Danger of honest opportunism

  1. Die Neue Zeit
    Die Neue Zeit
    Danger of honest opportunism

    The draft programme of Die Linke represents an advance on its previous documents, writes Tina Becker, but that is not saying very much. While it condemns capitalism, the party’s perspectives are unashamedly Keynesian and clearly reformist

    The first draft of the Die Linke’s first ever programme was published in March. It was drawn up by the party’s 16-member programme commission, consisting of representatives of all the party’s main tendencies, and will be voted on in 2011. Officially, it was not on the agenda of the May 15-16 annual congress in Rostock, but naturally speaker after speaker referred to it, even if mostly in oblique terms.

    The most controversial point is the formulation on the question of government participation, which I dealt with in last week’s paper. But there are plenty of other issues that will come to the fore over the next few months. However, there is one major problem. Die Linke is not very good at debating political questions. Yes, it allows political platforms to operate freely and in that is miles ahead of much of the left in Britain. But there is no national arena, where these platforms can openly debate with each other. Die Linke has no newspaper (apart from Klar, a rather dreadful copycat version of Germany’s tabloid Bild, which makes Socialist Worker look like a theoretical masterpiece). There are a couple of more theoretical magazines, but they come out far too infrequently to be of any use for a real debate in the party.

    In fact, the level of political debate within the party is frighteningly low. There is no attempt to educate new members in Marxism or anything else. Members are expected to ‘get active’, help out on stalls, give out leaflets, run election campaigns, etc. But there is no national education plan, for example. Membership meetings sometimes feature political discussions, but they tend to be restricted to half an hour and are quickly dealt with in order to get to the ‘real business’.

    Because of this, there is a huge gap between ‘normal members’ and those who have received some kind of political training - be it in the ‘official communist’ party of East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), or one of the many small socialist and communist organisations that have joined Die Linke in the west of the country.

    This also explains why so far the party has survived quite well without any programme. It has been leaders like Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi who have decided the policies, often on the hoof. They have been as unaccountable to the membership as George Galloway is in Respect. The adoption of a programme, as a guide to action, would in theory help make such leaders more accountable.

    In reality, unfortunately, the draft seriously lacks clarity. It clearly is a compromise between the left and the right and in the process ends up not saying particularly much on anything. Of course, a programme cannot deal with every potential political eventuality. It would be crippled by too much detail. However, Die Linke’s draft programme is not exactly short at almost 50 A4 pages. Most of it, though, is waffle. And the left, instead of fighting to strengthen it, has chosen to concentrate its fire almost exclusively on defending the draft against attacks from the right.

    Despite our criticisms, the draft presents a step to the left that has to be welcomed. It is much, much better than the previously published Programmatische Eckpunkte, which has served as a substitute programme since 2007. This mentioned socialism only once (as an aside) and was not much more than a Keynesian shopping list.

    This move to the left might be down to Lafontaine’s influence or it might reflect the party’s need to appear more radical in the face of the crisis of capitalism. The writers have made a conscious effort to present the draft in the tradition of Marx’s and Engels’ Demands of the Communist Party in Germany and especially the Erfurt programme of the German SPD of 1891: they have chosen a minimum-maximum approach. At least in terms of structure.

    The content, however, has far more resemblance to the SPD’s earlier Gotha programme (which was so viciously attacked by Marx for promoting Ferdinand Lassalle’s idea of some kind of ‘state socialism’), as well as some similarity to Trotsky’s Transitional programme. There is almost an obsession with the Eigentumsfrage (the question of property relations) and constant calls for the state to strongly regulate this or that sector of society. Democracy and the fight for ‘high politics’ is almost completely ignored.

    Democratic socialism

    The draft is highly critical of capitalism and defines its goal as “democratic socialism”. The fact that this has been lauded by both the left and the right underlines the key problem with the draft: what exactly is meant by this? Does the phrase describe the transition to communism, as outlined by Marx, Engels and Lenin? Or is ‘democratic socialism’, as a form of state socialism or state capitalism, the end of the line? Both interpretations can be justified by elements of the draft (which is available in slightly ropey English).

    For example, there is a description of democratic socialism as “a huge transformation process”, which “will be marked by many minor and major reforms, by radical changes and transformations of revolutionary depth” (p19). A little convoluted, but perhaps pointing in the right direction. However, the phrase is later expanded to “democratic socialism of the 21st century”, which not only implies a rejection of all previous theoretical models, but is presented as the final goal. It is described as “the overcoming of the dominance of capitalist ownership in the economy and a social constitutional state.” Funnily enough, the English version is more radical and talks about the “elimination of capitalist ownership” (p18), but obviously the German version expresses what the authors mean.

    The original German phrase could, at best, be used to describe the early stage of a workers’ state, where private and capitalist ownership of the means of production still exist. At worst - and it does get worse - it could mean a heavily bureaucratised form of state capitalism.

    This contradiction is found a few times within the draft. Clearly, it is supposed to bridge the gap between the left (which purports to want to go beyond capitalism) and the right (which believes that capitalism can be turned back to some kind of golden age of the welfare state). In reality, of course, this duality results in a lot of confusion and a worrying lack of clarity as to what this organisation is actually fighting for.


    The draft is divided into four sections: Firstly, a ‘who we are’. Secondly, a critique of capitalism. Thirdly, a description of “democratic socialism in the 21st century” (what could be described as the maximum section) and fourthly, an overview of “left reform projects; steps towards changing society” - or, in other words, the minimum programme that is supposed to open up the way to “democratic socialism”.

    The first part of the draft contains quite a long history of the German workers’ movement in the west and the east. This is certainly an interesting summation, but looks a little out of place in a programme. However, there is clearly a need to ‘work through’ some stuff - particularly, of course, the experience of ‘official communism’ in the east of Germany. The formulations are characterised by compromise: capitalism is undemocratic, but so was the German Democratic Republic.

    People in East Germany “experienced the elimination of unemployment, the economic independence of women, the far-reaching abolition of poverty, a comprehensive social security system”, etc. On the other hand, there was “arbitrariness on the part of the state and the restriction of freedoms. In an authoritarian manner, important endeavours for reforms were again and again nipped in the bud. Democracy fell behind, and there was no room for an ecological orientation … This is why the irrevocable breach with Stalinism was a basic founding consensus of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), one of the predecessor parties of Die Linke” (p9).

    No doubt, it took a lot of time and haggling to arrive at this formulation. While I have not yet seen any critique of this section within the party, it is sure to leave the organisation open to the accusation of being soft on East Germany and Stalinism. Because it is.

    Its critique of capitalism, in the second part, is much harder, much clearer and much stronger politically, though there are certainly elements we would disagree with: for example, the writers refer positively to the “United Nations charter” (p16); describe in glowing colours the “great peaceful, political achievement” of the European Union (ibid); and explain in almost a regretful way how “neoliberal policy has fulfilled none of its promises. Instead of performance fairness (Leistungsgerechtigkeit), it stands for harsh redistribution to the detriment of working people … It has not created more competition, but rather an unprecedented concentration of economic power” (p13). If only those neoliberals had stuck to their promises.

    Then follows the short section on ‘Democratic socialism of the 21st century’. This focuses exclusively on the economy, as the “ownership question” of the means of production is “the crucial issue” for the comrades: “An economic order based on solidarity, as sought by Die Linke, encompasses various forms of ownership - state, municipal, social, private, cooperative, among others.” The workers must have “a real say in enterprise decisions” and if there are to be mass layoffs, then there should be “a vote” - what the boss does with that vote is anybody’s guess. The workforce “should receive shares of the business assets produced by them” (p13). Sounds more like John Lewis capitalism.

    It is certainly not the kind of ‘maximum’ vision of the future society that Marx and Engels or even the SPD of the time of its Erfurt programme envisaged: a society without borders, without money, without exploitation and without “classes themselves” (a suggestion by Engels, which was taken up by the SPD). It is not even the initial stages of a workers’ state.

    The fourth part, ‘Left reform projects’, contains a long set of minimal, Keynesian demands for the here and now. It is the weakest part of the programme. The sentiment of the demands can be summed up by what Oskar Lafontaine described as the “three main tasks of Die Linke” during congress: “Keynesianism, the re-regulation of the finance markets and economic governance on a European level”. Banks, for example, are supposed to be “strictly regulated” to “guarantee that the banking sector again fulfils its public mission: the low-interest financing of economically worthwhile investment, particularly also of small and medium-size firms …” (my emphasis, p24). You get the drift.

    Clearly, the left and the right have one thing in common: democracy is seen as a side issue. It is stated a few times in the programme that “there can be no socialism without democracy”. However, the fight for democracy is not seen as the method to actually achieve real democratic socialism. The section on “democratisation of society” is actually tucked away right at the end of this section and starts with yet another workplace-based demand: workers should have the right “to veto the closure of plants that are not threatened by insolvency” (p28). Strong stuff it isn’t.

    It does not get any more ‘radical’ than the demand for “more direct democracy through national referenda” and some rather empty formulations on the need to “strengthen communities” and establish “round tables” (p21). Also, it wants “societies, associations and initiatives” to “take over some tasks of society”. Naturally, they should have “adequate financing of the assigned tasks” and should have “democratic legitimacy” (p29).

    The draft demands “the strict separation and democratic control of the police, the federal armed forces and the intelligence services” (p29). Note that even the secret service is to be retained. The party fights to “restore the right of asylum” and demands that “the inhuman policy of the EU towards those outside must stop - we do not want Europe to be a fortress” (p30). But clearly we do not want open borders either.

    Compare that to the Erfurt programme, which fought for the education of “all to bear arms” and a militia in “place of the standing army”, “two-year legislative periods”, the “annual voting of taxes” and “the election of judges”. Of course, it would be silly to simply copy the whole of that document, but surely its democratic method remains just as pertinent in the 21st century.

    But incredibly, there are almost no demands directed at the democratisation of the German state or the EU. Nothing on the undemocratic nature of the second chamber, the Bundesrat. Clearly, the left should fight for it to be abolished, like all methods of ‘checks and balances’ against the will of the people. Annual parliaments? Nothing. Recallability of MPs? Forget it. The abolition of the EU commission, the council of ministers and the transfer of all power to the EU parliament? Nein, nein and nein again. The fight for extreme democracy is just not on the agenda of anybody in Die Linke.

    In fact, the minimum and the maximum sections of the programme are almost identical. And that certainly suits the right. They (just like the right in the SPD of the 1890s) believe they can lay hold of the capitalist state bit by bit, transform it here and there and, hey presto, we have socialism. That is what rightwing opportunists do.

    The left

    More serious though is the programmatic failure of the left in Die Linke. For them, ‘democratic socialism’ is an almost mystical future that has no connection to the here and now.

    The Antikapitalistische Linke, for example, (which is dominated by the soft Stalinist Kommunistische Plattform) declares the “question of property relations” to be “the deciding question”, because the “break with capitalist property relations” is “the crucial precondition for more justice, for an all-embracing democracy, for the preservation of the climate”, etc (my emphasis). So first somebody will make sure that capitalism is defeated and then we can all have justice and democracy.

    The Sozialistische Linke (dominated by Marx 21, the Socialist Workers Party’s German section, which used to be called Linksruck) is also very complimentary about the draft. It concentrates its criticism on the need to draw in other, extra-parliamentary forces and especially “the unions”. It declares itself to be in “fundamental opposition to capitalism”, but does not raise a single criticism of the fact that the ‘democratic socialism’ in the programme seems to be nothing more than a warmed over welfare state.

    Why does this tendency not fight for what it purports to believe in? Well, it declares itself to “be a constructive tendency” within the party. “For us it is not important to fight for own flawless positions to become party policy - but to fight for positions which are sustainable as positions for the whole party and which do justice to the challenges that Die Linke faces within society” (“flawless” is meant ironically, of course). This displays exactly the opportunist method which led the SWP into the disaster that was Respect. Subordinate your politics to what you perceive to be popular ‘out there’.

    The Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), the German section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, sees the key problem with the draft in the “old social democratic division into a minimum and a maximum programme”, which they define as the “fight for reforms inside the capitalist system today and postpone the fight for a socialist change of society to the unspecified future.”

    While this might be true for Marx 21, it certainly is not true for the right wing in the party, which is the SAV’s key target. The right clearly has a vision of ‘democratic socialism’ that does not require revolution and which consists of the type of welfare state reforms that seemed possible in the post-war years.

    While some of the SAV’s criticisms certainly hit the nail on the head, its solutions hark back to the Transitional programme of 1938: “Real improvements, like reducing the age of retirement to 60 years or cutting the working week (without loss of pay or loss of jobs) to 30 hours a week, will, under the given circumstances, bust open the constraints of capital”. That method will not lead to democratic socialism either, unfortunately.

    At the time of writing his Transitional programme Trotsky thought capitalism was on the point of final and complete collapse. He mistakenly believed that all that was necessary was to defend existing wages, conditions and rights. A spontaneous movement to do so would lead to the clash of class against class and pose point blank the question of state power. It was wrong even then, but today his epigones believe that the result will be a general strike, leading to revolution. In such circumstances a determined minority can seize power in the name of the majority.

    This is unfortunately the method displayed by the leading left platforms within Die Linke. There is no vision of winning the majority. No vision of transforming the working class into the hegemon of society by arming it with a programme of extreme democracy to be fought for in the here and now. Both the left and the right are deeply marred in opportunism. While the right hopes things will never come to a revolution, the left hopes it can trick the working class into carrying one out.

    Engels, when critiquing the Erfurt programme, warned the SPD against “forgetting the great, the principled considerations” - he specifically had the democratic republic in mind - for what he calls the “momentary interests of the day”. This, Engels says, may be honestly meant, but is and remains opportunism - and “honest” opportunism is “perhaps the most dangerous of all”.
  2. Die Neue Zeit
    Die Neue Zeit

    Draft v draft

    I think that Tina Becker’s criticisms of Die Linke’s draft programme are a tad excessive, especially when compared to the weaker points in the CPGB’s Draft programme (‘Danger of honest opportunism’, June 3).

    She says: “There is almost an obsession with the Eigentumsfrage (the question of property relations).” Why shouldn’t there be? Scumbags like Bodo Ramelow came out of the woods to say that ‘private property isn’t the work of the devil’ or something along those lines. If you ask me, they aren’t ‘obsessed’ enough, when considering that I’ve written directional commentary advocating the “full replacement of the hiring of labour for small-business profit by cooperative production, and also the enabling of society’s cooperative production of goods and services to be regulated by cooperatives under their common plans”.

    According to Tina, “The draft demands ‘the strict separation and democratic control of the police, the federal armed forces and the intelligence services’ (p29). Note that even the secret service is to be retained.” But the programme doesn’t say anything about the secret police apparatus. It just says “intelligence services”, which in common language refers a lot more to foreign espionage and counter-intelligence than to domestic repression. When the KGB is referred to as an “intelligence service”, it is within the context of foreign espionage/counter-intelligence and not domestic repression (‘secret police’). There’s nothing wrong with keeping foreign espionage/counter-intelligence, if you recall the Trust Operation of the Soviet Cheka/GPU.

    She writes: “The section on ‘democratisation of society’ is actually tucked away right at the end of this section and starts with yet another workplace-based demand: workers should have the right ‘to veto the closure of plants that are not threatened by insolvency’ (p28). Strong stuff, it isn’t.” That one demand is much stronger than the CPGB’s approach to mass unemployment not based on company insolvency, which calls just for “no redundancies”. I also don’t see the CPGB call for bans on derivatives and other speculation.

    Tina states: “It does not get any more ‘radical’ than the demand for ‘more direct democracy through national referenda’ and some rather empty formulations on the need to ‘strengthen communities’ and establish ‘round tables’ (p21). Also, it wants ‘societies, associations and initiatives’ to ‘take over some tasks of society’. Naturally, they should have ‘adequate financing of the assigned tasks’ and should have ‘democratic legitimacy’.”

    Die Linke’s take on the mass media question is more extensive than the CPGB’s. “Securing of large, commonly accessible digital bodies of knowledge ... defend and enlarge public spaces of information and culture, as well as press freedom in editorial departments” goes beyond the CPGB’s usual call against intellectual property rights and censorship.
  3. Tower of Bebel
    Tower of Bebel
    I wonder how the left could change the draft.
  4. Die Neue Zeit
    Die Neue Zeit
    Comrade, do you have any comments about my submission, which you received?
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