SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 119 - June 2008

The Left party’s first national congress

THE LEFT party (Die Linke), formed last year, carries the hopes of millions of people in Germany. According to a recent opinion poll, it would get 15% if there were national elections, making it the third strongest party. In eastern Germany it tops the polls.

At its first national congress, which took place in Cottbus, Brandenburg, on 24-25 May, it decided to campaign against the government’s policy to increase the pension age to 67 years. In addition, it demands an "investment programme for the future" of €50 billion to create one million jobs on trade union wage rates in the education, health and environmental sectors.

Such demands distinguish Die Linke from all other parties and lead to support among broad layers of the population. At the congress it again spoke out clearly against war and is correctly seen by many as the only party demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.

At the same time as the party congress, Die Linke got 7% in local elections in the northern state of Schleswig Holstein, where it had hardly stood before, and in spite of not having candidates in all the local councils. The SPD (former social democratic party) got its worst result, with 26%, continuing its decline.

But will Die Linke’s success last? Taking place one-and-a-half years before national elections, the congress should have discussed how to position itself politically and strategically up to the general election. Unfortunately, political controversies were debated only at the fringes. For example, it is controversial inside Die Linke whether it should continue to orient strongly towards parliamentary activity and participate in governments with the SPD, or whether it should emphasise building resistance against those in power. Next year there will be several state elections in addition to the national elections. The party leadership supports continued participation in governments at least on state level.

A look at Berlin is sufficient to confirm the worries of many rank-and-file members. In the capital, Die Linke forms the state government together with the SPD and has implemented countless wage and welfare cuts. Only this May, 8,000 school students went on to the streets against the education policy of this so-called ‘Red-Red’ state coalition government. Public-sector workers are on strike in the city, where Red-Red has been refusing wage increases to state employees since 2003.

If Die Linke helps to implement welfare cuts in further states, or even on a national scale, there would be a big danger that its support will be soon transformed into rejection and frustration. Therefore, members of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany) warn of a development similar to Italy where Rifondazione Comunista lost massive support through its participation in the government of Romano Prodi. Die Linke’s present success could be short-lived if it subordinates itself to the neo-liberal SPD in government.

Another important question is whether the party remains on the level of merely criticising capitalism, or whether it is also ready to fight for a socialist society, far away from the logic of profit.

Oskar Lafontaine’s opening speech showed up these contradictions. He used radical phrases about freedom and equality being the basis of a socialist society, referring to the revolutionaries, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and the November revolution in Germany 1918 in a positive way. Correctly, he labelled the SPD leadership of that time, under Friedrich Ebert, as traitors to that revolution. On the other hand, this was followed by limited demands, aiming to push back "financial market-driven capitalism". This amounts to the idea that various policies are required to carry through improvements for the majority of the population, that there could be a type of ‘social capitalism’, rather than raising the need for a completely different social system.

Members of SAV emphasise that this cannot be so because the principle of profits and competition lies at the root of capitalism, that Die Linke must take a clear decision on which side of the class divide it is on, and that it must aim to fight for a socialist society. Unfortunately, the main congress document, which was voted through with a big majority, limits itself to the statement that capitalism is not the end of history.

At the same time, Lafontaine’s verbal radicalism, with slogans like "freedom through socialism", and his criticisms of some of the actions of Die Linke leaders in coalitions with the SPD, have earned him some hostility from both the ruling class and the rightwing within Die Linke. Right-wing elements in the party were also not happy about the proposal for a €50 billion investment programme. These tensions resulted in Lafontaine being re-elected co-chair of Die Linke at this congress with 78.5% of the vote, significantly down on the 87.9% he received at the June 2007 founding congress.

In spite of the urgency of the issue of participation in governments, the Die Linke leadership tried to avoid a debate. Members of SAV proposed a motion to the congress that included the following lines: "Coalitions with the SPD and the Greens on a pro-capitalist basis, which lead necessarily to welfare cuts, education cuts, the annihilation of jobs and privatisation, are therefore out of the question for Die Linke. We build on the mobilisation of the millions to break the power of the millionaires and billionaires. In this way we will build a party of hundreds of thousands and millions of members and supporters that will be able to form a government in the interests of the employed, the unemployed, the youth and pensioners, that can be the starting point for a socialist transformation of society".

A vote on whether or not to take this motion had to be counted several times until it was clear that the congress would not debate it. Another motion, by delegates from Bielefeld, which demanded that the Berlin Linke should leave the Red-Red coalition, was not debated either.

A delegate from the state of Hessen referred to the fact that the policy of Die Linke in Berlin repeatedly causes problems for Die Linke in Hessen. The Hessen Linke was elected to the state parliament in January and demands a wage contract for its state employees. Under the previous conservative CDU state government Hessen left the employers’ national organisation. The only other state that has left this employers’ organisation is Berlin – but under the Red-Red coalition.

This was the reason why public-sector workers from Berlin demonstrated in front of the congress venue. At present, they are fighting for a wage increase, which is being refused by the Red-Red state government. Uwe Januszewski, chairman of the Berlin state employees works council, emphasised that Die Linke cannot hold Sunday speeches criticising wage cuts while the Red-Red coalition in Berlin continues to cut jobs and introduce ‘€1 jobs’. It had been originally planned that Januszewski should speak at the congress on the situation of the state employees but this was cancelled – officially, because of ‘lack of time’.

SAV members distributed a leaflet at the ver.di trade union rally which included a motion for solidarity with the state employees, which was put to the congress. The trade union official, Werner Röpke, read the motion at the rally, appealing to Gregor Gysi, chairman of Die Linke group in the Bundestag (national parliament), to make a statement on it. Gysi answered that the workers should recognise "that the state government now at least talks to you". This, he claimed, was positive. He said that the motion should be debated at the congress, but that it could not be fulfilled. In fact, despite pressure, the motion was not debated. Röpke answered Gysi’s balancing act aptly: "We always see each other twice and we will measure you by your actions".

The contradiction between the hopes put into Die Linke and the reality seen at the party congress underlines again how important it is to build a Marxist opposition to the party leadership that not only criticises it in words but challenges it politically on central issues. The question, whether the party takes the side of the employed and unemployed people in the class struggle, will prove whether the name ‘The Left’ is really justified. If it does not back the working class, the most radical speeches against capitalism will be no contribution to transforming the social relations of power fundamentally. Immediately, the SAV says that the announced pension campaign must not to be limited to motions in the Bundestag. A fighting campaign is necessary, one that does not stop at criticising the pension age of 67 but aims for a significant reduction of the pension age on the basis of a mass mobilisation through the trade unions and Die Linke.

Lucy Redler, Sozialistische Alternative (CWI Germany)


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