German Young Socialist leader unleashes storm of debate about socialism

By Peter Schwarz
11 May 2019

In an interview in a recent edition of the weekly Die Zeit, Kevin Kühnert, the head of Germany’s Jusos, the youth organisation of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), described himself as a “socialist” and spoke out in favour of “overcoming capitalism” and the “collectivization” of companies. The interview unleashed a storm of commentaries in the media.

The first reactions in the media and from Kühnert’s own SPD were overwhelmingly hostile and seethed with anti-communism. More recently, however, Kühnert has received some support.

In Anne Will’s Sunday night TV talk show, Kühnert was allowed to explain his views in detail. Sebastian Hartmann, the chairman of the North Rhine-Westphalia SPD (which has a large membership), said: “We need a fundamentally new economic model. The unregulated market is our opponent.” The head of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Marcel Fratzscher, also spoke out in support of Kühnert and declared: “The social market economy is not working as it should.”

What both opponents and supporters of Kühnert agree upon is their endeavour to present the leader of the SPD youth organisation as a serious socialist, who fundamentally questions the role of capitalism. While some of his critics spit venom, others express their benevolent agreement.

Both sides are driven by the fear of a radicalisation of the working class. Many recent surveys have confirmed that a majority of the population, particularly the younger generation, have a positive view of socialism. In a society where the wealthiest 45 households possess as much as the 20 million poorest households, where 40 percent of those in work are engaged in precarious jobs, and exploding rents are making housing unaffordable, the term capitalism has become a swearword for very many people.

While Kühnert’s opponents demonise any criticism of capitalism, he and his defenders are seeking to divert growing sympathy for socialist ideas into harmless channels. The reality is Kühnert’s proposals are neither socialist nor revolutionary. They are aimed solely at suppressing socialist aspirations. They represent a confused concoction of concepts the SPD has always used for this purpose.

Kühnert declares in Die Zeit that his main concern is “a restoration of the welfare state promise of the seventies, eighties in an updated form.” He argues in favour of a “democratization of all spheres of life,” including important sections of the economy. He proposes that employees own a stake in the companies they work for and that “the distribution of profits is democratically controlled.” “Without a form of collectivisation,” he says, “overcoming capitalism is unthinkable.”

To make a living based on exploiting “other people’s housing,” he explains, is not a “legitimate business model.” Therefore, “everyone should only own the maximum living space he needs to live.”

In fact, the SPD has often propagated such reformist conceptions under slogans such as employee-based asset accumulation, co-determination, employee shareholding or cooperatives. Such proposals have nothing to do with socialism. Socialism is not the result of gradual reforms within the framework of capitalist society, but rather the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production upon which capitalism is based.

Only the transfer of banks and large-scale industry into public ownership and their democratic control by the working population can establish the conditions for a socialist society. On this basis, it would be possible to organise production to meet the needs of society, rather than the capitalist drive to profit, to overcome the destructive anarchy of the market through rational and democratic planning and replace the violent struggle for shares of the world market with the peaceful international cooperation of socialist societies. Only a workers’ government based on the mobilisation of the masses can implement such a program in the face of the inevitable resistance on the part of the capitalists.

Kühnert categorically rejects such a perspective. In his Die Zeit interview, he never tires of emphasising that he is not seeking social upheaval or a revolution, which he equates with “burning barricades.” Instead he wants to “get closer to the ideal of a free, equal society based on solidarity … in small steps.” He expressly defends the capitalist market: “Socialism will and must work with market mechanisms.” He rejects “planned economic elements” on the grounds that they “have a braking effect on all that is innovative.”

Kühnert’s chairmanship of the youth organisation of the SPD is no coincidence. The very notion that this party could introduce socialism in Germany is absurd. It would rather commit suicide than abolish capitalism. Since its betrayal of its own program in 1914 and its support for German imperialism in World War I, the SPD has been one of the most important pillars of capitalist rule in Germany.

During the November Revolution of 1918, the SPD joined forces with the leaders of the German army (Reichswehr) to brutally suppress the uprisings by socialist workers and assassinate their leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Fifteen years later, the SPD refused to mobilise its members to fight the Nazis. Instead, it placed its reliance on the German state and President von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler as chancellor.

After World War II the SPD helped the thoroughly discredited German capitalist system to regain its feet and during the past 20 years it has played a leading role in government—creating a huge low-pay sector, cutting pensions, arming the police, intelligence services and army, while rescuing banks at the expense of the working class.

All those who seriously want to fight for socialism today must acquaint themselves with this history and the strategic lessons to be drawn from both the victories and defeats of the working-class movement. Kühnert, an unscrupulous careerist, can only pose as a socialist because he relies on the inexperience and ignorance of today’s young generation.

The International Committee of the Fourth International and its German section, the Socialist Equality Party (SGP), is the only party fighting for a socialist program to unite the international working class for the overthrow of capitalism. We stand in the unbroken tradition of the Russian October Revolution, the struggle of the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalinism and the defence of Marxism by the Fourth International against all pseudo-left tendencies.

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