After dramatic election defeats last September in two East German federal state elections the leadership of Germany’s left party DIE LINKE opened a strategy debate in the run-up to a ‘Strategy Conference’ at the end of February 2020. This will be followed in June by the next Party Congress which may elect a new leadership as the existing national leaders should stand down after serving two terms of office.
DIE LINKE presently stands between 8 and 10 percent in opinion polls, it won 9.2% in the 2017 general election. The party currently participates in two regional governments, Bremen and Berlin, with the social democrats and Greens, while in Thuringia last October’s state election saw the outgoing R2G (LINKE, SPD and Green) coalition lose its majority as the SPD and Greens lost seats. A number of party leaders are pushing for a R2G coalition on national level.
Currently the LINKE leaders in Thuringia are looking to implement a “protocol” with the conservative CDU to allow another R2G coalition to run the state until new elections next year. In this way the LINKE leaders aim to prevent the formation a state government dependent on support from the far right AfD by accepting support from Merkel’s party. In return DIE LINKE accepted delaying new state elections until 2021 to give the CDU time to recover from the collapse in their vote in last year’s Thuringia election.
At the same time DIE LINKE does play a role in social movements and in supporting trade union struggles. It is a contradictory party with strong left reformist currents as well as classical social democratic forces. While its programme does formally stand for socialist change because of its concrete policies it is seen by many as the left wing of the political establishment rather than a rebellious opposition force. This has been exploited by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to win support over the last years.
This is the contribution by Sascha Staničić, the spokesperson of the CWI organisation in Germany, Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität (Sol), to the written debate within DIE LINKE in the run-up to the ‘Strategy Conference’.
How do we measure the success and failure of “DIE LINKE”? By looking at the catastrophic election results in Brandenburg, Saxony and in the European elections, or the better election results in Thuringia and Bremen? By looking at the modest membership growth in the West, or the membership losses in the East?
None of the above.
We should all ask ourselves why we started engaging in politics on the left.
Certainly not as just something to do and also not to form a party that serves as an end in itself or becomes a vehicle for solving one’s own social questions.
No, we wanted to change society!
Record of 13 years
If we look how society has changed during the 13 years of DIE LINKE’s existence, then the disillusionment gets much clearer. Except for the introduction of the minimum wage, and one or two very modest social measures, this country has become more anti-social, more undemocratic, more militaristic, more unequal, and more racist.
Against this background, the slogan “Links wirkt” (Left works) used by some comrades at every opportunity, is simply nonsense.
Sure: without DIE LINKE the situation would probably be worse. But the socialist workers’ movement was not founded to limit damage, but to liberate the working class of the wage slavery and replace capitalism with a socialist democracy. This goal is in view of the destructive forces unleashed by global capitalism and the billion fold miseries in the world today more pressing than ever. But what is even more revealing in a way: nothing is left from the big enthusiasm and the dynamism of the unification of WASG and PDS in 2007.
Today we have more members in West Germany than we had back then, but we must not ignore the many thousands who, full of hope, organized and committed themselves in DIE LINKE, that have now – often disappointed – withdrawn. For many people from the working class, for young people and not least for many active in the unions and social movements DIE LINKE is something like the left part of the political establishment, but not a rebellious, consistent, and trustworthy representation of their interests.
Relentless criticism needed
If this debate about strategy should not become a boring repetition of similar past debates, it must first begin with an unsparing criticism of the state of the party, and second lead to concrete and real changes.
Many comrades, who like me belong to the party left, have focused their contributions in this debate on the practice of the party. They demand to orientate more on action and to focus more on extra-parliamentary activities (e.g. support for strikes and social movements).
They are correct, but in a way they do the second step before the first one.
Because the inadequate methods of the whole party (and with this assessment I do not underestimate the self-sacrificing commitment of many members) is the result and not the cause of poor political analysis, programme and perspective.
Therefore, the debates about strategy should start with our own assessment of the current situation of capitalism and its perspectives for the future, and the political programme with which DIE LINKE should react to the situation. So far, however, there has hardly been any debate about this in the party.
Since the length of contributions to the strategy debate are limited, I can only deal with those questions in a brief manner and instead would like to refer to analyses that I and others have done in the past, and that have been published at www.solidaritaet.info.
Capitalism in crisis
To sum up as briefly as possible: Capitalism is worldwide in multiple crisis. There’s undoubtedly a dramatic ecological crisis (using the term crisis here is not entirely true since there is no reason to believe that the destructive development of the capitalist system with regard to nature would merely temporarily reverse). The traditional bourgeois parties and thus the ruling capitalist classes are worldwide in a deep crisis of legitimacy that has caused political instability to grow enormously and has led to the emergence of new political forces, such as right-wing populism, but also on the left.
But above all (“above all” because the economy for socialists is ultimately the basis for social and political developments) capitalism has long exhausted its potential to generate economic progress that improves people’s living conditions. Instead technical innovations have led to the deterioration in living and working conditions and the system cannot evade the recurring economic crises. Even if there has been an exceptionally long upswing after the last “Great Recession” from 2007 to 2009, so it has brought nothing to the mass of the workers, but above all made the rich even richer. In most of the countries, that that was destroyed by the crisis was not rebuilt, and more importantly – the effects of the crisis have been limited by measures that possibly just have prepared the way for a deeper crisis.
There are many indications that we are at the beginning of such a new economic crisis, possibly even a crash that will outshine the effects of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. And even if we are “only” at the beginning of a downturn of an economic cycle or a recession phase it has already dramatic consequences for the working class regarding job cuts and company shutdowns.
The causes of this crisis-ridden development of capitalism are not a wrong – neoliberal – economic policy. Rather, they are structural in nature and inherent in the system that have their deeper cause in the over-accumulation processes of capital, which are unable to find sufficient profitable investment opportunities, especially in the so-called real economy. That leads to the perverse situation that Marx and Engels have already described in the Communist Manifesto: Capitalism leads to crises of “abundance”, over-capacity and over-production in relation to what can be sold on the market, not need. That means that despite the potential to meet human needs – and the enormous private wealth in the hands of a few – the scope of the capitalists and their Governments for concessions to the working class in the form of higher wages, shorter working hours without loss of wages, better social benefits, an expanded infrastructure for the mass of people etc. has decreased due to the intensified competition between companies.
This also means that the scope for enforcement of more classic reformist politics, as we saw it for example in times of the post-war boom, has decreased. This is also the reason for the fact that almost all traditional social democratic parties have given up on social democratic politics in recent decades. And also that new leftist parties abandoned left politics as soon as they entered governments, such as Syriza in Greece. A similar development can be expected for Podemos.
Everything has to be fought for
What can be concluded from these theses? Not that concessions to the working class are not possible. But that first of all they will be under attack by the rulers and the capitalists again and again, and secondly, that they must be fought for through mass movements and before all strikes and general strikes. The idea that social reforms in the interest of the working class can be gained through parliamentary means, and through government coalitions with the SPD and the Greens, are permanently enforceable is wrong, there is no historical evidence for this. On the contrary, it has been shown that government participation by left-wing parties, or those who see themselves as socialist parties’ with pro-capitalist parties, have sooner or later always led to these parties taking part in anti-worker measures and abandoning left-wing principles, which have subsequently weakened these parties.
This is also the basic experience of the PDS / LINKE, which is not cancelled out by one specific situation-based electoral strengthening of the LINKE in Thuringia. And it should also not be forgotten that the Thuringian red-red-green government was voted out and the AfD was the main winner of this election.
However, it is wrong to assume that a fundamental policy change within capitalism in the
interest of wage earners and socially disadvantaged people would be possible, with a political orientation that leads to government participation with SPD and Greens. Likewise, it is an illusion to think it could be possible to achieve some kind of economic democracy while leaving basic property and power structures in society untouched and that such a change can be achieved through parliamentary means. The party needs to break with this idea and instead needs to develop a strategy that establishes a direct connection between the acting in the here and now to the necessity and the goal of socialist change in society. In this context it should also be explained that a socialist democracy is fundamentally different from the bureaucratic dictatorships of the GDR and Soviet Union and distinguishes itself through self-government and democratic decision-making by the working population.
Programmatically, this would mean that DIE LINKE does not demand what it thinks can be enforceable under capitalism or, given the current level of consciousness of the working class, what now has majority support, but what is necessary to improve the life situation of the people qualitatively and sustainably (By the way, that doesn’t mean running around waving a red flag and calling for a “revolution”. Of course it must be considered very carefully how certain demands are conveyed and at which time they are capable of mobilisation and should therefore be prioritised).
This also means that DIE LINKE puts at every opportunity the question about property centre stage of its propaganda. It must give us, and above all the two chairpersons, something to think about, if other social forces make this far more offensive and effective, like the campaign “Deutsche Wohnen enteignen” (‘Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen’) in regard to the demand for the expropriation of the large property companies, or Juso chairman Kevin Kühnert when he brought into widespread discussion the takeover of car companies into public ownership. It is embarrassing when a party that considers itself as socialist lags behind those debates, or when one of its co-chairs speaks out against the demand that the auto industry should be taken into public ownership(although by the way it was part of the party’s election programme in the 2017 general election). If DIE LINKE is not the leading force of anti-capitalist discourses and movements, it renders itself dispensable.
What would that mean in practice? No more government participation with the SPD and the Greens at state level and an end to the debate of such a possibility at the federal level! Offensive campaigns for claims like drastic reduction in working hours with full wage and staff compensation, a minimum wage of 13 euro as the first step to 15 euros, ban of temporary work contracts and abuse of work contracts just to name a few examples. It would be the goal to establish the common class interests of all parts of the wage earners and make offers to fight for them. That is only being discussed within the party using the term “verbindende Klassenpolitik” (“connecting class policy”) – but the decisive factor is not only the (even not particularly innovative) realisation that these connections have to be made, but first of all that a class policy in every situation becomes the starting point for the party’s actions.
This must go hand in hand with an aggressive propagation of the vision of a principled different politics and society. Not just expropriation of large property companies because their actions contradicts the interests of the tenants, but also of the pharmaceutical industry because their management contradicts the interests of the sick, the car and energy companies because their actions contradicts the interests of an ecologically sustainable development and this can only be achieved if the production is converted in an ecologically sustainable way, which in turn is only possible if private property and profit logic are removed.
It would mean to act confident, rebellious and cheeky to make sure that you really have nothing in common with the established parties and the CEOs, and that one stands in irreconcilable contradiction to them. No more dances with CDU/CSU politicians at press balls!
The members of parliament of the Left Party could also underline this by not putting themselves materially above the mass of the wage-dependent population through their mandates, but to donate everything from their excessive salaries above an average skilled worker’s wage to the party and social struggles.
And of course would such a political and programmatic change to more socialist politics mean that the party’s practical work, its apparatus and its elected representatives and their staff would shift focus to lead union and social struggles, to promote and bring together those struggles, to promote the self-organisation of workers, young people, tenants etc., and on this basis make the party a truly socialist mass party.
There will be plenty of opportunities for this in 2020 as well.