Germany: Lafontaine speaks “left” while attacking Socialists

What kind of a new left do we need?

Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD leader now leading the Election Alternative for Work and Justice (WASG), is speaking to meetings and demonstrations up and down Germany.

Often he is making very radical attacks on capitalism while also criticising whose within the WASG who oppose standing jointly with the Linkspartei.PDS (Left Party.PDS/LP.PDS) in Berlin where it has been implementing social cuts.

As part of the debate on the WASG’s policy in Berlin the WASG’s national committee arranged for Lafontaine to speak in Berlin on February 20 “What needs to be the character of the new Left.” The meeting took place prior to the WASG’s Berlin regional conference and the subsequent referendum held amongst the Berlin WASG membership on the question of standing independently in the Berlin regional state elections in September.

Alongside his polemics against big business Lafontaine is using his authority amongst the working class to argue against the Berlin WASG’s position to stand independently. He has also started to explicitly attack Socialist Alternative (SAV, German CWI) who he sees as the main force behind organising the left inside the WASG in Berlin.

At the same time, Lafontaine is adopting an increasingly anti-capitalist rhetoric. At a meeting in Kassel, which followed shortly after the Berlin meeting, he said capitalism needs to be stopped and replaced by a different society. On Monday, March 13, the Spiegel magazine published an interview with him that was widely reported as Lafontaine speaking of the return of class struggle in Germany and declaring himself to be a Socialist. “The facts are obvious”, he said, “if class struggle means the struggle over accumulated wealth, then workers and pensioners are losing out while employers and the rich are on the winning side.” Lafontaine went on to say “Today Karl Marx’s theory has proved to be correct: The concentration of power in the hands of a small minority of multinational companies is even bigger than he anticipated.”

Lafontaine has visited workers in struggle across the country to express his solidarity. This is a very important, even though contradictory, development in German society and a new phase in the process of building a new left force in the country. www. will soon publish another, more in depth article on the situation in Germany.

Lafontaine speaks “left” while attacking Socialists

On the invitation on the WASG national committee, Oskar Lafontaine spoke in Berlin about the new formation of the left and the necessity of an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal party. At the same time, he defended the approach of the “lesser evil” being practiced by the Left Party in Berlin and argued in favour of a united candidacy of the WASG and LP.PDS in the state elections in September.

WASG members in Berlin had keenly anticipated this public meeting with Oskar Lafontaine, which had been organised by the national committee. So it was hardly surprising that the main meeting hall in the IG Metall union headquarters was absolutely packed. The timing for this discussion was no coincidence. One week before the regional conference of the Berlin WASG and the subsequent ballot of members, this was an attempt by the national committee to politically influence the question of whether the WASG should contest the state election independently. The majority of the Berlin regional committee is also in favour of a new formation of the left. However, in view of the social cuts carried out by the LP.PDS as part of a coalition government during the last years, it does not see a basis, politically or in terms of policy content, for a united candidacy in Berlin.

In for a penny, in for a pound

After Christine Buchholz (from the German sister organisation of the British SWP) had presented the position of the majority of the national committee and argued in favour of a “united candidacy despite all differences”, she handed over to Oskar Lafontaine, who used his 20 minute speech to explain his position on the question “What kind of a new left do we need?”

Since his appearance at the Rosa Luxemburg conference hosted by the daily newspaper ‘junge Welt’ in mid-January, Lafontaine has argued in favour of setting out “lines which should not be crossed” for left politics. Lafontaine speaks of a clear rejection of privatisation as one of these lines. He called the selling off of the social housing authority by the Berlin city SPD/LP.PDS coalition government as a mistake. Against this background, there was a certain amount of anticipation of his speech.

Lafontaine started his remarks by explaining the reasons for his return to politics after he had resigned as SPD Finance Minister in 1999. In view of the Agenda 2010, Hartz IV and other scandalous social cuts, which were supported by all parties in parliament, he decided to use his personal authority to do everything possible to build a strong left alternative at national level.

He received a lot of applause for saying that a new left must be created on the basis of clear policies. A new left has to be “anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal”, he said, accompanied by enthusiastic applause. In this respect, Lafontaine observed that neoliberal thought was also to be found within the ranks of the LP.PDS and that criticism of it was justified in his opinion.

He also argued in favour of having the courage to confront the rich people in the country. If this had been done, then not one single cost-saving measure at the expense of working people or the unemployed would have been needed. Only by doing this would it be possible to carry out the necessary democratisation of society. He also pleaded in favour of certain “rights to protection” for the weak in society.

For an independent candidacy

After the Berlin regional committee had complained to the organisers that they had not been invited to send a representative, Lucy Redler, a member of the WASG Berlin regional committee and an SAV member, was given the opportunity to make the first contribution in the discussion and present the situation from the point of view of the Berlin regional committee. “None of us are against the process of creating a new political formation”, she explained. “However, we do want a process which is more than simply and addition of the WASG and LP.PDS and we want a process which is not carried out on a top down basis. We need to form a new force on the left on a genuine left basis.” In reality, Lucy Redler emphasised, “the fact is that the LP.PDS had not been on the side of working people and the unemployed in all of the important political disputes which have taken place in Berlin in the recent past.”

To emphasise the deep contradiction between what the LP.PDS is calling for at national level and what it is carrying out at state level, Lucy Redler cited three examples. She pointed out that it is impossible to be “against privatisation at national level and at the same time selling off the public housing authority in Berlin.” It was equally contradictory, she said, to call at national level for Hartz IV to be abolished and to oppose “One Euro jobs”, but at the same time to be jointly responsible for the introduction of 32,000 “One Euro jobs”. The last example she mentioned was the general call for higher wages, which is supported by the LP.PDS, and the specific situation at the Charité hospital, where the staff are being pressured to accept a contract which will cut their earnings.

It is indeed the case that the LP.PDS is on the opposite side in such conflicts. It is Senator (minister in the state government) Flier from the LP.PDS who is putting a gun to the employees’ heads and presenting them with the ‘choice’ of either accepting pay cuts or facing 1,500 job losses. Regarding the ‘One Euro jobs’, an article in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on 16th February said: ‘Half of the approximately 32,000 One Euro jobs are in the public sector, already as many as one in four employees in district administration offices and municipal institutions is are ‘One Euro jobbers’. Uwe Januszewski from the main personnel board is of the opinion that 99% of them are being employed illegally.”

If the LP.PDS does not perform a 180° turn in the next few days, it will be in need of an ‘external shock’. Then there will be no alternative to an independent candidacy of the WASG here in Berlin, explained Lucy Redler. Referring to the LP.PDS Lucy Redler explained that we do not need a party that speaks of Socialism on Sundays and implements cuts on Mondays. The most recent opinion polls with scores of 4.3% for the WASG in Berlin emphasise that a potential for an independent candidacy does exist.

The fact that Lucy Redler had in her contribution expressed exactly what many of those present were thinking was illustrated by the enthusiastic applause she received for it, applause that was reported in the national media.

Huge need for discussion

About 50 people had indicated they wanted to participate in the discussion. Despite the time limit for contributions being set at 2 minutes, only about half of them got the opportunity to speak in the very lively and intense discussion.

In the discussion, supporters as well as opponents of an independent candidacy spoke. The opponents interpreted the four million votes and 8.7% at last September’s general election as an instruction to continue the process of forming a new force together with the LP.PDS. Together “Despite all differences” was the main tone of the contributions by supporters of a united candidacy, who also collected signatures in support of their positions in the corridors outside the hall. The issue at stake, so they said, was the historic opportunity for left unity in Germany.

In response to this, the supporters of an independent candidacy in Berlin repeated that they too are very much in favour of the process of creating a new force on the left. However, many speakers pointed out that it was not sufficient to simply speak of an abstract concept of left unity. In many contributions, the antisocial policies of the SPD/LP.PDS coalition in Berlin were mentioned. In reply to Oskar Lafontaine, it was said that it was simply not good enough just to say that the PDS had made ‘mistakes’ in Berlin. The LP.PDS, under the leadership of Harald Wolf (Economics Minister in the state government), Stefan Liebich (Chairman of the LP.PDS group in the state parliament) and Klaus Lederer (Chairman of the LP.PDS in Berlin) were acting deliberately. This referred to remarks made by Wolf in a keynote speech in 2004, when he called on his party to stop hiding behind alleged budget constraints and to profess to the political ‘intent’ of the policies of the Berlin state government.

In Berlin, the truth on the ground is tangible, as many contributions made clear: if what is wanted is a credible left party which represents the interests of working people, the unemployed, pensioners and the youth and forms a pole of attraction for people in workplaces and trade unions as well as social movements, then an independent candidacy is the only option.

Feigning to the left and overtaking on the right?

Whereas in his opening speech, Lafontaine had explicitly emphasised that the process of creating a new formation of the left would have to happen on the basis of a political programme, unfortunately in his closing remarks there was little to be heard of this principle. He invoked the concept of left unity, which could not be jeopardised. Lafontaine clearly distanced himself from the left majority in the Berlin WASG and in particular from SAV. He defended Berlin’s SPD/LP.PDS coalition and the strategy of the lesser evil in Berlin. An independent candidacy would only be justified if it were possible to prove that different parliamentary majorities and a different government would not lead to more severe attacks. Lafontaine called the SAV “splitters” who were attempting to obstruct the process of creating a new left force.

Regrettably, there was no mention of the fact that even in the current situation in Berlin there are still possibilities for other policies. If it is not possible to find political partners and majorities then – and this is what the LP.PDS should have done – it would be necessary to leave the government instead of accepting acting according to the ‘constraints’ of capitalist policies.

There was no mention at all of the possibility of developing pressure through protests and thereby beginning to change the balance of forces in favour of the working class and the youth. Exactly this would be the task of an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal party of the left. In the opinion of SAV, this would be the best way to build a strong a fighting new formation in a short space of time. The potential for such a formation exists.

In the working class, among workers, the unemployed and young people as well as in the social movements, there is currently a wait-and-see mood regarding how the WASG will develop. Maintaining a principled left position would be an enormous encouragement for many activists and everyone who feels betrayed and angered by the politics of the established parties. An independent candidacy is therefore an important contribution to the process of creating a new formation on a political, left basis and it is the opposite of division.

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March 2006