homosexual "propaganda" in schools (which exists only in his imagination), and the introduction of more patriotic and religious "education". From September, school uniforms are being reintroduced into Polish schools, of course paid for by hard-pressed parents.

Anyone who opposes the government's crusade is, consciously or not, a communist agent, and if the government is to be believed the spectre of communism haunts Poland today like never before.

So the social solidarity of PiS has turned out to be good marketing and nothing else. In practice they are continuing the capitalist policies of previous governments including, sadly, the SLD - Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left Alliance). To this they have simply added their special brand of arrogance, intolerance, authoritarianism, xenophobia and witch-hunts. All of this has earned them the dislike, and even hatred, of large sections of the population.

The Opposition

The main opposition party is the neo-liberal PO - Platforma Obywatelska - with around 30% support. On social issues it is only slightly less conservative than the PiS. In fact one of the possible scenarios after last year's elections was a PiS-PO coalition and this still cannot be ruled out. PO often criticises the government for its authoritarianism but equally criticises it for its (only verbal) interventionism into economic affairs. One of the ironies of the current situation is that the opposition often compares the Kaczyńskis and PiS to "communism" either because of their authoritarianism or interventionism or both.

The SLD, which is successor to the Stalinist ruling party, is in an electoral coalition with a group of smaller parties. This coalition has around 10% support which is miserable given the degree of social dissatisfaction with the PiS.

In terms of issues relating to women's rights, abortion, and homosexuality, the SLD is the most progressive of the mainstream parties in Poland - although this is only when seen against the reactionary views of the other parties. Although there are some good left activists in the SLD especially among the youth, the SLD leadership is thoroughly tied to a big business, pro-capitalist agenda despite its rhetoric about social "sensitivity". It was in power between 2001 and 2005, elected with an unprecedented 41% of the vote (in 2005 PiS received only 27%), but it squandered the goodwill of the voters due to its complete failure to act on behalf of the Polish working class. Leszek Miller who led the SLD government has declared himself to be in favour of the flat tax and claims "you cannot be for democracy and against capitalism."

Neo-liberal Orthodoxy

It is important to be realistic about the ideology of many who are hostile to Kaczyński and the right. The following blog entry by a student at the Warsaw School of Economics is representative:

"Unfortunately the PiS government can only cause Poland to take a great step backwards or, if you prefer, eastwards... Despite the demagoguery of Radio Maryja and some politicians, only economic liberalism can bring prosperity to Poland and Poles. If you doubt what I say then come to a lecture on the basics of economic theory at the Warsaw School of Economics - the best school of economics in central and eastern Europe.

"Young and educated people know this and that is why they are leaving the country. And the rest will remain in poverty in Poland ... which will slowly decay in its own sauce of a new version of communism (in economic matters) and Catholic right wing fascism (in matters of worldview). But that doesn't bother me, because I'm not going to be here."

One of the features of the current Polish situation is the total domination of neo-liberal orthodoxy in the mainstream, with only the right wing occasionally posturing as critical of this consensus. This can lead to the strange situation where anti-capitalist left activists are accused of having the same approach to economics as the government!

As an indication of the ideological (almost religious) attachment of the Polish elites to capitalism, the leader of the doctors' union is arguing that the crisis in the Polish health service can only be overcome by its privatisation according to the US model! However, many rank and file doctors do not accept this "solution", and the nurses' union completely rejects privatisation.

Crisis of the Labour Movement

It is of crucial importance that we understand the reasons for this drastic deterioration of the political situation in Poland. All the problems that Polish society is facing now did not fall from the sky. They are not a product of the alleged stupidity and narrow-mindedness of the Poles as the mainstream-media analysts tend to "explain". The advances of the Polish clerical extreme right wing are only possible due to the terrible weakness of the Polish left - due to its enormous political confusion and the opportunism of its leadership. With all the outrages that the government is coming up with they are testing how far they can go. What they are actually testing in this way is the condition of the labour movement. They are perfectly aware that the organised working class is the only real force in society that can bring this process of total clericalisation and hijacking of the state to a halt. And the fact is that the Polish labour movement is almost non-existent. The trade unions are in a terrible condition - both organisationally and politically. Only ten percent of Polish workers are unionised and the two biggest confederations - OPZZ and Solidarność - continue to lose members. The working class is frustrated and feels completely helpless and betrayed because in the 1980s, as mentioned earlier, it was promised a land of milk and honey once capitalism was introduced into Poland. Everybody was shocked when Balcerowicz started his brutal free-market reforms, which meant waging a war on those people thanks to whom he came to power. Workers in Poland feel that they cannot really trust any leader or any political party. This should come as no surprise, especially in a situation when there is, seemingly, no left-wing force that could offer them any kind of political backing that could equip the movement with ideas and strategy.

But even what remains of the Polish labour movement after seventeen years of crisis and demoralisation is dangerous to the ruling class because their definition of what is "law" and "justice" seems to be peculiar enough to mobilise thousands to protest against it.

Tasks of the Left

Looking from the top down at Polish society, i.e. through the eyes of the media, educational institutions and mainstream politicians, the dominance of neo-liberalism and clericalism in Poland does appear to be complete. But that is a one-sided perspective. We also have to look at the situation from below, from the streets, where we are seeing protest movements arising like that of the students last year, and the nurses this year. A further wave of protests and strikes is expected in September.

Despite the ideological confusion that exists in Polish society the slogans being raised in these protests, for the separation of church and state, against further privatisation, for union rights, and decent wages and pensions, are left-wing demands and the left needs to build on this.

If ever there was a time for Polish socialists to take to heart Lenin's exhortation to engage in "patient, systematic, and persistent explanation" it is now! We have to carefully distinguish the true ideas of socialism from the distortions of Stalinism, the catholic right and the neo-liberal mainstream.

We have to be active in the trade unions, left parties and other organisations in which a debate will come as to the future, and in this debate offer a clear programme for socialist transformation in Poland.

Yes, Poles are tired. They don't look at the potential for a PO victory in the next elections with any great excitement because they know it will be more of the same. Scandals and corruption, crisis in the health service, crisis in education, regions of catastrophic unemployment, children born into permanent poverty, exhausting, insecure and poorly paid work for most of those who have a job, a generation leaving Poland.

The ultimate task of the Polish left is to convince those dissatisfied with the present system that there is an alternative worth fighting for.

Warsaw, August 3 2007 

People interested in political activities in Poland should contact redakcja@socjalizm.org 

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