German Leftists on a Political Roller Coaster

Those hoping for left-wing unity in Germany have been on an emotional roller-coaster ride in recent months, with many dramatic ups and downs.

The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) which has already renamed itself The Left (to which the letters PDS are usually added), has about 70,000 members, who are divided on many issues but nearly all of whom favor a merger with the young WASG — Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Security, if only because such unity would help them break out of their lopsided East German base.  Since its formation during the downfall of the GDR, the PDS has been able to win up to 20% or 25% of the votes in eastern Germany and over 30% in east Berlin, but could never break out of the single digit brackets in western Germany, due to deeply rooted prejudices against the “eastern Communist” party of the old GDR.  Since western Germany has a far bigger population, this lopsidedness always made the necessary achievement of 5% of the total German vote to get into the Bundestag as a caucus a touch-and-go matter.  The membership of the WASG, though small (it tripled to about 12,000 over the last year), is based primarily in western Germany, so, when PDS and WASG formed a single slate in the election last September, they were able to get an overall vote of 8,7 percent, meaning 54 deputies in the national Bundestag.  The potential is even greater if the two pull together — and really unite into a single party.

But that is a big “If.”  The WASG is made up of angry union members (with some lower and middle level leaders), disgruntled members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by that party’s former leader Oskar Lafontaine, plus assorted anti-globalization activists, Trotskyist groups, and others.  Although they do not officially call for socialism, as the PDS does, their objections to merging with the Left-PDS have largely come from a position further to the left.  A main problem is that in two states, Berlin and Mecklenburg/West Pomerania in the northeast, the Left-PDS has joined with the Social Democrats to form coalition governments.  The aim, it is repeatedly stated, is to salvage these two debt-ridden areas in the interests of the population, but joining with the SPD entailed swallowing a mixed brew of unpleasant compromises.  This is why the small WASG groups in those two states (in Berlin it has about 800 members, in the north even fewer) have voted not to join with the Left-PDS in the state elections — next September in both cases — but to run their own separate, more militant tickets.  There is a possibility that this could threaten the whole merger process; some experts from hostile parties claim that any such separate tickets in individual states disqualify the joint caucus in the Bundestag.

What have been the recent ups and downs in the roller coaster slide?  First was the vote of the WASG members in Berlin, who decided by an extremely thin margin to reject a united slate in September, despite appeals by their national leaders.  They had demanded in vain that the Left-PDS quit the Berlin coalition government with the Social Democrats.  The same decision for the same reason was repeated in Mecklenburg.

Landtagswahlen 2006
SOURCE: “Landtagswahlen 2006,” Süddeutsche Zeitung

Then came the elections in three states on March 26 — in all three with united slates but facing nasty campaigns in the major media.  In the two western states, Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the Left (often calling itself WASG) got less than was hoped (2.5% and 3.1% respectively) but undoubtedly more than either party could have gained by itself.  And in eastern Saxony-Anhalt, the Left-PDS (24.1%) beat out the Social Democrats (20.8) to become the second strongest party (behind the ruling Christian Democrats, 36.3%) and will become the strong, main opposition for the next five years while the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats join together just as they have on the national level.

Another swoop on the sometimes dizzying political roller-coaster came over the weekend, when a national mail-in referendum of all members of the WASG was conducted on the question of the merger: Should we keep moving towards unity of the two parties or not?  Although fewer than half of the members responded, and the results again disappointed the biggest optimists, a total of 78.3% voted yes, while about 19% voted no.  This should strengthen the hands of the unifiers at the WASG national conference in May.

There was also excitement in left-wing ranks when the Left-PDS delegates to the European Union split on a resolution from the right-wing parties that condemned Cuba for human rights violations without a word about either the USA blockade or the atrocities at Guantanamo or elsewhere.  Three from the Left-PDS voted for this resolution, causing a heated reaction among party members in all parts of the country, many of whom have been active in solidarity campaigns for Cuba.  The National Executive of the party quickly went on record disapproving this vote, but some damage had certainly been done.

Sahra Wagenknecht
Sahra Wagenknecht

It was the Left-PDS deputy in Strasbourg, Sahra Wagenknecht, who angrily voted against this resolution.  Wagenknecht was at the center of another possibly important development.  A group of leading Left-PDS and WASG deputies and leaders — above all, Wagenknecht who has been the leading theoretician from the Communist Platform group in the PDS since its beginning — proclaimed a program which they will support at the coming party congress of the Left-PDS late this month.  The group urged that a unified Left Party must take strong principled positions on many issues sometimes neglected in recent years: higher, more just taxes for the millionaires and their huge inheritances, punishments rather than rewards for companies which lay off workers, a spirited fight for democratic and equal educational and health care systems, opposition to military adventurism and the NATO as a whole — and opposition to all privatization of public property or layoffs of public employees.  Last but by no means the least — a bold approach and debate on the question of a socialist alternative to a capitalism which, with a nearly constant official figure of about 5 million jobless (near 10% overall and near 20% in eastern Germany), has proved to be disastrous.  This group — a left wing within the Left-PDS — does not totally oppose working in coalition governments on the state level, but only if and when the necessary key principles are not violated.  It could not contemplate joining a coalition with the SPD (and perhaps the Greens) on the national level without a withdrawal from NATO and all military missions abroad.  This group’s proposal also calls for more active struggles outside parliament, together with other groups and organizations fighting for a variety of causes — from the unions to those that address medical care or ecology.

This direction, if it were to gain momentum, might win over some of the doubters among the WASG members.  It might also change the political scene in Germany.  It is opposed by many Left-PDS leaders, however, as being unrealistic and self-defeating.

With all the ups and downs, however, a majority of members in both the WSAG and the Left-PDS are agreed on one main point: a merging of the two parties — still planned for 2007 — which, it is hoped, would strengthen both and strengthen the left in Germany.

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).