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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill