Germany: A social and economic earthquake

Germany is currently in the middle of a political, social and economic earthquake. Ordinary Germans are facing a neo-liberal offensive of huge and stark proportions by the German ruling class.

While many American commentators have described Schroeder as trying to avoid the divisiveness of Margaret Thatcher, currently the German Chancellor is easily as hated as Thatcher was during the 1980s. Last year one of the highest selling singles in Germany was "the Tax Song" an entire song devoted to making fun of the Chancellor! The working class in Germany is not taking the attacks of the SPD-Green Party government lying down, the political situation is in flux and the lessons for the international labour movement are manifold.

Since 2001, Germany has experienced a sclerotic economy and recession as the global economy has slowed down. Second quarter growth year-on-year 2002-3 was -0.6%, Business Report, 14 August 2003, while second quarter growth for 2004 was 0.5%, BBC World Service, 3 October 2004. These terrible growth figures have led to the Economist dubbing Germany the "sick man of Europe". The labour laws and welfare state are seen by the capitalists as the reason for high labour costs in Germany (Germany has one of the highest labour costs in Europe). To combat this "Agenda 2010" is currently making its way bit by bit through the national parliament, while a media campaign is being waged to make the working class accept the new conditions.

What’s at stake is not just unemployment benefits but a drive to increase the working week. Der Spiegel carried a front-page headline over the summer of "Why Germans need to work more". Matthias Schaeffer and other leading German economists are leading the call for a 50-hour working week! In a landmark battle at Siemens’ factories, the company managed to force 4,000 production line workers onto a 40-hour week, up from a 35-hour week, with no change in pay. Britta Norisch, production line worker commented "I’m a single mother. I’ve lost 20% of my income and now I need to find an additional part-time job." The Siemens management black mailed workers with a threat to move production to Hungary. Yet the IG Metall trade union called it a victory as no jobs were lost and insisted it was not a "blueprint" for other companies to follow. However from March to August 40 other companies have, on the basis of IG Metall’s deal with Siemens, increased the working week.

Daimler Chrysler did a rotten deal with trade unions over the summer that worsened working conditions. This company, which posted massive profits last year, showed the brutal nature of the capitalists’ drive for profits. The deal was done behind closed doors between the union leadership and company management, with no vote or ratification by the workers in Daimler Chrysler themselves. Volkswagen are currently engaged in negotiations with unions as they attempt to cut labour costs in their German factories by 30% by 2011. While KarstadtQuelle, one of Germany’s biggest department stores (it employs nearly 100,000 people) negotiated a cutback deal with unions in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

What must be borne in mind is that these attacks on living conditions have not gone unfought, working people and the unemployed are being forced to face the fact that they will foot the bill for saving the capitalists’ profitability. There is mass opposition to "Agenda 2010" and three simultaneous demonstrations in April 2004 mobilised 500,000 people against this program of social cuts.

The European election results of June 2004 saw a big drop in the vote for the SPD. The number of people voting for the SPD fell by nearly 2.8 million. While the main opposition party, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) got by far the largest percentage vote, (45%) its vote actually fell by 4%. The Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper commenting on the election said, "This is not just the beginning of Chancellor Schroeder’s political twilight, the SPD as a whole is facing catastrophe."

However, the new social security law "Hartz IV", which has been passed by both lower and upper houses of parliament, has caused the biggest level of opposition in Germany. "Hartz IV" forms a constituent part of the reform package "Agenda 2010" and for ordinary Germans has become a pole of opposition around which to fight. When the proposed law comes into effect on 1 January, 500,000 unemployed people can expect to receive no further state support and will be forced to live off their families or through a "die or work" mentality to take whatever job they can find.

At the end of July, demonstrations on Monday nights began in the East of Germany. These largely spontaneous demos spread right across Germany and at their height at the end of August, hundreds of thousands were showing their opposition to "Hartz IV". Significantly, these protests went under the name of Montags-demonstrationen (Monday demonstrations). This was the name given to the protests which played a role in bringing down the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1989. The SPD-Green Party Government quickly moved to dispel this analogy, while Schroeder declared he would carry on with "Agenda 2010" regardless. However, quite quickly the trade unions, various NGOs like Attac and PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor of the East German Stalinist ruling Communist Party) mobilised behind the Montags-demonstrationen and moved into the leadership of the protests. No clear direction or aim was given to these demonstrations in how the working class could actually defeat "Hartz IV" and "Agenda 2010". In the face of a determined government ready to face down any opposition, the trade unions and PDS’s lack of a fighting programme clearly helped let the demonstrations fizzle out.

The anger in East Germany is especially bitter due to the legacy of the re-introduction of capitalism. Unemployment still stands at double the national average in the East at just under 20%, while nationally the figure is 10.5%. While East Germans were promised "blooming landscapes" in 1990, the reality has been far different. Figures talked about by German economists indicate that East German standards of living would only reach the levels of the West by 2020 and this on the basis of a 4-5% growth of GDP every year! In the current economic climate, this goal looks unattainable anytime in the future.

The trade union and PDS leaders’ strategy of protests every Monday saw a tailing off of the movement over September and a significant, yet disappointing, demonstration in Berlin on the 3 October of 70,000 people. The fact the movement did not develop into even greater proportions should not give the capitalists any joy. The anger and will to fight amongst ordinary people is still very much there, this is merely the latest phase in an ongoing war. The PDS’s involvement in the anti-Hartz demonstrations reeks of hypocrisy, while not in power they are against "Agenda 2010", yet once in power they implement them with vengeance. The economics Minister for Berlin State Harald Wolf (PDS) explicitly supports the labour reform process and what’s more the PDS are in coalition in Berlin with the SPD. While the labour minister in the state government of Mecklenburg-Pommerania, Helmut Holter of the PDS, is personally supervising the implementation of cuts.

New electoral formation

However, while this process of social and economic crisis continues in Germany, a new left wing initiative towards the formation of a new workers’ party has taken place. The "Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice" was founded over the summer and is already claiming to have 10,000 subscribers and over 70 branches across Germany. Different opinion polls are saying that if this Electoral Alternative was to become a party and stand in elections in 2006 ,11% would be prepared to vote for it, while a further 32% would seriously consider voting for it. 58% of ex-SPD voters would consider supporting it, 57% of young people under 24, while 60% of workers and 70% of the unemployed would also be prepared to support it. Clearly there is a real opposition forming against the proposed labour reforms and a new socialist political formation could emerge from this process. In the 2004 "Data Report" issued by the Federal Statistics Office, 79% of East Germans and 51% of West Germans felt socialism is a "good idea" that was "only badly implemented" in the former Eastern Europe and Soviet Union. This proves that 15 years after the re-introduction of capitalism in the East, capitalism has not succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of German workers.

Socialist Alternative -SAV

Socialist Alternative (SAV – the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Germany) has taken part in this electoral alternative and is helping set-up regional groups and branches. SAV now has three councillors in Germany, one each in Rostock, Aachen and Cologne. On the Monday demonstrations, SAV has been calling for regional strikes and days of action against "Hartz IV" as a step towards an all-German general strike. At the protests in Rostock SAV Councillor Christine Lehnert proposed and had a motion passed calling on the trade unions to carry out work stoppages and build for a national general strike. A general strike would put the class struggle in Germany onto a new level, nothing of that character or scale has been seen in Germany since the 1920s and 1930s. SAV has reported that rarely has the class division of society been so stark and that the ruling class is losing all inhibitions in its attacks on working class living standards and conditions.

Local elections in North Rhine Westphalia saw the two SAV members mentioned above being elected at the head of two local slates of an anti-cuts’ campaign. In both Aachen and Cologne the CDU (who are in ruling coalition in both cities) lost 10% of their vote. The CDU led coalitions have both been involved in vicious cuts against public provision of services.

The CDU is split over how open the CDU leader has been in saying they would implement the proposed reforms even quicker. The CDU does not offer anything new or better, just more of the same SPD "harsh medicine". The SPD in the past had a link to the working class (through mass membership and historic roots) but has now severed this completely. The SPD mayor of Kampf-Linfort (where one of the Siemens factories mentioned at beginning of article is situated) commented "the (Siemens) workers had no chance to do anything against it." The workers could have fought for that factory to be nationalised to safeguard jobs, yet with advice like that coming from the SPD, we can definitively state the SPD are no friend of the workers, they are in the bosses’ pockets.

However in state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony the PDS won its best ever votes, largely thanks to its involvement in the demonstrations against "Hartz IV". The PDS in Brandenburg recorded a 5% increase in its vote to 28% its best ever result in a state election. In Saxony the PDS managed to win just fewer than 24% of the vote, recording their best total in that state. Even while people can see the betrayal and lies of the PDS, the lack of a clear and genuine alternative has seen the PDS gain from the German electorate’s anger. The results also marked a dangerous precedent for the future when the neo-fascist German National Party (NPD) was elected to the state parliament of Saxony.

Opposing the far right

The NPD managed to get 9% of the vote in Saxony and its leader Holger Apfel was elected. Not since 1968 has the NPD entered any state parliament. Chancellor Schroeder’s attacks on the unemployed have contributed to the NPD being able to pick up a certain level of protest votes in East Germany. The NPD has taken part in the protests against "Agenda 2010" trying to portray itself as some kind of alternative for Germans. Apfel stated his party was the "last opposition" in the state and that they expressed "the organised will of Germans against heterodoxy, domination by foreigners, globalisation and capitalist exploitation." Apfel who gave the Nazi salute as a victory celebration, has publicly stated "We will not be content until German re-education sites, such as the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, have been levelled to the ground."

The victory of the NPD points to a difficult future political situation if these neo-fascists are not organised against and confronted. Yet when fascists have tried to take part in and divert protests against "Hartz IV", the trade unions have not organised stewarding to keep them out and have lamely declared "trade unionists need to be careful about what to take part in and what not." The PDS has called along with the SPD and CDU for "unity of all democrats"; yet it is these self-same democrats who are helping foster the conditions for the far-right to grow. That is also the real problem, not only are the NPD winning votes, they are also laying down roots in some areas (like parts of Saxony).

The crisis of capitalism in Germany is a real example of how struggle is inevitable under capitalism. Germany shows that working class people will take to the road of struggle, not because they want to, but because they have no choice but to stand up to the attacks of the government and the bosses.

New mass workers’ party

It is clear that if this struggle is to be successful, a determined campaign against "Agenda 2010" needs to be conducted. Germany, for so long held up as an example of how "humane" and "just" capitalism could be, is fast becoming an example no intelligent worker or youth would wish to follow. The international ramifications of the situation are far reaching. Throughout the 1990s the CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International, to which both SAV and the Socialist Party are affiliated) called for new mass workers’ parties to be formed as a political voice for working class. These mass workers parties will not be formed from thin air or overnight. It will take a new generation of workers and youth, who are prepared to step forward, struggle and fight for their rights. It is only through the current struggle that the German working class will see and understand the necessity of an organised expression of their political will.

While it still remains to be seen exactly how the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice develops, this could be the vehicle for the emergence of a new workers’ party in Germany. What also must be understood is that the German political situation is in a rapid state of change. Votes against the two major so-called "people’s parties" -the CDU and SPD- and the widespread disgust at the politicians who get fat while workers will get poorer, opens up a new and different situation.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2004