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Lead candidate for the German left party Die Linke [literally, »The Left«], Sahra Wagenknecht, wants the party to fight the rise of the right. This is spot-on. But warnings about »Islamist threats«, demands for more police and limits on refugee intake will not achieve this. A clear position against racism together with a firm critique of capitalism, austerity politics and the devastating war on terror must be at the centre of the leftist political project. An assessment by marx21
Right now, there is a campaign being waged by political forces from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) through to the Greens against the alleged »AfD-trajectory«* of Die Linke under Sahra Wagenknecht. These political opponents of Die Linke are trying to discredit the leftist party in a targeted way, to damage it in the run-up to Germany’s federal election in September 2017. [*AfD stands for Alternative für Deutschland – comparable to the British UKIP]
Unfortunately, Die Linke’s lead candidate Sahra Wagenknecht is making it easy for them. In public interviews, instead of foregrounding the anti-racism of the left in the fight against the rise of the right, she parrots the arguments of the government on important questions. Her warnings of »Islamist threats«, demands for more police and a cap on refugees, do not represent the party program of Die Linke. On the contrary, such demands strengthen the political mainstream Sahra Wagenknecht actually wants to attack.
From CDU Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to Social Democrat (SPD) boss Sigmar Gabriel, through to Greens parliamentary caucus leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt: there is now a classic one-upping competition over ways forward for domestic security. Die Linke must not participate in this. The »war on terror« is the main cause of the rise in terrorism. Die Linke has therefore quite rightly demanded the withdrawal of the German military (Bundeswehr) from abroad and a stop to all arms exports. Similarly, Die Linke has taken firm positions against the intensification of »anti-terror laws« and asylum laws, as well as the further expansion of the »surveillance state«. The core principle of the party is: the problem is NOT refugees or open borders; rather, it is the unjust world order and endless wars – that billions are spent on bailing out banks, wealth is unequally distributed and weapons are exported, rather than addressing the causes for refugees taking flight.
Sahra Wagenknecht is an important representative for Die Linke. She has an audience reach in the millions. As the lead candidate of the party, she also has a special responsibility to express and represent the party’s program externally. This she does very well when she criticises the neoliberal policies of current and past governments, when she highlights the hypocrisy and betrayal of the Greens and the SPD, or when, on the question of the causes for seeking refuge, she criticises the imperialist economic policies responsible for starvation and misery in large parts of Africa and Asia. But she is wrong in her claim that the policy of »uncontrolled opening of borders« by Chancellor Angela Merkel is connected to terrorism. The Berlin Christmas Market assassin Anis Amri had been living in the Schengen Zone for years. The assassins of Paris were almost all French and Belgian citizens. None of them was particularly religious, and almost all of them had been active in a small criminal environment. What linked them to Amri was their social uprootedness and lack of employment perspectives. The situation of many migrants and refugees has been shaped by the experience of racism and the wars of the West against Muslim countries.
This makes it easy for groups like the IS to recruit people. In this respect, the »answers« from the federal government and the AfD aggravate the problem: more racism and more war will lead to more terror. Sahra Wagenknecht must formulate this much more clearly. When it comes to people seeking asylum in Germany, Wagenknecht loses her sharp focus on the policy of the federal government. When she says: »Whoever abuses their right to hospitality, has also forfeited that right to hospitality« or »Of course there are limits on capacity, whoever denies this is naïve«, she is repeating an old mistake of the left. Their credo: as long as Germany has insufficient social housing and no full employment, then as few refugees as possible should come to Germany, because it paves the way for wage dumping, which benefits capitalism, and prepares the ground for racism. Such argumentation is not racist – as some on the left have accused – but it is not an international socialist perspective; on the contrary, it adopts the nation-state-centric Social Democratic viewpoint, which originates from seeming national and not class interests. The capacity limits they claim are the limits of capitalist relations, not actual wealth.
The debate over how left-wingers should position themselves on the issue of migration and immigration is, by the way, not new. As early as 1907, at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, socialists argued over their attitude towards immigration. The debates of the past are still important today: at the 1907 congress, there were 884 delegates from 25 countries across Europe, Asia, America, Australia and Africa. Among the delegates were well-known socialists such as Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, August Bebel, Jean Jaurès and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. At the opening of the congress, a mass demonstration with 50,000 participants took place. In the end, Congress expressed its support for the abolition of all restrictions that excluded certain nationalities from staying in a country and accessing the same social, political and economic rights of the locals.
In his report at the Essen conference of the SPD in 1907, Karl Liebknecht declared: »I have many opportunities to observe the misery of the immigrants in Germany, and especially their dependence on the police, and I know what difficulties these people have to deal with. Their legal status as ‘outlaws’ [in a state of legal exception] should especially prompt us German Social Democrats to vigorously concern ourselves with the law regarding the rights of foreigners, especially where it speeds up the elimination of the disgrace of deportation. It is indeed well known that trade-unionised foreigners are preferred for deportation (…) The congressional resolution therefore demands the complete equality of foreigners with the nationals also with regard to the right to stay in the country. Down with the Damocles sword [foreboding threat] of deportation! This is the first prerequisite for foreigners to cease to be the predestined wage-depressors and strike-breakers.«
These positions are still true today. Die Linke should draw on this political tradition. The party should today, as Liebknecht urged then, make clear that the borders are not between peoples but between above and below. Liebknecht acknowledged that the rulers were playing domestic and foreign wage-workers against each other, ultimately in order to better exploit both groups. Die Linke in the central-German state of Hesse has demonstrated how a clear antiracist line does not lead necessarily to fewer votes. In December for instance, Die Linke in Hesse strongly condemned the deportation policy of the federal government and placed itself on the side of those affected. In the January polls in that state, the party’s support base still stood at a solid 8 percent. Even independently of this, Die Linke cannot allow people with German citizenship and refugees to be played against each other. Racism is not a side issue, but must be directly attacked by Die Linke as an ideology of division. This ideology of division is particularly directed against Muslims. Islamophobia is still the main driving force behind the rise of AfD. Die Linke must resist this: NO to racism, YES to religious freedom – no ifs or buts: NO discrimination. Even if all Muslims in Germany were to convert to Christianity today there would still be low wages, poverty pensions, bad working conditions, unemployment and Hartz IV [the draconian social security system].
The way in which »threats« are discussed is shaped by racist discourse. Die Linke must not take up this discourse. The classification of so-called threats is completely arbitrary and politically motivated. For example, of 542 listed »potentially dangerous persons«, only 15 are identified as being from far right political groups. The rest are alleged »violent Islamist perpetrators«. The current security discourse poisons the social climate. It follows the same racist logic and contributes to the fact that, after the attack in Berlin, all Muslims and refugees were placed under general suspicion. We must show how dangerous this mood is rather than participate in it. Politicians, as well as sections of the media have given new impetus to the neo-Nazis and racists with their talk of an alleged »tsunami of refugees« and »limited absorption capacities«. From the words of many will be acts of some: in 2016 there were on average three violent attacks on refugees daily. At a time when racist violence is drastically increasing in Germany, and 598 right-wing extremists at large with arrest warrants over their heads, Die Linke should not take part in the speculation about the danger of »Islamists«.
When Sigmar Gabriel, former head of the SPD, demands: »Salafist mosques must be banned, their congregations dissolved, and preachers expelled, as soon as possible«, politicians of Die Linke should not hum along to the same tune. It is the task of Die Linke to reject racism against religious minorities, regardless of how disagreeable individual groupings are to us. Die Linke must provide a differentiated analysis of Salafism in Germany. Most analyses of young men and women who turn to the conservative or reactionary currents of Islam ignore the specific social causes of this.
Whoever labels the growth of Salafist currents in Islam as merely irrational and demands a response within the logic of security politics, ignores the fact that the political officials in Germany – with their failed asylum legislation, their discrimination against young people with non-German names in the labour market and education system, and their support for the US wars in the Middle East – are themselves jointly responsible. Apart from this, the Salafi faithful are a minority within the minority and furthermore they are not a homogenous group. That Salafism in Germany could become hegemonic is highly unrealistic to say the least: it will never have the power to determine social power relations in Germany. Racism, on the other hand, already exercises this power: it is already splitting society into »them and us«, Muslims and non-Muslims, spreading mistrust and hatred.
After every terrorist attack, the call for stricter security laws and the expansion of the security apparatus gets louder. The fact that other leading politicians of Die Linke besides Sahra Wagenknecht participate in this is a mistake. In Berlin the coalition of the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens (known as the »red-red-green« coalition) has negotiated an agreement to support a multi-million euro rearmament of the police: 9 million euros have been made immediately available for a supposed shortage of 12,000 service weapons, and 8.8 million euros for new machine guns. But this policy of internal rearmament and militarisation will not counter terrorism and violence. On the contrary: after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, France put an additional 1600 police officers on the streets. This did not hinder the attack in Nice. But when hundreds of thousands of French workers took to the street to protest the government’s neoliberal labour market reforms, the police were quickly on the scene and took to the protesters with brutal harshness.
Whoever wants to prevent terror and violence should not call for more police. After the attacks and rampage in Bavaria in the summer of 2016, Rafael Behr, a professor of police science at the Academy of Police in Hamburg, said: »Horst Seehofer has announced a significant boost in reinforcements in Bavaria. And the Seeheim Circle [a faction] in the SPD has called for 20,000 new police. Nobody has called for 20,000 social workers, psychologists or integration specialists. If we were to hire some of those, we’d have far better results.«
The police are not part of the solution but part of the problem. On a daily basis there are incidents of violence that have been committed by the police themselves. The TAZ newspaper writes: »More than 2,100 police officers were reported to be involved in violence in 2014. Only 33 faced charges. Their victims, by contrast, often end up in court.«
Refugees and migrants are particularly affected by police violence in Germany. This ranges from selective controls, physical, psychological and sexual abuse to murder. Public acknowledgement of racist police violence is very low in Germany (see Amnesty International’s report on Racial Profiling (in German)). Only a few cases are taken up by the media and politicians and become known to the general public. The true task of the police is not the protection of the population. On the contrary: the police are part of the government’s suppression apparatus. They exist to implement decisions of the parliament wherever these decisions face resistance – from the construction of a train station, as with »Stuttgart21«, to the deportation of refugees. Die Linke should advocate a radical redistribution of social wealth and an end to imperialist foreign policy, instead of a stronger state and more police.
Sahra Wagenknecht’s willingness to try and win over to a left-wing perspective those parts of the working class who are also open to right-wing and racist »answers«, is correct. However, it does not help us in that project to neglect the fight against racism or other forms of oppression such as sexism or homophobia. For large sections of the working class, precisely these mechanisms of oppression are a painful everyday experience. They manifest in everyday violence and exclusion, as well as in lower wages and lower chances of social advancement. Die Linke must give a voice to those who have no voice. The struggle against racism and the fight for social justice go hand-in-hand. In the election campaign, Die Linke can make a clear point that people who are affected by Hartz IV or who are working for low wages will not have a single cent more in their pockets if others are deported or fewer refugees come to Germany. The German economy is one of the richest in the world. Nobody should be unemployed or poor. We live in an abundance society, in which the oft-mentioned limit of resilience is not yet nearly reached. The alleged »limited absorption capacities«, which are often spoken of today, is a catchphrase intended to divert attention from the plundering of public budgets that has been going on for years. The future of public services is in actual reality under threat, but not by refugees! Rather, it is under threat from a policy in the interests of the rich, the banks and the corporations.
Instead of a polarised »two-camp« election campaign [Lagerwahlkampf – an idea formulated by a conservative politician in the 1980s that in German election campaigns there are two great »camps«: a »bourgeois camp« of the CDU/CSU/FDP and a “leftist camp” of the SPD/Greens/Linke], anti-racism and anti-capitalism should form part of an independent Die Linke profile. Die Linke and all its officials and representatives have a great responsibility. The party in Germany is for many millions of people an alternative to the neoliberalism, racism and militarism of the older established parties. A weakened Die Linke party will not help anyone who wants to fight rightward pressure. If Die Linke is seen as a radical opposition to capital, racism, and the political status quo, it can win support. Thus, supporting class struggles and politically intervening into them is the task of Die Linke. The party’s current political campaign »Das muss drin sein« [a workplace mobilisation and publicity campaign demanding massive increases in hospital and public service staffing and wages] offers the possibility to become active already. Just as that campaign sharpens the socio-economic profile of Die Linke and connects the party with real struggles, our activities in the »Aufstehen gegen Rassismus« [Stand Up Against Racism] campaign should form the central momentum in our fight against the demagogues and torch-bearers of the AfD. It will be necessary to combine both of these elements in a movement-oriented election campaign, and thereby encourage more people to become active themselves. In doing so, a different kind of »two-camp« struggle can take shape: a campaign from “below” against the ruling elites at the »top«. This will consist of much more than the mere mark of a pen by voters once every four years – it will itself form the fight for a better world.
First published: 13 January 2017
Translation: Kate Davison, 21 February 2017