Poland

Razem: We need to reclaim the social minimum

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Veronika Pehe: What was the main impetus for forming a new left-wing party in Poland? Why at this particular time?

Kinga Stańczuk: With the exception of some short-lived initiatives, there has been no significant left-wing party in Poland since Solidarity. After Solidarity was dismantled, it gave birth – oddly enough – to right-wing political representation. The reason why a new party has emerged now is that many people feel that after a decade of unprecedented development in the theoretical field – we can say anything, we have spaces for free debate – there has been no political representation. I’d say that in Poland, we are far more advanced theoretically than we are politically. This is matched with the emergence of masses of precarious workers, who have no political representation either. We have reached a point where we can fill that gap.

Has Razem resulted from other pre-existing social movements or parties?

With the exception of some short-lived initiatives, there has been no significant left-wing party in Poland since Solidarity. After Solidarity was dismantled, it gave birth – oddly enough – to right-wing political representation.

Wojciech Kuśmierek: Yes and no. Some of the founders came from movements such as the Green Party or the Young Socialists, but we also have 80 – 90% of new members for whom this is their first experience with politics. These are people who have begun to see that for 25 years we have been told that low taxes are good, that work contracts should be flexible, that the government should do everything for companies and nothing for the workers – and that it’s not working.

Who are these new members without political experience who are joining the party?

KS: The variety is amazing. We started the initiative with discussions in a small room in January. Now we are in a position where we have thousands joining, with a whole range of backgrounds. We have miners, nurses, teachers – but also many specialists who are relatively comfortable materially, but are not happy with the precarious conditions of their work, or simply feel that it is morally wrong that the rest of society should remain underprivileged.

WK: We are also very proud to have some trade unions activists who were active in the underground in Solidarity in the 1980s.

KS: I think we are witnessing an emergence of a whole new pattern in which family and class background means less than it used to. There is a generation of people who received what we would call a “middle-class education”, got their first job and yet they cannot afford basic medical insurance, which is something unthinkable for our grandparents’ generation. This insecurity seems to be the new key to political divisions, and this is why a nurse from a small town and a relatively successful Warsaw-based IT specialist might suddenly find that Razem responds to their concerns.

What are your three main objectives?

KS: I would start with secure employment. We need to fight the myth that has been organizing our collective thinking for years, the myth that everything should be more flexible, that we need less regulation, that we need to be more individualistic in our pursuits. International capital profits from low wages in the new EU member states, and that is not going to change unless we do something about it on a political level.

WK: One of our main postulates is that we want to fight “trash contracts” – something like zero-hour contracts, which are even more radical in Poland – they provide no social security at all. Our second aim concerns taxes. We believe that the current tax system is unjust and we want to introduce progressive taxation. Most well-paid people know which loopholes to use in order to pay a flat 19% tax rate, yet at the same time, we have one of the lowest untaxable income thresholds in the EU. It is lower than the amount of money that is set as the social minimum. This is absurd, because people below the poverty line have to pay taxes.

KS: The state should be an active agent in the economy, in the public services, providing access to culture. This is something we have been moving away from for 25 years, and in many areas of Poland we find that the transition process has been extremely detrimental to local communities. When something was considered inefficient, the solution was to privatize it; we need to make sure there is a network of cultural institutions supported by the state.

To what extent are you looking to improve specific issues as opposed to introducing systemic change?

KS: Even voicing our perspective would bring a kind of change, perhaps not systemic at first. We are talking about a country in which the collective imagination has been reorganized by neoliberal ideology. If we can manage to actually bring forward the idea that progressive taxation is just, that will already be a gain. At this moment we need to reclaim the social minimum. Once this has been achieved, we can turn our attention to actual changes we would like to introduce, predicated upon our awareness of the problems of late capitalism. For now we are fighting back – so we need to focus on the basics.

In your vision the state is crucial to guaranteeing good economic, social, and cultural conditions. How do you aim to ensure that the state will successfully fulfil that role?

WK: We’re talking about basics, not about science-fiction. We know that the state can provide decent public services, we know that redistribution works, we know that neoliberalism is not the only possible model of development. That’s easily forgotten, but for decades after World War II even right-wingers implemented policies that would be stamped “radical socialist” today. Take a look at the United States under Dwight Eisenhower: the highest tax rate was 91%, the declared aim of the state was to guarantee that workers could afford a house, a family, a car. And nowadays we have examples from Scandinavia, for instance, such as an unemployment benefit at 80%-90% of one’s most recent salary for two years – and at the same time they have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe! It is very important to tell people in Poland that we can demand these solutions here, too, that these solutions have already been proven to work. We don’t talk about revolution – we simply have to start giving people some quality of life, people will have more money to spend and the economy will grow.

Given the dominant narrative of the past 25 years you mention, how do you want to convince people to rebuild their trust in the state?

WK: This is a challenge, as trust in the state in Poland is very low.

KS: It won’t be easy. However, I am hoping that if we successfully present these policies which we know have worked and are working elsewhere, if we show people through wise examples that it is not a fantasy and it is not ‘Russian communism’, but existing good practices that have often been successfully introduced in Western countries, then perhaps we can successfully challenge this narrative.

You have spoken of examples of inspiration from the West, but what about the legacy of socialism in your own region?

WK: There are significant traditions of Polish socialism, including several important pre-war figures such as Stanisław Brzozowski or Edward Abramowski. Inside the party, we have had many discussions about the way we want to refer to these traditions. For now we do not think we should be focusing on “reclaiming” the term “socialism” in the public sphere, as 50 years of destroying the real meaning of the word have taken a toll. We have an interesting tradition of democratic socialism in Poland, but to try to revive it now means telling a story which is still very hard for people to relate to.

KS: For me personally, the legacy of pre-war Polish socialism is substantial and still relevant today. But there is a huge intellectual variety inside the party; for some of us it was Piketty, Rorty, Chang Ha-Joon, or Varoufakis who turned us into activists, others were inspired by local thinkers.

WK: That’s right, but for many of us the inspiration comes simply from our everyday experience of precarious life.

You have been very active on social media. To what extent can they create real political engagement in your experience?

WK: We know they do, but we also know that you cannot create a successful party through the internet alone. We know we have to make a great effort to go and meet people, especially in smaller towns. This applies not only to those who do not have internet access, it makes you much more credible if you meet people and learn from them, while explaining how you want to solve some of their problems.

How do you situate yourself within the wider context of left-wing movements in Europe such as Podemos and Syriza?

There is a generation of people who received what we would call a “middle-class education”, got their first job and yet they cannot afford basic medical insurance, which is something unthinkable for our grandparents’ generation.

WK: We see ourselves as a part of a wider movement against austerity. We share many economic ideas. Similarly to Podemos, many activists in Razem had very little to do with politics before they joined the party. There are many common points. But of course there are also some differences. For instance we’re much more concerned about Russian imperialism. That’s rooted in history, of course – but it’s also quite important in Poland where we need to challenge the belief that the left traditionally leans towards Russia and is never fully politically independent.

KS: As much as Syriza and Podemos are important for us and their experiences of establishing a strong, grass-roots movement on the left are extremely valuable, we want to avoid simple comparisons. You cannot copy-and-paste a political movement.

What is your position on the EU?

WK: We believe in a united Europe, but many things need to change. What has happened to Greece is an important reminder of the kind of organization the EU is at the moment. We need to democratize Europe, make it social. As for the Euro, we think that as long as there is no common taxation policy within Europe, turning to the Euro can be very dangerous.

KS: I would say there are two contradictory perspectives at play here, which are both true at the same time: on the one hand, there is the EU, which has provided a lot of good practices, regulations, and ideas for organizing political life that are working and which we would like to see in Poland. But at the same time, European integration has often been used by Polish elites as a tool to push for the dismantling of the state. We didn’t get Western European industrial relations, we did get budget deficit constraints. There are still many spheres in Poland where taking the Lisbon Treaty – or EU law in general – seriously and implementing it would constitute a progressive agenda.

So what would you say is the main task for the left in Europe now?

WK: To challenge the belief that the free market offers a cure for everything. The task is to change this idea in the European consciousness. We need to stop the process of dismantling our national social security systems.

KS: I think part of that is thinking seriously about industrial relations. Making sure that workers have an impact on economic issues – it really matters.

Where do you see yourselves when the campaign for the October parliamentary elections starts?

KS: We should be able to complete our registration as a party and run a campaign. It is almost impossible to predict with the current rate of growth where we are going to be then. In terms of the procedures we are optimistic.

WK: It’s important to be realistic, but for now, we are positively surprised with all that has happened – members are joining Razem in large numbers. Now we just have to go out and speak to the people.

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Veronika Pehe
is a historian and editor at PoliticalCritique.org.

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