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Surprise on the Left - Report on the Die Linke German Congress

The LINKE party in Germany is one of the most important left-wing parties in Europe (perhaps the most important). Its congress a few days ago avoided a threatening split, elected two women as new co-chairs, and stressed militant unity on most issues

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Susanne Hennig-Wellsow and Janine Wissler talk in an interview about the left's ability to govern, the government's failures to corona and the topicality of Marx., Frank May / DPA // Der Tagesspiegel

Surprise, surprise! Things worked out quite differently than expected at the congress of the LINKE, the left-wing party. The surprise was not that it took place at all, after the pandemic forced postponements from June to October and from October to last weekend, with most of the 580 delegates at home in front of a screen, microphone and camera; only the socially-distanced, masked leaders sat in a sparsely occupied hall in Berlin. But other parties are meeting that way too.

The surprise was rather that the bitter, possibly fatal inner conflicts, greatly feared by some, greatly desired by others, simply did not happen. Unlike the angry quarrels, hostility and near split-ups which troubled some earlier congresses, this time there was an amiable, friendly atmosphere throughout.

No surprise, at least for most members, was the choice of new party leaders. Their predecessors stepped down as required after two four-year terms (plus extra months due to the postponements). Only outsiders may have been surprised that both new co-chairs were women, which was new.

But many were indeed moved to see the two so warmly friendly, each congratulating the other on her (separate) election and both assuring party members that they would get along very well while diving into the tough tasks ahead; a yearful of elections in six states and, on September 26th, in all Germany, and with the LINKE now polling at a worrisome 7 or 8%, too close to the 5% cut-off point.

Who are the two new leaders, no longer a male-female team but still the customary East-West duo?

Janine Wissler, 39, has led the LINKE opposition caucus in the legislature of West German Hesse since 2014. She is known as a fighter. In the last election campaign she covered her whole state by bicycle, speech making all along the route, and winning more LINKE votes than in most of West Germany. More recently, joining the protest against chopping down of part of an ancient forest to build another highway, she stayed a while in one of the high tree huts aimed at holding off loggers and the police.

[Note: Quotations from Janine Wissler interview with Der Tagesspiegel are below.]

Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, 42, her co-chair, is also known to be plucky. Originally a professional speed skater, a very good one, she switched to educational issues in her East German home-town of Erfurt in Thuringia, and quickly climbed to a position equivalent to that of Janine Wissler’s just across the former East-West border, becoming chair of both the state party and its caucus in the legislature. But unlike Wissler she was not in opposition. Thuringia is the first and only German state with a LINKE, Bodo Ramelow, as minister-president  (like a governor), because his party won the most seats. Since 2014 he has headed a shaky coalition with a small Social Democratic and even smaller Green caucus.

Hennig-Wellsow gained unusual fame last year after a conservative politician pushed Ramelow out as head of state, but only by accepting the votes of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which is stronger and more rabid in Thuringia than anywhere else. Tradition demanded that party-leader Hennig-Wellsow present the  winner, any winner, with congratulatory flowers. She approached him, then suddenly let the bouquet fall to the floor. Impolite, but most anti-fascists rejoiced at what became a top Youtube hit. (After a huge public outcry the man had to step down three days later and Ramelow came back – with Susannne. Now these two state leaders head the national party, and though they disagree sharply on some issues, they are in agreement on a host of others – and friendly.

Another striking feature; of the delegates who spoke up electronically, with contributions strictly limited in time because so many wanted to speak, how many were young and, not just at the top, how many were female. These marked changes from the past, when so many were aging, often male, and frequently former members of the old Socialist Unity Party, the ruling party in the GDR. This generation is dying out. Ten years ago over 50% of the members lived in the five smaller states of East Germany; now they make up 38% of a total of 60,000. With all due respect to these truly “Old Faithful”, the trend toward a new, younger generation is a greatly-needed cause for hope. And so is their militancy – which was reflected in the words and the spirit of Janine and Susanne.

Most of these young  members called energetically for far more action, visible, militant action in all causes for which the party stands. A key theme: helping people recover from the epidemic, which is causing heavy debts, hardships, job losses and bankruptcy for tens of thousands of small firms, retail shops, restaurants and cultural workers while the biggies, from Amazon to Aldi, from Daimler-Benz to BMW rake in mountains of euros for their owners and stockholders. The LINKE demands genuine taxes on the wealthy, higher wages for the workers – a 15 euro minimum- and more for children and pensioners. It means much closer bondage with the unions and their struggles. Some of them sent greetings to the congress, which still required a bit of courage.

Many stressed the related fight for the environment, too often neglected and left to the Greens. But the Greens, till now in second place in the polls ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD) but well behind the twin “Christian Union” parties, have moved ever closer to arrangements with big business, downplaying the needs of common people and even abandoning major principles in order to gain or keep cabinet positions, as in Hesse, where their coalition ministers concurred in sacrificing forest sectors to an unnecessary highway extension (where Janine did some needed “tree-hugging”).

Many delegates warned of further hospital privatization and supported the fight for affordable, publicly-owned housing to outpace the profit-based gentrification expanding through most cities. There was praise for the LINKE in Berlin; it led local coalition partners SPD and Greens in pushing through a rent control law reversing the worst over-pricing and forbidding most increases. It also defied Green foot dragging and SPD opposition to a referendum to buy out (or “confiscate”) Berlin’s biggest real estate giants.

Janine, Susanne and many delegates called for a constant, vigilant resistance to the growing menace of the fascists, some loosely bound up in local thug gangs and underground killer units, others organized on a party basis or embedded in the police, the armed services or as suspiciously spooky secret agents of the FBI-type Constitutional Defence Bureau.

There was also general agreement on re-directing billions spent on armament purchases and production toward the repair of decrepit schools, rutty roads, unsafe bridges and all public facilities.

But general agreement on this edged onto questions dividing the party for years. Some members – and many in leadership - hope keenly that the LINKE can join with the Social Democrats and Greens in a national, governing “left-of-center coalition”, as in current state governments in Thuringia and Berlin. Former harsh rejection by the other two of any connection with the “former rulers of the GDR dictatorship” has now weakened, especially if the votes of LINKE deputies can help them over the 50% margin to victory. Since both the SPD and the LINKE adopted the color red as symbol, this would be a Green-Red-Red coalition, or G2R, or RGR, depending on who would be top dog. Such an alliance, say its advocates, would be a bar against the right, meaning the Christian sister parties, the conservative Free Democrats and the fascistic AfD.

The state and the national levels differ in many ways. Most important, only the latter deals with foreign and military policy, which erects big, important hurdles. Both SPD and Greens insist on two conditions for an alliance: the LINKE must abandon its opposition to NATO and to sending Bundeswehr  troops outside German borders, even on UN missions. That is their red line; No-NATO means No-go! And well-armed German troops must be able to flutter black-red-golden flags from Kabul to Bamako,from masts in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, or any sea or coast where it serves German purposes. Roll up the tanks, drones, fighters and armed frigates!

Some LINKE leaders call for compromises. A humanitarian mission for the UN now and then should not be a  major hurdle, while replacing NATO with a Europe-wide security agreement, including Russia instead of threatening it, is currently pure fantasy. In a highly controversial open letter, Matthias Höhn, a leading LINKE,said that such matters can be agreed upon, Germany need not totally reject US demands for 2% of its budget for military build-up but might cut it to 1%, with the other 1% diverted to development aid for countries of the south. His opponents were quick to reply; they insisted that Germany was threatened by no one; the Bundeswehr was in essence an instrument of the same expansive powers which have determined bloody German policy for over a century. Bombing Belgrade and Afghanistan was also called “humanitarian”! Any backsliding step in these matters was really a foot in the door, a dangerous foot, and would cancel the basic claim by the LINKE to be the one and only party of peace in the Bundestag.

This question has implications for an even more basic question: does the LINKE support or oppose Germany’s present social system? Many leaders in the East, often having experienced advantages attached to cabinet seats on a state level, insist that the LINKE can only exert political effect to improve life if it takes part on a governmental level. The other side claims that the LINKE, as a tolerated little brother in such a coalition, would be granted a few lesser cabinet ministries but be easily outvoted on important policy question, foreign or domestic, with only two options - bow down or quit. No, they say, the party wants improvements, but sees the need for a full social switch. That means active opposition and not becoming part of “the Establishment,” a role which has cost it dearly in eastern Germany in poll results, elections and reputation.

The dividing line also affected the two new leaders. Susanne from Thuringia is ready to consider a GRR coalition, even with a compromise or two. Isn’t that what realistic politics sometimes requires? Janine from Hesse says No; she wants no cozy, weak-kneed cabinet seat for a LINKE. Let the SPD and Greens change, adopt a genuine peace policy and abandon dangerous “east-west” confrontation!

The differing viewpoints were put to a test during the vote for six deputy chairpersons. Matthias Höhn, who sent that letter proposing a retreat on armaments and deployment, received 224 voters. Tobias Pflüger, a disarmament expert opposed to any dilution of peace positions, beat him out with 294 votes. And it was Pflüger’s views which were more frequently reflected by the overwhelmingly young speakers’ list.

But this coalition question is purely hypothetical anyway. With Greens and SPD now polling at 17% each and the LINKE at 8% (but hoping to get back to double digits), reaching 50% is just a dream.

That explains why so many stressed instead the need to fight far less in parliaments or party meetings but far more in the streets, factories and colleges, among machinists, teachers, medical personnel, supermarket employees, truck drivers and in all the places where those who do the country’s work must move in defense against current attacks on living standards and values. This must reach at least as many women as men, both young and old, all sexual orientations, and definitely those hit hardest, the millions with immigrant backgrounds. Hopeful symbols were the hearty greetings from the Alevite Turkish community, from several major unions and young activists in Fridays for Future.

Disagreement on key issues could not and will not be ignored. But the happy surprise was that this did not lead to a split, which would have meant LINKE, if not general left-wing political demise! The sides agreed to disagree and now work together to win supporters – and  votes - in the six state elections and the national election soon challenging the party.

There was one other aspect which surprised many and deserves attention: how many participants,  especially the younger ones, dropped past shyness and stated that the current social system, now proving its decay and inhumanity more clearly than ever, must be replaced. The goal was also named, without many former taboos; a socialist economy, no longer determined by a tiny cabal whose lust for unearned profit caused a huge, growing gap between billionaire luxury and billions facing deprivation and despair.

If this new fighting spirit and renewed orientation can be maintained, the LINKE party could play a far more potent role in strengthening opposition within Germany. And after the vicious defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s fight in Britain and with the weakness of leftist parties in France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, a militant Left in central, powerful Germany could regain the importance it once possessed in the heyday of people like Rosa Luxemburg – who was born 150 years ago, on March 5 1871!

[Victor Grossman (born in New York City, 1928) is an American journalist who deserted the US Army in 1952 under McCarthy-era pressure by swimming across the Danube River to the Soviet Zone of Austria. He has lived in East Berlin ever since. A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee was published by Monthly Review Press.  His other books include a history in German of the Spanish Civil War, Madrid du Wunderbare, and his English-language autobiography, Crossing the River (University of Massachusetts Press).]

Here are excerpts from an interview with Janine Wissler.

Candidates for the Left Chairmanship: "We Want to Change the Situation"

Interviewed by Sebastian Huld [Victor Grossman translation]
February 20, 2021
Der Tagesspiegel

As a party we must prioritize more vigorously the issues about which we agree. We did not succeed very well in doing that in recent years. And we must turn more to the people, to be present among cleaning workers fighting for better conditions or industrial workers struggling to keep their jobs, with Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter protests…

People are not now greatly concerned with getting a different social system. But if we want to prevent the gap between rich and poor from widening even further, if we want everyone to have an equal chance at getting an education, culture and health care, with no one having to worry about paying the rent, then, in the final analysis, we must talk about changing the system. We will also be unable to solve the climate crisis without changes in property and power relationships, for the corporations will block the necessary alterations in electric energy and transportation. The same holds true in the medical sector; private hospital corporations pay big dividends to third parties while the doctors and hospital personnel responsible for their earnings are hugely overburdened.

Having the LINKE participate in a government does not amount to systemic change. For real changes social pressures are required. That was true in Berlin with the capping of rent levels. There was interference in the market, in conflict with the interests of the big real estate companies in favor of the interests of the tenants. No such changes would have been possible without pressure from tenant initiatives and protests.

We want to change things. Merely being in a government is not enough. Major achievements were always won by movements of the people, whether for women’s suffrage, the eight hour day, an end to atomic power plant construction or same-gender marriage. Bad conditions are placed on the agenda by social pressure, not purely by participation in a government.