Whilst infighting within the AfD [Alternative for Germany] is becoming increasingly fierce, its poll ratings have fallen over the last few weeks. Yet Christine Buchholz stresses that this is no cause to relax. In an interview with marx21, she explains what the conflict between the Petry and Höcke factions within the party is really about and what strategy is needed to stop these right-wing hatemongers
Christine Buchholz is a member of the executive committee of The Left Party and is active on behalf of the party in the anti-racist coalition ‘Aufstehen gegen Rassismus’ [Stand up against Racism]. The interview was conducted by Martin Haller for marx21.de
marx21: Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President, hardly a day has gone by without new shocking headlines from the White House. And, just next door in France, a racist hatemonger by the name of Marine Le Pen also looks set to gain record support. Here in Germany, we are faced with the prospect of the AfD gaining double-digit support and entering the Bundestag. Does this shift to the right have an unstoppable momentum?
Christine Buchholz: At the moment, racist demagogues and even fascists are riding on a wave of support in many countries. This is dangerous. Yet we are also seeing a massive counter-movement. The anti-Trump protests in the USA were the biggest since the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, possibly the biggest ever. In London, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against Trump’s planned visit to the UK. And there will also be protests in Germany when Trump comes to Hamburg for the G20 summit.
Many people recognise the threat posed by racist hatemongers. And many want to do something to combat this threat. I would therefore not talk of a shift to the right. What we are actually experiencing is an increasing polarisation of society. The neoliberal consensus of the ruling classes is beginning to crumble and they are no longer able to continue with ‘business as usual’. On the one hand, the situation is highly explosive, since racist violence is increasing and the real danger of a fascist movement is also growing. Yet the dissatisfaction with the status quo also presents opportunities for the Left.
Do you believe that applies to Germany, too?
Yes, in Germany we are experiencing polarisation as well. This includes the rise of the AfD, but also the millions of people who demonstrated their solidarity with refugees and the major counter-movements who were able to stop Pegida from gaining even greater momentum. We now need something similar in the battle against the AfD: a mass movement able to stop the party in its tracks before it becomes as strong as the Front National in France or the FPÖ in Austria and before it has become so well established that any kind of resistance is much more difficult.
Since Björn Höcke’s hatemongering speech in Dresden, the AfD is once again the centre of attention. Numerous media outlets and politicians have made a direct comparison to the rhetoric of the Nazis and have placed Björn Höcke on a par with Hitler and Goebbels. Is the AfD on the path to becoming a Nazi party?
So far, the AfD is not a fascist party, unlike the NPD, for example; yet it does have the potential to develop into one – and it would have a far greater influence than the NPD ever did. The AfD is still a collection of various right-wing currents – from market-fundamentalist neoconservatives like Jörg Meuthen, nationalist right-wing populists like Frauke Petry, to neo-fascists like Björn Höcke. The different currents within the party are united by the belief that the AfD presents a historic opportunity to break out of the niche to which the radical Right has been confined in the past.
So far, the radicalisation of the party is unbroken. Although Höcke’s Nazi speech undoubtedly scared off a few of the AfD’s middle-class right-wing conservative supporters, Frauke Petry will not manage to expel Höcke from the party. During the process of nomination to the party lists in the Länder for the Bundestag elections, Petry’s wing of the party suffered several bitter defeats.
What leads you to the conclusion that Höcke is a fascist, while Petry is not? There is little to distinguish them in terms of racism, nationalism and völkisch ideology.
That’s true. Petry is by no means less racist in her hate speech targeted at refugees and Muslims. She too espouses a völkisch style of nationalism. Yet she aims to shift conservative politics to the right, rather than overthrowing it. She aims to establish a right-wing nationalist force within the party spectrum and, in the medium term, she wants the AfD to serve in government as coalition partner to the CDU/CSU. She is therefore keen to distance herself from Höcke’s Nazi sentiments for tactical reasons.
Höcke and his faction of the party, in contrast, aspire to becoming a ‘movement-style party of fundamental opposition’. They are pursuing a strategy which I would describe as neo-fascist. This faction is bolstered by Alexander Gauland, who stresses his intention of ‘fighting tooth and nail against the political system’.
How would you define a neo-fascist strategy?
Neo-fascists are Nazis in another guise. Since open support for National Socialism would be tantamount to political suicide, fascists have since the Second World War been at pains to burnish their image, by presenting themselves as nationalist-conservatives. Instead of associating themselves directly with Hitler’s fascism, they cite one of the movements which helped develop and pave the way for his ideology, the so-called ‘Conservative Revolution’. This does not make them any less dangerous. The strategy of the Nazi wing of the AfD in its struggle for power is similar to that pursued by the NSDAP party. Parliaments form one element of this strategy, but they are not the central element. So this faction is striving to grow its support base on the streets. Höcke was the first AfD politician to successfully organise street protests. He has described the AfD as the “last peaceful chance for our Fatherland” – a statement which contains an implicit threat of violence if the party fails to gain power through ‘peaceful’ means. Höcke paints a picture of the gradual and deliberate destruction of the ‘nation’ and ‘Volk’ [the people], which can only be halted by a new nationalist movement. This is what distinguishes his approach from the parliamentary strategy being pursued by Petry.
Following Höcke’s speech in Dresden, Petry criticised him sharply in public and is now trying to expel him from the party. And the conflicts are also intensifying in the context of nominations to the party lists for the Bundestag elections. Is the AfD not currently on the path to self-destruction?
No. The AfD will not self-destruct. The sometimes bitter infighting between the different factions has accompanied the AfD’s development from the beginning. Yet it has not so far inflicted lasting damage on the party. The biggest mistake would be to stand by passively while the AfD fuels hatred of Muslims and refugees, along with sexism and homophobia, in an attempt to shift society as a whole to the right.
The failure to take seriously the threat posed by the neo-fascist Right is one of the factors which has contributed to their rise in many European countries. It is not possible to stop parties like the Front National, FPÖ or AfD simply by shrugging them off as especially racist-Conservative, or as populist. This has not worked in Austria or France and neither will it work in Germany.
So how can we stop them?
It is important to exert external pressure on the AfD, thus fuelling its internal contradictions and isolating it from sections of its ‘softer’ periphery. To this end, we must confront the AfD openly and organise broad anti-racist and anti-fascist protests wherever they are appearing in public. I call on everybody to join the demonstrations against the AfD’s national conference on 22 April in Cologne and to protest loudly. The Bundestag election campaign will also present many opportunities for this.
Do we not actually enhance the AfD’s status through open confrontation of this kind? It merely helps them to assume the role of victim.
The AfD is not a victim; it encourages violent right-wing individuals. It we allow it free rein, Muslims, Jews, refugees, immigrants and all who do not fit in with the AfD’s world view will increasingly often suffer harassment and violence. Attacks on anti-fascists, anti-racists, left-wingers and trade unionists are also on the rise.
The AfD’s internal strategy paper ‘Manifest 2017’ indicates how effective the diverse protests and actions against the party are, describing the frustration they have created amongst active party members. In addition, the paper laments the fact that disruptive action “helps create an impression amongst the public, especially among the middle classes and interest groups, that the AfD carries a stigma and that it is better not to be associated with it in public.” The AfD is planning to rely more on the politics of victimhood, but it intends in North Rhine-Westphalia to be more careful than in the past about keeping secret the location of its election campaign events and stands. This is the successful result of broad-based diverse protest.
In its strategy paper, the AfD portrays itself as a ‘breaker of taboos’ and talks of ‘carefully planned provocations’. Are we not falling into their trap if we react to every racist demand and völkisch slogan with outrage?
Failing to counter racist hate speech, historical revisionism and indirect calls for violence provides the AfD with tacit approval. Our problem is not that too many people clearly contradict the AfD, but that the CDU and SPD adopt its demands, thus ultimately providing confirmation that it was right in the first place.
What do you mean?
The Federal Government has pushed through a series of changes to make asylum law more restrictive. Mass deportations are now planned, exactly as called for by the AfD – including to war zones like Afghanistan. Some politicians from the conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU, spearheaded by Horst Seehofer, have begun to compete directly with the AfD in terms of racism towards refugees and Muslims. Racism towards Muslims in particular is seen as socially acceptable far beyond the circle of AfD sympathisers. The Federal Government criticises Trump for the ‘Muslim Ban’, yet is at the same time discussing a ban on burkas. It criticises the wall that Trump intends to build on the Mexican border, yet at the same time concludes pacts with dictators and autocrats to keep refugees out of Europe or let them drown in the Mediterranean.
You advocate greater efforts to forge alliances with those affected by racism. But some migrant or Muslim associations also have pretty conservative ideas, don’t they?
For me it is self-evident that we must show solidarity towards all those under attack by racists. That does not apply solely to those with left-wing or progressive ideas. If we allow ourselves to become divided, we leave the field wide open for right-wing hatemongers.
It is a major step forward if Muslim communities and organisations get involved in protests and alliances against racism; after all, we should be talking to them rather than about them. This is the only way for people who have not experienced racism themselves to begin to understand what it feels like. This strengthens the anti-AfD movement. At the same time, working together to combat racist oppression and promote religious freedom provides an opportunity to curb the influence of reactionary political currents amongst Muslims.
But is it wise to strive for cooperation with pro-deportation parties like the SPD in combatting racism, as the Aufstehen gegen Rassismus alliance is doing?
It is true that the SPD, together with the Greens, is partly to blame for the humanitarian disaster on the EU’s external borders and in the Mediterranean, due to its repressive refugee policy. This policy plays into the hands of the AfD, since it helps to portray refugees and immigrants as a threat. It is also true that the ‘racism of the centre’ made the rise of the AfD possible. The SPD did not manage to expel Thilo Sarrazin, though he lent respectability to the anti-Muslim racism which is now boosting support for the AfD. It is wrong, however, to label the SPD and Greens as racist for this reason and seek to exclude them from the battle against the AfD.
If we restrict ourselves in the battle against the AfD to the circle of people who reject racist structures as a whole, we will remain a select few. Many people who are appalled by the AfD’s open racism and would be willing to take action against it are not against borders and do not reject per se the division of people into ‘citizens’ and ‘foreigners’. Yet, in order to isolate the AfD, it is precisely these people who we must get involved in an anti-racist initiative. We will not achieve this by condemning them as racists. Only by joining forces can we overcome racist attitudes and the structures within society which help to perpetuate them.
But that’s completely contradictory. One the one hand criticising the SPD for this and on the hand other cooperating with it…
No. It would be fatal to exclude the SPD and Greens from the fight against racism, as called for by some radical left-wingers. The usual suspects will not develop the momentum needed to stop the AfD. In mid-February in the mid-sized town of Münster for example, around 10,000 people took to the streets to protest against the AfD and the visit by Petry. The only reason for the size of these protests was that they were underpinned by a broad alliance.
But is there not then a danger of The Left Party being perceived as part of the political mainstream and the AfD as the ‘only true opposition party’, as it claims?
The aim of anti-AfD alliances is to work together to mobilise people. That is one of the central goals of the Aufstehen gegen Rassismus alliance in which The Left Party is also involved. But liberal anti-racism by itself will not stop the AfD. Naturally, it has to be possible to advocate positions which are more radical than the jointly agreed goals. At the anti-AfD demonstration in Berlin on 3 September, some of the speakers expressed fierce criticism of the steps to make asylum law more restrictive. But other speakers expressed different views. If, however, The Left Party were to make joining the alliance conditional on agreeing with its positions, it would exclude people rooted in the trade-union movement, or the SPD or Greens, along with many others.
The goal of alliances is to reach agreement on how and when the AfD can be defeated. Yet it is also vital to make visible a left-wing alternative. The task of The Left Party is to steer the fear and uncertainty which is currently being channelled to the right towards the real threats: capitalism, its crises and the associated social problems and uncertainty. To this end, we must strongly criticise the Federal Government and the neoliberal parties.
How can The Left Party do this?
The Left Party must do two things: it must be an active motor for a mass anti-racist movement which has strong local roots, but can also take effective action nationwide and, at the same time, remain visible as the anti-capitalist protest party rooted in social struggle. In the months to come, this will mean both presenting itself as a left-wing political alternative and being part of broader movements to combat racism and fascism.
The interview was conducted by Martin Haller.