Thursday, 24 February 2011

Lyttelton Theatre at the National
Plays until April 2011

A play about climate change doesn’t sound like a thrilling subject for the theatre. Theatre can deal easily with grand concepts, but not with abstract ones. Here four of Britain’s brightest young writers - Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne – have been given the task of bringing the clock-ticking issue of global warming home to us in a series of vignettes that are only related in terms of subject matter. A small ensemble of versatile actors plays all the various roles. They achieve this seamlessly and with real verve. This is not theatre in the traditional sense, more like Peter Brook’s anti-Vietnam war drama, ‘US’ - a kind of agit-prop. It raises many of the questions we all encounter, not least the head-in-the-sand behaviour of, ‘I don’t think it will affect me and the science is dubious anyway’. The issues of the sustainability of mass consumption with food being flown into our supermarkets from all over the world; the role played by the big oil and gas companies in frustrating climate control measures; which forms of active protest to adopt - all are explored through the intimate interaction of individuals. The play manages to avoid an over-earnestness and the writers inject plenty of humour to lighten the apocalyptic vision, symbolised by thunderous noise, frenetic strobe lighting and on-stage chaos. I particularly liked the advice given on where to buy a house to be safe from rising sea levels – choose one near Hinckley Point, as the government is bound to do all in its power to stop a nuclear power station being flooded, but not to save Brighton or Bournemouth! I also like the appearance of an incredibly realistic and very hungry polar bear that traumatises a camp of arctic researchers. It is a short, two-hour piece and, despite imaginative and effective direction by Bijan Sheibani and a strong commitment and persuasiveness by the actors, you feel it wouldn’t be able to hold your attention for much longer. It is, though, a very worthwhile dramatic polemic for young people and those still sitting on the fence. The National is to be congratulated on trying to address burning contemporary issues in this way, and judging by the packed auditorium of mainly young people, it is succeeding splendidly.
Marxism Today
By Phil Collins
BFI Gallery
4 Feb- 10 April

Phil Collins, a Turner Prize short listed artist, here looks at the legacy of the German Democratic Republic from the perspective of today in the midst of a capitalist economic meltdown. He has found three former teachers of Marxism-Leninism in the GDR (interestingly all three women) and he interviews them about their past and what the demise of the GDR has meant to them. He has made two short documentaries that run back-to-back at the BFI’s gallery on the South Bank. One film allows one of the women, who has a Ph.D in economics, explain to a class of sceptical students the basis of Marxist economic theory, particularly the idea of surplus value. She is a vivacious and very articulate communicator and gives a highly convincing and graphic demonstration. The other film is made up of interviews with the three ex-teachers, intercut with GDR-made documentary material, as well as shots of the bronze sculpture of Marx being (temporarily) removed from Berlin’s Marx Engels Platz during its renovation. What a welcome blast of fresh air to have here a young artist determined to search for a truth at variance with the mainstream narrative of a Stasi-run state where everyone was oppressed and unhappy. These three women relate how fulfilling their lives were in the GDR and how much they believed in the system. How the GDR’s disappearance was a traumatic shock in their lives, forcing them to retrain and cope with the exigencies of a capitalist system for the first time. One of them relates how the then Chancellor Kohl came to East Germany and offered bananas and Coca Cola to the naively celebrating crowds. ‘That’s why I no longer eat bananas or drink Coca Cola, she says forcefully and with dignity. These films should be seen by anyone who wants to understand that the GDR also had its supporters and why they believed in socialism. It is a highly effective antidote to the Stalinist caricatures that are usually peddled.
It is also beautifully filmed, mostly in close-up with an unusually static camera, and with no intrusive interrogation by the interviewer to interrupt the flow of what the three women have to say. Almost all of it is in German with excellently translated English subtitles, although one of the lecturers gives her interview in very good English.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Ed. Georg Adler, Peter Hudis & Annelies Laschitza
translated by George Shriver
Pubs. Verso

This volume of 230 of her letters was published to commerorate the 40th anniversary of her birth in March 1871, based largely on the German selection, Herzlichst, Ihre Rosa, and published by Dietz Verlag in the GDR in 1989. This is the first volume in English of what is hoped will eventually be her complete works in 14 volumes.
Verso is once again to be congratulated for publishing this collection for the first time in English, in an excellent translation by George Shriver. What is also invaluable is a glossary of personalities mentioned in the letters and very informative footnotes.
Luxemburg has always been a controversial figure on the Left, but was revered in her day and was undoubtedly one of the alltime leading thinkers of the socialist and communist movements.
She famously clashed with Lenin on the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks and was always clear that socialism at the expense of democracy was not a road she was willing to take.
Like all collections of letters not originally intended for a wider readerhsip or publication, much here is concerned with the daily trials and tribulations of friends, comrades and lovers and observations of a purely personal nature. They do, though, give a unique insight into her character, her deep humanity as well as her passionate commitment to the struggle for socialism. Her unsuccessful attempts to reconcile her need for personal love, stability and homely pleasures with the enormous demands of the struggle would be ideal material for a dramatist.
She was often imprisoned by the German authorities who feared her fiery rhetoric and popularity, and included here are some of her prison letters. Despite the harsh conditions and frustration at her incarceration, she always dismisses her own deprivations to enquire about the health and well-being of friends outside and always attempts to cheer them up and reignite their commitment to the cause. She can be severely critical, uncompromisingly militant but also warm and compassionate. Her resilience in the face of great odds, her thirst for knowledge and breadth of interests, as well as her self-sacrifice and sense of humour are still inspirations for us today.
The odd quirky Americanisms grate a little but are minor: ‘Kuchen’ is hardly ‘Cookie’ and ‘Titmice’ will sound archaic to an English readership.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Interview with Gesine Lötzsch – Co-Chair of Die Linke Germany
Gesine Lötzsch, the first woman leader of Die Linke, the Left Party in Germany, is widely seen as representative of the ‘pragmatic wing’ of the party and, when Oskar Lafontaine resigned the leadership (for health reasons) she called on party members to maintain unity, as only this could ensure a continuation of the party’s successful struggle for social justice.

She is comfortable with her leading position and can count on a strong local party organisation. She is recognised and respected as an excellent trouble-shooter, helping to heal arguments and reach consensus.

In the difficult period between 2002 and 2005, when the PDS failed to jump the 5% hurdle for automatic party representation, she was one of only two PDS representatives in the Bundestag. There Lötzsch has the reputation of being a very competent commentator on economic affairs and someone who can articulate clear positions.

The left in post-war Germany has never had a female leader. I remind her that here we had Margaret Thatcher and Germany has Angela Merkel, also a politician who grew up in the GDR. Neither, I suggest, is an ideal of political progress. Will she be different?

‘I certainly hope I can be’, she says emphatically, ‘they were probably role models for the political right, but I hope I can be a role model for a more progressive political agenda.’

I wonder whether growing up in the GDR provided a useful background and if it had been in any way a positive experience. ‘Yes it was,’ she says, ‘it gave me a sense of collective responsibility and heightened awareness of what building a more just and socialist society is all about – both in a positive and a negative sense.’

In the GDR Ms. Lötzsch became a qualified teacher of German and English and later obtained a doctorate in philology. She became a member of the Socialist Unity Party and, after the demise of the GDR, remained a member of its successor party, PDS and then Die Linke. She was elected to the German parliament (Bundestag) for the PDS in 2002 and has been re-elected ever since. In the last national elections she won 47.5% of the vote in her Berlin constituency.

She remarks with a smile that she remembers reading the Morning Star as a student, when it was used to help improve students’ English. It was the only British newspaper available in the GDR and she imagined it to have a mass circulation.

Recently, she came under concerted attack in Germany for comments she made about communism in an interview for the paper 'Junge Welt’ in the context of a commemorative conference on Rosa Luxemburg.

In her contribution she said: ‘We can only find a path to communism if we actually choose a path and try it out, whether in opposition or in government’. This created a furore in the mainstream media and among right-wing politicians, with hysterical and McCarthyite demands for her party, Die Linke, to be investigated by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's internal security agency, and accusations that she wants to ‘re-introduce Stalinist terror’. The general secretary of the right-wing CDU actually suggested her remarks constituted ‘a danger to democracy’, but she hasn’t let all this worry her unduly or divert her from pressing political tasks.

She says, ‘Everyone in Die Linke has signed up to a programme of democratic socialism; without social justice there is no freedom. My political goal is democratic socialism, as I described it in the article: a peaceful and democratic society for all people, free from exploitation.’

I wonder if the virulence and hysterical tone of these attacks was because the German ruling elite still fears communism as a ‘spectre haunting the continent’. She responds by saying that, ‘any party demanding social justice and calling for the redistribution of wealth, together with a change in property ownership is bound to be attacked by the upholders of the present system. Communism is a utopian idea,’ she says, ‘which people have thought about and discussed for centuries. The writer Thomas Mann said that “anti-communism was the idiocy of the epoch”. My aim is to help create a community living in freedom and equality, characterised by dignity and solidarity.’

‘The snarling fury unleashed by my comments illustrate how insecure the establishment is when alternatives to the capitalist system are raised. In the face of the dire financial crisis they have been rattled and are no longer certain of their ideology and that’s why they’ve reacted so hysterically to a debate about how to create a more just society.’

‘I took up the challenge of the subject,’ she says proudly, ‘and argued for left reforms and for a democratic socialism based on the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. I called for us to leave the old cul-de-sacs and not view them as courageous paths to communism. The road to communism is a long and stony one.’

Lötzsch also makes clear that she was not in any way suggesting a return to Soviet-style communism as her detractors have impugned, but has always distanced herself and the party from the crimes of Stalinism, committed in the name of communism.

‘I also made it absolutely clear that for me politics, and specifically the politics of Die Linke stand firmly in the challenging tradition of social change and realistic radical politics,’ she says. ‘We have put forward our concept for dealing with the economic crisis and for surmounting the ecological challenges. Present problems, as in the Middle East or Afghanistan can’t be solved by military means.’

‘We are calling for a democratisation of the German economy. I quote Luxemburg in her differences with both Lenin and Trotsky, when she says, “you can make decrees from on high in terms of deconstruction and implementing something negative, but you can’t decree the implementation of positive action and construction” - that has to come from the bottom up.’

No doubt the viciousness and hatred of these attacks also reflect the fact that Gesine Lötzsch is extremely popular. She has an easy charm, a finely-tuned sense of humour and doesn’t fit the cliché caricature of a Molotov-cocktail wielding urban guerrilla.
She forcefully rebuts the right-wing’s attempts to stigmatise her as “a closet agitator for the violent overthrow of the democratic order”. She is quietly spoken, unpretentious, calm but with a determined conviction.

‘I believe all problems in society can be solved in a peaceful manner, ‘she says, ‘and in my contribution I referred to Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding of freedom. Individual freedom and social freedom don’t have to be seen as contradictory, and we must always take the freedom of the individual as our starting point. Rosa Luxemburg memorably said that, ‘freedom is always freedom for the dissenter’ in her 1918 essay, The Russian Revolution, penned as part of a critical debate with the Bolsheviks. And that is still a vital principle for us.’

‘Die Linke,’ she emphasises, ‘is fighting on a platform demanding a change in property relationships. We want a radical renewal of democracy that also includes decision-making at the economic level and for all property relationships to be subjected to emancipatory and ecological standards.

‘We are fighting for a broad transformatory process of social change, for a democratic socialism of the 21st century. This process will involve many small and some large steps of reform, of ruptures and revolutionary changes.

We want to see large undertakings taken out of the hands of the capitalists and transformed into social property, in the form of state or local ownership, co-operatives or employee-run enterprises, but this can only be decided in democratic process.’

I ask her what chances Die Linke has in forthcoming elections. She is mildly optimistic but won’t be drawn into detailed prophecies. ‘When the SPD was part of a government coalition they introduced Agenda 2010 which incorporated a general attack on the welfare state and involved cuts in pensions and unemployment benefits. This led to a haemorrhaging of their support and, as Die Linke was the de facto left opposition, it brought us significant electoral gains and a foothold in the western parts of Germany where our party had previously been weak or electorally non-existent.’ Since returning to the opposition,’ she says, ‘the SPD has ‘rediscovered’ its radical roots. This will undoubtedly have a negative effect on the electoral chances for Die Linke.’

I wonder how close relations are between Die Linke and the trade unions. She says the German trade union movement has traditionally been close to the SPD, but ‘relations between Die Linke and the unions are steadily improving and at grass roots level a number of officials are members of or close to the party.’

Berlin offers a good example of what can be achieved if Die Linke has a say in power. There it has been in coalition with the SPD since 2001. It’s been able to make a decisive impact on the capital city’s politics. It helped create 120,000 new jobs and prevented the introduction of student fees. It also substantially increased the number of nursery places in the city as well as more free places for the less well off; it has introduced an ongoing educational reform programme and implemented new forms of direct citizen participation in many areas, making them very much the norm.

Germany has not been so badly hit as other countries by the world economic crisis, so what are the campaigning priorities for the party?

She agrees the country is, at the moment, in better health than some other countries, but the establishment is nevertheless trying to roll back the welfare state. ‘Although unemployment is not high, many are working in part-time jobs or for low wages. Young people, particularly, face a bleak future.’ Die Linke hopes its comprehensive programme for a social alternative will, in the end, convince enough people to give it a mandate to implement measures which will help it turn vision into reality.

information box:

Die Linke is the fourth largest party in Germany. It has over 77,000 registered members. It is represented at all levels of government. It has 76 members of parliament, 193 seats in regional parliaments and 8 seats in the European parliament.
Gesine Lötzsch was elected chair of Die Linke, in 2010 together with co-chair Klaus Ernst, a former trade union official. Die Linke came into being after a merger between the PDS – a party based in eastern Germany - which emerged out of the former GDR Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the WASG, a West German grouping of leftists, comprising disillusioned ex-members of the SPD and others close to the trade union movement. The joint Chair-persons were elected to ensure a leadership representative of the areas of the two former Germanies with their different political and cultural backgrounds.
The emergence of a national German party of the left was no easy birth. The experience of those who grew up under GDR state socialism was very different from that under capitalism in the FRG, and creating a consensus out of such different experiences and perceptions was no cake-walk. It was facilitated by the fact that two former leaders, Gregor Gysi from the east and Oskar Lafontaine from the west, both charismatic and experienced political figures, took up the reins and were determined to make the new party work.