“Progressive or conservative?”

In conversation with Klaus Betz, Anna Kosenkova

Finally! (Issue I/2020)

“Whoever is not a socialist when they’re 20 has no heart; whoever is still one at 40 has no brain” runs a quote that’s been attributed to Georges Clemenceau as well as Winston Churchill. Mr Betz, as a convinced left-winger at 72, what do you say to the charge that you’ve lost your reason?

Klaus Betz: (laughing) I’d certainly not accuse myself of that. For me it would be really suspect if I’d thrown all my youthful convictions out of the window with age. I also think that the question of whether someone is progressive or conservative has, first of all, a lot to do with personal history. How were the political winds blowing when you were younger? What did parents think? I grew up in the 1960s, in other words right in the middle of the student protest movement, and had friends who talked about Marx and Engels. We listened to pop music, The Rolling Stones. Maybe that suited my character or I was just rebelling against my conservative parents and the culture of repression they preached. Who can really say exactly how it happened? When I moved to Berlin as a 20-year-old to do my military service, maybe I’d now be a frat boy if the first place I lived had been in a student fraternity house.

Would you say, Ms Kosenkova, that our political inclination emerges in contrast or comparison with our home or social environment? 

Anna Kosenkova: Of course it has a lot to do with biography. But definitely with individuals’ living situations as well. I was born in Russia and my parents spent their lives in the Soviet Union and saw it break apart. They certainly had their problems with the former regime and told me this after we all emigrated to Germany in the middle of the 1990s. But I don’t think my conservatism, as a reaction to “left-wing ideas”, has been inspired by my conservative upbringing. That came later, when I’d grown up, and was still always feeling insecure somehow. Would I get a job? Am I going to find an affordable place to live? Will I still get a pension when I’m old? These were all questions that were preying on my mind when I was coming to the end of my education. And I find that conservativism creates a sense of security and stability that attracts me and many others of my generation. Maybe that’s because everything else seems so uncertain.

Can you relate to that, Mr Betz?

Klaus Betz: In part, yes. I also accept that young people nowadays grow up differently from how my generation did. Because, if I’m honest, I didn’t have to fight for anything in my youth. People like to claim they did because we were politically very active, but we didn’t have these fears about our existence. Employment and education just fell into our laps. Whoever was a graduate in 1968, like me, had no such worries. Most of my old schoolfriends today are professors, dentists or architects and earn good money. In the worst case you can still be a kindergarten teacher. The fact that it’s different nowadays, I see with my daughter. She’s in her mid-30s, just going from one project to the next, from short-term job to short-term job. That young people today have to worry about pensions and affordable accommodation, whereas in those days we could just live from day to day, smoking hash. It’s a real catastrophe. But at the same time, all these worries and fears don’t have to result in a conservative attitude. Isn’t global economic inequality, for example, a problem that leads to these fears, Ms Kosenkova? And doesn’t that call for more radical solutions than those the conservatives are offering us?

Anna Kosenkova: I just think in general that something has to change. I also think that the state shouldn’t get too involved in the lives of citizens. And politics should also be more hands-off when it comes to issues of resource distribution. If you’ve earned your prosperity fairly and legitimately, then no-one should be able to take any of it away. I’d actually find it good if wealthy people chose more often to give it away and participated, for example, in charitable work. But that should be their own choice and not a task of policy. In any case, for me these kinds of change should ideally proceed slowly and carefully. A radical shift can also cause chaos in the end.

Not everyone your age thinks the same. The young people around the world taking to the streets for “Fridays for Future”, for instance, are demanding a radical rethink in politics. What’s your perception of that?

Anna Kosenkova: I’ve never gone on a march myself and I’ve never protested. Even though I think it’s important to talk about climate change, for example, for me a demonstration is always a double-edged sword. Because it’s too often about being against something rather than about introducing specific ideas. Protests in recent years were always about being against capitalism, against environmental pollution, against this and that. But what, finally, was achieved? Because I’m always much more looking to take on board practical ideas. That’s why I much prefer to talk about the Dutch marine conservationist Bojan Slat than Greta Thunberg, for instance. A while ago he developed a system for fishing plastics out of the ocean. That kind of thing grabs me more than a protest about climate change.   

Are you outraged, Mr Betz, that Ms Kosenkova isn’t outraged?

Klaus Betz: So, have you donated money to these plastics people?

Anna Kosenkova: Yes.

Klaus Betz: Because that’s also a way of reinforcing change. I think that’s okay. I can understand that demonstrations are also tiresome. But I also have to tell you that sometimes you can tear down whole societies and allow new ones to arise. The protests against climate change have deeply affected me. My granddaughter brought me along to one the other day – she’s just turned 12. And later she said, “But Grandad, you could sell your car, you’re retired now!” And then when I said that I still needed to go shopping or visit friends, she said that I could just hire a car. “Carsharing” as they call it now. It made me proud that she was thinking about it in such a creative way. So now I’m seriously considering selling my car. Sometimes it’d be nice if young people were as actively involved in other issues as much as they’re involved with climate change. I have the feeling that my generation spent more time reading newspapers and watching news programmes – and was more interested in a range of political issues. Now kids are on their phones so much and have generally become more apolitical.

Do you share this view, Ms Kosenkova?

Anna Kosenkova: I think my generation is anything other than non-political – and definitely not lazy, as we’re often accused of being by our parents and grandparents. Maybe what we’re lacking is a platform for getting ourselves properly heard. For example, I think that young people need to be given a political and economic leadership role so that what they can actually do can be genuinely valued. On one side, most of the jobs with responsibility and a decent salary are taken by older generations and, on the other, we’re reproached for not changing anything. I think it’s a scandal.

Klaus Betz: I also think you’re right. And I have to say that, if all young people see things they way you do, then I have no fears for the future. Maybe you’re a bit more of a realist than I am, and maybe now and again you’ll have the courage to throw a spanner into the system. But you’re not denying change in and of itself, and you see the world for how it is. That gives me courage. 

The interview was conducted by Kai Schnier

Translated by Scott Martingell

similar articles

Finally! (Topic: Ageing)

“Accustomed to holding power”

an interview with Pankaj Mishra

Some sit in the boss's chair, others in a retirement home: A conversation about the baby boomer generation.


The new Poland (Topic: Poland)

The country in the spiritual east

by Jacek Dehnel

Nationalists in government, fanatics on the streets: the German explanation for the situation in Poland is often quite simple. But it is not so clear cut.


Finally! (Editorial)

“The oldest people can see things that are hidden to the rest of us”

by Jenny Friedrich-Freksa

Our chief editor takes a look at the latest edition.


Poorest nation, richest nation (Topic: Inequality)

The land that never was

by Blaise N'Djehoya

First a bank spot on the map, then a colony: How Ubangi-Shari became the Central African Republic.


Finally! (Topic: Ageing)

Sometimes love comes later

by Assaf Gavron

From the first sexual experience at 16 to a midlife crisis at 50? In reality, little is predictable in life.


Finally! (Topic: Ageing)

“Retirement age depends on social class”

in conversation with John Macnicol

Academics put off their retirement, manual workers often retire in their mid-50s. A conversation with the sociologist John Macnicol.