Left in Die Linke loses its Bonaparte

The resignation of Oskar Lafontaine is a serious blow to the German left party. Tina Becker reports

Since Die Linke shook the German political scene by achieving a tremendous 11.9% in the national election of September 2009 (leading to the election of 76 of its members to parliament), it has been followed keenly by the German media. And in the last few months the party has provided them with plenty of ammunition.

The particular story currently occupying the minds of the bourgeois media started just after the elections, when Oskar Lafontaine announced that he did not want to continue as leader of Die Linke’s parliamentary fraction (in addition to being the national co-chair of the party and its leader in the federal state of Saarland - both positions he wanted to retain at that time).

Because he did not give any reason for wanting to step down, rumours were rife: the media branded him the “eternal resigner”, who had again ‘betrayed’ the voters. After all, didn’t he quit in 1999 after two years as Germany’s finance minister? And didn’t he at the same time resign his parliamentary seat and the chairmanship of the Social Democratic Party? The fact that this was preceded by a battle with then chancellor Gerhard Schröder over the introduction of a package of very unpopular, neoliberal measures known as Agenda 2010, apparently slipped the minds of the commentariat.

Then, in November, the news magazine Focus ‘broke’ the story (which was further expanded upon by the weekly Der Spiegel) that Lafontaine was having an affair with Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Stalinite Kommunistische Plattform of Die Linke. His wife was apparently so furious that she demanded his immediate return to the Saarland, to which he agreed, according to the reports. But the day after publication of the article, Lafontaine finally broke his silence and explained that in fact he was actually suffering from prostrate cancer and needed an operation.

Then, while he was recuperating, Die Linke national secretary Dietmar Bartsch was ‘outed’ as having told Der Spiegel that Lafontaine was already thinking about resigning back in February 2009 - ie, before his cancer scare. A storm broke out in the party, most likely fuelled by the furious Lafontaine himself. Almost all regional party structures in the west of Germany sent protest letters to the party leadership (usefully copying in magazines like Der Spiegel), branding Bartsch disloyal and a burden to the party. Party members in the east of the country, however, vehemently defended Bartsch.

Although born in the west, Dietmar Bartsch is one of the few Germans who have moved to the east, rather than the other way around. Politically, he is very close to the east German Realpolitiker of the party. They are actively pursuing red-red government coalitions with the Social Democrats everywhere and on every level possible, to prove how ‘responsible’ Die Linke has become. A national red-red government coalition with the SPD at the next general election has been the openly expressed aim of many people in that wing of the party.

With the media gleefully reporting every twist and turn of the confrontation, Gregor Gysi, the ‘wise old man’ of Die Linke and with Lafontaine co-chair of the party, had to make a choice. And he decided to go with Lafontaine. While in the east, the vote for Die Linke (and its predecessor, the Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS) has remained stable at around 25%-30% for the last 10 years, Lafontaine’s popularity in the west of the country has played a crucial part in securing the massive increase in the party’s vote there.

In the west, the PDS was for a long time seen as not much more than just another loony fringe group. All that changed when in 2005 Lafontaine joined the newly emerging organisation, the WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit), which was made up of disappointed left social democrats and union officials. Without Lafontaine, it would have remained a small fringe group, like so many others. With Lafontaine at the helm, the PDS and the WASG merged in 2005, opening the way to the party’s electoral success.

Clearly, Lafontaine had become indispensable for Die Linke. Gysi used a packed press conference at a party meeting in early January to announce that Bartsch - for many years one of his most loyal right-hand men - had acted “disloyally” and had ceased to enjoy the support of the leadership. Bartsch, deeply hurt, announced that he would not run for the post of party secretary again at the next congress in May. Gysi hoped that this was enough to convince Lafontaine to stay.

So Lafontaine had ‘won’. But after a few days, he announced that because of his ill health, he would also resign his parliamentary seat and the party’s chairmanship. He will continue to do some limited work for the party regionally, but he has departed from the national stage for now.

Left versus right

So what is really behind the confrontation? And what will the impact of Lafontaine’s departure be? Much of the bourgeois media talked of a “deep personal dislike” between Bartsch and Lafontaine. This might be so, but it is hardly the point. Both are seasoned politicians who can rise above such things.

Their fight is certainly over political outlook. The confrontation between them has been billed as a fight between the left and the right of the party and there is a certain amount of truth in that. But it is not the whole truth.

As one of the main spokespersons for the ‘respectable’ right wing, Bartsch has vigorously promoted the ‘red-red’ coalitions of Die Linke and the SPD in Berlin and the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Die Linke has been in government for many years and where there have been draconian cuts and closures. But how could it be any different? As a minority in a bourgeois government, Die Linke is forced to manage capitalism, which especially in this period means cuts, cuts and cuts again. Subsequently, it lost a lot of support in those areas.

And now, after last year’s general election, it also governs in the east German state of Brandenburg. Lafontaine has spoken out against the government contract that was drawn up between the SPD and Die Linke, which openly promised to drastically reduce “expenses in the public sector” - ie, make deep cuts in social provisions and sack hundreds of employees.

Lafontaine has definitely moved to the left since leaving the SPD. Of course, he is no revolutionary. But he is certainly to the left of those power-hungry elements in the east. His are the typical Keynesian politics of the social democrats who have turned their backs on the right-marching SPD. Like many trade unionists and traditional SPD supporters, he believes in some kind of nationally restricted social welfare state. Back to the 1970s. That puts him on the left of German politics, although not so much in Die Linke, of course.

He was never against taking the party into ruling coalitions - quite the opposite. But he and his supporters kept formulating ‘principles’ or ‘conditions’ which would have to be met before they would agree to government participation. Putting conditions is generally not a bad tactic. However, as a minority in a capitalist government, Die Linke would always be forced to take responsibility for attacks on the working class. That is in the nature of the system.

The left rudderless

Because he is rather charismatic and enjoys a high level of popularity in the country, Lafontaine was adopted by the left within Die Linke as their own little Bonaparte. Especially by the Kommunstische Plattform, which dominates the party’s Antikapitalistische Linke grouping, and the German section of the Socialist Workers Party, now grouped around the magazine Marx21 and the Sozialistische Linke platform. Smelling breakthrough and the big time, they mostly kept their mouths shut, supporting Lafontaine almost uncritically.

Lafontaine had held on to his post long enough to force the party leadership to make a move against the Realpolitik of Bartsch and co. But it was nothing more than a symbolic move. It does not mean that ‘the left’ in the party has won. Quite the contrary. It has been left rudderless, because it gave Lafontaine so much leeway.

In a rather undemocratic procedure smacking of its Stalinist heritage, the current party leadership tried to defuse the situation by publicly announcing its suggestions for the next leadership - four months before the membership will actually have a chance to vote on it at the party’s May conference. Not surprisingly, most can be counted on the right of the party. There might be opposition to the leadership-in-waiting in May, but, having concentrated so much on Lafontaine, the left now has no serious contender to fall in behind.

In fact, Klaus Ernst, designated new co-chairman and previously a trade union official in IG Metall, is not only on the right: he has made himself a name in the party by being particularly bureaucratic and ‘against the sectarians’ - ie, against the left. For example, he has been leading the campaign to exclude members of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), the German section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (run by Peter Taaffe and co in London). Of course, the CWI behaved stupidly in the past by forming organisations that stood against Die Linke in Berlin elections, thereby providing bureaucrats like Ernst with an open goal. When the CWI rival came to nothing, it tried to sneak back into the party, but was firmly and very publicly rebuffed. The Taaffeites made themselves look completely unprincipled when they tried to force their way back in via the bourgeois courts.

In an attempt to incorporate the left, Sarah Wagenknecht has been promoted to vice-chair designate. But she is a bit on the eccentric side, to put it mildly. She still defends the building of the Berlin wall as a “necessity” and continues to praise the “many good things” that existed in the German Democratic Republic. She can be useful in public debates and TV shows, because she can memorise tons of facts. But she has zero charisma. She is not going to be able to unite the left within Die Linke.

While Lafontaine’s Keynesian programme should have been challenged more by the left, he certainly brought it closer together. He kept the lid on the pressure cooker. Hopefully, the left will now stop playing ‘follow my leader’ and finally start to formulate its own, independent working class programme around which to fight within Die Linke. The time is ideal for such a move, with the party about to start a debate precisely over programme. It still does not have one in fact - only various sets of ‘programmatic points’ and election platforms.

Die Linke’s body politic is currently held together by a very thin skin. Is it fighting for socialism? If so, what is socialism? Was East Germany a socialist country? These are only some of the questions that have been bubbling under for many years.

The left could galvanise, I would guess, around 30-40% of the membership if it drew up a joint platform, which must include a clear commitment to oppose participation in all capitalist governments. Die Linke must concentrate on becoming the main opposition party - especially now that the SPD has been gradually moving to the left and could end up with similar wishy-washy positions. That would create a strong pull on Die Linke and the possibility of a good section of its voter base being sucked back towards the SPD.

Two social democratic parties in Germany is - at least - one too many.