Interview with Left Party Leader Oskar Lafontaine: 'We Want to Overthrow Capitalism'

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Left Party Chairman Oskar Lafontaine speaks about his party's chances in the upcoming elections, its alleged drift to the left and why Angela Merkel needs to work through certain aspects of her communist past.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Lafontaine, is Germany embroiled in a class struggle?

Oskar Lafontaine: The US billionaire Warren Buffett answered this question much better than the Left Party ever could. "It's class warfare; my class is winning," he said. To which I would add: The class that has been losing for years is starting to stir again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Greed, avarice, selfishness and irresponsibility of the ruling class," the rich who "want to make even more money out of a lot of money" -- your party's draft platform for the upcoming German national elections sounds like Marx and Engels. Do you really believe that you can appeal to voters with such strong slogans?

Lafontaine: When the German president (Horst Köhler) talks about "monsters" and (Social Democratic Party leader) Franz Müntefering speaks of "locusts" and "losers," then we have actually made it into the center of society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The first draft was much more cautious. In fact, it was so moderate that your comrades from the party's left wing protested and accused it of sounding like a watered-down version of the Social Democrats (SPD). Do the more moderate elements in your party no longer have any say?

Lafontaine: We tightened up the draft. In the process, certain points became clearer. And it's totally normal for different factions of a party to write different documents. That's something I've been familiar with now for over 40 years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have even introduced the term "democratic socialism" into the draft.

Lafontaine: Nobody in our party's executive committee is naive enough to think that we could change our society so much over the next four years that it could rightfully be called democratic socialist. But if the SPD is talking about democratic socialism, one will surely forgive the Left Party for using the term (laughs).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your Left Party colleague Sahra Wagenknecht does not want to fix capitalism; she wants to overthrow it. What do you think?

Lafontaine: The entire Left Party sees it that way. We want to overthrow capitalism.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would that be possible?

Lafontaine: We will change the economic order. That begins with regulating international financial markets. When we first put this subject on the agenda, our critics were still in the process of rolling out the red carpet for financial capitalism. Financial capitalism has failed. We need to democratize the economy. The workforce needs to have a far greater say in their companies than has been the case so far.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What should we expect to happen once you've overthrown capitalism?

Lafontaine: A society in which every person enjoys the highest possible degree of freedom.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you seriously believe that our society does not provide enough freedom?

Lafontaine: We have a society in which people are excluded from work and live on Hartz IV (ed's: Germany reduced monthly welfare payments for the long-term unemployed introduced as part of structural reforms known as Agenda 2010 implemented in 2003 by the then-government, a coalition of the SPD and Green Party) and in which the educational system reinforces social inequalities. Such a society is not really a free society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your candidate lists for the parliamentary elections show a clear trend toward the far left within your party. Carl Wechselberg, your expert on budget issues in the Berlin city government, has accused you of leading the Left Party astray (ed's note: Citing differences of opinion with his party, Wechselberg left the Left Party after this interview was conducted). What is your response?

Lafontaine: The decisions of the Left Party are supported by large majorities. There are always dissenting opinions. In regard to the candidate lists, our reformist forces talk about a leftward shift, while the left wing thinks it sees a shift to the right.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But in North Rhine-Westphalia, a series of candidates from the far left of the party hold prominent places on the list.

Lafontaine: Yes, but on the other hand, there are state party organizations in which the left wing of the party sees all the candidates coming from the right wing of the party.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where?

Lafontaine: I'm convinced that the mixture of the candidates on our list reflects the range of positions within the party.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But your draft platform for the national elections doesn't exactly sound balanced. You want to do a number of things, including abolishing Hartz IV, reintroducing 65 as the retirement age (in 2007, the German government increased the legal age to collect a full pension to 67), pulling the German army out of Afghanistan, introducing a €10 ($13.6) minimum wage and launching an annual public investment program worth €100 billion. With such goals, the Left Party will never be able to enter into a coalition with any other party.

Lafontaine: We have always been very clear about our prerequisites for entering into a coalition. The SPD and the Greens have both significantly changed their positions on Hartz IV. Likewise, on the issues of minimum wage and pensions, those parties have made a certain degree of movement. And when it comes to the issue of withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan, the SPD and the Greens will probably only come to their senses once US President Barack Obama realizes that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won and withdraws his military.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your positions are all extremely firm demands; but politics requires compromises.

Lafontaine: We are also prepared to make compromises, but every party has certain positions that cannot be ceded. The Greens, for example, would never vote for nuclear power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You recently proposed raising the top income tax rate to 80 percent. Do you expect to be taken seriously?

Lafontaine: That is not in our draft manifesto. But, for a long time, I have been calling for that to happen with incomes that are 20 times or more the average salary. Nobody is so productive that he deserves to make more than 20 times the salary of a skilled worker.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the past, your poll results have been better. The anti-capitalist Left Party is stagnating in its approval ratings or losing ground precisely in the middle of the deepest economic crisis since 1929. How do you explain that?

Lafontaine: It's true that the Left Party needs to become stronger, but past experience shows that governments tend to make slight gains in times of crisis. Granted, support for the FDP (ed's note: the business-friendly Free Democratic Party) is still growing, but I would already venture to predict that a Christian Democrats/FDP coalition would not have a majority after the parliamentary elections.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And then?

Lafontaine: Although the (conservative) Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is stagnating in comparison to the last national election and the SPD is losing support, there's a chance we will see a continuation of the grand coalition (ed's note: the current CDU-SPD coalition government). That is exactly what the SPD's leadership sees as their salvation, so they are only pretending to run an election campaign.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You once said that former SPD leader Kurt Beck could become chancellor immediately if he were to push through the minimum wage, restore the previous pension system, abolish Hartz IV and pull the German military out of Afghanistan. Does this offer apply to the SPD's current candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier?

Lafontaine: Of course. Our positions are not connected to individuals but to content. If Mr. Steinmeier were to endorse such positions, he could become chancellor tomorrow.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to continue to measure the Left Party by its attitude toward East Germany's past.

Lafontaine: An interesting psychological case. People tend to accuse other people of their own mistakes. Ms. Merkel needs to deal with her own past in East Germany and that of her own party. She was an FDJ functionary for agitation and propaganda (ed's note: The FDJ was an official youth movement in communist East Germany). As such she belonged to the fighting reserve of the party (ed's note: the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED)).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's at issue here is how one sees East Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Wall. One has the impression that this issue has not been definitively resolved within your party.

Lafontaine: The PDS has, as one of the Left Party's predecessor parties, dealt with the question of its relationship to East Germany at many party conferences and in the papers (ed's note: For an explanation of the PDS and the parties that united to form the Left Party, please click here ). Only the CDU has not done so. It swallowed the assets of two of the SED's satellite parties, and otherwise covers up its past with a cloak of silence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was East Germany a dictatorship in which the rule of law did not apply?

Lafontaine: The GDR was not a state based on the rule of law -- that is a much more precise answer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In a few days, the German president will be elected. Will the SPD's candidate, Gesine Schwan, be able to rely on your vote in a possible second or third round of voting, should the incumbent, Horst Köhler, not achieve an absolute majority in the first round?

Lafontaine: We have yet to make a decision on this issue. We will discuss how to proceed after the first round of voting, should Horst Köhler not already have been confirmed in office.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does that mean that your own candidate, Peter Sodann, would be a good fit for the Left Party?

Lafontaine: A lot of media outlets have written about him in a very disparaging way. We continue to believe that there must be a candidate for the highest political office who castigates Hartz IV and wars that violate international law.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You would like to become governor of Saarland. In a survey conducted in that federal state, the Left Party lost 5 percentage points and is now only supported by 18 percent of the population. Will party leader Lafontaine no longer emerge as the likely election victor?

Lafontaine: And other polls say other things. I'm convinced that we will get 20-plus percent of the vote in Saarland.

Interview conducted by Björn Hengst and Claus Christian Malzahn.

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