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Left leading: Interview with Die Linke leader Katja Kipping

Emma Dowling speaks to Katja Kipping, new co-chair of Germany's Left Party, about the European crisis and the direction she wants to take the party

November 8, 2012
17 min read

With 76 seats out of 622 in parliament, Die Linke is Germany’s fourth largest party. It was founded in 2007 in a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG). Members of the PDS were predominantly East German and many had also been members of the Socialist Unity Party, the former ruling party of East Germany. WASG, meanwhile, was predominantly West German and made up of trade unionists and social movement activists, as well as social democrats who had left the German Social Democratic Party.

Since its founding, Die Linke has campaigned on a variety of social justice issues and for greater regulation of financial markets, while also remaining critical of the deployment of the German military abroad. Its members have supported mobilisations such as the anti-G8 summit protests in 2007 and, more recently, the Occupy/blockade protest Blockupy. The two new co-chairs, trade union organiser Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping, who is known to be close to social movements, stand for a renewal within the party that aims, among other things, to close any remaining gaps between East and West Germany.

Emma Dowling Congratulations, Katja, on your election as co-chair of Die Linke. In recent speeches and interviews, you have proposed a ‘break towards the future’ for the party. What does that mean concretely?

Katja Kipping There are two directions. My co-chair and I have launched a ‘listening offensive’ within Die Linke. We’ve set up a website called ‘Walking we ask questions’ and are doing a summer tour around Germany to talk to people directly. Beyond these internal initiatives, we have plans to engage a broader public on three key topics – the crisis, precarity and public services.

In contrast to somewhere like Greece, the crisis in Germany manifests itself as a kind of creeping precarity in our ways of life and work, and there are commonalities across different segments of society. Everyone is experiencing more and more stress: the agency worker; the self-employed on their laptop; the unemployed person who is stressed because they have to go to the unemployment office and be subjected to all sorts of pressures and humiliations.

We see a strong connection here with the crisis because Germany has had a massive trade surplus that is based on low wages. The problem of the ‘debt brake’ [new post-crisis legislation in Germany limiting permissible levels of structural deficit] is also further exacerbated by the fact that privatisation occurs where public finances are lacking. To us, privatisation is theft of public goods. We want to prevent further privatisation and fight locally for recommunalisation, for example of private electricity grids.

ED How far has neoliberalism eaten into the German social model? In as far as this was ever a functioning model, to what extent and in what ways has it been destroyed by neoliberalism?

KK Thanks to the trade unions in Germany, the negotiation over reduced working hours made it possible to curb mass unemployment. However, it is also the case that neoliberalism has reduced the power of unions. I would also be more critical and say that there is growing inequality that partly has to do with the continuing increases in the salaries and bonuses of managers. Often, these salaries are decided upon in meetings where there are trade unions present. My plea is for union representatives to be more forceful in demanding that in any company the highest salary should not amount to more than 20 times the lowest salary. If a manager wants to earn a million, then he has to ensure that the cleaner earns €50,000.

ED How could that be enforced?

KK Well, on the one hand there are the unions. On the other hand, we need pressure from the streets. I was very happy about the Blockupy protests in Frankfurt this spring. In Germany Occupy is not yet that strong, but there is fragile protest that is growing. Also, there is a need for a strong left-wing party. This is what we are trying to achieve and we are preparing to obtain good results in the elections, not just for the party, but in order to transform power relations in Germany.

ED How do you think that you can take on the responsibilities of power without repeating the experience of, in recent times, the Greens, or historically, most social democratic parties that have existed?

KK Concretely in the German context there can only be real change to German politics with participation from Die Linke. If we say we need ecological change, then this requires a focus on ecological and social components. It also requires a critique of capitalism, meaning in practical terms, independence from corporations. This is a position that is not held by the SPD or the Greens, but is essential to Die Linke.

Secondly, I think a left government has to protect itself from identifying too strongly with the compromises it has to make. Of course any participation in government requires making compromises, one cannot pursue one’s own political programme 100 per cent.

But I think that a constant feedback loop to critical intellectuals and to independent social movements is necessary. One of the problems of the SPD-Green coalition was that a large part of the environmental movement suffered from strong feelings of loyalty with regard to the Greens and therefore found it difficult to act. This has to change.

I am one of the co-founders of the Institut Solidarische Moderne (see http://tinyurl.com/solidarische) because we think a change of government needs to be well prepared. It’s not enough to simply replace ministers; we need to shift hegemony and that requires people to accompany this shift in hegemony – i.e. organic intellectuals, to cite Gramsci.

ED The relationship between political parties and social movements is not always easy. You have been active in social movements yourself. What kind of relationship do you envisage between the party and social movements?

KK One of the first things that Bernd Riexinger and I have done is set up a movement council. This is made up of people who represent the full political spectrum of the left, from the unions to the radical left. We haven’t invited the press, because we want to create a space for internal dialogue, both about the current potential for mobilisation and about the issues Die Linke should focus on.

It’s striking that many of the movement representatives said that while they thought social protests were important, they believed in the need for a real left-wing party in parliament and wanted us to run a successful election campaign. When Die Linke entered the Bundestag, we set up a contact point for social movements.

This is a point of contact where there can be continuous collaboration and analysis regarding the cooperation between movements and members of parliament, as well as the party more generally. And this is necessary especially because in movements a lot happens and there are always many shifts and changes.

What shouldn’t happen is the dominance or undermining of social movements by the party. But equally problematic would be a situation in which movements think, well, the party has money and can provide services for the movement. Collaboration also means that there is engagement; that means conflict and discussion about politics.

Another model is the open office. The most well known and successful of these is the linXXnet in Leipzig. The representatives organise their offices so that movement initiatives can meet and work out of there, making more regular exchanges possible.

ED So is there a division of labour between movement and party?

KK The party is neither the secretary nor the boss of the movement. There are a number of differences between party and movement. Movements are much more cyclical. They rise and they fall, have successful mobilisations, but also dwindle without any strong continuous organisation. In contrast, the party is much more cumbersome. Once in motion, it moves, but not very fast.

Another difference is of course that parties have direct access to parliament, meaning the party can help inscribe demands articulated by movements in legislation. Parties have a much stronger collective memory for particular perspectives and traditions and are also broader in terms of their focus.

ED Occupy, for example, has also been about developing an altogether different kind of political process, a different kind of democracy than parliamentary democracy. This was also something that was present in the alter-globalisation movement – an alternative democratic practice.

How does this sit with the representative politics of the party?

KK A particular advantage of social movements is that they are a kind of laboratory for new forms and new methods. Parties cannot take these on exactly. For example, the party could never take up the consensus decision-making practice that ATTAC has. This would not make it possible to govern in any effective way.

Certain practices can be taken up though. For example, we have adopted the ‘murmur rounds’ used by ATTAC. During debates as well as afterwards people can talk to one another, or you can leave the bigger group and deepen the conversation with someone, then come back to the bigger meeting. I’ve experienced this as very positive in movements. We are using this at a national women’s conference. Or [there is] the organising model of trade unions. These are things that we are trying to use in our election campaign.

ED How do you reach those people who are not already organised or political?

KK For some years now we’ve been witnessing growing dissident forms of resistance, like Blockupy or in Dresden where people blocked the Nazis. What we’ve seen is that many young people come to these events and get really involved, but afterwards they don’t stick around, neither in the movements nor in the party. And this is where the internet is both a curse and a blessing. Before you had to be in a political organisation in order to find out what was going on. Today all you need to do is check the internet.

Your question was how to reach those people who are not into politics. Well, that’s exactly the question that concerns us. One way is to connect what’s happening in the world with people’s everyday experiences. So, when we talk about the crisis, we’re not only talking about the European Central Bank or trade deficits, we’re trying to show the connections to people’s everyday experiences.

A second point is a little more provocative in that we need a certain degree of left populism, a sense of ‘us down here’ against ‘those up there’. We need to give the crisis a face, and that means not only complaining about Mrs Merkel, but criticising the rating agencies that are deciding the fate of whole countries. Rating agencies have no democratic legitimacy, they’ve not been elected by anyone.

ED Does Die Linke still have to address its historical legacy?

KK One accusation that people make is that we haven’t engaged with our past, with state socialism. I think that this is a false accusation. It’s no coincidence that I’m involved with publishing a magazine called Prague Spring [Prager Frühling]. I think there’s an important tradition that Die Linke has to connect to, namely socialism with a human face – a democratic socialism. And of course it’s very clear that today we’re talking about democratic socialism. We don’t mean a return to the GDR. On the contrary, we want to learn from the mistakes of the GDR, which means getting rid of all secret services.

ED Some might say that the Pirate Party is replacing you as the party of protest. What is your relationship with them?

KK I had a meeting with the leader of the Pirate Party and I can say that it is not yet decided whether they are going to be a left-wing party or not. Are they a modern party with smartphones but without any women? I mean, they are not feminist. If I listen to the kinds of things their leader has said about taxes – i.e. a flat equal tax for all – this is simply unjust. He also thinks that the foreign military deployments are legitimate. He‘s in favour of the debt brake. All that sounds to me like voting for the Pirates is supporting FDP [free market liberal] positions.

I think this is a real shame, in particular because there are many people in the circles of the Pirate Party who consider themselves to be left-wing. But obviously a large part of the leadership has decided on a different course of action. The Pirate Party is proud to be free of ideology, but I think that this is the most ideological of any position, because it obfuscates the existing dominant ideology.

ED What are the challenges for Die Linke in government?

KK Recent opinion polls show that if there’s to be a clear change in government away from the course of the CDU/FDP, then we can’t make this change without the SPD. That’s pure mathematics. Bernd Riexinger and I have a particularly proactive answer to this question – we‘re willing to do this under a number of conditions. We want to introduce a tax on the highest income brackets that would guarantee that no monthly income would be lower than €1,000, and that there would be a basic income.

We think the SPD needs to take a stand before the next elections. They can’t be left-wing before the elections only to become right-wing afterwards. For some social democrats like [current SPD leader Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, it seems it’s all just about having power. I know there are also other social democrats who really want change and would support a tax on wealth. But they still have to convince their leadership and that’s something the SPD needs to sort out.

We won’t stand in the way of a change of government. What are the risks? One point of contention is of course the question of foreign policy. Generally, as Die Linke, we can’t imagine agreeing to foreign military deployments. A further point of contention is the sanctions around Hartz IV [welfare ‘reforms’ limiting the length of time claimants can receive full unemployment benefit]. I can’t imagine agreeing to [benefits] that are below the minimum one needs to exist. At present the SPD isn’t prepared to get rid of these sanctions. These are real problems.

ED You’ve said repeatedly that you’re concerned about the situation in Greece. What can and should social movements in Germany and Die Linke do?

KK First of all, on the situation in Greece. We need to emphasise repeatedly that that there’s a social catastrophe going on there. A pregnant woman has to pay €1,000 in order to have her baby in a hospital; mothers are handing over their children to charity organisations because they can no longer feed them; the extent of homelessness – all of this is very worrying.

We have to counter the incredibly racist narratives here in Germany, namely that the Greeks have lived beyond their means. We have to say no, it’s actually the case that German employees have lived below their means, because it’s precisely the foreign trade imbalances that have exacerbated the crisis. We also have to emphasise that it’s of no help to anyone, neither the Greeks nor the euro, if Greece is pushed out of the euro. Sahra Wagenknecht [Die Linke economics spokesperson] has pointed out that if Greece exits the euro, then for Germany that means a deficit of €80 billion. So, even if one were to take such an egoistic perspective, it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.

And what should the party do? I think the party needs to provide a counter-narrative regarding the causes of the crisis and talk about the unequal distribution of wealth, the trade imbalances and the lack of regulation of financial markets. The task of social movements, as well as the task of a European party, is to call for the regulation of financial markets and a tax on wealth. It wasn’t the Greek employees who caused the crisis, it was financial speculators. The state deficit exploded in the light of the 2008 financial crisis. That’s what we have to emphasise.

ED What is your interaction with other left-wing parties in Europe like?

KK Well, we founded the European Left Party with the intention that we support one another in our respective election campaigns. For example, [the left-wing Italian politician and president of Apulia] Nichi Vendola was in Berlin and spoke at an event where [former Die Linke co-chair] Oskar Lafontaine also spoke. It’s about supporting one another. We also invited Alexis Tsipras [leader of the left-wing Syriza] to tell us about the situation in Greece and we’ve organised joint actions, such as a European-wide collection of signatures for a public bank. The third thing is that we run with each other’s good ideas. For example the demand of the French candidate Melenchon for a maximum income – I’ve taken that up here. These are ways in which we can strengthen a European public for left-wing demands.

ED What do you think we can learn from the experience of Syriza in Greece?

KK I don’t think we can translate the exceptional experience directly to other places in Europe. There are perhaps two things, however, to say.

From the beginning, different to the Communist Party, Syriza took a pro-European line. They always said they wanted to stay in the EU and in the euro. They achieved good election results with this. Second, they said they were not entirely against being in government but that they had concrete conditions and plans. I think that’s a good mix – to make it clear they didn’t want to necessarily be in government but that they were willing to do so if particular conditions were met. At the same time, they took a pro-European line and showed that it is possible to mobilise in a difficult situation.

ED How do you view the UK in relation to the crisis of the eurozone?

KK Yes, well, Cameron! The official positions of the UK don’t do much more than slow things down, like the implementation of a currency transaction tax. Thus, the UK plays anything but a laudable role in the current crisis.

ED So, you are now the co-leader of Die Linke. How did you end up in this position?

KK Well, I didn’t plan this. Politics has always been part of my life. Politics is always part of a good life. Also, I am not an individual fighter, I work collectively together with other people. I never had one mentor; when I started my election campaign I did this together with a group of people who said they wanted to change the party in order to change society. That is my understanding of politics and of what it means to be non-aligned.

Emma Dowling is a lecturer in sociology at Middlesex University and has been active in global justice movements for many years. This interview took place in August in Berlin, and was translated from German by Emma

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