Q&A on the Democratic Party – An Interview with Dan La Botz

Frequently asked questions about whether or not to vote for the Democrats or to support a Socialist, Green or progressive independent candidate.

Dan La Botz is the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. He is a member of both the Socialist Party and of Solidarity. He is one of the organizers of the Socialist Contingent for the October 2 rally in Washington. (See DanLaBotz.com, follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.)

Question: You are a progressive activist running as the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. You chose not to run as a Democrat. Do you really think that the Republicans and Democrats are the same? Most progressives don’t seem to think so. Most people on the left think that the parties are quite different and that it matters greatly whether or not they vote Republican or Democrat.

La Botz: I agree that the Republican and Democratic parties are not the same. They have different platforms, different histories, and different reputations. Many consider the Republicans to be more conservative, more pro-war and the Democrats to be more liberal and pro-peace. The platform positions and reputations of these parties, however, do not tell us how they actually act
or how they will behave in the future.

The Democrats seldom live up to their liberal reputation and seldom fulfill the more progressive planks of their platform. The war? Since the election of Barack Obama, he and the Democratic Congress have expanded the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the drone bombing of Pakistan. The environment? Obama announced—and then after the BP geyser—retracted expansion of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. Labor? After making a
campaign promise, the Democrats dropped the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which they had promised the unions.

Immigration? The Democrats put immigration reform they had promised Latinos and other immigrant groups on the back burner while increasing deportations and making it harder for immigrants to get jobs. Health care? The Obama administration rejected the best option, single-payer, out of hand, and also ditched the public option. Women’s right to choose? Some prominent Democrats—especially the Blue Dogs—do not support abortion rights and played a key role in eliminating abortion from the 2010 health care bill. Civil liberties? The Obama administration has continued to condone or excuse torture, rendition limiting domestic civil liberties, and promoting governmental secrecy and outsized power for the executive branch.

The Democratic Party’s neoliberal national, state, and big city leaderships have betrayed rank-and-file voters looking to them for support. Voting for Democrats does not lead to substantially more liberal or progressive national politics on most issues because the corporations dominate the Democratic Party. The Democrats are a corporate party, a capitalist party. And because of the Democrats’ loyalty to the corporations they are demoralizing many supporters and potential supporters.

Question: Most of us think of the Republicans as the corporate party. What do you mean when you say the Democrats are a corporate and capitalist party.

La Botz: American corporations play almost as large a role in the Democratic Party as they do in the Republican Party. First, of course, they provide campaign funding for the party and its candidates. Most big corporations hedge their bets, contributing to both Republicans and Democrats, though some definitely lean toward the Democratic Party. ) Large corporations, for example, bankrolled much of President Barack Obama’s campaign. Now that the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are persons and can give unlimited sums, Republicans and Democrats both will be even more beholden to the corporations.

Second, corporate executives and corporate attorneys provide Democratic Party candidates and party staff, and provide the Democrats their policies. When it comes to policy, the Democratic Party works closely with the largest corporate associations to develop legislation. When Obama designed the health plan, he met with the insurance companies, the for-profit hospital companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Liz Fowler, vice-president of WellPoint (with its affiliates
Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield) wrote substantial portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. Not surprisingly, the reform did not eliminate insurance companies or the profit motive from health care.

Third, the Democratic Party campaigns operate, just like the Republicans, principally through advertising and the media. So the Democratic Party also becomes linked to those sorts of advertising and media corporations. The Democratic Party has close ties with the corporations—
and no intention to break them.

Question: But don’t you exaggerate? Even if the corporations dominate both parties, aren’t the Democrats more progressive on certain issues such as labor?

La Botz: At one time, the Democrat Party held more progressive positions on many of those issues. During the post-war period of American capitalist expansion, from 1939 to 1969, the United States with its vast power and wealth could make concessions to the working class.

Today, facing an economic crisis, the Democrats have to manage the crisis, have to impose austerity, they have to make cutbacks. The Democrats were more liberal back in the 1970s when there was both more elasticity in the economic system and a mass movement pushing them.

After Howard Dean became head of the Democratic Party, he worked to move the party more toward the center and even toward the right. The Democratic Party platform’s liberal planks have been watered down. Dean encouraged the party to bring in more conservative politicians to compete with the Republicans. Blue Dog Democrats, as they are known, are often anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, and anti-labor. The growing number of these Blue Dogs has made the party as a whole more conservative. If you vote Democrat you find yourself backing a party that is moving to the right, and taking you with it.

Even on social issues where the official positions of the Democrats have often been better than the Republicans, such as abortion and gay and lesbian rights, their commitment has been tepid and uninspiring, and all too often compromised on important points. Moreover, the Democrats’ conservative economic policies alienate people who could be won over to more progressive social positions if there were a party that stood firmly for both economic and social equality.

Question: But shouldn’t we try to move the Democrats to the left? Can’t the Democrats be reformed? Don’t you see any merit in being involved with movement people in the Democratic Party campaigns? Don’t you see that as a vehicle for change?

La Botz: The most impressive example of this strategy was Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1987 Democratic Party presidential primary. Jackson traversed the country, marching on picketlines, participating in demonstrations, and standing on the U.S. Mexico Border with Rosario Ibarra, a socialist and the first woman candidate for president of Mexico, calling for rights for immigrants. Jackson won almost 30 percent of the vote in a campaign based on supporting the struggles of working people. It was a remarkable achievement.

Then, having lost his bid for the nomination, he took all of those whom he had mobilized and kept them imprisoned in the Democratic Party. Time magazine reported in 1987: “Instead of threatening to bolt the party, [Jackson] embraces it. At a gathering of Democrats in Atlanta, Jackson declared that while the party has both a conservative and a progressive wing, it needs two wings to fly. Democrats let out a sigh of relief. During a debate among the presidential candidates, the preacher sounded so reasonable he was almost irrelevant.” The Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition campaign served primarily to keep the most active, militant and radical Democrats from leaving the party. After the campaign, that movement disappeared.

This is the historic role of the Democrats: in the Populist era of the 1890s, in the labor upheaval of the 1930s, in the post-war upsurge of the 1940s, in the radical period of the 1960s. The Democrats role is to round-up the insurgent and dissident elements that are making change and bring them back into the Democratic Party and to chloroform them, put them back to sleep.

Question: The Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) seem to agree with you about the corporate control of the Democratic Party, but still they want to reform it. What do you think about their strategy to reform the Democratic Party?

La Botz: Many Progressive Democrats of America members are movement activists. I admire their stated goal. As the PDA website says, “We seek to build a party and government controlled by citizens, not corporate elites—with policies that serve the broad public interest, not just private interests.”

The Democratic Party has such strong institutional ties to government, the military, professional politicians, and the corporations that the kind of reform the PDA seeks is not possible. The Democratic Party is not a block club, or a community center where people could actually organize and vote out the leadership. It is a top-down party completely enmeshed in professional
politics and government.

I imagine that many PDA members will also come to the conclusion that reform of the Democrats is not possible. My hope is that, when they do, they will not become cynical about politics and the possibility of change, but will organize to lead those progressive out of the Democratic Party, to work for independent, progressive politics. And today, when progressive candidates are defeated in Democratic primaries, I hope PDA members don’t play by the party rules and go on to support “centrists” and “moderates” who have demonstrated their commitment to reactionary policies at home and abroad.

Question: So you don’t see any chance for reforming the Democratic Party?

La Botz: We have to look at the Democratic Part in the context of the contemporary American economy and society. Working people, labor unions, the movements for social justice used to prefer the Democrats. They knew the Republicans wouldn’t negotiate, but with the Democrats negotiation was always possible. For all intents and purposes, those days are over.

We have entered a period of capitalist crisis, a structural crisis of modern American capitalism that finds it increasingly difficult to compete internationally with Germany, Japan, the rising power of China, and now the new competitors such as Brazil and India. While the U.S. economy—that is American capitalism—could in the past afford to be more expansive and liberal in its social programs, that sort of largesse is no longer possible in the current crisis.

The Republicans and the Democrats have both become parties of economic retrenchment, looking for ways to cut reduce universal social programs, such as Social Security, and to restrict their benefits. Under these conditions, the Democratic Party will continue to move to the right, despite the best efforts of genuine progressives within the party. It’s time to leave and create a working peoples party.

Question: Some people fear that the Tea Party movement and the ultra-conservative candidates they have successfully nominated in the Republican Party mean that the country is moving toward fascism. Faced with rightwing Republicans and currents of fascism, they argue, we have to support the Democrats.

La Botz: There is a growing rightwing movement in the form of the Tea Party and in it one can find some real, though still small, fascist organizations at work. The question is, does the Democratic Party represent some sort of bulwark against such ultra-conservatism and fascism? Do we see the Democrats mobilizing to create a massive movement as an alternative to the rising rightwing or even fascist movement? Not at all. The entire goal is to get people to vote for the increasingly conservative Democrats. How does that stop the right wing?

Do you stop the right by supporting the corporate-dominated Democratic Party? Do you stop a growing conservative trend or emerging fascism by moving to the right with the Blue Dog Democrats? I don’t think so. I think we fight the right by building powerful independent labor and social movements and offering an alternative to both corporate parties, that is, to both the Republicans and the Democrats.

Question: Alright, but from a completely pragmatic point of view, given our two party system, doesn’t your campaign run the risk of taking votes away from the Democratic Party candidate and electing the Republican?

La Botz: No, I don’t buy that. It’s not like this is a zero-sum game. Half of the eligible voters in the United States don’t vote. Most of those are working people and low-income people. The Democratic Party, which claims to be the party of working people, should be able to get its votes there. If it cannot, that’s their fault. Not mine.

When the Democratic Party loses elections, it generally loses to the Republicans, not to third parties. The argument that Ralph Nader and the Green Party cost Al Gore and the Democrats the 2004 election is completely specious. The Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Supreme Court won the election for George W. Bush.

Every party and every candidate has the opportunity and the responsibility to go out and win voters.

Right now Rob Portman is predicted to beat Fisher by 55 to 35 percent, according to a Rasmussen Poll. Why is Portman running ahead? First, Portman has about $9 million in his campaign treasury to Fisher’s $2 million. Portman’s advertising is burying Fisher. Equally important, Lt. Governor Lee Fisher cannot attract votes because Ohio has lost tens of thousands of jobs while the Democrats held power in both Washington, D.C. and Columbus, Ohio. The Democratic Party has failed to deal with the economic crisis and to provide jobs. The Democrats have consequently lost their appeal to working class and low-income voters.

Question: Would you want people to vote for you if the vote were really close, if the vote for you might mean the difference in who wins the election?

La Botz: Yes, I ask people to vote for me even if a vote for me might make the difference, because otherwise the Democratic Party will continue to be able to blackmail progressive voters. Most working class, African American and Latino voters only vote for the Democratic Party candidate because they believe that he or she will be better than the Republican. And all too often they are disappointed.

The Democrats extort votes from voters with the threat that the Republicans will be worse. Meanwhile both parties, arm-in-arm, move to the right. The Republicans will always tend to be worse than the Democrats, even as the whole political landscape shifts rightwards. We can’t let this serve as a permanent argument for accepting whatever the Democrats do.

People should vote for what they believe in, for what they know would be right for our country, not for a supposed “lesser of two evils.” We will not be able to go forward unless we are prepared to break with both corporate parties and construct a new political party on the left.

Question: Some would say: All that sounds very nice, but this is a two-party system, like it or not. You are a spoiler, so you are helping the Republicans.

La Botz: I have to say, this is the most common argument I heard from liberal Democrats. I hear this argument from the real party loyalists and it really disturbs me. Some tell me I shouldn’t run as a Socialist and tell others that they shouldn’t run as Greens or independent progressives. I find it deeply distressing that people who consider themselves to be “liberals” would attempt to squelch any attempt to create a more democratic system.

The Democratic Party organization, despite the party’s name, always opposes other parties and candidates that appear on their left. If we really believe in a democracy, then we have to recognize that people have the right to organize political parties and to put forward their point of view. If we are really progressive, then we should welcome a broadening and a deepening of the development of left political alternatives. We should recognize that healthy debate on the left will be good for the left and for the country.

Question: It sounds like you dislike the liberal Democrats about as much as they do you.

La Botz: Dislike the Democrats? Not at all. Most of my co-workers, neighbors and friends are Democrats. I absolutely oppose the Democratic Party organization, because it is a political arm of the corporations. But I find that I agree with most grassroots Democrats about the issues, and find that we share many common values. After all, when I participate in an anti-war demonstration or a union picketline, I am usually marching alongside a bunch of Democrats. While I walk with them, I talk with them, maybe even argue with them, and try to change their minds, try to convince them of the need for independent politics.

What we have to recognize is that the functional role of the Democratic Party. That is, whatever it says about itself, the Democratic Party in fact functions to prevent the development of an American political party that can represent the real interests of working people — from auto workers, teachers, bus drivers, steelworkers and clerical workers to nurses, freelancers, home health care workers and computer programmers.

That’s why the Republican Party isn’t sufficient for the corporations to run the country. The American ruling class needs two parties. The Republican Party keeps the small business people and corporate managers in line. The Democratic Party exists to keep the working class majority under control. The Democratic Party—and especially its leftwing—functions to keep the labor unions, African Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT folk from leaving to form an independent working class party not controlled by the corporations.

Question: Do you think that voting for you could really change America? Would a vote for you really move us in the direction of Socialism?

La Botz: I believe that progressive social change comes from mass movements from below, from working people. All of the great changes in American society came from such movements, whether we talk about the creation of the industrial unions in the 1930s, the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the women’s movement of the 1970s. Still today the environmental movement and the gay and lesbian rights movements have been created by millions of American working people. Social movements and activism bring change.

Yet, movements and activism must also need a vision, a political platform and a strategy. I run for office to project the vision, program and strategic ideas that can change American society. If I were elected, or even if 51 Socialist Senators were elected or if 50% plus 1 of the House were socialist, we could not bring about the change this society needs. Only the building of a mass movement can do that—but it would have to be a mass movement with a political agenda. I am attempting to project that agenda.

Socialists recognize that elections are only part of the democratic process and only part of changing society. Our goal is to build working class power in order to change society. The Democrats really want your involvement only on Election Day, and then hope you will go back to sleep. We want your involvement even more on other days, and want you wide awake and fighting for the future.

Question: Isn’t your campaign then really a symbolic campaign? Aren’t you just seeking a protest vote? Aren’t small parties like yours doomed to remain marginal?

La Botz: Not at all. This is not a symbolic campaign; this is a quite real campaign. To carry out the campaign, we have built campaign organizations in towns and cities and on college campuses throughout Ohio. Through the campaign, I have spoken to thousands of Ohio voters at meetings and public events. We have distributed tens of thousands of pieces of literature. I have appeared on radio and television shows talking about the need for a socialist alternative and my platform has appeared in newspapers all over the state. I have shared the platform with candidates from the other parties as we debated the issues. We will come out of this campaign having won thousands of votes for socialism, but more important we will have contributed to build activist networks and a socialist movement.

Question: So, do you think that Socialists can come to power in the United States through the ballot box?

La Botz: American history suggests that social movements and alternative political parties together offer the possibility for profound social change. We can think back to those small groups of men and women, black and white who met together in churches and schools back in the 1840s and who eventually formed small abolitionist groups and then the Free Soil Party. The existence of such a social movement and of an alternative political party provided the catalyst that led to the formation of the Republican Party which then led the Civil War to abolish slavery in the South.

We can also think of other small political parties which in other periods—the 1930s and the 1960s—a vision, a platform and a strategy. I think of the small labor parties that developed in the 1930s and of the Peace and Freedom Party of the late 1960s. While the social movements and the political alternatives they developed did not coincide to lead to the radical transformation of America in that period, they did force the major parties to adopt some of their progressive platform.

Today we are in a period when the combination of a complex economic, social and political crisis, an emerging mass movement, and parties offering political alternatives will be able to bring about the changes we seek. When this crisis deepens, history suggests that we will pass through a period of massive upheaval from below. When that happens, today’s left-of-center political parties—the Greens, the Socialists, and others–can help to provide that catalytic element which can lead millions of Democrats to leave their party and form a new party that really represents and is accountable to working people and has a progressive platform. Clearly, it will be rank-and-file Democrats and abstentionist and apathetic voters who will form the basis for America’s working class socialist party in the 21st century.

Comments
  • It’s worth noting that PDA, Progressive Democrats of America, is an independent PAC, and has no official connection to the structures or finances of the Democratic Party.

    It’s also a relatively large organization, close to 100,000, with a range of views. A good number of us expect the Democratic party to implode rather than reform itself. So we build our organization on one side of its internal ‘fault lines,’ the side of the working class and its allies. At some point, we fully expect to ally with other independent groups to supplant it with something better, as we do now with the social movements that don’t do much in the electoral area. We simply want to try to avoid helping the right, rather than the left, in the process.

    If we had a parliamentary system, or even fusion voting or IRV, this wouldn’t matter. But we don’t, at least not yet.

  • Jason says:

    “I had been active, as a socialist, in the Democratic party for almost a quarter of a century when I realized that it was not a political party at all.

    “That notion came to me in Paris in 1983 when I was teaching at the St.-Denis (formerly Vincennes) campus of the university. I was trying to explain American politics to my students when I suddenly realized that I could simplify their lives and mine by telling them that there were no political parties in the United States. The Democrats and Republicans, I said, were not parties in any European sense of the word. They were undisciplined and periodic coalitions, which came together on the basis of electoral opportunism every two years — and in a national sense, only every four years. They had no real program, and the platforms adopted by party conventions were, by the common consent of all, simply consigned to the wastebasket once they were voted.

    “The institution of the primary, I continued, was a marvelous, and uniquely American, example of this organized anarchism. In Europe, the parties of the Left tend to name leaders on the basis of a political viewpoint and, in any case, only dues-paying members of the party have the right to elect delegates, who in turn select that leader. Even conservative parties such as the British Tories have some kind of a mechanism whereby leaders ’emerge.’ Moreover, in the parliamentary system it is quite common for victorious parties to enact their entire electoral program. That happened in the 1945 Labour government in Britain and as a result of the Socialist triumph in France in 1981-1982. But in the United States anyone who declares himself or herself a member of a party can, without the payment of dues or the affirmation of a single political principle, help determine the
    leadership, program, and policies of the party.

    “Indeed, it was only in my own lifetime that the custom of crossover voting in primaries was eliminated. That is, it used to be quite easy for voters to select the party to which they ‘belonged’ on primary day itself. This meant that Democrats could vote in the Republican primary to select the worst possible candidate from the Republican point of view, and that Republicans could return the favor. Under such circumstances, I told my students, it was all but impossible to have a serious, disciplined party — indeed to have a party in any sense of the word — since elected officials responded to their amorphous, unorganized base and not to any institution.

    “This puzzling fact was one of the reasons why generations of American socialists had committed political suicide. They had attempted to create a party and movement in the United States on the European model — only that model didn’t apply. It took a long time for American socialists — and for me — to grasp this home truth. We righteously pointed out that the Democratic party contained a good number of the most reactionary people in the United States: not just crooks and swindlers, which was obvious enough, but union busters, militarists, racists, sexists, and just about every single variety of political desirable. What we did not notice was that, at the very same time, the Democratic party had, since the New Deal, also contained the clear majority of the progressive forces. That was, and is, a blatant
    contradiction. A very American contradiction.”

    (Michael Harrington, THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER, 1988, pp. 67-68.)

  • redchuck4 says:

    Jason’s description of the Democrats (and Republicans) in the US– as an shifting, structureless coalition of “interests” gathered for elections rather than a classic political party with membership, etc.– is correct. It is this that makes them the MODEL for CAPITALIST parties in the late 20th and early 21st century. The “structurelessness” of the US parties means that their “membership” have no FORMAL (no less real) power to hold their leaders/elected official accountable. As Paul Street and others have pointed out, such “structurelessness” allow the “money primary” (who raises the most campaign funding from capitalists) to determine candidates, etc. Put simply, rather than opening the Democrats to the influence of working people and progressives, their “structurelessness” FACILITATES the “tyranny” of capital in the party.

  • Jason says:

    I guess my question is: how would a third party be able to avoid becoming just as structureless as the Democrats (and Republicans)? It seems to be a function of the U.S. electoral system, particularly with open primaries. Would a U.S. labor party be able to control who runs on its ballot line? Not under the current rules, it seems.

  • One approach, which I think worth trying, is to build PDA as an independent “party within a ‘party'”, running labor candidates on a pro-labor platform, gathering strength on the working class side of the fault line in the Dem coalition, until the whole thing implodes or explodes. If PDA can maintain alliances with both social movements and groups like some of the more sensible Greens all along, it will then be in a position to form something new and helpful.

  • Nick says:

    I don’t follow election law closely, so I could be wrong, but it’s my impression that, in most states anyway, a party is free to choose how it nominates its candidates. In my home state, Michigan, the Democratic and Republican parties hold open primaries, but the Green party holds a delegated convention. If it chose to hold a primary, it would have to be open, but I would think that any law forcing a party to nominate its candidates in a particular manner would quickly be ruled unconstitutional. (Of course, you’d also think that most states’ extremely difficult petition requirements for ballot access would be unconstitutional.)

    In my opinion, the biggest problem with trying to build an independent progressive force within the Democratic party is that you still have to observe party discipline. In spite of Harrington’s description, there is some degree of discipline within the Democratic party when it matters—at election time, especially. Any progressive candidate who loses the Democratic primary will have to support the winning candidate, no matter how right-wing, in the general election—otherwise you’re not really working within the Democratic party, and candidates from your progressive organization could be disqualified from the primary ballot or denied party support in the future (like they’ve successfully done with Lyndon LaRouche and associated candidates in many states). I’m too young to remember Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, but my impression is that, after a pathbreaking campaign that forged an unprecedented electoral coalition, he turned around after the election and urged his supporters to vote for the winning candidate (Mondale, then Dukakis). He could hardly have done otherwise—the only other option would have been to attempt to split off his electorate and run as an independent.

    It seems to me, then, that running progressive labor candidates within the Democratic party does not, in fact, serve to build an independent “party within the party.” It actually helps the Democratic establishment maintain the status quo to have left-wing candidates (like Kucinich) who run in the primaries and then support the winning candidate, since it keeps the left wing in the party without forcing the Dems in power to concede anything to them.

    This argument doesn’t categorically rule out supporting Democrats ever. But it does argue against working within the Democratic party as a strategy.

  • Bob Lyons says:

    As the late U. Utah Phillips used to say, “remember, when you are voting for the lesser of two evils, you are still voting for evil”.

    Those who vote for the Democrats take heed!

  • Jason says:

    Nick writes: “In spite of Harrington’s description, there is some degree of discipline within the Democratic party when it matters—at election time, especially. Any progressive candidate who loses the Democratic primary will have to support the winning candidate, no matter how right-wing, in the general election—otherwise you’re not really working within the Democratic party, and candidates from your progressive organization could be disqualified from the primary ballot or denied party support in the future (like they’ve successfully done with Lyndon LaRouche and associated candidates in many states).”

    Denied support from the DNC, sure, but one could run and even conceivably win a primary without that. Anyway, I don’t think LaRouche was disqualified from the primary ballot; he’s been denied delegates at the Dem National Convention because he has a criminal record and lacks the right to vote. (There’s a rule that a Dem nominee must be a registered voter.)

    As for why Jackson threw his support to Mondale and Dukakis; I think that has more to do with Jackson’s own personal, ideological lesser-evilism than any Dem Party rules he was required to follow. I’m pretty sure that had he run an independent presidential campaign after losing the primary in ’84 he still could have run again in the primary in ’88.

  • Erica Brand says:

    This year, I will mark the anniversary. Usually, I forget about it, or just do it briefly inside my head. Perhaps that’s because I remember so few of the details of that day, 40 years ago today, when I was released from a Stasi prison in the middle of a town then called Karl-Marx-Stadt in Saxony, East Germany. Perhaps, it’s just because thinking about that time makes me feel gloomy.
    Indeed, it is all so long ago. I have to make an effort to remind myself that it was me who this happened to, jailed for voicing an opinion which differed from the government’s view. The German Democratic Republic no longer exists. The “Warsaw Pact” and the “Socialist Camp”, the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”, “Eastern Bloc” and “Iron Curtain” have disappeared. And we, the generation growing up in that era – behind that Iron Curtain – are history now. Our children do not want to listen to stories irrelevant to their lives.
    It’ll be different, for me at least, this year. I think I am going to put on the shirt I bought the day I was released and invite a few friends over for a celebratory drink. The shirt is mid-blue with a yellow stripe and it’s labelled bügelfrei – non-iron. They don’t make them like that any more!
    As hard as I try, I don’t remember much else of what I did during those first few hours of freedom. It’s as if my memory has been bleached out by the blazing sunlight, which is what I recall most vividly. The sunlight, the blue sky: on this first day, everything was just beautiful.
    Just half an hour before buying the shirt, the last barrier between inside and out had been unlocked and I had stepped from the dim light of the prison into the glare of a hot July day, free to go wherever I wanted. Within the borders of the German Democratic Republic, that is.
    It was the end of my encounter with the East German prison system, begun with my arrest nearly two years earlier, in August 1968, on the platform of an East Berlin underground station.
    The week before, on holiday in Czechoslovakia, traveling with a friend in my first car, we had seen Soviet tanks roll in, abruptly ending the brief Prague Spring and hopes for Dubček’s “Socialism with a human face”.
    As we travelled back through the town of Teplice, Czech students had handed us a batch of hastily printed leaflets, urging us to tell people back in the GDR the truth of what was happening: that this was a brutal invasion, not the response to a comradely request to rescue socialism, as had been claimed in “Neues Deutschland”. We promised to do so, hiding the leaflets in the car before crossing the border back into East Germany.
    As things turned out, we weren’t any good at being subversives. We’d only managed to hand out one leaflet when we were caught, immediately reported to the police by the ultra-keen citizen we had given it to. Unlike the day of my release, every second of my arrest and the first night of interrogations are clear in my memory.
    Men in civilian clothes came towards us slowly, four or five of them fanned out across the platform. Flight in the other direction impossible. There was no second exit. The train that we thought would take us away from the scene had been stopped, passengers staring at us as we were picked out.
    I still wonder if we should have tried to make a dash for it breaking through the lines. One of the women among the station staff was whispering, encouraging us to run. To this day, I wish I knew who she was, taking our side.
    Instead we hesitated, paralysed, like rabbits caught in the headlights; and then it was too late.
    Some two months later I was sentenced to 28 months in a high security prison for “staatsfeindliche Hetze”, which translates as “rabble-rousing propaganda against the state”. My “accomplice” friend got 12 months. Perhaps we were lucky: had we distributed 50, the sentence might have been up to ten years.
    Most of my sentence was spent in Brandenburg Prison, to the west of Berlin. It was run by the Volkspolizei (“People’s Police”), not the Stasi (the state security service). Der gläserne Sarg – the Crystal Coffin – as prisoners used to call it, for its glass roof and harsh regime for inmates mostly serving long sentences, much longer than mine.
    Somehow I survived Brandenburg Prison and the factories we were forced to work in relatively unscathed: I got on with my cellmates and, as I discovered later from my Stasi file (which one could access after the fall of the Wall), even the guards had few complaints about me, although according to prison governor Ackermann’s reports, I “had failed to see the necessity and justice of my punishment” and therefore should not be released until the end of my term.
    However, a higher authority overruled Ackermann some 22 months into my sentence, when one day I was crammed into one of several tiny cells in an unmarked white van and taken to an unknown destination, which turned out to be the Stasi prison in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz again).
    My Stasi file later revealed that it was the all-powerful Mielke in person, chief of the Stasi, who had ordered my release. I have it black on white, Mielke’s pen crossing out Ackermann’s recommendation and his signature. Should I be grateful to the man? (Later, after the GDR was dismantled, Mielke was found guilty of the murder of two policemen in 1931. Due to ill health, he didn’t have to serve out his sentence and died in his bed, aged 92.)
    This Stasi Prison obviously was no ordinary prison. Ironically, it was the place most political prisoners hoped to reach at some stage, a kind of holding prison where they were “fattened up” to look a bit healthier after their long incarceration before being put on a coach that took them to the East German border and through it: part of a secret deal with West German government agencies whereby prisoners were released in return for hard currency.
    There was better food here and better treatment altogether than elsewhere: you could even buy instant coffee, Rondo Kaffee, East Germany’s answer to Nescafé, the hot water for it served by Stasi officers themselves, the state’s security elite in smart, well-fitting grey uniforms; what a contrast to the sloppy dark blue regular Volkspolizei prison guards.
    The Stasi was expensive to run; selling prisoners must have helped and there was no shortage of supplies. You had to be lucky, though, to be one of these prisoners: you had to have the right lawyer and get on a list of names known to the West.
    Not long after my arrival, I was summoned to a meeting with a high ranking Stasi officer (with that characteristic cold Stasi stare – they must have been specially trained in it), and told I would be released soon (but into East, not West Germany). My release was conditional of course and no reasons were given.
    Maybe some money had changed hands between East and West and my name found its way onto the right list; perhaps it was because Amnesty was on my case.
    So it was that on the morning of July 23, 1970, I was handed back the personal belongings on me at the time of my arrest: my own underwear, jeans, socks, T-shirt, my watch (I wound it up immediately – it worked as if nothing had happened in the meantime), a few Czech coins and a Czech campsite receipt.
    I, in turn, had handed back my prison garb: the blue and white striped collarless blouse, skirt and jacket made of recycled army uniforms, prison underwear, prison slippers.
    There was a moment of anxiety as the guard searched the few personal items I had brought from my cell, his practiced fingers sliding over the seams of my wash bag. I had used a razor blade to slice open its inner plastic lining and inserted two small sketches I’d made in my first cell, in the remand prison where I was held at the start. It was the only personal record I had of my time in prison. Had the drawings been found they would have been taken, as had all my other efforts to record my time in prison. And – you never knew with these guys – perhaps they would have kept me in longer. He didn’t find it, though.
    I don’t remember the last seconds in prison or any goodbyes from the guards. Was there a handshake as in American movies? I doubt it: more likely a grunt, an order to move this way or that, the usual refusal to look me in the eye.
    Outside, the air was fresh and the sunlight bright as only a released prisoner can see it. I felt elated, euphoric, my heart racing.
    Back home in Berlin, the euphoria didn’t last long. My record meant I couldn’t travel (as most others could) to other Eastern bloc countries, or return to higher education (I had been planning a degree in architecture), or work in certain fields. Life felt more claustrophobic than ever. I was to remain in the GDR another five years. It took some time to work up enough courage, not to escape – but to apply for permission to leave. This was not risk-free either, but the risk turned out to be worth it: permission was eventually granted and I left the GDR for West Berlin in January 1976.
    I was 21 when I went to prison for handing out one leaflet. I was there for less than two years; I know that what I went through was nothing compared to millions of others in prisons worldwide. Even in Brandenburg, I was fortunate: I didn’t work in the worst factories, didn’t get beaten up by the guards or fellow prisoners. But my life had been thrown off track. It has taken years to recover at every level – professionally, personally, emotionally. Nevertheless I am glad I was among those who took a stand, however futile.
    It took quite some time to finally decide to move to America in 1987. Here I met my partner, started a family and attempted to lead a normal life. We brought up two lovely sons and we have a great, crumbling house and overgrown garden. I’ve carried on, in one form or another, with the craft of stained glass I was taught, in a workshop run by the Church, during my last years in East Germany.
    And today, I’ll celebrate. After all, how many people have a 40-year-old non-iron shirt?

    Don’t fall for it. Never again girls x