Fight for unity, fight for principle

Ben Lewis (a member of the CPGB and the German left party, WASG) reports on last week's regional elections in three German federal states and the local elections in the state of Hesse, which give a useful snapshot of the soon-to-be-united left

About one-fifth of the German electorate got the chance to vote in the March 26 state and local elections, which - despite a record low turnout - provided an interesting insight into the balance of forces within Germany, with the evident inability of the 'grand coalition', uniting the conservative CDU and the social democratic SPD, to deal with social problems facing the people. Far more interestingly, it also threw light on how the Linkspartei/WASG is faring since its remarkable effort in last September's general elections, when it achieved 8.7% of the vote.

The elections were characterised by one worrying trend - apathy. Despite both main parties seeing the results as confirmation of the success of their coalition, with the CDU winning two and the SPD one of the state elections, the very fact that in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt only 44.4% of people turned out to vote highlights the extent of the alienation from the political system. This trend was also clearly present in the west, with only 45.6% of people in Hesse voting in the local elections. This is not surprising, as the cosy coalition set up by the two parties has served only to show how little difference there is between 'red' and 'black'.

In Saxony-Anhalt, however, the Linkspartei.PDS achieved its best ever result, winning 24.2% of the vote. Its candidate, Wulf Gallert, ran a campaign that concentrated on the "social issues" arising from the latest attacks on jobs, conditions and welfare that workers have been subjected to by the grand coalition. The ex-'official' communist Linkspartei.PDS was able to mobilise a good number of activists and supporters in this former eastern state and pushed the SPD into third place. The potential for a left Volkspartei is clearly there.

On the other hand, the political trajectory of the Linkspartei.PDS is of great concern to many on the left. Despite its extra-parliamentary mobilisation against social cuts, the party is clearly set on establishing further red-red coalitions similar to the ones in Berlin and Mecklenburg Vorpommern. By forming a government coalition with the social democrats they are under the illusion that they somehow 'keep them under control'.

In reality of course, it is the Linkspartei.PDS that is being kept in check. The experiences within these coalitions have proved this over and over again - the comrades frequently end up voting through the very policies that they claim to be mobilising against (a recent example being the selling off the entire public housing stock in the eastern city of Dresden).

In this sense the Linkspartei.PDS is more concerned with issues of Realpolitik than trying to empower workers in the struggle for socialism. In Saxony-Anhalt, although the CDU won the biggest share of the votes, the Linkspartei.PDS was quick to calculate that it could form a government coalition with the SPD. Wulf Gallert even volunteered the information that he would be quite prepared to become state president. A regional 'grand coalition', however, is a far more likely outcome.

Nevertheless, this desire of the Linkspartei.PDS to consolidate and expand its foothold in government is increasingly becoming the sore point in the process aimed at a merger of the Linkspartei.PDS with the Wahlinitiative für Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG).

WASG: modest

In the west of Germany, the WASG made some modest gains in the local elections, but, compared to the general election, lost a significant proportion of votes in the two state polls. It is in this sense still far from becoming an established party. In the Hesse local elections, however, it is estimated that the WASG easily cleared the anti-democratic 'five percent hurdle' and as a result will be represented on several local councils. Indeed, it achieved around 9.3% of the vote in Marburg and 7.3% in Frankfurt. Very good results indeed, even if one takes into account the low turnout. No doubt the new councillors will be able to promote the party and increase its profile.

By contrast, in Baden-Würrtemberg, a traditionally conservative region with the country's lowest unemployment rate, the WASG managed only 3.1%, failing to make substantial inroads into the SPD vote. In fact it lost around 97,000 votes here compared to September's elections (although then, of course, voters put their cross next to the Linkspartei name). Rheinland-Pfalz saw  the WASG win 2.5% of the vote in a state where the SPD has dominated for years. Once more the vote is down massively - a loss of roughly 88,000 votes compared to what the Linkspartei had polled even before it was officially founded.

An article on the WASG website stresses that "the political left failed to reach the majority of the voters, who stayed away from the polling booths" (www.w-asg.de/28+M584c8 bec3a3.html). The article makes clear that the WASG leadership has been criticising its members for not campaigning hard enough. However, the disappointing results are more likely to be related to the delay in merging the two component parts of the new Linkspartei. Indeed, every day the press is full of reports of the latest squabble.

Unity and the way forward

Friday March 31 will see the end of voting in the referendum within the WASG on the question of unity with the Linkspartei.PDS. This is certain to produce a massive 'yes'. In fact the question was formulated in such a manner that it was impossible to vote anything but 'yes': "Are you in favour of moving forward the merger process with the Linkspartei.PDS?"

In truth, this is as much about exercising control over the internal opposition as it is about the merger. The ballot result, many fear, will be used to sidestep the Berlin WASG, which has decided to stand against the Linkspartei.PDS in the regional elections in September 2006 - in protest against its disastrous record as part of the local government coalition.

The ballot put the left in the WASG in a difficult position. After all, it is well known that the leadership is preparing to use a 'yes' result to 'punish' or 'sanction' the majority of Berlin comrades in some form or another. But they could hardly vote 'no' - after all, most of the left recognises the great advantages a new joint left party would have for the notion of working class independence.

In that sense, I can sympathise with the approach pursued by the Sozialistische Alternative (SAV, the German section of the Socialist Party's Committee for a Workers' International), which was basically to abstain from the ballot. The problem is that the comrades were so unsure about this tactic and its potential impact that they did not tell anybody about it - let alone try to convince WASG members to do the same. While an active boycott could - maybe - have shed some light on the balance of forces within the WASG and the potential to cohere the left, an inactive abstention is a sign of tactical ineptitude.

However, all this misses the point. It is perfectly possible to stand for unity while opposing any witch-hunt. Revolutionaries should be at the forefront of the campaign to ensure the merger goes ahead quickly, while at the same time condemning the WASG leadership's bureaucratic control-freakery and demanding an end to Linkspartei.PDS participation in bourgeois governments. A critical 'yes' vote, in other words.

The confusion over this question is symptomatic of a weak and largely embryonic opposition within a relatively new organisation. In the run-up to the crucial WASG conference in Ludwigshafen (April 29-30), the task of revolutionaries is to organise as a principled opposition within the party against the manoeuvres of the leadership in its attempt to alienate and ridicule us. WASG leaders have used the bourgeois press to accuse its left wing of trying to "split", "sabotage" and "derail" the whole project.

It is the duty of principled revolutionaries to take up this struggle against the leadership now and not hold back on our criticisms until after the merger. This latter approach is favoured by the Socialist Workers Party's German section, Linksruck, which has sided with the leadership on all major questions. Linksruck raised no objection to the undemocratic way the ballot was conducted - pre-empting the real debate at Ludwigshafen - and are apparently in favour of the leadership's plan to 'punish' the majority of WASG members in Berlin. At least, they have yet to openly criticise the leadership for its threats.

Taking up the struggle to organise a currently weak opposition is not, as the leadership suggests, to push sectional or factional interests at the expense of a new German workers' party. We are all in favour of a new workers' party. But we will argue that this party's programme is of prime importance, and if it is to be of any use to the working class, then it must be based on the ideas of scientific socialism - ie, Marxism.

If we are not allowed to argue for this, then we will do it anyway. It is of course true that those arguing for such a party are in a distinct minority in both parties, but we must organise now with others who oppose the reformism of the leading elements in the Linkspartei/WASG.

The left should also express its solidarity with the democratic decision of the WASG in Berlin to stand alone in the September elections. This can then pave the way for the fight for the right to form factions within a new organisation - necessary to any working-class organisation worth its name.

To conceal your criticisms in the name of the unity game (as Linksruck is doing) is to strengthen the bureaucracy whose aim is to prevent the establishment of a mass democratic party of the working class. A very dangerous game indeed.

The same applies over the type of party we need. The fight over what kind of programme the new formation should have has not really started. Although various WASG 'programmatic papers' clearly demonstrate that the leadership favours a reformist, neo-Keynesian programme based on empty platitudes, large sections of the WASG membership have shown their desire for a more rounded, effective programme. While there might not be a majority in favour of a Marxist programme, there is a healthy minority that clearly identify themselves with (some form of) socialism.

Clearly, the Linkspartei would be totally useless if it merely aimed at becoming a social democracy mark II (but 'more social'). For a start, there already is such a party, which - despite losing thousands of members, supporters, and votes - has rooted relationships with the unions and millions of supporters within the working class. Why would the masses join a party that is merely a copy of the old SPD? Especially as it would be a smaller, less coherent, less effective copy.

This is why the WASG now and the Linkspartei when it comes into existence in 2007 must reject reformism and all attempts to manage capitalism, which will inevitably come at the expense of the working class, who are currently being bled white by the 'grand coalition' - in the name of social democracy.

Voter apathy highlights the fact that more and more people are seeing through the illusion of bourgeois democracy. The question is: can the WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS offer any solutions out of the current misery? Or will they merely serve up the same, failed programme of social democracy?