The disruption of Zygmunt Bauman’s lecture at the University of Wrocław on June 22, 2013 by the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski or NOP), has been one of many similar events recently to have taken place across Poland, including the case of Adam Michnik earlier this year, reported here.
The Bauman lecture was rich in symbolic meaning, organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, an intellectual branch of the present day German Social Democratic Party, the independent Ferdinand Lasalle Centre of Social Thought, and the Department of Social and Political Philosophy of the University of Wrocław, which I chair. Bauman is the most renowned Polish scholar in the world, a great critical social theorist with a long and creative record of scholarly accomplishment. The other hero of the event, in a sense, was Ferdinand Lassalle, a “Breslauer,” a student of the university in Wrocław in its German times, Karl Marx’s collaborator and the founder of the German Social Democratic Party. His remains rest at the Jewish Cemetery in Wrocław. The occasion was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first social democratic party in the world, established by Lassalle. The topic of the meeting was the ideals of the left, old and new, and the challenges the leftist movement faces nowadays, in the period of a new stage of capitalism and its crisis.
Through organizing Bauman’s lecture at the University of Wrocław, I was hoping for a scholarly and critical debate about the future of Poland, and the world: a scholarly one, because the debate was to be inspired by an eminent thinker; a critical one, as an opportunity for a renewal of egalitarian thinking about economy and politic. While such combination of critique and scholarship is now eagerly seized upon in many parts of the world, in Poland it is met with disdain from political parties which duplicitously present themselves as leftist, and with ridicule or repression from the remaining political parties.
It was the second visit by Bauman to the Polish city of Wrocław that I had organized. The first one took place in 1996. On that earlier occasion, no one expected any disturbances to occur during a series of academic and public appearances by the author of Postmodern Ethics. There were also no incidents when Bauman spoke in Wrocław to the European Congress of Culture in September 2011, soon after our city had been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture 2016.
The changes that have occurred in the meantime, in both the Wroclaw’s and Polish public space, that made possible the disruption of Bauman’s lecture and many other similar disturbances, cast a sinister, dark brown shadow upon the image of Poland in the world. But there is one benefit to be drawn from the protests: they demand attention.
The Bauman – Lassalle event was a fusion of Polish, Jewish, German and Leftist culture. Since it was also open to the public, it was perceived by the local xenophobes as an invitation for incitement, a set-up. (This seems to be the closest possible translation of the Polish soccer hooligans’ term “ustawka,” which refers to a collective fight taking place in an agreed place and time between two antagonized group of supporters of different soccer teams, resulting usually in many injuries on both sides, and often in fatalities.)
For Bauman is not only a Polish scholar of great stature in the world and an author quoted in many disciplines. He was also, during the Stalinist period, a military officer of the Polish army, and a Jew, just as Ferdinand Lassalle was. And for the past two decades the ideals of the Left have been misconstrued in Poland as an ideological foundation of the violent communist regime, which murdered patriots, and has been presented as a source of a extreme evil and of the enslavement of the nation.
Just before the commencement of the meeting, quite unexpectedly, the mayor of Wrocław arrived. The organizers of the event invited him to welcome the guest as the host of the city. He managed to say only: “I am Rafał Dutkiewicz. To those who do not yet know it, I would like to say that I am the mayor of this city.”
In response, about a hundred members of the NOP rose from their seats, unfolded a huge banner saying “NOP/Śląsk Wrocław” (Śląsk Wrocław is the name of the local soccer club, currently the champions of the Polish National Soccer League), and started howling, yelling, chanting and vilifying the guest speaker, the organizers, and the mayor alike.
It needs to be said that the soccer club of Śląsk Wrocław is being generously supported by the local municipality under this mayor. Among the chants which were thrown into mayor’s face by the extremist soccer hooligans was a slogan about the memory of the “excommunicated soldiers.” Those soldiers were members of the Polish underground who did not become reconciled with the communist take-over of the post-war Poland, were persecuted by the communist regime, and were banned from the collective memory until 1989. They symbolize a moral and political attitude which is rather close to the mayor’s political views: the municipality ruled by him for the past 11 years has recently erected a monument to one of them, a cavalry officer Witold Pilecki. This material expression of the aesthetic politics of the city aligns well with the political aesthetics dominant in the whole country. Despite the official rhetoric of pluralism, the canons of this aesthetics dictate political tastes in Poland in a way which it is rather impossible, and unwise, to ignore. During the Bauman – Lassalle event, the extreme right confronted not only the left, but also the right.
Canonisation and Escalation
The development of radicalism in Wrocław has been documented carefully for some time now. It has been the subject of a disturbing report by the local Nomada Foundation; everyday xenophobic attitudes have been provocatively revealed in an experiment conducted by the pupils of one of the high schools in the city. There is no doubt that radical groupings in the city act ever more boldly and brazenly. About two months ago, on April 24, they achieved a significant success in preventing Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament, from lecturing at the University of Wrocław. They have exerted a pressure on the organizers of that event, and Cohn-Bendit himself, by wildly calling upon everyone to protect their children from the paedophile. At the last moment, Cohn-Bendit cancelled his journey to Wrocław.
The so-called nationalists in Wrocław and in Poland have been encouraged especially since the moment of the canonisation of their activities by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the main opposition party in Poland, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice). After a group of soccer supporters staged a violent brawl following a soccer match in Warsaw and after they were prosecuted by the police as well as criticised by the government officials, Kaczyński extended to them ideological and political protection by calling them genuine patriots. Ever since, undisturbed by law, they have engaged in a series of provocations: picked fights at soccer stadiums, disrupted lectures and political meetings, lit fires at the doors of people whom they consider alien, etc.
More than that: thanks to Kaczyński, they have appointed themselves as both the judges of history, and its executioners. The sentences are being carried out summarily, according to their own interpretation of the dominant canons of the political aesthetics. The leader of Law and Justice has strengthened them in their “truth.” The strength of their conviction and the political protection has given them a power, which cannot be matched by any other political movement in present-day Poland.
Interestingly, however, they are being supported not only by Law and Justice, “the patriotic right.” They have also received very strong material support from the present government of Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform), the neo-liberal centre right. The “patriotic right” and the “neo-liberal right” are supporting the extreme neo- fascist right, and this is oddly being facilitated by futbol, soccer.
Soccer and Politics
The rules of ancient democracy are said to have been modeled upon the principles of the Olympic Games. Just as warring Greek tribes temporarily suspended their mutual animosities at the time of the Olympic Games and sent their representatives to Olympic arenas in order to continue their wars in a vicarious form in various sport disciplines, so in democratic Athens each local community sent their representatives to the Assembly to haggle for local interests on their behalf.
In present-day Poland the ties between sports and politics are much more intimate than that. For after one peels off the empty rhetoric and political imagery, it becomes rather difficult to dispel the impression that the Civic Platform’s project of modernization of the country, and the promotion of its interests, exhausted itself, literally, in the organization of the European soccer championship in 2012. Setting subjective impressions aside, however, no one can deny that the Civic Platform, which has been ruling the country for the past seven years, displayed the greatest political energy as long as it was preparing the whole country for this spectacle, and lost it, immediately and completely, after the show was over.
Accordingly, Poland owes to this party more than two thousand (!) small sports playgrounds, located in almost every local community. They are known as Little Eagles and cost 1,233,477 Polish zloty each [373,781 USD]. Their aim is to train the young soccer talents, but also to fill the leisure of the young who now have the opportunity to enjoy it more than ever, as 30 per cent of them have no jobs. We owe to this party also four large cutting-edge stadiums in Gdańsk, Poznań, Warsaw and Wrocław, as well as barely passable roads built in order for us to be able to drive to them, even though, as yet, two years after their near-completion, there is really no good reason to do so.
It is difficult to dispel the impression that Civic Platform never intended to govern the country in a democratic manner, through some kind of a covenant with society. It just wanted to manage and administer society by means of sports. Conceiving politics as a spectacle, the party fused politics with sports in an unprecedented way. Apparently the leadership of the party assumed that the Little Eagles and the stadiums would become centers of sporting rivalry, entertainment and cultural events, venues to excite positive passions, and to discharge them. They seem to have assumed also, apparently judging after themselves (the leadership of the Civic Platform, most especially the prime minister Donald Tusk, are well-known and devout soccer players themselves.), that through holding the EURO 2012 in Poland, they would receive a powerful means of promotion of the country in Europe and in the world. They seem to have thought, too, that in this way they would acquire a powerful instrument to manage human masses, their leisure, emotions, and thoughts.
On all these accounts the Civic Platform suffered major defeats, because their assumptions turned out to be erroneous. It is, moreover, rather surprising to see a conservative party working upon such assumptions for they are reeking with optimism untypical of the conservative attitude, which is an important strand within its ideology. The soccer infrastructure, by far the most important contribution of this party to the growth of Poland, has now become a symbol of the failure of its modernization project.
Managing human masses by means of stadiums, a political technique employed prominently in the ancient Rome, has its known limitations. One of them is that sport creates strong divisions between “us” and “them.” The divisions thus fashioned are focused upon sports rivals and are symbolized by differing colors marking the armies of such substitute wars. Sport as a vicarious war enables the discharge of the passions aroused by rivalries in a controlled manner. This, however, works well only in countries in which their populations, as well as their authorities, are still capable of grasping the difference between sports and politics, not everywhere.
The leaders of Civic Platform have been apparently using outdated textbooks for political marketing. For despite the perfection of the instruments designed to manipulate public passions, they remain unpredictable. Civic Platform has been acting as if they have forgotten about this critical fact. They have apparently forgotten also about the unparalleled wisdom of the great Polish philosopher and the most successful soccer coach ever, Kazimierz Górski, who famously said that in the game of soccer “the ball is round and there are two goals in it.”
As a result of these astounding oversights on the part of the Civic Platform, the passions of the soccer supporters, for whom this party has laboriously built the stadiums, have been effortlessly hijacked by Law and Justice and are now being informed according to a xenophobic ideology rather than the conservative-liberal one. In other words, the political soccer match arranged by the Civic Platform for the whole nation has been easily won by opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński. An unequaled champion of political acrobatics, Kaczyński has shot a penalty goal against Prime Minister Tusk without even going onto the pitch. It is a wholly different matter, though, whether he will be able to benefit from his victory. Something truly pernicious has been unleashed.
By undertaking the modernization project by means of soccer, Civic Platform has transformed a huge stream of taxpayers’ money into an expensive concrete infrastructure, instead of devoting themselves to building instruments of inclusion of broad segments of the population, which for the past two decades have suffered economic and social exclusion. This project has enriched the bosses – though not the workers – of the Polish construction industry; for, this was in fact one of the main reasons for the Civil Platform to undertake it in the first place. After Civic Platform loses the upcoming elections, the bosses, ever hungry for more, will support the Law and Justice without any qualms.
As a result, the stadiums have become venues of concentration and recruitment of new members of extreme right-wing groupings, and into training areas of the soccer hooliganism. Instead of becoming centers of family entertainment and popularization of culture, Polish stadiums are now functioning as academies of hatred for the young who are just beginning their adult life, but have already lost their hopes for a decent place for themselves in their own country.
The xenophobic radicals, fed from both political hands, are gradually ceasing to be a marginal eccentricity of Polish political aesthetics, and a minor symptom of the psychopathology of Polish political life; they are now becoming an independent and vigorous political power. We do not yet have Budapest in Warsaw (These words have been used by Jarosław Kaczyński to express his admiration for Victor Orban and his authoritarian transformation of Hungary), but we will not have to wait too long for it. The incident at the University of Wrocław and many similar ones demonstrate that Poland is dotted by various local infections of virulent nationalism.
That the promotion of Poland through soccer did not work was due not only to the desperate weakness of the Polish national team. However hard we work in order to organize efficiently the spectacles of the politicized sport, several incidents like the one during Bauman’s lecture, will suffice to annihilate the whole effort to dispel the centuries’ long stereotype of Polnische Wirtschaft.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that even though in antiquity sport was the beginning of Greek democracy, in post-modernity sport has become a beginning of the end of Polish democracy.