Once in a while there’s good news from Europe — yes, even from here in Germany. And because Germany is so central in Europe and so strong, even minor good news from this country can be important.
But, till now, there hasn’t been much good news for quite some time!
The party called Die Linke, or The Left, has supplied varied news in recent years. It was formed in 2007 when the fully renovated heir to the ruling party in the (East) German Democratic Republic before its demise wed a new West German party of people angry at the abandonment of past principles by Greens and Social Democrats. In 2009, with about a quarter of East German voters and about 5-8 percent in the more populous West German states, the new party got a healthy 12 percent of the total vote, which meant getting 76 Bundestag deputies. It won seats in seven of ten West German state legislatures. Two keys to its success were its co-presidents, charismatic Oskar Lafontaine, a clear-spoken man, once head of the Social Democrats, who easily counters the nastiest verbal attacks without losing his winning smile, and the witty, skilled master of repartees and vigorous orator, East Germany’s Gregor Gysi.
But this combustible challenge set off smoke alarms in older parties’ offices, especially the Greens and Social Democrats, who suffered big losses and feared worse ones, so they hunted in their dumpsters to find nearly forgotten social ideals. When that proved a bit messy they simply filched — at least in words — the main program points of The Left. Its demands for a minimum wage law, till then rejected or ignored, were taken over, only slightly reduced. Upping the pension age to 67, once supported by the political Gang of Four and opposed only by The Left, was now given D-minus grades by Social Democrats and Greens, like their own sharp cuts in taxes for the very wealthy. Some Greens and a few Social Democrats now withdrew support for the armed participation in the Afghanistan war.
Sadly for The Left, it failed to find new, burning issues or hot slogans, though the economic crisis surely offered possibilities enough. After the Fukushima catastrophe the Greens, always stressing opposition to atomic power, pushed well ahead, while even Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats grudgingly OK’d a slow switch away from atomic power. The Left’s position, similar though not so central as that of the Greens, was ignored.
Worse still, The Left was afflicted with self-inflicted boils and bunions. Its “reformer” wing, or “pragmatists,” hoping to join governing coalitions on the state level as in Brandenburg and Berlin and, who knows, maybe even nationally with Social Democrats and Greens after the 2013 elections, favored less radical stands so as to avoid rejection by such possible partners.
But the “left” of The Left opposed compromises it viewed as too fundamental. It wanted to reject all deployment of German military forces, even on NATO or UN missions. Though often labeled “humanitarian,” they meant extending German strength in the whole world. Hadn’t two indescribably horrific extensions in the past century been enough? But extension was again an overt goal of military leaders. Yet the reformer wing wanted to leave a loophole open for possible peace-keeping exceptions, as the other parties demanded.
Many in The Left supported Palestinian rights; two delegates sailed with the Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by Israeli commandos in 2010 and planned to sail again. The media soon jumped in with “anti-Semitism” accusations — a bit ironically since Gregor Gysi, who had become caucus chairman in the Bundestag, is the only Jewish party leader in all Germany. But some in The Left also backed Israeli policies, causing one more unhappy party dispute.
The leftists wanted a total ban on further privatization of public utilities and, as soon as possible, nationalization of giant banks and utilities, with democratic socialism as a future objective. They opposed the unrelenting condemnation of the German Democratic Republic in the daily cold water douches of the media, making it seem as bad as or worse than the Nazi era so as to squelch any thoughts of socialism. They favored a balance: condemnation of nasty oppressive features and rejection of failing democracy but appreciation of its uniquely anti-fascist base, its full employment, the ban on evictions, total medical and dental coverage, free education, child care, and abortions. Yet some in The Left joined the strident chorus.
It seemed as if such quarrels, which frequently turned personal, might tear the party asunder. The media seized upon them with glee and, as intended, this further increased the infighting. Activity aimed at winning people and economic battles decreased. In the polls The Left dropped to about half its 12 percent high; it was weakened or defeated in seven elections in 2011, failing to get into two important state legislatures in western Germany and, after ten years of coalition rule with the Social Democrats in Berlin, losing that position as well. Many began to worry about its survival.
So where’s the good news?
It came from Erfurt. It was in this ancient, pretty town in central Thuringia that Martin Luther got his BA and MA and became a doubting monk. Exactly 120 years ago Germany’s Social Democratic Party, till then forbidden, met here and started its growth which made it the biggest leftist party in Europe. Now The Left wanted to draw up, at last, its own program. Or would its two main wings flap so hard that the party would be grounded — possibly forever?
The answer is NO! After months of hard work a 40-page text was worked out which somehow, without great changes, satisfied nearly everybody. Lafontaine (known always as Oskar), who had withdrawn to state politics in his Saarland home after a bout with cancer, was again playing a big part; in general he favored more “left” views but voiced them in ways which could hardly offend anyone. Gysi, as often in the past, took what he called a “centrist” position and maintained the team spirit, while they both defended the present co-presidents, East Berlin leader Gesine Loetzsch, a fighter and fine speaker but often under attack, and Klaus Ernst, an activist metal trade union man with a thick Bavarian accent, who had been jumped on by the media largely because he liked to drive an old Porsche.
Here is one sample of what was agreed upon: “We demand an immediate end to all military deployment of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces, VG). This also includes German participation in military deployments mandated by the UN. . . .”
Here is another: “Because of the horrific crimes committed by Germans against Jewish men and women during the fascist era, Germany bears a special responsibility and must combat every kind of anti-Semitism, racism, oppression, and war. This responsibility requires especially that we support Israel’s right of existence. At the same time we support a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict within the framework of a two-state solution and therefore the recognition under international law of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state as based on the resolutions of the United Nations.”
In her keynote speech, co-chair Gesine Loetzsch stated unequivocally: “For us, capitalism is not the final station of history; in this question we differ from all the other parties. . . .”
And “We are now the only anti-war party and we must always remain an anti-war party!”
Gregor Gysi spoke of relationships with other parties. “The Social Democratic Party is not our enemy . . . anyone who thinks that way is wrong, I believe. History, too, has proven this to be a completely false path. We have nothing against cooperation with the Social Democratic Party, but first they must at least become social democratic again. And in my view, they will never succeed in achieving that without us.”
Turning to the new party, the Pirates, which had such success in the Berlin election as a youthful protest, he said, “There is a question as to whether we must take them seriously? Yes, we must. The Pirate party takes some rebellious voters away from us. I don’t want to lose any voters. In fact, I prefer winning some more. That is not so easy for some view us as being all too established. We are already looked upon as too politically tamed. And not only that. The Pirates express a new way of living. This does not only refer to computer use but to other differences as well. Unlike us, they don’t speak of ‘work time’ and ‘leisure,’ but of on-line and off-line time. Sometimes I need a translator just to know what they are talking about. . . . What we must understand and what I want to point out is: we must find bridges to the younger generation! We must open up to them! . . . We must talk with them! We need not agree with everything they say. But we need to connect with them!”
One resolution, accepted by acclamation, expressed the solidarity of delegates with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Another demanded the nationalization of big banks and electrical utilities plus a special tax on millionaires.
Lafontaine, stating that we live in a finance market dictatorship, warned of “threatening barbarism” and added: “We need to keep an upright stature and must not let others force us onto the defensive.”
As for charges of anti-Semitism leveled against The Left, especially by newspapers of the right-wing Springer company, he said: “On this subject The Left needs no lecturing. . . . I am convinced that whenever fascism raises its head it won’t be the Springer newspapers or the other parties fighting against it, it will be The Left which leads the resistance!”
In an unexpectedly friendly spirit it was agreed not to deal with all of the 1,400 (!) proposed alterations but to bunch them into theme blocks. It was necessary to skip a planned Saturday evening dance but by Sunday evening compromises had been worked out on all the issues once fought over, often so bitterly. The delegates clearly wanted to make this congress succeed and get the party off to a good new start. And the final vote amazed everyone! 503 delegates — 96.9 percent of all those present — voted for the program! Only four opposed it and 12 abstained. With such overwhelming approval there should hardly be noteworthy opposition, in East or West, in the membership referendum planned for the near future.
No, the danger of divisive tactics has not completely disappeared, since some are already discussing who should be voted into top leadership jobs at the election congress in June. Many considered this tasteless. What is now crucial is to translate enthusiastic words into well-planned action against the economic hard times and other woes which have hit so many and threaten so many more. Only then can the party move ahead. But those who set great hopes in this party, for Germany and all Europe, can sigh with relief that the feared split did not take place and delegates headed home with enthusiasm and new ideas. They are urgently needed.
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).