We are putting content back into politics [Interview]

Adrian Zandberg speaks about the rise of Razem, social media, and what it means to do left-wing politics in Poland.

Veronika Pehe: Razem was formed about ten months before the Polish general elections in October 2015 and received 3,6% of the vote. That’s not a negligible result for such a young party. What were the specific conditions that enabled the rise of Razem?

Adrian Zandberg: A major factor that helped us was the scale to which politicians ignored the interests of precarious workers. What we saw was a generation of people in their thirties who had been deprived of life stability. They had been told that we are developing and the GDP is growing, but that did not match their experience. Year after year, the liberal narrative about closing the distance between us and Western Europe became less and less convincing for the younger generation. It was possibly the main structural reason for why Razem managed to mobilize so many people who until then had not been politically mobilized. Some of us came from a background in NGOs, tiny left-wing groups or other forms of social activism, but today, if you ask nine out of ten party members, they would tell you that they weren’t politically active before. We expected much humbler results, the scale of mobilization surprised us to an extent.

What made you think that now is the time to start a political party rather than, for instance, a campaign for better workers’ rights?

Adrian Zandberg
is a Polish historian and computer programmer, doctor of humanities and left-wing politician, member of the Board of the Razem (Together) party.

There were a number of campaigns against tax havens, for gender equality, against precarious working conditions, but what is different about Razem is that it bound those campaigns and issues into one coherent political project. There is often a feeling amongst people that we’re not ready for politics, politics is something distant and bad, so we should rather concentrate on mobilizing on a social level. But I think many people who do that sooner or later realize that the “NGO-ization” of their activities is counter-productive in the long run, that lots of the issues they fight for can only be resolved on a political level. If you look at the members of Razem today, many still engage in some form of NGO activism, but they understand that if you really want to change the world, it will happen in the sphere of politics and not in the sphere of project-writing.

Wouldn’t you say there is a mistrust of politicians in the region? How did you convince people to enter politics?

The media barrier is actually one of the strongest barriers that block the entry of new left-wing forces onto the political scene.

If you want to build an alternative, you cannot build it with compromised politicians on board – that’s quite simple. Establishment politics became depoliticized in the past years. It’s no longer about issues, it’s mostly about the sheer fight for power – we injected content into the debate. We flooded people on social media with statistics, with information on the state of the economy, inequality, about the position of unorganized workers and how it differs from that of workers who are unionized… We fed people with content, with our programme, even before we started to mobilize them to become activists. And after that, we told them one very simple thing: if you want to have a chance to vote for such a party, you need to stand up and join and build it. It won’t get built by itself.

If you are sending out this message via social media, how are you getting to people beyond social networks? 

I would not underestimate social media. In our case, they were key. The threshold that we had to jump over was to gather 100 000 signatures in order to register on electoral lists all over the country. That means we needed to mobilize a lot of people before we could even expect the traditional media to give us a platform – the system is closed in this way. Social media were actually a factor that let us “hack” the system. Months before we got onto the traditional media’s radar, we had a tool for mobilization. It’s true it started from our own social bubbles, but these expanded to a scale that let us gather those signatures. Naturally this means that Razem is more concentrated in big cities than we would like it to be, or that we are more of an organization of people in their thirties than we would like. But the mobilization of this bubble and its surroundings was crucial to breaking through the media barrier. And the media barrier is actually one of the strongest barriers that block the entry of new left-wing forces onto the political scene.

What about people who are fifty or sixty?

That’s of course the next step for us. It’s easier to reach them now when we won our presence in the traditional media.

Why do you think the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), the movement that started in protest of government interventions in the functioning of the constitutional court, is managing to get these people out into the streets? 

I would not say that the internet doesn’t work at all in their case. These people may be in their fifties, but they also use Facebook. What differs is the demographic. In a way it’s a different social bubble – the street mobilizations of KOD in big cities were impressive, but it consisted mostly of the metropolitan intelligentsia and the middle class. Of course, you cannot latch yourself only onto social media – traditional media are key to breaking out of your social bubble. When you start getting invitations to TV programmes, you need to go there. And you need to be able to say what you stand for.

You took part in a pre-election television debate which drew a lot of attention to Razem. How did you make the transition to being a professional politician? Did you go through media training?

What brought a lot of attention was exactly the opposite – the fact we did not look and talk like professional politicians.

What brought a lot of attention was exactly the opposite – the fact we did not look and talk like professional politicians. In that debate, we entered the scene by talking about real-life issues like labour market stability, public services, or regional inequalities – and it contrasted with the PR bullshit recited by other participants. If people hear about issues that touch upon their everyday experience and hear your proposals how to fix them, that is a mobilizing force. Journalists in Poland were rather obsessed with the idea that I won the debate, but it could have been me or it could have been someone else in that particular television appearance – the effect would have been the same, only the other person would have become the face of the party. The difference was not between me and other participants in that debate, but between a way of speaking that is completely ruled by PR on the one side, and a political programme rooted in real social problems on the other side.

Razem has a horizontal structure and claims it does not want to present just one leader to the public. Yet to many people, you are the one face they associate with the party. So are you suggesting it was the mainstream media that more or less selected a leader for you? 

We understand the fact people will connect the party with particular faces. For us it’s important that it’s not just one face and that there is a real democratic mechanism that keeps those faces under control and rotating. In our internal structure, each position has a fixed term – you cannot sit on the executive board for more than one term of parliament. We have parities not just in terms of gender, but also regional parities, so that the party is not completely dominated by the Warsaw middle classes. The strategy of rotation is safe, it prevents the concentration of too much power in the hands of one person; and the hierarchical model, which is typical for many parties, has contributed to the depoliticization of politics, as there is no sphere for democratic debate and discussion within establishment parties.

You received state funding after the elections, which enabled you to go professional. For some of your members, their political activity is now their full-time paid job. Did this change how you work? 

To be honest, this was not a dramatic change. We collect about 25% of our budget from membership fees, so we’re not completely dependent on public funds, and this percentage is growing. We employed some people during the campaign, when we only had money from fees, so that’s not a new experience for us. Razem is not and won’t be a huge structure, with hundreds of employees – we now employ about ten people. Our main fuel is social mobilization. We don’t just want to be a party that people vote for once in four years. To achieve social change, we need to stir social mobilization on many different levels, convince people they can fight for their rights. This is something you cannot buy with state funding. The fact that traditional social mobilization is broken in Poland is a consequence of years of the former authoritarian regime, but also of the course of the transformation. People do not believe that self-organizing can make a change, because when they self-organized against the communist government, they were crushed. When they self-organized during the transformation in the early 1990s, they were told that collective strategies do not work, that the only thing that matters is your individual success and that there is no other decent way of life. We are flying in the face of this dominant attitude. It will take a while to change it.

If you declare yourself a left-wing party in a country where the left has been completely discredited in the past twenty-five years, how do you want to make your message viable?

We were cautious about labeling ourselves as left-wing or using the traditional symbols of the left. Rather, we simply proposed a left-wing programme. In a country like Poland, where the left was associated with post-communist politicians who actually drove a neoliberal and conservative agenda, it wouldn’t make sense to only appeal to people who consider themselves left-wing at the moment. On the contrary, we need to win over a lot of people who still do not think of themselves as left-wing, but a left-wing programme is actually in their interest. Our attitude was to start from the concrete, not from the sphere of symbols. We are not obsessed about waving a red flag.

I think that in Poland and in many countries in East-Central Europe, what you need is a political party and social movement in one.

We are, on the other hand, clear about our tradition: Polish democratic socialism. For years, there was this attitude on the Polish left that history is not our issue, that it’s the domain of the right. I think that was a grave mistake. To an extent, the scale of the mobilization of the popular classes for the right is a result of the right’s laborious attempts to sell their historical narrative for years and years before they managed to transform it into political majorities. So we are talking about historical politics, but we are not letting ourselves get entrenched in a world of symbols that could alienate us from the very people we need to convince if we want to push a progressive programme in Poland.

What is the answer to these historical legacies obstructing progressive politics, so common throughout the region?

I think that in Poland and in many countries in East-Central Europe, what you need is a political party and social movement in one. We need to convince people that as workers, they have common interests and that politics is a useful tool to fight for those interests. In order to do so, we have to be able to demonstrate on a very practical level that the things we are proposing work. That’s why struggles over wages, contracts, and working conditions are so important to us, because we believe that it’s precisely those types of issues affecting people’s everyday lives that can stir social mobilization on a scale that will make political change possible.

People are constantly exposed to an official anti-welfare state narrative. Yet they have no real experience with the welfare state. The fact is that in Poland, less than one in five unemployed people have access to any kind of benefits. That’s the reality of our part of the world. So when we talk about the welfare state, we try to do so from the perspective of the common citizen – and that undermines the neoliberal narrative that has dominated here for decades.

The phenomena you describe such as precarious working conditions and the absence of the welfare state are also common throughout the region. But in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia, there are still nominally social-democratic parties in power, which theoretically uphold social values. In Poland, however, the post-socialist left did not even make it into parliament in the last elections. Was the rise of Razem a contributing factor? 

I don’t think so, they were on their way out for some time. They were just another establishment party, only with different historical roots. And that still plays a role in Poland – for years, it was hard for many people to vote for a party like the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which was associated with the former regime. I would guess that even now, almost 30 years after the demise of the former regime, many of those who voted for Razem would never consider voting for this post-Stalinist party. In any case, SLD was hardly left-wing; when it ruled, its policies were neoliberal, and when it comes to migrants, the remarks of Leszek Miller – its most recognizable face, the former Prime Minister – are semi-racist at best.

I’m surprised you didn’t mention this anti-immigrant sentiment earlier when it comes to the strategies of the left – most mainstream parties in the region are increasingly taking over extremist rhetoric. Is this not also an opening for you to differentiate yourselves? 

From our perspective, it’s not a question of differentiation, but of basic decency. And you cannot sell basic decency. The whole political scene, afraid of losing voters, has let public discourse fly to the far right. We are of course not allowing ourselves to get dragged there and that sadly does differentiate us from Polish liberals. I don’t have big expectations of Polish liberals, but they could at least be liberals when it comes to issues like women’s rights or migrants, which sadly has not happened.

When it comes to not being steered to the right, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is launching social redistributive programmes, currently supporting families and housing, albeit veiled in nationalist rhetoric. How do you want to make it clear that the kinds of policies you offer are different?

We need to convince those who voted for PiS that you can simultaneously have social rights and democracy, and those who voted for liberal parties that the only way to secure democracy in the long run is to have social justice.

First of all, it’s not that hard to differentiate yourself from a party that tries to sell a moderate reform of social policy together with an attack on women’s rights and anti-gay attitudes. But I want to say openly: it’s a good thing that Law and Justice introduced a benefit of 500 zloty for every child in families with two or more children. It will contribute to decreasing the number of children living in poverty. That’s one of the many failures of Polish social policy that needs to be fixed –  but only one of them, and PiS is not willing to go much further. The reason is quite simple – when you look at their taxation policy, you will see they are pandering to the interests of business elites and are unwilling to introduce more progressive taxation. The 500 zloty policy gave PiS a lot of power, because it managed to unite many different groups – not only people who are traditional Catholics or conservatives, but also those with a pro-social orientation. Our task is to win them over and to convince them that it is possible to have changes that are not only social, but also democratic. We need to convince those who voted for PiS that you can simultaneously have social rights and democracy, and those who voted for liberal parties that the only way to secure democracy in the long run is to have social justice.


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