Cultural change in Poland. The end of conservative consensus or a fascist future?

Text: Tadeusz Koczanowicz

Comments that appeared in the public sphere after the autumn elections in Poland didn’t take into account an important cultural dimension of the elections. The same can be said about the articles on the upcoming presidential elections in May 2020. People writing about Polish politics seem to look only at surveys or analyze performances of the candidates. No one asks: what kind of Poland do they stand for, and for what kind of Polish culture? By which I mean: what ways of life present in Polish society do candidates stand for? This kind of question may sound naive, but it’s really a question about the long-term consequences of the elections and current transformations in Polish society and will determine the way Poland will go in future.

By “cultural changes”, “ways of life”, “transformations in the society” I don’t mean what’s usually referred to within the Polish context, which is the conflict between the authoritarian far – right government and the pro – European center – right opposition. Although this is still the main clash on the emotional level and real political level, Law and Justice and the main forces of the opposition stand for a similar vision of Polish culture.

Of course, while the ruling party has an authoritarian idea of the Polish state and the EU as a loose Confederation, the conservative-liberal opposition stands strongly for democratic limits on power, the rule of law, and to some extent, human rights and a united Europe, the two sides both emerge from the dominant discourse of the Polish right and liberal right in the last thirty years — the same ideology with a more democratic or authoritarian face.

This ideology is based on the belief that Polish society is predominantly conservative and Catholic and widely share the vision of family, values, and Polish identity that is presented by the majority of the Polish Catholic Church. Anyone who wants to question it is confronted with statistics showing that over 90% of Poles are baptized[1] and around 40% of these regularly attend masses[2].

This belief is also deeply rooted in the the historical role of the Polish Catholic Church in the overthrowing of communist rule. Both the ruling party and the main opposition party have roots in movements in the right – wing of the anticommunist opposition movements and in the right-wing and centrist parties that emerged from it. Most of the older members of the ruling party and the main opposition party with longer experience in politics were at some point in coalition governments or even in the same parties. This fact makes the disputes over whether democracy is only free elections (as the ruling party seems to think) more dramatic, because a lot of the older leaders of the two parties had fought for it, but also leaves the basic premise that most Poles are conservative Catholics who follow the line of the church untouched. According to this framework, anyone who doesn’t fit this narrative should cope with it and follow the majority, not the other way around.

This belief has wide-ranging consequences in establishing unnegotiable ideas in Polish political life, such as the ban on abortion with three exceptions (when there is irreversible damage to the fetus, when the pregnancy causes a threat to the mother’s health, or when pregnancy is the consequence of rape or incest), the prohibition of any form of civil partnerships or marriages for same-sex couples, and religious education in public schools. Many of these are acknowledged in the Polish Constitution, which was approved in 1997 as a compromise among the post-communist social democrats, the Polish Peoples Party, and conservative liberals. Trying to change the paradigm around these issues is often seen as starting a useless war that is doomed to be lost.


Specters of Marx

In this sense the Catholic Church as an institution is an important or even the most important player in Polish political life, producing its own ideology which often doesn’t have much in common with the discourse of the Vatican. The Polish Catholic Church is an autonomous institution with its own agenda, assets, various organizations linked to it, and powerful media. This position, which is connected with the symbolic role it inherited from the times of opposition to communist rule, led to the homogenization of discourse and marginalization of critical voices within the Church. There are still more progressive Catholic organizations and media that try to speak out against the cynicism of the institution or stand for a more liberal line. They are ignored and are much less influential in the Church as an institution than they were during the communist era, when such organizations and people created platforms for exchanging ideas between the leftist opposition and Church. This helped make Solidarity a massive opposition movement uniting various groups and ideas.

Today, the Church as an institution is well-established in Polish public life and has a coherent message, which is clear to those who seek its support.

“The red plague no longer walks the earth, but a new neo-Marxist one has appeared that wants to master our souls, hearts and minds. Not a red one, but a rainbow one,” the Archbishop of Kraków said during a mass commemorating the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising[3]. His words caused several protests, including from the organization uniting veterans of the uprising. The negative response was not surprising in light of the archbishop’s abuse of position, place, and anniversary in order to use hate speech.

The specter of neo-Marxism – cultural Marxism that is endangering family and preparing a new communism – is very popular in the discourse of media connected with the Polish Catholic Church. It can refer to any progressive or moderate ideas, like lgbtq+ rights, women’s rights, laws against domestic violence or just to publications showing the attitude of the institution towards pedophilia and harassment committed by priests.

It frames everything that seems to threaten the fantasy of an “eternal traditional Polish-Catholic community” as an evil external danger that can only lead to subordination to foreign totalitarian rule. The danger is not only political but also spiritual: in recent years Poland has been the country with the fastest growing number of exorcists, in response to growing number of people claiming to be possessed[4]. Now the number of exorcists is the second highest in Europe after Italy. Religious zealots and right-wing journalists have been very successful in consistently implementing a discourse of Poland as one of the last fortresses in a holy war.

Of course, there are disagreements about how far this discourse should be taken. The ruling party has usually followed the ideas of the most radical circles around the Church, inspired by evangelical Christians from the USA, while the liberal-conservatives are simply very careful not to undermine the role of the church. The politicians of both parties would probably reject such a comparison, pointing to huge differences in their approaches and ideas. They may differ in the way they want the state to function, but they agree on the church’s central role in public life. But is their ideology based on a realistic picture of contemporary Poland?


Secularization and the youth vote

According to the Pew Research Center, Poland is the fastest-secularizing country in the world: 55% of Poles over forty declare to attend Mass, while this is true for only 26% of younger Poles. A similar difference can be seen in reference to the importance of religion in life: 40% of Poles over forty say that religion is very important for them compared to only 16% among the younger generation. In other words, the younger cohort of the Polish population is no more religious than the same generation in Western Europe[5], which is still portrayed in the right-wing press connected to the Church as a negative example and a warning for Poland.

If we combine these statistics with surveys conducted before the last elections, we can identify a trend. Law and Justice had over 50% support among people over fifty, but only 26% among people younger than thirty. The liberal-conservative opposition had similar support in all age groups (around 25%), with a small increase among people between 30 – 49. The Confederation had the greatest support (around 20%) among people between 18 and 29 and little support in older groups of voters. The Left also had the most support in the youngest group (around 18%) and more or less 10% in all age groups. The Polish People’s Party had the same support (around 10%) in all age groups[6].

What changed from the last elections is the doubling of votes for parties comprising the United Left among the youngest group of voters and a similar increase in support for the Polish People’s Party in the same group, which can be attributed to the rock musician who joined forces with the party. Although the majority of Polish youth still vote conservative, this survey can indicate that people who voted for the first time or didn’t vote before were likely to vote for the left. These changes are not revolutionary, but they are significant. Of course, we have to consider other factors that strongly influence political support, like region, income, and education, but these results can still suggest a cultural change. What I mean by “cultural change” is complex and probably would need much more research, but I think that its main consequence for now is the beginning of the end of Polish right and conservative liberalism in the form it acquired in the ‘90s, which completely dominated Polish political life after the decay of post-communist Social Democrats in the early 2000s.


New visions on the left and right

Of course, Law and Justice’s attempts to weaken and dominate democratic institutions in the last term were outrageous. But its idea of the Polish route to a welfare state (which is presented by the party’s leaders as its main success) could just as easily have been proposed at some point by the leaders of the conservative-liberal opposition, because it’s not based on an idea of changing the system but rather on attempts to correct it by introducing some welfare programs. Although Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has questioned the model of capitalism introduced in Poland after the fall of communism and even referred to Piketty, his party has not done a lot to change it. Recent research conducted by Paweł Bukowski from the London School of Economics and Filip Novokmet from the University of Bonn and Paris School of Economics has shown that Poland has a very high level of inequality, comparable to Germany or Great Britain and higher than in nearby countries such as the Czech Republic or Hungary. This was hidden in previous research due to inaccurate calculation of the Gini coefficient for Poland, as a result of which inequality appeared to be on a level similar to Denmark[7]. The first Law and Justice government that ruled Poland between 2005 and 2007 and the conservative – liberal opposition government that was in power till 2015 has not changed much. Therefore, I would say that with some differences that may emerge from new approaches to macroeconomies in the world or the need for a new rhetoric, the Law and Justice and conservative – liberal opposition also agree on the basic economic system in Poland and are not interested in changing its rules.

Shared assumptions about economic policy and the Church’s leading role in public life, introduced as an alternative to the more moderate liberal discourse that dominated Polish debate in the early ‘90s, once had many advocates. These politicians are now much older; many of them are reaching the age of retirement, and they haven’t prepared interesting successors. Most of the younger politicians of Law and Justice and the conservative – liberal opposition seem to be careerists who care more about landing a comfortable ministerial position than crafting a vision of a better future. Their main activity is repeating journalistic clichés about their political enemies in front of the camera in the hope that the leaders will appreciate it.

The most interesting politicians are a group of politicians who are gathered in a left coalition, which came back to Polish parliament as a new force. After being absent in the last term, it has now managed to unite the post-communist social democrats, the center-left party led by LGBTQ+ rights activist and a former mayor of Słupsk Robert Biedroń and new left. Most of the politicians elected from this club who became leaders were active for years in feminist, environmental, labor and leftist movements. They speak with conviction and propose a different vision of Poland as a more equal country where the Church wouldn’t play a special political role, but simply serve as a religious institution. They are also open about being socialists. It’s interesting that the right-wing press doesn’t know how to react to them: if before it always wanted to discredit the liberal-conservative opposition by trying to prove it’s really a leftist or progressive party pretending to be conservative, this argument is no longer valid.

Some journalists from the older generation who are still devoted to neoliberalism and write for the liberal press also have a problem with the new left, as these writers have attacked the social programs introduced by Law and Justice from neoliberal positions. Now some outlets accuse the new left and the left in general of allying with Kaczyński in introducing a system that will lead to the downfall of the Polish economy. Nevertheless, representants of the leftist coalition don’t seem to care because they have nothing to lose, and openly stand for ideas that have not been widely present in Polish parliamentary debate for years. This gives them an effect of freshness as well as a good position to criticize other parties and reveal the status quo that has framed Polish politics. Still, this doesn’t mean they will find supporters among all those who vote for other parties, especially since some research shows that most Law and Justice voters think that the Church has an excessively strong influence on Polish politics, but vote for the party that secures it, because they believe the party’s rhetoric that it is closer to normal people.

There is another fresh force gathering support: the Confederation. Its ideology is fascist and therefore also a form of alternative to Law and Justice and the conservative – liberal opposition. The party is probably appealing to some younger voters who are tired of the status quo, or shaped by it to an extent that the only form of questioning it is supporting a party that brings right-wing ideas to their most radical point, a caricature. Maybe they are taken by its radical xenophobia, hate speech, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism that goes beyond what even Law and Justice politicians are capable of? Their support may have grown from the cult of so- called “doomed soldiers,” which was strongly supported by Law and Justice and the conservative-liberal opposition. This journalistic term can be used to refer to anybody who fought or was arrested during Stalinist times in Poland, and therefore encompasses both heroes and murderers. The point of putting them together is to create a picture of an eternal pure Polish nation, which can replace the picture of an eternal Catholic community in the imagination of young boys (the voters of Confederation are mostly young men). The party’s politicians also strongly oppose the EU, a stance that is still very unpopular among Polish voters.


A different Poland?

Growing support for these two forces suggests that some people (especially the younger generation) are tired of the consensus of right – wing and liberal – conservatives and want something else, a different Poland. The party that offers the most coherent new vision for the Polish state is in my opinion the united left. It has a program for people who grew up in capitalism that is focused on structural solutions for problems of the labor market such as fighting with so called “flexible forms of employment” which are a real plague in Poland and basically mean no rights for low – paid workers and avoiding taxes for high – paid employees. Their more distanced attitude to the Church also reflects young Poles’ rising secularism. The leftist coalition also stands strongly for LGBTQ+ rights and criticizes the “LGBT free zones” that have been implemented by regional authorities around Poland, which sound like a step to dividing citizens into categories. Therefore, they articulate the most holistic response to cultural change.

Of course, the rising wave of fascist and radical conservative movements around Europe – like the Tories led by Johnson in England, the National Front in France, Alternative for Germany, or SVP in Switzerland – could also hit Poland even more strongly than it did with the authoritarian and far-right government the country has now. The Confederation, alone or in coalition, could initiate a next step in the cultural change that the two right-wing and center-right parties started in the early 2000s. This would mean pushing the country out of the EU and resigning from everything the country had achieved in the last decades.

However, the only real change can come from the left, which has been offering alternatives not seen since the early 90’s. This might be the only way for Poland to overcome its peripheral cultural and economic position and escape both the authoritarian model that it is moving towards under the rule of Jarosław Kaczyński and the fascist model proposed by the Confederation. Because the left offers the best chance to fulfill the needs of the society that Poland is becoming.