Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2018

Whither Poland?

Filed under: Poland — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

A banner reading “Independence March — Death to the enemies of the homeland” in Warsaw on Sunday. Credit: Radek Pietruszka/EPA, via Shutterstock

On November 11th, 250,000 rightists marched in Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day, which honors the creation of a Polish republic in 1918. There were effectively two contingents, one led by President Andrzej Duda, and the other trailing behind it by a couple of hundred yards organized by a coalition of neo-Nazi groups, including the National Revival Party that featured the slogan “Fascism? We are Worse” when it ran candidates in parliamentary elections in 2007. The NY Times reported on the neo-Nazi contingent:

Last year, the neo-Nazis marched by themselves,  chanting, “Pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!”. Some carried banners with the slogan “White Europe of brotherly nations.”

Duda models himself on Viktor Orban, the ultraright president of Hungary who shares his xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies, so much so that he once declared his intention to turn Warsaw into Budapest. Like Donald Trump, both men have a way of winking at groups like National Revival while insisting on their status as law-abiding if nationalist right-centrist parties. Steven D’Arcy, a Canadian Philosophy professor, wrote an article titled “Two-Track Fascism: Notes on the Collusion of Far-Right Demagogues Like Trump with Street-Level Fascists” that calls attention to the informal ties between someone like Duda, who can be described as Poland’s Donald Trump, and the more openly fascist groups like National Revival or the Proud Boys. Perhaps my only cavil with D’Arcy’s article is whether the ruling class in any country is ready to throw its weight behind neo-Nazis rather than figures like Donald Trump or Andrzej Duda. For the time being, the latter-day stormtroopers are just pawns in a chess game.

Largely because of my survey of Andrzej Wajda’s films, I got up to speed on Polish history and politics in the period leading up to and including the division of the country between Hitler and Stalin. Since it is obvious that Poland has become a breeding ground for neo-Nazi groups just like Ukraine, I became convinced to do some reading about the period between Poland’s exit from the Soviet bloc until today. In many ways, the emergence of the Law and Justice Party in Poland was just as predictable as the failure of Poland to satisfy the hopes of its citizens in the post-Communist period through neoliberalism.

Indeed, the growth of neo-Nazi parties mirrored what has happened in East Germany as angry and frustrated men and women blame liberal democracy and the EU for their diminished expectations. The Law and Justice Party owes much of its 40 percent support to the rural and small town denizens of the country’s east and south. While the benefits of integration into the EU were always dubious, that was much truer for those like Adam Kalabis, a coal miner who was interviewed in Le Monde Diplomatique two years ago.

Kalabis works a seven-and-a-half-hour day, five days a week for the publicly owned KW company and receives 2,900 zloty (less than $740) a month. “My wages have increased by 150 zloty [$38] in 15 years. Even so, I’m better off than some. The widow of a friend who was killed in the Halemba methane explosion [which caused 23 deaths in November 2006] got compensation for six months and then nothing. Everyone in my family has worked in the mines, for generations. But I’m the last. My wife cleans public toilets. It’s a junk contract — 800 zloty [$200] a month, full time.” (In Poland “flexible contracts” are more commonly known as “junk contracts”.)

Like most on the left, I stopped paying attention to Poland not long after it became clear that the leadership of Solidarity had no interest in “socialism with a human face” as was the case in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lech Walesa was more or less the same kind of opportunist trade union leader as Lula and his intellectual partners in the Solidarity leadership showed a shocking tendency to betray the egalitarian impulses that drove the Gdansk shipbuilders and miners like Kalabis to struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Adam Michnik was arguably the worst of them. In an interview with Michnik conducted by Dissent’s Jo-Ann Mort, he blithely refers to the circumstances that led to Duda’s rise as if it were something like a change of weather: “I don’t know what neoliberal policies were in the Polish context, because we had a transition from a centralized to a market economy and of course, there were winners and losers. It’s a feature of a market economy.”

In 1990, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first President. Once in office, he recruited Jeffrey Sachs to push through the same “shock therapy” he would prescribe for the Russians four years later. Walesa had about the same contempt as Sachs for the workers he once led, not that they had the muscle to resist his austerity measures. Under Walesa’s watch, Solidarity went from 10 million members to just 1½. Unemployment rose to 20 percent and mostly affected older workers, many of whom were like Adam Kalabis. Once you lose a job as a miner or a shipbuilder, there is little chance that you will ever have a good-paying job again.

According to some Jeffrey Sachs fans, especially at the NY Times and the Washington Post, Sachs’s measures reached their goal and by 1992, the economy went on the upswing thus vindicating the neoliberal turn.

Obviously disgusted with shock therapy, Poles decided to “vote the bum out” in 1995. Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist, ran as a Social Democrat promising “to cope with the problems of unemployment, of the poor and with the situation of Polish women.” To show that he was for Polish national unity, he resigned from the Social Democracy after taking office and then embarked on the same exact neoliberal path as Walesa, except at a somewhat slower pace. Furthermore, Poland enjoyed significant growth under Kwasniewski , even if it was limited to the metropolitan centers and in finance, high technology and other growth sectors of this period blessed by an expansion of world capitalism at the time. Finally, he was such a relief from what had preceded him that he was rewarded with a second term in 2000.

However, those in the rural east and south continued to suffer. On top of that Poland was hit by a significant economic downturn in 2004 that laid the groundwork for the Law and Justice breakthrough. The candidates in 2005 were Donald Tusk, the candidate of the Civic Platform that was similar to Christian Democratic Parties in Western Europe and perhaps the old guard Republican Party of George Bush ’41. His opponent was Lech Kaczyński who founded the Law and Justice Party and who had been active in Solidarity. As mayor of Warsaw, he also blocked the LGBT parades in 2004 and 2005. To give you an idea of the ingrown character of Polish politics, both the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice Party emerged out of the Solidarity movement (of course, long after it had become detached from an increasingly fragmented and weak trade union movement, a casualty of shock therapy.

Among the most prominent Marxist analysts of Poland’s integration into Western economic financial and national security networks is Jane Hardy, the author of “Poland’s New Capitalism”, a 2009 Pluto book. Although I have not had a chance to examine the book, I was able to consult one of her articles behind the JSTOR paywall. (Contact me for a copy). Titled “The New Competition and the New Economy: Poland in the International Division of Labour” (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 59, No. 5, Jul., 2007), it refers to the relatively dynamic growth of Poland in the early 2000s that helped Kwasniewski be elected to two terms. It also discusses the faith that Polish economics had in the “new economy” based on high technology that would supposedly replace the shipbuilding and mining industries that were so closely linked to the trade unions and Solidarity. Supposedly Poland would ride the wave of this dynamic and all-encompassing economic revolution that was facilitated by its close integration with the West.

In reality, Poland had more or less the same relation to Germany that Mexico has to the U.S. Cars might be made in a less developed country but except for the wages paid to assembly-line workers, the real benefits accrue to the imperialist centers:

The automotive industry has invested heavily in Poland in terms of both producers, assemblers and component manufacturers. Between January and September 2005 Poland produced 76% more cars than in the same period in the previous year. The fact that 84% of passenger cars and 90% of vans were exported suggest that Poland is becoming a major export platform for car production. However, the extent to which technology has been transferred is highly variable depending on both the place of the firm in the value chain of the parent company and the particular corporate strategy of the firm. While Volkswagen now undertakes a large part of its engine production for its global industrial system in Poland, in 2002 all parts were imported from Germany and there was no local sourcing. Volvo undertakes core research and engine production in the home country, but their decision to source supplies locally transferred quality down the value chain. The point here is that spillovers cannot be automatically assumed and claims of technology transfer have to be treated cautiously. The impacts of foreign investment in the automotive sector are highly mixed, and range from examples of high level ‘knowledge-based’ production to the manufacture of simple components for global networks.

To put it bluntly, Poland was not much more than a maquila zone to Germany and other more advanced Western nations.

In comparing Trump’s Republican Party to Law and Justice, one thing is important to note. Unlike Trump’s rhetorical lip-service to workers suffering from a stagnant economy, Lech Kaczyński carried out policies that had teeth in them. Like the Workers Party in Brazil or Ortega’s quasi-Peronist remake of the FSLN, he and Duda have both followed redistributionist polices that made a real difference in working-class households. Furthermore, they have cracked down on private firms even converting some of them into state property.

For many Poles who have nostalgia for the stability and social protections of the Communist era, the Law and Justice Party is a welcome relief from the insecurities and hardships of the previous governments. To get an idea of the significant withdrawal from neoliberalism but maintaining its commitment to capitalist development, Krzysztof Jasieckil’s “The Nature of Capitalism in Poland” that appeared in the Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Vol.8 (2017) offers some useful data.

Jasieckil refers to a 2016 book by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris titled “Trump, Brexit, and Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash” that provocatively refers to Law and Justice, as well as Orban’s party, as “left-wing populist” on the basis of its rejection of the “neoliberal model of economic policy and its ideas about small state and free market, deregulation, low taxation and individualism.”

Jasieckil describes a policy of renationalization (what the government calls “repolonization”) that recalls the sort of policies associated with the “import substitution” strategies of progressive economists in Latin America like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, perhaps ones that can be called fall under the rubric of “Poland First”. Jasieckil writes:

For example, having taken over the private Alior Bank and PKO SA from the Italian Credit Union Group, domestic capital (controlled mainly by the government) now owns more than 52% of the banking sector. Over 60% of electricity in Poland is currently produced by the state energy sector (Blaszczyk 2016). The media context of “repolonization” has clear political connotations, as some PiS politicians argue that foreign owners, predominantly German ones, “carry deliberately unfavorable coverage of the current government in an effort to undermine it.” The president of Employers of Poland notes that the taking over of media by the state can foster to reduce freedom of expression in public debate.

In addition, Law and Justice has provided generous social benefits. After taking power, it provided a stipend of 500 zlotys, or around $148, a month for every child after the first child and for every family in the country. It also reversed a deeply unpopular decision to raise the retirement age to 67, reducing it to 60 for women and 65 for men. Finally, it has provided new housing subsidies and worked to reopen shut state factories.

In many ways, Poland has the same array of social and political forces as in the USA except that the right-wing government has a much more secure base for the simple reason that the working-class and farmers have made real gains under the nativist, homophobic and anti-democratic regime. Whether this state of affairs will last much longer is open to question. The ability to provide benefits to workers and farmers is constrained by the country’s ability to sustain economic growth. After all, Venezuela’s government became deeply unpopular after oil prices dropped. Since Poland is not a commodity-exporting nation, it remains to be seen how it will fare in the next occurrence of a global slowdown that is inevitable.

As for the left in Poland, it is not much more powerful than here in the USA. Podemos seems to have inspired a similar effort there called Razem (Together). Whether it has much staying power is open to question. Until workers begin to challenge Law and Justice, it is doubtful that a group made up primarily of college youth, professionals, etc. will have much traction (the same thing can be said about the DSA, of course.) I’d refer you to an interview with two Razem members Marcelina Zawisza and Maciej Konieczny that appeared in European Alternatives (https://euroalter.com/2016/new-left-poland-podemos). It reflects the challenge facing people on the left in confronting a state that blends deeply reactionary and racist policies with those that a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn would gladly endorse:

Q: Talking about social policies, the current government – led by Kaczyński’s party Law and Justice – is quite an interesting case. It is for sure an authoritarian, xenophobic, illiberal government, on a collision course with the EU. But it is, nevertheless, passing some measures that could be seen as traditionally leftist: reduction of the retirement age, maternity allowance, social housing. What do you think about it? Is this a new kind of nationalist socialism?

A: We must say we are surprised as well. We thought the social agenda mentioned during the political campaign would be forgotten once elected, as it had happened when the same party had the chance to govern previously. But now they are really doing it! They are way more nationalistic and authoritarian than the first time, but they are also way more social. For the first time we have assisted to a growth, rather than to a reduction in welfare provisions. The new maternity law will drastically reduce child poverty from 28% to 10%, an issue closely linked to large families here in Poland. And for the first time, the most of public spending will go to the poorest: 6 billion szloty to the poorest 10% of the country, only 300million to the richest 10%.

Q: So, for the first time there are redistributive policies.

A: And we will not be the ones criticising them. A social housing program was launched, not giving resources to banks or big building companies, but giving resources for controlled rents. And there is more: the taxation system is undergoing a modification that will make it more progressive, flat tax is being abandoned together with regressive taxes for the richest. But at the same time, the government is extremely authoritarian. A militia with semi-automatic weapons is about to be created, mostly made by components of far-right groups. A bill against terrorism is about to pass, creating a permanent state of emergency. Not to mention the gag that has been put on the press or all attacks to the independence of the Constitutional Court. It is quite frightening.

Additional resources:

The Promise of Prosperity | The Nation:

The Puzzle of Poland | Dissent Magazine: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/puzzle-poland-right-wing-populism-media-pis-michnik

Jan-Werner Müller | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/02/11/kaczynski-eu-problem-with-poland/

The Polish Right Can Be Defeated | Jacobin Magazine:

Poland’s Iron Consensus | Jacobin Magazine: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/11/poland-october-elections-kaczynski-law-justice-party/

The Law and Justice Party and Poland’s turn to the right | Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal:

Populism or Capitalist De-modernization at the Semi-periphery: | nonsite.org: https://nonsite.org/article/populism-or-capitalist-de-modernization-at-the-semi-periphery

Poland’s rightwards shift, by Dariusz Zalega (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2006):

Poland’s populist revenge, by Cédric Gouverneur (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, March 2016):


1 Comment »

  1. A good discussion of the sellout of Polish workers by Solidarity is the book From Solidarity to Sellout: The Restoration of Capitalism in Poland (https://monthlyreview.org/product/from_solidarity_to_sellout/)

    Comment by Systemic Disorder — November 16, 2018 @ 5:52 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: