- Interview by
- Elena Papadopoulou
On May 28, Jacobin and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office are hosting a public discussion on the future of the European Left between Bernd Riexinger, co-chair of Germany’s Left Party (DIE LINKE), and SYRIZA strategist Elena Papadopoulou.
In this interview, Bernd Riexinger talks about strategic challenges facing DIE LINKE. Citing Rosa Luxemburg’s idea of “revolutionary Realpolitik,” he examines the current situation and lays out strategic ideas for the future. The interviewer, Luigi Wolf, starts by going back to the legacy of the “united front strategy,” which was established by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the 1920s, and then shifts to the challenges DIE LINKE currently faces.
The united front is actually the core concept behind Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of “revolutionary Realpolitik,” but it has been largely forgotten. I think it is important to revive the idea of the united front, but without ignoring the differences between the 1920s and today’s society. The reason for this is that the united front was a revolutionary communist party’s answer to the question of how to become a mass party.
Although DIE LINKE is a left-wing reformist party, we still have to ask ourselves questions such as how are we to reach the majority of the population. How are we to relate to social democracy? How can we move away from a defensive position? How can we ensure that strategic considerations — and not just moral indignation — become the driving force behind our actions?
It is essential to develop a clear understanding of history because there are many differences between the past and today’s situation. The 1920s were characterized by a relatively clear division between the workers’ parties and those of the bourgeoisie. This meant that the bourgeois parties gained very little access to the workers’ parties. This is very different today, and many union members now belong to the CDU or the SPD.
Back then, the German labor movement was divided into supporters of the KPD and the SPD. A major difference from today, of course, is that both parties advocated socialism: for one party this was a revolutionary concept; the other aimed at a gradual progression towards socialism through social reform.
It would be wrong to compare today’s situation with the 1920s, even when discussing how we conceptualize our own party. But it is still worth examining the concept of the united front. I personally learned a lot from reading up on the KPO, which developed the idea of the united front. It was also one of the most important organizations within the KPD that supported the united front and successfully applied the concept between 1919 and 1923. This helped avert the Kapp Putsch and led to the only successful general strike during the 1920s in which this alliance actually worked in principle. Above all, however, the united front would have provided a means of fighting against fascism.
Instead of doing so, the KPD and its social fascism theory, which had a lot to do with the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union under Stalin, completely isolated itself and even set up its own trade unions. These unions organized far fewer strikes than those of the General German Trade Union Confederation. But this was mainly due to the fact that their membership largely consisted of unemployed people.
Do you think an alternative strategy could have prevented fascism?
It is important to be clear about the fact that the KPD and the SPD were not directly responsible for fascism. However, the strategies that they implemented against fascism obviously failed. A united front strategy, aimed at establishing unity among the working class, would have had a good chance of preventing fascism. The struggle over issues concerning people’s everyday lives is clearly important, and these issues provide a means of establishing unity. However, in my opinion, transitional demands also form an essential aspect of the united front.
During its better periods, the KPD not only promoted socialism; it also detailed its demands, and this made specific elements of a socialist society tangible to the population. The best-known transitional demand is for the control of the means of production; in other words, that the workers should be in control of production. This is different from demanding that the bourgeois state nationalizes production; it is about placing direct control of production in the hands of the workers.
How do these old KPD strategies relate to the current work of the DIE LINKE?
First, our relationship with the SPD is not the same as the relationship between the KPD and the SPD back then. Just as DIE LINKE is not a revolutionary party, today’s SPD is very different from how it was then. But it is possible to compare certain strategic issues. One example is the question of our relation to SPD voters. The KPD’s social fascism theory led it to argue that it was possible to differentiate between the members and supporters of the SPD on one hand, and the SPD leadership on the other. The theorists behind the united front followed a different approach. They still wanted to win over the Social Democratic vote for the KPD, but they realized that referring to the party’s leadership as social fascists would only encourage SPD supporters to back its leadership more strongly than ever instead of rejecting it. This also explains why they insisted on calling on the SPD as a whole to participate in joint action.
It is important to remember that the grassroots also identifies with its party. Moreover, if I attack a party as a whole it becomes difficult to organize with its grassroots. Of course, calling on the SPD to participate in joint action was less about working together in parliament, and more about developing something in common with the SPD and the trade unions outside of the parliamentary sphere.
Unfortunately, apart from a brief historical phase, these ideas belonged to an absolute minority position within the KPD. There was also a Trotskyist section that developed similar approaches. But all these currents were marginalized, and later downright persecuted within the Stalinized KPD. Although the initial situation seemed very promising, it was wasted, and the KPO was unable to gain strong support for its ideas.
In Stuttgart, where I come from, the KPD had the majority in the metal workers’ local delegate meetings from time to time. So at times there were quite strong links between the KPD and the unions, but these links were cut when the KPD formed its own ‘revolutionary’ unions. And of course, how can you march together with your Social Democratic colleagues if you also insult them by calling them social fascists? Joint action in this situation was a complete illusion. I think this was a very important reason that there was no general strike against fascism, because a general strike could have only taken place if a united front had existed.
Do you think that the SPD was mainly responsible for the weakness of the German labor movement after 1929?
It is possible to accuse the SPD of a lot of things, and most of these accusations are justified. For example, the party expelled the communists from the trade unions and made no attempt to organize a general strike against the Nazis. But we really should not be complaining that the Social Democrats are indeed just Social Democrats and talk about the policies of past revolutionaries. Our criticism of social democracy also helps us remain blind to our own mistakes.
You said that the KPD assumed that it would be able to drive a wedge between the grassroots and the leadership. On the one hand, the KPD viewed the united front as an approach that helped develop discussions about specific demands, and on the other, it was a tactic to win over the social democratic workers. So although the aim was to set up joint activity, this was organized by the KPD as a means of triggering certain experiences.
Which form of joint political activity between socialists and non-socialists might the united front adopt today? And would a united front be a useful tactic for DIE LINKE to win over supporters of the SPD?
I would argue that this is not just about tactics. It is also about understanding that political consciousness does not develop through political agitation but through experiences that are then consciously processed by those involved. We will not win over the people just because we make the right demands. It should be clear that agitation does not necessarily move society towards the left. If left-wing politics is to be emancipatory, it must rely on the involvement of the people and their moves towards self-emancipation. This means that left-wing politics must empower people to stand up for their own interests and to understand politics as something that not only affects their lives, but as something that they are also involved in. People need to become the subjects of politics, not objects to be persuaded by something.
When people participate with us in strikes or demonstrations or support certain policies, they also go through specific processes of learning that they then interpret in certain ways. One of the most important goals of politics needs to be that people develop such experiences. If we take a more historical view, the point is that people become political subjects through class conflict; in other words, people become political subjects when they start to stand up for their own interests. As part of the Left, we can play a useful role in this process by carrying out responsible and consistent struggles. But we also need to organize these learning processes, and doing so needs to form part of all our campaigns and analyses.
To a large extent, the united front strategy was a means of developing such experiences. The assumption behind the united front is that during union disputes or struggles against cuts to social spending, the Social Democrats have the same interests as us. Clearly, we need to learn from campaigning itself as to how we can organize joint struggles. I think this is still important today, and not only in terms of our relations to the SPD.
Does this mean that exposing the SPD is no longer the main point?
In some respects, we still need to. But in essence, the main point is about shifting social relations toward the left. How can we persuade people to join the struggle? Are they actively involved? Can they get their party — the SPD — involved? Have they been able to shift the SPD toward the left? If not, a split will develop within the SPD — but this would be positive, as it would enable people who are willing to fight to formulate their interests and to judge for themselves whether their party is ready to support them. And this is not only addressed toward the SPD but to rooting the Left Party in all kinds of social struggles.
Does this also apply to work within the trade unions?
It should. I have never been happy about left-wing groups mainly insulting the union leadership. No matter what the leadership does, it is up to the members to emancipate themselves and fight for their own interests. The members have to understand that unions are associations of wage-earners and that this means they have to make their own demands and develop their own strategies and struggles.
If they begin to do so, they will soon see whether the union leadership supports them or whether a split really exists, but this will only happen if they fight. And to facilitate these struggles and experiences should be more of a strategic goal for leftists within the unions. Political agitation is not enough. If it were, the German Marxist Leninist Party would be the most successful left-wing party in Germany because it has been involved in nothing but political agitation for the last fifty years.
You were the general secretary of the service union ver.di in Stuttgart until 2012. What was the situation like then?
We developed a strategy of democratic strikes in Stuttgart that included the workers in the decision-making every step of the way. The colleagues decided for themselves what they wanted to do, but this also led to differences because some of the workforce or parts of the workforce had more strike experience than others. All of a sudden, the colleagues had to think like people who were really running the strike. In my view, achieving this is a fundamental principle of left-wing politics.
Can you tell us about your experiences in Stuttgart? Earlier you mentioned learning processes that form through experience of social conflict. What do these processes actually consist of?
We were guided by the principle that the strikers are the subjects of a strike and that they represent far more than a mass of workers simply following the leadership. Striking workers need to be in a position to make their own decisions. During the strike, we held daily democratic meetings. This in itself represented a form of emancipation, but this experience could also be carried over to other political struggles, analyses, and debates. The leadership at the local level not only mediated the conflict, it was also strongly involved in the strike. It was the people at the local level who were most responsible for pressing ahead with the strike.
Conducting the strikes in this manner significantly increased people’s willingness to get involved in the struggle, and this is now reflected in almost every branch in Stuttgart. I often hear from journalists that the people in Stuttgart are the only ones taking part in a particular strike. This form of strike has clearly taken over the city and worked itself into areas in which no one would have thought possible just a few years ago. It began with public services; it then moved into the retail sector and went on to affect all areas of the city. It was also partially adopted in other cities during strikes in the retail industry.
Nevertheless, the results of the strikes were not always satisfactory.
But the strikers were always involved in developing strategy and thinking about the results. After the strike had ended, they always came to the same conclusions: they should have continued with the strike instead of accepting a compromise. It is also important to realize that the strikers also discussed what led to the compromise and why the strike came to an end.
The strikers can always tell if a compromise expresses the current balance of power between capital and labor, or whether it is a rotten agreement. If all avenues have been exhausted, then a compromise expresses the current balance of power; rotten agreements have to be criticized. These differences are really important to the people on strike. And they can work this out for themselves, but only if they are the real actors in the strike. Consequently, it is always about promoting the democratization of the movement and processes of emancipation, and not about delegating the political debate to the union apparatus.
In your understanding of left-wing politics, it seems the focus is mainly on getting people involved. But in our party in particular, I sometimes have the feeling that left-wing politics mainly consists of ‘leafleting’.
I would call it ‘pamphletting’ or ‘brochuring’, rather than politics.
I think there is a view within the party that in order to counter moves towards acceptance of SPD and Green Party policies, we have to clearly demonstrate the policies that distinguish us from these parties and highlight the aspects of the DIE LINKE that make us unique.
I think that this view derives from a narrow understanding of politics. Discussions about the party manifesto and setting out the party’s differences from the SPD and the Green Party are certainly useful during election campaigns. However, I believe that we need a social project, and that we must take the trouble of developing a project that is also aimed at the future. This can occur only as part of a collective process; it is not enough for a few people to sit down and say: right, now is the time to do it. In fact, doing so is only possible within the context of social struggles and social movements. Theory is not something that is detached from society; it develops out of a social context.
Unfortunately, there is far too little discussion within DIE LINKE about changing social reality — and that is due in part to this narrow understanding of politics. It should not just be about including points in a party manifesto and developing policies. The really important process occurs when these policies help provide momentum to social and political struggles. That is why we also need to rethink the term ‘political party’ in terms that go beyond parliamentarianism.
If we are serious about DIE LINKE having both a parliamentary and an extra-parliamentary function, then we have to develop policies that can be supported by trade unionists, the SPD, and perhaps even the Green Party. The revolutionary aspect of this would be that people would have to get out onto the streets and support these policies. The trade unions are already partly doing this, but this is not really the case with political parties. When we talk about extra-parliamentary movements, Blockupy always comes up, and I actually consider it to be a successful example of left-wing politics.
But it only involves perhaps 25,000 people. This is far from hegemonic. To build for counter-hegemonic policies we would have to build broad alliances around common demands. Those demands could very well be suggested by the Left. And if the common demands call for less than we would suggest there is no harm in advertising for goals that go further. But most important is that people are ready to get together and to get out and active for their shared demands.
It is quite right to think about putting pressure on the SPD outside of the parliamentary level. I suggested doing this during my time at ver.di. A few left-wing ver.di districts could have had a lot of influence if they had coordinated their action. I spoke to ver.di Stuttgart about this recently. I called on them to get something started while we were still waiting for the government to form. We could have called for a minimum wage and other social demands that were basically shared by the SPD, Left, and Greens! We have got a majority in favor of a minimum wage and a number of other policies. It is time they did something! If these ideas had come from the union camp, then the debate about a possible coalition between the DIE LINKE, the SPD, and the Green Party would have taken on a very different character than it has now. The debate would no longer merely be about a coalition government, and it would also be taking place outside of the media.
But for this to happen, DIE LINKE would also need a strategy towards the unions; at least if the party wants to be in the position to suggest taking this kind of action.
Yes, but it is not just a trade union strategy that is important. We also need to ensure we translate our anchoring in society into activity in every political field. This implies a significant role for trade unions, extra-parliamentary movements, and local politics. At the local level, there is an extra-parliamentary movement in Germany against privatization that even supports renationalization or municipalization. There have been many successful citizens’ initiatives against hospital privatizations. The referendum in Hamburg on September 22, 2013 has almost been forgotten. Although the SPD and CDU were against the proposal, and only DIE LINKE, the Green Party, and a citizens’ movement supported it, the majority of the population voted for the re-appropriation of the city’s energy networks. I call that ‘hegemonic politics.’ Not only was it possible to win over the opinion of a majority of the people for the proposal; they also went to the polling stations and voted for it.
Of course, political hegemony can also imply acceptance of the existing conditions. This is the way the ruling class defines hegemony. In contrast, the Left understands this concept to mean taking on an opinion-leadership role in rejection of current social conditions or by asserting our own positions. Yet this does not simply mean gaining a public majority on a particular policy, it also means implementing these policies as part of hegemonic politics.
My guiding principle as union secretary in Stuttgart was always to strive for hegemony. I want to secure us enough influence in political debates to be able to block something or implement our own policies. I believe that DIE LINKE needs to confront the issue of ‘hegemony’ more strongly. Antonio Gramsci’s analyses demonstrate that power relations are solidified through many things and not just through authority or the police. Gramsci tried to develop an understanding of hegemony that could be applied within left-wing politics. We need to include this understanding in our work.
This means we need to set up long-term campaigns that may even run for a number of years. They need to aim, at least in part, at changing social relations, and this means developing a perspective to implement our positions. The minimum wage is an example of an issue that has led to an opinion leadership in alliance with the trade unions and others. It is now even quite possible that a minimum wage will be introduced. Of course, these kinds of campaigns can also be linked to the question of distribution. I think this is essential. But the great weakness e.g. of the UmFAIRteilen campaign, in my opinion, is that there is no plan that sets out how its aims might be achieved.
UmFAIRteilen is an example of a well-constructed political campaign, which actually operates in terms of a public relations exercise. The campaign does not involve a strategy discussion, and as such it has no prospect of reaching its aims.
Petitions and referendums work differently. Referendums often actively involve minorities from the SPD and the Green Party. They provide activist minorities with a perspective for success that they can develop together. How can such a strategy of assertion lead to the possibility of success in other areas?
We should not underestimate the value of referendums. There are various useful political instruments, and the referendum is one of them. When they lead to success, referendums act as a form of united front approach.
Obviously though, strikes also play a major role. Low-wage policies are driving more and more people onto the edge of poverty, for example, female caretakers, education workers, and shop assistants. These women are not traditional industrial workers, but they have shown significant potential for engagement in recent years. Involving them is an important task for DIE LINKE, because debates about public services always imply political regulation. That is why it would be sensible to ensure that these economic debates also become politicized.
It is no coincidence that women — and in significantly larger numbers than a few years ago — are now increasingly voting for DIE LINKE, and that female union members are more likely to vote for the party than men. I believe that this has a lot to do with the struggles we have fought over the last ten years and that a certain consciousness has developed in these areas. And although it has not always worked out the way we imagined, it has formed part of a continuous process.
Privatization and renationalization not only affect citizens and residents; they also affect a particular workplace. In Stuttgart we were able to prevent privatization together with an alliance of workers and the local population. The workers not only played the most active role, they also founded the alliance. This shows that social issues can be linked to struggles in the workplace and other disputes. And because these are political processes, DIE LINKE has to make these links clear.
Which other issues might this be relevant?
One example would be redistribution. This issue is currently being discussed by the bourgeoisie in terms of a tax increase. In reality, however, it is about public services and public infrastructure.
Whenever we call on money from the rich to expand childcare services or build bridges or develop public transport routes and the like, we always receive majority support. It is one thing to link these issues, but it also important to state that such policies will only come about through social struggle. This is a point that DIE LINKE needs to emphasize to the trade unions. The SPD is wrong to claim that social progress can be achieved without the redistribution of wealth. This claim is a false promise and will lead to a further dramatic deterioration of people’s standard of living. Any local election campaign we start needs to be more than a mere election strategy; it also needs to be a campaign about public services, which in turn should be linked to the wealth tax and why wealth should be taxed.
Of course, every campaign needs an opponent. Saul Alinksy is not by any account as well known in Germany as he is in the US. His rule, to “pick a target, freeze it, and polarize it” is often overlooked in leftist campaigns, but you have to know who you are up against and what you want.
The “other side” has understood this correctly: In the run up to the federal election, the Green Party’s tax policy faced criticism by business organizations and much of the media. The Green Party was actually promoting quite a modest policy of redistribution. Nevertheless, their policy was taken apart in the media. They were targeted as well as the “weakest link” in a possible red-red-green alliance for a social agenda. This shows how difficult it is to implement policies together with the SPD and the Green Party as long as extra-parliamentary groups are not taken into account. A campaign against an alliance across society based on popular back-up would have been much more difficult.
If this happened to the Greens, can you imagine what would happen if our policy of redistribution were seriously to become the subject of debate? What at first glance would appear to be a party-political debate would soon turn into a proper class conflict, and the rich would fight by all means to block any policy of redistribution. It is completely illusionary to think we could survive such a debate without extra-parliamentary support and without a social movement behind us.
The concept of politics you are describing amounts to an interventionist approach both in terms of the trade unions and social movements. Blockupy, for example, has no real strategy of implementing its slogan ‘resistance in the heart of the crisis regime.’ This also means that it has no way of tackling people’s everyday struggles.
I think we also have to make recommendations to the activists, when and how to focus a campaign for example. We also need to realize when a petition is winnable or whether a particular strike could help set in motion a social dynamic. And it seems to me that at the moment we are so involved in election campaigns that we cannot properly conduct this discussion.
I agree. You cannot simply make a movement; movements arise out of existing conflicts. It is very difficult to predict what might spark a new movement and where they might develop. And this is certainly not possible with the modest means available to DIE LINKE.
But what we can do is conduct more analysis of areas in which social conflicts exist, areas that at least provide a possible basis for a new movement, and then target policies toward these areas. There are a number of positive examples, such as the campaigns for socialization in Berlin and Hamburg, where DIE LINKE has responded properly. Party development also means experiences of involvement in such movements and social struggles need to be evaluated together so that they can then influence the party’s collective understanding. Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving this.
We keep modifying far too many policy positions, and there is far too little discussion of existing conflicts and experiences, despite the fact that they continually affect the party. Itis very important to change this situation. We also need to learn that campaigns never work if they are conducted in a top-down manner. We cannot simply sketch out a campaign and expect everyone else to get involved.
The focus of the party central office has to be communicating these experiences and bundling them together. At the local level, such experiences are often quite diverse. However, we still need joint action days that involve and invite everyone. We also need really good internal communication. It is essential that party members understand that they are not alone, but that 30, 40, or 50 other locals are also participating in the same campaign. This can help develop strength.
How can DIE LINKE learn something like this?
Some campaigns have been successful, in other countries and even here. For instance, the Schlecker campaign: This campaign was initiated from below and began in a few separate locations; it soon triggered a snowball effect. Some of the actors involved were able to make the campaign more widely applicable. We need to develop similar skills.
However, before this can happen, a consciousness needs to develop that campaigns have to be aimed at changing society. Campaigns always have two goals. On the one hand, campaigns are about raising awareness. That is, they must address a clear problem, make clear demands, have clear goals, and above all they must aim for enlightenment in its positive sense.
For a campaign to be good, it has to build up pressure and that means developing a pressure campaign. But for a campaign to exert political pressure, it must be aimed at someone or something. This could be the government, employers’ organizations, or a local person. I think this is the weakness of the UmFAIRteilen campaign. It is one thing to formulate demands, but who are they aimed at? And who will have to concede to the campaign’s demands?
These points really have to be clear in a successful campaign. That is why we need more time to prepare campaigns and they also need to go on for longer periods of time. A campaign is far more than just producing a glossy flyer and distributing it. I think DIE LINKE’s campaigning skills are in their early stages. They still need a lot of development, but this can only occur through actual involvement in campaigns.
We have heard your understanding of a successful campaign. Does this mean you do not think that DIE LINKE has ever conducted a proper campaign?
Not at the national level. But there have been successful regional campaigns.
How can we ensure that the party develops a campaign tradition that produces campaigns with the aims you have mentioned?
First, campaigns need to ensure that some of their demands can be met at least in part. That does not mean that they will be met. But demands that cannot be met, because there is no means of implementing them, will not lead to a campaign. It is important to reduce our demands in campaigns and put more thought into the specific demands that a particular campaign should make.
Second, I believe that even atthe campaign development stage, the actors, the base, must be included. It is not enough for the party leadership to set up a campaign and ensure that it is run. During my time at ver.di, campaigns relating to different companies and in different fields always started with a workshop in which all actors were involved.
Everyone was able to state what their problems were and form their demands. They developed a slogan for the campaign, decided which first steps should be taken and drew up a list of possible activities. If we transfer this form of campaigning to the district or federal chapter, we will need a lot more time to prepare campaigns. Put more simply, people will only do things that they have helped develop. This means it is important to rely more on the dynamics of the grassroots.
This, of course, is something that DIE LINKE will have to learn. This is the reason that local campaigns run much better than central ones. The campaigns on resocializiation are a good example. The regional level provides clear partners to form an alliance with and opponents whom the demands can be directed at.
These are the prerequisites of a successful campaign. DIE LINKE is also partly involved in alliances in which this process works. But I think the party should also consciously choose to act as an engine behind campaigns and not simply join existing alliances. We need to take up an active role and really become the motor behind them.
What do you see as the party’s priorities for the near future?
In order to further develop the party, we are going to suggest that the party develop two or three campaigns over the next two or three years. We will try to bring them together under one umbrella campaign. Distribution and public services should be the an issue, as this is directly related to everyday politics. And to engage in a fundamental struggle against precarious working and living conditions. This issue needs to be turned into a universal issue. We need to make it very clear that we will not accept any form of society that deprives millions of people of their livelihood or that excludes them from equitable social participation.
A third issue is certainly the question of Europe and internationalizing our politics. Not only because of the forthcoming European elections but also because a hegemonic neoliberal concept exists in the EU, and it has been able to win out against a left-wing, progressive approach.
How important is parliamentary work in your conceptualization of DIE LINKE?
I see the party as a social actor and not just in terms of parliamentary representation. Power relations and social relations are not changed solely through parliament. I like to quote Kurt Tucholsky on this point: “The SPD thought they were in power, but actually they only formed the government.”
Social relations are highly affected by change in the basis of society: the economy, the relationship between labor and capital, the issue of whether democratic rights can be won on the ground, and much more. These are approaches that can move social relations towards the left.
But if you want to do this as a party, you always have to take an integrated and transformative approach. It would be wrong to concentrate on short-term electoral gains. Of course we have to win elections: organizing and winning election campaigns forms part of the character of a political party. Us being part of parliament is an important resource for obtaining information and access to the public. We are received as “serious player” by many more people who would otherwise maybe agree with our demands but would feel disenchanted to engage in politics.
But the party must ensure that its political conception focuses on all aspects of a political actor, and that it does so in a manner that enables it to develop political opportunities for action. Otherwise, we will suffer the same fate as many other left-wing parties that only focused on the parliamentary level: participation in a governing coalition from a weakened position, likely to be punished for not being able to partly enforce their political program.