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On the way to a new workers’ party?

SASCHA STANICIC, national spokesperson of Socialist Alternative (SAV), German section of the CWI, looks at the prospects for the new political grouping, ‘Election Alternative – Jobs and Social Justice’ (WASG), against a background of developing economic and political crisis.

A STEP-CHANGE is underway in Germany. Schröder’s social democratic government has mounted an attack on working-class living standards with its Agenda 2010 programme that can only be compared to Thatcher’s policies in Britain in the 1980s. But what she took ten years to do, Schröder wants to achieve in double-quick time. Alongside what is effectively the dismantling of the welfare state, the capitalists have gone on the attack in the workplaces, demanding longer working hours and wage cuts. The era of social ‘consensus’ is over. Anger and militancy are widespread amongst workers and the unemployed, finding an outlet in mass demonstrations and strikes since autumn 2003.

Economically, Germany is in a phase of recession and stagnation. For three years it has not been possible to limit the budget deficit to 3%, in line with the Maastricht criteria. Mass unemployment and falling real wages mean that consumption is stagnating and the weak economic growth (forecast 2% in 2004) is completely dependent on exports and the world economy. From the point of view of the capitalist defenders of neo-liberalism, the reasons for the economic problems are easy to find: German workers earn too much, work too little, and get too many health and social benefits.

After 16 years of conservative-liberal government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens formed a coalition government in 1998. It soon became clear that it would carry on where the old one left off. Policies in favour of the banks and corporations remained and attacks on the working class increased. Not least, the so-called ‘left’ government of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer started to turn Germany back into a military – not just economic – imperialist power. The troops sent to the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, represent a watershed in German foreign policy.

Even the verbal opposition to Bush and Blair’s war against Iraq expressed a new-found determination of the German ruling class to no longer be the USA’s poodle. It was necessary to have a social-democratic government to push through the militarisation of German foreign policy and begin the domestic war against the working class. Because of the SPD’s close links to the trade unions, and the Greens’ links to the peace movement, protests and opposition to these policies did not develop as quickly and on such a large scale as they had previously done against the conservative-liberal government. The admittedly limited aspirations workers had for the red-green government were dashed.

The SPD and the PDS

THE DISAPPOINTMENT IN the SPD was greatest. SPD politicians are faced with open hatred as they go about Germany’s streets. Just recently in the East German town of Wittenberge several hundred protesters greeted Schröder with eggs and even some stones. One SPD rally after the other is shouted down by angry demonstrators. The party which had for decades been a workers’ party with a pro-capitalist leadership has transformed into a thoroughly capitalist, bourgeois party – an agent for neo-liberal measures with its Agenda 2010 programme, designed to effectively dismantle the welfare state and social benefits. This fulfils many long-held desires of the ruling class but, at the same time, has provoked the anger of the working class and plunged the SPD into a deep crisis.

Like New Labour in Britain, the bourgeoisification of the SPD started in the late-1980s, and was accelerated by the restoration of capitalism in the former Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The party started to lose members, and local branches emptied, although these losses reached new levels after the SPD entered government in 1998 and announced Agenda 2010 in March 2003. Since 1990, it has lost 292,604 members: 43,000 of those left in 2003 and the process is still speeding up.

There was no left wing to put up any meaningful opposition to these policies and the youth wing, JUSOS, is insignificant. Core sections of the working class who were traditionally loyal to the SPD and voted for them, turned their backs on the party, vote for other parties out of frustration, or do not vote at all.

During the ‘unification’ of former West and East Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was set up as the successor of the previous East German Stalinist party (Socialist Unity Party – SED). Some left-wingers put their hopes in the PDS in the 1990s and expected it to become a left party across the whole of Germany. However, the PDS remains essentially an East German regional party with no more than 2,000 members in West Germany. It never gained a base in the West German working class, but even in Eastern Germany it didn’t really manage to mobilise new layers of workers or youth.

The main reasons for this were, firstly, that the PDS did not honestly assess its own Stalinist past, maintaining that the GDR had been a socialist society, even if there were ‘failings’. Secondly, its policies and parliamentary record were pro-capitalist and the party moved to the right, culminating in its participation in two regional governments in the East (Mecklenburg-Pomerania and Berlin) involving cuts and privatisation. In Berlin, it took part in one of the worst programme of cuts the city had ever seen, including drastic wage cuts for public service employees.

The PDS membership is elderly, with hardly any youth or members in the workplaces. At the last national elections it failed to gain 5% of the national vote and only got MPs elected in first-past-the-post contests in two East Berlin constituencies. With the German electoral system providing proportional representation in the federal parliament only for parties that obtain over 5% of the national vote or three directly-elected constituency seats, the PDS was reduced to just two MPs in the new parliament (from 36 in 1998).

In the last few weeks, polls have put the PDS at a record 7% nationally, but there is no expectation that support will remain at this level or that it will transform itself into a flood of new members. The PDS has temporarily benefited from the mass movement in the East against the so-called ‘Hartz IV’ laws (the fourth stage of the Hartz commission ‘reforms’) which drastically cut benefits for the long-term unemployed, but also from the absence of a new left party of workers and youth. However, a new formation, with the potential to develop into a new left-wing party, is about to be born.

A new formation

WASG WAS SET up in July when two groups got together determined to build a new left party. This move was a direct consequence of workers’ deep bitterness towards the Schröder government and the mass protests which have continued since last autumn.

The protests began on 1 November 2003 with a national demonstration of 100,000 workers, unemployed, pensioners and young people in Berlin in opposition to Agenda 2010. The demonstration took place against the will of the trade union leaders, who refused to call people out to it. Many local and regional trade union networks, however, called on their members to participate and so trade union delegations made up a large part of the demonstrators. In spring 2003, SAV made the original proposal for a national protest and built for it in union branches, the trade union left, Attac and unemployed workers’ groups. We then took the initiative for a conference which set the date and agenda for the demonstration.

As a result of the demo, the trade union leaders came under pressure to organise various follow-on events, culminating in three big mass demonstrations of half-a-million people on 3 April. But once again, the union leaders sought to block any further action.

Nonetheless, the employers, public and private, did not call off their offensive to cut wages. Following the example set in the public sector, private employers started demanding that workers work longer hours for no extra pay, often linking this to a wage freeze. The union leaders’ acceptance of this in two Siemens factories opened the way to more and more employers demanding the same.

The end of July saw the start of weekly ‘Monday demos’, mainly in East Germany, of more than 100,000 against the Hartz IV laws, reminiscent of the historic Monday demos which in 1989 led to the revolution against the Stalinist regime in former East Germany. This reflects another turning point in the situation. Especially in East Germany, this is a real mass movement of the working class (those in work and the unemployed). The anger and frustration of 14 years of betrayed hopes about the unification of Germany are now getting expressed. Banners on demonstrations read: ‘Politicians and bosses – you will burn in the fire you have set yourself’. One low-paid worker who spoke on a demonstration in Leipzig expressed the feelings of millions: ‘We brought down the dictatorship of the Politbureau and we received the dictatorship of money!’

Demonstrations took place in more than 220 cities in early September, and a national demonstration has been called in Berlin for 2 October. While this could mark a new stage in the opposition to the ruling class offensive, once again, the national trade union leaders are refusing to support any national protest, let alone action, against the drive to cut living standards. This refusal to seriously fight against the employers’ offensive, and the weakness of socialist forces, have enabled neo-fascist groups to gain support with a combination of social demands and a mixture of nationalism and racism – as seen in the Brandenburg and Saxony regional elections on 19 September.

This is the background against which the new political grouping has been formed: the crises of German capitalism and of social democracy, and a rise in class struggles and social movements.

WASG founded

WASG WAS FORMED from two groups which went public early this year: Wahlalternative 2006 (Electoral alternative 2006), and Initiative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (Jobs and Social Justice Initiative). Both were relatively small groups of trade union officials and middle-aged lefts, the former grouping being comprised mainly of west German PDS members and officials of the trade union ver.di (public service, finance, media and shop workers) while the latter were mainly IG Metall trade unionists and SPD members.

Both groups talked about the need to stand candidates who would defend the gains of the welfare state in the 2006 elections. Throughout the early months of the year, thousands of people attended meetings of the two groups across dozens of cities. Seven hundred took part in a congress of Wahlalternative and on 3 July the founders of both groups united to found a body whose members were to decide within six months whether to establish a new party.

This is an extremely significant development. Not least it reflects the beginning of the break of the trade unions with the SPD. Unlike the relationship between the British trade unions and the Labour Party, the German unions are not formally part of the SPD. But, in reality, they were social-democratic trade unions, with most of the main trade union leaders also SPD members. That a layer of middle-rank trade union officials is now turning away from the SPD to form a new party is a sea-change. The top leaders, however, do not support the idea of a new party and continue negotiating with the social-democratic government instead of organising the fightback.

The prospect of the launch of a new left party has shaken the entire political scene. Opinion polls have shown that such a party could gain up to 11% if elections were held now. It has become a big issue of debate within the trade unions. If, as is extremely likely, WASG goes ahead with launching a party, it is likely to have a big impact. But the question will be whether it remains a protest party, perhaps with only a limited lifespan, or develops into a new workers’ party, with firm roots in the workplaces and communities.

The formation of a workers’ party is urgently needed in Germany. The working class has no strong political party through which to express its aspirations. This has several consequences, only one of which is that workers have no one to vote for at elections. For example, the government and capitalists can ride out protests much more easily since these are less likely to become a political threat without a workers’ party. A workers’ party would accelerate the development of class-consciousness and present an important forum for debate about the alternatives to capitalism. It would also help to unite struggles in different sectors of society, and political campaigns would develop much more quickly out of economic struggles. All of this would mean that a workers’ party, even if it did not have a rounded-out socialist programme from the beginning, would speed up the development of class awareness and the formation of a revolutionary socialist party. For these reasons, Marxists support the setting up of a workers’ party. But for Marxists, this means a mass party which could unite the most combative workers and youth, a party like the historical social democracy and the mass communist parties of the 20th century, with hundreds of thousands of members rooted in the workplaces, communities, unemployed and youth.

At present, WASG is primarily a coming together of the old reformist left but has not penetrated new layers of workers and youth. Meetings are dominated by older men, often former SPD members, union officials and representatives of various political groupings. This is hardly surprising at the beginning of such developments. But the programme, organisational structure and political practice which the leadership of WASG has so far pursued represents an obstacle to this organisation becoming a mass party of the working class.

Programme and structures

WASG LEADERS ARE even reluctant to call their project ‘left-wing’, let alone ‘socialist’. They want to be a ‘welfare state party’ and focus strongly on winning votes from the conservative camp. Their policies do not challenge the capitalist system but assume capitalism can be better managed with alternative economic policies. Domestic demand, stimulated by taxation designed to redistribute wealth from the top to the bottom, and public investment programmes to create jobs, are intended to increase economic growth which would then safeguard the welfare state. This is classical Keynesianism which ultimately failed during the 1970s because it was not able to reconcile the contradictions which had piled up during the post-war economic upswing.

Thus it seems the policies of WASG hark back to the 1960s and 1970s, which is utopian considering the structural crisis of today’s capitalism. Nowhere in WASG publications will you find a consistent analysis of the causes of the capitalist crisis. This basic programme consequently renders WASG a group which resides within the system and orientated mainly towards parliament. Indeed, WASG leaders even describe themselves as the ‘parliamentary arm’ of social movements. That sounds good, but actually it means nothing more than a division of labour: the trade unions and social movements are responsible for organising the campaign outside parliament while the new party takes care of the parliamentary work. It is not the intention of the current leaders that the new party should play a real and active role in driving forward struggles and movements.

SAV is putting forward a socialist programme to be adopted by WASG, including demands like a 30-hour-working week without loss of pay, a public investment programme of billions of euros to create jobs in the health, education and environmental fields – financed by drastic taxation of the wealth and profits of the banks and corporations – and a decent minimum wage and social benefits. At the same time, it has to be explained that such demands can only be achieved and secured permanently if capitalism is overthrown. Therefore, demands like the bringing into public ownership of the biggest banks and corporations under democratic workers’ control and management, and the drawing up of a socialist plan of production opposed to profit-based market competition, should also be raised.

If WASG leaders adopted such a programme they would undoubtedly draw many workers towards them. Although political consciousness has been thrown back during the 1990s, workers are undergoing a process of radicalisation, albeit with a diffuse political basis. But the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong, and radical measures are necessary, is growing. A recent government survey reported that 79% of East Germans and more than 50% of West Germans said that socialism is a good idea but was put into practice in the wrong way.

In order to reach an active mass membership, a new party needs to fight, even if the fight is based on limited and reformist policies. Without this it is unlikely that the workers, unemployed and youth who are currently involved in struggle will join a new party and fill it with life. It is only conceivable that a real mass party with hundreds of thousands of activists would develop after a wave of widespread struggles during which a new generation of workplace and local leaders emerge. The question which faces WASG today is whether it can form a basis on which to attract these new activists in the future. This remains open given the policy of the WASG leadership.

In any political organisation there is a relationship between form and content. The bureaucratic-centralist organisational structure of WASG corresponds to its right-reformist programme and its non-activist approach. In the very first discussion document there was talk of a ‘top-down project’ being required. The small group of founders has, until now, successfully prevented a broad debate on the political programme and character of the new party. For example, at the Wahlalternative conference at the end of June it was not even discussed how broad the political programme should be or whether it should have an anti-capitalist character. It was merely a window-dressing exercise, with hardly any opportunity for debate and no decisions taken.

The height of disenfranchisement of the participants was the fact that the press conference announcing the conference’s outcome took place before the end of the conference. Then, one week after 700 people took part in the conference, a dozen hand-picked delegates officially formed WASG and elected themselves as the national committee. These bureaucratic tendencies have continued.

In Berlin, the WASG national committee appointed a regional co-ordinator and delayed the formal setting up of a regional council – although several meetings with hundreds of people participating decided to set up an open co-ordinating group and form a regional council at the end of August. The background to this is a campaign by a large part of Berlin regional WASG activists to bring forward elections in the town and stand candidates. But the WASG national committee wants at all costs to prevent any electoral experiments before the general elections in 2006.

Bureaucratic structures and behaviour of this sort will mean that WASG, or the party that evolves from it, could very quickly lose the trust of a significant number of activists and have a detrimental effect on those considering becoming active. The main parties are not just discredited because they do not pursue policies in favour of the working class, but also because of their undemocratic structure, lack of transparency, corruption and the perceived self-interest of career politicians. For this reason, a new party has to prove that it is different: for example, by officials being subject to recall at any time and guarantees that decisions are taken by the membership via democratically elected bodies; and that the salaries of full-time party officials and public representatives are limited to the average worker’s wage.

Oskar Lafontaine

EVENTS COULD TAKE a new turn if Oskar Lafontaine joins WASG. He has said in a recent interview that he would support the group if Schröder didn’t resign and the SPD didn’t change course. From 1995–99 Lafontaine was chair of the SPD and the first finance minister in the current SPD-Green coalition government. The Sun newspaper described him as "the most dangerous man in Europe" because of his Keynesian ideas, and the capitalists threatened to ‘leave Germany and stop investing’ if the government adopted his programme. But when his ideas were ignored, he resigned from all his posts and turned his back on active politics for a few years. He has now embarked on a comeback and this is throwing the political landscape into turmoil.

Polls indicate that if Lafontaine joined, support for WASG would go up from 7-11%, to 15-20%. Lafontaine is seen by most workers as a respected left-winger with a national profile, whom everyone believes could build and lead a new party. In the SPD, he was always regarded by many as being a left who was on the side of the workers.

Contrary to the WASG leaders, he has no problem with the terms ‘left’ and ‘socialist’. He has actually accused Schröder of dividing the left and said it could be necessary to regroup outside of the SPD. When asked whether he would leave the SPD, he said: "I would express it in another way. The SPD is a political idea. I agree with Leon Blum who said ‘Le socialisme, c’est une morale’ – translated loosely as ‘the commitment to socialism is a moral decision’. In this respect I will never leave the party. But if an organisation departs from its aims, then that’s something else altogether. We shouldn’t confuse cause and effect. Willy Brandt [the first post-1945 social-democratic Chancellor] stood for social justice and peace – Schröder and his supporters stand for the biggest cuts since the Federal Republic was formed and for troops to be sent abroad. I continue to stand alongside Willy Brandt".

Lafontaine echoes the sentiments of millions when he rails against Schröder, Agenda 2010 and German troops being sent to war. Likewise when he calls for higher taxes for the rich and higher wages for the rest. That’s not much, but compared to what is on offer from the SPD, Greens and PDS, it’s a lot as far as the masses are concerned. Particularly as expectations of politicians have fallen, given the same neo-liberal policies all the parties turn out.

In these circumstances, it is not difficult for Lafontaine to make a name for himself as a left-winger. If he joined a new party, it would immediately become a real factor in German politics. Assuming WASG has about 10–15,000 supporters now, this could easily rise to 30–50,000 in the first phase of Lafontaine joining. There are many disappointed (ex-) social democrats who are just waiting to leave the SPD with him, or who have already left but have not yet joined another party. They could be joined in a new party by some current SPD members of the Bundestag, regional parliaments and local councils. With Lafontaine leading a new left party, it would be almost bound to get seats in the national parliament in the elections scheduled for 2006.

Despite his image, however, Lafontaine is anything but a left-winger. After all, he was the leader of the SPD during a phase when it took a dramatic turn to the right. And even before he took this post in 1995, as Minister President of the Saarland region, the policies he practised were no different from those of Schröder, then Minister President of Lower Saxony. It is true that in 1990 he warned against rushing into a currency union with the former GDR but he put up no opposition to the takeover of eastern Germany by capitalism and the widespread privatisation of state companies.

In the same way, he was the first ‘left-winger’ to call for a reduction in pay in return for shorter working hours, at a time when the trade unions were campaigning for a shorter working week with no loss in pay, and he encouraged the illusion that wage restraint creates jobs. He was, therefore, in the vanguard of the ideological counter-revolution which took hold of the trade unions in this respect.

In his book, My Heart Beats on the Left, he called for the retirement age to be raised. He puts forward a basically nationalist position – not just in relation to his bourgeois-capitalist economic ideas, which do not call into question the market economy and profit maximisation, but also in relation to his repeated comments on immigration policy. Recently, he supported the right-wing call of the foreign minister, Otto Schily, for camps for African refugees to be set up in Africa so that they would not even get to Europe.

If Lafontaine joins the new party it will mean that it is even more necessary for the party to have a thorough, democratic discussion on its programme and activities. It must not be allowed to become simply an election vehicle for Lafontaine or any other leader.

Socialists and WASG

THE NEW LEFT party which emerges from WASG will, at least until the elections in 2006, be an important factor on the left and become the focus of electoral attention. It will not exhaust the potential for a new workers’ party but, of course, not just officials and ‘old lefts’ will go down this route. Some workers, youth and unemployed will also become politically active for the first time. But if the character of the party remains as the current leaders envisage, many of these new people will become disillusioned and will not stay in the party.

Nevertheless, socialists have to take part in the regroupment process the labour movement is undergoing and should not stand on the sidelines shaking their fingers. Marxists today are faced with a dual task: rebuilding the labour movement and generally promoting the ideas of socialism while building a revolutionary socialist organisation. However, the dual dangers of opportunism and sectarianism have to be avoided throughout.

Socialist Alternative (SAV) sees the emergence of WASG as a confirmation of our analysis of the bourgeoisification of the SPD and the need to build a new workers’ party, a perspective we have had since the mid-1990s. Right from the beginning, we have taken part in this process and our members are active in local WASG groups. We have made constructive proposals for building a new party while being critical of the WASG leadership.

Four words describe our proposals for WASG: open, democratic, combative, socialist. The last one, in particular, is controversial even within socialist organisations. While we regard it as the task of Marxists within WASG to argue for a socialist programme as an ideological answer to the prevailing Keynesian policies, other socialist groups do not bother to fight for socialist policies. The German section of the SWP, Linksruck, for example, argues against a socialist programme for WASG, saying that socialist policies would render it ‘too narrow’ and that the party should base its programme on demands just for a redistribution of wealth. But there is no question that important sections of the working class would find a socialist programme attractive, especially if it were linked to active campaigns led by WASG. At any rate, no-one would be deterred from supporting WASG.

Whilst Marxists should take part in the process of building a new left party and fight for a programme and methods which can turn such a formation into a mass workers’ party, it is just as important to lead independent campaigns amongst workers and youth. This is particularly true right now while WASG cannot be persuaded to head up active campaigns.

Thanks for the translation to Felicity Garvie


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