Wanted: principled opposition

There is a joint left opposition emerging in the two German groups, WASG and Linkspartei.PDS, coming together in a new workers' party. But is it prepared to take on the existing leaderships in both organisations? Ben Lewis reports from the June 10 conference in Berlin, 'For an anti-capitalist left'

Around 120 people gathered, in spite of soaring temperatures and soaring World Cup fever to attend the first two gatherings of the 'anti-capitalist left'. First up was a youth conference, organised by Solid, the youth group close to the L.PDS, followed by the 'For an anti-capitalist left' event itself, which pulled in 80-90 people.

It was largely composed of the 'usual suspects' in the organised left - members of the Stalinist Kommunistische Platform in the L.PDS, Sozialistische Alternative (the Socialist Party's sister group), Linksruck (the German section of the Socialist Workers Party's International Socialists), the Spartacists and so on. Arbeitermacht, the German section of Workers Power, was nowhere to be seen. As the L.PDS had its local conference on the very same day, the various trends and tendencies of the WASG in Berlin were in the majority.

The call 'For an anti-capitalist left' is based on a manifesto drafted by relatively prominent members of both the Linkspartei.PDS (the former ruling party of East Germany) and the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG). Quite a few members of parliament are numbered amongst them and MEP Sahra Wagenknecht of the Kommunistische Plattform is playing a leading role. Also involved are WASG executive member Thies Gleiss (a member of the Internationale Sozialistische Linke, one of the two German sections of the Fourth International) and Sabine Lösing, who at the recent WASG party conference announced her resignation from the party leadership - she was opposed to administrative measures to stop the WASG in Berlin from standing against the L.PDS in September's regional elections.

Whatever the programmatic and strategic limitations of this opposition, it has a clear advantage compared to the forces involved in the SAV-led and curiously misnamed 'left opposition': the 'anti-capitalist left' at least recognises the fact that the unification of both parties - for all the social democratic illusions of their respective leaders - is a positive thing. This dynamic process of forging a new party opens up a tremendous space for communists to fight for a Marxist programme.

On other hand, many in the 'left opposition' (which actually consists largely of conservatives and rightwingers), are aiming for a formation outside the new party. What a waste of time. As we have previously reported, they are pushed along by the SAV, which insists on standing its own comrade, Lucy Redler, as the main candidate for the WASG Berlin in opposition to the L.PDS (see Weekly Worker May 25).

Berlin has just won its legal action against the WASG national decision barring it from contesting and will now go ahead with their own separate candidates. The WASG national executive has announced that it will support the L.PDS in the September elections in Berlin. So - de facto - the Berlin comrades have now split and we could well see a repeat on a national level before long.

Anti-capitalist left

Unfortunately, the June 10 conference showed that the opposition coming into being is hardly worth the name. Nele Hirsch, one of the 57 MPs of the joint WASG/L.PDS fraction, stressed for example at the start of the meeting that we would not be making any "programmatic decisions". Indeed, the manifesto's authors make clear that it is not supposed to be a "counter-programme to the programmatic key points" recently published by the leaderships of both WASG and L.PDS.

This is the key weakness of the 'anti-capitalist left'. Surely an opposition worth its name should be doing just that. After all, the 'key points' are nothing more than a hodgepodge of warmed-up social democratic platitudes and catch-all phrases drawn up to smooth over every difference.

WASG leader Oskar Lafontaine could not stay for the second conference but his speech at the youth conference was extremely revealing. He was in good spirits, having just arrived from the congress of the L.PDS in Berlin, and spoke of "another society" and the need to "overcome capitalism". 'Globalisation' was just another word for 'capitalism'. Despite this leftist rhetoric he admitted, to the amusement of the audience: "I am not one of those who oppose government participation and, given my history, it wouldn't exactly suit my image either." He did, after all, serve as minister of finance under Gerhard Schröder during his time in the SPD.

The man is, of course, despite his skilled rhetoric and phrase-mongering, a social democrat in exile, whose politics should be openly and thoroughly criticised. Unfortunately, the manifesto for an anti-capitalist left does not do this at all.

Tobias Pflüger, an MEP for the Linkspartei.PDS and well-known peace activist, called for opposition to every war and to the "globalisation square" of repression, militarisation, social destruction and attacks on migrants. He said we should not participate in government at national level, because this would require "an acceptance of the army and state". According to Pflüger, however, participation in regional and local governments is acceptable and even desirable - as long as this happens under certain 'minimal conditions' (which he did not elaborate).

He also focused much of his speech on the 'social movements', or what he calls the "third actor" in the party-building process alongside the WASG and L.PDS. The German left is still somewhat bogged down by the 'movement bug', but a new, strong left party organising the working class on the highest possible level is the only force that can achieve lasting victories.

Angela Klein of the Fourth International's ISL was also in movement mode - and belittled the importance of inner-party debate ("worrying about ourselves won't get us anywhere"). Rather the party must work within the movements to build them, not the party itself. Like other speakers, comrade Pflüger mentioned time and again the demonstrations against the G8 in Heiligendamm in 2007, underlining his tendency to prioritise this 'mobilisation' over the creation of a principled political alternative to the leadership of both groups. All he could do was "hope" that the formation of the new party would occur "more democratically" and "from the bottom up." But he had no plan, no strategy, no way forward.

Sahra Wagenknecht of the Kommunistische Platform in the L.PDS did a respectable job of demolishing the neoliberal agenda and argued for policies that "distance themselves from such lies and win broad support by doing what we say we believe in". All very vague, but she was attempting to distance herself from the neoliberal policies actually put into practice by her party in a number of states where it is in government. Comrade Wagen-knecht argued that we should initiate a campaign against privatisation to kick off the debate about the property question and show solidarity with all countries and governments that have taken this question on (eg, Cuba).

SAV and Linksruck

The contribution from various SAV members confirmed that the group is now effectively opposed to the merger, with one member arguing that the "central question" was not a new working class party, but the behaviour of the L.PDS in Berlin.

The SAV is so set on pursuing its own sect-building strategy that it is prepared to risk the unity of the organised German working class for a few recruits to itself. "Left unity requires certain minimal programmatic conditions," said SAV spokesperson Sascha Stanicic - apart from a few trade unionist platitudes that is not really what his Socialist Party comrades are saying in the Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

Another 'Trotskyist' position was offered by members of the SWP's small German clone, Linksruck. Its main comrade, Christine Buchholz (a member of the WASG national executive), said she could not sign the 'Manifesto for an anti-capitalist left' despite its "surprisingly positive" features. She was afraid that the left would simply "retreat into a niche" and not be part of any big social upsurge. She wondered how Oskar Lafontaine thought the "sectarianism of the left" could be overcome.

The 'left opposition' of the Kassel conference was represented by the diligent Edith Bartelmus-Scholich. She brought greetings of solidarity from the "280 participants" at the meeting there, and underlined that the left should be seeking not to look for a "change in government" but a "change to society." We need "systemsprengend" (bursting through the system) alternatives that attract hundreds of thousands of members and lots of voters. She said that the fight for plausibility would also be the focal point of a new left alternative and called for a conference of the two oppositions in Autumn. A cynical manoeuvre. Only the naive would welcome this proposal from forces that in practice oppose the unity of Linkspartei.PDS and WASG. Rightly the suggestion was left in the air.

Final declaration

At the very end of the conference we began to discuss something concrete in the shape of a "final declaration", which had been issued in draft form beforehand. However, organising an hour's debate on your platform is hardly a serious or democratic way of going about things - especially when it was made clear that the conference would not be taking amendments to the declaration. These could be emailed to the organisers, who would then incorporate them into the text (or not).

The declaration states that the new party needs "to expose the arguments of 'necessity' as the instrument of the cultural dominance of neoliberalism" and should therefore not participate in national government - although it is acceptable to enter regional or local governments, yes, if certain 'minimal conditions' are met.

The main bone of contention was on the question of - you guessed it - Berlin. Those around the 'left opposition', including the SAV of course, wanted to see the removal of a paragraph describing the policy of the Berlin WASG as the "Achilles heel" of the new left. It argued that Berlin was actually making dialogue and discussion more difficult. Even though this paragraph is vaguely formulated, it is supportable. The text was adopted with about 25 delegates of the conference voting against it - about a third of those who were still present.

What is necessary is a left platform in both parties that openly and patiently formulates clear programmatic demands, not slightly more leftwing platitudes than those of the current leaderships. It must be unambiguously for the new, merged party. However, no concrete proposals for action were actually agreed by this 'opposition'.