Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Defeat of Blairism in Poland

Below I publish a translation of a presentation that I made at a conference on the Polish left, organised by the Ferdinand Lassalle Centre For Social Thought at the end of 2009 in Warsaw.

This paper considers how Blairism and the theory of the Third Way were an attempt to halt the general decline of classical social democracy in Europe and at how its failure has opened up a political and theoretical impasse within the European left. In turn it analyses the defeat of the post-communist left in Poland and at looks how its adoption of policies close to those espoused by Tony Blair in the UK helped to cause its decline and isolation.

Crisis of Social Democracy

The crisis of social democracy is a crisis of capitalism. Moreover, this is a double crisis that reflects the breakdown of the two models of capitalist development existent in post-war Western Europe. The first of these is the coming to an end of the nation based social welfare model, which had been dominant in Western Europe from the end of the Second World War until the mid-1970s. As Zygmunt Baumann has stated: ‘It is no longer possible to construct a ‘social state’ that guarantees existential security to all its members within the framework of the nation-state.’ The failure of social democracy to realise the deficiencies of this model, as the economy increasingly globalised, meant that it assumed a conservative stance of protecting a system that could no longer be defended. The mantle of ‘progress’ was handed over to the right – with the left failing to promote an economic model that could have both retained and expanded upon the very real gains of the post-war period.

The social democratic consensus, built in Western Europe after the Second World War, was based on the surmise that the extremities of the market economy had been controlled and that capital accumulation (and investment) was at one with full employment and the Welfare State. However, the slowdown in the world economy, starting in the late 1960s, opened up questions which many thought had already been answered. The existence of permanent inflation had been a feature of the post-war boom, but this situation became unsustainable, especially after the oil crisis in 1973/74. By the late 1970s Western European social democracy was in decline as growth rates fell, inflation accelerated and unemployment rose. Keynesianism was unable to reverse the economic downward spiral in the major European industrial economies and a monetarist reaction blamed social democracy for excessive state spending, inefficiency and stagflation.

The resulting slowdown in European economic growth and the return of phenomena such as mass unemployment, convinced European capital that there needed to be a transformation in the West European economy to make it more competitive with the USA and Japan. High wages, trade union rights and welfare benefits were once again viewed as being particularist and something which restrained further growth. However, a class compromise had existed in Western Europe since World War Two and in the 1980s the dismantling of this compromise was seen as being politically dangerous. This situation was dramatically changed by the events of 1989 and the collapse of Communism in Central Eastern Europe. No longer potentially threatened by communism from the East, European employers felt they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take on the domestic forces resistant to what they saw as the indispensable rationalisation and integration of the West European economy. One of the results of this opening was the completion of the Maastricht treaty by the end of 1991, which set out a monetarist framework for European economic and political integration.

A New ‘Third Way’

The social democratic consensus was broken up by the entwined events of the ending of the post-war economic boom; the ensuing neo-liberal offensive and the collapse of ‘real-socialism’ in CEE. This first crisis opened up a widening schism between social democratic parties and their traditional electorate. These parties were unable to provide their populations with socio-economic guarantees of progress and protection, leading to a contraction of their electoral base. This reality was partly recognised by Tony Blair, expressed in the theory of the Third Way, which was used as the theoretical justification for the New Labour project in the United Kingdom. It understood that we are living in an expanding global economic and cultural environment. It realised that social structures are changing and that in order for social democracy to survive and prosper new alliances had to be made and that social democratic parties must widen their social and political base.

Blairism, and the project of reforming the British Labour Party, was the ideological expression on the left of the attempt by European capital to open up a new era of neo-liberal reform in the continent. This required the building of a new political hegemony, that incorporated part of the left, especially in conditions where the right had suffered a political contraction. This was the case in the United Kingdom, where the British Conservative Party, after 18 years of governance, only managed to gain 25% of the parliamentary seats at the 1997 elections. In such a situation the Labour Party assumed the mantle of continuing the course of neo-liberal reform, with Blairism standing as a model for other European social democratic parties to emulate. This reached its peak at the end of the 1990s, when Tony Blair published a joint manifesto with the German SPD leader, Gerhard Schroeder.

Despite the fact that Blairism represented a rightward version of social democracy it is not correct to state that it was simply a new face of neo-liberalism. The political base of Blairism continued to be the electorate and membership of the left. Therefore, Blair had to appeal to and win the support of this political base by claiming that its new adherence to free-market economics was a means to implementing policies that adhered to the traditional principles and values of the left. Blairsm sought a theoretical justification for its policies in the theory of the Third Way, developed by the renowned British sociologist Anthony Giddens.

The Third Way is built upon many of the theoretical assumptions made during the post-war period; most notably that industrial capitalism has structurally changed, as it moves from first to second stage modernisation. Such ideas were given further impetus through the spread of the world-wide communications revolution, the arrival of the so-called ‘weightless’ knowledge based economy and the realities of a post-1989 world, after the fall of communism. Accordingly, the trading of information and knowledge was seen as being the essence of this ‘dematerialised’ economy, as what is important is not how or where a product is manufactured but what its ‘definition’ is. Modern industrial society is therefore seen to have entered a ‘post-materialist’ era, which has been accompanied with the downsizing of the industrial working class. Giddens argues that voting behaviour no longer conforms to class lines which, alongside the decline in the size of the industrial working class, means that social democracy’s traditional electoral base disappears. These ‘shifting sands’ cut the traditional connection between political parties and social classes and transcend the established left-right dichotomy. Accepting this reality means social democracy looks towards the political centre, termed by Giddens the ‘active middle’ or ‘radical centre’.

For Third Way theorists this decline in class-based politics helped to cause the death of socialism as an alternative system, whilst the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe furthered the need for social democracy to break from the past. The changing international environment means that the left has to accept some of the policies of the right, just as the right had to adopt some from the left (such as the Welfare State) in the post-war era. This principally includes supporting the process of privatisation and being ‘critical of an over extended state and welfare system.’ Supporters of the Third Way believe that social democracy should retain some of its previous values (such as solidarity, social justice and protection of the vulnerable) but that the ‘old strategies and institutions can no longer deliver these.’ In the post-communist world, Third Way social democrats have become strong advocates of the market, as a means for furthering social justice. Capitalism and an efficient, dynamic market economy are seen as going hand in hand with fairness and social justice and in turn social justice helps the smooth running of a market economy. The Third Way variant of social democracy claims it wants to use the tool of the free market to increase social justice. In fact, it is argued, the Third Way assumes the mantle of reform from the right, which holds back further modernisation due to their social conservatism, nationalism and/or extreme neo-liberalism.

Assessing Blairism and the Third Way

When we analyse of the Third Way, in retrospect, I believe that we can identify some positive features this theory. These include:
1. Its understanding that the previous model of social democracy had been exhausted and that the nation state, within a globalised economy, is no longer able to defend society as it once had.
2. Connected to this is the conception that the left has to think and act globally.
3. The belief that the left should attempt to expand its social base of support and build a new political hegemony.

However, these positive features are outweighed by its negative elements which prevented it from becoming a model for a renewal of European social democracy. These include:
1. The idea that capitalism has fundamentally changed and that only the free market can ensure steady socio-economic development.
2. That the new middle class has grown to be a majority of society and that we now live in a post-class society where the individual is prominent and the concept of social class is no longer applicable.
3. That the left should seek to expand into this new middle class and the growing political centre.

This paper does not provide the space to adequately assess the impact of Blairism and the Third Way on British and European social democracy. Briefly we may note how initially they contributed to the British Labour Party taking advantage of the collapse in support for the British Conservative Party and winning three general elections. For the first eleven years of the Labour Party government, the British economy enjoyed continued economic growth and unemployment declined. Simultaneously the Labour government heavily invested in some public services (such as health and education) after nearly two decades of neglect. However, the present economic crisis has hit the British economy hard and revealed how its growth was dependent to a large extent on a credit boom that had been expanded during the years of financial deregulation started by Thatcher and continued by Blair. Even where the Labour government had differed from the Conservative governments, as in increased public spending, this was often combined with a programme of part-privatisation and commercialisation of these sectors.

The third way was built upon a supposed pragmatism, whereby policies of economic ownership or taxation would be decided not a-prior according to principle, but by what actually works. However, the further that Blairism developed the more it became clear that it was ideologically attached to the free-market. Furthermore, its supposed pragmatism was exposed internationally after Tony Blair’s government supported the war against Iraq and formed an alliance with George Bush’s neo-conservative administration in Washington. This created a large political schism between the government and its political base, with many questioning their support for the Labour Party.

After some initial success the Third Way and Blairism lost support within the major social democratic parties in Europe. For example Schroeder was pushed to the left by the trade unions and his social democratic core constituency, leading him to oppose the war in Iraq. Schroeder distanced himself from Blairism, dropping references to his own New Middle theory. His adherence to a more interventionist economic policy helped him to return to power in 2002. However, after re-gaining office he once again announced the introduction of a new wave of neo-liberal reforms, including easing job protection, cutting unemployment and sickness benefit and relaxing the rules on collective bargaining, which contributed to the SPD’s defeat at the 2005 elections. In recent years there has been a turn to the right in European politics, with social democracy marginalised in most European countries and unable to capitalise on the discrediting of the neo-liberal model of capitalism inflicted by the present economic crisis.

Blairism and the Polish Post-Communist Left

Throughout its existence the post-communist left in Poland has sought external allies, something which has been particularly needed in the post-communist reality where the left has continually been threatened with isolation. The strategy of Aleksander Kwaśniewski has always been to build an alliance between the left and the liberal centre. After the 1993 and 2001 elections the Democratic left Alliance (SLD) proposed a governing alliance with the liberal centre, yet both times these approaches were rejected. This meant that the left had to form an alliance with the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL), which (especially during the first SLD government when the PSL was a large coalition partner) restrained the government’s ability to implement free-market style policies.

In 2001 the SLD gained power after the collapse of the right-wing AWS-UW government. The electorate had rejected the extreme neo-liberal policies of this government, which had led to economic growth declining from around 7% to 1% and unemployment soaring from 10% to over 17%. The left was therefore gaining power in similar conditions to those when Tony Blair’s government was elected in the UK – i.e. after the collapse of a right-wing government. In the run up to the 2001 elections, the leadership of the SLD began to openly associate themselves with Blairism and the Third Way. For example in 2001 the SLD leader, Leszek Miller, wrote:

I spoke with some theoreticians from the Labou Party about the 'third-wa' (...) and I asked them whether we are not actually moving ot the centre but to the right. In answer I heard that we are not going to the right but forwards. This is a nice saying, which doesn't explain everything but i our case makes sense.

When the SLD came to power in 2001, in contrast to 1993, the Polish economy was stagnating, unemployment was rising and the government had less resources to tackle these problems. The new SLD government inherited a financial crisis from the AWS/UW government, spurred by economic stagnation and rising unemployment. Shortly before the 2001 parliamentary elections the SLD’s Finance Minister elect, Marek Belka, had announced that he would push through austerity measures to rebalance the budget, an action that may have cost the party an overall majority. Belka was closely connected to Kwaśniewski, who represented the most neo-liberal wing of the post-communist left.

The second SLD government pursued a Blarite strategy of liberalising the economy, hoping that this would instigate economic growth which in turn would provide the resources to improve social services. However, in a state of constant conflict with the RPP over reducing interest rates, the government’s policies were unable to improve the country’s socio-economic situation. In the first two years of the SLD government, economic growth only marginally picked up and unemployment grew from over 17% in 2001 to 19% in 2004. When the government attempted to introduce a more interventionist set of policies (as for example when Grzegorz Kołodko was re-appointed as Finance minister) this was blocked by the actions of Kwaśniewski, the NBP/RPP and the demands connected to entering the European Union.

Facing a political crisis PM Leszek Miller (who historically had been connected with the more pro-social wing of the post-communist left) came out strongly in favour of neo-liberalism. In an attempt to strengthen his position he began to talk as a supporter of neo-lieralism a manner that even surpassed that of Kwaśniewski or Blair. In November 2003 Miller declared:

Generating national wealth and its redistribution are to a large extent separate spheres. the first is decided by the hard and objective laws of economics an dthe maret and the second by social justice. Policies must have a liberal character becuase the market can only fulfill its potential in conditions of a free economy. The problems of society must not be placed on the market not should ideology be an impediment for the free market. Economic growth will be quicker through low taxes, a low budget deficit and better management of budget resources.

Concurrently Miller’s government took a sharp neo-liberal turn – personified by the replacement of Kołodko as Finance Minister by Jerzy Hausner. At this point we can in fact say that the SLD government moved from a Third Way position to a clear neo-liberal one. The so-called Hausner Plan (presented by the government to solve the economic crisis) proposed a package of neo-liberal reforms that included liberalising the labour code, decreasing social benefits and reducing the business tax.

We can see therefore how the second SLD government was unable to follow a Third Way social democratic programme and ended up adhering to a classic neo-liberal one. This can be shown by the failure of the government to increase spending in public services, which in fact declined during the course of the SLD administration. For example while in 2001 spending on education equalled 4.6% of GDP, this had declined to 4.1% in 2004. Similarly, government health spending reduced from 3.3% in 2001 to just 3.1% in 2004. The SLD government also moved away from its left values on a number of other issues. The SLD government became strong supporters of the USA, sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and signalling its interest in supporting a National Missile Defence System on Polish soil. The reality of a host of new ‘pro-US’ states entering the EU was driven home when the signatures of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were added to the UK sponsored letter supporting a war against Iraq. Donald Rumsfield’s subsequent definition of ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’ helped to crystallise this division. The government also failed to live up to its social-liberal policies – by not, for example, liberalising Poland’s draconian abortion law.

The inability of the government to meet its social democratic pledges, and the growth of corruption allegations, led to the break up of the government and a split in the SLD. After standing down as SLD leader, Miller resigned as PM on 2 May 2004, i.e. the day after Poland joined the EU. Kwaśniewski appointed Marek Belka (who returned from his post as financial advisor in Iraq) to form a government of ‘experts’, as the SLD-led administration fell apart. The party opened up a process of verification of SLD members (whereby all members had to reapply for membership), as a public action against corruption in the party. Rather than clearing out a small, corrupt minority, the party initially lost over 35% of its membership. Also some leading members of the SLD left to form a new party: The Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL).

Once Again to the Third Way

By the 2005 elections a new younger leadership of the SLD had been created around Wojciech Olejniczak and Grzegorz Napieralski. This new leadership tried to present itself as being a break from the past, yet it essentially continued with the Third Way policies of Kwaśniewski and Miller. Olejniczak was promoted by Kwaśniewski as being the most suitable candidate for SLD leader and he openly declared that his role model internationally was Tony Blair. The SLD suffered a huge defeat at the 2005 elections (with its vote falling to 11% after gaining more than 40% in 2001) from which it has yet to recover. The 2005 elections pushed the left back to the position it had been in before 1991. For the first time after losing an election, the left was not the largest opposition group in parliament and it was unable to win in any of the country’s 41 constituencies. Despite this defeat, the SLD still won nearly three times as many votes as the SdPL, who failed to enter parliament; and the new leadership greeted the SLD’s result of 11% as a triumph.

Following the huge defeat in 2005 the left has been isolated with two parties from the conservative right dominating the Polish political scene. A debate within the post-communist left was begun shortly after these elections about what political and organisational strategy it should adopt. The major idea to emerge out of this discussion was that of creating a new centre-left alliance (centrolew) uniting the left and liberal centre against the project of the conservative-nationalists. This project eventually crystallised into the electoral alliance Left and Democrats (LiD) – which united, among others, the SLD, SdPL and Democratic Party (PD). Supporters of this project compared the situation in Poland to that which existed in the 1930s and argued that the Law and Justice (PiS) government was attempting to create a conservative-nationalist hegemony. In order to counter this, the left would need to build an alternative hegemonic project, though forming a strategic alliance with the liberal centre. While many of the fears concerning the building of a new conservative hegemony were justified (and have been vilified) the new left counter-hegemonic project was to be based upon a conception of capitalism derived from the ideas of the Third Way.

Protagonists of the centre-left project upheld the belief that capitalism had entered a post-materialist era and that the centre-left should seek to win support from the growing middle class. For example, Andrzej Celiński appealed to the young educated professionals, who are self-employed or work for new private firms. Likewise Napieralski (writing then as a supporter of building an alliance with the liberal centre) wrote that the industrial working class grouped in trade unions is no longer significant in modern society and that they have been replaced by independent specialists on the labour market. According to Napieralski the left should therefore support those individuals who are excluded from the market and increase their activities in the spheres of culture and education.

The concept of building a centre-left alliance, embodied in the political project of LiD collapsed after the 2007 elections when LiD gained just 13% of the vote. This was nearly 5% less than the combined votes of the parties that made up LiD during the 2005 elections. This strategy has led to the defeat and isolation of the post-communist left in Poland, as it is built upon a conception of the Polish social and political structures that does not fit reality. Shortly after the 2007 elections Olejniczak lost his position as leader of the SLD and was replaced by Napieralski. With the SdPL and PD suffering an even deeper isolation and contraction the SLD now stands as the only major party of the centre-left in Poland. Since becoming SLD leader, Napieralski has broken from the policies of the Third Way and the idea of forming an alliance with the political centre. However, his political strategy seems to be one of maintaining the parties core political support and presenting himself as a loyal representative of the party. Such a strategy may have helped to win the support of the party’s core electorate, but it has failed to expand into a party that could genuinely challenge the existing right-wing hegemony in Poland.


Blairism and the Third Way grew within European social democracy as an alternative to the declining nation-state centred model of social democracy prominent after World War Two. While it offered some genuine critique of this declining model, it adhered to many of the assumptions and precepts of neo-liberalism, which, when carried out in practice, led to the decline and not expansion of support for the left. The left is unable to expand its support through moving to the political centre but by understanding that although the social structure has changed over the past few decades this does not mean that we live in a post-class, individualist society where the free-market provides the means for economic growth and social justice. In fact the present economic crisis has shown that the opposite is true and that the left should begin to consider what economic model can be introduced to ensure the growth needed to build social equality and social justice.

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