For the SPD to Learn From Labour, It Has to Grasp What Kind of World We’re In

by Paul Mason

15 February 2018


An earlier version of this article appeared in Der Freitag on 8 February 2017. The English version has been updated to reflect developments inside the German Social Democratic party (SPD).

We’ve seen this dance before. We know how the choreography is supposed to work. Faced with the rise of right-wing nationalist politics among a section of the working class, the left at first denies it is happening. Then, when panic sets in, the left forms an alliance with the liberal and conservative centre in defence of the status quo – allowing the radical right to pose as the only authentic opposition.

Then, once the right-wing ‘revolution’ turns out to benefit mainly business and the middle class, a section of mainstream conservatives tries to adopt its rhetoric. The centre-right parties either split, or move in their entirety towards a softened form of xenophobia, social conservatism, immigration controls and heavy-handed law enforcement.

With minor variations, that’s the dance that happened in Britain over Brexit, America with Donald Trump, Austria with Sebastian Kurz – and is choreographed to happen in Germany, once the new grand coalition (GroKo) is formed.

Since leader Martin Schulz’s U-turn over coalition talks, and the rise of the NoGroKo movement inside the SPD, there has been increased contact at the membership level between the German and British social democrats. With Schulz’s resignation, and the battle for the leadership between Andrea Nahles and Simone Lange, the question “what can we learn from Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum?” will be asked even more urgently.

It’s a good question, because Corbyn’s Labour party, having lost ground massively to right-wing nationalist Ukip between 2014 and 2016, regained ground substantially in the June 2017 general election. It did so by announcing a clear, radical and unmistakable policy of fiscal expansion: taxing the rich to pay for jobs, services, investment and free university education for all. And by refusing to overturn the Brexit vote.

But “copy Corbyn’s manifesto” is not the advice I am giving to the German left. A more strategic remedy is suggested by a passage from George Orwell’s war diary. In 1940, as the British elite made one blunder after another, the poet Stephen Spender asked Orwell:

“Don’t you feel that any time during the past ten years you have been able to foretell events better than, say, the Cabinet?”

Orwell agreed, saying it was not about any power to see the future but “in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in”. In a period where the right is on the rise, and the legitimacy of the system called into question, knowing that crises are going to happen – and understanding their likely form – is one of the most powerful political instincts you can develop.

The German left’s basic problem is it does not possess that instinct.

Let us assemble salient facts. The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) lost more than 2m votes to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD): that is their problem – and a long-term problem for democracy – but not one the left can remedy.

The left’s problem is, first of all, the 1m votes the SPD and Die Linke (the Left) together lost to the AfD, and then the half-million the SPD lost to the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP). The first has to be interpreted not just as a vote against migration but against change itself: “no more change” was the demand SPD campaigners from Thuringia reported meeting on the doorstep from those switching to the AfD. The losses to the FDP only makes sense if we understand the economic nationalist impulse that runs through both the liberal and the far-right vote. Both want essentially what Trump and the Brexiteers want: a national form of neoliberalism to replace the globalist one that is failing.

Nobody has yet campaigned on the slogan ‘Germany First’, mirroring Trump, but it is the sentiment that links the FDP’s demands for greater fiscal austerity to the AfD’s outright nationalism.

The next problem is the accelerator effect of Trump’s movement in America. Trump’s ideological machine, and the Russian intelligence services who act as a force-multiplier for it, operate globally: no longer is any centrist party merely up against a domestic political polarisation problem. The struggle you are part of is global.

Finally there is the Kurz effect, which has created a clear political project inside the CDU/CSU: cauterise losses to the far right by copying their politics, minus the crazy obsessions and the street parades. This is the meaning of Alexander Dobrindt’s call for a “bourgeois revolution” in Germany and a rollback of 1968. Key junior ministers inside the CDU/CSU, and sections of the German press, would like to use the failure of GroKo talks to depose Angela Merkel and orientate German conservatism towards further austerity, further deregulation, and away from social justice.

These developments are all the more alarming because they are taking place during a period of economic growth, during which Germany has gamed the Euro system to create competitive advantage for itself and disadvantage for countries on the periphery of Europe. If 12% of Germans want to resurrect the language of national destiny and the abendland – a German word for the West laden with nostalgia – while still more want to intensify the German-imposed stagnation of southern Europe, then the sickness cannot be primarily economic.

In the search for a left strategy there is one clear lesson to learn from Britain and the USA. The neoliberal bourgeoisie no longer acts according to the rules of classical Marxism. The CEOs of the DAX 30 companies will not suddenly arrive like Batman to save centrist politics. The economic elite is, after all, the client of the state – always dependent on handouts, outsourcing, deregulation and implicit subsidies. Both Trump and Brexit show: the corporate elite will take what it they are given – and they usually learn to like it.

So the German left must outline a new long-term strategy.

The first question is: what does it mean to be progressive in 21st century Germany? At a micro-level this is answered every day by the altruistic actions of young people and trade unionists: to do volunteer work with migrants and refugees; to attend democratic political and cultural events; to cycle and to recycle; to uphold the rights of women, ethnic minorities and gay people. To confront unflinchingly the memory of the Holocaust. To trace, as the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács once did, the through-line of nationalist irrationalism which emerged from Nietzsche to Spengler to Rosenberg, and to resist its re-emergence in German thought.

Then you need to ask: can German capitalism still accommodate a young, progressive globalist population – or has it declared war on that lifestyle, in the form of Dobrindt’s rhetorical war on the trendy Berlin quarter called Prenzlauerberg? (His slogan “Germany is not Prenzlauerberg” translates like “Britain is not Islington”). The more the answer is in doubt, the more the strategic challenge for the German left becomes to organise, give voice to and represent the progressive, young, urban salariat.

This may seem perverse, when the whole left is obsessing about how to regain the trust of the small-town manual working class, but the sequence followed by both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders was to understand in whose name we are designing tactics and strategy.

The Labour party in Britain now has 550,000 members: with more than 100,000 of them in London and heavily drawn from the ABC1 professional classes. Momentum, the pro-Corbyn organising group within the party, with its 35,000 members, is made up of alliance of young urban networked leftists plus the survivors of the anti-fascist and anti-globalist left from the 1980s; this latter group, if they were in Germany, would probably be in Die Linke.

Labour, then, is the party of the new workforce, which understands that its main task is to develop language to talk to the old workforce, and to make compromises of policy and tactics in order to rebuild an alliance with that old workforce.

Once they understood who they were, and what they wanted, these social forces were able to design a strategy to confront the challenge of the radical right in working class communities and, up to now, defeat it.

They did so by understanding that racism does not unite a working class community: it divides it. In my hometown, Leigh, ex-miners who were my schoolfriends 40 years ago spend their evenings in strong verbal arguments with racists and xenophobes of Ukip – often other ex-miners – across the tables of pubs and working men’s clubs. They do not want Labour to give one inch to the arguments of the right-wing workers on the other side.

What they wanted – and what they got in June 2017 – was a clear promise that the economic pain would end. Labour did not say clearly that “your children will go to university for free and Amazon, Facebook and Google will pay for it” – but that was understood.

I campaigned in several working class constituencies where Ukip was strong. In all of them I heard the same anecdote from local Labour activists: white, male, socially-influential working class Ukip supporters were switching back to Labour on the basis of the manifesto alone – in one case so strongly that he demanded Labour posters for his window.

“All we wanted to know was that Labour stood beside us, and was on our side” was the summary of their response. Labour’s 2017 manifesto not only turned a 24% poll rating into a 41% actual result, but massively mobilised young voters – boosting the turnout of under 24 year olds by 16 percentage points.

In short, Labour advanced because it understood, as Orwell did, the kind of world we are living in. It is one where appeasing working class racism does not work; where providing a strong alternative narrative of hope has a chance of working.

To apply that in Germany today means, first, trying to understand what is rational about the swing to the right among working class and lower-middle class voters. In a country that will not borrow, will not increase taxes and will not spend, every refugee becomes part of a literally zero sum game – as symbolised by the Schwarze Null (zero deficit policy) – in which their keenest rivals are Germans living in towns that have been left behind.

Like America, and some parts of Britain, there are parts of Germany that have had so little investment that they look like a museum of the 20th century. Labour’s offer to arrive in such places with large amounts of money was well understood: not by all but by enough people to change the conversation. It allowed people like my old schoolfriends to go into their local pubs and remind the xenophobes that “you can’t eat racism”.

The tragedy of German centrism is that it has always denied the reality of the Eurozone: it is a game rigged in favour of German prosperity and southern European decline. Instead it has to pretend that the Eurozone is an unexploded bomb of inflation, always primed to go off if Germany were to permit the entire continent to enjoy German levels of employment and prosperity.

In the next phase, either France and Germany lead the Eurozone jointly towards consolidation, using fiscal and monetary expansion to remedy a decade of stagnation, or the project will fail. To people who want to know their country’s ‘destiny’: that is it – to build a United Europe, possibly with fewer countries.

The alternative – to construct an alliance of petty nationalisms with the conservatives and racists ruling in Hungary, Poland and Austria – would be just as self-defeating as Brexit for the British. Given the elites of these countries are increasingly aligned towards Kremlin foreign policy, it would also be geopolitically dangerous.

I am not dogmatically anti-GroKo. If Schulz could have secured a progressive alliance in favour of fiscal expansion and investment, sidelining Dobrindt’s wing of the CSU – it might be worth leaving the AfD as the official opposition in the Bundestag for a few years.

But only an avalanche of money, infrastructure and new high-paid jobs is going to bury the far-right fantasy. And the GroKo talks did not deliver enough. On top of this, the ridiculous implosion of the SPD’s old leadership over the question of who gets which ministry, and its further slide in the polls, will strengthen the argument inside the SPD that “now is not the time for elections”.

But now is also a bad time for political suicide – and it would be suicide for the SPD to allow itself once again to be Merkel’s hostage on the basis of the coalition agreement as written.

If, as I hope, the SPD membership defeats the GroKo plan, then the left parties must go into opposition and form a united front to defend the working class, migrants, women and the poor against the growing threat from the far-right.

With the Green party now led by centrists, there would be an opportunity for the left membership of the SPD, the left inside the Greens and Die Linke to form a sammelbewegung – a rough alliance. But to make this happen, elements within Die Linke have to stop trying to appeal to working class conservatism and instead fight it.

One argument inside the SPD is that they go into government for two years and re-arm while in office, breaking the coalition after that. Once again, it is a line that proceeds from the assumption that everything will stay the same. But my assumption is that it will not.

Better to spend two years in opposition and fight for a new political orientation, leadership and economic programme. It only took two years for Labour to be transformed from a failing and confused centrist technocratic party into a rearmed mass party that is effectively a sammelbewegung of social democrats, left-wing greens and the radical left.

But – to return to Orwell’s phrase – the key is to understand what kind of world we are living in. It is a world in which the old tactics produce the opposite result to what’s intended.

If the SPD ties itself to four more years of Merkel-led austerity and drift – with no clear economic and social answer to the challenge of migration – then there are plenty of examples of what happens next: from Italy to the Netherlands great social democratic parties are now competing at the same level as left populists and former communist parties. The choice, thankfully, is not yet made.

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