Friday, 23 December 2016

As PiS Tightens its Grip on Power, The Left Faces a Number of Choices


As 2016 draws to a close the political crisis in Poland has taken a new turn for the worse. In line with international trends, Polish society is now divided into two competing and conflicting groups. The functioning of the democratic system has ground to a halt as an open conflict between the government and the opposition has spread from the parliament and onto the streets. The parliamentary chamber is currently being occupied by opposition MPs, with the area of the parliament under the control and surveillance of a large number of police. The government has said that during this period of protest, members of the armed forces may patrol the streets of the capital alongside the police. The trade union confederation, Solidarność (once the mass movement of the opposition during Communism), has said that if this situation continues it will consider sending its members onto the streets against the opposition to bring order. The leader of PiS (and de facto head of state) Jarosław Kaczyński, has said that the MPs inside parliament are breaking the law, whilst the opposition parties are claiming that the government is acting against the constitution and moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. The situation is serious and unpredictable and events can change very quickly both inside and outside of parliament. At the time of writing the opposition MPs have declared that they will continue their occupation throughout the Christmas period

This latest crisis started on Friday 16 December, during a debate on the budget in parliament. An opposition MP began his speech by holding up a sign in protest at a bill that proposes to restrict the access of the media in parliament. The Speaker of the House then refused this MP the right to speak in the debate, which in turn resulted in MPs from the opposition parties (Citizens’ Platform (PO) and Modern) occupying the podium in the parliament. The government then took the decision to adjourn to a side room to vote on the budget bill through a show of hands. The opposition accused the government of breaking the constitution, as there was no way of being sure who attended this debate or what the vote actually was. With the opposition MPs still occupying the parliamentary chamber, protestors began to gather outside the parliamentary building. Eventually these protesters were cleared forcibly by the police. Demonstrations continued in Warsaw throughout the weekend (both outside the Presidential Palace and parliamentary building), with the police erecting a metal cordon in front of the parliament and moving protestors in the middle of the night away from the entrance to the parliament.

The government has since climbed down from its proposals to restrict media access to parliament. However, opposition parties are arguing that the vote on the budget should be re-held as the previous one was unconstitutional. At present a stand-off continues, but the government has not wasted time to cement its position during this period of crisis. It has finalised the taking over of the Constitutional Court, thus removing one of the potential obstacles to the government. This means that PiS now has total political power (the government, Presidency and Constitutional Tribunal), the first time that any political party has achieved such a position in over a quarter of a century. Over the past year, it has brought the state media further under its control and introduced a law that places some restrictions on the right to demonstrate and assemble. The democratic accountability of the government is further complicated, due to the fact that Kaczyński holds no formal governmental position (apart from being an MP), although he is the decisive voice of the Polish government and state.

The demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw during the past few days have been angry and determined, but their size has been relatively small (numbering a few thousands of people – contrary to some exaggerated claims in the international media). These were much smaller than the demonstrations organised by the opposition movement, (Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD)) a year ago, and the women’s protests organised in the autumn against the proposed anti-abortion bill, which spread around the country beyond the major cities. Furthermore, the political leadership of the opposition movement now seems to have moved away from KOD and its self-appointed leader Mateusz Kijowski, with the leaders of PO and Modern heading the demonstrations and providing them with their political direction. This plays into the hands of the government, with Kaczyński attempting to consolidate the opposition by offering the ‘compromise’ of creating the position of an ‘official opposition’ that would hold a special role within the state. Although opposition parties have not as yet taken up this offer, the leaders of the opposition movement have been calling in recent days for a unified movement against the government. Whilst the temptation of unity is luring, under its current leadership the opposition would be further reduced to a minority of society and become incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the government.

The leaders of the opposition movement are largely made up of people who had been connected to the previous government and/or former centre-right governments in Poland. Many had belonged to the Solidarność movement during Communism, and then became part of the new liberal establishment that governed Poland. These people have come to regard themselves as the natural holders of power, the enlightened men and women who had helped to transform Poland into a modern European economy and democracy, integrated into the institutions of the West. Their outlook was restricted to their own social milieu, which increasingly viewed Poland from a position of privilege. They did not see the long-lasting effects of the communities destroyed by the shock-therapy reforms; they were not reliant on the crumbling health system; nor did they understand the resentment of those living at the bottom of a social system with the highest income disparities in the EU. They were not part of families that were torn apart by the need to find work in other countries nor the more than 1/5 of the employed that are working on zero hour contracts.

The arrogance of their time in power came to the fore towards the end of the PO government. Secretly recorded in the VIP room of a high class restaurant, Ministers and bankers made deals and revealed in lewd language that what they said in public had nothing to do with their actual opinions (http://tinyurl.com/zgzsq9k) During the Presidential campaign, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski could barely drag himself from his residence to talk to the voters, thus handing the political initiative to his competitor Andrzej Duda who then claimed an unlikely victory after having previously trailed far behind in the polls. The poster-boy of liberalism and leader of Modern, Ryszard Petru, had spent decades working for financial institutions and advising on the introduction of a compulsory private pension scheme that nearly bankrupted the state and has left millions facing a retirement in poverty.

And now PiS has filled this void, by introducing the first significant downward redistribution of wealth in over a quarter of a century. The government’s decision to provide 500 złoty (113 euro) a month for every second and above child has effectively wiped out a large part of child poverty in one stroke. Poverty in Poland most harshly affects children, with over 30% of those living in absolute poverty being under 18 years of age and families with more than two children being particularly at risk.  One can argue about the merits of this social transfer (it excludes those with only one child, the funds would be better spent investing in public services, etc.) but the present government has done more to alleviate poverty than any of the liberal or left governments that have been in power over the past couple of decades. And it doesn’t stop there. The government has also raised the minimum wage and reduced the pension age, thus claiming to live up to its promise of representing the people and not the corrupt elite.

Is it little wonder then that a mass nationwide movement for democracy throughout the country has not developed? Can we really expect people to risk these social transfers in order to defend a Constitutional Tribunal or allow journalists to interview politicians in parliament? Do these failed representatives of liberal economics really believe that they can raise the symbols of Solidarność after they had previously left behind the very people who had built this movement in the first place?

In recent months the liberal centre has become increasingly radicalised, as it sees its former privileged position slipping away. It has urged its supporters onto the streets and taken on the government head on, in an attempt to remove it from power. Such a strategy is unlikely to be successful. Firstly, as outlined above, the opposition has not been able to win the support of the majority of the population, with PiS still retaining its standing in the polls as the country’s most popular party. The government is finding it easy to use its public media to paint the opposition as frustrated members of the old elite who cannot accept the democratic will of the population. Also, if these street protests and actions were to lead to confrontation with the authorities, then they would almost certainly end in defeat. Not only does the government control the police and the army, but in the past year territorial guards have been setup that may be used in the future during a period of unrest Furthermore, the far-right have become increasingly active and organised and are often connected to groups of football hooligans. Add to this the threat made by the leader of the Solidarność trade union, and the opposition should understand what a weak position it is in. Any talk of organising a Maidan in Poland should be rejected as being completely irresponsible and something that would end in further defeat and possible repression.

The left therefore has a particularly important role to play, as the divide between the liberal and conservative right grows. Some parts of the left have effectively boycotted the opposition demonstrations and organised their own activities, whilst others have critically participated in them. The left has been divided and unable to offer a coherent strategy on the how to oppose the PiS government. However, there are signs of the left beginning to work together, with a coalition of left organisations and parties recently organising a successful demonstration outside the Presidential Palace, urging him not to sign a bill on the education reform.  The proposed education reform could be hugely disruptive to children’s education, threaten the jobs of teachers and move the curriculum in a more conservative direction. The teachers trade union (ZNP) has also organised a number of demonstrations against this education reform and has declared that it will call a nationwide strike in the new year.

To cite Gramsci, the opposition has to move from a war of manoeuvre to one of position. This means setting out to win the support of different social layers and creating a majority position against the conservative-nationalist government. Firstly, the left has to oppose all attempts by the government to erode democratic and civil rights. This may mean sometimes demonstrating alongside the liberal opposition, but it should do so as a united left with its own slogans, banners, etc. Secondly, the left has to offer a political alternative to PiS that promises to maintain and improve the social transfers offered by government, whilst simultaneously proposing a programme of increased public economic and social investment to raise economic growth and employment and offer real solutions to the crisis in public services such as health, education and pensions. The PiS government is pursuing a policy of national capitalism, as it seeks to strengthen domestic capital. It’s social transfers provide it with a temporary base of support, however with the European economies slowing and investment declining it is going to be hard to maintain sufficient economic growth to secure increased public spending. At some point, it will renegade on its social promises and seek to raise the rate of exploitation to benefit domestic companies. It is then that the true nature of the PiS government will become clear and when the left needs to be ready to win the support of those dissatisfied with the economic policies of the government. The government has already began to show how it is essentially a pro-business party, by rejecting a progressive reform of the Polish taxation system. Finally, the left has to lead those that are opposed to the conservative and nationalist policies of the government. The liberal opposition has proven itself completely inadequate in this area, as shown for example when KOD demonstrated under the symbols of the pre-war far-right leader Roman Dmowski on National Independence Day and openly criticised the anti-fascist movement. Moreover, many in PO and Modern hold conservative policies on many matters (such as reproductive and sexual rights), which provides space for the left to fill. The abortion protests earlier this year indicate the breadth of opposition to many of the most extreme policies of the conservative camp and at how these most harshly affect some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. Opposition to the education reform is potentially another issue that may unite diverse social groups under the leadership of a trade union and the left.


 In order for the left to take advantage of such situations then it has to forge a political direction and organisational framework that can bring together its disparate elements. It is around three years until the next elections, so any talk of electoral pacts or coalitions can be put on hold for a while. The dangerous shift to the right in Poland and the drift towards authoritarianism and nationalism should be incentive enough for the left to unite in action against the present government.  

Monday, 20 June 2016

Economic Convergence Not Migration is the Major Issue Facing the EU


The EU referendum campaign in Britain has been focused almost entirely upon the question of immigration. The specific focus of the Leave campaign has been about the supposed need to restrict immigration, arguing that if Britain left the EU it could control the amount of immigrants arriving from other EU countries. This of course diverts attention away from the failures of the Conservative Party government and the policies of austerity, onto blaming immigrants. It fails to account for the huge positive economic effect of immigration in Britain and it also does not consider what is driving migration and at how these trends may change.

The major source of EU migration over the past decade has been from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 (I exclude Croatia here due to the short time it has been a member of the EU). The biggest of these countries is Poland (with a population of around 38 million), with Poles making up the largest number of EU migrants. 

In 2014 it was estimated that around 685,000 Poles lived in the UK, up from 150,00 in 2004. This is a very active section of the population, with almost 90% either in permanent work or education and one that pays much more in taxes than it takes out in benefits. Although the Polish community is now a well established part of British society, the number of immigrants arriving has significantly slowed, growing by just 60,000 between 2010 and 2014. In contrast more than 140,000 Poles have moved to Germany for work during the same period. 

The reasons for the large outflow of Polish workers over the past decade are clear. The CEE countries underwent a huge economic decline after the end of Communism, although this decline was much shallower than in many of the countries of the ex-USSR. These countries' economies were deindustrialised, creating huge pools of poverty, large social inequalities and deep structural unemployment. In Poland prior to joining the EU its economy was in stagnation and unemployment had reached almost 20%. 

This neo-liberal transition to capitalism brought huge benefits to the stronger economies in the west. Western companies began to buy up and monopolise large sections of the CEE economy. They had a new and expanded market for their products in the east and access to a fresh supply of highly skilled and cheap labour. This movement of capital is less evident than the movement of people to many people in countries like Britain, despite the fact that they have hugely benefited from it. 

The CEE countries had already been incorporated into the international division of labour as semi peripheral economies prior to EU entry. It was therefore inevitable that there would be a period of mass migration westwards. During the initial stage following EU entry only Ireland, Sweden and the UK opened up their labour markets to the new countries from CEE (there was a 7 year period before all countries were compelled to do so). It is to the great merit of the then Labour Party government that it immediately opened up its labour market to CEE workers. However, this was done in an extremely disingenuous manner. The official estimates of the government  prior to EU enlargement were that just 13,000 Poles would come to Britain. By not openly recognising the reality of the situation, the government not only failed to prepare the British population for this social and demographic change, but more importantly did not carry out the  necessary investment (in public services and housing) that was needed to facilitate the flow of people. Rather than fully using this as an opportunity to develop the country,  migrants were seen to be undercutting the wages of British workers; whilst public services, housing, transport, etc countinued to deteriorate. In the wake of the economic recession and years of austerity,  UKiP and the Conservative Party have found a receptive audience for their xenophobic and reactionary ideas. 

The scaremongering tactics of the Leave campaign is based upon the idea that Britain will continue to be 'flooded' by hoards of migrants from CEE. However, as shown above, the flow of immigrants from countries like Poland has significantly slowed, a trend which is likely to continue. Although the countries of CEE are still poorer than those in the west, since joining the EU these countries have drawn closer to the living standards in Western Europe. The graph below shows GDP per capita in the CEE countries (100 = the average of the whole EU). As we can see, in almost all of the CEE countries (excluding Slovenia) GDP per capita has grown closer to the EU average over the past decade or so. This has been particularly marked in countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. In some CEE states (particularly the Baltic countries) this  stalled following the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, but the trend towards convergence has once again continued. 



The reasons for this convergence are two-fold. Firstly, has been the inflow of EU funds to these poorer countries, which for the first time since the transition from Communism represented some sort of redistribution of capital eastwards. During the transition private capital tended to be tied to privatisations and/or the buying up and monopolisation of large parts of these countries' economies. Although the EU funds are insufficient in size and not concentrated on developing these countries' productive sectors, they have at least developed parts of their infrastructure and helped to boost economic growth. This allowed many of these countries to avoid the economic catastrophe suffered by  many countries in Southern Europe following the financial crisis. Secondly, the ability to move and work in other EU countries eased unemployment and allowed people to work and earn abroad. Many of these workers have returned to their home countries with savings and new skills. 

The CEE countries are still blighted with huge social and economic problems and are considerably poorer than the countries to their west. They face their own rise in nationalism and political authoritarianism, which will  be boosted by Britain leaving the EU.  Whatever happens on June 23 Britain will still belong to Europe and be tied to the European economy. If divisions between the richer and poorer countries start to diverge again then new waves of migration will open up (whether these be legal or illegal). The issue is not whether people are free to move within Europe or not. This is a right that benefits everyone in the EU, not least the more than 2 million Brits that live in other EU countries. Rather, the real problems are the large economic inequalities between EU countries and regions and whether Europe can further integrate and converge. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

First they Came for the Communists.....

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has unleashed a campaign of anti-Communism in a country


where there are hardly any Communists. They have begun a process of decommunisation, where there is no communism. The aim of the government is to ideologically push the country further to the right and open the way for greater attacks on the wider left.

A regional court has sentenced 4 activists from the Communist Party of Poland for allegedly supporting a 'totalitarian' regime and propagating communist ideology in their newspaper and website. They have been sentenced to 9 months of limited freedom, with obligatory community work and a fine. 

They have been accused of breaching an article in the penal court that states: 'Whoever publicly promotes a fascist or other totalitarian system or 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, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years'. Previous attempts to add a ban on Communist symbols were rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2011 after protests in Poland and abroad that this would violate human rights.

The case against activists frm the KPP had previously been brought to court in 2013, by the PiS MP Bartosz Kownacki. Howeverf the Prosecutor's Office refused to initiate the proceedings. This changed after the election of PiS and on 31 December 2015 the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice issued a case in the Regional Court in Dábrowa Górnicza. The act stated that the activists were publicly promoting a totalitarian system by publishing articles ' directly related with the communist system and Marxism-Leninism, which in the context of historical experience is contradictory with democratic values'

This potentially means that anyone now using the work of Marx (or other Marxist writers and ideas) could be prosecuted under the law. This is a direct attack on democracy and human rights and could be used to repress other left-wing activists, academics and groups. 

Simultaneously, the PiS government has recently passed in parliament a “decommunisation” bill, whose stated aim is to remove any remaining Communist symbols from public spaces. However, there are no Communist monuments in Poland anymore, nor streets or squares named after figures such as Marx or Lenin. The bill rather aims to remove from the public sphere any reference to the Polish People's Republic (PRL) and to the country's socialist and anti-fascist history. 

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has published a list of street names that should be removed. These include the names of the 19th Century socialists Ludwik Waryński and Stefan Okrzeja who died fighting the Tsarist regime. They are also threatening to change the name of the street in Warsaw named after the Dąbrowski Battalion, which comprised of Polish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. In the city of Gdańsk some right-wing politicians want to rename such a street after Margaret Thatcher. Such name changes are widely opposed by the residents of these streets, although their opinions are not being taken into account. 

A further element of this 'anti-communist' drive, is to remove monuments commemorating the role that the Red Army played in defeating Fascism (600,000 Red Army soldiers died on Polish soil). In the city of Rzeszów (which was liberated by the Red Army) a decision has already been made to remove such a monument. However, opinion polls show that around 80-90% of the city's residents do not want the monument removed. 


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Egyptian Man in Critical State, After Latest Racist Attack in Poland

A 40 year old Egyptian man is in a critical state in hospital after undergoing an attack by a group of nationalists in Gdańsk.

The attack took place on Sunday afternoon as the man returned home from a party of Egyptians. The attackers beat him until he lost his consciousness. As yet none of the attackers have been caught.

This recent attack is an example of a wave of racist attacks that have taken place in recent months, as an atmosphere of nationalism and hostility to immigrants has risen.

These include:

- In September a group of 13 year olds in Świnoujście beat their colleague because he was black. They admitted that they had been inspired by the slogans of an anti-immigrant demonstration that had been held in the city a few days earlier. 

- A few weeks later in Poznań a Syrian was brutally attacked by a young nationalist, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. In the same city a Chilean dancer was recently attacked being told to 'f**k of out of the country'. 

- In Szczeciń a well-known musician from the group Raggafay was attacked being told 'he was not Polish

- In Kraków a bouncer attacked a British Sikh man, as he did not like his turban.

- In Warsaw a few weeks ago a group attacked a Pakistani man in a park, resulting in him going to hospital with serious injuries. 

- Recently in the city of Rzeszów a Portuguese exchange student was beaten by a professional soldier. 

(Information in this article taken from the website Strajk.eu )

Thursday, 7 April 2016

As in the Case of Refugees, Young People are the Most Conservative on Abortion

One of the most  disturbing recent developments in Polish politics, is the growth of conservative attitudes amongst Polish youth.

This was previously revealed during the refugee crisis, with the youngest age groups being the most hostile to taking in refugees. Therefore, whilst 69% of 18-24 year olds and 51 % of 25-34 year olds are against Poland accepting refugees; this is much less for the elderly respondents: 41% (35-44), 36% (45-54), 32% (55-64) and 33% (64+).

A similar trend is observable on the issue of abortion. As can be seen in the graph below, those that  support tightening the current abortion law (that includes those that are in favour of a total ban) are in the age group 18-24. They display a far greater hostility towards abortion than any other age group, with the most liberal opinions held by those aged between 45-54 and 55-64.


A common perception throughout the transition from Communism, was that society would become more socially liberal as the market economy and democratic political system developed. However, we can now see that those who lived during Communism actually tend to be more liberal than those who have been born in under the current system.


Thursday, 31 March 2016

Polish Prime Minister Supports Complete Abortion Ban


The Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has stated that she supports a complete ban on abortion in Poland. She has said that she backs the 'Stop Abortion' campaign, that is collecting signatures in order to put forward a citizens' bill to parliament to completely outlaw abortion in the country. It also proposes that women (and not only doctors as is the case currently) can be imprisoned up to 5 years if they are caught having had an illegal abortion.


The campaign to completely outlaw abortion is being led by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This week a letter published by the Presidium of the Polish Catholic BishopsConference, stated that Poland should not halt at the present 'compromise' on abortion, but move towards a total ban. This letter will be read out in Churches throughout Poland this week. 

Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion was made illegal in 1993, in a move that was ludicrously described as a 'compromise'. It banned abortion in all but three circumstances: 
- where there is a high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the foetus or where it will have an incurable life-threatening disease
- where a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health; 
- where the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act. 

It is worth remembering that in the early 1990s, the parliament rejected a petition signed by 1.5 million people for a referendum to be held on this matter. Also, the then President Lech Wałęsa vetoed a resolution passed in parliament in 1994, that would have eased some of the restrictions (allowing women in poor health or difficult social circumstances to terminate a pregnancy). 

Last year only around 1,812 legal abortions were carried out in Poland (around 500 more than during 2013). The inevitable result of this situation is that huge numbers of Polish women are forced to either undergo illegal abortions or travel abroad to have their pregnancies terminated. It is obviously the least well off women, that are unable to travel abroad, who most often have to have illegal 'backstreet' abortion in Poland. It is estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions take place in the country each year , which carry significant health risks. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Members of Far-Right Invited to Polish School


It has been reported that members of the  National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny - ONR) visited a school in the city of Płock on March 1. They were invited by the school's Head Teacher to address pupils at a commemoration of the 'Cursed Soldiers' (the underground fighters against Communism after the Second World War). 


The ONR  is associated to the pre-war far-right organisation: the Polish National Movement (Ruch Narodowy - RN). At the event in Płock, members of the ONR boasted that this was the first time since 1934 that they had officially been welcomed into a school. The representatives of the ONR wore the insignia Falanga on their sleeves (see pictures). The Falanga became a popular symbol for Polish far-right nationalists in the 1930s; and continues to be adopted by different organisations of the far-right in Poland today. 

The ONR regularly display the Falanga and have marched under such slogans as: 'Poland for the Poles'; 'Hang Communists'; 'Ban Homosexuality' and 'Islam is the Death of White Europe'. 


Pictures from the ONR's facebook page show members of the ONR wearing the Falanga symbol, standing alongside the Head Teacher of the school. 


Events such as this make it important that the anti-racist march orgnised in Warsaw this weekend is attended by as many people as possible. 



Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Constitutional Crisis Enters New Phase

The stand off between the Polish government and the Constitutional Tribunal has entered a new stage.

The Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that the amendments made at the end of last year by the Polish government to the operations of the country's top legislative court are unconstitutional. This was shortly followed by the Polish government announcing that it would not recognise nor publish this ruling, as it contravened the very rule changes that the government had introduced. 

What we have here is a constitutional crisis, with the highest organs of the state openly coming into conflict with each other: The Court has refused to abide by the government's new rulings as to how it should operate; and the government is not accepting the rulings that this Court is now making. Article 190 of the Polish constitution states that all the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal are universally binding and final and must be published by the Prime Minister's Office. 

All of this comes at a time when the Polish government is facing increasing criticism from abroad. The Venice Commission is about to publish a report on the state of Poland's democracy, with a leaked prelimary opinion from the report stating that the ongoing constitutional crisis in Poland poses a danger to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The government has said that the publication of this report should be delayed due to this leak, a request that has been rejected by the Venice Commission. 

In recent months divisions within Polish society have sharpened. The Committee in Defense of Democracy (KOD) have organised a series of large demonstrations, whilst the left-wing party Razem (Together) is currently holding a vigil outside the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and have shone an image of the Constitutional Tribunal's ruling on the walls of the building (see picture above).

Nevertheless, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is maintaining a strong lead in the opinion polls and has itself been able to mobilise large numbers of its supporters on the streets. The language used by leading members of PiS and the government against the opposition movement and those that criticise it is becoming increasingly hostile. The President of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, has said this week that a broad coalition lies behind KOD that would like to reduce Poland to the level of a colony. He stated that they are the same people that like to blame Poland for all the negative things that have happened in Europe over the past century; that laugh at everything connected to patriotism, who broke all cultural standards after the the Smoleńsk tragedy and have trampled on all that is sacred in Polish culture. 

Likewise in a speech this week  attacking those who have criticised the government from abroad, President Andrzej Duda said that:

We are all intelligent people. We are proud of our fatherland. We are people who understand the processes of history and who understand what it means that our state is being used. And that we are being treated as second category people means that it is high time that we said that here in Poland that we are people of the first category. 

Although PiS was the first party in Poland's modern history to have gained an overall majority in parliament, it still only won 38% of the vote in an election with just over a 50% turnout. Neither the government nor the opposition command a majority in society and both sides are increasingly coming into conflict with one another. With the government demonsing those in the opposition as being of the 'worse sort' in Polish society, then the possibility of further conflicts and even a new authoritarian crackdown increases. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Violent Attacks on LGBT Organisations in Warsaw

Last week two attacks took place on LGBT organisations in Warsaw.

On the night of 1-2 Match the windows of the headquarters of the Warsaw Lambada Association were smashed. A day later, 3 March, three men shouting abuse, started to bang and kick the door of the offices of the Campaign Against Homophobia and attempted to break into the building. They ran away before the police arrived.

All of this comes in the wake of a previous attack on the Lambada Association headquarters during the night 6-7 February, when its doors were sprayed with the Celtic Cross and the slogans 'White Power' and 'Ban Homosexuality'. During this attack a poster hanging on the door was also burned. As yet noone has been caught for carrying out these attacks. 

According to a statement by the Lambada Association: 

This is the latest in a series of incidents motivated by homophobia against our organisation during recent months. The perpetrators of both of these attacks are telling the LGBT community that they do not have the right to a calm and dignified life in this country. We cannot accept this and we will publicise every such attack, in the expectation of a decisive response from the authorities. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Remembering the Polish Volunteers from the Spanish Civil War

A memorial to commemorate those from Poland that fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War took place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw on March 1st. 




Organised in the Dąbrowski Brigade, more than 3,000 Poles volunteered to fight in Spain during the 1930s, under the banner of 'For Your Freedom and Ours'. During the 1930s, these volunteers had their Polish citizenship taken away from them. Then in the 1990s, the inscription remembering them was erased from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other monuments in Warsaw. According to the Institute of National Remembrance these volunteers 'served the interests of Stalin in Spain'. 



This week’s action was organised by a group of art students, led by Zuza Ziółkowska, the grand-daughter of one of the volunteers. Participants carried anti-fascist flags and banners from the Spanish civil war and laid a reef in the shape of the symbol of the International Brigade. 

The action took place on the year of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It also coincided with the day in Poland that commemorates the so-called 'Disavowed Soldiers' (or 'Cursed Soldiers'), a term applied to the armed resistance movement to Communism after the Second World War. This has taken on a strong significance for the right-wing in Poland, who honour all the 'Disavowed Soldiers', including those that killed an estimated 5,000 civilians (amongst them 157 children). 

At the event Ziółkowska said that those who fought in the Spanish Civil War are now Poland's 'Disavowed Soldiers'. She added that the lack of memorials to these Polish volunteers has helped to fragment historical memory in Poland and that they wish to help make history once again more pluralistic. 


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Polish Government Supports 'Strong' TTIP

Although the ruling Law and Justice Party has claimed that it is a patriotic party that defends the sovereignty of Poland, it is taking a strong line in support of the Translantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). 

During a meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce, the Vice PM and Minister of Development, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that Poland supports the US position on TTIP and are in favour of 'a stronger version of TTIP during negotiations on this matter'. He went on to add that Poland is a trade-orientated country and that  a 'soft' TTIP is not an option for Poland. 

Negotiations around the bilatareal trade agreement between the USA and EU have largely been taking place in secret. It will reduce the regulatory barriers to trade for big business in areas such as the environment, banking and health and undermine the sovereign power of individual nations. 


Monday, 29 February 2016

Green Party Provide Left Voice at KOD Demonstration, But Receive a Cool Reception

Once again large pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Poland this weekend, partly in response to the allegations made against Lech Wałęsa recently. For the first time a left voice was clearly heard from the podium, although it did not get a very warm reception from the crowd. Below is a report on this, translated from the website Trybuna

Many participants on Saturday's Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) demonstration did not like to be reminded of the sins of the Third Republic. 

The co-leaders of the Green Party, Małgorzata Tracz and Marek Kossakowski, addressed the KOD demonstration in Warsaw saying: 

The Poland that we built is obviously not a 'Poland in Ruins' (this is what PiS claimed in the elections - GR). But Poland is also not a country of happy people! The 'success' of the transformation was only felt by a small section of society, whilst millions were left in poverty and unemployment. In Warsaw we can have another metro line and we see new trams, buses and highways. However, in many small towns it is common to see just poverty and dilapidated walls. Millions of Poles were turned into a category of the worse sort (...) Something is broken in Poland. People are frustrated, disappointed and angry. This is why so many of them voted for PiS at the last elections. In order to succeed, we must build a democratic community in Poland. (...) There is no democracy without social justice. 

This assessment of the Third Republic and interpretation of why PiS won the elections were given a acool reception by demonstrators. Some of them openly expressed their opposition to the opinions of the Green Party politicians.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Accumulating the Myths of Lech Wałęsa


As the news spread around the world about the discovery of new documents, concerning Lech Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with the Communist authorities, the man himself was addressing the new right-wing parliament in Venezuela. This former trade union leader and avowed champion of democracy and human rights, was supporting the return of the right-wing in Venezuela. He then flew to Miami, to meet Cuban oppositionists and was once again received as a hero. Wałęsa was in his element – the heir of Reagan; the great anti-Communist who had helped to bring down the Soviet Union. Yet at home he was once again being accused of being a Communist agent and the betrayer of the Solidarity movement. Still others defended him as a hero of the nation who had brought freedom and sovereignty to the country. These conflicting narratives have little to do with the actual truth of Wałęsa’s past, but reflect the ongoing conflicts within the Polish elites and the present state of Polish capitalism.

Capitalism has always emerged out of destruction, swindle and usually violence. The Highland clearances; the destruction of indigenous populations; the expropriation of the peasants’ land. In order for capitalism to grow, it not only  needs an initial accumulation of capital but also the creation of a particular social relation. Labourers must be separated from their own means of production and subsistence, whether this be their land or their workshop. Once achieved two groups of commodity holders then come into direct contact with one another. Firstly, are the owners of money, the means of production and subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess by buying other people’s labour power. Secondly, are the class of labourers themselves, who must survive primarily by selling their labour on the market. And once achieved, the whole sophisticated machinery of capitalism is set in motion, as it expands into ever wider circles of economic and social life, bringing greater sections of society into this commodity relation.

As capitalism emerged from the womb of ‘really existing socialism’, so a new process of capital accumulation had to occur. This time capital confronted an industrialised economy, with its class of organised labourers. Unlike during the transition from Feudalism, work was already socialised and organised in large factories or offices. However, labour did not exist as a commodity that was freely exchanged on the market. The state’s monopoly control over production and the policy of full-employment, meant that the vast majority of work and economic life was organised outside of market relations.

And in order for the new to flourish, the old had to be destroyed. Throughout Eastern Europe a programme of rapid privatisation and liberalisation was undertaken, producing an economic collapse of unprecedented proportions and a simultaneous increase in poverty and social destitution for millions of people. Simultaneously, private capital began to circulate and expand, creating new found wealth and riches. Often oligarchs grabbed the spoils that were made available, particularly in the countries of the ex-USSR, where the economic collapse was most severe. There was nothing fair or honest in all of this. Corruption, political connections and sometimes brute strength determined who were the winners in this competitive game of expropriation.

Poland did not escape this course of events, although it was less severe than in most other Eastern European countries. The economic collapse was the shortest in the region (the economy ‘only’ shrank by around a quarter between 1989 and 1992) and double digit unemployment, high poverty and inequalities were seen as an inevitable stage of a painful transformation.  Poland’s own creative destruction involved a deep deindustrialisation, with at least two-thirds of the country’s medium and large industrial enterprises collapsing, leading to around 2 million people losing their jobs. This provided the room for international capital to move in and quickly monopolise large areas of the economy. Although this was not an oligarchical capitalism similar to that further east, a new group of the rich and wealthy consolidated itself in the country. And once again there was nothing fair in this. It was often those with the strongest political connections, both within the former Communist and Solidarity elites, that prospered the most.

The advantage for the economic elite in the developed capitalist world is that its theft has long ago been hidden and forgotten. Its original accumulation of wealth submerged in the fog of time as it has passed through the generations. In the ‘post-Communist’ world it is laid bare and continues to be contested. It is this contestation, within the elite, that underlies the latest wranglings over the historical legacy of the former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa. Was this the leader of a trade union who led the strikes in that Gdańsk shipyards, that evolved into a social movement of 10 million people and then negotiated the peaceful fall of Communism in Poland, leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union itself? Or rather was he a Communist agent, who took money from the authorities and collaborated with the government in order to sustain the system long enough so that a section of its leaders (in collaboration with the Solidarity elite) could line their pockets once the green shoots of capitalism began to emerge?

Both of these versions of history are accumulated myths, and of the most primitive kind.

 The first is now perpetuated by a liberal elite, connected to international capital, who see their privileged position as being under threat. They forget the fact that at its height Solidarity was a trade union movement, which demanded a real socialisation and democratisation of ‘really existing socialism’ and for the creation of a Self-Managed Republic. They close their eyes to the betrayal of this movement by the Solidarity elite and at how the intelligentsia forgot about its alliance with the working class. They ignore how the first Solidarity government and its President Lech Wałęsa, ushered in the first set of neo-liberal reforms in Eastern Europe, against the agreements of the Round Table negotiations that paved the way for the transition of power. Furthermore, they put out of their minds how they themselves spent much of the 1990s disparaging Lech Wałesa. He was a good opposition leader and someone who could lead a strike they said; but ultimately an uncultured man and a simple electrician who failed to even master decent Polish (Nie chcem ale muszem).

The second version of history is now gathering pace, under the government of the Law and Justice Party. Wałęsa: the agent and collaborator. The person who worked for the secret services in the 1970s, delivering them information in return for cash. The Solidarity leader who betrayed his movement by forming an alliance with the former Communist leaders to construct a new corrupt elite. The President who opposed a process of lustration against the Communist elite. This version of history is repeated most loudly by those who fell out with Wałęsa in the early 1990s, many of which are prominent members of the present government. They blame all the ills of capitalism in Poland on what they see as this unfair usurping of power by a corrupt elite. It assumes that if this elite were to be removed, so capitalism could press the reset button. A new fairer and normal capitalist economy would then at last be able to develop.

This is a struggle between two sections of the elite, each accusing the other of the same thing. For the liberal elite, the PiS government is a throwback to the past; a party that replicates the centralised and undemocratic practices of the previous system; that offers populist solutions whilst undermining the market economy. Meanwhile, the conservative right claim they want to redress the injustices of the past, and complete the ‘Solidarity Revolution’, through a fresh process of lustration and ‘decommunisation’. Both of these groups continue to compete for the historical legacy of Solidarity and claim the mantle of the real anti-Communists.

The course of growth through destroying the productive elements of the previous economic system has now exhausted itself. Whilst the liberal intellectuals have spoken of a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity, around 2 million people have chosen to chance their luck abroad. This liberal elite's former foes within the Solidarity movement are now seizing the day, and capitalising on social dissatisfaction to carry out its own purge at the top, that seeps down to the bottom. And as Poland sits in the middle of a disintegrating Europe, in a global economic system possibly facing a new financial crisis, in a world ridden with wars and uncertainty; so the government averts its population’s eyes to these new show trials in the media. Collaborators, files, agents, code names….







Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Offices of Left-Wing Journal Raided

It is being reported that officers from the Central Bureau of Investigation Police (CBS) have raided the headquarters of the left-wing anti-clerical journal, 'Fakty i Mity' (Facts and Myths).

According to a statement by the editorial board of 'Fakty i Mity', officers from the CBS entered the journal's offices on the morning of 15 February. They were there for 11 hours and took copies of editorial and accountancy disks, as well as some paper materials. They interrogated members of the editorial team for around 4 hours and arrested the editor Roman Kotliński. 

The editorial board says they had no prior warning or information about this action and they do not know why it occured. They are viewing it as a political attack on the journal that has been openly critical of the PiS government. They hope to publish their next issue according to schedule. 



Tuesday, 9 February 2016

National Capitalism and the Dilemmas of the Polish Left

The Following article was originally published on the Transform! Website. 


Over the past few months Europe’s eyes have been on Poland. Most of the attention has been on the political changes introduced by PiS, but less concern has been paid to the economic programme of the new government.
Most of the attention has been on the political changes introduced by the conservative right-wing party, Law and Justice (PiS), since it formed a majority government in October. The introduction of reforms to such things as the Constitutional Tribunal and Media has seen the country move in a more authoritarian direction. However, less concern has been paid to the economic programme of the current government, outside of some general criticisms that it is planning a series of irresponsible social reforms that threaten the country’s fiscal stability. Yet, the PiS government has a distinct economic policy that could potentially result in a significant change in the country’s economic course. This conflicts with some entrenched vested interests, both international and domestic, and raises new dilemmas for the Polish left.
From Neoliberalism to National Capitalism        
Over the past couple of decades, Poland has been integrated into the international division of labour as a country with low wages, taxes and labour standards. The country attracted large inflows of foreign capital, often through the sale of its state industrial and financial assets. This has left the country with an underdeveloped national capital base, with around 70% of Polish banks owned by foreign banks. The country underwent a huge period of deindustrialisation during the transition. At least two-thirds of the country’s medium and large industrial enterprises collapsed, leading to around 2 million people losing their jobs (http://tinyurl.com/j6q45eb). Since this time, at least 45% of the Polish workforce has remained inactive (i.e. they neither work nor study), with large areas of the country suffering high unemployment and poverty. Average salaries continue to be more than 4 times lower than that in countries like Britain or Germany; and more than a quarter of those in work are employed on temporary insecure contracts. It is little wonder that around 2 million people have emigrated since Poland joined the EU in 2004, nor that a large percentage of them are settling abroad long-term.
The standard economic recipe to this situation has been for more liberalism. Poland may have amongst the lowest and most regressive personal and business income tax rates in Europe; just 12% of the workforce may belong to a trade union; wages may remain low and labour standards lax. But this is never enough. Polish workers must be expected to work harder, under increasing precarious conditions where the dictates of agencies and contractors rule. It is little wonder that a company like Amazon opened up new logistical centres in Poland, where it could employ staff on less than 3 Euros an hour, working 10 hour shifts, with just one half hour and two 15 minute breaks (http://tinyurl.com/jxkg26m). This level of exploitation has left a section of society angry and frustrated, especially in a period of economic growth when the fruits of this development have been unfairly distributed. And with the left in Poland weak and divided, it has been the conservative right that has capitalised on this social dissatisfaction.
The PiS government’s stated aim is to create a new national form of capitalism in Poland. This was laid out in an interview with the Minister of Economy, Mariusz Morawiecki, who described the change in emphasis thus:
‘We did not promote Polish ownership or our own national companies, but we de facto gave a privileged position to foreign capital. We did not try hard enough to develop the Polish economy and businesses, based upon Polish talent or assets. In reality we needed money and we had to open up to it, but we should have been more selective about which Polish firms we sold and only open up where it was absolutely needed (...). We are now in a situation where a large part of the national property, worked on every year through the hard labour of Poles, flows abroad – and we will not be in a state to retrieve it quickly.’
The present government now claims that it wants to support Polish businesses and innovation, in order to make Poland a major competitive economy. The PiS government therefore represents a section of the (aspiring) bourgeoisie in Poland as well as many small and medium business owners who are struggling to compete in the conditions of monopoly capitalism. And in order to become the first party in modern Poland to gain an overall majority in parliament, PiS also reached out to low earners and the socially excluded. This social alliance is presently being kept together through a promise of taxing international capital in order to gain the resources to support national businesses and fund social spending.
Taxation and Social Spending
The government’s first revenue raising proposal is a law, already passed in parliament, introducing a tax of 0.44% on bank assets. As noted above, the banking sector is concentrated heavily in foreign hands and it has enjoyed a period of continuous high profits, along with some of the highest fees and commissions in Europe. The second proposal is to implement a new tax on supermarkets. It is envisioned that this will be a progressive tax, with the larger (mainly foreign) supermarkets carrying the major burden of this tax. The Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has argued that this tax ‘will give small commercial enterprises in Poland a fighting chance to compete on the market’. The government is therefore attempting to tax large mainly foreign financial and commercial enterprises, whilst claiming that it wishes to help local businesses. Before considering the problems connected with these measures, let us look at the social programmes that they are designed to fund.
Throughout the past quarter of a century there has been an almost one way redistribution of wealth to the richest sections of society. PiS claims that it wishes to reverse this trend and its flagship reform is to provide families with 500 Złoty a month (around 113 Euro) for every second and additional child. This will provide a significant increase in income for millions of families, particularly in those areas where incomes are low and poverty high.  This will be provided for all families irrespective of income, for the second and additional children. However, for the first child this will be means tested at a level below the social minimum (800 Złoty – around 181 Euro), meaning very few families will be able to receive it. This social policy is not only supposed to alleviate poverty but also to encourage families to have more children and thus raise the country’s low birth rate. It also fits the conservative ideology of PiS, based upon promoting the ideal of the traditional family. This is not a social policy based upon a left-wing premise of universalism, with many of those most at need (such as single mothers with one child) excluded from this benefit.  Also, it does not encourage women to work and tackle the low activity rate of women on the labour market, nor provide general help to parents through investing in things such as preschools (where there is a serious lack of available places).
Despite these shortcomings, this proposal offers the first significant downward redistribution of wealth over the past couple of decades and it is therefore supported by large sections of society.  With the government also proposing to more than double the tax-exempt share of household income, raise the minimum wage and reduce the retirement age, so millions of people believe that their living standards will improve under the present government.
Another potential break with neo-liberalism is found in the government’s health care proposals. The Polish Health minister has revealed plans to reform the health care system, that if carried out could be the most important and progressive changes to have occurred in the Polish health care system over the past two decades. Firstly, the government says that it will significantly increase the level of public health care spending, aiming to raise it to 6% of GDP. Secondly, it plans to move from an insurance based system to one where the health care system is funded directly from the central government budget. This would be a move away from a Bismarkian style health insurance system to a Beveridge universal health care system. Around 2.5 million Poles currently find themselves without health insurance and this reform would therefore help to fulfil the clause in the country’s constitution, which states that health care should be provided free of charge by the state to all citizens irrespective of their income.
Support, Criticism and Left Alternatives
The Polish left faces a serious dilemma as to how it should respond to the economic programme of the PiS government. For whilst it must oppose many of the political reforms of the government, it is not so clear what its response should be to the new administration’s economic strategy. The left needs to distance itself from the liberal opposition to the government, by pinpointing those parts of the government’s economic programme that it supports, whilst developing coherent alternatives to those it does not.
Below I outline some of these quandaries:

  • The proposal of the government to tax banks and large supermarkets is a long overdue reform that partly addresses the privileged position of multinational capital. However, this tax will be difficult to implement as finance capital in particular is able to move relatively easily to avoid taxes. Banks and supermarkets may also choose to pass the cost of these taxes onto customers, with some banks already raising charges. Furthermore, international capital possesses huge political and financial clout to fight back against the government’s proposals. In a period of global uncertainty, the Polish stock-market has fallen by around 16% since October; the yield on 10-year government Eurobonds has risen by 80 basis points, and the Złoty has reached a 4 year low in relation to the Euro (http://tinyurl.com/gwg5s8c). These troubles have partly been caused by the decision of the international rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, to cut its rating for Poland from A minus to triple BB plus. This was a direct interference in the internal affairs of Poland, with the rating agency mainly citing political reasons for its downgrade (http://tinyurl.com/hpfjmmt). The left should be unswerving in its support for the government against these institutions of finance capital, which will place increasing pressure on the government to reverse its economic policy. If capital continues to flow out of the country and the currency continues to devalue, so dissatisfaction amongst the country’s urban middle class will intensify, whilst it could actually benefit Polish businesses and exporters. It is certainly not in the interests of the left to ally with international capital and sections of the most privileged sections of society in this socio-economic divide. However, much of the government’s opposition to international capital is simply rhetoric, with the Foreign Minister recently stating the government’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), creating space for an alternative left voice on this issue (http://tinyurl.com/zfrnn56).

  • The PiS government’s strategy of national capitalism means that it will most likely support Polish businesses and wealthy Poles against the interests of the rest of society. For example, despite its attempts to tax banks and supermarkets it has made no proposals to reform the country’s income tax laws. Poland has an extremely low and regressive taxation system, which benefits the wealthy and high income earners. It is estimated that the government’s social reforms will cost around $11bln annually. A reform of the income tax system to increase and redistribute revenue is needed to fund such social spending and help reduce social inequalities. Also, whilst the government is focussing on international capital, it may turn a blind eye to the malpractices and exploitation of workers by domestic companies.

  • The social policies being introduced by the government signal some form of redistribution, for the first time in Poland’s ‘post-Communist’ history. It is not clear how far these policies will go and the left should be placing pressure on the government not to renegade on its promises on such things as health care and the minimum wage. Whilst the left must give critical support to the government’s policy of providing new child benefits, it is also important to point out the deficiencies in this policy. This benefit will leave many of society’s most vulnerable unprotected and without a combined policy of investing in such things as jobs, housing and public services, particularly aimed at increasing the activity rate of women on the labour market, it will almost certainly not increase the birth rate in the country. The left therefore has to support the introduction of a universal child benefit, which is part of a wider programme of social investment which offers an alternative vision of social and family life to the conservative one offered by PiS.

  • The economic programme of PiS is full of promises of new social spending but has no coherent vision of how the wealth will be created to fund it. An economic programme of the left should not just focus on consumption but also include a supply policy of growth through investment. The Polish economy continued to grow through the crisis, mainly through raising public investment, which as a share of GDP rose to the highest level in the EU (http://tinyurl.com/zvlvywf). This was made possible through the inflow of large EU funds, which were used to partly fund a series of infrastructural developments. The uncertainties in the international economy and the national capitalist programme of PiS, mean that private investment through an inflow of international capital is likely to decline. The left should lay out a new programme of public investment that goes beyond simply utilising EU funds, which themselves will begin to wane in a few years. This should be based primarily upon job creation, investment in green technologies and social investment in such things as housing and the health service that would both raise the rate of economic growth and improve the living conditions and standards of the population.