Photo credit: Obóz dla Puszczy
The spectacle of 60,000 nationalists and neo-Nazis marching through central Warsaw earlier this month made headlines around the world. On the face of things, Poland today is an unlikely site for radical political shifts, with just 5% unemployment and the fastest rising wages in the EU. Commentators have been left perplexed about the possible drivers of rising fascism in the country. Yet the march has been steadily growing in numbers since 2011, when just 20,000 attended, and the attendees have been more radical every year.
Polish commentators were not surprised by the ruling Law and Justice party’s (PiS) silence over the blatant presence of fascists or the assault of women protesters by riot police and marchers. The organisers are Neo-Nazi groups – Radical National Camp and the All Poland Youth – who have repeatedly marched behind anti-Semitic, anti-communist, homophobic and racist banners. PiS have been bringing their members into their orbit through tacit approval for over a decade. But has PiS’s tolerance and silent solidarity with the far right gone too far? How has it come to this?
Przemyslaw Wielgosz, Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition situates the rise of PiS in the economic crises of the past twenty years which saw the neoliberal restructuring of the country’s economy, youth unemployment hit 50%, and two million Poles leave the country in search of work.
“Joining the EU changed the situation in Poland dramatically. The poorest social groups benefited the most over the past 10-15 years but conditions for the lower middle class got worse. Those who believed in the neoliberal myth of individual success, the small business-owners, the self-employed, found themselves having to compete with transnational capital on a market dominated by large corporations and they lost, they became re-proletariased. This is the group that supports PiS and the far-right”.
A 2013 Public Opinion Research Centre survey found 70% of Poles identified as ‘middle class’, yet just 10% (1.5-3 million) actually enjoy economic conditions that could be described as such. “PiS supporters do not feel solidarity with their own class, a working class, but with the class they aspire to be part of,” explains Wielgosz.
PiS’s policies of raising the minimum wage, reducing the pension age (by seven years for women and five for men), introducing a minimum number of hours for gig economy workers, child benefits – paying all families 500zl (€120) per child per month under the 500 Plus programme, and government loans for families to buy property (the Mieszkanie Plus) have been referred to as a form of National Socialism. Wielgosz disagrees, “There are national socialist aspects to PiS’s economic programmes but there has been no redistribution of wealth, no taxes on the rich, and no mechanism for the division of wealth. The rhetoric is radical but the previous economic order is still in place”. Although their policies may have potential social democratic benefits, the PiS identity is constructed on nationalist identity, access, belonging and agency which is necessarily exclusive of ‘others’ defined and used by them as not belonging to the white, catholic, nationalist identity (e.g non-Christians, refugees, LGBTQI community, feminists, leftists)
Jakub Grzegorczyk, General Secretary of the anarchist Workers Initiative (IP) trade union (which has 53 committees across Poland including in Volkswagen and Amazon) agrees: “Very little has changed with regards to the balance of power between workers and bosses. PiS’s planned changes to laws regulating trade union representation and strike action by favouring the main Solidarity union federation in particular and big unions in general, undermines the organising and agency of smaller unions like our own and mirrors the centralising, labour-disciplining and incorporation tactics of Franco’s regime in Spain or Salazar in Portugal”.
Jaroslaw Urbanski, sociologist and founder of Workers Initiative was jailed for organising with Solidarity in the 1980s. “With so much polarization of the political scene, many employees choose our union, which does not hide sympathy for the feminist movement, does not oppose refugees and does not carry homophobic slogans. We also gain because we are not associated with any political party and the conflict between PiS and PO and Nowoczesna.”
Urbanski believes PiS’s popularity is overstated and workers are voting according to economic rather than identity-based interests: “How durable the current nationalist sympathies in Poland will be is difficult to say. They are, on the one hand, the result of a systematic fight against the left for many years, and, on the other, mass disappointment with neoliberalism and capitalism. In addition, the PiS governments have taken power in exceptionally good economic conditions: unemployment is low, the state budget is large. But what happens when the next crash hits? I believe that PiS authority and PiS support are based more on economic factors than on some specific patriotic values”.
Refugee solidarity organiser and sociologist at the University of Poznan Katarzyna Czarnota believes PiS and their supporters are in the ideological and structural ascendancy and, whether it’s economic drivers or sentiment driving voters, the licence for PiS to bring about a radical right conservative culture will take generations to undo. Czarnota spoke to me following a mobilisation to prevent Robert Winnicki, MEP and founder of the Neo-Nazi All-Poland Youth from speaking in Poznan. A coalition of 13 organisations including Stonewall, Poznan Free from Hate, Razem Poznan, Our Issue (Women’s strike feminist platform) and Rozbrat anarchist social centre came together. State radio and television portrayed the peaceful protest as a violent confrontation, claiming anti-fascists were coming from France and Germany leading many to stay away. “Things have changed very quickly. PiS taking over the public broadcaster (Polish Television and Radio) and sacking more independently minded journalists has helped to enable the demonisation and silencing of critics. State television regularly shows footage of migrants protesting at borders in southern Europe, spreading fear of our borders being swamped. Every sphere of life has been politicised by the government, the constitutional court, the media, education, cultural institutions. NGOs have seen their funding cut. Academia is still relatively safe. Yet all around, people’s lives are still precarious and in crisis – Poland’s so-called economic miracle is a myth, and with PiS’s 500 Plus and Housing Plus reforms, I believe they will win the next election”.
The use of the courts, police, public prosecutor and threats of fines have been used by PiS politicians to intimidate journalists from publicising possible conflicts of interest and abuses of power, including links between Russia and the Minister of Defence. The Journalists’ union, The Society of Journalists, recently published an open letter to ‘International Journalist Organisations’ appealing for support, warning that “They (PiS) are now preparing a thorough pacification of the private media in Poland, some of them foreign owned, under the slogan of deconcentration and re-polonisation.”
Marcelina Zawisza is one of the co-founders of the Razem (Together) Party. The 26 year old has worked for the past eight years as a barista, waitress, data entry temp and writer on smieciowe umowy (Trash Contracts, or the equivalent of UK zero hours contracts) – she is a Polish precariat. Razem have been collating incidences of far right activity, including the appointment of far right activists into institutional positions of power, on their portal zerotolerencji.pl counting 253 so far. “The rise of fascism is not ad-hoc, it is systemic. By investigating and exposing the merging of elements of the far right with the state, we show who is failing to take responsibility where they can to stop it, and presently that is PiS”.
The Vice-President of the All Poland Youth was recently appointed as the Director of the Internal Audit Department of the National Bank of Poland and this June, Filip Lukaszewski of the Radical National Camp (ONR) was appointed as the assistant to the Vice Director of Polish Radio’s internet portal.
Razem have also been supporting miners, health workers and teachers, the feminist reproductive rights movement, anti-fascist mobilisations and consumer rights, including holding debt speak-outs, door-knocking and voter registration drives in some of the most impoverished communities in the country. Less than 50% of eligible voters participated in the 2015 elections, which saw PiS win an absolute majority with 37% of the vote. Razem’s strategy is to reach non-voters and those attracted to the far right. “We speak of relationships and community, and care for other people in a society that is incredibly individualistic, where children are not taught co-operation but competition in school. We show solidarity with the groups needing it and which the state neglects”.
Asked how many seats she believes Razem will win in the 2019 elections, she says ‘Twenty!’ Ambitious considering Razem have yet to win one seat – they won 3.6% of the vote in the year they were founded (2015), short of the 5% needed to secure an MP – but modest considering there are 460 seats in the Polish parliament. Of the far right MPs in Parliament she explains, “Voters didn’t know who they were electing because the far right have been hiding in lists such as the Kukiz 15 List (a far right, ‘maverick’ anti-establishment organisation, founded by punk rock musician Pawel Kukiz) which enabled Robert Winnicki of the All Poland Youth to win a seat in the European Parliament.”
Asked who the far right are, Zawisza says “They are not one class or social group, there is a cross section and this is what is so dangerous. Yes you have your guys from the projects in their tracksuits at the demonstrations but also educated, older men and women. PiS may be a patron of the United Right, but the question is, at what point will this all break out from under its control? PiS justifies and normalises the organised far right in the media, making the extreme mainstream. The scale of the problem will grow as big as the ruling parties will let it”.
Przemyslaw Wielgosz sees the PiS strategy as one of dominating Polish politics by accepting, cultivating and co-opting the far right to absorb and control it. “PiS are positioning themselves as the only entity which can control the fascists and are the only alternative to the fascists. They are creating the threat that they then want to protect the Polish public from. It is a very dangerous game”.
Despite the rise of the right, there are significant progressive social movements across the country tackling evictions and fracking, and supporting tenant, women’s and refugee rights. The intense struggle to defend the primeval Bialowieza forest from logging is emblematic of both PiS’s approach to public commons, heritage and opposition, and a broad, grassroots direct action movement enjoying mass public support.
Thousands have travelled from across the country to stop a recent decree allowing commercial logging in the forest. Sixty blockades have taken place since May. PiS called it a battle with the bark beetle and eco-terrorism. Activists have called it cultural and ecological vandalism of public environmental heritage and reiterate that the European Commission has declared the logging illegal. Commenting to journalists on the last blockade in the forest, one arm in an arm-tube, the other grasping her mobile phone, Camp for the Forest activist Aska Pawluskiewicz explained, “This isn’t about the financial profits for the logging industry, this is unfortunately, about showing who rules here, who is boss and who can do what they want”.
Camp for the Forest (Oboz Dla Puszczy), the network co-ordinating the protests, believes their highly visible and accessible social movement has threatened the government’s authority. Twenty activists were arrested by 100 police and Forest Guard during a peaceful blockade of the Forestry Commission in Warsaw two weeks ago and charged with breach of the peace. They were subjected to humiliating cavity searches, raids on their homes, and their family and neighbours were questioned. “The authorities are afraid of the social movement in the defence of Białowieża Forest and decided to chasten it using the police, and soon perhaps also the courts of law. It has been affirmed by unofficial statements of the escorting police who complained of engaging such large forces in this action. They indicated it’s an effect of a decision “from on high,” and they themselves would have preferred to be after real criminals,” reads a recent press release from Camp for the Forest.
The conditions for a growth of state-sponsored fascism are present and dynamic in Poland, but the conditions for labour, social and climate movement counter power, and electoral challenges to the current state are also developing, giving hope to those watching with horror. Another Poland is possible.
This article first appeared on the Transnational Institute