Was it a day to go down in German history? The immediate, loud chorus of snarling, barking attacks seems to show that the many foes of this new party, The Left (Die Linke) see its formation as a significant change in the political landscape – and has them worried.
On Friday, June 15, about 400 delegates each from the two parties involved met separately in neighboring rooms in a large Berlin hotel. Before the day’s keynote speeches, debates and stormy applause had ended, they had both voted for amalgamation, which had been two years in the making and approved by a big majority of the grass roots membership.
The WASG (Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Security – an unwieldy title now luckily defunct) approved with only one dissenting vote and two abstentions. The young organization consisted largely of militant trade unionists and former members of the Social Democratic Party, disgruntled at the rightward trend which made it almost undistinguishable from its partner in the current government, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Some Greens also joined, equally disgusted that their once leftwing party abandoned so many earlier principles during its coalition with the Social Democrats. Oskar Lafontaine, its head, a gifted speaker had also quit as a top leader of the Social Democrats five years ago. Most of the 8000 or so WASG members were in West Germany . The other party had a more complicated history. When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed in 1989-1990, its ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) lost all but about 50-60,000 of its former membership of over two million. Those who stayed were the “true believers” in socialism – in spite of everything. In December 1989 they threw out the old leaders, officially rejected all forms of Stalinism, apologized to the people for misdeeds of past decades and decided to start over with a new head, the lawyer Gregor Gysi, who was presented with a huge broom as a symbol. It soon chose as its new name PDS, Party of Democratic Socialism. The going was very rough since the entire West German establishment, including all parties except the tiny Communist Party, attacked it unmercifully, while predicting it would soon disappear. Attempts were made to deprive it of all finances, to shut down its one remaining newspaper” and prevent its entry into political life.
Two factors helped it survive. A tsunami of second and third string West German “experts” soon took over East Germany. Men from Bavaria, the Rhineland or Hamburg moved in to take over local and provincial government, the courts, universities, the media, hospitals and utilities. Local experts, professors and journalists were reduced to subaltern status and lower salaries or, most commonly, thrown out altogether. Resentment was inevitable.
Soon all state-owned enterprises were privatized and often closed down by disinterested or rival West German or foreign owners. A huge number of people lost their jobs – something virtually unknown in GDR days. Various re-training or make-work programs saved them from hunger but rarely led to regular jobs. The jobless rate, double that in western Germany, often exceeded 20 percent, whole regions were de-industrialized and are being de-populated. With little hope for the future, many young people leave for West Germany. Though commodities abound, travel is unrestricted, and elections offer choices, the “blossoming landscapes” promised by West German politicians have, for many, been less than fruitful. This helps explain a 25 percent approval rate for the PDS in Eastern Germany, two points behind the weakening Social Democrats and two points ahead of the Christian Democrats. But since the eastern provinces account for only a fifth of the German population, that 25 percent wobbled close and sometimes under the five percent needed to get into the national Bundestag, for the PDS rarely exceeded 1, 2 or 3 percent in the western provinces, where anti-GDR feelings still hindered a vote for even an altered, repentant child of the old SED.
Thus, a marriage of the largely eastern PDS and western WASG means a breakthrough in all of Germany. An electoral alliance in 2005 resulted in a surprising vote of over 8 percent and more than 50 seats in the Bundestag. A recent vote in the city-state of Bremen brought the newly forming party, The Left, a similar amount and brought it for the first time into a provincial parliament in West Germany. The national polls now vary from 9 to 12 percent.
Aside from the two big parties in the coalition, three smaller parties, all in opposition, are vying to be front runners and win influence in forming future governments. The strongest has long been the Free Democrats. Once rather liberal and libertarian it is now a big business party. The Greens, who played a miserable role in the coalition with the Social Democrats until 2005, are trying to sound leftist again. Both may now be overtaken by The Left.
Unification of The Left was not simple. Some East German party members, especially the many older ones, had to adjust to such very different partners, often militant union men and women who believe in active opposition in strikes and in the streets, situations they never learned in the GDR. Then, some leaders of the former PDS who gained government jobs, especially in Berlin, made compromises actively opposed by many in the WASG – and in the ex-PDS as well. Some leaders dream of joining the Social Democrats in a coalition in 2009 – if the latter drop their present refusal to even talk with The Left. Others say we should refuse to join with the Social Democrats, even if they ask us to, until they agree to stop shipping German troops to Afghanistan and other foreign areas and reject the many cuts in social services imposed by coalitions including Social Democrats. Then, for WASG members it is not always easy to overcome prejudices against the PDS and its GDR roots. In other words, the unity just achieved in Berlin does not preclude disagreements, disputes, perhaps even some in-fighting. But Oskar Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky, the co-leaders of The Left overwhelmingly elected by the Congress, as well as Gregor Gysi, first leader of the PDS and its caucus chairman in the Bundestag, all pledged to make this new party live and grow.
Both Lafontaine and Bisky, once head of the main Film College in the GDR, made courageous, fighting speeches at the congress. They called for a change of the system, in other words socialism, to replace capitalism. Not like that in the GDR, Bisky said, but a democratic socialism, a rejection of the unregulated market forces running Germany and, thanks to globalization, the world. They called for a return to the social welfare state, increasingly eroding in Germany: a rejection of the severe cuts in pensions and jobless assistance, the increases in fees for medical care, for college studies, for utilities, a rejection of increasing tax breaks for the wealthy, and an end to military adventures abroad.. Lafontaine even mentioned the possibility of a general strike to stop the cuts in economic rights for working people. The militant speeches at the Congress, sometimes tinged with hints of criticism at past PDS routine and reliance on parliamentary methods, won enthusiastic approval from the delegates, united on Sunday in one big congress.
This new party, The Left, has many old-style politicians worried. The Free Democrats dragged their old slogan from the cellar and proclaimed Freedom Not Socialism – which was answered by Oskar Lafontaine who said Freedom and Socialism or better yet, Freedom through Socialism. He also spoke approvingly of the dramatic changes in Latin America.
Most worried of all are the Social Democratic Party leaders, who have been losing members and voters at a rapid rate since joining the anti-social coalition with the Christian Democrats. They have already reacted, scolding The Left while stealing its demand for a minimum wage. Without admitting it, they are very fearful of a really left-wing competitor with a big potential, either scotching their chances in the 2009 elections, or forcing them to change many positions, a difficult if not impossible task. The goals of The Left are to fight hard and visibly enough to win strong votes in four West German provincial elections next year and then get a double digit result in the 2009 national elections. And, equally important, even with victories they must avoid following the path of the Social Democrats and Greens and compromising away the militancy now so desperately needed in Germany and all of Europe. If successful they may well make important contributions to the struggles of all leftwing forces in Europe.