Jörg Meuthen is Federal spokesperson for AfD © Robin Krahl, CC-by-sa 4.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Jörg Meuthen is Federal spokesperson for AfD © Robin Krahl, CC-by-sa 4.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is unity amongst the working class that can keep the far right at bay

Fascists in the AfD have put major effort into trying to translate their electoral support into gaining a presence inside the organised working class in Germany. That is all the better to disorganise it along nativist and racist lines that serve the bosses.

For the neonazi wing it is an important strategic objective. They aim to show that they can reach parts that the racist centre right cannot and can be a direct instrument in breaking working class organisation. That is a critical objective for real fascism, as opposed simply to varieties of racist populism, in its aim to offer itself in the future as a uniquely valuable force for the elites.

These, however, are the results for the elections to the works councils across the Daimler combine. The councils are official bodies elected by workers and staff in which unions and others can put up candidates. They have been a central tripartite mechanism – union, bosses, state – of the German method of incorporating labour through controlled expression of worker representation.

– Wörth / Germersheim
IG Metall has emerged stronger with 24 out of 39 places. No place won by the AfD’s front “the Centre”.

– Mercedes Benz, Untertürkheim plant
Turnout was relatively high at almost 65 percent. The IG Metall list has provisionally 37 seats out of the 47. The “Centre” has gained 2 mandates and thus has 6 mandates (13.2 percent).

– Sindelfingen, the largest site with over 40,000 eligible voters
57.5 percent of the employees participated in the works council election. According to the provisional result, IG Metall received almost 75 percent (16,992 votes) and thus has 46 of the 59 works council seats. The “Centre” received 764 votes, which corresponds to 3.4 percent and 2 mandates .

– Daimler headquarters in Stuttgart.
From 6626 votes cast, the Centre has received, according to preliminary results, just 108 votes and thus remains without a mandate. The various independent and Christian lists have received fewer votes than at the last elections in 2014. The winner is the IG Metall. It was able to gain 4 mandates. With 22 mandates, it now has an absolute majority in the 41-member body.

– Mercedes Benz, Rastatt.
According to preliminary results, 29 IG Metall members have been elected to the 35-member works council via various lists. The Christian Metal Union (CGM) got no seat. The “Center” ran for the first time, got 447 votes and moved to 3 mandates in the 35-member works council.

AfD figures had predicted sweeping gains, claiming that they would reap a feeling against vested interests, such as the established IG Metall union. But with the exception of the Untertürkheim plant these are very poor results – far lower than the average vote of the AfD in last September’s general election and even among “workers” as an atomised electoral and demographic category, as opposed to considered from their place of work.

This is of enormous strategic importance, and not only in Germany.

It confirms a pattern seen repeatedly throughout different epochs of the last century. Even when the far or fascist right can make frightening advances electorally among the population as a whole, it has the greatest of difficulties in penetrating the workplace and organised labour.

The Nazis were able to conquer the workplace and worker organisation in the 1930s only after being given state power, abolishing the unions and introducing an alternative fascist corporation supposedly representing workers and employers together. Even then, that fascist body ended up repeatedly expressing worker discontent and opposition to regime policies.

As the historian Tim Mason highlighted, the Nazis allied with the state could destroy working class organisation, but they could never win their dreamed of incorporation of the working class into a racist dystopia.

The reason for the rejection of the AfD is not *primarily* because of the politics of the unions concerned. That is important. There are strongly anti-racist activists and officials of IG Metall. But at the same time it has its fair share, as does any large union, of routinist bureaucratism and accommodation to prevailing reactionary ideas.

Primarily, however, this barrier to the far right – and potential battalion that can shift the society as a whole – arises from the everyday conditions of the world of work and of the existence of union organisation.

That depends on the most basic notions of collectivity. It means that ideas and political forces that break that unity – divisions on any basis: race, sex, grade, age, sexuality, type of contract, immigration status, marital status, etc – are like a fatal poison.

That does not mean that the poison is automatically and fully purged from the collective body. But it does mean that there is an immune system that may be strengthened and a potential collective bastion that can project a militant collective politics within and beyond the workplace and the union.

And thus it follows that despite the weakness overall of the AfD’s intervention into these big workplace elections, its toehold must not be dismissed, but smashed. That is obviously the case in the plant where the fascists got over 13 percent and which also, IG Metall activists report, has the weakest shopfloor organisation and trade union consciousness among the workforce.

There are moves to do this on two fronts. Anticipating the incoming grand coalition scores of left and militant union representatives made an initiative last month repudiating the line of the DGB union federation endorsing the deal between the SPD and Merkel.

They laid out red lines with union interests and policy on one side and the pro-business coalition deal on the other. It was in preparation for conflicts with the coalition government. Importantly, one area of dispute they highlighted was over the shameful abandonment of the rights of refugees by the SPD.

They put forward a position of defence of refugee rights, opposing xenophobia, refusing the siren voices against migrants, and for an end to an expansionist and militarist foreign policy. The initiative unites supporters of the SPD, Die Linke and those of no party affiliation.

The second front is the gathering, mass social movement against the AfD. It has made a point of strategically fighting to unite the forces of the left and workers movement, with immigrant and migrant communities, and aiming particularly to draw in the latent strength of the trade union movement.

This has also been the experience of Greece, where one aspect of that – as was also the case in Britain in the 1970s – is the popular slogan: fascists out of the unions.

And this does have relevance to debates on the radical left in Britain today. That is despite considerable political differences with situation in Germany. Britain does not have a grand coalition. It has a weak minority Tory government and a Labour opposition that has recovered massively through a surge of the left. It doesn’t have either a significant far-right party.

But in its own circumstances, the movement in Britain faces a similar strategic question about how the surge of the left can translate into unlocking the hidden power of organised workers, or of workers yet to be organised at the place of work.

Here, it has been a little dispiriting – perhaps even shocking – to see an internal argument inside the Labour left turn into egregious statements either admonishing trade union organisation, or saying that the advance of the left will come through weakening the unions in politics.

That is to turn reality on its head. The fundamental basis, the wellspring, of the left and of socialist advance is the collective organisation of the working class. It was the fusion of the socialist idea with the semi-spontaneous efforts of working people to organise themselves over 170 years ago that forged what is still the modern socialist movement.

Sure, all unions since then have shown the problem of bureaucratism and through that the incorporation of working-class interests within the confines of capitalism.

But that is equally, if not more so, characteristic of the parties of the centre-left that the unions either gave birth to or have looked to for political change.

It’s true of the British Labour Party, with its peculiar amalgam of differing centres of power – the affiliated unions, the MPs and party bureaucracy, and the members.

The problem is political, not constitutional, and it is not solved by internal constitutional battles. The SPD in Germany does not have the structure of union affiliation that the Labour Party uniquely has. But in a one member, one vote referendum it has just voted suicidally by two to one to go into a coalition that will feed the far right and be in confrontation with the trade union movement and workers.

There is a difference between the unions and the centre-left parties. The unions are by their very nature closer to the basic antagonism in society, even if there are conflicting strands within them over what to do about it. They provide, or can, the most basic level of class organisation through the *experience* of their members.

This is why the condemnation of the unions and their role by some figures on a part of the Labour left is so totally misguided.

It’s not to do with voting rights and the allocation of bureaucratic positions – whatever weight one puts on those. It is profoundly wrong because it is, out of an internal spat, castigating the very mechanism that for all its imperfections is the seedbed of progress and countering reaction. That is the basic organisation of the working class – for evidence, look to the works council elections in Daimler.

There is another way. It has been voiced by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, as well as by socialists and trade union activists in and outside the Labour Party.

It is to put central to this moment of radicalisation the aspiration to double trade union membership. To extend it beyond residual organisation in certain sectors into new ones.

To revivify it in the areas it already exists (as the strike in the old universities is showing strongly). To fuse again the great internationalist principles of the left with the raw intelligence and potential power of the combination of working people.

And it is to find the fresh, living ways in which that organisation can mesh with all other sites of struggle against exploitation and oppression – from the women on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood to the mosque congregations organising to fill the murderous gap for the homeless left by a decade of austerity.

There is the most enormous crisis of the elite way of running things that has dominated for over 30 years.

There is massive popular anger and alienation – look at the Italian election results.

An inward-looking and petty left will not rise to that. It will fail and deserves to.

A left that can concert its efforts to help millions at the base of society organise themselves and in so doing shift things in a truly radical direction can contribute to resolving this social, environmental and human crisis.

But that means a turn towards the millions, and their good sense and basic collectivity that is shown in these elections at the heart of German industrial capitalism. 

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.