“First they came for the communists...”
In May word spread in Poland of a police “visit” to an academic conference “Karl Marx 2018” organized at the Szczecin University holiday centre in the village of Pobierowo. Policemen admitted that they were tasked with verifying whether the event was linked to “antinational activities” (in relation to the new Act on the Institute of Historical Remembrance – IPN) and whether the conference violated the Constitution by “propagating totalitarian practice” (although there is no agreement what that is supposed to mean).
After writing down the organizers’ names and taking photos, the police left the premises. The incident gained widespread attention, also abroad, since the whole police action was illegal. The very fact that the police entered the university without informing the dean was a violation of university autonomy. The police verifying academic conferences doesn’t have much of a democratic ring to it – rather, it recalls authoritarian methods. After uproar in the media, Minister of the Interior Brudzinski apologised, but without explaining who and gave orders for such an intervention or why.
The harassment of academics in Pobierowo is not the only recent case of repression against people and organizations that rest on the ideas of Marxism and communism. Recently a left-wing web-site “Władza Rad” was met with repression. On 30 April, the website owner’s flat was entered by the police, who requisitioned a laptop, 2 hard drives, and a mobile phone. The intervening officers didn't really know what the accusation against Wladza Rad's editor was. In the prosecutor’s search warrant we can, however, read that he is accused of “propagating the communist system” while there is no paragraph of the Polish law prohibiting this. For a long while, the Communist Party of Poland has also had problems with the authorities – recently their paper was banned and Facebook has deleted the profiles of the party and its newspaper. This is happening despite the fact that the party is legal and successfully went through registration procedures, which means that it's statues and programme were verified in accordance with Polish law.
The common characteristic of these actions by the state apparatus (other than targeting Marxists and communists) is the fact they have no legal basis. Advocating communist ideas or referencing Marxism is not illegal in Poland, which seems to be unknown to people dealing with legal issues on a daily basis. Those who want to penalise “propagating communism” commonly use paragraph 13 of the Constitution which states, “Political parties and other organizations whose programmes are based on the totalitarian methods and practices of nazism, fascism and communism are banned, as well as those whose programmes or activities sanction racial or national hatred...”. Also, a penal code paragraph specifies: “Whoever publicly promotes a fascist or other totalitarian system of state or incites hatred based on national, ethnic, race or religious differences or for reason of lack of any religious denomination shall be subject to a fine, a penalty of restriction of liberty or a penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years.” These fragments clearly show that what is forbidden is referring to “totalitarian practices” and a, “totalitarian system” but there is no ban on the propagation of communism, which is an emancipatory idea (its goal is to fight every oppression) and the creators of Marxism did not call for mass crimes or the creation of totalitarian states. Nor do the Marxist groups that generally refer to these ideas or academic speakers harassed at university conferences. There is also no law banning the use of communist symbols – there was an attempt to introduce it some time ago, but it was rejected by the Constitutional Tribunal since the bill did not specify which symbols they are. That is why it is not legal for the police to take action against a hammer and sickle or a red star in a website or a newspaper. If this logic was accepted, that all groups referring to Marxism and communism were to be illegal because of the crimes of Stalinist or crimes of other regimes that referred to the ideas, and which they had nothing in common with (like Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge), there could be strong arguments for delegalising the Catholic Church, which carries more than a few crimes on its shoulders. A lot could be said on that issue by the native peoples of Latin America, and the holy inquisition can easily be shown to support “totalitarian practice”. Furthermore, unlike the communist organizations, the Catholic Church has an organizational continuity, and still hasn’t acknowledged or apologised for many of its crimes.
Anti-communist witch hunt
All these attempts at delegalising and harassingt Marxist, communist and generally radical left groups have their source in anti-communism, which has basically become a state doctrine under the PiS government. This is happening despite it being 30 years since the fall of Peoples’ Republic of Poland, and communist or radical organizations are left extremely weak. Even the Razem party was accused of communism, despite its rather moderate, reformist programme – some even called for it to be delegalised. Unfortunately, the party leadership bent under pressure and partially gave in to the anti-communist hysteria. Moreover, communism has become an insult used both by the government and the “liberal” opposition. We can see the “spectre of communism” still upon Europe, or at least Poland.
Recent attacks have the same source as the “de-communisation” of public space, which includes removing street names and places commemorating not only communist activists, but almost anyone linked to progressive life and ideas. The official interpretation of history is anti-communist as well, under the eye of IPN and the specifically designed education programme in schools. What is propagated is a veneration of Poland's post-war anti-communist military underground, the so-called “cursed soldiers” who besides their anti-communism committed crimes against minorities and peasants who accepted land from the land reform of the new post-war government. In the atmosphere built up over the last 30 years, strengthened by the coming to power of the nationalist right, we can expect more denunciations and attacks from all sorts of right-wing careerists trying to build their political assets from anti-communism and by bootlicking the current government.
Facing the attacks that have already happened and those that could still come, we need solidarity among all organisations resting on Marxist ideas. Support should come from all progressive and democratic forces that disagree with punishing political ideas. Because that is what investigating a crime of “propagating the communist system” is, and let us add that there is not yet such a crime in the Polish penal code.
The ruling right will not stop at communists and the left – we can clearly see an example of this with the recent attack on liberal activists from Obywatele RP (Citizens of the Republic). It turns out that PiS wants to bring a commissar to take over the steering body of the “Citizens'” foundation. If the court goes along with this proposal from the Ministry of Interior, the government would take control of their funds, office and all property. That way the authorities want to paralyse the activities of one of the most vocal opposition groups. While we disagree with the Citizens of the Republic’s liberal policies and their orientation to the EU leadership, we must condemn the attack on this organisation. Also in this case we need solidarity of left and democratic forces and a clear opposition to the authoritarian tendencies in the government.
The “black protests” in defence of women's rights or the recent student protests against the reform of education show that a certain layer of the youth is entering into adulthood and getting politicized under a right wing regime. This layer will become more open to left ideas which the regime is trying to censor and criminalise. The effect of this action might be just the opposite to what the government is trying to achieve, and young people hungry for ideas could one day reach for the “forbidden” ideas of Marx and socialism.