In the 18 September federal election, Die Linke.PDS, Germany’s “left party” is set to make big gains. This is against a background of workers’ anger at an unemployment rate of over 10% and cuts in social welfare by the incumbent SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Schröder is far behind the conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) candidate Angela Merkel in the polls, although it is likely that neither will be able to form a coalition with an overall majority, forcing them into a “grand coalition” together.
There is in fact an agreement in which the WASG (Labour and Social Justice Party) candidates will run on the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) slate. While the PDS is the legal successor of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, and still attracts the votes of Stalinist ex-bureaucrats, WASG was formed out of a recent break to the left from Schröder’s party.
This split from the SPD into the arms of the PDS is odd because the latter is in coalition with the SPD in the regional governments of both Berlin and Mecklenburg-Pomerania — and has been remarkably unwilling to “stand up to the neoliberal consensus”, the stated aim of the WASG. And the stated aim of Die Linke.PDS is limited to defending the German “social market economy”.
But what the WASG offers is not a positive socialist programme to implement in place of the capitalist decline which Germany faces, but merely a rose-tinted nostalgia for what the SPD used to stand for.
Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD left who now leads the WASG said, “an SPD that changed and returned to its values would of course be our partner” — presumably he means a return to the values of when he was its chairman, not the party of Karl Liebknecht. This draws easy comparison with Respect’s line that “Tony Blair has transformed Labour into New Labour. And New Labour no longer stands for those traditional working-class values.”
Of course, for many German workers the prospect of a “grand coalition” between the SPD and the CDU makes Die Linke.PDS look like a real alternative to cuts and unemployment. This is particularly true in the east, where unemployment is particularly high, and anti-establishment feeling is strong, following comments by Merkel’s ally Edmund Stoiber that “not everyone in Germany is as intelligent as in Bavaria” and” I do not accept that the East will again decide who will be Germany’s chancellor. It cannot be allowed that the frustrated determine Germany’s fate”
But Lafontaine’s politics are little more than populism — the German bourgeois papers have revelled in the opportunity to attack his proto-racism and xenophobia, identifying him with the far-right, which could also make gains in the 18 September election. According to Bild he thinks immigrants should be subject to “pre-vetting” in North Africa, and has attacked the government for letting foreign workers take German workers’ jobs.
Trade union involvement in the party is limited — while a number of trade union officials have been involved in the project from the outset, the organisation of the PDS and WASG in workplaces is weak.
The WASG leadership caused controversy by refusing to allow 16 Opel workers taking part in a wildcat strike to form a workplace branch — an NEC member of theirs argued at a CWI conference in October that WASG was “not about to become a trade union party”.
Die Linke.PDS is bound to secure far more seats in the Bundestag than the PDS did in the 2002 elections, and it is even possible that the party could win in the former East, securing around 10% of the national vote. But this tide of resentment against neoliberalism means nothing unless the party is able to put forward a genuine alternative to the forces of reaction which may well to join together in a CDU-SPD deal. A party soft on racism, and which submitted to the SPD’s 15 percent wage cut for Berlin transport workers, can never be the “new power of the Left” which the SWP and much of the British left are so excited about.
In the WASG are some socialist elements which could act a vehicle for workers’ anger against capitalism in Germany. But the party’s minimalist programme, which accommodates right-wing reformists and Protestants, their lack of internal democracy, and their alliance with the collaborationist PDS, means that these forces are unable to put across a genuine left programme to the class — only Lafontaine’s populism gets through.