What’s eating Sahra Wagenknecht? Aufstehen, refugees and racism
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
So, here’s an attempt to answer everyone who is asking “what is going on with Sahra Wagenknecht? 1”. Shortly after the LINKE party conference in June 2018, Wagenknecht announced her attention to launch a “Sammlungsbewegung” - a political initiative bringing together like-minded people from different parties and campaigns. This was to be called Aufstehen (Stand Up) 2.
The timing was significant. In the run up to the conference, Wagenknecht had tried to get the party to support immigration controls – and she was completely isolated. While she did win a small relatively cosmetic change, on the substantive issue virtually the whole party stood emphatically on the side of refugees and against controls 3. Aufstehen is Wagenknecht’s next step in this line of argument.
The conference proposal was not her first intervention on this issue. For years, Wagenknecht has been arguing for a two-pronged strategy to challenge Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the new far right party that has been gaining worrying level of support in Germany, in some places winning over former LINKE voters.
On the one hand, argues Wagenknecht, the left should avoid campaigning against racism, and concentrate on social issues. For example, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Woche, she explained why she thinks people vote AfD: “the worries and the resentment have nothing to do with racism per se, they are the result of a wrong politics, and the innate job of the left is to attack these politics”.
At the same time as fighting for social change, she believes that we should advocate migration controls. She claims this would stop migrant labour being used to drive down German workers’ wages. On this basis, she attacks the current LINKE policy of open borders as being “unrealistic” and “the opposite of left”.
Wagenknecht has also insinuated that campaigns like gay marriage and anti-racism are a distraction from anti-capitalism and risk alienating working class supporters. This has not gone unchallenged within the party. A reply by DIE LINKE.queer argues that “class affiliation does not stand in contradiction to sexual orientation and identity. The fact is that Trans* people experience rising rents and housing shortage more than anyone, homosexual workers at church institutions must regularly expect to be sacked, queer people are paid significantly less than heterosexuals”.
Volkhard Mosler argues that Wagenknecht’s argument is not new. He notes that in 1915, Nikolai Bukharin challenged similar ideas within the Russian left, attacking what he called “workers protectionism” which proposed “an alliance of the working class with their ‘own’ National State against foreign competition of goods and workers”. Mosler says that Wagenknecht’s “consistent and (wrong) argument is that by fighting social inequality and poverty, racism will fade away automatically. Marx would have called this primitive or one-sided materialism”4.
Blaming the victims
I’m not sure whether Wagenknecht truly believes that attacking migrants preserves the wages of German workers or if she is just being opportunistic (I suspect the former). Either way, her argument ultimately ends up blaming migrants and refugees for racism.
On 4 November, the official “Team Sahra” newsletter recommended without further comment an article from financial journalist Norbert Häring. The newsletter itself printed the following summary of the article: “the call for labour migration … as it appears in the UN Migration agreements, damages workers in both the destination countries and the migrants’ countries of origin. The beneficiaries are the businesses and capital owners in the industrial countries.”
The article uses pseudo-left language to denounce the UN agreement as being a “Sargnagel” (rough translation: coffin nail). But, as LINKE MP Niema Movassat and others argue, notwithstanding any weaknesses in the agreement, its main function is to guarantee minimal rights to migrants: “the agreement – if it is taken seriously – would be a clear improvement. It would guarantee them rights and protection which are lacking in too many countries in the world”.
On one level, Wagenknecht and Häring are correct to worry about the exploitation of migrant labour. Manipulative bosses do exploit the misfortune of refugees to pay them less than they deserve and to drive down the wages of indigenous workers.
There is a left wing argument against this abuse that doesn’t accommodate to racism. This is international solidarity, based on the demand for full union wages and conditions for all workers including migrants. This depends on seeing migrants neither as a threat nor as victims without agency, but as part of a workforce which has the ability to change society.
Fighting the causes of flight
The “refugee problem” is an issue of class and imperialism. Most of the people crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing the wars, poverty and climate change caused by Western governments, not least Germany.
Wagenknecht does acknowledge the role of Western imperialism. Indeed she repeatedly argues that the left should fight the causes of flight rather than obsessing about migrants. For example, in a guest article in the Nordwest Zeitung, Wagenknecht and her collaborator Bernd Stegemann argue “we believe that the fixation on the subject of refugees is the false expression of a rage, which has accumulated in quite different areas of life”.
Yet is is often Wagenknecht herself who continually seems to need to talk about refugees. As Richard Seymour notes, “one thing that one really can’t say about them [Aufstehen] is that they’ve driven refugees down the political agenda. It may not be the issue they spend most time talking about, but it is the issue that defines them as distinct from their opponents on the Left”.
Fighting the causes of flight is not a contested issue within die LINKE. All wings of the party argue that many refugees are escaping the fruits of German foreign policy, and its support for brutal dictators. The devil, however, is in the detail. Wagenknecht and many of her supporters pose this argument as an either-or question. Fighting the causes of migration is ultimately used as a justification for armed border guards sending people back to their own countries, which “we” have benevolently made safe for “them”.
Wagenknecht explicitly argues that “Arbeitsmigration” - labour migration – is “a problem, especially in the low-wage sector”. While supporting the right of asylum for the victims of political persecution, she claims that labour migration only serves the interest of big business and that the “large majority of people are the losers”.
Seymour scathingly attacks this idea: “Even in the Schengen Area, where the ‘pull factors’ [jobs, higher wages etc.] are shaped by institutionalised precarity, weak unions and emaciated welfare, there is little evidence of such effects in the aggregate. Even having a points system in place, however, doesn’t stop migrants from being blamed for low wages, despite the paucity of evidence.
To put it bluntly, whatever immigration regime you have, there will always be people falsely blaming social problems on immigration. Not because it’s the fault of immigration but because some people are xenophobic or racist. Why should the Left give ground to this?”
Pandering to Islamophobia
The same Aufstehen newsletter which cites Häring’s article against labour migration also recommends an interview with Hannes Hofbauer in which he worries aloud about “the high point of the great migration of Muslims, as I call the mass migration of 2015”. (my emphasis).
This gratuitous mention of the religious background of some migrants is not just an “unfortunate formulation”, as has been suggested by Wagenknecht apologists. The interview is effectively a promotion of Hofbauer’s book “Kritik der Migration”, which is riddled with explicitly anti-Muslim paranoia.
So, in the book’s foreword Hofbauer argues that “Angela Merkel opened the migration floodgates for Muslims from the Middle East in midsummer 2015”. Later in the book he talks of the need to “end the great migration of Muslims in the middle of the 2010s.” Chapter 5 is even called “The great migration of Muslims.”
However much Aufstehen may claim to be just fighting for workers’ rights, they (or some of their close friends) move very quickly from blaming migration for the problems of white workers to blaming Muslims. At a time when the AfD is gaining support and fascists are marching on German streets, such a position is, to say the least, slightly dangerous.
Should the left fight “economic migration”?
Even if we could rid the world of war and dictatorship some time in the future, “fair migration controls” (if such a concept is possible) do nothing for the refugees currently on Germany’s borders.
In addition, there is a more fundamental question. What would be the point of a “free” society where people lack the freedom to go and live wherever they want? Accepting restriction of movement is to give credence to the right wing argument that stigmatises immigrants by dividing them into “deserving” political refugees and “undeserving” economic refugees.
Some supporters of Aufstehen say that imposing migration controls is necessary to challenge right-wing racism. So, Anke Hassel argues that “Die LINKE must find an immigration policy, that on the one hand clearly rejects racism, but on the other hand doesn’t ignore reality".
But what is this reality that we shouldn’t ignore? Migration controls are, by their very nature, nationalist if not outright xenophobic. They say that some people should have extra privileges purely because of the accident of where they happened to be born.
This is before you acknowledge the real debates which are currently going on in society. The AfD is endlessly banging on about “criminal foreigners”5. There is rampant Islamophobia in the German media that goes well beyond the right-wing Springer Press6. Nearly every German popular political magazine has printed a series of front covers warning of the danger of Islam.
And then there is state racism. Right-wing German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer argues that “Islam does not belong to Germany” and that the refugee question is the “mother of all problems”. As I am writing this article, billboards are springing up across Berlin with the logo of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees offering migrants money to leave the country 7. These billboards picture a series of flags which are almost exclusively from Eastern European and “darker skinned” countries.
This has all created an atmosphere in which any discussion on refugees is accompanied by repeated prejudices about ‘dangerous Muslims’ and ‘parasitical refugees’. In theory, it may sound nuanced for left-wingers to call for an honest debate on refugees. When racists and outright Nazis are witch hunting migrants, if your starting point is that “economic refugees” are part of the problem, you can quickly end up on the same side as some very unsavoury characters.
“Economic Migrant” are also welcome - whatever their religion or skin colour
I have skin in this game. I am an economic migrant. I moved to Germany to a better paid job (and also to experience a different culture and learn a new language, which I tend to think is a good thing). Some time along the way I was unemployed for 8 years. So I really am one of those migrants going over there, both taking “their” jobs and living off “their” benefits. I am exactly the sort of person that migration controls should be used to prevent entering the country if you follow the argument about economic migration to its logical conclusion.
And yet somehow the whole debate about migration is never about people like me. The German press and politicians constantly warn us of the danger that Germany will be overwhelmed by people who are unwilling to integrate. Back in 2009, the Interior Minister of the time Wolfgang Schäuble said “we must work against segregation. It is understandable that migrants like to live where their fellow countrymen are. But it is necessary for them to learn German, that German is the common language anywhere”.
The rest of the interview made it clear that Schäuble was talking about people with Turkish background, and specifically about Muslims. Yet in my experience, it is Britons and US-Americans who are least willing to learn the language. Turkish Gastarbeiter and Syrian refugees somehow find time for language lessons in amongst the many jobs they must hold down in order to survive. Their children grew up here and speak perfect German already. If “parallel societies" are being built anywhere in Germany, it is in the Irish pubs. Yet I have seen no calls for mass deportations of Anglophones.
A myth is being built up of Germany having a Judeo-Christian tradition to which all migrants must adhere if they are to be allowed to stay. So, in 2017, CDU Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere developed a 10 point plan of a German Leitkultur (guiding culture) which migrants should accept if they were to be accepted as German citizen+.
De Maiziere’s plan included statements like “on being greeted, we offer our hand”, “we show our face. We are not burqa” and “we are part of the West. Culturally, mentally and politically. NATO defends our freedom”. This was a calculated attempt to exclude not just people related to the victims of NATO’s wars, but anyone who questions Western political hegemony.
Yet you only need to look at German history in the past 100 years to see that Germany’s “Jewish-Christian tradition” is a very recent invention. Nonetheless, it seems to be accepted as fact that someone with a Jewish or Christian background is much more likely to become a “real German” than anyone with another religion (or indeed skin colour).
Migration and class
An old Marxist quote of disputed source says “Workers have no country.” Another of more secure heritage says “workers of the world unite”. This is a better starting point than any accommodation to nationalism. If our side sees refugees as a threat, we shouldn’t be surprized when they are reluctant to accept our offers of them joining our fight against racism and austerity.
Taking the side of refugees is not just liberal do-gooding, as Wagenknecht and her co-thinkers often insinuate. Wagenknecht is afraid that “cosmopolitanism, anti-racism and defending minorities are the feelgood-label used to conceal crude redistribution from below to above, and to allow their beneficiaries a clear conscience.” Yet uniting migrants, refugees and German workers on a class basis is a precondition for us being able to realise our strength and to effectively confront the horrors of capitalism.
Wagenknecht, on the other hand, does not see any social basis for joint activity with refugees, explicitly calling them in the main the “better educated middle class”. Whatever their level of education and previous experience, nearly all refugees are workers as soon as they land on German soil. If class is about your relationship to the means of production, most migrants in Germany are, in Günther Wallraff’s phrase the “lowest of the low”8.
Ultimately, Wagenknecht’s argument is based on a vision of the working class as being full of white German male racists and chauvinists. By seeing refugees themselves as the problem (and implicitly not part of the German working class) Wagenknecht and Aufstehen squander the opportunity to build unity between German and migrant workers against a common enemy. This tacitly accepts that racism cannot be challenged, and ends up tailing the arguments put forward by the AfD.
Abstaining on Refugee Rights
Aufstehen’s problems have been compounded by the fact that the first real social movement which developed since it was formed was around refugee rights – the one issue that its public face couldn’t possibly support. While Austehen was abstractly calling for the building of mass movements, Wagenknecht was decidedly lukewarm about a mass movement which was there on the streets.
On October 13th 2018, a quarter of a million people took part in the #Unteilbar (Indivisible) demonstration in Berlin against racism. Many were there because they were appalled and frightened by recent mass demos and riots by AfD-inspired Nazis in Chemnitz. But Wagenknecht very publicly boycotted the demo38, basing her decision on the false claim that the demo was calling for open borders for all (it wasn’t, and even if it was that should be a badge of pride for any serious socialist).
Some of Wagenknecht’s apologists are describing her decision to boycott as a “mistake”. But the boycott was entirely consistent with the national chauvinist positions that she has taken on refugee rights before and since. For years, many refugee activists have said that they found it difficult to work with or even vote for die LINKE, basing their reluctance on any number of statements issued by Wagenknecht.
A few individual members of Aufstehen did turn up to the #Unteilbar demo. Some of them still argue that Aufstehen is not just about Wagenknecht and hope that they can silently drop the latent racism and build Aufstehen around mass movements. This would not be countenanced by Wagenknecht herself, and the current media interest (and social weight) of Aufstehen depends largely upon her.
Besides, it is simply not true that Wagenknecht is an anomaly, and that without Wagenknecht Aufstehen would be a consistently anti-racist organisation. At the end of October, the Aufstehen group in Rostock – a significant city in the East which is on the frontline of the anti-racist fight - decided not to join the demos against the AfD, as some of the people on the AfD demos were people who they’d like to win for Aufstehen9
Appeasing the racists makes them stronger – tragic lessons from France
The most important deficit of Wagenknecht’s strategy its failure to learn from history. Appeasing racism and fascism has historically only served to strengthen the racists. Let’s have a look at what happened in France in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1981 a government of the Socialist and Communist parties brought Francois Mitterand to the presidency. For the first 2 years, the government implemented serious reforms, but then unemployment and inflation started to rise, and the Front National (FN) tried to exploit the growing discontent. At the time, the FN was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen – a longstanding Nazi who dismissed the Holocaust as being a “mere detail of history"10.
As the FN gained support, politicians of other parties thought that they could counter their growth by being better racists. In 1982, conservative leader Alain Juppé claimed a link between “clandestine immigration, delinquency, and criminality”. In 1983, the Socialist mayor of Marseilles fought an election campaign on the slogan “the right means illegal immigration; the left means controlled immigration”.
Even the Communist Party (PCF) was not immune, as reported by Paul Witte: “On 24 December 1980, the communist mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine, Paul Merceica, headed a demonstration against the transfer of 300 people from Mali to a workers’ hostel in Vitry. During this brutal and violent demonstration a bulldozer was driven into the hostel. In February 1981, the communist mayor of Montigny-lès-Cormeilles, Robert Hué, accused a Moroccan family of trading drugs. On 7 February, he organised a hate demonstration in front of the family where this family lived.11” Hué would later become PCF National Secretary.
This accommodation to racism did not hinder the rise of the FN – quite the reverse. As Le Pen claimed “voters will always prefer the original to the copy”. In 1981, the FN was a minor force, commanding 90,000 votes (0.36%) in the 1981 federal elections and not winning enough signatures to stand a presidential candidate. By 1984 they could win 11% of the votes in the EU elections. Today, under the leadership of Le Pen’s daughter Marine, they stand a good chance of running the next French government.
What was most tragic about the French left’s response to rising racism was that the 1980s saw a number of significant struggles in France, led by migrants. For example, Vincent Gay writes of the campaign against job losses at the Peugeot-Talbot car plant in Poissy, near Paris: “Following the announcement by PSA that there would be 2,905 redundancies, between December 1983 and January 1984 a month-long strike shook the factory ... The demand was not voiced by the unions but by a group of striking migrant workers, which obliged the unions and the government to readjust their respective strategies.“
Unfortunately, the French left largely saw migrant workers as competitors and not potential allies. Their paternalistic attitude – which is still seen today in their attempt to police what women Muslims choose to wear – meant that divisions between workers of different religions and national backgrounds persist – from which the racists and fascists in the FN (now Rassemblement National) continue to profit.
The marx21 network notes a similar but more successful dynamic in Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall: “The neo-fascist right saw the debate around increasing the right to asylum as a confirmation of their demand ‘Foreigners out’ and Helmut Kohl’s statement ‘the boat is full’. Both encouraged xenophobic attacks. It was the anti-racist movement against the attacks [on refugee homes] in Mölln and Solingen that changed the mood in society and put the [far right] Republikaner on the defensive.”
Taking on Racism with Jeremy Corbyn
Contrast the situation in France with the position taken by Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 British election campaign. When a bomb went off in Manchester, provoking a series of Islamophobic press articles, and troops on British streets, most commentators expected Corbyn to adapt to the countervailing racist mood.
Instead Corbyn made a speech pointing out the “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home”. He said “we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.
Even those of us who believed that this was the right thing to say feared that this statement might cost Corbyn votes in the coming election. In fact, his ratings in the opinion polls went up. A YouGov poll 4 days after the bombing also found that 53% believed that “wars the UK has supported or fought are responsible, at least in part, for terror attacks against the UK”, while only 24% disagreed.
Corbyn has consistently shown that fighting for your principles is a better strategy than trying to second guess what you think might be popular with voters. Tony Blair’s strategy of “triangulation” - government by focus groups instead of political conviction – has long been discredited. It should not be allowed to return over the dead bodies of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Electoralism that doesn’t even work in its own terms
Besides, it is becoming evident that this electoralist argument doesn’t even work in its own terms. There is a point of view that says that anti-racists have nowhere to go but die LINKE, so being soft on immigration controls means that you get double the votes – the anti-racists stay with you and the soft racists vote for you because you don’t sound quite so scary.
Well, let’s look at October’s elections in Bavaria and Hesse. Die LINKE made deserved but very mild gains, while the Green vote rocketed. Why? In an interview with ntv, Timo Lochocki explained “if the question of migration continues to dominate election campaigns, the two antipodes which have the clearest positions will dominate. These are the Greens and the AfD”. In public perception at least, the Greens were the only party that came across as being consistently anti-racist.
As Bend Benthin from ZDF writes “Die LINKE is perceived to be a failed party. The dispute with itself is louder than the fight with the political opposition. Actually, looking at the party spectrum, die LINKE should be the clear adversary to the AfD. But the party is surrendering this role to the Greens.
By the way, anyone who thinks that the Greens actually are consistently anti-racist should enter “Boris Palmer” into google53. Palmer is not alone. Omid Nouripour, a member of the party's national board argues “We don't want multiculturalism if that means that anyone can do whatever they want.”
But, despite the fact that die LINKE is possibly the only political party in the world which can gain 10% of the vote AND effectively oppose all immigration controls, it is perceived as being anti-migrant, or at the very least as split on the issue, largely because of Wagenknecht’s interventions . And as Germany is polarising on the issues of racism and refugee rights, this is really not good enough for many people.
We should also try to go beyond electoralist considerations. For many of us, changing the world is not just about saying things that we hope that people will agree with, but fighting for principled positions. Even if defending refugee rights could lose us votes in the short-term, it is essential for building class solidarity amongst the people who are capable of fundamentally changing society. If our side is divided, their side wins. And our side does not just consist either of ageing white workers or enlightened University graduates. Refugees are a central part of our power.
Some have asked, how can die LINKE accept a leader of the parliamentary fraction who so flagrantly defies policy decisions taken by party conference 12. One MP from the right wing of the party has already threatened to leave the fraction if Wagenknecht remains as spokeswoman
The simple answer is that expelling Wagenknecht would rupture the party. Some people, especially those around Wagenknecht, have portrayed the dispute as a clash of ambitions between Wagenknecht (joint leader of the parliamentary fraction) and Katja Kipping (joint leader of the party).
Kipping is a bit of a centrist whose opponents (not without justification) see her as being not radical enough. Earlier this year, the Tagesspiegel described as a “queen without a court” who (unlike the other party leader, trade unionist Bernd Riexinger) “stands rather for the urban milieus and political youth”.
Some of the other people challenging Wagenknecht have even worse records. Many have been complicit in LINKE participation in local governments which have deported refugees (this is particularly bad in Thüringen where die LINKE is the senior party in the government). Even Kipping herself argues for “left” migration controls.
So this is not a simple case of left-wing anti-racists on one side and right-wing racists/opportunists on the other. Having said this, it would be equally wrong to see opposition to Wagenknecht as being limited to Kipping and the reformers. This is not, as some Wagenknecht supporters claim, a right-wing putsch against a consistently anti-capitalist irritant. Some of Wagenknecht’s most vocal critics, such as MP Niema Movassat, belong very much to the left wing of the party.
Red-Red-Green under Sahra?
Die LINKE is a left reformist party, which means that its a broad church. Within this church many people have built up loyalties to the left or right wing of the party. Until now, Wagenknecht has been perceived to be one of the leading figures of the left wing. This means that the group of people who might defend her goes way beyond those who agree with her on the refugee question.
Wagenknecht is also a regular talk-show guest who can put forward good left wing arguments to a mass audience. Many on the left see her as the only chance of us achieving more than the usual 10% of votes each election and settling in as a junior member of the establishment. They see her as being the main bulwark against the LINKE rushing into a coalition government with the SPD and the Greens.
Ironically, the whole aim of Aufstehen seems to be a coalition with the SPD and Greens with Wagenknecht as chancellor 13. Elisa Nowak argues “thus arises an interesting rivalry, which in reality is none: both the Kipping wing and Aufstehen stand for a reformist politics, which embodies the aim of a red-red-green coalition. The disagreements are merely semantic, and are expressed in fights, the results of which could bring the Left party to a split.”
All this means that a protracted fight around Wagenknecht could destroy a party which, for all its faults, is the one parliamentary alternative to the old establishment parties which is not riddled with fascists.
How do we get the mass social movement that we need?
It is too simplistic to see Aufstehen as just being about migration controls – many people have joined because they are (rightly) excited by its call for a large social movement. This call is great in theory, but in the case of Aufstehen it had one serious problem. The movement that it calls for cannot be built from above.
Where actually existing movements have been active in Germany, Aufstehen seems to be way too dependent on press releases and media appearances by public figures like Wagenknecht, and rarely relates to fights that are actually taking place. It is true that Aufstehen has organised some small rallies, mainly around the issue of disarmament. This is a great development, but these have been dwarfed by other demonstrations, particularly against racism.
Looking at a fight by health workers for a referendum on patient care in Bavaria, Southern Germany, Kevin Ovenden contrasts the practise of Aufstehen and Die LINKE: “Die Linke activists played a big role in getting the signatures for the referendum despite also fighting a state parliamentary election at the same time. Aufstehen mentioned the social care crisis propagandistically but not the campaign for the referendum”.
I am reminded of similar organisations which received a sudden barrage of media attention, like Yannis Varoufakis’s DiEM25, and, in particular the Pirate Party. Its not so long since the Pirates seemed poised to fundamentally change German politics. Tapping into a feeling that things could not carry on as they were, they experienced a rapid surge of support, coming from nowhere to win an MEP at the 2014 EU elections.
When they were merely the articulation of discontent with the current system, the Pirates went from strength to strength. But, apart from cyber security, the Pirates didn’t actually have a political programme. As soon as they were forced to commit themselves, they haemorrhaged support, whichever position they took.
When leading Pirate member Bodo Thiesen was outed as a Holocaust denier, the Pirates lost supporters. But when the party distanced itself from Thiesen, it lost other supporters who had no problem with Holocaust denial. A few years later, the Pirates are politically irrelevant in Germany.
As long as Aufstehen is trying to win back the disaffected without offering a clear political programme it seems doomed to repeat the experiences of the Pirates. But if it does develop a programme, it could start to lose support from people who are thrilled by the talk of resistance, but may have clear political differences.
So how do we stop the AfD?
At a time when real Nazis are brazenly marching down the streets of Chemnitz68 and attacking refugees, when Nazis could demonstrate through the Berlin government area on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht69, I humbly suggest that the time for hoping that racism will somehow disappear is over. The far right is growing and mobilising internationally and no amount of talking about other social issues will change that.
Two of the most inspiring events for me this year were the aforementioned #Unteilbar demo, and the 72,000-strong demo in Berlin on 27th May against the AfD. Both had the character of mass movements of a scale that Aufstehen has so far not come close to attaining. Unlike many anti-fascist demonstrations, comprised mainly of the far left, these were both genuinely broad mobilisations.
One of the key differences between these mobilisations and other worthier but much smaller events was the involvement of the “glitter people” from the club and theatre scene. Under the slogan of “AfD wegbassen” (literally, ‘bass away the AfD’), they created a ‘political love parade’ which was ultimately unable to stop the AfD marching, but did drown out their speakers.
On the day of the demonstration, I was giving out flyers in the Berlin Tiergarten park and when the clubbers arrived, there was such a feeling of euphoria. Finally, protesting against actual Nazis in the German parliament wasn’t just a duty. It was also a fun event where everyone could join in.
The 27th May demo helped pave the way for the 250,000 strong #Unteilbar demonstration on 13th October, and the subsequent concert with leading German musicians. These included singer and actor Herbert Grönemeyer, best known abroad for his role in “Das Boot” and a genuine superstar here. Grönemeyer has committed himself to further activities in support of refugees.
At the final rally, Unteilbar organisers said that this was just the beginning and promised further actions. Leading Trade Unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban from IG Metall said: “my impression was that, despite the diversity, there was something that we could all see together, which united us. And that was to stand up against the right-wing development … I think that the demonstration was something like an energy-concentrated collective experience, which will now function as a motor for local activities”
Movements and Parties
This is where I think that Wagenknecht got it so horribly wrong on #Unteilbar. I don’t think that a quarter of a million people would have demonstrated for abolishing all border controls. People were there because they were motivated by a few simple demands that they thought we could win – stop the Nazi attacks, stand up against the AfD, allow refugees to have basic rights.
The breadth of these actions came precisely because they were undogmatic and had a limited number of demands. People coalesced around a single issue and there was space for Social Democrats, Greens and others who disagree fundamentally with more left-wing groupings on other issues. This is, for me, what is specific about a political movement. Movements mobilize people for as long as there is a sense that change can be achieved. Movements rise like a rocket and sink like a stick 14.
Inside such a broad movement, there is also a (necessary) role for parties. Movements and parties fulfil different roles. Parties are usually longer lasting. They can represent movements on a political level, such as parliament and inside local communities. Parties are also ideological. Unlike movements, which bring together everyone who is, say, against racism, parties are continually confronted with political debates, such as immigration controls or state racism, about which they are eventually forced to take a position.
At the moment, Aufstehen seems to fall between the two stools, offering neither political clarity nor the ability to mobilise significant numbers. The more that this continues, the more people will ask “what is the point?” Which is why there are repeated rumours – until now, denied by Wagenknecht – that Aufstehen is planning to form its own party.
If this does happen, success is far from guaranteed. As sociologist Dieter Rucht argues, Aufstehen could have difficulties fighting for attention in an already crowded field. Comparing Aufstehen to the emergence of French movement-parties like “En Marche” (or indeed the more left wing France Insoumise), Rucht argues “compared to the French situation, the parties in the German republic are firstly relatively strong organisationally, and secondly the spectrum is relatively well covered”.
As well as die LINKE, and the Greens, whose public perception is often more radical than they actually are, DiEM25 has also announced that it is forming a party to contest the coming EU elections. And the only issue on which Aufstehen has a clear political difference to die LINKE is on migration. If Aufstehen does cause a split in die LINKE, any new formation will not necessarily be on the left of the existing party.
The debate continues
Many people support Aufstehen because of (sometimes justified) frustration that die LINKE has not fully achieved its aim of becoming the public mouthpiece of the movement that we desperately need. Indeed, Wagenknecht is absolutely correct when she says “We don’t want to keep observing, we want to change something.” But movements are built from below and in response to specific events.
This means that I believe that the fight against the AfD depends on the further actions and successes of #Unteilbar, and of Aufstehen gegen Rassismus, which has emerged as the most significant anti-racist organisation specifically taking on the AfD threat. These organisations are able to offer leadership to the German anti-racist movement much more effectively than an Aufstehen which is relatively absent in basis activities and is tainted with its apparent suspicion of migrants.
The discussion is continuing. Because Wagenknecht has been traditionally seen as being on the left of die LINKE, many people are finding it very difficult to know how to react. I’d encourage people to follow the debate, not least on the Website for the Berlin LINKE Internationals. Please check the Website for new articles – this article has been specifically written as part of a series of different opinions on Aufstehen. You can also submit articles for publication or recommend things that other people have written.
We are also organising several discussions on the subject – from one on 26th November on whether non-racist Migration controls are possible to a joint meeting with Labour Berlin in 2019 about how we can best fight the AfD. For updates, you can join our mailing list. Just send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to know more about racism in Germany, Victor Grossman and I also recently did an interview with US college radio answering questions on racism in Germany
The most important thing, though, is to keep up the struggle. Whatever one’s feelings about Aufstehen, we will meet on the streets in our joint struggle to stop the current rightwards trend in Germany and throughout the world.
Phil Butland is the joint speaker and founder member of Die LINKE Berlin Internationals (www.theleftberlin.wordpress.com). He welcomes any feedback to this article – both positive and negative. He, and Die LINKE Berlin Internationals can be contacted on email@example.com, https://theleftberlin.wordpress.com/ and www.facebook.com/theleftberlin.
1 This article originated as a much shorter facebook post for friends outside Germany who wanted to know more about the current debate in Germany. Many thanks to everyone who took part in the debate, although I didn’t agree with you all. Special thanks to Bernado Jurema and Tom Wills who made very useful suggestions for how an earlier version of this text could be made more intelligible.
2 Aufstehen has nothing to do with the existing anti-racist organisation Austehen gegen Rassismus (https://www.aufstehen-gegen-rassismus.de/), which has always fought against racism and for refugee rights.
3 For a report of this conference in English, see this article by Victor Grossman: https://theleftberlin.wordpress.com/victor-grossmans-berlin-bulletin/key-congress-in-leipzig/
4 From a discussion on my facebook page: www.facebook.com/phil.butland
5 Such as the claim by the AfD fraction in the Berlin parliament that an increase in the number of refugees has brought more criminality into the city https://www.facebook.com/AfDFraktionAGH/photos/pb.250121158707830.-2207520000.1515172199./519768581743085/?type=3&theater
6 For more information, see this article by Kai Hafez https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-12/islam-verstaendnis-medien-berichterstattung-populismus-gefahr. The article starts “Burqas and Bombs: Islam is often presented negatively in the Western press. This incites Islamophobia in the population – and helps right-wing populism.
8 Wallraff was a German investigative journalist who in 1985 wrote a book with this name about his terrifying experiences posing as a Turkish “Gastarbeiter” https://www.dw.com/en/the-lowest-of-the-low-no-more/a-1746801 Conditions for migrant later have not improved much in the intervening three decades.
9 There is still some confusion about what the fuck is happening here. This decision was reported in the Ostsee Zeitung, a regional newspaper. http://www.ostsee-zeitung.de/Mecklenburg/Rostock/Aufstehen-Wagenknecht-Bewegung-will-Rostock-gerechter-machen?fbclid=IwAR2TU6h_Y-I_jpj9R-C0fXW4DJL0UEZmYUVur6OneGsBm8sjs6oRQPSN9z4. The report quotes Anna Ruppert, who appears otherwise to be a good anti-racist.
10 A claim he repeated as recently as 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/06/jean-marie-le-pen-fined-again-dismissing-holocaust-detail
11 Rob Witte “Racist Violence and the State. A comparative analysis of Britain, France and the Netherlands”, page 85
12 Wagenknecht’s reluctance to support the anti-racist #Unteilbar demonstration, for example, directly contravened the party’s decision to support and mobilise for the demo, creating resentment inside the party https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article183457544/Streit-ueber-Fraktionschefin-In-der-Linken-werden-Rufe-nach-Wagenknechts-Ruecktritt-laut.html.
13 Indeed, Aufstehen’s own statement introducing itself regrets that “The parties of the left-liberal spectrum – the SPD, the Greens and the Left – have not been able to forge a reliable alliance with each other in the last decade ” http://multipolar-world-against-war.org/2018/11/05/positions-of-aufstehen-media-reports/
14 This analogy was particularly favoured by Palestinian socialist Tony Cliff. See, for example https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1987/09/oppressed.html