Why the Left in Central and Eastern Europe Must Support Refugees

The refugee crisis continues to dominate European politics. By the beginning of August, almost 118,000 refugees had already entered the European Union via the Mediterranean Sea this year, with an additional estimated 2,400 of them losing their lives on the journey.[i] The continuation of western-instigated wars in the region, political destabilisation, terrorism, poverty and climate change mean that this flow of refugees to Europe is only likely to increase. Of course it is not Europe itself that is bearing the main brunt of this refugee crisis – but those countries that are bordering the war-zones, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But this inflow of refugees into the European Union, and the response by political leaders to it, have opened up new divisions in European politics, including amongst the left. It has also exposed divisions between different parts of the European Union, with some Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries opposing the policy of refugee quotas.

In CEE one of the most outspoken leftist critics of the policy of refugee quotas and on adopting an “open door” policy to refugees, has been the Slovakian MP: Ľuboš Blaha. Ľuboš is an unusual character on the left in CEE, due to the fact that he has served as an MP in the country’s ruling social democratic government, whilst openly describing himself as a Marxist. He has consistently opposed neo-liberalism, shown solidarity with left movements in Latin America, opposed the sanctions imposed on Russia; and actively campaigned against the growth of racism and the far-right in Slovakia. Ľuboš is a firm believer in the ideals of the left and seeks pragmatic and flexible solutions to the problems in Slovakia and CEE, where the left tends to be weak and neo-liberalism and conservative nationalism vie for supremacy. However, on the question of refugees, I believe that he is profoundly mistaken.

Ľuboš Blaha

Ľuboš’s views on the refugee crisis, and its implications for the left in Slovakia and Europe more broadly, have been formulated in a number of articles in English.[ii] His arguments expand beyond the issue of refugees and encompass a range of matters that he describes as “cultural” – e.g. the rights of minorities such as the LGBT community. His basic line of reasoning is that the left has been submerged into a cultural war between ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives, by taking the side of the former and ignoring (or in many cases ridiculing) the traditional working class communities that had previously been the bedrock of support for the left. He concludes that the left should remain moderate on these “cultural” issues, yet be radical on economic and social matters and its opposition to neo-liberalism.

Ľuboš is also one of the few left-wing politicians in CEE who does not regard the European Union as being a haven for the left. He points out that the European Union has often imposed neo-liberalism on countries such as Greece and the continuing developmental and power divisions between the European Union’s western and eastern halves. He reminds us that the historical and socio-economic conditions in CEE are very different from those in Western Europe; and that the left should recognise the inequalities and developmental divisions that remain integral to the European Union.

Turning to the question of refugees in Europe, Ľuboš brings these two parts of his analysis together. He states that the left has been lured into an alliance with the “cosmopolitan elite”, adopting an ultra-liberal approach of accepting refugees and supporting open borders. He argues that the left is essentially accepting a pillar of the neo-liberal global order, which enables international capital to exploit labour. This favours the middle-class and urban intelligentsia – who enjoy the privilege of being able to freely travel around the globe and would rather “have a fine raw cake in their favourite café than go out and fight against transnational capital.”[iii] Meanwhile, the left ignores those working class communities that are unable to participate in such privileged activities and remain tied to their traditional communities and localities. This situation is most pronounced in CEE countries such as Slovakia, because, he argues, such nations have no history of multiculturalism due to their lack of a colonial past. They also have fewer economic resources to integrate refugees and the populations of these countries tend to hold more socially conservative opinions. The attempt therefore by the European Union to insist that these countries take in a quota of refugees, and the labelling of these societies or governments as being Islamophobic, reflects the inequalities in Europe and the lack of understanding in the West of the reality in CEE.

Before outlining my own criticisms of these opinions, it is important to recognise what Ľuboš has got right. The CEE countries were not brought into the European Union as equal partners, but rather via a process of de-industrialisation and integration into the international division of labour as suppliers of cheap labour, consumers of western goods and destinations for outsourcing and speculation. The inflow of European Union funds and the right of CEE workers to work in Western Europe have been important, although inadequate, redistributors of wealth. The long historical division between Eastern and Western Europe has rarely been understood by the left in Western Europe or highlighted sufficiently by the left in CEE. Therefore it has been the conservative right (such as Orbán in Hungary or Kaczyński in Poland) and the far-right in these countries that have politically benefited from these injustices.

I would also argue that Ľuboš is correct to point out that large sections of the left have deserted the field of fighting for such things as workers’ rights. A section of the so-called “new left” has accepted the dictums of neo-liberal economics, restricting itself to so-called cultural issues and life-style politics. This has often been the case amongst the CEE left, due to the weakening of the labour movement and trade unions, the historical experiences of “communism”, etc. If the left is to rebuild itself in CEE, then undoubtedly it must reconnect with working class communities and offer solutions to their material needs. However, whilst Ľuboš ostensibly lays out a materialist critique of parts of the left, his arguments about refugees are based upon the very idealistic assumptions that he claims to dismiss.

Firstly, he approaches the movement of people, between countries, as if it were merely a cultural activity enjoyed by the most privileged layers of society. For someone situated in CEE, who claims to speak in the interests of working class communities, this is a remarkable oversight. Deindustrialisation, unemployment and low wages have forced literally millions of workers from CEE to seek work and a better standard of living in Western Europe. Whole communities and regions are now dependent upon the open borders of the European Union and their integration into the European division of labour. As the left, we understand how this mass movement of labour is based upon deep structural inequalities within Europe. We also recognise how companies use this opportunity to exploit workers and drive down living standards. However, the left also has a unique vantage point that avoids the pitfalls of neo-liberalism and conservativism. We defend the right of labour (and not just capital) to move and we understand how falling living standards and workers’ rights are caused by austerity and not migration.[iv]

This idealistic approach and fixation on culture is extended to the current refugee crisis. Ľuboš does, in passing, recognise that the left should seek to “eliminate the root causes” of the crisis, through campaigning to “restrict the arms trade, stop the unfair practices of multinational corporations and promote fair trade in Africa as well as support stable regions in the Middle East.”[v] However, whilst we await the international left to overturn the global order, thousands of people continue to flee wars and poverty. Just because we wish to end the wars that have caused the refugee crisis, does not allow us to turn our backs on their victims. As a Marxist, Ľuboš will surely agree with Marx’s statement that we have “no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”[vi] We stand in solidarity with the refugees as victims of international capitalism and the wars that that have been unleashed by the West. The obligation of the left, in every European country, should be to urge its governments to provide as much help as possible to the refugees and to pressure the European Union to organise a coordinated and humanitarian response to it.

Despite accusing the left of prioritising cultural over economic issues, Ľuboš himself argues that in Slovakia “it is completely natural to protect our culture and our values”. His argument is a contradictory one. On the one hand he dismisses the accusations that Slovakia is xenophobic by pointing to the large number of national, ethnic and religious minorities that live in the country. However, in the same article he states that Slovakia is not a “multicultural country” and cites Žižek to defend his view that it is acceptable to protect “European values” and our “way of life”.[vii] The assumption here is that Slovakian working class communities are under threat by people that hold different values and culture to Europeans. Ľuboš then goes a step further by arguing that it is acceptable for Slovakia to want to integrate Christian rather than Muslim refugees, because we share similar cultural values. He argues that Islam has different cultural values on such things as women’s rights, giving a supposed progressive tinge to the argument that we should “protect our values” from the threat of Islam.

After denigrating much of the left for having subsumed itself into the cultural politics of liberalism, Ľuboš ends up accepting many of the conservative right’s arguments on “cultural values”. This includes the premise that European culture is under threat from refugees, particularly those who are Muslim. This is a disingenuous point when arguing against CEE countries like Slovakia accepting their European Union quota of refugees, as the country was being asked to take in fewer than two and a half thousand refugees. By approaching this issue from the perspective of “culture” and “values”, the atmosphere of hostility and the demonisation of refugees and Islam is intensified. Furthermore, the “left” argument that an influx of Muslim refugees will diminish such things as women’s rights is not based on any factual evidence. Countries with the largest Muslim populations in Europe often have the most progressive policies on such things as women and LGBT rights. The Muslim population is often an important and integral part of the left in these countries and a participant in the social and political movements against the right. This progressive input of the Muslim community was shown when all the Muslim MPs in the UK and Germany voted for single sex marriage; or when the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, attends the city’s Gay Pride March and champions diversity in the capital.

An anti-immigrant demonstration in Slovakia.

Fear about refugees is more easily spread within CEE, as the low number of Muslims that live in most of these countries often means there is more ignorance towards these communities.  The conservative and far-right in the region are now spreading the message that they are defending their countries from “invasion” and are at the forefront of protecting European values against the multi-culturalism of Western Europe.  The anti-refugee atmosphere is not a cultural issue but one that has been manufactured and intensified for political reasons. For example, during the 2000s, thousands of Chechen refugees were granted asylum in Poland – and there was virtually no public dissent or conflict around this decision. And at the beginning of the present refugee crisis, Polish society was evenly divided on the issue of whether to take in refugees. However, the huge propaganda effort by the conservative right against refugees and Muslims in the country, has spread prejudice and fear amongst the population, with the latest opinion polls showing that almost three-quarters of society no longer wish to allow refugees to come to Poland.[viii]

The left should not be tempted by the arguments that the refugee issue is about “culture” or “values” and instead approach the question politically. We need to have a different attitude to the refugee and migration issue than both the conservatives and liberals. We can understand this better when we consider, for example, the way in which the labour markets in countries such as Britain were opened up to immigration from CEE. Shortly before the opening of its labour market in 2004, the British government dishonestly predicted that just 13,000 immigrants from Poland would come to Britain. However, more than one-million Poles have come to work in Britain after EU enlargement. The then British government, under the premiership of Tony Blair, facilitated such mass immigration without preparing the British population and using it as a means to try and undercut wages and working conditions. The alternative should have been to protect the rights of all workers in Britain and to have invested in public services (such as housing, schools and hospitals) in those areas where immigrants were concentrated. Such a policy would help to integrate migrants into communities, thus countering the divisive policies of the right, as well as the exploitative practices of businesses.

Finally, Ľuboš justifiably criticises those in Western Europe who reactively brand CEE as being xenophobic. He warns against such easy labelling and the possibility of new divisions opening up between CEE and Western Europe. The response of the European Union to the refugee crisis has been woefully inadequate. The policy of “fortress Europe” has allowed thousands of people to die escaping the wars, in which many European Union countries (including those from CEE) have taken part. The power imbalances within the European Union, mean that Angela Merkel did not bother to consult with CEE countries before announcing the change in refugee policy and there is a broad sentiment in these countries that such decisions have been imposed upon them. However, the populations of CEE benefit greatly from open borders within the European Union, whilst increasingly becoming victims of nationalist prejudice within many Western European countries. The CEE countries should be at the forefront of opposing this shift towards right-wing nationalism in Europe and recognise that they themselves have an obligation to be part of a European-wide response to the refugee crisis.

Capitalism breeds divisions between nations and peoples and thrives upon the ideologies of nationalism and racism. The guises of “culture” and “values” are deployed in order to mask the inequalities that underpin this economic system. This channels society’s frustrations into these divisive ideologies, turning them away from the real causes of their dissatisfaction. Just as the left must not be seduced by the neo-liberals who claim to represent tolerance and diversity, so too should it not compromise with the conservatives and nationalists who assert themselves as the voices of working class culture and values.

Gavin Rae is a sociologist from Poland. He is the author of the books Poland’s Return to Capitalism and Public Capital. The Commodification of Poland’s Welfare State. He is a founding member of the think-tank Naprzód (Forward), which is an observer organisation in transform! network. 


[i] http://reliefweb.int/topics/refugeesmigrants-emergency-europe

[ii] ‘In Defence Of Slovak Social Democracy’, Social Europe, October 2015 (https://www.socialeurope.eu/in-defence-of-slovak-social-democracy) ; Kulturkampf Of The Left? Extremes, Be Gone!, Social Europe, March 2017, (https://www.socialeurope.eu/kulturkampf-left-extremes-gone) ; Why Slovakia Won’t Embrace Migration, Politico, August 2016, (http://www.politico.eu/article/why-slovakia-wont-embrace-migration-lubos-blaha-josef-rydlo/)

[iii] Kulturkampf Of The Left? Extremes, Be Gone!, Social Europe, March 2017, (https://www.socialeurope.eu/kulturkampf-left-extremes-gone)

[iv] http://socialisteconomicbulletin.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/migration-is-economic-benefit.html

[v] ‘In Defence Of Slovak Social Democracy’, Social Europe, October 2015 (https://www.socialeurope.eu/in-defence-of-slovak-social-democracy)

[vi] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf

[vii] ‘In Defence Of Slovak Social Democracy’, Social Europe, October 2015 (https://www.socialeurope.eu/in-defence-of-slovak-social-democracy)

[viii] http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2017/K_044_17.PDF