Germany: Which way forward for the left?

The left was the only true winner of last September’s general election.

While the grand coalition government of the conservative CDU/CSU and social democratic SPD carries on with neo-liberal attacks on the working class, a big debate is taking place within the German left about the unification of different forces and parties. Sascha Stanicic, general secretary of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany) and active member of the Party for Work and Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG) analyses the background and perspectives for this debate.

Which way forward for the left?

Their numbers in parliament grew from two lonely MPs to 54. Over 4.25 million people, 8.7%, gave their vote to the electoral bloc of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS. At the same time, the so-called ‘winners’, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and the Christlich Demokratische Union/Christlich Soziale Union (CDU/CSU) saw their votes fall by nearly three million and 1.8 million respectively.

For legal reasons (at least that was the official justification), the left was only able to contest the elections under the name of Linkspartei.PDS, the renamed Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS), and this party dominated the electoral bloc. In the 2002 general election the then PDS won 1.9 million votes. The 2.2 million jump in votes last year reflected both the disillusionment with Gerhard Schröder’s government and, in particular, the huge appeal of the newly-formed WASG and its most prominent support Oskar Lafontaine.

However, only twelve of the 54 members of the Left parliamentary group are WASG members. Among them is Lafontaine. In 1999, the Sun newspaper (London) dubbed him the “most dangerous man in Europe”. At the time, the Keynesian Lafontaine was finance minister in the then newly-elected SPD-Green party coalition government. A short while later, the capitalists and the bourgeois media pressured him out of office because he was unwilling to carry out neo-liberal policies.

Germany changed during the seven years of ‘Red-Green’ government, but not in accordance with the hopes of many workers and unemployed people. Rather, their worst fears were confirmed. The government, led by the former workers’ party – the SPD – used its close connections with the trade union leaders and the fears of many workers that conditions under a CDU/CSU government would be a lot worse, to carry out an unprecedented attack on social standards and workers’ rights. With the so-called ‘Agenda 2010’ and Hartz laws, social security systems were largely ruined and living conditions lowered. Mass unemployment rose to record highs. The capitalists enforced wage cuts and longer working hours. Poverty increased and became a mass phenomenon, not only among the long-term unemployed. The phenomenon of the ‘working poor’, previously unknown in Germany, appeared because there was no minimum wage. For example, a hairdresser in Saxony, in eastern Germany, earns €3.06 per hour!

The government also started a new, aggressive course in foreign policy. It broke the post-second world war ‘taboo’ against sending the army into foreign countries. In the Balkans and Afghanistan, German soldiers are fighting in wars for the first time since 1945.

Founding the WASG

In Autumn 2003 and during the whole of 2004, mass protests against government policies erupted. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets and in some cities strike movements took place against cuts in social spending. As a reaction to the SPD’s shift to the right, these protests led to the formation of two groupings in early 2004. Out of these, the WASG association was formed which later became a party in the beginning of 2005. Significantly, an important layer of medium-ranking trade union officials had broken with the SPD and called for the foundation of a new party. Unemployed activists are also an important part of the base of the WASG. Individuals and members of some socialist organisations joined, including SAV, which had for the last few years propagated the need for a new mass workers’ party.

The foundation of the WASG was also a reaction to the policies of the PDS. This former governing party in the Stalinist GDR had, after German reunification, transformed itself into a ‘normal’ reformist party. It was socialist in words, parliamentary and conformist in deeds. It had a strong base only in the east; in the west it could never develop roots among sections of the working class and youth – its failure to distance itself enough from its Stalinist past prevented this. Most importantly, it was incapable of leading determined battles in the interests of workers and the unemployed.

When, towards the end of the 1990s, the PDS started to form coalition governments with the SPD on state level which carried out social cuts and privatisation, the hope that this party could develop into a left alternative with mass influence died for many lefts. The PDS’s move to the right accelerated as a result. At its 2003 congress in Chemnitz, the PDS adopted a programme that accepted the capitalist, market economy, stating that “entrepreneurial behaviour and the profit interest are important prerequisites for innovation and productivity”. Especially in Berlin, which has been governed by an SPD/PDS coalition since 2001, many left-wing PDS members joined the WASG.

The 2005 general elections

The WASG and PDS stood separately in the May 2005 elections for the parliament of western Germany’s biggest state North Rhine-Westphalia. The WASG gained three times the vote of the PDS. The SPD suffered a devastating defeat and, on election night, Schröder called an early national general election for autumn 2005.

Lafontaine had in previous weeks declared his sympathy for the WASG. He had, however, never called on people to vote for it, nor had he joined. Now he declared his willingness to stand in the general election, provided the WASG and PDS formed an electoral alliance. This is what happened, although many left critics warned that an alliance on the basis of PDS policies would always be in danger of becoming conformist. The united election campaign – although on the renamed Linkspartei list – was declared as the beginning of left unification in Germany. Those in favour of this course saw themselves justified and declared that the four million plus people who had voted for the alliance had also voted for a unification of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS.

However, there is no proof for this. The electoral result, as positive as it was, fell short of many opinion poll predictions. The active participation of left-wing activists in the campaign was limited, not least because leading members of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS started to question some of the central demands in the middle of the campaign. A move towards conformity was already being signalled.

At its national conference in July 2005 and subsequent ballot, the WASG started a discussion on the formation of a new left alliance. This was to explicitly include other left-wing forces apart from the WASG and Linkspartei.PDS. The so-called ‘new formation process’ of the left has become more difficult than the WASG and Linkspartei.PDS leaders would have liked. There is mounting criticism on two major counts. Firstly, the policy of the Linkspartei.PDS joining coalition governments, and the statement by its chairman, Lothar Bisky, that the new formation would have to prepare for coalition with the SPD on national level. Secondly, criticism of the undemocratic character of the unification process, which leaves the base of the WASG and forces outside both parties out of the loop. There have also been small numbers within the WASG who oppose unity with the Linkspartei.PDS from a right-wing basis and who are not part of the general, leftwing, opposition.

The Berlin question

This conflict is especially tense in Berlin. Since 2001, the capital has been governed by an SPD and Linkspartei.PDS coalition. This so-called ‘lesser evil’ has, when compared to other states, played a vanguard role where social cuts and attacks on public-sector workers are concerned. The misnamed ‘Red-Red’ coalition has voted for privatisation and the neo-liberal draft EU constitution. It pulled out of the national public-sector pay bargaining structure and used this to blackmail Berlin city workers and enforce massive wage cuts. A gardener sent a letter to the SAV newspaper, Solidarität, explaining that this cost him €180 per month. Christmas and holiday pay for civil servants was cut, and other federal states followed suit. Since 2002, 15,000 jobs have been cut, and another 18,000 are to be axed in the coming six years. Lower fares for people on benefits using public transport were abolished, then reinstated after massive protests, but only after a massive price increase. The free provision of school books and other learning materials was abolished, fees for kindergartens raised. Council flats were privatised, as was public water provision. During a scandal involving a city-owned bank, rich investors’ potential losses of billions of euros were covered up by the city.

Yet the Linkspartei.PDS draws a positive balance sheet from this. The city’s economics senator, Harald Wolf, said in September 2004: “The red-red coalition has had considerable achievements. The central task for the government, consolidation, was carried out in a determined fashion. It has tidied up, cleaned up and – not least – built up. It had the courage and the strength to go into necessary confrontations and especially to survive them”. It justifies these policies by pointing to the catastrophic financial situation facing the city. But, instead of fighting side-by-side with the working class for more resources, it passes the problems onto the workers and the unemployed. This is in a city with above average unemployment, where every sixth person survives on less then €600 per month. At its last conference, the Linkspartei.PDS decided to keep the option open to carry on the coalition after next September’s city elections.

The WASG Berlin opposes these policies and supports, among others, workers at the university hospital, Charité, who are fighting against wage cuts and the threatened privatisation of the hospital. One WASG member said: “If this national ‘new formation process’ didn’t exist, we wouldn’t even ring up the PDS”. But this process does exist and the leaderships of both parties are using considerable pressure to ensure unification in Berlin as well. With regard to September’s elections in Berlin, the WASG has declared that a united candidature is only possible if the Linkspartei.PDS changes course. This inevitably has to include it leaving the governing coalition.

Berlin is not a special case but a precedent. If during the new formation process the wing responsible for the present Linkspartei.PDS policies wins out, there is a big danger that a great historic chance to form a new workers’ party will be lost. Instead, there could be a party that goes through the same process as the SPD and the Greens did, degenerating into a basically purely capitalist formation, but at much higher speed. That would not be an alternative for the working class and youth.

The policies of the Berlin SPD/Linkspartei.PDS government are so blatantly directed against the working class, that no one in the WASG openly supports it. Despite that, there is a massive dispute within the WASG in Berlin, and especially now on a national level, over whether or not the Berlin WASG should stand independently in September’s elections. Thinking that standing independently would put the unification process into danger, some within the WASG tried to delay a decision to such an extent that the preparation for an election campaign would not have been possible. These forces – an alliance of reformists, Linksruck (the sister group of the British SWP), and supporters of participation in government – did not succeed. Late last year, a Berlin WASG congress decided to put a number of political demands on the Linkspartei.PDS, including one for a decisive change of course. The final decision on the WASG’s election strategy is now due at the end of February, meaning that there will be time to prepare for an election campaign.

The role of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV)

Members of SAV play an important role in the Berlin WASG. Two SAV members have been elected into the local leadership: Lucy Redler onto the executive; and Turkish trade unionist, Hakan Doganay, got the highest number of votes for the wider steering committee. There was quite a reaction among other leading members of the WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS, and in the media. A leading member of the Bundestag left group, Ulrich Maurer, attacked “Trotskyists” because of the problems in Berlin. He ironically tried to ‘defend’ Leon Trotsky by saying he would “turn in his grave” if he could witness the politics of SAV. This was from a former chairperson of the SPD in Baden-Württemberg who for years supported a coalition between SPD and CDU in that federal state! In reply, SAV said that August Bebel, a historic leader of German social democracy, would turn in his grave if he could read Maurer’s remarks. Der Spiegel, a leading weekly news magazine, said that SAV was the main enemy of the Linkspartei.PDS. These developments have increased the public profile of SAV, and given a new direction to the debate on left unification, politicising it enormously. Because of the united candidature during the 2005 general election, many people thought that both parties were already a single organisation. Now, an increasing section of working-class people, especially the advanced layers, realise that there are not only two different organisations but also that there are significant differences on questions of participation in cuts and privatisation between the Linkspartei.PDS and parts of the WASG.

Linksruck argues that WASG and Linkspartei.PDS are two reformist parties and that the political differences exist within both parties. They draw the conclusion that there cannot be any argument against uniting both parties and that unification overrides any other issues. This includes the question of the WASG standing in the Berlin elections. In principle, Linksruck argues against participation in government. It is, however, prepared to support a united candidature of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS without putting forward any political demands.

In a situation where thousands of youth, workers and unemployed are angry about the cuts conducted, this means capitulating in the face of the concrete political conflicts going on in Berlin. Already, these policies have lost the PDS support in eastern parts of the city. It would mean denying the Berlin working class a chance to express its protest against four years of anti-working class policies. Fascists from the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) could profit, potentially, by steering some of the anger by means of social demagogy into an anti-foreigner direction.

In reality, Linksruck is in alliance with the majority of the WASG leaders who wish to push the fusion through with no political discussion at all. Linksruck now publicly distinguishes itself from what it calls the “radical left” in the WASG which, in this case, means the Berlin region. Linksruck has been in the forefront of arguing that the WASG should only have a limited programme and not attempt to argue for a socialist alternative. In her election address for the WASG national executive, Christine Buchholz, a Linksruck leader, declared: “I regard the idea of narrowing the WASG with an anti-capitalist or socialist programme as a serious error”. This is because Linksruck rejects the idea that it is possible for socialists to build a non-sectarian new party while proposing a transitional programme that links campaigning on the immediate issues that face working people with the need to argue for a socialist alternative.

The character of the WASG

Although it is true that both the WASG and Linkspartei.PDS have a reformist character and that within both parties there are similar discussions about participating in government, the two parties play very different roles among the left and in society.

Within Linkspartei.PDS there is currently no noticeable left opposition resisting the policies of the leadership. It is estimated that this party has 60,000 members, mainly pensioners. The active membership is about 6,000, mainly full-timers and members sitting in various local, regional and national parliaments. It has almost no roots among the youth and in workplaces. It has moved to the right very quickly. Many workers still do not support it because of its Stalinist past.

The WASG is a new opposition force with important connections to trade unions and social movements. It has two main policies directly contradicting the Linkspartei.PDS conduct in government. The WASG programme says: “We are in opposition to the ruling neo-liberal policies. We will only participate in a government at state or national level if this leads to a major political change in the direction of our demands”. And in its election manifesto: “We will not participate in, or support, a government that carries out social cuts”. The WASG is the dynamic part of the ‘new formation process’. Last September’s 2.2 million new votes for the left indicate the potential support the WASG can gather. It can have a great attraction to trade unionists, activists in social movements and layers of the working class who have not been active until now.

The PDS was sinking into the abyss until it was resurrected last year by the WASG and Lafontaine. Socialists should defend the positive aspects of the WASG while pointing out the dangers of a programme that remains reformist.

The SAV was the only political force within the WASG arguing against the Keynesian character of its programme during the programmatic debate within the WASG in spring 2005. SAV explained that the many good and correct demands for shorter working hours, a minimum wage, investment programmes, etc, would not be sustainable within the constraints of a capitalist society. Because of the crisis character of the capitalist economy and massively increasing global economic competition, positive change for the majority of the population could only be achieved through mass struggle and could only be sustained if capitalism was abolished and replaced by a socialist democracy.

SAV members explained that the question of a socialist programme is not merely an ideological question but that it would determine the concrete policies of the party during day-to-day struggles. Only a party that was not constrained by capitalist economics would, for example, be able to develop a programme about how to defend jobs in the car industry. When looking at the global 25% overcapacity, it is clear that the principle of profit and competition has to be removed so that factories and machines can be used to produce things that are actually needed by society. Without the nationalisation of the car industry under democratic workers’ control and management, this would not be possible. This would be a concrete application of a socialist programme in the battles of car workers in Germany and worldwide.

The SAV has never turned the adoption of a socialist programme into a precondition for constructive joint work to build the party, as long as the WASG gives workers and youth the opportunity to express their political interests and to defend these interests. Despite this, in early 2005 the rightwing of the WASG around regional trade union official, Klaus Ernst, tried to expel SAV. This failed because of the resistance of the base of the WASG who made it clear that socialists and Marxists have a legitimate place in it and that there should not be exclusions on political grounds. Because of the debate surrounding the question of uniting with the Linkspartei.PDS in Berlin, Ernst and others are trying to renew the campaign against SAV. The press spokesman for the WASG has written an eight-page document in which he, using many untruths, explains why he refuses to work with SAV. In a text, Ernst attacked “dogmaticians” who are “not capable of developing a party”. The rightwing will fail again with its attempt to marginalise socialists. In reality, the base is increasing the pressure on the leadership.

Linkspartei.PDS & WASG cooperation

This is especially because of the third ‘cooperation agreement’ reached between the two national leaderships. The new agreement includes a positive reference to the political strategy of Linkspartei.PDS. The central part of this is participating in governments with the SPD. This agreement also rules out that both organisations should ever stand against each other in elections. And this at a time when exactly this question is being discussed in Berlin, with the majority of the membership moving in the direction of standing independently!

There was no chance to discuss the text of this agreement within the WASG – branches and regional groups could not influence it in any way. This blatantly undemocratic way of going about things led to sharp attacks on the national leadership, even from members who do not oppose the text of the document. The WASG leadership in the state of Saxony declared: “It is intolerable in what an arrogant fashion the leadership, since the party was founded, very offensively and continuously ignores the democratic rules that have laid the base of our party”. And: “This way of doing things can be seen as fundamentally damaging for the process of forming our party. All our bodies demand that the base should not only be the carrier but also the initiator of the new formation process. The national leadership acts contrary to these demands and damages fundamental elements of the spirit of our party, such as fairness, sensibility, solidarity and a democratic forming of opinion”.

Within the membership of the WASG there are currently discussions about alternative ways to bring about a new formation process of the left. No one is opposed to this as such, including SAV. Only unity between WASG and Linkspartei.PDS without any preconditions, is being opposed, and the defence of fundamental opposition to any form of social cuts and privatisation is being demanded, as is a democratic process that includes forces outside both parties. A new left party should have left politics!

Many regions are demanding the national leadership’s resignation and the election of a new one. This could well happen at the next national congress, which will take place at the end of April. Within the national leadership, differences are starting to appear. Three of its members have published a declaration that has a noticeably more critical and left-wing tone than a declaration from the majority of the leadership. The Linksruck leader, Buchholz, belongs to the majority, increasingly aligning herself with the dominant bureaucratic forces within the national leadership.

The further development of the WASG and the new left formation process depends not least on the development of class struggles in the coming months. The grand coalition under Angela Merkel (CDU) and Franz Müntefering (SPD) has decided on many attacks on the working class. The bulk of these measures – raising VAT, worsening rights at work, raising the retirement age, less money for the unemployed, and many more – will be implemented on a drip by drip basis. This year is being presented as the year of economic upswing (with minimal investment). The biggest attacks will come in 2007. In some areas, for example the health system, the CDU/CSU and SPD have been unable so far to come up with a united policy. But further attacks on the working class are certain.

The trade union leaders have so far not organised any protests against the government nor proposed any either. Social movements are planning a national demonstration on 1 April and are currently trying to mobilise support within the trade unions. At least these are now calling for support for the protest against the EU’s Bölkestein directive in February, a protest that the SPD has said it will support – to try to show its ‘social’ face!

It is an open question whether there will be a generalised movement against the government this year, as we saw in 2003 and 2004 against the Schröder government. The potential is there, but neither the trade union leaders nor the new left parliamentary group are attempting to mobilise it.

At the same time, there is a continuing wave of attacks on wages, working hours and jobs. Many battles are taking place. Especially in manufacturing, these are against closures, the transfer of factories and job cuts. Dockworkers had a successful European strike on 11 January against deregulation (Port Package II). Thousands of German dockers participated. In March, there will be a new round of pay negotiations in the metal and engineering sector. Warning strikes and real strikes for pay rises are possible. But these battles are currently isolated, defensive and often very short. Linking-up these struggles and developing a united strategy are urgently needed, but the trade union leaders prevent this, and the left in the workplaces is in parts too weak or incapable of developing such a strategy.

Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that these isolated protests will occur more often and that quantity will develop into quality. Such a development would influence the WASG, the Left parliamentary group and the new formation process. If a few thousand workers who are prepared to fight joined, then this could radicalise the process. But the question of the timing of different events is important. Up to now, the left parliamentary group has developed little initiative and attraction. Should there be a decision to unite both parties on the basis of Linkspartei.PDS policies, then there is the danger that left-wing activists will retreat from the WASG and that the united party will not attract workers and youth. This will be even more true if a united party – as is planned – participates in more state governments and their attacks against workers.

A crucial time

A lot depends on Berlin. It is not to be expected that the Linkspartei.PDS will change course. If the WASG stands independently on a principled programme and with an active campaign, and if it wins the support of trade unionists and activists from social movements and initiatives, it has a chance of gaining the necessary 5% to enter the Berlin parliament. This would have a great effect on the national new left formation process and would strengthen anti-capitalist and socialist forces. A unification of both parties without any preconditions, however, would make it more difficult to build the new formation and a new pole of attraction and reference for left and critical activists.

Whether the leaderships of Linkspartei.PDS and WASG will watch such a development without doing anything about it, or whether they will turn the threats they made in November after the Berlin WASG conference into reality – that they would exclude people or even split the organisation – remains to be seen. In any case, anti-capitalist and socialist groups in the WASG have to prepare for such a possibility. Stronger and better coordinated cooperation of these forces is needed and is being prepared.

The development of the WASG and the debate about the formation of a new left party opens a new chapter in the history of the German workers’ movement. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the working class was pushed onto the defensive. On the ideological front, the bourgeoisie started a massive offensive. Internationally, the bourgeoisification of the traditional workers’ parties and the move to the right by trade union leaderships contributed to the decrease of socialist ideas within the working class and even basic class consciousness.

Now the wind has started to change. Confronted with a continuing neo-liberal offensive and the questioning of the principal achievements of the workers’ movement, important layers of workers and youth are looking for a way of resistance and for political alternatives. The creation of broad parties of workers, unemployed and youth – bringing together trade unionists, socialists and activists from social movements (women’s movement, anti-globalisation, anti-fascism, environmentalism, etc) and also fresh layers of workers entering struggle – is now an important and necessary step.

These are no substitute for the development of mass workers’ organisations with a Marxist programme, but they are necessary to start a process in which, as Karl Marx formulated it, “the class-in-itself” (a social-economic class) becomes “a class-for-itself” (a conscious political force). The conscious and targeted intervention and participation of Marxist organisations like SAV is important. Firstly, to reach a wider audience for Marxist ideas and, secondly, to speed up the development of these parties and make them successful. Without a socialist programme, workers’ parties will, in today’s period of capitalist decline, soon reveal their limitations. This is the lesson from the decay of the old workers’ parties and their complete transformation into capitalist bodies.

Globalised capitalism, marked by stagnation, recession and increasing international competition, does not leave much space for reforms. The achievement of reforms needs mass action. Even moderate demands, on the basis of mass struggles, can have a quasi-revolutionary character. The time of stable reformist parties with a mass membership, as we knew them in many countries after 1945, have gone. There will be new attempts to build workers’ parties. Many will not last for long because reformist forces will drag them into participation in governments where they will implement social cuts. They will therefore not become lasting poles of attraction. But in these processes and class struggles, there will develop a new generation of fighters who will start the fight for a true new workers’ party and who will be open to Marxist ideas. The WASG is a first such step in Germany. It is the task of German Marxists to do everything they can to develop this embryonic formation into a mass workers’ party, with a socialist programme.

Translated by Christian Bunke.

From Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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January 2006