Transformative Politics: German Left/US Left – Same Challenge/Same Fight


Part One

“Maintaining principles should not be confused with rigidity.”

Corporate domination of elections, media, public space; economic relationships constantly reproducing and expanding inequality; U.S. global hegemony backed by trade and investment rules, backed by force of arms – these are realities that don’t change no matter who is in office, Democrat or Republican. A truism from one level of observation that appears contradicted by a different truth: the increasingly bitter partisan divide of mainstream politics, a divide which finds millions identifying with one side or the other. A serious divide as seen in the stolen presidential election of 2000, by the level of hate and invective promoted by McCain-Palin in 2008, by Republican-led government shutdowns designed to subvert federal authority, by the difference in tone, tenor and content between this election’s Democratic and Republican presidential primary debates. That divide, in direct and indirect forms, is reflected in the tensions and undercurrents of violence in abortion rights, health reform, and immigration debates. It is seen in the political and legal assault on voting rights. And it is evident in the Republican led Congressional obstruction of the Obama Administration’s domestic agenda since regaining a majority in 2010.

Two truths which if posed in opposition to each other, contribute to millions withdrawing from all forms of public engagement, itself a sign of the weakening of democracy. Equally, they contribute to the organized left’s lack of direction, lack of unity. Two truths which, if taken separately, seemingly trap political activism between ineffective posturing or compromised pragmatism, with little space for organizing action impactful beyond the moment. And that trap, that lack of space, is manifested by the left’s inability to move out of the margins of national life, notwithstanding a meaningful presence in most spheres of social engagement. If, however, both sides of those truths are seen as comprising a unity, if their linkage is grasped, it may be possible to construct a path through which socialist politics can assert its independent perspective within even the narrowest of those visible divides. A path which would situate the left in movements that are both part of and apart from the divides within/between the Democratic and Republican parties; a path through which the left can build transformational politics within and outside society’s existing institutional structures.

In Germany similar contradictions/possibilities manifest themselves even though Die Linke, represented in the country’s federal, state and municipal legislatures, has a rooted national presence left-wing organizations in the United States do not have. Greater political strength, however, has not lessened internal disagreements. Underlying tensions within its ranks over how to connect day-to-day challenges with socialist strategy bump into the same structural limits as in the US.

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Tensions that come to the fore after each national and state election sharpens a dilemma as yet unresolved – should a policy of maximum flexibility be pursued in order to coalesce with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens and open the way to a “Red-Red-Green” coalition or should clear and uncompromising pre-conditions on coalition be set; the potential short-term consequence of a more conservative governing coalition taking office balanced by greater independent non-electoral activism.

Political accommodation to coalition politics means that only a narrow range of policy choices are possible. And from that stems the objective basis for many of the divisions in Die Linke and more widely within the German left. Relative economic success in an era of generalized insecurity leads some sections of working people to limit their horizons out of fear that the decline visible elsewhere will soon overtake them at home. De-politicization sets in when neither government nor civil society appear to be of help in the efforts to make ends meet or maintain a standard of living achieved after a lifetime of hard work. This can lead to support for conservative parties and to far right politics, with a “leave us alone,” mindset combined with a desire for a “strong hand,” to deal with problems blamed on those deemed “outsiders.”

Narrowly conceived reformist politics such as those put forth by the SPD, Greens, and a section of Die Linke take those trends into account. Incremental policy changes appear to be the means whereby the value of government action and social reforms is demonstrated in daily life. Such immediate reforms are meant as a counter to right-wing demagoguery directly and indirectly – by being undertaken by parliamentary compromise and thus avoiding instability that conservative authoritarian forces would exploit. In this lies the not inconsiderable base of support such politics continues to have. Yet the very narrowness of that kind of politics during a time of loss and fear, is insufficient and inadequate.

Current conditions can (and do) lead many others to recognize that self-limitation and programmatic retreat are not adequate to address personal need or social want, requiring activism able to pose demands beyond those attainable through parliamentary compromise. Individual and broad sectors of society committed to rights and protections deemed by those in power as no longer “affordable,” are the primary basis of Linke support, as it is the basis of support for militant sections of the labor movement, social justice organizations, migrants and asylum seekers. Yet the number of people who see the necessity for transformative politics remain too few to overcome the hesitations in the face of radical initiatives still felt by a greater number. Thus, to maintain anti-war, anti-austerity principles necessitates building outward, demonstrating that the concrete answers to issues of the day will only be found through class and social solidarity that redefine what is “affordable,” what is possible. Absent the ability to do so, German politics steady drift to the right will continue. As will happen in the US.

“To become meaningful, socialist politics has to find a way to combine program with practice”

Maintaining principles should not be confused with rigidity. Left political programs that fail to find popular resonance, that ignore those in whose name they seek to speak, are as incapable of contesting existing power as are social movements that accept what exists as unchangeable. Organizations that do accept such limits typically garner more support than radical alternatives because under ordinary circumstances most working people also see those constraints as unchangeable and thus accept moderate potential reforms, shying away from the supposed impracticability of fundamental change (it is a similar layer of acceptance that leads others to belief in and support conservative myths of an “ideal” social order in which each finds a place in a “natural” hierarchy). Yet that support tends to dissipate when in office because it leaves political initiative in the hands of the right, which has a more clear cut agenda that uses the lack of substance of narrow reform against itself. This is seen in Democratic congressional losses following Obama’s (and, previously Clinton’s) election victories — and seen in the losses suffered by SPD, Greens and Die Linke after serving in office. And thus the aforementioned box of compromised pragmatism or marginalization.

To become meaningful, socialist politics has to find a way to combine program with practice – or, put in other words, the politics of governance with the politics of public action and organization. And so too, it has to find a way to create a national consensus opposed to existing property relations and structural inequities as opposed to a national consensus based on the acceptance of current relations of power, of the existing “natural/ideal” social order. For Die Linke that possibility lies in a practice that simultaneously challenges the SPD and Greens as part of the basis for building for transformative politics around which they could coalesce with them — just as anti-capitalist groupings within and outside all parliamentary parties and mainstream organizations need to develop politics, that simultaneously organizes and confronts the totality of existing power while also engaging with those beyond their ranks whose critique of that power is narrower and more specific.

Die Linke’s current program represented a step toward that end. Many further steps, however, have to be taken; a truism underscored by an historical parallel. The SPD’s 1890 convention adopted a Marxist program which cemented organizational unity and set the stage for the rapid growth that made it Germany’s largest political party. But the principles accepted in 1890 did not survive the pressure to conform that accompanied rapid growth. Moreover, prioritizing election results as a sign of strength or weakness meant that the SPD’s one electoral setback in that era — in 1907 after having challenged the Kaiser’s brutal colonial policy — was used by conservative leaders in the Party to adopt an ever more nationalist orientation and an ever narrower domestic reform agenda. Luxemburg in her The Mass Strike (1906), Liebknecht in his Militarism and Anti-Militarism (1907), the SPD left more widely, rejected such a course, and the divide then revealed grew deeper each subsequent year. Organizational unity was maintained by papering over differences while the gap between proclaimed beliefs and actual practice intensified.

In consequence, cracks in working-class unity still not fully visible were reinforced, class unity replaced by an ever-more fragile Party unity. Gains made by some through incremental reform were not gains made by all, unwillingness to acknowledge that change contributed to a breakup of class solidarity within Germany itself and in relation to workers abroad. If radical words are to have meaning in action, unity needs to be established in practice around egalitarian inclusion on both the social and economic realm. This can root left politics in everyday life, the best means to withstand the lure of partial opportunity as well as the fear of repression.

The understanding, however, can only be made concrete when electoral and non-electoral action are intimately connected. Governing coalitions, on whatever basis they are established, almost inevitably face the pressure of events and the pressure of the dominant system to pull away from solidarity. A trend which can only be counteracted when those most excluded, most exploited, form an integral part of the process of change, only when hegemonic institutions are seen as objects of contestation. Manfred Sohn, from 2008 – 2013 co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary caucus in Lower Saxony, put forth a perspective germane to this task. Citing the experience of Communist-Social Democratic coalitions in Saxony and Thuringia in 1923, the 1930s French and Spanish Popular Fronts and Chile’s Popular Unity from 1970-1973 as instances of radical public policy initiatives driven equally by broad mobilization outside parliament and within government office, he wrote:

“A principal lesson of past struggles: there is nothing more pitiful and hopeless than a left government without an active left mass movement. … a party oriented toward systemic change must have as a goal of the government it puts in place the intervention of large numbers of people in on-going debate.”

Sohn continues later in the same article:

“. . . attempts to gain power [such as in Chile] were anticipated in Antonio Gramsci’s theoretical writings. His core understanding can be summarized as follows: socialist oriented change in our time … requires a whole series of building blocks in the struggle to overcome the defenses of the capitalist system before a qualitative break — the abolition of private property in the core means of production — can be successful. It is because these immediate struggles are necessary, because the conquest of one political position after the other lies before us, that to counterpose government participation and opposition as a supposed question of principle is completely superficial. It is a diversion from the prerequisites that need to be created before the question of government can be posed. [Junge Welt, August 31, 2010]”


Next week: Part 2 of Transformative Politics: German Left/US Left Same Challenge/Same Fight

About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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