Despite freezing temperatures and the raging pandemic, thousands of women, men and LGBTQ+ people continue to protest against the stricter ban on abortion in Poland. A similar attack on women’s reproductive rights was defeated by mass protests in 2016. Now the fight goes into the second round. The protests could serve as a starting point for a strong and broad offensive by the working-class and youth against the right-wing “Law and Justice” (PiS) party government, but the limited outlook of the movement’s leadership needs to be overcome to seize the opportunity.
A wave of mass protests swept across the country after the PiS-dominated Constitutional Court ruled on October 22nd that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional, thus effectively banning the vast majority of pregnancy terminations in Poland. Under the old already tight law, abortions were only exempt from criminal prosecution if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal offence (e.g. rape), if the pregnant woman’s health was in danger or if the foetus showed severe abnormalities. The third case accounts for 98% of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions that are carried out in Poland annually. The new legislation will only serve to drive women further into illegality because it will not change the reality that every year between 80,000 and 200,000 Polish women have abortions illegally or abroad.
The stricter ban justifiably sparked indignation in broad sections of the population. The attack on the reproductive rights of women represents the next step of the right-wing populist PiS government in degrading women back to the role of mother and housewife. The outrage is reflected, among other things, in the popular slogan, “Wypierdalać”, which can be translated as “Fuck off!” It is obvious that the rage of the protesters is directed not only against the new law but also against the policies of the PiS government, in general. Despite severe repression, hundreds of thousands of Poles have been taking part in protests across the country. Around 100,000 protestors took to the streets on October 30th in Warsaw, making the demonstration one of the largest demonstrations in the capital since the collapse of Stalinism.
The state’s response to the movement has been severe repression with police forces brutalizing peaceful protestors by tear gassing them, pressing them to the ground or beating them with batons. In a desperate attempt to squash resistance, the PiS government also resorted to state harassment and arrests. In November, a case hit the headlines in which police stormed the home of a 14-year-boy for sharing a call for a protest walk on Facebook. The police arrested the teenager threatening him with a sentence of up to eight years in prison on the charge of organizing illegal gatherings. But it is precisely the almost absurd level of repression by the state that is a tell-tale sign of the fundamental weakness of the PiS government that is fuelling its fear of mass protests and resistance.
The Power of the PiS
Despite its chauvinist policies, the radical right-wing PiS party continues to enjoy the support of large sections of Polish society. The PiS came to power in 2015 after the previous neoliberal Civic Platform (PO) government provoked fierce resentment with its attack on the pension insurance scheme. With its promises of improving social welfare by, among other things, withdrawing the pension “reform”, the PiS was able to win the support from broad layers. The PiS is the first party to form a government with an absolute majority since the collapse of Stalinism in Poland. Then something occurred that came as quite a surprise to many Polish people: The PiS actually did what it had promised. The age of retirement was lowered, a child benefit of 500 Zlotys (around 110 Euros) was introduced and the minimum wage was increased, thus making the PiS government the first Polish government since 1989 to keep – at least in part – its election promises.
However, it would be a huge mistake to harbour any illusions about the true nature of the PiS. The PiS did not implement these social welfare measures because it is a “social” party. On the contrary, during its prior government from 2005 to 2007, it proved numerous times that it is a party to the banks and corporations. The social welfare measures of the current PiS government are concessions to the Polish working class. To stay in power, the PiS uses a mix of social welfare reforms, nationalism, repression and division. The agitation against LGBTQ+ people and the polarization of the political debate around cultural issues play an important role in distracting from the inability of the PiS government to solve pressing social and economic problems. Furthermore, the PiS has strong ties to the powerful Catholic Church and, unfortunately, it can also count on the support of the formerly militant, but religious and nationalist trade union Solidarność.
The lack of a mass left alternative
The fact that the PiS has been able to maintain its support for such a long time is mainly due to the weakness of the opposition and, in particular, the lack of a militant, left-wing alternative. The only party that can be described as left in Poland is the Razem (“Together”) party, founded in 2015. Razem joined the electoral alliance, Lewica (“The Left”), which, aside from Razem, consists of the ex-Stalinist, social democratic, SLD, which has been utterly discredited by its years of government politics against the interests of the working class, and the left-wing liberal party Wiosna (“Spring”).
The electoral alliance completely fails to offer a genuine alternative to the PiS regime. Instead of recognizing the needs of Polish workers and linking them to the fight against discrimination, Lewica only echoes the empty phrases of the liberals who appeal to abstract civil rights. Lewica’s strategy of identity politics leads to the polarization of debates by focusing on the wrong questions. This is precisely why the PiS can continue to posture as the representation of the “little people” and families.
Many people do not vote for the PiS primarily because they agree with its repressive, anti-democratic or sexist views, but because they fear that the social welfare measures will be repealed should the PiS be voted out of office. This also explains why protests against the anti-democratic measures carried out by the PiS shortly after it came into office remained largely isolated, despite the majority of Poles rejecting them. Many feared that the protests would weaken the PiS government and thus potentially pave the way for a return of the liberal parties.
For many Poles, social benefits such as child benefit are indispensable, simply because their economic survival depends on them. Since the restoration of capitalism in Poland, the masses have been relegated to abject poverty. Forty per cent of Poles live below the “social minimum”. The median income is 913 Euros gross (as of the end of 2018) – with a cost of living similar to that in Germany. This shows how important a left, militant and socialist opposition is, which addresses the social question and offers an alternative to the agitation and divisive politics of the right. A policy of a so-called left that tries to ingratiate itself with the liberal and bourgeois forces will only result in many workers turning their backs on it and that they will end up being lured into supporting the PiS instead.
The limitation of the movement
Unfortunately, the movement against the stricter ban on abortion does not correct the mistakes of the opposition. Although its demands sound radical, it is largely limited by only calling for the legalization of abortions and the independence of the judiciary. The right to abortion is a militant demand, but it fails to address wider social problems and it ignores the fact that poverty, precarious work etc. raise the question for many people: “Can I even afford having a child?” While the legalization of abortion is an attractive demand to many, and would certainly be a huge improvement, it is not a solution to the social plight of Polish workers, retirees, youth and children. At the moment, many Poles are probably asking themselves: “What will come after the PiS government?” And “Will I continue to receive my child benefit?”
This ignorance regarding the concerns of the working class is reinforced by the fact that there have been no attempts to establish democratic structures or discussions in the movement. Instead, an “advisory council” has been appointed, which includes the movement’s prominent figures, a number of “experts” and people with “experience in democratic opposition”, that is, liberal politicians. The council is to develop proposals on a total of 13 topics, including LGBTQ+ emancipation, the labour market and education. The inclusion of more social issues is a step in the right direction, but the council is largely disconnected from the activist layer and its first publications were met with heavy criticism. The appointment of the council and its composition indicate that the movement’s leadership is unaware of how further mobilizations could lead to success and that instead, it plans on taking the parliamentary route. This is devastating because by doing so the top of the movement is willingly handing the future of Polish women over into the hands of the same politicians who a few years ago raised the retirement age for them by seven years and who are responsible for their current situation.
The need for militant action
The mass protests against the tightening of the abortion laws have clearly shown that the Poles are not willing to put up with everything coming from the PiS government. On the contrary, many of the government’s actions are creating deep dissatisfaction. The mass movement could serve as the starting point for a broad left offensive. However, due to the weakness and lack of planning of the movement’s leaders, this opportunity will probably go to waste. In order for the movement to become stronger and more successful, it is necessary to involve broad layers of the working class in the struggle. To achieve this, a programme that appeals to the interests of workers must be discussed.
Democratic structures need to be established where broad discussions about goals, strategies and modes of action can take place. The demand for the right to free abortions without state interference should be central. However, it must be made clear that even if abortion is legalized, there will still be no freedom of choice for many Polish women as to whether or not they can have children. To this end, further demands must be made that aim at improving the living conditions of workers, pensioners, young people and children. Therefore, social issues also need to be included on the agenda. By linking social and cultural issues as part of a socialist programme in the interest of the working class, the division between cultural and social questions could be overcome. Such a programme would also succeed in depriving the right-wing PiS of its base.