Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006

The left in Germany: Which way forward?

WHILE THE grand coalition government of the conservative CDU/CSU and social democratic SPD carries on with neo-liberal attacks on the working class, a big debate is taking place within the German left about the unification of different forces and parties.

Sasha Stanicic, general secretary of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV - CWI Germany) and active member of the Party for Work and Justice - The Electoral Alternative (WASG) analyses the background and perspectives for this debate.

The Left was the only true winner of last September's general election. Their numbers in parliament grew from two lonely MPs to 54. Over 4.25 million people, 8.7%, gave their vote to the electoral bloc of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS. At the same time, the so-called "winners", the SPD and the CDU/CSU saw their votes fall by nearly three million and 1.8 million respectively.

For legal reasons, the left was only able to contest the elections under the name of Linkspartei.PDS, the renamed PDS, and this party dominated the electoral bloc. In the 2002 general election the then PDS won 1.9 million votes. The 2.2 million jump in votes last year reflected both the disillusionment with Gerhard Schröder's government and, in particular, the huge appeal of the newly-formed WASG and its most prominent supporter Oskar Lafontaine.

However, only 12 of the 54 members of the left parliamentary group are WASG members. Among them is Lafontaine. Germany changed during the seven years of "Red-Green" government, but not in accordance with the hopes of many workers and unemployed people. Rather, their worst fears were confirmed. The government, led by the former workers' party - the SPD - used its close connections with the trade union leaders and the fears of many workers that conditions under a CDU/CSU government would be a lot worse, to carry out an unprecedented attack on social standards and workers' rights. With the so-called "Agenda 2010" and Hartz laws, social security systems were largely ruined and living conditions lowered. Mass unemployment rose to record highs. The capitalists enforced wage cuts and longer working hours. Poverty increased and became a mass phenomenon, not only among the long-term unemployed. The phenomenon of the "working poor", previously unknown in Germany, appeared because there was no minimum wage. The government also started a new, aggressive course in foreign policy. It broke the post-second world war "taboo" against sending the army into foreign countries. In the Balkans and Afghanistan, German soldiers are fighting in wars for the first time since 1945.

In autumn 2003 and during the whole of 2004, mass protests against government policies erupted. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets and in some cities strike movements took place against cuts in social spending. As a reaction to the SPD's shift to the right, these protests led to the formation of two groupings in early 2004. Out of these, the WASG association was formed which later became a party in the beginning of 2005. Significantly, an important layer of medium-ranking trade union officials had broken with the SPD and called for the foundation of a new party. Unemployed activists are also an important part of the base of the WASG. Individuals and members of some socialist organisations joined, including SAV, which had for the last few years propagated the need for a new mass workers' party.

The foundation of the WASG was also a reaction to the policies of the PDS. This former governing party in the Stalinist GDR had, after German reunification, transformed itself into a reformist party. It was socialist in words, parliamentary and conformist in deeds. It had a strong base only in the east; in the west it could never develop roots among sections of the working class and youth - its failure to distance itself from its Stalinist past prevented this.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the PDS started to form coalition governments with the SPD on state level which carried out social cuts and privatisation. The PDS's move to the right accelerated as a result.

The WASG and PDS stood in the May 2005 elections for the parliament of western Germany's biggest state North Rhine-Westphalia. The WASG gained three times the vote of the PDS. The SPD suffered a devastating defeat and, on election night, Schröder called an early national general election for autumn 2005.

Lafontaine had in previous weeks declared his sympathy for the WASG. He had, however, never called on people to vote for it, nor had he joined. Now he declared his willingness to stand in the general election, provided the WASG and PDS formed an electoral alliance. This is what happened, although many left critics warned that an alliance on the basis of PDS policies would always be in danger of becoming conformist. The united election campaign - although on the renamed Linkspartei list - was declared as the beginning of left unification in Germany. Those in favour of this course saw themselves justified and declared that the four million plus people who had voted for the alliance had also voted for a unification of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS.

There is no proof for this. The electoral result, as positive as it was, fell short of many opinion poll predictions. The active participation of left-wing activists in the campaign was limited, not least because leading members of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS started to question some of the central demands in the middle of the campaign. A move towards conformity was already being signalled.

At its national conference in July 2005 and subsequent ballot, the WASG started a discussion on the formation of a new left alliance. The so-called "new formation process" of the left has become more difficult than the WASG and Linkspartei.PDS leaders would have liked. There is mounting criticism on two major counts. Firstly, the policy of the Linkspartei.PDS joining coalition governments, and the statement by its chairman, Lothar Bisky, that the new formation would have to prepare for coalition with the SPD on national level. Secondly, criticism of the undemocratic character of the unification process, which leaves the base of the WASG and forces outside both parties out of the loop.

The Berlin question

The conflict is especially tense in Berlin. Since 2001, the capital has been governed by an SPD and Linkspartei.PDS coalition. This so-called "lesser evil" has, when compared to other states, played a vanguard role where social cuts and attacks on public-sector workers are concerned. With regard to September's elections in Berlin, the WASG has declared that a united candidature is only possible if the Linkspartei.PDS changes course. This inevitably has to include it leaving the governing coalition.

Berlin is not a special case but a precedent. If during the new formation process the wing responsible for the present Linkspartei.PDS policies wins out, there is a big danger that a great historic chance to form a new workers' party will be lost. The policies of the Berlin SPD/ Linkspartei.PDS government are so blatantly directed against the working class, that no one in the WASG openly supports it. Despite that, there is a massive dispute within the WASG in Berlin, and especially now on a national level, over whether or not the Berlin WASG should stand independently in September's elections. Thinking that standing independently would put the unification process into danger, some within the WASG tried to delay a decision to such an extent that the preparation for an election campaign would not have been possible. These forces - an alliance of reformists, Linksruck (the sister group of the SWP), and supporters of participation in government - did not succeed. Late last year, a Berlin WASG congress decided to put a number of political demands on the Linkspartei.PDS, including one for a decisive change of course.


Members of SAV play an important role in the Berlin WASG. Two SAV members have been elected into the local leadership. There was quite a reaction to this among other leading members of the WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS, and in the media. Der Spiegel, a leading weekly news magazine, said that SAV was the main enemy of the Linkspartei.PDS. These developments have increased the public profile of SAV, and given a new direction to the debate on left unification, politicising it enormously. Now, an increasing section of working-class people, especially the advanced layers, realise that there are not only two different organisations but also that there are significant differences on questions of participation in cuts and privatisation between WASG and Linkspartei.PDS.

Linksruck (SWP) argues that WASG and Linkspartei.PDS are two reformist parties and that the political differences exist within both parties. They draw the conclusion that there cannot be any argument against uniting both parties and that unification overrides any other issues. This includes the question of the WASG standing in the Berlin elections. Linksruck argues against participation in government. It is, however, prepared to support a united candidature of WASG and Linkspartei.PDS without putting forward any political demands, as long as the Linkspartei.PDS does not issue a pre-election statement about continuing the coalition with the SPD (as opposed to a declaration opposing such a continuation outright), and as long as WASG members are included on the election lists.

In a situation where thousands of youth, workers and unemployed are angry about the cuts conducted, this means capitulating in the face of the concrete political conflicts going on in Berlin. Already, these policies have lost the PDS support in eastern parts of the city. It would mean denying the Berlin working class a chance to express its protest against four years of anti-working class policies.

In reality, Linksruck is in alliance with the majority of the WASG leaders who wish to push the fusion through with no political discussion at all. Linksruck now publicly distinguishes itself from what it calls the "radical left" in the WASG which, in this case, means the Berlin region. Linksruck has been to the forefront of arguing that the WASG should only have a limited programme and not attempt to argue for a socialist alternative. In her election address for the WASG national executive, Christine Buchholz, a Linksruck leader, declared: "I regard the idea of narrowing the WASG with an anti-capitalist or socialist programme as a serious error."

Character of the WASG

lthough it is true that both the WASG and Linkspartei.PDS have a reformist character and that within both parties there are similar discussions about participating in government, the two parties play very different roles among the left and in society.

Within Linkspartei.PDS there is currently no noticeable left opposition resisting the policies of the leadership. The WASG is an opposition force with important connections to trade unions and social movements. The WASG is the dynamic part of the "new formation process". Last September's 2.2 million new votes for the left indicate the potential support the WASG can gather. It can have a great attraction to trade unionists, activists in social movements and layers of the working class who have not been active until now. The PDS was sinking into the abyss until it was resurrected last year by the WASG and Lafontaine. Socialists should defend the positive aspects of the WASG while pointing out the dangers of a programme that remains reformist.

SAV was the only political force within the WASG arguing against the reformist character of its programme. SAV explained that the many good and correct demands for shorter working hours, a minimum wage, investment programmes, etc, would not be sustainable within the constraints of a capitalist society. Because of the crisis character of the capitalist economy and massively increasing global economic competition, positive change for the majority of the population could only be achieved through mass struggle and could only be sustained if capitalism was abolished and replaced by socialist democracy.

SAV has never turned the adoption of a socialist programme into a precondition for constructive joint work to build the party, as long as the WASG gives workers and youth the opportunity to express their political interests and to defend these interests.

Linkspartei.PDS & WASG cooperation

A central part of a new "cooperation agreement" reached between the two national leaderships is participating in governments with the SPD. The agreement also rules out that both organisations should ever stand against each other in elections and this at a time when exactly this question is being discussed in Berlin, with the majority of the membership moving in the direction of standing independently.

SAV opposes unity between WASG and Linkspartei.PDS without any preconditions. Unity can only be on the basis of opposition to any form of social cuts and privatisation as well as opposition to coalition government with the SPD and other right-wing capitalist parties. Many regions are demanding the national leadership's resignation and the election of a new one. This could well happen at the next national congress, which will take place in April.

The further development of the WASG and the new left formation process depends not least on the development of class struggles in the coming months which is set to intensify under the neo-liberal assault from the Angela Merkel led CDU/SPD coalition government.

A crucial time

If the WASG stands independently in Berlin on a principled programme and wins the support of trade unionists and activists from social movements and initiatives, it has a chance of gaining the necessary 5% to enter the Berlin parliament. This would have a great effect on the national new left formation process and would strengthen anti-capitalist and socialist forces. A unification of both parties without any preconditions, however, would make it more difficult to build the new formation and for it to be a pole of attraction for workers. The leaderships of Linkspartei.PDS and WASG threatened in November after the Berlin WASG conference that they would exclude people or even split the organisation if they stood independently. The development of the WASG and the debate about the formation of a new left party opens a new chapter in the history of the German workers' movement. Confronted with a continuing neo-liberal offensive and the questioning of the principal achievements of the workers' movement, important layers of workers and youth are looking for a way of resistance and for political alternatives. The creation of broad parties of workers, unemployed and youth - bringing together trade unionists, socialists and activists from social movements (women's movement, anti-globalisation, anti-fascism, environmentalism, etc) and also fresh layers of workers entering struggle - is now an important and necessary step.

This is no substitute for the development of mass workers' organisations with a Marxist programme, they are necessary to start a process in which, as Karl Marx formulated it, "the class-in-itself" (a social-economic class) becomes "a class-for-itself" (a conscious political force). The conscious and targeted intervention and participation of Marxist organisations like SAV is important. Firstly, to reach a wider audience for Marxist ideas and, secondly, to speed up the development of these parties and make them successful. Without a socialist programme, workers' parties will, in today's period of capitalist decline, soon reveal their limitations. This is the lesson from the decay of the old workers' parties and their complete transformation into capitalist bodies.

There will be new attempts to build workers' parties. Many will not last for long because reformist forces will drag them into participation in governments where they will implement social cuts. They will therefore not become lasting poles of attraction. But in these processes and class struggles, there will develop a new generation of fighters who will start the fight for a true new workers' party and who will be open to Marxist ideas. The WASG is a first such step in Germany. It is the task of German Marxists to do everything they can to develop this embryonic formation into a mass workers' party, with a socialist programme.

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This article is from the Spring 2006 edition of Socialist View.

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