Germany: The far right, conservative leftism and how to get rid of that shit

la gauche

Top: Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht, text translates to ‘left-wing anti-immigration.’ Bottom: German antifascist flag.

By JoJo, a Fightback correspondent based in Germany.

This article will be published on Fightback’s upcoming magazine on International Perspectives. To subscribe, please click here.

In this piece, I attempt to analyze some strategies against the rise of the far right in Germany, including conservative leftism. I will argue that in order to push back fascism as well as conservative leftism, we will need to develop a new progressive leftist narrative that not only connects current struggles but also explores ways to overcome capitalism and what a post-capitalist society might look like. I’m using examples from the German context as it is the one best known to me but since developments are similar elsewhere, I hope folks might find this piece helpful.

In Germany, like elsewhere, we have seen a normalization of the far right over the last couple of years. In Fightback’s magazine on “Migrant and Refugee rights” from June 2017 I wrote about the rise of the AfD, the “Alternative for Germany”, Germany’s far right party1. Things haven’t changed a lot since then, the AfD now has seats in all regional parliaments as well as the national parliament and is scoring around 12-15% in polls nation-wide and over 20% in East Germany. This is still accompanied with far right mobilizations on the streets, most notably last August in Chemnitz (a town in East Germany) where Neo-Nazis and other far right activists exploited the killing of a 35-year old man for their racist agenda because of the suspect’s refugee status, leading to large racist demonstrations and riots.

The Left was not able to stop this development, despite some successful antifascist mobilizations. Until last year, confronting the AfD was mainly the job of the radical leftist activist milieu alone, other forces did seldomly show up or organize counter-protests. But Chemnitz among some other factors seems to have changed that: In October, a demonstration under the motto Unteilbar (“undividable”) mobilized almost a quarter million people in Berlin. It was mainly targeted against the AfD, but also made a clear point that the social question and the cause for open borders are not to be played out against each other. Trade unionists, migrants, queers and feminists marched together as they saw their interests connected to each other. In addition, demonstrations of Seebrücke (“sea bridge”), demanding the decriminalization of NGOs who rescue refugees in the Mediterranean, also brought surprisingly high numbers of people to the streets.

Other progressive social movements have been growing as well: The climate movement is becoming bigger and more successful, mainly around the struggle to save Hambach forest which is being cut down to make place for an open cast lignite mine, but also with the school students’ “Fridays for Future” protests. There can also be seen a rise in feminist organizing, leading up to a women’s and queers’ strike on March 8 (international women’s day).

Also, within the Left, there are some interesting debates going on around “new class politics”2. Those who argue for “new class politics” want the Left to return their focus to class issues, to organize and push forward class struggles, but without just repeating “old” class politics. Instead, the Left should take into account today’s composition of the working class and see feminist and anti-racist issues connected to the class struggle.

These developments, in theory as well as in praxis, signal a shift from mere antifascist counter-activism towards more actively pushing forward an own agenda, an own narrative of solidarity. It will be crucial to develop class struggles and connect them with feminist and anti-racist issues, since the far right attempts to play out the white (and mostly male) working class against migrants and other minorities. Even though the AfD is a cross-class project and has indeed a quite neoliberal program, it seems to be attractive for white male low-income workers who over-proportionally vote for them. This has of course a lot to do with their attempt to save white and male privilege, but is also connected to their class position. Without a visible and believable left anti-capitalist narrative, a far right populist program gives people the opportunity to express their diffuse anger which is rooted in their miserable situation and exploitation, but is then being redirected against migrants and “corrupt elites”. Of course, determined AfD supporters will not be convinced by left wing ideas and the connection of class struggle with feminism and anti-racism. “New class politics” is rather a strategy that aims to make a left narrative visible on the long term, so that this anger can be rationalized and directed towards the proper goal, before it is even redirected by far right populism.

However, the debates about how to react to the rise of the far right does not lead everyone on the Left to take a stance of borderless solidarity with all oppressed and exploited people (which is basically what “new class politics” and the social movements briefly described above have in common). Just like in the Anglosphere and in other countries as well, some on the Left think that they can win back right-wing voters by compromising their stance on migration issues and focusing primarily on the “white working class” (to be more precise, they sometimes do not even focus on the “white working class”, but abandon class analysis all together for a mere populism of positioning “the people” against “the elites”). The most prominent figure of this development in Germany is Sahra Wagenknecht, parliamentary leader of the party Die Linke (“the Left”). Over the last couple of years, Wagenknecht repeatedly draw attention with anti-refugee remarks. In October 2016, she even took part in a double interview with AfD-leader Frauke Petry in which she agreed with her on some points. Her positions are heavily debated within Die Linke, however the party still doesn’t throw her off her chair, probably because they are afraid to lose votes, as Wagenknecht is currently the party’s most notable and charismatic politician.

Last year, Sahra Wagenknecht launched the self-acclaimed movement Aufstehen (“Stand Up”) together with other politicians mostly from Die Linke, but also from the Social Democrats and the Greens3. Aufstehen claims to be a collective movement of the Left, bringing together members of different parties and non-party members. It is inspired by La France Insoumise, a similar movement in France launched by left-wing nationalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the Momentum platform for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Aufstehen has so far not been particularly active in any protests, but has already around 167,000 members (as of December 2018). It is a perfect example of conservative leftism, defined by Fightback’s Daphne Lawless as “a reactionary, undialectical opposition to various aspects of neoliberalism” which “essentially consists in trying to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems”4. With Aufstehen this means trying to bring back the social welfare state of the post-war years, while ignoring that this kind of social welfare state could only exist in this certain historical moment, with a Fordist production model and the system competition with the Eastern block. It could also only exist in the framework of the nation state, was based on the exploitation of the Global South, and was also deeply connected with traditional gender and family norms. It is thus only consistent that Wagenknecht and Aufstehen are mostly ignoring gender, sexuality, race and migration issues if they are not openly opposing these emancipatory struggles. Aufstehen did not take part in the big Unteilbar-demonstration and Wagenknecht said this was due to Unteilbar’s position in favor of open borders. However, some local branches took part in the march nevertheless and criticized Wagenknecht for her announcement which they had no say in, since Aufstehen so far still does not have a democratic decisionmaking process. So it would be false to accuse all Aufstehen members of red-brown politics, as some on the antifascist Left do. Instead, it might be interesting to examine why it is so successful in gaining members.

Aufstehen does professional social media work that addresses issues of social inequality in a relatable and understandable way, often with personal examples of Aufstehen supporters and offers easy ways to get organized, online as well as in many local groups. This is a level of accessibility often lacking within the radical Left. It is also not a big surprise that in lack of a progressive anti-capitalist alternative, the answer of many people who are discontent with neo-liberalism is to return to some way of social welfare state, especially if they still grew up in such a welfare state.

So I would argue that even though it is necessary to critique conservative leftism, the best way to overcome it is to actually offer a progressive alternative to it.

What could such an alternative look like? As a Marxist, the answer is of course that I do not want some kind of more “social” capitalism, but that capitalism should be abolished. However, this cannot stay a mere slogan. Instead, we need to think about what capitalism is and what can replace it. The traditional Marxist models of state socialism has certainly failed and cannot be repeated (that attempt would be just another kind of conservative leftism). To develop new strategies of overcoming capitalism it is helpful to look at the critiques of “actually existing socialism” made by ultra-left currents such as the Communization or the Value-Critizism current5. According to them, traditional Marxists’ fault was and is to reduce Marx’s theory of capital to class struggle. The goal thus became for the proletariat to take over state power from the bourgeoisie leading to a nationalization of value production, to state capitalism, instead of the abolition of capital. Instead of reducing Marxism to a question of power relations between two classes, the ultra-leftists developed a fundamental critique of the basic categories of capitalism such as commodity, value, work, money, capital and state. In a capitalist society, these appear fetishized (a concept developed by Marx in the first chapter of Capital Vol. 1), which briefly means they seem to be natural, a-historical and thus unchangeable categories to the “common sense”, but are actually the product of specific social relations. Fetishism does not mean that the capitalist class somehow tricks the workers into thinking that these categories are unchangeable, but rather it is a process that happens “behind everyone’s back” and affects workers as well as capitalists. To abolish capitalism would then mean to abolish these basic categories, to establish a mode of production where things are not produced as commodities, where they are not exchanged and where therefore would be no money (or no equivalent such as “labour time vouchers” as in some traditional Marxist and anarchist models of economy). Instead, it would be the realization of Marx’ slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

In their recently published book “Kapitalismus aufheben”, Simon Sutterlütti and Stefan Meretz, both coming from a background of Value-Criticism as well as Critical Psychology, elaborate what such a society might look like6. They call it “commonism”, a play of words with “communism” and “commons”. Commons are resources that no-one owns, but that are available for everyone to use for free, often self-managed in a non-hierarchical way by those who are using it. They are a form of economy that exists beyond state or market. Commons exist already under capitalism, e.g. in form of open source software, and actually precede capitalism, as under feudalism, meadows and forests were often used as commons. The project of commonism would then be to extend these already existing commons and to replace private property with commons. The internet will probably play an important role here, not only because many forms of modern commons are being developed here, but also because it offers possibilities to manage the commons and to coordinate different commons-projects in a flat-hierarchical manner. This does however not replace the revolutionary expropriation of the resources that are now in private hands and need to be made common. In a commonist society, everyone would be able to feel safe since everyone’s needs would be fulfilled instead of the fulfillment of needs being dependent on market mechanisms, that always leave people behind, as in capitalism.

Capitalism produces misery and fear on a daily basis, especially since its fundamental crisis that’s been going on since 2008. It is no surprise that in a society based on competition and exclusion this leads to authoritarian reactions and people’s diffuse anger often being directed at scapegoats. So in order to tackle the rise of the far right, mere antifascist counter-activism, even though it is necessary, is not enough. Instead, the Left needs to push forward an own narrative of universal solidarity. The diverse social movements described above as well as the approach of “new class politics” are a starting point of that. However, they often lack a clear vision about how capitalism can be overcome and what can replace it. Without such a vision I think a discontent with the neoliberal status quo often tends to lead to conservative leftist reactions as it is much more satisfying to cling to a “better past” than to have no idea what we’re actually fighting for at all. I suggest that the concept of commons could be such a progressive vision, not only because they fulfill the communist promise “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, but also because they are prefigured already today and thus are not just some abstract idea, but something that people can already experience in some niches. In fact, social movements often tend to produce social dynamics of commoning, when people come together in solidarity, establish protest camps, share food and other resources according to people’s needs or squat buildings or squares and thus make them common.

To be able to win against the far right and against conservative leftism, we need social movements of universal solidarity and a progressive alternative to capitalism as offered by the concept of commons.

2Mostly within the undogmatic leftist monthly newspaper Analyse&Kritik, e.g. see here (unfortunately only in German): https://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak627/18.htm

3https://aufstehen.de/ for those who understand German

5English texts by the German value-critizism journal Krisis are available here: http://www.krisis.org/navi/english/

6The book can be read online at commonism.us unfortunately again only in German

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