On the road to social democracy

Ben Lewis reports from the Hanover programme convention of L.PDS and WASG

September 30 saw the first joint 'programme convention' of the L.PDS (Linkspartei.PDS, former ruling party of East Germany) and WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit). The conference confirmed that, unless the currently isolated and disparate critical voices start to organise into an effective opposition within the party, the new, merged Linkspartei will simply become a second social democratic force fit to govern on behalf of capital. 

The convention had before it the second draft of the two leaderships' programmatic proposals, which is unfortunately just as riddled with vacuous platitudes and social democratic soundbites as the first (see Weekly Worker April 20). Debate was kept to a bare minimum in an attempt to put on a brave and united face after the debacle of the regional elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the two parties stood against each other.

Only around 120, mostly L.PDS, comrades were in attendance, partly due to the fact that neither formation had exactly gone out of its way to publicise the event. The 'debate' around the programme was split up into five different working group discussions around: 'How the Linkspartei defines itself', 'Capitalism today and our understanding of socialism', 'The economy', 'Gender relations' and 'Europe and peace'. This allowed people to safely let off steam without challenging the leadership in any serious way - there were no report-backs to a final plenary session, so everyone knew only about the questions discussed in the particular workshop they attended. There was much pomp and talk of unity, but there are still many contradictions riddling the merger process.

At the opening rally, L.PDS chair Lothar Bisky began his contribution with a quote from Karl Marx (from a letter to Wilhelm Bracke), which set the tone for the rest of the day: "Every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes."

We might be used by now to the Socialist Workers Party bastardising this particular phrase for its own ends - but to hear it in Marx's homeland was quite disheartening. Just like the comrades from the SWP, Lothar Bisky tried to assure those present that Mark and Engels did not spend much time worrying about programme - the important thing is to get out there and do the business.

The truth is rather different. Marx was writing in the context of the "deplorable" unity-mongering being pursued by his German comrades, August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and co. They wanted to fuse with their Lassallean rivals on the basis of a much watered-down programme. In his Critique of the Gotha programme Marx strongly criticised their politics of compromise. Given the choice between maintaining the existing Eisenach programme of 1869 and unity, Marx definitely preferred the former. And, all the way through, he encouraged his comrades to stay true to the ideas and political methods outlined in the Communist manifesto.

By contrast Lothar Bisky wants to pursue a "more just social democratic form of politics", as he openly stated. The L.PDS chair sketched out the different histories of the two respective left groups and noted that unfortunately "we can't avoid a programmatic debate". He made noises about "developing socialist theory further", but ominously made reference to "how and with whom" we can put our politics into practice. He said that the new Linkspartei could only develop "an analytically worked out programme" once it had been founded, and that is why the commission had only developed a draft.

However, it very much looks as though the bureaucratic leaderships of both parties are using these 'drafts' to pre-empt any democratic decision-making at the forthcoming conferences of the two formations. Indeed, nobody was putting forward a radically different alternative to the proposals and, for all the talk of 'discussion', nothing productive was achieved thanks to the way the conference was organised. Although commissions and working groups are unavoidable in drafting a programme, these should be elected by, and directly accountable to, a national conference of elected delegates.

Katina Schubert, a well-known L.PDS 'realist' from Dresden who favours selling off public housing, said that we need a "modern understanding" of what a party is. I did, however, get the impression that comrade Schubert is not particularly popular within the party and there was quite a bit of heckling during her various speeches.

Despite emphasising that the new organisation should be a Sammlungs-partei incorporating the social movements, WASG chair Axel Troost also envisaged it as a party of government. Which is why the "programmatic debate" currently in progress should continue. This debate must have been happening somewhere else - certainly not at this convention.

When the conference split up into working groups, I had the pleasure of listening to a number of speakers on the question of 'How the Linkspartei defines itself', which was by far the biggest of the sessions. One non-aligned speaker, Ulrich Brand, actually made some good points about the forlorn attempts of the programmatic documents to "democratically regulate" the economy, arguing that we do not live in the 70s any more, where the state was prepared to siphon off a certain surplus from capital in order to maintain living standards. He therefore argued that the programme needs to break with national-Keynesian solutions and offer a much more internationalist perspective. Katina Schubert replied to this by arguing that we need to combine "revolutionary theory with aspects of Keynes" in order put our "demands into real political practice".

The point, however, as the history of the 20th century clearly shows, is that these two paths are utterly incompatible and that capital's creation of welfare states in western Europe depended very much on the existence of a powerful working class movement.

A comrade from the Socialist Party of Norway argued that the only way for a left party to have any sort of impact on society is in government. Naturally, he was positively referred to as some kind of model in many of the (often confused and apolitical) contributions.

Thies Gleiss (a member of the Fourth International's Internationale Sozialisten and leading member of the Socialist Left Platform in the new formation) spoke well in his usual upbeat fashion and argued that "he who doesn't know where he is going will be surprised where he ends up" - alluding to the blatant absence of any alternative to capitalist society in the programmatic outlines presented. He argued that it was a very poor compromise between the two left trends. In response to a number of contributions from the floor, he also emphasised that the left does not represent the "general interests" of society, but takes clear sides in class struggles.

By now, there was much uproar, as many people who had signalled they wanted to speak had simply been ignored (myself included), yet Katina Schubert was given time to come back for a third time. She spoke of looking to achieve a "distribution of wealth from top to bottom" and how she was for the "social state" and "strong social security systems".

We are all, of course, for the working class making and defending gains under capitalism in the most revolutionary manner possible, but for Schubert and the leadership of both the WASG and the L.PDS, the fight for the "social state" seems to be an end in itself. Indeed, how can we really talk of a "distribution of wealth" when capitalism by its very essence depends on the expropriation of wealth from the mass of producers?

The final plenary session took the form of a "podium discussion" (no contributions from the floor) and only got interesting when Klaus Ernst, a member of the WASG national executive who had stepped in for the absent Oskar Lafontaine, mentioned how the L.PDS's record in Berlin had caused it to lose so many votes in the last state election (see Weekly Worker September 21). Klaus Lederer, chairman of the L.PDS in Berlin, who had "actually come to talk about something else", was immediately forced onto the defensive. His most absurd assertion was that the L.PDS could not avoid privatisation, as this was one of the conditions in the "coalition agreements with the SPD". Which is precisely why any working class organisation worth its name does not enter capitalist governments.

There was definite unease at the way in which the conference had been conducted. One comrade confided to me that he was "simply too old" to take on the leadership any more. I can certainly empathise with this veteran. It is not simply that the left is not organising any effective opposition: with the exception of comrade Thies Gleiss and a few others it was not actually present to put forward its views.

The Sozialistische Alternative (SAV, sister organisation of the Socialist Party) was nowhere to be seen (although Sebastian Gerhardt, one of the candidates for the breakaway WASG in Berlin, was present). Spokesperson Sasha Stanicic justifies its boycott in the latest issue of the SAV monthly, Solidarität, arguing that the "political practice" of the L.PDS, the "programmatic recommendations" and "the bureaucratic regime" of both partners mean that the merger should be rejected under present conditions. For him "the continued existence of the WASG on the basis of a clear programme in the interest of both the employed and unemployed would in this case be a better starting point to build up a strong and genuine left force" (October).

In fact WASG formulations on most issues are not much different from the notions being put forward in the programmatic documents. Instead of building 'socialism in one city', as one comrade ironically put it to me at conference, the SAV should be fighting against the political trajectory of the L.PDS from within. However, the fact of the matter is that SAV's politics are fundamentally the same as the L.PDS/WASG leadership. Beneath the thin 'Marxist' veneer there is reformism. In Britain this has seen their CWI comrades setting up the Campaign for a New Workers Party - a Labour Party mark two which simply envisages a more generous welfarism and which steers clear of anything smacking of authentic socialism.

SAV is a reformist sect which is preparing to finalise its split from the yet to be formed Linkspartei. Naturally this is carried out with much leftist huffing and puffing because the aim is to grow the SAV's tiny forces from dissident elements. However, to split from the first German-wide socialist party for decades - no matter how malformed - is guaranteed to maintain the SAV's political insignificance.

Thies Gleiss's small Socialist Left, while correctly organising within the new formation, states in its assessment of the leadership proposals that "we reject fundamentally oppositionist" attitudes to government participation "as well as unconditional willingness to govern". An opportunist cop-out. Marxists - authentic Marxists, that is - oppose any and all participation in government under capitalism unless we are the majority. And, of course, then our aim would be to move to socialism as speedily as possible. So, yes, we maintain a fundamentally oppositionist attitude toward any minority participation in government.

Marxists must take the lead in organising a principled left opposition within Linkspartei.