Die Linke loses king-maker role

January 18 saw one of the hardest fought federal state election campaigns in Germany's recent history. For months, the question of who would govern Hesse with its six million inhabitants (and its capital, Frankfurt) made big waves across the whole country. At the centre of it all was the young left party, Die Linke. Tina Becker reports

Since September 2005, when Die Linke won an excellent 8.7 per cent of the vote in the national parliamentary elections,1 it has been represented by 54 members in the Bundestag. The same election brought into power a national coalition government of the two main German parties, the social democrats (SPD) and the conservative CDU, which has been characterised - as expected - by infighting, indecision and mutual vetoing.

This, rather than the recession and ensuing crisis of capitalism, has opened up some more space for Die Linke, which now hovers around the 10% mark in national opinion polls.2 Despite attempts by the other parties and the media to demonise and sideline it, Die Linke has become a firm fixture on the political scene. In Hesse its share of the vote increased marginally to 5.3%. But because the SPD vote was slashed, the CDU now has an overall majority and Die Linke has lost the influence it could exert in the previous hung parliament.

In the run-up to the regional elections a year ago, the leader of the SPD in Hesse, Andrea Ypsilanti, made an “unshakable promise” that she would never work with Die Linke in a coalition government. Die Linke would never make it into the regional parliament anyway, she assured the media. But Die Linke just scraped past the 5% threshold, winning six seats.

Neither the SPD and its ally, the Green Party, nor the conservative CDU and its preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP, had a majority. As a result Die Linke became king-maker - by a single vote. And Ypsilanti broke her promise almost as soon as the votes were counted. She asked Die Linke to support an SPD minority government - all in the name of keeping the CDU out. She did not offer a single concession to the left, however.

But the mere appeal of the ‘lesser evil’ was enough for Die Linke, and, after a brief internal debate, the organisation agreed to support a minority government without any conditions. Such support had been well practised by various branches of Die Linke in the east of Germany - but it would have been the first time in the west. Formally, the party adopted the position that it would support the SPD-Green coalition only if it “did not introduce cutbacks in social policy and a reduction of staff, did not enforce further privatisations and did not lead to a worsening of the protection of the environment”.3

These lame points were supposed to protect Die Linke from going down the ‘Berlin path’. There, Die Linke has been in a ‘red-red’ government with the SPD since 2001 and has overseen cutbacks and privatisations on a massive scale.

Die Linke in Hesse obviously did not even believe it could actually achieve anything positive and hence proposed only defensive conditions. So we cannot even charge them with having naive illusions. The points were in fact nothing but a fig leaf that was supposed to placate the left wing within the party, while the national leadership of Oskar Lafontaine (ex-WASG) and Lothar Bisky (ex-PDS) was to continue pursuing its goal of proving itself a reliable regional coalition partner in the west - ready for the day when it is called upon to play the same role on a national level.

But taking part in a government as a minority is not only counterposed to the idea of the self-emancipation of the working class. It inevitably leads the left into the position where it is forced to take responsibility for the actions of an alien class, as Karl Marx wrote on more than one occasion: “We are devoted to a party which, most fortunately for it, cannot yet come to power. If the proletariat were to come to power, the measures it would introduce would be petty bourgeois and not directly proletarian. Our party can come to power only when the conditions allow it to put its own view into practice.”4

An obvious example is the participation of Rifondazione Comunista in Romano Prodi’s doomed government. But most fortunately for Die Linke in Hesse, the coalition never came into being. A long drawn out, bitterly fought internal fight in the SPD over the cooperation with Die Linke culminated in four members of the social democratic fraction voting against Ypsilanti. They brought her putative coalition down and new regional elections had to be called.

During this period of political limbo, which lasted almost eight months, the old CDU government formally continued in office - without a majority. In this situation, with the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke in opposition (but with a numerical majority), a number of political gains were made. In order to appeal to the people who had supported Die Linke and the Greens and in preparation for the new elections, the SPD voted, amongst other things, for the abolition of student fees and the introduction of a new minimum wage in Hesse.

It is very doubtful whether the SPD would have allowed those policies to go through if it had been in government. Still, in the run-up to the new elections in January 2009, it was precisely those policies won in opposition that Oskar Lafontaine, joint leader of Die Linke, has quoted in order to win again backing for his party’s participation in a government in Hesse.

But the SPD vote was slashed last Sunday and it won only 23.7% - the worst result for the SPD in Hesse ever. Die Linke’s 5.3% kept it in parliament with six members, but, since the CDU now has an overall majority, the influence of Die Linke has very much decreased.

Its vote was achieved despite a vicious campaign conducted by sections of the SPD, CDU and the bourgeois media. For weeks on end, German newspapers and magazines were full of reports of a “tidal wave of resignations” from the party - some international left publications picked up on it, too.5 In fact, around 30 members of the small city of Baunatal resigned very publicly just weeks before the elections, quoting a lack of democracy and bullying (in contrast, 700 members had joined Die Linke in Hesse in 2008). The rightwing, chauvinist tabloid Bild had a field day and, quoting heavily from the resignation letters, commented mockingly: “The Stasi says hello …”6

We’re all national Keynesians now

While the democratic culture inside Die Linke is far from healthy, it is quite instructive to know that the leader of those who resigned had in fact tried to become a candidate in the elections a few months before - and was unsuccessful. Spending Christmas in Germany, I caught him and a few others on a local news programme, where he described his reasons for resigning: “It’s all gone way too far. In Die Linke all the talk is about nationalisation; it’s far too radical. We’re not in East Germany here.”7

It has obviously escaped the ‘comrade’ that capitalist governments all over the world are nationalising their banks like there is no tomorrow - the Germans are preparing to at least part-nationalise the troubled Hypo Real Estate bank, for example. So his criticism of Die Linke is a little out of date, to put it mildly.

In fact, it is rather disconcerting how close the proposals of Die Linke are to those enforced by the German government. The main line of attack is to demand that more money be spent trying to save national capitalism. As well as the €25 billion that Angela Merkel proposes, there should be “a push for more investment”. Gregor Gysi, leader of Die Linke’s fraction in the Bundestag, demands it should be doubled to €50 billion.8

The parliamentary fraction has produced plenty of advice and proposed regulations on how German capitalism could be restructured so that it can “stand firm in this crisis”.9 And while the Hesse election programme does mention that the crisis should not be financed by ordinary people, that incomes and pensions should be defended10, that there should be “local people’s budgets” and that it would be “useful and necessary as part of restructuring of the basic rules of the economic and social policies to transfer private banks into public ownership”11, the main thrust is clear: save German capitalism.

Or, as Oskar Lafontaine put it at a meeting in Cologne at the beginning of December, neoliberalism is “an insanity” that must be left behind in order to get back to “normality”12: ie, some form of social democracy.

According to the regional election programme, an “extra 100 tax inspectors” should be employed (in reality, all they would do is come after little earners - big companies and multi-millionaires know how to use existing laws to get around paying tax) and the government of Hesse should “temporarily support economically sound companies and communes affected by the credit crunch”. After all, “securing workplaces is the central task of government”.

But not just any workplaces. German workplaces. “It has to be guaranteed that the money of Hesse or the central government is not spent on rehabilitating the international structures of a company ...”13

And, while the financial crisis is quite rightly identified as a “crisis of capitalism”, the only alternative - socialism - is mentioned just once and without definition or elaboration. By simply trying to outdo the main ruling parties with their proposals on how to restructure the financial system, Die Linke has so far failed to make any gains from the ensuing crisis.

German SWP

One of the Hesse candidates to have been re-elected is Janine Wissler, a member of the German section of the Socialist Workers Party. Although factions are allowed in Die Linke, the SWP’s satellite group, Linksruck, dissolved as soon as the party was formed. The comrades re-emerged around the bi-monthly magazine Marx21 and for a while joined forces with others in the officially recognised left-Keynesian Socialist Left platform4, which it now seems to have abandoned (just like the SWP, Linksruck does not usually report on the alliances it has entered).

In any case, Linkrsuck is now so close to the party leadership that it does not have to bother with tiresome platform politics. Its leading member, Christine Buchholz, has argued right from the start that Die Linke “would become superfluous if it adopted a socialist programme, because it would exclude many of the people who could be won”.14 Linksruck has never been seen to put up a fight against any of the programmatic shortcomings or bureaucratic manoeuvres of the party’s leadership and has been duly rewarded with places within Die Linke’s apparatus. After being proposed by the leadership clique, comrade Buchholz has been on the national executive since 2007.

Janine Wissler, too, had the full backing of the party’s executive as a candidate in the Hesse elections. It is, of course, possible that she was not allowed to list more than a couple of meaningless platitudes in her election statement, such as: “Wealth has to be distributed more justly” and “Every person must have the same rights and opportunities, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their country of origin, their sex or their religion.”15 But if she was gagged, she certainly did not complain - at least not publicly.

In all fairness, though, she has written a couple of articles in Marx21, in which she criticises the party’s enthusiasm to be part of a coalition government. However, the comrades are clearly all over the place - especially in the supposedly theoretical ‘thesis paper’ they have produced on the question:

“Die Linke is not forced to govern ... Whoever stands in elections must be ready to take on responsibility in parliament and to represent the interests of its electorate there. This does not automatically lead to participation in governments. The current conditions work contrary to any government participation by Die Linke. The penetration of the crisis into budgets makes government participation a suicide mission for the left”16 (my emphasis).

Surely, if 80% of the electorate vote for a socialist party, this would “force” it to take on governmental responsibility. And why wouldn’t it? There is a clear difference between being in government as a minority and as a majority. Our job as socialists is not to balance the budget or make capitalism ‘work’ - but to facilitate its overthrow. Having patiently won the majority of the working class (and presumably parts of the petty bourgeoisie) to its socialist programme, the left would betray those people if it then did not use all avenues to advance socialism. Clearly, under those conditions, the left’s work in government would only be a small part of its overall activities. The penetration of the working class would be almost universal, in all spheres of life - otherwise it would not have been able to achieve such an electoral majority.

Whether Die Linke really is a socialist party is another question - but the general point stands. And for the Marx21 comrades Die Linke has exactly the right programme - otherwise they would surely fight to change it ... wouldn’t they?

The statement further implies that under different conditions - prosperity and economic growth, presumably - government participation as a minority would be just fine, because then it would be a different matter altogether. Of course, in one way it would be different: money might be made available for increased wages, building social infrastructure, improving schools, etc. However, this would still be nothing but the management of capitalism, under slightly improved conditions. The working class party would still be forced to take responsibility for the actions of the alien classes with which it is in coalition.

Clearly, the Marx21 comrades are not willing or able to provide the kind of internal opposition that points to the kind of party that is necessary. And the more successful Die Linke becomes, the more it gets drawn into Realpolitik, as a couple of examples make clear.

UN forces

In December, after the seizure of tankers and ships by pirates off the coast of Somalia, the Bundestag voted to send German ships as part of a EU mission to the Gulf of Aden in order to “secure the seaways”. Die Linke was the only party that voted ‘no’. But behind the scenes the issue is not all that clear-cut.

In a meeting of the party’s fraction in mid-December, the vast majority of the 54 MPs voted in favour of a proposal to support the future deployment of UN forces to the Gulf of Aden - as long as they were mandated according to chapter 7 of the UN charter, ‘Action with respect to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression’. Only six MPs voted against the proposal. Until now, this is only a theoretical question. But it is telling that Die Linke expects such a situation and is ready to nod it through.17

What is so special about chapter 7? Die Linke seems to expect that the article would mean the deployment would not be part of a “military operation, but merely a police action”. But even a brief glance at the feds shows that this is not the case.18

Firstly, the UN security council needs to decide who has committed an “act of aggression” or “breach of the peace” - a recipe to go after all sorts of groups. Hamas, anybody?

Then, the council “may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions … These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” In other words, it imposes sanctions - which, as we know, hit the poorest and working class people the hardest.

However, if those prove “inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”, including “armed force” and “military action”.

There clearly is no basis for Die Linke’s perception that the UN could somehow be employed peacefully. It is and remains a “den of thieves” (Lenin), set up for the explicit purpose of protecting the interests of the ruling classes everywhere - against the interests of the people below. While we do not condone the actions of Somali pirates, they clearly are recruited from amongst the country’s poor fishermen. Rather than thinking of legalistic ways to go after these poor bastards and secure the seaways on behalf of capitalist shipping companies, socialist parties have a duty to work out a programme that leads to the self-emancipation of those below.


The leadership of Die Linke displays similar illusions in the UN when it comes to the slaughter of the Palestinian population in Gaza. A press release by MP Norman Paech states:

“There must be a real ceasefire … Immediately following on from that, there should be negotiations about the opening of the borders and a halt to the smuggling in of weapons ... the UN should send ‘blue helmet soldiers’ on a peace mission to guarantee the ceasefire on both sides … Because of its history, Germany should not take part in such a mission.”19

The bourgeois consensus in Germany when it comes to the Middle East can still be described as ‘collective guilt’ about the holocaust. Nowhere else (apart from Israel itself and maybe the USA) will you find such support and sympathy for the actions of the Zionist state.

This is echoed by Die Linke, which seems to equate sporadic Hamas rocket fire with Israeli slaughter. In fact, you are hard pressed to find a position on Palestine on the party website at all. An official statement from January 6 says that the “central demand of Die Linke to the Israeli government is a 48-hour ceasefire”.20 The central demand? There is no attempt at explaining the situation - let alone presenting any kind of working class solution.

Similarly, a long and convoluted “keynote address” from Gregor Gysi in April 2008 “congratulates” Israel on its 60-year anniversary and explains why Die Linke should be characterised by “solidarity with Israel”.21 No such solidarity is extended to the Palestinian population fighting against the occupiers.

And, while individual branches and groups like the SWP’s German satellite have participated in the (relatively small) pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany, Die Linke as a party has not mobilised for them and has been virtually invisible during the Gaza crisis.

Apart from Berlin. There, Die Linke played a very prominent role in a demonstration on January 11. But, incredibly, this was a demonstration in support of Israel’s actions. Klaus Lederer, chair of Die Linke Berlin and a member of its fraction in the local parliament, was one of the main speakers at the demonstration, called under the slogan, ‘Support Israel - Operation Cast Lead’ - helpfully named after Israel’s military campaign against the civilian population in Gaza.

While individual members have criticised Lederer and the Berlin Linke for their prominent role in the rally, there is total silence from party headquarters - and the comrades from Marx21, incidentally.

Ridiculous opposition

The party’s executive proves less tolerant when it comes to the actions of another section of the membership. Various half-hearted attempts have been made to kick out the few members of the Socialist Party’s German section, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV) - or stop them from joining in the first place.

It has to be said that the SAV has played a most confused role in Die Linke. In 2005, it welcomed the formation of the WASG, one of the two constituent parts of Die Linke, and collectively joined it. But when the merger talks with the other constituent part, the PDS, started, the SAV adopted a rather silly position. It tried to get the WASG to agree to the merger only on condition that the PDS discontinued its participation in the government coalition in Berlin. No doubt, Die Linke in Berlin has played a disgraceful role in enforcing a whole package of cuts and privatisation and Klaus Lederer’s participation in the pro-Israel demonstration also speaks volumes. But it was absolutely clear that the PDS would not force its branch in Berlin (nor the one in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it runs the regional government in another ‘red-red’ coalition) to withdraw from government.

Far from making such ridiculous ultimatums, the revolutionary left should have welcomed the formation of a party openly claiming to stand for working class interests as overwhelmingly positive. It clearly provided a real space for revolutionaries to argue for principled politics - including opposition to participation in capitalist governments.

However, the SAV’s foolish sectarianism led it to withdraw from Die Linke in Berlin and in the east of Germany. It concentrated most of its efforts around a new, Berlin-based campaign, know as the Berlin Alternative for Solidarity and Resistance, which in German neatly replaces WASG with BASG. In 2006, it stood against Die Linke (then still PDS) in regional elections and won just over 2% of the vote. A result that disproved the theory that leftwing voters were just gagging for an alternative to the PDS in the form of the SAV.

In the west, however, it was apparently okay to join Die Linke. This was silly, unprincipled politics - after all, there was one national leadership, one party programme, one internal battle to be had against the Realpolitik of the executive. But the SAV was not part of it. In fact, if anything, Die Linke is a lot more real in the east, where it has the status of a Volkspartei and achieves around 25-30% of the vote.

In September 2008, the SAV finally recognised the bankruptcy of its position: “We have come to the conclusion that, despite the politics of Die Linke in Berlin, it is useful to work in the party in order to help build a strong, fighting and socialist party.”22 Nothing had qualitatively changed inside Die Linke to justify the SAV’s sudden desire to rejoin. Strangely enough, though, Die Linke has not been too keen on welcoming the SAV back into the fold.

The membership applications of two relatively prominent SAV members - Lucy Redler (the main BASG candidate in the 2006 elections) and Sascha Stanicic - have been rejected by the party’s national executive. Nine other applications from SAV members are to heard soon. On behalf of the leadership, Klaus Ernst has argued that the candidature of the BASG was “harmful to Die Linke” and that the comrades can be expected to breach party discipline again.

Sabine Lösing, the most outspoken leftwinger on the national executive and a member of the Anti-Capitalist Left faction, opposed leadership moves against the SAV when it was still part of the then WASG. However, in October 2008, she replied in an open letter to the SAV’s request for her to publicly endorse its request to be allowed to rejoin: “You decided against supporting and strengthening the party’s internal opposition. Then you noticed pretty fast that you got lost in a nirvana of tiny groups. And, in that situation, you suddenly have a change of heart? And demand the solidarity of those whose opinion you have ignored all this time?”23

Communists continue to give critical support to Die Linke. We urge readers and supporters of the Weekly Worker in Germany to join - but on the clear basis of fighting for the principled politics of Marxism. Whenever we have taken part in Die Linke events, we have been encouraged by the positive reception given to our ideas.

True, the structures of the party are extremely bureaucratic, there is a real lack of democracy and the party programme is at best repackaged left social democracy. But this is an organisation of 70,000 members, most of whom would describe themselves as socialists of one sort or another. There is a tremendous space to fight for a programme that goes beyond Keynesian measures to rescue German capitalism. And for the Communist Party that Germany so desperately needs.


1. Die Linke was officially formed only in June 2007. But, correctly recognising that it would have been idiotic to stand against each other, the two constituent parts of Die Linke united under the same banner: the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG) was set up by left Social Democrats and trade unionist in the west of Germany, while the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was once the ruling party of east Germany.
2. The difference between east and west is still staggering: in the east, Die Linke can achieve up to 30% of the vote, while in most federal states in the west it still struggles to get over the 5% hurdle. This hurdle is supposed to ‘protect democracy’, but in reality keeps out the left and small parties.
3. Preamble of the election programme Hessen Sozial: www.die-linke-hessen.de
4. K Marx, J Guesde The programme of the Parti Ouvrier.
5. For a rather dramatic report see www.wsws.org/articles/2009/jan2009/left-j20.shtml
6. www.bild.de/BILD/news/politik/2009/01/09/hessen-wahl/parteiaustritte-chaos-streit-bei-den-linken.html
7. Hessenschau, January 2009.
8. Die Linke press release, January 6.
9. Ibid.
10. The chair of the mighty IG Metall metal workers union, Berthold Huber, has already “signalled” his willingness to accept that during the recession, his members should not get any pay rises: www.scharf-links.de
11. Die Linke Hessen Sozial: www.die-linke-hessen.de
12. www.sozialismus.info/?sid=2942
13. Die Linke Hessen Sozial: www.die-linke-hessen.de
14. www.sozialismus-von-unten.de/lr/artikel_1363.html
15. www.die-linke-hessen.de
16. C Buchholz, K-D Heiser, ‘Krisenfest werden!’ Marx21 November 2008: marx21.de/content/view/591/36
17. www.scharf-links.de/57.0.html?&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3294&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=6&cHash=a7c276d162
18. www.un.org/aboutun/charter/chapter7.shtml
19. Die Linke press release, January 8.
20. www.die-linke.de/index.php?id=251&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=3708&tx_ttnews[backPid]=35&no_cache=1
21. www.linksfraktion.de/rede.php?artikel=1317265844
22. www.sozialismus.info/?sid=2863
23. www.sozialismus.info/?sid=2902