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The decline of the Left Party (DIE LINKE) in Germany

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In France and Greece, parties belonging to the “European Left” scored remarkable, in the case of Syriza, historic, successes in recent elections. Left reformist leaders like Tsipras have become political figures known across the whole continent, and hated by the ruling class.

The German Left Party, DIE LINKE, has had a remarkably different trajectory; it has declined on all fronts.

At the last general elections, in 2009, the Left Party gained 11.9 percent and 76 seats in parliament. Since then, however, it has lost almost every regional election. It is down to 5-6 percent in the opinion polls. Its decline in regional elections started in 2011 but has accelerated in 2012. In the latest election in Schleswig-Holstein, it fell from 6 percent (in 2009) to 2.4 percent, in North Rhine-Westphalia it was a similar story, from 5.6 to 2.5 percent – losing more than half of its electorate each time.

Moreover, the Left Party did not only lose in elections. At its high-point, in 2008, it had 75,968 members. By the end of 2011 it had shrunk to 69,458 – and this trend is likely to continue at a rapid pace.

Lafontaine’s last waltz?

In this situation of despair, the centre and left wing of the party wanted to bring back Oscar Lafontaine as chairman of the party and, by implication, as the party's leading candidate in the general elections in 2013. After weeks of manoeuvring, Lafontaine agreed, but only on the condition that there would be no other candidate standing against him at the party congress, that he would be the leading candidate in the general elections and that he would have a decisive say in the composition of the inner party leadership.

In political terms, Lafontaine and his supporters proposed a more left, reformist agitation and more open attacks on the SPD as the main contender for working class support. This was not because they reject coalitions with the SPD, or even the Greens, in principle, but because they feared that a too soft policy towards the SPD would make the Left Party completely indistinguishable from the much large social-democratic party and, therefore, ultimately superfluous.

The right wing of the party, on the other hand, saw this as an onslaught on their “successful Realpolitik”. They blame the left for alienating the “ordinary” voters with “radicalism” and “outdated” politics. By the latter they mean a traditional reformist and Keynesian agenda of state intervention in the economy to raise demand. In particular, they object to all calls for re-nationalisation of privatised services and former state companies.

Lafontaine’s conditions, designed to force the right wing of the party into subordination, backfired. The right wing, those in the party who want to adapt to the SPD even more and see joining in “constructive” coalition government with the SPD and the Greens as the primary objective for the party and who even reject Keynesian Lafontaine-style reformism, used this blackmail to their advantage.

Firstly, they presented themselves as defenders of “democracy” against Lafontaine’s outrageous and self-promoting degradation of the party congress into just a rubber stamp for “the leader's” wishes. Secondly, Lafontaine’s move gave the initiative to the right. They just needed to maintain their own candidate for the chairman - Bartsch, a third rank bureaucrat from the former SED (that is, the former governing party of the German Democratic Republic, “East Germany”) and one of the many converts to social-liberal politics in the party leadership and apparatus.

Bartsch not only did not stand down, as Lafontaine demanded, but took the obvious chance to present himself as the candidate for “a new democratic culture”. This left Lafontaine with two options – either to withdraw his conditions or to back down. He backed down.

The whole incident also meant that the tensions increased between the leading, Keynesian wing of the party, around Lafontaine, and the right wing “reformers”, who have a strong base in the party apparatus and a mass membership in the East, where still 62 percent of the membership come from (whilst only about 25 percent of the German population live there).

The party convention therefore looked set to become something of a show-down. Gregor Gysi, the Bonaparte of the party, claiming to stand above all factions, sided with Bartsch and openly toyed with the threat of a split. This also backfired.

Kipping and Riexinger - the new leaders

Bratsch lost the election to Bernd Riexinger, a left wing trade unionist and ally of Lafontaine. The left wing celebrated this victory in the election of one of the two chairmen of the party. Certainly, Riexinger, leader of the public and service sector union Verdi in Baden-Württemberg, is more left wing than Lafontaine would have been and than the former party chairman Klaus Ernst (himself an IG-Metall bureaucrat) was. But, not withstanding his leftism, Riexinger is a bureaucrat. He has been critical of the SPD-leaders in the unions for years, but he has also firmly opposed and, wherever he could, prevented the formation of a rank and file oppositional movement against the bureaucracy in the unions.

However, if we look at the new party leadership, we have also to reckon with Katja Kipping, who was elected chairwoman of the party. Whilst Riexinger is a trade union bureaucrat, he does not have much of a base, never mind an apparatus, of his own in the party.

Kipping, on the other hand, comes from Saxony, the largest party section with 12,000 members, and has a solid base in the Eastern apparatus, stemming from the Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS, the successor to the SED. Politically, she is an eclectic mix of libertarianism and reformism. She has her own “theoretical” magazine “Prague Spring” and a network called the “Emancipatory Left” and is also one of the leading figures of the “Institut Solidarische Moderne”, a think tank set up by a collection of left wingers from the SPD and Greens, representatives of the Left Party like Kipping herself, from attac and from the autonomist alliance “Interventionist Left” whose aim is to lay the “ideological and theoretical” basis for a “change in policy and government”.

Whilst Kipping is, in ideological terms, probably the most right wing leader, the Left Party and also the PDS ever had, she has managed to present herself very effectively as standing above the warring factions, as a candidate who will unite the party. In addition, she also managed to appear as more “movementist”, because of her close ties with the libertarian, and neo-reformist, autonomist wing, which has quite an influence in some social mobilisations in Germany.

How could she succeed in this? Firstly, she never allied herself with the most right wing elements of the party, the “Forum for Democratic Socialism”, and was careful to make some criticism of the governmental politics of the Left Party in Berlin, in particular. Secondly, she borrowed a lot of the phraseology of the post-modernist, libertarian and Gramscian discourse of recent decades.

For example, the “left” post-modernists object to demanding the nationalisation of services, companies etc. They point out that nationalisation by the bureaucratic bourgeois state apparatus does not end exploitation and alienation and does not secure decent services either.

This “new” phenomenon was, of course, recognised by revolutionary Marxists ages ago. The revolutionary solution they put forward was to combine the struggle for nationalisation with the struggle for workers' control – itself a part of a programme to challenge the control of the capitalists and the bourgeois state, preparing and leading to the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of working class power.

Kipping and her libertarian and reformist friends do not want to resort to such a “traditional” working class solution, just as they do not want to base their politics on class politics at all. Instead, they promote the slogan of “socialisation”. That sounds radical, but it is not. It is an ideological smokescreen, which can be understood as a variety of things such as “democratic control”, an ambiguous formula, which at the end of the day can only mean control by the bourgeois democratic institutions, or it could mean self-management, or co-operatives or even the call for splitting up large scale companies into different smaller ones.

Congress did not resolve the crisis

So, whilst the right wing suffered a defeat with Bratsch losing against Riexinger, taken as a whole, one cannot speak of a left move in the party at all. Even less, has the last congress got to the roots of the party's problems.

Many in the leadership of the party blamed the “internal disputes” for the decline. But, of course, that leaves out the question, what caused the disputes in the first place.

Others, like Lafontaine, blamed the SPD and the Greens for “stealing” the Left Party's programme against the crisis. Certainly, there is an important element of truth in this. But, unfortunately for Lafontaine, there exists no copyright on reformism and Keynesianism, which the Left Party itself took from social-democracy.

Since the SPD has been in opposition, it has moved to the left a bit, at least rhetorically. It has repaired its ties with the trade unions or, at least, with the bureaucracy and its apparatus. It has improved its performance in opinion polls (even though after a humiliating defeat in 2009). After the victory in North-Rhine Westphalia, in May 2012, where the SPD gained 39 percent, it is now even toying with the idea of a victory of SPD and Greens in the coming general elections.

Just a slight move to the left by the SPD has put the Left Party in a very weak position. In recent years, the SPD has raised the minimum wage as a demand it would implement, it has called for higher taxes on the rich and for taxation of financial transactions. In short, it has made a shift back to Keynesian and reformist promises, which, of course, does not stop it from conceding to neo-liberal cuts by the government or even implementing its own where it is in government.

Whilst, the Left Party demands a bit more in terms of reforms, it does not advocate a different policy, fundamentally. This is not altered by the fact that a year ago it adopted a left reformist programme, which presents “democratic socialism” as its ultimate goal. Just as with the social democratic programmes of the 20th century, the maximum part of the programme does not play any role in the actual policy of the party. Indeed, just like social-democracy in the 20th century, it does not even wage a determined struggle for its minimum demands.

When in a coalition government, as in Brandenburg today, its politics are indistinguishable from those of the SPD. The same applied in Berlin, where it governed for 7 years. Moreover, this is not confined to the right wing of the party. In North-Rhine-Wesphalia, a stronghold of its left and “anti-capitalist” wing, the Left Party “tolerated” and backed an SPD/Green government for two years. They voted for the budget, they were effective supporters of the government even without ministers - and this policy led to a humiliating defeat in the regional elections, just as the open coalitions had done before.

Moreover, there can be no doubt that it is the aim of both wings of the party – the right wing, which has adopted a number of the policies of the “Third Way”, and the “traditional”, left reformist, wing, that they want to enter “reform” governments.

Whilst the Left Party has backed a number of anti-governmental and social movement mobilisations in the last years, it has done so without mobilising its mass membership. For a party that claims almost 70,000 members, attending national and local alliances with a handful of individuals is not good enough. Working in them and contributing roughly the same resources as any average far left propaganda group is a scandal, not an “orientation to social movements”. Occasional contingents of 500 to a 1000 maximum at national demonstration are shameful for a mass party.

For that matter, the Left Party does not even appear as a more active reformist party than the SPD in many places. It is little wonder that many workers have moved back to the stronger, reformist apparatus and the much larger party, which might be able to deliver something, rather than the weaker one, which can, at best, be only a junior partner in government even if it talks a bit more left wing.

The inability of the Left Party to take up social issues in a militant and vibrant, even if reformist, way, has meant that it not only loses out to the SPD, but also to the Green Party or the Pirate Party. It is clear that only a turn towards activism, a campaigning focus for the party, could turn it around in the next period. But this is unlikely.

Obstacles to change

Firstly, the last party congress has not solved any of the political differences. The two principal currents or tendencies in the party continue to exist. Whilst the left wing could defeat Bartsch and install Riexinger, the party leadership is essentially right wing. In addition, the party congress is, generally speaking, more left wing than the membership. Why? Because the districts from the West (who only represent about a third of the membership) have been privileged since the foundation of the party and are allowed to send half of the delegates. This puts an increasing question mark over the legitimacy of the congress. If there were a “one member, one vote” election of delegates to congress, the right wing would probably always have a majority.

Secondly, the left wing of the leadership has already agreed to be “integrative” and not to “provoke” the right. Whether the right wing refrain from this is a different matter. In effect, this will mean that the left reformist, Keynesian, leadership will water down its demands so that they are not too “offensive” for the party's right wing.

Thirdly, the right wing of the party controls large parts of the apparatus of the organisation and therefore has a strong position to effectively block whatever it dislikes.

Fourthly, all this means that the public profile of the Left Party is likely to continue to be weak, since the whole inner party settlement will point to the most lukewarm and lame reformist slogans rather than aggressive and clear ones. This, in turn, will make it even more difficult to stop workers moving back towards the SPD.

Fifthly, and irrespective of the struggle between the different wings, the Left Party is short of activists, particularly in the West. What it does have is a huge party bureaucracy, with hundreds of full-timers in national and regional offices, and party foundations like the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Much of this is dependent on continued electoral success to secure the state revenues to maintain these institutions and posts. As a result, the left wing has a real material interest in maintaining the “unity of the party” – since otherwise its posts and privileges and income would end. As a party, it only has a mass following and significant roots in society in the East, where almost two thirds of the members come from.

In addition, the Left Party is strongly integrated in the bourgeois system at every level. In July 2011, the Left Party had 294 full time paid deputies in parliaments on European, national and regional levels. Each of them has 2-4 paid staff in their offices.
In addition, 294 of its members were mayors of cities and towns, 80 of them on full-time service. Finally, 5,700 of its members held elected posts in city councils and local government.

So, almost 10 percent of the total membership are part of the party apparatus or serve in higher or lower functions of the bourgeois system. This is what determines their political horizons, what they understand as “political activity”. Given that two thirds of the membership are older than 60 (and only 12 percent younger than 35), we can conclude that most of the active members' politics and time are focused on these institutions. The functionaries are the “activists”, whilst the majority of the members are passive card-holders.

No wonder that, irrespective of proclamations of conferences or individual leaders of the party, the Left Party is (and, indeed, always was) a party of parliamentary, or even local council, cretinism. At these “lower” levels of the bourgeois state apparatus, the issue of coalitions with the SPD or the Greens has never been in question. If “appropriate”, the Left Party will even collaborate with the CDU or the Liberals – and nobody in the party questions this “everyday” class collaboration.

These points explain why the constant hope of the “anti-capitalist” and far left groupings inside the party that it could be changed by just fighting for its reformist (!) programme, is illusory. The Left Party does not just think and do the wrong things. Its reformist politics have deep roots in the party itself – resting on important sections of the labour aristocracy, being controlled by a very large apparatus (in proportion to the membership) and being deeply integrated in the bourgeois system itself.

In this situation, the “anti-capitalist left” in the party has got used over many years to confining its own politics to supporting the left reformists and their programmes. Where they get elected as deputies or members of the party leadership, like some of the Cliffites (Buchholz, Wisseler) they are indistinguishable from the left reformists.

When the elections for party leadership were held, did they present their own candidates, their own platform? Of course not! When the party programme was discussed last year, did they present an alternative? Of course not – they voted for this supposed “anti-capitalist” programme, just like all the other currents in the party, from the left to the right.

Just as the reformist centre concedes to the right, the “far left” concede to the centre reformists. In the end, this will lead to a further steady decline of the Left Party – and those adapting to the reformists deserve to fall with it.

The continued decline of the Left Party, however, is no cause for complaint from revolutionaries and anti-capitalists. Indeed, it is a warning to all those who adapt uncritically to reformist leaderships. But it is also a situation where revolutionaries have to engage in debate and argument with all those who have seen the Left Party as a hope for the German working class, or who still have illusions in it, but who are more open and willing to question them than in the past.

It is not good enough just to blame the right wing for the decline of the party. After all, Lafontaine and his supporters led it for a whole period. The crisis of the Left Party is not, as the centre and reformist leaders try to present it, a result of too little or inconsistent reformist politics, but a result of the party’s reformist strategy itself. For that, the policy of political conciliation to reformism as practised by the centrist groupings in the Left Party, is itself a way to defeat and demoralisation.

What is required rather is a debate about the need, character and political basis of a genuine party of struggle of the German and international working class. This is not only a question for the remaining working class militants and activists in the Left Party, but for a much larger number of left trade unionists, work place activists and militants of the far left in Germany. Such a debate must not only lead to an understanding of the roots of the Left Party's failure, but also to political conclusions: a different programme and an entirely different party are needed, a revolutionary working class party and a new, Fifth International, based on a programme not for the reform, but for the overthrow of the entire capitalist system.