Interview with Die Linke Executive Board Member Claudia Haydt: Understanding Die Linke (Part 1)
Die Linke which translates as “The Left” is Germany’s left/progressive party. It was founded in 2007 incorporating political strands from West Germany (those dissatisfied with the Social Democrats) and East Germany (former members of the then ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany).
Claudia Haydt is a member of the executive board of Germany’s Die Linke (The Left). For the past eight years, she has also been a part of the executive board of the Party of the European Left (composed of various national left parties in the European Parliament). She is a peace researcher and university lecturer. She was part of the Green Party until 1999 when she left in opposition to the Green Party’s participation in the bombing of Yugoslavia.
Can could give us a brief history of Die Linke and its vision for a better Society.
Our political party is unique in the German political context. It is the only party with roots in both East and West Germany. Our roots in eastern Germany come from the Socialist Unity party (SED) and our roots in the west come from mostly former Social Democrats disappointed with the direction of German social democracy following the lead of Great Britain’s New Labor towards neoliberalism. Today, Die Linke celebrates its 11th birthday. So, it’s still a relatively young party. We have quite a curious composition of members: lots of old members from the East and lots of young people coming from both sides of the country. It's a good mixture having political traditions in the party and young activist people.
Our vision has four major axis. The first axis is social justice. One of our major campaigns is affordable housing. Rent for apartments have exploded in Germany. So, many people leave the city looking for cheaper housing but can’t find work there. Gentrification is a huge problem we campaign on and get a lot of support for.
The second axis is around war and peace. We work for peace in Europe and globally. We oppose the way German armed forces are deployed around the world, in particular Afghanistan, Africa, in Mali. The German Armed Forces should at most be for defense not for deployment to wars or occupation of foreign countries. We campaign against these deployments and spending on armaments.
As tensions with Russia grow, we advocate peace talks and disarmament instead of this growing coalition with NATO on one side and Russia on the other. This can have huge consequences. If war broke out, everything would be destroyed. Even if we avoided war temporarily, there is so much money being committed to NATO (at least 2% of GDP). Germany would have to commit 70 billion euro. At 43 billion euros, our military budget is already the biggest in our history. This is going to keep increasing every year towards 70 billion euros. That’s more than what Russia spends (58 billion euros). Historically speaking a highly armed and militarized Germany in the middle of Europe was never a good message for our neighbors. And money going to the military can’t go to other areas. So, we try to go back to the tradition of peaceful foreign policy.
Our third axis is revitalizing our democracy. In Germany, every single party takes donations from enterprises, banks, and other corporate institutions. Die Linke doesn’t take these donations. When we get them, which is seldom, we immediately return them. We only take donations from our members and individuals that want to promote our policies. We don't want corporations having more say than the people. Secondly, we promote direct democracy in the regions and the federal level. We give people a say in subjects important to them, so people have a choice instead of just voting every four years, and politicians doing more or less what they want regardless of people's wishes. For example, in Berlin — with its coalition left government of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Die Linke — people can collect signatures and put a law in a referendum for a vote.
About two years ago, there was a famous vote where people wanted to block big companies from building expensive housing on public places. People collected signatures and campaigned against it. A huge majority voted against these expensive homes. This was turned into a law enabling the government to block similar future projects. Our direct democracy are actual legal constructions in which people can campaign and have a say. Of course, there is a threshold that people have to cross to put it to a vote. I think in Berlin is 100,000 signatures.
The fourth and last axis is a transformation of the economic system in an ecological and in a more just way. We think the way in which capitalism runs now totally destroys people’s way of living, our resources, the air, and water. It’s not something that could give a future for our children and our children's children. So, we need a social ecological transformation. It means of production will have to change and to get away from production which is focused on growth, growth, and growth and go back to something more sustainable. This cannot be done in framework of neoliberalist capitalism. So, we try to have an ecological agenda but also have an agenda which transforms capitalism into something which closer to people and gives them back ownership of the most important things.
To give you an example of a campaign for this axis. One is that public services should not be in private hands. For example, providing water and sanitation in some parts of Germany was privatized. We campaigned to have it in public ownership again. We have not been successful everywhere, but we have been successful in some of the cities. We continue in these campaigns. It is quite complicated because European Union laws advocate privatization of public services so we have to do our campaigns at the community level, at the federal level, and at the European level. Given these obstacles, it’s quite good and remarkable that we managed to succeed in some cases. The good thing is that people see privatization doesn’t provide solutions for good public services.
In addition, we campaign against the big companies providing energy by still using nuclear energy and also coal, especially brown coal which pollutes the air in a big way. In those parts of Germany where the left is in power, we try to move towards local small companies owned by town halls or by cooperatives of people. In those parts where the left isn’t in power, we campaign against these destructive forms of energy. There is currently a huge mobilization in western Germany close to the border of Belgium in Cologne. Tens of thousands of people are campaigning against this form of energy use. Sometimes even hundreds of thousands mobilize around these ecological questions which are of course linked with questions of economy and public ownership.
What is Die Linke’s greatest challenge and the hope for tackling it?
I already mentioned four of the challenges that we face. But surely the major challenge is redistribution of wealth. At the moment, we have a very complicated situation in which 10% of society owns 60% of the wealth. And if you actually look at the richest 1%, they own half of this. So the richest 1% own 30% of the wealth of our society. And they're getting richer every year while the poorer parts of society get poorer every year. So to put it in more understandable or concrete terms, in the beginning of the 1990s, 40% of our people owned and earned more than they do now. 40% of people have been continually getting poorer relative to the rest of society for the past 30 years. If 40% of people realize their children will be even worse off, it doesn't help them feel included in society. So our major aim is to make the rich a little less rich and the poor not so poor. To redistribute wealth is actually one of the biggest challenges. The rich have the same vote, but they have much more influence in policies than poor people.
So advocating for poor people is our major challenge. Our solution is good taxation and enforcing taxation. We actually have quite good tax laws but they’re not enforced. In some regions, tax officers are actually stopped from enforcing taxation on a company. And if they persist on enforcing the law, they are kicked out of their jobs. So we want to have our taxation laws enforced and also have better ones.
Where is the hope?
We have about 10% of the vote in Germany. But, we have a lot of support among young people, especially those voting for the first or second time. In fact, out of all the parties, we have the biggest increase in that group. So, most of the people that constitute the future support us very strongly. People see that our issues and political aims favor the large majority of people. Sooner or later, we will get the support to make the needed changes. Already, politicians in our government have to consider our stance on issues. As I mentioned before we have a minimum wage because of our campaign; some of the worst trade agreements had to be improved as a result of our campaigns. We see that putting political pressure has the potential for change.
How does Die Linke maintain its financial structure and run its party?
To be honest, we get some money from the taxpayers. So, we get the membership fees. I pay 40 euros a month. So, with additional donations, it’s about 500 euros a year. We have people that pay more and those that pay less. It depends on how much you can pay. We have an elaborate system of different levels of payments depending on how much you can pay. However, we don’t enforce it because we are happy that they are members.
Every party in Germany, which gets more than 1% of votes gets reimbursed for election costs such as creating videos and putting up posters. The better the results, the more you receive. This is about 20% of our income.
Members of parliament at the federal and regional levels give part of their income as parliamentarians to the party. It’s a fixed sum that’s about 30% of what they receive. Also, there was a recent increase to their pay. As the only party opposed to the increase, our members of parliament donate this increase to charities like for poor children. Our parliamentarians don't get rich from what they earn. We don't want them to have this incentive. People should enter politics not for money but for change. They can live from what they earn but they could probably earn more if they were managers somewhere. So our sources of income are: donations from parliamentarians, money from elections, and — the biggest source — membership fees.
While the average age of members is 60, you also have two teenage parliamentarians. How do you come up with your youth policy? What kind of policies do you have for young people despite the high average age for people?
As I’ve mentioned before, we have two separate age groups: people in their 80s and 90s — former members of the East Socialist Unified Party — and those between 16 and 30, the second largest group. This age group is growing. Our new members come mostly from this very young age group.
Our strategy is to be active: join in strikes, campaign to support of, let's say, nurses in hospitals which are mostly younger people or for cheaper public transport which affect mostly young people without cars. So the young generation gets to know us. They actually see us as one of the most prominent activists for social justice and ecology.
Actually, it's interesting because our older members seem to be quite healthy. So we have many in their 90s and higher. Though it's difficult for us to get a lower average of members, because we are quite happy that are older people are healthy and live for long, but the average gets distorted picture of what's actually the reality of the party life. Most of the older members are not the life of the party because they no longer join the weekly meetings. They come mostly for the Christmas celebrations but not for the regular work. The regular work is done by people of my generation and younger.