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Going Red-Red-Green

Katja Kipping
Loren Balhorn

The European elections marked a historic setback for the German left. Die Linke cochair Katja Kipping tells Jacobin how she plans to revive it.

An elderly woman walks past election campaign posters of the left wing Die Linke and of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) on May 13, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Interview by
Ines Schwerdtner

The European elections in May were bad news for anyone interested in progressive social change on the continent. Right-wing candidates won across the board, and, beyond a few isolated signs of hope like the surge for the Workers’ Party in Belgium, left-wing forces took a serious beating.

In Germany, headlines were dominated by the crushing blow delivered to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). That party is now caught in an existential crisis as its poll numbers continue to wane. Less reported on, but perhaps just as significant, were the disappointing results for the most prominent force in the Party of the European Left, Die Linke. Like the SPD, it achieved among the worst results in its history.

But even with the recent rise of the Alternative für Deutschland, it’s not just the German right that’s making the running. In fact, with the powerful advance of the Green Party — which some polls even place ahead of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — some have revived talk of a “red-red-green” coalition uniting it with the SPD and Die Linke.

Ines Schwerdtner of the German politics podcast HalbZehn.FM sat down with Die Linke cochair Katja Kipping to talk about the recent elections, the growth of the AfD, and what kind of winning vision socialists need today.


IS

You recently gave an interview to Der Tagesspiegel in which you said that the situation for Die Linke is critical, after its results in the European elections were lower than expected. The SPD’s results were also sobering. How do you explain them?

KK

Die Linke achieved short of 6 percent of the vote. This raises the danger of a tipping point, since 5 percent is the cutoff to enter parliament in national elections. It was really one of the worst results we’ve ever received in a European election. There are lots of reasons for this, one being that we lost votes to smaller parties like Die PARTEI. When I saw their campaign video about rescuing refugees caught at sea, I knew we would lose votes to them.

A second reason is obviously how dominant the climate issue was. Our demands when it comes to climate policy actually go further than the Greens, but in general people associate the Greens with environmental issues. That’s why I said the situation is critical and we have to break out of our normal routines and reflexes. But something else also became evident on election day: more people voted for us in the municipal elections and the election in Bremen that took place at the same time (11.3 percent, compared to 5.5 nationally). That is, they consciously decided to vote for us at the municipal level. That raises the question of what function Die Linke actually has for people.

IS

Was Die Linke’s position on the EU not clear enough? Contradicting positions could be seen at the party congress, with the motion for a “Republic Europe” [put forward by the party’s more conservative wing] surprisingly almost winning a majority.

KK

We had a clear line of argument: we want to fundamentally transform the EU. The dominant polarization in society was “are you for or against the EU?”, and our slogan of “Europe, but only with solidarity” struck many people as a kind of “yes, but . . . ” Post-election analysis also revealed some interesting results. We went up in terms of poll respondents identifying us with “social justice,” and our overall sympathy ratings went up, but this wasn’t reflected in our results. A lot of people like us but don’t vote for us.

IS

But isn’t it then a bit absurd to talk about “new left majorities” right after you’ve lost, like Die Linke and especially you are doing? How can you now talk about joining a national coalition?

KK

It might seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s rooted in my analysis. Like I already hinted at: a lot more people voted for us in the Bremen state election. Die Linke in Bremen brought two things together: we took up people’s everyday problems in the city while combining that with a perspective of transformation.

In recent years, I’ve had this experience both in high-rise apartment complexes and in front of the unemployment office: people say that Die Linke does all the right things but can’t change anything. They believe me that I personally want to abolish Hartz IV, but they say we can’t change it. And it’s true that without a majority in parliament, we really can’t change anything. The fact that we can’t leads many marginalized people to feel powerless, which helps the Right.

IS

If such a coalition were to emerge, regardless of when, what would Die Linke’s role be? Tom Strohschneider wrote pretty soberly in Der Freitag that there would have to be a division of labor, with climate issues clearly being the Greens’ department. Die Linke would be the smallest partner — would you at least be able to implement good social policies?

KK

I’m not going to sit down with a calculator and add the different percentages together. Before anything else, we need plausible prospects that a fundamental change will happen. That is to say, we need social majorities that could ultimately translate into different governing majorities. We will be the ones who push for social justice, and we already are the ones who take on the big corporations. If you want to stop the militarization of the world, you have to take on the weapons manufacturers. The same is true of climate protection or taxing the rich for more investments in social policies.

IS

But is that really possible in this constellation? Corporations feted Green chairwoman Annalena Baerbock even more than they did Christian Lindner from the FDP (Free Democratic Party) at the “Day of German Industry” a few months ago. They seem to be cozying up to big business. Could Die Linke really govern with them?

KK

We could spend hours talking about the Greens’ and SPD’s mistakes, but what I’m trying to do is figure out what has to happen for a radicalization to the left to become possible. There are thousands of examples of how that failed, but there are also things that give me hope. For example, when I look at what’s happening in Berlin under the Red-Red-Green government. In Berlin, we adopted the approach of “governing in movement” from the outset. We wanted a close exchange with movements and were also receptive to criticisms. One example: government skeptics and renters were the main forces behind the campaign to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen. They took on a problem that affects large majorities, and now we have the possibility to freeze rents across the city. Something began to move, and the Greens and SPD also had to radicalize. The question we have to ask ourselves is always, how we can make something like that succeed?

IS

There are other elections looming that are cause for alarm — namely the state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia this fall. You and I are both from Saxony, you’re from Dresden and I’m from near Zwickau, meaning you certainly know people who vote for the AfD. There is a real danger there that the party could become the strongest force. What is Die Linke doing to stop this? And here, again: Is it not contradictory to talk about “left majorities” when fascism is on the rise in the east?

KK

I think one of the reasons I brought up left majorities is because the right-wing threat is so grave and so realistic. I talk to people in Dresden and the surrounding area a lot. There are some who vote for the AfD consciously — you won’t win them back by making any concessions to the Right. Then there are others who put up with the AfD’s racism but are actually just looking to provoke. We can only break through that by saying that we have a powerful answer to your problems, like the lack of internet connectivity or buses in your area.

A “Black-Blue” government between CDU and AfD in Saxony could happen. It’s possible that — though they’ve refused to do so thus far — the CDU could govern with the Right. They’re already fraternizing in the state parliament.

IS

And at the federal level.

KK

Yes, that too. But it’s particularly obvious in Saxony. We could thus find ourselves in an Austrian situation. One thing that can be observed well there is that the Right uses their power for corruption, while the influence of right-wing fraternities in the police and security services is growing. That is very dangerous.

The CDU thus has to issue a declaration that they won’t help the AfD into government. We as Die Linke have to go into rural areas and the high-rise apartment complexes and create spaces of encounter and convince people that things can get better, like the struggle for affordable housing or the fight for small garden plots in Berlin.

IS

So, one part of the strategy is concrete local policies. Rent is a good example of where that works well. My impression, however, is that people don’t trust Die Linke’s ability to shape the future. You don’t say, “The future belongs to us, to the people, we have a plan.” What I mean is I don’t see the big transformation, and people clearly don’t feel it. What would be a utopian vision that points in such a direction?

KK

This seems like a good moment to talk about democratic socialism. When we look at how much destruction our current economic system causes, democratic socialism is really the only rational way to organize our economy and our lives. What I mean is that it’s not just a vision, but a goal. The steps to get there are: first, we need a society in which there are social guarantees for all. Second, we need to strengthen the public sector. I once called this “infrastructure socialism” in a magazine I contribute to: that buses and trains need to be accessible to all, etc. Then, third, we of course have to say that we want to complete democracy — we have to raise the question of economic democracy.

After being a taboo for years, we’re finally talking about property again. The property question is relevant when it comes to housing, land-grabbing, or issues of the future like digitalization. Knowledge produced by scholarship should be accessible to all. We have to keep raising these questions again and again.

IS

A recent survey in the United States (though we could find similar numbers elsewhere) said that more young people favor socialism over capitalism — particularly young women. How do you explain that?

KK

I think it’s a fantastic development. Maybe young women are particularly sensitive to the effects of neoliberalism and the capitalist economy. A lot is obviously placed on women’s shoulders, like the commercialization of the care sector. That’s why a utopia would resemble something like Frigga Haug’s “four-in-one perspective,” which says that men and women should be equally active in four spheres: wage labor, care work, personal development, and political activity. Many perceive this as an imposition, but everyone needs to have the chance to get involved.

IS

When I take my kid to the playground during the week, I still only see women there. At least in this area, something radical would still have to change. We would obviously also need to reduce working hours.

KK

I always say that working with kids is so wonderful and so meaningful that we shouldn’t withhold it from men. For that we would need more free spaces and all kinds of work would have to be differently distributed. Sometimes people’s wishes are actually further than our political reality. The four-day week is something I’m really excited about. It’s better for our health, for the economy, for the environment, and for gender equality.

IS

Would you pursue that if you were Minister of Labor?

KK

Talking about controlling ministries leaves a bad taste in my mouth; I’m interested in changing something. But that would be something we could implement: the right to pull back and take a break.

IS

There are still two questions that you probably get asked a lot these days. One is Oskar Lafontaine’s idea that after the EU elections, the SPD and Die Linke should come back together after ten years apart . . .

KK

We, Die Linke, are not just a split from Social Democracy, but rather a left-socialist party beyond the SPD. I think that if we, divided as parties, can come together in an alliance when needed to work together and abolish poverty, that’s how we’ll do best. A fusion doesn’t do justice to the fact that we are an independent socialist party.

IS

Indeed, looking at the SPD: Andrea Nahles stepped down as party chair and parliamentary speaker, and now a membership-wide vote and a cochair will be implemented — a mini-revolution in that party. Why doesn’t Die Linke do something like that?

KK

We already did that in one state. I definitely think we need to change the way we pick our leading candidates. I’m open to either a party conference or a membership-wide vote. As party chairwoman, I can say that thus far it was always very complicated and uptight. That has to end. We need clear democratic rules and procedures — that is definitely on the agenda.