In German colours

John Rees has boasted of the political affinity between the SWP's Left List and Germany's Die Linke. Ben Klein agrees, but says this is nothing to boast about

Much is being made of the fact that, back in 2004, Lindsey German missed getting elected to the London assembly by just 0.43%. Indeed, John Rees and the Socialist Workers Party leadership are still trying to persuade their demoralised membership that they really can get in this time … if they just pull out the stops in the final week of the campaign.

As we all know, however, things have changed somewhat since 2004, and the chances of the Left List getting anything more than a derisory vote are extremely small - not only is the SWP banned from using the ‘Respect’ name, but the thousands of East End muslim votes that Respect garnered four years ago are surely not theirs this time. Given Alex Callinicos’s hilarious depiction of the Respect split as one of left versus right akin to the Bolshevik-Menshevik divide of 1903,1 one would have expected the SWP ‘Bolsheviks’ to make the most of this opportunity to promote their claimed politics of “revolutionary communism” in the “tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg”.

Instead, the SWP leadership peddles left reformism in the name of broadness and “practical” unity with “the movement”.2 Yet the Left List is hardly “broad” - certainly far less so than Respect. The SWP has provided the overwhelming majority of campaign foot soldiers and its Left List amounts to little more than the SWP operating under a different name with a few allies and hangers-on. Nor, practically, has the Left List got much of a chance of getting anyone elected to anything.

Linke links

Discussing the Left List’s campaigning materials and the political orientation of the project, comrade Rees claims that “the red star design is unique and a reference to the left tradition in which Respect stands [!]” - and, significantly, goes on to state that “the star design also refers to the political affinity that Respect’s Left List has to the European Left Party and the highly successful Left Party in Germany”.3

This is worthy of comment - not merely because it represents a desperate attempt to give the Left List some sort of ‘broad’ pedigree, but also because many on the British left seem to be still labouring under the illusion that Die Linke is some sort of model that communists and revolutionary socialists should be aspiring to imitate.

Die Linke is the result of a slow merger process between the WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit), backed by former Social Democrat trade union bureaucrats, and the PDS (Partei des demokratischen Sozialismus), whose predecessor once ruled the German Democratic Republic.

Die Linke has gone through some painful birth pangs - not least on the questions of minority participation in government and Germany’s role in UN ‘peace-keeping’ forces. As of yet it is still programmatically undefined formally, with discussions still taking place about what policies it is to have. What is practically clear, however, is that the PDS and WASG tops have joined together to ensure that the party is not and cannot become a Marxist party of any kind. Rather what they have created in an explicitly reformist party, a party that seeks to revive the previously strong German ‘social state’, which has been under constant attack since the Wende, or turn, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What explains its attraction for John Rees, though, it that Die Linke proved to be successful in the last elections, winning 54 seats in parliament. Indeed Germany is perhaps the only country in the world today where such a halfway house project can be held up as an example to emulate. Elsewhere, there is by contrast, either complete organisational failure or naked class collaboration: eg, Italy, Scotland, Brazil, Australia and Spain.

The SWP’s satellite group, Linksruck (which has now dissolved itself, officially at least, to join forces with others in the officially recognised left-Keynesian Socialist Left platform4), has always insisted that Die Linke “would become superfluous if it adopted a socialist programme, because it would exclude many of the people who could be won” otherwise.5 Linksruck comrades have been duly rewarded with minor places within Die Linke’s apparatus. But whereas Linksruck is a tiny minority in Die Linke, Rees and co are, of course, firmly in control of the Left List and are fully and undeniably responsible for every line, every dot and every comma of its miserable political programme.

Platitudes and compromise

Judging by the so-called Programmatische Eckpunkte, or key political principles on which Die Linke’s programme is to be based, the final document will simply be common or garden fare, with a few platitudes included in order to placate the left. So, while there is talk of challenging “property and power relations” in order to highlight “the question of the system”,6 the new party has enthusiastically taken up minority positions in regional governments and helped enforce cuts and job losses that it claimed to be against when in opposition. In the last instance then, it is a party that like the Workers’ Party in Brazil accepts the bourgeois state, and thus inevitably capitulates to “the system.”

This is what Die Linke and the Left List have in common - their readiness to ditch principle. The Left List’s manifesto is full of populist posturing but completely devoid of any concrete class demands. It does seem that the Rees leadership is really doing its utmost to come across as nice and respectable - and steering well clear of anything that might scare off voters. Lindsey German, who is standing for mayor as well as heading the Left List of assembly candidates, described herself  as a “Respect member and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition” - definitely not as a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (does she have something to hide?).

In line with the way the SWP operates in its Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism ‘united fronts’, the Left List is against a lot, but its election material is very short on detailed policies, preferring catch-all phrases like “Peace, equality and justice”. For example, there is a vague call for “cuts in bus and tube fares” - at least the Greens say how much they want to cut them by. One presumes that the totally rational call for free public transport in urban areas is seen as too extreme for the SWP nowadays.

There are calls to “close the gap between rich and poor”, to “tax the wealthy” and for an “emergency house building programme”, but, once again, they are so vague as to be almost meaningless. Thankfully the Left List’s demands are sometimes specific - it calls, for example, for a 35-hour week for all and for a “universal childcare service, based on the same principles as the NHS”.7

However, the Left List does not go beyond the ‘bread and butter’ issues. Certainly it fails to map a realistic vision of republican democracy, socialism and a world where human need and nature exist in harmony. It talks a lot about “the ordinary people” and “working people”, but does not even hint at how the voiceless majority can become a political class for itself.

So there is indeed an affinity with Die Linke, which is also big on platitudes and sound bites, but not so hot when it comes to a clear articulation of working class principles and concrete solutions. Not really surprising from a lash-up between trade union officials, former Social Democratic Party ministers and refugees from the ‘official communism’ of the GDR, but surely we ought to expect more from the “revolutionary communists” of the SWP?

Crisis of programme

The Left List does nothing more than mirror the existing (extremely low) levels of class-consciousness and peddle soft left myths - like the idea that imperialist war spending can simply be shifted to education or council housing. Under Rees, attempts to resist “moves to narrow the movement to those who are already part of the radical left” has led the SWP cadre into a narrow and cynical reformism.

Of course, if life itself were to produce something on the scale of Die Linke on the British political scene, then it would be entirely principled to consider entering such an organisation and use any democratic space available to argue for Marxist politics (as opposed to the “realistic, radical” approach put forward by Socialist Left, backed by Linksruck).

Yet to consciously set out with the aim of creating such a formation betrays the same narrow lack of ambition that has infected virtually the entire left. This method - whether in the Socialist Alliance, Respect or now the Left List - has led the SWP into all sorts of unprincipled programmatic compromises. Even after it has parted company with Respect’s “right wing”, the SWP is standing on a platform that remains virtually identical l


1. See Weekly Worker November 8 2007.
2. www.swp.org.uk/about.php
3. www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=14397
4. www.sozialistische-linke.de/cms/front_content.php
5. www.sozialismus-von-unten.de/lr/artikel_1363.html
6. Weekly Worker June 21 2007.
7. www.electrespectcoalition.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=41