Turbulent start to the year in Germany

Sol (CWI Germany) supporters on an anti-far right protest in Stuttgart

There has not been such a stormy start to a new year in Germany for a very long time. And yet the events of the last few weeks are just a glimmer of what is to come in the coming years: social upheavals of a completely new quality, irreconcilable polarisation, mass mobilisations, a reorganisation of the political landscape and balance of power, deep crises. All of this will lead more and more workers and young people to the conclusion that this system cannot offer them a future worth living. It is the task of Marxists to proclaim our socialist alternative confidently and offensively. 

 The radical protests by farmers, the mass demonstrations by well over two million people against the far right AfD and racism, strikes on the railways, at airports, in local transport, in retail, the cancellation of a public rally of a governing party due to protests, continued crisis of the federal government, recession and drastic reduction in growth forecasts, founding of two new parties (the ‘Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance’, BSW, and the ‘WerteUnion’, ‘Values Union’) – German society is in a state of ferment and we are experiencing polarisation and mobilisation on a considerable scale. 

 And yet this is just the tip of the iceberg and the big social explosions are still to come. The farmers’ protests have given us a foretaste of this. Let’s imagine not just a few thousand farmers with their tractors, but hundreds of thousands of workers with similar anger and indignation going on strike and taking to the streets. The so called traffic light coalition (social democrats, Greens and Liberals), the conservative CDU/CSU and employers’ associations are currently working to ensure that this can happen – fuelled by the crisis of the capitalist system they represent. 

 The “sick man of Europe” 

 Germany is once again seen as the “sick man of Europe”. Last year’s GDP development is estimated to have been minus 0.3 per cent – in other words, a recession – and the growth forecasts for this year were drastically reduced from 1.2 to 0.3 per cent in January. Economics Minister Robert Habeck calls this “dramatically bad” while Finance Minister Christian Lindner calls it “embarrassing”. This means that Germany has the weakest economic situation of the leading industrialised nations. 

 And these are not just abstract figures. These percentages represent companies going bankrupt and jobs being destroyed. The number of company bankruptcies has now returned to pre-pandemic levels and continues to rise. An above-average number of larger companies, such as the shopping chain Karstadt, are affected. Large companies such as SAP, Bayer and Volkswagen are also shedding jobs, partly as a result of relocating production abroad. In most cases, these are not yet compulsory redundancies and in some companies new jobs are being created elsewhere or labour is being sought, but the number of unemployed is rising again. 

 Agenda 2030? 

 However, Christian Lindner does not want to see Germany as the “sick man of Europe”. For him, the Federal Republic is just a tired man who needs a strong sip of coffee. So the system no longer works without a drug … Lindner’s coffee, however, are measures to improve competitiveness (i.e. sales and profitability) for German companies. And in capitalism, these are always carried out on the backs of the working people. 

 Accordingly, not a day goes by without some capitalist representative or pro-capitalist politician announcing a great need for “reform”, but “reform” has long since ceased to stand for “improvement”. Specifically, the demands being made include cuts in corporate taxes, longer and more flexible working hours, tougher sanctions for recipients of social benefits, restrictions on the right to strike, limits on social security contributions, abolition of the option to retire, albeit on a lower pension, at 63, a return to nuclear power and much more. 

 Steffen Kampeter, chief executive of the German Employers’ Association (BDA), is calling for an “economic and socio-political turnaround” and commentaries from journals like SPIEGEL to Süddeutsche are increasingly calling for an “Agenda 2030”. And some “experts” are giving free rein to their wet economic dreams. Back in November, Marc Friedrich wrote in Focus under the subheading “Agenda 2030 instead of socialism!” that the necessary Agenda 2030 would have to be “much more far-reaching” than Agenda 2010, calling not only for a return to nuclear power, but also for the “reactivation of coal mines and the extraction of oil and gas”, a massive reduction in the state’s share of GDP and “Reduce and simplify taxes. Keyword: beer mat tax. Ideally just a tax that you pay when you go shopping.” 

 In addition, there are demands for a further drastic increase in defence spending and budget cuts at all levels. There is no question: the capitalists and their political representatives are planning a class struggle offensive from above. This would follow the cuts that are already being implemented. 

 Cuts are already being made 

 But cuts are not a pipe dream. Government representatives refer to this as the “normalisation of budgetary policy”. The budget for 2024 and the supplementary budget for 2023 include cuts in the social and education sectors, for farmers and others that will affect the majority of the population: By raising the CO2 tax to 45 euros per tonne, introducing the plastic tax (which was previously paid by the federal government to the EU), but also increasing VAT in cases where it had previously been at a reduced rate, prices for consumers will continue to rise. 

According to a calculation by the magazine “Capital”, a typical family of four will incur additional costs of 211 euros due to the abolition of the gas price brake and the increase in the CO2 price, around one hundred euros due to the increase in grid fees and the abolition of the electricity price brake, around 4.3 cents per litre will be added to petrol prices and food in restaurants will also become more expensive, as VAT for restaurants will rise again from seven to 19 percent. At the same time, the government is holding out the prospect of an industrial electricity price to safeguard companies’ profits! 

 So far, apart from the attacks on farmers, these cuts are still so wide-ranging that they don’t seem like a major blow. But they are real and will affect millions. 

 There will also be cuts at local authority level, partly due to the loss of income from municipal trade tax as the economy worsens. In Berlin-Mitte, for example, thirty of 52 youth and family centres are threatened with closure. Markus Lewe, President of the Association of Cities and Towns, speaks of an impending “spiral of cruelty”. Local authorities in particular will be affected by cutbacks and the economic crisis. The first municipalities are already facing the threat of a budget freeze. 

 And the expansion of Deutsche Bahn, the German railway. is also affected. tagesschau.de reported on 2 February: “The austerity measures of the traffic light coalition following the budget ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court apparently have a greater impact on planned rail investments than previously known. As reported by ‘Der Spiegel’ and the Reuters news agency, Deutsche Bahn will have to largely stop its new construction projects. This is due to the planned cuts in the federal budget, which also affect the budget of the Ministry of Transport.” So this is what the ecological turnaround in transport looks like …. 

 Debt brake and rearmament 

 The signs are therefore pointing to a storm, to a class war offensive from above. This will not depend on whether or not there is a reform of the debt brake. There are now demands for changes to be made to this constitutional limit on the size of government debt, which was introduced in 2009, not only by the SPD but also by parts of the CDU/CSU. Such a reform would be implemented in order to allow more debt in the interests of capital to finance certain investments and subsidies, but not to be able to make the necessary investments in education, health and social welfare. 

 Last but not least, a reform of the debt brake would also be a means of financing the ever louder calls for billions more for the military, the Bundeswehr. According to the social democrat Federal Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, Germany must be made “fit for war”. The one hundred “turnaround” billion euros agreed in 2022 are not enough. A further 200 billion is already being demanded. In recent weeks, pro-capitalist politicians have been coming up with creative proposals as to where this money should come from. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  

 In any case, a massive militarisation of society is currently taking place, not only in the material sense through the billions being poured into armaments and the Bundeswehr, but also in the ideological sense through the propagandistic drumbeat from all parties represented in the Bundestag with the exception of the DIE LINKE, the Left Party.  

 Society is being made fit for war, and the arms companies and militarists have the best allies in Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Trump’s recent threat that, under his leadership, the USA will not stand by any NATO partner country that does not reach the two per cent target for the ratio of defence spending to gross domestic product was used directly by bourgeois politicians to propagate rearmament and a strengthening of German-European military capability.  

 Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that in a recently published study, a majority spoke out in favour of expanding defence capabilities and adhering to this two percent target. Last year, twice as many reservists volunteered for the Bundeswehr than the year before. This is certainly not a uniform mood and the special funds for the Bundeswehr in particular are viewed critically by many people, but the war in Ukraine and the general increase in conflicts around the world have influenced the mood – not least because there has been no consistent opposition from the left and the trade unions. 

 On the contrary, resolutions were passed at the ver.di and IG Metall congresses last year that softened the unions’ traditional anti-militarist positions. The IG Metall leadership then made it worse a few weeks ago when it called for more armaments in a joint position paper with the SPD Economic Forum and the Federal Association of the German Security and Defence Industry (BDSV). The SPD European politician Katarina Barley did not even want to rule out a European nuclear bomb. In the view of this Social Democrat, nuclear sharing is clearly not enough if a US President Trump is not prepared to press the red button for European security. 

 In any case, many pro-capitalist politicians believe that a reform of the debt brake is also necessary in order to push ahead with rearmament. However, similar to the reform of the EU Stability Pact, a reform of the debt brake will not mean a shift towards a Keynesian economic policy or even investments in the interests of the mass of the population. Change the brake would not contradict cuts, attacks on the working class and other neoliberal measures, such as the planned sale of Deutsche Bahn freight subsidiary DB Schenker. 

 Class struggles 

 All these developments are taking place against the backdrop of a significant upswing in class struggles and mass mobilisations over the past year. This also includes the protests by farmers, which were not a “reactionary uprising”, as some on the left have labelled them, but a justified protest movement by the peasant petty bourgeoisie against measures that pose an existential threat to them. As Marxists, we took a differentiated stance and pointed out social and class differences between small farmers, large agricultural companies and wage-dependent agricultural workers, while at the same time supporting the core demands of the farmers as justified. In doing so, we do not close our eyes to the attempt by the AfD and other far-right and fascist forces to gain influence among farmers and instrumentalise their protests. But precisely this attempt to exert influence by far-right forces should have been one more reason why DIE LINKE and the trade unions should have offered farmers a common battle front based on a programme in the interests of the working class and the middle classes. This would have put the coalition under incomparably greater pressure. In any case, there was sufficient sympathy among the working population for the farmers. 

 The willingness of the working class to fight was demonstrated by the train drivers’ strikes. But also in the strikes at the airports, in local transport, in cinemas, in retail and in individual companies, such as the Jewish Hospital Berlin, even if the situation here is sometimes more complicated from the workers’ point of view. Even though fewer workers have taken part in strikes in recent weeks than in spring last year, these strikes are perceived as a continuation of the fight for compensation for price increases and for better working conditions. Thus currently the wave of strikes continues and the working class is more visible. This is of the utmost importance for building socialist forces, because the working class is less and less of an unknown entity, especially among young people. This can be seen concretely in the strike support for local transport workers by Fridays For Future and activists from the climate movement in the #wirfahrenzusammen (“we drive together”) campaign. However, the strikes in local transport had varying degrees of support, not least due to the fragmented collective bargaining landscape and the trade union ver.di’s often insufficiently mobilising demands. 

 These strikes are just the beginning of a year in which wage disputes could take place for twelve million employees, including the chemical industry, printing industry, temporary work sector, system catering, metal and electrical industry and telecommunications. The latter seems to be heading for a more heated dispute than in recent years. In Berlin, a meeting of Telekom trade unionists voted in favour of a wage demand of 500 euros fixed pay rise plus 8.5 percent, which together would mean around 23 percent, depending on income. The workers see a huge need to catch up after income losses in recent years. Trade unionists are reporting that non-members are also declaring their willingness to strike for the first time. At the same time, Telekom management appears to be preparing for a tough dispute. Here, too, at least warning strikes are to be expected. 

 For federal and municipal employees, the TVÖD (public service collective agreement) expires at the end of the year. Here, ver.di is currently conducting a survey on the issue of working hours. Sol members in ver.di are campaigning for a 35-hour week with full wage and staff equalisation. 

 As much as things are happening on the collective bargaining front in many trade unions, the trade union leaders are trying to protect the federal government’s back. Above all this is seen in shape of the former SPD General Secretary and current DGB (German TUC) Chairwoman Yasmin Fahimi, who was not above congratulating the traffic light coalition after it was able to agree on a draft budget that included cuts. Politically, the trade union leaders are not living up to their responsibilities, neither with regard to the government’s policy of cuts nor with regard to the mass protests against the AfD and racism. Over two million people took part in these protests in January and February. The trade unions hardly played a leading role in this and the many union members who undoubtedly took part in these rallies generally did so as individuals and not as part of the union, which could have influenced the political content of these rallies through strong collective participation. 

 Millions against the AfD 

 The protests at the start of this year have shown that the majority of people in Germany are against the AfD. Surveys show that this majority is not getting any smaller. There is no question that these protests are positive and influence the social mood, even if they are politically limited and misused by the governing parties. But everyone knows someone who was at one of the demonstrations, which also took place in small towns and villages. Even in areas where there is a strong right-wing extremist scene, many have dared to take to the streets and show their faces. That is worth a lot and hopefully many people will become more self-confident to speak out against racism and the AfD in their immediate neighbourhood. 

 Opinion polls in recent weeks show losses for the AfD, which will have to deal with both the protests and the founding of the BSW party led by Sahra Wagenknecht. Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether these losses will be sustainable. At the same time, the AfD has gained many members and, above all, polarisation seems to have hardened. Due to their political nature, the demonstrations are hardly likely to break AfD voters or sympathisers away from the right-wing populists. This is the case because they are cross-class demonstrations where, in many cases, government politicians are also demonstrating. In Görlitz, Saxony’s Prime Minister Kretschmer even spoke at a rally. This makes it easy for the AfD to claim that these are demonstrations organised by those in power. As nonsensical as this is, the established bourgeois parties are trying to use the demonstrations to deflect attention from their own responsibility for social problems. Yet it is the policies of these parties that are preparing the ground for the AfD. We therefore advocate that the movement against the AfD should also focus on the causes of the rise of the far right and speak out against social cuts, anti-worker government policies and state racism. 

 The Left Party 

 Not only is the Left Party, DIE LINKE, unable to put its stamp on all these developments, it does not even appear to be a driving force. Although around three thousand new members have joined the party since Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters split and since the anti-AfD protests began, there is not much sign of a spirit of optimism in the party. However, the resignation of the party’s general secretary Tobias Bank and the battle for the new chairmanship of the Bundestag, parliamentary, group have revealed that the inner-party conflicts are not a thing of the past, while the unprincipled alliance between the ‘Bewegungs Linke’ (Movement Left) tendency and parts of the party’s right-wing now also has its embodiment in the dual general secretaryship of Ates Gürpinar and Katina Schubert. 


 The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), on the other hand, officially held its first party conference in January and formally founded the party. Since then, it has been polling above five per cent in almost all opinion polls for the Bundestag elections. The party conference was an event without debate, motions, controversial votes or opposing candidates – a well-organised happening with 450 hand-picked participants. If you compare this with the lively debates and unpredictable course of party conferences in the early days of the WASG (the new left wing party founded in 2004 which later merged with the PDS to form DIE LINKE), it becomes clear that the BSW is not a force for self-organisation from below. Nevertheless, the BSW will be able to mobilise many voters and possibly destroy DIE LINKE in parliament. 

 Politically, the party conference confirmed that the BSW is a right-wing split from the Left Party, not only because they no longer address each other as “comrades” but as “friends”; but because anti-capitalism and socialism no longer even formally feature. Social populism, on the other hand, does. It remains to be seen to what extent people who previously belonged to the left wing of DIE LINKE, such as Ali Ai-Dailami, Judith and Friederike Benda or Andrej Hunko, will also position themselves on the left within the BSW and challenge nationalist migration policies, for example. Unfortunately, there are no signs of this so far. 

New elections? 

 The BSW will most likely be able to mobilise many votes in the European elections in June and the elections in three east German federal states in September. However, it does not represent a political alternative for the working class due to its free-market, nationalist programme. This would require a new workers’ party with a socialist programme. 

 Whether the traffic light coalition will survive this year is at least doubtful. The business organisations have so far spoken out against new elections because they do not know whether there can be a government afterwards that represents their interests in a more stable manner. However, this could change quickly if the traffic light coalition proves incapable of taking steps towards a 2030 Agenda. New elections must therefore at least be expected in the course of the year. But whether this happens or not, 2024 will be an eventful year that will hold many opportunities for building socialist forces.

To read more on the crisis and class struggle in Germany click here.

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March 2024