Anti-sectarianism, Polish style
Maciej Zurowski interviews comrades from a Polish Marxist tendency, and finds parallels with left thinking in the UK
As some of our British comrades in Left Unity contemplate sinking to unheard-of levels of blandness in the hope of attracting the tired, poor and huddled masses, such considerations do not seem to cross the minds of the Polish W?adza Rad group. “We are communists,” proclaims the ‘About’ section of its internet portal proudly, and the header features a lineage of thinkers programmatically ending with Leon Trotsky’s portrait.
In a country whose collective memory is still informed by the sordid atrocities of the Stalin era, the Gomu?ka government’s thinly veiled anti-Semitic witch-hunts and the police massacres of protesting workers, one has some explaining to do when publicly associating oneself with the hammer and the sickle. We commend W?adza Rad for taking on this difficult, but ultimately inevitable, task.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the comrades, who are organised in the Polish Party of Labour (PPP), feel a certain kinship to the Weekly Worker and its uncompromisingly communist polemicising against all odds. They certainly felt sympathetic enough to link to our website - their only one to a non-Polish political organisation - as well as publishing translations of some of our articles. With this in mind, we presume they are sufficiently steeled to take criticism.
Frankly, this author was surprised how much W?adza Rad comrades’ answers to our interview replicated the ‘anti-sectarian sectarianism’ that we have come to know in the UK. We understand that the PPP is a halfway house formation of a few hundred active members and home to social democrats, Marxists and so-called ‘national lefts’. The idea that such an organisation has real influence among the masses and that other Marxist groups (‘the sects’) can therefore be ignored sounds all too familiar to our ears.
Given history, we are sceptical whether an organisation which uses the Polish national colours to evoke the imagery of the Solidarno?? trade union - and, yes, this author is aware of the progressive elements that organisation initially contained - can be praised as uncritically as the W?adza Rad comrades are doing in our interview. Will such a formation equip the working class with internationalist consciousness? Will its demands for the nationalisation of certain industries perhaps lead the masses, step by step, towards a genuinely new, communist society? Would that not require an altogether different political programme?
I am not suggesting that Marxists should not participate in the PPP, but as is the case with all such formations, the struggle for communism needs to be carried into its ranks - by means of ruthless, open criticism of the right instead of subservient party patriotism.
What happened to you at the May Day demonstration in Warsaw?
On May Day, we joined a demonstration organised by the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions - a social democratic trade union centre, originally formed in the 1980s by the then government as a counterweight to Solidarno?? - and the Alliance of the Democratic Left, the social democratic party that came into existence through the transformation of the former ‘communist’ party.
Last year we participated in a rally and march organised by the APATU/ADL, and met with a positive reception and interest from ordinary participants. Photos of our banners appeared in the media, and a certain MP belonging to the Christian democratic Law and Justice Party reported this to the public prosecutor’s office, alleging that a crime had been committed by us and the organisers of the demonstration, who had “not reacted to the law being broken” - even though the hammer and sickle is not actually outlawed in Poland. The prosecutors declined to investigate the case.
When we arrived at this year’s demonstration, we noticed they were showing pictures from last year’s demonstration on a large outdoor screen, including some that featured our banners. So we unwrapped our banners and, once again, met with interest and sympathy from protesters. However, some 15 minutes later we were approached by stewards, who demanded take them down because “the organiser won’t have them here”. They also threatened to call the police if we did not comply. So we decided to pack them away. Since we could not march under our own banners, we left the demonstration.
About a mile away, the police stopped us and asked to see our papers. We wish to emphasise that none of the many police officers took any interest in us at the demonstration, nor did they do so as we were leaving.
Why did the organisers react so harshly?
We can only speculate why they reacted in this particular way. Conformism? Pressure from the right? Unfounded fear of prosecution? Wariness of being labelled Bolsheviks? A determination to prevent the party rank and file from fraternising with ‘subversives’? We do not know.
A couple of years ago, I read that the public display of communist symbols had been outlawed in Poland. Can you sell your literature openly?
In 2011, the constitutional tribunal accepted that a prior regulation which prohibited the display of materials “carrying fascist, communist or other totalitarian imagery” was, in fact, unconstitutional - partly because it was imprecise. Contrary to what the right might claim, communism is not banned in Poland. According to article 13 of the constitution, it is forbidden to invoke the “totalitarian methods and operational practices of Nazism, fascism and communism”, but not their respective ideologies.
Article 265 of the penal code bans the promotion of “fascist or other totalitarian systems”, but there is no definition anywhere as to what “other systems” are considered “totalitarian”.
To what extent is this enforced against groups such as yours?
Every now and again, we receive a ranting email full of insults and swearing, saying we are all going to jail - but we continue to operate regardless. We do not distribute any physical literature because we think that internet propaganda is far more efficient, seeing as it has a wider reach and expenses are lower. But groups that do are not getting any trouble.
After 1989, no-one in Poland has ever been convicted for advocating communism. The post-Stalinist Communist Party of Poland continues to operate legally, the hammer and sickle being its officially registered symbol. It is true that the owner of the now defunct Uncensored Left internet portal, Micha? Nowicki, was fined for “calling for the demolition of memorial sites”. He was prosecuted for agitating for the destruction of monuments to the anti-communist underground movement, the National Armed Forces - not for propagating communist views.
Surveys in former eastern bloc countries often reveal that considerable sections of the population share a certain nostalgia for the certainties of life under the old regime. Are positive reactions to your hammer and sickle imagery partly motivated by such sentiments?
It is possible that this is partly the case with older people. But we also receive positive reactions from people too young to remember the days of full employment and so on. In view of the crisis of capitalism, the impoverishment of working people and unemployment approaching 15%, sentiments for an anti-capitalist, anti-system character are increasingly common.
Polish Spartacists have a negative attitude towards the PPP, claiming instances of anti-Semitism and such. Could you comment on that?
Many organisations - for example, those financed by the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation - have a negative attitude towards the Polish Party of Labour. These slurs are normally dishonest, or they give a warped account of the truth.
To give you a perfect example, the PPP was slandered for supposedly supporting Adolf Hitler’s state, because an image of him, titled ‘His state’, appeared on the front page of the Union Herald (Kurier Zwi?zkowy). Yet it would have been perfectly possible to find out what the title page was referring to by reading the article: our chairman was comparing prime minister Donald Tusk to Hitler on the grounds of his neoliberal, anti-union politics. The extreme fiscalism that this prime minister’s rule has led to has also greatly contributed to incredible pressure upon ordinary people. The article cites a case where a mother of two was sent to prison for failing to pay a tax bill of €500, which she did not even know about because she had not been receiving official letters. This, however, did not prevent some organisations from accusing the PPP of anti-Semitism and even neo-Nazism.
The PPP does have problems with anti-Semitic gaffes in election campaigns. This is because the party, which has a formal membership of around 2,000 people, but far fewer active members. Hence it entered into an electoral alliance with Self-Defence, a peasant party, for the 2011 parliamentary elections. In Warsaw, a circle called Wspólnota Samorz?dowa (Self-Rule Society) came forward, whose candidates began to express rightwing and anti-Semitic views during the election campaign.
Polish law makes it impossible to withdraw candidates once the electoral register has been submitted. That is why the PPP publicly disassociated itself from some candidates in a special statement, which is available on the party’s website. The PPP is too small and not well enough organised to thoroughly screen all candidates in such an enormous venture, especially as there are generally significantly fewer applicants than there are places to fill on the electoral list.
As for the Spartacists, there exists no organisation in Poland they do not accuse of being right-deviationists and flunkies of the bourgeoisie, as a result of which their membership has never exceeded three people. Nobody takes their reflections seriously.
What are the reasons why you are working inside the PPP?
The reason why we support the PPP is because it is the only workers’ party in Poland. It is also the biggest extraparliamentary party that regularly participates in elections. It has a radical leftwing character, and there is nothing in its programme which would suggest that it is anti-Semitic, bourgeois and the like. We would never work in an anti-Semitic party because it would be a disgrace for us to participate in anything of that sort.
The PPP is the only party that fights the neoliberal politics of the state and the bourgeoisie. It was formed out of the most radical Polish trade union, WWZ August 80, which is known to organise the most militant and radical strikes. Not even the neoliberal media denies the socialist character of the party and trade union.
Aside from us, activists of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International operate in the PPP. The Polish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International was also involved for a long time, while the Polish section of the International Socialist Tendency has often given it electoral support.
How strong is the Polish left?
If we’re talking about the extraparliamentary left, there exist mostly small groups that are affiliated to various bureaucratised ‘internationals’. They are more interested in directives and instructions from the ‘HQ’ than in Polish current affairs. They also introduce to Poland ‘from the top down’ a hostility and mutual aversion between Marxists. In addition, they lack any kind of base in the working class. As the only group that has any influence in the working class, the PPP is an exception. WZZ August 80 initiated, among other things, the general strike in Silesia on March 26.
Where do you see the Polish left heading with regard to Marxist unity and gaining influence in society?
Gaining influence in society is more important than Marxist unity, and the former does not necessarily result from the latter. The aim of uniting all sectarian groups is an undertaking that requires a lot of effort, but is not necessarily politically fruitful, nor does it automatically guarantee influence in society - no matter how many zeros you add up, the result is still zero. This does not mean that we reject potential initiatives towards cooperation and unity, but our experience does not fill us with optimism.
Our experience also suggests that, given scarce industrial action, it is necessary for the workers’ movement and social movements to win new layers.
The only way out is activism among workers, which is the reason why we operate in the PPP. Out of many organisations of the extraparliamentary left, only three are registered. Of those three, only the PPP conducts regular political activity among the masses. Most recently, we had campaigns against the new ‘garbage collection agreements’ and for free public transport.
Considering the history of the Polish working class and trade union movement, is it particularly difficult to win people to non-nationalist perspectives?
As for the influence of the history of the workers’ movement on attitudes in the working class, it is worth citing a public opinion survey that was conducted in March. About 80% of respondents support the nationalisation of the railways, mines, power stations and forests and want the state to guarantee full employment. At the same time, when asked whether capitalism or socialism was preferable, a third chose capitalism and the rest decided they had “no opinion”. The fact that people still associate socialism with empty shelves and a government that shoots at workers negatively impacts on any potential successes of socialist agitation.
In protest against the neoliberal politics of the ruling party, the Citizens’ Platform, a section of working people supports the Christian-democratic PiS as a “more social” party - but in most cases, this is a matter of opting for the lesser evil rather than strongly supporting conservative or nationalist ideology. From our experience as PPP activists, we can also conclude that it is not as difficult to convince somebody of our programme as it is to convince people to vote for an extraparliamentary party - or, indeed, to vote at all.