The merger between the two left-wing parties, Left Party.PDS and WASG (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice), in Germany has taken place.
On 16 June 2007, the first joint congress took place, formally launching The Left (Die Linke), the name the new party adopted.
Since then the new party has gone up to 14 % in opinion polls sending shock waves through the establishment and especially the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD is generally is under 30% in the polls, and has entered a new phase in its long term crisis. Nearly 3,000 new members have joined The Left since the June congress including 60 trade unionists, many of them officials, who joined collectively. This reflects the potential which exists for a left-wing, anti-capitalist party which stands on the side of workers and unemployed in the struggle against attacks on social benefits, jobs and working conditions.
The party leader, former SPD chairman and ex- Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, sets the tone with radical speeches demanding "freedom through socialism" and the right to call a general strike (officially strikes are only legal in Germany as part of collective bargaining negotiations). Oscar Lafontaine has also called for the end of the deployment of German troops to Afghanistan, and the reversal of both the draconian unemployment benefit cuts, known as the Hartz legislation, and the rise in the age of retirement from 65 to 67.
The launch of this party and demands like this obviously create support and hopes amongst sections of the working class. For the first time in many years a strong parliamentary force has emerged which does not join in the neo-liberal choir of the pro-capitalist established parties. The new party has the opportunity to base itself on the fact that after years of sharp attacks on the working class the need for a combative and genuine anti-capitalist party which can unite working class people and activists from trade unions, social movements and different left-wing groups is bigger than ever.
But, as has also been seen with new left parties in other countries, this new party’s future is not assured. In fact behind Lafontaine’s radical speeches lies a much more complicated and contradictory situation. It is questionable if the new party can live up to the hopes and expectations which exist amongst a layer. There is already scepticism towards The Left amongst another layer of left wing and trade union activists and also wider sections of workers and youth.
This is because the dominant component of the new party, the LeftParty.PDS, has no record of seriously fighting in the interest of working class people. Since German reunification the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), the descendant of the former ruling party in Stalinist East Germany, has joined local and regional governments together with the SPD in the Eastern part of the country. It has supported social cuts, privatisations, job destruction and other anti-working class measures. This has been part of the overall strategy of PDS leaders who see participation in coalition governments with the SPD as a central part of its policy. Now this policy has been carried over into the new party, something which poses grave dangers. Previously this approach resulted in the PDS entering a sharp decline until it was rescued by its 2005 election alliance with the WASG.
Now there is an obvious contradiction between The Left’s propaganda at a national level and the policies it implements at local and regional level in East Germany. The new party will only have a chance to build a substantial base amongst the working class if it does not give in to neo-liberal logic on any level, it stands firmly on the side of the masses and does not conduct the policy of the ’lesser evil’.
Unfortunately this merger began with the WASG throwing overboard its most important principle, that of opposition to any government participation which leads to social cuts or privatisation. Many WASG members know that this has meant a political shift to the right, and only a minority of WASG members actually voted in favour of this fusion in a party referendum. This is one reason why the launch of The Left has not produced a dynamic party with lively internal debates and a rapidly growing membership as was the case following the WASG’s foundation. As explained in previous articles on socialistworld.net, the new party is a step in the wrong direction compared to the combative and dynamic character of the launch of the WASG in 2004. Therefore SAV (Sozialistische Alternative – CWI in Germany) was opposed to this merger because of the political basis on which it was conducted. We argued for left unity on a principled basis of working class and socialist politics and called on the WASG to put forward minimum conditions of no cuts, no privatisation, and no anti-working class measures to the L.PDS as the basis of a merger.
The new party will be dominated by the full time apparatus and parliamentary groups of the former Left Party.PDS in East Germany and in the Bundestag (national parliament). Bureaucratism will limit the appeal of The Left to new layers of workers and young people. Voting for The Left is one thing, joining it and getting actively involved is another. This is another factor which makes it difficult to win a majority for principled socialist ideas in The Left and puts a question mark over the party’s future.
Initially The Left public impact has been shaped by the radical speeches of its main public leader, Oskar Lafontaine. In many speeches he poses the "System and Property Question". Currently he is the only major public figure in Europe calling for Socialism.
But he is not consistent and is not arguing for a rounded out socialist programme to break with capitalism. While arguing that "key areas of the economy must be subject to democratic and social control" and calling for the energy sector to be taken back into public ownership, Lafontaine does not clearly call for nationalisation of the major monopolies and banking sector of the economy. He also supports the continuation of a market economy.
In many ways, Lafontaine argues for a return to the so-called golden years of post-war capitalism. He is not fundamentally opposed to private ownership of the means of production or to a market based economy with production for profit. This policy is based upon classical Keynesianism. This means a policy of stronger state intervention into the economy and of "strengthening the buying power of the working population". He hopes that through a more regulated economy German can return to the times of strong economic growth, rising wages and growing living standards. In today’s era of capitalist globalisation, capitalist decline and sharper world-wide competition, it is an illusion that it is possible to go back to the period of the post-second world war economic upswing with its long term rise in living standards. Without the perspective of breaking with capitalism, pro-Keynesian politicians ultimately join anti-working-class policies of social cuts and privatisation if they are in capitalist governments.
But the decisive effect of Lafontaine’s role at the moment is that he has shifted public debate in Germany to the left. Because of this, and The Left’s rise in the opinion polls, he has been systematically attacked by most established politicians and in wide sections of the media.
This has already led to frictions within the leadership of the new party. Dominant elements in the leadership from the East German part of the Left Party.PDS have to a large extent accepted neo-liberal logic and are prepared to participate in almost every attack on the working class on local and regional level. However, the wing around Lafontaine tend to oppose cuts, at least in words, while arguing for Keynesian style policies.
This can lead to some open differences of opinion. However, it is clear from Lafontaine’s statements on issues like the Berlin city SPD/L.PDS coalition and on government participation in general, that there are no fundamental differences between him and the L.PDS elite. Lafontaine periodically comes out with critical statements on the policies of the Berlin city government, yet in the decisive situation of the regional elections in last September, he refused to support the Berlin WASG anti-cuts candidates. Instead Lafontaine called for a vote for the L.PDS and backed a continuation of its government coalition with the SPD.
Lafontaine also clearly says that his aim is to form a regional state government together with the local SPD in the Saarland after the next federal state elections there in 2007. So far he has not posed any conditions for such a regional alliance.
But nationally Lafontaine created quite a stir when he offered to back the SPD if it broke from their federal coalition with the CDU (Christian Democrats) and forming a government on the basis of a number of conditions. These conditions included the removal of German troops from Afghanistan, the taking back of some of the harshest "reforms" against the unemployed and the introduction of a minimum wage. But they still left open a lot of room for misinterpretation and did not clearly say what the old WASG always said: namely joining a government is only an option if this does not lead to any social cuts, privatisations etc.
Nevertheless Lafontaine is seen by many as being to the left of the old Left Party.PDS leadership. These activists will support him, critically if necessary, when conflicts develop between him and more right-wing forces.
Effect in the trade unions
The new party was formed during a time of increased class tensions and a growth in strikes by German workers. Last year saw the highest number of working days "lost" through strikes since 1995, although the figures are still low in comparison to other countries.
However the trade union leaders’ policies have led most recent industrial battles into either defeat or rotten compromises. That was the case with the Telekom workers strike. The trade union leadership has now agreed to a ’deal’ which sees a 6.5 percent wage loss and a lengthening of the working hours by four hours per week. The politics of "co-management" between bosses and trade union functionaries are more and more questioned by the rank and file in the unions and so is the link between the trade unions and the social democracy. This is not a formal organisational link as it is in Britain between the trade unions and New Labour, but a political link which manifests itself in the fact that most trade union leaders and officials are members of the SPD and regular meetings between the leaderships take place in the "trade union council" of the SPD. This link is getting weaker with more trade unionists calling for a more combative policy of towards the SPD and with a growing number of mainly middle-rank trade union officials having been members of the WASG and are now in The Left.
This effect the WASG had and now The Left has in the trade unions reflects the contradictory character of this new party. Its programme, strategy, party structure and composition of its leadership all make it unlikely that the party will evolve in a leftward direction. Neither is it likely to become a real alternative for workers and young people which could attract a new layer of activists and broader sections of the population. At the same time the party at the moment is the only viable political alternative to the left of the established and bourgeois parties. Therefore it is clear that it will gain at least on electoral level. Furthermore in West Germany The Left is not involved in any local or federal state governments and therefore seen more as a left-wing and oppositionist force. It is possible that a layer of activists in the West will support The Left and some may even join it.
Since the merger 3,000 new members have joined the party, although it not clear what sort of backgrounds they come from. Some may be looking for positions and even careers while others will be genuine activists from trade unions and social movements. Others could have come from the SPD and the Green party. This probably shows that there is a layer of activists and workers who have hopes in The Left. However, this membership growth is not especially high compared for example to the tens and even hundreds of thousands who joined the old SPD, when it still was a workers’ party at its base, in the early 1970s and 1980s. The Left’s initial growth is also small when compared to the 6,000 who quickly joined the WASG after it was launched in 2004 – at a time where it had no parliamentary presence and Lafontaine was not involved.
Therefore, SAV members will respond flexibly way according to the situation, taking into the account the hopes that some have in The Left. This means that SAV members have not joined The Left in Berlin and East Germany as the party has few active members as a result of the anti-working class measures it has helped carry out in two regional and many local governments. In addition it does not generally participate in workers’ struggles or wider social movements. In the West, SAV members generally have joined the new party and stand for a socialist programme and fighting policies of the party.
Together with other anti-capitalist and opposition forces from within and outside The Left, SAV is helping call a national opposition conference on 14 October. This will discuss the building of a network of these forces inside and outside the new party. We understand that The Left is a force which cannot just be dismissed because of its leadership’s policies. This opposition network has to discuss proposals for campaigns and policies directed towards both the membership of The Left and its wider support. Such an opposition network should be clearly anti-capitalist and prepared to support genuine left-wing alternatives on an electoral level as an alternative to The Left. This can be necessary where The Left has, often as a result of being in regional or local government, attacked working class interests.
The German section of the International Socialist Tendency (IST, whose biggest organisation is the British Socialist Workers Party), Linksruck, has played a negative role in the WASG over the last two years. Starting out from the position that it was wrong to even mention "socialism" as an objective, Linksruck ended up politically backing the most rightwing elements in the WASG. This became an open alliance with the most bureaucratic forces as Linksruck stood by the line of the leadership. This included fully supporting administrative measures like the attempt to kick out of office of the ’rebel’ WASG Berlin regional committee in 2006. They called on people to vote for the L.PDS in the Berlin regional elections and have completely subordinated themselves to Lafontaine in the hope of profiting from his "left" profile. They were rewarded for this by getting a position on the National Executive Committee of The Left for their main spokesperson, Christine Buchholtz. Linksruck never has been an opposition force in the WASG.
Now Linksruck has officially dissolved itself as an independent organisation and are arguing that all forces have to be concentrated on building The Left. This decision reflects a process of political liquidationism in this organisation. However they will not really dissolve themselves, but they have already, and will certainly continue, to loosen their own structures. However this will only lead to a situation where their own decision-making will become even more undemocratic as no real rank-and-file branches will exist which could, in theory, control the leadership and influence the course of the organisation.
Linksruck started ’Marx21’, a new magazine, and called for the building of a new ’marxist network’ inside The Left. Their approach to this is not serious. Firstly, Linksruck has always presented itself as a ’network’ (so what is ’new’ about it?) and secondly that they start a new magazine in which they publish the draft manifesto for the new network and an invitation to a first public congress in autumn before they approach other forces to discuss the building of a real network.
The regional organisation of the WASG in Berlin has not participated in the merger of the two parties. After their independent candidature in September 2006 which received over 50,000 votes and saw the election of 14 councillors, all attempts by the national leadership and the pro-merger minority in Berlin to win a majority amongst WASG members in Berlin, failed.
However the forces of the majority were also weakened with some individuals forming small groups or leaving political activity. However the most influential political groups and members of the WASG Berlin (SAV, another anti-capitalist group, the majority of the regional committee) launched a new political organisation for Berlin called BASG (which stands for Berlin Alternative for Solidarity and Struggle). At the BASG’s first public meeting in mid-June, a number of leading trade unionists spoke including the works council leader for the Berlin public administration workers and two important shop stewards from the two biggest hospital companies in Berlin. This reflects certain roots and authority which were laid by the WASG Berlin and is now taken up by the BASG.
The BASG is the political continuation of the WASG Berlin. It was founded on the basis of an action programme against social cuts, privatisations etc. and for a 30 hour working week without loss of pay, a 10 Euro an hour minimum wage and also demands like the rejection of the deployment of German troops abroad and a ’No’ to the EU draft constitution. The BASG will conduct a debate on its political programme in the next months in which SAV members will argue for a clear anti-capitalist outlook of this new organisation.
The continued anti-working class policy of the SPD/The Left government in Berlin will create the ground for opposition movements and struggles by workers against this administration. This will be the basis for the BASG, standing in the tradition of the campaigning record of the old WASG Berlin and having the advantage of the popularity of Lucy Redler, a leading SAV member, and others, to build its organisation, play a role in the left and social movements in the city and prepare a left-wing election list for the next elections.
The SAV in Berlin has already been strengthened from previous struggles with many new and active members and a growing influence in some workplaces. SAV will build its own organisation and at the same time help building the BASG as a broad left-wing alternative in Berlin, while taking account of the national developments in and around The Left.