‘The roots of the reactionary bloc lie in the supposed “democratic” camp’: Interview with the Slovak collective Karmína
First published at LeftEast.
Can you tell us a bit more about Karmína? What is your origin story? What do you do? How do you define yourself as a platform/collective?
Karmína was established in 2017 as an informal group that runs a collective blog. Some of us have previously worked together, since the mid-2000s, in other initiatives on the left. We are interested in finding ways in which working people can use their collective power to better their lives and emancipate themselves from the drudgery of wage labor, and we see the potential for this power as deriving from their position in capitalism.
Our work mostly focuses on publishing longer and shorter texts, such as analyses of particular workplace struggles, extended commentary on current issues or interviews with workers from different sectors. Some of these are also available as printable pamphlets. In the past six years, we have put out about two thousand pages worth of material, most of it in Slovak. In addition, we (co-)organize discussions, screenings or other events on topics related to our focus. Our less public activities include trying to link up with struggles when they appear, contribute our practical skills if they are needed, draw lessons from the struggles, and discuss their possibilities with whoever is interested.
What is the position of the Left in Slovakia’s current political landscape?
From an Eastern European perspective, Slovakia may appear exceptional in that two nominally social-democratic parties, Smer – Slovenská sociálna demokracia (“Direction – Slovak Social Democracy”) and Hlas – Sociálna demokracia (“Voice – Social democracy”), received a combined 38% of the vote. Only the centre-right party Progressive Slovakia was wedged between Smer (23%) and Hlas (15%) with roughly 18%. In a few days, the two leftist parties will announce the lineup of a coalition government with Slovenská národná strana (“Slovak National Party”, SNS), which narrowly made it into parliament with less than 6% of the vote. This will be the fourth Smer-led government in less than twenty years.
However, this apparent dominance of social democracy over the Slovak political landscape comes with a few caveats. One is rather well-known and often cited in critiques from the left. On issues such as the separation of church and state, gender equality, reproductive freedoms, queer rights, or migration, Smer is far from most contemporary Western European social democratic parties, not to mention the radical left. With respect to these questions, it resembles a social-conservative party in the style of the Bavarian CSU. More recently, it has veered even further to the right, towards territory occupied by parties such as AfD. This is why it has not been difficult for Smer to find common ground with SNS, both in the past (when it was anti-Roma and anti-Hungarian) and now (when it is fiercely anti-migrant and anti-queer).
Of course, we share this critique. The struggle against racism, misogyny, or queerphobia is central to any serious left politics, and even more so in a country like Slovakia. Almost exactly a year ago, a young bisexual man and a young nonbinary person were murdered in a terrorist attack on a bar popular with the LGBTI+ crowd. The attack was perpetrated by a teenage alt-right sympathizer.
But we think that on its own, this critique cedes too much ground to Smer as being economically left-wing. In fact, Smer’s supporters often argue in a similar vein that, unlike Western European social democratic parties, Smer has not turned toward “minorities” or identity politics and remains “classically left,” focused on “bread and butter issues.” However, LeftEast readers may remember Slovakia’s hawkish stance on Greece and other troubled countries during the European fiscal crisis. Yannis Varoufakis later described Smer’s Minister of Finance Peter Kažimír as “outschäubling Schäuble” in the Eurogroup meetings. This was not a coincidence, and it has a domestic-political dimension, too.
Robert Fico’s Smer emerged as a split from the “Party of the Democratic Left” (SDĽ, a heir to the formerly ruling Communist Party) in 1999. The latter quickly became discredited by its participation in Mikuláš Dzurinda’s pro-business government (1998–2002). After a brief period of “no ideology,” Smer pledged allegiance to a specific, “Slovak” version of Third Way politics, originally popularized by the UK Labour Party, at the time the most influential variant of the neoliberalized Left. From the beginning, this included the abandoning of any universalist pretensions and a strategy of pitting different sections of the working class against each other. Already in its first election campaign, Smer made clear its intentions of disciplining the impoverished and unemployed Roma communities, the real losers of the transition process. This would later materialize, e.g., in the imposition of workfare principles on the most basic benefit paid out to the poorest sections of the population (the so-called “allowance in material need”). The party positioned itself as the defender of the modest residues of the welfare state but only for the “hard-working” and the “decent.” Moreover, Smer’s approach to the welfare state itself is rather minimalist.
What, in Smer’s view, is the welfare state?
The way Smer sees it, the welfare state can only exist within very narrow confines. Its lower limits are determined by the minimal level of redistribution that the political Right would like to introduce through a flat tax, abolition of the minimum wage, weakening of trade union rights, means-testing for all benefits, and so on. The upper limits coincide with the level of redistribution and public debt that could jeopardize Slovakia’s attractiveness to foreign creditors and investors, to which Smer has always pandered with tax cuts and other concessions. Even in its heyday, when it ruled on its own (2012–2016), the party only very carefully fiddled with the tax system. It brought the share of tax revenue in GDP in line with the OECD average, but this is still far below most Western European countries. The basic structure of taxation, which heavily emphasizes consumption and labor (through compulsory health & social security contributions), was kept in place. Similarly, the level of public social expenditure in proportion to GDP remained virtually unchanged under that government as well as the one after that, which included Smer as the main coalition party. The same applies to basic features of income distribution. From the party’s point of view, the relative share of wealth that can be redistributed (chiefly between different sections of the working class, not from capital to workers) is basically constant. The important thing is not to diminish this share and to keep reassuring those who are able to access it that their share – however modest – is well-deserved and will be touched by no “Other.”
This narrow space was not used to develop universally accessible and quality public services in health, education, transport, or housing. Nor could it be since it is far from sufficient for that. Rather, Smer’s focus has been on ad hoc, seemingly generous monetary benefits or expanding access to services while maintaining their low quality. Thus, the project of returning to a universal, single payer, publicly run health insurance, announced with great pomp in 2012, was quickly abandoned. The consolation prize was an incomparably cheaper measure (2014): railway transport free of charge for pensioners and students, though on slowly degrading infrastructure. Moreover, the basic principle of Smer’s generosity is not the sort of aspirational universalism that once characterized social democracy, but a pragmatic particularism based on electoral math. In its latest election manifesto, for example, Smer stressed that pensioners “represent the most vulnerable segment of society” and need “special assistance.” In fact, data has long shown that sections of the population that are most at-risk in terms of poverty are the unemployed, children, larger families, and single-parent families. But the age structure of Smer’s electorate dictates other priorities.
How, then, can one explain the enduring success of Smer’s brand of “social democracy”?
To this day, Smer benefits from the fact that it twice succeeded right-wing governments, in 2006 and 2012, and could serve as a corrective to their policies – curtailing the full-blown flexibilization of the Labor Code and increasing the minimum wage or pensions. Sometimes, such as when the formal principle of equal conditions for temp workers was introduced during Smer’s first government, this was simply a matter of bringing local legislation into line with EU directives. In other cases, Smer’s steps remained well within the limits we have already outlined. But even such a limited offer of “guarantees” formed a solid basis for electoral mobilization which, it must be noted, took place on the backdrop of the transition and mass unemployment, the period of unhinged right-wing “reforms” after 2002, or the post-2008 global economic crisis. Perhaps even more important than the content and scope of the “guarantees” that Smer could provide was the foreboding that they could come under threat.
Smer built its success on recuperating such concerns. In the last decade, it gradually lost any scruples in terms of the means used to maintain these underlying fears. The national-conservative and xenophobic element in Smer’s rhetoric and political practice – present since its founding – has gradually gained in strength. This development had to do with a more general shift to the (far) right which transcends Slovakia and dates to the 2008 global economic crisis. Smer not only adapted to this trend but actively shaped it. Some of the milestones along the way have been the European fiscal crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
On some of the latter issues, Smer saw itself compete with the neo-fascist Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (“People’s Party Our Slovakia,” ĽSNS) and its more sophisticated and popular offshoot Republika, founded in 2021. In the recent election, Smer skillfully outmaneuvered these forces. Although polls had credited Republika with 8% or more, it did not even make it into parliament with just below 5%. There is a consensus, with which we agree, that Smer managed to capture parts of the far-right vote by ramping up the anti-refugee and anti-gender rhetoric just before the election. However, the usual view also entails that Smer has been able to consolidate the “populist” camp (nationalist, reactionary, xenophobic, left-wing) around itself and conquer the “democratic” (cosmopolitan, progressive, tolerant, right-wing) camp. This ham-fisted assessment of the divisions in Slovak politics is still popular, but it completely misses the mark.
Why is that so?
The reactionary bloc transcends both the nominal left–right divide and the “populist”–“democratic” distinction. It will have several representatives in both the coalition and the opposition. While it is true that, in the last few years, Smer has become a major driver of e.g. the “anti-gender” agenda, the bloc’s real origin story is quite different. Back in the 1990s, such politics had been the domain of Slovak political Catholicism represented by the deeply conservative grouping around Ján Čarnogurský, a Christian Democrat and a former anti-communist dissident. In the early 2000s, his disciple Vladimír Palko set out on a veritable crusade against “cultural Marxism,” preaching against the influence of such “Lenin’s cousins” (his words) as liberals, feminists, or environmental activists. At the time, he was the Minister of the Interior in Dzurinda’s second, more vociferously neoliberal government. In this role, Palko is best remembered for authorizing the massive deployment of police (as well as the army) to quell riots by jobless Romani people in response to major welfare cuts in 2004.
In the following years, this conservative current birthed a range of reactionary NGOs, media, and public spectacles like the regular anti-women Marches for Life, as well as a new generation of right-wing politicians. At the time, all of this was considered part of the mainstream “democratic” camp. Proponents of this tendency were more than welcome to publish in the supposedly high-brow weekly Týždeň. Liberals saw them as perhaps a bit quirky and old-timey, but nevertheless allies in the common struggle against “populism” represented by Vladimír Mečiar’s “Movement for a Democratic Slovakia,” SNS and Smer, whose coalition came to power in 2006 in the first Fico-led government.
Hence, the roots of the reactionary bloc lie in the supposed “democratic” camp. It was consolidated by the entry of neo-fascists into parliament in 2016 and by the rightward turn of a number of Smer’s leading figures. Smer was a latecomer to this type of politics, but since the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 it has become one of its key drivers. Thus, the bloc now has three pillars: a conservative Catholic, a fascist, and a “red-brown” one.
What about the second social-democratic party, Hlas? How is it different from Smer?
Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas split off from Smer in 2020, taking many familiar faces with it. Recently, it also helped found a new think-tank, the Institute of Social Democracy (ISD). So far, Hlas’s political identity basically boils down to “Smer without the fascist flirtations,” with the aim of becoming an accepted part of the European social democratic family. Content-wise, the economic policies put forward by Hlas and ISD are not too far from those of Smer: a cautious balancing act between economic growth and welfare or between fiscal consolidation and public investment, all in the name of stability and social peace. The welfare state is supposed to be there primarily for those who “do honest work and create value” or those less fortunate “who for objective reasons need to rely on outside help.” The “objective reasons” here are an obvious nod to popular anti-Roma sentiments and stereotypes about the poor. The hard limits within which the lofty visions of a “new growth model” and a “social democracy for the future” will have to fit were perhaps best summarized by the chairman of Hlas himself, in a question he posed at an ISD event. To paraphrase, what are even the possibilities for a social democratic politics in a time of global value chains, intense competition, and international financial discipline?
So far, Hlas seems to have been faced with a choice that we see as typical of post-1980 social democracy anywhere. In an era characterized by the conditions sketched out above, one can take the first option and accept the imperatives of competition and fiscal responsibility, move on to a more technocractic politics of a lean post-welfare state, and leave the old working-class base behind for a more general orientation toward the “people in general.” This brings social democrats closer to (social) liberals. The second option consists in a national-protectionist defense of the interests and privileges of certain sections of the old base, often at the expense of other, weaker, and more desperate sectors of workers. This is the basis for a closer cooperation with the far right. Smer’s politics included elements of both options and ultimately leaned toward the second Hlas’s future trajectory is more difficult to estimate.
Until the election, it seemed like both possibilities were open, with a slight preference toward the first. It is now clear, however, that Hlas will govern with Smer and SNS, a party whose MPs now include a selection of figures from the “online far-right.” The Party of European Socialists (PES) saw the writing on the wall and suspended both Smer and Hlas just days after the new coalition was announced. This will likely be perceived as a deep blow to Hlas’s strategy, which was precisely to position itself as the “clean,” “modern,” and “more European” alternative to Smer. A coalition with Progressive Slovakia (PS) and other right-wing parties from the so-called “democratic” camp would clearly have been more compatible with the first of the two options we mentioned. Spending the next four years in government with Smer not only suggests an orientation toward the second option, it may also spell trouble for Hlas’s own independent existence. Smer has proved, time and again, its ability to use its partners in government and then dispose of them. In Slovak journalist parlance, this is known as the “kiss of death.” In any case, the political space created by the second option is already occupied by Smer and there is no room for two.
What about the alternative? What would a Progressive Slovakia-led government including Hlas look like?
Again, it is difficult to be specific, as PS was never in power, and the party’s politics mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It was founded in 2017 as the outcome of years of discussions in a very small, strange, and unique milieu which evades simple description. There is a section of the late “Generation X,” people born between circa 1975 and 1980 who came of age in the mid-90s and were fortunate to be exposed to a host of new possibilities. Some of them became involved in the burgeoning NGO scene which, at the time, was not yet easily distinguishable from actual grassroots activism or even “anarchism,” and which focused on environmentalism, community development, or anti-racism. Others were able to pursue high-quality education or research abroad, often in social science, where they were exposed to all kinds of influences. The latter were quite different from the rewarmed Austrian economics viewed as an intellectual Holy Grail back home. Still others sought success in private business, often in the tech sector, founding start-ups before they were called that.
By 2012 at the latest – when Iveta Radičová’s right-wing government folded prematurely due to disagreements on the European Financial Stability Facility, Smer was itching to take over, and EU-wide austerity lay ahead – a definite milieu of people from these three groups began to coalesce, united around a frustration with both the Right and the Left. They saw the first camp as too stuck in the era of Dzurinda’s second term, a time of ruthless “reforms” designed to stimulate export-led growth based on low wages and flexible employment. That model was now seen as outdated. The second camp represented ghosts of an even older past, that of Vladimír Mečiar, rent extraction, and little to no development.
The pioneers of these discussions – such as Ivan Štefunko, a former young social democrat turned venture capitalist – based PS’s original platform on an outright rejection of the Left–Right distinction. They replaced it with a dichotomy of forces that represent progress and those that do not. The underlying notion of “progress” is thoroughly depoliticized and managerial, a matter of choosing the best policies based on a “value for money” analysis. Translated into concrete political terms, it was and remains a strange mix. The latest electoral program contains a few left-wing proposals: abolishing workfare for the basic type of allowance we have already mentioned, introducing a new type of housing benefit or extending the program of free school meals, an important measure in fighting Romani poverty and low literacy. On the other hand, PS is planted firmly in the fiscally responsible, pro-business camp. As regards labor issues, what it proposes is mostly flexibilization of employment relations or a reshuffling of employment benefits to motivate job seekers. The program makes no mention of trade unions and their role, and the party rarely, if ever, addresses the interests of its potential voters as employees or workers. Naturally, then, the rationale for the kinds of redistributive policies mentioned above is not formulated in terms of a balance of forces between capital and labor. Rather, the party refers to general “humanist” values or sees these policies as measures for developing “human capital” – the “most precious commodity” in the world to come, as PS put it in a 2018 manifesto. Unsurprisingly, PS can draw on the support of educated professionals or university students, but it is not the obvious first choice for the factory worker, bus driver, or nurse. An oft-repeated narrative sees the key cleavage in Slovak history, as well as in the present, in the urban–rural divide, with towns being associated with the modern, “democratic” camp, while the countryside is more prone to supporting the reactionary, “populist” camp. Such analyses usually ignore class. However, as data from the recent election also suggest, class matters: PS did rather well in many small places, while one can clearly identify poor or underdeveloped precincts in Bratislava with strong support for Smer and Hlas.
But even though PS is clearly no left-wing party, it managed to capture what appears to be a large part of the young left vote. Young people are by far the party’s biggest constituency. Many of those who are active around climate change, anti-fascism or LGBTI+ rights feel attracted to it, even if just as a lesser evil or a substitute for the non-existent “modern Left” of the Polish “Razem” kind. On climate, PS’s positions are rather timid, but it is the only major party to mention the topic beyond offhand remarks or near-denialism. It also pledges to implement the economic separation of state and church, introduce same-sex civil unions, enable access to health care for trans people and boost the position of women in society. The PS candidate list in the recent election had a 50/50 gender parity, which by far exceeds the standards of other parties.
But to come back to your question: given what we have said about the politics of PS and Hlas, the alternative coalition would have been no victory for the left. Moreover, even minimal gains of the sort described above – some redistribution, some relief for LGBTI+ people – would be difficult to push through due to the other two coalition partners. One of them would be the comically libertarian Sloboda a solidarita (“Freedom and Solidarity”, SaS, 6%), perhaps the only contemporary party in Slovakia that is open about the sort of class interest it represents. The other would be the Catholic KDH (7%), a fierce opponent of all sin, including access to reproductive health care for women.
What do you think is important for us to know about Slovakia’s current political situation and relationship with the broader region (CEE, postsocialist countries etc)? In particular, how do you understand the country’s current relations with neighbors like Hungary, but also Ukraine, and other imperial powers, like the EU and the US?
Since the early 2000s, Slovakia has become firmly embedded in global value chains that are mostly related to the automotive industry and centered around Germany. EU membership (2004), and to a lesser extent NATO membership (2004) and the adoption of the Euro (2009) were a key part of the process. A mere decade earlier, a strong political current led by Vladimír Mečiar suggested a form of independent, national capitalist development that would turn Slovakia into a bridge between the “East and West.” None of the relevant forces today would entertain such illusions. Whatever is said in the heat of the electoral campaign or a TV debate, the interests of Volkswagen, U.S. Steel & co. are sacrosanct, since without them and their network of suppliers, there is no Slovak economy.
This network of suppliers also forms an important connection with the neighboring countries, since the automotive and other industries form a cluster spanning all of V4 and beyond. There is, of course, competition – especially when it comes to hosting the new location of an important investment project. But the days of heightened nationalist tensions when the “Hungarian card” played a real role in Slovak politics are gone, at least for now. If anything, Hungary’s Orbán is popular with the nationalist and authoritarian section of the political class for his ability to “stand up to Brussels” on matters like refugees, Ukraine or sanctions – (without, of course, ever threatening the interests of German and other companies in Hungary, and in fact playing into their hands). In the eyes of the “democratic” camp, Orbán’s illiberalism and his attacks on the judiciary, media, or academia demonstrate what a victory of the “populists” would lead to. Poland plays a similar role with respect to women’s rights, LGBTI+ issues, and the position of the Catholic church.
The manufacturing sector built up by foreign investment connects Slovakia to other post-socialist countries in another sense too – that of labor migration. Up until quite recently, the country was a net source of migrant labor power for the Czech Republic, the UK, Ireland, as well as Austria, where Slovak women were an important resource for patching up the overburdened care sector. However, during the previous boom, which lasted until 2019, the demand for hands in electronics and automotive factories turned Slovakia itself into a destination for migrant labor, primarily from Serbia and later Ukraine. Interestingly, although there were some local tensions caused by the perceived preferential treatment of migrants by employers and temp agencies, this did not translate to the level of high politics at all. There seems to be a general political consensus that if workers in Slovakia are unwilling to take low-paying manufacturing jobs, employers should be able to access reservoirs of labor power abroad, preferably in countries that are “culturally close” to Slovakia. There is now some talk of importing workers from the Philippines – and the country’s Catholic majority may have something to do with that. In any case, fear mongering about migration only manifests against those who have brown skin and are fleeing poverty, catastrophe, or war.
Speaking of war, Ukraine after February 24th, 2022, is a separate topic. Thanks to both European funding and scores of selfless volunteers, Slovakia did a pretty good job of taking care of refugees – very much unlike during the 2015 crisis or the current wave of Middle Eastern migrants. The previous right-wing government also enthusiastically supported arms transfers. What little Warsaw Pact-era materiel could still be found in the warehouses and hangars of the Slovak army was quickly handed over in exchange for money or promises of future deliveries of more modern weapons systems from Western allies. However, Smer, SNS, and the fascist parties opposed the arming of Ukraine (because it only “prolongs the war”) and pledged to limit assistance to the humanitarian kind at best. Without making it a central issue, they would also point to the amount of support provided to refugees, in a nod to the popular sentiment that “poor Ukrainians arriving on BMWs are handed everything on a plate.” Fico himself often repeated the tired Putinist talking points about “eight years” and “murders of Russian citizens in the Donbas.”
But Fico’s apparent anti-militarism may soon be tested. Nothing of note is left that the Slovak Armed Forces could simply ship to Ukraine. However, there are arms factories whose products (for example, the howitzer “Zuzana,” the demining system “Božena” or 155mm artillery shells) are now in high demand. These are the remnants of the pre-1989 military industry that got decimated by the transition. Producing on a much smaller scale, these companies are now excited about the potential of the Ukrainian market. It is difficult to imagine that Fico’s new government would take any actual steps to banning the export of these products. Weapons or not, they are produced by locally owned enterprises and in places with broad support for Smer. Moreover, Fico has cultivated contacts with people in charge of the industry since at least the mid-2000s. As for Hlas, its chairman has already confirmed that this opportunity to “provide jobs for the Slovak people” should not be missed.
The English language press most recently focused on Slovakia because of the general election, but the question of the actual material conditions for workers impacting the election was not covered. What is the state of labor rights in Slovakia?
In material terms, the prospects for large sections of the working population have not been looking so great, lately. The sustained growth in average real wages at around 4% a year is a distant memory of the previous boom which took place between 2014 and 2019. Last year, the total economy real wages index fell by some 5%. The chaos of the pandemic, skyrocketing prices in the aftermath of supply chain breakdown and the Russian invasion, as well as the looming possibility of a German recession which would immediately impact the Slovak economy, have fostered a deep sense of insecurity. Add to this the expectation that the new government will engage in fiscal consolidation, in one way or another, to reduce public expenditure and increase the state’s income. Of course, these factors have translated into gains for the two left parties in the recent election. Costs of living featured prominently in their campaign and though both accept the need to reduce public debt, they have pledged a slower pace and a more sensitive approach than the right-wing parties.
For the trade unions, a government including Smer, Hlas, or both also makes sense. The Right has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to not just deregulate employment or freeze the minimum wage, but also to cut back trade union rights at the enterprise level, limit the importance of sector-wide bargaining or circumvent “tripartite” consultations altogether. In contrast, Smer (and, by extension, Hlas) provide a set of minimal guarantees. This includes a basic “European standard” in employment relations and trade union rights, as well as a seat at the table for union representatives (as well as bosses’ associations) whenever key legislation is discussed. Smer-led governments have also been favorable to yearly increases in the minimum wage, which translate into gains – however meager – for all workers in manufacturing and other sectors through a system of overtime and night work bonuses stipulated by law.
Naturally, this package comes at a price. Smer and Hlas are deeply averse to workplace conflict or disruption, and they see the maintenance of social peace as a key role of the unions. Historically, Smer had maintained a close relationship with the Konfederácia odborových zväzov (“Trade Union Confederation,” KOZ) and, during the great manufacturing downturn of 2009, signed an agreement with KOZ that unions should refrain from “inadequate” wage demands for the time being. Industrial action that escapes the framework of calculated social dialogue is seen as dangerous and worthy of repression, as was clear from Smer’s rhetoric during the coordinated mass quitting by public hospital doctors in 2011 (a successful and rather militant struggle), when the party was in opposition. Its MPs later pushed through legislation to complicate such actions in the future.
This approach to social conflict complements Smer’s minimalist view of the welfare state: yes to gains for workers, but only through sanctioned channels and at a regulated pace. Hlas would agree, writing in its 2022 “Mayday Manifesto” that “trade unions must be careful not to cause the downfall of companies with their demands.” Not a very encouraging Mayday message from social democrats! However, from the point of view of trade union leaders, the deal offered by Smer and Hlas is not just preferable relative to the proposals of the Right. It also seems to provide a way out of the long-term problems unions have faced.
What are those?
Since the 1990s, there has been a massive decline in union density, disproportionately affecting the private sector. For a long time, Slovak unions have relied on ritualized forms of struggle with little initiative from the base. Due to their perceived passivity, the legitimacy of unions in the eyes of unorganized workers is not very high. With a shrinking base, it was a matter of time until the top-down model of directing worker protest would run its course, and there were two glaring examples of that in 2022. First, a call to a “general strike” against the unpopular right-wing government put forward by the Slovak metal workers’ union, OZ KOVO (the equivalent of IG Metall) was overwhelmingly ignored and rejected in an internal poll. Later that year, a “Demonstration Against Poverty” in Bratislava called by KOZ only attracted a smallish crowd of union members, most of them bussed in. In this context of declining everyday power in the workplace or in the community, the framework proposed by Smer and Hlas is an attractive option. It increases their state-sanctioned, institutional power. With tripartite consultations, it provides for a continued relevance for trade union leaders and experts. With sectoral collective agreements, it enables the projection of union power onto workplaces which are not even organized in the first place.
From our perspective, this symbiosis of social democracy with trade union leadership tends to strengthen the very trends in union organizing that we oppose: an emphasis on legal expertise and mediation, backroom deals, and a “service model” in which union membership is viewed by workers as a sort of insurance policy. For a time, the new, younger leadership of KOZ tried to distance itself from Smer, threatening to put an old memorandum on cooperation to a vote. At the same time, there was also a clear tilt towards Hlas, probably with support from the Slovak office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung which likes to play “shadow European social democracy” behind the scenes. With both Smer and Hlas in the government and suspended from the Party of European Socialists, we will have to wait to see how the relations between the parties and unions are reconfigured.
Are there any active struggles, and if so, in which sectors of the economy? What is the role of labor migration in the overall labor regime?
The general level of worker militancy has been low for a long time. In 2017, a strike at the huge Volkswagen plant in Bratislava raised expectations of a broader wave of unrest that could sweep suppliers or other producers. Alas, such hopes never materialized and in one episode, labor migration might have played a role. When Stellantis workers in Trnava – (at the time, PSA Peugeot Citroën,) voted on whether to go on strike in 2018, one of the reasons why the vote fell through was low turnout of participation by workers from Serbia. However, we see low militancythis as speaking more to the overall low level of organization, self-confidence, and willpower than to the role of migration in pacifying struggles – it is not that factories or sectors with a lower share of migrant workers would be more militant.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. In 2022, public hospital doctors successfully reused their tactic of coordinated collective notices from a decade ago. By putting pressure on the government, they won significant pay increases, though the result was now less impressive due to high inflation. The Lekárske odborové združenie (“Doctors’ Union Association”, LOZ) is an independent union outside of the KOZ framework, has an extensive network of activists in hospitals across the country, and can rely on the support of key professions like anesthesiologists. Since 2021, an interesting struggle has been developing at a German-owned automotive supplier in Beluša, in the western part of Slovakia. The KOVO factory organization led a successful strike followed by smaller conflicts around workplace safety, pay equality, management style, as well as trade union rights. We covered it extensively, including in a pamphlet that is available in English.
We are not too optimistic about the immediate prospects. In the public sector, fiscal consolidation is likely to keep workers on the defensive, with the most militant section, hospital doctors, somewhat placated by the recent win. Teachers, a notoriously underpaid profession, were also able to extract some gains in 2022, but by now they have been mostly eaten up by inflation. Nurses, a numerically strong, underpaid, understaffed, and overworked group with a lot of potential “market-based” power, remain disorganized and demoralized by a series of defeats in the last decade. In the private sector, much will depend on the objective course taken by the markets. A recession would tilt the balance of forces even more favorably for capital.
Which are the political and theoretical tendencies you gain most insight and inspiration from? How do you fit into the Slovak post-socialist left? How can leftists in the greater post-socialist space and further abroad support your work, and what sort of international cooperation are you looking to establish?
In terms of influences, we try to keep an open mind. Since we do not pretend to be an organization, there is no need for a unified “platform” or a “minimal program.” Given our orientation toward workplace struggles and our commitment to the centrality of class, we tend to draw on currents of non-dogmatic, critical, or dissident Marxism that had a similar focus. This ranges from Marx himself, council communism, and the various Trotskyist discontents to Italian workerism and its echoes in more recent writings. But most of what we publish is better viewed as “commentary” than “theory,” so explicit references to any particular thinker or tendency are rare. In fact, our most popular articles have been long form interviews with individual workers, mostly in the automotive industry. These were quite widely read and circulated in, e.g., workers’ Facebook groups. They also helped us gain more contacts and information on the real condition in major companies.
The radical left in Slovakia is generally very small, from a few dozen people to a few hundred, depending on who we count. Because we are skeptical of electoral projects, the professionalization of activism in NGOs or “big tent” attempts at unifying “everyone on the left,” we tend to stay away from such discussions when they periodically crop up. Since the 2000s, some of us have been close with the anarcho-syndicalist union Priama akcia (“Direct Action”) which comes from a different tradition but there is much we agree on when it comes to some specific issues. On the opposite side of the age spectrum, there is a new generation of people who have become politicized around climate and LGBTI+ issues within the last few years and who are interested in a broader critique of life under capitalism, including work. This gives some reason for hope.
On the international level, we are in irregular contact with some like-minded groups and individuals. We always appreciate when people are interested in what is going on in Slovakia or the CEE region more generally, especially if there can be a productive exchange of knowledge or practical experience connected to particular struggles. We are also thankful for the opportunity to publish some of our articles in outlets like Insurgent Notes or Analyse & Kritik. However, in these times of the “online left,” it is very easy to get bogged down in back-and-forths on general issues or processes of “theoretical clarification” which are very time-consuming and, in the grand scheme of things, often quite pointless. In the CEE region, it would be useful to have a closer coordination of solidarity efforts and a better circulation of information about struggles when they do appear – since there are often “invisible” but very material connections between them.