Ukraine war and the left: We need a discussion, not censorship

It’s the XXI century, we have most crucial things to achieve together – but we cannot even discuss the war crisis we are in now. How can we work on much more complex issues, if some of us do not even want to have a real debate?  How are we presenting ourselves in the eyes of decision-making elites? Are they more vigilant now, aware that a social-oriented left can pose a challenge to them – or relaxed seeing this farce of unity and discussion?

Comment by Wojciech Łobodziński

Position of the Polish, more broadly speaking, Central-European left-wing forces on the conflict in Ukraine for some might be uncanny. It is not easy for Western left-wing activists to watch the enthusiasm for NATO and to hear calls for more arms for Ukraine -yet, knowing the history of the region allows to understand the background of such a position. And the war, with its chaos and constantly developing events, is not making the debate easier.

In fact, the debate is hardly taking place. And I need to say that: there are also some limits after which disapproval becomes censorship, provoking hatred between international comrades. Needless to say, this is absolutely counter-productive: if we do not discuss issues from our diverse viewpoints, how can we work together for a better world?

When I write these words, Poland is becoming again a multinational country. History has made a circle, as we say in Poland: after nearly 77 years of undisturbed monoethnicity, Poland welcomes 4 millions of Ukrainians, in addition to other already existing national minorities and a numerous Belarussian diaspora. The Ukrainians bring with them their private experiences, beliefs and also political militancy. This, too, is becoming a part of social life in Poland. Hence the recent incident at the cemetery of the Soviet soldiers on 9 May, when a Ukrainian activist threw red paint on the ambassador of the Russian Federation.

Shock of the war and the developing, gigantic migration crisis have changed everything in Poland, from daily life to perceiving the world, politics and visions of the upcoming future. All those factors have also influenced left-wing politicians, activists, sympathizers and voters. They all had a second thought on the approach to foreign politics and the role of the Polish army and state. Often, their views have drastically changed. This also includes the reception of NATO and USA among Polish society.

The deeply rooted russophobia of Polish society – a result of more than hundred years of  Russian occupation of a part of ethnic Polish territory and Russia’s complete disrespect to the sovereignty of Central-European nations – was always aimed at Russian ruling classes. Ordinary Russians are not like Putin, Poles were often heard saying even months before the war. Not any longer: the invasion of Ukraine, the russophobic sentiment became a kind of  war cry. Facing real war victims (and hosting them in private homes, as the government refused to organise big refugee centres), bombarded with frontline news and pictures of war crimes from Bucha and Mariupol, absorbing the mainstream media rants about atomic bombs and also a certain amount of Ukrainian war propaganda – Polish people have processed the whole situation into hostility toward Russia and Russians. All Russians, even though some media outlets reported on anti-war protests in Russia, thus hinting that Putin’s war may not be enthusiastically supported by all his compatriots.  

My personal game changer was the moment when I witnessed a burst of ecstatic hate speech toward Pope Francis after his interview for Corriere della Sera, in Polish social media. He was painted as a russophile, Putin’s agent and crony. The meaning of his interview was not reported accurately, let alone commented with respect to his motivations and background. Instead, journalists and ordinary users created memes and reacted with joy to the news that the pope had to move on wheelchair.  It is the punishment for being pro-fascist, they said. 

Polish elites, who have complete monopoly over Polish media, have also been humiliatingly pro-American and pro-NATO – long before this crisis. As a result, we have no chance for a real debate over the war and geopolitical shifts. Frankly, we never had a chance. We even did not discuss Russian plans concerning Ukraine: did Moscow want to subjugate Kyiv and stop there, or did it have a wider plan?

Even now, when we seem to be facing the threat of worldwide military conflict, we do not discuss the dangers and possible outcomes seriously. 

Yes, the left in Poland and other Central-European countries has serious grounds to take a pro-NATO stance. Our history is a powerful factor: it is not the first time we are facing Great Russian imperialism, whose aim has always been to enter Europe – with no regard to the nations living between Moscow and Berlin (sometimes in cooperation with the latter). Putin’s stance on NATO membership or UE dreams of post-Soviet countries is based on the old imagery of Russian imperialism, where there has never been any place for respect of our sovereignty. We know it from Georgia, Chechnya and now we see it in Ukraine. In fact, both Polish and Ukrainian history, since the beginning of 19th century, contains many pages of fighting against Russian imperialism and nationalism, including resistance to forced Russification.

The Valuev Circular of 1863. This decree of Russian Interior Minister Pyotr Valuev banned any publications in Ukrainian language, with an exception of some literary works. It contained a statement that “a separate Little Russian [that, is Ukrainian] language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist” and it is “nothing but Russian corrupted by the influence of Poland”

And yet, I have a problem with the Polish left’s position. It is painting the conflict in the colors of some sort of neoconservative “clash of the civilisations”, the vision so popular among warmongers, instead of perceiving it as just another imperialist war. In my opinion, this is deeply wrong. No matter how hard it is to offer a more nuanced, class, left-wing perception of the war in the social context of today’s Poland. 

However, while being critical of the simplified positions of a big part of left-wingers, I must be critical towards our Western comrades too.  

From the beginning of the war, the Central-European left-wing voices were silenced by our friends, sharing the same values as we do. I could present a really long list of left-wing outlets that refused to publish articles from central Europe. They did not want to hear our voice, in the case that matters to our lives, because our opinions were not compatible with their “position”. Others just did not reply to our publication proposal. In the end, the only way of publicly debating about the war and the crisis we are in was to use… Twitter. That’s really double-edged if we think about the last events concerning the platform. Furthermore, this media platform is not the one created for in-depth discussions. 

The only outcome of that is growing everyday misunderstanding that is pushing even more people towards completely sectarian narrations, which have nothing to do with reality – like the one of Noam Chomsky, who has not got any idea about what is going on in Ukraine – or towards neoconservative cliches easily available in the mainstream media, for example in Poland. 

What’s more, the economical crisis is knocking on the doors of every Polish working person, the inflation in Poland is one of the highest in Europe. The anger is being accumulated among the people. The left is trying to fight for economical rights of refugees, immigrants and working class people. There have been some successes, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us. And Poland is not the only place with such a configuration of forces and accumulation of problems, just like it is not the only place where wartime polarization prevents a debate on crucial social issues we must face. In fact, what Ognian Kassabov wrote about Bulgaria in his piece republished by Cross-Border Talks, proves that other Central and Eastern European countries were thrown into the same non-meaningful non-debates.

Polish social-democratic Razem (Together) party office in Warsaw. Ukrainian flag is displayed next to the violet party flag. The banner sayd “Labour contracts for everybody” and calls for common fight of Polish and Ukrainian working people. Source: Razem Facebook page.

As a journalist and trade unionist I cannot imagine any great change of the world apart from the one done by internationally united people. Bound by shared values and open debates. We have one cold war already looming on the horizon, we do not need one among us. I believe we can do better than that. 

It’s the XXI century, we have most crucial things to achieve together – but we cannot even discuss the war crisis we are in now. How can we work on much more complex issues, if some of us do not even want to have a real debate?  How are we presenting ourselves in the eyes of decision-making elites? Are they more vigilant now, aware that a social-oriented left can pose a challenge to them – or relaxed seeing this farce of unity and discussion?

Cover photo: A spontaneous demonstrantion in Warsaw, in the first days after the Russian invasion, in from of the Russian embassy. Left-wing activists were protesting hand in hand with Ukrainians living in Poland from the first day.

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