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Building a united left in Slovenia: interview with Miha Kordiš MP

[Click HERE for more on Slovenia and more on Eastern Europe.]

Miha Kordiš interviewed by Denis Rogatyuk

November 27, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Miha Kordiš (pictured above) is a member of the Slovenian national parliament for the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS), a radical left political party, which is part of the United Left electoral front.

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Miha, could you tell us about recent developments of the United Left in Slovenia? You’ve had national parliamentary elections, the European election and, more recently, local elections. How do you feel it all went?

Well, since we are a young, left coalition, I’d say it went very well! We now have six members in the Slovenian national parliament and we became an established and active political force in our country. This has certainly benefitted the cause of socialism in Slovenia, particularly in the context of being a former Yugoslavian country. To an extent, we have managed to redeem the symbolism and the concept of socialism within Slovenian public discourse. For us, this achievement is on par with our entry into the national assembly.

We consider the recent local elections to have been an extension of that success. We managed to occupy the media space and successfully challenge the existing discourse when it comes to the elections to the national assembly. With our local campaigning, we have managed to put down roots into the fabric of the local communities, which should naturally be the basis of every progressive and socialist organisation. I’d say that this was our first major step in that direction, and it was successful. Definitely, we need to continue working and building on that, but as far as the first step goes, our organisation has done a fantastic job!

So how many local councillors did you manage to elect throughout the country?

I am not too sure about the total number elected for the United Left, but the IDS has gained around 14 to 15 new councillors throughout the country. I would say, however, that our success in the local elections cannot be measured using raw numbers and percentages. Our campaigns were designed to let socialist thought and its meaning be translated to the local and community level in such a way as would allow the citizens to relate to it. We have managed to disseminate that thinking in a very organic manner. As such, while the total number of elected United Left councillors in the whole country is relatively small, the organic political growth and the new initiatives it has created have been quite substantial.

I imagine that you would have also become much more prominent in the minds of ordinary Slovenians as well. The name of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS) and the name of the United Left would have become much more prominent on the local level.

Yes, and much more down-to-earth, far more flexible and much easier to relate to, and that is the important thing. It is important that ordinary people do not simply recognise the socialist arguments against issues such as privatisation, but they also relate to these arguments on the level that is close to them.

For example, let us look at our campaign against the privatisation of utilities in the local communities in Škofja Loka. That local campaign has allowed us to establish mechanisms of direct democracy, not simply in the form of an abstract lobbying power, but rather establish it as a serious challenge to the bourgeois model of governance that we have been witnessing here for the past 25 years. This is what makes our approach so flexible – instead of just outputting profile and an idea in the name of socialism, we can also put out some concrete politics and policies that people can understand. For them, the process that we are proposing effectively starts where their neighbourhood sidewalks start.

You currently live in Skofa Loka, and have been involved heavily within the existing local campaigns in what is not your parliamentary electorate. What exact campaigns were you involved in and what exact issues have you been running on?

Skofa Loka is one of the more stable regions or municipalities of Slovenia. Here, there is rising unemployment and a falling standard of living, however it is not acute, and is not comparable to some other parts of the country, making this region a kind of safe haven. Therefore, we had no precise local issues to campaign on, and thus no punchline during the campaigning. However, this gave us an opportunity to campaign on the general outlines of our policies, in particular on how a community like Skofa Loka should be managed in a socialist sense.

This involved the question of public investment, the coordination of the local economy, the practice of direct democracy, community life and so on. It made it easier for us to promote socialism as such, as it meant there was no big issue, such as unemployment, dominating the exact message of our campaign. I consider it a real success that, in the absence of such issues, that we managed to obtain such a high percentage of votes and ensure that our members were elected into the national parliament and the local councils as well.

What about your result in the European election this year? How well do you think you fared there?

Our result in the European elections was essentially our debut – we scored 5.5% of the total vote. This was a tremendous result for us, an up-and-coming radical left organisation. Even though the percentage was unfortunately not high enough to send someone to Brussels, it was enough to alert the public to our new presence. We wanted people saying, “Look, there are these young folks, they are talking about socialism, and apparently they’ve got some solid support.”

We also correctly presented ourselves as being more mature and more articulate than the entrenched political parties. We wanted to send the message that we were not simply some marginal political force coming from the fringes of the Slovenian society and “suspicious” districts of Ljubljana! Our message portrayed us as credible people, who put their words into action. As such, the European election was our entry point into Slovenia’s political life, and acted as an effective prelude to our campaign for the national assembly and the local elections. Indeed, the results achieved by the United Left in both elections, and particularly by the IDS, came as a surprise to virtually everybody, except for us.

How did you frame the campaign for the national parliament? Were there a lot of differences between that and your campaign to the European Parliament?

As you probably know, even on the domestic issues, the institutional framework of the European Union is such that you cannot possibly avoid it, even when you are talking about the domestic issues. The questions of monetary policies and the pubic debt are tightly and essentially linked with the question of the European Union. So these are the topics that translated into the national assembly elections as well.

However, we did put a much greater focus on the question of privatisation for our election to the national assembly.

A third wave of privatisation is taking place in our country. It is arguably the most problematic economic policy currently being implemented. One of the reasons why Slovenian economy did so well after the exit from Yugoslavia, and the transition to capitalism, was fundamentally different to those of the other states within the Eastern bloc. Despite certain aspects of liberalisation having been carried out, large parts of industry and public enterprises remained in the hands of the state, while the industrial backbone of the country remained effectively intact. This has enabled economic serenity, well being and stability to persist for a while, as well as fuelling and empowering the welfare state. Our second wave of privatisation effectively took place upon our ascent into the European Union, and private and state enterprises gained access to cheap financial credits. This was the catalyst for the economic and debt crisis that we are faced with today.

The national government has now effectively instituted the policy of “socialising private losses”, bailing out the failed private enterprises and selling off certain state-owned enterprises, thus effectively initiating a third wave of privatisation. Nearly all political parties, with the exception of the United Left, have been forced to implement austerity policies, to one extent or another.

I thought we could talk more about the foundation and the Democratic Socialist Initiative and the way it has set about building a socialist alternative in Slovenia. When was it first formed?

The sudden emergence of the United Left and the IDS on the Slovenian political landscape was seen as a bit of a surprise political earthquake by the mainstream political parties. The IDS was conceived over a long period of five to ten years before, although it was formally initiated in May 2013.

Within the political framework, we have been undertaking political education, the study of Marxism and the critique of capitalism through our Institute of Labour Studies, The institute served as the theoretical foundation for the Initiative for Democratic Socialism. Previously, it was known as the “Workers and Punks University” and has been operating as an institute for radical political studies for the past 15 years.

Moreover, many of our activists and militants have been active in different student societies and clubs in the past decade, during which we organised public forums and political education, as well as playing an active role in the defence of free tertiary education. We have participated in many initiatives and student struggles, such as the occupation of the faculty of arts of Ljuljana University in 2011, the student protests of 2010 against casualisation and precarisation of labour. We also actively participated in support for strikes and industrial disputes within the various trade union movements throughout the 2000s. Furthermore, the older generation of activists within the IDS were active within the student protests and demonstrations of the late 1990s, as well as actively campaigning against the policies of NATO and Slovenia’s involvement in that.

Thus, we had accumulated more than 10 years of experience in practical and theoretical fieldwork, before we successfully formed the IDS. This shows that our success was not quite so sudden, but rather a result of many-sided hard work.

Finally, the spontaneous social movements and uprisings that took place over the period of 2012-13 were also a key to bringing our politics and our ideas into the wider Slovenian political sphere. Playing an active role in those movements brought our members and militants tightly together, widened the circle of people who engage with us, and helped us to establish ourselves as genuine political actors.

This was the first time in the last 20 years that the public had heard the word “socialism” spoken articulately in a positive connotation and as a counterweight to capitalism. That was the moment when we made our media breakthrough, which opened the communication channels and transmit our theoretical and organisation knowledge and organise a wider circle of people.

These two combined moments – our previous work and previous engagement on the one hand, and the Slovenian social uprisings, were what spearheaded us onto the Slovenian political scene. And the result was astounding.

At the present time, what would you say is the ideological inspiration for the Initiative for Democratic Socialism? What political references do you consider to have shaped the movement in the most profound way?

Generally speaking, we draw our political inspiration from the emancipatory movements of the past 200-300 years – national liberation, women’s struggles, environmental movements, movements for socialism throughout the 20th century, workers’ uprisings and struggles, and others. Combined together, these are the traditions that we uphold within our movement. However, the concept of democratic socialism, puts emphasis on the fact in order to build socialism, you first need to build democracy. Socialism is inherently a democratic process. As you know, the experience of socialism within the Eastern bloc, such as in Yugoslavia, demonstrated that genuine democracy is a key component in the transition to socialism. Social ownership of the means of production is impossible without establishing direct democracy within the workplace and the community.

Thus, we wanted to put emphasis on the difference between the past of what we had witnessed with the “Real Socialism” of Eastern Europe, and what we are advocating now. Our main point is – we should not simply discard and abandon the name and the idea behind socialism, but draw on the experiences and gains in terms of labour rights, education, health care, and in terms of gender emancipation that took place as part of the struggle for it.

Also, a great boost and a great inspiration for us are the social and political movements of Latin America, and in particular, the Bolivarian process. The democratic socialism that has been practiced in Venezuela, with its gains and contradictions, including the movement for communes and communal councils, has been of a particular interest to us.

Therefore, while our political work extends through many social movements in Slovenia, including women’s rights, anti-racism, environmental preservation, LGBTI rights, the core of our program remains economic issues – it is the foundation of the social problems that exist in our society, and as such, the most pressing issue for any left-wing party or organisation that seeks to fundamentally change the structure of the existing political system. To coordinate a democratically organised economy with socialised means of productions and workers’ control is another political issue that we take seriously.

The economic development model of privatisation, as implemented in Slovenia following its ascension to the European Union, involved a series of powerful attacks on the social state, the labour market and the democratic rights of Slovenian workers, as well as the strategy of using foreign European capital and investments to pursue economic development. The free-market model of development was effectively taken for granted throughout the early 2000s. We have effectively countered that mentality with a critique and our own proposal that we need to limit the power of the market while increasing the level of public investment into the productive sectors of the economy.

This type of investment must be transparent, democratic and focused upon the satisfaction of communal and social needs. While these kinds of policies are heavily influenced by Keynesiansim and its own theories as to how public investment needs to be conducted, we see this as a short-term or at best a mid-term economic strategy. We have been campaigning heavily on public investment eventually transformed into collectively owned, socially focussed democratic economy.

I was talking earlier about our campaign against privatisation. It is not enough to simply keep saying that privatisation is bad and needs to be stopped. If the companies and banks are kept in public hands, what we have witnessed in the past 20-25 years is that these companies are just one big electoral pie to be carved up and used without any particular concern for economic development, employment and the environment. Simply having public ownership over the various state assets is not enough – we need to democratise the economy, starting with workers’ control and the politics of open books within the public sector and those companies.

Could you tell me a bit more about the internal structures of the IDS? What sort of growth model have you employed in order to build and sustain the party on the national and local level?

Well, that’s nothing for us to be boasting about! We are still a young party; we are still struggling to implement all the necessary mechanisms that would make us a truly solid socialist organisation. However, our process of building and consolidating the party has been quite organic – a lot of the mechanisms of direct democracy are present inside of the party. The membership is heavily involved in all the major discussions and debates, as well as actively involved in the decision-making process of the party, although not quite to the level many of us in the leadership would like to see.

It is certainly much harder to organise a young, organic and fast-growing political force than to organise an army, for instance. There, the entrenched and existing hierarchical structures make it easier to coordinate every move and action. However, having a fully functional and directly democratic party, which is a different animal altogether, is much more difficult. That is our main challenge. However, the youth of our leaders is certainly an advantage. The average age of all the central committee is just under 30, which is also reflected in our ranks.

In terms of organising members and activists in the field, we say that practice is the watchword of the day! We are currently in the process of establishing a systematic approach to political education – regular reading classes, regular public forums conducted in a systematic way in order to educate our existing members and actively engage with the greater public.

We also believe that our practical political work, especially campaigning, is what makes individual members into political actors – the grassroots and on-the-ground experience is perhaps the most important aspect of our work. You cannot have an active, politically conscious and participatory party membership if that membership is not actively engaged in these struggles, and in turn, active inside the party’s decision-making process. That is probably the hardest part of building an active radical party.

So would you say that the real aim should be to build a revolutionary cadre within the party?

Absolutely. This is certainly my personal view, which we have been actively implementing in our branch in Skofa Loka. There is no party member who would not be an active party member. It is non-negotiable for members who actively take part in the party politics, not to be part of directing the party program.

What kind of a role did the IDS and other forces play in the formation of United Left?

Well, the IDS was formalised and registered as a political party in March 2014, along with the United Left. There are two other parties that make up the electoral coalition – the Democratic Labour Party (DSD) and the Party for Sustainable Development (TRS). They have also been active and registered for the past few years. The TRS, in particular, focuses more on environmental issues.

We’ve mentioned quite a lot of the social and political movements that IDS has been actively involved in the recent years, but what about the bigger and broader movements that have been taking place in Slovenia for the past couple of decades, such as the student movement and the trade union movement?

These two movements have certainly made an impact within the recent history of Slovenia. The trade unions are certainly well organised when compared with other Eastern European countries, and still have a considerable weight in the political landscape of Slovenia.

Being numerically large, maintaining an active social intervention within the labour movement, and possessing large and well-structured bureaucracies has ensured that Slovenia has kept a large part of the welfare state that it inherited from the former Yugoslavia. On the other hand, it is faced with the new problems of building an effective fight back against the growing casualisation of work, while at the same time maintaining and growing an effective force of active delegates and shop stewards. Union bureaucrats are part of the problem as well.

There are two major trade union confederations that operate in Slovenia – the Association of Slovenian Free Trade Unions and the Public Sector Union. The IDS has cooperated a lot with both of them during various struggles.

On the other hand, the student movements have also played a prominent part in the social movements of the country, although they have been less political and more “fresh” in their nature. They do not have the institutional legacy and support in order to pass on experience from one generation to another – it’s like a spark which keeps reigniting every few years or so. However, we have been seeing a slow, but significant change with the current generation of the student movement and its activists, and this has been reflected in the ranks and membership of the IDS. Young leaders and student activists play a very substantial role in building and maintaining our organisation.

The overall student movement in Slovenia is strongly rooted in its traditions of fighting for students’ rights and free education. In recent years, it has extended its reach into defending the welfare state against neoliberal attacks, as well as taking an active stand against the casualisation of labour. There is an overarching body of student organising, akin to a student union, which has a broader role in student activities, including providing extra-curriculum activities and subsidies for students. At the same time, there have certainly been cases of corruption and conservative politics within it, yet it remains an effective battleground where student movements can take over student organisations.

Over the recent years, we have witnessed strong mobilisations and organisation of resistance by the student movements and to some extent also student organisation, against attempted attacks on the institutional fabric of the universities and the student bodies. The most prominent examples would be the anti-casualisation campaign conducted in 2010, and jointly organised by the trade unions and the student unions, as well as the mass demonstrations, which attracted 10,000 students in the same year. The demonstrations organised in Ljubljana were especially prominent, since at one point the parliament square was occupied, while the parliament building itself was heavily damaged after the demonstrators began pulling up the parliament square cobblerstones and hurling them at the building.

What are the main plans and issues for the future?

Well, first and foremost, I believe that we need to get our own organisation in order. Throughout this year, our time and resources has been mobilised towards the three different elections in the country and three different political campaigns. This has not given us enough time to build and consolidate our own organisation, including properly educating our new members. Hence, between now and the end of the year, we would like to focus on political consolidation and stimulating the social movements that we play a part in. Intervening in social issues and providing them with a theoretical and political backbone will still be one of our major activities, not to mention the continuous focus on building the anti-privatisation campaign.

Given the formation of the new government and the forthcoming budget for the next few years, the anti-privatisation struggle is likely to be joined by struggle against upcoming budget cuts, especially in the field of higher education and its commercialisation.

At the local level, with our newly elected representatives, we seek to pursue the democratisation of budget measures within the existing communal councils as well as a greater allocation of the decision-making process in the hands of the representatives. As we know, the methods of direct democracy usually function much better on the local level, as people are directly involved them in the matters that concern them. This will also be a great exercise in mass education, particularly in the new methods of struggle for a democratic municipal administration.

Second, we believe that it is important to begin to actively reform workplaces in order to implement democracy. The first place that we would look at would be the municipal quarters and the local communal councils, as well as encouraging further active workers’ participation in the trade unions and putting the agenda of secure employment on the table. Organising the workforce on these two levels and through these two channels is an important keystone to building democratic socialism. Eventually, we would like to see a kick-start to a cooperative management model and movement in the country, a foundation as a future worker control movement.

On the question of the international struggle and affiliation, do you have any plans to affiliate to any left or progressive international organisations and confederations in Europe, Middle East or Latin America?

Most definitely. Our ties are particularly strong with out comrades in the Balkans – throughout all of the former Yugoslavia. We have very close political and theoretical ties with groups from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. However, we are also developing and maintaining ties with the majority of the European Union – especially the ones within Party of the European Left. But we are, of course, further reaching across the world – we have good ties with our fellow comrades in Venezuela, and are working towards strengthening and benefiting the working classes of both countries.

At the top of our international agenda is the current campaign against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement currently being negotiated without the consent and the participation of Europe’s citizens.

We are also looking forward to engaging in more international work and organising education and studies into the various international struggles across the world through our Institute for Labor Studies.

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