Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

What’s left in Eastern Europe

While the Left Party in Germany scored 12 per cent in the recent Bundestag elections, in the rest of eastern Europe the left still languishes in the post-Soviet doldrums. Leigh Phillips spoke to Stefan Zgliczynski and Jane Hardy about its prospects

January 24, 2010
8 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


  share     tweet  

Poland is the country where the seeds of the fall of communism were first sown. Stefan Zgliczyski, the publisher of the Polish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, remains quite pessimistic about the state of the left in the former Soviet bloc. But Jane Hardy, the author of Poland’s New Capitalism, just published by Pluto Press, says that such despondency is unwarranted and that there are exciting, pioneering attempts at forging a new left freed from its association with Stalinism. Red Pepper spoke to them both.

Did the legacy of communism damage the left too much? Can the left ever make a comeback in the east?

Hard: There was very much a job to be done to rescue some of the left language from the legacy of Stalinism, so some of the left groups are careful about the language and names they choose. Do you use the word ‘socialist’, for example? But given the history of these countries, we should be very encouraged that there are growing social movements and a critique by young people, and successes in rebuilding trade unions.

Zgliczyski: There seems not to be the merest hint of this. In Poland, the post-communist left has ruled the country for several years. We had also two five-year periods of a state presidency by a former Communist Party member. The effect of this government was extreme neoliberalism, privatisation and the impoverishment of millions of people – and, of course, the participation of Poland in wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Is there a distinction in people’s minds between Stalinism and democratic socialism at all?

Zgliczyski: I’m not sure there is. This lack of distinction is also a consequence of the politics that we have faced since 1989. I would argue that the live broadcast of the execution of Nicolai Ceausescu in winter 1989 was the starting point of this development. The message was: ‘Look here, if you demand socialism, this is how it ends.’ We see an equalisation of the Nazi atrocities and the Stalinist ones. This delivers not only legitimacy to the capitalist project but also helps to destroy even any attempt at an intellectual alternative.

Western activists often know very little about what is going on in the east. We certainly don’t hear as much about eastern Europe as we do about Latin America, for example. What is the reality on the ground? Is there anything like the number of young people involved in climate camps or anti-war activism we have in the west?

Zgliczyski: I think most young people in Poland are quite passive in terms of social matters. They are not interested in anything except their own job and career. When talking about the groups involved in left-wing activism, this activity is largely restricted to an affirmation of gays and lesbians – but on the economic level they express truly neoliberal views. There exist, of course, radical left-oriented groups but unfortunately they are marginal and are often at odds with one another. Even the Polish Le Monde Diplomatique is considered to be an extremist monthly!

Hardy: Look, there’s a story here that hasn’t really been told. If you take the anti-globalisation movement, the movements against US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, or the anti-war movement, this is very young in composition. There is indeed a young, emergent left. I’m not surprised that young Poles, for example, who have moved to western capitals are liberal on gay rights and women, but also liberal when it comes to the economy. This is because these are the very people who have benefited from the transformation.

At the same time, elsewhere – in Hungary, for example – in reaction to the economic crisis, you’ve had quite a right-wing backlash with some quite reactionary ideas. There is more of an absence of any left alternative there.

There’s also been very little development of progressive NGOs in the east, apart from those funded by the US. There was no culture of NGOs in 1990 obviously, and it hasn’t changed much since then.

What about the Kaczynski twins [Lech, the current president, and Jaroslaw, the former prime minister] and other right-wing populists, such as the Jobbik movement in Hungary, or Ataka in Bulgaria? If western papers do mention the east, it is often about the growth of a very worrying social conservatism.

Hardy: It’s important not to exaggerate the influence of people like the Kaczynski twins. Their rhetoric exceeds their support. I’m sceptical whether their ideas have a real resonance with ordinary people, and trade unions can be quite mixed up on these subjects. Because of European integration, they have accepted a much more progressive equality agenda, although Solidarity still does not support abortion. Among young people, there is a very active women’s movement that has also raised anti-censorship and gay rights demands.

You also get very volatile political formations that sprout up rapidly but then disappear within a couple of electoral cycles. Self-Defence [Samoobrona, an agrarian formation that combines left-wing economic policies with religious conservatism], for example, is very hard to categorise as left or right wing.

What has been the fall-out from the rightward turn of Solidarity? What has happened to trade unionism as a principle? Are people completely disillusioned with unions?

Zgliczyski: The Polish paradox is that the Solidarity, a trade union, is strongly connected to nationalist and anti-communist right-wing parties. When I say right-wing parties, this means accepting capitalism, but one that is ‘our’ capitalism. The main enemies are the ‘foreigner’ investors. The second biggest trade union centre, the OPZZ, with roots in the communist era, is completely corrupt. One could describe this as a ‘yellow’ trade union of the government and entrepreneurs. The only trade union that is really fighting for workers rights is Sierpie 80 [August 80], which has its roots in the left wing of Solidarity in the 1980s.

There is also the far smaller Inicjatywa Pracownicza [IP, Workers Initiative]. The IP is interesting because they’ve developed a flexible strategy to offer the support of the union whether people are members or not. IP tackles the decline of traditional trade unions by organising protests and developing new strategies such as using the internet, blogs and demonstrations to pressure the company bosses, though not cut off from the production process. This was most successful during the strike at the Polish post office and protests at Volkswagen in Poznan.

Hardy: The Solidarity government turned into a market-oriented one, but at the same time they always have to have an eye on their support. There’s a very big gap between the leaders of Solidarity, who accepted the market in principle, and the union in workplaces, which was very active in employment and anti-privatisation campaigns, and has been able to rebuild itself in some of the car factories. That side has been missing from the story. It’s very contradictory – they aren’t really able to square that circle. What they are after is a sort of ‘Polish capitalism’, so they are quite critical of international capitalism, and the way that’s imposed on their factories.

Some people still have a very strong trade union mindset, but it depends where they work. Car factories employ quite young people, so there is a young trade unionism, but if you look where they have embryonic membership in supermarkets, it’s a different story. But it’s there, and this has to be seen as an antidote to people who’ve written off trade unionism as peripheral.

Western activists are quick to build solidarity groups focusing on the Honduras coup or the occupation of Palestine. Are they missing a trick with eastern Europe?

Zgliczyski: The solution to the precarious situation in the east seems to be Europe-wide co-operation of social movements, which combine the questions of economic and social emancipation, as well as raising the question of power.

At the moment, there is no common horizon of understanding. We have to develop this, so that a bus driver in Brussels has an idea of gay problems in Warsaw and a Polish feminist talks about the threat of French Avera nuclear plants. We all have to learn that there is a common source to this oppression and that a new politics is something configurable even when the neoliberals tell us ‘there is no alternative’.

Hardy: Poland has got the biggest embryonic left, but there has been very little development of links between the western left and the east, apart from over missile defence. There’s also the linguistic barrier. Not just between east and west, but between countries in the east – young Poles are much more likely to speak English than, say, Hungarian. So it’s also about building links within the east.

The western left has an increasingly important role to play because the lack of faith in parliamentary parties. The very low voter turnout (although the last election was substantially higher) means that there is a vacuum to be filled. It will not necessarily be filled by progressive ideas, but instead could help the growth of the dangerous, reactionary politics of racism and anti-semitism. There is a real need to develop solidarity activity in western workplaces, among trade unions, students and beyond.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones