Germany’s political earthquake

Issue: 116

Stefan Bornost, editor of the magazine marx21, spoke to International Socialism about the growth of German’s new left wing party

The rise of a new force, Die Linke (The Left), is causing political earthquakes in Germany. Die Linke was founded in the middle of June this year and it is now Germany’s third biggest party, with over 70,000 members. It registers between 11 and 14 percent support in polls, the third highest rating, and is set to enter regional parliaments in forthcoming elections in the states of Hessen, Hamburg and Thuringia.

The new party was formed from two main components. First, there were 11,000 people from the WASG, an organisation created by trade unionists and former SPD (social democratic party) members in West Germany. Second, there were 59,000 people from the PDS, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled East Germany. In the two weeks following its foundation Die Linke gained 4,000 new members, mainly in the West and many from a trade union background. These are the kind of people who formed the backbone of the SPD in the 1970s and 1980s. The student wing of Die Linke is also very dynamic, growing from eight groups to 36 groups in four months.

The new party’s main demands are scrapping the higher retirement age of 67, which has made Germany the pacesetter in the scrapping of pension rights; ending harsh new unemployment laws (known as Hartz IV); and withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. There is a great deal of sympathy for these measures among ordinary SPD members. Two thirds have considered handing in their membership cards in the past two years, and one in ten have thought of switching over to Die Linke—that is 40,000 people. For the Greens the figures are even more worrying. The Greens today have a solidly middle class backing, and Green voters are the richest voters for any party in Germany. But even more people among the Greens sympathise with Die Linke than among the SPD, mostly over the question of Afghanistan.

The rise of Die Linke has sparked a faction fight inside the SPD. The right wing in this fight is symbolised by Frank Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s right hand man. Steinmeier represents the politics that plunged the SPD into crisis. Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, has, by contrast, adopted left wing rhetoric. Wowereit governs Berlin in alliance with the former PDS and has sought to marginalise Die Linke by making it share the responsibility for his policies. In Berlin he managed to reduce the vote for the former PDS from 22.6 percent to 13.4 percent.

There are five factors behind the rise of the new party:

  1. Attacks on the German working class.
  2. The role of the SPD in those attacks.
  3. The return of class struggle from below.
  4. A growing youth radicalisation.
  5. Increasing unease at the role Germany plays in the “war on terror”, especially in Afghanistan.

In half a decade Germany has gone from being a showcase of “Rhineland capitalism”, of what was called the social-market economy, to being the European pacesetter for attacks on the welfare state and the workforce. Germany had a conservative government in the 1980s, but the experience was nothing like that of Britain under Margaret Thatcher. The rise of the Die Linke is not taking place because people are more left wing than in the past: it is taking place because Helmut Kohl was not Thatcher; he did not break the trade unions in the interests of German capitalism, this has only been happening since 2003. The Schröder government, a coalition between the SPD and the Greens, carried out the first sustained attack on the main planks of the welfare state.

One major attack on workers is the new unemployment law, which allows the living standards of a worker who becomes unemployed to sink rapidly. A skilled worker who is laid off finds in the first month that he or she cannot pay the mortgage. This creates a sense of terror among skilled workers, who once expected decent lives. Along with this go what are called “Eurojobs”, whereby the state forces people to work for €1, and if they refuse they lose all benefits. Workers have to rely on soup kitchens, which are springing up all over Germany. Eurojobs are used to destroy normal paid jobs, for instance in teaching. They create a pool of cheap labour for the government to tap into.

Another issue is the raising of the retirement age to 67. The average age at which people finish work is 57 and the chances of getting a job are nil for someone made redundant who is older than 50, so this is just a scheme to lower pensions. One recent survey showed people in Germany are more miserable about the future than people in Mali. Living standards are nowhere near as low as in Mali, but people fear falling from the twentieth floor more than from the first floor.

The government attacks have set the tone for those of the corporations. They have been carrying through the most extensive restructuring since the Second World War. This is symbolised by the 42 and 45-hour week in the car industry. This industry, which is 90 percent unionised, used to be a citadel of working class power, but it has suffered wage reductions and outsourcing. The common practice now is to lay off 30,000 or 40,000 workers—as Siemens and Daimler Chrysler did—and to reshuffle them into a “service company” owned by the same corporation. They are then rehired to do the same jobs but at a wage that is 20 or 25 percent lower, and working three hours longer. German Telecom shuffled 50,000 people into a service company. There was a long and bitter defensive struggle against this, which lost; workers now have a 28 percent lower wage and new starters have a 40 percent lower wage.

There are about four million people in Germany trapped in low paid jobs. For instance, the agreed trade union wage for hairdressers in the West is €2.66 Euros (about £2) an hour. Where there is no union, the wage can be as low as €1. There is no minimum wage in Germany, and East German workers are used as a tool against living standards in the West. Because pensions are linked to wages, pensions are going down as well. A statistic at the end of June showed Germany has the lowest average pension in Western Europe. That is such a break with the past. No wonder people feel disenfranchised, and are bitter towards the political system and the big corporations.

One effect of low wages is that the German economy is booming. Germany is the world’s leading exporter, and its percentage of world exports is going up. German capitalism is at the front of the race to the bottom—the German export offensive is putting enormous pressure on other ruling classes across Europe and beyond.

This situation is having a contradictory effect on the state of the class struggle. Germany has had a relatively low level of strikes in recent history. But in the 1980s and 1990s this was not a sign of working class weakness. When the Kohl government attacked people’s sick pay, there was a three_hour strike in the car industry and the government was forced to abandon the law. This did not add much to the number of strike days, but the power was there; trade union organisation was intact. There was no need for long strikes. Today class struggle is returning with a vengeance. There are two sorts of strike. There are offensive wage struggles in export industries, where the expansion is so rapid that there is a shortage of workers and people no longer fear unemployment. For instance, we have had the highest wage agreement for many years in the metal industry.

The second sort of strike consists of very long and bitter defensive struggles. There was a 12-week strike in the public sector last year, the longest since the Second World War. More recently there was a five-week strike at Telecom against plans to cut wages by a quarter. Generally the defensive strikes end in a stalemate, as with the public sector strike, or are lost. But they mark a break with the past. The restructuring plan in Telecom was the fourteenth in ten years. All the plans were bad, but the union signed up to the first 13. It was only with the fourteenth plan that the union leaders decided they had to do something: that if the bosses got away with it they could close down the union altogether. Many sections of the trade union bureaucracy feel they have to act if they are not to lose their own position. Unions are losing roughly 5 percent of members a year. Verdi, the public sector union, had 2.4 million members when it was founded five years ago. Now it has two million members. When you are a negotiator between capital and the workers, and capital does not take you seriously any more, you have to do something.

That is why Die Linke is tearing into important sections of social democracy. Schröder had to behave like Margaret Thatcher, and social democracy took the lead in breaking with the consensus around the post_war welfare state. Since then the SPD has lost 180,000 members, between a quarter and a third of its membership, and the remaining members are utterly demoralised.

Adding to this political shift is the youth radicalisation taking place in Germany. This was shown at the G8 protest in Rostock attended by 80,000 protesters. A group of sociologists did a survey. They found 90 percent of the protesters were from Germany; 70 percent were students and school students; 60 percent of them said they were on the left; and 35 percent said they were on the radical left. The second most common reason that the protesters said they attended was the injustice of globalisation; the most common reason was “lack of prospects”. They meant this in a personal way—they feel a personal lack of prospects. This is alienation from the system. The people who did the survey came to the conclusion that we have an embittered generation who know they cannot expect the kind of lives their parents had, that it will be incredibly hard for them. This is something written into the DNA of this generation and it is feeding into the left.

These young people are also very sceptical about parties. There was a meeting with a Marxist professor who joined Die Linke a few months ago. We pointed out at the meeting that there was no guarantee that Die Linke would not go the way the Greens did. We argued that this is why we needed the young people. That honest, open approach was very important in winning some of them to the party.

The final factor underlying the emergence of Die Linke is the watershed in Germany today over the question of the war. Schröder came across as being against the war, even though he allowed US planes to use airports in Germany. The war was not a destabilising but a stabilising factor for the government for a long time. That has changed now. Germany has the second biggest armed presence in Afghanistan and 72 percent of the German population want the troops out. This is the biggest source of discontent inside parliament. In the last vote one third of SPD members of parliament voted against a new mandate for the troops in Afghanistan, as did half of the Greens and a fifth of the conservatives. This means getting the troops out is a winnable issue.

These factors have provided the fuel for the rise of Die Linke. The left can play an important role in shaping the new party, where major arguments have been taking place from the outset. The former PDS is numerically the largest section of the new party, although it has been losing members for 17 years and the average age of members is 67. The PDS rose out of the ashes of the old state party in East Germany, but it is not the same. That party had 1.8 million members. With the fall of Communism many of its top cadre left to join other parties or to go into business privately.

But there were some people left in the PDS who recreated themselves as a regionalist party that was quite strong in the East and participated in state governments there. The PDS had thousands of local councillors, who set the agenda of the party, making it an organisation with left wing trappings of an old “socialism from above” kind engaged in community politics. The basic line of the PDS was to get investment to reduce unemployment, which was extremely high in the East, and to do so by any means necessary. This meant advertising the advantages of East Germany as a low wage region, and that was the main reason the PDS never took hold in the trade union milieu. The crisis of social democracy has been developing for a long time, but the PDS could never capitalise on it.

One of the main currents in Die Linke is spearheaded by the Berlin party leadership, which is drawn from the PDS and is in local government in coalition with the SPD. This leadership is backed by the party’s fractions in the East German state parliaments and councils. This current, called the “Forum for Democratic Socialism”, seeks to popularise the Berlin model as the model for Die Linke. It sees one obstacle to working with the SPD in Die Linke’s position on the war, and so tries to overturn it, using the UN question, Darfur and Lebanon to try to justify military intervention overseas. This current does not yet have a base in the West, although it is trying to create groups.

The more dynamic part of Die Linke is the former WASG, which has the support of disaffected sections of the trade union bureaucracy and people who were expelled from the SPD. Unlike the PDS, it is based in the West and is very trade unionist in outlook. This is not a revolutionary organisation. Its main strategic goal is to force the SPD to reform so that it can form a coalition government with it, based on the politics of the SPD in the 1970s. That was a time when capitalism could deliver positive reforms and Willy Brandt, the main SPD leader, spoke of a 35-hour week, higher wages and money for education. But conditions today are very different, and pushing such demands involves much more radical action than it did in the 1970s. So it is possible to win the argument that enormous pressure from below is needed. Oskar Lafontaine, the main figure in Die Linke, frequently says that he has not radicalised much in the past 20 years, that he is simply repeating the things said in the 1998 election campaign against Kohl. He argues, “We did not leave the SPD; they left us.”

So the second big current in Die Linke, crystallising around WASG and known as the “Socialist Left”, is class struggle oriented. It argues that Berlin is not the model to follow. But this wing of the party is divided over many questions. One weak point is the war. There are differing attitudes to wars that have the cover of UN support. Another contentious issue is that many of the trade union bureaucrats oppose rank and file organisation in industry. Some people accept the notion that the Socialist Left should wage a struggle against the right in the party, but others just want a sort of Keynesian think-tank.

So you have a new party, with new people flooding in, divided into two wings. The right controls much of the apparatus, but the left wing has the dynamic of class struggle on its side. And the apparatus has nothing to show even in reformist terms: in Berlin it reduced the party’s vote from 23 percent to 12 percent and lost a quarter of the membership, hardly a success story.

Of course, there is a danger that events in Germany will be a repeat of those in Italy, where Rifondazione Comunista was a focus for the left between the Genoa G8 protest in July 2001 and the European Social Forum in Florence at the end of 2002, but threw this away by joining Romano Prodi’s centre-left government. We have to make this danger clear. Because Germany has a federal system the issue will be posed very quickly. The election in Hessen will take place at the beginning of next year. The leader of the SPD in Hessen has taken a left wing stance and the outcome of the election could well be that the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens will be in a position to form a coalition government in the state. The leader of the conservatives in Hessen is a particularly vicious right wing conservative and the pressure to join the coalition government will be very strong.

The main line taken by the left at the moment, for instance by Oskar Lafontaine, is, “Of course we will go into government, if the troops in Afghanistan are withdrawn, if the Hartz unemployment law is withdrawn and the pension age is reduced from 67.” This is the main line at the federal level. We have to adapt it to make sense in the case of states, since they, for instance, do not determine whether the troops are in Afghanistan. We have to determine what are the minimal conditions, and we have to intervene in this discussion.

In Italy it was not just that Rifondazione’s leader, Fausto Bertinotti, dragged everyone into support for the government. It was also that many Rifondazione voters saw joining the government as a way to achieve what they wanted. We have to expect the same with supporters of Die Linke, because of their backgrounds. They assume that if you have an election and get enough votes to be part of the majority, you should join a government based on that majority. Only a small wing of radicals within the party believes that joining the government would inevitably lead to conflict with capital. We can only form a bulwark against being drawn in the direction of the Berlin model by posing conditions that break with the neoliberal model. For instance, we can say that at the local level we cannot enter government without scrapping student fees, taxing the rich and the corporations, which state governments have the power to do, and so on. The SPD can form a minority government and when they do things we approve of we will vote for them, but otherwise they will have to rely on conservative votes.

A lot depends on who wins the power struggle in the SPD. If the right wing wins, and the SPD is locked in a coalition with the conservatives for years, this will create a favourable situation for Die Linke to grow. If the left wins, then there is the possibility that a section of Die Linke will look to join the federal government in 2009.

However, the present dynamic of the new party means it is possible for us to win people to a firm line. At the moment Lafontaine is attacking the SPD because he knows that Die Linke can only win support as an opposition party. The future depends on the stance taken by Lafontaine, the party’s most influential figure, on the stance of the left in the party and on the path the class struggle takes.