Germany: Moves towards a new “left party†?

New opposition to SPD government offer big opportunities.

The past few weeks have seen widespread media coverage on the possible launch of a new party “to the left” of the ruling SPD (Social Democratic Party).

Two different initiatives were launched, both involving trade union officials and, in one case, also long-standing SPD members. While at this point in time it remains open whether those initiatives will take off, they clearly reflect growing discontent and anger amongst the population and the rank and file of the trade unions in Germany. April 3 could see hundreds of thousands of people participating in demonstrations, called by the DGB, the national trade union federation, in Berlin, Cologne and Stuttgart.

Anger at the neo-liberal ‘Agenda 2010’ – the SPD-Green government’s attack on the welfare state and the living standards of working class people, pensioners and youth – saw support for the SPD declining to 21% nationally in some opinion polls. This year there are 14 different elections in Germany which will most likely result in severe defeats for the SPD. Earlier this year, in Hamburg, the party scored 30.5%, its lowest post-1945 vote in that city. Recent opinion polls show that 64% of the population believes that Agenda 2010 is “wrong”, while 76% believe that it is “socially unfair and unbalanced”.

This attitude had already been reflected in massive waves of protests, and partly strike actions, at the end of last year. These were triggered by the success of the 100,000 strong November 1st national demonstration in Berlin against cuts. More than 500,000 people have taken to the streets to protest against cutbacks in education, the attack on free national wage bargaining and other issues across the country. What united the protests is the common rejection of Agenda 2010. Most Germans see the Agenda marking the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the health system, which, for since World War II, seemed to have been a German trademark. Consequently, bitterness, discontent, anger and the feeling of betrayal grows amongst the German working class, the pensioners and the youth.

Although protests had cooled down at the beginning of the year, a new wave of demonstrations are about to catch up with the unprecedented anger that affects young and old in German society.

In Munich alone, 27 March saw 25,000 pensioners protesting against cuts in pensions. The next important date of protest is 3 April. Due to massive pressure from below, and as an attempt to keep the movement in check, the DGB has called for mass demonstrations in Berlin, Stuttgart and Cologne, which will see hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. This will mark the biggest protest against the SPD government since it came to office.

In 1998, when the ‘red-green coalition’ government came to power after 16 years of conservative Christian Democratic (CDU) rule, many people hoped for a change for the better. Instead they found that the pace of social cuts accelerated.

So far, the leadership of the trade unions has done everything in their power to hold back protests, not seriously challenge the government’s attacks and preventing the development of a serious movement or strike actions that could stop Agenda 2010. Indeed, a year ago, the DGB called off further protests. It was a movement from below, partially initiated by Socialist Alternative (SAV – cwi in Germany), which organised the November demo that has reinvigorated the opposition.

While it is the SPD-Green national government that has set the pace in attacking living standards, all the main political parties have joined in the attacks at regional and local levels. Only last week, all the parties involving in running the regional governments in west Germany agreed to force their 800,000 workers to work an extra 90 or 210 minutes a week with no increase in pay. Some German newspapers commented that this measure united the political parties.

The fundamentally neo-liberal policies of the government led to a crisis within the SPD. In 2003, the SPD lost 43,000 members and, in January 2004 alone, another 10,000 left the party. The lack of organised and determined resistance against the government attacks, and the attacks on wages and conditions, is also reflected in the trade unions. In the first three months of this year alone, 150,000 members resigned from the united services union (ver.di)

Reacting to this, Chancellor Schröder announced, in early February, that he was stepping down as Chair of the SPD. This was an attempt to calm down the membership. However, Frannz Müntefering, who got elected as new Chair at a special party congress in Berlin on March 21, immediately declared his support for the Chancellor’s policy. Müntefering insisted there is no alternative to the government’s policy because of the current economic situation.

The bitterness amongst the population, and within the rank and file of the unions, resulted in the trade union bureaucracy coming out – at least verbally- against the SPD’s policy. Frank Bsirske, Chair of Germany’s largest union, ver.di declared: “The trade unions and the SPD are no longer shoulder to shoulder. Those times are over.”

Initiatives for a new left party

However, at the beginning of this year, some of the more middle level trade union officials inside ver.di, left academics, members and ex-members of the Green party, and disappointed PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) members joined together to issue an appeal called “electoral political alternative 2006”, to consider challenging the SPD in the next general election scheduled for 2006. At the same time, another grouping of other trade union officials in the powerful IG Metall (IGM) union (metal workers’ and engineering union) issued an appeal, “For Work and Social Justice” (ASG), that went further in the direction of founding a new party.

These two initiatives, considering the establishment of a new party or an electoral alternative, became national news.

One of the reasons the “For work and social justice” grouping gave for their announcement was that they had enough of the SPD having disintegrated into simply an election machine for Schröder. In their first publication they say: “None of us had expected that a party with such great social traditions will mutate into an election machine for the Chancellor in such a short period of time and whose policy negates almost everything the party stood for more than a hundred years”.

Those initiatives, despite the fact that the top of the SPD leadership, the trade union bureaucracy and so-called election specialists, have rubbished the prospects of a new party having any chance in the elections, have caused a situation of high alert among the SPD leadership. Following the party congress, the SPD executive sent out notices to those IGM officials, who amongst others, are behind the ASG (“For work and social justice”) initiative. They were told they will be expelled from the SPD if they do not withdraw the initiative. All these IGM officials have been members of the SPD for at least 30 years.

SPD pressure group?

Unfortunately, the initiators are quite vague about whether or not they are going to set up a new party. At the ASG initiative’s first press conference, Thomas Händel, one of the IGM representatives involved, said: “We demand that Schröder stops Agenda 2010 now” and “We do not exclude the possibility of launching a left party”. At the same time, one of their main aims seems to be to operate as some sort of pressure group to change the SPD’s policy. To a certain extent, they seem to use the idea of a new party as a threat rather than a real option to build genuine opposition from below to challenge Schröder’s neo-liberal policy. They partly hope that the SPD will come under pressure and will subsequently change its policy – making a new party obsolete. This is reflected in a comment by Klaus Ernst, IGM leader in Schweinfurt, who said: “If Franz Müntefering, the new chair of the SPD, was to bring about any change in policy, we could then imagine that a new party is not necessary”.

But, there is little sign of this happening. Last year, two SPD national congresses both overwhelmingly supported Schröder’s austerity policies.

The cwi and its affiliate in Germany, Socialist Alternative (SAV), believe that it is impossible to transform the SPD and change it back into a party that represents the interests of the working class, pensioners and youth. The SPD is a pro-capitalist, neo-liberal party that has long ago ceased to be a working class party. While there might be some talk now about introducing a “compulsory fee” for those companies not employing apprentices or about re-introducing taxes for the rich, something that undoubtedly will be used by the so-called left inside the SPD as an argument to remain inside the party, there can be no doubt that the SPD government will strive to fully implement Agenda 2010. Moreover, Agenda 2010 will only be the tip of the iceberg, unless serious opposition and mass movements develop from below, which will force the government to retreat.

Vacuum on the left

Due to the alienation from the SPD, and the huge anger that exists in German society, there is huge potential for a genuine left, mass working class party to develop. This is indicated by recent opinion polls that say 18% of the population would consider voting for a new left party, 26% saying that they welcome the plans to set up a new party.

The great interest that exists in a new left formation is also reflected in the fact that the newly established website of ASG had 200,000 hits in its first 10 days and received more than a 1,000 positive e-mails, so far. More than 3,000 people have signed on to receive the newsletter of the “electoral political alternative”.

Moreover, and to a certain extent this is even more decisive, the newspaper ‘Welt am Sonntag’ reported that 30 different independent local groupings to the left of the SPD were set up across the country (most of them are independent slates or alliances for the local elections). Many of these existed before they were drawn to the attention of the media but, at the same time, the current events on a national level may inspire and encourage others to take similar steps.

A number of the local groupings were initiated by local trade union representatives. One of them, based in Herne (the Ruhr area), one of the former strongholds of the SPD, explained “We set up the new list for the local elections simply because there are so many people who are discontent with the Agenda-SPD”.

SAV in Germany took the initiative to set up local alliances in Aachen and Cologne.

How can a new party develop?

Local initiatives that genuinely involve working class people and youth are decisive in creating a new viable and democratic mass party of the working class. Local initiatives should strive for the maximum involvement of the local population, as well as local trade union branches, shop stewards councils and young people, to discuss the programme, ideas and campaigns of a new party or a local alliance.

It is also important to stress the need for such initiatives to be campaigning bodies and not simply an electoral alternative. At the end of the day, it will be the combination of campaigning activities and representation in local councils, regional governments and the national government that can achieve improvements in the living standards of the working class. It is the balance of power that decides whether the bosses and capitalists achieve what they want or whether the working class has a real say on issues.

The task of a new party would be to bring together the different struggles that take place on a local level and to give them a political perspective.

Undoubtedly, local alliances by themselves are not sufficient to challenge the anti-working class policy of the national government. It is necessary that all the local initiatives get together and hold a national conference of all those who are interested in setting up a new left party on a national scale. This should, of course, also involve the coming together of the two different national initiatives.

It is vital, however, that a new party is organised from bottom to top rather than from top to bottom – it must be inclusive and under the democratic control of the membership. It has to allow open discussion about structures and programme of a future party. Otherwise, the danger is that a new party will be an empty shell rather than a mass organisation that involves the hundreds and thousands of discontent and angry working class people that are looking for an alternative to the established parties.

The trade union bureaucracy will probably use the 3 April demonstrations to let off steam and to verbally attack the government’s Agenda 20. But they will most certainly try to act as a brake on the development of a new party on the left to the SPD. In the case of the Cologne demonstration, the trade union leaders even invited Norbert Blüm, an “appealing” representative of so-called “worker’s wing” inside the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), to address the audience, despite the fact that he was for 16 years Labour minister in the last CDU government and responsible for implementing anti-trade union laws.

However, this should not stop the initiators of ASG (“For Work and Social Justice”), as well as those from the “electoral political alternative 2006”, participating in these demonstrations and to call for a broad conference to discuss setting up a new party. At the moment, the “electoral political alternative 2006” is holding a conference on 6 June. A bold and massive showing at the 3 April demonstrations, that clearly advocates the idea of setting up a new party, could guarantee a massive turnout for the June conference.

What programme is needed?

The answer to the most crucial question in the debate about whether or not a new left party can have sustained success will largely depend on what programme it adopts. As an explanation to why a new party would have the potential to score around 20% of the vote, the initiators of “electoral political alternative 2006” point at the success of the right wing, populist “Schill party” in the city of Hamburg. (Schill is the name of a reactionary and racist lawyer who was the main public figure of this party) This party scored 19.4 % when it stood in the regional elections in 2001, for the first time. The Schill party succeeded in largely picking up on the anger that existed against the the SPD, which was in office in Hamburg since the end of World War II, and which was involved in a number of corruption scandals.

As long as the left does not succeed in putting forward an alternative, there is always the danger that by using anti-establishment slogans right wing, populist formations can exploit the anger and discontent that exists amongst large sections of the working class and youth.

However, the decline and, in effect, the collapse of the Schill party came about as quickly as its rise. It was in the regional state government coalition for about two years, when the government collapsed. In the subsequent elections the Schill party did not even get re-elected.

The reason for this is not, as some commentators suggest, because there is no room for a new party to develop. The Schill party was a right-wing bunch of individual careerists without a real base amongst the local population. Neither did it have a programme that could bring about any change in the interests of the working class. It based itself on populist slogans.

There is a danger, however, that if a new left party does not put forward a full programme, which puts forward a clear strategy about where, for example, the money should come from to finance the health system and how cuts in pensions can be avoided, it might also end up having a few electoral successes and then disappear again into political thin air. A genuine left mass workers’ party needs to be ready to challenge big business and to break with the dictates of pro-capitalist policy.

Avoiding taking on big business means going down the same road as the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism). They had an opportunity to develop as a socialist force nationally, but moved increasing rightwards, entering into regional coalitions with the SPD. As part of the coalition with the social democrats in the Berlin city government the PDS ended up carrying through and even proposing severe cuts in the social sector and in the education system.

The SAV in Germany advocates the idea that a new workers’ party should adopt a socialist programme that stands for the complete transformation of society in the interest of the working class and the youth. A socialist society would bring an end to the profit-driven system that is run and controlled for the benefit of by a tiny minority of the super rich. In effect, this would be a programme that follows the traditions of the German workers’ movement, upon which the SPD was built 140 years ago.

We understand that, at this point in time, a socialist programme may not get the support of the majority of those who are ready to join, build or vote for a new party. We, therefore, would not insist that a full socialist programme is adopted before helping to build such a new party. However, we are convinced that a new left party would need to adopt an action programme that marks an end to the neo-liberal agenda of the SPD at national, regional and local levels.

In our view, such a programme would have to fully reject Agenda 2010 and the cuts in the health service. I would need to include demands to re-nationalise the privatised companies. Privatisation led to the sacking of many workers and worse working conditions.

A new left party would also have to struggle to get the necessary funds to begin massive investment into public services, such as the health and education system, and to create many new jobs. There is certainly enough wealth in society to carry out these policies – the problem is that today that wealth is not owned by the working class. A programme would also include reversing the so-called “tax reforms” that were introduced in the favour of the rich and super rich over the last 20 years or so.

Unfortunately, the initiators of ASG and other initiatives in opposition to the SPD have not yet come up with any concrete demands or ideas for a possible programme for a new party or its activities. But this will be crucial if a lasting alternative is going to be built.

Opportunities for the left

At this point in time, it is very difficult to say whether a new party is going to be launched. But even if the initial intention of those who launched the ASG appeal – “For Work and Social Justice” – was to put pressure on the SPD, things have developed a certain dynamic of their own.

Media coverage can help trigger the setting up of local alliances, which, in turn, could have an influence on new initiatives on a national scale. Things can develop in both directions.

SAV in Germany, and the cwi internationally, follow the latest developments with great interest and want to participate in the building of a new genuine workers’ party. A new workers’ party would be a tremendous step forward for the working class in Germany and would have repercussions internationally.

Even if the ASG and like minded groupings went ahead and set up a new party, there is a danger that it will not allow the full participation of all those who want to get involved, and that its programme would remain limited. One of the initiators of the new groupings remarked that they do not advocate the idea of a left-socialist party but rather a left-populist one.

The coming weeks and months will be important. First of all, how big will the protests on 3 April be and what happens afterwards? Will further protests develop? The SAV argues that that the next step after 3 April should be a one-day general strike.

There should be the biggest possible mobilisation for the 6 June conference, as well as the conference in May organised by ver.di, Attac and others who are involved in the anti-cuts movement. These, and other conferences, should not just be “talking shops” but used to concretely organise the next steps.

The current developments have a lot of possibilities. Many people are closely following the events and hope that a new party can have a national impact and challenge the neo-liberal agenda of all existing parties. However, there could be frustration, and a great opportunity could be lost, if the initiators of political forces to the left of the SPD only half-heartedly pursue their plans or do not set up a new party.

The cwi in Germany (SAV) is engaged in setting up local alliances for the forthcoming local elections in various regional states. SAV will continue to argue for a genuine mass party of the working class, pensioners and youth: a party that fights for a socialist alternative.

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April 2004