You know things have changed when you go to the historic Gdansk shipyard, where Solidarity was born, and find unemployed shipworkers hired out as ushers for a theater company renting part of the famed site. The company’s doing a run of Brecht’s Happy End, and these workers escort theatergoers from the factory gate to the theater, telling stories about the glory days. You thank them when you get there and wish them better luck, but then the curtain comes up and there they are, on stage, holding signs reading “Unemployed! We Want Work!”

In other words: unemployed workers temping as former workers doubling as part-time actors playing unemployed workers. Right by the monument erected in 1980 to those “who died so that we might live in dignity.”

Taken together, the pieces of the decline of the neoliberal model in Poland are all right here. The dire economic situation has created critics where once there were only boosters. The humbling of a powerful labor movement has led to the specter of an authoritarian populist backlash. And then there’s Brecht. This Old Left master was purged from the repertoire after 1989. His revival here is a sign too, of the willingness of a new generation to think left alternatives again.

The success story so often told about Poland is not what you find when you get there. “When I go abroad,” the leader of the Solidarity trade union in the Krakow region told me, “and everyone starts congratulating me on how well Poland is doing, all I’m thinking is, Are they talking about the place where unemployment is 18 percent, youth unemployment near 50 percent and hundreds of firms, both old and new, are this close to collapse?” It’s not that the country has not had successes. It has a number of modernized plants, a sizable, if recently declining, middle and professional class, and exciting world-class cities in Warsaw and Krakow. But it has hit a wall, both economically and politically, that has people more frightened than they’ve been in quite some time. Unemployment is now higher than at any time since the fall of Communism, and hundreds of thousands of young people, a product of the baby boom following the imposition of martial law in 1981, are entering the labor market with no prospects whatsoever.

The country had a severe crisis after 1989 too, but while that was a crisis of the transition to capitalism, this is a crisis of the real thing. Whereas that one was expected to happen, this one was not. That it has happened seems to throw everything into disarray. Where once the TINA shibboleth–“There is no alternative”–was on everyone’s lips, now it seems all anyone can talk of is precisely that: alternatives.

Because this is post-Communism, however, the interest in alternatives first of all strengthens the radical right, which has been the chief opponent of capitalist transformation all along. While the former left-liberal oppositionists of Solidarity (Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Tadeusz Mazowiecki) saw marketization as the chance to “join Europe” and create an enlightened civil society, and the former Communists cheered them on in order to demonstrate their democratic bona fides, the religious-nationalist right denounced the post-1989 transformation as a betrayal of the nation, an assault on Christianity and a sellout to (a new set of) foreigners. One of the most dismaying things is to see the extremist right-wing newspaper Nasz Dziennik filled not only with authoritarian and anti-Semitic diatribes but with sympathetic coverage of the plight of the poor and powerful criticism of the ravages wrought by the new elite. Liberals have so focused on the positive sides of the transition that they have left the field of criticism wide open to the right. When things go so wrong, as they have now, it’s no surprise the right is the first to benefit.

For now, that means “Self-Defense,” the right-wing party that polled more than 10 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections and has since emerged as the second-largest party in opinion polls. Its pugnacious leader, Andrzej Lepper, cultivates himself as a cross between Mussolini and Robin Hood, combining the former’s bullying swagger with the latter’s espousal of banditry for the people. Particularly strong among the impoverished rural population, still about a third of the total, Lepper looks increasingly like a Polish Le Pen, replete with tirades against liberals, bankers and foreigners (though the foreigners he opposes are the rich rather than the poor). He organizes road blockades, flouts the law with impunity and harbors private goon squads. When the governing party tried to “domesticate” Self-Defense by giving it some parliamentary authority, Lepper responded with a McCarthyite speech charging corruption throughout the political class, earning him sanction by Parliament and accolades from the dispossessed–exactly, of course, what he hoped to achieve.

All Self-Defense needs now, it would seem, is to piggyback onto a mass popular protest movement. And this past July such a movement emerged in Szczecin, following the bankruptcy of the city’s Solidarity Shipyard, which left thousands without work. Named to evoke comparisons with the famous precursor of Solidarity, the Interfactory Protest Committee brought together labor representatives from more than 100 factories throughout the country that were facing bankruptcy. Besides protesting the government, however, the IPC attacked the main trade unions too, seeing them as part of the same cabal that brought about the mess.

The IPC is an embodiment of that peculiar post-Communist phenomenon, the right-wing labor movement. For while this was undoubtedly a workers’ protest, a cry of the dispossessed, its rhetoric portrayed foreigners as the enemy and a strong state ready to punish the wrongdoers as the solution. It called for aid to “Polish banks, Polish culture and the Polish army,” and for rejection of the European Union. It is less critical of official policy on unemployment than of the policy toward domestic capital (it says the government favors Western business interests over domestic ones). And its pugnacious style of politics, like Lepper’s, can be seen in the team it sent to a nearby textile firm whose women workers had not been paid in months. With television cameras following along (or egging them on, though they were happy to oblige), about a dozen workers stormed the offices and roughed up the firm’s director. While press headlines read “Lynch Mob!” Lepper volunteered to pay their bail.

Despite its growth, this nationalist right is not likely to come to power anytime soon. The reason is as simple as what one farmer told me: “Are we supposed to sell our goods to Russia instead?” While many Poles today, in contrast to a few years ago, are indeed aware that entering the EU has its costs, they just don’t see an alternative. Russia hasn’t paid its bills in years. And so, “even though I might not do so well in ‘Europe,'” the farmer continued, “at least it might be better for my kids.”

It is this gut antinationalism, along with the new distrust of capitalism, that has led to the growth of a democratic left for the first time since 1989. This goes far beyond the Democratic Left Alliance (heir to the Communist Party), now in power. Despite the party’s name, its left-wing credentials are actually quite scanty. Apart from a recent bill forgiving the debts of large enterprises if they undergo restructuring, DLA representatives are usually overeager to support neoliberal politics. Indeed, business circles make up one of their core constituencies, along with critics of clericalism, voters fed up with the incompetence of other parties and those attracted by its slogans of social justice. Once in power, however, they seem to make sure not to offer any alternatives. My conversation with Tadeusz Iwinski, a party leader and secretary of state for international affairs, found him unable to articulate just what the leftness of the DLA entails, aside from a “sensitivity” to social injustice. In essence, the DLA is a pure vote-getting machine, refusing to confront the right over any serious issues. (It recently withdrew its commitment to abortion rights in return for the church’s agreement not to oppose EU accession.)

And so it is chiefly outside the DLA that new left voices are emerging in Poland. The signs are everywhere, such as in the increased prominence of feminist discourse, or in the first real organizing effort of trade unions since 1989. Because of Solidarity, Poland has a reputation as a place of militant unionism. In fact, the Solidarity leadership has been so firmly on the side of market reform that not only has membership withered but workplace rights and opportunities for employee input have deteriorated dramatically. The situation is particularly severe in the large and growing private sector, which now makes up most of the economy. Because of an early post-Communist belief, repeated to me by Solidarity unionists with numbing regularity in the early 1990s, that private ownership means that “people who work hard get paid well,” unions made no attempt to organize in new private firms and scaled back their involvement in privatized ones. The result, as the industrial sociologist Juliusz Gardawski explains, is that “labor has been marginalized while owners do whatever they want, without concern for rules.” Hours are dictated, forced overtime common, safety concerns hushed up and, even though the law requires each firm to have a “social fund” for workplace improvement or employee assistance, employers regularly squander this on Christmas parties or managerial retreats. A popular way for employers to evade labor law entirely is to demand that employees register themselves as independent entrepreneurs, leading to a veritable boom in single-person firms of saleswomen, welders, food preparers and bus drivers. Besides boosting official statistics on the growth of private enterprise, this means that if, say, “self-employed” X-ray technicians (they have these too) “choose” to expose themselves to more radiation than the law allows, well, that’s their free choice.

Not surprisingly, all this has led to a hemorrhaging of union membership (down to about 2.5 million total and 17 percent density, with Solidarity under 1 million, down nearly two-thirds from its 1989 level) and a widespread perception among workers that unions are simply irrelevant. Recently, however, things have begun to change. In direct response to experiences with “actually existing capitalism,” Solidarity has set up a Union Development Office (UDO) targeting the private sector. Even the normally timid old official union federation is doing the same, via its new Confederation of Labor (created by former Solidarity activists disappointed with its pro-management and religious bent).

As it happens, retail has been at the cutting edge of this new organizing drive; in particular, the Western European-owned “hypermarkets” (think supermarket plus mini-mall, all in one store). Originally greeted as a symbol of the alluring, garish opulence of capitalism, with thousands lining up hopefully with job applications, they quickly became known as places of breakneck work pace, constantly changing job criteria, draconian supervision, mandatory unpaid overtime and immediate firing at the first sign of discontent. With workers themselves coming to the unions looking for help, the latter finally responded with an organizing drive filled with pickets, leaflets and press conferences–all hitherto unknown elements of Polish trade unionism.

If this sounds like something out of an American SEIU organizing campaign, it’s because the latter conducted the training workshops that got it started. And this points to another promising development in Poland: the emergence of close international trade-union cooperation. Solidarity’s UDO emerged out of a workshop organized by John Sweeney’s SEIU, with more aid coming when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO. (Unfortunately, US unions have not aided the Confederation of Labor, perhaps wrongly identifying it as a holdover from the old regime.) In private manufacturing plants, meanwhile, cooperation with European trade unions has been crucial. Stanislaw Ciepiera, Solidarity leader at General Motors’ Opel plant in the depressed mining city of Gliwice, formed the local union there, thanks to contacts with a Polish Jesuit monk who had once worked at a German Opel plant and knew the head of its European Works Council. The monk arranged for his visit to Germany, where Ciepiera met with IG Metall unionists from Opel–“and we then felt we had someone behind us.” This strategy soon spread to other companies. Ciepiera has contacts throughout Europe now, and even though he holds on to his conservative Catholic beliefs and considers himself antisocialist, he talks like a class-conscious social democrat when he says, “To have a united Europe, with a single, centralized, united union–this is my dream. When there’s globalized capital, labor has no other way forward.”

Liberal intellectuals are also starting to think about internationalism in a new way. Earlier this year the first sympathetic account of the “antiglobalization” movement appeared. A World Not for Sale, by Artur Domoslawski, a young journalist for Adam Michnik’s liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, is a pathbreaking account that succeeds where many Western books do not, in that it begins with an understanding of how previous radical movements have degenerated into apologies for dictatorship, and then seeks to bring that awareness into this new movement. Domoslawski peppers activists he meets in Porto Alegre with questions about whether they understand the brutalities anticapitalism is capable of, and warns them not to ignore Eastern Europe’s lessons (and thus lose Eastern European supporters). He admonishes Polish readers to stop thinking of Western leftists as crypto-Communists, and to recognize that their struggles against capitalist globalization constitute a large part of the hope for a better world in Poland too. It’s hard to think of a better way to make “antiglobalization”–or, as Domoslawski calls it, “alterglobalization”–a truly global movement. Moreover, by legitimizing a left critique, Domoslawski undercuts the appeal of the extreme right, which has hinged on its being the main critic of globalization.

Unlike in 1980, few in the West–or, for that matter, in Poland–seem to think the country has much to offer the rest of the world. Yet its experiences since 1989 do deserve to be mined more fully. With “privatization” still a globalization buzzword, Poland’s experience with different types of employee-owned firms can be relevant not only to the search for effective alternatives but, with the bogus nature of some of them, as cautionary tales. And the budding “alterglobalization” awareness there needs to be cultivated as well. Ironically, Poland’s traditional pro-Americanism is rather helpful here, for it means that the current search for alternatives need not pass through the facile anti-Americanism now in vogue in Western Europe. This search is already allowing thoughtful criticism of American policy toward Iraq, such as that of conservative theorist Aleksander Hall, who recently spoke out against “an international order in which the world superpower punishes and rewards sovereign states according to its own whims, even if that power represents our values and rendered great service in the defeat of Communism.”

But all this needs to be nurtured. For if there’s one thing not only Poland but all Eastern Europe has lacked since 1989, it’s concerned engagement by Western progressives. Disappointed by the mad rush to capitalism (as if their own societies had not done that long before), and perhaps even by the fierce rejection of bankrupt “socialism,” many progressives turned away, leaving concern for the region to the IMF-sanctioned privatizers and neoliberals, who made sure no alternatives would be recommended. As the labor sociologist Wlodzimierz Pankow once complained to me, “We don’t have enough left anti-Communists discussing with us the real history of capitalism, so of course people believe in the imaginary kind instead.” Recent Polish interest in alterglobalization and union internationalism lays the basis for changing all this, provided the Western left pays more attention.

A few years ago Boeing workers went on strike against outsourcing. Among the objects of their wrath was the contract given to a dying aircraft manufacturing plant in southeastern Poland to build doors for 767s, providing sixty jobs in a plant where about 10,000 were threatened. I still remember the words of the local union leader at the time: “Don’t they know in Seattle that we’re not their enemy?” They didn’t know, of course, but more international cooperation along the lines of what has been happening lately could make a difference.