A leftwing book presentation in Leipzig was attacked by ‘antifa’ activists earlier this month. I spoke to the main speaker at the meeting, Susann Witt-Stahl
As long-standing Weekly Worker readers will remember, the ‘anti-Germans’ represent something like the historical low point in the long and overwhelmingly sorry saga of anti-fascism.1Initially formed from a number of scurrilous sects that grew out of the German radical left, the pro-imperialist ‘anti-Germans’ endeavour to “deny the German left the right to exist”, as one of their more striking slogans reads. Whether it is anti-war protests or social struggles, virtually any resistance against the operations of the bourgeoisie faces allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ from a movement whose understanding of fascism and ‘totalitarianism’ owes more to Hayek’s Road to serfdom than it does to Marxist analysis.
Not infrequently, German lefts assert that the ‘anti-Germans’ are largely a phenomenon of the past, and that continuing to speak about them is anachronistic. While it is true that spectacular appearances of self-identified ‘anti-Germans’ as a distinct group have become rarer, it is also the case that much of their ideology has been absorbed by the broader left. It is now good form, for instance, to declare one’s full support for Israel – whether as a matter of duty, cowardice, or conviction – just as elemental manifestations of class struggle are deemed prefigurative of a second Shoah. More broadly, the development represents the emergence of an eviscerated ‘left’ that has made its peace with the basic tenets of neoliberalism. The ‘anti-German’ avant-garde having served its purpose, the term is increasingly abandoned.
To counter these developments, editors Susann Witt-Stahl and Michael Sommer published a collection of essays on contemporary anti-fascism, Antifa heißt Luftangriff (‘Antifa means air raid’ – a reference to an ‘anti-German’ slogan).2 The central piece in this author’s opinion is Sommer’s ‘Falsch aber wirkungsvoll’ (‘Wrong but effective’), which systematically deconstructs and refutes the claims made by Moishe Postone in his seminal essay, Anti-Semitism and National Socialism – a text that has greatly influenced contemporary German ‘anti-fascism’.3 Contrasting Postone’s misapprehension of concepts such as ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ with Marx’s use of these terms, Sommer arrives at the conclusion that Postone – not to mention his epigones – operate on the basis of remarkably free chains of association.
Naturally, not everybody is happy about the publication of the book. I interviewed one of the editors, Susann Witt-Stahl, whose presentation at a Leipzig book fair fringe event on March 13 was invaded by a mob of ‘anti-German antifa’.
What happened last Friday at Leipzig University?
My presentation of the book, Antifa heißt Luftangriff, was one of two critical events organised by the AK Nahost4 in opposition to the Leipzig book fair, where the Israeli embassy organised a massive propaganda show in cooperation with the Bertelsmann and Springer mass media corporations. The first event, which featured Die Linke MP Annette Groth – one of the few remaining party members critical of Israel’s occupation policies – had already been broken up by ‘antifa’ activists on the previous day.
In the days leading up to my talk, there were calls on the internet and independent radio stations from ‘anti-German antifa’ for activists to show up “with beer and in a loutish mood” in order to stop the event in its tracks. On the day, about 30 ‘antifa’ activists gathered in front of the building. The organisers approached them and suggested that they were quite free to participate in the debate after my presentation and criticise my theses. But the moment they were in the room, they were preoccupied with ‘creating atmosphere’: ie, swilling their beer and shouting insults.
I tried to rise above the provocations, but it was impossible for me to utter even a sentence without these guys shouting “Anti-Semite!”, “Free Gaza from Hamas!” and so on. They unfurled Israeli flags, and when I asked them where their Nato flags were, they turned even more aggressive. When it dawned on them that they would not stop me from talking, they directed their provocations chiefly at a group of some 10 Arabs in the room. Eventually, they got up and made what looked like an attempt to invade the stage, but some of the audience – mainly the Arabs – blocked their way. And then a huge fight broke out.
Was anybody seriously hurt?
I didn’t see any injuries, but the ‘antifa’ were eventually pushed out of the room. Later on, the police showed up. The ‘antifa’ had called them, claiming they had been injured by the Arabs. What is more, the ‘antifa’- the real aggressors – were going to press charges. Later, it turned out that one of the persons they reported is a Syrian refugee whose residency status in Germany is not secure.
Were the ‘antifa’ up for a physical confrontation from the outset?
They operated in a manner quite typical of them. A large group shows up, picks out individuals and tries to provoke a fight. They might insult somebody, mock them or spit at them, hoping that this way something will happen.
How often do they smash up meetings?
‘Smash up meetings’ is an overstatement. In 2013 in Halle, there was a serious incident where they stormed an anti-war meeting like a raiding squad and smashed everything in sight. But normally, they proceed as I have just described – they provoke individuals into fights. I was not under the impression that they wanted to beat me up in this instance, but they definitely seemed keen to involve the Arabs in a scuffle.
As for the frequency, one does have to take into account that they might show up. In the western part of Germany, open attacks are relatively rare – instead, they issue anonymous threats to organisers and venue owners, so as to intimidate them into cancelling events. They also initiate smear campaigns on the internet or in local papers, where they might slander you as a ‘Nazi’ or ‘anti-Semite’. Personally, I can hardly speak in any city any more without such things happening.
In east Germany, they are much stronger at street level and face no opposition. Of course, it does not hurt that they have the backing of the bourgeois press, which will always print their account of events, and the political support of the rightist leadership of the Left Party (Die Linke). The problem is that parts of the Die Linke leadership are interested in settling the question of support for imperialist wars in the affirmative, while facing a largely anti-war supporter base. So these ‘anti-Germans’ objectively serve as their foot soldiers.
Is cooperation with the police a regular feature?
It is indeed – and that includes giving false testimony to the political police and state security. It is not exactly a big secret: you can find ‘anti-German’ articles that call for cooperation with the police. In their view, every means is legitimate in the struggle against ‘anti-Semites’.
Do you think they have read the book they were protesting against?
I am fairly sure none of them have. I am yet to hear one single argument addressing the contents of the book. There are insults and implicit threats concerning our book, but I have not read a single review from their ranks. Last Friday, one of two ‘anti-Germans’ who stayed in the room after the escalation complained that I employed the term ‘fascism’ incorrectly. But when I asked him for the correct definition, he could not say. When I probed further, it became apparent that he was not familiar with any Marxist theories of fascism. Not one author, not one book – not anything at all.
We often hear from German lefts that the ‘anti-Germans’ don’t really exist any more, and that people who claim otherwise are paranoid. Sometimes such statements are made by those who might hold some ‘anti-German’ positions, but are aware that ‘anti-Germans’ have a negative image internationally. That said, these ideas now inform the left mainstream in Germany to such a degree that it is hard to speak of a distinct ‘anti-German’ political subculture. Does it still make sense to use that term?
As is evident from our book, we barely use the term ‘anti-Germans’ any more. It is true that ‘anti-German’ groups in the classic sense still exist in east Germany and are relatively strong there: these are the people who blatantly express unconditional solidarity with the USA and Israel, as well as aggressively appeal to a neoconservative agenda. Overall, however, the term is historically outmoded. Why? Precisely because their ideological fragments have been absorbed by the broader left – the extra-parliamentary, pop-cultural and action-orientated left, such as the antifa movement in particular – to the point where they have simply become default left positions.
In the 1980s, the German radical left was generally tied to the notion of anti-imperialism – an anti-imperialism that was often very vulgar and undertheorised rather than progressive or emancipatory, it has to be said. Back in those days, you would never refer to these people as ‘anti-imperialist antifa’, as their anti-imperialism was taken for granted. Today, we have arrived at the opposite situation: ‘anti-German’ positions are so commonplace that it is no longer necessary to qualify lefts as ‘anti-German’.
For instance, it has become normal to look down on working class people and portray them as the natural social base of fascism. People often talk about their Israeli flags and instrumentalisation of anti-Semitism, but the massive anti-working class chauvinism propagated by these people is just as significant. The fact that they speak of an ‘Ummah socialism’ and a conspiracy of Muslims and the left, for instance, has to be viewed in the context of neoliberal agitation against the working class. One thing that all of these ‘left’ groups have in common is that they have completely ceased to criticise German foreign policy – if anything, it is not bellicose enough for their liking.
Finally, a lot of the original ‘anti-Germans’ have joined the establishment. Many of their leading lights work for the Springer mass-media corporation and for prime-time state television programmes.
But what about Phase 2, for instance – a sort of post-antifa group informed by poststructuralism, as well as fragments of ‘anti-German’ ideology? Do these people endorse action such as last Friday’s?
I don’t think Phase 2 will publish any official statement with regards to Friday’s incident, as they focus on ‘analysis’ rather than agitation – though I can imagine that a majority of this group will at least silently approve of such actions. But one must realise that considerable parts of the antifa movement have become so petty bourgeois that they just have to exercise restraint when it comes to violence and making a ruckus. These are not career-friendly activities, and after all, the political tide might turn – you never know.
Those who set the ideological agenda are in the academia – one of their professors, formerly of the hard-core ‘anti-German’ magazine Bahamas, works with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, for instance, where he massively agitates for the criminalisation of Muslims. Obviously, you cannot do this kind of work while at the same time calling for riots. Others occupy good posts in foundations such as the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, which is close to Die Linke, or the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, which is associated with the Green Party. Yet others are gaining a foothold in the trade union apparatus, where they argue that strikes are a manifestation of ‘personalised anti-capitalism’ and therefore structurally anti-Semitic.
Of course, all of this is a structural process rather than one of infiltration. In the late 90s, the Social Democratic and Green coalition government went for a two-tier approach. On the one hand, it sent the German army into its first aggressive war since World War II and, on the other, it set up an infrastructure of official anti-fascism. This so-called ‘state antifa’ bought up a lot of leftists, who then continued their work in complete dependence on the state and were thus neutralised. The result is what we see today. So-called ‘initiatives against anti-Semitism’ – such as those run by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation – are really initiatives against any remaining leftwing resistance to Nato imperialism.
Some argue that ‘solidarity with Israel’, for instance, has simply become a consensus on the German left, and some people who might sheepishly subscribe to that slogan are otherwise good Marxists.
Well, of course they are not Marxists. They have absolutely nothing to do with the theories expounded in the Marx-Engels works – aside from having picked up some concepts from these tomes, completely deformed their meaning and used them as means to an end. What do hatred for the working class and denunciations of the labour movement have to do with Marxism? It is impossible to reconcile them with Marxist theory and practice. All we hear about is Israel, yet the extreme class chauvinism that informs these people is barely ever reflected upon.
With regard to ideological superstructure, the neoliberalisation of German society, including its left, proceeds in the opposite direction to the developments at the base: at the economic level, the normal process of deregulation, privatisation and massive welfare cuts facilitates a drastic redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. At the superstructural level of ideology, blame for Germany’s past is redistributed from the top to the bottom. The left increasingly holds the working class responsible for fascism, while absolving the capitalist class, which it argues was subject to factual constraints and could not but go along with it all. The nadir of all this has got to be the assertion made by some ‘anti-Germans’ that Nazi Germany was a ‘classless society’ which victimised the capitalists.
It is perfidious to claim that these people are good Marxists aside from the Israel question. They are essentially neoliberals who draw on left terminology and adopt leftwing culture, even if individual actors are not conscious of the agenda behind this project. As Marx wrote with regards to ideology, “They don’t know it, but they are doing it”.
But there are many well-meaning, naive antifa kids who adopt these ideas by default. Would it not be more productive to talk to them rather than dismiss them? And what is the left in Germany doing to counter this phenomenon?
What remains of the German left is rather hapless. It has to be said that theoretical work was largely put on hold during the 1980s, as the militant left focused almost exclusively on defensive struggles. That is understandable, but unfortunately we have to live with the results now. Secondly, the cuts have taken their toll: many lefts are in a precarious position and can no longer educate themselves or continue their work in the same way.
However, it is also true that the left seriously failed to engage with anti-Semitism and anti-fascism discourses. Most people failed to read important texts, such as Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of enlightenmnent (1947) or Moshe Zuckermann’s Zweierlei Holocaust (Two kinds of holocaust, 1998). Consequently, they do not have a sound grasp of contemporary developments and are easy prey. There is no organised resistance against these processes, as the bulk of the left prefers to close its eyes and pretend that the problem does not exist. More recently, though, there has been a bit of an awakening, as well as dismay. Older lefts are writing to me asking, ‘How can it be that young Die Linke members spit in my face and call me an anti-Semite just because I’m a communist – what’s going on?’
Our book, Antifa heißt Luftangriff, is a reaction to the haplessness of the left in dealing with this development. It is an attempt to explain the problem, analyse its origins and open up a debate – but it is also an attempt to mobilise and reorganise those forces that oppose it. In my experience, it has been almost impossible even to talk to the young antifa kids, since they have been fanaticised and really do see those on the left who have clear anti-war positions as anti-Semites who must be stopped.
Some refer to the German left as simply a mirror image of the British left’s ‘idiot anti-imperialism’ and ‘just as bad’. You mentioned the uncritical anti-imperialism of the 1980s German left. Has the latter not been crucially responsible for the rise of the ‘anti-Germans’?
I do not agree that it was crucially responsible. It is true that it made things easier for the ‘anti-Germans’ because the anti-imperialists had very little with which to counter them. Neither did they make a determined stand against them, nor could they respond with progressive, emancipatory discourses or up-to-date analyses. It also speaks for itself that many former anti-imps are in the ‘anti-German’ camp today.
However, I think it is mistaken to try to establish a symmetry between the two. For all its errors, the vulgar anti-imperialism of the 1980s was still identifiably leftwing. The ‘anti-German’ ideology comes from the right. More crucially, it is bourgeois, in that it represents an adaptation to transatlantic neoliberalism and the aggressive expansionism of the US and EU. The fact that the more self-aware ‘anti-Germans’ saw their historic role as representing the ‘wrecking ball of the left’ made them fundamentally different to anti-imperialists who may not have sufficiently fenced off some reactionary ideological fragments.
Then again, there is not that much left for them to wreck. Would it not be more apt to describe them a symptom of decomposition rather than wreckers?
Speaking of the left as an organised force, things really do look bleak in Germany. Principled organisations and individuals still exist, but their number is small. Unfortunately, many of those who possess the know-how to resist such attacks – not least because they have some historical experience of such crises – are simply too old and have withdrawn from the left. On the other hand, there is very little in terms of critical young talent. The effects of social welfare and education cuts are very noticeable, as is the increased commercialisation of academia, which I don’t think is something that I need to explain to you Brits. Of course, the ruling class always crucially influenced study programmes, but today they dictate them – there is barely a line of distinction between science, education and enterprise any more, and that does make a difference. I would say that neoliberalism has largely achieved its objectives.
Hard-core ‘anti-Germans’ have some strongholds in west Germany – such as the Rote Flora centre in Hamburg – but in the east there seems to be very little apart from the ‘anti-German antifa’. How do you explain their dominance there?
Well, the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ certainly has something to do with it. In the German Democratic Republic, there were no left organisations outside official state structures. Today’s ‘antifa’ activists, like those that paid us a visit on Friday, grew up in a political wasteland. The anti-fascist and anti-imperialist organisations of the state were smashed and criminalised, and there was a massive wave of anti-communism. Every week dozens of TV programmes tell you that the GDR was as terrible as the Third Reich, and that has an effect.
Furthermore, neo-Nazi organisations have been very strong in east Germany from 1990 onwards, so leftwing organisations never really got back on their feet again. Against this background, all reactionary tendencies blossomed, as there was nobody left to oppose them. No radical left, no traditional anti-fascist groups, nothing – with the demise of the GDR, everything that existed was gone.
As I mentioned earlier, ‘anti-German’ influence in west Germany is more akin to a march through the institutions. That said, it is barely possible to tell a regular rightwing Springer media editor from an ‘anti-German’ one. After a long odyssey through the left, some of these people have finally found their political home. Those who are still active in left organisations continue to be influential – it’s just that their activity takes different forms than is the case in east Germany.
Can anti-fascism be saved, or should the left confine it to the dustbin?
There are many signs that revolutionary anti-fascism is dead and cannot be reanimated. But another question needs answering as soon as possible: was anti-fascism hopeless from the outset? As a defensive measure and expression of desperation, is anti-fascism not a distraction from what Marxists should really be doing: namely fighting for a communist society?
At present, I am uncertain of my position on this question, and I think it will require theoretical debate at a high level – and certainly a lot more reading – in order to arrive at a well-founded conclusion. In any case, the events of March 13 have helped persuade me that we should not postpone this discussion any longer.
4. The AK Nahost campaigns against the occupation of the West Bank and against the blockade of the Gaza Strip:https://aknahost.wordpress.com/.