A year and a half after the “turning point” proclaimed by German Chancellor Scholz, not a day goes by without reports of disputes within the “traffic light” coalition ruling Germany, the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) is experiencing a surge in opinion polls, the German economy is mired in a so-called “technical” recession and the social and political polarisation in the country is progressing. While the first half of this year saw the biggest wave of ‘warning strikes’ in decades, against the backdrop of persistently high inflation, and over a hundred thousand workers joined the unions, this upsurge in class struggle has not led to a clear shift in public debates towards social and class issues. This is also the responsibility of the Left Party, DIE LINKE, which continues as a tragedy and has shown itself incapable of picking up the ball of the strike wave and using it to raise class issues to the political level.
The economic, social and political developments in Germany are taking place against the backdrop of the global crisis processes. Scholars and commentators are overflowing with creativity in finding terms for these crises: polycrisis, multiple crisis, ‘permacrisis’ …Whatever you call it, the capitalist system is now in a permanent state of crisis that affects all areas of society – the economy, the environment, the social situation of the world population, the health of humanity, the political institutions of the system and, unfortunately, also the political forces on the left.
What does this mean in concrete terms in the fourth richest country in the world? Permanently high price increases, four million workers in precarious employment, 2.9 million children and young people at risk of or affected by poverty, the number of users of food donations at food banks has doubled (while donations have halved), school buildings are dilapidated, a quarter of fourth graders cannot read and write well enough, there is a huge shortage of teachers, educators, nurses, doctors’ offices and much more. It feels like no train runs on time (if they run, at all), mental health issues are at an all-time high, extreme weather events are on the rise. The list could be continued…
The problems and misery of some are the luxury of others. According to Bertolt Brecht: “if I was not poor, you would not be rich”.
Private wealth in the Federal Republic of Germany has continued to increase since the beginning of the pandemic, corporate profits have risen enormously since the pandemic.
Recession and inflation
Karl Marx, in his studies of the capitalist economy, noted that there is a recurring cycle of boom and crisis. However, while the tendency in the early phase of capitalism and (due to a special world situation) in the two decades after the Second World War was upward (strong and longer booms, smaller crises), this has changed. Since the world economic crisis of the early 1970s, the crises have become deeper and with the Great Recession of 2007/08, the world has entered a new dramatic phase in which social crisis processes and contradictions are coming to a head enormously.
The pandemic exacerbated an economic crisis that was already on its way. In Germany, economic output collapsed by five percent in 2020. The Ukraine war then exacerbated the inflation that had also developed before. The result is the worst of all worlds: high inflation with simultaneous economic stagnation or even declining economic output. The bourgeoisie’s classic remedies for one problem drive the other: Higher interest rates to fight inflation are a recessionary programme. Loose monetary policy drives up inflation. Accordingly, the ruling capitalist circles disagree on how to deal with this situation, and, at the same time, shamelessly exploit it. According to calculations by the Hans Böckler Institute, a trade union research body, corporate profits are a major price driver and account for fifty percent of inflation. The working class, however, is told that a wage-price spiral is looming and that they should not demand high wages. In reality, corporate profits are driving inflation even higher than it already is.
A large number of economists expect a global recession this year. The International Monetary Fund has said that it will feel like a recession for many countries, even if it doesn’t formally is one. In Germany, the current recession, the decline in economic output in the last two quarters, does not yet feel quite like what one is used to in economic crises, although there has been a 48 percent increase in insolvencies compared to 2022.This is not least due to the fact that because of the shortage of skilled workers, unemployment is just not being pushed up, although this should not hide the fact that there are still officially 2.6 million unemployed. The shortage of skilled workers has increased by 25 per cent in the last year. Nevertheless, an economic crisis, especially if it turns into a deep economic slump, will also destroy jobs and lead to company closures. It is just that those who lose their jobs may find it easier to find a new job – albeit often on worse terms. But even this recession, in combination with the pro-capitalist policies of those in power at the federal, state and local levels, will have far-reaching consequences. The newly announced and now discussed cuts in next year’s national budget are a harbinger of this.
How exactly the economy will develop cannot be predicted. But the signs are pointing to a worldwide crisis in view of the downturn in China, the recession in the Eurozone, high debt and inflation. This will mean that the “economic turnaround” called for by Christian Lindner is tantamount to threatening a major attack on the rights and achievements of the working class.
Strikes and trade unions
This working class has made an impressive appearance in 2023 and has given the lie to all those who claim that it is a relic of the past. Hundreds of thousands have taken part in warning strikes at the post office, public services, railways, retail, confectionery, delivery services and others. Real wage losses in recent years, high inflation and increased self-confidence due to the labour shortage led to relatively high demands being made and a very great willingness to fight. More than 100,000 workers joined ver.di (public and services trade union). It became clear what socialists have always said: Trade unions can win members when they fight. This shows that the trend of membership loss and decline in collective bargaining coverage can be stopped and reversed.
In fact, there have also been positive structural changes in some unions, partly pushed through by workers from below, and partly due to the fact that even parts of the union bureaucracy have to recognise that they have to involve their members more in discussions and decision-making if they do not want to lose them.
In Berlin, for example, there have been important steps towards democratisation and linking different workplaces through the experience of the hospital movement. There were joint strike delegate assemblies from the hospitals, the Berlin sanitation department, the waterworks and other companies and joint strike demonstrations. Also in the railway union EVG there have been more opportunities for discussion and more involvement, especially of activists and functionaries. However, this is not a uniform phenomenon and these changes are very limited. For example, there are reports from Stuttgart that there were fewer strike meetings than in the past, which is also related to personnel changes in the local ver.di leadership.
The warning strikes had a high turnout and for the first time there was a joint strike day of federal and municipal workers and railway workers coordinated by ver.di and EVG. This strike, described in the media as a “mega-strike”, marked a new quality, which unfortunately was not used by the trade union leaderships to organise large joint demonstrations, in which the workers could have really felt their enormous strength. For the first time, there was also a joint strike day of ‘Fridays For Future’ and the public transport workers, which marks an important step on both sides: a politicisation of the collective bargaining struggle and a turning of parts of the environmental movement towards the working class and the social question. This shows what would have been possible if the trade union leadership had linked the different collective bargaining struggles and turned them into a socio-political movement for the redistribution of wealth, climate protection, and also better health care, equipment for educational institutions, etc.
The wave of warning strikes triggered enthusiasm and high expectations among many workers – which were then bitterly disappointed. Once again, agreements were negotiated without using the means of an indefinite strike, and once again the trade union bureaucracy used top-down methods to achieve agreement for their bad compromises.
At the post office, despite an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action in the ballot, no strike was called, but a compromise was agreed to, the content of which the union leaders had been protesting against only a few days earlier. An equally inadequate outcome was adopted in the public sector, where the strike momentum was stalled by arbitration. In both cases, there was a membership vote or consultation on the results, which achieved corresponding majorities, but in the run-up to this there was no broad discussion organised in which the arguments for and against the compromise could be presented, but instead the leadership made one-sided propaganda for the negotiation result. There was already no opportunity for open debate at the workplace delegates’ zoom conferences. At the time of writing, something similar is happening in the railway union EVG, which suspended the holding of a strike ballot that had already been announced, and without necessity agreed to an arbitration procedure that includes a ban on strike action and has broken the strike dynamic.
This shows that despite all the positive developments, the unions remain under the control of bureaucratic apparatuses and a democratic renewal is urgently needed. In order to achieve such a renewal, activists should network and build an organised, class-struggle current that can take up the struggle to change the majority situation on the executive boards. It is a positive, and probably the most important, development that new initiatives in that direction have developed within ver.di.
A first cycle of strikes has come to an end and, although nominally higher than in the past, has not prevented real wage losses for most workers in the face of inflation. The responsibility for this lies with the trade union leaders who were not prepared to resort to the means of an indefinite strike.
But in autumn the collective bargaining rounds of the train drivers’ union GDL, the public state employees and in 2024 the collective bargaining round for local transport will open. The latter will be of particular importance, because ver.di and parts of the environmental movement want to lead this round of collective bargaining as a political fight for climate protection with the joint campaign,“We drive together”.
In this context, the GDL (train drivers’ trade union) leadership has announced the foundation of a personnel service cooperative called “Fairtrain” and has called on its train driver members at Deutsche Bahn (state owned railway company) to resign and switch to this temporary employment agency. In their boundless trust in the market economy, the GDL leadership is hoping (also against the background of the staff shortage) to gain such market power with this cooperative that they can impose wage and working conditions on Deutsche Bahn. This may be theoretically possible at the moment, but in practice it is difficult to imagine that a sufficient number of train drivers will exchange their permanent jobs for this adventure. Above all, however, the GDL thereby abolishes itself as a trade union and replaces the struggle against competition within the working class with competition on the capitalist market as a cooperative enterprise supplying labour. In a capitalism in crisis, this means that sooner or later the crisis would also hit the “Fairtrain”, even if it had a successful start. The Fairtrain members would then be faced with the dilemma of cutting their own wages and working conditions, cutting jobs or going on strike against themselves. In addition, in view of the scandalous and unsupportive attitude of the GDL leadership towards the EVG warning strikes, it is to be feared that “Fairtrain” could also use its employees as strikebreakers. That would be exactly the wrong way. The right way would be, as the “Bahnvernetzung” (Network Railways), an association of critical EVG and GDL members, demands, to overcome the division between the two unions in a joint struggle.
‘Traffic light’ coalition government unstable
The strikes have expressed the enormous polarisation that exists between the social classes. They have also, although the union leadership wanted to avoid it, massively increased the pressure on the ‘traffic light’ government and made a contribution, even if not directly visible, to the crisis of the coalition. The tragedy of the current situation, however, is that the wave of warning strikes is not expressing itself directly at the political level because the union leaders do not want it to and because DIE LINKE has shown itself incapable of setting up an effective support campaign for the strikes and shifting the public debate to social and class issues. Instead, it has taken its self-preoccupation to extremes. The result is that at the political level, in the form of the public debates and the election polls, CDU/CSU and especially the AfD are benefiting from the crisis of the traffic light coalition.
If national elections were held today, Scholz, Habeck and Lindner (the leading ministers of the coalition) would be voted out of office. The Greens now, after their temporary surge in the polls subsided, could just about maintain their 2021 result, while the SPD and FDP would lose. After less than two years in office, nothing is left of the much-heralded “progress coalition”. Commentators speak of a “coexistence” instead of a “togetherness”. The liberal FDP in particular is increasingly taking on the role of a fundamentalist-neoliberal opposition within the government and has been able to assert itself on important issues.
The first draft of the so-called heating law was already insufficient in terms of climate policy and would have passed the costs on to the mass of the population. The draft now approved by the cabinet is worse on many points. Changes have also been made to the climate law, which will not least help FDP Transport Minister Wissing to implement his road-building programmes. Above all, however, the FDP leader and Finance Minister Lindner has presented a draft 2024 budget that will be the first cutback budget in years. He and Chancellor Scholz speak of a return to “budgetary normality”, meaning: compliance with the constitutional ‘debt brake’, budget consolidation by means of cuts.
The underfunding of publicly necessary investments is not made clear by the sum of approximately 14 billion euros in cuts, but by the fact alone that the individual ministries had declared many times higher needs. But instead, cuts are being made, with the exception, among others, of the military, which already received its 100 billion special rearmament fund last year. In capitalism, tanks are more important than children and education. And so the basic child allowance is cut to a paltry two billion, funds for Bafög (student benefit) are cancelled and parental allowance is cut (even if only for higher earners with an annual income of 150,000 euros or more). But this cutback budget shows the direction in which things are to go. The CDU is calling for the end of retirement at 63 (which anyway only exists for workers who have worked 45 years uninterruptedly) and one self-appointed expert after another is making creative proposals to cover the deficit in the statutory health insurance funds: remove dentist visits from the benefits catalogue altogether and introduce co-payments of up to 1400 euros for doctor’s visits. And Karl Lauterbach (national health minister) is implementing his hospital reform, which will not lead to less profit orientation, but to hospital closures.
All this shows where the direction is to go and this will be accelerated by economic crises. Whether the “traffic light” coalition will even last until the end of the legislative period is open and a CDU/CSU-led government would also push such an anti-worker direction.
Although social and economic issues have had the most negative impact on people’s lives in the last year, and although there have been mass strikes for wage increases, this is not expressed on the political level by a strengthening of left forces. Unlike, for example, in Austria, where both the Communist Party has achieved important electoral successes and there has been a remarkable shift to the left in the Austrian Social Democratic Party, with the election of Andreas Babler as party leader. There, this has shifted the public debate a great deal towards social and class policy issues: towards issues such as wealth tax, reduction of working hours, etc., and also a debate on the pros and cons of Marxism, because Babler is attacked by the bourgeois media as a supposed Marxist. This is different in Germany. Here, even the socio-political aspect of the heating debate has been occupied by the right, because CDU/CSU and AfD populistically attack the government’s climate policy as anti-social and thus feed the justified feeling in large parts of the working class that especially the Greens want to make the mass of the population pay for climate protection measures. And even apart from that, right-wing and conservative forces sometimes manage to set other topics, such as the gender debate or the influx of refugees. This is tantamount to a huge diversion from the actual social problems and those who cause them.
This is the background against which the AfD is currently soaring in opinion polls and has been able to win its first directly elected district council and mayoral seats in eastern Germany. If there had been a strong socialist workers’ party in recent years that formulated the class interests of wage earners and fought for them, this could have been prevented. However, the AfD can become the sole beneficiary of the discontent and displeasure with the established parties. It can build on nationalist and anti-immigration sentiments that have been nurtured for many years by other pro-capitalist parties and media, and can exploit the fact that many people see no way to fight successfully against “those up there”. But only 32 percent of AfD voters say that they vote for the party out of conviction; a growing number of voters do not even go to the polls and do not accept the racist offer of the AfD (surveys a few years ago showed that non-voters themselves are above average on the left). And it should not be forgotten that 8.7 million people, the majority of them from the working class, are not allowed to vote at all because they do not have a German passport. This is not an all-clear. The success of the AfD is a great danger. Large parts of its electorate share its nationalist and anti-migrant basic positions. It can shift social moods, debates and also the prevailing politics to the right if it is not stopped. But its electoral successes are not solid and the AfD’s success is reversible.
However this will not be with the means of the established parties or even the LINKE protagonists. The election of the AfD district mayor in Sonneberg has shown that putting up united candidates of all other parties against the AfD will not stop it. This confirms the AfD’s narrative that it is the only social opposition to the establishment. The fact that it itself comes from the establishment, and to a large extent from West Germany, should only be mentioned in passing. It is fatal for DIE LINKE that it puts itself in bed with the established pro-capitalist parties through government participation, parliamentary agreements with the CDU in Thuringia and support for CDU candidates such as in Sonneberg. The bottom line is that this weakens DIE LINKE and strengthens the AfD.
However, leftists should not draw conclusions about the mood and consciousness within the working class only from these polls. The hundreds of thousands who took part in the strikes had important experiences of collective and solidary action that shaped their consciousness. We can assume that under the surface there is a mood, at least among substantial parts of the class, that is not finding expression right now. There are also indications that the rejectionist attitude towards refugees today (still) has a less aggressive racist character than in the 1990s and after the high immigration of refugees in 2015. In Greifswald, for example, the opponents of a refugee container accommodation had to lead their campaign against it with the slogan “For humane accommodation”, amongst others. However, the number of racist attacks has been rising again in recent years and the tendencies towards division will increase if trade unions and left forces do not counter this with a militant alternative that can unite the working class.
The fact that this situation is so is not least the responsibility of the various leaders of the different currents of DIE LINKE (the Left party), but above all of the leading party members in the parliamentary groups and ministerial posts, and, of course, of Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters. The rift between her camp and the rest of the party can no longer be patched up. The unanimous decision of the party executive, which called on her to resign her Bundestag seat, seems to have finally torn the tablecloth, which was already damaged on all sides. Actually, everything speaks in favour of Wagenknecht launching a new party for the 2024 European elections, especially the fact that such a party would have a considerable voter potential. But she seems to have problems finding the necessary personnel. And even among some of her supporters, who come from the Socialist Left, a current within DIE LINKE, there seem to be discussions about how far Wagenknecht can actually be supported politically in view of her national-conservative and anti-immigration course. If it is not possible to create a sufficiently strong organisational structure, there would be a danger that such a party – similar to what happened to the “Aufstehen” project (an organisation called “rise up” launched by Wagenknecht some years ago) – could crash-land after an initial flight.
If a Wagenknecht party comes into being, it would probably be the parliamentary end for DIE LINKE at the federal level and in West Germany. In the opinion polls for the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, which take place in autumn, the party is far from the five-percent mark and would fly out of the state parliament in Hesse. But what is worse is that large parts of the LINKE left have entered into an unprincipled bloc with parts of the right wing within DIE LINKE in the fight against Wagenknecht and for political survival. In consequence, this means that those in the party who have made their peace with capitalism and are counting on government participation with the SPD and the Greens are strengthened. Attempts by these circles to launch a new party programme are evidence of their self-confidence. This development would be reinforced after a split of the Wagenknecht camp. Hopes that after such a break there could be a greater influx from the environmental movement or other social movements certainly have a basis in the debates that are currently being conducted in parts of the environmental movement. However, it cannot be assumed that this will mean a qualitative change for the party. This can probably only come if a larger wave of class struggles makes DIE LINKE recognisable as the only party that stands alongside these struggles. This cannot be ruled out, but is also very unlikely in the light of this year’s experience.
After the months of strikes in the first half of the year, a somewhat more complicated situation has now set in for leftists. It is important to realise that this can change again quickly given the enormous instability and dissatisfaction with the government. Nevertheless, this situation also seems to have a paralysing effect on some on the left at the moment. This can explain why there have been no major protests against the Air Defender Manoeuvre or the EU asylum law reform, for example. There is also a high degree of self-preoccupation not only in the Left Party. Probably the largest left activist organisation next to DIE LINKE, the Interventionist Left (IL), is in crisis and has had resignations. The background here is not least the consequences of the identity-political orientation of such organisations. Two years ago, Deutsche Wohnen enteignen (Expropriate German Housing) successfully pushed through a referendum in Berlin for the expropriation of the big real estate companies and now achieved the unexpected legal success that even the expert commission appointed by the Berlin Senate gave the green light for expropriation. However, the campaign has completely lost the breadth and radiance of its early days, because the IL and other forces oriented towards identity politics have prevailed in it, pushing other forces to the margins or out of the campaign.
All this and the development of DIE LINKE are an indication of the importance of not only advancing the class struggle, but also fighting for socialist analysis and methods within the left and workers’ movement and propagating the need for the formation of a socialist workers’ party and taking steps in this direction when the opportunity arises. And above all, to make a serious socialist offer to the many workers and youth who are looking for an alternative to capitalism. This is what we at Sol see as our most important task at the moment and we invite everyone to join in.
Sascha Staničić is national spokesperson of the Socialist Organisation Solidarity (Sol) and responsible editor of “sozialismus heute”.