Wagenknecht’s line: not just about adapting to racism – but also liquidating the radical left

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A quarter of a million marched in Berlin against racism and the fascist AfD in October – how does the left build from that?

German socialists of the anti-fascist movement have highlighted this report of a meeting of left politician Sahra Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen (Get Up!) formation in Rostock, east Germany. It’s a city the fascist right has sought to build in since unification in the early 1990s.

Aufstehen has “deliberately decided not to participate in the counter demonstrations against the AFD rallies in Rostock” because, according to one participant, “We must not exclude the people who demonstrate with the [fascist] AfD. Just because someone has a different opinion from me does not mean it has to be wrong straight away.”

This is the line of Wagenknecht. It was overwhelmingly rejected at the last conference of her radical left Die Linke party in Leipzig, where it committed both to direct campaigning against the fascist AfD and to anti-racist struggle in support of Muslims, migrants and refugees. It was strongly opposed by among others the party in the state of Hesse. It has just had its best ever result with a modest but solid increase in vote.

Many will be very clear about what is wrong with the Aufstehen approach: that it is not in fact possible to win people for the left on “social issues” if the racism at the heart of the AfD and the fascist party itself are not confronted.

It’s important to look at where this line is coming from and going to. As the report of the Rostock meeting shows, it is not only about accommodating to racist sentiment. It’s part of something else that would be extremely damaging for the left in Germany and Europe.

First, part of the motivation is simply old-style social democratic adaptation to racist sentiment for electoral reasons. Oskar Lafontaine, Wagenknecht’s husband and former darling of the SPD left in the 1990s, epitomises this. His semi-autobiographical book was titled: “My Heart Beats On The Left”.

But he argued hard for the shift by the right of the party in the early 1990s to abandon the constitutional provision guaranteeing Germany as a safe haven for refugees. Mistakenly, he believes to this day – despite the electoral evidence – that this was instrumental in the SPD winning the general election in 1998. In fact, it was much more a big swing against a CDU government presiding over four million unemployed and was part of a pattern of elections across Europe that voted out old centre-right parties and leaders who had dominated the previous period.

Second is a false theory that migration directly lowers wages and that racism is a simple and algebraic product of immigration plus economic distress or social change. It leaves out both the conscious agency of employers and governments in cutting wages and the social wage, no matter the level of migration. That was the policy of the SPD in government shortly after 1998 and has proved critical to the model of German capitalist expansion, well before recent large inwards migration.

It also misses out conscious political mechanisms promoting racism – the AfD and mainstream politicians, and the functioning of the state. Racism is not some spontaneous and inevitable popular outgrowth from social circumstance alone. Mass unemployment plus large numbers of post-war immigrants and their children in Britain in the early 1980s produced multiracial, anti-state inner-city riots and a growth of the anti-racist feeling that had been organised in the successful battles against a fascist surge a couple of years earlier.

The arrival of large numbers of refugees in crisis-ravaged Greece in 2015 prompted popular solidarity and anti-racist initiatives, not the growth of the Nazi Golden Dawn.

Third, and most importantly, the abandonment of militant anti-racism in favour of an at best specious “non-racism” is totemic of Wagenknecht’s and Aufstehen’s fundamental strategy of trying to construct a national popular force beyond left and right. For the radical left is anti-racist.

Anti-political sentiment and populist political strategy 

Not the strategy, but the sentiment it appeals to is spelled out well in comments by participants at the Rostock meeting.

“Many people are interested in what is happening in our city and in our country. But they no longer feel right about the parties, CDU, SPD, Left, Greens, AfD, FDP – all the parties are too dogmatic on certain ideas, and on specific goals. They are focused on their own ideas instead of the interests of the citizens.”

Or: “Henning Schüßler (27), one of the youngest participants in the movement, speaks of ‘positive change’. Democracy should again become a true democracy – in which power emanates from the people.”

The group plans working parties to look at a range of issues, freed from “ideological” preconception, to “make Rostock a better place”.

You can see the attraction. It is tapping into a deep sense of the democratic deficit and of the gulf between people and politicians, even some politicians of the Left, especially where they are in office as in parts of east Germany.

It expresses a vague notion of “people power” and a commonsense that we should not be divided by the old conventional politics. And it talks the language of popular, civic campaigning addressing single or a concrete set of everyday issues.

If that was all that was going on, then there wouldn’t be that much of a problem. The campaign against fracking in Lancashire, England, brings together essentially an angry “citizenry” across a wide spectrum of political affiliation. Most of us have been part of campaigns, from cuts to a local hospital to opposing a luxury development in favour of social housing, in which such sentiments indeed have a positive dimension: us against them. Even the massive movements against the Iraq war or austerity, while led by the left, were effective because they could go well beyond the political left to draw in vast numbers.

But that is not all that is going on. Just as racist politics and parties of the far right are not a simple reflection of mass social conditions, nor are the politics of the leadership of Aufstehen just an expression of popular, plebeian feeling against the “political class”. There is a strategy at work, an ideology, a theory – a politics of its own.

It is a strategy and politics from above, not arising from actual social struggles taking place in Germany. Those are not only the big anti-racist and anti-fascist mobilisations, such as a quarter of a million demonstrating in Berlin, against which Wagenknecht and friends have increasingly defined themselves. There are other struggles. They range from opposing soaring rents and a housing crisis through strikes by, for example, the Ryanair workers to fights by hospital workers over health care for all to a campaign for a referendum in the conservative state of Bavaria over social care for the elderly and infirm.

Aufstehen has had only an old social democratic relationship to these. That is, it has voiced support but not been an organic part of them nor thrown itself into the practical tasks of building social solidarity and a wider movement around them (at leadership level – some who have clicked support are active). The same cannot be said of the strands of the radical left in and outside Die Linke who strongly oppose the Aufstehen strategy.

So in Bavaria, for example, Die Linke activists played a big role in getting the signatures for the referendum despite also fighting a state parliamentary election at the same time. Aufstehen mentioned the social care crisis propagandistically but not the campaign for the referendum, which you’d think would fit very much with the kind of participatory democratic sentiment voiced at the Rostock meeting described above.

There is a contrast here with the emergence of the left national-popular Podemos in the Spanish state. Though it provides much inspiration for the leaders of Aufstehen and mines the same seam of “left populism” theorised by post-Marxists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe over three decades ago, the material difference is that Podemos was a political expression of an enormous social movement in Spain in 2011.

It was that movement (with the participation of perhaps one in five of the population) against austerity and the massive feeling of being betrayed by a Casta or caste of politicians that cracked open Spanish politics. As in Germany, the centre left was widely perceived to be as out of touch and as much of a problem as the centre right.

That antipathy extended to those bureaucratised trade unions and leaderships, which, through their corrupting relationship to the Blairised centre left, were seen to be just another sectional, remote interest. The radical left also was seen to be highly conventional and consumed by the game of electoral pacts and participation in local government to no discernible benefit for ordinary citizens.

Those were the circumstances for the creation of Podemos with a carefully calibrated strategy from on high of proclaiming to be beyond left and right (though it hailed from people on the left and everyone knew it) and recasting the political antagonism as the national-popular interest against the elites.

This is not the place to go through the limitations of that. Suffice to say: it was not long before three things happened. There was the emergence of another formation, hailing from the right but also presenting as an anti-systemic popular force, Ciudadanos. It now out polls Podemos and has used the kudos of being “non-ideological” (ie of the old political left/right divide) to move in a hard right direction. Second, the big political questions – most obviously over Spain’s national minorities and relationship to the EU – returned sharply and could not be answered by Podemos. Third, the seemingly dying centre left was able modestly to refresh and to achieve a new gasp of life in the resulting circumstances.

Spanish developments aside, the big issue is that the Aufstehen project does not arise from anything like the huge M15 social struggle in the Spanish state in 2011. It does not even emerge organically from the social struggles that do exist in Germany. It is purely from the political sphere – a mistaken effort to solve the political dilemmas for the radical left over how to advance electorally and as a social force.

Its initiators are also wholly of that domain – of the committee room, the party Congress, the TV studio or the academic symposium. Not from the social struggle. Not from the street. And it is being touted at a time when something much worse than Ciudadanos is already established in Germany: the AfD posing as anti-systemic but having long since adopted a fascisising strategy to bind popular anger to the reactionary right.

There is another difference. Die Linke has all sorts of strands and contradictory strategic orientations. In the east it tends to be more conventional and often approximates a similar national-popular or plebeian politics to Wagenknecht’s. It has suffered loses there. In the west it is often more insurgent and anti-capitalist, and involved in actually existing social struggles. It has grown there. Those are broad, perhaps crude, generalisations from a complex picture. But the main point is that a radical left with many anti-capitalist activists exists in a way and with an involvement that simply was not so in Spain in 2011.

What this means is that the promulgation of the Aufstehen project – not arising from social struggles – must entail a fierce political attack on the left that does exist and a trajectory of rupturing with it.

Germany imagines what exists in France (again)

Wagenknecht and Aufstehen also claim affinity and inspiration from Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. There are parallels. He too emerged out of the left that rejected the Blair era neoliberal turn of social democracy. Having hegemonised a radical left electoral space, eclipsing the revolutionary left, he embarked on a more explicit left national-sovereigntist turn.

Part of that was a confrontation with the Communist Party of France. It was contradictory. On the one hand it signalled a rupture with the old electoral game and subordination of the radical left to the centre-left Socialist Party, which was a characteristic of France’s political system since 1978. On the other, it was an attempt to show that having scooped up the radical left voters he could now become a national figure above left and right. A potential president of the Fifth Republic while calling for a political, civic revolution to create a Sixth.

There are differences. Melenchon was never bound by a functioning, relatively large party of the radical left. Die Linke is that. It had a conference and Wagenknecht lost. Also, he and La France Insoumise have been much more adept in relating directly to those strikes and social struggles that are taking place, even if sometimes in an ultimatist fashion, than Wagenknecht and Aufstehen. Those are differences of degree. But when you factor in also the contrast between an ailing, but still traditional, party system in Germany and the earthquake of Emmanuel Macron winning the French presidency on a new political vehicle, then the negative meaning and impact of Aufstehen’s pick-and-mix version of national-popular politics becomes even clearer.

The meaning of the Wagenknecht line is the liquidation of the existing German radical left, cashing it in, turning it into a political currency in circulation to try to buy something “post-left”. That is why her media interventions in the name of a popular citizens movement jab at the left so often and not the right. It is again a secondary contrast to Melenchon who, whatever his great weaknesses on the politics of race and migration, was the French politician Marine Le Pen unsuccessfully sued for naming her a fascist.

The anti-capitalist left, however, cannot content itself with stating this critique or with literary polemic. Nor is this just a German question. Wagenknecht’s is a (particularly influential) example of a family of similar interventions on the international left: from occasional labour movement figures in Britain, to debates on the rising US left to some post-Syriza-debacle leftists in Greece and beyond.

They proffer a bad answer to real political and strategic dilemmas facing the left and movements of the working class and the oppressed. Germany shows those dilemmas sharply: how to break above a certain level of electoral support; how to connect beyond urban heartlands to town and countryside; how to galvanise for the left the popular anger over the lack of democracy; and what strategy for change if, as is the case in everywhere outside of Britain, the prospect of a left government is not immediate and we face in any case the disaster of that road in Greece?

I offer here only some points towards addressing rather than comprehensively answering those questions.

The first is the centrality of anti-racism. It is not a moral question. Though it should be noted: Wagenknecht and similar figures systematically underestimate the moral force so many feel at racism to the extent it can lead them into militant political action quite outside the usual bounds. She hears so well the confused and demoralised German worker regurgitating false ideas about migrants and Muslims. She is deaf to the Bavarian care worker who linked arms with her Syrian neighbour to block the AfD.

Written out too is the history of the explosive struggles of oppressed racial and national minorities which show a deep tendency to generalise, embrace militant collective forms of action and often launch an insurgent confrontation with the state.

It’s not only that, nor even that there is a lot of racism. It’s that on both sides of the Atlantic racism is being used consciously, intentionally and politically by mainstream politicians and the far right as the biggest weapon they have to maintain the capitalist order and to disorganise precisely the popular, democratic upsurge that Aufstehen, for example, says it is for.

That political understanding ran through the massive Berlin anti-fascist demonstration and other recent mobilisations, though they were not called or built on a narrow left basis. Wagenknecht did not march. Some others voiced the argument, which you hear elsewhere, that such marches are just liberal feel-good events. What about the millions who don’t march (and are presumed to be more racist than they usually are)?

It’s disparaging. Such mobilisations boost the confidence and potential organisation of the left way beyond the numbers taking part as well as helping to shift the middle ground. But there is a challenge posed, nevertheless. Even the largest demonstration or social movement raises political questions about the direction of society beyond the immediacy of the movement itself and beyond those actively taking part (who in even mass movements are always a minority of society).

Aufstehen’s answer is to trash the existing movements in favour of a bigger, national one determined politically from above, but which does not exist. It’s a starting point, but not enough, to respond by saying we must build the social struggles and movements of the left.

The question we have to address is what politics of and for those movements can enable people to be active beyond the immediacy and to win people among the millions who in all but the most exceptional circumstances are far less politically engaged. Is there a way to cut through the dilemma of “anti-politics and sectional” movementism of a minority and opportunist electoral reformism hiding behind a presumed majority?

This is what anti-capitalists in Germany and elsewhere, including Britain and the US, are grappling with.

It’s not a new dilemma. It goes back over a century and particularly to the debates in the socialist, anarchist and workers movements following the First World War. It’s noteworthy that there seem to be many events in Germany commemorating the centenary next week of the German Revolution of 1918 that brought that war to an end.

And there is strong participation from those radical left activists who have thrown themselves into the anti-racist and social movements, as well as the political and electoral campaigns in order to find a way forward to answering these questions – from below. It’s from here that good answers are more likely to come than from Wagenknecht’s pseudo-movement summoned from above.

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