Poland: A Special Case of Radical Right Mobilizations

©Radek Pietruszka/European Pressphoto Agency

Some weeks ago, Charles A. Kupchan (2018) wrote in the New York Times, that the “Battle Line for Western Values Runs Through Poland”.[1] He argued, that since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s government “has sought to control the news media, purged and politicized the civil service, and intimidated intellectuals and civil society organizations.” So, from the point of view of the research on the radical right, it is important to understand why Poland is a special case of radical right mobilizations – quite different form Western Europe and many of the other Eastern Europe countries.

A general difference between Northern, Western, and Southern Europe on the one hand and Eastern Europe on the other is the role of religion for the radical right: an enlightened concept of politics and society is significantly further from the political culture of Eastern Europe, beyond party-political difference, than it is in other parts of Europe. Eastern European societies are strongly influenced by a mystical and clerical form of Christianity, which manifests itself in a reactionary gender and family image, an aggressive rejection of homosexuality, a Christianized fear of Muslim immigration, and also religious anti-Semitism, all of which dominates the political culture. Right-wing extremist parties are therefore on one hand in a strategically advantageous position because important parts of their worldview are already part of the entire political culture. At the same time, however, they are also at a strategic disadvantage because, for example, an anti-womens policy is hardly a useful criterion for political distinction from other political actors on the right. In the end, this means that right-wing extremist parties are, with a substantial number of their positions, hardly differentiated from the mainstream. They therefore often find themselves unable to profit from distinctive issue positions in elections.

The Eastern European transformation of 1989/1990 changed the attitude of the elites above all others: an opening towards the pro-European West was seen as a guarantee of prosperous national economies. The success that right-wing extremist parties in Eastern European now enjoy is mainly due to the prevailing anti-European, anti-American, and also anti-Semitic sentiment, tied to fear of the consequences of globalization, has become increasingly more important. This is because the socio-economic division within Eastern European societies into pro-Western, pro-European, anti-Western, and anti-European wings goes largely hand-in-hand with the socio-economic division of these societies.

Poland, with its brute-reactionary Catholicism, is surely the most striking example of this -markedly expressed in the relationship between the two parties Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS; Law and Justice) and Liga Polskich Rodzin (LPR; League of Polish Families). Both are Catholic and clerical – positioning themselves against abortions, fighting against homosexuality, and fighting for the patriarchal, nuclear family.[2] While the attitude of PiS against this background is about national sovereignty and they act with a certain distance from the EU, the LPR holds the EU to be a Communist conspiracy and is explicitly hostile to Europe.[3] The LPR is firmly anti-Semitic and anti-American, while the PiS seems to tend towards a pro-American position. The anti-Semitic conspiracy-delusion in the LPR reaches so far that the pro-fascist party assumes that not only “Jews” are behind anti-Polish developments, but also “freemasons.” The comparison of PiS and LPR shows that national context is central if you want to classify them.[4] The Catholic-clerical positioning of the two parties would be unthinkable in other parts of Europe, at least to this degree of radicalism, because it is supported by an anti-Enlightenment fundamentalism with a noticeable distance or direct hostility towards Europe.[5] The resulting picture of nationalist Catholicism in Poland makes it clear that both parties can unquestionably be classified as right-wing extremist. In the Polish context, however, clerical-Catholicism, with its patriarchal, anti-feminist and homophobic worldview, is not counted as part of a right-wing extremist ideology. Instead, these are beliefs held by large sections of the society – which shows how widely fragments of right-wing extremist ideology are anchored in Polish society even though at the same time these recall an anti‑German position during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin. See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] Kupchan, Charles A.: The Battle Line for Western Values Runs Through Poland, in: The New York Times, 10. January 2018.

[2] Shibata, Yasuko: Discrimination for the Sake of the Nation. The Discourse of the League of Polish Families against „Others” 2001–2007, Frankfurt 2013.

[3] Pankowski, Rafał: The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots, London 2010.

[4] Moroska, Aleksandra/Krzysztof Zuba: Two Faces of Polish Populism. The Causes of the Success and Fall of Self Defence and the League of Polish Families, in: Totalitarismus und Demokratie 7 (2010), pp. 123–147.

[5] Lange, Sarah L. de/Simona Guerra: The League of Polish Families between East and West, past and present, in: Communist and Post-Communist Studies 42 (2010), pp. 527–549.