Merger opportunity

Ben Lewis, a member of the CPGB and the German left party WASG, reports on the result of the Urabstimmung (membership ballot) within the WASG, which highlights widespread discontent over the leadership's bureaucratic manoeuvres in pursuing the merger with the Linkspartei.PDS ballot

"Do you want to the WASG to move forward with the merger process with the Linkspartei.PDS?" A simple question, which was put to the near 12,000 members of the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (electoral alternative for work and social justice) in a membership ballot over three weeks ago.

With 78.7%, a clear majority voted yes. The interpretation of the result, however, is not quite so straightforward.

Naturally there was a lot of interest surrounding the ballot. It was announced (in the bourgeois media) that the result would be made public on the WASG website on the afternoon of Friday March 31. Members were however forced to wait. The official announcement of the results was frustratingly delayed and delayed until late Saturday night. Even then, it was not even a comprehensive report of the results, as the turnout figure was withheld.

The more impatient of us went elsewhere for the results. As one member put it in a posting to the WASG email discussion forum: "It's quite typical of the WASG that I only found out what is going on in my own party by looking at www.finanzen.de" (a bourgeois news and finance site).

Indeed, not until Monday afternoon was there an official statement from the WASG leadership outlining its opinion of the results. It seems that the leadership had a lot to talk over and come to terms with (www.w-asg.de/28+M55aec51316b.html). Its posting claims that the result is a "formidable vote in favour of the course we are following, out of which a new political force is to emerge in 12 months." This is more than just an overly optimistic assessment - it is one-sided.

Reality of result

Out of the 11,813 registered members in the WASG, only 6,731 (57.2%) took part in the vote. There were 116 invalid ballot papers and 16 abstentions. The "Ja" votes numbered 5,281 (78.8% of the votes) and the "Nein" 1,332 (19.4%). Which means that just 45% of all members have voted yes.

This (formal) majority now paves the way for the merging of the two parties, which was initially scheduled for 2007, but both leaderships have declared that they would like this to be "speeded up".

In WASG newsletter 9, central committee member Thomas Händel admits that "we have not achieved an absolute majority". But "in the face of the current debate, the result is very, very good" (April 5). In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (April 3), he said he was satisfied with the result, but "had expected more members to take part".

But no attempt is being made to either analyse or explain why so few people have taken part in the ballot. With well over 40% of the membership not voting, and around 10% voting no, this is clearly symptomatic of a political problem within WASG. The Linkspartei.PDS simply ignored this, with secretary Lothar Bisky declaring: "We're on the right track!"

Even if one takes into account the existence of an active minority and a passive majority, there clearly is discontent. After all, last July the leadership asked almost exactly the same question - and then, over 70% voted. More then 85% said "Ja" to the introduction of open talks with the Linkspartei.PDS in the hope of establishing a new left force.

It also did not seem to have helped much that a "private letter" went out to all WASG members, signed by Gregor Gysi (leader of the Linkspartei.PDS) and WASG celebrity Oscar Lafontaine (former leader of the German Social Democratic Party), urging WASG members to vote "Ja".

However, in my opinion, many of the "no" voters (and most of the abstentions) are actually in favour of a new joint party but are negatively expressing their discontent with the way in which the leadership is bureaucratically handling the issue. Despite the claims of the WASG leadership that this second ballot in two years expresses its "commitment to democracy", it was in fact aimed at weakening opposition in the organisation.

In fact, the very timing of the ballot was rather cynical. Many members feared that the leadership would use an overwhelming "yes" to pre-empt much of the debate on this important question at the WASG party conference on April 29-30. The not so good ballot result makes this less simple.

The seemingly harmless question on the ballot paper was in fact hiding the dispute around Berlin WASG and the red-red neo-liberal city coalition. The WASG leadership has repeatedly made it clear, including in the bourgeois media, that it would not allow the WASG in Berlin to stand against the Linkspartei.PDS in the regional elections in September.

Many members who are in favour of a common left party, but against any bureaucratic measures against the Berlin WASG, presumably decided not to vote. A clear yes in the ballot would have been taken as a message for the national WASG executive that it can punish the Berlin comrades - either through suspension of the branch, the withdrawal of funds or through expelling the 'trouble makers' (see Weekly Worker March 30).

In the light of the ballot result, this now seems less likely - especially as WASG in the east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has also recently decided to stand against the Linkspartei.PDS in the next regional elections. Similarly to Berlin, the PDS - as part of a red-red government - has been instrumental here in pushing through social cuts, privatisations and the termination of wage agreements.

WASG's conference will see a heated debate over both Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The WASG executive has announced that "we will argue that such one-sided decisions" will "lead to the dissolution of the national project and are therefore not acceptable" (WASG newsletter 9).

The low participation in the ballot "is to be viewed as an expression of a not very attractive political culture in the WASG", the report on the WASG website admits. It remains to be seen, however, if the leadership will be able learn the important lessons from this disappointing result and refrain from bureaucratic measures against disgruntled members.

Too slow? Too fast?

Gerhard Seyfarth, speaking on behalf of WASG in Berlin, argues that the result is proof that "only a minority of the membership are in favour of following the route of a quick fusion with the PDS" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 3). This to me seems the wrong conclusion to draw from the vote.

Gregor Gysi (leader of the Linkspartei.PDS) said that "I can understand that some are of the opinion that the process must be sped up. The animosity and factionalism in some states haven't exactly promoted the project, for others however the process is happening all too quickly." (sozialisten.de/presse/presseerklaerungen/view_html/zid32314/bs1/n0)

There are undoubtedly a few (leftist) WASG members who reject cooperation with the Linkspartei.PDS until it breaks with reformism and ends its participation in various local and regional governments. There are also some (right wing) members who do not want to merge with the PDS because it is 'too socialist' or Stalinist for them. Both are clearly wrong.

Communists welcome the historic opportunity to overcome isolation and will fight for a quick merger. Such a new left party could be capable of attracting attract tens of thousands of new members and become a real force to be reckoned with. Especially as it is only a question of time until many in Germany become disillusioned with the governing 'grand coalition' of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Conservatives (CDU).

What about the left?

Most of the left within the WASG are in favour of a more or less speedy merger - at least theoretically. The devil, however, lies in the detail.

The Sozialistische Alternative (SAV, the German section of the Socialist Party's CWI) have now changed their line and seem to be saying that unity should only come about when certain criteria or conditions have been met.

In the April issue of their paper Solidarität, the SAV's national spokesperson Sascha Stanicic puts forward their demands for the coming WASG conference. They call for the acceptance of the Berlin decision to stand against the Linkspartei.PDS and for no measures to be taken against WASG Berlin.

However, and this is the crucial issue, the comrades urge WASG to "affirm its principle" to "not participate in any government that engages in social cuts, privatisations and the destruction of workplaces". This principle should "be used as an important prerequisite in the process of forming a new party".

The poverty of the CWI's political outlook is as clear here as it is within the Socialist Party's 'Campaign for a new Workers Party'. In both, the comrades have actively argued against adopting a Marxist programme (as has the Socialist Workers Party's small German section, Linksruck). And instead of arguing clearly against participation in a capitalist government in principle, the SAV comrades hide behind WASG's current position (which is less than clear-cut in any case).

Despite their programmatic poverty, the SAV have at least recognised the necessity to take up the struggle against the misleadership of both the WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Linksruck.

One can understand the comrades' emphasis on how unity would represent a step forward for revolutionaries in Germany, but they falsely conclude from this that unity must come at the sacrifice of criticism - at least until the merger is completed.

Linksruck has merged into the WASG, almost to the point of dissolution. It voices no criticisms of the leadership or its bureaucratic measures and has been rewarded with at least a dozen jobs in the parliamentary faction of the Linkspartei.

At the coming WASG conference in Ludwigshafen we should not confuse the fight for principle with putting up obstacles which would hamper to process of unification. As long as there is a space for critical ideas, then the unity of the two groups is, in itself, a huge step forward. If there is no such space, then Marxists should join anyway and create it through active struggle.

A unified left offers the prospect of overcoming the isolation of revolutionaries in Germany and presents a fantastic opportunity to spread Marxism amongst masses of people.