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A comment on the German Left Party

Andrew Johnson

8th September 2005

On 18 September German voters will be going to the polls in early federal elections which are likely to see the defeat of Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) and their Green coalition partners. The rightwing Christian Democrats (CDU) of Angela Merkel are set to become the largest party, although there remains some doubt as to whether the CDU and its allies – the Catholic clericalist CSU of Bavarian maximum leader Edmund Stoiber and the FDP, a small formation equivalent to the Progressive Democrats in Ireland – can achieve an outright majority.

The elections have been brought forward by Schröder as, under the impact of the government’s Agenda 2010 programme of privatisation and austerity and the Harz IV “labour reform” plan, SPD support has been haemorrhaging away. This was seen most spectacularly in the SPD’s loss of the key industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia this summer, ending 39 years of unbroken rule. While initially the SPD lost support to abstention, in North Rhine-Westphalia a large chunk of the SPD vote went directly over to the CDU, which gained the largest percentage of the working-class vote. With both main parties having identical economic programmes, the rightwing populism of the CDU seems to be giving them an edge in the electoral contest.

The wild card in this situation is the entry of the Left Party (Linkspartei), a coalition pitching its appeal at disillusioned elements of the traditional SPD base. The rise of this formation has inspired much comment in the left press outside Germany, most of it wildly enthusiastic. In this context, it is worth taking a look at the reality of the Left Party, whether it represents an alternative for the German working class and whether there are any lessons that can be drawn by international observers.

Where the Left Party comes from

The major component of the Left Party is the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the ruling Stalinist SED in the former East Germany. In fact, the Left Party as such technically is the PDS, which for reasons laid down by the German electoral law has changed its name and offered places on its list to its smaller ally, the WASG. However, it would be a mistake to regard the PDS as a party of unreconstructed Stalinists – it is no longer a Stalinist party, contains all sorts of political tendencies and the diehard Stalinists in its ranks are a small minority. The PDS leadership, and the majority of its membership, are firmly committed to a left reformist perspective. The major strategic debate in the party has centred on the question of the SPD – whether to seek a historic compromise with it, or to take an aggressive oppositional stance and seek to colonise electoral territory vacated by the rightward-moving SPD.

The importance of the PDS lies in the fact that in eastern Germany it retains a large membership and genuine mass support, having converted itself to a large extent into a regional protest party representing the concerns of the substantial segment of east German society which has not experienced the “blooming landscapes” promised by then chancellor Helmut Kohl at the time of unification. The PDS base has often been extremely militant and is therefore of huge significance for any project of building a working-class alternative in Germany. The PDS’s main limitation is that, as a mass electoral party, parliamentary considerations tend to dominate – so, electoral arithmetic has placed the PDS in the state governments of Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as the junior partner of the SPD, where the party has been complicit in the implementation of austerity budgets.

The other section is a recent splinter from the SPD in the West, the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice, WASG). This is composed mainly of former activists in the SPD and Germany’s extremely bureaucratic trade union movement. It has also been joined by elements of the far left, notably the groups Linksruck (affiliated to the Socialist Workers Party) and Sozialistische Alternative (SAV, linked to the Socialist Party). While these groupings are of little significance in the context of the WASG as such, they hold some interest as aspirants to political leadership and as the source of much misleading coverage in the Irish left press, which we shall come to presently.

The striking thing about the WASG is its recent formation. The founders of the WASG, if they have been exercised by Schröder’s long list of betrayals, failed to put up a struggle for their position in the SPD for years. Germany’s involvement in the war on Yugoslavia brought protests from the pacifist wing of the Greens, but little from the SPD. Agenda 2010 slipped through with only a few grumbles, most of the SPD membership accepting Schröder’s argument that pain in the short term would pay off in the long term. But electoral meltdown concentrates the mind wonderfully. This is not to deny the sincerity of those joining the WASG, only to place a question mark over the myth of a principled revolt against Schröder.

A similar process can be observed in the move towards fusion with the PDS. Initially the WASG refused to even discuss an alliance or joint work with the PDS, a stance that was justified by far-left groups like the SAV by reference to the actions of the two SPD-PDS state governments. But the position of the WASG leadership was motivated by altogether more concrete factors – the Cold War anticommunism which still dominates Germany’s labour bureaucracy, the related fear that a link-up with the PDS would hurt its electoral prospects in the West, and the fact that, although the WASG claims to have recruited a credible 10,000 members, the 70,000 members of the PDS would inevitably be the iron backbone of a joint party.

So why did the WASG change tack? Again, we should look at the electoral arithmetic. To gain parliamentary representation in Germany a party needs 5% of the national vote or three constituency seats. This particularly disadvantages the PDS, with a huge vote in the East but very little support in the numerically dominant West, and with its possibilities of constituency seats reduced by gerrymandering in Berlin. The PDS would obviously benefit from attracting allies in the West. The WASG, conversely, has only a tiny base in the East, but didn’t see that as a problem if it could gain sufficient support in the West. The results in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the WASG got a little over 2% and the PDS a little under 1%, were a cold shower for the WASG leadership. Even social democrats can, as the Americans say, do the math.

So an electoral bloc was of benefit to both organisations, and the Left Party stands poised to make a significant electoral breakthrough. Its prospects have been strengthened by the return to active politics of the two charismatic former party leaders, Oskar Lafontaine (SPD) and Gregor Gysi (PDS), both highly popular figures. The question is, a breakthrough for what politics?

The programme of the Left Party

In all the coverage of the Left Party, few observers seem to have taken the trouble to read its election manifesto. This very interesting document lays out in black and white what the party stands for and should be the starting point for any discussion of its politics that aims to be more than speculation laced with wishful thinking.

There is little in the programme that Marxists could disagree with, as far as it goes. For a reformist party – and the Left Party doesn’t claim to be anything else – it is quite a decent platform. It begins by taking the SPD-Green coalition to task for its presiding over mass unemployment, and proposes to replace the privatisation agenda with a programme of expanding the public sector and providing socially useful employment. The minimum wage should be set at €1400 per month, with a rise in unemployment benefit and pensions. Public services should be kept in the public sector.

The party further draws attention to the growing East-West wealth gap, and proposes to overcome this by a massive programme of investment in productive sectors of the economy, using the skilled but underemployed Eastern workforce as an asset and giving Easterners more of a voice in administering the plan.

The programme also calls for a protection of civil rights, an expansion of grassroots democracy, decriminalisation of drugs, legalisation of gay marriage and a serious fight against the far right. It defends the right to asylum and advocates more rights for immigrants, including a radical overhaul of Germany’s racist citizenship laws. It calls for shifting the tax burden to the rich and corporations, and for the withdrawal of German troops from the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Now this is all good stuff, and refreshing by comparison with Tony Blair and his imitator Pat Rabbitte. But what is conspicuous about the Left Party programme is that it contains virtually nothing that couldn’t have been in an SPD manifesto in years past. What this suggests is that, far from the Left Party marking a huge stride forward, workers are still in defensive mode and, for the moment at least, the Left Party offers no more than the possibility of a more effective defence. In effect, as the SPD has hurtled towards neoliberal positions, it has left a residue behind on its traditional territory which is now seeking to organise itself.

But the programme is fundamentally a reformist one. This should not be surprising, as the party’s majority group consists of ex-Stalinists turned social democrats and its main minority is a group of ex-SPD members who want to remain social democrats as their former party embraces neoliberalism. The programme does not link its reasonable demands to a struggle for workers’ power, and the leaders of the Left Party are entirely open about their reformism. They have never pretended to be revolutionaries. The people who make up the new party have not come from nowhere, nor has their programme.

Marxists have traditionally designated parties that vacillate between reform and revolution as “centrist”. This category can include parties that have not been faced with the strategic choice between reform and revolution (this was the case historically with the Brazilian Workers Party) or those that deliberately fudge the question (such as the Scottish Socialist Party). The German Left Party is not a centrist party, nor a party of undefined political character, but a party that has been founded on an explicitly reformist basis – as is also the case with its PDS and WASG component parties. The Left Party leaders don’t fudge this – those who do fudge it are the small revolutionary groups that obfuscate the party’s character with talk of the party having a “leftwing” or “class-struggle” character.

For a critical engagement with the Left Party

So we have sketched out the limitations of the Left Party. But it is only fair to point out that there are other factors on the positive side of the ledger, and which make a critical engagement with it necessary for German socialists. Most obviously, it has been attracting support from elements of the working class who oppose the neoliberal course of the SPD-Green government. This is surely the audience that socialists should be interested in.

The link-up between the WASG and PDS has been greeted with reservations, not to say downright hostility, by many of the far-left activists who have joined the WASG. A representative example is an article by Sascha Stanisic of the SAV, the German franchise of the Socialist Party, in the 30 August issue of the group’s paper Solidarität. Abstracting out the cranky sectarian tone typical of this current, the main thrust of the article is the need for a new mass workers party, something the WASG could evolve into according to the SAV. Stanisic argues against any orientation to the SPD, which he describes as a “capitalist party through and through”, and opposes an electoral alliance with the PDS, instead counterposing the as yet non-existent new mass workers party. Stanisic proposes that the WASG could become a mass party by direct recruitment of “workers, unemployed and youth”, failing to see that workers do not live in a vacuum but have their own traditions and organisations – something which the WASG itself, as a split from the SPD which Stanisic and his comrades pronounced dead years ago, proves in life.

Stanisic, in brief, proposes ignoring the existing mass parties that, whatever their inadequacies, still command the loyalty of the large majority of class-conscious workers. Not only the PDS base, but the much larger SPD base holds no interest for him while the possibility remains of “fresh forces” emerging (from where?). He rejects the idea of a united front approach to build bridges to these workers, preferring to raise sectarian ultimata – so, rather than mobilising the PDS base to break the Berlin and Mecklenburg state coalitions, he proposes that the WASG should make withdrawal from state governments a precondition for unity discussions with the PDS. And, while the SAV speak in general terms about the need for the WASG to adopt a socialist programme (by which they presumably mean their own), they make great claims for the significance of three of their members getting elected to local councils as part of “anti-cuts” slates with minimalist programmes. The methodology will be familiar to those with experience of Stanisic’s Irish co-thinkers.

Christine Buchholz of the Linksruck tendency, affiliated to the SWP in Ireland, also writes against a quick merger of the WASG into the PDS/Linkspartei. Buchholz’s article in the 31 August issue of Linksruck is written in an aphoristic style that sometimes makes her argument difficult to follow, but the thrust seems to be that a new left is needed and it must be new, not old. She fears that in a merged party the ex-PDS would have a large majority – which is true – and the party would reflect the electoralist priorities of that party. Buchholz doesn’t explain, nor for that matter does Stanisic, why the WASG is automatically better on that score.

Unlike Stanisic, however, Buchholz has a few concrete suggestions about the way forward. She argues that the new party should be rooted in extra-parliamentary movements – as a counterweight to the ex-PDS element, she suggests an orientation to anti-globalisation groups like Attac. She also proposes that unity should be preceded by an in-depth discussion of programme and perspectives, or, as she puts it, “how the left can change the world”. This last is a perfectly reasonable suggestion – in fact a necessary step – although Buchholz is coy about what should be discussed.

It seems to this writer that an orientation to the Left Party is a major task for German socialists, and that socialists should work out their strategy on the basis of a united front approach. A fusion of the WASG with the PDS is nothing to be feared – on the contrary, it could create a good deal of momentum and open a bridge to the PDS base, while enabling this base to break out of its ghetto. What would be necessary in this situation is a core of principled revolutionaries who could stimulate a serious programmatic discussion and point the way towards the answers the working class needs.

The relevance of Germany for Ireland

Irish socialists have not been slow to claim that events in Germany have lessons for Ireland. Generally, this has taken the form of the Socialist Party and the SWP claiming that their pet schema has been vindicated. In the SP’s case, this concerns their perspective of calling for a new mass workers party. The SP have at least been modest in drawing parallels, since their practical perspective for Ireland is to build the SP as a narrow sect and therefore their main approach has been to argue that conditions aren’t right in Ireland for the strategy that their proclaimed perspective calls for.

The SWP comrades aren’t nearly as restrained. They argue that there is a pattern of new alliances and parties all across Europe – citing a collection of organisations so diverse as to call the meaning of the word “pattern” into question – and claim, using a logic that defies analysis, that the formation of the Left Party in Germany lends force to their call for an electoral alliance with the SP. This falls under the general rubric of “the left getting its act together”.

One problem is that SWP writers tend these days not to write about socialism, or reformism, or the working class, but about the un-Marxist category of “the left”, a category which has sometimes been stretched to include Pat Rabbitte and Gerry Adams. The dangers of this approach are underlined by an article in the latest An Phoblacht by Sinn Fein’s resident fake socialist, Eoin O’Broin. O’Broin heaps praise on the Left Party in almost identical terms to the SWP, claiming it to be part of a rising European left – which includes Sinn Fein. In the formal sense he is correct in that PDS MEPs in Strasbourg are part of the United Left group along with Sinn Fein’s two MEPs, the privatiser Bairbre de Brun and the Fianna Fail defector Mary Lou McDonald. But this just illustrates where you get with vague commentary about “the left”.

The writings of the Irish socialist groups’ co-thinkers in Germany, although not without faults, are on a higher level on this subject because they are writing concretely about real problems and choices that lie ahead of their tendencies. What Irish socialists need is not cheerleading reformist parties in far-off countries of which they know little, but a serious and open discussion about the concrete tasks facing the Irish working class and strategies for dealing with them.

Related links:
Linkspartei at
Linksruck at
Sozialistische Alternative at


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