SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 166 March 2013

A crucial stage for the Left Party in Germany

A few years ago Germany’s Left Party, Die Linke, was seen as a model for the emergence of new, united, left-wing parties in Europe. After the 2007 unification of its two founding parties – the then new-born WASG (Electoral Alternative Work and Social Justice) and the post-Stalinist PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism) – it entered the German Bundestag (national parliament) with 11.9% of the vote in the 2009 general elections. In 2013, the party stands on between 6-9% and has lost much of its appeal. SASCHA STANICIC, of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI in Germany) reports.

THE FOUNDING OF Die Linke was the coming together of two very different political projects. The WASG had been formed as a new political party during the ‘red-green’ coalition government of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Greens, which introduced the sharpest neoliberal attacks so far on the working class – its ‘Agenda 2010’ programme, starting in early 2003. Amid rising protests, including a 100,000-strong demo in Berlin in November 2003, a layer of social-democratic trade union activists and middle-rank officials drew the conclusion that a new party was needed to express the interests of working people and put forward an anti-neoliberal programme. In the spring of 2004, they came together with activists from the then strong movement of unemployed people, and members of different left-wing organisations, including dissidents from the PDS.

They did not see the PDS itself as an alternative, for two main reasons. Firstly, the party (which had a mass base in East Germany but was only a marginal force in the west) had begun to participate in government coalitions with the SPD on federal state level in the east and was jointly responsible for privatisations, and wage and social cuts in these administrations. Secondly, many, especially in the west, did not believe that the PDS – being the successor of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the Stalinist state party in the former German Democratic Republic – had genuinely broken with Stalinist methods. Therefore, the party did not appeal to a big part of the western population. For many activists, the PDS’s appeal was further diminished as it increasingly adopted a policy of simply working within capitalism.

In reality, in 2003/04 the PDS was a party in decline. It had fallen below the 5% threshold in the general elections in 2002, and had only retained two seats in the Bundestag, through constituencies in East Berlin. While the PDS was socialist in name and on paper, it was moving towards full integration into the establishment and was no longer seen as a fighting force by trade unionists and activists. The WASG, on the other hand, was not socialist on paper but was a combative and dynamic left-moving party which clearly expressed opposition to participating in governments which implement social and job cuts, privatisation, etc.

When early elections were called in 2005, the former chairman of the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine, announced that he was prepared to be a candidate for the left, but only on the condition that the WASG and PDS stood together. Lafontaine had resigned as chairman of the SPD and as finance minister in 1999 in protest against the neoliberal policies of the red-green coalition and Germany’s participation in the war in Serbia.

The two parties stood together in an alliance, with Lafontaine as one of the top candidates, and gained 8.7% of the vote. This pushed forwards the process of merger of the two parties, which culminated in the formation of Die Linke in 2007. SAV, which played an important role on the left wing of the WASG at the time, came out in opposition against this kind of merger explaining that, while a united left is desirable, such a new force should break clearly with the PDS’s policy of participation in pro-capitalist governments.

We campaigned for a new left party on a principled anti-capitalist basis which should have been more than a simple merger of WASG and PDS. It should also have involved the many activists from trade unions, social movements, other left-wing organisations and local campaigns to form something really new. Given the fact that the PDS had many more members, MPs, councillors and a strong apparatus, we explained that such a merged party would lead to a contradictory situation where, in reality, two parties would exist in one, and that the domination of the old PDS apparatus could lead to an end of the dynamic leftward development which the WASG launch had initiated.

Contradictory character

THESE WARNINGS HAVE unfortunately been realised in the recent period, after the initial upswing of Die Linke in the first years after its launch. While a large number of former WASG members did not join the new party or became inactive, many thousands did, hoping that the merger represented the start of a united, strong and principled left force. These hopes were reinforced by the adoption of a new party programme, the Erfurt programme, in 2011. This was a step to the left in comparison with Die Linke’s first programmatical document and gave an explicit anti-capitalist and socialist identity to the party. This was partly because the statutes of the new party gave the smaller party branches in western Germany more delegates in proportion to their membership figures – this will no longer be the situation at the next party congress in 2014. But ‘paper is patient’, as a German proverb says, and the real politics of the party has never been as left wing as the formulations in its programme.

Die Linke is a left-reformist party which, on a national level, constitutes the only parliamentary opposition to the neoliberal and pro-capitalist policies of all the other parties. Die Linke in the Bundestag has voted against all the so-called rescue packages for banks and the euro, and against all the deployments of German troops to foreign countries. It has campaigned for a minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, regulation of the financial markets, the right to political strikes (which does not exist in Germany), and has supported anti-fascist mobilisations, trade union struggles and social movements, like the mobilisations against the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007.

It is a voice against the capitalist mainstream and, in many cases, has a practical value for struggles and movements. It also gives space for debates about anti-capitalist strategies and the need to change society. Therefore, the party represents a step forward for the left and the working class in comparison to the situation before the foundation of the WASG. This does not mean, of course, that the WASG could not have developed in a better way had it not merged with the PDS. And Marxists should participate in Die Linke arguing for a clear socialist programme and a combative strategy.

But the party has two faces. The other side is that it has a mainly parliamentary orientation: the continued participation in coalitions with the SPD in east German federal states and councils, and the lack of a clear socialist strategy against the world crisis of capitalism. In Berlin, for example, the PDS/Linke was part of the regional government coalition with the SPD from 2002 to 2011 and has been jointly responsible – among many other things – for wage cuts and breaking collective bargaining agreements in the public sector, the privatisation of public housing and the service department in the biggest university hospital, Charité. In Brandenburg the present SPD-Linke coalition has cut jobs in the public sector and decided on environmentally damaging energy projects. In Saxony, where Die Linke is not even part of the regional government, it has supported the introduction of a ‘debt brake’ into the federal state’s constitution.

There is a battle going on within the party between those who want to go back to the old PDS policy and see the party as something like an appendix of the social-democratic party, and those who represent left-reformist or general anti-capitalist positions. The first grouping cannot even be described as genuinely reformist as it is prepared to participate in social cuts and privatisations. The second consists of reformists like Oskar Lafontaine (who often comes out with anti-capitalist rhetoric) and activists from a Marxist and revolutionary tradition.

Die Linke in crisis

THE BATTLE BETWEEN these two camps intensified in 2011 and 2012 before the party’s national congress in Göttingen (May 2012), which plunged the party into a deep crisis. Some of the protagonists and the right wing even used the bourgeois media to attack the then party leadership. Die Linke gave the impression of a disunited and quarrelling party and lost a lot of support, with opinion poll ratings going below the 5% barrier.

At the congress the right wing tried to gain control by standing its most notorious representative, Dietmar Bartsch, for chairmanship. They were prepared even to split the party. Bartsch narrowly lost against the candidate of the centre-left, the left-wing public-sector trade unionist, Bernd Riexinger. The position of chairwoman went to Katja Kipping, a former PDS politician who has some left-wing credentials but, in reality, supports the idea of cooperation and coalitions with the SPD and the Greens. In the executive committee of the party, the right-wing maintained a strengthened position. Since then, the new leadership has managed to pacify the party to a certain extent and, in national opinion polls, the party now stands between 6-9%.

However, the real reasons for the crisis were not that there were differences and battles. Rather, these were expressions of the crisis and the antagonisms within Die Linke. The world crisis of capitalism which developed in 2007/08 meant new challenges for the party. Before, it could dominate public debate with some of its demands and campaigns, like the one for a minimum wage of €10 per hour. When the then grand coalition of the conservative CDU and the SPD took some measures to stimulate the economy and started to discuss the need to regulate the financial markets, it looked as if some of the programmatic positions of Die Linke were being taken over by the established parties.

Die Linke failed to react with a clear socialist answer. For example, while it accepted the demand for the nationalisation of the banking sector, in most public statements by party leaders this would turn into ‘public control’ or similar formulations. The crisis is explained not as a systemic crisis of capitalism but as having the unequal distribution of wealth at its roots. Sometimes Die Linke even gives the impression that a redistribution of wealth would be in the interests of capitalism, suggesting that the crisis could be overcome by such measures.

Most importantly, the party – including many of the centre-left forces in its leadership – presented itself as a corrective of the SPD and the Greens, calling for a change in policy which would only be possible through a parliamentary majority of the SPD, Greens and Die Linke. This created the image of the existence of a ‘left camp’ consisting of these three parties – as the SPD has not been part of the national government since 2009 and has tried to present itself as more ‘social’ and ‘left’ on some issues, like supporting a minimum wage. Such a strategy can only lead to some people voting for what they consider to be the ‘original’ (SPD, Greens), rather than the ‘copy’, and for others to stay at home.

A strategy for the left

EVEN WORSE, IT gives no perspective and strategy to Die Linke members who have become passive in ever greater numbers over recent years. The consequence of this outlook has been electoral defeats in one federal state election after the other in the last year. The party has been kicked out of the federal state parliaments in the western regions of North-Rhine Westfalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony.

It is true that the general objective situation is not particularly favourable for the left at present: Germany seems to be the winner of the crisis; there have not been sharp attacks on living standards in recent years; after the sharp fall in 2009, the economy has grown since 2010; and there is a relatively low level of class struggle. On the other side, there are social problems and movements. Real wages have fallen over a long period, the casualisation of labour is widespread, with 20% of workers in low-paid jobs, rents are growing massively in urban areas and there is often a shortage of flats.

There have been strikes for better working conditions and collective bargaining agreements in a number of smaller workplaces, movements against prestige projects, such as the train station ‘Stuttgart 21’, and against environmental problems. If Die Linke had strongly oriented to these movements, and to the large number of workers, unemployed and youth who are alienated from all the capitalist institutions, it would be in a much better shape than it is. The sudden success of the Pirate Party which, for a time, was able to mobilise many votes is a reflection of the space which exists for a protest party.

The crisis of the party and the danger that it could fall out of parliament in the general elections in September 2013 have raised the question for many on the left of how to relate to this situation. Some activists from far-left groups decided to join the party in an attempt to stop the right wing from gaining a majority, and to help Die Linke gain seats in the Bundestag. They concluded correctly that, if the only force standing against the ‘rescue’ of the banks, austerity and imperialist wars is defeated, this would change the balance of forces in society in favour of big business. SAV members stepped up involvement in Die Linke. This was also important because of the real danger that the right wing could gain a majority and get full control over the party in next year’s party congress. This would be a major setback given the prospects for an intensification of the euro and economic crisis, and an increase in the class struggle in Germany after the period of relative calm.

In order to avoid that, the left-wing currents within the party should coordinate and prepare. These are the Socialist Left (a centre-left grouping of many trade union officials but also the Marx21 tendency which comes from the British SWP tradition), the Freedom Through Socialism group (mainly consisting of some MPs and members of leading bodies of the party), the Anti-capitalist Left (the most left-wing current, in which SAV members participate), and the Communist Platform (a current from the old PDS with a somewhat pro-Stalinist tradition).

Which way forward?

PERSPECTIVES FOR DIE Linke are open. It remains the only party which does not belong to the pro-capitalist mainstream. Especially in western Germany, many members want to build an anti-capitalist opposition party and see the importance of class struggle and social movements. Once the objective situation changes – which is only a matter of time – and bigger struggles and movements develop, the question of the political representation for these movements will be back on the agenda. It is possible that activists will then turn to Die Linke and that the party could win new members and be pushed to the left. This is not at all certain, however. The danger exists that the right wing shifts the party so far to the right that it loses all appeal to new layers moving into struggle.

Nonetheless, it is clear that a polarisation will develop – as it did in the party’s 2011/12 crisis – and that the initial forces for a ‘new beginning’, a truly left-wing and anti-capitalist workers’ party, will also come from today’s Die Linke members. The left within the party has to act in a coordinated fashion and push Die Linke to the left. Lessons must be learned from the collapse of Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy, where the different left-wing currents did not act in a coordinated way against the coalitionism of the party leadership. Support for the RC drained away, while the different left-wing currents left the party prematurely to form various new sects.

The problem is that there is no clarity on the left wing of Die Linke on fundamental questions, especially on coalitionism and Die Linke’s relationship with the social democrats. The new chairman, Bernd Riexinger, has a good record as a trade union left and anti-capitalist. He puts forward a general class point of view and promotes trade union struggles and extra-parliamentary movements. When Angela Merkel visited Greece in 2012, Riexinger attended the counter-demonstrations of Greek workers and youth in the streets of Athens and was labelled a ‘man without a fatherland’ by the bourgeois media.

At the same time, he has taken a conciliatory approach to the right wing of the party, expressing sympathy for the coalition government of Die Linke and SPD in the state of Brandenburg. He also calls on the SPD and Greens to form a coalition government on the basis of a change in policy. Die Linke’s programme calls for ‘red stop-lines’ as conditions for government participation, including an exclusion of social cuts, privatisations and foreign interventions of the German army. But the party leadership regularly waters down these red stop lines in public statements.

While SAV defends these red stop-lines against attempts to go into coalitions without conditions, we say that this approach confuses the issue. Some on the left of the party use the red lines as a tactical manoeuvre to exclude any government participation with pro-capitalist parties. Others really think that the SPD and the Greens can be pushed to the left and hope for such coalitions to become reality. The outcome is that the whole debate is centered around the need to put pressure on the SPD and the Greens. The idea is spread that you can only win reforms through a change in government.

SAV argues that reforms can be won through mass struggle and that Die Linke should concentrate on that. We say that the SPD and the Greens are lost for the working class. They are fully-fledged pro-capitalist parties which will never be turned into instruments for left-wing politics. It should not be forgotten that the WASG was born out of the opposition to the neoliberal policies of the Schröder-led SPD-Green coalition, and Die Linke’s 11.9% vote in 2009 was won on the basis of hostility to the outgoing CDU-SPD grand coalition.

Given the present situation, Die Linke has no choice but to state clearly that the party will stay a principled opposition force. It needs to explain that, through mass movements and the experience of the SPD in government creating bigger opportunities to build a mass party, the possibility of a left-wing or workers’ government can also be posed in the future in Germany as it is posed in Greece today.

We campaign for combative, class-struggle based, socialist policies, prioritising Die Linke’s engagement in social struggles, and to give a voice to fighting workers and youth. This can only be possible on the basis of an understanding that capitalism cannot be reformed into a more social, just and peaceful society. Given the era of world crisis which we have entered, the only alternative today is what Rosa Luxemburg, back in the early 1900s, called "socialism or barbarism".

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