How will Germany’s left face the far-right threat?

September 17, 2018

Axel Fair-Schulz explains the roots of the far right’s rise in Germany — and argues that the concessions to anti-migrant politics made by some left leaders is a grave danger.

THE CITY of Chemnitz in the German state of Saxony made headlines in recent weeks as the site of dueling mobilizations by the far right and by anti-racists.

On September 3, more than 65,000 people attended an anti-racist rock concert, more than doubling the 30,000 anticipated by organizers. The concert followed a frightening right-wing march in late August that numbered at least 6,000, including open Nazis and dwarfing an anti-fascist counterprotest of 1,000.

The concert, which brought out the massive crowd under the slogan “We are the majority,” expressed support for refugees registered a mass protest against the far-right march — during which thugs chased down and otherwise terrorized not only refugees, but anyone who looks, dresses and behaves unlike an ethnic German.

The far-right mobilization in Chemnitz came in response to an August 26 fight that ended with the fatal stabbing of a German-Cuban man and charges against two men, one Iraqi and one Syrian, allegedly responsible for his death. Right-wingers were quick to seize on this tragic case to whip up already simmering racism and ethno-nationalism.

Fascists march through the streets of Chemnitz, Germany
Fascists march through the streets of Chemnitz, Germany (De Havilland | flickr)

Originally, the Chemnitz police announced that they had detained several people of varying nationalities, but on August 28, someone from within the Saxon police illegally leaked the arrest warrant.

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) — Germany’s third-largest political party in the Bundestag after last year’s election — and the Islamophobic PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) made the leak go viral using social media.

NEITHER THE leak nor the rapid spread of the information about the suspects is a surprise. The far right has many sympathizers within the ranks of German police.

One of the most influential and toxic champions of open Islamophobia and racism is Rainer Wendt, the police union head whose inflammatory social media posts normalize the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants, especially from Islamic countries.

On German television, Wendt railed against those who dared to acknowledge that far-right and anti-immigrant sentiments are deeply entrenched in police institutions.

On his Facebook page, Wendt wrote on September 5: “It is egregiously unfair to put the Saxon police under suspicion of being far-right sympathizers,” adding that “whenever a refugee commits a crime,” it is leftists “who immediately say ‘no generalizations,’” and yet they “put the entire Saxon police under general suspicion.”

In a post just one day earlier about another case involving a German girl allegedly murdered by a refugee, Wendt wrote: “Such cultural and religious characteristics cannot be overcome with well-intentioned integration lessons...How blind does one have to be to assume that one can truly transform fundamentally different people?”

Wendt has also attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a bleeding-heart liberal, responsible for Germany being overrun by millions of mainly Muslim newcomers.

Of course, Merkel, the head of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is no friend of immigrants and refugees. But that doesn’t stop the far right and others from attacking her as “too permissive” toward immigrants.

Wolfgang Kubicki, a leader of the libertarian Free Democrats, has stated that the racist backlash in Germany is a direct response to Merkel’s supposed opening of the floodgates to refugees back in 2015. Since then, a movement has coalesced under the slogan “Merkel must go,” and the events in Chemnitz have added fuel to the fire.

While it’s true that Merkel briefly held a more welcoming attitude toward allowing in refugees from war-torn countries, such as Syria, in the summer of 2015, Germany didn’t “open its borders.” Rather, it merely applied European law to the already open borders.

About a million refugees have recently entered Germany, a country of more than 80 million people. Less than 10 percent of the population is non-European in origin. And while Merkel expressed some optimism about integrating newcomers with her now infamous phrase “We can do it!” she also repudiated multiculturalism as a failure.

Merkel cut deals with Turkey and Greece to ensure their cooperation in making it more difficult for refugees to reach Germany. She has also given her support to Islamophobic policies such as banning the burka and to local legal cases about religious symbols in schools.

Plus, as the head of Europe’s most financially powerful state, Merkel is a draconian champion of neoliberalism, giving massive tax breaks to the wealthy while forcing austerity on working people.

LIKE CENTER-right and center-left parties across Europe and beyond, Merkel’s conservative CDU is losing popular support, as the political spectrum polarizes.

In the last federal election in fall 2017, the AfD emerged as the third-largest political party, capturing 12.6 percent of the vote. Created only a few years ago, the party positioned itself to the right of Merkel’s CDU. The AfD’s ideological orientation includes a mix of ethno-nationalism, racism, white identitarianism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, economic nationalism and increasingly open fascist elements.

The AfD also duplicitously incorporates anti-capitalist rhetoric into its slogans by appealing to legitimate anger about the exploitation of German workers, but channeling it in a xenophobic direction — blaming refugees and immigrants for declining living standards.

Merkel’s CDU remains the largest party in Germany, with 32.9 percent of the vote in the last election, but its totals have fallen sharply since 2013, when it received 41.5 percent of the vote.

With 20.5 percent in 2017, the Social Democrats (SPD) has also been experiencing long-term decline, thanks to being increasingly indistinguishable from the conservatives. Both the CDU and the SPD have internalized the neoliberal creed of deregulation, the free market, privatization and austerity. Just 20 years ago, the SPD took twice the share of votes as it did in 2017.

The AfD was not the only beneficiary of the decline of Germany’s two mainstream parties. The libertarian Free Democratic Party — which in 2013 didn’t make it into parliament for the first time since its creation after the Second World War — staged a comeback with 10.7 percent of the vote. The left-wing Die Linke earned 9.2 percent, followed closely by the Greens at 8.9 percent.

With the relatively rapid growth of the AfD, some of Merkel’s fellow conservatives are trying to distance themselves from her by pandering to the far right. Their calculation is that they can use the same xenophobic rhetoric deployed by the AfD to steal its thunder. Wendt, the police union boss who is a prominent member of the CDU, is but one example.

WHAT IS deeply disturbing is that some politicians from Die Linke are employing a similar tactic, also positioning themselves to the right on immigration. Foremost among those within Die Linke who advocate a realignment on the issues of border security and immigration are Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine.

Lafontaine, one of the co-founders and original leaders of Die Linke after its creation in 2007, wrote a lengthy Facebook post and opinion piece in the daily Neues Deutschland. In it, Lafontaine argues that it’s time for Die Linke to do some serious soul-searching, despite its election result of 9.2 percent.

Lafontaine pointed out that Die Linke has lost support among working-class and unemployed voters, a core constituency, with only about 10 percent of blue-collar workers opting for the party versus 21 percent who voted AfD.

While the loss of these votes is concerning, Lafontaine shocked many by claiming that the key to understanding the shift is Die Linke’s welcoming approach toward refugees and asylum seekers, which, he claimed, is pushing away native-born workers. To him, Die Linke is guilty of supporting policies that help immigrants at the expense of working-class and poor Germans.

Lafontaine echoed right-wing rhetoric in asserting that Germany is being flooded with too many immigrants, supposedly threatening the livelihood of Germans in low-wage jobs, subsidized housing and schools in so-called “problem zones.”

As Lafontaine put it, “historical experience in Europe teaches us: when people feel that leftist and Social Democratic parties do not really represent their needs any longer, they will move increasingly towards right-wing parties.”

Wagenknecht has expressed similar sentiments. And she is not only a parliamentary co-chair of Die Linke, but main figure in the new Rise Up coalition, which seeks to unite and focus left-wing forces. The initiative’s vision is to create a left-wing majority that would end up governing Germany, breaking with the neoliberal consensus embraced by the SDP and the Greens.

The terms of this realignment — which is envisioned as uniting not only those who currently see themselves as leftists, but others who thus far have not been politicized — is “realism” about immigration and security issues. Hence, Wagenknecht advocates limiting the number of refugees that Germany should accept and increasing the number of the police.

She does this while being a persistent critic of neoliberalism and militarism, including the complicity of the SDP and Greens with these policies. She frequently points out that Western military and economic policies cause or at least exacerbate the wars, violence and deteriorating economic conditions force people to flee their home countries.

Still, Wagenknecht’s main argument for setting limits to immigration is that Germany has only a finite capacity to absorb newcomers, and that this capacity is now exhausted — the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments is supposedly evidence of this.

THIS IS a shortsighted and dangerous argument for someone of the left to adopt. Germany is one of the richest countries in the world, with plenty of resources to provide decent shelter and social services to people fleeing war-ravaged regions of the world. The only “limit” is whether there is a political priority to distribute and share these resources.

The source of rising anti-immigrant sentiment is not open borders, but the racist and Islamophobic political discourse that vilifies immigrants as a threat.

Lafontaine, Wagenknecht and their allies are wrong when they again echo right-wing rhetoric by attacking Merkel for “opening the borders.” They presume that Die Linke has lost voters to the AfD due to working-class rejection of open borders.

Instead, at the roots of the rise of the AfD is the marginalization of ever larger numbers of people, brought about both by neoliberalism and a political system that seems to offer no alternative — especially now that Die Linke luminaries are seeking to join the club of established parties, cementing the status quo.

The left should be attacking Merkel for giving tax breaks to the wealthy — and making the case that taxing the rich could generate the revenue needed to welcome refugees and improve social services and provide other public goods for German workers.

Die Linke has also entered into governing coalitions with Social Democrats in several states. This hasn’t helped the party boost its reputation, but instead has led to demoralization of former and potential voters as Die Linke becomes identified with a dismal status quo.

What Die Linke really needs is not a right turn on refugee issues, but to be recognizably different from other political parties — based on mobilizations from below, solidarity with working people everywhere and consistent socialist politics.

Fortunately, Wagenknecht and Lafontaine’s approach has been rejected by a majority of the activists within Die Linke. It remains to be seen what will happen with the Rise Up initiative, which very quickly gathered more than 100,000 supporters, including such prominent figures as sociologist Wolfgang Streeck and others.

Within Die Linke, the revolutionary socialist Marx21 group has developed some of the sharpest and most succinct critiques of anti-immigrant positions.

JUST RECENTLY, Marx21 released a short document titled “The Rise Up Project: The Wrong Strategy to Fight the Right.” In nine theses, it outlines what the German left should and should not do in order to more effectively fight the far right, as well as the underlying neoliberalism that feeds it:

1. It is necessary and right to stand up for social justice and peace...but also against racism and right-wing hate.

2. A key problem of the central organizers of Rise Up is juxtaposing the needs of refugees to the interests of the domestic working class.

3. The right won’t be weakened if we accommodate to their positions, but through relentless challenges to their racist and fascist ideology.

4. A left-wing realignment of German society can’t happen in an atmosphere of unchallenged racism and xenophobia.

5. Lafontaine is wrong to accuse socialists who defend the interests of refugees of being blue-eyed “latte macchiato leftists.” We must fight against class exploitation and racial as well as gender oppression at the same time.

6. Rise Up is too focused on the vision of a future “Chancellor Sahra,” since real changes come not by means of different majorities in parliaments, but through mobilizations from below, in streets and workplaces.

7. Leading supporters of Rise Up want to move the left to the right. In doing so, they want to fundamentally alter our party, which means de facto disarming it.

8. Sahra Wagenknecht blames Die Linke’s support for refugees and open borders for the relative decline of support in the former East during the last election. Yet hardly anyone questions how much Die Linke has compromised its own anti-capitalist principles in order to enter governing coalitions with other parties.

9. The purpose of Die Linke is to assist in the self-emancipation of the working class. In order to do this, Die Linke must be fundamentally different from the other parties and break with the exclusive focus on politics as merely electoral politics.

Moving to the right in order to defeat the right is not a new strategy in Germany. Centrist Social Democrats advocated for such policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries with disastrous results.

At the Stuttgart conference of the Second International in 1907, a majority of socialists voted in favor of removing all restrictions on immigration and for full political, social, and economic equality for refugees and immigrants. This position was especially advocated for by revolutionary socialists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht and Lenin.

It was the right position then, and it is the right position now.

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