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The Return of the Radical Right in Poland

Lawrence Bush
September 7, 2006

The Betrayal of Solidarity and the Politics of Discontent

by Brian Porter
Something has gone very, very wrong in Poland. After elections last September, a group called “Law and Justice,” led by a longtime Solidarity activist and right-wing politician named Jaroslaw Kaczynski, emerged as the largest party in parliament. Victory in the following month’s presidential election went to Kaczynski’s identical twin Lech.
Photo of the Kaczynski BrothersCartoonists had an easy time lampooning these two former child actors, with their famously short stature and uncharismatic appearance. The fact that their name derives from the word for “duck” (kaczor), and that the two highest offices in the Polish state are now occupied by men who can only be distinguished because of a small mole on Jaroslaw’s nose, gave satirists even more ammunition. But there is nothing funny about Poland’s new government.
The Kaczynskis formed a coalition with an agrarian populist group called “Self-Defense” and a radical-right party with the innocuous name of “The League of Polish Families.” Polite Western journalists have labeled this government “center-right” or “conservative,” but it is hard to find anything centrist about those holding power in Warsaw today. Even Europe’s mainstream conservative parties have publicly disavowed any affiliation with Law and Justice (not to mention the other two coalition members). Put simply, the extreme right now rules Poland, and people widely considered marginal and dangerous even a year ago are now within the corridors of power.
By appointing Roman Giertych, the leader of The League of Polish Families, to the position of vice-premier and minister of education, the Kaczynskis have bestowed legitimacy on a volatile extremist who traces his ideological roots to “National Democracy,” a radical right movement from the interwar years. Giertych has filled a number of second-tier government positions with supporters who were active in neo-fascist groups as recently as the late 1990s. The Kaczynskis themselves have established close ties to the “Radio Maryja” media network, which propagates a combination of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and ultra-conservative Catholic religiosity. Although neither of the brothers have any personal history of anti-Jewish remarks (even in private, by all accounts), they have found plenty of ways to appeal to a racist electorate while keeping their own hands clean.

They have skillfully played upon homophobia, which they have helped push to the forefront of the public agenda in recent years. In 2004, while serving as mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski established his bona fides with the radical right by illegally banning the “Parade of Equality,” a gay-rights demonstration. Commenting on this event, Bishop Stanislaw Stefanek of Lomza warned the faithful that “the wealthiest people in the world, who want a small number of specialized geniuses to conquer the globe, drive the rest of humanity towards moral ruin and the complete destruction of the family. That is why they organize parades, cynical theaters of lies for a mob that has been intoxicated by propaganda” (Gazeta Wyborcza, June 25th, 2006).
The parallel between anti-Semitism and homophobia became even more disturbing (and more obvious) when thugs at anti-gay demonstrations took to chanting “Fags to the gas chambers” and “We will do to you what Hitler did to the Jews.” Homosexuality thus became a proxy issue for the Polish far right, a means of alluding to old hatreds. In a country with very few Jews, at a time when explicit anti-Semitism is increasingly seen as vulgar in polite society, this approach has proven to be an effective means of rallying support.
Photo of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 25 Sept 2005The Kaczynskis themselves condemn any allusions to violence and repudiate the crude slogans cited above — while fanning the flames of homophobia and blaming Poland’s problems on mysterious unnamed “webs of influence,” or “power-wielding networks” that supposedly run things behind the scenes.

These developments have reinforced the worst stereotypes about Poland, reversing decades of hard work by the country’s more responsible leaders. Poland has long suffered from an image problem in Western Europe, where people are quick to dismiss their ‘backward’ eastern neighbors as inherently prone to xenophobic nationalism, primitive religiosity, and undemocratic proclivities. Blaming the rise of the Kaczynskis on ‘Polish cultural patterns’ blinds us, however, to some important lessons, and obscures the fact that Poland today is not really all that different from France, Germany, Britain, or the U.S. We all have hate-mongers, racists, anti-Semites, and authoritarians; the issue is how effectively we relegate such people to the margins of public life.
Openly violent racist groups enjoy roughly the same popular support in today’s Poland as in any developed country, and that small fraction of the electorate had previously been marginalized and ostracized by all the major Polish political parties. Even Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, at its moment of greatest electoral triumph last September, won fewer than 30 percent of the votes. (Altogether, the right-wing coalition won 46 percent and controls 242 seats in the 435-seat parliament.)
According to surveys taken by the respected Centrum Badania Opinii Spoleczne (Public Opinion Research Center) in June, 2006, only 16 percent of Poles felt that the current governing coalition would solve any of the country’s social problems (33 percent thought things would now get worse), and only 14 percent felt that Poland’s international position would improve (34 percent predicted that the country’s position would weaken). If elections were held today, Law and Justice would receive only 26 percent of the vote, with 7 percent going to Self-Defense and 3 percent to The League of Polish Families. The radical right is strong, but it does not enjoy anything close to majority support in Poland, and its rise to power was in no sense predestined by any imagined long-term patterns in Polish culture.

Three new books help us understand what has gone wrong in Poland since the fall of communism: Elizabeth C. Dunn’s Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (2004, Cornell University Press), David Ost’s The Defeat of Solidarity (2005, Cornell University Press), and Geneviève Zubrzycki’s The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (2006, University of Chicago Press). Although all three books were written before the victory of the Kaczynskis, and each approaches the problem from a different disciplinary perspective (Dunn is an anthropologist, Ost a political scientist, and Zubrzycki a sociologist), each provides a crucial component of any explanation for the ascendancy and potency of the Polish radical right.
Shortly before the elections last fall, Jaroslaw Kaczynski proclaimed that “ensuring that Christian principles have a proper place in social life is a necessary component of the moral reform of the State.” The very first point in the party platform of the League of Polish Families included the commitment “to enact a deep systemic, economic, and social reform of the state, a reform rooted in Christian culture and tradition, and in natural law.” Given these sorts of statements (and considering the support the Kaczynskis receive from Radio Maryja), it would be all too easy to blame a distinctively Polish sort of Catholic nationalism for the current problems. As Zubrzycki argues, however, the relationship between religion and nationalism is more complex than we usually assume, and the role of anti-Semitism in this mix has as much to do with specific debates among Poles as with the relationship between Poles and Jews.
She enters this topic by studying a protracted controversy that played out over the course of the 1990s. In 1988, some Polish Catholics who had been Auschwitz prisoners erected a large cross — once used during a mass given by Pope John Paul II at nearby Birkenau — just outside the walls of the concentration camp, in a gravel pit that was once on the camp’s grounds. Many Jews around the world took offense that this prominent Christian religious symbol was visible from inside Auschwitz, and for almost a decade a debate simmered.
In 1998, the Polish authorities enraged the far right by agreeing to relocate the cross, and a previously obscure politician named Kazimierz Switon exploited the opportunity for publicity by camping out in the gravel pit for over a year and calling on his supporters to bring additional crosses to Auschwitz to demonstrate that their Catholic nation would resist Jewish attempts to dictate what Poles did in their own country. Eventually, over three hundred crosses were planted around Switon’s encampment, and the issue became a huge national (and even international) controversy.
The Catholic hierarchy itself was deeply divided, with many bishops doing their best to distance the Church from Switon’s antics. In the Spring of 1999, the Polish authorities finally removed the protestors from the site, along with their crosses. The original “papal cross” remains there to this day.
Zubrzycki uses this incident to explore the dynamics of Catholic nationalism in Poland today, and her findings will surprise many readers. Above all, she persuasively argues that the debate is not primarily between Polish Catholics and Jews, but among Poles over what exactly it means to be Polish and Catholic. As Zubrzycki points out, since the fall of communism the Church has not been able to serve as a symbol of unity for the entire nation (despite nearly everyone being baptized as a Roman Catholic); rather, in the highly contested politics of democratic Poland, many groups are competing furiously to determine what sort of Catholicism will be accepted as legitimate. Will there be space within the Church for the nationalism and right-wing fervor of the “defenders of the cross?” Will those who want to embrace an ecumenical, open vision of Catholic religiosity retain a role in the Church? In this debate, anti-Semitism plays a key role, but it takes curious forms. As Zubrzycki puts it, anti-Semitism in Poland today is mostly aimed at “symbolic Jews” rather than actual Jews, since so few of the latter remain in the country.
“Jewishness, in this context,” she writes, “itself becomes a symbol, standing for a civic-secular Poland.” In the debate over the crosses at Auschwitz, right-wing publicists identified their political opponents and even some priests and bishops as ‘Jews,’ which came to be a code-word for anyone who advocated a culturally open, liberal, secular Poland. Zubrzycki’s book helps us recognize that not only can one have anti-Semitism in the absence of Jews, but one can have anti-Semitism that is not even about Jews!
All this still leaves open a crucial question: What made such a substantial minority of Poles vulnerable to these evocations of hatred and exclusion? To answer this, we turn to the books by David Ost and Elizabeth Dunn. Both focus on the new social and economic order created by the massive systemic reforms that followed the collapse of communism, and both demonstrate why millions of people are now open to seduction by the extreme right.

At the root of the problem is what we might call the rhetoric of inevitability. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, one would have had to search long and hard for a mainstream economist or policy advisor who would question the basic outline of the ‘necessary’ post-communist reforms, which included the elimination of nearly all subsidies for basic goods, the disempowerment of the labor movement (in the name of labor ‘flexibility’ and ‘discipline’), a suppression of domestic consumption (so that exports could be encouraged and government debts repaid), and the privatization of state assets (to introduce new capitalist ‘efficiencies’). The only debates at the time seemed to be over timing: Should these reforms be introduced rapidly (as in Poland’s ‘Shock Therapy’ of 1990) or somewhat more gradually (as in Hungary)?
Everyone involved recognized that these reforms would plunge millions of people into unemployment and poverty, that entire industrial sectors would close down in the face of international competition, and that the days of secure jobs and incomes were over. There would be pain, admitted those who would never feel the pain themselves, but the pain was “inevitable.”
David Ost documents persuasively how this rhetoric of inevitability conquered the Polish public sphere in the 1990s. For over a decade, Polish politicians and intellectuals debated a range of important issues in parliament and in the media, including the provisions of a new constitution, abortion policy, church-state relations, Polish-Jewish reconciliation, and the best way to expose those who had committed crimes under the old regime. The one issue they would not discuss was the disempowerment of organized labor and the growing poverty of those who could not adapt to the new system. To raise these issues was to risk being labeled an irrational populist who failed to understand the necessity of reform.
Even the leaders of the Solidarity labor union accepted these developments and did almost nothing to mitigate their impact. Indeed, as Ost demonstrates, union leaders understood their task as one of persuasion: Workers had to be convinced to passively accept inevitable changes. Meanwhile, unemployment climbed towards 20 percent, entire towns collapsed into despair when their factories closed, much of the agricultural sector was swamped by foreign imports, and millions were left to nurse their bitterness without any support from mainstream politicians or even labor leaders. The workers who had created Solidarity and fought bravely for democracy throughout the 1980s, “made possible the political transformation,” writes Ost, but “were the ones made to pay the price.”

Elizabeth Dunn explores the cultural chasm that Poles have had to traverse in order to shift into this new world of 21st-century capitalism. She worked for several years at a Polish baby food canning plant that had been purchased by Gerber, and she documents the unraveling of a social order in which people understood themselves to be members of a cohesive, cooperative productive community, bound by interlocking (though hierarchical) networks of loyalty. This world is now gone, replaced by fragmentation, individualism, and competition. What matters is one’s economic value to a corporation — nothing else. Dunn captures eloquently the stark differences between the old and new ways of understanding the social meaning of the workplace:

To employees and farmers, the firm was more than an engine to make profit or even to make products. It was the heart of a social community that extended not only to them but to their families as well. Under socialism, it was the vehicle through which the state carried out its moral obligation to care for its citizens. . . . For Gerber’s managers, the firm was not a community, and it did not exist for any purpose other than to make a profit. Farmers’ produce was nothing other than an input to production.

Of course, some people adapted well to this new world. Many Poles feel that they now enjoy freedoms and opportunities that they never could have experienced under communism. It is even true that a mythical “statistically average” Pole is doing materially better now than before 1989. The stores are filled with a dizzying variety of products, ownership of a range of durable consumer goods is way up, people can travel freely for jobs and pleasure, and Poland’s major cities are increasingly indistinguishable from urban centers anywhere in Europe. Notwithstanding the country’s high unemployment, both GDP and overall industrial output are about 40 percent higher than during the last years of the Polish People’s Republic, and growth has been strong for several years.
But such statistics always hide as much as they reveal, because for every success story there is at least one, and probably more than one, tale of failure and despair. Dunn asks provocatively, “[D]o postsocialist changes add up to ‘success’ if they foster inequality and disempower the very workers who struggled against the socialist state?”
The millions who were left out of the new prosperity have grown increasingly angry and have started to search for political answers to their frustrations. This is not an irrational anger stirred up by demagogues: As Ost persuasively argues, the irrationality lies with those who refused to recognize that the economic reforms of the post-1989 era would generate a huge amount of suffering, and that those who suffered had every right to be upset when their lives were turned upside down. “[T]he question,” he writes, “is not whether anger will emerge — it will — but rather who will own it?” With virtually all the mainstream parties in the 1990s refusing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of those dispossessed by the reforms, many people looked beyond the mainstream for answers.
By the 2000 parliamentary elections, the extremist parties currently running Poland had already won nearly 30 percent of the vote. Ost predicted what was coming:

The problem was not just liberal policies or politicians but the whole progressive edifice founded on “reason.” By presenting their policies not so much as “good” ones but as “necessary” ones, not as “desirable” but as “rational,” liberals left their supporters no acceptable way to protest or express dissatisfaction. . . . By decrying all opposition as dangerous and populist, and labeling themselves the only voice of reason, liberals pushed opponents into the illiberal camp, for that became the only space opponents were permitted to inhabit.

Moreover, Ost continues, these particular illiberal options were all focused on dangerous forms of identity politics. He makes a convincing case that for a democracy to be successful, people should be mobilized around class identities rather than other forms of belonging. Every ideology and identity involves the construction of lines between “us” and “them,” between allies and enemies — but not all foes are created equal.
As Ost writes, “unlike the enemy of racial, nationalist, or fundamentalist politics, the class other is a group with different interests, not with alien identities. Alien identities are to be eliminated from the polity. Different interests are to be negotiated with in order to come up with a fairer distribution of wealth.” But Polish politicians and union leaders would not even talk about class identity in the 1990s. The very word “class” had been poisoned for them by decades of abuse by state propaganda under the old regime, while the neo-liberal hegemony of the immediate post-communist years convinced nearly everyone that free-floating, interest-maximizing, autonomous individuals were the only appropriate units of analysis and action for the 21st century.
Here we have the foundation for the rise of extremist politics, and when we refer back to Zubrzycki’s interpretation of nationalism and religion we can understand why this politics took the form that it did. But nothing in this story was predetermined — neither by presumed pathologies in Polish culture nor by inexorable socio-economic dynamics. The hegemony enjoyed by the rhetoric of inevitability was not itself inevitable, and political choices made in the 1990s could have been made differently.
Even given all this background, the Kaczynskis still could not have risen to power in Poland had it not been for the utter collapse of the Union of the Democratic Left (a social democratic party) in a corruption scandal and the lackluster campaigning of Civic Platform (a centrist group that enjoys roughly the same level of support as the ruling Law and Justice party). The broad outlines of Poland’s tragedy could happen anywhere, and if we see our own reflection in the Poles’ recent experiences, we might yet succeed in avoiding their fate.

Brian Porter is an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, and the author of When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in 19th Century Poland (Oxford University Press, 2000). He is currently finishing a new book, tentatively entitled For God and Fatherland: Poland, Catholicism, and Modernity.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.