On 11 November, Independence Day, one of the largest demonstrations in recent years took place in Poland. Over 30,000 joined the Independence March in Warsaw organised by far-right organisations – ONR (National Radical Camp) and Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth). During the rally, the organisers launched a new unified nationalist organisation, the National Movement, with the declared aim of abolishing the republic. “We will build a force that the leftists and queers fear so much”, threatened Robert Winnicki, leader of the All-Polish Youth. The immediate plans of the National Movement include building and training it’s own paramilitary organisation. Although the organisers claim to be patriots rather than fascists, representatives of the Hungarian neo-fascist Jobbik and other far-right European organisations were present on the march. Both ONR and the All-Poland Youth are well-known for their anti-semitism and racism.
This demonstration marks an important new development. Just a few years ago Poland’s far-right organisations were isolated, able to mobilise no more than a few hundred supporters on their marches. However, each year the numbers attending the Independence March have grown as the two mainstream parties and the media actively promote patriotism. This, combined with the growing frustration and alienation of wider layers of society, has led to a surge in support for the far-right in Poland and their entrance into mainstream politics.
Commenting on the resurgence of the far-right, the novelist Olga Tokarczuk, wrote that in Poland the fear of the left has been whipped up by the right-wing media and the Church so much that society is becoming blinded to the danger of the right. "It is becoming acceptable to express racist or anti-demoncratic views. The conservative majority in society treats such views as a norm. Everything that does not fit the norm is labelled with the recently fashionable word ’leftism’".
Trouble ahead for the economy
Although Donald Tusk’s government likes to boast of its economic success as the only country to avoid recession in 2009, most people see a huge gap between the official government propaganda telling them about a strong economy and their own experience and situation on the job market. Hundreds of thousands of people are working on the basis of temporary “trash” contracts with no social insurance, no health care, no paid holidays and with the insecurity that in a month or even a week they could be in the street. It was recently reported that even the Polish Labour Inspectorate, a state institution which is supposed to enforce the Labour Code and protect workers, also employs people on trash contracts! Meanwhile, those lucky enough to still be permanently employed and have pension rights have seen the retirement age raised to 67 for both men and women.
EU funds for big infrastructure projects contributed to the Polish economy’s relative robustness during the first phase of the crisis. However, as these funds are now drying up, economists agree that Poland’s future will be bleak. Not only does the Polish government not have the money to stimulate the economy in the next years, but it will be forced to make cuts, which will drag the economy further down.
The economy is already slowing down. Real wages have fallen, leading to a drop in consumer spending, one of the motors of growth in the Polish economy. Unemployment is beginning to rise again and could reach over 15% by the end of 2013 as more and more companies are going bankrupt, particularly in construction. Many exporters, particularly in the auto industry, have experienced drops in their orders, so in anticipation of worse days to come they are already laying off the agency workers, who often constitute over a third of the total workforce of a factory.
General strike in Silesia
As the situation deteriorates, the enormous frustration and anger which is building up in Polish society must eventually erupt. In Silesia, the industrial heartland of Poland, where the coal and steel industry is based, workers are losing patience. Such is the pressure from below that the trade union leaders have been forced into organising a referendum for a regional general strike planned to take place early next year. However, the political weakness of the trade unions is illustrated in some of the demands that they are putting forward. For example, in order to fight unemployment the unions are demanding tax relief for enterprises that do not make redundancies!
This would be the first general strike in Poland since 1981. However, due to the restrictive anti-trade union laws, it is extremely difficult to organise a legal general strike in Poland, so it will most likely last only four hours. Nevertheless, despite these evident weaknesses, a regional general strike in Silesia will be a huge step forward for the Polish working class as a whole. It can become an example and inspiration for workers all over Poland, reminding them about the power of the working class. It could act as a catalyst for future action and enable the Polish working class to take the next step forward, a one-day national general strike, at a future date.
Legacy of Stalinism
However, a major complicating factor for the development of class consciousness is the lack of a mass workers’ party. Currently there is not even a mass reformist party in the tradition of the old social democratic parties which could at least impart a basic working class and socialist consciousness among broader layers of workers, albeit tainted by the ideas of reformism.
The collapse of Stalinism between 1989-1991 disorientated and confused workers all over the world. The bourgeoisie were able to go on an ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism, which were equated with the grotesque bureaucratic regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the former Stalinist countries the legacy of Stalinism has been much greater and longer-lasting than elsewhere as the masses had first-hand experience of the shortages, corruption and repression of these regimes.
Moreover, nationalism and religion has been used by the new ruling classes to strengthen their rule and hide the underlying causes of the social problems that capitalist restoration generated. In Poland, this was achieved by granting the Catholic Church enormous privileges and allowing it to dominate every aspect of life. In addition, due to historical reasons, this poisonous mixture of nationalism and religion runs deep in the Polish collective consciousness and has a big influence on the workers’ movement, especially the trade union Solidarity.
Solidarity and the right-wing
Solidarity is a contradictory phenomenon and plays an ambiguous role. Set up in 1980 by striking workers who attempted to overthrow the Stalinist regime, it unfortunately fell under the influence of the church and the intelligentsia from its inception.
For more background information, see also: "Defeat from the jaws of victory" on Poland 1980/81, by Paul Newberry
Together they blunted the revolutionary potential of the workers and derailed the revolutionary movement. This lead to defeat in December 1981 when Martial Law was imposed and the union was outlawed and ended with the restoration of capitalism by the government that Solidarity formed in 1989.
Nowadays, Solidarity is on the one hand, sometimes a militant trade union capable of moblilising large numbers of workers, and on the other hand also contributes to poisoning workers with nationalism and religion. This has enabled Jarosław Kaczyński and his Law and Justice Party to gain widespread support among Solidarity members and the union’s leadership. This right-wing populist party exploits the anti-neoliberal, anti-government mood portraying itself as a friend of workers but dressed in the language of patriotism. At times Kaczyński takes up social demands, but he also speaks of his admiration for the authoritarian regime of Victor Orban in Hungary and declares that Poland needs a Hungarian solution.
Meanwhile, the ruling Civic Platform is also moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Whilst it does not use nationalism to the same degree as Law and Justice, nevertheless it has limited the right to demonstrate, increased the level of surveillance, and prosecuted individuals who insult the Polish state authorities, in particular, President Komorowski.
Despite leaning towards the right, Solidarity remains the strongest trade union in Poland, capable of the biggest mobilisations. In August 2008 it organised a demonstration in Warsaw of 50,000 workers against low pay, changes to the Labour Code and early retirement. On that demonstration it was clear that Solidarity represents not only the old layers of workers from the traditional sectors of the working class, but has succeeded in recruiting new, younger workers in light manufacturing in the private sector.
However, earlier this year when the government raised the retirement age to 67, the Solidarity leadership, together with the leadership of other trade union federations, failed to organise a determined struggle. The largest demonstration attracted 15,000 workers, but the movement soon lost momentum and failed to block the legislation. This was despite opinion polls showing that the overwhelming majority of Polish society opposed changes to the retirement age and placed its confidence in Solidarity.
In the political vacuum that exists, the anger and frustration building up in Polish society is being channelled by the right-wing. There is a real danger that this could lead to a Hungarian scenario, with a right-wing populist and authoritarian party in power (in this case Law and Justice as the Polish Fidesz) and growing support and influence of the neo-fascists (National Movement as the Polish Jobbik). The question is, to what degree will an intensification of the class struggle cut across this tendency? Can the Polish working class achieve its political independence from the right-wing in the next period?
Alternatywa Socjalistyczna argues that the anti-fascist movement must win the support of the workers’ movement in the struggle against the far-right. To do this it must campaign on the social issues that create the discontent which fascism and nationalism feed on. It must fight against privatisation and unemployment, for a minimum wage, for a decent, free health service and education system, and for a massive programme of building council housing. Above all, the movement needs to present an alternative to capitalism, which is unable to guarantee any of these reforms. Only in this way can the false arguments and lies of the far-right be exposed and workers be won away from the road of nationalism. Above all, the need for a new workers’ party based on a fighting socialist programme is greater than ever.