Challenges and opportunities for WASG (electoral alternative- work and social justice), the new left party
Every day when you turn on the radio, you wake up to more news about redundancies, company closures, companies going bankrupt…In one of the most powerful economies in the world, official unemployment has reached 5.2 million- a record high in post-war German history. Around 100,000 unemployed will be forced to move into cheaper accommodation as a result of this year’s cuts in the unemployment benefits. An atmosphere of crisis is developing. More and more of the economic and social gains won over past decades are undermined. On many issues a de facto “grand coalition” has formed between the Schröder led Social Democratic/Green government and the Christian Democrats.
Poverty on the rise
It is against this background that the government has released its yearly report on poverty. Originally initiated as a report meant to highlight the government’s progress on fighting poverty, it actually shows the complete opposite. The figures are revealing and shocking: 11 million people (of a total population of 80 million) are officially counted as poor. Amongst them are 1.5 million children. The gap between rich and poor widens. 50% of all households own less than 4% of all wealth while the richest 10% own 47%. The richest 10% managed to increase their wealth by 29%. The debt burden of the poorest has doubled in a few years time. In conclusion, the report states that social and unemployment benefits are too low to protect against poverty and social exclusion.
No faith in political establishment
According to ‘Welt am Sonntag’, the real unemployment figure is closer to 8 million if you add those who have given up looking for a job and are therefore no longer registered with any job centre and those who look after family members.
90% say that unemployment is the most pressing issue in German society. However, only 17% believe the government is fighting it sufficiently.
In an attempt to show their concerns the government called a “job summit” to discuss strategies of combating unemployment with leaders of the opposition Christian Democrats. However, the only solution this meeting came up with was to cut business taxes.
Interestingly enough, another opinion poll indicated that 77% did not expect the summit to produce any results. In an even more revealing opinion poll, only 4% expressed any ‘expectations’ in any of the established parties. This does not come as a surprise since they are all united in attacking the working class. One of the current debates between the SPD and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) focuses around the question whether unemployed should be allowed to keep either 15% or 30% of a so-called “400 Euro job” wage in addition to their unemployment benefit. Only one thing is certain about these proposals: It is impossible to live a decent life with either one or the other.
It is against this background that fascist parties like the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) were able to make gains; both electorally as well as in terms of recruiting new members. In Saxony, they were elected to the regional parliament and organised a 5,000 strong demonstration in the city of Dresden.
Allegedly impartial, Köhler, Germany’s president and a CDU member came out in favour of massive tax cuts for big business before the “job summit”. Disguised under the slogan “Priority work”, he spoke at a meeting of 600 employers’ representatives. In his speech he welcomed the government’s Agenda 2010 austerity programme as a first step into the right direction, but at the same time made it crystal clear that it was just the beginning. Köhler demanded a reduction of “labour costs” and received huge applause and support from the main representatives of the capitalist class.
Köhler’s speech acted as a lever to put more pressure on the national government which had originally decided not to pursue any further unpopular measures this side of the important regional state elections in North Rhine Westphalia taking place on 22 May. The national government coalition is in danger of losing the majority in the most populous and, for the last 39 years, a ‘red’ (i.e. SPD) regional state to the Christian Democrats in May. Such a defeat would further weaken and destabilise the national government.
A new party…Opportunities
Alienation, huge anger and dissatisfaction with the political establishment have been the dominant trend within the working class for quite a while now. Last year has seen regular protests and resistance against the government’s attacks on the part of the working class. Unfortunately, there is a lull in the movement at the present time. Nevertheless, there are still single, sometimes very bitter, protests taking place against company closures. Also students are under attack at the moment and have organised protests against the introduction of fees in a number of cities.
It is first and foremost due to the disastrous role of the trade union bureaucracy in refusing to organise any fight back and the lack of a distinct political alternative that could have given a lad in the protests that the German working class is taking a breath at the moment.
However, there is a great openness for a left political alternative to the established parties. According to a recent opinion poll, 3% would certainly vote for WASG and another 19% would consider voting for it. In eastern Germany the WASG’s potential is even bigger, reaching 24%.
The formation of the WASG marks, potentially, a big step forward for the German working class and represents an important break of significant parts of the trade union movement with its traditional ally the Social Democratic party.
But, with close to 5,000 members at the time of writing, WASG has far from tapped into the potential that exists for the party to grow into a mass force.
The future growth of WASG depends on a number of issues. There are persistent reports that Oskar Lafontaine, former finance minister of the Schröder government and a former leader of the SPD, may join the WASG. His joining the party would have a dual character. Undoubtedly if Lafontaine joined the WASG, something he himself has hinted at, WASG would be able to recruit thousands of new members in no time.
Given Oskar Lafontaine’s authority amongst wider layers of the working class, it would improve WASG´s standing amongst ordinary workers. At the same it would, at least initially, strengthen the reformist and more right wing elements in the party.
Inevitably, with a new party in the making, debates and discussions about the party’s programme are taking place at the present time.
The majority of the present leadership clearly rejects a programme that challenges the capitalist system. Their idea is to build a “SPD of the 70’s”, a progressive but reformist party that stands for the redistribution of wealth, a reduction in the working week, tax increase for the rich, free education, a public investment programme to create jobs etc.
This is all good and well and marks a clear step forward in comparison with today’s neo-liberal agenda of all the other parties. But there is a big difference between today and the 1970’s. With capitalism in deep crisis, every struggle for sustainable improvements in living standards for the working class will come into conflict with the capitalist system itself. If the party does not reject capitalism as a whole and puts in place a viable political and economic alternative, there is a danger that the party will go down the same road as the SPD as it transformed from originally being a socialist party into a completely capitalist party. This is a route that today the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism, former East German ‘Communist’ party) is also following. While the PDS has not gone as far down this path as the SPD it is in an increasingly contradictory situation as nationally it tries to defend the utopian idea of capitalism with a human face, while implementing cuts at regional and local level.
The WASG’s 200 strong programme convention that took place at the end of February was a good illustration of the fact that the party is not completely homogenous on the question of policy and programme. A number of speakers raised doubts as to whether a Keynesian (reformist) programme would be sufficient to solve the deep crisis society is facing. There are different trends within the party. Some believe that socialism is a good idea and maybe even necessary but should not be mentioned in public since it would frighten people off. Their main priority is to build a broad as possible party that can unite everybody opposed to the government’s policy of social cuts, including former public representatives of the Christian Democrats etc.
But this self-limitation means that they are unable to answer the key questions of how reforms could be won and maintained in a situation where a crisis in capitalism is forcing the ruling class to launch one offensive and another in order to drive down living standards. Others clearly reject the idea of socialism as a whole.
Interestingly enough however only four people explicitly spoke out against a socialist programme at the programme convention. Incredibly, one of them was the national chair of Linksruck (the German group in the IST, that is led by the Socialist Workers Party in Britain) who is also a member of the WASG’s national executive and believes that socialist ideas would limit the party’s appeal.
Members of Socialist Alternative (SAV), the CWI´s affiliate, have been involved in building WASG from its early days. The SAV explains the need for WASG to adopt a socialist programme that is not abstract but linked to the immediate issues working people face, at the same time as saying that socialist policies must not be presented as an ultimatum that acts as a barrier to joint struggle.
Part and parcel of this approach is the SAV’s call for the WASG to clearly reject taking part in any government coalition with capitalist parties, to give a clear “No” to all social cuts and privatisations, and the need for the party to be first and foremost an instrument of struggle. WASG needs to sink roots in working class communities by initiating and organising the fight back against cuts and redundancies.
This is also the main emphasis of SAV members who are standing as candidates on the WASG candidate list for the regional state elections in North Rhine Westphalia.
Another key factor for WASG’s future success is related to its structure and party democracy.
Some on its national executive are really in favour of a clear top down approach which has already resulted in a series of conflicts between the national executive (NEC) and regional branches.
SAV members have now become the focal point of attack for those who oppose the WASG adopting socialist ideas. A majority of the NEC demanded that members of SAV who hold public positions within WASG should resign from SAV. Contradicting their own slogan of building a “broad and open” WASG, they want to exclude people who are members of other parties or party-type organisations. As a consequence, three leading SAV members in the city of Rostock, amongst them the elected SAV city councillor Christine Lehnert, are currently being denied membership of the WASG.
This approach has led to resistance within the party. Even if not agreeing with SAV politically, a broad section within WASG understands that this attack puts into jeopardy the concept of a democratic party in which political differences are solved through democratic debate and not through bureaucratic measures. It is quite revealing that the Linksruck member on the NEC abstained on the question of accepting the three Rostock SAV members as members of WASG. Klaus Ernst, a high profile figure within the leadership, argues that it is time for every organisation or party to leave their “old baggage” behind if they are really interested in building something new. While this sounds sensible in the first place, he made it quite clear that this is not primarily “organisational baggage” but “programmatic baggage”. He does not want a socialist party and that is why he is one of the key figures behind the attack against SAV members.
While Linksruck formally disagrees with the exclusion of the Rostock comrades, they use every opportunity to criticise SAV for defending a socialist programme. In a reply to an open letter from the SAV, they state: “We argue for a reform programme that can be agreed by consensus. We believe that this is the only way to build a broad opposition against neo-liberal policies which involves relevant layers within society (…) Your (SAV’s) approach to argue for WASG to accept a socialist programme today would decisively limit WASG’s opportunities (…) It is therefore the task of socialists to fight for a politically broad WASG…”
With that position, they even lag behind old Social Democrat Peter von Oertzen, a nationally well known left figure, who has just joined WASG at the age of 80 and after 60 years of SPD membership. He refers to himself as a democratic socialist and already five years ago came to the conclusion that it is only possible to put pressure on the SPD by building a “serious, left socialist party”.
The future development of WASG is open. The bureaucratic approach of parts of the leadership could run the new party into the ground and prevent it from taking off. The election campaign in North Rhine Westphalia is crucial in many ways. It bears the great opportunity to recruit new members and to establish WASG as a political force. The potential exists but it is now about time to seize it on the streets, in the workplaces and communities.
In the last analysis, it will also be WASG´s involvement and participation in the class struggle that will shape its outlook and programme.