Across much of Europe, the economic crisis and dread of Islamic immigrants has boosted the fortunes of the populist right. In France, the National Front candidate won almost a fifth of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential elections this spring. Parties that preach fear and loathing of cultural tolerance are part of the governing coalition in both the Netherlands and Hungary. But, over the past decade, a cosmopolitan populist movement on the left has been steadily growing in what may seem a rather unlikely place: Poland. Under the modest name of Political Critique (Krytyka Polityczna), the group, which does not yet run its own candidates for office, employs close to 200 paid staffers and boasts at least ten times that many dedicated volunteers in clubs all across the ethnically homogeneous nation of 38 million.
Unlike their counterparts on the right, the members of Krytyka, whose average age is around 30, see no conflict between stoking their intellectual passions and cultivating their political ones. In Warsaw, staffers run a major publishing house and a popular website, edit a lively journal, and operate a hip restaurant and bar with the brash/ironic name of “Brave New World.” Meanwhile, in the coastal city of Gdansk, they campaign to lower jail sentences for drug users. In the depressed industrial center of Lodz, they battle for affordable housing. In Ciesyn, on the Czech border,, they set up a major after-school program for poor children. Several local clubs sponsor “critical universities” that offer free evening lectures given by professors and non-academic writers on subjects ranging from consumer cooperatives and internet rebels to lesbian novels and “animal studies.” On a trip to Poland last month, I met with Krytyka staffers who spoke as knowledgably about performance art, recent documentary films, and post-modern fiction as they did about the dominance of “neoliberal” economics and the persistence of anti-Semitism in their country.
Their political agenda is remarkably eclectic as well. They have no stated platform, but after a week of long conversations, these young Polish leftists made their main concerns clear enough. As cultural rebels, they oppose the state-sanctioned power of the Catholic Church to restrict abortion, require religious instruction in every public school, and deny legal rights to same-sex couples. As democratic socialists, they call for better wages, health care, and housing—and push back against the fetishism of commodities. (There may be as many Starbucks and McDonalds in Warsaw as in Washington, D.C.) Painfully alert to the brutal history of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, they stress the need to teach about the Holocaust and the complicity of some Poles in mass murder—and are establishing sister clubs in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere to transcend the nationalist hostilities that continue to simmer.
Due to this breadth of issues, and the brains and energy of the people articulating them, Krytyka has gained the respect, if not always the support, of prominent older Poles from the worlds of art and politics. Recent events at the Warsaw club featured the film-maker Agnieszka Holland (director of In Darkness and many episodes of The Wire), the playwright Janusz Glowacki (author of Antigone in New York and screenwriter for a forthcoming biopic about Solidarity founder Lech Walesa), and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski. In May, when the Warsaw authorities refused to allow "Brave New World" to move to a new publicly-owned location after Krytyka had won a competition for that purpose, the group quickly got Holland, Kwasniewski, as well former Solidarity leader Adam Michnik, editor of the largest daily in Poland, and other figures from the intelligentsia to protest the decision. It is hard to withhold your sympathy from smart young people who want to change the world.
Yet, changing their own country will be difficult enough. Most Polish voters are wary of anyone who seeks to revive the idea of “socialism,” even if Krytyka has nothing in common with the bumbling, repressive bureaucrats and generals who ran the “People’s Republic” until 1989. And to defy the sway of a Church that has embodied the nation throughout its divided and bloody modern history is an even more quixotic endeavor. Monuments, plaques, and streets named after Pope John Paul II (born Karol Józef Wojtyła and ordained in Cracow) are everywhere and will, no doubt, stay around for a very long time.
In the last national election, held in 2011, the only leftist and mildly secular party—the Democratic Left Alliance—received just 8 percent of the vote. Some supporters of Krytyka have urged its members to launch their party. I hope they resist the impulse. Better to keep developing a rich set of options for the discontented than to stake their future on electoral contests they have no chance of winning.
But these young Polish leftists have already accomplished something their American counterparts have been unable to achieve since the heyday of the feminist movement in the 1970s: They have begun to make cultural and political radicalism seem a pleasurable, intellectually exciting, even moral way to live. Last fall, Slawomir Sierakowski, Krytyka’s charismatic and often self-critical 32-year-old leader, mused: “Perhaps we don’t want to engage, and though we know that it would be better to be an active citizen, the fear of what happened in the twentieth century prevails—so we prefer security and self-preservation.” In at least one corner of Europe, he and his comrades are doing their best to confront that history—and to make some of their own.
Michael Kazin is author, most recently, of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.