The influence of the far-right has been growing for over a decade, but the resistance to them is beginning to flourish, writes Andy Zebrowski.
Active resistance to the extreme right in Poland is growing. The fascist led Independence Day march on 11 November was opposed on the streets by a record number of people. At its high point around 12,000 people, many young, joined the demonstration in a colourful and vibrant protest that displayed the growth in confidence of among anti-fascists from previous years.
People believe that we can build a much bigger movement; something that has become an urgent necessity. Last year, the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, the fascist-organised Independence Day march was bigger than ever, with the country’s president and government ministers at its head. It was even accompanied by military vehicles and columns of soldiers! Because of this official state support around 200,000 people took part.
This year the march was much smaller, and the government no longer felt the need to participate. According to the local authorities, around 47,000 people marched. This is, however, still a huge number.
Wave of frustration
How did we get to a situation where fascists can lead tens of thousands of people through the streets? The growth in the influence of the extreme right took off a decade ago amid a wave of frustration over the neoliberal policies of the Civic Platform (PO) party — the party of Poland’s big business. The 2008 financial crisis resulted in a tightening of these policies alongside a marked economic slowdown. Unlike most of the other EU countries, Poland did not go into recession, but growth fell from 7 percent in 2007 to 2.8 percent in 2009, and then, following a slight uptick, fell to 1.4 percent in 2013.
But the frustration did not find expression in a mass workers’ revolt but rather gave the right wing and fascists an opportunity to grow. This was not automatic, however. The key was the weakness of the left, which meant that the main opposition to the neoliberal government came from the right, in the form of the Law and Justice party (PiS). As a result, opposition to neoliberal policies became combined with opposition to liberal attitudes to abortion, LGBT+ people, and to a growth in racism.
The annual Independence Day march was supported by the conservative media which had previously ignored it. So, from a few thousand people the march grew to a tens of thousands-strong show of force reaching its peak (hopefully) last year.
Call out the fascists
Counter-demonstrations have not numbered more than a few thousand for several years, mainly because many activists have not wanted to call the fascists “fascists”, believing this would not be accepted by ordinary people. But this played into the hands of right-wingers who claimed that Poles cannot be fascist because of Poland’s history — attacked by Hitler’s Nazis in 1939, with 16-20 percent of the population killed during the Second World War (half of them Jews, with almost the entire Jewish population of Poland wiped out).
But anti-fascism has revived in the last few years, particularly since the massive publicity given to the 2017 Independence Day march, with its antisemitic, Islamophobic and other racist banners and slogans — and fascist “guests” arriving from all over Europe, including Tommy Robinson from Britain.
Among the people who tried to block the march were 14 brave women who were spat on, kicked and dragged along the road. Nine of them were charged with interfering with a legal demonstration and fined £40 each. On appeal they were found innocent in October. Their attackers, however, were never charged.
Outing the fascists is vital to build the movement in countries such Poland, where fascists hate to be publicly exposed, even though they have invited organisations such as the openly fascist Forza Nuova from Italy into parliament and onto the Independence Day march.
The acceleration of support for the far right in many countries has helped to reinforce its following it in each individual country. Informal and formal links and alliances between the conservative and far right have become a model for others to follow.
This was explicitly stated by leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Catholic conservative party Jarosław Kaczynski when he lost the parliamentary elections in 2011. “I am deeply convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw” he said, referring to the government of political his hero, the extreme racist Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
During the campaign that saw PiS win the next parliamentary election four years later, Kaczynski claimed to migrants were carrying all manner of diseases, and viciously smeared refugees and Muslims. He also made welfare promises, some of which he kept — notably reducing the retirement age back to 65 for men and 60 for women, and launching a benefit worth €120 a month for each child. Considering that many people earn between €450 and €600 a month, this provided a significant boost for non-affluent families.
This partial break with the politics of neoliberal austerity was also the main reason why PiS won the parliamentary elections again in October this year. It also explains why many more workers voted for it than would have done if it had just expressed its racist, homophobic vitriol.
But Kaczynski’s majority is wafer thin, just five more than half the seats in the lower house — and he has lost the Senate which means he cannot continue to rush legislation through automatically in 24 hours. His partial anti-austerity did not include adequate funding for the health service or education. Just 900 apartments have been built in four years.
But the PiS’s victories, and particularly its success in 2015, have given the fascists a massive boost. The government has purged state TV, and the main evening news is now, if anything, a cruder version of Fox News in the US. Fascists now appear as hot-blooded patriots. Locally PiS politicians have sponsored coaches to take fascists and football hooligans influenced by them to the Independence Day march.
After anti-fascists were physically attacked by violent fascists in 2017 the PiS spokeswoman said, “I understand them,” helping to systematically normalise racism and even fascism.
Kaczynski had attempted to prevent the extreme right from outflanking him by defending and even promoting it. Unsurprisingly, this has not worked. Leon Trotsky called fascism “a razor in the hands of the class enemy”. Kaczynski has cut himself.
This year the fascists of the National Movement drained support from PiS and entered parliament in a coalition called the Konfederacja (Confederacy — after the pro-slavery side in the US Civil War). They got 6.8 percent of the vote and 11 seats.
The two main pillars of this coalition are a grouping of extreme and authoritarian neoliberals around Janusz Korwin-Mikke and the fascist National Movement.
Korwin-Mikke has been a hero for anti-socialist students for years. He gained international notoriety as a deputy to the European Parliament for his extreme sexism. He has said that women are less intelligent than men and should not be allowed to vote. He wrote that young men should rape their wives if they had family problems and justified this by saying, “women always pretend to resist and this is normal”. He is opposed to a public health service and education system.
The five fascists in parliament include two of their best known leaders which the TV now regularly invite to appear.
It is, however, important to have a realistic estimation of the fascist’s forces. We know that fascist parties can grow massively in a very short space of time. That is why we have to oppose them on the streets with as many people as possible.
But if we exaggerate their forces this may give people the impression that they are unbeatable. This has certainly been the case in Poland where the small numbers on the Independence Day march in previous years have convinced many that the fascists had already won. They did not notice that in demonstrations during the rest of the year the fascists could only muster hundreds, not thousands, and certainly not tens of thousands.
Today the Konfederacja result is a boost for them — but if they had stood in their own name neither the fascist National Movement nor Korwin-Mikke would have entered parliament.
One of the main reasons there is an increased willingness to demonstrate against the fascists today is the success of local demonstrations — both the Equality marches and the direct anti-fascist and anti-racist protests.
An expression of this strengthened movement and the political polarisation in society is that the left is back in parliament — albeit as a coalition of: right wing post-communist social democrats; the liberal-left Wiosna (Spring) party led by Robert Biedron, who was Poland’s first openly gay politician to become president of a city and who is now a member of the European Parliament); and the left social democratic party Razem (Together). Razem has six MPs.
Meanwhile, however, the PiS government is working to strengthen its relations with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and has emboldened the bishops to be even more reactionary. In 2016 the fascist ONR (the National Radical Camp) was allowed to have a special mass in Bialystok Cathedral to mark its 82nd anniversary. Inside fascists stood in two columns, either side of the main nave, holding banners.
They were addressed by a fascist priest, Jacek Miedlar, who organises the annual fascist march in Wrocław. He has called Jews “vermin” and “a cancer”. In November this year the government-appointed prosecutor said that the intention to insult or hate cannot be attributed to Miedlar! Miedlar now has a priesthood. His YouTube channel this year closed down after he praised the terrorist who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in March.
Against the PIS’s policies and its alliance with the Catholic church and relations with fascists, anti-racists badly need the support of the trade unions. Unfortunately, however, the leaders of the Solidarity union federation, which still carries the name of one of the greatest workers’ movements in history in the years 1980-81, are close allies of the government. And the federation has been affected by the government’s normalisation of the fascists.
Unbelievable as it sounds, last year Solidarity allowed the fascist ONR to hold its conference in the historic hall of the Gdansk shipyard — the place where, after a wave of strikes throughout the country, the government was forced to recognise the workers’ trade union organisation in August 1980.
When challenged, Solidarity leader Piotr Duda said he was not going to explain himself to anyone about hiring out the hall, adding that it had been merely a commercial transaction. Duda also participated in last year’s Independence Day march, because the government jointly organised it with the fascists. Fortunately, not many Solidarity members took part.
Main union federation
The leaders of the other main union federation, the OPZZ, have from time to time taken part in anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations, but they do not mobilise their members to join them. This needs to change.
Of course the alliance with Solidarity has not prevented the government and its media attacking striking workers in the state sector — such as the striking nurses at the major children’s hospital in 2016, the junior doctors in 2017, cabin crew and pilots of LOT Polish Airlines in 2018, as well as teachers and other education employees in 2019.
Meanwhile Kaczynski has added another weapon to his armoury of hate — homophobia. Not that this was not present earlier, most notably when his twin brother Lech, as president of Warsaw, banned the annual Pride parade in 2004. The following year thousands of people came out onto the streets and broke the ban.
The homophobia has been stepped up for two reasons. First, PiS needed another target because the racism against migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Arab countries is wearing thin since Poland’s doors have been slammed shut on them. An obvious alternative target would be the more than one million Ukrainians who are currently working in Poland, but at the moment Poland’s bosses deem them too valuable. This does not mean we will not see vicious anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the future, but at present it is far outweighed by other forms of racism and discrimination.
Second is the undermining of the Catholic Church hierarchy by accusations of child rape going back decades. The bishops have hit back saying that paedophilia is rife in the LGBT community, and that the church is being attacked for political reasons.
The government is backing the church to the hilt. PiS has strengthened its links with the bishops since it has been in power diverting tens of millions of zlotys more to church coffers. At election time many priests directly or indirectly indicate to the faithful how they should vote.
In April Kaczynski said of the LGBT movement that “they threaten our identity, our nation, its existence, and thus also the Polish state”. And a leading archbishop called the movement a “rainbow plague” that: “Wants to subjugate our souls, hearts and minds. Not Marxist, Bolshevik, but born of the same spirit, Neo-Marxist. Not red, but rainbow.”
The homophobia of PiS and the bishops has led to a renewed increase in homophobic and fascist attacks on LGBT+ people. But this time the situation is different. The past two years have seen around 30 Equality (Pride) marches in all the biggest cities and towns in Poland — and some smaller ones — often mobilising thousands of people. The Warsaw march this year numbered almost 80,000.
Fascists try to mobilise local people against these demonstrations, but they still go ahead. On in Płock in August easily outnumbered the homophobes with many people waving support from windows.
The stereotype of homophobia among many ordinary people is clearly false. In one poll this year 45 percent were in favour of gay marriage — up 17 percentage points on four years ago. Every one of these Equality marches is a blow against the fascists and the politics of homophobia.
A great example of successful protests have been those organised by Student Antifascist Committee at Warsaw University. On 20 November more than 200 anti-fascists blocked the main gate of Warsaw University, preventing fascists from demonstrating on campus. Only around 20 fascists turned up. They eventually walked away discouraged. This was the third such successful action this year.
The students have also organised a petition demanding a plaque in the wall of the university campus, commemorating the pre-war fight against the “ghetto benches” — when Jewish students were forced to sit on one side of the classroom. Just before the war there were even total bans initiated by fascists on Jewish students and academics in many cities.
It has been easier to mobilise people in general following the huge protests against the government’s attempt in 2016 to make the already cruel abortion restrictions even harsher. And many teenagers have taken part in recent protests around climate change and against homophobia, and see the obvious links to the fight against racism and fascism.
Once people become active on one issue, they are more likely to take part in other campaigns. This is not automatic and needs to be pushed along by activists.