The Parliamentary Group of the LEFT’s Social Movement Liaison Office: A Self-Portrayal

[This text was published in German with the title "Die Kontaktstelle soziale Bewegungen der Fraktion DIE LINKE. Eine Selbstdarstellung" in Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen (Research Journal New Social Movements)  Issue 1, 2009 (March), pp.107-112. Translated by Ben Trott.]
With the arrival of the LEFT (DIE LINKE) in the Bundestag in 2005, a liaison office for social movements (and trade unions) as well as groups, initiatives and NGOs of the extra-parliamentary left was established by a parliamentary group represented in the Bundestag for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany: the Social Movement Liaison Office. The fundamental goal of the Liaison Office is to establish and sustain a dialogue between different forms of politics and to foster a lasting exchange between extra-parliamentary movements and the parliamentary left. In keeping with this objective, projects and ideas are intended to be developed and initiated together with politically organised social actors: the social movements and trade unions. The Liaison Office does not understand itself as functioning either as a ‘transmission belt’ or a point of coordination for movements, but rather as forming a communication node which is continually, systematically and comprehensively active as well as action-oriented. In the longer term, a more expedient dialogue and productive interplay between the different and often conflictual forms of politics, which in different ways attempt to implement political, social and democratic alternatives to the current social model, should be made possible.
To a certain extent, the LEFT entered new territory with the establishment of the Liaison Office. Even though – particularly in its early years – the German Greens (Die Grünen) not only held excellent contacts to social movements but also in part came from them, influencing their early conception of themselves; and even though a part of what was the PDS[i] had closely cooperated with social movements (and the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Social Democratic Party of German) also had close contacts to trade unions), there had never before been a liaison office at the level of a parliamentary group. The Parliamentary Group’s Liaison Office must, therefore, be understood as an experiment in the necessarily difficult cooperation between two actors as different as movements and parliamentary groups/parties.[ii] In the following, the Liaison Office will be presented from its own point of view. In doing so, first of all, a few key issues should be mentioned in relation to the context in which the Liaison Office was established. After which, I will present examples of our concrete work.
1. Context of the Social Movement Liaison Office – A Few Key Issues
In the history of cooperation between social movements and leftwing parties, there have been a lot of conflicts and bitter disappointments. The cause thereof has been, on the one hand, attempts towards instrumentalisation on the side of the parties and a fundamental rejection of cooperation with parties by social movements, or else a heavy criticism of the ‘powerful reality of the party’; and on the other, the assimilation of political forces through the supposed practical constraints of a capitalist society. For the West German left, the experience with the Greens, reaching its pinnacle under the Red-Green coalition government,[iii] was decisive.
However, the process of the formation of the LEFT party was observed, by a part of the social movements, with a careful wait-and-see, yet nevertheless curious, distance. Grounds for curiosity lay, in my opinion, in the social climate following the years of Red-Green government, a partial new orientation by parts of the movement, as well as new dynamics in struggles for social justice. For instance, during the 90s, the ‘global social movements’ emerged amidst the hope of a new (global) left, leading to the formation of new political alliances in countries such as Italy and, later, Greece. Through the increasingly neoliberal orientation of government policy and the massive growth of poverty and exclusion, the generalisation of precariousness, and the state’s dismantling of social services and public infrastructure, the issue of ‘social justice’ became explosive – amongst others, for the new social movements. In the so-called ‘social protests’[iv] a new actor emerged in the political (movement) field. These new formations, alongside some of the ‘old’ new social movements (e.g. the peace movement), tended towards a positive, if also critical, attitude in relation to the founding of the LEFT. Several conducted internal as well as public debates about potential alliances and issued demands on the LEFT ahead of the 2005 election.[v]
Retrospectively, it could perhaps even be said that the conflicts around Agenda 2010 and capitalist globalisation (including with new movement forms such as, for example, the social fora) lead to a temporary revitalisation of the extra-parliamentary and party political fields.
It was naturally not lost on ‘the Party’ – or rather, both parties: the Linkspartei.PDS as well as WASG – that the launching of a new party was to be understood as a part of this dynamic (alongside the disengagement with the SPD and, to a lesser extent, the Greens).
Even though the LEFT is certainly not able to be characterised as a movement party, the Liaison Office was established in part out of the conviction that social changes cannot be achieved by parliamentary or party political processes alone, since fundamental changes find their origins at different locations in society and are triggered, organised and achieved by different social actors.[vi]
In addition, the (power-) political realities of ‘party’ and ‘movement’ are so different, that within a close cooperation strong boundaries are structurally imposed. In comparison to organisations of the party form, social movements are peculiar actors. They are characterised by their own logic of political action and their own organisational culture, which often place demands on cooperation. In their specific form, in which they develop ‘another politics’, self-organised and from below, they have contributed a lot to social debates in the history of the Federal Republic and beyond. Many of today’s important discussions, such as those around radical democracy and the reconfiguration of social relations, the broad conception of justice as well as changes that reach into the depths of social life, were initiated by social movements.
The experiences won in numerous social struggles, the heterogeneity as well as the strong preparedness to bring social conflicts to a head and the continual insistence upon autonomy, make cooperation politically-strategically (as well as thematically) indispensible, whilst also, simultaneously, objectively difficult due to ‘cyclical’ tendencies, informal hierarchies and the question of enforceability and autonomy.
2. The Work of the Liaison Office
What does the work of the Liaison Office look like, concretely, within this context? Is the field of social movements not far too large to be focussed on and communicated to through a Liaison Office? And is the location of the negotiation process not necessarily elsewhere than in an operative department of a Parliamentary Group?
It has already been mentioned above that the work of the Liaison Office includes two categories, that of trade unions and the new social movements. Accommodation is made for the fact that trade unions and (new) social movements are very different actors which act with very different organisational logics and which, because of this, necessitate a different kind of attention, a different way of being dealt with, listened to, and worked together with, through two fulltime positions within the Liaison Office.
Fundamentally, the Liaison Office is a point of access for social movements which aim towards social transformation, justice and emancipation. It picks up on political concerns, communicates these to the Parliamentary Group, organises meetings with those active in movements, and initiates, for example, hearings or expert-led discussions. In order to implement these tasks, it works together with the appropriate departments within the Parliamentary Group, establishes contacts to politicians in the relevant departments and to working groups, advises them, and implements suggestions from Members of the Bundestag and/or working groups. At the same time, it participates in movement meetings and attempts to systematically follow debates, in order to be able to propose initiatives to the Parliamentary Group as early and comprehensively as possible. The goal of the Liaison Office is not to become the only addressee for movement politics. Such a principle of delegation would thwart the idea of working together. In the sense that the Liaison Office is less involved (than Members of the Bundestag or working groups) with direct parliamentary work, it has time, space and air with which to engage itself with diverse, comprehensive, strategic concerns and debates and/or those not yet ‘covered’, and to fathom out their meaning especially, although also amongst others, for the project of the new LEFT.
This also means, however, within the Liaison Office, priorities have to be set. Four Bundestag Members are responsible for the setting of priorities for its immediate work. They are regularly advised by the Point’s members of staff and represent its initiatives, priorities and activities within the Parliamentary Group. Whether or not more long term and sustainable projects of the movement or the Parliamentary Group emerge out of these priorities depends on both the movement as well as whether or not they are picked up within the Parliamentary Group (by committees, specialist political working groups, and individual Bundestag Members).[vii]
In the following section, the work of the Liaison Office will be presented through the examples of that carried out in two thematic fields. In doing so, the work of the Liaison Office should not only be made more tangible, but the examples should also show that the work necessarily takes place on very different levels, only some of which are visible.
2.1 The Protests against the 2007 G8 Summit
The Summit protests against the meeting of the G8 states in Heiligendamm in June 2007 is currently without doubt the most well known example of the LEFT’s collaborative work with new social movements; in this case: the alter-globalisation movement. Retrospectively and to a certain extent, the increased ability for common campaigns can be understood as having contributed to the G8 Summit not taking place in the way that had been planned and the policies of the G8 states, the Federal government and capitalist globalisation not being able to present themselves as having no alternative.
Such a campaign was possible on the basis of an early recognition, both within social movements as well as the Parliamentary Group, that the Summit protests had a strategic meaning, with preparation beginning long before the Summit, and the founding of a broad coalition. On the basis of this strategic importance, a project specific position was created within the Liaison Office which was exclusively dedicated to coalition work with the movements, preparation with regards to political content, coordination with the Parliamentary Group, as well as the conception and seeing through of (Parliamentary Group-) activities (e.g. a three day on-site ‘parliamentary hearing’ as well as parliamentary initiatives in advance).
Against the background of the (legitimate) caution and distance of movement coalitions to parties, the reality that and how the LEFT were represented in their activities and in coalitions is of note. Here, on both sides, important experiences were gained, including that successful coalition work does not necessarily lead to unification and cooptation, that ‘strengths’ can emerge from the bringing together of respective competences, tasks and specific fields of mobilisation, and that it is not always ‘bad’ if not everything can be implemented.
Here, the particular function of the Liaison Office was coordinating between the different levels, ensuring the flow of information and ‘staying on the ball’. On the one hand, this vastly increased the presence of the movement within the otherwise closed glass dome of the Bundestag, and on the other allowed the Parliamentary Group to concentrate on its work, duties and responsibilities.
The task of cooperating with social movements, however, should not only be directed towards playing a part in large events. Social movements rightly observe to what extent ‘parties’ continue to ‘stay on board’ on a day-to-day level. In connection with the Summit protests, there was therefore also an attempt to solidify new contacts and issue areas and develop them for future projects. The parliamentary hearings on breaches of civil liberties during the Summit protests, organised shortly after, gave space and a voice to civil rights organisations; during the ‘Perspektiventage[viii] of the (radical, autonomous) social movements in January 2008, it was possible for an open and controversial discussion to be held as to the experience of and desired cooperation between movements and parties (including the Greens). As a result, it became much easier to provide a flow of information into the Parliamentary Group, and to receive support from it, for the action camps of the summer of 2008.
2.2 Other Communications – The Example of the ‘Social Protests’
Without doubt, the criticism of Agenda 2010 and the restructuring of the welfare state led, in the Summer of 2003 (the peak of the so-called ‘Monday demonstrations’[ix]), to diverse new extra-parliamentary movements and projects oriented towards social justice. The PDS, later Linkspartei.PDS (which at the time did not have the status of a Parliamentary Group within the Bundestag), played a role in this new movement; other participants, such as WASG, later fused with, or rather, took part in the refounding of, the Party as the LEFT; whilst at the same time, others (social protest initiatives and networks as well as local social fora etc…) are to be understood as new movement actors. Even if this is not the only ground for the success of the LEFT and its (re-)entry into the Bundestag in 2005, it cannot be understood in isolation from extra-parliamentary dynamics.
For this reason, when the work of the Parliamentary Group and the Liaison Office began, it was clear that the contact to and exchange with these extra-parliamentary forces must be sought out and maintained. An initial attempt, which sought to build on the ‘common history’, was the parliamentary hearing on the overcoming of Hartz IV in February 2006. With over 400 participants – primarily from initiatives made up of those directly affected and from the movements, as well as from welfare associations and trade unions – and a broad spectrum of panel speakers, it was a novel experience for the Bundestag. It recognised those effected by Hartz IV as political subjects and competent specialists and signalled that disputes can and should be aired. This also functioned as a signal in the direction of the part of the ‘movement’ which was critical of parties, later enabling partial coalitions to be formed (e.g. for the demonstration on June 3[x]) and for specialist, and conflict-rich, debates to be carried out.
The particular composition of the unemployed- and social protests, as an implementation-weak ‘poor people’s movement’, presents different challenges for collaborative work than in the case of that with other social movements. There are rarely high profile events of strategic importance, such as a G8 Summit. There are seldom movement meeting at which ‘everybody’ comes together. On the contrary, for the social protests, a process of regionalisation and marginalisation appeared to be set in motion. As a result, despite the Federal focus of the Liaison Office, a necessity arose to both keep in view the small-scale, regional and specific activities, as well as organisng regular meetings and specialist discussions with select representatives of different currents in order to support the exchange between groups, with other movements, and with the Parliamentary Group.
From the perspective of the Liaison Office, the exchange with this emergent movement is an important complement to that with the specialists of organisations and associations. Continuous contact offers an impression of demands, sentiments and assessments on ‘the edge of society’. They show the (often painful) attempts towards a politics from below which, on the basis of the social conditions (of survival), also open up new issue areas and new ideas of the social. In the context of the growth of poverty, there are questions as to the future at stake here which are of strategic importance. Against the background of the current financial and economic crisis, through which social conflicts will be sharpened in the future, the pestering question arises as to the activities of and cooperation with different social movements. An approach which integrates different social groups, movements and issues for social protests will be all the more important.
Even if a part of these movements at times distance themselves, in terms of content, from the LEFT, because their demands do not go far enough or because of a supposed state-centricity, contact should be maintained. Sustaining communication channels despite differences, including for relatively weak groups, should be seen here as an important function of the Liaison Office.
3. Closing Remarks
In the case of most of the social movements with whom the Parliamentary Group (partly through the Liaison Office) works, or those whom they are approached by in order to organise common projects and debates, the meaningfulness of unspectacular, continual and reliable contact has been demonstrated. This has manifested itself through the dissemination of information (the announcement of events, demonstrations, position papers), the procurement of specialist and support staff in the Parliamentary Group and the Party (with specialist questions, in parliamentary questions around demonstrations, in the composition of declarations of solidarity), the participation in movement events, as well as the picking up on ideas for new projects (e.g. Federal level meetings on the Social Ticket initiative[xi]) or supporting efforts to find resources.
Activities of this sort, information about issue foci, strategies and projects, offer, first of all, the opportunity to discuss political assessments and estimations and address controversies. Movements/groups with a strong political concurrence use the contacts/Liaison Office directly, amongst other things, in order to build pressure on the governing factions – and the SPD in particular. In other instances (such as the Social Ticket initiative), the Liaison Office used its knowledge of the political practices of different actors to support nationwide networking and to translate this into parliamentary initiatives on the Federal level. In other movements still, such as the anti-racist and migrant movements, the Liaison Office has attempted to organise debates around the differences with the Parliamentary Group and the Party. Within the social fora, the Liaison Office takes responsibility for coordinating the participation of Parliamentary Group and Party members as well as securing an in-depth, continual flow of information from the social fora – as a ‘seismograph’ of the global social movements – back to the Parliamentary Group/Party.
The experience of the Liaison Office shows that the ‘daily business’ (and this is the location of its activity) generally runs as expected, and that on the day-to-day level, within individual projects, a difficult relationship has, to a certain extent, become ‘normalised’. Rightly, reservations remain regarding the influence of the stronger party, relatively speaking, in terms of cooptation or the marginalisation of issues, approaches and organisational functions. The reservations as to the ‘powerful reality of the party’ can also be seen as a productive challenge to the LEFT, to openly and critically address different interpretations, analyses of problems and issues, as well as, within that which is in common, recognising the different tasks and social functions of the ‘others’.
In view of the relationship of tension between (new) social movements and parties or the LEFT, the Liaison Office has helped to find etiquettes, positions and issues in dealing with both actors or fields and to further develop forms of cooperation. The task now is to build on these, raise objections, make more demands. Including that of discussion fora with place and influence. Fora for discussion in which the Parliamentary Group/Party are able to continually discuss (movement) issues, activities and processes of strategic as well as social political importance. Within this, there must be room for the evaluation of experiences, the estimation of realistic limits to and (new) possibilities for cooperation and the further development of one’s own positions and strategies. Naturally, the completely fundamental problematic of cooperation qua decision making and operationalisation should not and cannot be resolved. The concrete relationship of cooperation (or of influence) is always an expression of a balance of power. And perhaps the experiences of the Social Movement Liaison Office will inspire the readers of this journal to differently evaluate the theoretical and contemporary political relationship between parties and movements, and in doing so reinvigorate the debate around this so difficult and nevertheless important relationship.
Corinna Genschel is a member of staff at the Social Movement Liaison Office responsible for ‘New Social Movements’.

[i] Translator’s Note: The PDS, or the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus) was the legal successor of the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Socialist Unity Party (SED, or Sozialistische Einheits Partei). In 2007, the PDS – which had in the meantime renamed itself Die Linkspartei.PDS – merged with WASG (Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative, or Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit – Die Wahlalternative) to form DIE LINKE.
[ii] The Social Movement Liaison Office is located at the Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag and not at the Party Headquarters. Even if the work of the Liaison Office certainly influences ‘the party’, the role of a Liaison Office for a Parliamentary Group is primarily the cooperation among and the sounding out of relations between extra-parliamentary and parliamentary politics. It is not the object of this article to more specifically highlight the difference between them. In the following text, when discussing concrete work, I am writing about the Parliamentary Group, although in a few places I use the term Party, by which I mean the term to describe the actor in its entirity.
[iii] Translator’s Note: The so-called Red-Green coalition government was made up of the SPD and the Greens. The Greens served as a junior partner for two parliamentary terms, from 1998-2005.
[iv] Translator’s Note: The social protests referred to here are those held in relation to the Agenda 2010 package of neoliberal economic reforms, introduced by the Red-Green governing coalition.
[v] This is, of course, simply a characterisation of an exceptionally hetergeneous field. Other social movements (e.g. the anti-racist and environmental movements as well as civil movements and civil rights organisations), and particularly the NGOs founded in the 1980s and 1990s in West Germany, were far more sceptical.
[vi] On the cooperation between the LEFT party and social movements, see the resolution of the Party Executive Committee from 17.11.2007 (
) as well as the document, Programmatischen Eckpunkte, from 2007 (
[vii] The interplay between the Party and the Parliamentary Group is certainly also decissive for decissions as to the relevance of an issue, although this cannot be discussed at this point.
[viii] Translator’s Note: The so-called Perspektiventage was a three day conference held in Berlin in January, 2008. It was intended to provide a space to reflect on the experiences of the Heiligendamm protests and allow room to develop forward-looking strategies and common perspectives for the actors which had been involved.
[ix] Translator’s Note: The Montagsdemonstrationen were the demonstrations against social restructuring and the introduction of the Hartz IV package of welfare reforms in particular.
[x] Translator’s Note: The June 3 demonstration held in Berlin was in opposition to social restructuring and Hartz IV.
[xi] Translator’s Note: The Social Ticket (Sozialticket) is a concessionary rate to be charged for a single or monthly public transport ticket, supported by the LEFT.

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