Germany has entered an unstable period in which economic, political and international developments can produce rapid changes. Already the first signs of this are visible economically and politically.
Just recently fourteen hospital workers have been sacked by the management of the private Ameos clinics for “disrespectful behaviour” – this is capitalist speak for participating in a strike. At the same time, Amazon has to broadcast TV advertisements where it invites people to visit their workplaces to “check the working conditions themselves” – a reaction to a years’ long trade union campaign for better working conditions and pay which led to strikes in a number of Amazon warehouses before Christmas. Fast Food workers are preparing strike action to fight for a 12 euro minimum wage – while bosses in that sector offered a minimum wage of 9.48 euro which is just 13 eurocents above the 2020 legal minimum wage. Hospital workers in a number of clinics are still struggling for more staff and recently won concessions in Mainz and Jena just by threatening strike action. These are just some examples for industrial disputes which are developing or have been going on for years in a number of German companies or sectors of the economy. On top of that, 2020 will see wage negotiations for metal workers, public sector employees, public transport workers and many more.
But not only that – the German economy is in a downswing and only just narrowly avoided entering a so called ‘technical recession’ in the fourth quarter of 2019. The car industry and its component suppliers, employing around 2,830,000 workers, in total, have especially been hit by the worldwide crisis in this sector. This has already led to many companies and corporations declaring job losses and even the closure of parts of or even whole factories. Just before Christmas there were announcements that a total of 50,000 auto jobs would be lost or were under threat. If the economy enters a full scale crisis, or if even a sharp crash occurs, this will accelerate such developments and change the situation qualitatively.
Up to now, the trade union leaderships act in accordance with the bosses and the grand coalition government of conservatives (CDU and CSU) and social democrats (SPD), agreeing to short time working and “social ways” of job reductions which limit or avoid redundancies for the time being. Nevertheless, the IG Metall engineering workers’ trade union recently called a first protest demonstration in Stuttgart where speakers pointed out that these job reductions are taking place after workers have already over the years made concessions in terms of pay and working hours in return for the promise that there would be no job losses.
These developments pose sharply the question what sort of trade unions the working class needs so it can to defend its interests when faced with attacks and/or an economic downturn. The present leaders follow the policy of social partnership especially in the industrial export based sectors which are now confronted with crisis and attacks. But also in other sectors of the economy and in the public sector the trade union leaders are not up to the tasks posed by the developing crisis. For example, in mid-November the DGB union federation and the largest employers’ body, the BDI, jointly appealed to government to increase spending to try to counter the economic downturn. The union leaders, while calling token actions, want to avoid serious struggle. Recently they developed a pattern of agreeing to extremely long lasting wage contracts which make it impossible for workers to take legal strike action over pay and conditions for the time the contract lasts. A sharp change in trade union policy would be needed to defend jobs and conditions for the working class.
To help bringing such a change about, members of Sol, who are active in trade unions, initiated, together with others, a new attempt to bring together an organised left in the trade unions. The “network for fighting trade unions” (VKG) will hold its first conference at the end of January. Sol members are proposing the development of an organised and campaigning structure out of that conference. This should then intervene with concrete proposals in the forthcoming wage rounds and possible strike actions, organise solidarity for striking workforces and open up a debate about the need for an alternative trade union policy based on anti-capitalist perspectives and principles.
These developments on the industrial and workplace level are taking place in a highly unstable political situation. The German political landscape has changed dramatically over the last years. What was a “three-party-society” (conservatives, social democrats and liberals) up until the 1980s has now become a six-party-society. Currently the Greens are the second strongest political force in many opinion polls. In addition, the Left Party (DIE LINKE) and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) are represented in the Bundestag (national parliament). Recently the AfD has often been the third biggest party in opinion polls.
The emergence of the AfD over the last few years meant that options for coalition governments have become more complicated for the ruling class so long as they want to keep the AfD out of governments. The present so-called grand coalition under Merkel is actually not “grand” anymore. In opinion polls now it represents around 41 or 42 percent of the voters, already it only had the support of a minority of the electorate in the 2017 election.
In a number of federal states in East Germany the AfD has become the second strongest party in recent state elections. This led to the formation of so called ‘Kenya’ coalitions (a conservative-social democratic-green coalition named after the colours of the parties involved). In the eastern state of Thuringia a new situation has developed where, for the first time, no majority government can be formed without the AfD apart from a coalition of DIE LINKE with the conservative CDU. While the option of a coalition with the conservative CDU was seriously discussed in the ranks of the DIE LINKE it did not happen, resulting in the previous LINKE-social democratic-green coalition trying to continue as a minority government. How long this lasts is another matter. The idea of a “government of experts” has been raised by both the LINKE’s leadership, as well as conservative politicians.
This political instability is a reflection of a growing polarisation in society and a crisis of legitimacy for the establishment parties. As on an international level this is a process which has been underway for many years. The main victim of this has been the social democratic party SPD – once, many years ago, the strongest party of the international workers’ movement. As with other traditional reformist workers’ parties it has lost most of its active working class base and turned from being a workers’ party, with a bourgeois leadership, into a fully-fledged bourgeois party during the course on the 1990s.
When the SPD formed the first red-green coalition in 1998 the results shattered all the hopes of real, positive change. This German government was the first to participate in a war (the war against Serbia, at the time) since the end of the Second World War and implemented the most draconian cuts in the social security system (the so called Agenda 2010) since the 1930s. This policy turned Germany into a country with one of the biggest low pay sectors in the advanced capitalist countries, something which still is the case even after the introduction of a legal minimum wage in 2015.
Since then the SPD has suffered a sharp electoral decline. Currently it gets an average 14% in opinion polls, but it won 20.5% in the 2017 election while in 1998 it got 40.9%. This collapse led to a debate inside the SPD about the way forward and a questioning of the continuation of the grand coalition.
Towards the end of last year, a members’ ballot for a new SPD leadership saw the victory for the more left-wing candidates, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. “Left-wing” is relative however. They are far away from standing for socialist policies or even a radical reform programme as Jeremy Corbyn stood for in his election manifesto. And, despite a general expectation that they could finish the grand coalition government, the new leaders came out in support of its continuation if some, quite limited, demands are met by their CDU/CSU government partners. Significantly right after the SPD leadership election the main trade union leaders immediately called for the coalition government to continue.
However, the new SPD leaders still try now to present the party as a more left-wing and social force demanding a millionaire’s tax and some other reforms. This is enough for representatives of the capitalist class to ring the alarm bells and warn of “socialism”. This is not because of the character of the new SPD leadership. Rather the capitalists fear that these limited demands are just a reflection of a stronger anti-capitalist mood which is developing in the working population and that this tiny shift in the SPD’s language could itself reinforce this popular mood.
For the first time in years, the demand for the expropriation of a specific group of capitalists has gained mass support through a grassroots campaign. In the capital, Berlin, tenants’ organisations started a campaign for the expropriation of the big housing corporations focusing on the “Deutsche Wohnen” which owns around 110,000, mainly privatised, dwellings just in Berlin. This campaign even received majority support in some opinion polls and put so much pressure on the Berlin regional government (made up of the SPD, Greens and DIE LINKE) that it introduced sharper legislation to limit some rents and rent increases. This kicked off a certain debate on the question of capitalism versus socialism as the bourgeois commentators attacked the demand for expropriation as “socialist”. Unfortunately, DIE LINKE completely failed in using this as an opportunity to propagate a socialist programme and explain the need for a socialist transformation of society, an objective enshrined in its own party programme.
In fact, DIE LINKE was even overtaken on the left by the chairman of the social democratic Young Socialists (youth wing of the SPD), Kevin Kühnert, who called for public ownership of big car corporations like BMW. Instead of supporting this demand the LINKE co-chairperson, Bernd Riexinger, who previously was a left reformist trade union leader and who propagates a “new class policy” for DIE LINKE, explicitly spoke out against putting forward this demand, as he argued that it would not be supported by car workers. As an alternative Riexinger advocated the handing out of shares in the corporations to the workers – a demand which is not only utopian but remains fully in the context of a market and competition based capitalist society.
This shows the dilemma of DIE LINKE. Bernd Riexinger certainly represents the more left-wing and working class orientated forces inside the party but still remains fully locked into a reformist outlook. Even worse he and his supporters are not prepared to take on the right wing of the party and support the general idea of a coalition with SPD and Greens, just putting a few more conditions on the formation of such a coalition than others in DIE LINKE do. Riexinger supports DIE LINKE currently being in coalitions on a regional state level, something which has not led to a shift to the left in these states. In many cases, DIE LINKE has even participated in privatisations and social cuts. The latest example is Berlin, where the SPD-Green-Left Party coalition has been successful over the last two years in creating an image of being a more ‘social’ and left-wing government but now has decided to privatise important parts of the public transport system and also has opened the doors for the privatisation of school buildings.
DIE LINKE has moved to the right in 2019 with a terrible performance in the Euro election campaign, big losses in two state elections and, for the first time, joining a regional state government in in Bremen, West Germany. This is also reflected in the political programme of a newly formed left current inside the party. The “Bewegungslinke” (movement-left) is made up of Marx21 (the German supporters of the International Socialist Tendency linked to the British SWP) and others who consider themselves to be socialists/Marxists. But on the key political question which the Left Party is confronted with, the question of government participation with pro-capitalist parties, the “Bewegungslinke” is explicitly open for supporters of this idea. One of the main figures of this new current is now the parliamentary leader of the Left Party group in the Bremen regional parliament – where the party is in coalition with the Greens and social democrats.
Even worse, after the strong performances of the right-wing populist AfD in East German federal states some in DIE LINKE even considered to go into coalitions with the conservative CDU in order to prevent the CDU forming a coalition with the AfD! Unfortunately, but also tellingly, this idea was not clearly rejected by Bernd Riexinger.
Now some forces inside both DIE LINKE and the SPD have started to raise the idea of a merger of the two parties. At the same time, the controversial former co-leader of DIE LINKE’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Sahra Wagenknecht, has stepped down from all political positions but has also now become the most popular politician in Germany. She was seen as the leader of the left wing in the DIE LINKE before she started to develop anti-migrant and nationalistic positions. She could become the leader of a future left populist formation which could arise out of the move to the right of DIE LINKE and the general political crisis in the country.
The right-wing populist AfD seems to have reached its peak for the time being. The party has a quasi-fascist wing and a national-conservative wing. Both up to now needed each other. With the establishment of the party in the parliamentarian field the question is more and more discussed that the party has to become “fit for government”. This could increase the pressure to get rid of the fascistic elements around Björn Höcke (party leader in Thuringia) and his current “Der Flügel” (the wing). However they have consolidated a strong position especially in the East of the country and it seems unlikely that the AfD could maintain its position without these forces which are linked to more openly fascist forces. While these open fascist forces have become weaker on an electoral level weaker through the AfD’s emergence, at the same time, the potential for right-wing terrorism has grown. It has been revealed that there are fascist groups operating within the state apparatus and planning attacks. Last year one regional conservative politician who had spoken out in favour of helping refugees some years ago was shot dead by a supporter of the far right.
The Green Party has become the second strongest party in opinion polls as the SPD has slid to third or fourth place. This is mainly due to two factors: firstly, the Greens have not been part of a national government for nearly 15 years and, secondly, they swim on the “Green wave” based upon the mass protests against climate change.
The ‘Fridays for Future’ youth protests have been particularly strong in Germany with weekly school strikes for more than a year and a mass mobilisation of up to 250,000 on the worldwide days of action in September 2019. The question of system change is widely discussed amongst the young activists. However this does not necessarily mean an idea of anti-capitalist, let alone socialist, change, is immediately embraced. The fact that the largely pro-capitalist Greens have gained electorally out of this movement, at the same time, is a reflection of the confused consciousness among the protesters, as much as about the class composition of the forces currently leading these protests. These forces have little to do with the working class and the workers’ movement and, for example, sometimes use forms of action which bring them into direct conflict with and make no concrete appeal to employees in the brown coal industry and the wider working population in areas which currently depend upon this mining.
Sol has intervened energetically in the climate change protests with a special issue of its paper “Solidarität” for the global strike day in September and participation in the ‘Fridays for Future’ groups in a number of cities. However, again, in a number of the FFF structures the dominating petit bourgeois forces have successfully excluded socialist and left-wing groups and regularly they try to stop us and other left forces from distributing leaflets, showing banners or selling papers on the demonstrations.
Overall the political situation is extremely volatile. It seems that the grand coalition can last for the time being but it is open if it will complete its term until 2021. Within all parties, apart from the Greens and the liberals, there are heavy internal fights going on between different wings.
In the CDU this is a battle which represents the debate within the capitalist class over which policy it wants to continue. While recent years have seen few direct attacks on the working class, this will change with a worsening economic situation. While the bourgeoisie wants to involve the trade union tops in their policy there is also a growing demand among the bourgeois to take a harder approach. Thus a recession may see a combination of some increased government spending and further attacks on living standards.
This is reflected in the struggle within the CDU for leadership. In the election for chairperson, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was able to win against the more openly neoliberal, Friedrich Merz. But since then she has been heavily under attack, made a number of blunders and it seems unlikely that she will be the next conservative candidate for the chancellorship. So Merz might see his comeback. At the same time, the prime minister of Bavaria and chairman of the CSU, Markus Söder, is presenting himself as a kind of right-wing populist ecologist and has given himself a “green painting”. It is not ruled out that he will strive to get the conservative position for the candidate for chancellor, reflecting the aim to form the first CDU/CSU-Green coalition on national level. But who says that it will only be only today’s parties who will contest the next general elections? If an economic crash does occur, it is not ruled out that the political system in Germany will be thrown into turmoil and new forces can erupt suddenly.
This however seems not to be the short term perspective. What is certain is that 2020 will see many conflicts on the industrial level, a continuation of political protest movements, such as the one against climate change, of tenants for lower rents, against racism etc. and no political stabilisation. This means that socialist forces have a lot of opportunities to intervene and build. There will also be a lot of pressure to water down DIE LINKE’s formally socialistic programme from the reformist forces in the party and the trade unions who see a socialist programme as a barrier to unity with other forces like the SPD and Greens. At the same time, this pressure exists more widely because of the desire for an end to the grand coalition, the polarisation produced by the AfD’s rise and the mixed consciousness in the working class and among young people.
Identity politics, which has increased its influence through the women’s and LGBTQ+ movements, also asserts a certain pressure against class politics. In Germany, a special brand in the left movement exists with the so called “Anti-Germans” who stand for an aggressive support for the Israeli state and islamophobic positions but, due to the Germany’s Nazi history, have a certain influence on the left and even in the trade union youth.
Sol will continue to stand for a clear Marxist programme and orientation to the working class and its organisations. We are optimistic that we will build our influence and recruit new forces to our organisation on that basis.