Germany: A new challenge from the left

National congress of new left-wing party WASG in Germany prepares for general elections

Political developments in Germany are speeding up day by day. In January a new left-wing party was formally launched called “Work and Social Justice – the Election Alternative” (WASG). This party is a by-product of the fact that millions of workers und unemployed have turned away in disgust from the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) because of an avalanche of attacks on workers’ rights and the so called welfare state. The new party is also a product of the mass movements against the government in 2003 and 2004 and represents the beginning of the break of sections of the trade unions with the SPD.

This new party received more than 180,000 votes or 2.2 percent in its first electoral contest in the regional elections in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest federal state, on May 22nd. Schröder’s SPD lost this election in what is generally called the social democratic heartland of the country and on the election night the SPD leadership announced their proposal to go for an early general election in autumn this year.

Since then a big politicisation has developed in the country. This has been reinforced by Oskar Lafontaine’s comeback into ‘official’ German politics. Lafontaine was the chairperson of the SPD when the social democrat and green coalition took over from the conservative-liberal government of Helmut Kohl in 1998. He was the first finance minister of this allegedly left-wing government but quit after a few months because of fundamental political differences with Schröder. While Lafontaine, who is widely seen as a left-winger, stands for Keynesian economic policies and argues for higher wages, the maintenance of a welfare state and workers’ rights the government under Schröder followed a neo-liberal course and implemented the sharpest attacks on the German working class since the Second World War with the infamous Agenda 2010. One of the main aims of the SPD-Green coalition has been to drive down living standards and create a low-pay sector in the economy in order to increase the profits of banks and corporations, thereby hoping to Germany more ‘competitive’.

Lafontaine to stand

After Schröder’s announcement of new elections, Lafontaine stole his show by declaring that he would be prepared to stand if the two left wing parties WASG and PDS formed an alliance for the general election. The PDS developed out of the stalinist state party SED (“Socialist Unity Party of Germany”) in the former East Germany (DDR) and developed into a ‘normal’ reformist party after German unification. It has a mass base in the East of the country where the bulk of its 60,000 members live. In West Germany it was never able to build a base amongst workers and youth.

While standing for socialism on paper the PDS has joined regional coalition governments with the SPD in both the eastern federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and in the capital Berlin. Here, and in many east German local councils, it has joined in attacks on workers’ wages and rights, supported privatisations and social cuts. The SPD/PDS coalition in Berlin has been especially to the forefront of anti-trade union attacks recently.

The launch of the WASG was therefore not only a response to the neo-liberal policies of the SPD but also a reflection of the fact that many workers, unemployed and trade unionists saw the PDS as no alternative to the SPD. This is despite the fact that the party, despite recently formally accepting the market economy, has a left-wing image and argues against neo-liberalism and Schröder’s Agenda 2010.

Lafontaine is the only political leader who is seen as a left and has a mass impact both in west and east Germany. His demand for the WASG and PDS to act together put a lot of pressure on both parties. Opinion polls immediately showed that a left-wing alliance has an electoral potential of more than 20 per cent. But this was nothing new as similar polls have shown last year where the question was posed whether the electorate could imagine voting for a new left-wing party with Lafontaine as its top candidate. A number of celebrities of the left (trade unionists, professors, musicians etc.) called on both parties to stand together in the forthcoming elections.

In this situation the WASG leadership had two options: first to explain that it is prepared to go together with other left-wing forces under the condition that these would not participate in social cuts and privatisation policy and that it stands for unity in the resistance to such policies. By this it could have put pressure on both Lafontaine and the PDS to change policy and, in the PDS’s case, leave the coalition governments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin. If they had not done that an independent candidature of the WASG would have developed the potential to get into parliament despite the pressure of time and the lack of finances for the party.

But the WASG leaders, including their left-wing elements of trotskyist origin (a member of Linksruck, the German equivalent of the British SWP, and a member of the so-called Fourth International once led by Mandel), rather became increasingly silent with their criticisms of the PDS. Rapidly they opted for an electoral alliance with the PDS without making any political conditions apart from an abstract and general opposition to neo-liberalism. In reality the WASG leaders lacked the confidence to start fighting independently and looked for help from prominent individuals and the PDS.

For legal reasons, and in order not to put the influx of state money into the PDS in danger, the electoral construction the two leaderships agreed upon is not even a real alliance of two equal partners but to open the election lists of the PDS for WASG candidates. As a compensation for that the PDS will change its name into “Left Party”. The final decision which candidates will be nominated lies with the PDS although it seems to be clear that behind-the-scenes-agreements will make sure that a number of WASG candidates who are selected by the WASG members get guaranteed places. On the other hand the electoral legislation demands that the majority of candidates have to be members of the party that hands in the list, in this case the PDS.

National Congress

This weekend the national congress of the WASG met to discuss these proposals. In the run-up to this event a controversial debate had developed within the party. This was reinforced by the fact that the leadership not only proposed to stand on the PDS/Left Party’s slates but also to form a new political party together with the PDS/Left Party and other forces of the left in the next two years – a proposal which many WASG members understood as just a nicer formulation for a fusion of the 7,000-strong WASG with the 60,000-strong PDS.

Socialist Alternative (SAV – German section of the CWI) members are an active part of the WASG. For over ten years the SAV has argued for the launch of a new combative workers’ party as a broad alternative to the different parties of cuts in jobs and social services. Since the launch of the WASG we have been energetically involved in building the party as a campaigning party of workers, unemployed and young people. At the same time we argued for a socialist programme in order to find a lasting solution to the social problems that have their roots in the profit driven capitalist economy.

Right after the announcement of early elections we argued against an electoral alliance with a PDS that is involved in attacks on workers’ rights and regional and local levels. We see such a step as a danger for the development of the WASG as a new force that has as one of its principles not to participate in any governments of cuts, privatisations and job losses. We argued for the WASG leadership to put clear conditions on the PDS and rather stand separately if the PDS leadership is not prepared to change its course. We were convinced that the WASG, especially with the participation of Lafontaine, would have had a great chance to get into the Bundestag (parliament) with a good vote.

But Lafontaine together with both parties’ leaderships and the media created facts. Over the last weeks there has been a constant propaganda that this is a historic chance to get a strong left-wing force into parliament and that the only possible way to seize this opportunity is by accepting to stand on the slates of the PDS/Left Party. While it that been decided by a joint meeting of the WASG national committee with the different regional committees to propose this course to a national congress and party referendum of WASG members no serious preparations were made for the alternative option of standing independently.

This meant that by the time the congress opened the decision has been taken in reality and the congress, plus the forthcoming referendum, were only formal democratic procedures as no one could now see a realistic alternative to supporting WASG candidates on PDS/Left Party’s slates. To argue differently now would have meant to put into danger the prospect that any viable left-wing force could be represented in the new Bundestag after the elections planned for September 18th.

SAV members therefore did not argue at this WASG congress for an independent candidature anymore. Instead we called for an independent election campaign by the WASG for the candidates of the de facto electoral alliance with the aim to continue building of the WASG as an independent political party. We said that an important element of such a campaign must be the principled opposition against any form of social cuts, privatisation, wage cuts and redundancies on any level, whether on national, regional or local. This means not keeping silent about the PDS’s concrete policy in many regions. We also argued against a fusion with this PDS and against a decision on that question before a broad discussion has taken place within the WASG.

Meeting of the left

Along these lines different left-wing activists in the WASG had invited party members to a coordination meeting the day before the congress. Amongst the initiators of this meeting were Stefan Müller (Berlin representative in the national council of WASG), Hakan Doganay (member of the WASG regional committee in Berlin), two SAV members Angela Bankert and Sascha Stanicic and others. More than 70 turned up to this meeting. Five members of the WASG national committee attended the first part of the meeting as well. This is a reflection of how seriously they had to take the meeting. The NC had been invited to come and discuss the criticisms.

This was a very heterogeneous meeting. The invitation letter made clear that it was meant to be a meeting of left wing and anti-capitalist members who do not criticise the PDS for calling themselves socialists but rather for their policies. Unfortunately a layer of right wing, anti-communist WASG members turned up as well who criticise the alliance with the PDS for completely other reasons. This did not help the meeting to come to concrete conclusions. Now some of these right wingers are threatening to leave the WASG because they did not want it to become a leftwing party.

The meeting was a first exchange of opinions and ideas and the genuine left wing participants want to develop a mailing list and a website to intensify political debates inside the WASG and help an exchange of information on a horizontal level. A short resolution for the congress was also discussed demanding a democratic debate about the question of a fusion with the PDS and demanding a high-profile WASG election campaign irrespective of the result of the party congress and referendum. More than 70 congress delegates supported these resolutions with their signature, but unfortunately these resolutions were not put to a vote at the congress for formal reasons. Still they helped to emphasise these questions in the debates and were reflected in other amendments.

The WASG congress itself was opened by Oskar Lafontaine who gave a propagandistic and combative anti-government speech which lead to big applause and standing ovations at the end. He called for higher wages, said that the people are not represented in parliament anymore and argued against bosses who make migrant workers live in containers and pay them hunger wages. The few negative shouts when he entered the hall went quickly quiet.

Listening carefully there were many controversial points in his speech however, and some thing he did not say. For example did he not comment on his statements in some interviews over the last few days where he spoke about the possibility to form a coalition with the SPD and even a joint party in a few years time when the Schröder-era is over and the SPD has changed its policy. But it is clear that by a change in SPD policy he does not mean a complete break with social cuts, privatisations etc.

There was a lot of controversy recently about a speech that Lafontaine has given on a mass rally in Chemnitz. There he had said that the “state has to protect family fathers and women from foreign workers who take away there jobs”. Legitimate criticisms have been raised for these comments both because of the words used and of the content.

"Foreign workers"

The term “foreign workers” (Fremdarbeiter) has been used in the fascist Third Reich as well. This was used by the media and the established parties to launch a hypocritical campaign against Lafontaine trying to present him as a right-wing populist. While it was wrong for him to use this term this hypocrisy by forces who, in the past, accepted former Nazis as top politicians, state officials and business chiefs in the 1950s and 1960s and who today are responsible for daily deportations to Africa, Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia has to be rejected.

But Lafontaine did, irrespective of his formulations, make immigrant workers responsible for redundancies in Germany. Statements like this are used to intensify the division between the German and non-German working class and should be rejected by the WASG.

In his speech he correctly said that not the migrant workers are responsible for low wages and unemployment but the bosses. He received a lot of applause for that. But he did not put forward any programme for the unity of the working class and implicitly supported closed borders as a means of protecting jobs in Germany.

Only SAV member Angela Bankert came out with a clear criticism of Lafontaine for these positions in her contribution in the debate. She called for the united struggle of all workers against the bosses and said that any implication that migrants and asylum-seekers take responsibility for mass unemployment is wrong. She also reminded the delegates that Lafontaine still supports the de facto abolition of the right to asylum in the country.

The congress supported the proposals of the leadership with a big majority despite the fact that there was a lively and controversial debate in which SAV members played an important role. WASG members will stand on open slates of the PDS/Left Party and the WASG will call for a vote for this left-wing bloc. But the national leadership had to move in the direction of the critiques on some questions. For example did they make clear that they support a high-profile WASG election campaign with its own material, meetings etc. They also emphasized that they don’t want a simple fusion of WASG and PDS but an open discussion process over two years which should not only include all layers of the WASG but also other left-wing forces.

Still the formulations in the passed resolution are contradictory. This is because on the other side a commission will be launched by WASG and PDS representatives and this will only be widened if both partners agree to that, a de facto veto right for the PDS leadership which is talking about a fusion. The danger that undemocratic and top-down procedures, which have been a problem in the WASG over the last months, will continue is clearly posed. However if the WASG can utilise the growing support it is winning to significantly build its membership then there will be even greater demands for a democratic party.

At the end of the congress, which only took half a day and had to discuss under enormous pressure of time, the proposed election manifesto by the national committee almost missed gaining a majority. SAV members had drafted an alternative manifesto that was passed by the Kassel WASG with a number of modifications. Despite these changes it was still a much more combative text with more radical political statements.

One important difference in the Kassel alternative was that the leadership’s draft saw the possibility of participating in coalition governments if these develop in the WASG’s direction – a very vague formulation. Opposing this vagueness the Kassel draft stated that the WASG should not participate any government of any social cuts. The Kassel draft received 90 votes, the national committee’s one 120 – and this was despite the fact that the alternative manifesto was only distributed on the day of the congress and probably many delegates had no time to read it. The final formulation on the conditions under which the WASG would join a government was changed however. It now says that the WASG will only join a national government if this leads to a change of politics on the basis of the WASG programme.

In opinion polls the alliance of PDS and WASG now stands at 11 per cent, making it the third largest political force. Previously the PDS’s support was generally around 5% and this much higher backing is a glimpse of the potential that exists with Lafontaine and the WASG. Already 2,000 new members have joined the WASG since Schröder announced he wanted early elections. The next months will be very hot in Germany – not only regarding the temperature but also regarding political developments. SAV is ready to conduct an energetic election campaign to get as many MPs for the WASG/PDS/Left Party as possible, to build the WASG as the basis for a broad party for workers and youth and to spread the ideas of socialism and strengthen the forces of the CWI in Germany.

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July 2005