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Germany's Die Linke causes a political earthquake

Andy Newman writes The most consistently interesting left publication in these islands is perhaps Scottish Left Review. the latest issue looks at the question of left unity across Europe. It is easy to subscribe online to get the print edition, and I strongly recommend it. Here is a fascinating article from the latest issue about Germany.

Victor Grossman explains how, beneath the mainstream media reporting of German politics, the really significant development is the emergence of a unified left party.

VICTOR GROSSMAN WRITES: Is that old spectre haunting Europe again? After years of shock or even paralysis in many leftist movements after the destruction of the supposed socialist bastion between East Berlin and Vladivostok, the European left, despite the usual splits and splinters, is showing signs of regrouping. While most media downplay such signs as dim rays of a setting sun, might they not be heralding a day of new hopes and tasks?

Germany, always of key importance in Europe, deserves particular attention. And it is here that a new party, Die Linke, or the Left, is changing the political landscape and playing a growing role in the European Left. The dramatic change was unexpected. German elections give voters one vote for a district candidate and one for a party slate. If a party gets over five per cent as a slate or elects three or more candidates directly it is represented proportionately in the Bundestag (German Parliament). Since Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) got results vacillating just above or below the five per cent level, it had to rely on its East Berlin stronghold, where victories for several direct candidates seemed a guarantee that over thirty slate delegates (based on four to five per cent of the total vote) would get seats in the Bundestag. But then the map was redrawn and two PDS boroughs in East Berlin were merged with larger West Berlin districts, which resulted in only two direct candidates getting elected in 2002. Since it got only four per cent, only those two young women represented the party in the Bundestag. They were banished to the worst seats, deprived of caucus privileges, discriminated, mocked or ignored. It seemed the PDS might satisfy hostile predictions and disappear from national politics.

When the PDS was founded in 1989 from the ashes of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which had ruled the German Democratic Republic, it abjured Stalinism, apologised for wrongs inflicted upon the people and charted a new democratic, pluralist course. But despite the apologies it took courage to back the PDS in an atmosphere recalling the American McCarthy era. But while unification (soon called annexation) brought a cornucopia of goods East Germans had yearned for, from bananas to Volkswagens and trips from Sydney to San Francisco, and replaced dull propaganda with bright if suffocating advertising, it did not bring everyone the ‘blossoming landscapes’ which then-German president Helmut Kohl had promised. GDR industry was largely eliminated, agriculture wrecked, thousands of ‘Wessies’ replaced East German professors, journalists, teachers, administrators, writers and cultural figures, while millions hunted - and hunt - for new jobs or even trades. Things long taken for granted began wilting away. Medical treatment was more modern but hospitals, medicines, health aids, even visits to the doctor require payments. Child care became expensive, rents, municipal and rail fares, theatre tickets, book prices, hairdresser charges soared. Those with good jobs could afford them; others could barely make ends meet. Few would welcome a total return to GDR conditions, but many reflect on what was lost and resent brutal new ‘reforms’.

This and PDS activity within their communities, from demanding less expensive nurseries to opposing a growing neo-Nazi menace, helped the PDS achieve between 15 and 30 per cent of the vote in the five eastern provinces, often pushing into second place ahead of either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats. But the PDS could make rarely win more than one or two per cent against anti-Communist, anti-GDR prejudices in the eleven western provinces. With an aging membership in the East, the party’s future looked bleak. Both wings in the PDS blamed the other for its 2002 defeat; the left-wing said the party was not militant enough and hardly active out in the streets.

Meanwhile in western Germany some Social Democrats, angered by the way Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD-Green coalition was hitting at the working class, the poor, the ill and the unemployed while giving one tax break after another to the wealthy and powerful, joined with trade unionists, disgusted at their leaders’ unquestioning attachment to the SPD, and with small Trotskyist groups, to found a new organiation, impressively titled Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG). Before long it landed a coup by gaining a prominent leader. Oskar Lafontaine, finance minister, chairman and top candidate of the SPD, had sensationally resigned all posts and even his Bundestag mandate in 1999 in protest at his party’s direction. When the SPD-Green coalition unexpectedly dissolved itself in 2005 and new elections loomed, the WASG made a key decision, broke with past prejudices and joined with the largely eastern PDS in an electoral alliance which soon won a fantastic 8.7 per cent of the entire German vote (and 18.5 per cent in Lafontaine’s Saarland home province). The resulting 54 seats in the Bundestag were unprecedented for any party left of the SPD. ‘In unity there is strength’ again proved its reliability and euphoria swept through hitherto troubled PDS ranks. Then the two parties set about unifying permanently; after two years of meetings, congresses and membership referenda, equal congresses from both parties met in June 2007 in adjoining halls, then merged to form a party they officially named The Left.

Many problems remained. Some WASG members, especially in its sparse clubs in eastern provinces, feared inundation by the sheer organised weight of the PDS, with its 60,000 members, as against a WASG total of 11,500. Some East Germans, accustomed to time-worn thinking habits, feared the changes in a truly all-German party. Some on both sides worried about Oskar Lafontaine, who joined Lothar Bisky, PDS head, in chairing the new party and joined Gregor Gysi in heading its Bundestag caucus, thus becoming a top spokesperson for the party. For some in the East he was too militant, some in the West resented his long identification with the SPD. But I think most members rejoiced at Lafontaine’s role. In refreshingly outspoken speeches he condemned German participation in military adventures, rejected privatisation of public utilities and housing, and went so far as to call for ‘a change in the system’, a goal the PDS always included in its name and programme but often neglected in its argumentation. Another big gain, I think, would be if the many union activists in the WASG correct the weak approach to working people by the PDS, with its closer ties to intellectual and white-collar circles.

An important problem concerns participation in coalition governments. In Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (north of Berlin) the PDS was junior member of a coalition with the SPD for one term full of conflicts and compromises. But after losing votes in an election, the SPD switched to a coalition with the Christian Democrats, as on the national level. A similar SPD-The Left coalition in the city-state of Berlin remains even more controversial. Five years of government with the SPD and its popular lord mayor Wowereit required many social welfare cuts to save Berlin from bankruptcy. The Left was blamed for them by its own East Berlin voters, who refrained en masse from going to the polls, resulting in a debacle. Left wingers in The Left, especially those in its Communist Platform group, called this strong evidence that alliances with the SPD were unprincipled if not suicidal.

The same question was raised nationally. What, ask some party leaders, if after the Bundestag elections in 2009 the SPD could win control through an alliance with both the Greens and The Left. Should we be so sectarian as to reject such a chance? But this is pure fantasy. Both Greens and SPD swear never to join with The Left, which to them still smells of the GDR and its ruling SED and still tolerates a small but vigorous Communist Platform fraction. To make things worse, Lafontaine had been a traitor to his old party and should not be trusted. But Lafontaine and other The Left leaders turn the cart around and say ‘we will never join with an SPD which supports foreign wars, which raised the pension age from 65 to 67, sharply cut amounts given to the jobless, worsened the medical system but lowered taxes on corporations and the wealthy. It must first begin to change radically!’ While some still mutter ‘of course, but then again just imagine what we could accomplish!’, the left wing warns that a few seductive cabinet seats succeeded in taming the once-radical Greens.

There are other conflicts. Should Germany participate in UN peace-keeping missions? Despite official party rejection some say ‘maybe’. Others reply ‘how many UN missions have really helped to maintain peace? Haven’t they enabled German military elements to regain overseas influence and experience despite restrictions in the constitution? German troops caused enough disaster in the past. Missions like patrolling Lebanese waters and reconnaissance planes hunting Afghani targets only increase geographic spread and aggressiveness.’ Some The Left deputies at Strasbourg, while criticising parts of it, support the present European Union, though most members probably reject an agreement like that in Portugal, fearing it could repress social progress while strengthening the military wing of the EU.

A major dispute concerns the evaluation of the GDR. Some spokespeople join other parties and the media in repeatedly deploring GDR repression of the uprising in June 1953, building the Berlin Wall or actions of the security apparatus. The left-wing warns that while GDR repression deserves rejection, past conditions should be viewed objectively and in their Cold War context, while constant apologising, never abject enough for opponents, nourishes a growing tendency to equate the GDR with the Nazi state, so as to prevent any consideration of socialism as a future goal, but also dangerously lessening abhorrence to fascism. Finally, does The Left still aim at eventual nationalisation of major industry and finance under some form of democratic socialism, or simply strive to reform and humanise present big business control of the economy? Lafontaine’s call to change the system was more than welcome to those favouring the former direction.

Regardless of differences, the very presence of The Left has caused political earthquakes. By surmounting the five percent hurdle to enter the legislature of Bremen, its first such success in western Germany, and with similar possibilities in January and February in Hesse, Hamburg and Lower Saxony, it caused the SPD, the Greens, and even some Christian Democrats to suddenly rediscover their heart for the workers. They plagiarised the hitherto repudiated demand by The Left for a minimum wage, the Greens surprisingly condemned sending soldiers to Afghanistan, SPD and Greens now demand improvements in their own draconic measures. The SPD feels compelled to block its haemorrhage to The Left and stress differences with the Christian Democrats, while not really endangering its coalition with them. Indeed, all political parties but the Free Democrats seem to be moving leftwards, at least in words and until the 2009 Bundestag elections. But The Left, so often forgotten by the media, can no longer be ignored. If it wins new positions in the West German provinces, there might be a whole new ball game. And, if it sticks to its principles, it can cause healthy waves in both Western and even Eastern Europe.

Victor Grossman deserted the US Army in 1952 (by swimming across the Danube in Austria) due to McCarthy era pressures, studied in Leipzig and became a journalist and writer in East Berlin. He became Director of the Paul Robeson Archive at the GDR Academy of Arts. He has freelanced since 1968. His ‘Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany’ is published by University of Massachusetts Press.

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