Partners in cuts

Just before Christmas last year the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) became a partner in the city government of Berlin. Preliminary coalition talks with the social democrats (SPD) only lasted three weeks. The rapid agreement did not result from the SPD making concessions to the former 'official communists'. On the contrary. So eager was the PDS to enter into a coalition that it was only too keen to agree to a package of cuts, closures and privatisations that "amount to the biggest cuts since World War II", according to the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost (January 12). By 2006, the new administration wants to save over two billion euro in personnel costs in the public sector, one billion of which will come through the slashing of 15,000 jobs. However, the second billion is supposed to come from a 'solidarity pact' with the unions. Out of 'solidarity' with their new ruling coalition, Berlin's public sector workers are expected to sign up for wage cuts. The proposals on offer are unpaid overtime, longer working hours without additional pay and the surrender of the Christmas allowance. So far, the unions have resisted. Threatened strike action has not yet materialised, and talks are continuing. The last remaining difference in conditions between workers in the eastern and western part of Berlin has been resolved negatively: workers in the west now have to work for half an hour longer per week - giving them 'parity' with their eastern counterparts. Numerous libraries, swimming pools and kindergarten places are going to be privatised. Taxes have been raised. But subsidies for businesses have not been touched. One section of the agreement between the parties describes how "Berlin represents a leading industrial nation that is part of the western community and a member of the UN and Nato "¦ This coalition will fulfil all expectations and duties that arise from such a position." By contrast, the official programme of the PDS states that the party fights for "the dissolution of Nato". Gregor Gysi, most prominent leader of the PDS and in the new Berlin government responsible for the economy, employment and women, justifies the party's role: "In a red-red senate the PDS is responsible for giving the people the feeling, that - even if they suffer from cuts in services - things are being done in a fair-minded manner" (Neues Deutschland February 12). The emphasis is on ideology-free 'realpolitik' - in the words of Gregor Gysi: "We can't spend money that's not there." Sadly, the new course has seen almost no internal opposition within the PDS. At the conference of party delegates in Berlin in January, 83% voted in favour of the agreement - while outside the hall hundreds of leftwing union activists were demonstrating their opposition. The PDS today is a very strange creature. When it evolved out of the old ruling party of the German Democratic Republic in 1990, it took a not insignificant fraction of the membership with it, while opening itself up to recruits in the west. That made for a very strange combination: it contained Stalinists from both sides of the old border, a sprinkling of West German leftists and anarchists and a good few former members of the old East German bureaucracy. However, careerists and 'Realpolitikers' now run the show. Revolutionary socialists who joined the organisation in the east and the west have either left or - more often - changed along with the organisation. For example, the once very active and radical youth wing, Junge Genossen (Young Comrades), has transformed itself into an extremely tame breeding ground for tomorrow's leadership. The couple of hundred-strong Linke in der PDS (PDS Left) has, according to its website, "closed down". The only internal critical force still active is the 'old guard', the defenders of the GDR and Stalinism. Grouped around the 'Kommunistische Plattform', these 50 or so comrades produce a monthly bulletin in which they regularly attack the PDS for 'forgetting its heritage'. Most of the KP's criticism of the Berlin coalition agreement focused on its assessment of the GDR. In the current party programme (written in 1993) the former East Germany is still favourably described as "an attempt to create a peace-loving, democratic state "¦ a justified attempt to create an anti-fascist opposite to West Germany "¦ an attempt that needs no apologies". But, keen to become a 'modern' party that can be trusted to govern, the PDS leadership has had no problems shedding its ideological baggage. It accepted the preamble of the coalition agreement, drawn up by the SPD, which severely criticises the GDR. The Kommunistische Plattform takes particular exception to the following sentence, which talks about the Berlin Wall: "While the cold war was fought by both sides, the sole responsibility for the suffering lies exclusively with the rulers in East Berlin and Moscow." "Sure, some people might have left the GDR because they experienced injustice or because they were demoralised by small things," retorts the Plattform, attempting to belittle the undemocratic nature of the regime, "but many left because they had been Nazi solicitors or SS members and felt more secure in West Germany." And anyway "the GDR never started a war and there was no unemployment". It is hardly surprising that with the KP as its only opposition the leadership feels confident in its ability to transform the PDS at breathtaking speed into a full-blown bourgeois socialist party. Parliament is not seen as a useful platform from which to promote socialist politics and agitate against capitalism. It has become an end in itself. While SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder still refuses to shake Gregor Gysi's hand in public, relations between the two parties have changed quite dramatically in the last two years. In the east German federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the PDS has been acting as a 'quiet partner' of the governing SPD since 1999 - with so much success that the state president, Harald Ringstorff, regularly praises "the social-democratisation of the PDS" and recommends it to his fellow party members in Berlin. In several states the SPD is not strong enough to rule by itself. At the moment, it prefers to strike up deals with the Greens or even the Free Democrats. But if the PDS in Berlin proves to be as good and tame a coalition partner as in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, this could change. The PDS is actively working to become the natural coalition partner of the SPD - not just in eastern Germany, but the whole country. The general elections in September 2002 will undoubtedly accelerate this development. The SPD is unpopular, has failed to reduce unemployment and is riddled with financial scandals. With the Christian Democrats and their allies currently in the lead in the opinion polls, the PDS might hold the balance of power. A coalition of the SPD, PDS and Greens might be the only way to prevent a CDU government. Sahra Wagenknecht of the Kommunistische Plattform comments quite correctly: "The idea is not a new one. When you need to pile on the crap, bring the left on board. Not only does this weaken extra-parliamentary opposition; it neuters the left and disables the potential for a strong opposition in the future. It is almost embarrassing to write about this simple mechanism. Even more embarrassing is that is works over and over again" (Junge Welt January 7). Tina Becker