Germany: “Unity” at the expense of the working class

A reply to Linksruck, sister organisation of the British SWP

In recent months political and social activists in Germany have been gripped by the widely publicised open debate in the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice), the anti neo-liberal party that developed in 2004, on its policies and the basis upon which it should unify with the L.PDS (Leftparty.PDS), the former ruling party in East Germany.

As the CWI has previously reported this debate has increasingly centred around the question of next September’s Berlin regional elections. Since 2001 the Berlin city government has been run by a SPD and L.PDS coalition that has been, in many ways, the national pace setter in carrying out cuts in living standards. After much discussion the Berlin WASG decided not to run candidates on the L.PDS’s list but, instead, to stand independently.

This decision provoked controversy within the WASG which came to a head at the recent WASG national congress. Against a background of public threats by party leaders to split if they did not get their way, the congress voted to oppose the Berlin WASG’s decision and to take measures against it. The congress was sharply polarised on this issue. A resolution moved by the most left wing members of the WASG national executive calling for a “fundamental change of course in party building” and opposing any “administrative measures” was only defeated by 156 votes to 143, even after the WASG leader Oscar Lafontaine specially intervened in the discussion to say that this was the most “important decision” facing the congress.

This decision marks a big retreat from one of the WASG’s founding principles, namely that it would not participate in governments “carrying out social cuts, privatisation and job cuts”. If the WASG national leadership had been serious about their own party’s principles then they would have declared that it was impossible to stand jointly with the current Berlin L.PDS leadership and supported the Berlin WASG standing separately as part of building a determined movement against neo-liberalism.

Parliamentary jobs

The most consistent supporters of this retreat and the attacks on the Berlin WASG have been members of Linksruck, the sister organisation of the British SWP. Every time they spoke at the congress they supported the attacks on the Berlin WASG. Recently a number of leading Linksruck members have been given jobs by parliamentarians in the Left group mainly made up of L.PDS and WASG Bundestag members. These jobs are only given to supporters of the L.PDS and WASG leadership; two other parliamentary workers are losing their jobs because they opposed some of the leaderships’ policies.

Linksruck’s role in providing a ’left’ face for the WASG leadership is amply illustrated for English speaking readers in an article, reprinted below, from the 6 May 2006 edition of “Socialist Worker”, the paper of the British SWP.

This article shows how Linksruck believes a merger between the WASG and L.PDS would be such a step forward that everything else, including policies, must be subordinated to that goal. Linksruck like to quote Marx that “every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” in order to justify their abandonment of any serious political opposition to the WASG leadership on the basis that the fusion is the most important issue. Yes any step forward by a real workers’ movement is important, but that does not mean ignoring political issues, especially when it involves acceptance of a neoliberal programme of cuts in the living standards of ordinary working class people. Marx’s statement comes from a 1875 letter accompanying his famous ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ which sharply criticised the draft programme for the unification of two German parties, the SDAP and the ADAV; a unification that Marx actually opposed because of the confused basis upon which it took place.

Under certain conditions it may be necessary for Marxists, after discussion and debate within a wider formation, to accept less than a full socialist programme. In Germany the SAV has often participated in alliances with other forces where agreement has been reached on limited points. Last March, for example, the SAV was part of a coalition with other WASG members, L.PDS and others that contested the local elections in Kassel, Hessen. That alliance won 6.8% of the vote and 5 council seats, including one for a SAV member. But joining in such coalitions or alliances this does not mean today agreeing to the implementation of counter-reforms as has happened in Berlin. Linksruck choose to ignore this distinction and have joined those who support and implement neo-liberal attacks against the working class.

Politics is concrete whether it is in 1875 or today. In Germany the SAV has argued for over 10 years now for the need to form a new workers’ party and joined the WASG as soon as it began to develop in spring 2004. The SAV has not opposed a merger between the WASG and PDS, but argued that firstly it has to be on a principled basis and secondly has to involved wider forces in a new truly democratic party.

Neo-liberal cuts

But in Berlin since 2001 the SPD/L.PDS city government has been in a coalition that has carried out cuts in wages, widespread privatisations and many other social attacks.

Here are just two concrete examples:

  • This city coalition broke away from national public sector wage agreements in order to cut wages. In the Berlin transport authority, BVG, the SPD/L.PDS coalition cut pay by 10% for existing staff and 15% for new workers.
  • The Berlin L.PDS ignored the L.PDS’s national policies and forced unemployed workers to take the so-called “one euro jobs”, something that the WASG nationally also opposes. Now in Berlin over 35,000 unemployed only receive state benefit if they agree to work as cheap labour for the ’bonus’ payment of one euro per hour worked.

In this situation the Berlin WASG decided that it was impossible to stand with the L.PDS unless it fundamentally changed its position not just in words, but in deeds. In addition SAV members called for the L.PDS to end the coalition it has with the SPD in Berlin. The Berlin WASG tried to discuss these issues with the L.PDS. Most recently in April it sent the L.PDS a letter asking for discussions, but the L.PDS did not even reply. Then, after much debate, the Berlin WASG confirmed that it would run its own list next September, arguing that it was impossible to ask workers to vote for a list that included a party carrying out social cuts.

Linksruck accept, on paper, many of these criticisms of the Berlin L.PDS. In Socialist Worker they write that the Berlin city government has “driven through New Labour style policies of cuts and privatisations”. But, as the Berlin L.PDS has over four times more members then the local WASG, its “New Labour” policies would dominate an election alliance at this time. However Linksruck ignore this simple fact and de facto argue that Berlin workers should vote for a party implementing “New Labour style policies” in the interests of ’left unity’.

Linksruck leaders have endorsed a joint statement recently produced by the WASG national leadership and the Berlin L.PDS leadership. This statement is presented as a basis for a joint election campaign in Berlin and on the basis of it, Linksruck, has demanded that the Berlin WASG does not stand independently in the regional elections. Linksruck present this joint statement as a shift to the left by the L.PDS in Berlin. In fact it is nothing of the kind. The L.PDS in Berlin say that this statement is a continuation of their previous policies. This is shown by the fact that there is no commitment within the statement to abolish the “one euro jobs”. While this statement says the hospitals and council housing in Berlin should remain under public control, it leaves open the possibility of their part-privatisation.

In fact the real interests of ’left unity’ at this time are that the WASG is not subjugated to the “New Labour” elements in the L.PDS. Currently this “New Labourism” is spreading nationally within the L.PDS. At the L.PDS national congress held simultaneously with the WASG’s congress, a key member of the Berlin L.PDS leadership was elected for the first time as one of its two national vice-chairpersons.

While it is true that there are some elements within the WASG who are both anti-cuts and anti-communist they are a small element, especially in Berlin, compared to the many WASG members opposing running in elections with pro-cuts L.PDS leaders. From the point of view of anti-cuts campaigners, let alone socialists, it is barely credible that Linksruck are arguing that workers should vote for leaders who have consistently for over four years attacked living standards in the name of “budget consolidation”.

Linksruck are right about the widespread desire for “left unity” but silent about how the WASG leadership misuse it. More significantly Linksruck do not pass comment about the attempts to blackmail the WASG congress. This article states that “before the conference, WASG was on the brink. What changed the mood was that the national leadership, especially Lafontaine, made it clear that the party would break apart unless there was a clear statement of unity.”

Right-wing threaten split

This is a shameful cover-up of Lafontaine´s key supporters’ blackmail tactics. The issue was not that the “party would break apart”, rather it was a public threat by the right wing to split away if the congress rejected their positions. Obviously Linksruck do not want to criticise the split threats by Oscar Lafontaine’s supporters. Probably they would have joined a break away, in Berlin Linksruck members walked out of the last regional WASG congress as soon as they were defeated on the issue of September’s election. In contrast the SAV argued that delegates at the WASG national conference should resist this blackmail and 47% of the delegates, albeit not a majority, did so.

The brutality of Oscar Lafontaine’s tactics was best described by the well known left intellectual Joachim Bischoff, someone who vehemently opposes the Berlin WASG standing separately in the election but also was against disciplinary measures being taken against the Berlin WASG. In his congress speech resigning from the WASG’s national executive he condemned the public split threats of Klaus Ernst, a key Lafontaine supporter, and others as bringing the “social democratic smell of stable yard manure” in the WASG.

Yet Linksruck ignored all this. At no time during the WASG congress did Linksruck supporters put forward any criticisms of either Lafontaine or the L.PDS. Indeed the Linksruck leader sitting on the WASG national executive has consistently supported Lafontaine’s position and threats against the Berlin WASG.

The SAV, because of the role that it has played in Berlin, has become a focal point of attack by the right wing in the WASG, sometimes some Linksruck delegates joined in. When the WASG congress voted on whether or not to expel SAV members from the the WASG most Linksruck delegates abstained.

This ’Socialist Worker’ article is filled with half-truths. For example it states in WASG referendums that “about 80 percent of members back unity with the PDS”, but this is only partially true. Yes, 78.3% voted in favour of unity with the L.PDS in last March’s WASG referendum, but this was only 44.38% of all WASG members as there was only a 55.57% participation; definitely not the same as “about 80% of members”.

This article is truly breathtaking in showing Linksruck’s rapidly increasing opportunism, something that extends to ignoring its own history. The SWP tendency to which Linksruck belongs was founded on the basis that it believed, wrongly in our opinion, that the former Soviet Union and other so-called “communist” states were capitalist, the SWP called them “state capitalist”. That is why in 1989/1990 they did not oppose the capitalist unification of West and East Germany. Before Stalinism’s collapse the SWP believed that the parties running these states were parties of a capitalist class. However today Linksruck just throws overboard its own past. The L.PDS is the successor party to the SED, the party that ruled the former East Germany, so once in Linksruck’s eyes it was a capitalist party. However today they think differently as they write “many old members of the PDS still consider themselves to be Marxists”(our emphasis). So was the SED capitalist, Marxist or something else?

Linksruck’s collapse into an organisation applauding Lafontaine and securing well paid jobs for its own top members has deeply alienated many of the best activists in Germany. Linksruck may think that they are gaining influence, but influence won on the basis of keeping your mouth shut is completely unprincipled and very fragile. This fragility is one of the reasons for the rapid rightward move of the Linksruck leadership as they become more and more dependent on Lafontaine for support and jobs. How long this lasts is another question, but what is clear that Linksruck is not building support amongst the most class conscious and militant workers and youth.

The Socialist Worker article mentions a bloc between the right and unnamed sectarians, they are in fact referring to the SAV who have won significant support amongst the best activists in the WASG and increasingly in the wider workers’ movement, as demonstrated by the massive publicity for Lucy Redler, one of its leading national spokespersons who has been elected as the Berlin WASG’s top candidate in September’s election.

These fighting elements are increasingly see the SAV as containing some of the most consistent and determined campaigners against the attacks on living standards and to build a new alternative, a new workers’ party that can fight capitalism. In this struggle the SAV, unlike Linksruck, is widening the support for the ideas of socialism by combining struggles on immediate issues with arguments on why and how capitalism can be overthrown.

When it comes down to the fundamental question of which side do you stand on, Linksruck in Berlin, has abandoned the workers whose wages have been cut, the victims of social cuts and the persecuted unemployed. Instead in practice they want to campaign for leaders who carry out these neo-liberal policies and defend the material benefits which accrue to some Linksruck elements from this unprincipled political posture.

Socialist Worker issue 1999, 6 May 2006 (www.socialistworker.co.uk)

Preserving unity on the German left

Volkhard Mosler, a leading member of Linksruck and secretary of the Frankfurt section of WASG

A debate has been raging in Germany for over a year now. How do we build a new left party across the whole country?

We currently have a “grand coalition” government made up of the right and the SPD, the German equivalent of the Labour Party. This coalition is pursuing a vigorous neo-liberal agenda and has deployed German troops to serve in Afghanistan.

So there is an urgent need for a left alternative. There are two major forces involved that could form the basis for such an alternative.

The first, WASG, is a new party of 12,000 members based in West Germany. It contains many trade unionists and activists who split from the SPD as it moved to the right.

The most prominent figure in WASG is Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD leader. The organisation also contains forces drawn from the far left, including Linksruck, the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in Germany.

The other major force on the left in Germany is the PDS, the old ruling party in Communist East Germany, which has about 60,000 members and about 1,000 full time workers.

There is a great desire for unity between these forces, but there are also problems.

WASG was built around the central question of social justice. It has been heavily involved with the social movements in Germany, but many of those in the organisation do not consider themselves socialists, and criticise the PDS for having too left wing a programme.

Other left wing groups within WASG criticise the PDS for being prepared to go into coalitions with the SPD at a regional level, and argue that this makes unity between the PDS and WASG impossible.

However, Linksruck, along with many other members of WASG, argues that it is possible to criticise the actions of the PDS while building the kind of unity that is urgently needed.

These debates recently came to a head in the German capital, Berlin. Here the PDS has for a number of years been running the city in coalition with the SPD. Because the capital is deeply in debt, the local authorities have driven through New Labour style policies of cuts and privatisations.

So there are good reasons to be critical of the PDS. But on the other hand, it is too simplistic to say that it is just the same as the SPD. The PDS is highly critical of the SPD. It helped to build the anti-war movement and has been a part of every major left wing campaign.

Many old members of the PDS still consider themselves to be Marxists, and attack their own party’s neo-liberal policies in Berlin.

Linksruck has argued that it is necessary to have critical but unconditional support for unity between the WASG and the PDS. We have to walk on two legs. One of the legs has a wound, but that doesn’t mean that we should cut the whole leg off!

The desire for unity has also been reflected by two referendums in WASG, both of which saw about 80 percent of members back unity with the PDS.

But in Berlin, an unholy alliance between left wing sectarians and the right wing was able to dominate the debate inside WASG. Members in the city voted at the beginning of April to stand against the PDS in local elections set for September.

A motion arguing against this was backed by about a third of delegates at a meeting of the Berlin WASG.

Faced with this, the national conference of WASG, which took place last weekend, was a big step forward. A coalition of forces, including Linksruck, Lafontaine and many trade unionists put forward a serious unity position.

It was decided by a clear majority to campaign for unity in Berlin and to reject attempts to stand against the PDS.

Before the conference, WASG was on the brink. What changed the mood was that the national leadership, especially Lafontaine, made it clear that the party would break apart unless there was a clear statement of unity.

The next stage is to write a draft constitution for a united organisation and to debate this in both parties.

By spring next year both parties will have held conferences and voted on whether to join together. By June next year there could be a united left party across Germany.

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