Germany: “Left Unity” no step forward

WASG and Left Party/PDS vote for merger

On March 24/25, the two national congresses of Germany’s left-wing political parties – WASG (Electoral Alternative Work and Social Justice) and Left Party.PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) – voted by large majorities in favour of merging to form DIE LINKE. – The Left. These decisions followed three years of existence of the WASG and bitter debates amongst its members about the direction this party should take.

Lucy Redler, SAV member and a member of the WASG’s national committee, stated, in the NC minority report she gave to the congress, this new party will be a step in the wrong direction. Lucy announced she would vote against the merger and also explained why the Berlin regional organisation of the WASG will not join the new party but keep its independence and form a new regional left-wing political organisation.

This is in sharp contrast to most others on the left wing of the WASG, who agree with the merger, despite strong criticisms of the new party’s programme, constitution and expected policies. In the end, only 44 delegates (12%) out of 375 present at the WASG congress dared to vote against the merger. Amongst them were the majority of the Berlin delegation and the SAV members in the hall.

This "Unity" is a shift to the right

The WASG was founded as a response to the rightward shift of the Social Democratic Party, SPD, which was responsible, after 2002, for the sharpest attacks on the living standards and rights of workers in Germany’s post-war history. But it was also a response to the failures of the existing left-wing party, the PDS (the former ruling Stalinist party in the GDR). In eastern Germany, the PDS joined the neo-liberal SPD in coalition governments, on local and state level, and participated in savage social and wage cuts, job destruction and privatisation. In the west of the country, the PDS showed it is incapable of linking up with bigger layers of workers and youth opposed to the SPD’s policies. The result was the PDS declined as a force at the time when the WASG was created in 2004/5.

The WASG had a largely Keynesian programme but considered itself to be a broad party of all forces in opposition to neo-liberalism and social cuts – from trade unionists to Marxists. But it drew one important conclusion from the history of the former left-wing parties, the PDS and PDS: it principally rejected joining governments that carried out social cuts, privatisations and job losses.

When the then SPD chancellor, Schröder, called early elections, in 2005, the former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine re-entered the political arena and offered to stand against his former party – under the condition that WASG and PDS stand jointly together. This happened and the joint candidature (which was largely dominated by the stronger and richer PDS which had then changed its name into Left Party.PDS) received 8.7 percent and entered parliament with 54 MPs. This was the beginning of the merger of both parties and this became the main goal for both party leaderships.

Every sensible socialist would support the greatest possible unity of the forces of the working class, but, in this case, organisational unity means an important break with the political principles of the WASG. This is because to join with the Left Party.PDS (L.PDS), the WASG had to throw away its principal opposition against government participation which leads to the implementation of social cuts, privatisations etc. Therefore the coming together of both parties does not represent a step forward for the working class but a step in the wrong direction – away from the emergence of a combative workers’ party and in the direction of another left-wing party ending up in the capitalist establishment.

The Berlin experience

In Berlin federal state, a city government coalition of SPD and L.PDS, formed since 2001, was responsible for the privatisation of more than 100,000 public homes, the undermining of collective bargaining agreements, job destruction in the public sector, dramatic wage losses for public sector workers, social cuts, the implementation of the notorious ’One-Euro-Jobs’, flexibilisation of working hours for shop workers and many other anti-working-class measures.

The conflict in the WASG, between those who were prepared to agree to unity on an unprincipled basis (to which belongs the German counterpart of the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), a group which actually finds itself on the right wing of the WASG), and those who defended the WASG’s principled stand against social cuts and privatisations, was the most polarised. The local WASG, with the strong influence of Sozialistische Alternative (CWI), opposed the merger under the given conditions and stood independently in the Berlin state elections, in September, last year, receiving more than 50,000 votes.

But on a national scale, the WASG rank and file did not develop the self-confidence and the necessary political ideas to stand firm against the merger. The national leaderships of both parties were successful in pushing the idea that there is ’no room for two left-wing parties’ and that the WASG does not have a future on its own. In fact, it was the L.PDS, not a campaigning WASG, which did not have a future on its own and was saved by its 2005 election alliance with the WASG. But the bureaucratic regime which developed inside the WASG made many activists withdraw from activity and its membership figure is actually falling despite it having a high public profile due to its members of parliament.

L.PDS congress rejects left positions

During the recent WASG congress some issues discussed were controversial. The WASG delegates agreed to a number of left-wing policy statements. But these had to be also accepted by the L.PDS congress, meeting simultaneously in another hall in the same venue, in order to be added into the founding documents of the new party. And two of the most important controversial issues were not agreed. For instance, the L.PDS blocked a formulation which clearly, and without any possible misinterpretation, rejected the deployment of German troops outside Germany. The final wording on this is somewhat vague and reflects that within the L.PDS (and also in the WASG leadership) there are a people who want to support German troops participating in so-called ’UN peace missions’ in places like Sudan.

Even more clearly, the L.PDS rejected minimum conditions for government participation. It did not agree to a WASG amendment that demanded the new party would not join governments which pursued job destruction in the public sector, and cuts in social services. The L.PDS also did not agree to an amendment that demanded ending coalition governments when the coalition partner breaks the coalition agreement. This reflects the fact that the L.PDS is dominated by MPs, councillors and full time party officials, whose objective is to get into as many governments as possible.

Lafontaine’s dual role

Oskar Lafontaine plays a dual role in the process of the formation of the new merged party. He has enormously popularised the idea of the necessity of a party which represents the interests of working people. He re-introduced anti-capitalist and socialist rhetoric in public debate; something absent for a long time in Germany. Also important is Lafontaine’s call for the legal right to call a general strike.

At the same time, Lafontaine has not been prepared to confront the policies of the L.PDS in the Berlin government, but supported the L.PDS against the local WASG in last September’s election. In the last weeks, Lafontaine did not repeat criticisms he previously made against the Berlin city government. Lafontaine avoided any of these issues in his speech to the congress. He has said that the new party will stand for the politics of the SPD in 1998 – before the start of the Schröder government but when Lafontaine still was SPD chairman. However, the SPD of the 1990’s was already a capitalist party, which lost the active support of workers and youth because it was responsible for social cuts at both local and federal state level. As Lucy Redler said in her speech, she became politically active as a school student, in the 1990’s, against a SPD-led government in the state of Hessen and would never have had the idea to join the SPD at the time.

Lafontaine also said that he wants to form the government in his home state of Saarland, after the next elections in 2009 – without putting any demands or conditions on the SPD to form such a government. On balance, Lafontaine is not putting forward a principled left-wing position, but effectively plays a role in turning the new party towards the political establishment. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that he can shift to the left under the influence of events.

Could the new party develop?

The new party will be dominated by the MPs, councillors, full timers and the apparatus of the Left Party.PDS and it will basically follow the political line of the L.PDS. In eastern Germany and Berlin, the new party will be a simple continuation of the L.PDS.

In the west of the country the situation will be somewhat different, as the new party will not be part of any local or federal state administration and will have a more left-wing membership. It will be seen as an opposition party by the vast majority of the working class and will certainly have electoral successes, possibly the first in the coming federal state elections in Bremen in May where it could enter the first western federal state parliament. The new party will also have a growing influence in the trade unions and reinforces the break of parts of the trade union apparatus with the SPD.

But, given the new party’s bureaucratic inner life and largely parliamentary orientation, it is a more open question as to whether the party will be able to attract new workers and youth. Only an influx of workers and youth into the party, on the basis of new waves of class struggle, could prevent a rightward shift of the new party. This is not ruled out, but is also not the most likely scenario. Certainly, in the period before the next general elections, due in 2009, the new party can present itself as the left-wing opposition to the current ’Grand Coalition’ government, but this will not necessarily lead to active support from workers and youth.

What has to be done?

The battle to build a genuine workers’ party, with a socialist programme, will continue. Socialist forces inside and outside the new party should link up to help develop the class struggle and put forward demands on the new party. The Marxists, in and around SAV, will support the Berlin WASG in its rejection of joining the new party and in its attempt to set up a new left-wing political organisation in the capital. This is mainly because it is impossible to propose to a workers or youth that want to become politically active to join the new party DIE LINKE. – because DIE LINKE will be part of a city government which workers and young people have to struggle against.

In the east of Germany, SAV members will not join the new party as it will be connected to the political establishment. Also, to reach the most combative of the working class an independent profile is necessary.

]In the west, SAV members will be part of the new party and will argue for a clear socialist programme, while developing independent campaign work, for example, campaigning against the upcoming G8 summit, near Rostock, in June. SAV members will also continue their activities in workplaces and in the trade unions.

The SAV was to the forefront of the left-wing opposition inside the WASG and against the unprincipled merger of it with the L.PDS. The SAV is enormously strengthened politically out of the last years of work inside the WASG. SAV member, Lucy Redler, is the best known Trotskyist in Germany; something which will be reflected in the publication of two books by Lucy, this year. The SAV’s authority amongst the left has grown and the SAV is in a good position to build the forces of Marxism. This will be also an important precondition for the next attempts to create a mass workers’ party. As experience shows, the stronger the Marxist forces are in this process, the more positive will be the outcome of new mass parties, from the point of view of the working class.

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March 2007