National Sections of the L5I:

The Left Party, DIE LINKE, in Germany

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The Left Party (DIE LINKE) in Germany was founded in 2005 as a fusion of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the former ruling stalinist party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR - “East Germany”) and a split from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in what was previously the Federal Republic (“West Germany”) the Electoral Alliance for Work and Social Justice (WASG).

The response of the PDS to the collapse of the GDR was the adoption of an openly reformist socialist programme with a commitment to the "social market economy" and to "parliamentary democracy". Until the foundation of the Left Party, although the PDS was active in the West via the "Left Lists" and cooperation with the German Communist Party (DKP – the West German stalinist party) and other small left wing forces, it failed to have any electoral success.

In the Eastern party of Germany, however, the PDS was generally the second or third strongest parliamentary party throughout the 90s. Its political method was made clear as early as 1994 when it supported an SPD-Green provincial government in Saxony. The PDS openly campaigned for a coalition with the SPD and this was realised in Mecklenburg in 1998-2006 and, most significantly, in Berlin between 2001 and 2011. Today, the Left Party remains in government in the state of Brandenburg.

It was the policies of the Federal Government, a coalition of the SPD and the Greens under Schroeder and Fischer, that transformed the situation. In 2003, they announced their adoption of “Agenda 2010”, a programme of harsh neo-liberal reforms that included the notorious “Hartz 1 – 4” laws which drastically cut welfare, social insurance and unemployment provision. This sparked a widespread revolt within the working class and its organisations.

In the East, the "Monday Demos" brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. In the old Federal Republic, in November 2003, a conference organised by the "Initiative of the trade union left” and numerous groups from the radical left, organised an unofficial mass demonstration against the "Agenda" policy which mobilised over 100,000. In the trade unions, this was supported by a conference of stewards and local branches against the official position of the leadership. In effect, the SPD lost political control of a section of the trade union bureaucracy. In Schweinfurt, for example, the leader of the engineering union, IG Metall, Klaus Ernst, called for a political strike against agenda 2010. This was the first call for a one-day political mass strike in an industrial region against an SPD government since the 1920's.

Nonetheless, the greater part of the official leadership of the unions within the DGB (the “German TUC”) stayed loyal to the SPD and its “social partnership” strategy of collaboration with the employers. In Volkswagen, for example, as a partner in the “Alliance for Work" (together with employers and the government) this leadership, under Michael Sommer, not only went along with the introduction of agency work but actively implemented it.

Resistance to this within the DGB trade unions led to the founding of two new initiatives in 2003; the “Electoral Alternative 2006" and the "Initiative for Work and Social Justice". Alongside members and officials from the DGB trade unions, the DKP, Linksruck (SWP), SAV (CWI), and also the Gruppe Arbeitermacht (German Section of the L5I) took part in the founding of the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG) in November 2004. The first electoral campaign of this group was in the state elections in North Rhine Westphalia in May 2005.

Although the WASG only gained 2.2% of the vote, this was significant because the state is traditionally the heartland of the SPD and the general swing away from the party brought down the governing SPD-Green coalition. This, in turn, gave the Christian Democrats and Liberals a majority in the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the national parliament. The Chancellor, Schroeder, was obliged to call a general election, an admission that, within just two years, Agenda 2010 had destroyed the legitimacy of his government. More specifically, the SPD had lost political control over a section of the DGB trade unions, including both officials and members, and there was also resistance to its attack on the social system from within the SPD itself.

The fusion of the Left Party, the electoral campaign of 2005 and the role of the left currents

For the general election in September 2005, the WASG and Left Party agreed a joint electoral intervention and a commitment to the subsequent fusion to form the Left Party. The new political formation was boosted by the defection of Oskar Lafontaine, the former finance minister and SPD Chair during the Red-Green government, who brought with him followers from both the SPD and the trade unions. He and Gregor Gysi, the former head of government in the GDR, became the leading candidates of the joint electoral campaign.

At its high point, the WASG had more than 10,000 members, representing a wide range of political traditions stretching from former members of the SPD and the Greens, middle ranking trade union officials to activists from the various left groups and many from the Monday Demos protest movement against Hartz IV. From the beginning, it was a reformist organisation, but it was riven with inner tensions. On the one hand, the bureaucratic leadership around former SPD and trade union officials wanted to create a “real” electoralist social democratic party. Therefore they tried to ensure that the party was tied to a programme of social reform from the beginning and was controlled by a bureaucratic apparatus.

On the other hand, a large proportion of the party members were unemployed workers who, whilst mainly reformist in their political consciousness, demanded more action and a commitment to mobilisation for their immediate demands. They did not want to wait for a “patient” struggle for reforms, they wanted an improvement of their social situation and, above all perhaps, the abolition of the Hartz-reforms.

For the leadership of the WASG, it was clear that a viable reformist electoralist party and a strong bureaucratic apparatus leading and controlling the organisation was only possible via a rapid fusion with the PDS, which already had a well established apparatus and experience in both electoral campaigning and in government. However, a large part of the WASG membership rejected such a rapid fusion, particularly after the experience of the PDS in state governments in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it had implemented severe cuts against the working class.

Despite this, it was the officials from the trade unions, the former SPD members and Greens, who set the pace and ensured that the Left Party was founded on a reformist basis and had a reformist leadership from the start. In this, they were aided by the failure of their opponents to offer a coherent and radical alternative. Worse still, most of the organised left groups within the WASG accepted the proposition that the party would inevitably “have” to be reformist to begin with.

This removed any basis for a principled opposition to the right wing. Some groups with a background in Trotskyism, such as Linksruck and, to a lesser extent, the ISL (USFI) were even prepared to support the bureaucratic unification. Others, such as the SAV (CWI) were initially opposed but later backed down and joined the Left Party. Most assumed that, in time, effective campaigning, even on an inadequate programme, would attract mass support which the left could then use to push the party further to the left.

The successful electoral campaigns of 2005 and 2009 encouraged this perspective. In 2005, with 8.7%, the Left Party was catapulted straight into the federal parliament and in 2009, with 11.9%, it leapt over the 5% hurdle for the first time even in the old West Germany. Lafontaine and Gysi were often to be seen on talk shows, the student organisation, SDS, was founded and there was real growth which expressed itself in winning seats in state parliaments even in the “West”.

Nonetheless this electoral upturn fizzled out, the Left Party did not direct its politics towards the nearly 5,000,000 voters of 2009 and was not a leading political force against the financial crisis, the austerity packages, Hartz IV or the war in Afghanistan. Instead, it directed all its energies to trying to convince the SPD and the Greens of the need for a common coalition.

The reformist character of the programme

In 2011, the Left Party adopted its current programme, which, once again, codified the bourgeois, reformist politics of the party. Here we can just point out a few key questions.

The programme correctly states that the property question is key to any social transformation. But what does it mean by that? Expropriation of capital? Planning? No. It opts for a “mix” of different forms of property, including an acceptance of the vital role of private entrepreneurship and initiative. Its formula is a classic of evasive imprecision : “We want a radical renewal of democracy which encompasses economic decisions and subordinates all forms of property to emancipatory, social and ecological standards.”

The means to “transform”, or rather “reform”, society is to be the existing democratic state. Of course, the Left Party wants it to become “more democratic” but, following the traditions of social democracy, it sees the existing bourgeois state apparatus not as an instrument of class rule, but as an organ “above” the classes, which can serve any section of society. Therefore, of course, the Left Party does not set itself the task of removing the existing system, but aims to change it via parliament and entering into coalition government with the SPD and the Greens.

“Parliamentary opposition, like participation in government, is, for the Left Party a means of political action and social structuring. The struggle for the improvement of the situation of the disadvantaged, the development and implementation of left projects and reform plans, the changing of the relationship of forces and the introduction of political change are the measures of the success of our political practice.

“The Left strives for participation in government if by that an improvement in people's living conditions can be achieved. In this way the political force of the Left and of the social movements can be strengthened and the feeling of powerlessness and lack of an alternative that many people feel can be reduced. Participation in government should be discussed in the context of the existing conditions and judged by these political standards.”

Every reformist party has promised a government that will improve the living conditions of the people. Nobody should be in any doubt that this is a statement to justify the real goal of the party; to enter a bourgeois reform government. It is not only the experience of parties such as the SPD when in government but also that of the Left Party that shows how such promises are rapidly exposed under the reality of capitalism.

The political practice of the Left Party

In the provincial governments of Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommen and currently in Brandenburg, the Left Party has shown itself willing to implement SPD policy, the only sign of "left" influence is that, in Berlin, instead of the 1 euro job there is now the 1.5 Euro job.

A short review of their record in government shows that the concerns of the rank and file in the WASG were more than justified:
Whilst in government in Berlin (2001 – 2011) and Brandenburg (since 2009), the PDS and then the Left Party have carried out, or are planning the following attacks:

- Privatisation of 120.000 flats; more than half of all privatisations of public housing since 1945
- Reduction of wages in public sector by 10 percent
- Increase of weekly working hours for teachers by 2 hours (without any pay increase)
- Rescuing of “Berliner Bank” with taxpayers' money
- Partial privatisation of water company
- Privatisation of several hospitals
- Privatisations of Berliner Sparkasse (local savings bank)
- Implementation of federal legislation (Hartz-laws, deportations) and all the other “ordinary business” of a state government.

- The coalition SPD/LINKE plans a reduction of 15,000 jobs in public administration by 2015 (only teachers and police are exempt from this), the cuts will mainly effect social workers.
- Increased police rights under former SPD/CDU government are now accepted by Left Party - in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the SPD and Left Party actually increased police surveillance and rights against protests – as could be observed in Rostock in the anti-G8-protests in 2007.

Policy in the unions and social movements

Nevertheless, there is an important segment of workers and unions in Germany who see the Left Party as an alternative to the current coalition and the SPD – a section of workers who reject a coalition with the CDU or any other open bourgeois party.

Certainly this helped the Left Party to gain a high electoral support amongst the unemployed (between 20 and 25 percent) and also to increase its influence within the trade unions.
In the trade unions, the Left Party has been able to win some positions and influence, the Stuttgart district of Verdi, (the public services union) with its current Left Party chairperson Riexinger is an example of this, and this is generally more apparent in Verdi and the youth organisations than in other trade unions.

Although the Left Party has been able to gain support from officials in some areas, this has not led to the formation of an oppositional movement in the trade unions. Collaboration and co-management remain the main strategy of DGB policy and the Left Party offers no alternative. Indeed, the officials supporting the Left Party are carrying out the same class-collaborationist policy as the SPD-led mainstream of the trade union bureaucracy.

The Left Party’s trade union politics is certainly more active and dynamic (compared to the SPD), but without any other political perspective. In it, two inadequate currents come together, reformist and (post) Stalinist methods and tactics. The political and ideological dominance of the SPD and of the bureaucratic apparatus in the unions is not recognised as a problem, let alone challenged.
For the Left Party, left trade union work means winning union members, preferably officials, to membership in the party - not a practical political alternative to the reformist mush of “unity”. With the foundation of the Left Party and its workplace and trade union organisation, the nationwide "network of trade union lefts" has become weaker, the Left Party does not act as an oppositional force but rather constitutes just one more current within the apparatus.

After this year's election, in which the Left Party slipped to 8.5% of the votes, the situation in the DGB trade unions is like that between 2005 and 2009. The SPD has to implement (its own) government policy in the trade unions and the Left Party is the strongest oppositionist force, both in Parliament and in the DGB trade unions. Alongside this possible (inner) reformist conflict, the SPD has, nonetheless, declared itself in principle prepared to consider a red-red-green alliance, which would make possible coalitions with the Left Party in "West Germany".

The realpolitik of the Left Party in the social movements effectively has a parliamentary and electoral character. In advance of electoral campaigns, there are some mobilisations and support within the left milieu, but after the election all that is dropped. In the whole period of the last Parliament, the Left Party failed to build an anti-crisis movement in Germany, never mind contributing as the European Left Party towards the coordination of protests and the initiation of a European resistance. In Germany, such activities were dropped with the election of 2009 and after that the Left Party only campaigned in Parliament, not on the streets, not in the trade unions and certainly not on a European and international scale.

In the bigger alliances and mobilisations in Germany, such as “Blockupy” and “Nazi-Free Dresden”, the Left Party is always present and shares the informal political leadership with Attac and other NGOs on the one hand and the “post-autonomist” forces like “Interventionist Left” on the other. Together, they carry on the annual symbolic politics based on the lowest common denominator. In this way, the Left Party has been successful in developing its links to this "scene" and thus to control it politically, at least to the extent that it is not challenged by any forces. So, for example, in antifascist mobilisations there are certainly contradictions between the tactics of the Left Party, which is in government in some places, and the autonomes but, as long as it all takes place under one banner, these contradictions have no consequences for the radical left and are not a problem for the Left Party.

Character of the Left Party

Currently, the Party has about 63,000 members, the majority of them in the “old” Eastern states (which are less than a quarter of the population of Germany). It is only here that the Left Party is really a mass party. About half of the membership are pensioners and many of them former professionals or employees of the state apparatus of the old GDR.

In the East, the Left Party has social roots not only via front organisations, such as the youth organisation, Solid, and the student organisation, SDS, but also a strong influence, or outright control, of tenants' associations or popular assistance organisations like “Volkssolidarität”. They also dominate unemployed organisations and most protest activities. The picture in West Germany is very different, although the party does have a certain influence in trade unions or in works councils.

The Left Party, then, is a party with real links to the working class organisations but, for a mass party, it is small in terms of membership. It represents the more politically active, but reformist, members of the German working class and social movements. Very importantly, with the SPD now in coalition government with Merkel's Christian Democrats it is likely that the Left Party could attract more support, at least on an electoral level, from this layer.

However, this does not alter the fact that the party is firmly in the hand of a disproportionately large bureaucratic apparatus. It is not only electoralist in its strategy, but work in representative bodies of the political system constitutes most of the activity of the party and its members. Currently, the party has 250 deputies in European, federal and regional parliaments and, altogether, they employ at least 1,000 full time “advisors”/assistants. There are also 386 members of local council executives, from mayors downwards, and 80 of them are working full time. A further 5,000 members are deputies in local or district councils. In addition, the party's own bureaucracy is composed of several hundred fulltimers.

Since a large part of the party membership are “card” members, rarely attending party meetings, this layer of functionaries, party officials and representatives in different levels of the bourgeois democratic state apparatus, constitutes most of the active members of the party.

Conflicts and the left in the party

This also explains, why the “entrist” left in the party is weak, if not marginalised. If anything, they are overrepresented on leaderships and in the parliaments, with little of a base, which backs them.
This explains why many of the “left” in the party have chosen to support the mainstream, reformist leadership, rather than fight for a socialist programme for the Left Party.

The right wing, around platforms like the “Democratic Socialism Forum”, clearly wants to push the party even further to the right – to a policy similar to Schröder's “Neue Mitte” or Blair's “Third Way”. They are based in important sectors of the East German apparatus and deputies. For several years a number of their key leaders have been involved in “explorative” talks with sectors of the left wing of the SPD and the Greens (and also some autonomists) to prepare the ground for a “reform coalition”. One of the current chairpersons of the party, Katja Kipping, whilst not a formal member of these right networks, leans in their direction.

The centre of the leadership, around Gregor Gysi and Bernd Riexinger, have no fundamental dispute with the right. They are also opting for a future coalition with the SPD/Greens, but with more “traditional” social-democratic policies. The main problem they face is that the SPD and the Greens, fearing the opposition from the bourgeoisie, are not yet confident that the Left Party will be sufficiently “reliable” because of its opposition to any deployment of German troops in imperialist interventions and because of its demand that Germany should leave NATO. Of course, the Left Party leadership has already signalled its preparedness to make concessions on this (last) remaining obstacle.

In the current discussion around the European elections, the Left Party leaders have made it clear that they have no intention of questioning the existence of the institutions of the European Union, they only want to “reform” them and make them more democratic, which is little more than Hollande's promises for a “different European” policy.

On the question of leaving NATO, Gregor Gysi has already said that this slogan should be dropped, because it would only give a “national answer” and should be replaced by a call for “new international security structures”. This would not only mean dropping a concrete demand and promise, but also open the way to support for an alternative imperialist alliance. Already, on the question of Palestine, the Left Party has made clear its support for the German government's policy, when it banned all its deputies from supporting the Gaza flotilla, which wanted to break the embargo against Gaza and when it declared its support for “Israel’s right to exist and defend itself” against an oppressed people.

In all these disputes, the left in the Left Party has made a shameful impression. The “Communist Platform”, of which the Left Party's deputy chairperson, Sarah Wagenknecht, is a member, is a Stalinist faction that supports a Keynesian orientation and has opposed any attempt to form an organised opposition to the leadership since the foundation of the PDS.

Marx 21, the German sister organisation of the SWP, is deeply embedded in the party leadership and structures. It is part of the Keynesian platform “Socialist Left”. Like the Communist Platform this Platform, including Marx21, does not even claim to be an opposition. Both back the current programme of the party and both are an integral part of the current leadership majority.

The platform that does present itself as a left opposition in the party is the “Anti-kapitalistische Linke” (AKL = anti-capitalist left), which includes the supporters of sections of the USFI (ISL) and of the CWI (SAV). All in all, this platform has around 350 supporters in the Left Party, a revealing sign of the balance of forces within that organisation. Until recently, this formation only existed as a loose network and most of its supporters had agreed to the reformist party programme in 2011, even if with some “reservations”. None of them has put forward an alternative draft programme yet. Even though the platform it adopted at the end of 2013 includes more left wing demands than the party majority and rejects reformism, it avoids giving any clear characterisation of the Left Party, in particular whether it regards it as reformist or not. This reflects the fact that the AKL still hopes that a lasting unity of reformists and anti-capitalists is possible. This is a utopia. A party cannot be based both on the objective of “reforming”, administering and ultimately defending the capitalist system and, at the same time, fight to overthrow it. No party in the world can support the interests of the two antagonistic classes, capital and labour.

Final conclusions

The foundation of the Left Party during the government of Schröder and Fischer was a significant rift within organised reformism in Germany, neither more nor less. For the first time since the Weimar Republic, a section of the SPD broke away to the left and this was a consequence of the neo-liberal government policy of Schroeder. At first, the Left Party was also a pole of attraction for protesters from the anti-Hartz IV movement, however, this period of growth was almost exclusively confined to the WASG phase and came to an end with its fusion with the PDS.

For years now, membership numbers have been declining, certainly this was in part a result of the ageing membership in the former GDR but it also reflected the failure of the Left Party to attract new members in the West or to retain those that it did win. Given the new Grand Coalition, it may be able to re-strengthen itself in the coming parliamentary term as the only “left” opposition to the government.

Should this be the case, it is more likely to strengthen the right wing leadership's commitment to its strategy of forming a “centre-left” coalition with the SPD than to push the party onto a more radical and “anti-capitalist” path. To prove their “reliability” to the SPD leaders and, behind them, to German imperialism, the leadership will abandon more and more of its formally left positions. Having failed to oppose the adoption of a reformist programme or to present a revolutionary alternative, the “lefts” within the Left Party will find themselves even more compromised, their strategy of accommodation to the right, always unprincipled, will also prove to be unproductive.

For now, the Left Party remains a small bourgeois workers' party, its particular significance is that it was founded as an opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the very much bigger bourgeois workers' party, the SPD. As such, it is seen by many of the more politically conscious workers and activists as a means of defending working class interests. For revolutionaries, this is a mistaken belief.

As even this brief sketch has shown, this is not the kind of party, either in its programme or its practice, that could effectively fight capitalism, let alone overthrow it. Where such a party exists, all experience has shown that the surest way for workers to see through its hollow promises is to put it to the test of practice. That is why the Gruppe Arbeitermacht called for critical support for the Left Party in September. However, in countries where a miniature bourgeois workers' party does not exist, there is certainly no reason to try to build one.