While a conference and giant celebrations in the German capital marked the fiftieth anniversary of the European Union, with heads of state from Poland to Portugal attending, another meeting was being held in the west of Germany, in the Ruhr valley city of Dortmund. Though almost totally eclipsed by the ballyhoo in Berlin, it will also leave its mark in the history books.
Actually it was two meetings, or congresses, with two hardworking days spent in neighboring auditoriums, one with delegates from the “Left Party.PDS,” the other, also with nearly 400 delegates, from the WASG. Both debated the same resolutions and statutes aiming toward their unification into a single party. The parallel meetings were a major step in the long process.
When these two parties hastily joined in an electoral alliance during the last national elections in 2005, they achieved the very satisfactory result of over 8 percent, meaning over 50 seats in the Bundestag. The delegates there have been working and voting together ever since, in opposition to the two ruling parties and their program of air force jets in Afghanistan, reduced pensions, increased medical assistance fees and college fees, draconically meager support for the jobless, and reduced taxes for wealthy corporations. Outside the Bundestag, however, their organizations have thus far remained separate, though usually friendly.
Once they merge and work as a single unit in all Germany, it is hoped, they should have a much greater impact, with election totals of 10 percent or more, which would make it more difficult to ignore them or bury their positions in small print and brief, usually ineffective TV sound bites.
The WASG, the title stands for Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Security, was founded less than three years ago by militant trade unionists, disgruntled Social Democrats, antiglobalists, and a few Trotskyist groups. It is relatively small in number, with less than 10,000 members largely concentrated in western Germany. The PDS, temporarily called The Left.PDS, has over 60,000 members. It is weak in the West but gets votes of 20-25 percent in most areas of the former GDR, where its predecessor party, the Socialist Unity Party, once ruled. To achieve any importance, however, even to be sure of the five percentage points required to get into the Bundestag safely, the merger of the two was a clear if not always easy solution.
There have been many problems and hindrances. Most WASG members, but also an angry minority in the Left.PDS, oppose pragmatic coalitions with the Social Democrats, on the national level — if ever the chance arises — but also on the provincial level, where it has arisen, for example in Berlin where, over five years ago, the Left.PDS joined with the stronger Social Democrats to manage the city. The opponents of such coalitions claim that the Left is forced into making far too many compromises, is outmaneuvered by the stronger partner, is forced to cooperate in decisions against the working population, and loses support in the process among its own voters. The supporters of such coalitions, on the other hand, say it is their responsibility to take office when the opportunity permits, and much can be achieved in warding off worse evils and achieving some gains. This dispute will now be carried on within the merged unity party. The small WASG group in Berlin has angrily refused to go along with such a coalition, opposed the Left.PDS in the last city elections, and is now boycotting the party merger and forming a new little party of its own in Berlin, in which a Trotskyist group predominates.
A second point of dispute: should the new party oppose all use of German military forces outside of Germany, even when they are on UN peace missions? Many in the militant wing of the Left.PDS, and nearly everyone in the WASG, say, “No exceptions.” Most UN missions are not really in the interests of peace, they insist, and German soldiers should stay at home for defensive purposes only, as determined in the West German constitution.
Another dispute is about privatization of publicly owned utilities — like water and rail — or housing. The WASG says, “No privatization.” Some in the Left.PDS suggest possible exceptions, and local PDS politicians have sometimes voted to privatize, as in Dresden, where public housing was sold to private interests so as to pay off city deficits.
One other difficult question involves the view of history. Some PDS militants refuse to negate everything in GDR history and maintain that a genuine attempt at building socialism was made in East Germany — which failed not only because of its own mistakes and lack of democratic institutions but also due to pressures from its Western enemies. Both its achievements and its blunders should be objectively evaluated and analyzed. But most of the leaders in the Left.PDS prefer to reject nearly everything from the past, basically agreeing with — or acceding to — official government views largely equating the GDR with Stalinism, which must be totally condemned, and often placing the GDR on the much the same level as fascism. The WASG, made up largely of West Germans with little or no experience in the inner workings of the GDR, leans toward this latter position.
There are many problems and heated differences, less between the two parties than within them. So there was a collective sigh of relief when the two-day parallel conferences in Dortmund, while agreeing to postpone some policy decisions, overwhelmingly supported the merger of the two parties, with a common platform and statutes.
In April and May there will be a referendum of the membership of both parties. If a large enough majority of the grass roots members approves the merger, there will be a big unification congress in June, with final ceremonies on June 16th. The leaders who currently come in question for a future presidency are Lothar Bisky, the Left.PDS president and former dean of a film college in the GDR, and Oskar Lafontaine, the militant West German politician from Saarland who once led the Social Democratic Party but quit when it turned to the right. This raises a problem, because the PDS has always required a quota of at least 50 percent women in leadership positions and as deputies. This has been achieved at all levels, and the vice-presidents are women, but the very top is now open to debate.
The problems will continue, and the widespread euphoria which prevailed after the electoral gains in 2005 has given way to more cautious feelings and some skepticism, but there is still plenty of hope for establishing a strong left in Germany, with the resulting support for leftwing parties in both eastern and western Europe — if only unity can overcome the many differences.
At the start of the two day sessions a WASG leader, Katharina Schwabedissen, said:
Our opponents are not here among us. Nor are they in the other room next door. There are differences amongst us but not hostility. Our foes will rub their hands with satisfaction if the Left fails now, but they will tremble if this congress sends out a clear message. Capitalism will not represent the end of history!
Axel Troost, another WASG leader, summed up:
We have thrown the whole party system into disorder. We have established ourselves as partners of social movements and labor unions. We have placed the subject of social justice on the agenda, especially in the field of taxation. Together with the Left Party we will enlarge these victories. In this way the first all-German left movement will grow,
And his WASG colleague Thomas Handel added:
The Social Democratic Party is no longer the party of social justice. The decisions to raise the pension age to 67 and the planned tax cuts for the concerns show that the large majority in that party are on the other side of the barricades. The new Left will fill out the political vacuum and fight for the interests of those people who work for wages and salaries, for the socially handicapped, and for the senior citizens.
The name of the new party will be “Die Linke” — “The Left.”
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).