A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Fascism.
As the Eurozone economy slips once again into recession, so the social consequences of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s are having their effect. Throughout Europe, growing sections of society are looking for alternatives to the political establishment, that is failing to provide the economic security and social stability upon which a healthy political democracy relies. In many cases the organisations of the far-right are gaining strength.
In recent years the Freedom Party in Holland, The Democrats in Sweden, The People’s Party in Denmark and Le Pen’s National Front in France have made significant gains. In Greece Golden-Dawn, openly espousing the historical symbols of Greek Fascism, now lies third in the polls. But the far-right does not confine itself to electoral politics. Golden Dawn has regularly attacked immigrants, and there are serious allegations of its collusion with the police. In Hungary the Jobbik party has been gaining popularity through targeting the Roma population. In England, the English Defence League (EDL) has organised regular mobilisations against Muslim communities. In Norway, Andres Breivik (who had strong links with the Norwegian and European far-right) killed 77 people in a coordinated terrorist attack. This included slaughtering young people whose crime was to attend a Norwegian Socialist Party youth camp, as he saw them as supporters of multi-culturalism. The list could go on.
At times this rise of the far-right has coincided with concessions made to racism by the political mainstream. Both Angela Merkel and David Cameron have announced that multi-culturalism has been a failure. Various European countries have banned Muslim women from having the right to choose how to dress, and adopted the language of hostility to Islam and immigration. In France, Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of Roma from the country who had committed crimes; and in Holland Islamophobia has been combined with propaganda against immigrants from Poland and other Central-Eastern European countries. At times, as in Holland and Denmark, the far-right has even participated in governing coalitions, as they try to gain credence as respectable parties of the political mainstream.
It is in this context that we should understand the worrying rise of the far-right in Poland. For the third year running they have managed to mobilise thousands on Independence Day in a show of political strength. The sight of the two far-right organisations in Poland, National Revival of Poland (NOP) and the All-Polish Youth (MW), leading a march of thousands through the streets of Warsaw, carrying the symbols of pre-war Polish Fascism, should be an affront to anyone that claims to uphold the principles of basic human decency. As has now become tradition, the streets of Warsaw were turned into scenes of violence and hooliganism, although this was not just restricted to Warsaw. After NOP had completed their march in Wroclaw, around 50 masked individuals physically attacked a squat using baseball bats, stones and Molotov cocktails, leaving one person severely injured in hospital. This is the sixth time that the far-right have carried out such attacks in Wroclaw during the past year. The recent revelation that someone motivated by nationalistic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic ideas was planning a terrorist attack on the Polish parliament is another warning of the dangers that the far-right pose.
Over the past couple of years, NOP and MW have managed to expand their political appeal through aligning with a section of the mainstream conservative right. No longer do they march in their hundreds on 11 November, but they gather tens of thousands, including well-known politicians and publicists from the right. Their new foot-soldiers are recruited from the ranks of organised football hooligans, as it is in England for example by the EDL. The far-right has grown in such confidence that the leader of MW, Robert Winnicki, declared openly in a speech at the march that were creating a national movement that aimed to overthrow the republic .
The source of political inspiration for the Polish far-right is the Jobbik Party in Hungary. This is both a political party and semi paramilitary organisation, reaching back to the treacherous history of the Horthy Regime before the war. They stand as an independent extremist ally of Orban’s government, pushing the political mainstream further to the right and unleashing direct actions of violence against their identified enemies. Support for the Jobbik Party is currently strong and it is possible that it will hold the balance of power after the next elections scheduled for 2014.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, speaking on election night last year, predicted that soon ‘we will have a second Budapest in Warsaw’. Primarily this would mean PiS forming a government similar to Orban’s administration in Hungary. But does this also mean that a Jobbik style organisation is needed in Poland? PiS has been successful in hegemonising the right of the political scene, incorporating many who have identified with the far-right and defeating rivals such as the League of Polish Families (LPR). However, to return to power the more extremist voices and actions of the right in the party have to be tempered. Kaczynski has therefore distanced himself and his party from the violence that took place and expressed his hope that the march will be orderly next year (unlike after last year’s march when he claimed that the police had been on the side of the far-left).
Yet while the mainstream conservative politicians will distance themselves from some of the actions of the far-right, they will never question their political legitimacy. This was most shockingly shown by the declarations of the Minister of Justice, Jaroslaw Gowin, who stated that the actions and slogans of NOP and MW did not exceed the limits of law and that a greater threat to democracy was posed by the support for totalitarianism from the far-left. As an example, he said that Krytyka Polityczna had published thework of Lenin, whilst the far-right did not reproduce books by Hitler.
Leaving aside the historical naivety of comparing Lenin to Hitler (what next Gramsci was just a second Mussolini?) the accusation that an organisation like Krytyka Polityczna is a similar threat to political democracy as MW or NOP is absurdity in the extreme. Krytyka Polityczna exists as an organisation grouping intellectuals that hold opinions common to the centre-left of European politics. The supposed works of Lenin was actually a book of Slavoj Zizek (along with an introduction for the Polish edition written by Slawomir Sierakowski) that brought together a collection of Lenin’s early philosophical writings. Both Sierakowski and Zizek in their introductions go out of their way to distance themselves from Lenin, showing that they are really only concerned with the ‘Lenin in becoming’, which is an example of how the left should be prepared to use fresh forms of thought and political organisation to face their historically unique situation.
As Minister of Justice, does Gowin really believe that this is a threat to political democracy in Poland? Is it actually a crime now in Poland for young people to discuss the works of writers such as Lenin, Trotsky or Luxemburg? Are we to expect a return to the days of the Polish People’s Repubic (PRL) when those in the West showed solidarity with dissidents by smuggling banned books beyond the Iron Curtain? If it wasn’t potentially so dangerous it would be simply funny; but history has continually shown that the road towards conservative authoritarianism and Fascism includes removing the legitimacy of the left to exist. It is becoming commonplace amongst the Polish right to compare those who were connected to the PRL with Fascists. This means degrading generations of Poles who actually helped to rebuild Poland out of the devastation wrought by Nazi occupation.
Referring to the proposal of the SLD, that NOP and MW should be banned as legal political organisations in Poland, Gowin answered that ‘if I was in the SLD’s position, I would not make such proposals. We all know what roots this party has’. The assertion here is that the SLD still does not have the full right to participate in the democratic process, because of its links to the PRL. This has been taken one step further by the far-right, with Winnicki announcing that MW will be putting forward a proposal to ban the SLD, stating that both the SLD and the Palikot Movement pose a threat to the state and nation. Although this could be dismissed as an extreme voice on the margins of politics, it should be remembered that when PiS briefly held power, a proposal came out of their government to take property away from those organisations that had roots in the previous system (this would have included the SLD, the OPZZ and even the ZNP).
Over the past few years the far-right has taken a step away from the political margins and aligned with a section of the conservative mainstream. It is now not possible to defeat the far-right simply on the streets or through legal mechanisms (although these may still be necessary.) The left has to help forge a new political hegemony that pushes the far-right back to the side-lines. To be successful the left has to once again be able to address the political majority in Poland and the economic hardships that are pushing sections of society towards the politics of hate and division. Warsaw must not become a second Budapest.
This column was first published on Beyond the Transition