Feminist Resistance to Modern-Day Fascism: An Interview with Dr. Ewa Majewska

Dr. Ewa Majewska is a feminist philosopher of culture and activist living in Warsaw. She has taught at the University of Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and was also a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, ICI Berlin, and the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna. She is the author of several books and publications, both in English and Polish. Most recently, Dr. Majewska published a new book, “Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common,” Verso 2021. Her current research is on Hegel’s philosophy, focusing on the dialectics and the weak, feminist critical theory and antifascist cultures.

Dr. Majewska presented her new book and spoke about the project of transnational feminism as part of the OSUN Transnational Feminism, Solidarity, and Social Justice Fall 2021 lecture series. The lectures discuss the importance of transnational feminism as a toolkit for social-justice activism, and offer a platform for students and faculty from OSUN colleges to engage in feminist collaborations. Ashjan Ajour, Shenila Khoja-Mooji, and Akwugo Emejulu were other honourable speakers of the series. Dr. Ewa Majewska kindly agreed to grant an interview for Die Bärliner, to further discuss contemporary fascism, feminist antifascism, and today’s counterpublics. 

Liza Tabliashvili: Hi, I am honored you have agreed to speak with me about your new book! After reading it and listening to your lecture, I was left wondering, what prompted you to write “Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common” at this time? What contemporary dynamics inspired you?

Dr. Ewa Majewska: The inspiring dynamics were both local and global. In Warsaw, Poland, I live very close to the government offices and I pass them almost every day. This situatedness made me particularly responsive to political events in the country. 

Whenever we learn history, we hear the words “Never again!” For years I was convinced that fascism, as we know it from history, would never appear again. Then out of the blue we witnessed a complete re-emergence of fascist politics. Fascism re-emerged also in Poland, in the very country that had fought against the occupying forces. 

I started working on fascism 25 years ago, but it is since 2005 that I have been persuaded that the politics in Poland and some other places repeats elements of fascism. My friend, colleague and feminist artist, Ola Polisiewicz was particularly instrumental for me to start observing these fascist tendencies. In 2005, we were invited to make a documentary film about important topics for Warsaw and Weimar. We ended up making the film about how similar the end of the Weimar Republic was to Warsaw in 2005. We were strongly advocating not to conflate these two cities’ stories but to examine the similarities, and what we discovered was very sad. In Poland, one of the officers of the chancellery of the president was the translator and the proponent of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt created the legal and theoretical paradigm in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. The Law and Justice party (PiS) is also instilling legal instruments that are particularly similar to those advised by Carl Schmitt. I realized that we have to think about fascism again, unfortunately. This was a bad surprise. Usually, as a scholar, I am happy when I successfully conduct a theoretical argument. In this case, I am not happy to be right. I would love to be wrong. 

Globally, the most vital resistance to fascism is feminist and I am not speaking of only those initiatives that call themselves feminist. I am also speaking of Black Lives Matter, where women of color are particularly important in creating networks and articulating the movement’s values and political demands. Feminism has ceased to be a marginal element of political life and became its core. Until very recently, I had long debates with Roger Griffin, who is one of the most important scholars of fascist history. Still in 2018-19, he was persuaded that feminism is an important factor, but not at the core of antifascist politics. He was convinced that we should not use “fascism” to describe today’s politics and should instead speak of “extreme right.” His opinion is slowly changing also because of his visits to Warsaw.

I have also often heard the words “Never again!” yet have also seen that suffering in many cases repeats itself and the world turns a blind eye. You mention the importance of not conflating stories of different cities despite their similarities, yet it is important to acknowledge the fascist parallels between contexts. How can we think of fascism as occurring across time and different contexts while also doing justice to the different experiences of each?

The important characteristics of fascism transversally are its legal characteristics and the granting of excessive power to the executive. If in a country the executive is the most powerful part of the government, there is an interest in limiting women’s reproductive rights, discriminating LGBTQIA+ communities and refugees, and society feels resentful of their disempowerment, you should start worrying. These factors together point at fascist tendencies.

When working with Ola, we had different research focuses. My interest was the legal

system and the meta-narrative that legitimizes its transformation. I was interested in the tendency of fascist states to gain direct access to the bodies of individuals by liquidating all the mediating systems that protect them. Ola was interested in the suicide rates in Weimar and Poland, as well as the citizens’ sense of satisfaction. For both Ola and I, it was important to see how politicians were treating women, refugees, non-heterosexual people and other minorities. Interestingly, their approach was similar to that in fascist Germany. When you live in Warsaw and see fascist groups emerging, you wonder if they have read any historical book at all. How can they reproduce, one to one, an ideology which basically was sending them, as Slavic people, to an “untermensch” position? To me, this is a paradox. 

The second part of your book’s title is “Counterpublics of the Common.” What do you mean by “counterpublics” and their role in the contemporary struggle against fascism?

Counterpublics is a notion developed by Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt. In 1972, they wrote a book, “Public Sphere and Experience,” critically addressing the classical liberal and bourgeois notion of the public sphere. Since Aristotle, the model of the public sphere had been exclusive to rich and free males with a specific ancestry. This was reproduced in Jürgen Habermas’ 1962 book, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.” Habermas wrote that the public spheres created by non-bourgeois populations were not historically significant. Kluge and Negt were responding to this history of thought. They argued that people outside the cultural elite also produce meaningful public spheres. The Solidarność movement in Poland, for example, was created in non-bourgeois spaces. They criticized Habermas’ fixation on the uniqueness of the public sphere in creating a democracy and think of Habermas as anti-democratic because he enforces the exclusive notion of public sphere on political theory. 

In the 1990s, Nancy Fraser wrote about feminist counterpublics and in doing so, contributed to diversifying the notion of the public sphere. She came up with the notion of “subaltern counterpublics,” which are always misunderstood but also positioned hegemonically. Western scholars often misinterpret the counterpublics from Eastern Europe due to stereotypes about the East and West. For example, many scholars have difficulties understanding that socialist and syndicalist tendencies were at the core of the Solidarność movement. The presence of workers and women is also erased from the analysis of the Solidarność, although it was created in the Shipyard of Gdańsk, by Anna Walentynowicz. 

The process of silencing and misinterpretation of the “others” makes their public spheres even less comprehensible for the hegemonic subjects. I think by writing about this, I add something new to the theories of public spheres and counterpublics. The outcome of revisiting the Solidarność movement through the post-colonial lens can be helpful for reclaiming autonomy and decency in accounts in other areas, such as Palestine, Rojava, South America, and all other countries that are non-Western and are affected by stereotypes in Western knowledge production. For me, counterpublics are claiming appropriate descriptions that they have not been given because of the colonial inequalities. 

When reading your book, I was struck by your account of heroic forms of subjectivity. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that and what would be an alternative form of heroism?

I believe that our vision of political agency has been shaped according to male socialization. Anything that comes on a horse with a lot of bravery, is political. If somebody takes care of other people or practices disobedience of any kind, such as a strike, etc., they are not included in what we imagine as political action. Recently I was speaking with Paul Mason, whose role in the British antifascist movement is unquestionable. His recent book about fascism is great but it also felt like “antifascism for boys.” I want antifascism to explicitly embrace all kinds of subjectivities, including people who are not heroic or brave, who are not articulate enough to always be able to explain what they want. Without caring attitudes of mothers, sisters, daughters, all the brave people would collapse. The point is not only supporting the role of caretakers but also, recognizing the political element of care itself. In the early stages of the Solidarność movement, the demands of women who were nurses, caretakers, parents, etc. were included in the proletarian set of demands. You would have a demand for more kindergartens, or more care facilities next to demands regarding finances, salaries, trade unions. 

Masculine heroism is challenged by drag queens. Why are people so angry at them? Not only because drag queens are breaking some symbolic order. People who attack drag queens are furious because they see femininity that does not have a reproductive, serving role. There will not be any babies out of this beautiful diva. She is there for her own pleasure. She is reappropriating, claiming pleasure and beauty for her own sake. For fascist men, it is the most infuriating thing to see that all that beauty is not just for them, but for drag queens themselves. This type of political action can be very weak and effeminate, yet it resists the binary gender codes and the assumption that feminine beauty is only for the male gaze to enjoy. There is a renegotiation of political priorities, made not in a powerful and brave, but in a graceful, weak way.

Most of our readers are young students and I am sure they are inspired by your account of masculine heroism and resisting fascist tendencies. How would you say they can take an active part in contemporary feminist antifascism? How can we make valuable  contributions to the movement?

I am very happy you asked this question and I would also be super happy if you did not have to ask. We are all in this together, we share cities, continents, and even political conditions. There are many ways we resist abuses and create counterpublic. Some problems I was facing years ago are almost absent today and new problems have emerged that I would not have thought of years ago.

Once I was giving a lecture to high-schoolers and they told me to say “transition,” not “changing sex.” I had always thought that we should start with the parliaments and demand better legal options for transgender people. Through discussions, I learned a whole new vocabulary and set of needs, beyond what I had imagined to be a priority in ensuring transgender people have a full set of rights in society. We need this. All people doing antifascist work need to be very open to discussing what the forms of fascism are. The ability to include experience in our theory is what allows us to gather and build collective knowledge, theory, and demands in dialogue, not by means of exclusion.

I am against artificial inclusion. I am not inviting anyone, I have the same rights to this space as you do. With age, positions, and power comes responsibility. For some people I may stand as an example of something and I respect that but that does not mean I am always right or I can invite or disinvite people to and from antifascism. All I can do is shut up and listen, make sure everybody has what they need for the discussion, agency and the struggle. This could lead to a whole discussion about how we practice antifascism as diverse groups of people. I do not want antifascism for boys, or girls, or only binary or non-binary people, or one that is in any way exclusionary. I can only try to build it with everybody else but I do not have answers as to how to do it. I know more or less what I should avoid.

As a student assistant for the OSUN Transnational Feminism, Solidarity, and Social Justice project, I have been a part of many inspiring lecture series, but speaking directly to Dr. Ewa Majewska was a different kind of experience. Stunned with the work she presented in her lecture to the OSUN community, I was looking forward to an individual conversation to expand on some of the topics. I think the interview achieved much more than recapping the lecture, though. From her analysis of the situatedness of Poland in the modern-day fascist tendencies, to her take on how drag queens challenge the masculine forms of heroism, Dr. Majewska showed how feminism, solidarity, and social justice are deeply interconnected. 

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