Opportunities open up on the left

The deep political crisis in Germany offers tremendous opportunities for the organised left. Unfortunately, the new Linkspartei looks unlikely to put forward any of the radical answers needed to overcome it. Instead, the comrades are bowing to populism, national Keynesian solutions and their own version of George Galloway. And, just like Respect, they have great trouble in accepting principled politics like open borders, says Tina Becker

It's a done deal: during the September 18 German parliamentary elections, most of the organised left will stand united under the banner of 'Die Linkspartei' (the Left Party). Both the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Wahlalter-native Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG) have just decided to stand together and to "begin the process" of fusing "within the next two years" (WASG newsletter July 18). The deal was forced onto both organisations by the early dissolution of parliament. On July 1, chancellor Gerhard Schröder successfully moved a vote of no confidence against himself. President Wolfgang Köhler finally agreed to the dissolution on July 21 in order to allow for early elections to take place. All the mainstream parties participated in this rather weird piece of political theatre. Schröder did not really have much choice. His highly unpopular 'Agenda 2010' - a package of draconian reforms of the welfare and pension system - has predictably failed to do away with the welfare state in a 'socially responsible' way. Unemployment has not been reduced, but soared to over five million - the highest since World War II. A string of disastrous election results and the increasing pressure of the left inside the SPD have also played their part in Schröder's decision. Add to that the absolute majority of the right in Germany's second chamber, the Bundesrat, and it is obvious that parliament was stuck in a stand-off situation, which made it pretty much impossible for Schröder to carry on governing in the old way. Schröder now aims to establish a so-called 'grand coalition' with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a newly elected parliament - a coalition, of course, that has no plans to withdraw any of the reforms introduced. All this provides the left with an ideal opportunity to really turn the heat on. No question, there is a gaping hole to the left of the SPD. Unfortunately, it looks like the Linkspartei has no interest in putting forward the only programme that can explain and ultimately solve the problems of today's Germany. Instead of clear socialist answers, both the PDS and the WASG are keen to show that they are not that radical and no real threat to the SPD and German capital: in response to global capitalism they both advocate not international socialism, but a kind of national Keynesianism. Neither the PDS nor the WASG want to go further than saving the German welfare state - the PDS has moved to this position over a number of years; the WASG takes it as its starting point. That begs the very important question: in a system of global capitalism, can the welfare state be saved in a given country? In short, no - not on a permanent basis in any case. By definition, this would require purely national solutions to give a particular section of the global working class an advantage over workers in other countries. But, while capital is still based nationally (benefiting from and often being dependent on national protectionist measures and subsidies), it is clearly operating on a global level. The class compromise established in 1945 is evidently coming to an end. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there really has been no need for capital to continue buying off the working class. During the height of the cold war though, West Germany was an extremely important country - ideologically and strategically. Sited geographically on the front line, the country was rapidly rebuilt and then used as a beacon to display the advantages offered by capitalism. The disastrous experience of the treaty of Versailles in 1919 had shown clearly what happens when a country with a strong working class movement is bled dry. Today, the inbuilt limitations of trade unionism are becoming painfully apparent. The once mighty German unions, though still amongst the biggest in the world, have proved incapable of fighting against the current onslaught - if anything, they are managing defeat after defeat. The unions represent a tremendous gain for the working class, drawing millions of workers into collective activity against the employers. But in and of itself trade union consciousness is characterised by sectionalism and the attempt to improve the lot of workers within capitalism. But going beyond capitalism is what is needed today. A strategy with the aim of liberating our class on a global scale. There are no national solutions. The welfare state cannot be rescued. Of course that does not mean that we should not fight against the attacks on us orchestrated by the state on behalf of capital. Naturally, we fight against the cuts in our living standards. Of course we continue to demand better wages - but if those struggles are not part and parcel of a programme of radical change, then the fight is already lost. Our strategy must be to unite the working class on a global level and behind a clear socialist programme - without such an aim, all our attempts at resistance are ultimately bound to end in failure. Concretely, a Communist Party of the European Union would be a significant step in the right direction. Top-heavy For the time being, such big political questions have been pushed to the sidelines. The technicalities of the merger are now the key question. The PDS has just renamed itself 'The Left Party. PDS' and WASG members will stand on the PDS list (there was too little time to found a completely separate, new party). In each of the 16 federal states, members of both organisations can decide if they want to drop the 'PDS' add-on from the name. The most likely scenario is that in the six federal states in the former East Germany, the majority will decide to keep 'PDS' in the title, while in the west the majority will decide to chuck it - the fights that will undoubtedly accompany those decisions have already started. The decision to stand together has been controversial in both organisations, as has the process to fuse the two, of course. There is not much love lost between most members of the two parties and the joint candidature is seen by many as more of a necessary evil than a welcome opportunity. Many PDS member accuse the WASG of not being socialist enough and too focused on trade union issues: after all, most leading WASG members are middle-ranking union officials and most have until recently been members of the SPD. WASG members, on the other hand, criticise the Stalinist past of many PDS candidates, as well as the party's participation in the neoliberal regional governments of Berlin and Mecklen-burg-Vorpommern, where draconian cuts in social services have been imposed and public sector workers' wage agreements revoked. At their special congress on July 17, 74% of PDS delegates voted for the executive's plans. Sahra Wagen-knecht, leader of the Stalinoid Communist Platform in the PDS, was one of the speakers arguing against the name change: "It won't be long until the name 'PDS' and the word 'socialism' are totally gone," she predicts - probably correctly (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung July 17). In the WASG ballot, 81% of members voted for the election plans and just over 85% for the fusion. Despite the squabbles, there is not much that divides the two organisations. Both are broadly on the left, yet clearly reject genuine socialism and communism and have committed themselves to Germany's "social market economy". Both are extremely top-heavy with a considerable democratic deficit: the PDS leadership has repeatedly - and so far unsuccessfully - tried to ban factions, while the WASG leadership also wanted to outlaw factions and prevent so-called "double membership" right from the start. For example, the executive has rejected membership applications from 13 comrades from the Sozialistische Alternative Voran (SAV) - the Committee for a Workers' International's German section - despite the fact that they had been heavily involved in the setting up of the party. The WASG is not the biggest split from the Social Democrats - and is certainly not the most radical. In 1914, Karl Liebknecht was the only SPD member of parliament who voted against war credits - in December 1915, 19 other parliamentarians joined him and were duly expelled by Friedrich Ebert. In April 1917, these comrades and a number of small socialist and revolutionary groups held the founding conference of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). At one point it had over 500,000 members and was almost as strong as the 'majority' SPD. It was made up of revolutionaries of the calibre of Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and even revisionists like Eduard Bernstein. In 1920 it split over the affiliation to the Third International: Kautsky, Bernstein and the minority of the USPD rejoined the SPD; the majority joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). However, the Linkspartei is the most significant left organisation to be formed since the USPD and KPD. The WASG, although only just over a year old, now boasts 9,000 members - not a mass party, but certainly a respectable size. Because of its past as the 'official' communist party of East Germany, the PDS is far more of a real 'Volkspartei' and regularly polls over 20% on regional levels. With around 60,000 members, it is clearly the senior partner in the unity project. Government participation According to the latest opinion polls, the Linkspartei can expect anything between 12% and 18% on September 18. No wonder that the question of government participation has been on everybody's mind: the party could be in a position to prevent the SPD-CDU grand coalition. It could support another SPD-Green coalition - either actively, by participating in the government, or 'passively', by providing the votes necessary for a majority on crucial issues. Instead of rejecting the possibility of government participation out of hand, both leaderships have been skirting around the issue, to put it mildly. Oskar Lafontaine (Gerhard Schröder's former finance minister and now leading light in the Linkspartei) said in an interview that "an SPD that changed and returned to its values would of course be our partner" (Der Stern June 30). And WASG leader Klaus Ernst has said: "I could envisage cooperation with the SPD, even in the near future" (Handelsblatt July 4). Meanwhile Lothar Bisky, leader of the PDS, did not "want to speculate about things that are not on the agenda. We are competing as the opposition" (Neues Deutschland July 26). Once the elections are over, though "¦ The official position of the WASG, voted through at the last party congress on July 3, is this: "We will only participate in national government if this leads to a fundamental change of policy on the basis of our founding programme." I am sure the PDS in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would claim to be doing exactly that as part of regional governments. As would Rifondazione Comunista, which is preparing to join Romano Prodi's government after the 2006 elections in Italy. The list of 'socialist' parties making such excuses for helping to run capitalism is almost endless. Crucially of course, by engaging in such discussions, the Linkspartei shows that it is no real alternative. After all, it was the SPD government that introduced the despised Agenda 2010 reforms - how can offering support for a new SPD government, pretty much without preconditions, cause it to "return to its values"? And just what "values" would they be? Linksruck, the Socialist Workers Party's German section, has formulated "conditions under which the Linkspartei should tolerate a new SPD government". This, according to the comrades, "would show that we are interested in real unity in the fight against social cuts and that we will not stand on the sidelines as know-it-alls. It would force the red-green government to prove if they are really interested in a left turn" (www.linksruck.de). However, Schröder and his government are quite explicit that they do not envisage a change of course. Quite the opposite: if they get back into government (with or without the help of the Linkspartei), surely that would give them an added 'moral right' to carry on with the same old crap. Germany's Galloway The election programme of the Linkspartei is currently still being discussed - the PDS has published a draft and the WASG has proposed some minor changes. It is quite a drag reading through both. There is a lot of talk about "justice for all" and "human dignity" and very little by way of concrete politics. Both the PDS draft and the WASG response, however, reveal a profound economism. Rather than putting forward radical solutions and effective answers to the deep political crisis in Germany, the comrades are haggling over how exactly they would run the economy better. The key point of the PDS draft is this: "Without demand there is no economic growth and new employment. That is why the spending power of the people in the home market must be strengthened. And this is why we need a renunciation of the low wages strategy." You see, our prime concern is that the capitalist economy runs well, and the needs of the people will slot nicely in. A smooth-running capitalism is good for everybody! More interesting is what the programme does not say - particularly as the Linkspartei has in Oskar Lafontaine a leader quite similar to Respect's George Galloway: charismatic, media-friendly and utterly uncontrollable. While Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party, Lafontaine was gradually sidelined and finally left the SPD a few months ago. Neither was known as a consistent leftwinger throughout their political career, but both have ended up in the company of the far left. Both have a tendency to populism and will be liable to make up policies on the hoof. In Respect it is the SWP who has given Galloway carte blanche; Lafontaine is shielded by the WASG leaders, who believe their new leader will bring them closer to the big time. The populism of both will tend to pull their partners to the right on numerous issues. Galloway's call for 'controlled immigration' via a points system and his opposition to a woman's right to choose have been thoroughly exposed in the Weekly Worker. The mainstream media, however, have concentrated their fire on Galloway's links with Saddam Hussein. This is different in Germany. Because the new Linkspartei could make or break the next government, attempts have been made by bourgeois commentators to undermine Lafontaine's potential support by attacking him from the left - a line also followed by the Greens (the current junior partner in the German government might very well fail to clear the 5% hurdle needed to get back into parliament if the Linkspartei does well). And Lafontaine has given them enough ammunition: l In an article in the tabloid Bild, he supported the idea of sending all European refugees to camps in North Africa for "pre-vetting" (August 4 2004). l In his book Politik für alle, he defends the 1993 de facto abolition of the right to asylum and writes that "the abatement of unemployment and poverty "¦ is the precondition for the peaceful coexistence of people from different cultures. That's why in a country with high unemployment it is grossly negligent and foolish to demand further immigration." l In March, he said at a rally (and has since repeated) that "the state has the duty to prevent family fathers and women becoming unemployed because foreign workers with low wages are taking their jobs away". Racist WASG? The latter speech caused particular uproar, because he used the word 'Fremdarbeiter' (alien workers) - a phrase that the Nazis coined to describe non-Arians. Both the Greens and the SPD tops have hypocritically used Lafontaine's comments to brand the Linkspartei racist and anti-foreigner. A ludicrous campaign for sure. However, mud sticks. Which is why political clarity, democracy and accountability are so important. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to the Weekly Worker and the CPGB in Germany, which means that nobody is trying to force the WASG and PDS to come clean over their position on immigration controls (in Respect, of course, it was our motion in favour of open borders which obliged the SWP to vote against one of its own longstanding principles). Instead, the WASG executive has just published a 'position paper', entitled 'Participatory migration and integration policy' (http://www.w-asg.de/904.0.html). The title is a giveaway: the 1,500-word document contains a lot of hot air and very little else. Although one sub-heading reads, 'No person is illegal', this formulation is not backed up with what is obviously necessary - the explicit demand for open borders. Without this, calls for "equal rights in all spheres" are nothing more than empty phrases - no matter how many eloquent words you use to embroider them. It is certainly no coincidence that the free movement of people is not mentioned anywhere. It is a radical demand that divides communists from opportunists. The position paper is an indication of the executive trying to bridge the gap between the organisation's left and right wings. In the WASG there is a fight waiting to happen between the rather respectable trade union bureaucrats and large sections of the more radical membership who come from all sorts of communist and socialist backgrounds. For example, Murat à‡akir, member of the WASG executive and involved in a number of government-sponsored migrant councils (a figure a bit like Ken Livingstone's right-hand man, Lee Jasper), writes in an article published on the WASG website that "the WASG recognises the obvious difference between migration policy and the protection of refugees. The debate around migration policy can legitimately orient itself on the specific needs of the intaking society. However, in the asylum and refugee policy the protection of the persecuted must be the key" (www.w-asg.de/796.0.html). Just like George Galloway, this comrade is arguing that the needs of capital should decide how many new migrants our societies can afford. The PDS draft of the election manifesto, too, is very keen to put the "right to asylum" at the centre of its proposal: "We want a EU-wide harmonisation of asylum and migration policy," it says, while "ethnic groups who have long lived in Germany have the right for their language, culture and tradition to be protected" (my emphasis). Both groups want the right to asylum re-established and the so-called 'third country regulation' (Dritt-staatenregelung) thrown out, according to which all asylum-seekers who come to Germany via a list of 'safe' countries are to be sent back to that country. Correct demands, of course. But nowhere do the comrades criticise the artificial distinction between 'political refugees' (who can apply for asylum) and those fleeing the poverty and misery caused by the capitalist system. The Socialist Party's German sister organisation, the SAV, is to my knowledge the only group within the Linkspartei that has put forward a principled stand on the question, demanding "that all people should have the right to live and travel" wherever they want (www.sozialistische-alternative.de). Quite a contrast to the SP itself, which insists that such a demand is 'too advanced' at this time. Not surprisingly, Linksruck, as on so many other issues, tries to avoid taking up a clear position. The only thing it comes up with in response to what has become a full-blown national scandal is the demand for a national minimum wage! Just like the SWP in Respect, Linksruck bows to the right wing and avoids making any criticism of Lafontaine and his comments: "It is not Lafontaine who is racist, but the employers who pay foreigners dismal wages", as the comrades put it in their dim-witted attempt to pass the buck (Linksruck July 20). They are, of course, keen defenders of a non-socialist WASG and will undoubtedly put forward a similar outlook in the Linkspartei: it "would become superfluous if it adopted a socialist programme, because it would exclude many of the people who could be won to the WASG", declares WASG executive and Linksruck member Christine Buchholz in her article, 'Challenges for the WASG in 2005' (www.sozialismus-von-unten.de/lr/artikel_1363.html). The tiny German section of Workers Power's League for the Fifth International, Arbeitermacht, reverted back to (sect) form and left the WASG back in May. Its resignation letter gives a glimpse of the rather limited political insight the comrades are blessed with. At a time when the political crisis in Germany was hotting up and just before the PDS and WASG declared their intention to form a new organisation, the comrades from Arbeitermacht write: "There is a dangerous and illusionary idea that with the entry of Lafontaine and other figures the WASG will be revived. It is unlikely that many new people will join the organisation. It is even less likely that they will have a dynamic effect on the organisation" (Infomail May 14, www.arbeitermacht.de). Critical engagement The political criticisms the comrades from Arbeitermacht put forward in their long resignation letter are broadly correct. But to leave a new leftwing organisation just as it is about to undergo a dramatic growth and transformation is just stupid. Such political fluidity allows revolutionaries to address tens of thousands of people who have previously kept their distance from socialist politics. The uncertainties arising from the current upheaval will open up political space in both the WASG and the Linkspartei - space to fight for a clear, internationalist, socialist programme. The WAGS, PDS and Linkspartei are all part of the problem we need to overcome. But in the absence of a genuine Communist Party in Germany (or anywhere else, for that matter), we argue that socialists and communists in Germany should become critical members of those organisations - and fight for democratic centralist structures and a programme that goes beyond the clearly futile attempt to save the welfare state. We need a Marxist programme that points the way beyond capitalism l