Hope and Excitement at die LINKE Party Conference
All-female leadership, a new generation of members and a surprising sense of unity in Germany's left party
BERLIN BULLETIN NO. 186 March 2, 2021
Surprise, surprise! Things worked out quite differently than expected at the congress of die LINKE, the left-wing party. After the pandemic forced postponements from June to October and from October to last weekend, most of the 580 delegates were sat at home in front of a screen, microphone and camera; only the socially-distanced, masked leaders sat in a sparsely occupied hall in Berlin. But other parties are meeting that way too, this has become the new normal.
The surprise was rather that the bitter, possibly fatal inner conflicts, greatly feared by some, greatly desired by others, simply did not happen. Unlike the angry quarrels, hostility and near split-ups which troubled some earlier congresses, this time there was an amiable, friendly atmosphere throughout.
No surprise, at least for most members, was the choice of new party leaders. Their predecessors stepped down as required after two four-year terms (plus extra months due to the postponements). Only outsiders may have been surprised that both new co-chairs were women, which was new. But many were indeed moved to see the two so warmly friendly, each congratulating the other on her (separate) election and both assuring party members that they would get along very well while diving into the tough tasks ahead; a year full of elections (in six states, and the federal elections on 26th September). With die LINKE now polling at a worrying seven or eight percent, too close to the five percent cut-off point, they will indeed have their work cut out for them.
New all-female leadership
Who are the two new leaders, no longer a male-female team but still the customary East-West duo?
Janine Wissler, 39, has led the LINKE opposition caucus in the legislature of West German Hesse since 2014. She is known as a fighter. In the last election campaign she covered her whole state by bicycle, speechmaking all along the route, and winning more LINKE votes than in most of West Germany. More recently, joining the protest against the clearing of the ancient Dannenröder forest to build another highway, she stayed a while in one of the high tree huts aimed at holding off loggers and the police.
Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, 42, her co-chair, is also known to be plucky. Originally a professional speed skater, a very good one, she switched to educational issues in her East German home-town of Erfurt in Thuringia, and quickly ascended to a position equivalent to that of Janine Wissler’s, becoming chair of both the state party and its caucus in the legislature. But unlike Wissler she was not in opposition. Thuringia is the first and only German state with a LINKE, Bodo Ramelow, as minister-president (like a governor), because his party won the most seats. Since 2014 he has headed a shaky coalition with a small Social Democratic and even smaller Green caucus.
Hennig-Wellsow gained unusual fame last year after a conservative politician pushed Ramelow out as head of state, but only by accepting the votes of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which is stronger and more rabid in Thuringia than anywhere else. Tradition demanded that party-leader Hennig-Wellsow present the winner, any winner, with congratulatory flowers. She approached him, then suddenly let the bouquet fall to the floor. Impolite, but most anti-fascists rejoiced at what became a top Youtube hit. (After a huge public outcry the man had to step down three days later and Ramelow came back – with Hennig-Wellsow. Now these two state leaders head the national party, and though they disagree sharply on some issues, they are in agreement on a host of others – and friendly.
A new generation
Another striking feature of the conference was how many young, female delegates who made contributions. This was a clear change from the past, when die LINKE was dominated by older men, frequently former members of the Socialist Unity Party, the ruling party in the GDR. This generation is dying out. Ten years ago over 50% of members lived in the five smaller states of East Germany; now they make up 38% of a total of 60,000. With all due respect to these truly “Old Faithful”, the trend towards a new, younger generation is a greatly-needed cause for hope. And so is their militancy – which was reflected in the words and the spirit of Wissler and Hennig-Wellsow.
Many of these young members called energetically for more visible, militant action in all of the party's important focus areas. Post- pandemic recovery was a key theme at the conference, which has left small firms, retail shops, restaurants and cultural workers with heavy debts, job losses and bankruptcy, while large corporations from Amazon to Aldi have raked in huge profits for their shareholders. Die LINKE demands genuine taxes on the wealthy, higher wages for the workers (including the introduction of a 15 euro minimum wage) and more support for families and pensioners. This means much closer cooperation with unions and their struggles.
The related issue of the environment and climate crisis, too often neglected by the left and dominated by the Green party, also received much attention. The Green party is still in second place in the polls ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD) but well behind the twin “Christian Union” parties and has moved ever closer to arrangements with big business, downplaying the needs of common people and even abandoning major principles in order to gain or keep cabinet positions, as in Hesse, where their coalition ministers agreed to the deforestation of the Dannenröder forest for an unnecessary highway extension.
Many delegates warned of further hospital privatization and argued for affordable, publicly-owned housing to counter the profit-based gentrification expanding through most cities. There was praise for the LINKE in Berlin; it led local coalition partners SPD and Greens in pushing through a rent control law reversing the worst over-pricing and forbidding most increases. It also defied Green foot-dragging and SPD opposition to a referendum to expropriate Berlin’s biggest real estate giants.
Wissler, Hennig-Wellsow and many delegates called for a constant, vigilant resistance to the growing menace of the fascists, from local groups of neo-nazis to those organized on a party basis or embedded in the police, the armed services or as suspiciously spooky secret agents of the FBI-type Constitutional Defence Bureau.There was also general agreement on re-directing billions spent on armament purchases and production toward the repair of decrepit schools, rutty roads, unsafe bridges and public facilities.
But general agreement on this edged into questions dividing the party for years. Some members – and many in leadership - hope keenly that the LINKE can join with the Social Democrats and Greens in a national, governing “left-of-center coalition”, as in current state governments in Thuringia and Berlin. Former harsh rejection by the other two of any connection with the “former rulers of the GDR dictatorship” has now weakened, especially if the votes of LINKE deputies can help them over the 50% margin to victory. Since both the SPD and the LINKE adopted the color red as symbol, this would be a Green-Red-Red coalition. Such an alliance, say its advocates, would be a bar against the right, meaning the Christian sister parties, the conservative Free Democrats and the far-right AfD.
The state and the national levels differ in many ways. Most importantly, only the latter deals with foreign and military policy, which erects big, important hurdles. Both SPD and Green insist on two conditions for an alliance: the LINKE must abandon its opposition to NATO and to sending Bundeswehr troops outside German borders, even on UN missions. That is their red line; No-NATO means No-go! And well-armed German troops must be able to flutter black-red-golden flags from Kabul to Bamako, from masts in the Indian Ocean, wherever it serves German interests. Roll up the tanks, drones, fighters and armed frigates!
Some LINKE leaders call for compromises. A humanitarian mission for the UN now and then should not be a major hurdle, while replacing NATO with a Europe-wide security agreement, including Russia instead of threatening it, is currently pure fantasy. In a highly controversial open letter, Matthias Höhn, a leading LINKE politician, recently said that such matters can be agreed upon, Germany need not totally reject US demands for 2% of its budget for military build-up but might cut it to 1%, with the other 1% diverted to development aid for countries in the Global South. His opponents were quick to reply - they insisted that Germany was threatened by no one; the Bundeswehr was in essence an instrument of the same expansive powers which have determined bloody German policy for over a century. Bombing Belgrade and Afghanistan was also called “humanitarian”! Any backsliding step in these matters was really a foot in the door, a dangerous foot, and would cancel the basic claim by the LINKE to be the one and only party of peace in the Bundestag.
This question has implications for an even more basic question: does die LINKE support or oppose Germany's present social system? Many leaders in the East, often having been in power at the state level, insist that die LINKE can only exert political effect to improve life if it takes part on a governmental level. The other side claims that die LINKE, as a tolerated little brother in such a coalition, would be granted lesser cabinet positions and be easily outvoted on important policy questions, foreign or domestic, with only two options - bow down or quit. No, they say, the party wants improvements, but sees the need for the eradication of capitalism. That means active opposition and not becoming part of “the establishment,” a role which has cost it dearly in eastern Germany in poll results, elections and reputation.
We want to change things. Merely being in a government is not enough. Major achievements were always won by movements of the people, whether for women’s suffrage, the eight hour day, an end to atomic power plant construction or same-gender marriage. Bad conditions are placed on the agenda by social pressure, not purely by participation in a government.
Janine Wissler, Der Tagesspiegel 20.02.2021
The dividing line is also clear between the two new leaders. Hennig-Wellsow from Thuringia is ready to consider a GRR coalition, even with a compromise or two. Isn’t that what realistic politics sometimes requires? Wissler from Hesse says No: she wants no cozy, weak-kneed cabinet seat for a LINKE. Let the SPD and Greens change, adopt a genuine peace policy and abandon dangerous “east-west” confrontation!
The differing viewpoints were put to the test during the vote for six deputy chairpersons. Matthias Höhn, who sent that letter proposing a retreat on armaments and deployment, received 224 votes. Tobias Pflüger, a disarmament expert opposed to any dilution of peace positions, beat him out with 294 votes. And it was Pflüger’s views which were more frequently reflected by the overwhelmingly young speakers’ list.
Having the LINKE participate in a government does not amount to systemic change. For real changes social pressures are required. That was true in Berlin with the capping of rent levels. There was interference in the market, in conflict with the interests of the big real estate companies in favor of the interests of the tenants. No such changes would have been possible without pressure from tenant initiatives and protests.
Janine Wissler, Der Tagesspiegel 20.02.2021
The fight for socialism
But this coalition question is purely hypothetical anyway. With Greens and SPD now polling at 17% each and the LINKE at 8% (but hoping to get back to double digits), reaching 50% is just a dream.That explains why so many stressed the need to fight in the streets, factories and colleges, rather than at the parliamentary level or in party meetings; among workers, teachers, nurses, supermarket employees, in defence against current attacks on living standards. This must reach at least as many women as men, both young and old, all sexual orientations, and definitely those hit hardest, the millions with immigrant backgrounds. Hopeful symbols were the hearty greetings from the Alevite Turkish community, from several major unions and young activists in Fridays for Future.
As a party we must prioritize more vigorously the issues about which we agree. We did not succeed very well in doing that in recent years. And we must turn more to the people, to be present among cleaners fighting for better conditions or industrial workers struggling to keep their jobs, with Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter protests
Janine Wissler, Der Tagesspiegel 20.02.2021
Disagreement on key issues could not and will not be ignored. But the happy surprise was that this did not lead to a split! The sides agreed to disagree and now work together to win supporters – and votes - in the six state elections and the national election soon challenging the party.
There was one other aspect which surprised many and deserves attention: how many participants, especially the younger ones, stated that the current social system, now proving its decay and inhumanity more clearly than ever, must be replaced. The goal was also named, without many former taboos; a socialist economy, no longer determined by a tiny elite whose desire for unearned profit has caused a huge, growing gap between billionaires and billions facing deprivation.
If this new fighting spirit and renewed orientation can be maintained, the LINKE party could play a far more potent role in strengthening opposition within Germany. And after the vicious defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s fight in Britain and with the weakness of leftist parties in France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, a militant Left in central, powerful Germany could regain the importance it once possessed in the heyday of people like Rosa Luxemburg – who was born 150 years ago, on March 5 1871!
If we want to prevent the gap between rich and poor from widening even further, if we want everyone to have an equal chance at getting an education, culture and health care, with no one having to worry about paying the rent, then, in the final analysis, we must talk about changing the system. We will also be unable to to solve the climate crisis without changes in property and power relationships, for the corporations will block the necessary changes... The same holds true in the medical sector; private hospital corporations pay big dividends to third parties while doctors and hospital personnel responsible for their earnings are hugely overburdened.
Janine Wissler, Der Tagesspiegel 20.02.2021
All interested in earlier Berlin Bulletins – or in me and my books: