The German Left: Another Step towards Unity

There was virtually untroubled joy in September, when the new “Left,” consisting of two cooperating parties, received 4.2 million votes, 8.7 percent of the total, enabling it to send the unprecedented number of 54 representatives to the Bundestag. But the road to unity of the two had many bumps to overcome, and the weekend congress of the Left Party-PDS in Dresden aimed at overcoming many of them. The going was not always smooth, but a big step forward was taken all the same.

The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) had rechristened itself “The Left” (or, in the East, “The Left-PDS”), meeting a demand made by the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG) as a condition for a single slate joining the two in the recent elections. Up till now, this unity for one slate has been basically an election strategy, a very successful one, as it turned out, for it led to the large united caucus in the Bundestag.  But from the beginning, the ultimate aim was to form a single party, incorporating the PDS, with its firmly-established apparatus and strong voting support in East Germany (about 25 percent), and the newer, smaller, largely West German WASG, composed of angry union men and women, disgruntled Social Democrats, and an assortment of left-wing groupings.  Both parties are vital ingredients.  A week ago, key leaders of both sides signed an agreement on complete unification by July 2007.  The main function of the Dresden Congress was to approve this agreement.  It did just that, with enthusiasm, by and large, for this should firmly establish a strong left opposition on the German political map.  Several top leaders of the WASG — including its very popular spokesperson Oskar Lafontaine, head of the Social Democratic Party until he quit in disgust at its turn to the right — were given a very warm welcome in Dresden.

But the bumps in the process cannot be overlooked; some could be quite hazardous. According to German electoral law, if two parts of one electoral slate oppose each other in even a single state election, then their joint presence in the Bundestag must be ended.  And the small but persistent WASG group in the city-state of Berlin, with about 800 members, wants to do just that.  In next year’s state election, it wants to oppose the Left-PDS, as this party is called in Berlin, where it has 10,000 members.  If the WASG members stick to this position, they could scuttle the entire unification plan in all Germany.  A somewhat similar situation threatens in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

A big policy debate is involved.  Those are the only two states where the Left-PDS is in a ruling coalition, in both cases together with the Social Democrats.  Especially in Berlin, as part of the government, the PDS has been able to fight through a number of improvements like cut-price tickets on public transportation and cheap theater tickets for the unemployed and keep some state-owned enterprises like child care centers and public transportation from being privatized.  But it was also forced to join in many unpopular decisions aimed at balancing the budget of the bankrupt city: increasing hours and cutting wages of city employees, for example. The 800 WASG members — or most of them — oppose such compromises and want the Left-PDS to quit the coalition government if they are to support it next year.  The PDS leaders say this would lead to a far more conservative government in the city with far worse conditions.  Many personal animosities are also involved; some WASG members had quit the PDS because of its position on making compromises.

Complicating the problem is the fact that within the Left-PDS many members also oppose membership in coalitions with the Social Democrats, who were responsible for so many harsh laws during their years in power (with the Greens from 1998 until this fall) and who are evidently continuing the same anti-labor, anti-pensioner, anti-unemployed policies with their new right-wing partners led by Angela Merkel.

Leaders of the Left-PDS — like Gregor Gysi and Chairman Lothar Bisky — seem to be speculating on the unified new “Left” party joining with Social Democrats and perhaps the Greens in a new “socially-minded” German government after the 2009 elections — or before then if the present “grand coalition” falls apart.  There is a definite split between those who say we should “get along as well as possible under the prevailing circumstances in Germany, improving conditions where we can — and when possible from government positions” and those, basically the left-wingers, who say we must continue fighting against such “prevailing circumstances” — in other words fight for improvements but also keep fighting capitalism, which can never solve basic problems.

This division is not between the WASG and the Left-PDS but rather within the latter; and it was clearly visible at Dresden, though differences were largely patched up for the time being.  Indeed, it was Lafontaine from the WASG who asked, “Since when are the Social Democrats socially-minded?”  We can never join with them, he insisted, until they are willing to scrap their whole program of soaking the poor, aiding the wealthy, and sending German soldiers all around the world where they don’t belong.

This issue was not and could not be resolved in Dresden, and it did not lead to any serious split.  There were signs of discontent, however, including calls for more transparency on the part of the leadership, which, it was said, inclines to present ready-made decisions for congresses to rubberstamp, rather than debating them democratically.  The job of party manager, a key post, was assigned to Dietmar Bartsch, for example, even though many held his weak strategy responsible for the party’s election disaster in 2002.  He was voted in despite these reservations, but with a slim vote of only 64.3 percent.  An even bigger embarrassment was the executive committee’s choice for party treasurer, a man, till then relatively unknown to the membership, who turned out to have had connections with the “Stasi” when working in GDR foreign trade offices.  Better leadership should have made a less controversial choice.  In the end, although he got 68.5 percent of the vote, he asked to have his position suspended until the records could be checked, so as to avoid further embarrassment, at least temporarily.

Differences among the members certainly remained, but in the end many improvements were promised and positive decisions made — on issues on which everyone agreed: German soldiers must leave Afghanistan and clear out of the German base in Uzbekistan; the tuition fees soon to be charged at colleges and universities in what had been free college education must be opposed; cooperation must be sought with the many non-governmental organizations fighting on a variety of issues, such as globalization, the rights of labor, unemployment, pensions, and the environment; and young members must be sought and brought into leadership.  The Left-PDS already has many positions as mayor or town and city councilor, especially in eastern Germany.  It must increase this number and gain more seats in coming elections in six German states in 2006, and must learn to fight for people’s rights in these positions even when financial support from the government is sharply decreased.

Above all, the Left-PDS and the WASG, with their joint caucus of 54 seats in the Bundestag and in alliance with social forces outside the government in many a battle, must be ready for rough new attacks on the living standards of most Germans.  This, it was stated many times, will cement their sense of togetherness and make complete unification by 2007 a success.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).