Left Leading: Interview with Die Linke leader Katja
By Katja Kipping and Emma Dowling
November 9, 2012
With 76 seats out of 622 in parliament, Die Linke is
Germany's fourth largest party. It was founded in
2007 in a merger between the Party of Democratic
Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative for
Labour and Social Justice (WASG). Members of the
PDS were predominantly East German and many
had also been members of the Socialist Unity Party,
the former ruling party of East Germany. WASG,
meanwhile, was predominantly West German and
made up of trade unionists and social movement
activists, as well as social democrats who had left
the German Social Democratic Party.
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 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
Katja Kipping 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
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
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
KK One of the first things that Bernd Riexinger and I
have done is set up a movement council. This is
made up of people who represent the full political
spectrum of the left, from the unions to the radical
left. We haven't invited the press, because we want
to create a space for internal dialogue, both about
the current potential for mobilisation and about the
issues Die Linke should focus on.
It's striking that many of the movement
representatives said that while they thought social
protests were important, they believed in the need
for a real left-wing party in parliament and wanted
us to run a successful election campaign. When Die
Linke entered the Bundestag, we set up a contact
point for social movements.
This is a point of contact where there can be
continuous collaboration and analysis regarding the
cooperation between movements and members of
parliament, as well as the party more generally. And
this is necessary especially because in movements a
lot happens and there are always many shifts and
What shouldn't happen is the dominance or
undermining of social movements by the party. But
equally problematic would be a situation in which
movements think, well, the party has money and
can provide services for the movement.
Collaboration also means that there is engagement;
that means conflict and discussion about politics.
Another model is the open office. The most well
known and successful of these is the linXXnet in
Leipzig. The representatives organise their offices so
that movement initiatives can meet and work out of
there, making more regular exchanges possible.
ED So is there a division of labour between
movement and party?
KK The party is neither the secretary nor the boss of
the movement. There are a number of differences
between party and movement. Movements are much
more cyclical. They rise and they fall, have
successful mobilisations, but also dwindle without
any strong continuous organisation. In contrast, the
party is much more cumbersome. Once in motion, it
moves, but not very fast.
Another difference is of course that parties have
direct access to parliament, meaning the party can
help inscribe demands articulated by movements in
legislation. Parties have a much stronger collective
memory for particular perspectives and traditions
and are also broader in terms of their focus.
ED Occupy, for example, has also been about
developing an altogether different kind of political
process, a different kind of democracy than
parliamentary democracy. This was also something
that was present in the alter-globalisation
movement - an alternative democratic practice.
How does this sit with the representative politics of
KK A particular advantage of social movements is
that they are a kind of laboratory for new forms and
new methods. Parties cannot take these on exactly.
For example, the party could never take up the
consensus decision-making practice that ATTAC
has. This would not make it possible to govern in
any effective way.
Certain practices can be taken up though. For
example, we have adopted the `murmur rounds'
used by ATTAC. During debates as well as
afterwards people can talk to one another, or you
can leave the bigger group and deepen the
conversation with someone, then come back to the
bigger meeting. I've experienced this as very positive
in movements. We are using this at a national
women's conference. Or [there is] the organising
model of trade unions. These are things that we are
trying to use in our election campaign.
ED How do you reach those people who are not
already organised or political?
KK For some years now we've been witnessing
growing dissident forms of resistance, like Blockupy
or in Dresden where people blocked the Nazis. What
we've seen is that many young people come to these
events and get really involved, but afterwards they
don't stick around, neither in the movements nor in
the party. And this is where the internet is both a
curse and a blessing. Before you had to be in a
political organisation in order to find out what was
going on. Today all you need to do is check the
Your question was how to reach those people who
are not into politics. Well, that's exactly the question
that concerns us. One way is to connect what's
happening in the world with people's everyday
experiences. So, when we talk about the crisis, we're
not only talking about the European Central Bank
or trade deficits, we're trying to show the
connections to people's everyday experiences.
A second point is a little more provocative in that we
need a certain degree of left populism, a sense of `us
down here' against `those up there'. We need to give
the crisis a face, and that means not only
complaining about Mrs Merkel, but criticising the
rating agencies that are deciding the fate of whole
countries. Rating agencies have no democratic
legitimacy, they've not been elected by anyone.
ED Does Die Linke still have to address its historical
KK One accusation that people make is that we
haven't engaged with our past, with state socialism.
I think that this is a false accusation. It's no
coincidence that I'm involved with publishing a
magazine called Prague Spring [Prager Frühling]. I
think there's an important tradition that Die Linke
has to connect to, namely socialism with a human
face - a democratic socialism. And of course it's very
clear that today we're talking about democratic
socialism. We don't mean a return to the GDR. On
the contrary, we want to learn from the mistakes of
the GDR, which means getting rid of all secret
ED Some might say that the Pirate Party is replacing
you as the party of protest. What is your relationship
KK I had a meeting with the leader of the Pirate
Party and I can say that it is not yet decided whether
they are going to be a left-wing party or not. Are they
a modern party with smartphones but without any
women? I mean, they are not feminist. If I listen to
the kinds of things their leader has said about taxes
- i.e. a flat equal tax for all - this is simply unjust.
He also thinks that the foreign military deployments
are legitimate. He`s in favour of the debt brake. All
that sounds to me like voting for the Pirates is
supporting FDP [free market liberal] positions.
I think this is a real shame, in particular because
there are many people in the circles of the Pirate
Party who consider themselves to be left-wing. But
obviously a large part of the leadership has decided
on a different course of action. The Pirate Party is
proud to be free of ideology, but I think that this is
the most ideological of any position, because it
obfuscates the existing dominant ideology.
ED What are the challenges for Die Linke in
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
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
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
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
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.
Emma Dowling is a lecturer in sociology at
Middlesex University and has been active in global
justice movements for many years. This interview
took place in August in Berlin, and was translated
from German by Emma
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