Die LINKE’s strength lies in Opposition

Die LINKE should not take part in Berlin’s next ruling coalition


Last week I was at the DSA Berlin reading group. It was a lively chat, and most people agreed with each other until I made this one contribution. Michelle, the estimable host of the Spaßbremse podcast, said something like “I appreciate most of what you say, but this time you’ve gone too far.”

What I’d said is that maybe it might be better if die LINKE were excluded from the next coalition ruling Berlin. This follows a ton of analysis in the Left media saying that such a loss of “power” would be a disaster.

Typical of such commentary is Alexander Brentler in Jacobin, who claims that “it will quickly become clear that transformations of this magnitude [implementation of Berlin’s referendum to expropriate the big landlords] are not possible without socialist influence inside state institutions.”

I don’t fundamentally disagree with the argument that to change things you need to be in power, but I have a quite different analysis of where power really lies. As the SPD, LINKE and Greens announce the results of their coalition negotiations, I want to argue in this article how I think we can change the world, and why I believe that LINKE compromises in these negotiations are an obstacle to us doing so.

What the Coalition negotiations mean for Expropriation

Let’s just pause to remember what was happening alongside the elections. Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DWE) won a referendum to expropriate the big landlords. Over a million people – who account for over 57% of those voting – said Yes to putting 240,000 homes into public ownership. This was a lively campaign, which gained a lot of international coverage and won a clear majority.

So the big landlords will be expropriated, right? Well not according to the Coalition talks. The joint statement from the SPD; Greens and LINKE following Sondierungsgespräche (exploratory talks) promises the following:

  • The establishment of an alliance for building new housing, which includes municipal housing companies, cooperatives and private housing associations (my italics)
  • Following the principle of cooperation not confrontation (with the big real estate companies)
  • Creation of a commission of experts to test the possibilities, methods and conditions under which the referendum can be carried out. The commission (which will include supporters of the big landlords) will make a recommendation within a year as to how the Berlin parliament should proceed.

This word salad can be interpreted in many ways. This is probably the point. The LINKE Berlin leadership gleefully reported that the consultation document was a “good basis for upcoming coalition talks”, and that “the new coalition will respect the result of the referendum and guarantees a responsible approach”.

And yet the devil is in the detail.

Firstly, why establish a commission of experts for another consultation period? There have been plenty of consultations already with the big real estate companies who did everything they could to defeat the referendum. Besides which, over a million people didn’t vote for more talks. We voted for Enteignen.

Secondly, the commission is due to make its recommendation within a year. We shouldn’t expect it to report quickly. We don’t know what it will suggest, but we already know that new Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey has opposed expropriation since day one, and the Greens made clear that they would only support it as a “last resort”. So, the people who are to interpret the report are already predisposed to using its recommendations to support the landlords.

We should be clear that the consultation period has not been established to commission new ideas, but to demobilise our side. After a year of waiting for the commission to report, the hope is that the people who have been radicalised by the referendum will be too tired to effectively oppose a shoddy compromise. You can’t turn activism on and off like a tap.

Other results of the Sondierungsgespräche

The SPD/Green/LINKE consultation paper also promised the following:

  • A “responsible” financial political strategy – in other words, respect for the crippling Schuldenbremse (debt ceiling) which prevents local councils spending any extra money on necessary services.
  • The completion of the 16th stage of the controversial and environment-damaging A100 motorway. The 17th stage will not take place in the next legislative period, but it has still not been rejected.
  • More personnel in the police and law enforcement authorities, and the introduction of video surveillance.

It is also worth noting what was not promised. The privatisation of the Berlin S-Bahn will continue. Trade union demands for equal pay for health workers in all hospitals – which were in the coalition agreement of 2016 (but ignored by the Red-Red-Green government) – do not even appear this time round.

LINKE demands for an inquiry into Nazi terror in Neukölln, the lifting of the headscarf ban for teachers, and an end to deportations are not mentioned and will not be implemented by a new government of any colour. The new Berlin Senat will continue the old policies of racism and repression.

Only this week, we got a sense of what we can expect from the new Berlin government. 2,000 police were used to clear the alternative housing project in Köpenicker Straße (known as KØPI ). LINKE politicians were appalled, saying that “we tried everything we could”.

In the Left newspaper junge Welt, Simon Zeise wryly asked: “tried everything? Did Klaus Lederer [lead LINKE election candidate] chain himself to the fence on Friday? Did Anna Helm [LINKE representative in the coalition talks, who in a previous life demonstrated in Dresden with the banner “Thanks, Bomber Harris”] stand on the barricades? No. The resistance of the government socialists looks different to this.”

Similarly, the last Red-Red-Green government evicted public spaces at will – from Liebig34 to the Syndikat pub – as die LINKE politicians sat idly by. As the quote attributed to socialist author Kurt Tucholsky says: “they thought they were in power, but they were only in government”.

The point here is not to claim that LINKE politicians in government are responsible for increased racism and gentrification. It is that, particularly in the absence of strong social movements, as a minority member of a neoliberal government, they are impotent and unable to affect any serious change.

Die LINKE Delegate conference

This week, the LINKE Berlin held a delegate conference to discuss the coalition negotiations. This was the last chance for the party basis to influence any coalition agreement. At the conference, a resolution was put forward by activists, and supported by my party branch in Wedding, calling for the implementation of the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen referendum to be anchored in any coalition agreement.

A new motion was submitted by the Berlin party leadership, including the text that it is “centrally important that an expropriation law is put forward in the implementation of the referendum.” While this is a clear improvement, it still leaves enough wiggle room for a new government to ignore the referendum results, while die LINKE remains a part of this government.

My LINKE branch also supported a motion insisting that any coalition document reject “any form of destruction and privatisation” of the S-Bahn tube service. This motion lost after insistence from the local party leadership that you can’t enter negotiations with preconditions.

But just as with Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen and the housing question, there is a grassroots campaign Eine S-Bahn für Alle (one S-Bahn for everyone) in which many LINKE members are active and to which many branches (including my own) are affiliated. Should the new coalition government go on the offensive (which is to be expected), resistance will be organised.

Ruben Lehnert, speaker of Die LINKE in Berlin-Neukölln, eloquently summarized the current situation:

“The result of the talks is fatal. It demotivates the most engaged part of our party. The comrades who since February have gathered signatures in rain and storms for the referendum are shaking their heads that die LINKE in government wants to set up a commission which will carry out an assessment for one year, after which the Berlin Senat will decide. It demobilises people who have passionately taken part in the campaign and through this have found their way to our party, but are showing little understanding that die LINKE apparently is subjugating itself to Giffey’s diktat. And, not least, it alienates from us the part of the movement with whom we must engage in current and future fights.”

Die LINKE in government

We have been here before. The reason why many housing activists distrust die LINKE is the role played by its predecessor party, the PDS, in privatising social housing in Berlin. In 2001, the PDS won an unprecedented 21% of the vote and entered a coalition with the SPD. In 2004, the SPD-PDS government sold off over 100,000 city-owned homes.

Leading PDS – now LINKE – politician Harald Wolf drew important conclusions from this experience. Quoting former left-wing Green politician Verena Krieger, he said: “the State is not a bicycle on which one simply sits and can ride in a random direction”. He, and other “government socialists” promised not to repeat the same errors. And yet, this is exactly what they are doing now.

The role of Die LINKE in the next Berlin government will be twofold. Firstly, it will be easier for the new government to sell a shoddy compromise if it is backed by the one party which has until now wholeheartedly supported the referendum. Secondly, the illusion that something is being done will be used to keep activists off the streets.

Fortunately, the party does not just consist of the politicians in the negotiating chamber, but of activists who are part of social movements. The number of LINKE party members opposing any form of coalition talks exceeded my expectations. In Wedding, we were united. To these we can add the people who honestly believe that die LINKE will withdraw from government at any sign of a compromise. The fight is not over yet.

Where our power really lies

There have been significant victories under “Left” coalition governments in Berlin. The trouble is that these have rarely had anything to do with who was a government minister.

One of the great inspirations for DWE was the referendum to stop building luxury homes on Tempelhofer Feld in 2014. Just as with the DWE campaign, the SPD led government tried to renege on the public vote. What stopped them was not clever arguments in the council Chambers but the continuation of the mass campaign that won the referendum.

Similarly, striking health workers have won better conditions. And as the FT reports: “increasing numbers of German workers are demanding higher pay amid rising inflation, with some going on strike”. The coalition agreement ensures further fights in Berlin. For example, the privatisation of the S-Bahn will continue, and will meet necessary resistance. The question is, which side die LINKE will be on in these fights.

The Red-Red-Green Coalition paper has essentially accepted the Schuldenbremse (debt ceiling). In practise, this means that the Berlin government will have two billion Euro less than in previous years. This means that it will not be able to make even the limited social reforms that it has promised without savage cuts elsewhere.

As Hanna Grześkiewicz and I argued in our pre-election call to vote:

“Die LINKE should not enter government at any price. We are not fundamentally opposed to a Red-Red-Green government on a local and national level. But this is only acceptable if at the same time Die Linke stays strong in its opposition to NATO, and does not make concessions on cheap housing or S-Bahn privatisation. We cannot enter government at the cost of our political credibility.”

Any entry of die LINKE into a Berlin government under the current conditions will mean that it will stand on the wrong side of the barricades in important fights to come (and which must come soon). I understand the disappointment that many good activists feel about us turning down the chance to take office. But we will feel much more disappointed if it is die LINKE which is enforcing cuts and opposing expropriation.