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Berlin debacle: a series of unedifying events

Andrew Johnson

25 October 2006

Last month’s elections in two German federal states, the capital of Berlin and the north-eastern coastal region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, have highlighted a growing popular discontent with mainstream politics. Results from both states were characterised by falling turnout, a growing protest vote (the neo-Nazi NPD scored over 7% in Mecklenburg, despite having only a skeleton organisation in the state) and poor performances by the mainstream parties. The Social Democrats (SPD), who are the largest party in both regions, lost votes while more or less holding their share of a reduced turnout; the conservative CDU scored its lowest ever result in Berlin, while losing badly in Mecklenburg, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s home state.

What makes Berlin and Mecklenburg interesting is that both states are governed by a coalition of the SPD and the Linkspartei (Left Party, descended from the old East German Stalinists but now a social-democratic formation). Both governments, but especially heavily indebted Berlin under SPD mayor Klaus Wowereit, have pushed through severe cutbacks in services, while implementing the Hartz IV “labour reform” laws which constitute the biggest attack on workers’ rights in Germany for decades. As a result, the two major parties which rely on working-class support – one of which hegemonises radical politics in Germany – were not leading a fight against the attacks on workers, but were complicit in them. For the Linkspartei, which is programmatically opposed to Hartz IV, this was a disastrous position.

The consequences of this collaboration were plain to see. Taking into account the falling turnout, the Linkspartei saw its vote almost halved in Berlin, most of the missing voters being lost to abstention. The abstention factor was particularly important in the impoverished eastern boroughs where the Linkspartei has its traditional strongholds.

The splitting operation

The class collaboration policies of the SDP had led to a left split, the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice). The WASG’s small but significant organisation in Berlin, and its tiny organisation in Mecklenburg, have been politically dominated by Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), the German franchise of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International, which is represented in Ireland by the Socialist Party. The WASG had engaged in fusion talks with the Linkspartei.

So for so good – traditional social democracy leads an attack on the working class, the Linkspartei break with their own programme to collaborate with social democracy and are punished by their supporters – an opportunity for WASG and SAV to put forward socialist politics.
Not so.  The SAV faction opposed unity on sectarian and apolitical grounds, even allying with right-wing anticommunist elements to oppose it.

It was predictable that the SAV would conform with deadly accuracy to Marx’s dictum that the sectarian “instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation… tried to prescribe their course to these elements according to a certain dogmatic recipe.” (Marx to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868) Instead of appealing to the Linkspartei base – where they would have started from a position of weakness, with no guarantee of victory – they used their dominant positions in the two regional WASG groups to railroad through a proposal to run a slate in the elections against the Linkspartei, with leading SAV member Lucy Redler heading the list in Berlin. Beyond denunciations of the regional governments, which may have been perfectly justified in themselves, it was not made clear what was the point of this exercise. If they failed to be elected, they would simply weaken the Linkspartei; if they did return a handful of deputies, it was at no stage made clear what these deputies would do.

There would have been a political justification for this had the local WASG run on a revolutionary programme – but it didn’t. In the absence of a clear programmatic divide between the Linkspartei and WASG – which we shall come to presently – it would have made more sense to critically support the Linkspartei while arguing for breaking the coalitions. Instead, the SAV ran a crude splitting operation, which weakened the Linkspartei electorally while completely letting it off the hook politically – after the election, party leaders could and did blame Redler and the splitters for their defeat. Incredibly, the SAV claimed to be organising the split with the aim of building a new mass workers’ party, seemingly the CWI’s all-purpose worldwide alibi.

The split did not go through without glitches. The WASG national leadership disowned the Berlin and Mecklenburg federations, as did many members of the Berlin WASG – quite a few turned up on Linkspartei candidate lists. Even the Linksruck tendency, the German affiliate of the SWP – which has competed with the SAV in its subjective hostility to the Linkspartei – were driven to denounce this as a sectarian operation which would weaken the WASG. (Stefan Bornost, “Der falsche Weg”, Linksruck, 27 April 2006) Nonetheless, the SAV-led groups in Berlin and Mecklenburg took court action against the national WASG and gained the legal right to run under the WASG name – courtesy of a conservative judge, who may not have been motivated by the need to fight for socialist policies – and went into the election undaunted. 

The result was electoral disaster for the group. The SAV put a brave face on the Berlin and Mecklenburg result, with their paper Solidarität proclaiming “52,000 votes against cuts”. Nevertheless, The rebel WASG groups and the SAV appear to have isolated themselves simultaneously from the workers and from the political debate in the Linkspartei about the party’s sharp shift to the right.

The problem is reformism

So far we might seem simply to have an unedifying story of opportunism on one side and boneheaded sectarianism on the other. If that was all there was to it, there would be little to be learned from the Berlin affair. But that isn’t true – scratch the surface and there are some small lessons that the Irish left would do well to ponder.

The first question is that of the nature of the Linkspartei itself. Our local unity fetishists are in the habit of referring to this formation as a “class struggle” party, an “anti-capitalist” party or a “left party”. What is more important is that the Linkspartei is a parliamentary reformist party. Its programme is a reformist one, albeit quite a good reformist programme by the low standards of Irish Labour and its Blairite model. But it isn’t just a matter of programme – as a mass electoral party, the whole dynamic of the Linkspartei is driven by parliamentary considerations. The same is true of the CPI(M) in India, which has an extremely radical programme but whose record running the state government in West Bengal could best be described as neoliberalism with a human face. Experiences in recent years with the PT in Brazil and the PRC in Italy underline the point.

It is important to stress that the problem with the Linkspartei is not that its leaders are unprincipled – it is that the difference between reformist and revolutionary politics, so often written off as outdated these days, is still relevant. So long as the Linkspartei remains wedded to parliamentary reformism, there is no fundamental principle ruling out entering an austerity government. There is no point shouting that the Linkspartei has betrayed its programme when it hasn’t – its participation in the regional governments is simply a reformist party doing what reformist parties do. The same applies to the WASG, which is an explicitly reformist party as well. Neither of these parties claims to be anything but reformist – that is a claim made on their behalf by leftists outside Germany.

But, while it is true that the Linkspartei is a reformist party, it would be a mistake to write it off as simply that. It has a genuine mass base in the depressed eastern states, and a mass membership of around 70,000 (soon to be added to by the WASG’s 10,000 members) which contains many convinced radicals. Any serious strategy for building a revolutionary movement in Germany will have to go through the Linkspartei, if not in the form of entry into it, at the very least in the development of a united front strategy towards it. Such a strategy would also have to develop an orientation to the millions of workers who continue to support the SPD despite its record in government. But a serious strategy would need to be based in an understanding of these parties as they are – not prettifying them or imbuing them with a political content they don’t have, nor on the other hand relying on the delusion that a small standalone sect can become a mass party by individual recruitment if only it denounces the existing mass parties loudly enough.

Where the SAV failed

A further consideration is the campaign run by the SAV-dominated rump WASG. Sascha Stanisic’s article in the SAV organ Solidarität is unfortunately a little disingenuous on this point, as, though Stanisic ruminates a little on the importance of a socialist programme, the WASG programme was not a socialist one, let alone a revolutionary one, but what the SAV themselves describe as an “anti-cuts” programme. There is not a single point in this short programme that could not have been endorsed by the Linkspartei had they gone into the election as an opposition party. Given the SAV’s domination of Berlin WASG, why could they not have written a programme that would attempt to draw out some lessons about the nature of reformist politics? For the same reason that their comrades in Ireland don’t, even when running under their own banner. Because, despite the super-revolutionary language used in its internal discourse and in polemics with other tendencies, the CWI is not a revolutionary current but a reformist, social democratic one.

To make a serious impact in the left regroupment process, and attempt to mobilise those in the Linkspartei base who are determinedly anti-capitalist, would require a comprehensive political challenge to the reformism of both the Linkspartei and WASG. Throughout this process, the SAV have been totally unable to do so, and have relied simply on formalistic demands. They did not see the unity discussions as an opportunity to raise the question of coalition with social democracy with the Linkspartei base – even Stanisic mentions that the party contains critics of the coalitions, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him to talk to these people. That would have meant a situation unbearable to the hardened sectarian, of having to argue with an audience in a setting beyond your control, being faced with questions to which you don’t have prepared answers, and maybe not winning the debate. 

Therefore the WASG campaign boiled down to one simple slogan – “No Coalition”. Now there are not a few people on the Irish left who believe “No Coalition” to be nothing short of a magical formula. But this falls down on two counts. Firstly, the Linkspartei regional leaderships in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern argued that, while austerity policies were inevitable – Berlin’s €60 billion public debt cannot simply be ignored – by participating in the regional governments, they could mitigate the worst effects and influence the decisions made by those governments. From a reformist point of view, the logic is impeccable, and this is the main reason why, despite a major loss of votes to abstention, the Linskpartei base held firm and the SAV-led WASG could not profit as they hoped. What would have been needed was a popular critique of reformism, and this was precisely what the SAV was unable to provide.

The second point here is that coalition is a matter of parliamentary arithmetic. At present, it seems likely that the Berlin coalition will be renewed. But Wowereit’s SPD could just as easily ditch the Linkspartei and bring in the Greens as their junior partner. If the Linkspartei found themselves in opposition, where would the SAV be then? Presumably the Linkspartei would be able to put forward a more leftist programme, would escape the blame for further austerity measures and would reactivate the disillusioned parts of its base – and the rump WASG would be left high and dry. Even with the renewal of the coalition, there would seem to be little long-term space for a third social-democratic party in Germany – that is, a real party, not just the SAV sect plus a few extra recruits.

Lessons for Ireland

The implications for the Irish left are obvious. It is likely that after next year’s Dail elections, one or two of the parties on the populist fake left – Labour, the Greens or the Provos – will find themselves in government. Most of the far left assumes that then that party’s supporters will haemorrhage away and be an easy audience for the socialist movement. All the socialists have to do is wave around a programme identical to that of the Labour-Green-Provo continuum, only with “No Coalition” inscribed in huge lettering at the top. Sinn Fein supporters, so the theory goes, would be so repulsed by the idea of coalition with Fianna Fail that they would flock in droves to the Socialist Party, the SWP or the Campaign for an Independent Left.

On closer examination, this is not terribly likely. If there was an FF-SF coalition, disillusioned Sinn Fein supporters would be more likely to go to Labour, and vice versa. Why would workers desert a big reformist or populist party for the small socialist formations, particularly if the socialist movement can only offer milk-and-water reformism? Marxists should begin with the tasks facing the working class. Usually, that means the critique of reformism and the articulation of strategies to break workers from reformism. In Ireland, there is a more fundamental task of breaking the working class from Fianna Fail, and in the North from Sinn Fein.

The strategic task of Irish Marxists is to build a class struggle left wing in the labour movement. The development of the Marxist programme, coupled with the living struggles of a rising workers’ movement, would give rise to a party for which coalition government under capitalism would simply not be an issue. This is what we should be aiming for in the medium term. The persistence of cargo cult Marxism, which holds that we need only perform certain complicated rituals while chanting “No Coalition” and the broad masses will fall into our lap, is not only an embarrassment to rational thought but an obstacle to building a movement that could actually do something about the principles we claim to stand for. It should be set aside as soon as possible.


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