Opinion, Poland

Why the Polish Left is losing

For young Poles, being a pro-market conservative – and annoying at parties – is cool and trendy. Being leftist is passé.

When I was living in Poland, my intellectual curiosity led me to attend several events hosted by, for lack of a better term, a conservative think tank, Klub Jagielloński (Jagiellonian club). Most of the attendees were first-grade students trying their hardest to appear as the cool kids of the universities they were reading at, with tailored suits, sky-high heels and fine cocktails at the after drinks. But their mildly conservative and extremely pro-market worldview overwhelmed even my open mind and my love for pointless political disputes, and we quickly parted ways. Incidentally, I never met so much free market advocates as in Central Europe. I lost the count of how many times I met self-proclaimed libertarians there, who upon learning about the topic of my doctoral dissertation were eager, as if doing me some sort of paternalistic favour, to fastidiously explain me why Fredrich Hayek/Ludwig von Mises/Murray Rothbard wrote everything I needed to know, or to recommend me Ayn Rand for the least cultured among them. I do not know how truthful a – now long – series of anecdotes can be, but over time, I could not help but noticing a pattern. For young Poles, being a pro-market conservative – and annoying at parties – is cool and trendy. Being leftist is passé.

Who wants some freedom?

Ideologies should be taken seriously. How can free markets, probably the most unsexy concept ever theorised, have such an appeal? In philosophy, they are defended by a school of thought called libertarianism. As most contemporary political theories, it is a theory of justice, which goes like this: if a transaction did not violate someone’s right to life or property, then its result is just as well, without any consideration for fairness or equality. For instance, libertarians defend sweatshop labour, organ sells and high levels of inequality because they believe that people who accept to work in bad conditions, to sell their organs or to give their money to the already rich freely consented to do that, regardless of background conditions or context. The corollary to the free market is the minimal state, that interferes with people’s actions only to prevent violations of rights – deceit, coercion, and so on, and to repair such violations. Most libertarians are therefore critical of state-imposed taxation and welfare services, although this view is far less consensual in libertarian theory as it is commonly believed.

Following this theory of justice, the right to property covers only the property that has been justly acquired. This is the point that most critiques of libertarianism find deeply puzzling. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the history of capitalism knows that the current distribution of property is the result of theft, plunder, coercion, murder and so on. It is safe to assume for instance that the West owes a significant part of its wealth to long-lasting injustices like slavery, colonialism, patriarchal domination, or working-class exploitation.

Take the most obvious example of chattel slavery in the United States. The legal subordination and forced labour of African Americans not only built the fortune of the Southern planting class, it also meant that all created value was, for a significant part of American history to be divided among whites only. The abolition of 1865 after the American Civil War, although a giant progress, did not change this unequal distribution. Freed slaves were never compensated after their liberation, and had to endure over a century of segregation which maintained the wealth gap between white and black Americans. Needless to say, American slavery had also a significant influence on the development of textile-based European capitalism by providing a massive amount of cheap raw material.

If libertarianism is to be believed, this means that a significant amount of current property titles is unjustly held, and yet most of free market advocates defend the unequal distribution of property that these injustices produced. Academic libertarians are aware of this contradiction and have, somewhat timidly, attempted to address this objection within their theoretical corpus. However, this cannot be said of their mainstream fellow travellers, who, especially in Poland, are generally openly hostile to any considerations of social justice. No self-respecting politician, and especially one having anything to do with the Polish right wing, would advocate for open borders, or for more accommodating policies towards sexual and racial minorities for instance, whereas most academic libertarians do. “Liberal-conservative”, an oxymoronic abomination for anyone with a basic understanding of political philosophy, is perhaps a better characterisation of free market advocacy in Poland.

As such, it does not appear as a unified political movement, but as a significant second-range ideological cluster, for instance, three right-wing parties (Kukiz’15, Korwin, and Ruch Narodowy) attract votes on the perception that they will create a more liberal economy akin to the American model. One can also notice the high number of libertarian-leaning initiatives especially directed at the youth, some of which presenting clear conservative undertones: the liberal-conservative organisation Stowarzyszenie Koliber, high school economy tutorials Lekcje Ekonomii dla Mlodzierzy – or rather brain-washing when one sees their comically caricatural program, and to a lesser extent, Mloda Prawica (the young right) and the aforementioned Klub Jagielloński. Despite their difference, what these groups have in common is a range of disseminated ideas that gather a minimal state, a liberalised economy, and the moral superiority and practical efficiency of capitalism over state welfare and interventionism.

Contrasted with the fringe status of libertarianism in most of Academia and its almost complete inexistence in the Western public debate, this is still remarkable – in France openly advocating free market policies based on the respect of property rights is tantamount to political suicide. However, even if the mainstream defence of free markets is a bastardised version of a more complex philosophical system, it still shares its strengths and weaknesses. The contradiction between market procedural justice and the real history of capitalism is indeed the reason so many in the west are wary of unbridled economic forces. Free market are often criticised for being blind to issues of gender and race for instance.

Class struggle, Polish style  

Poland never really benefited from the global systems of oppression that pervade western history; it was never a colonial power like France or a racist slavery-based economy like the United States. But it still has a long history of structural injustice. Due its very late industrialisation and weak central power, it was dominated by feudalism well into its recent history. In his recently published book Europe’s Growth Champion – which sets the records straight about a lot of chapters of Polish economic history – World Bank Economist Marcin Piatkowski tries to understand the Central Europe’s bursting economic growth since the political transition in the 1990s. Its explanation is simple, until the second world war, Poland’s development was hindered by the predatory parasitism of a landed class that did everything to preserve its own political power and economic rent.

Piatkowski’s description of two periods of Polish history that are currently highly idealised are particularly noteworthy. Far from being the global superpower that Poles today like to imagine, he argues that 16th and 17th centuries Poland was similar to a contemporary banana republic, a poor and inert plutocracy with a near-failed central state. Its economy relied solely on a single resource – wheat – and an exploitative mode of production – serfdom, which only served to maintain the extravagant revenues of its nobility, the Szlachta. Most of the population, made of peasants, was living in near-slavery – Piatkowski mentions how serfs’ labour obligations, of one day per week in the early sixteenth century increased to some sweeping six days per week one hundred years later. With some notable exceptions, this made the Polish noble elites hostile to the enlightenment ideas and prevented the urban industrialisation that was flourishing in the western parts of Europe. Despite the partial abolition of serfdom by Tadeusz Kosciuszko and its eventual disappearance under foreign rule – Austria, Prussia and Russia occupied Poland in 1795 – feudalism created lasting social hierarchies within the Polish society that were still in place when the country regained independence in 1918.

The Second Polish Republic, the other period that Piatkowski demystifies, was still dominated by landowning aristocrats who made most of its economic elites, and who, preventing agrarian reforms, were still in control of most of the country farming lands. As a result, the wealthiest 1% earned a whooping 16% of the country total income, while the peasantry still lived in indigent conditions with illiteracy levels as high as 20%. 1939 Poland was a rural, inegalitarian and socially stratified society that had more in common with a Latin American plantocracy than a European country. Provocatively, Piatkowski compares it to reconstruction era American South. In both cases, slavery and feudalism were abolished, but the concentration of wealth that they built were not redistributed, and the former slaves and serfs, while formally free, were still in a poor disfranchised labour force easily exploitable by their former masters.

Despite the narrative pushed by the Polish right of a nation eternally united against foreign aggression, the history of Poland is one of class struggle as much as any other country, if one understands it, in the words of Karl Marx, as the “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight” between “oppressor and oppressed”. In the west, this history and its memory has produced strong social democratic parties that are currently coming back to life amidst the worsening social conditions that appeared after the 2008 financial crisis. In Poland the reverse is happening, the current parliament is exclusively right wing – ranging from conservative to liberal, with the social democratic Razem, attracting only 2% of voting intentions. Poland has a history of injustice. Why then the ideological contradiction of free market apologists fails to produce a strong and influent left?

What the left is all about

In Western Europe, the distributive legacy of past injustice is still present, mostly through concentrations of old money – one does not have to dig quite far in the genealogy of wealth to find here a slave trafficker, there a colonial expropriator or a working-class exploiter. In Poland, this is not the case. The consequences of almost a millennium of feudalism were completely erased by communism. The data presented in Piatkowski’s book, depict how the early policies of the People’s Republic knock downed the old social order. As soon as 1944, all land properties bigger than 50 hectares were divided among former tenants and sharecroppers. Voluntarist development policies were also implemented: compared to pre-war statistics and realities, Polish communists provided universal healthcare, increased secondary education twentyfold, the number of doctors eightfold and university students sevenfold. The number of engineers, much needed for the country’s reconstruction, doubled and illiteracy was eradicated.

Whatever right wingers boasting on communism making everyone equally poor say on the matter, for most people born and raised in the inegalitarian interwar Poland, the first decades of communism and the elimination of the landed class meant an improvement of the standards of living and chances for very fast social advancement. According to Piatkowski, this transition allowed Poland to start its path to development and explains its post transition success as capitalism’s greatest victory. An egalitarian, urban, and educated society, albeit impoverished by western standards is more likely to attract foreign investment. Without denying Stalinist terror and political repressions, the Polish left should be more open about the modernizing legacy of the People’s Republic. Poland needs a more honest debate about its communist time, as well as its over-idealized feudalism.

But by destroying the legacy of past injustice, communism deprived today’s social democrats of their main ideological fuel. The main claim of the left, and especially its contemporary version, is indeed one of reparation. When in the United States, Bernie Sanders campaigned on the promise to make Wall Street pay its “fair share”, he claimed in substance that wealthy financiers take more from society than what they contribute. When in the United Kingdom Jeremy Corbyn speaks for nurses and in France Jean Luc Mélenchon defends public services, they imply conversely that society owes them more than what they get. In other words, they are pointing out how an unjust distribution of wealth and a high concentration of economic power rigs the so called free market in favour of the already rich and powerful.

In Poland, this contradiction simply has no ideological bite. Take Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan For the many not the few that Razem almost plagiarised with its ‘Polska dla milionow nie dla milionerów’ (‘A Poland for millions and not for millionaires’). In the United Kingdom, a country that still has an (obscenely rich) aristocracy, that not so long ago had a colonial empire, that has the highest concentration of millionaires in Europe and where the working class died under the bullets of its own government, this slogan resonates with the diffuse idea that the ‘few’ have currently a power and a wealth that they are not entitled to have, and that the ‘many’ should get back. In Poland, a country whose aristocracy lives abroad, where working class movements were mostly crushed by Russian and German occupants, and without concentrations of wealth comparable to that of the West, this sort of egalitarian slogan sounds rather empty. A corrupt political class and, relatively to western standards, inefficient public services are more likely to attract resentment, something that is perfectly in line with a pro-market stance – the privatization of education and healthcare are top entries on any mainstream pro-market agenda.

Feudal shackles, feudal blessings

In his essay Rival Views of Market Society, the economist Albert Hirschman noticed a shift in how the market was viewed at the turn of the 19th century. The collusions of the rising entrepreneurial classes with the landed gentry convinced thinkers as different as Joseph Schumpeter or Karl Marx that the bourgeois revolution that should have overthrown the feudal order was never completed. According to Piatkowski, they were right: the industrial and military elites of interwar Poland never threatened the power of the landowning cast. Market forces are too weak to erode “feudal shackles” as heavy as patriarchy and aristocratic rent-seeking, some of which survived the communist shock therapy. It might be no coincidence that Poland’s most outspoken free market advocate is a monarchist misogynist.

However, and paradoxically, past injustices can be politically beneficial. The absence of these “feudal blessings” as Hirschman characterises them, has deprived the Polish left of its best enemy. In fact, Poland social history is largely forgotten by the current historiography. When I searched ‘Peasants uprising in Poland’ in Google Scholar, most of the articles and books on the topic were all published before 2000. And mainstream history magazines, obsessed by the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and the post war anti-communist resistance are mostly silent about figures like Jakub Szela or Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Quoted by Hirschman, Johann von Goethe praised the United States for having no past to come to term with – although we know today how delusional he was:

America, you’ve got it better
Than our old continent. Exult,
You have no castle in ruins.

Poland has many castles in ruins, but they are all empty.