This weekend the SLD have helped organise a Congress of the Left In Warsaw. It brings together a range of groups and individuals from different traditions, although interestingly excludes the liberal populist Palikot Movement. Below is an article (Polska Wersja tutaj) on the congress.
Is something starting to change on the Polish left? A movement calling for the resignation of Gronkiewicz-Waltz in Warsaw, the ongoing campaigns against the closing of schools around the country; the growing radicalisation and unity amongst trade unions; the stabilisation of the SLD and programmatic turn to the left on issues such as poverty; the return of Trybuna and finally the holding of a Congress of the Left next weekend. Taken on their own these green shoots of resurgence may not seem much. Even together they are fragmented elements of a political movement that lacks coherence and direction. But after years of decline it does seem as though the left may finally be in a position to start rebuilding itself again.
So what lies behind this change in events? Well, to steal a phrase, it’s the economy stupid. The ability of PO to become the first government in Poland’s history to be reelected was primarily due to the sustained economic growth and fall in unemployment that occurred during its first term in office. The slogan that Poland was Europe’s ‘green island’ may have stunk of cheap propaganda – and contradicted many socio-economic indicators – yet it was built upon some real economic advance. Tusk represented Poland’s new post-political elite – easy on the eye and slick in presentation, symbolising the country’s on-going modernisation.
Yet once the EU funds ran out, so did the economic growth. Once Poland’s youth were no longer able to satisfy their dreams in London or Dublin, so social frustration returned. The government had no strategy for sustained growth; it failed to invest public money in projects that would be of long-term benefit to the country; it could not rebuild a labour market to entice young Poles to return or stay in the country; it continued the degradation and commercialisation of essential public services like health, education and transport. The green island is now slowly sinking into a sea of red, and as it does so the passivity and arrogance of the government has become apparent.
In these conditions the fear about the opposition wanes, although the old complaint that there is no alternative remains. PiS can mobilise their core supporters but no more (although this may be enough for them to regain power in an election with a low turnout); as they offer no solutions to Poland’s growing problems. And although the SLD may try to regain its credentials as a real left party in Poland, it is still restrained by the baggage of its past failures. But outside of this party political game, activists are beginning to mobilise and offer some resistance to the destructive economic policies of the government.
The question that is raised is whether the organisations of the left will be able capitalise upon the growing frustrations within society. The Congress of the Left offers some prospect for bringing together a number of social and political currents into a new left movement of activity. Alternatively, it could go down as yet another failed attempt by the leaders of the left to impose their political authority and end as just another talking shop where no new ideas or direction are found.
Scepticism about the present SLD leadership amongst many on the left remains. Is their conversion to more left-leaning policies an act of pragmatic cynicism or a real political conversion? Whatever the answer to this question is, the Congress of the Left has been made possible due to one real success on the part of the SLD. In face of another attempt to weaken the left from the liberal centre, the SLD has helped to defend the autonomy of the left by opposing the rise of the Palikot Movement. Despite decades of different attempts to build a so-called non-communist left, the SLD continues to stand as the sole representative of the mainstream left. It is the only party in Poland that has the political authority and organizational strength to pull together different currents on the left. Yet on the other hand, it has reached a glass ceiling in its support that it cannot break through and as yet has failed to produce a new younger leadership that could take the party forward.
The reality is that the SLD needs the support of these new movements and activists as much as the wider left needs the SLD. The Congress of Left offers an opportunity for the SLD to show that it is willing to support these movements and give them political expression in parliament. Simultaneously, the growth of new social movements creates a new pressure upon the SLD to maintain its left course. In these circumstances it is important that the whole of the left recognises that unity between its diverse elements is crucial. But such unity cannot be built upon ideas of identity or past political affiliation. Rather the Congress of the Left should definitively draw a line between what it means to be or not to be on the left in contemporary Poland.
The dividing line in Polish politics is the same one that is forming in other European countries. It is between whether one is for austerity or not; whether one supports investment to drive economic growth and create jobs or is in favour of cutting public spending. Past political biographies or sides taken during previous conflicts have no meaning in this discussion. The left has to decide which side it is on now and then agree to act upon this. It will involve a plurality of activity and an acceptance that there are differences of opinions on many issues. It is only in this way that the left can rebuild its credibility (both inside and outside of parliament) and begin to offer a real alternative to the PO-PiS oligarchy that continues to hold power.