Key debates evaded

The German left party Die Linke is going from strength to strength. But crucial debates on the future of the party, the nature of capitalism and participation in bourgeois governments will seriously test it over the next few months. In the first of two articles, Tina Becker reports from the 2010 conference, which took place on May 15-16 in Rostock

The stormy weather outside the Stadthalle Rostock could have been an omen for the kind of stormy arguments you would expect of a young socialist party that has just begun the process of debating the recently published draft for its first ever party programme. But in fact, as soon as the 570 delegates and 300 or so visitors escaped the rain (passing a few nerdy conservative youths holding up placards bearing names of people “killed by communism”) and entered the city hall of the east German city by the Baltic Sea, it was as if they had entered a calm haven. In fact, the whole conference was almost eerily tranquil. If you did not know the arguments that are currently raging behind the scenes, you would think Die Linke is just one big, happy family. But it certainly is not.

The draft programme, published last month, will be properly debated at next year’s conference. But, of course, one comrade after another hinted at it or made reference to particular formulations within it. It is highly disputed and has already been hotly debated in the bourgeois press. It surely would have been a good idea to allow some form of debate or discussion on the draft at this conference.

Similarly, there was no space allocated to discuss any of the key speeches delivered. There were a lot of disgruntled faces, for example, when Oskar Lafontaine, who has recently resigned as party leader because he is battling cancer, described the “three key tasks of Die Linke” as “fighting for Keynesianism, the re-regulation of the finance markets and economic governance on a European level”.

Instead, the conference had only one real, properly debated point of business: the election of a new leadership. Both current party leaders have resigned for health reasons: Lothar Bisky has for many years been the leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the former ‘official communist’ party of East Germany), one of the two components that came together to form Die Linke in 2007.

Oskar Lafontaine, on the other hand, played a crucial role in making a success of a newly emerging organisation in the west of Germany: the WASG (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit), which was made up mainly of disappointed left social democrats, union officials and the far left. He was a leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and minister of finance under chancellor Gerhard Schröder, when he resigned all his posts in 1999 over the introduction of a very unpopular, Blairite set of cuts and privatisations, known as Agenda 2010.

With Lafontaine at the helm, the PDS and the WASG merged in 2007, opening the way to success. 25,000 new members have joined since, bringing the total to almost 80,000. The ongoing attempt by the bourgeois media and the political elite to demonise the young party has not paid off. In TV debates, there is now almost always a representative of Die Linke present - it would look strange if its view was not heard. Die Linke is now represented in 13 of the 16 federal state parliaments, relatively comfortably exceeding the undemocratic 5% threshold. It has 78 representatives in the national Bundestag and hundreds of Die Linke members have been elected councillors. The conference was shown live for 10 hours on a popular news channel. The party has changed the political landscape in Germany, no doubt.

And all of that despite the fact that there are some rather big political differences within the membership. The next few months will help to crystallise these differences, which for the last few years have largely remained concealed. It is unlikely though that this will blow the party apart, because there is a relatively healthy internal regime, which allows for different political platforms and tendencies to come together. This is certainly a useful lesson for the British left.

Follow the leader

The 2010 conference felt at times like a farewell concert for Bisky and Lafontaine. There were long speeches by both. Then there were long speeches about both. Then they got presents. Standing ovations. Kisses. It was not quite like in the old East Germany, but ...

The elections themselves were similarly bureaucratic. To elect 44 members of the new leadership took almost 12 hours over two days. And that despite the fact that, apart from one (not very funny) joke candidate, the 10 main posts on the executive were uncontested. The three main positions - leader, secretary and party-building officer - were each filled by two people - organised not only by gender (one man, one woman), but also according to geography (one east, one west). In addition, there are four (!) vice-leaders.

Political orientation was not officially a selection criterion, but clearly had to be considered too. There are about 50 political platforms within the party, some of them organised on single issues, but the most important ones group together comrades who have a common view on a whole range of issues. The biggest ones are:

While the six main leaders belong to either the right FDS or the non-aligned centre, among the four vice-leaders are Sarah Wagenknecht (leader of the Kommunistische Plattform) and Katja Kipping (leader of the Emanzipatorische Linke). The Sozialistische Linke is well represented in the wider party leadership, with Christine Buchholz and Janine Wissler being their most prominent representatives.

As far as I can tell, the Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), the German section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, is not represented on the leadership. Because of a lack of any coherent strategy in Die Linke, it has pretty much manoeuvred itself into a position where very few people take it seriously. For example, in the WASG it argued against merging with the PDS, unless the latter ended all participation in regional governments. Then the SAV decided to join Die Linke in the west, but not in the east, and stood against the PDS in Berlin and later against Die Linke in Rostock.

Later still, the SAV changed its line and tried to join Die Linke everywhere, but some of its leading members were refused entry into the party using undoubtedly very bureaucratic means. However, almost nobody in the membership batted an eyelid, let alone tried to organise any kind of solidarity action. This is a shame, in my view, as politically the SAV has many good and principled things to say. Principles that the Antikapitalistische Linke and the Sozialistische Linke, for example, have given up without a fight (more below).

The new official leaders of the party might be called Klaus Ernst (former leader of the WASG) and Gesine Lötzsch (a longstanding member of the PDS in the east). But in reality it is Gregor Gysi, the very charismatic lawyer, who calls the shots. For a while, the former leader of the PDS was happy to share the limelight with Lafontaine, but he has made it very clear that he does not think of Ernst or Lötzsch as being in the same league. And, as he holds only one official position - that of leader of the party’s fraction in the Bundestag - the magazine Spiegel has called him “the secret leader” of Die Linke. Only it is not a very big secret. He was omnipresent at conference, delivering a total of around five hours of speeches.

He is as unaccountable to the membership as George Galloway was in Respect and a lot of people rolled their eyes when he - yet again - got up to deliver this or that report. Incidentally, both Klaus Ernst and Gesine Lötzsch were heard for exactly seven minutes each - the time allocated to all candidates to introduce themselves.

Red holding lines

I will look at the party’s draft programme in more detail in another Weekly Worker article. But to quickly sum up: the draft, published last month, is a big step to the left, especially compared to the previously published Programmatische Eckpunkte, which has served as a pseudo-programme since 2007. This mentioned socialism only once, as an aside, and was not much more than a Keynesian shopping list. The new draft clearly criticises capitalism and repeatedly names its goal as that of “democratic socialism”. This move to the left could be down to Lafontaine’s influence or it might just reflect the party’s need to appear more radical in the face of the crisis of capitalism.

But there are plenty of controversial issues that will come to the fore in the next few months. For a start, the party will have to clarity what it actually means by “democratic socialism”.

Because the right was first off the mark and started criticising the draft as “painting a horror scenario”[1] of capitalism, the left has been forced into a defensive position. Both the Antikapitalistische Linke and the Sozialistische Linke are keen to highlight the positive things in the programme in order to rescue it from attacks by the right.

The most controversial point is the formulation on the question of government participation. For the time being, the left is concentrating its fire particularly on defending the ‘red holding lines’ in the draft that are supposed to protect the party from taking part in ‘bad’ capitalist governments:

“Die Linke seeks participation in government only if we can achieve an improvement of the living conditions of the people. It shall not take part in any government which pushes privatisation and promotes the erosion of social benefit and jobs. On a federal level, Die Linke, moreover, shall not participate in a government which is engaged in wars, permits military missions of the Bundeswehr abroad and advances rearmament and militarisation.”[2]

However, despite this question being the most hotly debated issue within the organisation, it was hardly discussed apart from in passing during the debate on a couple of motions to conference. Each motion was rushed through with one speech for, one against, lasting not more than three minutes each. This is a very worrying characteristic of Die Linke conferences, especially when compared to the time allocated to the election procedure, The issue of government participation is still as disputed and unresolved as it was before conference.

But it is a most pressing issue. On May 6, Die Linke managed to scrape into the regional parliament of the west German federal state of Northrhine-Westfalia. 5.6% of the vote does not sound like much, but it is no small feat in the biggest of the 16 federal states. As a result, neither a conservative bloc of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberal Democrats (FDP) nor a ‘red-green’ coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Green Party had the necessary majority to form a government. Because of the German electoral system, there is almost no regional government that is not made up a coalition. And, as Die Linke grows in popularity, this situation is repeated more and more often across Germany.

The SPD in Northrhine-Westfalia officially approached Die Linke to form a ‘red-red-green’ coalition, which would have been the first of its kind in west Germany. But after a few hours, the negotiations were called off - by the SPD, it needs to be stressed. Officially, they did not like what Die Linke had to say about East Germany. But in reality, they were never serious about trying to form a government (unlike some - not all - of the representatives of Die Linke at the talks). As an aside, it is interesting that the SPD must had felt enough pressure from its own left and its voters to pursue such negotiations. Only last year, in a similar situation, the leader of the SPD in the west German state of Hesse had to resign precisely because she wanted to hold such talks.

Worryingly, it is now undisputed within Die Linke whether it should at least try to get into regional governments. And that despite the fact the party’s participation in the regional governments of Berlin and the east German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg have already proved what such participation as a minority in a capitalist government actually means: you have to take part in forcing through cuts, cuts and cuts again. Especially in this period.

Well, that is because there were no ‘holding lines’, says the left. They are supposed to show that it is not Die Linke which is blocking this or that red-red government - it is the SPD, which will not move far enough in a left direction. But Lucy Redler of the SAV is right (see interview): these purely defensive holding lines are a cheap trick to fool the electorate. The left does not dare speak the truth - that Die Linke should fight in opposition - so it reverts to an outright lie. But that is a very slippery slope and comrade Redler puts her finger on it when she asks, if the SPD were to accept two of Die Linke’s three conditions, then would that not still be better than a government of the CDU and Liberal Democrats? Would there not be the same kind of pressure from “the movements” and “the electorate” to participate in government?

Maybe because they are aware of this slippery slope, the comrades on the left are currently developing another ‘strategy’ to deal with the dilemma: that of tolerating a government of SPD and Greens. Particularly the SL is pushing the idea that Die Linke could use its votes in parliament to help a ‘red-green’ government to take power as a minority - but not take part in that government. They are proposing that Die Linke should help elect such a government without any conditions. The comrades believe that in this way they would absolve themselves from any sins committed by such a government, while at the same time they would prevent a conservative one. This might sound like a preferable option, but it is still an illusion to think Die Linke would not be tainted. It still would have helped to choose the butcher. Incidentally, the SAV also supports this position.

I think that the comrades seriously overestimate the illusions that working class people have in bourgeois governments. As a strong, principled party of the opposition you can have as much - if not more - impact on pushing through reforms. For example, in the west German state of Hesse, the SPD government felt so much under pressure from the growing popularity of Die Linke that, just before regional elections, it scrapped tuition fees - one of the key election demands of Die Linke (as an aside, this was not enough to save the downward spiral of the SPD and the conservatives are now in power there - but they too have not dared to reintroduce the very unpopular tuition fees). And Christine Buchholz’s example of using parliament as a platform surely goes go show that you do not have to be in power to make a real difference.

For all their talk of “the movements”, the left in Die Linke show very little confidence in them.



  1. Süddeutsche Zeitung May 7.
  2. Programme of Die Linke, first draft, p39: die-linke.de/fileadmin/download/programmedebatte/100426_draft_programme_en.pdf