SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

A decisive moment for the left

Over the last two years Socialism Today has chronicled the development of the new anti-neoliberal and left movement in Germany based around the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice). Spring saw a number of key developments, many of which were reported for English readers on the CWI website ( ROBERT BECHERT reviews these events and what lies ahead.

WORLD CUP PARTIES could not hide the growing unpopularity of the German government or popular fears of what the future holds. Symbolically, Chancellor Angela Merkel used the day on which Germany won its third game to announce that for ‘many or several years’ pensioners will not see their pensions increase. In other words, their real value will drop.

From its outset last November, the ‘grand coalition’ of Christian democrats (CDU and CSU) and social democrats (SPD) was really a coalition of losers. Both Christian parties and the SPD won fewer votes in last year’s general election than they did in the previous one in 2002.

As the grand coalition has implemented tax increases for the majority and continued social cuts, what support it had initially has started to melt away. The June Deutschlandtrend poll for publicly-owned TV channel, ARD, showed 68% dissatisfied with the government, as the percentage satisfied fell from 40% in May to 31%. But the bosses have urged the government to continue attacking living standards and lowering taxes for companies and the rich.

Currently, the German economy is enjoying a period of growth. It is now the world’s biggest exporter of goods, although the present fragility of the world economy means that it is not certain for how long international trade will keep growing. This has not stopped the onslaught against the living standards of workers, the unemployed, youth and many sections of the middle class.

Volkswagen wants to cut 20,000 jobs and increase its working week from 28.8 to 35 hours without any increase in pay – in 1994, VW workers accepted the 28.8 hour working week to prevent redundancies. Mid-June saw Siemens, Allianz and Dresdner Bank each announce thousands of job losses. In the year to February, manufacturing production grew in value by 7.6% while employment in this sector fell by 1.3%. The public sector lost 97,500 jobs (2.5%) between 2004 and 2005. The unemployed have suffered attacks not seen since the 1930s. The so-called ‘Hartz’ laws have cut unemployment benefits and social security, and driven millions into poverty. There are now a record 1.7 million children living in poverty.

A number of significant trade union struggles have generally ended in rotten deals, apart from a long struggle by doctors. This year, the longest ever public-sector battle ended with union leaders accepting, for many workers, a 30-minute lengthening of the working week with no extra pay. After a wave of enthusiastically supported ‘warning strikes’ in engineering, union leaders agreed to plant bargaining based upon company profitability, which breaks solidarity between workers in different companies and could open the door to employers demanding wage cuts, etc.

At the DGB trade union federation congress in May, it was clear that the leadership has no intention of mounting serious opposition to the continuing offensive. Indeed, its unofficial policy of offering support to the grand coalition was confirmed when a CDU member was elected deputy chair. Newspapers commented there was now a grand coalition at the top of the DGB as well.

The development of the Left

ALTHOUGH DIE LINKE (The Left, the WASG and L.PDS parliamentary group) was the real victor of the general election, since then it has hardly advanced. A number of opinion polls have shown a marginal increase from the 8.7% it won last September to around 10%, although some polls put it a bit lower.

The Left’s election results in March were disappointing. Although it had previously won 279,000 votes (5.6%) in Rheinland-Pfalz, this time it polled only 44,700 votes (2.5%). In Baden Württemberg, the WASG vote fell from 219,100 (3.8%) last September to 121,800 (3.1%). Some good votes in local elections in Hessen were overshadowed by the poor regional results.

Even last September’s result, although good, was below expectations. A few weeks before polling day, the Left was scoring 12% in opinion polls. The actual result of 8.7% showed that only a part of this potential was mobilised. A key reason was the character of the Left’s campaign.

The general election had been called a year early after the then ruling SPD’s devastating defeat in the North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) regional elections the previous May. In the weeks before the NRW election, Oskar Lafontaine, a previous SPD leader who resigned as finance minister in 1999 in protest at the Schröder government’s shift towards neo-liberalism, declared his sympathy for the WASG without calling on people to vote for it. After the NRW election, Lafontaine said he would join the WASG and stand in the general election, provided the WASG and PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, the former ruling party in Stalinist East Germany) formed an electoral alliance.

The two leaderships decided, for what they said were legal reasons, that this meant standing on the election lists of the Left Party.PDS (Linkspartei.PDS, the renamed PDS), and this party dominated the electoral bloc. This resulted in a watering down of some WASG policies, such as on the level of a minimum wage and, in some areas like NRW, a lowering of activity by WASG members and supporters.

After German reunification, the PDS transformed itself into a ‘normal’ reformist party, socialist in words while stressing that it wanted to work within capitalism. It only had a strong electoral base in the east; in the west its failure to fully distance itself from its Stalinist past meant it could never develop real roots within the working class and youth. Most importantly, it was incapable of leading determined struggles, its ‘campaigns’ usually consisting of expensively produced material with vague or very moderate slogans.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the PDS started to form coalition governments with the SPD at state and local level which carried out social cuts and privatisation. Especially in Berlin, governed by a SPD/PDS coalition since 2001, many left-wing PDS members joined the WASG. Just after the WASG was founded, its national chairperson, trade union official Klaus Ernst, said: "I reject co-operation with the PDS or a joint list with them in the next Bundestag election… The PDS is taking part in two regional state governments that carry out a policy of the social cuts". (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 1 August 2004) This reflected widespread opinion in the WASG. However, less than a year later, Ernst changed his opinion on this and other issues after Lafontaine proposed unifying the WASG and PDS.

In the 2002 general election, the PDS won 1.9 million votes, down from over 2.5 million in 1998. Last year’s jump for the L.PDS list to over 4.1 million reflected both disillusionment with Schröder’s government and, in particular, the huge appeal of the newly-formed WASG and Lafontaine, its most prominent figure.

This is totally ignored by a majority of the WASG national leadership in its drive for a merger with the L.PDS. At the last WASG congress, the leading group around Lafontaine made out that the WASG had no future on its own and that the only way forward was an unconditional merger.

The test of Berlin

MANY OF THESE issues were aired in the widely publicised controversies in the WASG. This debate, which peaked in April and May, became focused on the question of next September’s Berlin regional elections. Since 2001, the Berlin city government has been, in many ways, a national pace setter in cutting public-sector jobs, wages, education and social services, along with privatisation. One result has been a collapse in support for the L.PDS in Berlin. In 2001, it won 21.6% of the vote. In April 2003, it was at 9% in opinion polls. Now, the L.PDS hovers around 15% and its target is 17% in the elections.

The WASG national leadership wanted the Berlin WASG to stand on the L.PDS election lists. After much discussion, the Berlin WASG rejected this as it would have meant standing jointly with L.PDS leaders responsible for neo-liberal attacks. It decided to stand independently.

This provoked a battle within the WASG which came to a head at its national congress in April. Against a background of public threats by party leaders to split if they did not get their way, the congress voted to oppose the Berlin WASG’s decision and allow the national leadership to take measures against it. The congress was sharply polarised. A resolution moved by the most left-wing members of the national executive calling for a "fundamental change of course in party building", and opposing any "administrative measures", was only defeated by 156 votes to 143.

That decision marked a big retreat from one of the WASG’s founding principles: that it would not participate in governments "carrying out social cuts, privatisation and job cuts". If the WASG national leaders were serious about their party’s principles, they would have declared that it was impossible to stand jointly with the current Berlin L.PDS leadership and supported the Berlin WASG standing separately as part of building a determined movement against neo-liberalism. But their eyes fixed on unification with the L.PDS, the leadership clearly wanted to weaken the WASG’s position on when to participate in government.

The WASG national leadership moved rapidly to remove the Berlin WASG leadership and stop it standing separately. Determined resistance and legal action defeated this and the Berlin WASG is back in office and is standing in September. This also helped clear the way for the WASG in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to stand independently against another SPD-L.PDS coalition in regional elections being held on the same day.

SAV’s role and the attacks on it

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE (SAV, the CWI in Germany) has played an important role in the WASG’s development. Last year, SAV was amongst those who argued against the national leadership that the party should stand in NRW. At the same time, an attack on SAV for being socialist was defeated. This was before the WASG national leadership agreed with Lafontaine to merge with the L.PDS.

The important role that SAV has played in Berlin has won it significant support amongst the best WASG activists and increasingly in the wider workers’ movement, as demonstrated by the massive publicity for Lucy Redler, one of its leading national spokespersons, elected as the Berlin WASG’s top candidate in September’s election. Lucy Redler’s many appearances in the media have started to popularise the idea that ‘Trotskyism’ symbolises opposing social cuts and fighting for a socialist alternative. One result is the increased numbers contacting SAV to discuss socialist ideas and how to campaign for them.

SAV’s policy has been consistently opposed by Linksruck, the German sister organisation of the British SWP. They have argued that the most important next step is the WASG and L.PDS merger, and that the policies of the Berlin L.PDS could be challenged inside the new party. But given the numerical superiority of the L.PDS in Berlin, a joint election list would mean supporting leaders who have carried out neo-liberal policies. Linksruck is arguing that workers should vote for leaders who have consistently for over four years attacked their living standards in the name of ‘budget consolidation’.

This position led Linksruck leaders to work closely with Lafontaine and the WASG rightwing to block the Berlin WASG’s candidature, a policy which has seen a number of them rewarded with jobs with members of parliament or in L.PDS-controlled organisations.

From the WASG’s foundation, Linksruck argued that it was ‘sectarian’ to even mention socialism within the party. In contrast, SAV argues that it is both necessary and possible to link the immediate issues working people and youth face with striving to win support for socialist ideas. For a long time, SAV has argued that a new workers’ party is needed but never puts forward the acceptance of socialist ideas as a precondition for participating in its formation. It welcomed the WASG as a step in that direction while explaining that a new party needs to adopt socialist policies if it is not going to end up as a ‘SPD Mark II’.

This policy was rejected by Linksruck as limiting the appeal of the WASG. It argues that day-to-day campaigning and propaganda should be restricted to the immediate issues. Now, the WASG and L.PDS leaders are, in words, more to the left than Linksruck, as the draft manifesto for the new party positively refers to "democratic socialism". Because the debate on Berlin has been so much in the public eye, Linksruck’s effectively 100% support for Lafontaine on this issue is well known and has undermined its credentials as serious fighters against neo-liberalism.

There is tremendous significance in the Berlin WASG’s success in being able to stand and defeat suspensions. This public debate and struggle has pushed to the forefront the issues of how exactly to fight the cuts and on what basis a new left party can be built. As these questions were debated in the media, it made it harder for the WASG leadership to silently move the party away from its founding, anti-neoliberal positions. Activists throughout the country followed this debate and are now looking at the outcome of the elections.

The 17 September elections will have an important impact on the immediate future of both the WASG and L.PDS. The Berlin WASG will be especially looking towards public-sector workers, the unemployed and young people. Public-sector workers have been hit by thousands of redundancies, privatisation and wage cuts – for example, 10% for Berlin city transport workers. The unemployed have been hit by the cuts in benefit and forced labour schemes that the Berlin coalition has implemented, but they can be a hard layer to motivate to vote. Young people have also suffered and, according to one recent opinion poll, around 9% of under-29s in Berlin were looking to vote for the WASG.

This same poll indicated that the WASG was on 5%, the threshold to get elected into the city parliament. But this was just one poll more than three months before the actual vote. Lafontaine and the national WASG leaders will intervene to support the L.PDS, emphasising ‘left unity’ against the federal government and promising that the Berlin L.PDS will be different in the future. Unfortunately, while the Berlin L.PDS leaders have made some cosmetic changes, it is still sticking, for example, to plans to reduce the city council’s workforce by 18,000 by 2012.

Depending on turnout, between 60,000 to 75,000 votes are needed to reach the 5% bar, but even 30,000 votes for a clear anti-neoliberal stand would be significant. A serious campaign by the Berlin WASG could not only achieve an important vote but, more crucially, build the forces that will continue to fight neo-liberal cuts after the election.

Die Linke - the likely new party

A SUCCESS FOR the Berlin WASG would be a national signal against the L.PDS’s politics of compromising on cuts and would raise again the question of what policies should a new party follow.

However, the Berlin WASG getting elected is unlikely to stop the launch of a new party, probably called Die Linke, next year. The L.PDS is overwhelmingly in favour and, since its last national congress, Lafontaine’s grouping has strengthened its grip on the WASG. The fact that Lafontaine’s grouping was prepared to use threats and disciplinary measures at the national congress to get its way means that, one way of another, it is likely to force through unity. This could change if there was a very good election result for the Berlin WASG and a very bad one for the L.PDS, but this is not the most probable scenario.

But it is unlikely that the new party will be one with a vibrant, active membership. Quite possibly, those who supported the Berlin WASG candidature will be excluded from a new party. Already in most areas, there has been a stagnation in WASG membership growth since last year’s decision in favour of a merger, as well as a dropping off in activity. The L.PDS, despite some recent recruitment, is fundamentally an old party. According to its own figures, it has around 61,000 members, nearly 60% of whom are over 65 years old. It is estimated that around 5,000 of the 6,000 L.PDS members who attend meetings also hold elected positions ranging from local to national level. With large financial resources, the L.PDS employs directly or indirectly around 1,000 people.

While the launch of a new party could see people outside Berlin joining, the combination of the L.PDS’s massive apparatus and the increasing grip of the grouping around Lafontaine will act as a disincentive to be really active. Certainly, Lafontaine’s willingness to quit the WASG if he did not get his way will be seen by some members as a warning not to go too far in their criticisms.

However, Lafontaine is playing a dual role. In his drive for unity with the L.PDS he helped water down the WASG’s founding, anti-neoliberal principles. At the same time, Lafontaine voices radicalism against capitalism, support for general strikes "as in France", and repeatedly speaks of "democratic socialism". He regularly gets a rousing reception as he travels the country speaking to trade unionists and workers in struggle. But even when arguing for "democratic socialism", he puts forward the Scandinavian countries as examples, in other words, accepting that capitalism will continue.

This means that Lafontaine can help attract support, especially votes for the new party but, at the same time, threatens its future by rejecting a policy that challenges capitalism. This is a concrete issue as the WASG was born in a completely different period from the first four decades of the German Federal Republic.

Today, globalised capitalism, marked by over-capacity and increasing international competition, does not leave much space for reforms. Even in ‘boom’ times, the achievement or defence of reforms needs mass action. Such struggles can achieve results, but they will inevitably be temporary as the capitalist class will return to the attack when it can. This puts every new party to the test very quickly and is the reason why, within two years of its foundation, the WASG has been gripped by the debate over Berlin.

The time of stable reformist parties with mass memberships, as we knew them in many countries after 1945, has gone. The crisis facing the old parties means that there will be new attempts to build workers’ parties. The danger is that some will not last for long because reformist forces will drag them into participation in governments where they implement social cuts, and they will not become lasting poles of attraction. But in these processes and class struggles, there will develop a new generation of fighters who will start the fight for a real new workers’ party and who will be open to Marxist ideas.

The WASG, despite not having a socialist programme, was a first such step in Germany and SAV members worked to build the WASG and to help develop this embryonic formation into a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme. Now, with the probable formation of Die Linke, the immediate future is more uncertain.

SAV will continue to strive to build a new party of the left, with activists in the workplaces, social and youth movements, the WASG and L.PDS. But it warns that a new left force will only be successful if it is principled, rejecting all neo-liberal measures, and is democratic. At the same time, such a party will only achieve a lasting solution to the many problems humanity faces if it adopts socialist policies. In this sense, SAV strives to build a movement in Germany that applies today the best traditions of Marx, Engels, Bebel, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lenin and Trotsky.


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