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Socialism Today 109 - May 2007

New German party a shift to the right

The end of March saw national congresses of Germany’s two left-wing political parties – WASG (Electoral Alternative Work and Social Justice) and Left Party.PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism). Both voted with large majorities in favour of merging in June to form a new party, Die Linke (The Left). SASCHA STANICIC, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany) and WASG National Council member, reports.

THE CONFERENCE DECISIONS to proceed with the merger of the WASG and Left Party.PDS followed bitter debates among WASG members about the direction this party should take. Lucy Redler, SAV member on the national committee of the WASG, said in the NC minority report she gave to the congress that this new party will be a step in the wrong direction. She therefore announced that she would vote against the merger and also explained why the Berlin regional organisation of the WASG will not join the new party but keep its independence and form a new regional left-wing political organisation.

This is in sharp contrast to most others on the left wing of the WASG who agreed with the merger despite strong criticisms of the new party’s programme, constitution and expected policies. In the end only 44 delegates of the 375 present (12%) at the WASG congress dared to vote against the merger, among them were the majority of the Berlin delegation and the SAV members in the hall.

The WASG was founded as a response to the rightward shift of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which was responsible after 2002 for the sharpest attacks on the living standards and rights of workers in Germany’s post-1945 history. But it was also a response to the failures of the existing left-wing party, the PDS (the former ruling Stalinist party in the GDR). In its eastern German base the PDS had joined coalition governments with the SPD on local and state levels and participated in savage neo-liberal social and wage cuts, job destruction and privatisation. In the west of the country the PDS had shown itself incapable of linking up with bigger layers of workers and youth opposed to the SPD’s policies. The result was that the PDS was a declining force at the time when the WASG was born in 2004/2005.

The WASG had a largely Keynesian programme but considered itself to be a broad party of all forces in opposition to neo-liberalism and social cuts – from trade unionists to Marxists. But it drew one important conclusion from the history of the former left-wing parties, the SPD and PDS: above all, it rejected joining governments that carried through social cuts, privatisation and job losses.

When the then SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder called early elections in 2005 the former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine re-entered the political arena and offered to stand against his former party – on the condition that WASG and PDS stood jointly. This happened and the joint candidature (which was largely dominated by the strong apparatus of the richer PDS which had by then changed its name to Left Party.PDS) received 8.7% and entered parliament with 54 MPs. This was the beginning of the merger of both parties which became the main project for both party leaderships.

Every sensible socialist would support the greatest possible unity of working-class forces, but in this case organisational unity means an important break with the political principles of the WASG. This is because in order to go together with the Left Party.PDS (L.PDS) the WASG had to throw away its principled opposition against participation in governments that implement social cuts, privatisation, etc. Therefore the coming together of both parties does not represent a step forward for the working class but a step in the wrong direction – away from the emergence of a combative workers’ party and in the direction of another left-wing party that ends up in the capitalist establishment.

The Berlin experience

IN THE BERLIN federal state a government coalition of SPD and L.PDS since 2001 has been responsible for the privatisation of more than 100,000 public homes, the undermining of collective bargaining agreements, job destruction in the public sector, dramatic wage losses for public-sector workers, social cuts, the implementation of the notorious ‘€1 jobs’, ‘flexibility’ of working hours for shop workers, and many other anti-working-class measures.

Here the conflict in the WASG was the most polarised – between those who were prepared to agree to unity on an unprincipled basis (including the German counterpart of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, a group which finds itself on the right wing of the WASG) and those who defended the WASG’s principled stand against social cuts and privatisation. The local WASG, with a strong influence of SAV, opposed the merger under the given conditions and stood independently in the Berlin state elections in September last year, receiving more than 52,000 votes and getting WASG councillors elected to seven of the city’s twelve borough councils.

But on a national scale the WASG rank and file did not develop the self-confidence and the political ideas necessary to stand firm against the merger. The national leaderships of both parties were successful in pushing the idea that there is ‘no room for two left-wing parties’ and that the WASG does not have a future on its own. In fact, it was the L.PDS, not a campaigning WASG, which did not have a future on its own. The L.PDS was saved by its 2005 election alliance with the WASG. But the bureaucratic regime which developed inside the WASG made many activists withdraw from activity and its membership actually fell despite the fact that it has much more publicity through the parliamentary group.

At the WASG congress some controversial issues were discussed. The WASG delegates agreed to a number of left-wing policy statements. But these had to be also accepted by the L.PDS congress, meeting simultaneously in another hall in the same venue, in order to be added into the founding documents of the new party. On the most important issues, however, this was not the case.

For instance, the L.PDS blocked a formulation which clearly and without any possible misinterpretation rejected the deployment of German troops outside of Germany. The final formulation is somewhat vague and reflects the fact that within the L.PDS (and WASG leadership) there are a number of people who want to support German troops participating in so-called UN peace missions like in Sudan.

Even more clearly the L.PDS congress rejected the idea of minimum conditions for government participation. It did not agree to a WASG amendment which demanded that the new party would not join governments which pursued job destruction in the public sector and cuts in social services. The L.PDS also did not agree to an amendment which demanded ending coalition governments when the coalition partner breaks the coalition agreement. This reflects the fact that the L.PDS is dominated by MPs, councillors and full-timers whose objective is to get into as many governments as possible.

Lafontaine’s position

OSKAR LAFONTAINE PLAYS a dual role in the process of the formation of the new merged party. He has enormously popularised the idea of the necessity of a party which represents the interests of ordinary people. He has reintroduced anti-capitalist and socialist rhetoric into public debate, something which had been absent for a long time in Germany. Also important is his call for the legal right to call a general strike.

At the same time, he has not been prepared to confront the politics of the L.PDS in the Berlin government, but supported the L.PDS against the local WASG in last September’s election. In the weeks before this meeting he fell silent concerning any criticisms he previously made against the Berlin city government, avoiding any of these issues in his speech to the congress. He has said that the new party will stand for the politics of the SPD in 1998 – before the start of the Schröder government but when Lafontaine still was SPD chairman. However, the SPD of the 1990s was already a bourgeois party which had lost the active support of workers and youth because it was responsible for social cuts on local and federal state levels. As Lucy Redler said in her speech, she became politically active as a school student in the 1990s against a SPD-led government in the state of Hessen and would never have had the idea to join the SPD at the time.

Lafontaine also said that he wants to form the government in his home state of Saarland after the next elections in 2009 – without putting any demands or conditions on the SPD to join such a government. On balance, Lafontaine is not putting forward a principled left-wing position, but plays a role in turning the new party towards the political establishment. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that he can shift to the left under the influence of events.

Could the new party develop?

THE NEW PARTY will be dominated by the MPs, councillors, full-timers and apparatus of the Left Party.PDS and it will basically follow the political line of the L.PDS. In eastern Germany and Berlin it will be a simple continuation of the L.PDS.

In the west of the country the situation will be somewhat different as the new party will not be part of any local or federal state administration and will have a more left-wing membership. It will be seen as an opposition party by the vast majority of the working class and will certainly have electoral successes, possibly the first in the 13 May federal state elections in Bremen when it could enter a western federal state parliament for the first time. It also has a growing influence in the trade unions and reinforces the breaking away of parts of the trade union apparatus from the SPD.

But it is more open whether the party will be able to attract a fresh layer of workers and youth into active membership because of its bureaucratic inner life and its largely parliamentary orientation. Only an influx of workers and youth on the basis of new waves of class struggle could prevent a rightward shift of the new party. This is not ruled out, but is also not the most likely scenario. Certainly in the period before the next general elections due in 2009 the new party can present itself as the left-wing opposition to the current ‘grand coalition’, but this will not necessarily lead to active support from workers and youth.

The battle for building a genuine workers’ party with a socialist programme will continue. Socialist forces inside and outside the new party should link up to help develop the class struggle and put forward demands on the new party. The Marxists in and around SAV will support the Berlin WASG in its rejection of joining the new party and in its attempt to set up a new left-wing political organisation in the capital. This is mainly because it is impossible to propose to workers or youth who want to become politically active to join Die Linke – because Die Linke will be part of a city government which workers and young people have to struggle against. Also, in the east, SAV members will not join the new party as it will be connected to the local political establishment. To reach the most combative layers of the working class an independent profile is necessary. In the west SAV members will be part of the new party and argue for a clear socialist programme, while developing independent campaign work like against the upcoming G8 summit in Germany in June and in workplaces and the trade unions.

The SAV was to the forefront of the left-wing opposition inside the WASG and against the unprincipled merger of the two parties. It comes out of the last years of work as part of the WASG enormously strengthened politically. Lucy Redler is the best known Trotskyist in Germany, something which will be reflected in the publication of two books from her this year. The SAV’s authority among the left has grown and the organisation is in a good position to build the forces of Marxism in the next period. This will be also an important precondition for the next attempts to create a workers’ party. The WASG experience has shown that the stronger the Marxist forces are in this process the better will be the outcome from the point of view of the working class.


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