“We are not only a political party, but we are a group of people who strongly believe that we can create a tolerant, fascist-free Poland, without racism, homophobia, etc. Razem was created at the right moment because this is the last call for standing against the forces of evil and division.”
Continuing in the tradition of writers abroad, along the lines of Christopher Isherwood’s documentation of pre-1933 Berlin, I am examining the political and cultural dynamics of Poland. This article is a part of that larger series, called Queer Dispatches from Warsaw, and a profile of some of the leaders within the left-wing party, Razem. Searching for a political Left in Poland, I have consistently come across Razem members at every rally, demonstration and march I have reported from. And so, I thought a profile of the Party necessary, especially with those that are poised to be the next generation of political leaders. Therefore, to give depth and sense of who makes up the Party, and what Razem stands for, I interviewed: Marcelina Zawisza, Maciej Konieczny, and Michał Pytlik.
Razem began in 2015, polling 3.6% nationally. Despite not making it above the 5% barrier to make into the Sejm (Polish Parliament), Razem has become a part of the political discourse, and their support is slowly rising throughout Poland. Looking for an alternative to the increasingly xenophobic, far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the anemic so-called Opposition, which consists mainly of centrist neoliberals, many young people, members of the urban middle class and some working-class people are joining, or at least sympathizing with, Razem. Successful protests against further restrictions on reproductive rights have propelled one of its leaders, Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, to international attention. The Party has officially joined Democracy in Europe 2025 (DiEM25), making it a part of the broader pan-European Left campaign to democratize the European Union.
My first meeting was with Marcelina Zawisza, 28; this after three unsuccessful attempts to arrange a meeting place, we met at my building, a pre-war, bullet-scarred and pockmarked building near Warsaw Central train station. Enthusiastically, I point this out to her, and she says, “yes, we have a lot of these in my area, I live on the other side of the river [Praga].” During the Nazi destruction of Warsaw, the Soviet Union held the eastern side of the river, preventing mass destruction inflected by German troops, who were cruelly responding to the Warsaw Uprising, on orders from Hitler to demolish the city, street by street. Zawisza is much shorter than me, and although small in physical stature, her presence in my apartment is large; she is charismatic, magnetic, funny and thoroughly well versed in the details of Polish politics.
I ask about the moment she recalls first thinking about politics, even indirectly. She recounts “I was diagnosed with bone cancer at 13,” and she precociously noticed at the time, “my family could provide me fresh berries, fruits and spend time with me.” Looking at me purposefully, she says, “my father had an excellent contract as a miner, and he was able to take paid time off to be with me; whereas, other children, with less economically fortunate parents, did not receive the same level of support. I couldn’t articulate it this way then, but I could see the difference.” She continues, “While healthcare is free in Poland, the level of support from the family, when a child is sick or ill, depends largely on that family’s economic situation.” Paid time off, decent wages, legally binding employer-employee contracts, these all came from the Miners’ Union, a strong but diminishing force in Poland. “My brother, who is 30 years old, works in a mine; this mine is being closed, and the company is trying to find work for him at another mine; he has three children, including a new-born.”
Coming from Silesia, near Katowice, Zawisza’s history is deeply tied to the mines. “My father and grandfather worked in the mines; even my grandmother did administrative work for the mining operations. And of course, my brother now works as a miner.” She attributes the decline of the mining industry, and the Miners’ Union to various phenomena: “Neoliberal capitalism is eroding wages, as miners no longer work for the mine but are sub-contracted by private corporations; this makes the situation far worse, because the miners receive sub-standard contracts, with fewer protections, vastly lower wages and fewer benefits, like paid time off; additionally, the mines are simply running out of coal.”
Years of intensive mining have led to a drought of coal, and mine closures are a result of the decreasing supply. Frustrated, she pauses and says, “Yet, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government isn’t providing anything structurally, long-term to replace these jobs. Miners receive a one-off payment or are forced into early retirement. Silesia could be a center of green energy development because we have a number of scientists and people who are willing to do the hard work.”
Zawisza will be a Sejm (parliamentary) candidate for Razem in the next general election, set for 2019. Considering her family’s working-class and rural history, she rightly laughs and bristles at my next question. Asking about the stereotype I have heard echoed from people on the Polish Left, from socialists, to social democrats and anarchists: is Razem a party of latte-sipping, urban intellectuals who don’t talk to ordinary people? Zawisza answers, after deep breath, “First of all this not true. Many of our members work in cafes, stores, mines, and yes we do have members that come from the urban middle-class, teachers, nurses, doctors; we are a very economically and socially diverse group.”
Continuing, and I can see she tires of this hipster caricature given to her Party, “And people who are saying that we are only urban, hipster intellectuals don’t actually know us or our work.” Continuing, her voice gains an assertive tone, “Our actions speak for themselves, we are working with security guards in Łódź, who are routinely not getting paid properly because they have junk-contracts; some were making only 3 zlotys an hour prior to PiS’s minimum wage; that is less than 500 zlotys ($140 USD / £105 GBP) a month! So they would work a 24-hour a day, between two jobs. Their children would visit them at work. Workers literally having to sleep at work, and we fought, and continue to fight, for better pay and working conditions.” Tomorrow she is off to Częstochowa, aboard an early morning train at 5:00, to protest for care workers.
“We are opposing the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) that run the City Council in Częstochowa , as they oppose proper wages for care workers. They call themselves Left and yet oppose decent wages and working conditions for people who are caring for the most vulnerable in our society. It’s outrageous; SLD is not a party for the working-class.” She gives another example “We are also helping the Glassworks workers in Zawiercie; they were not paid from February . The owner of the corporation is a thief, basically stealing their wages. The workers have court orders against him, but he is claiming that he doesn’t have any money. Now we are helping them to sell their glass-works directly to the public, we are making this known in the media; it is advertisement and political activism together.” Smiling, she pops up and goes to her bag, retrieving a cardboard box, she opens it and shows me a beautiful wine glass, and says, “Everyone in my family is going to get a present bought from these glass-workers for Christmas.”
Asking about Razem’s controversial tax proposal, which would increase taxes on all income made above 500,000 zlotys ($141,000 USD / £106,000 GBP) a year to 75%, Zawisza responds, “The problem is that people in Poland do not understand the tax system. Of course the schools do not teach people about progressive income and how it works. The second thing is that people in Poland don’t like taxes at all; they want taxes to be the lowest they can be; yet they want good social services!” Notably, the tax Razem proposes is progressive, meaning that only income earned above the 500,000 PLN threshold would be taxed at the higher rate; meanwhile, low and middle-income tax-payers would benefit from Razem’s proposed increases in the ‘tax-free allowance.’
After 1989 all the major political parties agreed that the state’s services needed to be decreased, and Zawisza notes, “we went through massive, brutal and unrelenting privatization, commercialization; basically Polish people have only known radical austerity, what Naomi Klein calls the ‘shock doctrine.” The pre-2008 financial crisis “American Dream” seems to have been imported to Poland. She opines, “Everyone thinks they will be a millionaire; they don’t want the high-taxes because they think ‘some-day I will be rich’ … it is a type of Stockholm Syndrome because they are beaten by the neoliberal system yet they support its ideology.”
Does she think the controversy surrounding the 75% tax will hurt them in the elections? Will the party drop it? “I stand by this tax proposal because it is what separates us from the liberals, who want many of the same things, like separation of church and state, legalized marijuana, but they don’t address economic inequality.” Following along with the older Opposition parties, yet also formed around the 2015 elections, the liberal, centrist Nowoczesna or Modern Party embraces moderate social liberalization mixed with extreme free-market, austerity-based economics.
Zawisza continues, “Ryszard Petru [Nowoczesna’s leader] says the first thing he wants is lower taxes on everything, privatizing LOT [Polish airlines], privatizing the national pension plan and further privatization and de-regularization of the banking system! It’s madness. Opposition to PiS requires more than selling austerity to voters, but they [the Opposition Parties] keep saying the same thing over and over.”
“Every government since the fall of communism has implemented austerity, except for PiS,” say Maciej Konieczny, 37, who is also a member of Razem’s National Executive Board. He specializes in international affairs, and he will be an MEP candidate for the Razem. I meet him at my apartment, and he is definitely tired looking, after going with Zawisza to Częstochowa the day before, also to fight for the care workers. Asking him about his early political experiences, he says blankly, “As a young person I was with radical right wing, I am from Gliwice in Silesia, there was no other space to rebel,” and for “emotional reasons, depression and I felt powerless, so I identified with the far right-wing; I supported radical patriarchal roles: the need to be strong and masculine.” Continuing, he states “Politicization in Poland for young, heterosexual males is on mainly on the right, the far-right.” After dealing with personal psychological issues, through therapy and taking a degree in Cultural Science in Silesia, he began looking for something different. “I wanted a different world, so I joined the Young Socialists and met feminism around the age of 25.” After a stint working in Wales, he returned to Poland, this time to Warsaw and became involved in the new movement, Razem, which turned into a political party. “A lot of people became united under Razem. A lot of young people who felt that there was nothing outside of right-wing. We needed an alternative; for me it was great that people became activists, and even politicians.” Proudly, he states, “we started in a national election, and I ran as a candidate in that election from Gdynia.” In Gdynia he ran against the leader of SLD, the ostensibly leftist, yet truly neoliberal party.
SLD is “extremely neoliberal economically, supported a flat tax, and worst of all sent Polish troops to Iraq.” Konieczny continues, “they were just communist appartichicks, who later embraced neoliberal policies … unfortunately, they took the ground of the Left in Poland.” What is worse, “people who consider themselves to be left-wing voters in Poland are often pro-market and more neoliberal than anyone else; yes, they are pro-European, and they are slightly more liberal on social issues; but they oppose progressive, egalitarian economics.” This again has left a space open for the rise of a far right-wing authoritarian government; Konieczny states, to my surprise, “PiS has virtually eliminated extreme child poverty in two years.” By combining anti-immigrant rhetoric with wealth redistribution, PiS is able to shore up voters who felt a loss of identity, and who experienced extreme financial hardship under successive post-1989 governments.
Both Zawisza and Konieczny express a sense of urgency. “There is a very big possibility that the Iron Curtain will fall again, with the right-wing populist government pushing against the European neoliberal, anti-democratic policies, and in this ‘multi-speed Europe,’ Poland could become severely isolated again,” Konieczny sombrely notes. Zawisza is even more forceful, “When I see neo-fascists marching in the streets, and when I see how PiS is supporting them and helping them with organization and money, I am really glad that we have Razem and we can stand against them. We are not only a political party, but we are a group of people who strongly believe that we can create a tolerant, fascist-free Poland, without racism, homophobia, etc. Razem was created at the right moment because this is the last call for standing against the forces of evil and division.”
Speaking to other Razem activists, Polish leftists who are not affiliated with the party, attending the Independence Day march where 60,000 neo-fascists and far-right sympathizers marched through Warsaw spewing Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hate slogans, I could not agree more. Poland risks isolation from the rest of European Union. Poland’s isolation will increase the internal perception that Poland is “under siege” by EU technocrats, liberals and socialists, further increasing support for the far-right. A vicious circle is being created. Being on the Left in Poland is difficult, and Razem, with only 3.6% of the vote in the last election does not have the capacity for Parliamentary Opposition against the PiS government. However, they are growing on the Left, and if they can mobilize working-class voters alongside the urban middle class, then they may pose real threat to underlying right-wing consensus in Poland. In my assessment, they have a chance at becoming the official Opposition within the next decade. Perhaps more importantly, they are offering an alternative discourse and vision in a nation depleted of any egalitarian, left-democratic movement.
While researching Razem, I first spoke with Michał Pytlik, 27, from Opole, whose family history includes working in the mines. He became involved in Razem through the local Political Critique (Krytyka Polityczna) group, set up to stimulate discussion from a Left perspective. Keen on engaging with local issues, he intends to run for a position on the City Council next year. Reluctant to join the party, even after years of working with them, he realized at a meeting of the National Council that his friends were all party leaders or members, and after a few beers joined the party. As a teenager he was always socially liberal, yet he moved to the Left after reading Marx and other Left theorists with groups organized by Political Critique. “It is at that time I realized the economy is central to politics,” Pytlik states. He reiterates what Zawisza and Konieczny stated above. I ask Pytlik to sum up what Razem stands for, “We stand for LGBT rights, environmental protections, a closer, more integrated and democratic European Union, women’s rights, including the right to free abortions, immigrants’ rights, and wealth redistribution, including supporting workers forming unions … We would not only keep the 500 zloty allowance (created by PiS) for a family’s second, third, and so on child, we would expand it to include better services. The schools need improvement, childcare must be made free, and the tax free amount must be increased, so the poor and working-class pay less of the tax burden, and we place that burden on those who can afford it.”
If you are a Pole looking for a Left Opposition, that after only one election gathered 3.6% of the vote, and continues to fight for a more egalitarian society as described above, and after reading Pytlik’s summary of the Party’s agenda: Why not join? Given the current political situation, I certainly think it warrants the consideration of all fair-minded people in Poland. Furthermore, international solidarity from Left groups throughout Europe, with the Democracy in Europe 2025 (DiEM25) coalition, could truly assist in challenging the neoliberal, corporate-run agenda of the current global ruling establishment.
Challenging elites and neo-fascism:
Who could argue against that?
. . .