After 10 years, the German left party has been voted out of the Berlin city coalition government, reports Tina Becker. But instead of criticisms of its participation there are calls for a show of false 'unity' to win back support
There was only one winner in the September 18 regional elections in Berlin: Die Piratenpartei (Pirate Party). At its first electoral outing in Berlin, it achieved a surprising 8.9% of the vote and will send 15 representatives to the regional parliament.
When it was formed in 2006, it concentrated almost exclusively on its opposition to the campaign of the powerful music industry against ‘piracy’ on the internet (hence the name). Initially, it did not expand its programme much beyond demands for ‘web freedom’ and its opposition to ongoing attempts by the German government to censor internet content deemed terrorist, pornographic or illegal in some other sense.
But in 2009, the group made the decision to become more serious, expand its programme beyond the internet and take part in elections. With considerable success: the membership exploded from a few hundred to 12,000. Its campaign in Berlin made the other parties look old and washed out. Die Piratenpartei members created their own election placards at home, demanding for example, ‘Privatise religion!’ The call for the separation of church and state went hand in hand with the demand to make it easier to organise referendums and for the end of ‘state secrets’.
Those elected have pledged to write a daily blog about their experiences in parliament, promising to publicise all of the city’s contracts and other material deemed ‘secret’. According to pollsters, the Pirates took tens of thousands of votes from the established parties: 17,000 from the Greens, 14,000 from the Social Democrats (SPD) and 13,000 from Die Linke. Interestingly, they also managed to bring on board 23,000 previous non-voters.
Of course, the group does not have a rounded or viable programme - and, of course, it is not a socialist organisation. It does not even see itself as a left party, stating: “We are outside that straight line that goes from the extreme left to the right”. But it was certainly regarded as a breath of fresh air in the muggy political atmosphere of Berlin.
For 10 long years, the ‘red-red’ government coalition of SPD and Die Linke ran the German capital. It closed down nurseries, cut benefits and privatised 120,000 council flats. Die Linke voted to part-privatise the Berlin tram system, campaigned against national wage parity for public sector workers (who still earn considerably less in the east) and spoke out against efforts to bring the company that supplies Berlin with water back into public ownership. It also helped to privatise a part of the main Berlin hospital - leading to worse working conditions and lower wages.
Naturally, the SPD was punished for its role in mismanaging the city: its vote dropped by 2.5%, although it remains the largest party. It will probably continue to govern, either with the Greens or the Conservatives (CDU) - negotiations are still ongoing. Die Linke, however, received a bigger slap: after its 2001 high of 22.3% and the 13.4% achieved in 2006, it is now down to 11.5%. The party’s whole election campaign was perceived as a desperate attempt to cling onto government. There was not even a hint of self-criticism of some of the unpopular measures it oversaw.
Add to that a few silly mistakes and you have an electoral catastrophe. For example, one of Die Linke’s main election posters railed against rising rents. But two weeks before the election, tens of thousands of council tenants received demands for steep rent increases. The bourgeois press had a field day.
Many members of Die Linke are highly critical of the actions of their Berlin comrades while in government. Unfortunately though, participation in bourgeois government is now hardly disputed by anybody in the party.
A confused, opportunistic argument is put forward by Sozialistische Linke, the party platform dominated by Marx 21 (the Socialist Workers Party’s German section, which used to be called Linksruck). In its analysis of the elections it writes that “since 2006, Berlin Die Linke has made good progress in government”. It criticises only a couple of policy decisions, as well as the fact that prospective candidates critical of those decisions were not “given good seats on the party’s electoral list” (and why exactly should the majority do that?).
Sozialistische Linke continues: “We fight for Die Linke to be successful in government or in opposition, depending on the political circumstances.” In its typically obscure way it concludes: “This also means we need to criticise any praxis in government or opposition that has not been up to scratch.” The Marx 21 comrades have a lot to lose and therefore choose their words carefully: a couple of their members were elected to the German Bundestag in 2009 and dozens more work as parliamentary aides.
And Antikapitalistische Linke (which is dominated by the soft Stalinist Kommunistische Plattform around the charismatic Sahra Wagenknecht) mainly criticises the fact that comrades in Berlin “did not act according to national policy”, particularly over water. No word about the problem of government participation itself.
For our part, we believe that working class parties should never take up seats in a bourgeois government. Once they can convince a majority of the working class of their ideas, we are in a qualitative different situation. We would seek to form a government in order to carry out our minimum programme in full and begin to put into practice measures outlined in the maximum programme. But Die Linke is a long way away from that.
Just like in Berlin, the party has overseen draconian cuts and closures in the regional governments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg. And how could it be any different? In government, Die Linke has been forced to manage capitalism, which especially in this period of crisis means cuts, cuts and cuts again.
Thanks to its powerful export industry, Germany seems to be coming through the economic crisis as the best of a bad lot. There is regularly talk of an “upswing”. But scratch the surface and a very different picture emerges. For example, while the official unemployment figure currently stands at 7% (2.9 million), there are another 4.2 million people in Germany who are officially classified as unterbeschäftigt (underemployed). In other words, another 10% of the workforce scrape by in precarious temporary jobs, have been sent onto training courses by the state or are forced to take up one of the hated ‘one euro jobs’, where the long-term unemployed are forced to work for €1 an hour or risk losing their benefits.
The situation in the east is worse still. In Berlin, 13.3% are currently unemployed. There are no official figures for underemployment there, but one can guess. Real wages have been going downhill for years and many employers have used the crisis to squeeze the most out of their workers: collective wage agreements are being cancelled by the employers at an alarming rate.
Why don’t the unions fight back? “It feels like we are only here to manage decline,” one trade union activist in Die Linke told me. Many people desperately cling on to their job - even if it is being casualised. There is very little fighting spirit on display - better a temporary job than none at all. The German unions are being broken. It is not happening as dramatically as under Margaret Thatcher in Britain, but it is no less effective.
It is no surprise then that many people feel that Germany should not have to bail out the Greek economy. The leading German tabloid Bild-Zeitung has run headline after headline railing against the increasing size of what is known in Germany as the Euro-Rettungsschirm (emergency parachute). According to a survey conducted by Die Welt, 66% of Germans are against another Greek bailout if they have to pay.
Die Linke quite rightly opposes the proposed package: “It will only save the banks, insurance companies and hedge funds,” says Klaus Ernst, chair of the party. The German export surplus has helped to create those massive debts in the rest of Europe and therefore “Germany is partially to blame for the crisis”.
The bourgeois leaders, however, are quite aware that they must act. They do not have a solution to the crisis, of course. But they know that the crumbling economies of Portugal, Greece and Italy will drag Germany down with them if nothing is done. Although the SPD will vote for the package in the Bundestag next week, it has been pushing for the introduction of Eurobonds, managed by a new euro zone treasury. Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to flirt with the idea for a while. But the CDU now firmly rejects the idea of “socialising the debts of the other countries”. (in reality, that has long been happening).
Eurobonds cannot rescue capitalism in decline either, though they at least are an attempt at more rationality. The European Union and the Euro logically point the way towards more European-wide cooperation. That does not mean socialists should actively call for the introduction of Eurobonds, as, for example, the leadership of Die Linke now does. They are not an alternative to the rescue package, as the comrades seem to imply. As if those bonds would not be used mainly to “save the banks, insurance companies and hedge funds”.
Clearly, the Keynesian answers put forward by Die Linke’s leadership need to be challenged. Instead, we need our own vision for a united Europe. We have to wrest the project of European unity away from the bankers, bosses and bureaucrats and push for our own vision of a Europe from below.
‘Lack of unity’
Of course, not everybody in Die Linke agrees with the leadership’s support for Eurobonds. And there are plenty of other debates going on in the organisation.
For example, the party is in the middle of discussing the draft of a new party programme, which will be voted on at a conference in Erfurt at the end of October. Key areas of disagreement are: how to deal with the experience of ‘real existing socialism’ (especially East Germany), Keynesianism, the deployment of German soldiers abroad and the circumstances in which Die Linke can participate in government. But these differences are not properly debated in the party. In effect, they are played out in the distorted arena of the bourgeois media.
For a start, there is no actual space for it. Die Linke still does not have its own newspaper - or any other forum in which these huge disagreements could be discussed. It is a big plus that political platforms are allowed to freely operate (attempts by the leadership to abolish them a few years ago were soundly defeated) and they have been issuing statements on many of the disputed issues. Debates over the political direction of the party are also taking place locally in the branches, of course. And undoubtedly, the Erfurt conference will also see interesting contributions. In my experience, some of them will be clear and to the point, a few more will be deliberately murky and most of them will be just confused. But this is quite different from the healthy culture of open debate that is so desperately needed in Die Linke - and in the rest of the left, for that matter.
A few weeks before the Berlin elections, the party sent a birthday card to “our dear comrade” Fidel Castro, in which it praises “the gains of socialist Cuba, which has set an example for so many peoples all over the world”, without a single critical word. The card was signed by party leaders Gesine Lötzsch and Klaus Ernst - digitally, as it turned out. While Lötzsch (who is from East Germany) defended the wording she didn’t write, the Bavarian trade unionist Ernst distanced himself in embarrassment, calling the card “a mistake”. How the card got into the public domain is anybody’s guess.
Then there was the ‘Mauerbau-Skandal’ surrounding three Die Linke members in the regional parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. After a discussion about the building of the Berlin wall, all parliamentarians stood up to remember the victims that were killed when trying to flee East Germany - apart from the three Die Linke members. They were trying to protest against the “blanket demonisation” of East Germany - but, of course, they simply came over as a bunch of sad, left-over Stalinists (which they probably are).
Much of the Berlin election campaign was overshadowed by these ‘scandals’. This has led the left and the right to conclude that the bad results were mainly due to the “lack of unity” within the party and the “internal power fights” - not the unpopularity of the Berlin government. Ironically, the membership is strangely ‘united’ in that analysis (though the right blames the left for it and vice versa).
Unfortunately, this has led many comrades to draw the conclusion that less debate in Die Linke is needed and that those critical of the majority should shut up and rally behind the leadership. At the press conference after the Berlin count, Klaus Ernst mused that “a party where there seems to be infighting is not attractive. We have not been seen as a united organisation, because we didn’t always talk about each other in a positive way. The party leadership is united in this: we need to stop the infighting.” Sozialistische Linke too calls on all members to “fight for the joint goals of Die Linke and not publicly argue about internal party issues”.
In our view, the opposite is true. Die Linke urgently needs a publication where the different views can be openly debated, before the working class. Without such clarity, it will be impossible to defeat the right.