Interview: There was no movement situation

The Basisgruppe Antifaschismus Bremen in Germany was allowed to give a very detailed interview to the Communaut project about the status of protests against price increases in Bremen.

When food and energy prices reached historic levels last year, speculation was justified that a wave of price protests could break out no later than the cold season. The (radical) left, however, seemed and still seems largely paralysed. The trade union-based protests in Germany also remained tame and weak as usual. In our search for practical approaches which, in this sad situation, rely on the self-organisation of wage earners as a means of fighting against price increases, independent of parties and trade unions, we came across the Basisgruppe Antifaschismus Bremen (BA), which is active in the “Bremer Bündnis gegen Preiserhöhungen” (Bremen Alliance Against Price Increases). In the late summer of 2022, the BA already reported on the first phase of their organising efforts in an interview with the Radical Left Platform from Vienna. One by no means ‘hot autumn’ and most of the winter later, we thought it was time to ask them for a review.

In the late summer of 2022, your forms of action and structures were still being developed and expanded. What happened since then?

More than half a year has passed since then and we look back on a very intensive and challenging time in which we have learned a lot, but which has also made us feel our own limits. Together as an alliance against price increases, we have founded six regional groups in Bremen, organised a total of seven rallies and demonstrations, and “on the side” organised an almost unimaginable number of events, meetings and information stands. Literally thousands of flyers and posters were distributed and stuck up, a large public was reached via social media and the civil press, and countless conversations were held. We look back on a stormy time with overcrowded and sometimes chaotic meetings, often with much argument, but also on many shared experiences of success. We networked nationwide during this time, were in exchange with other groups and alliances in up to 23 cities. We informed each other about the status of our activities, tried to assess them strategically, shared layout materials and infrastructure nationwide and got to know each other with joint meetings and events. Today, up to 100 people are organised and networked in the Bremen Alliance Against Price Increases.

At that time you formulated the “bet” that “in the autumn we will be strong and anchored enough that both the parties, big trade unions and associations with their show events in the market place will no longer be able to catch us, and that we will already have the street before the right-wingers”. Did the bet work out? And would you rate your practical approach as successful?

We bet that, similar to the nationwide protests against the introduction of Hartz IV in 2004, there would be spontaneous and mass protests. For these protests we wanted to create an offer. Not right-wing or constructively directed at the state and capital, but emancipatory and anti-capitalist. We wanted to try to develop forms and structures of anti-authoritarian self-organisation and self-empowerment together with as many others as possible and be as open, accessible and appealing as possible. We lost that bet. We have never before experienced such popularity for our contents and organisational forms. However, there were and are no spontaneous mass protests, let alone a movement situation in Bremen (so far?) and we have not heard of them from other cities. Nevertheless, we would rate our practical approach as successful. Together with many others, we succeeded within a short time in creating a Bremen-wide organising and practical approach that combined anti-capitalist content with accessible forms. We have created political networks with each other as an alliance and achieved a level of mutual trust that we have not known and do not know in the 15 years of our group’s existence. Even without the perceived collective depression of the pandemic period, this would already have been a success. Here we can only guess at the significance and consequences for the radical left in Bremen in the coming future. We can already say that we are looking forward to it. Even if we lost the bet for the time being, with the approach of the Bremen Alliance Against Price Increases we have developed a tool together that we believe, had there been a movement situation, would have been the right, appropriate response. We take this knowledge and experience with us for the coming struggles.

In the interview you mentioned, you also talked about the social structure of the neighbourhoods where you started your actions. As a result, anti-price-increase organisations have also developed in other neighbourhoods. What difference do the respective social structures of the districts make?

The different social composition, the different class structures of the districts make an enormous difference for the political work there. Already in 2016, we had written in our theses on social struggles: “In general, it is only in the struggles that we learn how capitalist socialisation currently functions concretely and how the contradictions immanent in the system run concretely, by dealing with how these struggles are led and where they occur.” In that sense, we have been able to learn enormously in the last few months and we are certainly still only at the beginning. Of course, neighbourhoods are not homogenous social entities and permanent attachment to a neighbourhood is becoming less and less common. The frequency with which people move, i.e. change their district, has been constantly high for years, depending on how poor people are. Nevertheless, there are clearly recognisable differences between the various districts. As an alliance, one of the first questions we always asked was what informal structures exist in the respective neighbourhoods. Where are the neighbourhood cafés? Which launderette is worth putting up posters in? What structures, whether sports clubs or tea rooms, are there? What languages are spoken in the neighbourhood, what other political actors, whether religious or openly political, already exist there? What experience do they have with political or other social conflicts? In our experience, it is not wise to address, perhaps on moral grounds, first and foremost the people who are most and especially affected. Instead, it makes sense to specifically look for the milieus that both subjectively have something to lose and already have biographical experience with social struggles, whether at work, in the neighbourhood or elsewhere.

The current labour force survey by the Hans Böckler Foundation (Scientific Foundation of the German Trade Union Confederation) shows that women in particular, and especially mothers, are feeling the current strains. Has such a gender difference also been reflected in your practice in any form?

There were attempts to take this into account in the alliance. With the title “Feminist fight against the price increases” there was a corresponding self-organisation approach in the alliance for a while and this year’s call for the demonstration on 8 March of the Bremen Feminist Strike Alliance also reflects this. Beyond that, unfortunately, not so far.

We heard that you had to put up with the accusation that you were pursuing a reformist-social democratic policy with the “Prices Down” campaign. What would you say to that? What do you see as the emancipatory potential of your practice? Or to put it differently: In the last interview you said: “Finding our own role as a communist group in such a broad alliance is above all a process in which we have to examine ourselves again and again to see whether we have not opportunistically lost ourselves in it with our contents, or walled ourselves in politically on the ultra-left. Only the future will show us whether and how we will succeed in this field of tension of fighting for radical reforms as anti-authoritarian communists in a broad, social alliance.” Are we far enough into the future that you can draw an interim conclusion?

Especially in the radical left, there is unfortunately a lot of confusion of terms, the terms “reform”, “reformist” and “revolutionary” being among them. In our understanding, the struggle for reform means the struggle for immediate improvement. Reformism, on the other hand, is the idea that by means of fought-for reforms or reforms carried out by the state, this society can be overcome step by step until it is eventually replaced by another one. We consider this idea not only illusory in several respects, but also authoritarian. It is not directed towards the self-emancipation of people. Unfortunately, it is an illusion to hope that all those who subjectively and objectively have an interest in the maintenance of this patriarchal-capitalist society, whether cops, Nazis or the capitalist class, will calmly watch as we slowly but democratically deprive them of the social conditions for exploitation and oppression. The idea that law and order can do something other than the state of capital does not only presuppose the absence of state critique. It also wants to know nothing of almost 100 years of experience with a social democracy endowed with state power. What unites all reformist fans of the state is the idea that, as representatives, they can change society, the living conditions of the people, they themselves.

The negative mirror image of them are the leftists who abstractly hold up “the revolution” to society. A bit like “Jehovah’s Witnesses of Communism”, they try to place the question of the overall abolition of society in opposition to the struggles for concrete improvements. But by trying to disgrace the struggle against the concrete impositions on the abstract ideas of revolution and liberated society, they play off exploitation and oppression against their social causes. We are not communists for romantic reasons or out of identity, but because we know how limited even the most successful struggle for reform is. Reform and revolution are not opposites, but on the contrary a (dialectical) pair. To oppose revolutionary overcoming to immediate reform is therefore just as authoritarian as social democracy. This kind of “especially” revolutionary leftists only really cares about the people and their living conditions to the extent that they are useful as objects for their revolution. They do not appear as active subjects of their own liberation.

The Bremen Alliance against Price Increases is a broad alliance that tries to lead the struggle against an immediate imposition, the deterioration of living conditions through price increases, on a very general anti-capitalist basis. In our experience, there are many misunderstandings about the word “alliance”. Many leftists automatically think of “alliance” according to their previous experiences. As a union of more or less left organisations. That is not the case here, the alliance is an alliance not of organisations but of people, it is a kind of self-organisation. Along the lines of their own life situations, different people have come together here to resist the price increases. The alliance does not try to act as an alternative political consultancy, it does not appeal to politicians. Politicians and full-time trade union officials are not allowed to speak at the rallies of the alliance. On the other hand, there are intensive debates on content and strategy. Internally and externally, practical solidarity is organised and the social causes of the price increases (themselves) are explained. All this in an appealing, accessible and “non-scene-related” form. Frankly, this is how we think of emancipatory radical left politics at its best.

The fact that we are not a “scenic” alliance does not mean that some people who feel they belong to a subcultural or politically left scene are not also organised in the Alliance Against Price Increases. But it is important to us that we see ourselves in the alliance as people affected by price increases, not as delegates of scene political groups or as a subcultural association.

But of course it didn’t come about on its own. It was and is the result of a contested process. For a while, would-be professional politicians were attracted to the alliance like moths to a flame. Various international and party building organisations and other political groups have tried to missionise or gain influence here. There were also structural reasons why it did not quickly become the umpteenth scene alliance or break up immediately due to obscure conflicts. The development of the alliance into an association of working and regional groups not only prevented the disproportionate influence of political groups and politicians, it also forced them to work constructively in the alliance. So some people quickly lost interest.

That’s why we think that the question of whether the protests against the price increases will still succeed in taking on a movement character is almost secondary. Much more important is what remains of the alliance, of the people in it. We ask ourselves how this organisation can and should function in the future, even in the absence of a movement situation. That is, how we can ensure that the networks and structures that have been developed actually last. Basically, however, we are already looking forward to the future and the common struggles with the structures in the neighbourhoods and other places in the city.

Nothing has changed in the area of tension you mentioned, we believe it is a necessary and therefore probably permanent one. The Bremen Alliance against Price Increases is currently preparing a Bremen-wide day of strategic planning for further common self-understanding, for determining the content of the current situation and for the future strategic action. We consider this day not only immensely important for the further development of the alliance. We also hope to be able to draw a reliable interim conclusion on the state of the radical critique in the protests against the price increases.

Last year’s much-vaunted ‘hot autumn’ failed to materialise. One often hears the assessment that the federal government, with its actions, has managed to take away the greatest concerns of the electorate and, in case of doubt, also of the protesters, and thus to let ‘the pressure out of the kettle’. Do you share this assessment? Doesn’t this overestimate the effectiveness of politics? Or wouldn’t other explanations be conceivable, such as a spreading powerlessness and resignation in the face of the fact that people are largely exposed to the escalating crisis dynamics in isolation? But we had also discussed in the communaut editorial team, for example, that the DGB trade unions (German Trade Union Confederation) and socio-political associations, which were not particularly successful in calling for large-scale demonstrations last autumn, have hardly any mobilisation potential in the class segments that were hit hardest by the price increases, because there is a rift between the civil society protest milieu and the biggest inflation losers. How did you discuss this?

With your question, you have unfortunately almost taken the answer from us, we have also discussed similar things. In conversations with many people on the street, we think we noticed a slow turnaround from around October last year. The anger and indignation about the price increases, which has remained until today, was joined by hope. Unfortunately, not for joint successes against the price increases. We believe that the lack of such successes is also due to the absence of a “lighthouse”, i.e. an outstanding example that would have at least made a single success of collective protest against the price increases visible in an exemplary way, that would have given courage and broken the powerlessness and resignation you mentioned. The hope was therefore directed towards the expected government action: With the energy price flat rate, the heating cost subsidy and other one-off payments, the state does not substantially change the deterioration of living conditions caused by the price increases. But they work in an exemplary way. Because they are not only really useful on a selective basis, but also symbolically demonstrate the state’s ability to act towards its people to at least partially protect them from further impoverishment. The message is as simple as it is convincing: you don’t have to do anything, we’ll take care of you. Under the current balance of power, it is difficult to oppose this kind of cared-for rule. Moreover, we have to admit that we too had somewhat underestimated the ability of the German state to react in this way between corona, crisis and war.

The only good side-effect: the bet has not worked out (so far) for the right-wing either, they have not succeeded in developing mass protests either. In Bremen, the structures of Querdenken and Co. (Anti-Vax movements) have even almost completely dissolved in the meantime. The social-reactionary Sahra Wagenknecht ultras of “Aufstehen” (“left” nationalists) have not even tried to take to the streets here.

On the other hand, if we understand you correctly, we see the question of the connection between the DGB trade unions and social associations and the protests against price increases somewhat differently. All segments of our class are affected by the price increases. Those who are “hardest hit”, because their income situation as low-wage earners or recipients of transfer payments was already terrible, are not the segments from which we expected or expect protests. It is precisely these milieus that now have no resources left to fight, whose social and cultural capital had already been largely used up. In addition, the welfare state intervenes here in part by taking over the heating and running costs incurred by those receiving transfer payments. Strategically, we have never given priority to these milieus, but have tried to target those who subjectively “still” have something to lose and who also show signs of organising in solidarity, mostly informally.

We also see a difference between the “civil society protest milieu” you mentioned and the population groups that can be addressed by the DGB and the social associations. In our experience, the social associations, at least in Bremen, are not able to mobilise anyone. In our observation, this has something to do with the consequences of the neoliberal restructuring of the state at the beginning of the 1990s and the accompanying transformation of civil society into state-financed, literally professionalised “carriers”, into ideological state apparatuses. The mass organisations of the Fordist industrial society have been replaced by highly specialised social workers and lawyers who take on the tasks of the proto-state. But those who only have “clients” instead of “comrades” and “colleagues” can no longer mobilise anyone.

The situation is similar but different in the DGB trade unions. In and around the apparatuses of individual DGB sub-unions, above all ver.di (United Services Union) and IG Metall (Industrial Union Metal), there have been increasing struggles in recent years for a changed, class-struggle orientation of these. Accordingly, this is also where the mobilisation strengths lie, above all in the workplace. However, there is no “political” workers’ movement beyond this, which would be responsive to protests against price increases – let’s not deceive ourselves. The leaders of the DGB are also directly linked to the federal government; there is no protest interest “from the left” without need and pressure. In the combination of this, in the at best half-heartedness of the protest calls of the trade union leaderships, we see the reasons for the weakness of the protest of the DGB trade unions against the price increases. By the way, our perception is that the situation was different at other levels of the trade union hierarchies. From the beginning we were in close contact with trade union youth groups as well as with individual sections of ver.di, for example. Activists from works councils have spoken at our rallies.

Finally, we see a third group in the “civil society protest milieu” you mentioned, which is mainly academic-student-small bourgeois in social composition and politically rather green-left liberal and oriented towards other issues. That this milieu has not joined the protests against price increases so far does not surprise us.

How do you assess the current collective bargaining disputes (public sector, postal service…), as they are also about inflation compensation? Are you trying to intervene?

Beyond superficial observations, we have not been involved in the collective bargaining disputes. However, we do not think much of an “outside” intervention in the struggles of our colleagues. Whether and if so, what potential there is in linking the collective bargaining disputes in Bremen with the Bremen alliance against price increases are questions that we still have to discuss with each other as an alliance.

Even though the dynamics of price increases will slow down a bit this year, they will still be noticeable. How do you assess the potential for social struggles around the price increases for this year (in Bremen)? And what lessons do you draw from your experiences for the discussion about what kind of organisational form a social-revolutionary, anti-authoritarian-communist pole would need in order to play a bigger role in the current situation?

These are questions that, to be honest, we cannot answer right now. Whether there will be spontaneous protests depends on other external circumstances that are difficult for us to foresee at the moment. How will the Russian war against Ukraine and the accompanying economic war develop? What effects will this have on further economic development and the possibilities of the German state to intervene here in a formative way? Are there perhaps new waves of the Corona pandemic with effects on global logistics chains? What about the further development of domestic German politics and the political right? These are all questions whose further development and outcome we can only observe right now. For the time being, we are too weak to be able to act independently as a radical left.

On the other hand, we have seen ourselves confirmed in our organisational form as an anti-authoritarian communist cadre organisation. This and our organisational method of not working along the lines of (annually) planned campaigns, but rather on the apparently main social contradictions at the time and along the lines of “heads, situations and interests”, is what we believe has put us in the fortunate position of being able to act here and at such an early stage.