German school: Emerging from autonomism

Published in Weekly Worker, 14 November 2013

magda thuery zentrum

It’s class war! For a revolutionary perspective!” screamed the flyer in graffiti-styled letters set against a mural background, promoting a joint event between the Assoziation Dämmerung and our CPGB delegation to Hamburg. As the aesthetic sense suggests, the Assoziation Dämmerung emerged from what is known as Germany’slinke Szene, the subcultural radical left milieu steeped in autonomism, squatting and Black Bloc tactics – in this particular case, the association’s beginnings go back to a militant animal rights group founded as Tierrechtsaktion Nord in the 1980s.

Over time, however, the group morphed into something rather different when an in-depth study of Marx prompted some of its members to move away from German autonomism’s lifestylist trappings and towards a more serious, communist politics. Critical theory is another important reference point in the association’s political identity, yet their engagement with Horkheimer, Adorno and ‘western Marxism’ has not led them, step by step, away from the proletariat and into the arms of Moishe Postone et al, as has been the case with vast sections of the former German new left. In fact, one of the group’s foremost ambitions is to offer a genuinely Marxist critique of ideology.

The setting for our first meeting, however, could not have been less ‘new left’: my public talk on the working class and the class struggle took place in the German Communist Party’s (DKP) Hamburg headquarters, the Magda-Thürey-Zentrum. Formed in 1968 as an ‘official communist’ successor to the banned KPD – and, one may argue, a legalistic alternative to ‘new left’ radicals – the German Communist Party is today internally divided between a moderate wing that seeks alliances with those to its right and a traditional ‘Marxist-Leninist’ fraction. The DKP’s examination of both the Stalin era and ‘really existing socialism’ may have been more thorough than has been the case in some other ‘official communist’ quarters – ie, more than just a theory-free Khrushchev moment – yet the party’s ‘Leninism’ remains distinctly post-1923 in its stubborn clinging to the possibility of socialism in one country. Suffice to say, the DKP does not allow factions, and publicly arguing against the leadership line is not well received.

That said, the Magda-Thürey-Zentrum lived up to its motto of being an “open house”. True, there seems to have occurred a minor misunderstanding during the booking process: somebody mistook us for the DKP’s British sister organisation, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). But, given the alphabet soup that is the British left, who can blame them – and, after all, what is one letter between friends? Fortunately, our hosts took a similar view: an angry phone call from the Morning Star’s CPB complaining about us “Trotskyites” was shrugged off with the succinct comment that “as long as they are not fascists, we have no problem with them speaking here”.


working class

I opened my talk with a quote from Chris Cutrone’s brooding blog entry, ‘Class-consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today’. Cutrone’s troops, the Platypus Affiliated Society, are now deployed in several German cities, though in a ‘left’ landscape made up to a considerable extent of ‘anti-Germans’ and their epigones they find it harder to attract as much negative attention as they do in the UK. I cited Cutrone’s plaintive remarks not merely as a characteristic example of communist swan song, but as symptomatic of a left that has for too long taken a narrow and inadequate view of the proletariat and the reasons why it constitutes the revolutionary subject.

Like Cutrone, much of the left considered phenomena such as “unemployment and impoverishment” – rather than the separation from the means of production – to be the decisive factors that necessitate the modern working class to become capitalism’s active euthanasia team. From the left’s fixation on the industrial proletariat as the crucial layer operating ‘at the point of production’ resulted a fetishisation of the workplace and of trade unions, and a glorification of the worker as a worker – a notion rather at odds with Marxism’s project of overcoming the division of labour. With the gradual disappearance of the classic industrial working class in western societies, disorientated Marxists are left to either perpetuate their increasingly dead-end syndicalism or wave goodbye to the proletariat for good and embark on a quest for alternative ‘emancipatory politics’.

I discussed various definitions and narratives of the working class ranging from Owen Jones’s popular book, Chavs, through to the relatively novel concept of the ‘precariat’, deemed by worried ex-lefts as a ‘new, dangerous class’ that must be re-integrated into bourgeois society lest it take up ‘extremist’ politics. There has hardly been a moment in the history of the proletariat when it has not been precarious, I argued, yet the greater levels of fragmentation since the 1980s do necessitate a rethinking of revolutionary organisation (see also M Macnair Revolutionary strategy London 2008, p29).

What Cutrone terms “class-consciousness” in his observations – namely the trade union consciousness of social democracy’s golden age – may not be at its highest ever level. Yet there exists an arguably more universal proletarian consciousness of not having any control over one’s life, only insufficiently acted upon by various layers of the class by means of spontaneous riots, sporadic protests and momentary occupations. It is, to put it crudely, the consciousness of belonging to the ‘class of the fucked’. The relative lack of sociological homogeneity may be a temporary obstacle – making it all the more necessary to construct a revolutionary party capable of uniting and organising all fragments of our class, employed and unemployed, as a class for itself.

As the bourgeoisie becomes increasingly unable to rule “because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery” and “has to feed him instead of being fed by him”, as Marx and Engels wrote in their – by no means definitive – Communist manifesto, the elemental recognition that there exists a global, systemic problem which permeates passing movements such as Occupy is perhaps not the worst starting point for a new class-consciousness, and certainly no shoddier than the sectional, often nationalist trade union consciousness of old. In order to raise and deepen this consciousness, it is vital that the Marxist left learns to treat spontaneous activity as the nucleus of consciousness, not – as was the case in ‘really existing socialism’ – as its opposite. It should go without saying that the former approach is not at all the same as spontaneism.

No to EU


Following an introduction to our organisation’s history, CPGB comrade Tina Becker discussed in greater detail what such a revolutionary party would entail: high politics rather than lowest-common-denominator slogans, and taking democracy seriously instead of replicating organisational norms that resulted from a permanent state of emergency in 1920s Russia. The ensuing debate among those present – members of the SDAJ (the DKP’s youth organisation), Arbeitermacht (Workers Power), Die Linke andGegenstandpunkt among them – demonstrated a certain level of acceptance of our central ideas, but was prematurely cut short when a comrade enquired about our position on the European Union. After that, all hell broke loose.

The expected characterisation of the EU as a bosses’ club – as opposed to reasonably worker-friendly national governments, of course – was not long in coming. This soon slid into calls for a collective withdrawal of the most downtrodden European states from the EU and into immediate ‘socialist’ isolation: if Greece, Spain and Italy jump into the abyss together, it was implied, then out of the ashes a network of socialist countries may arise. Inexplicably, somebody cited Cuba as a successful instance of socialism in one country. He then – paradoxically – asserted that “the Cubans are now awaiting socialism”. Quite correct, comrade – they have been doing so for almost 55 years.

Whatever our differences, I was impressed with the comparatively high level of debate particularly on the part of the Socialist German Workers Youth (SDAJ), whose comrades – despite their idiosyncratic reading of Lenin – knew their Marx and Engels well, thus challenging us to up the ante instead of just causing us to sigh in despair at Stalinoid commonplaces. My key take-away from this part of the evening is that CPGB comrades need to be equipped to discuss concrete, even meticulous details when it comes to Europe-wide working class unity versus the imperialist ‘unity’ of the EU. Abstract appeals to an ‘alternative vision’ and such are not enough to win this important argument, however correct they may be on the level of internationalist principle.

Halfway to partyism


A second, non-public meeting brought together our hosts, the Assoziation Dämmerung, as well as members of the Left Party (Die Linke), SDAJ, and a number of smaller grouplets and publications such as Steinberg RechercheSchattenblick and the rank-and-file union organisation, Jour Fixe, which aims to unite full-time workers with other sections of our class. It should be said at the outset that with five topics up for discussion – working in reformist and halfway house parties, Europe, imperialism, Marxism and animal liberation, and ‘anti-Germans’ – we took on more than we were able to discuss in depth.

Revealingly, Die Linke member Christin Bernhold was the one participant who painted working in reformist organisations in the most lurid colours. As a recent candidate for the local state parliament elections, she experienced first-hand how Die Linke apparatchiks systematically hassle, impair, censor and withhold resources from unwelcome Marxists in their ranks. Yet despite this, and despite running on an explicitly socialist platform that the likes of the Socialist Workers Party would never advocate in any of their ‘broad’ initiatives, she came close to winning a seat. A much bigger impact, we argued, might be made if Marxists everywhere united around a common programme and operated in coordination – inside and outside reformist outfits. Whether we liked it or not, the majority of advanced workers – however isolated – are rarely found in immaculate political environments these days.

Comrade Christin remained pessimistic: despite Die Linke’s formal acceptance of various platforms and tendencies, she argued, the apparat effectively rendered the organisation no more democratic than parties that do not permit factions. Picking up on this – and no doubt inspired by the relatively open impression the SDAJ/DKP members had made – I enquired whether DKP comrades could imagine their party opening up to other Marxist tendencies in the future: how about a real communist party based on the model that led the Bolsheviks to victory in October 1917? How about open and public debate, factions with full democratic rights, and so on? Alas, this is where I hit the proverbial brick wall. The comrades were not at all in favour of “Trotskyist entryism” into their party – after all, what if the “entryists” become the majority and take to demolishing some of its more indispensable doctrines? That of ‘socialism in one country’, for instance, had already been “proven correct”. One may well wonder just what historical evidence to the contrary the comrades still lack to reconsider their position.

Comrade Susann Witt-Stahl introduced what is perhaps the Assoziation Dämmerung’s most peculiar feature, their continued attachment to ‘animal liberation’. Rather than simply attaching the issue to Marxism, the comrades claim, they have arrived at their positions through a careful reading and development of Marx’s writings on nature. Adorno, they say, was one of the few Marxists who picked up on these signposts when he wrote about the “tormentable body” – and his friend Horkheimer considered human relations as part of a broader ‘solidarity of life’. Central to the Assoziation Dämmerung’s theses is the realisation that not only human society, but all of nature, has a history; therefore, nothing pertaining to the relationship between humans and other species – or indeed, between other species – is fixed.

Given the unusual territory and time restraints, it was perhaps inevitable that our objections were of a rather rudimentary nature. We may have even lived up to comrade Susann’s sardonic characterisation of “otherwise perfectly capable Marxists momentarily stooping to an idealistic neo-Kantian rather than historical materialist level of arguing when it comes to this particular topic”. But for this and other debates, there will be another time – hopefully our inspiring visit will facilitate further exchanges with our German comrades.


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