Has Poland’s Left-Wing Rebel Learned to Be a Team Player at Last? | OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because revolutionaries turn pragmatic if they want power.

Sitting in the restaurant inside the Polish parliament and pecking at a piece of apple pie, Adrian Zandberg looks around at empty white walls, heavy crystal chandeliers and the beige floor covering. “Not much has changed here in the last 20 years, has it?” he says in his distinctive loud voice.

“This is also true for the Polish political class,” he adds with a smile. “There are people who have been here just as long as these interiors.”

Zandberg, 40, who heads Poland’s left-wing Razem (Together) party, is outspoken about his desire to change the political life of Poland, which for the last 15 years has been governed by two right-wing parties, either nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) or the more liberal Civic Platform (PO). Socialists were absent from the parliament for four years — until last fall, when under the banner of the Lewica (Left) alliance, they made it back to the legislature.

Zandberg’s Razem, a group of urban, feminist and neo-Marxist activists, may be the smallest and the most radical component of the alliance. Yet it is Zandberg, with an image as a skillful orator and intensive media presence, who has recently grown into one of the leaders of Poland’s opposition.

I owe my leftism to the ruthlessness and lack of sensitivity of the Polish transformation.

Adrian Zandberg

“The country has long been divided between PiS, which means social spending married with the Catholic Church and despotism, and PO, elementary standards of the rule of law linked with neoliberalism,” he says, adding that the left he wants to consolidate is both social and democratic.

To Zandberg’s critics, he is a dangerous ideologue, but even they recognize his galvanizing appeal. His resonantly voiced charisma and hard-to-miss bear silhouette come with self-confident erudition, something he owes to his comfortable upbringing.

Zandberg was born in Aalborg, in northern Denmark, but his family returned to Poland in the late 1980s because of Zandberg’s grandfather’s deteriorating health. Educated privately, he later inherited the grandfather’s apartment in Mokotów, a green central Warsaw district, where he still lives with wife Barbara and their daughter and son.

His formative political experience came during the rapid neoliberal reforms in the 1990s after the fall of communism, with austerity measures hitting the industrial and rural countryside hard. “I owe my leftism to the ruthlessness and lack of sensitivity of the Polish transformation,” he says.

Yet, according to Stefan Kawalec, former deputy finance minister and one of the architects of the reforms, no one at that time was able to propose effective reforms at a lower social cost. Poland, he says, “has achieved [the] most in terms of economic development” of anyone in the region. Kawalec adds that Razem’s approach — seeking growth with welfare programs and a 75 percent marginal personal tax rate, among other things — may be harmful to the economy, “if they wanted to literally implement all their ideas.”

Zandberg has never paid much mind to such critiques. He struck a revolutionary tone already as a teenager in a private high school, where he flirted with punk subculture and was “a radical and non-compromised genius,” as described by Jan Komar, his friend and fellow punk rocker, now a film composer.

POLAND-POLITICS-VOTE

Zandberg (second from right) participates in a televised debate ahead of Poland’s 2015 parliamentary election.

Source JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty

According to Angelika Wrzesinska, an interior designer and another high school friend, Zandberg was “a no-nonsense boy” who didn’t discuss private matters. When she visited Beijing, he asked her to bring back communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book.”

“We all loved him but didn’t even call him Adrian, just Zandberg, due to his cordial but somewhat robotic nature,” she says with a smile. Wrzesinska recalls how Zandberg would often argue with his math teacher, ending with Zandberg joking, “Once I’m in power, you’re going to jail!”

More than two decades later, the two still stand on opposite sides. The then-teacher is now an influential figure in the PO in Warsaw.

“I loved to discuss with him,” says Robert Soszyński, the deputy mayor of Warsaw. At that time, Soszyński was “a strict conservative, something that clearly provoked Adrian, one of the brightest students I have ever had.” Asked if he fears ending up in jail under Zandberg’s rule, he replies, “I respect him, and find it as a joke.”

Those who have worked closely with Zandberg say those high school qualities — preternatural cleverness, unrivaled oratory skills, ideological sharpness, but also limited emotional intelligence — have marked every step of his current rise.

He co-founded Young Socialists in 2005, which, among other priorities, called to withdraw from NATO, a promise Zandberg later abandoned. Eventually graduating with a history degree — he abandoned the law as “it was a pure rat race with no space for ethical thinking” — he made a few unsuccessful attempts to turn Young Socialists into a political party. He succeeded in May 2015, when Razem was established — and its leader shone in a preelection debate. This is how Poland found out about Zandberg.

Still, even as Zandberg became more popular, Razem has repeatedly received election drubbings. That’s how an idealistic young radical dedicated to the overthrow of the Polish establishment reemerged as something else entirely: a pragmatic politician.

In July 2019, he caught the political world by surprise by joining forces with two other left-leaning parties: the postcommunist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a former enemy that Zandberg had fingered as part of the establishment, and a more liberal Spring (Wiosna), which is likened to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! in France.

Combined, they secured an unexpectedly high 12.56 percent of the vote in the parliamentary election. But some of the party’s founding generation began to grow uncomfortable with what they regarded as a departure from Razem’s initial ideals that left the party marginalized within the alliance.

“For me, this is the end of the project I co-founded,” says Mateusz Mirys, who quit the party’s board ahead of the election. But today Zandberg’s priorities are different than few years ago. “Our goal is to set a left-wing government in Poland,” he says firmly. For that, he will have to make many compromises — starting with his rebel nature.