Who with whom?

In the September 26 elections in Germany, 47 parties are in the running for seats in the Bundestag. This year Berlin has its own state election as well, with 34 parties competing for its House of Representatives and for all 16 borough councils too. Mostly they are small, even tiny, like the Animal Rights Party, the Liberal-Konservativ Reformer, or a party run by the German widow of Lyndon LaRouche, an American provocateur of past years. Or the little German Communist Party. Few will reach even 1%.

Just six have been major contenders in recent years, three of them on the right. The Christian ‘Union’ (CDU-CSU) - a double party with its special Bavarian twin sister - now lacks the motherly attraction of Angela Merkel. Its main candidate, conservative Armin Laschet, wants in general to “follow the same course”, but has close to zero charisma. Until recently the CDU was in the lead but then, partly due to its confusion in the Corona crisis and the flood catastrophe, it drooped to a sickly 20%. Laschet’s frantic efforts to reverse the trend consist mainly of red-baiting about “dangers from the left”.

The Union’s junior ally, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), is almost explicitly pro-business: “Don’t tax the rich!” But its one-man leader, glib as ever, has managed to move it up the polling scale to 11%.

Then there is the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD). One of its two faces seeks respectability, is somewhat mindful of its tongue and tries to get the others, at least for the time being, to keep their Hitler-happier hands in their pockets and hold off with verbal (or real) stiff-arm salutes. Coalitions with the AfD are still taboo for all other parties, though some rightists in the CDU-CSU flirt constantly with the idea.

But, while the AfD has stagnated at 10%-11%, a new party called the Party for Labour, Rule of Law, Animal Protection, Promotion of Elites and Grassroots Democratic Initiative (known as just Die Partei - ‘The Party’) has been created. Its only programme seems to be the rejection of face masks and social distancing - and cops who try to enforce them. It attracts people both from the left and the far right - some nutty anti-vaxxers, but mostly people just sick of virus restrictions and government bumbling, rough-necking and profiteering from the pandemic. Will it fade away (maybe with Corona) or become a menace, whose financial supporters and backers remain opaque and mysterious? We shall see.

What about the three ‘left of centre’ parties? The Social Democrats (SPD) seemed doomed to total downfall. In June they were crawling along at 14% - incredibly low for Germany’s second party - but suddenly they soared skyward. Now at 25% in the polls, with only a few days left to go, it seems very possible that they will come out strongest. Their main candidate, Olaf Scholz, now vice-chancellor and finance minister, has a self-confident, nonchalant, but forthright manner, which has somehow won many voters, despite one scandal after another - like secretly advising a Hamburg bank in a giant tax rip-off, while mayor of that city, or ‘overlooking’ a phony finance company’s scam, bilking billions, which his department was supposed to be monitoring. But then, the hands of many ‘Christian’ politicians are by no means cleaner. The SPD has honed to a fine art ways to promise working people fine improvements - before elections - but then, if it wins, watering them down, forgetting or even wrecking them, yet somehow regaining trust in time for the next elections.

The party of the Greens also took a ride on the polling roller coaster, swooping up into an unprecedented first place last April (at 28%). For two months it seemed its energetic young leader, Annalena Baerbock, might even become chancellor. But, alas, in June it fell back into second or third place. Public support for her cheery enthusiasm waned as quickly as it had waxed, while her party faces the difficulty of doing the splits: maintaining its long reputation as a leftish party, so as to hold younger environmentalists, but not losing its older, once leftist, now mostly well-placed, old guard.

And then there is Die Linke, ‘The Left’, including remnants of the Socialist Unity Party, which governed East Germany’s GDR for 40 years and then - reduced, reformed, rejuvenated - joined with militant West German leftists in an endeavour to move the political scenery. Despite countless handicaps (like the mass media) it had some real successes. And a host of inner-party differences.

One success was in the state of Thuringia, where the party’s right wing holds the top spot, well ahead of the SPD and Greens, with whom it shares the government. An SPD-led ‘left-of-centre’ trio has also ruled Berlin for the past four years; if we can trust the polls, it will continue for four more.

But, while they share the rule in Germany’s capital and biggest metropolis, they do not always share programmes. This is clearest in the housing debate, in a city where most people live in rented apartments. They agreed on a law capping rent levels and barring increases, but Germany’s Supreme Court ruled that such decisions could not be made except on a national level. Then a militant non-party group launched a new referendum campaign to compel all real estate firms owning more than 3,000 apartments to turn them over to public ownership, which would mean ‘confiscating’ 240,000 apartments for a price which the city would regain with people’s regular rent payments. A quarter of a million Berliners signed petitions, far more than required, thus bringing the plan to a vote in Berlin next Sunday - one more ballot!

If approved, this confiscation must be debated by the newly-elected city delegates. Die Linke, despite its ‘moderate’ leanings in Berlin, is in full support. The Greens? Only half-heartedly, and unlike Die Linke they collected few signatures. As for the SPD, including its main candidate, who may become Berlin’s first female mayor, it is adamantly opposed. Its ties to big real estate seem stronger than any principles. So hot times in Berlin may not be just climatic in nature!

Debate on the national scene revolves around one key question; who with whom? If the SPD with Olaf Scholz wins first place, it will still need partners to form a government. One will certainly be its closest neighbour, the Greens. But those two will hardly reach the half of the votes needed. Who will provide the third leg of a very wobbly stool? Big-biz FDP, which dislikes both of them? Or Die Linke? The SPD and the Greens also have wings and their right insist: ‘Never with those GDR-infected reds!’ Their left wings quietly disagree: ‘Maybe with Die Linke after all, but only if it ends its opposition to sending German soldiers abroad on Nato or other missions.’

Die Linke itself can also flap in opposite directions. Some say: ‘We must be willing to make compromises. Just think of what it would mean to have ministers in the federal government!’ Others contradict: ‘It would mean giving up our opposition to German expansionism and the military build-up - the heart of our party’s raison d’être! Regardless of any attempts by us, the smallest and weakest in the trio, to win improvements for working people, the elderly or children, we would then no longer be anti-imperialist, but rather supportive of an establishment which genuine leftists have opposed ever since World War I! We would no longer be the only so-called “party of peace” and therefore superfluous!’

But Die Linke faces a far greater menace; its figures in the polls, after slipping from a one-time high of 11%, has sunk down to 6% - perilously close to the 5% threshold. If the party fails to reach that magic dividing line, it would lose it status as a fraction, nearly all its delegates, its rights in the media, official financial support - and come close to losing effectivity and any audible voice for progressives! It has somehow been unable to convince few more than its dwindling ‘old faithful’ that it has any real chance to improve their lives. In East Germany it is too often viewed as part of ‘the establishment’; in West Germany it is still burdened with anti-communist, anti-GDR prejudices. Except in the rent question, it has not won a reputation as a forceful, defiant fighter. Despite many brave efforts, it is in great danger.

If it meets this challenge, the question of joining a government coalition remains - if invited. Of the two main Die Linke candidates, Dietmar Bartsch, an East German, leans toward a ‘Red-Green-Red’ coalition (the SPD and Die Linke both claim red as their colour). The other main candidate, Janine Wissler from the West German Hesse, seems unhappy at the idea of such a compromise, even though it could get her a seat in the federal cabinet. In TV debates Janine has been a tough fighter: hard, clear, always (or almost always) with a friendly smile, while hitting out at the limited programmes of the other parties and their often alarming belligerency toward Russia and China.

These months of the virus are complicated times. On the good side, some working people are resisting. Locomotive engineers just won a fight after three train shutdowns, while workers at Berlin’s hospitals are striking just as militantly for better conditions. A growing fightback, with Die Linke in the lead, may be more necessary than ever!

Victor Grossman


Having read Amanda McLean’s piece on transgender rights, it set me to wondering if she had ever asked a trans woman about why she had chosen to change gender (‘Orthodoxy and its discontents’, September 16).

She boils it down to the view that women are seen as passive and submissive. I can honestly say that some women are passive and submissive, as are some men. That women in general have been dominated by men is also true, and the fight for equal rights is far from over. But why would a male choose to transition to being a female, so that they might experience 24/7 “feminine feelings of submissiveness”? A few might do it for a few hours for some sexual kicks, but, really, full-time?

I have a close relative - a child born as a boy, but who from the age of 12 was increasingly unconfident as one; a boy who was physically attracted to other boys, but knew he was not gay. He was simply miserable as a male and felt more comfortable in girls’ clothes. Around the age of 14 he began dressing as a girl, in secret, buying clothes on the internet. He dropped out of school, feeling quite unable to fit in, and became more and more depressed. He simply hated his life as a boy and felt he had no future. He was bullied at school by both boys and girls, who knew he was ‘different’. Around the age of 16, he came out and started wearing make-up and girlish clothes. Adopting the persona of a girl, she grew more and more confident.

This was not about seeking to adopt the “feminine feelings of submissiveness” that Ms McLean attributes to those seeking to be seen as a woman. This was about feeling far more at ease as a female - more confident, more expressive, more affectionate. Away from school and into college, she was able to transition in a more tolerant and less judgemental environment - around grown-ups, rather than children.

Ms McLean is quite wrong to attribute traditional views of women to those who make the incredibly difficult move from male to female. It is a very brave thing to do and those who do it deserve our full support. McLean seeks to politicise an act which is more truly about maintaining mental health: depressed and lonely as a man; confident and gregarious as a woman. Choosing to become a woman is not to choose to be dominated, but to make oneself whole through self-expression.

Wearing make-up and pretty clothes is but one small part of it. But no part of it is about choosing submissiveness.

Pete Gregson


Maren Clarke again demonstrates her trolling tendencies, when she makes sweeping statements rather than reasoned arguments - and fails to either justify those statements or show how they relate to the issue under discussion (Letters, September 16).

She also fails even to be able to read what has been said or to distinguish statements that I have made as against those of Marx himself. As for applying real-world conditions to logic, the whole of my response to Michael Roberts - contained at length on my blog - was based on real-world conditions, as are most of the quotes from Marx, as opposed to abstractions.

So take the following. Clarke says that the statement, “To accumulate capital it’s only necessary to make a sufficient margin over the rate of interest, or return on other assets”, has “no logical foundation”. Well, that is something she would have to take up with Marx, because it’s his statement, not mine! Here it is:

“In the first case, the product does not have to yield the usual profit, even in capitalist production. It must only yield as much above the usual rate of interest as will make worthwhile the trouble and risk of the farmer to prefer the industrial employment of his spare capital to its employment as money capital” (Theories of surplus value chapter 13, p 335).

If Clarke had any detailed knowledge or understanding of Marx, she would have known that and understood that it is based precisely upon that real world, as against her own abstraction. And the above quote also deals with Clarke’s other abstraction, where she says: “Marx explains, capitalist competition is a phenomenon of the difference between the value and the cost price of a commodity.”

Marx, in his argument against Ricardo here, shows that, in the real world, that is not the case: competition is about maximising market share, even if to do so you reduce your selling price to a level below market value or price of production, and so accept a lower rate of profit. As Marx describes in Capital volume 3, for very large capitals what is decisive is, in any case, not the rate of profit, but the mass of profit. Marx’s point against Ricardo is precisely that, in the real world, it is not differential rates of profit that drives accumulation in the short term, but the anticipation of an expanding market, and the need to grab as large a share of it as possible. Nor can differential rates of profit explain overall rates of accumulation, but only the allocation of capital between different sectors over the long term.

Clarke claims that Marx's statement has “no logical foundation”, because “Interest, under the capitalist mode of production, is reliant and dependent on profit.” Yes, it is, but that does not make them the same thing and, as Marx describes, the category of interest arises precisely because of the division of the class of capitalists into industrial capitalists and money-lending capitalists, and what determines the rate of interest is the competition between them. Marx also demonstrates in volume 3 how this competition, at different stages of the economic cycle, results in different rates of interest, and so it affects the profit of enterprises as a result of interest appropriating a larger or smaller proportion of profit:

“It is indeed only the separation of capitalists into money-capitalists and industrial capitalists that transforms a portion of the profit into interest, that generally creates the category of interest; and it is only the competition between these two kinds of capitalists which creates the rate of interest ... assuming the average profit to be given, the rate of the profit of enterprise is not determined by wages, but by the rate of interest. It is high or low in inverse proportion to it” (Capital volume 3, chapter 23).

The rate of interest is not mechanically determined, as Clarke suggests in her account, but by this competition in the real world.

She then gives some garbled argument that accumulation is inevitable because surplus value can never equal zero. That assumes that the surplus value is always accumulated rather than consumed, but the theoretical counter to that is given by Marx, in his schema of simple reproduction in Capital volume 2, chapter 20! It is always the case, as Marx says, that simple reproduction is the basis of expanded reproduction, because capitalists also need to reproduce themselves via unproductive consumption.

The logic of Clarke’s ‘argument’ here is to counter the position of Roberts, not me. It is that there is always surplus value, and so capitalists must always accumulate it! Talk about lack of historicity or relation to the real world! (Talk about tiresome.)

Arthur Bough

No27 out

Latest Labour Party Marxists has just been published. This, four-page, full-colour, issue is designed to challenge and reorientate the embattled Labour left.

We shall be distributing it as widely as possible at the Brighton conference. In previous years the response from delegates and visitors has been extraordinarily positive. Whether this will be the case this time, we shall see. Available at labourpartymarxists.org.uk. We can send out print copies, single or bulk (just include a donation to cover postage).

Stan Keable
LPM Secretary