Berlin haunts proceedings

Tina Becker and Ben Lewis report from the April 29-30 conference of the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG) in Ludwigshafen. Intended to smooth the way for unity with the Linkspartei.PDS, it was marked by discontent, threats and the profound disorientation of the left opposition

The question of Berlin hung over the conference like a bad smell. Just five days before, the leadership of the Berlin WASG (politically, though not numerically, dominated by the Socialist Party's German section, Sozialistische Alternative, or SAV) had put in nomination papers for their candidates in the September local elections. A slim majority of the Berlin membership had voted to stand independently from the Linkspartei.PDS (the successor to the former ruling party of East Germany) - to the consternation of the leaderships of both the WASG and the L.PDS.

For the L.PDS in particular, separate WASG candidates in Berlin could have serious consequences and even potentially threaten its ability to renew the disastrous 'red-red government' with the social democrats. The 22% it received at the last election four years ago will undoubtedly be seriously squeezed in the coming elections due to the fallout from its participation in an extremely unpopular local government. A rival candidate on the left could reduce its vote even further.

No wonder then that the question of Berlin was the main issue on the agenda. The run-up to conference was marked by threats and ultimatums from WASG leaders. Klaus Ernst (joint party secretary) and Ulrich Maurer (secretary of the joint parliamentary fraction of WASG and L.PDS) threatened to resign from the WASG and join the L.PDS if the majority of delegates did not sanction measures against the WASG majority in Berlin. They got their way by a majority of 163 to 121 votes. Now they have a free hand to take "all measures necessary" to stop the Berlin comrades from standing in the September elections. Most people expect that these measures will include court orders against them and possibly a number of expulsions, most likely of SAV members.

While we must oppose such moves, it is clear that the SAV has done neither itself nor the WASG project any favours. Its tactic of insisting on separate candidates has weakened the opposition: rather than fighting over the programme of a new joint party in Germany, the left is wasting time and a lot of effort over what is, in truth, a diversion.

Thus, the keynote speech of Oskar Lafontaine (former leading member of the SPD and ex-finance minister in the SPD-Green coalition government) remained totally unchallenged - despite its transparently disingenuous nature.

Lafontaine and anti-capitalism

This speech was of great interest to the left - or should have been. In it, he pulled out all the stops to convince the majority to vote with the leadership over Berlin - though his approach was rather more refined than the crude blackmailing of Klaus Ernst. But also, both before and at the conference itself, he was at pains to parade his own 'left' credentials in an effort to placate the opposition within the WASG.

He attacked the current "predatory capitalism" of modern society and his 'anti-capitalist' views formed the central motif. As opposed to the L.PDS and the majority on the WASG executive, he purports to have developed a certain scepticism about participation in bourgeois governments and has been an outspoken critic of the L.PDS record in Berlin: "Would we have a guilt-free conscience if we were involved in governments at local and regional levels? I doubt it." He continued: "Of course, the L.PDS has neoliberal tendencies, particularly in Berlin - but then again, so do we."

His 'anti-capitalism' certainly does not translate into 'pro-socialism'. Instead, Keynesian measures to "rescue the welfare state" are still the order of the day. He quoted Jean-Jacques Rousseau several times, including: "My favourite idea from the great man: that the weak need laws to be free".

This, of course, contains more than a grain of truth. Strong sections of the working class fight to win laws which compel the weak, often unorganised, sections of the working class to limit the competition of workers amongst themselves. Examples would be minimum pay levels, caps on daily and weekly hours and health and safety measures. Employers and workers are alike forced to abide by laws which enhance the collective interests of the working class. That is not freedom, but it does enhance the fighting capacity of the working class.

But what Lafontaine seems to have in mind is not working class solidarity and forcing concessions from the state. He sees the latter as the answer in and of itself. He envisages a revived social democratic state paid for by "an increase in the tax rate" (for everybody, it seems, not just the rich). He said: "My Leitmotif is the modern social state."

Interestingly, he attacked the "limited vision of the old socialists on the property question. It is simply not enough to say that the banks or the energy sector have to be nationalised." A few socialists in the room looked at each other in amazement - was he about to put forward the need for democratic control over nationalised industry? Er"¦ no. He wants the state to "fix gas prices" and "set a top level for interest rates". His anti-capitalism is warmed-up statism.

But it is fair to say that his vision of anti-capitalism did not exactly enthuse delegates. Only a third of the audience got up to give him a standing ovation after his 45-minute keynote speech. Some will have been to his right; others potential recruits for a left opposition.

Predictably, the WASG opposition as currently constituted had absolutely nothing to say on Lafontaine's programme of 'rescuing the welfare state'. All its interventions focussed on the question of Berlin. This is undoubtedly an important issue, but the left risks being diverted from effectively challenging the leadership on the question of politics and programme by the way this controversy is currently being posed.

Soft and hard opposition

The general political level was extremely poor. Clearly, there are almost as many eccentric outlooks within the WASG as there are members. Speakers from various weird and wonderful political backgrounds put forward their ideas of what the WASG meant to them - a vicar, a few transparent careerists who could be touting themselves at other conferences tomorrow, a former secret service agent (proud of his role in helping to bring down the German Democratic Republic), a police squad leader, etc.

Most of the speeches were agonisingly apolitical, and simply revolved around 'I have done this in my local village' or 'I know a lot about energy policies'. Indeed, much to many comrades' amusement, one candidate was actually castigated by a member of the conference steering committee for using his speech "to make political points". Whatever was he thinking "¦?

The poverty of WASG debate is facilitated by the disunity and political fragmentation of the organised left. The SAV concentrates exclusively on the question of Berlin and this sect-myopia is pushing it into a block with the right (see 'German CWI blocks with right' in this issue). The Socialist Workers Party's German section, Linksruck, uncritically supports the WASG leadership, argues for a "non-socialist" WASG and has been rewarded with about a dozen jobs in the Bundestag fraction. Shamefully, these comrades did little to hide their amusement over an 'emergency motion' that argued for the expulsion of the SAV. In the end, only two delegates voted for this, with the vast majority voting 'nein'. Leading Linksruck members, however, abstained. A scandalous, scabbing position that any comrade with an ounce of working class morality should feel deeply ashamed of.

Workers Power's German section, Arbeitermacht, has compounded its laughably incoherent approach to the WASG by being totally absent from the conference. The comrades left the WASG a couple of weeks before the merger process began, then hurriedly rejoined and now seem to have all but disappeared again. A 'crisis of leadership' perhaps, comrades "¦?

The unorganised left within the WASG drifts rudderless, while what is organised either digs in its heels on the wrong question (SAV) or cuddles up to the apparatus (Linksruck). This vacuum will be filled - the question is, by whom and with what programme?

There is a good chance that we saw the beginning of a soft left opposition emerging at conference. Three national executive members announced their resignation from the committee because they did not want to "have to enforce the decision of this conference" - ie, to take administrative measures against the comrades in Berlin.

Sabine Lösing (formerly on the Attac national executive), Joachim Bischoff (an ex-member of the PDS national executive) and Björn Radke had previously formed a 'non-organised' faction on the leadership and criticised the Berlin government and the L.PDS for its part in it. They have argued against any administrative measures against the comrades in Berlin, while encouraging them to withdraw their nominations.

Joachim Bischoff (who rather amusingly - and accurately, in fact - described unity with the L.PDS as a potential "historic step forward, even if it is the merger of social democratic crap with reformed Stalinism") announced in his resignation speech the formation of "a left network" within the WASG. It is quite feasible that their 'soft left' will attract many of the critical voices in the organisation, simply because it is the most coherent opposition - this despite the fact that such forces could be won to a more radical programme. Bischoff and Radke might be critical of the heavy-handedness of Klaus Ernst and Oskar Lafontaine - but their political programme is just as riddled with social democracy and Keynesian "crap" as the leadership they leave behind.

In the L.PDS, too, some kind of (soft) opposition has started to emerge. This has been very critical of some of the more openly neoliberal measures taken by L.PDS politicians in government (like the selling off of the entire housing stock of the east German city of Dresden). Indeed, the recent publication For an anti-capitalist left - drafted by more or less prominent soft-left members of both parties, openly criticises "a political tendency in the PDS" which, "unaffected by programmatic commitments, began to stand for a Realpolitik that became very similar to that of the other neoliberal parties" (www.antikapitalistische-linke.de).

Also interesting in this context are a few developments at the conference of the L.PDS itself, which took place in Halle (also over the weekend of April 29-30). For example, Katina Schubert, a vocal supporter of the privatisation of public housing in Dresden, received only 67.4% of the vote in her candidacy for the position of vice-chair of the L.PDS. This is a bad result in a party in which such important posts are normally confirmed by well over 90% of the membership - just like the good old days, in fact. Also, a motion moved by local Dresden politician Theresa Ostrowski that sanctioned the privatisation policy did not receive a single vote.

That shows how wrong those in the orbit of the SAV are who claim that the L.PDS cannot change. Sure, the opposition is weak and incoherent. But the public debate over government participation has helped inject life back into the L.PDS. This is something that should urgently be addressed by the socialist left within the WASG, not downplayed or denied.

Radical opposition

The left in both parties must concentrate on the crucial question: gaining the democratic rights needed to openly and freely make propaganda for the kind of new left party that is needed by the working class in Germany. One that concentrates solely on futile attempt to 'rescue the welfare state'? Or a party that can provide real answers to today's big political questions. Such answers, in our opinion, must be drawn from the genuinely scientific body of thought that is Marxism.

This is not to deny that important issues are involved in the Berlin controversy. But neither the WASG's social democracy nor the L.PDS's soft-focus Stalinism are redoubts behind which the left should make some sort of last stand. Instead, and as we have previously stated, socialists must fight on two fronts simultaneously.

First, for a rapid merger of these two groupings, thus creating a serious focus on the left for the working class to resist the present onslaught against the gains made by the working class in Germany since World War II. A united party would be seen as the natural leadership for mass protests, strikes and demonstrations. Struggle itself will teach and overcome many of the backward ideas and confusions that plague both the WASG and L.PDS.

Second, a vastly wider space for principled working class politicians to gain a hearing will be created. Marxism, authentic Marxism, can once again find a mass audience in Germany.