- Interview by
- Adam Baltner
In 2018, frequent Jacobin contributor Max Zirngast was arrested and imprisoned in Turkey after his left-wing journalism came to the attention of the repressive Erdoğan administration. He was confined to a high-security prison for three months, and only released following an international solidarity campaign.
In an article for Jacobin after his acquittal one year after his arrest, Zirngast wrote that despite right-wing governments’ attempts to isolate and intimidate socialists like him, “We will carry on. We will continue to fight for democracy and socialism, for a free world that ends the exploitation of humans and nature, patriarchy, and racism. Their weapon is brute force. Ours is solidarity.”
Upon his return in 2019 to his home city of Graz, Austria, Zirngast’s socialist politics found new expression in the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ). In September 2021, running on the KPÖ ticket, Zirngast won a seat on the Graz city council. The entire KPÖ performed well in the election — securing the mayorship, edging out the ruling conservative party to finish first with Graz voters, and turning Austria’s second-biggest city into a potential “red fortress.”
Adam Baltner spoke to Max Zirngast for Jacobin about running for and winning elected office, radical local governance in a capitalist society, and how this next phase of his political life is an extension of the principles that guided him through his ordeal in Turkey.
Before the September 26 elections in Graz, polls had the KPÖ at 20 percent and the ruling conservatives of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in the mid-30s — similar to the results of the last Graz election in 2017. Of course, things looked a lot different on election day, with the KPÖ finishing at 29 percent and the ÖVP at 26. Were you surprised by this result?
As you said, publicly available polls had us at about 20 percent, except for a few outliers. In early September, it was leaked to the press that the ÖVP’s internal polling had us at 25 percent, but obviously we weren’t going to trust that — we assumed the ÖVP were just trying to mobilize their base. Either way, I didn’t see anything indicating that the ÖVP were below 32 percent, or that we were above 25 percent. That was basically as well as we thought we’d do, even in our wildest dreams.
A week before the election, there was an early voting day where about nine thousand people turned out. As we later found out, the ÖVP conducted an exit poll that showed things were getting really close. This caused them to double down on their age-old anti-communist scaremongering, which they did by posting pictures to social media of ominous looking antifa figures and street riots from around the world, and absurdly insinuating that a new Berlin Wall might be built around Graz.
Even then, though, they weren’t taking about the possibility that the KPÖ might finish in first but that the three left-of-center parties (the KPÖ, the Greens, and the Social Democrats) might win a majority in city government. As they put it, this would make it possible for the Greens and the Social Democrats to help “overthrow” the ÖVP by electing our lead candidate, Elke Kahr, as mayor.
How one party taking power from another in a democratic election constitutes an “overthrow” is anyone’s best guess. But what this kind of rhetoric shows is how the ÖVP had come to believe they were somehow entitled to power. And this was an important factor in their defeat.
Could you elaborate on that? Now that you’ve had some time to reflect, what do you think were the main factors behind the election results?
During his eighteen-year reign, ÖVP mayor Siegfried Nagl gave the green light to one big development project after another, without seeking any kind of popular consent. People had grown really fed up with this, even within the ÖVP’s bourgeois base. But Nagl obliviously ran on doing more of the same.
In the spring, the ÖVP presented plans to build a subway system in Graz, complete with a massive publicity push and official artist renderings. Then, during the summer, a poll came out saying that only 18 percent of Graz residents supported the idea — in spite of all the money and official government channels that had been devoted, arguably illegitimately, to promoting what was essentially the electoral platform of a political party.
By that point, the ÖVP didn’t really have any other topic to campaign on. So they put up posters featuring a picture of Nagl and the slogan “A vote for him is a vote for Graz” — basically, one step away from “L’état, c’est moi.” Rather than mobilizing ÖVP voters, this kind of arrogance really backfired.
That being said, the election results can’t be reduced to the ÖVP’s weak campaign. Under the slogan “A social and ecological city,” we ran on a popular platform that emphasized building more public housing, preserving green spaces against profit-driven construction, and creating more cultural programming, especially for young people.
But our success was also the consequence of thirty, forty years’ worth of work. Over that time, we’ve gone our own way and resisted trends toward PR-driven campaigns with interchangeable slogans and candidates. Especially with the ÖVP, it’s like all their politicians were made in some factory — they all speak the same, look the same, even their gestures are all the same. We’re basically the opposite — we don’t all try to conform to some standard in how we dress and act, as we don’t think of politics as something that should only happen in official places or at nice events with caviar and champagne. And the fact that we sometimes misspeak, that [party chair] Elke [Kahr] speaks in [the local German] dialect, that we don’t always look perfect — all that resonates with people.
I should add that just as we don’t pretend to be something we’re not in the way we present ourselves, we also don’t make promises we can’t keep. This has helped us establish our credibility, including among more bourgeois voters. People know that after an election, we will do what we promised during the election. This has become so uncommon today that people find it astonishing.
In politics, you obviously can’t always achieve all of your ideas and visions. But people at least know that when we say we’ll fight for something, we mean it.
The mainstream media’s response to the KPÖ’s victory has been incoherent. On the one hand, there has been a fair amount of hand-wringing about the rise of “populism” and the downfall of respectable centrism. Yet on the other, and perhaps more interestingly, many commentators have taken great pains to de-emphasize the K in KPÖ, claiming that voters opted for the party not because of its radical politics but because of the relatability of its mayoral candidate or some other reason. Some have also argued that the party isn’t “really communist,” but actually social democratic. What do you make of all this?
First of all, it’s astonishing to me how few journalists elsewhere in Austria really understand, or even make an effort to understand, the KPÖ in Graz. Since the election, we’ve been getting calls from journalists from all over the world — from Italy, Turkey, the United States, Taiwan, you name it. In contrast, hardly anyone has been down here from Vienna, even though it’s just a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away.
What exactly it means to be a communist party in a city within a capitalist society is a good question, and if the national media actually wanted to explore it, then that would be quite interesting. But their unique fixation on the ideological motivations of our voters gives away their game, which is to downplay the viability of left-wing politics in Austria.
When the ÖVP wins elections, why don’t journalists ever ask how many voters actually read their party program before making generalizations about the inherent conservatism of the general population? Why is it only with the Communist Party that every one of our voters should be a well-trained Marxist in order for our success at the ballot box to count as a success for our politics? Of course it’s true that not all of our voters are ideologically committed leftists, just as it’s true that not all the people voting for the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) are hard-core Nazis. A core of FPÖ politicians and voters sympathize with fascist ideas, but certainly not all of them.
One of the main things that motivates me as a communist and a Marxist is the idea that people can change. If I were to look at current opinion polls and assume that 60 percent of the population in Austria were simply conservative or right-wing, then I wouldn’t need to do politics. I could do something much easier and live a nice life. This is absolutely not to say that I believe we can win over the majority of hard-core fascist cadres, but no party of any significance has a voting base that consists mostly of trained cadres.
Along those lines, I actually do think we need to ask about the different motivations for why people vote how they vote. Indeed, I think this is something that most other parties have gotten out of the habit of doing as they’ve come develop their politics more in consultation with PR firms than with the people. In contrast, we have a fairly good idea of who is voting for us and why, because we actually talk to voters.
For example, we’re well aware that we won over a fair number of bourgeois voters in this election, not necessarily because they expected Elke to help them personally, but because they were simply tired of Nagl, or because they want a greener, more democratic form of urban development, or because they want other people in Graz to have more economic and social opportunities.
How about the claim that the KPÖ is basically just doing social democratic politics? Is this another attempt to downplay the significance of a communist party winning an election in the second-biggest city in a country dominated by the Right?
Regarding the claim that we’re just a better version of the Social Democrats, because we don’t promise to overthrow capitalism in our electoral campaigns — or similarly, that we’re just a charity organization with an electoral arm because we donate a portion of our salaries to a social fund for people in need — I think these claims highlight certain aspects of our success while missing the broader picture.
When journalists compare us to a charity organization, they miss out on the political aspect of our social fund. A lot of the people who come to our office hours seeking financial assistance just barely miss out on qualifying for various forms of state aid because they earn a few too many cents per hour. By hearing from them, we can identify structural problems with existing welfare institutions and focus our demands on those areas.
If money is the best way we can help someone, then we give them money. But at least from our perspective, the money is never the point — the point is sitting down with people, being in touch with them, learning what their problems actually are, and then basing our politics on that shared experience. If we just gave away money without pushing for structural changes, then we wouldn’t be a communist party. We also probably wouldn’t be the most popular party in the city.
As I said before, how much a communist party in charge of one city can actually accomplish is an important question that we as communists need to ask ourselves more than anyone else. And I don’t think we should have any illusions about how difficult the road ahead is going to be. There are a lot of people who want to see us fail and a lot of interests aligned against us. We need a vision of how we can have a more democratic form of municipal government, against the odds.
That’s a legitimate discussion, but it shouldn’t happen in a sectarian way. Anyone saying, “You’re not real communists because you’re not going to proclaim a communist revolution in Graz” is obviously missing a lot of context. We’ve always said that our goal is to improve people’s lives while advancing certain social demands and ultimately nurturing a belief in a fundamental alternative to the current system. And what’s especially exciting now is that we’re seeing how our success in Graz is motivating people elsewhere — not only in Austria but in Europe and beyond. It’s given people hope for a better world and a different form of politics.
For better or for worse, the international spotlight is something you’re familiar with, as you made headlines around the world back in 2018 while living in Turkey during your graduate studies. After appearing on the right-wing Turkish government’s radar for your left-wing journalism, you were arrested, held in high-security prison for three months, and only acquitted a year later following an international campaign for your release. What led you to get involved with the KPÖ following your return to Graz?
Immediately after coming back to Graz in 2019, I got to know people from the KPÖ and became friends with [KPÖ politician and Graz alderman] Robert Krotzer and others. In the summer of 2020, I started working on a YouTube channel for the party and was then asked if I wanted to work part-time at the party office. I happily agreed, and things have progressed from there.
The KPÖ in Graz is a thrilling project, and being involved now really is the chance of a lifetime — well, hopefully not! — but it’s a chance most leftists don’t get, if we’re being honest. Obviously, the responsibilities are going to increase. But my experience in Turkey has given me a certain sense of responsibility toward people. People now expect something from us, and we have to do our best to get things done. We also have to try to be a spark of hope for others. Sure, we can’t change national laws, but that doesn’t mean we can’t provide an example of a different form of politics that inspires actors on other levels and changes the balance of power in our favor.
You’re originally from Graz, but you’ve lived in Turkey and have written a lot about Turkish politics, including for Jacobin. As a Grazer and an Austrian, what sparked your interest in Turkey? And how has your work on Turkey informed your political perspective?
My interest in Turkey developed somewhat by chance. While studying in Vienna, I came into contact with students from Turkey. Then I was very inspired by the Gezi Park protests, which led me to deal with Turkey more and more. At some point, I decided to move there to study and work, and to get to know the country and the people.
I was there from 2015–19, which was one of the most difficult times in Turkish history — filled with everything from bombs exploding to coup d’état attempts, major referendums, civil war in the east of the country, and war at the Syrian border. All in all, it was obviously a very tense and complex situation. Being forced to do politics in complex and rapidly changing circumstances was very formative in itself — even setting aside the fact that I was imprisoned. Truly, there was not a lot left that I could have experienced.
I think in Turkey I gained a kind of flexibility and an ability to react very quickly to new developments. So, in this sense, I’ve been well prepared to deal with the KPÖ’s victory. Even though it honestly came as a surprise, I feel like we’ve responded very quickly, and that I’ve contributed to that response, even in a small way.
Given what I experienced in Turkey, part of me now thinks, while doing political work in Graz, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Maybe someone screams or curses at you on the street, but that’s about it, and even that doesn’t happen much. At least there’s no threat of a physical attack. I remember when I was working at my first KPÖ info stand and I kept looking around for potential threats — bullies, fascists, whatever — as I’d gotten in the habit of doing in Turkey while doing similar work. But based on the responses we got from people, I soon realized that everyone likes us here!