Opposition party or coalition partner?

Trouble is brewing in the German Linkspartei. The Berlin regional congress of Wahlalternative (WASG) has just voted against the 'cooperation agreement', which maps out the unification process with the Party of Democratic Socialism (now renamed Linkspartei.PDS). WASG comrades in Berlin also want to stand separately in the 2006 local elections - refusing a joint candidature with the Linkspartei.PDS, which is part of the Berlin government. Yet, writes Tina Becker, Linksruck, the German section of the SWP, has joined forces with the WASG leadership in criticising this decision

With 54 members in the new German Bundestag and a vote of 8.7% in the September 18 parliamentary elections, the Linkspartei.PDS achieved the best election results of any German leftwing party for over 60 years. A tremendous success, which socialists all over the world quite rightly applauded. However, current tensions reflect the rather unstable basis of this electoral success. Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), initiated the unification process only a few weeks before the hurriedly called elections. He was ready to be a candidate, he announced - but only as part of a joint challenge from the PDS and the newly-founded WASG. Negotiations between the parties were as hurried as within both organisations. Important issues had to be postponed in order to prepare the electoral campaign. Issues which have now bubbled up to the surface in a rather unedifying manner. The tensions also reflect the difficulties in uniting two parties with similar politics but very different backgrounds. Linkspartei.PDS is the successor party of the Socialist Unity Party, the former ruling party of East Germany. It never really took off in the west and the majority of its members are rather old and often very 'ostalgic'. It recently changed its programme and now crucially "accepts" that "the market economy does not necessarily need to be overcome". Just before the parliamentary elections, the PDS changed its name to Linkspartei.PDS to symbolise the fact that this was a joint challenge alongside WASG (German law does not allow two or more parties to stand as part of a bloc under their own name). With around 60,000 members, it is clearly the PDS which is the senior partner and has in the east the character of a real Volkspartei. WASG, on the other hand, is a very new organisation, though it has grown to over 12,000 members in a few short months. It was set up in 2004 by a number of middle-ranking officials of the IG Metall union after they were expelled from the SPD for publicly criticising the party over its attacks on the unemployed and the welfare state. It has yet to start a discussion on its own party programme - all it so far highlights is its commitment to 'rescue' the German welfare state. It has certainly not debated the question of reform or revolution (see Weekly Worker September 22). Cooperation agreement Last week's publication of Kooperationsabkommen III (the third cooperation agreement between WASG and Linkspartei.PDS) proved quite a surprise, particularly to many in WASG. In July 2005, 85.3% of them had voted in a postal ballot to "begin an open-ended discussion process, with the aim of establishing a broad, democratic left alliance". However, the cooperation agreement is not open-ended, but very specific indeed - too specific for many in WASG. It is fair enough that it sets a deadline of June 30 2007 for the finalisation of the unification process. However, a number of other points are, quite rightly, proving very controversial inside WASG. Firstly, there is no longer any talk of involving other forces in the new organisation apart from the two parties. Previously, WASG in particular had stressed over and over again that the 'anti-capitalist movement' and - more concretely - other leftwing organisations should be approached with a view to their participation. Instead, we are now witnessing the beginnings of a straight merger. Secondly, the leaderships are "stressing emphatically" that the parties "will not stand against each other in any elections at any level "¦ between now and the foundation of the new party". This has been neither discussed nor agreed by the membership of either organisation and, as we are now seeing in Berlin, it has not exactly been accepted by everybody. Thirdly, and most crucially, the agreement features word for word the PDS's so-called 'Potsdam triangle'. According to a decision taken at its 2004 party congress in Potsdam, the politics of the PDS rest on three pillars: (1) "protest and opposition"; (2) "the development of alternative forms of society that go beyond capitalism", and (3) "the claim to participation and change". The original German phrase of "Anspruch auf Mit- und Umgestaltung" is a clear reference to government participation, even if it sounds rather convoluted in translation. Berlin resists In Berlin, communists are dealing not with an abstract formulation, but with the reality of Linkspartei.PDS participation in the 'red-red' (SPD-PDS) government. Since 2001, the PDS has overseen draconian cuts in social services, the implementation of the anti-unemployed legislation, Hartz IV, the cancellation of wage agreements etc. Many people joined the WASG, and not the PDS, precisely because of the latter's disastrous, anti-social record. Currently, the red-red government of Berlin is involved in a dispute with Charité, the largest clinical centre in Europe. The Berlin senate has cut its funding by €31.7 million (around £20 million) and, naturally, its executive board is demanding drastic cutbacks, including the slashing of wages. While WASG enthusiastically supported last week's one-day protest strike, the PDS was pressing ahead with its attack on the workers. In a joint press release the leaders of the PDS and SPD fractions in the Berlin senate warned that "Charité might be forced to achieve the necessary savings through operational layoffs" if the unions do not accept the cuts, with the possible loss of 1,500 jobs. The two speakers threatened to "lock out" the strikers if the unions do not return to the negotiating table (www.stefan-liebich.de/presse_ privates/presseerklaerungen/0053.html) It therefore came as no surprise when the Berlin regional congress of WASG voted last week by a two-thirds majority against the cooperation agreement: the comrades correctly state that within WASG itself there has been no discussion about government participation and accuse the leadership of trying to pre-empt this important debate. Even Oskar Lafontaine, WASG's most prominent member, who was specially flown in to convince the congress to vote 'yes', could not change their minds. Neither could the majority be swung by a strongly worded request from WASG's national executive, according to which the only condition for a joint candidature in Berlin in 2006 should be that the Linkspartei.PDS would agree to keep shtoom about any continuation of the PDS-SPD coalition. According to this logic, it is not the actual government coalition and its attacks on the working class that is the problem - what matters is perception before the elections. However, the Berlin Linkspartei.PDS has already made it clear that it is set on continuing this "successful" arrangement. No wonder then that WASG comrades in Berlin thought that their leadership's condition for a joint candidature "does not go far enough". Around 100 members have signed the commendable Berliner Appell (www.berliner-appell.de), which demands that, "for a joint candidature, the Linkspartei.PDS must initiate a fundamental political change, break with the neoliberal politics of the senate in Berlin and consequently - because the SPD will not allow this - end its participation in the government of Berlin". Unsurprisingly, WASG comrades in Berlin have since been sharply criticised. Klaus Lederer, the new leader of Linkspartei.PDS in Berlin, believes that "it looks rather unlikely that we will come to an arrangement" for the 2007 local elections and that "the unification process on a national level has been seriously disrupted and endangered" (Neues Deutschland December 5). In a separate interview, Lederer suggested that one way to break this deadlock would be for PDS members in Berlin to join WASG, so that "discussion over controversial issues can be moved forward". In other words, the comrade is outrageously proposing a bureaucratic takeover of WASG to overrule the majority of its 700 members in Berlin (Die Tageszeitung December 1). Government participation This issue clearly is the sore point in the merger negotiations. Oskar Lafontaine (who with Gregor Gysi is now joint leader of the Linkspartei's fraction in the Bundestag) has never hidden his position: he wants to be back in office, if possible on a national level. "Over the next four years, we have to fight for a change in the atmosphere in society to make the participation of the left in national governments a matter of course like in other European countries" (Neues Deutschland October 14). Actually, there is no "matter of course" about it. There are enough examples in our history that show exactly what happens when 'socialists' join governments under the conditions of a capitalist system: the long list of excuses for attacks on the working class range from the necessity of 'realistic' politics, through the need to save money, to the illusion that socialists might prevent things getting quite as bad as they would otherwise. Needless to say, it is almost always the socialists that change beyond recognition, not the system they are purportedly fighting. According to its official position, WASG would "only participate in a national government if this would lead to a fundamental change of policies in the direction of our demands". This wishy-washy formulation allows for a variety of interpretations. Some members of WASG leadership have indicated that they too have no problem in principle in joining reformist governments. Also, as regional and local governments are not covered by this formulation, it leaves the door wide open for all sorts of local deals. However, the situation is very different on the ground, amongst WASG membership. From the various conferences I have attended and judging by the many discussion I have had, it seems to me that a large section (if not a majority) of WASG would have great trouble accepting their party should take part in a capitalist government - despite the pressure they are experiencing from their comrades-to-be, the Linkspartei.PDS (two members of its national executive, Elke Breitenbach and Katina Schubert, have just published an appeal to commit the newly merged party to the clear aim of government participation in the 2009 parliamentary elections). Nice timing, considering the tense situation in Berlin - the aim is to present WASG majority with a fait accompli. Amongst that majority are of course a large number of individual members, but also some of the organised groups, like the Socialist Party's German section, Sozialistische Alternative Voran (SAV). Quite possibly, the undemocratic manoeuvres of both leaderships could achieve the opposite of the desired effect. The commendable resistance of the comrades in Berlin could well inspire others within WASG to say nein to government participation and demand a renegotiation of the cooperation agreement. Within the PDS, too, the currently marginalised opposition could well grow in the aftermath of recent events. Most comrades within both organisations want to see a bigger, united left and are in favour of the merger - what matters now is the political basis of this unified party. SWP German section Linksruck, the SWP's German section, has played a rather pathetic role within the 'Berlin scandal' - though its opportunism is hardly surprising. The comrades are just as adept as the British mother ship when it comes to dumping one political project for the next recruitment opportunity. Until recently, the comrades were all over Attac Germany. However, since Linksruck member Christine Buchholz was elected onto the national leadership of the WASG, the comrades seem to have pulled out of Attac to concentrate most of their, admittedly meagre, fire on the WASG (not that this has caused Attac too much sadness, I was recently told by a beaming member). In the WASG too, the comrades have distinguished themselves for their 'programmatic flexibility' - ie, their breathtaking opportunism. Now, incredibly, they have taken the side of WASG leadership over the Berlin question. The comrades condemn the Berlin majority for "setting ultimatums" and "slamming doors" (Argumente November 2005). Instead, they support the WASG leadership's position, which is against demanding the withdrawal of the PDS from the Berlin government. They agree that the only WASG demand on the PDS should be that the latter does not make any official announcement as to their desire to continue the red-red coalition. In other words, the SWP's German section recommends that voters in Berlin should be fooled into voting for a party that wants to continue the massive social cutbacks. Of course, the Linksruck comrades are in general against government participation. Just as the SWP in general is against immigration controls, but has consistently voted against such motions within Respect. When it comes to Realpolitik, well, you need to be realistic. The comrades claim to believe that if WASG stood alongside the PDS in the 2007 local elections the "continuation of the government coalition would be made more difficult" (ibid). It is hard to see how. In reality, Linksruck proposes giving the PDS carte blanche for the continuation of the wretched coalition. It is supporting the Aachener Appell, which stands in clear opposition to the Berliner Appell and refuses to launch a fight against PDS government participation (http://projekt.neue-linke.info). The comrades are, of course, keen defenders of a non-socialist WASG and will undoubtedly put forward a similar position in the new, united party: 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 comrade Buchholz in her article, 'Challenges for the WASG in 2005' (www.sozialismus-von-unten.de/lr/artikel_1363.html). Luckily, Linksruck's influence is so weak that their recommendations have been largely ignored in Berlin, despite the German capital being the group's main organisational base. Fight for change In the absence of a real Communist Party in Germany (or anywhere else, for that matter) we call on all socialists and communists to join both the WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS - and to fight for a new joint organisation that can provide a real political alternative. There is now a great opportunity to use the opposition of the comrades in Berlin to relaunch the fight for a political shift to the left within both organisations, a renegotiation of the cooperation agreement and for the ending of all talk of taking part in a capitalist government. Managing capitalism inevitably means betraying working class interests. For this reason, we urge the comrades to concentrate on working out a principled fighting programme. The party must demand the complete reversal of the whole raft of anti-worker legislation (passed and proposed). It must use its parliamentary presence to help mobilise that opposition where it really counts - amongst the class itself. Crucially, a debate needs to be had about the political orientation of the new formation. There is opposition in both parties to limiting the new party to a narrow programme of 'rescuing the welfare state', which clearly does not get to the heart of the problem. If we accept that in conditions of a declining global capitalism the welfare state cannot be 'saved' on a permanent basis, then surely the left needs to provide answers that go beyond trying to preserve the status quo. It would be a tragedy if this historic opportunity to build a strong socialist force in the land of Marx and Engels were to be squandered.