Intervention—“Antifa in Illiberal Democracy”

Grzegorz Piotrowski (Instytut Socjologii, Uniwersytet Gdański / Institute of Sociology, University of Gdańsk)

Illiberal democracy—a term coined by Fareed Zakaria and popularised by Viktor Orbán—marks a retreat from the concept of traditional liberal democracies, which promote the people’s will over democratic and bureaucratic rules and regulations. However, the main interpretation is that the party that won the elections represents the people’s will. Although this is a political project, it has political consequences, which are to some extent unintended. Critics of illiberal democracy often accuse it of being or becoming “fascist”, pointing out to close connections with far-right groups, use of hate speech, and exclusion of certain groups from the “imagined community”. Here, I would like to take a look at how the development of illiberal democracy affects the actions and functioning of antifascist movements, based on the case study of Poland, which is often seen as one of the most obvious cases of illiberal democracy. Particularly I want to look at how the systemic changes influence the narrative of fascist/antifascist dynamics by adding (again, as one might recall history) a new player—the state.

The core of illiberal democracy as a populist project is that it claims to be aimed against elites and “the establishment”, while in reality it actually means replacing the old, liberal elites with a new group of (conservative) elites. Illiberal democracy is a right-wing conservative project that often appeals to the lowest kind of emotions to create a visible enemy “other” for society to organise against, as seen in the case of refugees, or rights for LGBTQ+ people.

One of illiberal democracy’s many consequences is the reconfiguration of civil society: some parts are deprived of state support if their actions do not comply with state policies (Piotrowski 2020). Furthermore, authorities sometimes use civil society organizations as a tool for “discrete” operations and to avoid consequences. This was demonstrated in the act of “protecting” churches in Poland during the 2020 women’s protests (Muszel and Piotrowski 2022), when a decision of the (highly politicised) Constitutional Tribunal nearly outlawed access to legal abortion in Poland, igniting the biggest protest wave since 1989. A similar case was private (albeit closely connected to the authorities) foundations taking control of universities in Hungary, increasing the state’s power over higher education (Kocyba and Sommer 2022). Other forms of state intervention in the civil societal sphere include: defunding migration-related and similar NGOs; withdrawal from pro-equality programmes; mainstreaming hate speech; tampering with the judicial system and state agencies (e.g. by limiting their budgets); or forging close connections to right-wing media and financially supporting them from the state budget.

The most pressing example in the Polish case is the 2015 election and the intentional establishing of a political cleavage within society. After the so-called refugee crisis and, in particular, within the context of the EU relocation programme, political elites began making claims against immigrants and refugees. Between 2014 and 2016, the percentage of people encountering hate speech in the media and everyday situations significantly increased. This also sparked a grassroots response: since 2015 Poland witnessed a significant rise in numbers of protests and protesters. These included large women’s protests in 2016 and 2020; protests against the reforms of the judicial system; protests against the harvesting of Białowieża Forest, etc. These were particularly characterised by the blurring of boundaries between grassroots groups and progressive civil society organisations, mostly due to the state cutting funds to the latter.

The rise of hate speech in public space and the growing strength of far-right groups have also resulted in the resurgence of antifascist groups, which had been previously unseen since the early 1990s (Piotrowski 2021). Antifascism has become more visible in public spaces and mainstream discourses. This has been echoed by the increased alliances of antifascist groups with various other groups, as well as more political intersectionality within social movements and mobilisations—for example, the inclusion of women’s, LGBT, workers’ rights, etc. in antifascist claims and narratives. Antifascist symbols—the three arrows of the Iron Front—also started becoming visible in public spaces, and even became featured on alternative merchandise. Antifascism has also appeared in programmes of political parties (although only in the programme of the left party).

At the same time, there is a revival of militant Antifa groups (following the German roots of this term, it is reserved for antifascist groups that resort to direct action—including violence—in their activities, and as such will be used here). Network analysis based on social media demonstrates that there are numerous antifascist groups emerging throughout Poland, often in smaller cities, such as Jaworzno or Krotoszyn. Some of these groups are connected to antifascist or “progressive” martial arts clubs: annually there are at least three (publicised) antifascist martial arts tournaments. These groups—similarly to their predecessors in the early 1990s—provide security and protection for other events that are at risk of being attacked by right-wingers, as was the case when the 2020 women’s protests were attacked by neo-Nazis. Video recordings from protests on 30 October show that after the initial havoc of the neo-Nazi attack, a group of around 80-100 black-clad persons ran towards the attackers and pushed them back. There is also a football club (AKS Zły) that openly promotes antifascism—a rare situation in the far-right leaning Polish football world.

There is also the emergence of new groups, ranging from student antifascist committees to groups of activists aged 50+—the latter connected to rise of liberal antifascism. Contemporary antifascism in Poland has detached itself from its usual activist base, traditionally composed mostly of anarchist groups and squatted social centres. These groups of course still play a role, but there is also a new generation of activists on the horizon: “Millennials embrace intersectional … [activism]; opt for grassroots, horizontal organizing; adopt a conflictual attitude towards the state, and dialogical, introspective dynamics within the movement” (Chironi 2019: 1469). This phenomenon can be explained by various arguments. Firstly, younger generations have not only shifted to the political left, but also combined this with a growing anticlericalism—a trend particularly visible in a Catholic Poland ruled by a populist-conservative right-wing party. This religious governance pushes young people towards leftist groups and makes them more likely to support progressive claims.

Despite the inflow of newcomers to radical left libertarian groups (antifascist groups included), there are also other explanations for the rise of popularity of antifascism (as a political stance as well as a movement) in Poland (and other illiberal democracies).

The use of populist methods and discourses play on societies’ fears and base instincts, which allows many people to label the state as “fascist”, which thus leads to a resurgence of antifascism. This is exacerbated by the use of hate speech by prominent politicians. For example, the Minister for Education and Science, Przemysław Czarnek, said in an interview that LGBT+ people “are not equal to normal people” and we should “quit talking about equality”, while the leader of the ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, warned that refugees coming into Europe in 2015 “can bring in forgotten diseases and parasites”. Finally, the President Andrzej Duda, in regards to people protesting in 2020 in support of a trans-activist, said that “these are not people—this is an ideology”. The mainstreaming of such attitudes by government employees allows activists to use a diagnostic framing to locate the core of “fascism” not in far-right movements, but rather in the state itself. This argument is further supported by state administrative actions, such as legalising “push-back” techniques at the Polish–Belarussian border (which remains illegal according to other Polish legal regulations and under international law) and later building a fence at the border. Another example is the state establishing “LGBT ideology-free zones” throughout Poland, covering around 30% of the country’s area (see Żuk et al. 2021). Furthermore, there is documented state intervention in court trials of the far-right, which ruled in favour of the nationalist activists. During these interventions, prosecutors supervised by the Minister of Justice (who is simultaneously the Prosecutor General) withdrew charges, appealed for lighter sentences, etc. As Ewa Ivanova (2022, my translation) wrote:

The prosecution has lost the ability to respond effectively to hate crimes. Their perpetrators have a sense of impunity. The course of investigations indicates that prosecutors even protect perpetrators from communities whose beliefs are close to the ruling camp. This is the picture that emerges from the latest Lex Super Omnia report.

In the aforementioned report, investigators analysed the prosecution’s response to hate crimes in 2016-2022. They estimate that such cases are sometimes treated as a tool in politicians’ cultural conflicts. They are also a tool to win the support of an electorate with extreme views and to demonstrate loyalty to groups useful to those in power. And also, to repress political opponents. These legal interventions provoked a sense of injustice among more progressive activists, who might not traditionally engage with the radical fringes of activism, and mobilises them to get more involved in antifascist activities.

Because of the new common ground found in anti-state politics, contemporary antifascism has become more intersectional and inclusive, offers a common platform for anti-state actions, and has therefore become included in political programmes and agendas. Being anti-fascist in contemporary Poland also means being pro-refugee, pro-abortion, and other more mainstream progressive values. The notion of antifascism was also taken up by some unexpected actors as a result of the current political conflict in Poland. This often applies to local politics, as many local authorities remain strongholds of the liberal opposition to the current government. In criticism of the policies of the Law and Justice government, in 2017 the Mayor of Gdańsk organised an “antifascist demonstration” during which Polish national and EU flags were distributed to the protesting crowd. Although these initiatives have since died out, several antifascist concerns have spilled over to local policies, in particular topics related to refugees, hate speech, and other such issues. Similarly, liberal opposition groups have also adopted antifascist practices, for instance by trying to block the Independence March, a nationalist celebration of the Polish Independence Day (11 November). Right-wing MP Robert Winnicki dubbed the event “the biggest nationalist demonstration in Europe”. This demonstration, which began in 2009, has since 2015 been supported directly and indirectly by state authorities (financially, discursively), and in 2017 attracted around 60,000 participants. Over time, several attempts have been made to block this march, and in 2017 14 women, of whom eight belonged to the group “Obywatele RP” and five to the Warsaw’s Women’s Strike, tried to block the event before it entered a bridge—a location well suited for a blockade. All of these women were forcefully pushed out by demonstration security and later faced charges of “interrupting a legal demonstration”. Later they were acquitted by the court. Other attempts by Obywatele RP to block the march were done legally (e.g. registering other protests on the same path as the march). However, their more direct tactics were interrupted by the police, who kettled counter protesters for hours, thus insulating the march from them. These practices were later declared illegal by the court, and the Ombudsman for Human Rights (one of the few agencies still independent from the state authorities) intervened in the case.

By defining the state as the main actor in policies and events that are labelled “fascist”, and due to state repression and activist counter-actions, antifascism can become a factor radicalising other civil society actors, according to the “radical flanks effect” concept (Haines 1984, 2013). At the core of this concept there is an unspoken division of labour within social movements that split into moderate and radical factions and the analytical focus is on the interplay between the two, drawing conclusions from these internal dynamics and picturing potential development scenarios. Antifascist movements and actors are often more radical than other groups within the social movement scene. The “political opportunity structures” (Eisinger 1973) available for social movements in Poland is generally quite closed, mostly due to the state’s unresponsiveness to claims raised by progressive social movements regarding policy change. However, as a result this diverts the focus of some moderate activists to more radical and antifascist activities. In this sense, the radicalism of antifascist groups (in particular Antifa) becomes a common platform for cooperation across movements. This is not entirely unprecedented in Poland, as in the late 1980s the Polish social movement scene witnessed “exotic coalitions” (Kenney 2003: 74). At that time, nationalists collaborated with anarchists and skinheads with environmentalists against a common enemy—the communist authorities. It seems that the current context of “illiberal democracy” can again bring together these various strands of social movements, but this time antifascists can play an important role in the process.

The development of illiberal democracy has a tremendous impact on the societies in which it occurs. It not only affects politics and public discourse, but also the composition and repertoires of actions of grassroots initiatives. The observed increase in hate speech used by politicians and the exclusion of numerous groups from the society perceived as “normal” incorporates the state into the fascist/antifascist dynamic. For many years in Poland (and many other countries) antifascism was interpreted as a struggle between two subcultures, depicted by clashes between punks and skinheads. Incorporating the state into this picture—on the level of supporting the far-right groups, limiting access to resources for progressive groups and NGOs—changes the fascist/antifascist dynamic, forging new alliances and requiring new repertoires of activism adapted to the new situation. The current state and rise of antifascist rhetoric and action in Poland, the increasing presence of antifascist arguments in public discourse, and the growing intersectionality observed within the antifascist movement, are examples supporting the case.


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Featured image: “Antifa Graffito – Bialystok – Poland” by Adam Jones ( CC BY-SA 2.0)