THE BIGGEST and most established Labour party in Europe is going through its most serious crisis since the First World War.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) split in 1917 when the majority continued to support the war and a big minority broke to form a left wing party opposed to the slaughter.
Now a new split is emerging. Key sections of the trade unions have called for a new party of the left, which is set to be founded at a conference in November.
“In Britain you have the experience of Respect and the strides forward it has made,” says Christine Buchholz from Socialist Worker’s sister paper in Germany, Linksruck.
“In Germany the bitterness with the SPD/Green coalition government led by Gerhard Schröder is leading to a breach right at the heart of the unions and the SPD, which have traditionally worked in tandem.
“We are now in the process of creating a mass left wing split from the SPD for the first time in three generations. The sense of crisis for the government is immense.
“The SPD polled just 21.5 percent in the European elections last month.
“Its standing in the polls is the lowest in living memory. The SPD has had a monopoly over the working class. The traditions are at least as deep as for the British Labour Party.
“Now senior union officials and party members are saying, ‘Enough. We cannot go on any more. This party does not represent us. We are going to create our own’.”
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the movement for a new party of the left in Germany. Germany is Europe’s largest economy and for decades has been its most stable capitalist state.
“This historic development is a product of the biggest attack on the living standards of workers in Germany since the 1930s,” says Christine.
“Schröder’s ‘Agenda 2010’ package of cuts means ripping up the welfare state. It is going to mean hundreds of thousands of people denied unemployment benefits.
“There are four million unemployed in Germany. In parts of the country the unemployment rate is 17 percent.
“Far fewer workers buy houses than in Britain. It is the better off or conservative-minded workers who do.
“Now they face job insecurity and the prospect of having to sell their home if they are sacked. It’ll be that or no benefits.
“The new rules mean the state will assess what your belongings are worth and whether you have to sell something before getting benefits.
“You could be forced to sell the musical instrument you’ve saved up to buy your child.
“They haven’t ruled out forcing people to sell gold dental fillings. We haven’t seen this since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
These attacks led some longstanding local union officials to call for a new party.
“Most union leaders are locked into the SPD and are not launching an industrial fight even as they clash with the government,” says Christine. That will be familiar to trade unionists in Britain.
A tentative initiative from a few union officials in the IG Metall (engineering) and Verdi (public sector) unions has acted like a match dropped onto an already parched forest.
“The SPD expelled the six individuals who simply raised the idea of a new party,” says Christine.
“Then the debate erupted in the media. There have been scores of meetings across Germany to discuss launching the party. The meetings are attracting 50, 60 or 150 people and more. Many are shop stewards, lifelong SPD voters.
“Some are younger people from the radical anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. Many people from the German section of ATTAC, the anti financial speculation organisation, are involved.
“The outward-going, radical new left forces are coming together with some of the bedrock of the trade unions and SPD. It opens tremendously exciting possibilities.
“The basic positions uniting us are against the privatisation and cuts drives. Most people are clearly on the left over other issues too such as the war and opposing racism.
“Immigrants are beginning to get involved. The approach of Linksruck is to throw every resource at our disposal into building this initiative for a new party.
“We are part of the vibrant debates that arise from doing that. The conference in November will decide on further questions.
“The important thing now is not to consume the whole process in the kind of internal posturing arguments that bedevilled the German left throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“That repelled people. Instead people want to work together and have a serious discussion about how we can build an alternative to Schröder and encourage massive resistance to his assault on all of us.
“The Greens are in government and have shown they are no alternative. The PDS, the East German former Communists, run Berlin in coalition with the SPD and are making savage cuts.
“They are no alternative. There is now a chance for the left to make a breakthrough in Germany that will assist people trying to do the same elsewhere. We are determined to play our part in making that a reality.”