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“Unless we detach ourselves from the fascists, there can be no left alternative”: Jock Palfreeman on the way forward for the Left in Bulgaria

This is the second part of Polina Manolova’s interview with Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association leader Jock Palfreeman, first published in Bulgarian by Dversia.

Street and institutional fascism in Bulgaria

At the moment, there is a typical fascist government [in Bulgaria]. The fascists in Bulgaria say that the biggest problem are the Gypsies. And what about the fact that ethnic Bulgarians have control over prisons, police, the army, education, the health system and the whole country? Oftentimes prisoners are singled out as the problem: authorities say that the biggest issue in Bulgarian prisons is the BPAR. This is how problems get solved without investing much energy – scapegoats are found and all responsibility is denied. In reality those blamed by the fascists are not the problem; they could be the outcome of the problem, but never its source. The fascists in the MoJ do not want to take any responsibility for their actions and decisions. 

Racism in Bulgaria is so built in that in the 12 years I was in prison the whole of Bulgarian society took the side of the neo-Nazis in my court case. Everybody said that they were “normal Bulgarian lads”, who were attacked by a “crazy foreigner with a knife.” Angel Dzhambazki[i]played stupid in court, asking “Who is this tourist and foreigner, who roams the streets with a knife?” but I want to ask the same: Who are those Bulgarian men, who roam the street and attack people with darker skin? Is this normal? Is this what we expect from Bulgarian men, that if someone with darker skin passes them by they should jump him, 13 to 1? When I was in prison, a guard told me in broken English: “Jock what did you do?” I said that I went to defendsomeone and he asked “A gypsy?” “Yes,” I responded. “Gypsies are not people. They are monkeys, white people do not defend Gypsies,” he told me. 

So, the authorities knew very well what had happened, but it was unacceptable for a white person to defend Gypsies. But as the Bulgarian rapper Big Shawho now lives in the US said – we are even not sure who these people were, whether they were Turkish, Gypsies, tourists or Bulgarians, because there are a lot of Bulgarians with darker skin, too. And the issue wasn’t that people failed to understand what had happened – a lot of them did, but it was just “normal” for them. These neo-Nazis were just “normal Bulgarian lads.” 

These football fan groups have always been under the protection of VMRO, not only since VMRO is in power, but long before that. They are in the same network with the neo-Nazis who beat up gay people, attack transsexual people, people with darker skin, foreigners and others. VMRO are deceiving Bulgarian society because they say that Jock needs to go back to prison, because he is a killer, but in VMRO there are so many people who support murderers. But the problem for them is that you need to kill the right person! If you kill a gay person, they have no problem with that, or a trans person, or a Gypsy. If VMRO hated murderers so much, why did they not protest against the doctor who killed a Gypsy man, trying to rob [him][ii]? Only the fascists from VMRO and Ataka think that way. Even Ataka abandoned this lost cause now. It might sound a bit strange, but a few people from Ataka are starting to support me. 

In Bulgaria, when you are attacked by someone with the right connections, everyone starts to understand that justice has been lost. We, the ordinary people–because I am not from a rich family, I am not well connected, my father is not a big shot in Australia–when we protect each other or protect ourselves against someone well connected, everyone is clear on what happens next. During the fight in 2007, there were 20 to 30 eyewitnesses, but I was the only one arrested. The Nazis themselves started attacking the policemen, but they did not arrest them. 

Many of the neo-Nazis are mentally ill. I do not use this term in a discriminating or derogatory way: they are driven by paranoia and conspiracy theories. These are people who want to wear tinfoil hats, because the aliens (supposedly) are stealing their thoughts, they believe that lizards and freemasons control the world and so on. They always blame someone else for their problems and I think this is a type of illness. They have real problems in prisons, a lot of corruption, which increased with their coming to power – for example prisoner staff selling heroin – and instead the Deputy Minister is busy with the stickers of the Association. This reminds me of the way the Fascists blamed the Gypsy, the Jew, the foreigner: every problem is to be blamed on someone else. 

A convinced leftist

I have argued with people who have claimed that now I have to show myself as a reformed person, as if before I was a criminal and now I have to show that I am no longer a criminal. This was a big argument in 2015, when I was nominated for “Person of the Year” [A Bulgarian Helsinki Committee award]. People started asking “How is it possible that this person is nominated?” I have upkept the same beliefs – the power to defend others, to help, this is what inspired me to found BPAR and do everything to help people in jail. Liberals and right-leaning people will throw up when they read this, but I was a convinced leftist before I went to jail! Long before I went to prison I was aware of the social and demographic effects produced by the justice system. In capitalist countries, this is not a new problem but one that has existed for hundreds of years:  prisons have always been a place for the poor. They have always been the ones to be punished. The rich, on the other hand, who are the biggest criminals, rarely receive punishment. This is the case in Australia, in Great Britain, in the United Sates, in Russia, in Bulgaria and this has never been shocking to me. When it comes to this, I haven’t learned anything new on the topic, nothing that I didn’t already know before I went to prison. Except the quote from a chalga [Bulgarian turbo-folk] song: “There’s no pardon for a [stolen] chicken and no laws for [stolen] millions”  a pure, leftist analysis of the liberal justice system!

When my lawyer Kalin[Kalin Angelov]) mentioned that I was a leftist, the comments, humorously, were that I can be forgiven for that because I am still young. All right, but no one has read and replied to what I have writtenabout Karl Marx. What does it mean to be young? Does it mean that you don’t know what you are talking about? I am sure that those who comment have not read a word of what Marx has written and I am even more sure that they haven’t read what I wrote about Marx.

It is a big problem that the left are ready to read, analyze and critique the political analysis coming from “the other side,” the so-called liberals and other right-wingers, but the big problem is that the right-wingers are not interested in and do not critique left ideas. For example, my article about Marx was a response to a friend of mine who shares liberal positions and my conversations with him make me believe he has not read Marx. I have noticed that a lot of people on the right do not really engage with what they criticize but read an analysis of another person on the right on it (I don’t know if this is a Bulgarian or a world-wide phenomenon).

On Bulgarian anarchism, the problems on the left and the search for left alternatives

There are a few so-called leftist groups who have actively sabotaged me personally, as well as BPAR. Not one organization in Bulgaria has helped the BPAR. Parties, collectives, non-governmental organizations – they all refused to help prisoners. I am talking not personally about myself, but about the prisoners. For example there was a hunger strike in the prison and we asked for solidarity support and no one responded – the Autonomous workers’ syndicate refused (Avtonomen Rabotnicheski Sindikat), the Factory(Fabrika Avtonomiya) refused, The Federation of Bulgarian Anarchists refused (Federatsiya na Balgarskite Anarhisti-FAB), the so-called Antifa (I call them Fakyfa) refused, the Bulgarian Left(Balgarskata Levitsa) refused, not to mention other parties we didn’t even try to contact. Of course, throughout the years BPAR has received support from individual people who share left views, as from some left-leaning liberals. 

The problem is that in almost all so-called left organizations there is at least one person (and these people are mostly men) who is friends with the neo-Nazis from the PFC Levski fan club. These people prefer to be on the side of the Bulgarians in my court case, even though these Bulgarians are neo-Nazis, rather than to make the ideologically right choice – the one between fascism and leftism. There are so-called Anarchists, who are in very close relationship with neo-Nazis – these are 3-4 people, who stole the name of Antifa and sabotaged the whole anti-fascist movement in Bulgaria by appropriating the name and the idea behind it – a situation that we are in for about six to seven years now. They took our name (Antifa) and kidnapped the whole cause. And after we established our own Antifa webpage, a whole new world opened to us: this is when their sabotage activities throughout the years came to the surface. Throughout this whole time a lot of people from Bulgaria and abroad have been asking how they can support the cause of Bulgarian prisoners but no one ever responded to their requests.

I have been in Bulgaria as an antifascist long before these people, who now call themselves antifascist, were able to form any group or movement. They don’t have the legitimacy to call themselves Antifa, and they have said about me too that I don’t have the right to call myself an antifascist.

For FAB, if an anarchist movement does not strive to achieve the complete abolition of prisons, then there isn’t much point in its existence. This is a very insulting positionas none of the present-day FAB members have ever been in prison. What kind of revolutionariesare they? They claim to be against prisons but they don’t really fight for their abolition, nor do they fight for prison reforms. They just tell people that without some big armed revolution, which would install a stateless society, there is nothing else that could be done. They are practically saying that our suffering in prison, our struggles to change the laws, to defend the prisoners’ rights, to gain access to education and work – all that is pointless. Their position is offensive. Firstly, because this is not what prisoners want – they want reforms! Secondly, FAB don’t have the right to speak about Bulgarian prisons as none of them have been to prison and they have never helped prisoners. Nobody from FAB has ever set foot into prison even as a visitor. This hypocrisy is to a large extent typical for most left-wing circles in Bulgaria, which are to a great extent anti-proletarian and just a bunch of posers.

One of the problems here is that the leftists in Bulgaria tend to easily give up their principles because of their friendships with people who not only don’t share the same principles but actually go against them. So I think people should be a bit more cautious when they choose their friends. I know that Bulgaria has a small population but this is about strength of character – even if you are the only leftist among thousands you cannot afford to succumb yourself to far-right influences. This is something that needs to change. People can’t just forego their principles for the sake of some wrongly perceived idea of friendship.

Many people tell me: “Yes, I know this guy is a neo-Nazi, but we went to school together, so we are still friends.” But you can’t do that because it means you are more likely to become like them, rather than for them to become like you. For example, some years ago a “left-wing” organization took part in protests led by the fascists from Ataka and at the time I said that this doesn’t mean that Ataka have moved to the left, but that the left-wingers have turned into fascists. Look at those traitors from Baricada– they have taken money from BSP and then they go out to claim that they are leftist – this is absurd! You can’t be on the left and work for fascists. This is about identity. What does it mean to be a leftist? If we don’t set ourselves apart from the fascists, then a left alternative is impossible. Every time a left group affiliates with fascists like BSP, that means they cease to exist as a left-wing organization because their politics cannot be distinguished from the politics of the fascists. For a leftist identity to be achieved, your ideas need to be purely on the left.

At the moment in Bulgaria there isn’t a genuine left-wing party, there is right-wing and more right-wing. If someone says that BSP is leftist, I laugh! I even think BSP are further to the right from GERB.

We need to start building left-wing identities, we need to say: “these are our policies – we are supporting workers’ rights and we are against oligarchs.” At the moment, there is not a single party in Bulgaria which fights against the oligarchs, they are all liberals. We need a leftist party which wouldn’t promote fascist ideology and serve the oligarchs, like BSP keeps on doing.

The other problem is that the workers in Bulgaria have been crushed by the repressive policies of the Bulgarian Communist Party[iii](BCP) and the anti-BCP parties who in the early 90s destroyed the idea for anything like a society. As the infamous quote by Margaret Thatcher goes “there’s no such thing as society, there are individual men and women.” I know a lot of people would probably attack me and say that I’m a foreigner and I don’t know a thing. But from my point of view every regime in Bulgaria has survived through vilifying the previous one.

After 1989 the same was done by the anti-BCP parties. This is historical revisionism. I’m sure that if we look back, we will realize that the regime was not quite so brutal as the anti-BCP circles keep on repeating like a mantra. This I see as a problem for Bulgaria, because even if many things were wrongly managed under BCP, like the trade unions for instance, the anti-BCP people went so far in their attacks of everything socialist and the socialist way of thinking as a whole that the idea of collectivism was completely discredited. Hence it is hard for Bulgarians to unite again and start talking about their rights, since the very act of collectivism and trade-unionism is considered by some a form of BCP-ism. We need to get over these issues and to that end we need to create an authentic leftist identity and social atmosphere which would motivate people to think more about society, rather than themselves. From one extreme we went into another. Before 1989, everything was (supposedly) done for the party, for the society and for the country. After that the one who cares about society and others is taken for an idiot and a fool. If you care about others this means communism, communism means BCP and BCP is evil.

The working classes in Bulgaria have no one to turn to. If they want to organize in trade unions, they really can’t, because this would be viewed as communism. So they go and support the oligarchs who oppress them in a typical capitalist way so that the rich become even richer and the poor become poorer. In Bulgaria there isn’t a clear workers’ identity. The strength and the freedom of the working class lies in its unification, but the problem here is that “solidarity” has become a derogatory word. Part of the blame lies with BSP because they pretend to be left, while committing ideological crimes in the name of left ideas. There is not a single left-wing person in BSP – all of them serve the oligarchs, and oligarchs cannot be leftist!

There are also practical problems that the left-wing organizing faces here (in Bulgaria), like the lack of money. VMRO and Ataka have received a lot of financing from Russia; GERB and BSP are involved in many murky dealings that bring them a lot of profit. If a left-wing organization is created and runs for office, its main problem will be the lack of money –workers cannot find the time to attend meetings or afford to pay membership fees, or agitate for the party. The other aspect is that the actual creation of a genuine left-wing party will take many years and there hasn’t even been a single attempt to do that so far (in Bulgaria). A large part of the Bulgarian left are not involved in politics at their work or living places – they are not really active. In a way they live in two (or more) separate worlds – on their workplace they don’t talk about politics or trade unions and they don’t agitate, but then they go to some political meetings and feel free to discuss these things. The strength of the left idea is in the industry – where people’s working places are. 

Another thing is that many leftists have emigrated from Bulgaria because they can’t tolerate the policies of the liberals, GERB, BSP and VMRO. So if they are not here, how can they agitate? How can they build political networks? Another problem is that left-wing groups are behaving like social groups or clubs. For example, a group is made up of three friends who won’t talk to other leftists or let them join in. And there are other small groups that do exactly the same. They don’t really work like genuine leftist groups with political goals, but more like small groups of friends that go to the pub together to talk bullshit. Many of these groups are more like circles of friends and it doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong – “if he/she is my friend, I’m on their side”. Nobody actually takes real objective political stances.

At the moment all the ingredients that are required for creating a socialist regime–one which BCP believed to be in charge of– the whole knowledge about and analysis of capitalist society, are lacking. 

Translated from the Bulgarian by Dessislava Tzoneva, Stefan Krastev and Elena Bojinova.

[i]Dzhambazki is a Vice-Chairman of VMRO and currently a member of the European Parliament. 

[ii]Refers to the murder of the Roma Georgi Dzhevizov in 2018 by the Bulgarian Ivan Dimitrov who have accused him of burglary. Dimitrov received wide public support despite the disputed circumstances around the murder and was fully acquitted in 2019 for legitimate self-defense.

[iii]The Bulgarian Communist Party was the Communist and Marxist-Leninist ruling party of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1946 until 1990.