Once again it was the annual big weekend for German leftists of every conceivable persuasion. It was also a weekend with tons of slush, the result of weeks of cold and snow now ending in thaw weather, but, in the eyes of most participants, also provided by most of the media.
As every year, Sunday was marked by the pilgrimage to the memorial site for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, murdered in 1919 and still honored, even revered, by tens of thousands, including all the faithful, and a few dozen groups and grouplets, older parties and wannabe new ones.
Saturday featured the annual conference organized by the leftist newspaper junge Welt and by Cuba Sí. Progressives or radicalsfrom all of Germany, as well as many other countries, in attendance, there was a full house all day, and an innocent bystander might have gotten the impression that the revolution was getting closer by the hour.
The conference featured many speakers from around the world, from Greece, Israel, Ireland, Hungary, Venezuela, the USA, and Cuba — the last represented by the mother of one of the Cuban Five, already imprisoned for a dozen years in the USA.
Many speeches were interesting, even enlightening, like the analysis of Middle East dangers by the Israeli historian Moshe Zuckermann. But the truly central event was undoubtedly the short speech by Gesine Loetzsch, co-president of the party called The Left. She had been headlined in all the German press for the entire week, usually in tones ranging from sarcasm to rage, with some politicians demanding that her entire party be banned.
The Left had not had an easy year. It has largely been involved with internal differences, some of them unpleasant quarrels, and far too little action, aside from the speeches of its 76 deputies in the Bundestag and some leaders on the state level. This is especially worrisome because there will be elections in seven of Germany’s sixteen states this year, beginning in March, all of them important: Hamburg, Berlin, two important states in the southwest, where the Left has never been represented, and two states in the east, where it has a chance of becoming the leading party, or at least part of a governing coalition. But despite these dramatic events, its own troubles have taken the limelight!
One side of the main dispute warns that The Left must not drift into what it calls reformism: attempting to alleviate hardships in an economy which, despite media praise about a great comeback, is still rough and getting rougher for the weaker sections of society, but playing down any criticism of the entire social system and all too willing to make compromises so as to join coalition governments on the state and (wishfully in 2013) federal levels. To the more leftist people of The Left this is a dangerous trend, involving identity loss like that suffered by both the Social Democratic party and the Greens. They also insist that the party maintain one firm rule: no German soldiers should be sent abroad, not even for the UN. There have been too many bad, even dangerous, examples of expansion in the military sphere, which is now ending the draft and building a smaller yet increasingly aggressive voluntary armed force, trimmed for foreign battles.
The other side, strong in the states of the former GDR, regards all this as dogmatic purism, unrealistic and sectarian. To get elected we must fight for present-day issues, they say, and we must be willing to join governments so as to help people now and thus win votes. They wish, therefore, to alter the planned program of the party, easing some of its views and demands which they believe will only chase away possible adherents and completely alienate potential allies, the Social Democrats and Greens.
And now, what has Gesine Loetzsch gone and done? This fine speaker and very popular woman, at least on the Left, wrote an article in advance of the Saturday conference in which she analyzed and approved the views of Rosa Luxemburg, daring even to use the so very taboo word Communism! It was this word, set as a final goal, which more than anything else drove the media and many politicians into their angry, sometimes almost hysterical reaction.
Actually, Gesine Loetzsch had quoted Luxemburg and then said:
[B]asing ourselves on the urgent needs of working people and large sections of the population, we must work for solutions which markedly improve their situation while also leading to a structural change in property and power relationships. Questions of the day must be answered and capitalism and militarism opposed with the goal of finally overcoming them. This path should be marked above all by the democratic activities of working people and all the people themselves, learning in the course of actually changing things. For my part, all left-wing policy and the policy of The Left as a party should be a part of this highly demanding tradition of social change, of radical Realpolitik.
Loetzsch , who has been overwhelmingly elected eight times in a borough of East Berlin and got a 92 percent vote of as co-president of The Left, challenged those calling her “undemocratic.” They are the undemocratic ones, she said, who are flouting the majority will of the people by sending troops to Afghanistan and undercutting our social welfare net.
The media, ignoring her insistence on democracy and rejection of Stalinism, stressing only that C-word, immediately picked up criticism of her views from within her own party. The outcome of the controversy is far from decided. Some say The Left must indeed be more daring, not only on current issues, but also openly debating basic solutions with Germans now increasingly skeptical about the rule of the banks, the biggest companies, and politicians influenced by them. The others fear rejection by all but the far left, while the competition, leaders of both Social Democrats and Greens, are eager to see the party split, perhaps on the basis of fictitious east-west differences, and court the side closer to them.
In any case, those at the conference were extremely enthusiastic, and Loetzsch got a long, long ovation. Some of her supporters, nevertheless, cautioned that the best way to save the party was through action, so urgently needed: only by means of peaceful but hard-hitting action could be established which method was more effective in overcoming the messy slush in the icy political weather.
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).