2 November 2009

The German Left Party - a model for elsewhere?

This short article was prompted by two facts: first, the near disappearance of the socialist left in Britain; and second, the emergence and electoral growth of the socialist left in Germany.

The credit crisis which hit the advanced capitalist economies in the autumn of 2008 destroyed at a stroke the key tenet of the market fundamentalism which had held sway over ruling economic thought in the last three decades. Suddenly gone was the notion that markets were self-regulating. In both the US and Britain, the leading proponents of unbridled capitalism, government opened the public purse and poured public money into private banks to prevent financial collapse.

The financial crisis could have provided opportunities for the left, but decades of ideological assault on socialism and social democracy across Europe had utterly disabled the left as a political force. Social democracy (e.g. New Labour in Britain, SPD in Germany and the PS in France) had aligned itself to neo-economic liberalism to such a degree that these parties were identified in their policies and in the public mind with market fundamentalism, rather than the reform or abolition of it. And across most of Europe forces to the left of these once social democratic parties were weak or non-existent.

In Britain for instance the extreme weakness of the left was revealed in the June 2009 Euro-Elections. New Labour (scarcely in any meaningful sense left-wing) slumped to a historic low with under 16% of the vote. The two left-of-Labour parties (Socialist Labour Party, and the ad hoc No2EU) scraped up around 1% each. The Greens achieved a healthier 9%, but the parties to the right of the Tories did well: UKIP 17% and the fascist BNP 6%. The British political landscape is bleak: there is next no left-wing political force in Britain while right-wing parties are advancing.

The major European country in which a party to the left of social democracy not only exists but is advancing is Germany. In the September 2009 national elections a coalition of the centre-right Christian parties and the free market FDP managed to scrape into office by a narrow 49/46 margin over the left. (In Europe in the late 2000s a 46 percent combined vote for social democrats, socialists and Greens is a good result.) Yet it is the constitution of the Germany’s left vote which is interesting: the rounded up percentages are: SPD 23 (down from 34 in 2005), Die Linke 12 (up from 9), Greens 11 (up from 8). Compared with the previous 2005 elections, the SPD was down massively (Cf. New Labour in Britain), the Greens were up, but the biggest advance was made by Die Linke, a party firmly to the left of the SPD. Though now firmly an all-German party, the roots of Die Linke lie in the East.

The collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 allowed a strong hitherto suppressed democratic left to come to fore and take control of East Germany’s former ruling communist party (SED), They got rid of the former leadership, changed its policies to progressive socialist ones, and rebranded the party as the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism).

In the first all-German Bundestag elections in 1990, the PDS won only 2.4% of the nationwide vote, but because the 5% electoral threshold for this election was not applied across the whole united country, but separately in the East and West, the PDS entered the Bundestag with 17 deputies. In the 1994 election, in spite of an aggressive campaign organised against the party by the then-ruling Christian Democrats, the PDS managed to increase its share to 4.4 percent, winning four single member constituencies (winning three such seats is an alternative to surpassing the 5%), and re-entered the Bundestag with an enlarged caucus of 30 deputies. In 1998, the party secured 37 deputies with 5.1% of the national vote, thus surpassing the 5% threshold required for guaranteed representation and full parliamentary status in the Bundestag.

However in 2000, the resignation of Gregor Gysi, the intellectual and charismatic leader of the PDS, after losing a policy debate with leftist factions brought disaster. In the 2002 national elections, the party's share of the vote declined to 4.0%. For the next four years, the PDS was represented in the Bundestag by only two deputies elected directly from their single member constituencies in Eastern Berlin, Petra Pau and Gesine Lötzsch.

After the 2002 debacle, the PDS adopted a new programme and re-elected long-time Gysi ally, Lothar Bisky, as chairman. In the 2004 elections to the European Parliament, the PDS won 6.1% of the vote nationwide, its highest share to date in a federal election. Its electoral base in the eastern German states continued to grow, making it, with the CDU and SPD, one of the big three in the eastern states. However, low membership and voter support in Germany's western states continued to plague the party until 2005.

Gerhard Schroeder’s Red/Green government (1998-2005), particularly after the 2002 election, decided to deal with Germany’s economic difficulties by adopting market fundamentalist policies which heavily disadvantaged working people and alienated socialist support. In early 2005 the WASG (Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit – Die Wahlalternative,) was formed by left-wing trade unionists and disillusioned social democratic politicians, most prominent among them was left-wing former SPD Chairman and finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine. The immediate focus of the group was to contest from the left the election in Germany’s biggest state, North Rhine Westphalia. In the early national election of 2005, an electoral alliance was formed between WASG and the PDS, which won 8.7% of the national vote. In 2007 the two parties formally merged.

The new Left Party, Die Linke, thus achieved a base in the western federal states; it surpassed the 5% threshold and entered several state parliaments: Hamburg, Bremen, Lower Saxony, Hesse, Saarland, Schleswig Holstein. The party is also represented in European Parliament and in many municipalities.

The programme of the Left Party emphasises social solidarity though extensive public investment across the economy, greater self-determination for workers, redistribution of wealth through different means including tax increases for corporations, big businesses and wealthy individuals, the rejection of privatisation and the introduction of a minimum wage. The party also promotes feminist policies.

Concerning foreign policy, Die Linke welcomes the European process of integration, while opposing all forms of militarism; it opposes the market-oriented policies of the European Union. The party strives for the democratisation of the EU institutions and a stronger role of the United Nations in international politics. It opposes the war in Afghanistan.

In its internal politics the party is far from monolithic having a number of internal caucuses, most often referred to as platforms or forums. These include:

Antikapitalistische Linke, (The Anti-capitalist Left) which represents those critical of participation in coalition governments. They believe that government participation should be dependent on a set of minimum criteria (including no privatisations, no war involvement, and no cuts in social welfare spending).

Sozialistische Linke, (The Socialist Left) includes Keynesian economics-leftists and reform communists. The group seeks to orient the party toward the labour movement. Many leaders of the Socialist Left were former members of the WASG.

Emanzipatorische Linke, (The Emancipatory Left) is a current that endorses libertarian socialist principles. It backs a decentralised society and supports progressive social movements.

Netzwerk Reformlinke, (The Reform Left Network) promotes social democratic positions and supports cooperation with the SPD and the Greens. A prominent member of the network is the long serving Bundestag deputy, Petra Pau.

Kommunistische Plattform, (Communist Platform) was originally formed as a tendency of the PDS. It is less critical of German Democratic Republic than other groupings, and it upholds orthodox Marxist positions. A "strategic goal" of the KPF is "building a new socialist society, using the positive experiences of real socialism and to learn from mistakes" The Platform had around 850 members in 2007, around 1% of the party's national membership.


The success of the Left Party in Germany is the result of a combination of five factors which are not present in Britain – or indeed in other European states. First, the inheritance of a Stalinist party structure from the German Democratic Republic; second a movement within East German communism, which wanted to move towards progressive and democratic socialism and which did so after 1989. Third, in the West the willingness of the trade unionist and left wing social democrats to break with the SPD. Fourth a willingness of socialists from different backgrounds to work together in a single party, and finally the Left Party possessing two talented politicians: Grygor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine.

Historically the aspirations of the left in Britain were channelled into the reform of the Labour Party. The party, however, was taken over by New Labour in the mid-90s and no longer functions as an instrument of progressive, let alone social democratic or socialist, politics. New Labour is devoid of both activists and internal democracy; at the top its MPs and leadership have long accommodated themselves to market fundamentalism and state authoritarianism. Socialists must either capitulate or else try to build a new socialist party. British socialists cannot, nor should they try to, build a carbon copy of Die Linke, but just as British socialists had much to learn from Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, so, I believe, they have again at the beginning of the twenty-first. The stakes are high: in 2009 in most of Europe the centre right and far right did well. If the Left cannot offer the working class an alternative to the failed market fundamentalism, the right moves in.

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