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Issue 44, September 1999

Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism

Elections in Berlin this autumn saw the Partei das Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS) win 17.7% of the vote in the city as a whole - 40.5% in the east. In earlier state elections in Saxony and Thuringia, the PDS had pushed the ruling Social Democrats into third place. Yet, while the Red-Green government attempts to implement an austerity programme of cuts against mounting working class opposition, the PDS is moving further to the right. ARON AMM, of Sozialistische Alternative Voran (SAV), the German section of the CWI, reports.

AFTER LESS THAN twelve months in office, the Red-Green government of Gerhard Schröder announced this summer the biggest austerity package in Germany's history. Federal government spending will be cut over four years by DM150 billion (£50bn) - in the first year by DM30 billion, or 6% of total projected spending. Pensions, unemployment payments and welfare benefits will all be cut, public sector jobs axed and wages frozen in an effort to curb Germany's national debt, which has tripled since re-unification and now equals 61% of GDP. Even the programme of cuts introduced by Helmut Kohl's government in 1996, which provoked the trade unions - under pressure from below - into organising a march to Bonn of 350,000 people, pales into comparison beside this one.

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and Die Grünen (the Greens) are keen to oblige the German capitalists with regard to their wish-list of economic and social policies: dismantling the welfare state, extending the low-wage sector, including extended shop-opening hours, and reducing corporate taxes and employers' contributions. From the point of view of the ruling class, Germany lags well behind the rest of Europe in these areas, and their aim is to prepare the country for the coming world economic crisis.


It was also the Red-Green government, with Green leader Joschka Fischer as foreign minister, that sent German troops into war for the first time since 1945, in Nato's Balkans war at the beginning of the year.

The government's policies have confirmed the analysis of SAV that German social democracy is now a completely bourgeois party, with the SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, looking to Tony Blair as his role model. Significantly, while prior to last year's elections, the German ruling class made it clear that they did not want an SPD-led government, they have since changed their minds. This summer, bosses' representatives, such as Kopper, director of Deutsche Bank, and Henkel, the chief of the BDI (the German CBI), have openly given their support to the new Red-Green government's policies.

In contrast, there is clear evidence of growing anger amongst the working class. June had already seen the first national demonstration against the Red-Green government, organised by the OTV public service union against cuts in the health service. The union leaders were expecting 20,000 people to attend but over 30,000 came. The mood was reminiscent of the anger at Kohl's package of cuts in 1996, when for the first time for decades workers were discussing the possibility of a general strike. Today, however, there is a big difference. In 1996 the union leaders were able to defuse the movement by telling people to wait until the next elections. That is no longer possible. Just as SAV forecast, the SPD and Greens have not even enjoyed a 'honeymoon' period like the Blair government experienced after the Tories had been booted out.


In response to the government's austerity announcement SAV started a petition campaign calling on the German TUC to organise a national demonstration against the cuts programme. But there was not a lot of protest coming from the PDS. Instead, Gregor Gysi, leader of the parliamentary PDS, chose that moment to publish a 21-page document entitled, Twelve Theses for Modern Socialist Policies. In reality, Gysi's 'modern socialism' amounted to little more than wanting to manage capitalism better than the capitalists themselves. The theses are actually to the right of the official SPD programme that was accepted at the Berlin conference of the social democrats in 1989.

The aim of Gysi's move, however, is to push the PDS further to the right and prepare for a new party programme. This, in turn, is to pave the way for the PDS to be seen as a potential 'party of government' at national level at the next elections in 2002, having already participated in local and Länder (state) governments.

So what role will the PDS play in the coming class struggles in Germany? How will it develop in the course of the profound capitalist crisis that is beginning to unfold?

top     The programme of the PDS

DESPITE THE CAMPAIGN by the ruling class since 1990 to discredit the PDS - the only party in the Bundestag (parliament) which claims to be socialist - the party won 447,000 more votes in the general election of autumn 1998 than it did in the election in 1994.


In eastern Germany the PDS is a mass reformist party, although its base in the industrial and trade union sector is very weak. It has seats on most local councils and in all five state parliaments in the east. In the 1998 general election the PDS won 19.5% of the overall vote in the former East Germany and in East Berlin almost 40%. In contrast, the party only got 1.1% of the vote in the West. Yet, because the PDS was able cross the 5% vote-share barrier to maintain its parliamentary representation, it is seen to a limited extent as a national party, with eleven of its 37 Bundestag members from the West. And, in October, for the first time an SPD member of the Bundestag, Uwe Hiksch, quit the social democrats to join the PDS.

Politically however, the PDS is not even as leftwing as, for example, the Parti Socialiste (PS) in France was under François Mitterrand, when it came to power in 1981. Then, as hundreds of thousands of workers celebrated the PS victory on the streets of Paris, Mitterrand announced the introduction of a 35-hour week with no loss of pay and the nationalisation of large sectors of the economy. Under pressure from the capitalists and international finance capital, a year later the reforms had already been turned into counter-reforms. The PDS, however, does not even aim to go as far as the PS did in 1981.

During Nato's war in the Balkans, it is true, the PDS was able to raise its profile again as a party of the left. It was the only party in the Bundestag to oppose the imperialist war and it had an important influence on the demonstrations in Dresden and Berlin, in which tens of thousands participated. The leadership of the party, however, did not aim to build a mass anti-war movement. The party's national council called for UN troops to be sent instead of Nato ones. Gysi also met with Slobodan Milosevic while the war was going on, to see if a 'solution' could be brokered.


The PDS leadership, in reality, is aiming to occupy some of the ground left by the SPD rather than promote a clear socialist programme, to offer a fighting strategy, or explain the need for a fundamentally different system. Gysi and party chair, Lothar Bisky, are only interested in presenting themselves as potential 'partners' in government. The only things they have to offer are individual reforms within the framework of capitalism, in a time of crisis when reforms are not on offer.

One significant indication of this was seen in the comments earlier this year of Andre Brie, the main party theoretician along with Gysi and Bisky, who complained in an interview with Neues Deutschland (New Germany), a paper close to the PDS, how terrible it was 'that Bernstein's intellectual wealth is so wasted'. Eduard Bernstein was the chief theoretician of reformism and revisionism in the SPD at the beginning of this century. It was he who coined the phrase, 'the goal is nothing, the movement everything'. Just as the goal meant 'nothing' to Bernstein, so the PDS leaders only pay lip-service to the idea of socialism today.

In her book, Social Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg argued against Bernstein's revisionism. She wrote that the reformists idea of trying to 'transform the ocean of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness by adding bottles of reformist lemonade', is both tasteless and ludicrous. But Gysi is well to the right even of Bernstein's reformism. In his Twelve Theses for Modern Socialist Policies (August 1999), Gysi talks of the 'variable distribution of property' as being the 'motor of continual innovative change'. Conceding to the neo-liberal counter-reform agenda, he argues for further flexibility of working hours and for a reduction of the welfare state. In particular, he supports the demand for private pensions.


In fact, as early as 1994 Gysi had already turned his back on the labour movement with his Ingolstadt Manifesto, in which he tried to court the ruling class. His 'inspiration' is the former US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, and his 'New Deal' programme introduced after the Great Depression of 1929-33. What he does not understand, however, is that it was the successful strikes of US workers in 1934, especially in Minneapolis and Toledo, that won reforms at the time (the US Trotskyists played a decisive role in the struggle in Minneapolis). Moreover the economic upswing under Roosevelt was ended by the recession at the end of the 1930s (which, in turn, was overtaken by the beginning of the second world war and the kick-start effect of war production).

The practise of the PDS policies can be seen in the local councils where the PDS is in power, in most of which the party oversees cuts in social policy. In some cases it has even worked in agreement with the traditional bourgeois party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU). And last October, after agreeing to the privatisation of the water supply, and the Rostock docks, the PDS was brought into a coalition government with the SPD in the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania state parliament. This entry into state government, for the first time ever, marks another decisive move to the right. Significantly, support for the PDS has fallen in opinion polls in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania since it joined the coalition.

top     New situation in east Germany


THE HISTORY OF the PDS cannot be compared to that of the traditional communist parties in Western Europe. The PDS evolved out of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED - the Party of Socialist Unity), the ruling party of the Stalinist East German regime. At the end of the 1980s, this party had 2.2 million members.

In 1990 it seemed as if the PDS was finished. After the name of the party was changed to SED/PDS, for instance, slogans such as 'PDS - Party of the Stalinists', or 'Party of the Stasi', were visible on the first Monday demonstrations in Leipzig in early 1990 (Stasi was the name of the East German secret police).

As it happens, 95% of the old SED members turned their backs on the SED/PDS in the course of the revolution and counter-revolution in East Germany. Most of the Stalinist bureaucrats feared for their careers after capitalist reunification. But to this day, there has never been any serious attempt in the party to analyse why Stalinism failed in East Germany and Eastern Europe as a whole.

The PDS is not a homogeneous party. Alongside the social democratically-minded leadership there are large numbers of members opposed to their move to the right. There are hundreds of party branches in the east with roots in the communities. There is also a 'Communist Platform' (KPF) in the party, led by Sahra Wagenknecht. This is a Stalinist group, however, which puts the beginning of political degeneration at the 20th congress of the Russian Communist Party and the Khrushchev era, and it has little influence in the party.


The PDS has 90,000 members, with two-thirds of them being over 60 years-old. There are no more than 300 active members in the party's youth organisation. In the mid-1990s there was a polarisation around the PDS as the establishment tried to prevent it from getting back into the Bundestag in 1994 with a 'Reds under the bed' campaign. Then, in the second half of the 1990s there was a polarisation within the PDS itself, although the rank and file which is critical of the rightward leanings of the leadership is politically very weak. There is not really any active, fighting opposition within the party and that is why the leadership has been able to take gigantic steps in the direction of social democratic politics.

The discrepancy between the membership figures and electoral support is also significant. Whereas the PDS was able to cash in on the vacuum on the left at the last elections, party membership is declining. In the mid-1990s there were 120,000 members, whereas there are 90,000 today, 2,000 in Western Germany.

Last autumn, the party embarked on a recruitment drive prior to the election campaign. Thirty thousand sympathisers were approached, but only 100 joined! And although in eastern Germany about 40% of trade unionists vote for the party at elections, it is hardly visible in the workplaces. This lack of support in the trade union sector and workplace is a major weakness.

Even though the German ruling class may not want the PDS to participate in government in Berlin, the new capital, or at federal level, it is not the leadership of the party that they are mainly worry about. They are more concerned with the potential strength of the working class. This is also the reason for the media campaign which started a few months ago around the tenth anniversary of the political revolution in East Germany.


Several PDS politicians were strike leaders in struggles during the 1990s, for example, during the fight to save the Bischofferode mine in 1993. Despite this, however, the PDS only played a very limited role in the protests by youth and workers in the East. In elections, on the other hand, the PDS can still increase its vote as long as there is no other political alternative on the left.

Overall it is clear that the PDS leadership will continue to move further to the right and, because of the weakness of the party left, no great internal protest at the social democratisation of the party can be expected. However a small left split-off did stand in the Berlin local elections this autumn as part of the Democratic Left, an alliance of former lefts from the PDS, SPD and the Greens.

The building of a new workers' party throughout Germany is the task on the agenda. The PDS rank and file, and their sympathisers, will play a part in this process, but the main role will be played by new layers of workers who will become active in future struggles.

top     Perspectives

IN 1990 THE then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, promised that capitalist re-unification would make East Germany a 'blooming landscape'. After reunification large parts of the working class in the former East Germany believed in the 'blooming landscapes' which Kohl promised. But, while the traditional bourgeois parties, the CDU and Frei Demokratische Partei (FDP), gained 55% of the vote in the east in the general election of 1990, by 1998 those same parties had plunged to 31%. The most dramatic decline occurred in Saxony and this is not surprising, since Leipzig, which was the centre of the Monday demonstrations at the time of the revolution and boasted 110,000 industrial jobs then, now only has 10,000. With the introduction of the market economy, a process of deindustrialisation took place which has been without comparison in the developed world.


1993 marked a turning-point in the class struggle in eastern Germany. Up until 1991, peoples aspirations in the new system predominated, but after 1992 despair set in. In 1993, the fight to save Bischofferode mine, and the metalworkers' strike, turned the situation around. However, the upswing in the class struggle did not develop in a straight line.

Whereas in western Germany the forms of struggle took a radical turn (in 1997, for example, miners broke through a mile-wide cordon to storm the Bundestag in Bonn, and steelworkers blockaded the motorways), in the east it was the political agenda which became more radical. While the influence of the trade union bureaucracy is stronger in the west, in the east people lack confidence in their own strength. There are no traditions of struggle after 60 years of dictatorship.

One of the warning signs is the success of the fascists. In 1998 there were four neo-Nazi demonstrations in major eastern German cities. In the same year, the right-wing, extremist German People's Union (DVU) gained 13% of the votes in the state elections in Saxony Anhalt. Part of the reason for this was the fact that for the previous four years, the PDS had acquiesced in the cuts policy of the Red-Green state government.

Ten years after capitalist restoration, however, more and more workers are realising that capitalism is by no means 'the best of all possible worlds'. Significantly, at the conference of IG Metall (the metalworkers' union) in October there were a number of resolutions which, in one form or another, raised the question of an alternative system. Sadly, the leadership of the PDS has chosen precisely this moment - when society is plunging even deeper into crisis - to take its place in the bourgeois order of things. It is the task of socialists on the eve of a new millennium to fight for a fundamental change in society to bring an end to this capitalist madness.


Translated from the German by Felicity Garvie

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