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Labour Focus 66

from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 66, 2000.

Urszula Lugowska

The Polish Socialist Party and the Radical Left in Poland

The electoral coalition, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) recently transformed itself into a party with hopes of winning the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Polish Socialist Party (PPS), for many years a member of this left-wing electoral alliance, hung on to its independence, developed its own more radical discourse and is now presenting itself as an alternative to the SLD.  The radical left as well is making its presence felt in Poland as the election approaches.
In the 1990s, there were two currents in the Polish parliamentary left. One of these currents was the SLD (Soyusz Lewicy Demokratyczne), the political core of which was the social democratic party of the ex-Communists, the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (Socjaldemokracja Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej - SdRP). The SLD was in government between 1993 and 1997. The SLD candidate, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was elected president in 1995. In December 1999 this electoral alliance became a political party. Opinion polls suggest that the SLD stands a good chance of winning the next election. It currently has the support of around 30 per cent of the electorate.
The other current, with its background in Solidarity, was the social democratic Union of Labour (Unia Pracy -UP). In the 1997 election Unia Pracy won only 4.7 per cent of the vote and, because of the 5-per-cent hurdle, didn't gain any seats in parliament. This electoral set-back severely weakened the UP which, up to then, had 41 seats in the Polish parliament. After 1997, the future of  Unia Pracy seemed very uncertain.
The Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna - PPS) was a bridge between both these currents. In 1991 the PPS went into the elections in a coalition with Unia Pracy which, at that time, was known as Labour Solidarity (Solidarnosc Pracy), but failed to win any seats. In the elections of 1993 and 1997, the PPS entered the electoral alliance SLD and won seats. In the recent period there has been a noticeable radicalisation of the PPS, adding a new quality to the Polish political scenario.  Recent statements from the party leader, Piotr Ikonowicz, suggest that he wants to position the PPS as a left alternative to the SLD.

Something new on the Polish left
Following the May events in Warsaw, Ikonowicz was openly critical of the political and social situation in Poland. His criticism was directed not just against the right-wing governing coalition but also against the main opposition party, the SLD. Ikonowicz accused the SLD of betraying the interests of the working class by defending the same neo-liberal policies as the conservative government. None of the governments that had been in power since 1989, including the SLD government, had governed in the interests of the working population but in the interests of capital. Ikonowicz proclaimed that his party would stand alone in the next election, not entering into coalition with any other party. In his speech, Ikonowicz frequently directed his attack at the capitalist system itself and this is indeed something new in Polish politics; since 1989 no Polish politician has taken a public stand against capitalism.
These statements from Ikonowicz have awakened media interest in the PPS and in the whole radical left scene in Poland. The leaders of the SLD, who have been confidently awaiting victory in next year's election, have been somewhat irritated by Ikonowicz's remarks because they open up the possibility of a split in the left vote and the creation of a left alternative to the neo-liberal course of the SLD. Izabella Sierakowska, a member of the SLD presidium, expressed the concern of the party leadership:
"I am certain that the left will go into the elections united. I am concerned about this statement of Piotr Ikonowicz that the PPS will stand alone in the election. If the left wants to win this election, for the wellbeing of the people and in the interests of progress in our country, then it has to stand united: the PPS, SLD, UP, PeiR [Partia Emerytów i Rencistow - Pensioners Party], RLP [Ruch Ludzi Pracy - Movement of Working People]. I am confident that our leadership bodies will be united. We can't waste a single left vote. We on the left shouldn't campaign against each other. It is only by standing together that we can achieve a lot." (Trybuna, 2/3 May 2000)
For a close observer of Polish politics, this project of the PPS to go it alone in the elections will come as no surprise. The media as well as conservative politicians have always portrayed Ikonowicz as the representative of the most radical wing of the SLD. At the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Ikonowicz tried to persuade the SLD to condemn the NATO attack. Having failed in this attempt, he then collected the signatures of 119 MPs from the SLD and the PSL (Polish Peasant Party) calling for a "limited truce", an initiative that met with little enthusiasm from the SLD leadership.
At the time of the debate over re-privatisation (the return to private ownership of estates nationalised after the Second World War), he was the only politician to argue for a more limited privatisation. In his statement to Parliament in October 1999, he declared that "the majority of the people can not be made to pay compensation to a minority whose only distinctive characteristic was the fact that they enjoyed the privileges of private ownership in the previous system and only in this respect were affected by Communism". An MP from the governing AWS coalition, Marcin Libicki, responded with the comment that Ikonowicz spoke about the previous property owners with the language of Stalinist propaganda from the 1950s (Rzeczpospolita, 7 Oct 1999).
Piotr Ikonowicz  was strongly opposed to the transformation of the SLD into a party.  His main reasons for opposing this move, in spite of appearances to the contrary, have little to do with political differences between his party and the previous SdRP. In reality, these differences are not so great. Ikonowicz's recent anti-capitalist statements need to be seen more as a tactical manoeuvre, especially in the light of his strong support for Polish entry into the EU on the grounds that the EU would fulfil socialist ideals. His hostility to NATO is also not so total: at the time of the vote on Polish entry, Ikonowicz abstained while the majority of PPS MPs voted in favour. The only MPs to vote against were from the far right.
The real issue at stake here is whether a dissolution of the PPS and its integration into the partia SLD would have the effect of marginalising Ikonowicz. The structure of the old SLD electoral coalition allowed the small parties to play an important role. Ikonowicz was a member of the SLP presidium, for instance. In the new partia SLD, this may  no longer be possible.
There is also the fact that the PPS has a long political tradition. It has existed since 1893. This has some advantages and it is something that Ikonowicz doesn't want to lose. The leadership of the new partia SLD, especially Leszek Miller, has very little interest in an electoral coalition with an independent PPS. The reason for this has to do with how the SLD sees its own future as a party in government: at the moment, it appears to be preparing for a coalition with the liberal Union of Freedom (UW) and it doesn't want to antagonise its future coalition partner with the radical rhetoric of Ikonowicz.

Who is the PPS?
Before the Second World War, the PPS was the biggest workers' party in Poland. In December 1948, in accordance with Soviet plans, it was merged with the Polish Communist Party (Polska Partia Robotnicza - PRP) to form the Polish United Workers Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza - PZPR). The PPS continued to exist in exile, its headquarters in London.  In 1987, the left wing of Solidarity (still illegal) decided to rebuild the PPS. Internal differences, however, soon led to a split. The (moderate) PPS was led by Józef Lipinski. The PPS - Democratic Revolution (PPS - Rewolucja Demokratyczna  PPS-RD) was led by two people - the charismatic Solidarity leader from Lower Silesia, Jozef Pinior, and the less well known Piotr Ikonowicz from Warsaw. 1  The PPS-RD was denounced as ultra-left and "Trotskyist". Ikonowicz had translated a number of Trotskyist works into Polish, for instance, some of the writings of Ernest Mandel, and had taken part in a number of Trotskyist conferences.
In reality, the PPS-RD was a broad left organisation, with a number of different currents - social democrats, pacifists, libertarian trade unionists and Trotskyists. This was the period in which a large number of political parties were being formed in Poland and party programmes were still rather loosely formulated. In general, the programmatic vision of the PPS-RD was based on its principle of self-management.
In 1989, the PPS led by Lipsky supported the Round Table Agreement between the government and opposition. In return, Lipsky was guaranteed a seat in the new parliament to be elected on 4 June 1989. The PPS-RD opposed the Round Table Agreement and questioned the democratic character of the coming election - only 35 per cent of members in the Polish parliament could be freely elected in that first election [65 per cent of seats in the Sejm, the lower chamber, were reserved for the Communist Party. ed]. The PPS-RD also demanded that the Communist nomenklatura be called to account for its actions. It accused the Solidarity leadership of doing a deal with the nomenklatura in order to share in power and of betraying the Polish working class. The PPS-RD strategy of building a political alliance in opposition to the Round Table Agreement failed and the party was considerably weakened by these events.
The London-based PPS, led by a veteran of the socialist movement, Lidia Ciolkoszowa, proposed a fusion of the two wings of the party which would exclude the most radical members of PPS-RD. This then happened: the Trotskyists around Jozef Pinior were expelled in 1990 and PPS and PPS-RD were re-united under Jozef Lipsky. When Lipsky died in September 1991, Piotr Ikonowicz was elected as new party leader.
The radical left expelled from the PPS-RD regrouped themselves in two organisations: the Socialist Political Centre (Socjalistyczny Osrodek Polityczny - SOP) in Wroclaw (Józef Pinior) and the Revolutionary Left Current (Nurt Lewicy Rewolucyjnej - NLR) in Warsaw, Katowice and Kielce. The SOP was never very active; Pinior dedicated himself to academic research and later became a member of the leadership of the Union of Labour (UP).  The NLR went on to become the most prominent group on the Polish radical left in the 1990s.
The PPS, although it entered parliament, remained on the margins of political life in Poland. The left electorate was drawn either to the SdRP or later to the Union of Labour.  Following the electoral debacle of 1991, the PPS decided to end its critical opposition to the post-Communist SLD and became a partner in the coalition. Following the 1993 elections which brought the SLD to power, the PPS was given three seats in the lower house. In 1994, however, the PPS disagreed with the SLD budget and left the coalition.  For the 1997 election, the PPS again joined the SLD coalition and was given five seats in  both chambers of parliament - the Senate and the Sejm.
In June 2000 the PPS  presidium decided that Piotr Ikonowicz should stand in the presidential elections in the autumn. Twenty-five members of the presidium voted for this, ten voted against and wanted the PPS to support the SLD candidate, Aleksander Kwasniewski. The SLD condemned the Ikonowicz candidacy as an attempt to split the left but it will, no doubt, promote the image of the PPS as a left alternative to the SLD.
In analysing this decision of the PPS to stand independently against the SLD, there are four factors that have to be borne in mind. Firstly, there is the desire of the PPS to change its image. Secondly, the impoverishment of a large part of Polish society could generate support for a new anti-capitalist politics. According to recent statistics, over 51 per cent of the polish population live below the poverty line.  Unemployment is officially 13.9 per cent. In a recent poll organised by the polling institute, OBOP, 56 per cent  described the "Gierek years" [Gierek was Communist Party leader 1971-1980] as "the best years of their life", which was probably why they voted for the SLD as successor party of the old CP and not for the less well known PPS. Thirdly, it is impossible, on the basis of the last election, to estimate the level of support for the PPS because it was part of the SLD coalition. Finally, the party has a very small membership; official party figures put the membership at 7,000. Many of the PPS elected representatives in local government are now joining the SLD.  Local politicians often prefer to be in a party that has some prospect of control over the levers of power.

The PPS youth organisation
The idea for a change of strategy came from the youth organisation of the party (Organizacja Mlodziezowa - OM) which has always had a more radical rhetoric than the PPS itself. Its radicalism consists mainly in the use of the more revolutionary symbolism of Western youth organisations - they carry posters of Che Guevara and chant slogans such as "Ho Chi Min" or "Down with the Cuba blockade" on demonstrations.  They threw a stink bomb at the AWS MP, Michal Kaminski, when the latter left for London in early 1999 to pay a visit to the Chilean ex-dictator, General Pinochet.  In their newspaper, Che, they write in the style of the Communist Manifesto: "It is essential that all communist and socialist forces should co-operate in striving for an alternative to bourgeois society, for a society in which the free development of each individual is a precondition for the free development of all." "All communist and socialist voices in our land must be raised in support for the revolutionary Cuba of Fidel Castro and for all of those who are struggling for equality and social justice". (Che, 3/1998)
When these quotes from Che were printed in the weekly newspaper, Wprost, in May 1999, the then leader of the youth organisation, Maciej Rebacz, declared that the true models for the PPS were Blair, Schröder and D'Alema, while Che Guevara could be a model only for Third World countries. (Wprost, 27/1999)

Radical left currents
The anti-capitalist left in Poland is overwhelmingly Trotskyist. The Stalinist-influenced Union of Communist Proletarians (Zwiazek Komunistów Proletariat), created after the dissolution of the Communist Party (PZPR), never had much influence. It has a few hundred members, mostly pensioners. This group was part of SLD for a number of years, which exposed the SLD to strong attacks from the right. It left the SLD in 1997 when Article 13 of the new Polish constitution prohibited parties and organisations that supported totalitarian systems such as National Socialism, Fascism or Communism. In spite of initial fears on the left, this article has so far not been used against left parties.
The most serious organisation on the anti-capitalist left is the previously mentioned Revolutionary Left Current (NLR). The NLR was created in 1987 as part of the PPS-RD and was linked with the Fourth International (United Secretariat), with headquarters in Paris. It is a small and rather orthodox Trotskyist grouping which includes among its members such legendary figures of the Polish left as Professor Ludwik Haas. Hass, born in 1918, has been a Trotskyist since the age of 20. He spent 17 years in Soviet labour camps and two years in prison in Poland in the 1960s.
The NLR publishes a quarterly journal, Dalej! (Forwards), the most serious publication on the Polish radical left. It was first published in 1991. The writers in Dalej! are very critical of the situation in Poland, which they regard as not truly democratic.
The IMF imposed on Poland a destructive economic programme and  a exploitative labour relations policy. The government coalition, with the agreement of all its parties, has blindly accepted the dictates of the IMF. Behind the veneer of democracy, Poland is a dictatorship of capital and clergy. It is, moreover, the most parasitic and most speculative form of capital and the most reactionary wing of the clergy. (Dalej! 13/1993)
The NLR press also informs its readers on the international situation, on successes of the left in the West (France, Poland), resistance movements in Latin America, the role of the media in the Balkan war, etc. These are subjects about which very little is known in Poland. The group has also published many Trotskyist works that were censored during the Communist period.
The NLR has an extremely critical attitude towards the PPS and will not support the party in next year's election.
Ikonowicz likes to criticise the SLD but, in reality, the only difference between him and Miller is at the level of rhetoric. Of course, Ikonowicz would also like to be party leader. (Dalej! 28/2000)

The PPS is portrayed by the Polish media as a radical left-wing party but, in reality, the radical rhetoric of the PPS is merely a device to differentiate itself from the social democratic SLD. At the propaganda level, both parties are moving further away from each other, especially since the SLD is involved in a process of de-ideologisation similar to what is happening in Blair's Labour Party and Schröder's SPD. Nonetheless, the public positions being taken by Ikonowicz have brought a new quality into Polish political life - the re-emergence of a left-wing anti-capitalist discourse.

This is a slightly shortened version of an article that appeared as "Die PPS und die radikale Linke" in the Austrian quarterly, Ost-West Gegeninformationen, Sept. 2000. The translation is by Gus Fagan.