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PDS: From Stalinism to social democracy

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The revolutionary crisis in East Germany in the autumn of 1989 spelled doom the former ruling party—the SED. Mass demonstrations saw SED members on both sides of the conflict between the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy and the popular opposition.

Hundreds of thousands of party workers took to the streets, whilst party members in the repressive apparatus—the factory fighting groups,1 the Volkspolizei and the Stasi secret police—made ready to smash the demonstrations.

This deadly confrontation never materialised because Gorbachev had made it crystal clear to the SED leaders that the Soviet Union would refuse to support a bloody repression. From this moment the days of the top SED leadership and state bureaucracy were numbered.

The pressure of the movement on the SED’s mass membership, together with the desire of the middle and lower levels of the party and state machine to hold on to their positions, led to a struggle inside the SED to dump the discredited top leadership.

Eric Honecker was summarily removed as SED top boss by the terrified apparatus itself. Then his chosen successor Egon Krenz and his supporters in the Politburo tried to hang on to their positions. They caved in to demands to hold an emergency conference of the SED on 8 December 1989.

In the run-up to the conference Krenz desperately tried to prevent any public political debate and the emergence of any rivals within the SED. He also tried to stay ahead of the mass movement. So it was Krenz who opened the Berlin Wall and called for a united Germany in November 1989—a time when the West German bourgeoisie was not even dreaming of rapid reunification. But the crisis was too far-reaching to be cut short by the old leadership juggling with slogans or even by a radical reshuffle of posts within the highest ranks of the SED.

Opposition from below

At the end of November 1989 an opposition group—the “WF platform”— emerged.2 It had its origins in Berlin, at the Humboldt University, the state radio and a big electronic plant in East Berlin. It rapidly built horizontal links within the party and spread beyond Berlin. It received mass support from the SED rank and file and also from within the lower and middle layers of the apparatus. For example, the whole leadership of the Halle district (one of twelve districts in the ex-GDR) joined the WF Platform.

Its demands were similar to those that arose outside the SED, within left-wing elements of the civic movement such as Neues Forum. It characterised the SED “as a danger to the socialist fatherland” and openly refused to follow party discipline any longer. It called for the overthrow of the Politburo, the Central Committee, the regional and local leadership bodies and for the foundation of a new party on the basis of a “full break with the Stalinist past and all those responsible for it”. Leaders of the platform publicly called for the foundation of “citizens’ committees” to oversee and control the destruction of the Stasi and demanded the dissolution of the SED and the formation of a new “democratic socialist” party.

Although the old party leadership (Krenz, Schabowski) were not able to stop the platform being widely discussed, the WF Platform was defeated at the emergency conference. Instead an alliance of reforming bureaucracts led by Modrow and Gysi won out. The SED was renamed SED-PDS and the new party was placed in their hands. But why did the WF Platform lose?

Certainly, the leadership acted undemocratically. But the fundamental reason for the WF’s defeat lay in its own platform. This not only expressed the mass movement’s pressure, not only shared this movement’s progressive anti-bureaucratic and anti-Stalinist aspirations, but also shared its complete lack of political direction. For an alternative leadership this was a fatal flaw.

The WF Platform failed to address the burning tasks of the day. It had no perspective for the revolutionary overthrow of the tottering SED regime, no clear answer to the question of national unification and no answer to the economic problems of the East German state.

Instead, the struggle between the anti-bureaucratic wing of the SED and the reforming bureaucrats was fought out over the confused alternatives of “saving”, “reforming” and “restoring” the SED on the one hand, or “destroying”/“refounding” the SED on the other.

These political weaknesses led to the WF’s collapse within weeks of the emergency conference. It played no role at the party conference in January 1990 at which the SED-PDS was re-christened PDS. Many of its members joined the “Third Way Platform” which was becoming part of the Gysi leadership.

The outcome of this struggle had an important effect on the further development of the political revolutionary crisis in East Germany. Up to the Volkskammer3 elections in March 1990 the PDS was still the party of the ruling caste, albeit a disintegrating one. A wing of the bureaucracy around Modrow and Gysi had secured its leadership and at the same time defeated an anti-bureaucratic left current in the party.

In the eyes of most working people in East Germany, the PDS represented an attempt by the ruling caste to restore its undisputed position (and preserve the hated Stasi). At the same time it was peddling a softer version of what the open bourgeois forces were impatiently demanding—a unified capitalist Germany.

Modrow and Gysi’s policy was an expression of the social interests of the “reform” wing of the bureaucratic caste and in particular those parts of it close to the East German intelligentsia and labour aristocracy. It wanted a peaceful road to reasserting the hold of a “democratised” Gorbachev-style Stalinist leadership in East Germany.

But as soon as this perspective revealed itself as utopian, after the mass demonstrations which stormed the Stasi headquarters on 15 January 1990, Modrow and Gysi promptly opted for a unified capitalist Germany which they hoped would gratefully acknowledge their role as a “co-architects” of re-unification.

It was the Modrow government (which was in power until March 1990) that founded the Treuhand (the executioner of East German nationalised industry). It was Modrow who devised his own plan for capitalist unification as early as January 1990!

It was Modrow who brought the elections to the Volkskammer forward to 18 March 1990 in order to demobilise the mass movement, and in a desperate (indeed hopeless) attempt to grab a share of governmental power for the PDS by catching the politically amorphous opposition unprepared.

The PDS supported all this without any major criticism. In so doing they acted solely in the interests of the counter-revolution throughout this crucial period. First, they helped derail the political revolution (by posing as its would-be leaders) and worked overtime to preserve a modified bureaucratic dictatorship. Then, from early 1990, they acted as agents of a social counterrevolution. The PDS itself ratified Modrow’s policy and came out with a very clear programme in favour of capitalist restoration for the Volkskammer elections in March 1990:

“The PDS stands for a market economy, because it allows for rapid economic and technical development and a high degree of economic efficiency.”4

For the PDS socialism was reduced to “an expression of old human ideals—social justice, solidarity, freedom of the oppressed, aid for the weak”. Naturally, this brand of “socialism”—the common coin of European social democracy for three quarters of a century has nothing in common with Marxism.

What changed, then, in this period was not the bourgeois essence of the party’s politics, but the form of its reformism. With the collapse of the bureaucratic caste and the SED’s base, the Stalinist party was replaced by a “pluralist” social democratic reformism. Stalinism’s distorted brand of “Marxism-Leninism” has been “abolished” as the official party doctrine and replaced with miscellaneous strands of petit-bourgeois democratic and utopian ideology.

In short, the PDS has been transformed into a “left” social democratic party with a minority Stalinist wing.

Social transformation

Whilst the PDS had no difficulty in adapting its reformist programme to changed circumstances, it faced enormous problems stabilising itself once it had lost its hold on state power. It had to change itself from an apparatus of power and privilege to a party of protest against the effects of capitalist restoration.

Membership declined rapidly after 1989. At the beginning of the year the SED had 2.5 million members (out of a total population of 17 million). That a large number were “captive members” is shown by the fact that by October 1989 it had already lost 200,000 members and at the beginning of 1990 total membership was down to 1.5 million. During 1990 a further million members left the party. Half of these were gone by the end of 1991. By the start of 1995 there were only 124,000 left in the PDS.

Up to the beginning of 1991 the PDS was in a tremendous internal crisis. That crisis was a result not only of the difficulty of adapting to the parliamentary scene, but also of the witch-hunt conducted by the other parties against the PDS, including their refusal to even talk to PDS representatives and the attempt by the state to close down the PDS by placing huge financial claims on the party.

The very existence of the PDS was in doubt. Although its leadership remained unchallenged, it was a party with a relatively high degree of internal debate and conflict. In that period a revolutionary opposition within the PDS could have rallied important forces around itself and, though it could not have transformed the party as a whole, it could have won over many subjective communists to the creation of a new revolutionary party in Germany.

It is not accidental that it was in that period that the PDS leadership mobilised its members and supporters in relatively large numbers during spring 1991 in protest against US and UN actions in the Gulf War and against the Treuhand policy. Before the Gulf war started, the PDS was able to stage significant demonstrations of up to 40,000 in Berlin (when the war started, however, the PDS leadership went “underground”). Since then the PDS has not mobilised anything near those numbers—apart from pickets in defence of its own financial wealth in 1992/1993.5

During 1992 the PDS pulled through the worst of its crisis and began to register some small electoral successes in a number of regional and local elections in East Germany. In the Berlin local elections of 1992, it increased its share of the vote from 9.2% in 1990 to 11.3% in the city as a whole; in East Berlin its vote increased from 23.6% to 29.7%. It managed to gain 4.7% of the national vote in the Spring 1994 European Union elections. This was nearly double the vote it polled in the first all-German elections of October 1990, when the PDS received just 2.4% nationally.

The 5% hurdle for the Bundestag6 now became a realistic goal for the PDS. Despite the fact that the PDS just failed to make it in the autumn 1994 national elections (4.8%), it entered the Bundestag because it was able to win four directly elected seats in the East.7

Over this period, the PDS’ ideological and programmatic outlook did not change significantly. But the social composition of the party and its supporters went through important modifications as can be seen from the table.

The PDS has steadily lost ground among blue collar workers. Some 43% of SED members were blue collar workers before the final crisis of Stalinism erupted in 1989. By May 1991 this had fallen to 26% and to 17% in 1994. But it has put down strong roots amongst white collar workers since the Wende9. As with the old SED, a significant proportion of PDS members are intellectuals/academics, far more than is the case in other German parties.

Since capitalist reunification, the PDS has had a very low proportion of civil servants and public officials in its ranks compared with other parties. This reflects its summary ejection from state power and the purge carried out by the “democratic” regime in Bonn. Thus a considerable part of this loss is to be explained by the actual or threatened victimisation of civil servants for being PDS members.

Compared with other parties PDS membership profile remains very old. The PDS was and is a party of pensioners. Only 7% were under 34 in 1995.10 Moreover, the average age of the PDS has not declined over the last 5 years, despite the fact that in the AG Junge GenossInnen it possesses the biggest youth organisation in East Germany, claiming 8,000 members (more than all other East German political youth groups combined).

The PDS is still almost exclusively an East German phenomenon. It has less than 2,000 members in West Germany. It is not represented in any regional parliament there and there is no chance that it will be in the near future.

Last, but not least, the PDS has not attracted those who have suffered most from capitalist unification. The unemployed are not over-represented either amongst the membership or PDS voters. It is far more a party of skilled workers, qualified employees and wage labourers with an academic background. It also carries support from the newly emerging petit-bourgeoisie and “middle-class” in the East.

So much for the PDS membership. But what of its role in the workers’ movement? Unlike the SPD, the PDS does not control any trade unions and has relatively few links to them or the Betriebsräte 11. Its history and tradition, however, mean that it is seen as a part of the workers’ movement; its members certainly see it as such. Furthermore, it is a dominant force in other proletarian mass organisations (particularly the tenants’ organisations in the East) and has played a significant role in (mis)leading major strikes in the East, particularly in the Kali mine in Bischofferrode in 1994.

The real strength of the PDS lies in mass work via its 12,000 branches on a day-to-day basis:

“Around the party branches a series of communal initiatives grow; help to get rent and housing benefits, common campaigns against the rising cost of living, defence of Kindergartens, organisation of May Day celebrations.”12

All this means that the organic link of the PDS with the working class, is not (primarily) established through the trade unions or at a factory level, but through mass proletarian membership of the party, through its role in community campaigns and other mass organisations of the class.

It is these features which make the PDS qualitatively different from openly bourgeois and petit-bourgeois parties like the Greens.

This is also expressed in voting patterns. Amongst the workers (blue and white collar), the PDS has increased its share of the vote since 1990. Around 4.7% of all blue collar workers and 5.8% of all white collar workers voted for the PDS in the federal elections of 1994 (45.3% and 36.5% respectively voted for the SPD). If we look specifically at trade union members, the PDS performs even better with 6.3% of all trade unionists voting for it at the federal elections.13

PDS reformism

Over the last three years, the PDS has become a factor in parliamentary politics. It has not only regained seats in the Bundestag, but commands significant fractions in the East German Länder. It plays a role in supporting the SPD/Green coalition in Sachsen-Anhalt.

All those who want to prettify the record of the PDS over the last period should look at its role in office. This has to be measured not only against what revolutionaries would do in these local, regional or national parliamentary bodies, but more immediately against the promises which the PDS makes.

For example, the PDS claims to oppose all immigration controls, advocates open borders and is against all deportations. However, in the Berlin state commission on refugees, a PDS member voted for the deportation of Turkish and Vietnamese immigrants! Even now, no member of the PDS leadership (including all the so-called leftists in the Bundestag, in the party leadership, in the Communist Platform) has publicly criticised this or called for the replacement of the PDS member on the commission with one who will stand by the party’s pledges.

Likewise, the PDS calls for the abolition of the secret police and such special repressive agencies as the Verfassungsschutz14 and the Bundesgrenz-schutz15. According to the German constitution, every Land (i.e. region) has its own office for Verfassung-sschutz. So what did the PDS do in Sachen-Anhalt, when an increase was proposed in the budget for the Verfassungsschutz? It voted for it, hoping that it would not keep the PDS under surveillance!

This parliamentarist approach16 is also reflected in the composition of delegates to the party conferences. Out of 386 delegates to the last party conference (in January 1995), 126 were members of parliamentary assemblies on a national or regional (Länder level) or of communal self-governing bodies. Another 36 were full-timers of the PDS or of the parliamentary faction; 261 delegates were party functionaries and 22 were non-members. In short, only 100 (a little more than a quarter of all the delegates) were rank and file members. Accordingly, party policy reflects the material interests of the PDS bureaucracy, which is based among the intelligentsia of the former DDR.

New conflicts
In 1995 new conflicts surfaced around the party conference in January, and then around the formation of a group called “Marxist Forum” in the spring. Unlike the instability and crisis between 1990 and 1992, this was a result of the electoral gains of the last three years and the determination of the PDS to establish a red-green coalition for the 1998 federal elections. Thus the leadership vigorously attacked the Communist Platform (KPF), labelling it as Stalinist and claiming that it wanted to restore the SED and the GDR.

The attack was out of all proportion to any threat that the KPF posed to the Gysi leadership. The reason for the onslaught was to demonstrate to the Greens and the SPD that no “communist danger” whatsoever existed inside the PDS—both these parties had taken the existence of the KPF and the AG Junge GenossInnen as a rationale for not entering into coalition talks on a regional and local level.

As on previous occasions, the KPF’s response to the attacks was to . . . capitulate, to avoid doing anything which could act as a pretext for the leadership to kick it out.

Therefore, the KPF voted for a document drafted by Gysi, Bisky (the chair of the party) and Modrow called “Socialism is the way, method and goal”17 (also called “the Five points”). The major point at dispute for the KPF was whether or not “anti-communism” or being a Stalinist was compatible with being a party member. In the end a “compromise” was reached: “Stalinist positions” are deemed incompatible with PDS membership, whilst the PDS as a party must not be anti-communist (which does not exclude individual anti-communist members).

Just as importantly, the KPF failed to mount a challenge to the direction that the leadership wants to take the PDS. The “Five points” argues for “necessary and progressive social change” to be achieved together with the SPD and the Greens, since the PDS reasons that:

“necessary progressive social change in the BRD cannot be achieved without and against the SPD and probably also not without or against Bündnis 90/Die Grünen.”18

Here everything is upside down. Of course, nobody disputes that “progressive social change” can only be achieved with the great mass of the proletarian members and supporters of the SPD (and even many of the current voters and sympathisers of the Greens) fighting actively for it. To this end Trotskyists advance a series of principled tactics in order to maximise the possibilities of breaking workers and youth from these parties and winning them to a programme of genuine “social change”.

This has to start from united actions against the attacks on workers’ social gains, falling wage levels, systematic violations by the state and the employers of the democratic rights of immigrant workers. It can include critical electoral support for the reformist parties like the PDS and the SPD against the openly bourgeois and the raising of demands on their leaderships.

It should develop into a fight for a whole series of goals which mobilise the working class for a social revolution. In favourable circumstances it can also mean revolutionaries being members of the reformist parties and fighting for such an action programme within them.

For the PDS, however, “progressive social change”—a deliberately vague phrase—only amounts to piecemeal reforms. It aims not to win over the SPD’s working class support, but to secure a political agreement with the SPD leadership. Again the January resolution is admirably clear:

“Such an assessment excludes each and every view that regards the SPD and the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen as political enemies. They are neither our main nor secondary enemies.”19

From this assessment it is only a short step to voting with these allies for the budget of the Verfassungsschutz in Sachsen-Anhalt and the deportation of immigrants in Berlin.

After the PDS’s electoral successes in the Berlin elections of autumn 1995, a new round of adaptation towards the SPD and the Greens is sure to follow. Oskar Lafontaine’s election as SPD chairman, and his increased preparedness to collaborate with the PDS—itself a result of pressure from some SPD branches and the trade unions, particularly in the East—will stimulate the debate on adaptation to the SPD and the prospect of parliamentary coalitions.

Politically and ideologically there is nothing new to be expected from the party leadership. The policies and programme of the PDS are already social democratic. Likewise, its practice on parliamentary bodies shows little to distinguish it from the SPD and the Greens.

But the PDS leaders now have to make certain that they have the people in place at every level to implement the coalition policy. Therefore a kind of purge has begun, starting in the relatively small West German party organisations.

The opposition in the PDS

Apart from a persistent organisational and political sloppiness, the real problem of the opposition in the PDS -the MF, the KPF and smaller, even more heterogeneous currents—is that they share the same fundamental approach and ideas as the leadership.

A number of oppositionists put forward a document on PDS strategy for the second section of the fourth party conference.20

Like the current PDS programme, the programmatic part of the document is a collection of more or less correct immediate political and economic demands—for the right to work, against cuts in social benefits, for the defence of democratic rights, for equal rights for women, against fascism and racism.

But as with the leadership’s programme, there is no means by which these justified immediate demands are connected with the party’s supposed strategic goal, namely the building of a socialist society. The document does not include a word on how this goal can be achieved, whether in a parliamentary reformist or a revolutionary way. There is not a word on whether the bourgeois state apparatus (standing army, police and judiciary) has to be smashed and replaced by a qualitatively different, commune-type state or if a state apparatus similar to that of the GDR is what is aimed at.

The GDR’s political apparatus was so structured as to defend the rule of a privileged minority caste and to perpetuate the atomisation and oppression of the working class. It is absolutely false, as proved by the entire history of the GDR, to argue that a state machine modelled on the bourgeois type can serve to build socialism—even one to which a genuinely multi-party parliament is added.

Furthermore, the authors of this document—again just like the PDS as a whole—raise no demands for workers’ control. They do not demand democratic and accountable fighting organs of the toilers. In short, there are no transitional demands in the programme put forward by the PDS “left” which could build a bridge between the current consciousness and struggles of the workers and their historic aims.

It is therefore no surprise that there is nothing in the document about the class collaborationist role of the leadership of the German trade unions, the SPD or even the PDS itself. It does not even demand the democratisation of the trade unions and Betriebsräte. There is no call to abolish the reactionary law requiring the Betriebsräte to act in the “interests of the business”. Instead, the PDS oppositionists simply state:

“We support the demand of the trade union representatives at the May Day demonstrations in 1994 to wage a ‘class struggle from below’.”21

This is a “struggle against adaptation” that could have been conducted by the party leadership itself. For the PDS opposition the transformation of the workers’ movement to enable the working class to defend its current gains and secure new ones is simply not the issue. For a start it would mean a serious factional struggle against the current leadership. Instead it advances a catalogue of good intentions and appeals to the bourgeois state.

What is the underlying reason for the political cowardliness of these would-be communists? The most important is a failure to break with the Stalinist past, seen in their refusal seriously to investigate the reasons for the collapse of the GDR, to formulate a serious critique of the SED and to draw the necessary political lessons from the historic fall of Stalinism.

As with its social democratic politics, so too on the question of the GDR, the PDS opposition is closer than it thinks to the party leadership. Whilst the latter takes the breakdown of the GDR and the Eastern Bloc as proof of the “failure of socialism” and the need for a domesticated capitalism, for the oppositional currents in the PDS the GDR was a “socialist attempt”, which should not be over-criticised. Both affirm, negatively on the one side and postively on the other, that the degenerated workers state—and its political regime in particular—were in fact “socialist”.

At best, the oppositionists in the the PDS have a crassly sentimental attitude towards the GDR. There are only a few Stalinists in the PDS who openly defend the past.22 But Stalinist positions come to the surface on a much broader scale. Amongst the PDS-opposition there is not only much talk of drawing from the “experience and valuable traditions of the GDR “, but also that “the (East German) social and cultural level must be the yardstick by which to judge current pan- German development”.23

This clearly is not just a defence of the GDR against German bourgeois anti-communist propaganda. East German “socialism” is used as a measure of progressive political and economic development (at least in Germany), as a promise of a better future! It can do nothing except alienate the majority of the East German proletriat for whom the GDR was far from being a paradise and do nothing to attract the West German workers. It is thus a programme for political shipwreck as well as a backward looking apology for the crimes of Stalinism.

In the long run, none of these reformist strategies will secure the survival of the PDS within the framework of the German political system. The position the PDS occupies today (and which may even improve in the short term), does not lie in its own strength, but depends on the immediate consequences of capitalist reunification, namely the uneven development of the East and the West and the dislocations and social misery flowing from it.

This may well lead to a temporary radicalisation of parts of the PDS membership. But unless those workers and youth who are alienated by the failure of the market to solve the social problems facing the former GDR can break with the reformist politics of social democracy and Stalinism, the material conditions which presently underpin the PDS’s strength will be resolved in a reactionary rather than in a progressive fashion. In that decisive respect, the PDS remains a party of the past, not of the future of the German working class.

1. Betriebskampfgruppen.
2. Plattform Werk für Fernsehelektronik.
3. The Volkskammer was the old DDR parliament.
4. “Election progamme of the PDS for the Volkskammerwahl 1990”, in Wahlparteitag PDS 24/25.2.1990, p. 69.
5. Today, PDS led demonstrations do not attract more than a few thousand. Only 3,000, for example, joined the tenants’ demonstration in May 1995 organised by the PDS and the East German tenants’ association, which is led by the PDS.
6. The Bundestag is the Federal parliament in Germany. Parties need to gain a minimum of 5% of the popular vote to secure seats, which are allocated according to the proportional strength of the parties.
7. See Dietmar Wittich, “Mitglieder und Wähler der PDS”, in Brie, Herzig, Koch (Hg), Die PDS. Empirische Befunde und Analysen, Köln 1995, pp 58-80
8. The table is drawn from data contained in two surveys discussed in this article. Figures for civil servants in the SED are not given. However, about 30% of all SED members were state or party functionaries.
9. A phrase widely used in Germany to denote the changes of 1989-90 - literally “the turn”.
10. For the SPD or the CDU the respective figure is 15%, for the Greens 27%.
11. Works Councils, involving representatives of the trade unions and workforce, which play a co-management role without exercising any direct control on behalf of the workers.
12. Rückert, Gehrmann, Kruse, Kurbjumweit, “Die Einheiz-Partei,” in Die Zeit, 24.6.1994, p.9
13. In contrast, 49.5% of all trade unionists voted SPD in the same elections.
14..Agency for protection of the constitution
15. Federal agency for border protection
16. The PDS also has several mayors of small towns and important posts in districts in East Berlin.
17. Parteitag der PDS. Beschlüsse, Erklärungen, Ergebnisse. February 1995, p. 27
18.“Sozialismus ist Weg, Methode, Wertorientierung und Ziel”, in Parteitag der PDS. Beschlüsse, Erklärungen, Ergebnisse, February 1995, p. 28
19. ibid p. 29
20. Benjamin, Bischoff, Brombacher, Frielinghaus, Jung, Mahron, Mebel, Sauermann, Wagenknecht, “Deutschland 5 Jahre vor der Jahrtausendwende. Zur Strategie der PDS in den nächsten Jahren”, in Mitteilungen der Kommunistischen Plattform der PDS, Heft 7/1995, p. 1-10
21. Benjamin et al, p6
22. Perhaps the best known of them is S. Wagenknecht, who still defends the “great leader” Stalin as Lenin’s best pupil.
23. Benjaminet et al, op cit, p6