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.

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.


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


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