Wealthy, powerful heads of state and other bosses high up in the Bavarian Alps, and the vigorous protests from opposing crowds kept out of earshot downhill, largely stole media thunder this past weekend. Far lower in altitude and attention, with almost no thunder from the media or otherwise, another meeting was held in less scenic West German Bielefeld. It was a congress of Die Linke, the Left Party. Yet a gathering of arguably the only opposition force with any real clout in Germany, with representatives of its 60,000 members, was important enough.
What media attention it did receive centered on one question: “Will he or won’t he?” The “he” was Gregor Gysi. In 1989 this bald-headed little lawyer, a skilled speaker with sharp wit and tongue, played a key role, if not the key role, in salvaging the devastated remains of the East German ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), and, instead of dissolving it, transforming it into a democratic, undogmatic organization renamed Party of Democratic Socialism, with a range of accepted different views, formerly denounced as factions. He led the party in winning back 15 to 25 percent of the vote in all East German states and Berlin, and currently heading a coalition in one state and being a partner in another. In 2007 he steered it into joining a new left-wing party in the larger, more populous West German states to form a united Left Party, which now gets eight to ten percent in the all-German polls. Though currently trailing the Greens by a point or two, in the 2013 elections it managed to beat them out and win leading opposition status in the Bundestag, giving Gysi, chair of the party’s 64-strong caucus, a chance to deliver most of his party’s speeches and, thanks to his wit, get many talk show invitations and TV sound bites. He is the best known Left leader, though ably followed by the thoughtful, theoretical, dryer but equally hard-hitting Sahra Wagenknecht.
The big question, full of suspense, was: would Gysi, now 67, wish to remain head of the Left caucus — or quit this limelight post? In a long, always interesting speech he supplied the answer. He will step down, remaining a deputy but no longer chairperson. At first there was something of a collective gasp in a speech then constantly interrupted by applause and causing not a few tears; many saw this as the captain giving up the helm. Unfriendly journalists predicted that the ship might sink as a result.
That was wishful thinking. Despite media one-sidedness, this party is definitely not a one-man show; it has many active members and leaders on all levels, including co-chairs Katja Kipping, courageous with hostile interviewers, and clear-speaking union man Bernd Riexinger. Its effect has long been felt as a force from the left on social issues and foreign policy, impelling other parties to tread more carefully if they want to avoid further losses in popularity and voters.
But Gysi’s farewell speech did touch on issues which continue to divide members; it is hard to tell whether his waning influence will help its wings flap more rhythmically or send them further in diverging directions.
One issue is the evaluation of the GDR. Gysi and the so-called “reformer” or “pragmatist” wing tend to reject almost everything connected with “a state based on injustice,” allowing that, yes, there were some accomplishments, like free child care, and its citizens did work hard for what they may have believed in, and yet generally joining the choir: it was basically a Stalinist bungle from the start.
Opinions on this vary widely, but many of those called “radicals” or “traditionalists,” while rejecting idealization and condemning the GDR’s undemocratic and repressive nature, not only stress that many of its good sides are now ignored, falsified, or distorted, but also see its main accomplishment as historic: throwing out the corporate, banking, Junker-landowner, and other criminal elements which governed Germany so long and so disastrously for itself and the world. And the GDR was, they say, an attempt, however faulted, toward a socialist future. And this goal, they maintain, is still very relevant!
A more immediate issue is whether armaments should be exported, especially to conflict areas, and whether German soldiers should be sent on foreign missions. The “more left” wing says: “No, never!” While recalling what German soldiers were responsible for in the 20th century (starting with genocide in earlier African colonies), they ask whether the military arm of a state dominantly repressive in the European economy, which has already expanded to the waters off Lebanon and Somalia, to Balkan and Afghanistan mountains, and now to parts of Africa, can ever be trusted.
The “reformer” wing, like the captain of HMS Pinafore in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, weakens from “Never” to a “Well, hardly ever!” Gysi criticized the use of troops in Serbia and Afghanistan but left possible exceptions open. Some speak of humanitarian causes, OK’d by the UN, where Germany should not stand aside. For the “radicals,” however, these are breaches of a basic principle. With a side glance at reports of child abuse by UN troops in Central Africa and their misuse in Haiti, they reject the constantly modernizing Bundeswehr as intrinsically repressive and repeat: “No, never!”
This raises a third most fundamental issue. Over the years the Left joined ruling coalitions as junior partner in two East German states and Berlin, which ended in a loss in popularity in every case. It now heads a government in the state of Thuringia in a so-called red-red-green coalition (since both the Left and the Social Democrats claim the color red, this is now often abbreviated as “R2G”).
Though controversial enough, this state level is unaffected by issues like sending soldiers abroad. They would inevitably arise if the Left were to seek or gain junior partnership in a “R2G” coalition on a national level, a possibility after the 2017 elections. As it now looks, only such a 3-way endeavor could beat the Merkel party and its possible allies. A few leftish Greens and leftish Social Democrats are weighing this option but swear they will never accept a Left which insists on “No, never!” for military actions. Thus, the “Hardly ever” back-down must be seen as a bid to be flexible enough to join in a future government; indeed, Gysi stated in his farewell speech that a party can exert opposition even from within a government, not only when it is out in the cold.
But this raises many doubts. Social Democratic head Sigmar Gabriel approves the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal with the USA, the sister of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). His party joins Merkel in pushing “austerity” measures against Greece, insisting that paying banking debts is more urgent than rescuing Greek working people, children, and pensioners from extreme poverty. It abandoned promises to reverse huge tax breaks given millionaires and billionaires when it headed the government. Most urgently, both Social Democrats and Greens offer all but direct military aid to the government in Kiev, despite its increasingly horrific far-right and corrupt taint, and they support the increase of NATO weaponry along the Russian borders and the resulting threat to world peace. The Social Democrats only vaguely criticize the German Defense Minister in her build-up of ever more modern, threatening armed forces. In how many such issues would the Left have to make compromises if it were to join a R2G government and get a cabinet seat or two? What could it achieve in the way of “opposition from within the government”? Could a little tail really wag a big dog? Would its basic principles end up in that fabled “round file”? The party chairpersons Katya Kipping and Berndt Riexinger have shown skepticism about such a policy, despite Gregor Gysi’s moving words. Those mentioned most often as possible double successors to Gysi as heads of the Linke Bundestag caucus, to be chosen in October, the more leftist Sahra Wagenknecht and the “reformer” Dietmar Bartsch, will be kept busy debating these issues. So will the party membership. Hopefully they will also be increasingly active “in the streets” for peace and social justice.
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).