Left Leading

November 11th, 2012

Published on ZNet, Interview by Emma Dowling with Die Linke leader Katja Kipping (first on red pepper.org), November 09, 2012.

… 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 ED 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 KK 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? … //

… 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.

(full long interview text).


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