SAV moves towards WASG split

Tina Becker reports from the May 20 gathering of the so-called 'left' opposition in the German WASG - which was dominated not by socialist ideas, but conservatism and sectarianism

There was a clear division at the gathering of the 'left opposition' of the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG) in Kassel on May 20. But the line of demarcation was not drawn between those who claim to be socialists or revolutionaries on the one hand and those who adhere to a more social democratic outlook on the other.

Instead, the gathering helped to widen the gap between those who want to concentrate on positively shaping and influencing the unified left party (a clear minority at the 250-strong meeting) - and those who are now absolutely resisting the merger with the Linkspartei.PDS (the former ruling party of East Germany). Unfortunately, the Socialist Party's small German section, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), is a founding member of the latter, conservative camp.

The comrades are insisting on standing WASG candidates in opposition to the L.PDS in the September 18 regional elections in Berlin (with SAV member Lucy Redler as the main candidate) - not just against the wishes of the WASG national executive, but also the clear decision of the April 29-30 WASG national conference.

No doubt those comrades who accuse the WASG leadership of having used bureaucratic methods to convince some members to vote with them at conference are correct. But answering the undemocratic shenanigans of the leadership with, well, undemocratic shenanigans - and the threat of involving the bourgeois courts - betrays a lack of political vision.

On paper, the SAV comrades are still in favour of the new party - but the conditions they have imposed on a merger would make this impossible in reality. They are demanding that the L.PDS withdraws from the Berlin regional government before the new party can be formed - something the current L.PDS leadership will not countenance. Yet the momentum building up behind a new party could be enough to force that leadership to change course - even before its formation the WASG-PDS alliance won more than eight percent of the vote in last year's general election.

In fact, the comrades cannot possibly build a 'left opposition' in the WASG. The May 20 gathering clearly showed that their current political trajectory attracts - with some exceptions - those on the right of the WASG: a few hate the L.PDS for its formal adherence to socialism, others for its 'centralism'. Many are against parties per se and defend the WASG as a mere Sammlungsbewegung, a collection of movements. A good number of this type have already left the WASG or are in the process of doing so and are now arguing for a 'plan B', a "catch basin" for those who do not want to be members of the new joint party. And a surprisingly high number of people at the May 20 gathering can only be described as (often rather eccentric) flotsam and jetsam who will oppose anything that comes from any kind of leadership.

The left was clearly in the minority at the meeting: apart from the 20 or so SAV members, there were a couple of representatives each of the Internationale Sozialistische Linke (one of the two tiny German affiliates to the Fourth International) and Arbeiter-macht (Workers Power's German sectlet). These comrades should quickly reconsider whether they really want to be part of what is becoming a clear anti-party project. There are signs that some ISL members are more critical (see below), but Workers Power seems set on leaving its (admittedly very few) comrades to ally with the right: they are firmly and actively supporting the stance of the Berlin WASG.

The Berlin WASG is politically (if not numerically) led by the SAV - which in turn, of course, follows the lead of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. At important meetings such as the Kassel conference, there are at least one or two upper-middle cadre from London present to make sure that their German comrades follow the line.

And 'the line' has changed quite dramatically over the last few years, of course. Just as the SP, in its previous incarnation as the Militant Tendency, buried itself deep inside the Labour Party, the SAV used to operate in the SPD - and called for a vote for the SPD from its inception in 1974 until 1994, when, apparently, the SPD, just like the Labour Party, suddenly made the leap from a 'bourgeois workers party' to a 'thoroughly bourgeois party'. In the general elections in 1998, the SAV called for a vote for the PDS - and "had more than a few members operating uncritically within it", as a speaker from the German group, Spartakus, said at the Kassel gathering.

Court action

By simply ignoring the majority decision of the national conference, the Berlin WASG has alienated a lot of people who are clearly also unhappy with the current trajectory of the national leadership - some feel uncomfortable that it deposed the two democratically elected executives in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (MV) for refusing to cooperate with the L.PDS over the question of government participation.

For example, MP and WASG member Inge Höger addressed the gathering to voice her unease with the April 29-30 WASG conference, which for her marked "a point where the character of our party has changed. We have gone from pluralism to centralism." We would argue with her about the negative use of the word 'centralism', but she did make a good attempt at convincing the gathering to rethink the idea of standing separate candidates in Berlin and MV: "There is obviously a lot of sympathy for the independent candidature. But there are also many, many people in the organisation, including myself, who believe that because of the party-building process, it would have been better not to go through with it. I am not sure if this is a particularly clever thing to do. I think it would be much better to concentrate on the fight over the political profile of the new party than pursuing the fight in court."

She was referring to the SAV's Lucy Redler, who had told the meeting that "we do not want to go to court, but we have been forced to take legal action". Clearly the Socialist Party sanctions the fact that the SAV is now preparing to sue the democratically elected leadership of the WASG for 'breaching party statutes'. And if on June 1 the nomination officer of Berlin agrees with the WASG national executive and rules against the candidacy, the comrades look set to stand under an altogether different name in the elections - a complete split, in other words.

Perhaps comrade Redler has taken advice from the curiously misnamed Demokratische Plattform in the WASG, which seems to have done nothing but draw up a long list of offences committed by the leadership and how they could best be challenged in the courts. Unfortunately, this kind of formalistic, apolitical approach was very well represented at the 'left' opposition gathering.

Predictably, comrade Höger received lukewarm applause - a few people even yawned loudly. At least they did not heckle her, as they did with national executive member Thies Gleiss (a member of the ISL). Mind you, he did put it rather clumsily when he said: "We need the L.PDS - just as it is right now." His attempts to qualify what he meant were drowned in the uproar. "What I mean is that we cannot wait until the L.PDS has cleansed itself from top to bottom. We cannot put unrealisable conditions on the unification process," he said quite rightly.

With or without the L.PDS?

National SAV spokesperson Sascha Stanicic again underlined his organisation's de facto opposition to the merger process in his speech. Comrade Gleiss, along with others, had argued that the WASG left should form closer links with the slowly emerging left in the L.PDSL, as "these lines of opposition go through both parties". After all, there was even an invited speaker from the newly revived Marxistische Plattform of the L.PDS on the top table.

Comrade Stanicic replied: "There is some truth in this, but to say the same lines go through the L.PDS too is problematic." He went on to argue that on a number of issues the opposition in the WASG was much more advanced, particularly on the question of government participation. The opposition should make it its task to "defend" the formulation in the WASG programme, according to which the party "will not participate in any government that engages in social cuts, privatisation and the destruction of workplaces".

This formulation is actually profoundly inadequate in that it does not rule out participation in a 'progressive' bourgeois administration. "It fosters illusions in bourgeois government and implies that a workers' party would somehow be able to positively manage capitalism," as Martin Mitterhauser from Arbeiter-macht said quite rightly. However, this, along with other issues, was not debated properly and the gathering did not come to any conclusions. But then this rather distasteful alliance is only united by what it opposes and the conference was not really designed to arrive at political clarity.

For example, drafts for the 'final declaration' were not distributed beforehand and were discussed in a non-advertised working group at conference. Only 20 people turned up to discuss the closest thing this conglomerate has in terms of a joint political outlook. Again, the question of 'An opposition with or without the L.PDS?' formed the core of the debate - ie, merger or no merger?

There were two, almost identical, versions of this overly long text. Members of the SAV and Manuel Kellner, the single representative from the ISL, successfully argued for version two, which argues for an opposition that is not based primarily on the WASG and L.PDS - but seeks to ally itself mainly with forces outside both organisations. Instead of a trying to build "a network of the left opposition in the WASG and the L.PDS" (version one), the comrades are now intent on building "a network of left movements in society against the neoliberal attacks on our living conditions". Instead of "a unified left party" (version one), the opposition wants "a new left party" (version two).

Needless to say, this version was supported not only by the SAV and the ISL: it also attracted all those at the gathering who have already left the organisation and who are feverishly dreaming up the idea of a renewed, 'pure' WASG.

No to socialism

This was in fact one of the main themes of conference. As Edith Barelmus-Scholich, one of the organisers, put it in her opening remarks, "We must fight to preserve the Grundkonsens [basic consensus] of the WASG", which, according to her, is "systemsprengend" (bursting open the system).

In fact, the WASG programme (expressed mainly in the political outlook of its leadership as well as the meagre written version) is extremely unsuited to this task. Capital is hardly incapable technically of introducing a minimum wage of eight euros per hour or any of the other, purely Keynesian measures put forward.

But in the long term the welfare state cannot be rescued. After the implosion of the USSR it has become unnecessary to buy off the working class with welfare provisions in order to stop countries from 'going red'. In that sense, the WASG programme touches the boundaries of what the state is prepared to do under present-day circumstances - but, as it offers no means of aiding the self-liberation of the working class in Germany, no means of overcoming the current capitalist system, it is in fact incapable of "bursting open the system".

ISL comrades defended the 'pure WASG' against a (very half-hearted) attempt by the SAV to introduce a sentence into the final declaration that would commit the opposition to "fight for socialist ideas" - an SAV member said this was different from "fighting for socialism"! ISL member Manuel Kellner argued successfully that WASG and its 'left' opposition "should not be socialist, but broad". When even the socialists do not dare fight for socialism "¦

This alliance is clearly very unstable. It is held together by opposition to the L.PDS and therefore backs separate candidates in Berlin, which the SAV is using to boost the profile of its own little group - undoubtedly, it has attracted more media interest in the last few months than in all the previous years of its existence.

By claiming to believe that opposing the Berlin administration takes precedence over constructing a vehicle for the empowerment of workers across Germany, the SAV is putting its narrow interests above all else - including presenting a viable challenge to the current leadership in the form of an effective opposition.

Those socialists in the WASG and L.PDS who believe that a unified left party would be a historic step forward must now look for a different avenue and should completely break from this sectarian, rightwing opposition. A number of participants at the May 20 gathering told us that they will start work with the Anti-Capitalist Left, a loose group of prominent members of both the WASG and L.PDS who have penned the declaration, For an anti-capitalist left. They will hold their first conference on June 10 in Berlin.

Apart from the Stalinist Kommunistische Plattform of the L.PDS, the organised left has so far played almost no role within this group, whose declaration leaves a lot to be desired. While the Anti-Capitalist Left clearly states its desire to "develop alternatives to capitalism" and fight for "socialist ideas", it also lays down conditions under which it says it would be acceptable for the new merged party to engage in regional and local governments (it is against participation in national government).

Despite these political weaknesses, the group has the definite advantage that it is trying to shape, not sabotage, the historic formation of a new mass workers' party in Germany.