Left rhetoric and reformist illusions

The 1891 Erfurt programme adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany was regarded as a 'return to Marxism', writes Ben Lewis. If only the same could be said of Die Linke's 2011 version

Everything that is superfluous in a programme weakens it,” wrote Friedrich Engels, commenting on the draft of German Social Democracy’s Erfurt programme.[1] If this was true of the 1891 programme draft, then it applies a thousand fold to the programme agreed on by the recent Erfurt congress of the German left party, Die Linke.

Weighing in at almost 30,000 words, the new programme is rather more akin to an extended commentary on the current economic and political situation in Germany and across the globe. Needlessly repeating itself on several occasions (opposition to sanctions on the unemployed appears at least three times), the text could have surely been substantially cut before publication. Moreover, by referencing passing phenomena like current EU treaties, recent wars/governments, latest developments in genetic engineering (!) and so on, large parts of it will soon be out of date.

Getting through it is a bit of a slog, and it also requires much reading between the lines to work out just what is being said and why. One wonders how many of Die Linke’s members will take the time to sift through the document in its entirety. Nonetheless, its acceptance is now contingent on a poll of the party membership. While we will not know the result until mid-December, it is almost certain that the programme will receive overwhelming support.[2]

Edith Bartelmus-Scholich’s report from the Erfurt congress was a welcome addition to our paper.[3] For, as we will see, while Die Linke suffers from many of the opportunist and short-termist maladies of its sister parties elsewhere, it is at least an attempt to establish a mass leftwing political alternative. Its fate is of utmost interest to working class partisans everywhere.

Comrade Bartelmus-Scholich and others have kept Weekly Worker readers up to speed on developments and controversies in and around the united party that was founded in 2007, but we have not written anything on its programme for quite some time.[4]Analysing the new programme, and focusing on its central strategic concepts will throw some light on where Die Linke is currently at and - crucially - where it is looking to go.


At first sight, Die Linke’s programme appears rather promising. It opens with Bertolt Brecht’s wonderful poem, ‘Questions of a worker who reads’, and proclaims that Die Linke is a “socialist party that stands for alternatives, for a better future” (p4). Later on we are also told that “capitalism is not the end of history, but a stage in the development of humanity” (p20). Yet if this really is the case, then how does this document point beyond capitalist society by linking today’s struggles with that “better future”?

Unfortunately, the programme lacks any such structure. There are, amongst others, chapters on ‘Where we come from, who we are’, ‘Crises of capitalism - crises of civilisation’ and ‘Democratic socialism in the 21st century’, plus sections on various policy areas, but the final section is rather fluffily entitled ‘Together for a change in politics and a better society’. The preamble (‘This is what Die Linke stands for’) is probably the closest thing we get to a relatively clear formulation of demands: for a “democratic economic order”, including “decent work for all, but less work for the individual”, a minimum wage, the abolition of the draconian ‘Hartz IV’ unemployment laws, better pensions, healthcare and education, and a just tax system. There is also the call for “the expansion of civil rights and the democratisation of all areas of society”, and for common social and ecological standards across the European Union. The preamble also specifies support for political and general strikes as working class tools of struggle.

Most of these demands are eminently supportable. While, as we shall see, some of them are devoid of any content, and still others appear rather Keynesian in orientation, they are at least demands to strengthen the position of the working class in the here and now. However, the programme is characterised by vague platitudes and generalities.

It is quite clear that the historical section could be substantially cut. Lengthy historical expositions should have no place in a party programme. Party unity should not revolve around particular historical interpretations, but contemporary politics. While of huge interest, such questions are best discussed in pamphlets, party meetings and the party press (Unfortunately, Die Linke still does not have a paper).

Manage or supersede?

It would appear that the party wants to be seen to ‘look both ways’ on some key questions, not least on whether it is the capitalist system and generalised commodity production as a whole that needs to be overcome or just certain manifestations of it. Indeed, there are inconsistencies and outright contradictions in the way capitalism is portrayed.

For example, one passage broadly describes capitalism as a system based on the extraction of value from those who sell their labour for wages. Yet at several other points it is not this system, not private property and not the political power of the capitalist class as a whole which is attacked, but rather “unrestricted capitalism” (p58), “the neoliberal political model” (p56) and “deregulated financial markets” (p15).

Moreover, the text also proclaims that Die Linke is committed to “a long emancipatory process, in which the dominance of capital is overcome through democratic, social and ecological forces”, eventually leading to a “society of democratic socialism” (my emphasis, p5). This is to be achieved through the management of capitalist excess by banning hedge funds (p29), etc, combined with Keynesian tinkering aimed at “boosting internal demand” (p28).

Society will gradually be pushed to the left through a fairer distribution of wealth: managers’ salaries will be capped at 20 times those of the lowest-paid workers (p27), there will be a 5% wealth tax on millionaires and financial markets will be “tamed and brought back to their actual function” (p22). As if to underline how this document is very much the child of compromise of the contending factions within the party, the programme also states that “Some in Die Linke demand a basic income” (p33) and that there is ongoing discussion on this question.

There are passages where it is almost possible to trace the compositing that has taken place between the different factions, as well as places where compromises have been arrived at over specific formulations. This has produced the pervading ambiguity. For example, Die Linke is “fighting for a change in direction of politics, which opens up the way to a fundamental transformation of society that overcomes capitalism” (p5). The ‘realo’ wing would interpret this as implying a long period of coalition government alongside the SPD and maybe the Greens, which, by some twisted, reformist logic, would pave the way for a new, higher society at some indefinite point in the future. On the other hand, the left will surely stress the “fundamental transformation of society” rather than the short-term “change in direction of politics”.

Now, some might assert that, given the strategic rivalries within Die Linke, such compromises might represent the only way forward. Yet there is a problem here: not only do such statements provide ‘left’ cover for the plans of the right wing, but the ensuing confusion and lack of clear programmatic commitments also has severe consequences for the accountability of the leadership to its membership in its future actions. You can almost see some of these phrases being rolled out to justify further government coalitions - certainly at state level. I am reminded of Paul Levi’s acerbic description of Independent Social Democracy’s left-centrist programme in 1920: “a lump of clay that one can make into a face or a gargoyle at will”.[5] (The difference, of course, is that the USPD was far to the left of today’s Die Linke.)

Social state of law?

But if the programme is unclear as to whether capitalism should be abolished or merely reined in and controlled, it is at least unambiguous that this process will not involve the working class majority conquering political power.

True, there is the vague statement that “capitalism can be overcome if we succeed in winning majorities” (p20 - why this is in the plural is rather perplexing). Yet there is a big difference between arguing that a transition to a higher form of society requires the conscious support of the majority and claiming that “democratic socialism” can be achieved within the ‘democratic’ structures of the German constitution and a ‘social Rechtstaat’ (a constitutional state, what the Americans refer to as a ‘state of law’).

Rather than envisaging some kind of break with the anti-democratic institutions of the bourgeois constitutional order, the programme seems to imply that its goals can be achieved within them. The demands to “expand municipal democracy” amount to very little beyond calling for greater use of referenda to supplement “representative parliamentary democracy” (p33).

There is nothing proposed that could actually expand, that could make more generous Germany’s rather unrepresentative democracy (annual elections, abolition of the Bundesrat and a single chamber, representatives on a worker’s wages, etc). And, while the programme calls for the abolition of the intelligence services, it again falls well short of its 1891 namesake by merely agitating for (undefined) “democratic control [Kontrolle]” of the army and the police, not the arming of the people.

Indeed, the Erfurt programme of 2011 even goes as far as to champion the “separation of powers”, espoused, amongst others, by that well-known working class partisan, the Baron de Montesquieu! It might call for the “democratisation of the judiciary”, but does not take up the demand for the direct election of judges contained in the 1891 version. Rather, it wants them appointed by electoral colleges to ensure that they “represent all social layers appropriately” and administer justice “in the name of the people” (p35).

This overlooks the fact that the very essence of the ‘rule of law’ is the sanctity of private property and the associated inequality that comes with it. It is the very basis of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as a class. Such loyalty to the current order is given a certain left gloss by the statement that, in Die Linke’s view, “the Rechtsstaat and the Sozialstaat (welfare state) form a unity” (p20).

Some of the formulations seem to have been drawn up with the purpose of heading off criticism from the left: eg, “By fighting for left reform projects today … we simultaneously act for our socialist goal” (p26). No Marxist could dispute this, providing that the “socialist goal” is working class power and an alternative constitutional order. But, however militantly we fight for reforms in the here and now, if our overall outlook is loyal to the constitution, and thus reformist, then we in no way bring that goal nearer. One figure often quoted in the text - Rosa Luxemburg - drew attention to this very point: reformist and revolutionary politics are not two different paths to the same destination. They are different paths but, as in January 1919, lead to very different places.

In government?

However, for all that the programme says on working conditions, the role of neoliberalism, the burden shouldered by women in society and so forth, it only has a couple of paragraphs to offer on perhaps the greatest bone of contention both within Die Linke and in German society more generally: the question of government participation. Die Linke certainly does not place itself in the tradition of radical German Social Democracy or the KPD by demanding that it will only form a government with majority support for a full socialist programme.[6]

It states that the terrain of national government is “decisive” for a change in politics (p56). True, government participation is only sensible if it is based on a “rejection of the neoliberal model of politics” and brings about a “social-ecological” change of course. But there are no other caveats, just the usual platitudes: “Die Linke aims for government if it can achieve an improvement in the living standards of the people.” In this way, so the logic goes, the “political power of Die Linke and the social movements can be strengthened” and the feeling of political powerlessness that exists amongst many people can be forced back” (p56). Not true, of course. ‘Left’ administrations presiding over the capitalist system have historically demoralised and demobilised the working class, opening the door to the return of conservative and reactionary administrations.

There are, at least, some clear (if rather hollow) pledges that Die Linke will not take part in any national government that “carries out wars or allows combat missions of the German army abroad” or “presses ahead with armaments and militarisation”. This is a little naive, given that the programme wants to reform the existing US-led imperialist order, not abolish it. Nor will Die Linke participate in a national government that “makes worse the public sector’s fulfilment of tasks”. But it does not promise not to help drive forward privatisation at state level, as it has been doing in Berlin.

The programme stresses internationalism and, in welcome contrast to some on the British left, calls for cooperation across the European Union. By the same measure, though, Die Linke bemoans the “violence and wars” that are often carried out in violation of the United Nations charter. Yet, as Mike Macnair has argued, a ‘law-governed world order’ based on the UN charter “fundamentally misunderstands the nature of law as a social institution, and as a result, international law”,[7] and as such the call for a law-governed world order is not an alternative to the havoc wreaked upon the world by US-led imperialism: it is merely another form of the same thing. The fact that the new Erfurt programme goes into such detail about how to “strengthen” and “reform” the UN den of thieves says much about the limits of Die Linke’s internationalism.

Things take a rather bizarre turn with the pledge to establish a ‘Willy Brandt civil corps’ of German doctors, technicians and so on, rather than armed forces, to dispatch humanitarian aid abroad.


One thing I thought comrade Bartelmus-Scholich’s Erfurt report overlooked (perhaps understandably, given that it was a programmatic critique) was the rather odd reaction of the German bourgeois media to the convention.

Despite the fact that the programme amounts to a rather uninspiring, reformist fudge of the differences within the party, the German media condemned the programme for its ‘extremism’. Naturally, this is to be expected from those like Axel Springer’s ‘lazy Greek’-bashing rag, Bild. But more serious publications, like Der Spiegel, argued that in Erfurt the party “cemented its radical course of opposition”.[8] If only that were true. Der Spiegel claimed that policies such as the legalisation of “soft drugs” and opposition to all German armed forces missions abroad meant that Die Linke was “increasingly isolating itself with radical positions”.

Der Spiegel was not the only one to kick up a fuss on the question of drug legalisation. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to snipe at a party still capable of taking the votes of its leftwing supporters, the SPD referred to it as “absurd”. The well-known Die Linke rightist, Porsche-driving co-chair Klaus Ernst, responded as you might expect: legalisation was for the “long term”, he said, not a proposal for the here and now.

This brings me to another rather frustrating aspect of the programme. Without explanation, it splits up its policy points into three categories: “immediate”, “perspective” and “long-term”. This rather slippery device further compounds the confusion. For example, Die Linke’s call for a grant for all students taking their first course in higher education is relegated to a “perspective” for further education courses. While the programme “opposes all privatisation” of the railways, the demand for the whole network to be in public hands is a “long-term” one, like the legalisation of drugs.

What does it mean exactly? That drugs will be legalised when Die Linke has formed a government? Or only when the new society ‘beyond’ capitalism has been achieved? And in the meantime we do not call for it to happen?


I wholly agree with comrade Bartelmus-Scholich’s assessment that Die Linke has a crisis of strategy, and that the rhetoric from the German section of the Socialist Workers Party about the programme’s “clear anti-capitalist character”[9] either reflects rather cynical attempts at manoeuvring within the official party structures or utter ignorance as to what constitutes a genuinely anti-capitalist - ie, Marxist - programme (maybe it is a mixture of both).

Comrade Bartelmus-Scholich is certainly correct to argue that “the party lacks a strategy for opposition”. This is a pity, because Die Linke quite clearly still has enormous potential, and in the current climate could grow substantially and become a real political force. Yet if the leadership lacks a strategy for opposition, then this is doubly true of the party’s left. It is certainly to be welcomed that Die Linke permits different platforms to operate. This allows the revolutionary left some space - however limited - to intervene in the important strategic questions being raised within the party. Great responsibility thus falls on the shoulders of Marxists to form a clear, principled opposition to the leadership’s constitutionalism, class-collaborationism, Millerandism and general reformist illusions.

Perhaps reflecting its desire to burrow away in the depths of Die Linke in order to gain influence, the Socialist Workers Party’s German section describes the programme as a “good basis to win new members to Die Linke”.[10] Having officially dissolved themselves into a support network for the publication Marx 21, the comrades’ strategy appears to consist of hoovering up new recruits to Die Linke by being the best fighters for its (utterly inadequate) Keynesian politics - all the while seeking to push that programme incrementally, almost imperceptibly, to the left.

However, by describing the new document in such positive terms, the German SWP comrades at least appear to recognise the need for a programme. Tony Cliff’s approach has always been that a programme is something to be avoided, since it ties the leadership’s hands and limits its ‘flexibility’. When challenged on this, SWP comrades will usually quote Marx’s letter to Wilhelm Bracke: “Every step of the real movement is worth more than a dozen programmes.”[11] Poor old Charlie Marx. But how do our SWP comrades square this circle? How do they simultaneously greet Die Linke’s Erfurt programme, while rejecting programmes more generally?

The real Erfurt

The Erfurt programme of 1891 is as far from the rightwing SPD of the 20th century as it is possible to get, and it should be viewed as ours: an integral part of the classical Marxist tradition.

Written by August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, and enriched by Engels’ feedback, the 1891 Erfurt programme’s structure, demands and methodology reflected the approach of Marx and Engels. Unlike the Erfurt programme of 2011, it had a clear, logical order that outlined the tasks of the epoch and listed a set of radical democratic and economic demands to pave the way to working class rule, thus genuinely beginning the transition to the “better world” which Die Linke says it aspires to.

The 1891 Erfurt programme was not without its problems, blunders and omissions. Yet, updated for modern conditions, its method can inform a programme to help Die Linke become what Oskar Lafontaine has called a “movement for democracy”. Immediate demands for the election of judges, the total separation of church and state, the replacement of the standing army with a people’s militia, self-determination and self-government of the people at all levels - these can and must form part of our class’s weaponry in the 21st century.

And one key pillar of the Erfurt programme was its emphasis on the need for the working class to win majority support in order to reshape society. This is hardly irrelevant to the debate over the ‘red holding lines’: ie, under what conditions Die Linke could consider participation in a coalition government. For revolutionaries, there are key principles that have to be fulfilled. Not this or that pledge to refrain from engaging in foreign wars or cutting social welfare, but a break with the whole constitutional order on the high tide of mass mobilisation, organisation and militancy.

As things stand, Die Linke has not rejected the aim of becoming a party ‘fit for government’ - no doubt, its leaders hope, alongside the SPD. If such a coalition was formed, it would be a disaster on a far greater scale than Die Linke’s participation in state governments.

It is quite right for Marxists and revolutionary socialists to join Die Linke; but only if they fight for the basic principles such as working class independence. Of course, the main obstacle to the formation of a coherent opposition is the disorganised and sectarian nature of the far left itself. Either it stands aloof, not willing to get its hands dirty, or it plays the bureaucracy’s game and sees things through rose-tinted glasses. Yet a left that is not afraid to speak out for working class power could really make headway, and perhaps prevent the demise of yet another left unity project lured by the temptation of running the capitalist state. Any such opposition would do well to draw upon some of the lessons of Erfurt 1891.



1. Quoted in V I Lenin, ‘Material for the preparation of the programme of the RSDLP’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1902/draft/04mar07.htm.

2. www.die-linke.de/fileadmin/download/dokumente/programm_der_partei_die_linke_erfurt2011.pdf.

3. E Bartelmus-Scholich, ‘A better version of social democracyWeekly Worker October 24.

4. In 2006 I attended a joint ‘programme convention’ of the merged forces in Hannover. See B Lewis, ‘On the road to social democracyWeekly Worker October 5 2006. I would love to admit that I was wrong to choose such a title, and that things have changed for the better, but unfortunately that is not the case.

5. RA Archer (trans) The Second Congress of the Communist International Vol I, London 1977, pp282-83.

6. Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty neatly summarises the British left’s Labourite variant of this: “In Britain the fall of the government would probably mean it being replaced by Labour. That would be a step forward. The new government, though under Ed Miliband pro-capitalist, would be more easily pushed by working class pressure, and that working class pressure, against a Labour government, could more directly shake up and transform the labour movement … To take the working class forward politically, the negative call for ‘kicking out the Con-Dems’ or ‘smashing the Tories’ has to be linked to a clear, positive call for a Labour government, not a new coalition, and for the unions and the working class to organise for sharp demands on the Labour leaders” (Solidarity November 23). Just three years ago, of course, AWL leaders declared the Labour Party a “stinking corpse” (Solidarity April 10 2008).

7. M Macnair, ‘The war and the law’  Weekly Worker September 25 2003.

8. www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,793414,00.html.

9. http://marx21.de/content/view/1549/32/ The comrades do at least preface this comment with “in spite of a few breaches”.

10. http://marx21.de/content/view/1549/32.

11. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_05_05.htm.