Razem: The Left in Poland is starting from scratch [interview]

As left-wing party Razem (Together) marks one year of its existence, Kuba Danecki and Magdalena Mips speak about the first six months of the conservative Law and Justice government and why Razem has not joined the mainstream opposition movement against it.

Veronika Pehe: We’ve had six months of Law and Justice (PiS) rule in Poland. A number of unpopular steps restricting democratic mechanisms, in particular attempts to control the work of the constitutional court, have led to mass protests. These were headed by the civic initiative Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and joined by a number of opposition parties. Razem hasn’t been part of these protests. Why?

Magdalena Mips: We respect the civil movement and are very happy that people are out in the streets protesting PiS’s authoritarian tendencies. But from the very beginning, we have said that as a party, we do not want to be part of the same movement with the people who are responsible for all the processes that went wrong in Poland in the last twenty-five years – and that’s exactly how we feel about the liberal-right parties who have joined KOD. What’s more, KOD claimed to be apolitical, which we as a party also want to respect.

Who is who
Magdalena MIPS is member of the Razem National Council.
Kuba DANECKI is a member of the Razem National Executive Board.

Kuba Danecki: We are talking about different levels of the political struggle. KOD is a movement and it has one goal: to defend the constitution, while we are a political party. The problem with KOD is that they aren’t addressing the issue of why PiS got into power. And right now PiS isn’t losing any support, if anything, it’s only gaining more support. We believe that without any reflection on the reasons for PiS’s success, there will be no way to fight back, and as a result the ruling party will only get stronger.

Poland needs something different to this polarized system of PiS on the one side and the liberal centre-right on the other.

MM: Furthermore, very recently KOD formed a new movement together with a range of parliamentary oppositional parties called “Freedom, Equality, Democracy”. It shows that our predictions were right – KOD is not (and never was) purely apolitical. They’ll probably run under the banner of this movement in the next elections. We don’t want to be a part of that. Poland needs something different to this polarized system of PiS on the one side and the liberal centre-right on the other. Neither of these sides has a good recipe for getting this country to a better place, while we do.

Yet the opposition movement has managed to get a lot of people out into the streets. What is it that people are rallying for?

KD: KOD has been able to bring thousands into the streets, but they are unable to mobilize new people. From the beginning we had the impression that this is the final stand of all the people who had voted for the liberal parties. There are two right-wing options in Poland: the conservative right and the liberal right – both are focused on privatization, even if they claim to have a social dimension. This binary system is unproductive – we see ourselves as a third possibility. We always hear we should join the opposition movement, but we just can’t do that. The Left in Poland has constantly been told that there are bigger problems right now than our demands. The narrative went: sure, social justice is important, but right now we have to deal with the transformation. Sure, social justice is important, but right now it’s NATO, it’s the EU, it’s the crisis. And now it’s the constitution. So KOD are right to protest the breaking of the constitution, but we’re not going get sucked into this bipolar logic, because that is what caused the current crisis.

PiS has launched a number of redistributive social policies. Its flagship project is the 500+ programme, which will give 500 zł to all families with a second child. Is the government really addressing social issues?

KD: The new government did find a couple of things that caused great frustration to people and has offered some remedies, even if they are imperfect. But what PiS has done is extremely dangerous. Of course, families need to be supported, especially because the minimum wage in Poland is extremely low. But the governmental programmes are very fiscally irresponsible. There has been no increase in taxes for the rich; in fact, there is even talk of lowering them. The danger is that in a couple of years, the budget will be completely drained.

MM: And not just in a couple of years, we don’t know where the money will be coming from next year.

KD: What we see as the main problem is that if their policies collapse, this will be an opportunity for the neoliberal forces in the next government to say: see, social policies don’t work, they destroyed the budget – it’ll just be an argument for more austerity.

So is this just an example of opportunistic populism on the part of PiS that hasn’t been thought through properly?

MM: Yes. The thing is, populism itself isn’t bad. It can be skillfully used as a tool to achieve good aims. But what they are doing might backfire in a way that could make talking about any benefits and any social security in the upcoming elections impossible, because the budget will be in such bad shape.

Razem have been very active in protesting some of the government’s other controversial moves. What were the causes you took up?

MM: Protesting against proposals for an almost complete ban on abortion was very important – and I’m saying that not just as a member of a political party, but as a woman. What was significant was that we initiated the protests. We decided on a Friday night that we would organize something for the following Sunday. Razem is a political party that took off a year ago, and within thirty six hours, we were able to prepare the biggest pro-choice protest in the history of post-communist Poland! Rallies took place in Warsaw and other cities as well. For me it was tremendous. We did what we had to do, and PiS did to an extent withdraw some of the proposals. Significantly, not just our members attended these protests, many others joined us. They understood we were demonstrating not only against the proposed restrictions, but also for women’s health and reproductive rights in general. At the same time, a movement called “Dziewuchy dziewuchom” (Girls for girls) arose and many Razem members support them in their ongoing fight for a better abortion law in Poland.

Today, we have a lot of democracy, at least formally, but people cannot participate in it, because they don’t have time, they have to work in conditions that give them very low labour security, among the lowest in Europe.

You also staged an intervention at the Prime Minister’s office in March, occupying the space outside of it in protest of the government’s refusal to publish the rulings of the constitutional court. Could you talk about the strategy behind this event?

KD: We really had to show that we oppose what the government is doing. And there are some things in which we are better than KOD. We can’t beat them in numbers, of course, but we do have perseverance and defiance. We knew we wouldn’t be able to stage a big march, so we wanted to show that we’re here and that we’re not going anywhere. So we set up tents outside the Prime Minister’s office, which was a really spontaneous idea. The first night we had only one tent, and by the second day it was a whole tent city. This was one of the first moments when we received a lot of support from outside the party. Even people who hadn’t voted for us – who don’t even agree with us – tried to help when they saw us staying and sleeping on the ground in sub-zero temperatures. They brought us tea, soup, blankets, fuel for the generators, and so on. People could see that we really mean what we say. The constitution states that people have a right to housing, to a job, to feeling safe. And we had those documents ready. So whenever somebody from the liberal right came over to bask in our event, we would remind them of the constitutional articles pointing out there should be social justice. In this way, we were pretty good at showing that we are different from them.

You are attempting to capture the votes of people who were disadvantaged during the transformation, whose concerns PiS is to an extent trying to address. But PiS is also offering them nationalist rhetoric – what can you offer instead?

KD: We wish we had a simple answer. The right basically had free reign for the last twenty-six years in Poland. Krytyka Polityczna had a couple of clubs around the country that tried to animate leftist ideas and discourse, but there were just so many more right-wing clubs and churches. And the post-communist Left were completely devoid of ideals. So we’re starting from scratch. We need to raise people’s historical awareness about the achievements of the Left in Poland. It was the socialists who fought for independence, the red banner was among those that fought the Bolshevik invasion.

MM: Our social laws, labour laws, feminist laws – they are all a product of the Left. That’s something we have to remember. What is really troubling is that nationalism is gaining power. A few months back, in February, there was a march of nationalists from the ONR (National Radical Camp) in Hajnówka, which was to be supported by our president. That was another example of Razem in action, because we raised our concerns and President Duda withdrew his support. But even though that was promising, nationalists are getting stronger. In Poland, the connection between the Right and the church is particularly dangerous, especially because the church was associated with freedom and political movements during communism.

And that is a powerful narrative, given how anti-communism has been a force that has shaped much of the public debate in Poland in the past twenty-six years. How are Razem talking about the pre-1989 regime? 

KD: There is no democracy and political equality without economic equality and economic emancipation. Today, we have a lot of democracy, at least formally, but people cannot participate in it, because they don’t have time, they have to work in conditions that give them very low labour security, among the lowest in Europe. There is no real democracy if democracy doesn’t give people security. The Polish People’s Republic shows another thing. We of course do acknowledge that the previous regime taught people to read and write, it electrified the country, it provided housing for everyone, there was a lot of economic emancipation. But there was no political freedom and no democracy – it was a system in which the military shot at labourers. So in a way, that’s similar to the narrative we have now. There are two pillars to democracy – and both are necessary.

Nobody knows about Haymarket, but they do know they were forced to attend May Day rallies in communist times. We need to bring back historical ideas and politicize history.

In terms of your own attempts to improve insecure working conditions, are you collaborating with any other organizations, for example trade unions? 

MM: Yes, and this collaboration is essential for us. We’re very close with OPZZ, which is Poland’s biggest federation of trade unions. With unions comes also a sense of dignity, integrity, and identity, without which you cannot fight for your rights. Right now we have an employers’ market, not an employee market. That is a problem, it creates a mind-set in which people feel privileged to even have a job. In order to go out into the streets and demonstrate for your rights, you have to know you are able to do this, that the law supports you, and that you are not putting yourself in danger. This is a very important basic issue, and if we don’t change it, nothing will change.

On May 1st, Razem organized an event to commemorate workers’ rights in Gdansk, but not in Warsaw. Why in Gdansk? And do you think this date can be reclaimed as a symbolic day for the Left?  

KD: May 1st is the most important holiday in the year for many of us, it’s the only workers’ holiday. The reason for holding the event in Gdańsk was that we had our national council meeting there at the time.

MM: Gdansk is also very important because of August 1980 and all the workers’ protests that took place there.

KD: In Poland, May 1st is still associated with communism. Nobody knows about Haymarket, but they do know they were forced to attend May Day rallies in communist times. We need to bring back historical ideas and politicize history – it’s time to create our own narrative about May Day, which breaks with the previous tradition and recreates it as a labour holiday. For example, there is now a decommunization law in place under which streets named after socialist heroes who fought for Polish independence are going to be renamed. We have to fight for people to know who these heroes were.

MM: And with this kind of historical knowledge comes a sense of dignity that allows you to celebrate this date. In Poland, patriotism is usually associated with the Right. But we believe that you can be on the Left and patriotic. We are fighting for equality, solidarity, and democracy in a particular country, and we want to talk about our roots. You have to know where you come from to get a sense of where you’re going.

What about the Left’s traditional commitment to internationalism?

MM: That is also important, and we have many connections in Europe. For instance, we supported DiEM25, Yanis Varoufakis’s movement for the democratization of the EU.

What is your attitude towards DiEM now? It seems the initiative has petered out somewhat…

KD: It looks like even the people behind DiEM are not really sure where it’s supposed to go. At the moment, parties cannot sign up, only individuals. The way things are going, neoliberal governments and policies will destroy the European Union. So we definitely need a new left-wing idea for Europe – for a Europe that is more democratic, that isn’t run by banks and the European Commission, and other institutions that are disconnected from European society. But at the moment, nobody seems to have an idea of how to do this.

What are the next steps you want to take in opposition to PiS’s government?

MM: We believe we have to work in the regions, work on everyday issues, and change the general thinking about the Left in Poland.

KD: The protests did not really make a dent in the popularity of PiS. Of course, we have to respect they won the elections even if we don’t agree with what they are doing. So the next steps will have to be on the level Magda mentioned – we can’t stop the government’s illegal attacks on the constitutional court in the upcoming months, but in a few years, through grassroots work, we will probably be able to shift the political scene in a way that will make an impact.

MM: And we are prepared for that. From the very beginning, we told ourselves that we are in it for the long run. It will  probably take years to gain the support we need, to tell people what we want to tell them, to convince them that they can (and should) fight for their laws. But the game for a democractic and socially just Poland – guaranteed by the constitution – is on and Razem won’t be leaving the battleground.


Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at A2larm.cz.