Poland between social nationalism and the new left

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Interview with Marcelina Zawisza and Maciej Konieczny by Lorenzo Marsili for MicroMega July 30, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal translation by Revolting Europe— In ultra conservative Poland something is happening on the Left, with the birth of Razëm – which means Together – a new party that with over 4 percent of the vote has gained full rights of participation in the political and national media debate. Born from the social movements, inspired by the Spanish Podemos and, at least for now, has decided to break with the traditional parties of the twentieth century. Here’s their story. “We are not the old left. It is obvious to everyone from our faces, our age, how we speak and the new ways of doing politics.” It not yet like Podemos in Spain, because the level of support is still low, but still something similar is afoot in Poland. At least at the theoretical and experimental level. Launched by a group of young people just two months before the last national elections in October 2015, Razëm has secured almost 4% of the vote, earning it full rights of participation in the political and national media debate. And a tidy sum – the result of a generous system of public funding of political parties – which allows it time to think big. We meet two of the founders to talk about their project and the situation in Poland – from the shocking social policies of the authoritarian government and a liberal opposition who defends freedom of information, but ignores inequalities. And what it means to launch a new party of the left. You hail from the world of social movements and activism. Why did you decide to found a political party? In Poland there was no real left-wing party. We have a socialist party or post-communist, but that is little more than an old bureaucratic apparatus. A force that is actually neoliberal, socially conservative, absolutely not on the Left, but which still occupies this political space to date. Our task was to open up that space. Nobody in our country trusts political parties, for this reason we were very skeptical about the success of our initiative. But if the parties are in trouble, social movements appear to be worse: small splinter groups, no big impact, and perpetually divided. So you decided to bring together all these forces in a single entity? We have written an open letter addressed to the social movements. We received two thousand signatures in a few days, almost all – and this was really surprised us – from people we did not know about or ever took part in organized protest. We wanted to know who they were! We then met with many of them and we were surprised to hear that almost no one was interested in organizations or movements of the traditional Left. They did not know of them or considered them old and useless. It’s a story that we have heard before. If you talk to the Podemos founders they say to launch a new political project one much exit the reality of organized movements – which indeed in the beginning were opposed to the project – to intercept the energy spread by the Indignados and only in a second phase return to organized politics? Did something similar happen? Absolutely. The organized left has been in conflict with us from the beginning. But now many of the traditional movements have decided to join Razëm, to get out of their bubble. We chose to insert ourselves in the wake of the new left rising in Europe from below. Podemos is a great inspiration. It showed is what we could do. At the last elections, however, there was a leftist coalition, which united post-Communists, Greens and leftist liberals … why did not you join, but decide to run alone? We have our own agenda and new ways of thinking about policy and organization. The old ways have died and are made up of the same politicians and power groups who, election after election, have tried to establish new coalitions with the sole objective to remain in Parliament. Let’s talk about the political classes. They no longer function and it is not what we want to do. These parties, then, when they were in power passed laws to allow evictions that are in perfect harmony with the dominant pensee unique (single thought, or as Thatcher put it, There Is No Alternative). And in fact they have been wiped out. The post-communist party was at 40% and is now out of Parliament. But what works? What are some policies or ways of doing things that are particularly representative of your model? In some ways, our program is not very radical, you could say, social democratic. But this is something new in Poland. In our country we have never talked about progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth … and now when the media wants a statement on workers, or about poverty, they ask us. Or on social issues: we are the only ones who are asking for the decriminalization of abortion, which remains illegal in Poland. When the government indicated its intention to pass an even more restrictive law, making it illegal even in cases of rape, we organized a demonstration in Warsaw with 10,000, the largest demonstration in the history of Poland on abortion. Speaking of social policy, however, the current government – the Law and Justice Party of Kaczynski – is an interesting case. It is certainly an authoritarian government, xenophobic and illiberal and therefore on a collision course with the EU. But it is pursuing some demands which seem of the Left: Lowering the retirement age, maternity benefits, social housing. What do you think? Are facing a new kind of national socialism? We were also surprised. We thought they were talking about a social agenda during the elections only to forget them once in power, as happened the last time they governed. But now they are doing it for real! Compared to the first government, they are much more nationalistic and authoritarian but also much more social. For the first time we see an expansion and not cuts to welfare. The law on maternity will drastically reduce child poverty, which in Poland is closely linked to large families, bringing it down from 28% to 10%. And, for the first time, the majority of public expenditure for this policy will go to the poorest: 6 billion szloty for the poorest 10% of the country, only 300 million to the richest 10%. So for the first time there are redistributive policies. And we will not criticize them. They have launched a program of social housing, which does not distribute resources to the banks or big manufacturers, but provides public funding for rent controls. And one more thing: they are tweaking the taxation system to make it more progressive, abandoning the flat tax, for example, or changing the most regressive elements designed for the wealthiest. They are also extremely authoritarian. They are setting up a militia equipped with semi-automatic weapons that are essentially driven by far-right groups. They are by passing a law against terrorism that creates a permanent state of emergency. Not to mention gagging the press and the attacks on the independence of the Constitutional Court. It is quite scary. And against this authoritarian drift we see in these months of huge street protests in Poland. But you have opted not to join KOD, the platform that organizes them. Why? The ruling party is terrible, but these events are organized mainly by the elite of the previous government, and that has been outside the power [Civic Platform, the party of the current President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, ed]. They marched for freedom of expression, but then attack the social policies of the government accusing it of wanting to “buy” voters. But they do not understand that this money is important to many people. They say the poorest should take to the streets to defend the constitutional system, but that if they accept 500 zsloty per month of maternity allowance they are being bought. While most of the lower middle class earns only 2,000! They are out of touch. And that’s how in Hungary Viktor Orban has secured an absolute majority, with an opposition that represents only the interests of the better-off part of the country. We want to drive out the ruling party and to do that we think it is not enough to unite the liberals in the big cities. We must reach out to those who voted for this government. And if no one has the courage to have an ambitious social agenda, that space will only be occupied by authoritarian forces. What is the social base of the ruling party? Transversal. Many are voting for them because they are considered anti-establishment and they have had enough of the previous government, which completely ignored the social question. Civic Platform spoke of the Poles forced to emigrate as a “lucky” to have the experience if going abroad, without realizing the pain of family separations and that 2 million people could not find work in their country. These opposition parties – KOD, Civic Platform – are part of the post-transition elite who now wants nothing more than to go back a few years ago. Without realizing that on their watch, Poland has become the European country with the highest inequality rate. Next steps? You have just received a significant amount of state funding for the result obtained in the last election. There are three years to go for the next one: What are you planning to do? We are opening 25 social spaces throughout Poland. And we don’t want them to be normal party branches. But community spaces open to all, in order to organize activities, lessons, dance classes, workshops for children, legal assistance and much more. This is something that the Socialist Party did in Poland before World War II. We have a long tradition of parties understood as social forces, political parties that also work as cooperatives, trade unions, even sports clubs, and not only as electoral machines. We are not called “Left-something” because people in Poland no longer know what the Left is. We are called Razëm, Together. But our origins are clear, and it is also from these origins that we want to start again.