The rise of so-called populism and the far right over the past few years has been a global trend. We have written about it before – "reactionary ideologies always feed on social decomposition, atomisation and growing insecurity."
The annual Independence March in Poland has once again made international headlines. 1 "Fascists march in Warsaw for Polish Independence Day", "White Europe: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s independence day", "Huge far-Right Polish Independence march that shocked the internet", etc. 2 Much of the controversy surrounded the manner in which members of the conservative Polish government, headed by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), initially defended the march as "a great celebration" and "a beautiful sight".
The rise of so-called populism and the far right over the past few years has been a global trend. We have written about it before – "reactionary ideologies always feed on social decomposition, atomisation and growing insecurity."3 But to explain the current social and political situation in Poland, we need to look at the specifics. And the grievances and desires of those who march under the red and white flags, with burning flares in their hands, provide a good enough starting point – broadly these revolve around immigration, religion and imperialism. Explaining the dynamics of the Independence March, the largest far-right event in Europe, can also give us some insight into the consequences of the capitalist crisis.
Throughout its recent history, Poland has experienced drastic demographic changes. From the multi-cultural Second Republic of the interwar period (with around 30% of its population consisting of ethnic minorities) to the homogeneous nation it is today (around 97% ethnically Polish in 2011) - border changes, wars and genocide have all left their mark. Yet even though there's hardly any Muslims or Jews in Poland today, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise.
During the Independence March a banner was unveiled which pictured refugees as the Trojan horse of Europe. In nationalist discourse the wave of migration from the war-torn Middle East and North Africa has become synonymous with covert Islamic conquest. The terrorist attacks in the West that get reported on in the Polish media serve as supposed evidence. The right makes the argument that terrorism has not yet spread to Poland because of its reluctance to accept refugees. The 2016 march passed under the slogan "Poland, bastion of Europe". The meaning is obvious: this is another Siege of Vienna and Poland is once again saving Europe from foreign invasion, preserving Christian civilisation. 4 Of course in reality hardly any refugees are heading to Poland in the first place, and terrorist attacks primarily take place in the Middle East and North Africa, while the countries affected in the West are mostly those currently involved in military operations against groups like ISIS. The romantic image of Poland as the saviour of Europe is for the moment just empty rhetoric, intended to give the nationalist movement a sense of historical importance. Nonetheless it does provide the PiS government with some good propaganda – it has made the refugee question part of its feud with the European Union, refusing any resettlement deals. Such discourse is not without consequence unfortunately – it has fuelled attacks on mosques in Warsaw and Poznań, and created a pogrom-like atmosphere in the city of Ełk, after a Polish youth was killed in a skirmish with a Tunisian worker of a local kebab shop.
Anti-Semitism on the other hand has a long and complex history in Poland, but it still serves as a kind of "socialism of fools". 5 When asked why he is taking part in the march, one older participant interviewed on a public TV channel answered: "to remove from power… the Jewry." 6 While one of the main chants of the march was "our streets, our tenements". 7 In a city suffering from re-privatisation and evictions such slogans find resonance (currently properties in Warsaw which were confiscated under the Polish People's Republic are being returned to previous owners, and the process is ripe with abuses and made up claims on the side of the alleged property owners). The conspiracy theory of Jews controlling the world because they have political power and property is not unique to Poland however and accompanies most forms of racism worldwide. Much of the Polish far right shares the view of their Hungarian counterparts, that the left, LGBT movements, etc. are all funded by the capital of George Soros to de-stabilise the situation in Eastern Europe. These are no longer fringe conspiracies however, as even the main public TV channel in Poland now suggests, with evidence from "experts", PiS politicians and a priest, that the refugee crisis itself might be a plot by Soros, who "as an opponent of national states and Christianity", wants to start a "cultural revolution" in Europe... 8
The immigration question does not end with refugees and conspiracy theories however. Who else was the target of nationalist hate at the march? Ukrainians. Poland is actually experiencing significant demographic changes today. Since joining the European Union in 2004, some 2 million, often young, Poles have left the country. Not counting the forced deportations during and after World War II, this is the biggest wave of emigration Poland has experienced since the early 20th century (when some 3.5 million left for the USA). 9 Many leave in search of better jobs, and together with a near stagnant population growth, and a rapidly ageing population, the fears of a labour shortage in Poland are not unfounded. However, what is rarely reported, is that in 2016 the number of first residence permits issued to non-EU citizens was highest in the United Kingdom (865,894) followed by... Poland (585,969). 10 While it refuses to accept refugees, Poland is at the same time accepting large numbers of migrants – primarily from Ukraine (87.5% of residence permits) and primarily for employment reasons (84.3%). 11 In other words, labour shortages are made up by Ukrainian migrants who, sometimes also fleeing from war, are willing to accept lower wages and worse working conditions. And so everything goes full circle – Ukrainians in Poland are playing a similar role to Poles in the UK. What follows, is that just like in the UK there is now resentment towards Poles for "stealing British jobs" or "living off benefits", in Poland there is now resentment towards Ukrainians for "stealing Polish jobs" and being given state benefits. Rather than recognise the commonality of their situation, workers are being pitted against each other by nationalists on all sides.
This year’s march went under the slogan “We want God”. It is the title of an old Catholic hymn, and famously when Pope John Paul II visited Warsaw in 1979, that was the chant which followed him around. But its use during the march, apart from highlighting the religious and Catholic character of the modern nationalist movement, has also another significance – it is also the same expression that Trump used during his recent visit to Poland, drawing on the words of Pope John Paul II: “As I stand here today before this incredible crowd, this faithful nation, we can still hear those voices that echo through history. Their message is as true today as ever. The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out ‘We want God’.” 12 The Church is deeply bound up with Polish nationalism, and it is worth briefly explaining how its role in Polish society only grew after 1989.
Following the establishment of the People's Republic of Poland after World War II, the state sought to limit the influence of the Catholic Church by confiscating its property and attacking its influence within politics and education. However, this did not exactly mean it took an anti-religious position per se. During the years of Stalinist repression (1948-1956), no association was to be independent of the ruling Party, but religion became a useful tool in the hands of the state as it had serious power within sections of Polish society which could be utilised to entrench the new regime. In the years 1949-1956 a movement of priest-patriots was actively promoted, these priest-patriots together with organisations such as the PAX Association promoted a national version of Catholicism, independent of the Vatican and instead loyal to the Party. At the same time Catholic priests who were accused of subversion or spying were thrown into jails or given show trials (most famously Cardinal Wyszyński was detained between 1953 and 1956). Following de-Stalinisation in 1956, the attitude of the state to the Church was relaxed, but the principle remained the same: as long as priests did not question the right of the Party to rule the nation, they were left alone. Those who did not heed this precaution could face repression (the most dramatic being the 1984 assassination of the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko by agents of the State Security Police).
In other words, the Church managed to keep some of its institutional power throughout the period of the People's Republic (1940s-1980s), but this more importantly, arguably helped it to increase its moral power. As mentioned before, millions cheered the visit of the Polish Pope in 1979, and even the liberal opposition of the 1970s, although at first sceptical of religion, found a common ground with the oppositionists within the Church. All of this came to a head with the movement around the trade union Solidarność, which blended the discourse of industrial unionism with Catholic social teachings. Following the Polish Round Table Agreement, but still prior to the final dismantling of the People's Republic, the “Act of May 17, 1989 on the State's relation to the Catholic Church” was passed – this heralded the beginning of the Church’s rise to power. Special religious Property Commissions were set up (for the Catholic Church, but also for other smaller Christian denominations and Jewish religious bodies) to return or provide compensation for the property that was confiscated by the state of the Polish People's Republic. As a result, the Catholic Church in Poland was given vast amounts of money, property and land. In 1990, Catholic religious lessons were reintroduced to state schools, in 1991 private Catholic radio stations were licensed (the most infamous one being Radio Maryja, headed by Tadeusz Rydzyk – a Catholic priest, Redemptorist 13 , nationalist, millionaire), and in 1997 came Catholic TV channels. Whereas abortion in the Polish People's Republic was, for the most part, accessible and affordable, the 1990s saw new restrictive abortion laws being introduced largely thanks to the influence of the Catholic Church.
Poland today is around 87% Catholic. All the generations born after 1989 have lived their formative years with religion present within homes, schools, public spaces and the media. The Polish Church, apart from providing a certain worldview (which tends to be conservative in nature), also provides social ties. It provides a sense of stability in an economy characterised by social decomposition and atomisation. And the priest-patriots of today, those who are out there blessing the banners of right-wing football ultras and giving incensed sermons on political and social issues, calling people to action; they also denote the enemy: communists, foreigners, feminists, gays and the “ideology of gender”. The slogan “We want God” is a conservative reaction to the anxieties of the modern world, and also contains the unspoken verse: “and here is what we do not want...”
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 18th century was surrounded by three hostile empires, that of Russia, Prussia and Habsburg Austria. In 1795 the final partition of the Commonwealth took place, erasing Poland from the map for 123 years. After World War 1, in a totally imperialist world, Poland (re)gained its formal independence largely thanks to revolutions in Russia and Germany. But the Second Polish Republic was surrounded by two hostile imperialisms, that of Weimar Germany (soon to become Hitler’s Germany) and Stalin’s USSR. In 1939, Poland was divided again, this time under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, and brutally occupied until 1945. The Polish People's Republic came soon after, but remained under the sphere of influence of the USSR until 1989, when the Third Polish Republic was born. Today Poland remains surrounded by two imperialisms, that of Russia and Germany/EU, and once again the Polish ruling class is wary of threats from outside, especially after the Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
In Poland, history is ever present. This year’s Independence March on 11 November commemorated the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. Recent years have seen a number of new national and state holidays being established: in 2009 the National Warsaw Uprising Remembrance Day (1 August), in 2011 the National "Cursed Soldiers" Remembrance Day (1 March) 14 , and in 2015 the National Victory Day over Hitler’s Germany (8 May). History is not only being revived in symbolic terms: the Polish foreign minister has recently stated that Germany must pay Poland up to $1 trillion in reparations for losses during World War II 15 and there is now a new dispute with Ukraine over the Volhynia Massacre of 1943-44 (when around 100,000 Poles were murdered by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army). 16 These arguments over history are adding fuel to the fire of diplomatic tensions. More recent events, such as the Smolensk plane crash of 2010 in which the then President of Poland Lech Kaczyński as well as many other high government officials perished, aggravate the situation further (the then Polish Prime Minister and current European Council President Donald Tusk is now being accused of treason, while conspiracy theories around Russian responsibility over the crash are still being spread). 17 Add to this the controversy with the EU over migrant quotas and the court and media reforms initiated by the PiS government, and diplomatically Poland seems to be in conflict with most of its neighbours: Ukraine, Germany, Russia and the EU.
Underlining these diplomatic tensions are conflicts over resources. Gas plays a major sticking point here. The Russia-Ukraine gas disputes of the past couple of years give credence to Poland’s worries over its own supplies. Nord Stream 2, the planned expansion of the undersea gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, has been opposed by Poland from the very beginning. Radek Sikorski, then Polish foreign minister, compared the pipeline deal between Russia and Germany to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – since it allegedly makes energy blackmail more likely through the increased potential of closing off gas supplies to Eastern Europe. 18 Currently Poland has a deal with Gazprom, but it expires in 2022. In order to diversify away from Russian gas, the Polish government is now looking towards the US. Trump’s visit to Poland was not just for show, as while in Warsaw he also attended the summit of the Three Seas Initiative. The Three Seas Initiative (Trójmorze in Polish) is composed of 12 countries in Eastern and Central Europe and so far has come up with two projects: 1) a North-South highway "Via Carpatia", connecting Klaipėda in Lithuania with Thessaloniki in Greece (possibly with China’s help 19 ); and 2) LNG import terminals and gas pipelines. The Three Seas Initiative is a response to the limitations of the Visegrád Group 20 , and a chance for Poland to increase its exports to other European countries (and as such their economic dependence on Poland). It is an updated revival of the plans for Intermarium (Międzymorze in Polish) promoted by Józef Piłsudski in the early 20th century. The Intermarium was to be a federation of Central and Eastern European countries, under the leadership of Poland, with the aim of taking apart the Russian Empire. The authoritarian leader Piłsudski is a role model for many politicians in Poland today, including Jarosław Kaczyński himself, the leader of PiS, who just recently stated: “My brother and I considered ourselves to be followers of Piłsudski's thought”. 21 In June 2017 Poland’s new LNG terminal at Świnoujście (named after the deceased Lech Kaczyński) received its first LNG shipment from the US. During his July visit, Trump promised more LNG shipments in the future. When and if a long term deal for US LNG supplies comes into force depends on how affordable and profitable it will be for Poland, and if it is not, the Three Seas Initiative may find its first serious obstacle, and even end in failure, just like the plan for Intermarium had before it.
Energy security is not the only thing PiS is counting on. Apart from gas, this year Poland has also welcomed US troops and tanks on its soil. Together with initiatives like the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade (established in 2014) and the Territorial Defence Force (established in 2017), the state clearly want to increase its military capabilities, especially on the eastern border (again, motivated by the events in Crimea and East Ukraine). Poland then, with its hopes of becoming a new gas hub for the EU, and building up its defences against internal and external threats, intends to become a local imperialist player and an alternative to both Germany and Russia. For the government, nationalism like that expressed at the Independence March – of Poland going back to the glories of its past, of being a major European power like under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and of growing animosity towards Germany and Russia – can serve a useful purpose (so long as the organisers of the march are institutionally quite weak). One of the officials responsible for setting up the Territorial Defence Force has stated that “the goal of Territorial Defence should be to strengthen the patriotic and Christian foundations of [the Polish] defence system and the armed forces, so that patriotism and the faith of Polish soldiers are the best guarantees of our security” – and the ONR, one of the groups organising the Independence March, has already expressed its wish to be considered a “formation for the country's security”, which would allow its members to join the Territorial Defence Force. 22
...the Capitalist Crisis
The echoes of the economic crisis following the financial crash which exploded in 2007/2008 are still being heard in Europe today. Euro crisis, refugee crisis, Brexit. As we wrote in 2016, “all attempts to break its grip and engineer a new period of recovery and growth have failed. Instead the crisis itself is determining political developments to the extent that our rulers are tending to lose control of the situation.” 23 The same is true in Poland. Scapegoating immigrants and refugees, while at the same time profiting from Ukrainian labour. Turning to religion for stability in an inherently unstable world economy. And finally, drumming up diplomatic tensions while knowing that if war was to happen, Poland would not fare much better than it has in the past.
In small Polish towns, where opportunities are scarce and jobs are miserable, the Church and football stadiums provide a sense of social belonging. They fill a need for community, and bring with it the politics and social links that each year make the Independence March possible. The biggest far-right event in Europe is not an enigma, its causes can be traced to the developments in Poland over the last few years, and it is no accident that it has grown in size only after the financial crash. Not everyone at the march was a “fascist”, but they have all been duped that nationalism somehow provides a way out of the current crisis. The government is complacent, even going as far as to defend the march, because it knows that among its participants are some of the first people to volunteer if the Polish state is in threat (no matter if the threat is real, or from inside rather than outside). A movement like this, which does not challenge the logic behind money, class and the state, can only replace one ruling clique with another, no matter how “anti-system” it pretends to be. And in the process, nationalism will always target the most vulnerable sections of society which it can scapegoat (the “national revolution” promoted by some radical nationalists, being nothing else than an internal purge – and if purges could not solve the internal problems of Stalin’s Russia, they will not solve the internal problems of Poland today either).
The “de-communisation” carried out by the current government and its lackeys not only renames streets and demolishes monuments, but also erases the memory of past social struggles. It aims to remove the notion of socialism, of any alternative to capitalism, from the public space. Next year is the centenary of Polish independence. The nationalist organisers have been excluded from the National Committee of Commemoration by the President Andrzej Duda. It is too early to say what effect this will have on the future of the Independence March. But 100 years ago, Polish independence was not the only thing on the horizon. When revolutions in Russia and Germany broke out and ended the war, they inspired the global working class. In 1918 hundreds of workers’ councils sprang up throughout Poland. These councils, rather than submit to the new independent Polish state (which was still a capitalist state), delineated a real alternative. The councils united workers across divisions of ethnicity, gender or geography, and aimed to bring an end to classes and states and the social alienation caused by them. Indeed this spectre of communism is haunting Poland even to this day, even if in a farcical way. In parliament, nationalist, conservative, and liberal politicians accuse each other of being “communists” all the time – the words of the Communist Manifesto ring more true than ever: “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?”.
And where is the working class in all of this one might ask? Undoubtedly, many are caught up in the same nationalist and religious frenzy. But there are signs of revival. Junior doctors are bringing the fight to the government over low pay and underfunded health services (only 4.4% of Poland’s GDP is spent on health services, among the lowest in the world) – even resorting to hunger strikes in the process. The proposition to further restrict access to abortion made thousands of women all over Poland walk out last year in protest (the biggest such social movement since the protests against the ACTA internet treaty in 2012). And nationally postal workers are still engaged in a dispute with Post Office management and their submissive trade unions, having held another independently organised protest just recently, on 6 and 7 December (and there are informal reports that in some cities migrant Ukrainian postal workers have also joined the protests). With Mateusz Morawiecki, the ex-banker, millionaire and former Tusk-adviser, set to be the new Polish Prime Minister to replace Beata Szydło, the myth of PiS being the party of “social welfare” is bound to be broken sooner or later. We can only work to ensure that nationalist myths soon follow.
10 December 2017
- 1Since 2010 the Independence March has been organised by a coalition of two nationalist organisations: Młodzież Wszechpolska and Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (ONR). But its origins can be traced as far back as 2006, if not earlier, when small numbers of nationalists (below a hundred) marched through the capital, many under the ONR banner. Participation in these marches only increased in 2009-2010. By 2012, numbers increased to 25,000, and by 2015 even up to 100,000. The 2017 march is said to have attracted 60,000 people. Since the 2015 elections, in which PiS rose to power, there has been an informal truce between the nationalists and the government to make the march a more peaceful event and avoid violent clashes like in previous years (e.g. police have been withdrawn, and most of the policing is now done by the stewards of the march alone).
- 2independent.co.uk ; theguardian.com ; jpost.com
- 3Against Exploitation, Crisis and War - No War But the Class War! leftcom.org
- 4In 1683 the Ottoman Empire attacked the Habsburgs, almost capturing Vienna. Under the command of King Jan III Sobieski, the armies of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Holy Roman Empire, managed to drive back the Ottomans. The battle was a key event in the Great Turkish War (1683–1699) between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League, and it ended with the victory of the Christian Coalition. The Siege of Vienna has great symbolic value for Polish nationalism – the moment when Jan III Sobieski “saved Europe from the Islamic Caliphate.”
- 5The phrase “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools” is often attributed to the German socialist August Bebel. It describes those who, rather than question the capitalist system, scapegoat the Jewish capitalist instead. This form of anti-Semitism tends to present Jews as bankers, usurers or generally in possession of economic and political power. Most notably, sentiments like this were a basis for Nazi propaganda.
- 7This is an ironic reference to an old slogan attributed to Jews, back when they were still a significant ethnic minority in Poland – "your streets, our tenements" – meaning the Poles can have the streets, but the Jews own the tenements.
- 8TVP1, Pozarządowe "fabryki migrantów" tvp.info
- 9Sueddeutsche Zeitung: Polska przeżywa największą falę emigracji od 100 lat dw.com
- 10New high in first residence permits issued in the EU Member States in 2016 ec.europa.eu
- 12'We Want God': President Trump Defends Faith, Family, Freedom in Poland Speech www1.cbn.com
- 13Redemptorists, or the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, is a congregation of the Roman Catholic Church dating back to 1732. Its stated mission is to spread the Gospel to “the poor and most abandoned.”
- 14"Cursed Soldiers" is an umbrella term for members of the underground anti-communist resistance movement in Poland, primarily active in years 1944-1946. Members of this movement came from different political organisations – including bandits and some units which were openly anti-Semitic and involved in the murders of Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles. Both the liberal Civic Platform and the conservative Law and Justice party backed the initiative to establish this Day of Remembrance of the "Cursed Soldiers".
- 15Germany must pay Poland up to $1 trillion in reparations, minister says independent.co.uk
- 16Poland and Ukraine in spat over WWII exhumations dw.com
- 17Smolensk plane crash divides Poland to this day dw.com
- 18Russia Gas Pipeline Heightens East Europe’s Fears nytimes.com
- 19China Openly Declares its Imperialist Ambitions leftcom.org
- 20The Visegrád Group is a political alliance of four countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) established in 1991, after the breakup of the Eastern Bloc. Its original aim was European integration, and since 2004 all four countries are members of the EU. The Visegrád Group is currently divided on the question of the EU and Russia – so for Poland the Three Seas Initiative, with its 12 member states, provides potential extra space for geopolitical manoeuvring. Officially the Three Seas Initiative is only supposed to complement the Visegrád Group, whether it will replace it in the future depends on its success.
- 21Jarosław Kaczyński: "Mój brat i ja uważaliśmy się za kontynuatorów myśli Piłsudskiego" wyborcza.pl
- 22Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny formacją działającą na rzecz bezpieczeństwa kraju? newsweek.pl
- 23There is No Capitalist Solution to a Deepening Economic Crisis leftcom.org