Emancipatory socialism and Realpolitik

Katja Kipping is a Linkspartei.PDS MP and the party's national vice-chair. She spoke to Tina Becker about the difficult merger process with the WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit)

You addressed the WASG conference on April 29-30 in Ludwigshafen as the official guest speaker from the Linkspartei.PDS (see Weekly Worker May 4). You mentioned that there is opposition within the L.PDS over some of your own councillors in the east German city of Dresden, who have voted to sell off of the entire public housing stock in the city. How was this issue dealt with at the L.PDS conference, which took place on April 29-30 in Halle?

I myself come from Dresden and have to say that this is an extremely problematic situation. The Links-partei.PDS is now seen by the public as the party that sells off public housing. Which is actually not the truth: a meeting of the entire L.PDS membership in Dresden voted by an overwhelming majority against selling off the Wohnungsgesellschaft, the society that runs public housing in the city.

Unfortunately though, nine of our 17 councillors voted with the conservative CDU, which meant that the policy went through with a slim majority. Only three of the nine were actual members of the party, the rest were candidates on our 'open lists'. All of them argued that they are only obliged to follow their conscience.

The question now is, how do we deal with this situation as a party? I am very happy that not a single delegate at our conference voted for a motion that tried to sanction the decision of the nine councillors.

But if you accept that representatives are only obliged to follow their conscience, what do you do if they break party policy?

The L.PDS has spent a long time coming to terms with its undemocratic, centralist past as the SED [Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the former ruling party of the German Democratic Republic]. Out of this discussion emerged the view that pluralism must be the key to our party regime and that we should be very sensitive in practising any form of discipline over members and elected representatives.

In Dresden, though, I fear that pluralism has tipped over into arbitrariness. We can rightly be accused of betraying the electorate. Whoever voted for us did so in the belief that the L.PDS does not carry out privatisations - or at least not privatisations where 100% of a specific public property is sold off.

We argued long and hard with those councillors, but to no avail. In my view, expulsions from the party should only occur as a last resort to deal with emergency situations - as in the case of Andreas Wagner from the WASG [this member of the WASG national executive announced he had decided to work as a full-timer for the neo-fascist Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), claiming "no significant differences between the two party programmes"].

I think the right way to deal with this situation is to make sure that from now on we are more careful when we are choosing our candidates. I would have also welcomed a split of our fraction over this crucial question, but unfortunately there was no majority in the fraction for this.

In Berlin, of course, the L.PDS has also overseen privatisations as part of the 'red-red government' and has cancelled wage agreements for public sector workers. Which is why the majority of WASG comrades in Berlin insist on standing independently from the L.PDS in the September local elections.

I think there are fundamental differences between both L.PDS fractions. That is not to say that I have always been happy over the politics of the Berlin comrades. My first official act as new party vice-chair in 2003 was to launch a successful campaign against the idea of introducing so-called Studienkonten [these 'student accounts' were proposed by Berlin education minister and PDS member Thomas Fliers as an 'alternative' to student fees: they would have forced anyone who either changes course, fails a number of times or remains a student for "too long" to 'buy credits' so that they could carry on studying]. We organised wide-ranging debates on the issue and held a special party conference, where a clear majority voted against student accounts. The Berlin senators agreed to abide by this decision - which I think is a very democratic way to go about it.

In fact, the PDS in Berlin has actually prevented some privatisations - for example, in the case of Vivantes [a publicly owned company that provides about 30% of hospital healthcare in the city]. And, thanks in part to the pressure from the WASG, the L.PDS Berlin has now clearly stated that there will be no more privatisations of public services.

What about reversing previous privatisations?

The previous government privatised the water supply in Berlin and the L.PDS has looked into the possibility of taking the company back into public ownership - but the finances are not available, as Berlin is highly indebted.

The question is, can a working class party participate in government in the current capitalist system without enforcing attacks on the working class - especially when it is the junior partner to a party that is clearly set on enforcing a neoliberal agenda?

In my opinion, the left should pursue three interlinked strategies. Firstly, it must struggle in the workplace and trade unions. Secondly, it should involve itself in the extra-parliamentary and social movements and use parliament as a platform for protests. But I believe that, thirdly, the left has also a duty of Mitgestaltung [helping to shape] in government, even if this happens through small steps. But this must always be linked to the first two areas of struggle.

However, there must be strict rules of engagement when it comes to government participation. I believe that there should be a minimum platform of all the things that the party wants to achieve - but there should also be clearly defined boundaries, which the elected representatives should not cross. It has to be said that a debate over such boundaries did not take place before the L.PDS joined the Berlin government - which was partly due to the fact that the elections were held early and that there was simply no time.

Thanks to Oskar Lafontaine and the WASG, we have now started such a debate and have come to a first definition, which encompasses two points. Firstly, there can be no privatisations of the supply of basic utility services such as water and electricity. The Berlin senate has recently privatised a company that produces expensive china and I have to say that I have no objections to that.

Secondly, under leftwing governments there should be no deterioration in the living conditions of the poor - for example, when it comes to benefits and the like. Personally, I would also like to see an emphasis on the socialisation of power. By that I mean things such as 'citizen budgets', where the people play a major role in deciding how public money is spent. The L.PDS has now introduced this in three Berlin boroughs.

But does the implementation of the Hartz IV laws by L.PDS governments not constitute a "deterioration of the living conditions of the poor"? As I understand it, Berlin has the highest number of unemployed who have been forced into so-called 'one-euro jobs'.

First of all, I want to stress that the representatives of our party in Berlin voted against the implementation of Hartz IV in the Bundesrat [Germany's second chamber, made up of representatives from the 16 federal states]. Secondly, there is no way that a regional government can refuse to implement national laws. However, our ministers in Berlin used their - limited - powers when it came to the implementation of Hartz IV in Berlin. For example, only those unemployed people who actually wanted to have taken up 'one-euro jobs' - nobody was forced into it.

You mentioned that the merger negotiations with the WASG have helped to start a debate over government participation within the L.PDS. What other developments can you see?

I think the WASG will bring more emphasis on trade union struggles into the new party. By having such a strong second pole in the party alongside those who adhere to what could be called Realpolitik, I believe that there will also be room for a strong third pole - those like me who work towards an emancipatory left.

For example, we have recently had an important debate over our stance towards the so-called Kombilohn [the SPD-CDU 'grand coalition' wants to top up the wages of low-paid workers with government credits so that they just surpass the level of unemployment benefit].

L.PDS members involved in various governments have of course opposed this - but have also shown their willingness to enforce the "best possible option" when it comes to the various models being discussed. However, the trade unions are strictly opposed to the plans, as they are bound to undermine collective agreements and lead to a general lowering of wages.

Those of us who see ourselves as emancipatory socialists have taken another view: Of course we are against the introduction of Kombilöhne, but we have also opened up a debate on the question of work more generally and the kind of jobs that are supposed to be subsidised. Often, these jobs are so monotone and demeaning that they should actually be done by machines. For me, the left should not just uncritically call for 'more jobs', but should look deeper at the issues surrounding work and employment.

You talk about 'emancipatory socialists' as if they were a faction within the party.

The media likes to portray the party as having a Realo and a Fundi wing - on the one hand you have those involved in local politics and government, on the other the Fundamentalopposition - for example, the Kommunistische Plattform.

In my opinion, this definition has only helped the leaders of those two wings, which in reality are attracting less and less support in the party - and often there is nothing that distinguishes them anyway. For example, both wings are very sceptical when it comes to 'civil disobedience' of any kind. But I believe that the left sometimes has to throw a spanner in the works of the system.

Myself and two other woman comrades have formulated a discussion paper entitled Emancipatory thoughts on the new left party (www.emanzipatorische-linke.de). We have been very positively surprised about how well we have been received by many members in the party who believe that we need a new political discourse in the joint left party. But at the moment, we are not interested in setting up a faction that you have to formally join.

The current PDS party programme was debated for almost seven years before it was finally voted through in 2002. Will the merger be an opportunity to reopen all these debates? In which areas do you think the programme could be improved?

A programme commission of both the L.PDS and the WASG has recently produced an Eckpunktepapier, which covers a range of political questions. But on a number of points there has not been agreement. Undoubtedly, there will be a wide-ranging debate on these questions, which can prove very useful to cohere the new party. For example, there is disagreement over whether the left should seek a bigger role for the UN or if we should call for the banning of neo-fascist parties.

The latter question has become a major issue in Germany because of an unsuccessful attempt by the German government to ban the NPD. Personally, I am in favour of a radical-democratic approach: we should fight and argue against the Nazis everywhere, but Parteienverbote do not actually solve the problem. Also, history has shown that often it is our own parties that get banned under such legislation.

I could well imagine that we will have a party programme that is not set in stone, but will remain open for debate and amendment. I will also argue for an expression of our differences either in the programme or in documents relating to it. That just seems a more honest approach to me than to brush over our diversity.

One particular bone of contention in the debate over the PDS programme was a paragraph that expresses "acceptance of the market economy" - ie, acceptance of the capitalist system. A lot of PDS members were unhappy with this formulation.

We can definitely see a shift to the left in Germany and a critique of capitalism is certainly on the agenda. I do not know if this shift is the result of the formation of a new left party or the other way around - most likely, these things influence each other.

Particularly in the period after the end the German Democratic Republic it was almost impossible to talk either about capitalism or an alternative to it. People would literally walk away and stop listening to you. But this has changed a lot.

I am, of course, an anti-capitalist. What I do not support, however, are economistic short cuts - some of which can be found in the document Für eine antikapitalistische Linke [which was produced by members of both the WASG and the L.PDS, including members of the Kommunistische Plattform]. I do not agree that the anti-capitalist left should only concentrate on the main contradiction between labour and capital. Often in the past the left has downplayed other forms of oppression - for instance, the oppression of women. I also believe that the left must be at the forefront of defending freedom. Not the freedom of capital to exploit us, of course - but the freedom of the individual to choose how they want to run their own life.

For example, we should naturally fight for control over the means of production. But there are some members in the L.PDS who say that unemployed people should not have the right to refuse any work offered to them. That is not my vision of socialism - and I believe that there will be many in the new left party who share this point of view.

Unfortunately, elements from the social movements and members of the radical left who expressed great interest in joining such a party a year ago, and who could have pushed it in this new direction, have now pulled back to some degree. They are currently standing on the sidelines, while closely observing how we deal with our conflicts.

One reason for this, it seems to me, is the fact that much of the energy in this process has been taken up by the 'Berlin question'. And this certainly has not helped to make the new project look any more attractive. Despite my criticism of the PDS in government, I think the comrades in the WASG Berlin and Mecklenburg Vorpommern are wrong to insist on separate candidates in the September local elections. But the WASG leadership is also wrong to punish them with administrative measures.

There are a number of problems linked to the current struggle in Berlin. In particular, the status of our parliamentary fraction in the Bundestag is being legally challenged, especially by professor Wolfgang Löwer [he claims that the 57 elected MPs represent in fact two separate parties, which - if the parliamentary commission for electoral scrutiny agrees - would mean that the fraction would lose its legal status and, in the worst-case scenario, the 57 could get thrown out of parliament].

We commissioned a number of legal reports on this problem. It boils down to this: the WASG national executive and the party congress needed to show that they have tried "everything in their power" to avoid separate candidates in Berlin and MV - which they now have. Had the WASG conference voted to support separate candidates, then Löwer would have been in a much stronger position.

But clearly there were some problems of democratic procedure. These legal problems have led to a position where some aspects of the negotiations between the two parties could only be publicly discussed in a limited way. For me as a democrat this has been a major headache, but it has been unavoidable.

Also, there are a very small number of people in WASG who are shouldering a lot of responsibility and sometimes I think they simply overreact. And, quite honestly, I believe that as a young party the WASG has yet to establish the kind of democratic procedures that are accepted by all members. In a trade union, decisions are made in a totally different way compared to a political party.

Despite all of these problems, I am confident that the new left party will be formed by the middle of 2007.