Capitalist 'solutions' and the rebirth of the left

Politics in Germany have suddenly become interesting, reports Tina Becker. The SPD could well stay in power - and the new Linkspartei is gaining both members and mass support

For months, it seemed as though the outcome of next Sunday's general election would be a foregone conclusion. Everybody was convinced that by calling a snap election chancellor Gerhard Schröder had dug his own grave. The conservative CDU-CSU had been leading the polls for years, with a margin of well over 10% separating them from the governing Social Democrats. Gerhard Schröder's attacks on the German welfare state were so unpopular that it looked as if up to 45% of the electorate were prepared to vote for what appeared to many as the lesser evil. But then the CDU committed the cardinal sin of actually trying to put flesh onto its programme. The opposition is, of course, in full support of the SPD 'reforms' of the pension system and unemployment benefits. They are keen supporters of the so-called 'one-euro jobs', under which the long-term unemployed are forced into working for a 60p-an-hour top-up on their benefit. If they refuse, they risk losing it altogether. Being in opposition, the CDU was able to feign outrage when those reforms - predictably - did not deliver a cut in unemployment, but actually led to record numbers of jobless. There are now just under five million unemployed - almost 12% of the population - and that is only the official figure. This excludes the thousands who are working in one-euro jobs and those that are disabled or sick. Not since the Weimar republic and the late 1920s and early 30s have so many people been out of work. Late last month, CDU leader Angela Merkel appointed university professor Paul Kirchhof to the post of shadow finance minister, hailing him a "true visionary" who would tidy up the mess left by Schröder. What looked like a clever move turned out the biggest single mistake of this election campaign. Kirchhof published his 'vision': he suggested further cuts in pensions and the introduction of a flat income tax rate of 25% for everybody earning more than €20,000 a year (£11,700). Needless to say, the rightwing press, led by the tabloid Bild Zeitung (with almost five million printed copies, one of the largest circulation newspapers in Europe), praised the proposals. They seemed - and are - a logical continuation of the SPD's 'reform package', Agenda 2010. But it is rather unwise to publish such proposals just before an election: why would people vote for somebody who promises they will actually be worse off in their old age, just so that the already well-to-do can get a handy cut in income tax? Not exactly a vote-winner. When the polls started to shift in favour of the SPD, the CDU suddenly discovered that Kirchhof was in fact not putting forward the party programme, but simply his own vision. By then, it was too late. This was a heaven-sent gift for Schröder and he has milked it for the last few crucial days of this election campaign. Wisely, he has also played up his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Latest polls show that the SPD has crept up to almost 34%, with the CDU falling to just over 39%. If this is reflected in the results, the CDU would not be able to form a majority government with its preferred coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). As things stand, it would not be impossible for the battered SPD to remain in government after all. But just like the CDU-FDP, the SPD and its current government partner, the Green Party, would not be able to form a majority by themselves. However, there are a number of possibilities: the SPD could lead a so-called Ampelkoalition (traffic light-coalition, named after the symbolic colours of the parties involved) with the liberal democrats and the greens. This is currently Schröder's preferred option - it has been tried briefly in two German federal states, but never on a national level. Understandably so: it would undoubtedly be a highly unstable alliance. Similarly volatile would be a 'grand coalition' of the SPD and the CDU. Linkspartei Perhaps more likely is a third option - but nobody is talking about it, least of all the parties involved. This option would see the establishment of an SPD-Green coalition, supported by the new Linkspartei (Left Party). This lash-up of the Partei des demokratischen Sozialismus (Party of Democratic Socialism - PDS) and the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice - WASG) has undoubtedly been boosted by the coming on board of its most high-profile member, former finance minister and SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine. It can expect up to 9% of the vote on Sunday and could become the third strongest party in the country, according to the latest polls. As there was no time for a formal merger between the two, the PDS has renamed itself Die Linke.PDS, with WASG members (and most of the media) using 'Linkspartei' as shorthand (PDS members prefer the full version). The merger will be formalised after the elections. Left support for a red-green government could take two forms: either through so-called 'toleration' - ie, the passive support of a SPD-Green minority government. Or, alternatively, through the active participation of the Linkspartei in a red-red-green coalition. Both are becoming increasingly realistic options, although they are far from uncontested within the parties concerned. The likely electoral success of the Linkspartei has been quite surprising for many commentators and it must have come as a great shock to Schröder. After all, one of the main reasons for his rush to go to the polls a year early was precisely to avoid a slowly re-emerging left opposition from getting its act together. He failed: while the top union bureaucrats have remained painfully loyal to the SPD, many middle-ranking union cadre have jumped ship and joined the new formation. Hundreds of former SPDers have signed up to the Linkspartei. In the space of weeks, the WASG membership has grown by 4,000 to its current level of 10,000. At the same time the PDS now has 71,000 registered members - 10,000 more than only a few months back. A recent survey conducted by the magazine Der Spiegel put the potential support of the Linkspartei even higher, at 18%. It is doing especially well in the east of the country (the former German Democratic Republic), where it is now the most popular party in most federal states. In the east 29% intend to vote Die Linke.PDS, Der Spiegel reported in August, with 28% expected to vote for the CDU and 27% for the SPD. In fact, the whole of that issue of the magazine was dedicated to "the new power of the left". It featured Marx on the front cover with the words, "A spectre returns". In a recent poll to find the "greatest German", run by the TV station ZDF (equivalent to BBC2) Marx actually came third, behind former chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Martin Luther. The same poll asked: "Do you agree that socialism is a good idea but has been badly implemented?" A surprising 56% of people in West Germany said 'yes', 60% in the east. It seems, then, that a real space has opened up on the left. Not just objectively, with the SPD and the Greens having moved almost as far to the right as Tony Blair's New Labour. But the key thing is that subjectively many people in Germany are now looking for real alternatives. Unfortunately though, neither the PDS nor the WASG nor the joint Linkspartei offer such a radical outlook at present. Broad or narrow? Instead of clear socialist answers, the Linkspartei and its component parts offer inoffensive platitudes. In response to global capitalism the party advocates not international socialism, but a form of national Keynesianism - a utopia. 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. This is supposed to make the left broad and inclusive - in reality, of course, it makes it extremely narrow and impotent. Equipped with their pinched programme of higher taxes for the rich, an end to tuition fees and privatisations of public enterprises (haggled over in a number of leadership meetings), the comrades are of course able to criticise the attacks on the welfare state - but they are incapable in offering any solutions that go to the heart of the problem. The German patient is being treated with some of that British miracle medicine that worked such fantastic wonders in the 1980s and 90s: the health service opened up to privatisation; union power severely curtailed; wages held down; workers' rights, benefits and pensions rolled back - all this is happened with incredible speed. Angela Merkel is being portrayed as Germany's Margaret Thatcher - but in reality it is of course Gerhard Schröder who has already started the process of dismantling the welfare state. That begs a 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. 'Outsourcing' of work to cheaper countries in and outside the European Union has not happened as quickly as predicted. But it is expected to rise dramatically as tax concessions and heavy subsidies for companies investing in the new EU states start to bring results. There is no effective cooperation between workers and their unions in the different EU countries that could coordinate an effective fight for the levelling up of wages and working conditions. As long as this remains the case, the threat of outsourcing production to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland remains very real. Government participation The Linkspartei wants to show that it can help run German capitalism in a responsible manner. Leading members of both components have let it be known that they are more than willing to support a red-green government either actively or passively. In fact, the PDS is currently participating in the regional governments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin and until recently supported a red-green minority coalition in another east German state. All three governments have been characterised by draconian cuts, closures and attacks on the working class - agreed to and carried out more or less willingly by the PDS. Many in the WASG correctly criticise the PDS in strong terms for their actions in those governments, but what will happen when - once unified - the WASG automatically becomes part of this government party? The WASG draft programme is deeply contradictory: it claims that capitalism could be reformed to function in a peaceful, social and just way and create profits and growth at the same time. But the WASG also promises "never to support the Sozialabbau" - ie, exactly those cuts in social services and welfare provisions that the PDS had to force through in order to stay in government and manage capitalism. There is opposition on the ground: the Berlin WASG has announced it wants to stand in the forthcoming regional election without the PDS, which has lost much of its support there. The comrades have said they will resist any orders by the WASG leadership to force them to stand as Linkspartei. While understandable, such attempts at UDI are hardly the way forward. They are symbols of the massive problems facing the new formation, rather than a solution. Quite clearly, the unification of the two parties opens up the potential for a real and honest debate about a number of important questions. So far, such an overdue development has been sidelined by the need to get ready for the elections. Comrades in the PDS have the advantage of having worked together since 1991 (and not a few of them even longer than that, when they were members of the 'official communist' party of East Germany, the SED). They at least had a debate about their programme which lasted over 10 years, although the outcome is a curious hotchpotch: so-called Ostalgia (ie, it wasn't all bad in the GDR) sits neatly next to the acceptance that the Marktwirtschaft (market economy) does not necessarily need to be overturned as the basis of society. The WASG on the other hand is less than a year old and has not discussed any of these matters properly. It is still pregnant with its own debate on 'reform or revolution'. As the Weekly Worker's report of the WASG national conference showed, this is far from a foregone conclusion and there was a healthy desire amongst many members to draw up a clear socialist alternative (November 24 2005). If the left within the new formation gets its act together, it might even be able to force the leadership to withdraw from the regional governments in the east of Germany - and prevent the potential participation or support of a red-green national government. Opposition problems However, there are a number of problems for the opposition. Firstly, neither the PDS nor the WASG have any publications that could carry such debates. The WASG has no public press at all. The PDS puts out a handful of rather unexciting, irregular journals relating to the trade unions or its anti-racism working group. Its curiously misnamed monthly magazine Disput carries anything but. It is a deadly dull collection of 'articles' that make even The Socialist look lively and controversial. The latest issue, for example, carries exclusively upbeat articles about how brilliant the election campaign is going in this or that city and why so and so has joined the Linkspartei. No mention of the negotiations between the PDS and WASG, for example. Secondly, the PDS leadership has over the years managed to silence its critical internal opposition. The only surviving faction is the Kommunistische Plattform, whose 50 or so comrades produce a monthly bulletin in which they regularly attack the PDS for 'forgetting its heritage' - you get the picture. However, an open debate over the fusion with the WASG and related issues like government participation has a realistic chance of reviving the opposition within the PDS. Many WASG branches are very lively indeed, with a healthy number opposed to the opportunist course of the leadership. However, there is no national coordination. There are a number of organised left groups inside the WASG - but they are as divided as the sects in Britain and of course suffer from the same political flaws as their 'motherships' here. Linksruck (the German section of the Socialist Workers Party's International Socialist Tendency) speaks out clearly enough against participation in government. However, it is equally clear on its opposition to making the new formation a socialist alternative: the WASG "would become superfluous if it adopted a socialist programme, because it would exclude many of the people who could be won" otherwise, 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 small Sozialistische Alternative Voran (SAV) (the German section of the Socialist Party's Committee for a Workers' International) has set up a call for the left inside the WASG to unite. However, this is based on the SAV's opposition to the unification of the PDS and the WASG - and, not surprisingly, therefore consists almost exclusively of SAV comrades (www.linkspartei-debatte.de). 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. 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 proved their lack of any political insight: "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). Now it seems the comrades are preparing to rejoin the new Linkspartei - and might quite possibly leave it again once it does not adopt a revolutionary programme. No wonder then that the left within WASG and Linkspartei has so far not made much impact on the unification process. But the current political fluidity could well lead to the creation of new oppositional forces within the organisation. Electoral success for the Linkspartei will not only draw in many new members - it is also likely to heighten the contradictions and expose the glaring weaknesses of its programme. These are very interesting times in Germany and revolutionaries have a chance to address tens of thousands of people who have previously kept their distance from socialist politics. The WAGS, PDS and Linkspartei are clearly all part of the problem we need to overcome. But they can also be part of the solution, in the absence of a genuine Communist Party in Germany (or anywhere else, for that matter), we argue that revolutionary 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 beyond capitalism.