Poland: Police disrupt academic conference on Karl Marx

As the Polish tragicomedy continues, the anticommunist obsession deepens. The police have interrupted an academic conference on Karl Marx as they were instructed by the local prosecutor to check whether the event does not contradict the law in terms of “spreading anti-national propaganda” and “promoting totalitarian systems”.

The conference was held from 9 to 12 May in the small town of Pobierowo in northwestern Poland. There is a department of the University of Szczecin there, where a group of academics and students organized an event celebrating the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. The participants had the opportunity to listen to lectures on his philosophical and political thought, as well as other thinkers referring to socialist traditions such as Sigmund Bauman, Luis Althusser, and Wolfgang Streeck. The pedagogical dimensions of Marxism in the works of Antonio Gramsci, Paul Freiri and Martha Nusbaum were also discussed. Five professors from different Polish universities were present as panelists – philosophers, sociologists, educationalists and political scientists.

Ironically, it turned out that the subject appeared to be interesting not only for the hundreds present at the conference but also for the local prosecution and police authorities in the area. On May 11, three armed police officers entered the university hall where the event was taking place. They explained that the discussion should be discontinued for some time in order for an “inspection” to be carried out, and called on the organizers to provide identity documents.

At that moment, only one person from the organizing committee was available to present himself to the officers of the law – the editor of the academic journal “Nowa Krytyka” and Polish left-wing activist, Tymoteusz Kochan. After a short conversation, the officers proceeded to “perform their duties”. They photographed the materials displayed for sale: T-shirts and badges with Marx’s face, bags with red stars on them, and a number of books and magazines, both Polish and foreign – most of which are easily available on the internet. The police also noted down the personal details of one of the guest professors.

Apparently, the police were not aggressive and tried to behave themselves politely. Despite the general shock among all the participants of the event, no unpleasant incidents took place. After about 45 minutes, order and the agenda were restored and the conference continued.

Describing this police “raid” on Facebook, Tymoteusz Kochan concluded: “Welcome to Polish democracy!”

“This is unprecedented and extremely dangerous. The police recorded my personal details and explained that they had been sent to check if anti-national propaganda was being circulated at the time of the event – that is the new norm in the recently updated law from the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamieci Narodowej – IPN) and whether we might be promoting totalitarian ideologies. I personally was quite thoroughly questioned about what was going on during the conference. It was clear from my conversation that the police themselves had no idea whatsoever on the subject, and were quite embarrassed and kept repeating continually that they were just carrying out an order and that a check had to be made. I admit there was no physical violence, but it is symbolic violence, a rough signal to the left circles in Poland. Right-wing paranoia!” commented Kochan to the journalist from the Polish website, Strajk.

Kochan is definitely right in his judgment. This is an unprecedented violation not only of fundamental freedom of speech but also of the autonomy of academic space, which is also guaranteed by Polish law. For police intervention on the territory of any university, special permission from the Rector’s Office is required. The only exception is in circumstances endangering the health or lives of people in that autonomous space. Few academic conferences on any topic can be interpreted as such a situation of this type of concern.

Every relatively careful observer of the modern Polish reality will immediately see that the informal political commander of the state, Jarosław Kaczyński, has decided to open a new front and begin to stir up new hysteria, to infect society with yet another “political” fantasy.

However, this should not be seen only as an outburst of the rich imagination of the leader of the ruling extremists – Law and Justice (PiS).

The model embraced by Kaczyński and the kind of anti-politics he is using is nothing but a toxic mixture of clichés that, in a moment convenient for the powers that be, are simply thrown to the people. Then, the atmosphere is stepped up through the state media, which is kept on a very short chain, along with a whole cluster of private media outlets favouring the current government. In this way a situation of intense, but thoroughly artificial conflict is implanted. It does not imply any clash of interests whatsoever, but simply brutalizes and embitters society, and exploits it emotionally.

Previously effective clichés like the alleged “Smolensk assassination” have already begun to lose their momentum, and the most recently made up nonsense, like reparations from Germany for WW2 or the re-Christianization of Europe, are not so stable.

Perhaps now they will exploit the idea of alleged danger linked to the alleged presence of communist structures in Poland. Nothing new – in fact all right-wing governments here ever since 1989 have been in a state of mental war with communism no matter how long ago the Berlin Wall fell. The current government suffers from the same disorder in regard to Russia.

It is, however, positive that the police intervention, although on a topic related to Karl Marx, about whom the Polish state media recently commented that he had spread “lethal ideas,” and who since the beginning of the transition has been a symbol of evil, has provoked many reactions of solidarity. Journalists, actors, and even some right-wing MPs have protested. Some of them, which is quite astonishing for Poland, did this even without indicating that they disliked the subject of the event. A well-known Polish theatre critic and Civic Platform (PO – the largest opposition party) MP wrote on Twitter that these are unconstitutional repressions against free citizens and academic work.

However, it should not be overlooked that a large part of the above-mentioned reactions are the result of the new fashion of not very well thought-out “civic protests”. As the ruling elite are pretty backward conservatives it has become a matter of good taste for the wannabe middle class “enlightened citizens” who “value democracy” and “stand for not leaving Europe” to lament against Kaczyński and his clique. A lot of these reactions show a lack of elementary political literacy or, even worse, are nothing but yet another version of the anti-communist mania that seized Poland long ago.

For example, one of the typical “civil protest” profiles, “Poland free of PiS”, commented on the incident with the words: “Welcome back to the Polish People’s Republic.” There is a logical incompatibility here, unfortunately, typical of the Polish opposition which tries to combat the conservative-fundamentalist right with the classical-conservative right; while it is being blamed for communism itself, it is making the same accusations against the ruling elites. Even when it comes to the repression of people respecting Marxist traditions!

Well, let us just repeat after Kochan: “Welcome to Polish democracy!”

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