Germany’s strategy debate
Volkhard Mosler, secretary of Frankfurt WASG and a leading figure in Linksruck, Christine Buchholz, a member of the national executive of WASG and a member of Linksruck and Maya Mosler, who was a delegate to WASG party congress, spoke to International Socialism about current debates in Germany.
We ran an article in International Socialism six months ago about the formation of the new party and the social protests. What is the situation with the movements and the new party since the election last year?
Christine: It is a contradictory situation. The Grand Coalition of the big two parties appeared in the first months not to be as bad as it is, even though it has started preparing severe attacks in different spheres, like making it easier to sack people, cuts in health insurance and old age pensions, raising VAT by 3 percent. They use social rhetoric in response to the growth of the left and to the general mood in society. At the moment the movement is still in the process of handling the new situation, while many in the trade union movement still are saying that the SPD is a social corrective within the coalition. At the same time we have had a new wave of class struggle, fighting over working hours, against the sackings and the shifting of production to other countries. There is a big chance for the emerging left party to relate to the struggles.
The situation with the new left—WASG and Linkspartei want to unite within a year—is very promising. The new left faction of 53 MPs in parliament has become a political pole for the left and social struggles, supporting strikes in parliament and coming out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the threats to Iran. Oskar Lafontaine, speaker of ‘the Left’ faction in parliament has moved leftwards considerably and expresses the growing anger and frustration of millions of ordinary people.
But there are also difficulties we have to overcome. Parts of the Linkspartei-PDS, for example those who are in local government in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, base their strategy on what they call ‘factual constraints’. They adopt parts of neo-liberal policies instead of fighting them—as the SPD did before. This part doesn’t represent the majority of the members but holds considerable influence in the party apparatus. This is a problem because it does damage to the project of the new left and its credibility in fighting neo-liberal politics.
At the same time we have a discussion in the WASG, with people saying that the contradiction within the Linkspartei-PDS means we should not stand together with them in elections in Berlin in September and we should even question the whole project of uniting the two parties. I regard that approach as a serious mistake. I want to have a strong united left and fight for left anti-capitalist politics within the new formation. The recent party congress of WASG supported the line of uniting the left.
Volkhard: There was a very complicated situation in WASG before the party congress at the end of April. The majority of the WASG in Berlin campaigned to stand candidates against the PDS in the Berlin elections, and this campaign was quite influential on a national scale. It drew considerable support in the WASG not only in Berlin, and some regional and local sections took the position that they should support the Berlin WASG in standing against the Linkspartei in autumn. Quite understandably there was considerable concern about the Linkspartei accepting cuts, partial privatisation, attacks on the wages of people in public sector and other neo-liberal measures that were pushed through by the SPD in government.
The new party has been formed to stand against cuts and privatisation, and in the Linkspartei, which we want to unite with, we have senators in Berlin who were supporting things we are fighting against. This explains partly why the Berlin WASG could capture the mood. But there was also an attitude in parts of the national leadership of the WASG which was soft on these issues, trying to ignore both the politics of the Linkspartei-PDS in the Berlin government and also the national campaign against unity of the left by the Berlin WASG leadership.
But in January Lafontaine shifted to the left and said privatisation was not on. During this time nine Linkspartei-PDS councillors in the city of Dresden supported the selling off of public housing—against the will of the local party that was part of the campaign against it. Lafontaine said in a meeting in Dresden that such people should not be re-elected and should not be in the new party. This shifted the mood back in the WASG in favour of holding a referendum over a united party.
There are forces in the Linkspartei-PDS who are very worried that they might be hurt by what we call ‘governmental socialism’, that is, a politics which wants to change the world through parliament and not through changing the relations of forces in society. There is a strong feeling in the Linkspartei against this sort of politics.
I am against a split and for unity. We should unite and fight over policies at the same time. There were two wrong positions in the WASG. There were those who would say we cannot unite because of mistaken policies in the Linkspartei-PDS. There are others who say we want unity and because of that we cannot talk about mistaken policies. You have to combine a fight for policies with unity. We won almost all the WASG in Frankfurt to this position, and then the general council of the WASG. Lafontaine’s position was very helpful because he said very often and very hard that privatisation is not on for us, that it is a red line we must not cross if we go into government.
There are some people on the left who say the merger with the PDS represents a betrayal of socialist politics by going into an organisation which is prepared to engage in neo-liberal politics. How would you answer that?
Christine: The big task for socialists is to create a political force that is able to win people away from social democracy, particularly in the trade union movement, which is very strongly influenced by social democracy in Germany.
There is the old problem for the left of thinking all you need to do is read out your radical programme and you can relate to the masses.
You have to consider the period we are in. People are getting into conflict with capitalism in terms of its impact on their daily lives and we have to relate to this conflict and use the opportunity to talk to a very broad audience. Lafontaine, for example, in his public speeches inside and outside parliament, opens the door for revolutionary socialists to talk to a very big audience. He speaks of anti-capitalism, and the need for class struggle from below, denouncing privatisation and deregulation, talking of the new imperialism and of war being fought for oil and not for human rights.
The position of keeping pure means isolating yourself from the broader radicalisation. Many people in WASG do not understand the contradiction within the Linkspartei. For example, in Dresden, where the councillors privatised housing, the movement against this was led by the local Linkspartei. The argument is within that party.
Volkhard: Lafontaine related in his speech at the recent party congress to France, saying the struggle was an example we should take up in Germany. that we should mobilise in the streets and in the factories, defending the right for a general strike. This is something new. You would expect an old social democrat like him to say, ‘Let me change the world for you.’ He did not. He speaks like this because he has a nose for the radicalisation and polarisation of society.
Those who oppose unity do not understand the difference with the situation of the Green Party when it moved rightwards in the 1980s and 1990s. The Green Party is the big stick they use, saying we do not want to be like the Green Party, merging with the Linkspartei-PDS and following a course of betrayal.
In the early 1980s we had the end of a revolutionary tide, mainly of students, turning to the right, to parliamentary politics. Now we have a turn to the left of parts of the trade union movement and the social democratic left connected with it under the pressure of the polarisation of society. I would compare it much more with the situation of the Independent Social Democratic Party that split with the SPD during the First World War. Of course, things are not yet as polarised as then. Nevertheless, we do have a left move by parts of the working class and its organisations. And therefore to say we will have a repetition of the Green experience is a pessimistic view of the time we are living in. We are dealing with the historic pessimism of the left which judges everything from its own experience of the 1980s and 1990s.
People say you put your faith in Lafontaine, but isn’t it likely he will go the way of Bertinotti in Italy, talk on the left one year but then go back to coalition at a later stage?
Christine: It is possible that Lafontaine and other leading figures of the WASG and the Linkspartei will change and orient towards government in the future. To be honest, it is quite a likely scenario. Nevertheless, in the present situation they stand for a radical critique of neo-liberal politics and they are the guarantee for reaching a much broader spectrum of people. We have similar contradictions in the membership of WASG. This was never a radical left movement. After the protests over the Hartz laws (attacking the unemployed) we collected a lot of people from the movements, the trade unions, the radical left, the different networks. It was not and is not a radical left organisation. It is very important to understand this, because some of the radical left are saying that WASG is without contradictions. That is not true.
We have to understand that at the moment Lafontaine represents the most radical wing because what he says is relevant to and relates to many people in the trade union movement and the SPD. We are now with Lafontaine, although there may be other situations in which we position ourselves in a different way. But it is not possible to predict these now, and we have to avoid falling into the pessimism of the radical left who have had their own bad experiences in the SPD, the Green Party and so on.
The radical left in Germany is small, but its pessimism and sectarianism influence a broad milieu of people who are active in different networks. We realised this at the WASG party congress. Many of the old left, who are important for the left realignment, are weighed down by their own historical pessimism and defeats—or what they interpret as defeats, since many define the 1989 revolution as a defeat. They bear the scars of their lost struggles.
Volkhard: We had a headline in our paper in 1988 saying Lafontaine was moving from being at the base on the left to the top on the right, because he became the SPD candidate for chancellor in 1990 and accepted some neo-liberal policies that led to a clash with the trade unions at the time. A delegate from Frankfurt said at the WASG congress, that we have had these disputes with him before and I have a bad feeling about him being so radical. I answered that now he comes from the top and the right and moves down to the left. I would not judge him as a careerist, since he has had every job he might want already. This does not mean he might not shift to the right again later.
Lafontaine brings with him a lot of social democrat workers and trade unionists. Joachim Bischoff and other leading intellectuals of the WASG attacked him at the party congress, saying he was spreading a ‘social democratic smell’. But this ‘social democratic smell’ is the perfume of a left turn by parts of the German trade union movement, which up until recently was under full control of the SPD.
The key question internationally is whether the left is to remain small numbers of people talking to small numbers of people or to reach out to larger numbers who are moving leftwards. The problem in doing that is that we always have people already on the left and we do not want to cut ourselves off from them. In that situation you still have Linksruck and a network of revolutionaries around it inside the new party.
Volkhard: Linksruck threw itself into the building of the new left party from the very beginning. And we want to build a socialist mass movement from it. But the key thing at the moment is to build unity with all those trade unionists and others coming from the right who do not yet share our socialist aims. We are at the beginning of a historic process which will take some time, and people will learn through struggle, and we need a house where the common experience can be interpreted together. This is why we need a big coalition party. To split on the Berlin issue now is to make the same mistake as leftists like Pannekoek did in Holland in 1910 when they took 500 people out of the social democratic party, leaving 35,000 with the right. Rosa Luxemburg took a different, correct position when she kept the Spartakusbund inside the Independent Social Democratic Party, saying we have to go through the experience with the masses and not be outside the process.
You yourselves, Linksruck, inside the WASG, always argued against the position of the Linkspartei-PDS senators who were in coalition with the SPD in Berlin. You did not wait for this argument to break out.
Maya: We criticised the PDS for its politics in Berlin long before the WASG was born. Last autumn we published a pamphlet on the Berlin question arguing our tactics for unity and criticism.
Volkhard: This was always our line from the beginning. We argued this in the early summer of last year, after Lafontaine said he would be with us if the WASG united with the PDS. We said we will support this, but we do not take back one inch of our criticism of the governmental socialist politics in Berlin.
Some people criticise you because you supported a resolution in the recent party conference that the WASG leadership in Berlin should be disciplined if they stand against the Linkspartei.
Christine: At the party congress we had a very dangerous situation for the whole process. There were two scenarios. One was that the WASG should stick to the line of the leadership and Lafontaine, and continue the unification process. The other scenario, supporting the Berlin position, came not just from the ultra-left but also from more right wing, anti-Communist forces, about 10 percent of the delegates. If they had won over the party congress, Oskar Lafontaine and other leading ex social democratic trade unionists might have left the party and this would have weakened the position of the WASG. This was why we supported the resolution not only against the separate candidature in Berlin, but also giving the leadership the power to execute this decision and guarantee the perspective of unity. A victory of the self-appointed ‘left’ could have destroyed the whole new left project, not just in Berlin, but nationally.
If it comes to discipline it may mean expulsion of people from the party in Berlin.
Christine: We decided in the conference we want to avoid it. There are others possibilities of stopping the separate candidacy. But, if people are really destroying a process which is a historical need for the working class movement in Germany, it could be necessary. I am not in favour expelling anyone. But we have to keep the political process going on.
PDS: Party of Democratic Socialism—formed out of old East German Communist Party after fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of old leadership.
Linkspartei: ‘Left Party’—name adopted by PDS last year and used to run joint election slate with WASG.
WASG Literally ‘electoral alternative for labour and social justice’, formed last year in opposition to neo-liberal politics of SPD.
Oskar Lafontaine Former leader of SPD and briefly economics minister, before resigning from government seven years ago.
SPD German Social Democratic Party equivalent of Britain’s Labour Party, currently participating in the grand coalition government.