“The left is back. The pact between WASG and PDS under the leadership of Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine has the potential to change the balance of forces in the political system forever.” The editorial of the conservative newspaper Welt am Sonntag on the formation of a new political party tells of the sea change in German politics.
The new Linkspartei (left party) was formed by the merger of the WASG, itself a new left wing political force, and the PDS, the former East German Communist Party.
It is polling between 8 and 11 percent. Some polls suggest the party could win 33 percent of the vote in former East Germany. These figures led the influential magazine Der Spiegel to put Karl Marx on the cover of its latest issue with the headline: “The Ghost is Back — the New Power of the Left”.
This was exactly what chancellor Gerhard Schröder was trying to avoid. He called early elections after his SPD, Germany’s equivalent of the Labour Party, was routed in an important regional election.
He hoped to strangle the new left in its cradle, but the prospect of early elections forced a debate on cooperation between the WASG and the PDS. Significantly Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD leader who was briefly the finance minister under Schröder, said he would head up a joint campaign by the PDS and WASG.
As the new Linkspartei emerged the SPD lurched to the left, attacking venture capitalists as “locusts”, promising to tax the rich and warning George Bush not to attack Iran. The Greens rebranded themselves as “the real left party”. Even the conservative CDU was thrown into turmoil, despite a solid 14 percent lead over the SPD.
The Linkspartei brought to light the best kept political secret in German politics — that there is a growing majority against neo-liberal politics and, especially in the east, a deep scepticism against establishment politics in Germany.
A recent study by researchers from Bielefeld University revealed that over 90 percent of Germans believe that “the rich always get richer, the poor always become poorer”.
The Linkspartei also brought about a sharp polarisation in the trade union movement, which has historically been deeply connected with the SPD. The earlier WASG was itself a product of trade unionists’ disillusionment with Schröder’s neo-liberalism. Now the Linkspartei is leading to open splits in the unions.
With the Linkspartei’s initial success a debate has arisen. We want a new left — but what should it look like? How should it differ from the old left?
The process of forming the new party has brought together very different political forces—former SPD members, trade union officials, activist from the anti-globalisation movement, the revolutionary left and now the PDS.
These forces are united in their opposition to neo-liberalism, but they have different outlooks on the political tasks ahead. A majority, including Oskar Lafontaine, wants to follow a strategy of “reclaiming our party” — albeit outside the SPD. This would involve forming a new SPD, standing on the vision of the welfare state the SPD had during the 1970s.
Most forces on the left support this desire for reforms, but argue that they have to be fought for from below. Because of the economic crisis in Germany our rulers are not inclined to give these things away for free.
Another big area of debate is over the possibility of going into government. The PDS is already in a coalition with the SPD in Berlin and in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region.
The experiences in these areas are very sobering. Instead of “organising the break from neo-liberalism”, as the PDS claimed, the PDS leadership actually enforced neo-liberal politics. For example they forced through a 15 percent wage cut for public transport workers in Berlin two months ago. These issues have to be resolved, if a new left is to rise up. But the first steps in this process have been taken, offering hope to millions.
Stefan Bornost is the editor of Linksruck, Socialist Worker’s sister paper in Germany. Go to www.linksruck.de