Germany: The Left party holds its first national congress

"Measure DIE LINKE by its actions"

The Left party (DIE LINKE), founded last year, has become a carrier of hope for millions. According to a recent opinion poll, the party would in 15 %, if there were national elections. On this basis, it is the third strongest party in Germany. In East Germany, it is the strongest party, according to opinion polls.

At its first National Congress, which took place in Cottbus, 24-25 May, the Left Party decided to campaign against the government’s increase in the pension age to 67 years. In addition, the Left Party demands an "investment program for the future", amounting to 50 billion Euro, to create one million jobs (to be paid at trade union wages) in the education, health and environment sectors.

Such demands distinguish the Left Party from all other main parties in Germany and gives it support among broad layers of the population. At the party congress, the Left Party again spoke out clearly against the Iraq war and it is correctly seen by many people as the only party demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. Left party leader Oskar Lafontaine refers to historical socialist figures, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in a positive way in his speeches and he also attacks capitalism.

At the same time as the party congress took place, it got 7% in local elections in the northern state of Schleswig Holstein, where it had not stood before and did not stand candidates in all the local councils. The social democratic SPD got its worst result and fell to 26.6%. This continues the decline of the SPD. The SPD‘s national governing coalition partner, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, fared even worse, and their vote collapsed from 50.8% to 38.6%.

But will the success of the Left party be lasting?

One and a half years before the next national German elections, the Left party congress should have discussed how to position itself politically and strategically in the run up to the poll contest. Unfortunately, political controversies were debated only at the fringe of the party congress. But an important controversial issue inside the Left party concerns whether it will continue to orient strongly towards mainly parliamentary activity and continued participation in governments with the SPD, or whether the Left party should emphasise building resistance against those in power. Next year, there will be several state elections, in addition to the national elections. The party leadership supports continued participation in governments, at least on state level.

A look at Berlin is sufficient to confirm the worries of many Left party rank and file members. The party in Berlin forms the state government, together with the SPD, and has carried out countless wage and welfare cuts. Earlier this month, 8,000 school students went onto the streets against the education policy of the so-called "red-red" SPD and DIE LINKE (Left party) state government. At present, public sector workers are on strike in Berlin. Since 2003, the red-red administration in Berlin has refused wage increases to state employees.

If the Left party helps carry out welfare cuts in other states or even on a national scale, as part of SPD-led governments, there would be a big danger that support for the party will be soon turned into rejection and frustration. Therefore, SAV (CWI Germany) members warn of a development similar to Italy, where Rifondazione Comunista massively lost support through its participation in the previous coalition government of Romano Prodi. The Italian experience, in particular, shows that the present success of the Left party will not be lasting, if the party subordinates itself in government to the neo-liberal agenda of the SPD.

Another important and controversial question in the Left party is over whether the party should go beyond criticising capitalism and whether it is ready to fight for a socialist society.

The Lafontaine’s freedom and equality pledges

Oskar Lafontaine made an opening speech at the party congress, employing radical phrases about freedom and equality as basis of a socialist society. These comments contradicted Lafontaine’s other proposed policies, which do not fundamentally contest the continued rule of capitalism. Lafontaine referred to Liebknecht, Luxemburg and the 1918 German Revolution, in a positive way. He correctly labelled the SPD leadership of that time, under Friedrich Ebert, as traitors to the revolution. Lafontaine quoted Ebert, „I hate the revolution like sin". Yet, Lafontaine’s radical words were followed by limited demands, which aim to push back „financial market driven capitalism". The logic of Lafontaine’s demands amount to the notion that we do not need a different social system but that only different policies are necessary to carry through improvements for the majority of the population. Behind Lafontaine’ „financial market driven capitalism" remarks, lies the false idea that there can be an alternative, so-called social capitalism.

In contrast, SAV (CWI Germany) members emphasise there cannot be any social capitalism because of the domination of the demand for private profits and competition. We say the Left party must take a clear decision on which side in class society it is on, and that it must have the aim to fight for a socialist society. Unfortunately, the main congress document, which was voted for with a big majority, limits itself to stating that capitalism is not the end of history.

At the same time, Lafontaine’s verbal radicalism, which sometimes sees him using slogans like, "Freedom through Socialism", and his criticisms of a few of the actions of Left party leaders who are in regional government coalitions with the SPD, has earned Lafontaine some hostility from both the ruling class and the right wing within the Left party. The right wing are also not happy about the proposal for a 50 billion euro investment programme. These tensions within the Left party resulted in Lafontaine being re-elected as co-Chair at the congress, with 78.5% of the vote – significantly down on the 87.9% Lafontaine received at the Left party founding congress in June 2007.

Participation in governments

In spite of the urgency of the issue of participation in governments, the party leadership tried to avoid a debate on the issue at the congress. Members of SAV proposed a motion to the congress that included the following lines:

Coalitions with the SPD and the Greens on a pro-capitalist basis, which lead necessarily to measures of welfare cuts, education cuts, annihilation of jobs and privatisation, are therefore out of question for DIE LINKE [Left party]. We build on the mobilisation of the millions to break the power of the millionaires and billionaires. In this way we will build a party of hundred thousands and millions of members and supporters that will be able to form a government in the interest of the employed, the unemployed, the youth and pensioners, that can be the starting point for a socialist transformation of society.

A longer controversy developed around this motion and several vote counts were taken until it was clear the congress did not want to debate the motion. Another motion by delegates from Bielefeld, which called for the Berlin Left party to leave the city’s red-red coalition, was not debated either.

A delegate from Hessen state referred to the fact that the policy of the Left party in Berlin is, once again, causing trouble to the Left party in Hessen. The Hessian party was elected to the state parliament in January and demands a wage contract for Hessian state employees. This is because the employers’ national organisation left the Hessen state government when it was last run by the CDU. The only other state that left the employers’ organisation was in Berlin. This happenend under the "red-red" state government, and led the way to cuts in wages and benefits.

Protest at party congress

This was the reason why public sector workers from Berlin demonstrated in front of the Left party congress building. These workers are fighting for a percentage wage increase, which is refused to them by the red-red state government. Uwe Januszewski, chairman of the works council of the state employees of Berlin, emphasised that the Left party cannot have Sunday speeches criticising low wages while, at the same time, the Berlin red-red state government continue to cut jobs and to introduce „One Euro Jobs". It was planned for Januszewski to address the congress on the situation facing state employees but this was cancelled – officially because of time restrictions.

Members of SAV distributed a leaflet at the ver.di (public sector trade union) rally, which documented a motion for solidarity with the state employees, which was put to the congress. A trade union official, Werner Röpke, read the motion at the rally and appealed to Gregor Gysi, Chairman of the Left party faction in the Bundestag (national parliament), to make a statement on it. Gysi replied that the workers should recognise „that the state government now at least talks to you". This, Gyis claimed, is a merit of the Left party. Gysi agreed the motion should be debated at the congress, but, in his view, it could not be fulfilled. Despite popular feeling, the motion was not debated at the congress. Röpke answered Gysi’s balancing act aptly: „We will measure you by your actions."

Balance sheet

The contradictions between the hopes invested in the Left party and the realities at its first national party congress again underlined how important it is to build a Marxist opposition to the Left party leadership. Such an opposition should not only criticise the wrong policies of the leaders in words but also challenge them politically on central issues. Whether the party takes the side of the employed and unemployed people in the class struggle will decide if the name, DIE LINKE (The Left), is justified. If the party does not take a clear and militant pro-working class stance, even the most radical speeches against capitalism will not contribute towards fundamentallly transforming the relations of power in German society.

Concerning one of the most immediate and pressing issues facing the working class, the SAV (CWI Germany) calls for the Left party’s stated pension campaign not to be limited to motions put to the Bundestag. A fighting campaign is necessary! This should not stop at criticising the pension age being set at 67 years. A campaign must target a significant reduction of the pension age. To reach this goal, means mass mobilisation of working people, spearheaded by the trade unions and the Left party.

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May 2008