Die Linke congress in Leipzig strives for Left unity
Sahra Wagenknecht and Katja Kipping | dapd via AP

LEIPZIG – Millions watching the G-7 leaders plus Trump in Quebec and then the Trump-North Korea talks in Singapore understandably may have missed the also-important events simultaneously happening here in Leipzig. While those important events were unfolding internationally the very important political party, Die Linke, was holding a congress in Leipzig, the famous German trading city of old.

Let me explain why this gathering was so important:

There are seven parties in powerful Germany’s Bundestag, its legislature. Only Die Linke (The Left), has fought consistently both for the rights of working people, children and pensioners and against all military conflicts. Die Linke demands an end to all weapons sales and the outlawing of drones used either inside Germany or sent out of the country.

Two other parties claiming to be progressive, the Social Democrats and the Greens, largely forfeited their rights to the label “progressive” during the years they ran the country, 1998 to 2005. They joined in the horrific bombing of Serbia, Germany’s first military engagement since 1945, and they passed laws harmful to working people, especially those who lose their jobs in an increasingly insecure economy.

The Greens still support progressive causes like women’s, LGBTQ and immigrant rights. but many Greens, now successful professionals, have lost earlier fervor and any interest in working-class needs. They lead the field too in opposing easing of tensions with Russia.

The SPD (the Social Democratic Party), despite close ties to most unions, is run, much like the Democratic Party in the USA, largely in cahoots with big business and under constant pressure from the conservative Christian parties with whom it shares the government. Timid moves toward détente by a few leaders are largely forgotten and it regularly OK’s huge rearmament plans, weapons exports and sending of troops abroad.

Die Linke, with only about 10 percent of voter support and 69 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag, and mostly alone in opposition, has raised its voice loud enough for the others to pay it attention, if only for fear of losing voters to it as a rival. Its presence is therefore of vital importance.

And yet it has lost traction in recent years. Though able to lift its percentage a bit in last year’s election and beginning to win young members to fill the declining ranks of the “old faithful,” few voters in depressed areas like East Germany and the Ruhr valley, and too few of the millions repelled by the rightward spin of the Social Democrats, have put their “x” on the ballot line of Die Linke.

Many spurn it, now seeing it as part of the establishment, and either stay home on election day or vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far right party so basically infected with pro-fascists. Its co-president, Alexander Gauland, stated recently that “Hitler and the Nazis are nothing but a spot of bird shit in the successful, more than a thousand-year German history” and, on another occasion: “…we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars….,” words rewarded by his followers with loud applause and “Bravo” shouts.

At Die Linke’s congress unanimous applause was in very different directions; against any military build-up, and for saving the nuclear treaty with Iran, for example. There was applause too for calls to resist every sign of fascist rebirth, notably the rise of the AfD, which, with 92 Bundestag seats and polling 15%, is close to overtaking the Social Democrats as second main force in Germany.

As in so many other countries, not only in Europe, this alarming menace feeds on the influx of immigrants, victims of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and on miserable poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, largely caused by northern war-makers or the lava flow of modern mass-produced foods and goods which burn up the economies of poorer counties.

It is just the resulting influx of asylum-seekers and refugees which has given the right-wing, pro-fascist movements their growing, hate-laden strength, aimed especially at the “Muslims” or “Islam,” which will allegedly ruin their pure thousand-year “Western cultures.” This setting of one group so damagingly against the other has a long, long history, not least of all in Germany!

These questions, now raised in all parties, also divided delegates at the Linke congress.  The traditional division between a militant, “further left” in the party and a pragmatic rightwing, hunting for chances to join in state governments (as in Thuringia, Brandenburg and Berlin) and some day in a federal coalition, has now been thoroughly mixed up. The current controversy is whether to permit immigration of all refugees, with no upper limits, a solution favored by the “reformers,” or rather to welcome only refugees from war and political repression, but not those coming mainly for economic reasons, seeking a better life.

This, more or less, is the position of Sahra Wagenknecht, hitherto considered the main “leftist” in the party, but now accused of bowing to popular pressure, nourished by media stress on immigrant crime and violence, in the hopes of winning people otherwise leaning toward the AfD. Was she, too, leaning in the same direction? The dispute was fogged up (to avoid rougher language) by all too evident personal animosity between Sahra, co-chair of the Linke caucus in the Bundestag, and Katja (Kipping), co-chair of the party. (At such meetings all are comrades and use first names). At the start of the Congress a compromise paper, agreed upon by almost everyone, left the question of the “upper limit” and of exactly defining words like “refugee” purposely elastic – or vague.

During the meet, whose 580 delegates now reflected a new geographical East-West balance, no longer a big East German majority, Sahra (an easterner until her marriage to the West German party co-founder Lafontaine) was sometimes absent from the front row of prominent party leaders; she was giving TV interviews. She is in fifth place in popularity polls of German politicians and is known for her powerful speeches.

Her speech at the Leipzig congress was forceful as ever, great on people’s rights, against the war threat – and sharply clear about what capitalism really means. But then her final paragraphs focused on her own political problems. Complaining about attacks accusing her of moving to the right, even toward the AfD, and calling them infamous, she restated her view that Germany could not realistically accept everyone seeking entry but only genuinely oppressed victims, and should instead stress ending problems in the home countries of possible emigrants. State borders should not be dismissed as meaningless, she insisted, for they sustained more advantageous arenas of struggle for those already living within them. This, her opponents claimed, violated left ethics.

Her final words uncovered a second major bone of party contention. To break out of a static 9-11% LINKE still-stand, and appeal to those who were dissatisfied with the SPD and other parties and were easy prey for the racist AfD, she proposed – in rather indefinite terms – a new, broader movement, disregarding party affiliation and based on workers’ rights and antifascism. Katja and her supporters claim that such a move would primarily damage Die Linke, a charge Sahra vehemently denies. This hot issue led some to conjecture that her hidden aim is to form a new “Wagenknecht Movement.”

Whatever the intentions, the huge congress hall was engulfed by anger and excitement. A motion to re-open debate – for one hour – was passed with a one vote majority, 250-249. What followed were over 25 statements, each no longer than a minute or two, rotating equally between male and female delegates, and perhaps as good a sample of free, unmanaged party democracy as at any party congress ever. Some denounced Sahra emotionally, some defended her – with loud applause or boos from different state delegations or the youth section.

But by far the great majority of speakers called eloquently for an end to such inner-party dispute. The major issues which dominated the weekend congress were how best to oppose the growth of underpaid, insecure jobs, the huge need for housing at affordable rates, the long overdue improvement of schools, kindergartens, and care for the ill and aged, and above all else the need to combat both the war menace and the fascist menace. Organizing people for these objectives, pushing action at the grass roots level – these must remain the main message, not personal disputes which the media all too eagerly grabbed up and magnified.

In the end, their voices were heard! All four main leaders, the party co-chairs, Katja Kipping and the West German union man Bernd Riexinger, and the co-chairs of the Linke caucus in the Bundestag, Sahra und Dietmar Bartsch (there is always a gender mix) joined together and ended the congress with a pledge to peacefully discuss and debate the open questions together, perhaps with a special conference, but otherwise to join together on the key issues facing Germany – and Europe and the world.

This was a moving note of hope, followed by the whole crowd joining to sing The Internationale.  The months ahead, with elections moving closer in many states, and European Union elections next year, will show how well Die Linke can overcome quarrels and difficulties, reaching out and activating a larger share of the public – and making its weight felt. The need is urgent.


CONTRIBUTOR

Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: “Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany” (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).

 

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