On a typically sodden Berlin afternoon in late March, the visages of the city’s Marx and Engels statues glower across Spandauer-Strasse. This particular Saturday, they stare deep into the assembled groupings of the left. The city’s squats and former squats are upturned, their residents gathered to protest against the financial crisis.
On one side of Spandauer-Strasse, anarchists sit around a van, refusing the dominant anti-capitalist drift — instead they provocatively proffer anti-communist flyers, badges and badgering. Next to them, the first drum circle. Next to them, the anti-fascist campaigners and their van. Then the Trotskyists have a table of his finer works. Sales seem slow. The rain cover remains in place. Accepting every circulating flyer and pamphlet would weigh down any normal human wandering along the strasse — every man and his faction has something to say on the crisis. A lone man, dressed entirely in green but for the red star on his cap, carries a GDR flag.
Elsewhere in the square, just beyond Marx’s vision, the main platform is hosting the big groupings — most notably, parliamentary party Die Linke (The Left) and the Ver.di union. A nice touch comes in the form of the second drum circle. All the way from Cameroon to play as house-band. Here for variety-show punctuation and interludes between speakers.
Given the nebulous reason for this Saturday protest — a response to the response to the financial/neo-liberal crisis, plus unconfirmed intimations of being a satellite of the bigger London protests — it was unsurprising that proceedings sprayed in any number of directions and programmes. Where some might see a carnival, a gathering, a happening — others wouldn’t. A cynic would find something telling in the clashing soundsystems, pamphlets, stages, speakers — even on a day apparently given to articulating a unitary response to the crisis. Nevertheless, the groups came to important consensus around the continuing relevance of the brezel stand. Trotskyist booksellers take note.
Although this protest was smaller than the slicker London affair, the greater militancy of the fifteen thousand (police figures) or thirty thousand (organiser figures) in attendance was marked. There were no NGOs. No video hook-ups. But also no cries of “more regulation”. This was an anti-capitalist protest — with some remnant traces of pre-9/11 street-theatre protest carnivals, but also with a newfound vigour and emphasis on neoliberalism’s evident pathologies. A hard left politics would seem easy to activate and invoke in Berlin. It is inscribed into the city map. Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse. Marx-Engels-Forum. These places mark the outline of Saturday’s protest.
In Germany — and particularly in Berlin and the former East — the Die Linke parliamentary party opens up on the left a channel for an “official” critique of capitalism. Certainly nowhere else in Europe does there seem to be a left-wing party so visibly and somewhat successfully running on an explicit anti-capitalist platform. Prominent Linke politican Gregor Gysi stood on a street corner as the march did one last lap through the streets around Hackescher Markt. People approached him. Shook hands. Discussed. His body guards failed to remain inconspicuous.
Die Linke was launched on an anti-neoliberal platform, although its experience governing Berlin in a power-sharing arrangement has suggested compromise is an ugly matter for members and constituents. This is perhaps the key question for the party now — how it acts in coalition. Germans go to the polls in September. But Die Linke’s recent showing in the Hesse state election was lower than expected. Given that it’s practically impossible for one party alone to form government here, the compromise question is an imminent one within Die Linke.
From outside, the question of the left’s position on the state still remains an open one (see the anarchist van above) — the presence of Die Linke at the protest was matched by those calling for a revolutionary overthrow, not a process from within state institutions. Such faultlines may explain why Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine was pelted with eggs during his speech.
Despite Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s central role within European negotiations, some recent analysis suggests Berlin has been less affected by the crisis than other spots around the world. The city has long been bankrupt. The financial and business centres are elsewhere. The Berlin economy ticks over on the basis of government business (public service, embassies, business visitors after a ministerial ear), tourism (figures rose again last year) and creative labour. All of this makes it a service economy. The diplomats need tastefully appointed restaurants. The tourists want currywurst and schnitzel. The creative labourers head to one cafe to do their work; then head to their subsidiary cafe job over the road. Hipsters and diplomats have insulated Berlin’s economy.
Nevertheless, as brunch was served along Oranienburger-Strasse, the assembled masses marched along a negotiated, circular path through Mitte. The slow, somewhat enervated shuffle seemed more like window-shopping with chanted slogans. A brief scuffle near Alexanderplatz suggested the Polizei’s amp’d-up, muzzled German Shepherds were their answer to earlier protest experiences. But the antics were shortlived and the rest of the march itself was free of violence — although, as always, there was the ambient threat of buff young cops out for some smash-n-bash and marchers looking for an immediate discharge of rage and resentment. This later snapped. Things turned heated later in the day, as bottles and rocks were launched at police and their vehicles. Twenty-five people were arrested. Twelve police were injured. A quiet day by Berlin standards. Still, May Day’s just around the corner.
This may merely have been the calm before that day’s ritual Kreuzberg sh-tstorm.