Split looming in Die Linke

The success of the gimmicky Piratenpartei has strengthened the right within the German Left Party, says Tina Becker

Looking at Germany through the distorted spectacles of the British bourgeois media, you could be forgiven for believing that the country whose government is imposing harsh austerity measures on the rest of Europe has itself somehow managed to escape the capitalist crisis unharmed. The secret, according to an edition of BBC Breakfast on May 17, for example, was “that Germany has gone through its own austerity measures 10 years ago” and has “come out smiling”.

And business is certainly booming, at least compared to the rest of Europe. In 2011, the German economy grew by 3%; in the first quarter of 2012 by another 0.5% (this helped the overall European economy to just about reach 0% growth - ie, avoid another official recession).[1] Unemployment has gone down from a high of 5.2 million in 2005 (12.6% of the workforce) to just over three million (7.2%). Especially compared to Spain or Greece, this sounds pretty healthy.

But scratch beneath the surface.

The reputable news programme Panorama reported in March that 8.2 million people are currently employed in so-called “precarious jobs” - ie, they are in temporary employment or work in “mini-jobs” - earning less than €400 a month.[2] Many people have become officially self-employed in order to save some tax on their increasingly irregular income. According to the programme, a staggering “75% of all new jobs” are non-permanent. If you fall ill, you do not get sick pay. There is no contribution towards your pension. And if your boss wants to get rid of you, he can do so without any interference by those troublesome trade unions, which are effectively banned from more and more workplaces. This is illegal, of course, but who on a temporary contract would want to challenge it?

This is all thanks to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) government of Gerhard Schröder, who in the late 1990s imposed a range of harsh measures: the so-called Agenda 2010 made it easier for businesses to sack workers, imposed draconian measures against Germany’s unemployed, enforced a radical restructuring of the pensions system and carried out the de facto privatisation of the health service. At the same time, the government introduced unprecedented tax cuts for businesses and lowered the top rate of income tax from 56% in 1989 to 45%. Selective austerity.

Since Angela Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005, she has simply kept most of these measures ticking over - Schröder had done all the heavy lifting for her. Unsurprisingly then, the SPD has been finding it difficult to look like an effective alternative. Its top politicians might criticise this measure or that law brought in by Schröder. But the party is still firmly seen as having done the dirty on the German working class. In polls, it hovers around 28%, compared to the 35% that Merkel’s conservatives (CDU/CSU) poll.[3]

Downward spiral

You might think that in these circumstances, the Left Party, Die Linke, would do very well. After the 2007 unification of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the former ‘official communist’ party of East Germany) and the WASG (which was made up mainly of disappointed left social democrats, union officials and the far left in the west of Germany), Die Linke had been going from strength to strength. In 2009, it stormed the Bundestag with a fantastic 11.9% of the vote, winning 78 seats. Membership rose to 80,000.

But things started to go downhill soon after that. According to most recent polls, the party would currently struggle to cross the undemocratic 5% threshold, which applies to all national and regional elections - it is enjoying only between 5% and 6% support. In early May, it lost all its seats in the two west German federal parliaments of Schleswig-Holstein (where its share of the vote was slashed from 6% to 2.2%) and North Rhine-Westphalia (where it went from 5.6% to 2.5%). Membership has dropped to under 70,000.

So where did it all go wrong for Die Linke?

The crisis of capitalism has certainly tested the organisation - and it has been found wanting. The unity between the two component parts has been shown to be extremely fragile. The party’s programme, adopted last year, was supposed to bring the two wings closer together. But instead of openly debating the different outlooks and political strategies, the programme tried to paper things over. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a semi-Keynesian hotchpotch of often contradictory ideas. For example, while in one part there is talk about “superseding” capitalism in order to establish “a society of democratic socialism”, other parts merely talk about managing the excesses of the “deregulated financial markets” and “unrestricted capitalism” (my emphasis).[4]

It clearly is the result of a compromise between the more radical forces in the west of Germany and the Realos, who dominate the organisation in the east. Such a programme could never serve as a “guide to action”. In reality, it is nothing but a guide to confusion, which the right wing has been able to use as a fig leaf in its attempts to form more coalition governments in the regions with the SPD. Especially as a minority partner in the Berlin coalition government, the organisation has over many years helped to enforce draconian cuts and closures - and has been severely punished by the electorate, many of whom have turned to the new Piratenpartei (Pirate Party).

Pirating votes

In the latest polls, support for the Piratenpartei stands at an amazing 11%. In the May regional elections, it entered the west German federal parliaments of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, which Die Linke was booted out of. To add insult to injury, the Pirates held their first press conference in the former conference room of Die Linke.

Compared to the bureaucratic set-up of most political parties, the Pirates seem fresh, young, open and democratic. In the last couple of years, their ranks have swollen to over 30,000 (though only 16,000 have paid the annual membership fee of €48 and are therefore allowed to vote).[5] Most of their meetings are held openly and are transmitted to all members via Skype or Mumble. Many policy proposals are initiated online, via the software ‘Liquid Democracy’: a member puts up a motion, discusses it with others who might put forward amendments and, if enough support has been gathered, the motion goes to the party’s regional or national bodies for ratification (most motions coming through this way are being accepted). There are no Napoleon-like leaders demanding special rules for themselves.

That is the attractive side of the organisation. The less pretty one looks like this: apart from fighting for absolute freedom on the internet, the organisation has no programme to speak of. This lack of a strategic outlook leads to the absurd situation where members and leaders of this political party are trying to avoid talking about … politics.

“None of the candidates for the leadership made passionate or original speeches,” reports the German weekly Die Zeit on the April conference of the party. “Political statements were very rare. The contrast between the organisation’s commitment to freedom of speech and the fear of the strict grassroots, which are controlling every word, was pretty crass.”[6]

In the beginning, many people thought it refreshing when a Pirate confessed in one of the many talk shows on German TV that “we don’t have a position on this particular issue yet”. After a couple of years though, this is starting to wear quite thin. Some of its members are self-confessed socialists, some are anarchists, a few have been exposed as ex-members of the neo-fascist NPD - but the majority could probably be described as out-and-out liberals.

One of their main placards in the May regional elections read, “We stick to the Grundgesetz [the constitution]. That’s where we are conservative”. The party’s new leader, Bernd Schlömer, is a director in the German defence ministry, where he is in charge of the curriculum of the universities run by the German army. He considers the Bundeswehr’s deployment in Kosova and Afghanistan “positive”. [7]

He is indicative of the membership base: the vast majority of Pirates are between 25 and 35 years old; many are students, self-employed or run small businesses - the classic petty bourgeoisie. Stuck between the two major classes, it can be pulled either way, depending on the class struggle. The jury is still out which way this one will go, but Die Linke is certainly not pulling it to the left at the moment.

Split looming

In fact, the right wing in Die Linke has been strengthened by the success of the Pirates, who are doing particularly well in the west. The Realos have used the recent humiliating election results to come out fighting: they demand that the party gives up its “desire to stay in opposition” (which is very half-hearted in any case). The party should openly declare its intention to seek participation in all levels of government, especially with its “natural coalition partner”, the SPD.

For the first time, the Realos now also claim the leadership of the party. The constitution stipulates that there have to be two party leaders: one from the east, one from the west. And at least one of the two has to be a woman. To find two suitable candidates has in the past been an arithmetic feat of the highest order, involving weeks and weeks of negotiations between the two wings. Predictably, this type of election has promoted mediocre politicians who might have been born with the correct gender and on the correct side of the Berlin wall, but who have very little to contribute politically.

But now the real Realos are demanding the crown: Dietmar Bartsch, one of their main spokespeople, is supported by the party in all five federal states in the east. He - quite correctly - points out that the organisation has far more members in the east and claims that this should be reflected in the political direction of the organisation.

But so far, the left within Die Linke is refusing to accept him or the change of direction. Instead, after recovering from cancer, Oskar Lafontaine has just declared his own desire for the top job - which in reality he has been doing for many years. A former leading member of the SPD, he stepped down from his post as finance minister of Germany in 1999 in protest against Gerhard Schröder’s ‘reforms’ and is the most well-known Die Linke politician. He has continuously moved to the left of the party and is now something of a spokesperson of the more radical forces. The German section of the Socialist Workers Party, for example, has been supporting him uncritically for many years - and has been rewarded with a number of jobs and promising positions. Lafontaine’s relationship with the charismatic Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Stalinist Kommunistische Plattform, has further cemented his position as the ‘leader of the left’.

This is all relative, of course. While he is no revolutionary, he is certainly to the left of those power-hungry elements in the east. His Keynesian politics are typical 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 keep 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, but it should not apply to participation in a bourgeois government, where Die Linke would always be forced to take responsibility for attacks on the working class. That is in the nature of the system.

Also, Lafontaine’s commitment to democracy leaves much to be desired. A politician in the mould of George Galloway, he makes up party policy as he goes along. Like Galloway, he is a great asset to his party - and a great burden. For example, he let it be known through interviews in the bourgeois media that he would refuse to stand against Bartsch (or anybody else, for that matter): “I want the party to want me,” he declared. He knows that he probably would lose against Bartsch, so he is demanding that the June 2-3 party conference be presented with only one candidate for the top job: him.

This is developing into the biggest crisis of the young Die Linke. Not a few commentators are musing that this might well be a pre-split situation. The party is being pulled in (at least) two directions: in the west, the organisation is akin to the Socialist Alliance in Britain - sections of the scattered left got together to help found Die Linke here. Opposition to the pitfalls of “taking responsibility” by managing capitalism is still strong. But in the east, government participation is now becoming the norm and the party is well on the way to its aim of replacing the SPD as the ‘natural’ party for working class people, often pulling in around 25% of the vote.

Gregor Gysi, who likes to present himself as something of an unofficial, ‘impartial’ president of the organisation, has warned: “The victory of one side over the other is not a way to unity, but in the last instance will lead to a split. There are two ways to deal with internal differences: either we split or we unite on a higher level.”[8]

This was not so much a prophecy as an outright threat in order to keep the party together, particularly directed at the right (Gysi has come out in support of Lafontaine). And the two main wings will probably find a last-minute bureaucratic compromise when it comes to the new leadership. Bartsch might be persuaded to go for general secretary once more - if, for example, he is promised the top job in two years’ time (this worked so well for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, didn’t it?). Or Lafontaine might be won to lead the party’s parliamentary fraction instead.

Such bureaucratic backroom deals will not resolve the long overdue strategic debate the party needs to conduct. But even if that debate takes place, it seems unlikely that the two wings can be kept together for much longer. There is now open hostility between the various leaders, which is often the precursor to a split.



1 . http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/wirtschaftswachstum-deutschland-bewahrt-die-eurozone-vor-der-rezession-1.1357598.

2 . http://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/archiv/2012/panorama3797.pdf.

3 . wahlrecht.de/umfragen/index.htm.

4 . See ‘Left rhetoric and reformist illusionsWeekly Worker December 1 2011.

5 . http://wiki.piratenpartei.de/Mitglieder.

6 . zeit.de/politik/2012-04/piraten-parteitag/seite-2.

7 . eisenblatt.net/?p=4134.

8 . www.spiegel.de May 15.