Can Germany’s Left Party Be Saved?

What is the matter with Germany’s Left Party?  Or, more bluntly, can it be saved?  What is the truth about the charismatic leader Oskar Lafontaine, from West German Saarland, who suddenly, surprisingly withdrew from the fight for party leadership?  Is he really out of the running?  And is that good or bad?  What are the chances for the two young women who now want the job as co-presidents?  The tradition in the party — a very brief two-year-old tradition — requires one man and one woman, one easterner and one westerner.  What about two women?

Up until two years ago the party was growing handily.  Before 2007 its East German predecessor could depend on about 18 to 30 percent in the five eastern states, but only 1-2 percent in the West.  After uniting with a new leftwing party in the West this jumped in 2009 to almost 12 percent nationally, which meant 76 seats in the Bundestag.  It cleared the 5-percent hurdle in one West German state after the other, winning seats in state parliaments — not many, but enough to shake things up.  On all levels it was a threat to Social Democrats and Greens, hitherto largely unchallenged as “the progressives” of West Germany even when their policies, when in power, were hardly distinguishable from the two rightist parties.  The successes of the Left made them panic!

Many voters’ leftward switch was due in no small measure to the clear, persuasive, knowledgeable contributions of Oskar Lafontaine, the head of the Social Democrat Party until he abandoned it for abandoning working people.  Most members of the Left were enthusiastic.  But then two things happened.  He withdrew from active politics because of a (luckily successful) fight with cancer.  And a tide of opposition to Lafontaine gradually rose, both to his person and to his policies.

The media kept up a two-pronged policy, wrapping every accomplishment of the party in deep, dark silence but triumphantly exaggerating every blunder, quarrel, or mishap — often, sadly, with the help of one of the party leadership.  And there was the nub of the problem.  Two wings of the party flapped so hard that they prevented any flight upwards.  It was often difficult to rise up from the ground.

The party went on record rejecting any use of German weapons and warriors outside German borders, as stated in the constitution, and based on German history.  But Social Democratic and Greens leaders angrily reject any coalition with a party holding to such a ban.  After all, they helped bomb Serbia, and German servicemen now wield weapons from Somalia and Lebanon to the heights of Hindu Kush.  The Left Party reformers, always dreaming of just such a coalition, want to loosen this ban on all overseas military deployments, which they call dogmatic.  Loosen it just a little, the reformers urge; for a start, the others fear.

These others, the “fundis” — fundamentalists, who mostly consider themselves Marxists — reject any further privatization of utilities or public housing; some fundis even call for nationalizing failed banks.  The reformers generally agree, but not so strictly — they can imagine compromises.

There are also disputes about the GDR, the late East German Democratic Republic, which the reformers usually condemn and reject as harshly as the other four parties, while the fundis call for a balanced view, weighing good and bad aspects in the failed attempt to build socialism.

There are variations: some lean both ways.  But what it boils down to, when fancy duds are removed and the naked truth exposed: The reformers hope to improve life here, if possible as recognized players in the game, and seek alliances, especially with Social Democrats.  The latter are not trusted by the fundis, who reject the capitalist system, want a democratic but basic change, and fear becoming just a slightly leftish part of the establishment.

Dietmar Bartsch, the tall young man from Mecklenburg, north of Berlin, is a reformer; last autumn he announced his wish to become president.  His hopes were enhanced when the popular East Berlin Gesine Loetzsch, left of center, withdrew from the race because of the ill health of her husband.  Bartsch and the Forum for Democratic Socialism which supports him wanted an election by ballot even before the June Congress; this idea was ruled out and he continued to build up his campaign.  Those opposing his policies feared his presidency and rejoiced when Lafontaine offered to run for the top job.  His ability, authority, and above all his relative popularity among West Germans, so important for the future, seemed the only hope of a response to Bartsch.  The fronts were growing sharper and nastier by the day while the media, including Neues Deutschland, the newspaper close to the party, kept pushing Bartsch, who was backed above all by party leaders in the eastern states.  No one really knew which side East German grassroots delegates would prefer but a nasty split seemed inevitable, resulting in an end to hopes for that 5 percent in 2013, and basically for the future of the party.

The reformers pointed out that while the party lost out in two West German states, it won several local elections in eastern Thuringia, partly because of electoral agreements with the Social Democrats.  The fact that its policy of coalition governments in the east had twice ended in a fiasco — and was costing more and more Left votes where it still held — was conveniently forgotten and overlooked.

This controversy, lasting at least two years, was largely responsible for the lack of much visible activity for the benefit of the German people.  In disgust with all the parties, now including the Left, a sizable number of voters, especially young ones, opted for the glamorous new Pirate Party, even though it has yet to offer any real program and has also been plagued by conflicts.  But it got the wide and favorable media attention denied the Left, which was increasingly ignored even on the official national level despite its 76 Bundestag seats.

Now, suddenly, the picture has altered completely.  Lafontaine withdrew from the race, saying he did not wish to engage in a win-or-lose duel which could split the party.  The media, whose campaign of slurs and cunning innuendo had influenced his decision, now rejoiced, but many in the party were greatly saddened, seeing in him perhaps the most successful fighter the party had ever had.  They now feared an easy Bartsch victory and a switch of the party to one compromise after the other.

Then, unexpectedly, two new hats landed in the ring, both of them female.  One belonged to Katja Kipping, 34, a youthful redhead with an MA in Slavic Studies, American Studies, and Public Law, who worked her way up in the party, was elected to the Bundestag, and in 2009 became one of the party’s vice-chairpersons.  Always a staunch advocate of a guaranteed basic income for everyone, she cannot be clearly categorized in either party wing.

Her new partner is Katharina Schwabedissen, 39, a trained nurse, who headed the state party in its bitter defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia — not exactly a big plus point, but no one doubts that she fought a tough battle.  She, too, has avoided taking clear sides in the party conflict.  That is perhaps the hope for the party.  The idea of these two young women assuming the lead seems to have raised hopes that the party will survive and at last quit quarreling and fight harder for all the urgent causes in Germany, especially since economic predictions have again grown gloomier.

Still, the election on June 2-3 in Goettingen is by no means certain.  Bartsch is resisting growing pressure to withdraw his candidacy, several others have suggested that they, too, might be willing, and an interesting “third woman” is not fully out of the question.  Sahra Wagenknecht, 43, is probably the best theoretician in the party and a forceful, expressive speaker, able to hold her own in the most one-sided talk show debates.  Like Kipping, she is now a vice-chair of the party, though definitely from the party’s left wing.  She had an unusual handicap: for some time she has had a very close relationship with Lafontaine, not only political in nature.  They love each other (to the malicious glee of the media).  Had he become top leader, it would not have been forbidden but still quite embarrassing for her to assume any leading position.  Now she may just possibly be in the running.  Most certainly for some executive job.

All in all, it seems certain to be a difficult congress, but the chances have increased that a left-wing party can be saved — such as was sadly missing for so many pre-war and post-war decades, and is needed so urgently for what look like many rough, tough years ahead, not only in Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, but also in one of the economically, politically, and militarily most important countries in Europe and the world.

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).

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