German left punished for coalitionism

The poor performance of the reformist left, mass electoral apathy and the rise of the far right in the September 17 elections in two German states highlight the urgent need for a Marxist alternative. Ben Lewis reports

In both Berlin and the east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the left was split - a majority of local members of the WASG (Electoral Initiative for Labour and Social Justice) decided to defy the national leadership and go it alone. After a bureaucratic tussle that was fought out in the courts they ended up standing against their comrades-to-be in the Linkspartei.PDS.

For both the L.PDS and the WASG rebels, the results were disappointing, to say the least. Particularly in Berlin the L.PDS (the former ruling party of the German Democratic Republic) has been rightly punished for its willingness to enter into a coalition government with the Social Democrat Party (SPD). It has helped enforce countless cuts, closures and attacks on workers' rights - providing left cover, especially in its supine implementation of the 'Hartz IV' laws, which force the unemployed to take up any job for one euro an hour extra.

This is even more outrageous, considering that, on a national level, the Linkspartei has mobilised thousands against these laws. Yet, now that they are in place, the L.PDS claims there is nothing it they can possibly do. No wonder its vote was slashed. In Berlin, the L.PDS lost up to 20% of it support in the east and 10% in the west compared to 2001.

Even though general voter apathy and disillusionment with the national 'grand coalition' of Conservatives and Social Democrats led to nearly all parties losing votes, the L.PDS was by far the hardest hit. As one party researcher put it in the aftermath, the Linkspartei is "having problems with its dual function as a party of protest and a party of governance" (Die Zeit online September 19).

But the WASG renegades did not make any kind of a  breakthrough either. With 2.9% of the vote in Berlin (despite almost daily coverage of their campaign in the bourgeois media), they failed by a long way to clear the five percent hurdle necessary to enter the state parliament.

Disillusionment with social democracy could be seen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the SPD, despite losing more than 10% of its vote, is still the largest party and is now set to initiate coalition talks. Its first potential partner will be its old trusty coalition ally, the L.PDS. Here, the L.PDS had expected to make gains at the SPD's expense, but its vote only increased marginally - from 16.4% to 16.8%. The largely western-based WASG, on the other hand, hardly registered in M-V with a mere 0.5% of the vote.

In Berlin the WASG is dominated (politically if not numerically) by the Committee for a Workers' International German section, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), which, despite hoping to reach the five percent threshold, was putting on a brave face, having won "52,000 votes against social destruction". Despite the huge effort put into the election campaign, the comrades stood on a platform that hardly differed from that of the L.PDS (although, when it comes to the practice, the L.PDS claims it has a duty to enter the state government, in order to try and attenuate the attacks).

If the WASG splitters, egged on by the SAV, had been standing on a principled revolutionary platform, then at least their excuse for sabotaging the national merger of the two groups might have had some justification. Yet this is not the case. They were looking to oppose attacks on the working class with another warmed-up version of the social democracy that logically led to those attacks in the first place. In so doing they have set back the prospect of a united party of the left where the ideas of Marxism could find a wider audience.

Meanwhile, the elections saw a revival in the fortunes of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Exploiting an unemployment rate of 18.2% in M-V, the NPD ran a populist campaign around the slogan of 'Jobs for Germans'. It claims the country has been "overrun" by immigrants and the German economy has been wrecked by the euro. It picked up 7.3% of the vote and saw five of its members elected to the regional parliament.

The success of the NPD has without doubt also been boosted by the bureaucratic vacuity of establishment-led campaign against it, including the unsuccessful and highly embarrassing attempt of the previous SPD government to ban the organisation. It is a sad fact that most of the German left shares the sentiment that a ban would be a step forward for the working class. Yet to demonise reactionary ideas will only create the conditions in which they can breed and spread. These anti-human scum need to be taken on and defeated by the organised working class, not by state bans and establishment campaigns that extol the virtues of the German republic's pseudo-democracy.

You would think that the NPD advance would have given added impetus to efforts towards left unity. However, the SAV is adamant that its splitting course is correct. Lucy Redler, the main candidate for the Berlin WASG and a leading SAV member, said after the elections that the massive loss of votes for the L.PDS "clearly shows" that "there cannot be any unity with the WASG on the basis of their politics". She nevertheless "hopes" that the poor result would lead the L.PDS to "turn its politics around" and force Oskar Lafontaine to "think again" on a national level (www.zeit.de/news/artikel/2006/09/17/74314.xml).

This political analysis would be hilarious if the situation was not so serious. Instead of taking up the struggle within the formation to expose the bankruptcy of the political aspirations of people like Lafontaine, and organise opposition against the current trajectory of the L.PDS from within, the comrades are 'hoping' that the bad election results will make the L.PDS right rethink its politics.

In fact, the tactics of Redler and co have to some extent let Lafontaine and L.PDS leader Gregor Gysi off the hook, as they can now blame the splitters for their loss of votes, and attempt to brush under the carpet their own political problems. Speaking after the results, Lafontaine's pointed out that it was "totally senseless for the WASG and the Linkspartei to stand against each other".

Absolutely true, of course, and the Weekly Worker has consistently argued that the best tactic would have been for the WASG left to have argued for critical support for the L.PDS. Yet concretely these words are simply an attempt to pass the proverbial buck. While, according to one polling institute, the L.PDS in Berlin did indeed lose 17,000 votes to the WASG, it lost 24,000 votes to the Social Democrats and a whopping 64,000 to disillusionment and apathy (ARD Mittagsmagazin September 18).

Instead of blaming a small group of sectarians who oppose the merger, the leadership of the two parties would do better to face up to the main reason for the L.PDS's disappointing performance - its participation in anti-working class regional governments. This is precisely what is not happening, though - Lothar Bisky, chair of the L.PDS, made clear his desire for a continuation of the 'red-red' coalition in his post-election statement on Berlin, pointing out that "the ball is in the SPD's court". Gysi, for his part, said that if the Berlin SPD mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was "serious about social justice" then it would be "clearly better" to work with the L.PDS than with the "neoliberal" Greens.

What of the left opposition within the L.PDS? There are certainly some critical voices, but they cling to old, discredited ideas and lack anything resembling an authentic Marxist world outlook.

Sahra Wageknecht, leader of the Stalinist L.PDS faction, Kommunistische Plattform, demanded that the party terminate its coalition with the SPD, arguing that it would attempt to make the L.PDS sacrifice even more of its politics. This call from a member of the L.PDS national leadership is, of course, to be welcomed, but it comes from someone who sentimentally looks back upon the GDR and the former Soviet Union as examples of socialism or workers' state. Hardly the best way to unite the L.PDS opposition with the WASG left.

Comrade Wageknecht is influential in the 'For an anti-capitalist left' campaign, which, while viewing the merger of the WASG and L.PDS as positive, is extremely tentative about making any programmatic decisions. At its initial conference in June it was emphasised that the opposition was not aiming to set up an alternative programme to the social democratic platitudes of the leadership (see Weekly Worker June 15).

At the first joint programme convention of L.PDS and WASG (scheduled for September 30), the left should argue for a quick merger, while at the same time pressing at every opportunity for independent working class politics. If, as seems more than possible, the L.PDS is now excluded from both state coalitions, this will undoubtedly open up more space to push the new, merged organisation to the left. It is the task of serious partisans of the working class to join the struggle for a united workers' party in Germany and use this space to campaign for genuine Marxist ideas.