Germany: Germany at the crossroads

Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, accounting for just over 20% of total European Union Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

New Introduction to German edition of ‘Marxism in Today’s World’ by Peter Taaffe

Originally published in English and Italian, November 2006

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Germany at the crossroads

It also vies with China as the world’s leading exporter of goods. The German working class movement is also potentially the strongest in Europe. Yet the capitalists of Germany have been successful in an onslaught – in some respects more brutal than that carried out in the process of neo-liberalisation by British capitalism – against the living standards of the German workers. This has only been made possible by the colossal stultifying effect of the rotten right-wing German trade union leadership. It has combined with the leaders of the ex-workers’ party, the Social Democrats (SPD), in bowing the knee to German capital as it imposed cut after cut in the conditions and rights of working-class people. One of the tasks which we set ourselves in ‘Marxism in Today’s World’ and this introduction is to help free workers in general, and the German working class in particular – with their marvellous socialist and revolutionary traditions – from their malign influence. This is, first and foremost, an ideological task, to give a socialist and Marxist perspective to the situation which confronts the labour movement today.

The translation of this book for the first time into German is a special occasion for the author. The issues which are covered, the dialogue which takes place, are relevant to Germany, particularly at this stage, when this powerful country and equally strong labour movement are at a crossroads. The days when German capitalism stood in the first rank and ‘delivered the goods’ have long gone. Like the snows of yesteryear, has also gone the relative social stability once hailed as the essential feature of the ‘German model’, which the rest of the world was urged to emulate. Germany today is one of the most volatile countries in Europe, despite the surface calm that prevails. This is the consequence of German capitalism’s attempt to go down the road of neo-liberal capitalism pioneered by Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Moreover, in some respects the German capitalists went where Thatcher feared to tread. This has resulted in the scandal of ‘one euro jobs’ (jobs paying one euro an hour on top of unemployment benefit), which the unemployed have been compelled to take. The number of workers having a second job has increased since 2003 by 2.1 million, Süddeutsche Zeitung pointed out. Slave-like wages are the hallmark of neo-liberalism but in this respect Germany has recently set the tone. The net result has been a colossal contraction of the working class’s share of the wealth that it produces.

A vehicle for this capitalist offensive was the so-called ‘Red-Green’ coalition led by Gerhard Schröder. His neo-liberal programme ‘Agenda 2010’ was hailed by all shades of capitalist opinion as the ‘breakthrough’ which would lay the foundations for a glittering economic revival of German capitalism. Since this was introduced, the long-term unemployed have seen their purchasing power fall by 7.5% (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 30 November 2007). Based upon the lowering of ‘wage costs’ – sanitised words to describe, in some cases, a savage reduction of wages and undermining of conditions – German capitalism initially appeared to be successful. While not experiencing any economic fireworks, the sluggish growth rate of German capitalism – on average half of the rest of the EU in this decade – began to revive. This was boosted by the world economic boom and, in Germany’s case, the increased markets, particularly for manufactured capital goods in a growing China. Yet even in the current boom, incomes have been falling. Between the third quarter 2005 and the third quarter 2007, real incomes of private households fell 0.4% (Berliner Zeitung 10 December 2007).

Developing world crisis

This fragile short-lived boom, however, faces shipwreck because of the developing world economic crisis. This has been highlighted recently by the crisis in the US housing sector, particularly the ‘sub-prime’ meltdown. As in all upswings of capitalism, as Marx pointed out, credit oils the process, even extending the market for a time beyond its limits. With this also comes all kinds of speculation and its practitioners, described by Marx as ‘adventurers and prophets’. There were not, however, many ‘prophets’ in world capitalism as they ascended the golden staircase to ever-greater riches, fuelled by ever more complex financial ‘instruments’, which few if any of them really understood. Loans of 150 years duration were given to the poorest section of US society, with absolutely no possibility of the recipients having any chance of paying them back. The result is a slow-motion car crash in the US credit markets and the most serious economic crisis looming in the US and worldwide for decades.

The financial ‘masters of the universe’ believed that globalisation offered an escape route from the traditional cycle of boom and bust under capitalism. The US banks contended they would ‘lessen the risk’ by parcelling up, like packets of chopped meat, the debt from this sector and selling it off. The result was an ‘internationalisation’ of the US crisis. Globalisation, again perceived as a means of avoiding economic meltdown, facilitated this. As the great German philosopher Hegel pointed out: “Reason becomes unreason and unreason becomes reason”. The very measures aiming to stabilise capitalism and extend its economic cycle have now turned into their opposite.

The banking crisis of the US has penetrated to all countries, including Germany. In August 2007, the global credit squeeze threatened Sachsen LB, only set up 15 years ago in the wake of capitalist reunification. This resulted in “one of the most humiliating moments in recent times” for German banking. This bank threatened to go under because it was a buyer of ‘asset-backed securities’, amounting to a massive betting exercise. The net result was that it threatened to go bankrupt; one stockholder in the bank declared, “We’ve got our backs against the wall”. But Germany’s top bank regulator, Jochen Sanio, shot back: “There’s no wall behind you – only an abyss”. This is a metaphor for world capitalism, particularly US capitalism, and perhaps Germany as well.

The hopes that they could overturn this crisis easily have now begun to dissipate. World capitalism’s ‘economic wise men’ – the central bankers of the major countries – have injected in a panicky fashion $100 billion of ‘liquidity’ into the money markets. Yet, in the case of the ailing Northern Rock mortgage bank in Britain, the government has already pumped in nearly $50 billion! This has been followed up by the European Central Bank, which has pumped in even more. No amount of ‘liquidity’ can overcome the current problems of US and world capitalism. This present crisis is not a problem of ‘liquidity’ – the injection of credit and capital into the money markets – but one of ‘solvency’, the near bankruptcy of important sectors of world capitalism and particularly in the financial and banking sectors, which is spilling over to the ‘real’ economy.

The sub-prime crisis in the US is linked to the housing crisis, which has been developing now for more than 12 months. The housing sector in the US, in turn, is an extreme example of the ‘asset Keynesianism’ – a property bubble – which has allowed US consumers to go on a spending spree for the last seven years. This has, in turn, fuelled the boom in manufacturing goods exported to the US market from China. The slowdown in US house prices – with one million families who have already lost their homes and two to three million more are threatened – reduces expenditure and, therefore, the ability of US consumers to buy Chinese goods. A slowdown in China would have huge social and political effects internally but also could significantly impact on those countries like Germany who supply its voracious appetite for capital goods to produce the seemingly endless supply of consumer products.

“Shock and Awe”

This crisis, moreover, is only in its first stages. One bourgeois commentator referred to the injection of liquidity by the central bankers as an example of “shock and awe”. But Bush’s laser show at the beginning of the Iraq war did not secure victory but its exact opposite. It drew US imperialism and its military forces into a quagmire from which it is presently frantically trying to escape. Indeed, some commentators have compared the present financial crisis to the Iraq war, in the sense that it appeared that it would be easily ‘solved’, but as time has gone on, ‘victory’ has remained elusive.

On top of the present housing crisis, US capitalism also confronts a dollar crisis. The Bush regime has been complicit in the fall of the dollar as a means of cheapening US exports and closing the huge trade deficit. However, such is the ‘hollowing out’ of US industry that, even with the advantages of a cheap dollar, it remains to be seen whether US capitalism’s exports can recapture markets. On the other hand, the consequences of a fall in the dollar threaten to ‘unwind chaotically’. This is bankers-speak for competitive devaluations by US capitalism’s rivals following a further precipitous drop in the US currency. French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, while cuddling up to Bush on his recent trip to the US, warned that this could result in a trade war, which could further compound the economic woes of world capitalism. This shows, as Marxists have argued, that globalisation, rather than ushering in a new golden age for world capitalism, would ultimately lay the basis for a crisis on a world scale.

A crisis in one country – particularly an important one like the US – can move at lightning speed from one country to another. Capitalism therefore faces the possibility of a new ‘domino’ effect – which was only a different way of confirming Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution in the international effects of a revolution in one country on another. This time, however, it will initially be on an economic basis. Moreover, the most serious consequences can be felt not in the weaker economies but in the stronger citadels of world capitalism such as the US and Germany.

Effects in Germany

Indeed, such is the awareness of the strategists of German capitalism of the effects of this world crisis on German exports that they have been frantically casting around for measures to ‘take up the slack’. This is one reason for the incredible volte-face of a section of German capitalism on the issue of the minimum wage. They spent the earlier part of this decade exhorting first of all Schröder and then Merkel to energetically pursue punitive measures such as ‘Agenda 2010’ and the infamous ‘Hartz IV’ attacks on the unemployed. All of this was in the cause of ‘cutting unemployment’. But despite German success on world markets, mass unemployment remains, particularly in the East. Officially unemployment stands at 3.4 million now, which is, again officially, 600,000 less than a year ago. This is presented as a significant drop, although the real number of unemployed is much higher. Furthermore many of these new jobs are on short-term contracts and low paid and, as the recent threatened redundancies at BMW show, are the first to go when companies face crisis.

Moreover, while productivity grew by a significant 30% over a period of 14 years up to 2005, the real wages of the German working class were, in 2006, the lowest since 1986. The German workers’ share of national income fell by a hefty 5% while at the same time there was a huge boost to profits. ‘Consumption’ contracted, which alarmed significant sections of bourgeois economists. Where would the market for German goods shut out of China come from?

In December 2007, the Bundesbank revised downwards the forecast for economic growth from the ‘expected’ 2% in 2008 to 1.6%. Even a statistically small drop like this in the eurozone’s largest economy will have big effects, both in Germany and throughout the EU. Moreover, prices are increasing worldwide because of surging food and energy costs, which in turn have resurrected once more the spectre of ‘stagflation’ – a combination of a blocked or stalled capitalist economy and rising prices. This will introduce even more instability into the foundations of world capitalism.

The partial introduction of a minimum wage in the postal service is connected to the gloomy economic prospects for German capitalism. Merkel, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) Chancellor, gave her benediction to the concessions in the postal sector and seems to agree with this being extended into other industries. This does not mean that Merkel has been suddenly converted into an opponent of neo-liberal capitalism. On the contrary, she is acting, she believes, in the best interests of German capitalism by seeking, through measures of this character, to increase ‘consumption’. At the same time, she is responding to the colossal social discontent which is bubbling up from below and which has exerted pressure even on right-wing parties and figures like the CDU and the Merkel faction of that party in particular. The Financial Times in London summed the situation up: “Rockets often fail when the first stage is jettisoned and the second stage has to fire. Germany’s economy is in a similar position: an impressive export-led recovery is nearing its limits and it is time for domestic consumption to take over”.

Response to neo-liberalism

All the major neo-liberal measures introduced under Schröder and pursued by the coalition government in its first two years in power are now massively unpopular. This is indicated by opinion polls. This in turn has forced all the major parties into drifting “Leftwards, seeking to tap the anti-reform discontent among voters”. [Financial Times] The strategists of capital have enormous foreboding about the political consequences of the ‘reform’ – in reality, counter-reform – neo-liberal programme. The German people, in a comparatively short period of years, first of all experienced Schröder’s shock therapy ‘Agenda 2010’, which impoverished the poor even further. Recounting a conversation with a British New Labour ‘consultant’, a Financial Times correspondent writes: “He compared the German pro-reformists with what he called ‘Labour brutalists’ of the 1970s… The German pro-reform Social Democrats are old-fashioned cost-cutters. They are not creative reformers”. Tell the millions of unemployed, those forced to take 1 euro an hour jobs, that the attacks of the last seven years have not been ‘brutal’ enough.

The fact that CDU and SPD ‘Left wingers’ have “coalesced into an ad hoc but substantial parliamentary bloc” speaks volumes about the underlying social discontent in Germany at this stage. Disposable income has dropped with “many Germans rightly feeling poorer now than they did a year ago”. After the Schröder years of agony, relief seemed to be promised by the growth in the German economy. This rosy perspective – more illusion than reality – is now being snatched away. Germany will not be able to escape the economic consequences of world capitalist crisis. The spiralling upwards of prices is extremely sensitive, given the historical memory of the hyperinflation of the Weimar years. This will lead to huge pressure from below for wage increases to compensate for past and current losses in the real incomes of the German working class.

The recent train drivers’ strikes starkly highlighted the situation. The train drivers had suffered cuts in pay and working conditions over a period of years. In a country that is supposed to be the richest in Europe, they were amongst the lowest paid, with Spanish workers, for instance, receiving a substantially better income. The Süddeutsche Zeitung compared the wages of European train drivers on 16 November 2007. German train drivers earn just 1,290 euros a month while in Spain, drivers earn 1,750 euros and in Britain 2,300 euros. This is a consequence of the inaction of the rotten right-wing trade union leaders who have dominated the German labour movement for decades. Leon Trotsky, in the 1930s, spoke about the tendency of the trade union tops to grow together with the capitalist state. This process is evident everywhere today. In Britain, for instance, there is a tradition of trade union leaders participating in semi-government bodies such as ‘quangos’ (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations). Through this and their political outlook, most of them have one foot in the camp of capitalism while pretending to lead trade unionists into battle against the employers. At best, they see themselves as ‘mediators’ between the working class and the employers.

Trade unions

In Germany, however, and many other countries, this trend has been taken to unheard-of lengths, with the trade union leaders virtually fusing, on occasions, with the capitalists themselves. For instance, Norbert Hansen is simultaneously deputy chair of Deutsche Bahn’s (German Railways) supervisory board and at the same time ‘leads’ the main railway union ‘Transnet’. This “co-determination” was presented as an alternative to the demands for nationalisation and workers’ control which were so widespread after the Second World War – so widespread that even sections of the then newly formed CDU supported them. Using the cover of ‘co-determination’, the right wing labour leaders acted both to block nationalisation and integrate themselves into capitalism. Thus Hansen and his like have systematically held back the struggles of the German workers against their deteriorating and scandalous wages and conditions, and in the particular case of the railways, supported privatisation.

The train drivers are fighting for a basic minimum wage of 2,500 euros a month before tax and social benefits, and a one hour cut in their working week – extremely modest demands. Faced with the collaboration of the Transnet leadership with the bosses, many train drivers Left to join the smaller union, Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL), which now represents 80 percent of train drivers and is outside the main trade union federation, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB). To the fury of the train drivers, Transnet and another small union had agreed earlier in 2007 to a new wage contract with a measly 4.5% increase. Therefore, the train drivers demanded a separate contract and demanded a 30% increase in wages. They first organised smaller strikes on a regional basis which met with the approval of commuters; “66% of the population say they ‘understand’ the train drivers’ strike”. The result has been the longest strike of train drivers since 1945.

The German section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), was unequivocal in its support for the train drivers and actively participated in their actions, earning in the process the plaudits of militant GDL activists. This was in marked contradistinction to others, particularly the leadership of ‘Transnet’ and the right-wing national leadership of the DGB. They have resorted to only token gestures of resistance to the neo-liberal onslaught.

Recently the spokesperson for the Bavarian IG Metall called the announcement of 8,000 redundancies by the auto giant BMW a “completely normal occurrence”. In June 2007 Deutsche Telekom workers suffered a 6.5% pay cut, which was agreed by the leaders of their trade union, Ver.di, after weeks of strike action. These right-wing leaders agreed to the company splitting off a whole section of its workforce into a low-wage company. This comes on top of systematic cuts which meant that the workers in this company have had a pay cut of 25% since 2004. This is “entirely the fault of the Ver.di leadership”, commented Ursel Beck, SAV trade union spokesperson. The union leadership restricted the struggle to 10% of Telekom workers but all Telekom workers will face the consequence of this avoidable defeat.

The splitting up and dragging out of industrial struggles instead of employing the concentrated force of all union members seems now to be a hallmark of the current crop of right-wing trade union leaders in many countries. In a similar fashion the energies of the postal workers in Britain were frittered away in partial action instead of in a generalised struggle. The consequences are a small and inadequate increase in wages at best, accompanied by a significant worsening of workplace conditions.

Pattern emerging

A pattern seems to have emerged in a number of countries in Europe with the smaller unions, with a less-remote officialdom and closer to the mood of the ranks, more easily going into action. We see this with the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) in Britain, under the militant leadership of Bob Crow, which has successfully conducted a number of important struggles. This has earned the RMT and especially Bob Crow the ire of the capitalists and their hirelings in the media. Conversely, it has made the union attractive to workers looking for the means to fight back and, consequently, the union’s membership has soared. The same applies to the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in Britain with a decisive influence of CWI members on its national executive and led by general secretary Mark Serwotka, which stands out in defence of the public sector and its workers. It has also seen a boost in its membership as a result of its militant stance.

In a striking rejection of the right’s stewardship of the trade union movement, other workers have Left their unions in Germany to join the GDL. Of course, this is not a tactic that can be employed in a general sense throughout the whole of the trade union movement, either in Germany or elsewhere. The task that is posed before the left and the trade union movement in Germany is not to leave their present unions en masse to found or join other new, radical formations, but to organise the rank and file in the existing unions to take into their hands the running of their unions through systematic democratisation of the union structures.

The programme for this struggle should include the election of all trade union officials and regular re-election; no collaboration with the bosses in cutting wages and conditions; for union officials to receive no more than the average worker; down with the present trade union ‘aristocracy’, whose lifestyle is on a different planet to the ordinary union members! But at the same time, given the bureaucratic blockage within ‘Transnet’ and the trade union movement as a whole, it is perfectly understandable that workers have upped and Left to join the GDL. Like dammed-up water, which will seek an outlet by going round the obstacle, so German workers are attracted by a militant fighting organisation such as the train drivers’ union.

To preach about ‘unity’ from the sidelines like disapproving schoolmasters is the opposite of militant trade unionism. But this is precisely what many on the ‘Left’ have done in relation to the train drivers’ strike. Often they simply echoed what the right-wing union leaders say about the GDL. But this is the ‘unity of the graveyard’ and a bureaucratic one at that. Sascha Stanicic, general secretary of SAV, correctly answered these ‘Left critics’ by pointing out that the train drivers’ action had not so much broken the ‘unity’ of the trade unions – which in this case is a bureaucratic pact at the top to do nothing – but in effect ‘broke the ice’. It is an inspiration and a guide to other workers seeking to fight back against the employers and government offensive, and the compliance of right-wing trade union leaders with this.

Rosa Luxemburg, prior to the First World War, understood even more than Lenin and Trotsky the paralysing effect of the German conservative trade union officialdom on working-class struggles, which resulted in their catastrophic support for the first world war. By comparison, however, she faced in the unions of that time a bureaucratic pimple compared to the huge ulcer of bureaucratic inaction which blankets the trade union movement today in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Even in Brazil, the obstacle of the official trade union movement, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), has compelled the more fighting combatant workers to create a rank-and-file organisation, Coordenação Nacional de Lutas (National Co-ordination of Struggles – CONLUTAS). This at least has given a point of reference to workers who want to fight back against the Lula government’s neo-liberal attacks on pensions, education, etc. This project is not conceived, at least by the members of Socialismo Revolucionário, the Brazilian section of the CWI, in any sectarian or ultra-Left manner. It will still be necessary for CONLUTAS to approach the ranks of the CUT, which still retains the overwhelming majority of trade unionists in its ranks, and the leadership as well, to propose united front action to defeat Lula’s neo-liberal programme.

The same situation could come up in Britain if the RMT, together with other Left unions like the PCS and the FBU (Fire Brigades Union), were thrown out of the TUC. What would the super-wise critics advocate they should do? Sit on their hands? On the contrary: the very situation with a trade union leadership moving towards the right while a bubbling discontent is brewing within the ranks means they would have to give some expression to this. There would be nothing ultra-Left about this, particularly if this was linked to an approach to ordinary trade unionists, for instance, to build committees of struggle from below and, at the same time, pursue a policy to transform those unions that remain behind in the TUC. If the German train drivers’ union was to adopt such an approach, and CWI supporters in Germany would advocate this, then it would find an echo within the broad mass of trade union members.

New mass parties of the working class

Some who claim to be on the left have adopted an ossified attitude towards the burning question of how new mass parties of the working class should be built. This is a central question for the worldwide workers’ movement – perhaps the most crucial at this stage.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the bourgeois internationally launched an extensive campaign to ideologically discredit socialism and even the concept of the class struggle. They were assisted because not only did Stalinism collapse but so did the remnants of the planned economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which had offered an example of an alternative means to capitalism of economically organising society. This campaign had the greatest effect on the summits of the labour movement in shifting them towards the right and, ultimately, in destroying the working-class basis of these parties. This degeneration – which encompasses the trade union tops as well as the ex-social democratic leaders – had a material effect on the struggles of the working class.

The enthusiastic embrace of the ‘free market’ by the Blairs, Schröders, etc. strengthened the ability of the employers and their governments to sell their neo-liberal programme. This was invariably accompanied by Thatcher’s mantra ‘There is no alternative’. Yet when Thatcher advanced this in the 1980s, it was overwhelmingly rejected in action by the British working class. This deadening concept is now reinforced by the ex-social democratic leaders and the trade union right wing. When there were reformist ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’ – pro-capitalist at the top but with a working-class base – the ruling class was at least forced to look over its shoulder, to sometimes hesitate before attacking the working class. These parties were to some extent, at certain stages, a ‘check’ on the bourgeoisie going too far.

The emergence in Germany of ‘The Left’ party (DIE LINKE) led by Oskar Lafontaine reinforces this point. This has had a considerable effect on the SPD. They have been enmeshed in the bourgeois coalition for the last two years with Merkel’s CDU. They experienced a dramatic loss of support, both electoraly and in membership, which was accelerated by the experience of the Schröder government and now by its actions in the coalition. Conversely, The Left has drawn support away from the SPD and presently stands at around 12-13% in opinion polls. This, in turn, has compelled the Social Democrats to oppose some of the ‘reforms’ such as the brutal attack on the unemployed, which they themselves accepted previously within the coalition and the previous Schröder government.

The emergence of The Left shows the potential for such an organisation in all countries at the present time. The CWI believes that the process of political degeneration of the social-democratic parties, and, in many cases, the former ‘communist’ parties, is unalterable. Only a few isolated left reformists like Tony Benn in Britain believe that these parties can be ‘recaptured’ by the left and turned into fighting, combative organisations which can be utilised by the working class. But even if one was to concede that these parties could be ‘transformed’ in the future, a distant future, then this does not alter the need to create new political points of reference for the working class now. Without a challenge outside the ranks of these parties, as the example of Germany shows and, also P-SoL in Brazil as well, then the capitalist ‘social democratic’ parties will act as though there is ‘no alternative’ to their neo-liberal policies. Therefore, the case for new mass workers’ parties is overwhelming and is rooted in the economic and political conjuncture that exists in Germany and elsewhere in the capitalist world.

However the weaknesses of these parties is typified by The Left, which was not born in a period of intensified class struggle, particularly industrial conflict, as was the case for instance with the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil in the 1980s or COSATU, the South African trade union federation, which was clearly socialist and ‘revolutionary’ in its first phase of existence. The contradiction in The Left is expressed in its policies and the evolution of its leader, Lafontaine. He played a progressive role in breaking from the social democracy following the 2004 creation of the WASG (Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit – die Wahlalternative) by a layer of trade union officials. After initially hesitating, Lafontaine joined the WASG, but only on the condition that they merged with the PDS-Linkspartei. The members of SAV welcomed Lafontaine’s break from the SPD, both from a German standpoint but also for its effects internationally, while arguing against an unprincipled merger of the WASG with the PDS that would accept the PDS leadership’s willingness to carry out cuts while in state and local coalitions.

For instance, the conditions for the emergence of a party similar to The Left exist in Britain at the present time. In a sense, Britain is ‘over-ripe’ for such a formation. Yet, unfortunately, no figure with the public presence of Lafontaine has come forward to provide the impetus for a new mass party, even a small party in the first instance. The mid-1990s efforts of Arthur Scargill, with his Socialist Labour Party, ended in a sectarian cul-de-sac. The British SWP first of all took over, then wrecked, the Socialist Alliance, which was initiated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales as a holding force to prepare for a new mass party at a later stage.

Now, the SWP, infamous in Britain for pursuing a policy of ‘rule or ruin’, has managed to split Respect. This party was, in any case, based upon one section of the population, the Muslims, and did not have a specifically class-struggle programme, let alone socialist. Ironically, both in Britain and in Germany, the supporters of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) – the SWP and Marx 21/Linksruck – criticised CWI supporters in both countries for a ‘sectarian’ approach. This is the very charge which is now hurled by MP George Galloway’s ‘Respect Renewal’ against the SWP, which has once more underlined its undemocratic, narrow approach towards building new formations of the working class.


While Lafontaine provided impetus for the growth of the WASG, he fostered the unity, on an unprincipled basis, with the PDS-Linkspartei. The PDS had its roots in the Stalinist regime of East Germany and has not completely broken from this in the consciousness of the working class, certainly in the West. It therefore had a limited appeal and had been in decline before 2005. However in the general election of 2005 and in alliance with the WASG, it grew from two MPs to 54, with an additional 2.2 million votes. However, only 12 of the 54 members of The Left’s parliamentary group come from Lafontaine’s WASG.

Lafontaine calls for the legal right to ‘organise a general strike’ (denied under law in Germany at present), puts forward a general reformist programme, with elements of Keynesianism, mentions socialism frequently, yet he has not put forward a consistent class-struggle policy. On the contrary, he supported the bloc with the PDS and ultimate fusion despite the fact that in Berlin, as SAV pointed out, the PDS has been in a coalition administration with the SPD in the regional state government which has carried through a punitive neo-liberal programme. Despite this, Lafontaine gave his support to the PDS candidates in the 2006 Berlin elections rather than to the WASG list headed by Lucy Redler, a prominent member of the WASG, as well as a leader of SAV.

In a tremendous campaign, Lucy and the WASG won a magnificent 50,000 votes on a clear fighting programme. In the process, she established herself as the best-known Trotskyist – representing modern Marxism – in Germany. This is not just a vindication of her personal role but also the growing relevance of genuine Marxist ideas in the historic birthplace of scientific socialism itself. Two books by Lucy have followed, which we hope will be read in conjunction with ‘Marxism in Today’s World’.

The creation of the WASG, followed by The Left, represented a political reaction of the most advanced workers towards the betrayal of the social democracy, particularly the infamous ‘Agenda 2010’ in 2003. It was also a reflection, at least partly, of the industrial struggles and mass protests of 2003-4. This movement was thwarted by the trade union leadership, despite the big demonstrations against the policies of Schröder, particularly ‘Agenda 2010’. But, as has happened many times in history, blocked on the industrial field, the working class turns to the political plane. In the past, this would have meant a transfer of hopes to the SPD but this party is now perceived as the very author of the German working class’s woes. Hence the creation of The Left. But the class struggle was not as deep, nor was the consciousness of the German workers sufficiently developed to immediately create a mass socialist alternative.

The situation today is different from the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, when mass communist parties were formed from splits in the old organisations of the working class – the social democracy – taking with them the great majority of active workers in the old parties. Socialist consciousness has been thrown back, for the reasons mentioned previously. Therefore, the new Left formations which have developed do not yet have the roots in the working class, either organisationally or politically, necessary for the creation of a mass force. Moreover, as the experience of the Rifondazione Comunista (Prc) in Italy shows, unless there is a clear programme and Marxist spine in all new organisations of the working class, they can founder and even collapse. Rather than being a chrysalis from which a mass pole of attraction could form, it could be smothered at birth.


The enormous pressure of bourgeois society to conform, in particular, to elevate the electoral profile at the expense of intervention in the class struggle, particularly the industrial struggle and general social movements, means that these new formations can be shaky. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, that a conscious Marxist revolutionary backbone be created in such organisations to avoid the swamp of electoralism and the political drift towards the right. This is particularly the case when the question of coalitions with bourgeois parties is raised. Lafontaine, while opposing the policies of the present Merkel-led coalition, still entertains the hope that in his home base of the Saarland, he will be able to forge a common governmental alliance with the SPD. This reflects how little both Lafontaine and even some who proclaim to be ‘Marxists’ understand about the disaster posed for working-class people by such governmental combinations.

These elements completely forget, or hide, the long debates on and bitter experiences of coalitions between workers’ and capitalist parties. Over a hundred years ago Lenin, for instance, attacked Millerand, the French socialist leader who in 1898 entered the first national coalition of workers’ parties with the bourgeois in France. His actions saved French capitalism, which had provoked a revolutionary crisis arising from the ‘Dreyfus affair’ – the state frame-up of a French officer of Jewish origins for alleged ‘espionage’. During the Russian Revolution also, Lenin roundly condemned even ‘critical support’ for the coalition of ‘socialists’ – the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – with the ‘liberal’ representatives of Russian landlordism and capitalism.

Because of the ideological barrage of the last 20 years in particular, working-class consciousness on the pitfalls of coalitionism or of the ‘lesser evil’ has undoubtedly receded. In the 1970s and 1980s, in many countries, there was a layer of militants within these parties who were implacably opposed to conciliation and the ‘sharing of power’ – which was a myth anyway – with bourgeois parties. Presented as a ‘partnership’ between labour and capital, it is more like donkey and rider, with the position of the former being occupied by the working class.

Coalitionism in general is a device for ensnaring the workers’ leaders into carrying out, through a common government, attacks on the working class. Marxists aim to establish in the outlook of working-class people principled objections to the very idea of coalitionism, as did Rosa Luxemburg in her day. Yet leaders of The Left leave the question of participating in a national coalition open, despite the fact that any government involving the current SPD and Green leaderships would, not withstanding any reforms, seek to defend capitalism.

This is a trap for The Left, which the Marxists around SAV will combat as part of arguing for the adoption of a fighting socialist programme. This struggle also involves arguing against the ideas of groupings like Marx 21/Linksruck which, while claiming to be on the left, actually provide a justification for the reformist policies of the party leadership. Previously in the internal battle within the WASG they opposed SAV’s campaign to commit the party to ‘socialism’, characterising this as ‘sectarian’ and ahead of the present level of understanding of the German working class. They display no understanding of the process of how socialist consciousness has been formed historically or the way it will develop in the next period.

Socialist change

From Marx himself, the task has been to link the day-to-day struggles of the working class with the idea of socialist change: “The movement of the future in the movement of the present”, as he expressed it. Marx 21/Linksruck, part of the International Socialist Tendency led by the British SWP, lacks an understanding or acceptance of Trotsky’s transitional method. The late Tony Cliff, the IST’s main theoretician, rejected the Transitional Programme of Trotsky and the transitional approach, maintaining the old “minimum” and “maximum” programmes of pre-1914 social democracy. They pose things in black and white terms. This precisely led them to adopt a sectarian approach in the 1990s.

Guided by Cliff’s characterisation of the period following the collapse of Stalinism as the “1930s in slow motion”, falsely perceived as a favourable, largely radical era, their simplistic slogans on demonstrations featured: “One solution: revolution!” Yet in the recent internal battles in the SWP in Britain, one of their leading public figures, the comedian Mark Steel, has completely shattered this prognosis. He wrote: “In these circumstances the triumphalist tone of the SWP throughout recent times may have been misjudged. It’s also possible the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago has had a greater global impact on socialist ideas than we anticipated. It may be that we over-estimated the revival of the organised labour movement, and the left in general has shrivelled. The difficulties in maintaining our organisation may be down to these reasons, or maybe something else, but our response has been to deny the problems altogether.” This has blown a hole in Cliff’s theory upon which the SWP based their hectoring, lecturing, ultra-Left approach right up to the beginning of this century.

But ultra-Leftism is only the reverse side of the coin of opportunism. Stubbing their noses up against the reality of the throwing back of consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism, the SWP did a somersault and adopted a grossly opportunist policy. They initially uncritically supported George Galloway and Respect, justifying the setting up of this party on the basis of one section of the community, the Muslims. The CWI’s charge that this was a concession to communalism – an all-class approach to Muslims, courting the mullahs, etc. – was angrily rejected by the SWP. Now, because they have fallen out with Galloway, they have embraced the very term ‘communalism’ in relation to him that we first deployed against the Respect ‘project’ as a whole.

In Germany, their opportunist adaptation to the leaders of The Left is unrestrained. In arguing against socialism first of all in the WASG and now in The Left, they are sometimes actually to the right of Lafontaine who has, on occasion, referred at least to the ideas of “freedom through socialism” and “democratic socialism”. On a day to day basis Marx 21/Linksruck is almost indistinguishable from the ‘traditional social democratic’ and Lafontaine wing of The Left. At the very last national congress of the WASG, they did not even put forward policies of their own, perhaps because this might have endangered the jobs they were given in the Bundestag fraction and elsewhere by the WASG leadership! Shamefully, they supported the 2006 administrative measures against the Berlin WASG, which could rebound on them at a later stage if the party moves further to the right and Lafontaine no longer needs a Left cover.

Increased tempo

Germany is clearly at the crossroads. It was crippled economically by the burden imposed upon it by the forced reunification of Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This hemmed in and limited the use of its economic power. Moreover, it inherited collapsing industry in the East, arising from the dismantling of the planned economy, and the massive social problems which flowed from this. The persistence of one of the highest levels of unemployment of all the advanced industrial countries was a symptom of its organic crisis. Due to the limited economic growth of the past period, it appeared to be ‘healthier’ but will now be buffeted by the ill winds of the world economic crisis. The increased tempo of change will have a profound effect on consciousness. Also, the gulf between the classes that has opened up is the widest it has been since the immediate post-Second World War period.

The miserable wages of millions contrasts with the super-rich, their corruption and debauchery, and is reflected in the widening regional differentials and even divisions within the regions. Throughout Europe, wealthy ‘hubs’ enjoy living standards higher than the poorer areas. Barcelona is closer to Munich than to the poorer hinterland of Andalucía. London is pulling away from the industrially depressed, poorer areas of Britain such as Scotland and Wales. This growing gap can reinforce national divisions, as in Belgium with a ‘rich’ Flanders threatening, in the long term, to pull away and divide the country.

In Germany too, the West is pulling away from the East, which is mired in poverty and unemployment. ‘Rich’ Hamburg, although only half the size of Berlin, nevertheless is almost twice as rich with a yearly disposable income per head of 23,000 euros. Last year, it was Germany’s richest federal state and the fourth largest economic region in the EU. But while the traditional divisions between a struggling north and prosperous south, and east and west, now exists, deprivation and poverty are spreading to formerly ‘prosperous’ areas. Rather than the ‘West’ moving to the ‘East’, in terms of living standards, the opposite process is under way in many areas. Now, there are features of the ‘East’ in the ‘West’, denoting the malaise of German capitalism.

All of this is preparing the ground for a mighty eruption in the most important country – in terms of the weight and potential power of the working class – in the whole of Europe. Consciousness has already been shaken up, as indicated by recent polls. For instance, only 3% of people who originated from East Germany said they were very satisfied with the way that German democracy worked. More seriously for the German bourgeoisie, a recent poll conducted by the Forsa Institute showed that 73% of those from the East believed that socialism was a good idea in principle, but had been poorly implemented. Over 90% argued they enjoyed better social protection during the GDR era. In this finding is the confused consciousness of workers who are looking for an alternative to capitalism. The dismantled system in the East symbolises for them the planning of the economy and of society, and the social benefits that went with this, but they are also critical of authoritarian Stalinism. Not just in the East, however, but in the West, a movement is underway which will lead to the reappearance on a wide scale of socialism and of Marxism.

The German section of the CWI, Sozialistiche Alternative, has already played a key role in this process. It has emerged as the most well-known and consistent Trotskyist organisation which is reaching out to a new generation and linking them to the past and present struggles of the German working class. We hope that this book will be of assistance in this task, whose aim is to establish socialism in the 21st century. In order to achieve this it is necessary to reacquaint tens of thousands and, through them, millions with the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and of course Rosa Luxemburg whose method holds the key for opening up a new socialist vista for the German and the world working class.

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January 2008