Difficult birth pangs

April 29-30 will see conferences of WASG and the Linkspartei.PDS. Both are crucial for the working class in Germany. The formation of a fused party will be at the core of proceedings. Ben Lewis reports from Germany

If all goes to plan, Oskar Lafontaine's WASG (Electoral Alliance for Work and Social Justice) and Linkspartei.PDS, led by Gregor Gysi, will unite by the end of the autumn. However, there is increasingly vocal opposition to a quick merger in WASG - from both the left and the right. In addition, many fundamental political questions are yet to be solved, or have simply been brushed aside. Centrally, the L.PDS's disastrous participation in a number of local and regional governments, most notably in the red-red, neoliberal city coalition in Berlin and a similar arrangement in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The L.PDS has been shifting to the right for some time. It abandoned the aspiration to go beyond capitalism (its party programme now "accepts the market economy") and - despite widespread criticism of the PDS's governmental participation on the wider German left - the leadership clearly has an eye on ministerial posts in some future federal coalition government. Unfortunately, there is hardly any opposition to this trajectory from within the organisation.

Instead, the comrades seem to be enjoying their return to power - albeit much reduced (in the form of the Socialist Unity Party it was the former ruling party in the German Democratic Republic). Bizarrely, a number of PDS members have recently been hired by the Berlin police to work with them during the forthcoming World Cup: they will travel around on bikes and inform the police by mobile of any 'trouble'. Apparently, 'lefties' on bikes will be less likely to draw hostility when engaging in this sort of policing operation than your average plain-clothed plod - a sort of downbeat metaphor for the role of workers' organisations in capitalist-dominated coalitions "¦

WASG is going through its own internal crisis. Despite a surprisingly low turnout in the recent ballot to legitimise the leadership's handling of the unity negotiations, the process continues in the same manner as before - it is bureaucratically forcing through the merger, sidelining and ridiculing all criticism.


The WASG leadership has also now shown its teeth over Berlin. Here, the majority of WASG members had voted to stand independently of the L.PDS in the forthcoming regional elections in September - despite mutual assurances from both leaderships that there would be no electoral clashes.

The WASG leadership has now threatened the Berlin branch that if their district congress on April 22 decides not to withdraw its candidates, then the leadership will veto that decision. Apparently, this 'plan of action' was the outcome of a meeting between "leading politicians in the WASG and the L.PDS" (WASG Newsletter No 10, April 7). They also agreed on a common platform for the Berlin elections. None of this was done in consultation with Berlin WASG, according to their statement in the same newsletter - so the stalemate continues.

Despite some comrades enthusing about the L.PDS 'shifting to the left', the common platform is simply a list of platitudes on various aspects of local government policy. It reflects the same political problems contained in the programmatic paper discussed below.

Whatever the outcome of the Berlin conference, any punishments or bureaucratic measures against the Berlin comrades should be strongly opposed. We have our own criticisms. of course. The majority are politically (if not numerically) dominated by the Socialist Party's sister organisation, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV). They seem to be increasingly drawn in a sectarian direction. The comrades demand that unless the L.PDS withdraws from government in Berlin there should be no merger with the WASG.

Communists are clear. A united party with the L.PDS, even considering its current parlous state, would be a step forward for revolutionaries in Germany. It would provide us with a qualitatively bigger arena in which to argue for a Marxist party - a party, of course, that would not participate in bourgeois governments.

This is an historic opportunity that must not be missed for the sake of the spurious ideological 'purity' of either one of these two organisations - in truth, both are thoroughly reformist, politically compromised formations.

However, their unity would add up to more than the sum of these parts. After a political ice age that has lasted since 1933, advanced workers in Germany - the potential engine house of the revolution in Europe - would again have back on their agendas the question of a genuine workers' party as a real, practical and tangible question of contemporary politics.

With this in mind, it is totally wrong that some leftwing WASG comrades disingenuously hide their blanket opposition to unity behind spurious concerns over a "quick merger". In truth, they have now almost manoeuvred themselves into a corner where a merger is as good as impossible. In contrast, we say: the quicker, the better.

The question of Berlin should be the subject of a frank and free debate at the coming national conference of WASG. However, the leadership has already rejected this by using the 78.7% vote for a merger in last month's membership ballot to pre-empt the debate, arguing that the "formidable" result is a sign of approval for the methods of the leadership. In reality, it showed huge discontent with the whole process (see Weekly Worker April 6).

The bureaucratic manoeuvres of the leadership are exemplified in an article in WASG Newsletter No 11 by executive members Klaus Ernst and Thomas Händel. They state that they "would have preferred to have had the debate [on Berlin] with delegates at the WASG congress and given over the decision to the most sovereign body of the WASG". Yet WASG Berlin's behaviour has "forced us to act sooner and present our decision to the congress to be ratified there" (April 13).

This 'take it or leave it' ultimatum should be rejected by the membership.

Possibly it will. There are over a dozen motions that urge the conference to either sack the leadership, express "mistrust" in it or want to force through new elections. However, it seems that these may be disallowed on grounds of the party statute.

Clearly, the leadership is not confident of support from the membership. For instance, if it voluntarily resigned and was re-elected at conference, that would be a ringing endorsement by the whole party of its support for the leadership and its approach to merger negotiations. It seems the national executive is not sure it would survive any such vote of confidence.

WASG and programme 

One of the most interesting debates over the weekend will be the discussion around the so-called Eckpunktepapier (http://media.w-asg.de/1223.html). These proposals of the WASG/L.PDS programme commission, drawn up in February, are supposed to form the basis of a new programme for the merged party. As the motions to conference tend only to suggest additions to this paper, it is crucial that Marxists in WASG subject the proposals to a thorough-going critique.

The paper is a cut-and-paste amalgam of social democratic, green, trade unionist, feminist and anti-fascist platitudes. It attempts to smooth over potential ideological and sectional cracks in both organisations and is full of catch-all, empty phrases.

We are told there is a need to create a "fundamental change to the property and power relations", the need for a "change of direction in politics", to look for "broad support" from all the various elements in society that are "critical of capitalism". This would help to bring about a "world without war, poverty and hunger".

All very nice, but the catch comes when the programme states that "many of us see in such a world a just world of solidarity, others amongst us democratic socialism". These two alternatives actually presuppose divergent paths of struggle, however - something the Eckpunktepapier implicitly recognises and ... concentrates on the first option, unsurprisingly.

There is no mention of the class struggle winning reforms, no mention of the self-liberation of the working class. The politics in the paper are of the brand that capitalism could easily accommodate to and absorb - just as it ate up almost the full programme of the German Green Party.

The demands for a "maximum working week of 40 hours" (many employed people in Germany work much shorter hours), the creation of "publicly financed employment sectors between market and state" and the aim of creating a "just tax system" are hardly going to stretch the democratic boundaries of contemporary German capitalism to breaking limit and beyond. The central question of the merger process, embodied in the controversy of Berlin, is when and if a workers' party should participate in government.

The very last page of the document states that the new party will "regard government participation as a means of social realignment, if the conditions necessary for this are present. For that we need broad social support and stable parliamentary alliances with other political forces."

These conditions are "the improvement of the situation of the disadvantaged, the carrying out of important left plans for reform, stopping the neoliberal offensive" and "the changing of the existing power relations and the introduction of political change".

The key point is of course that, as a minor player in a government, the left is bound to act as a cover for attacks on workers. The L.PDS has again proved this in its outrageous record in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it has been instrumental in pushing through social cuts, privatisations and the termination of wage agreements. In Dresden, the PDS fraction has just supported the selling off of the entire public housing stock - an interesting application of the imperative to work for "the improvement of the situation of the disadvantaged".

On two fronts

Marxists in Germany must fight on two fronts.

First, they must be for the fastest possible unity between these two organisations. We will fight any bureaucratic diktats of the leadership and defend the democracy of the rank and file; but not at the cost of giving a right of veto to small groups that perhaps may dig in their heels on unity for narrow, politically sectarian reasons.

Second, and whatever the fate of this merger attempt, we will fight for a party cohered on the basis of a Marxist programme - the only politics adequate to meet the challenge of the coming period of profound political change in Germany and across Europe as a whole.

After World War II, the allies sought to anchor capitalism via a 'social partnership' or contract between capital and labour - a capitalist 'model village'. The working class made considerable gains in terms of trade union power, living standards rose dramatically and democratic rights - within the cramped parameters of capitalism - expanded. In this way, the class was inoculated against the lure of Marxism and the fight for a radically different world. Ironically, the existence of the German Democratic Republic to the east had exactly the same effect.

This had huge ramifications for the workers' movement in western Germany. It was the final nail in the coffin of the formal adherence to Marxism of the Social Democratic Party - a break finally made in 1959 in Bad Godesberg.

The collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe changed everything - capitalism is now determined on a strategic reconfiguration of the balance of power between itself and labour.

The last eight years of the SPD in government, with its unprecedented attacks on the working class with the Hartz IV reforms, one-euro jobs and other draconian measures is a taste of things to come for the proletariat of Germany unless it can get its act together to fight back.

A Marxist programme is not simply a handy 'add-on' in such a fight; the bitter experience of our class in Britain since the strategic defeat of the miners in 1984-85 underlines that it is a vital precondition of success.

It is this understanding that underlines the urgency of the parallel and interrelated tasks of merging working class forces in Germany and the simultaneous fight for principled unity on the basis of authentic Marxism.