A better version of social democracy

  1. Die Neue Zeit
    Die Neue Zeit

    At its conference in Erfurt on October 21-23, the German left party Die Linke agreed a new programme. Edith Bartelmus-Scholich reports

    Four years after the fusion of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG), Die Linke has adopted a new programme. This replaces the shorter Programmatische Eckpunkte, which was negotiated between the PDS and WASG. The new programme deals with issues that were not mentioned in the old Eckpunkte. It also tries to provide a vision for a different society that goes beyond day-to-day politics.

    The 519 delegates voted by an overwhelming majority for the programme: only four raised their hands against, while 12 abstained. According to the party’s constitution, the programme must be passed by a poll of the whole membership before it comes into force. Here too overwhelming support is expected.

    The left in Die Linke insists that the programme gives the party a clear anti-capitalist character, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. Yes, the programme starts off by blaming capitalism for economic failure, social hardship and war. But take a closer look and you will find that it is actually only the “unbridled financial markets” (entfesselte Finanzmärkte) that are concretely criticised. In this way, the aim of superseding capitalism has, in effect, become nothing more than the attempt to create a regulated version.

    In Die Linke’s tamed version of capitalism, the market economy, different forms of property ownership, wage labour and competition are all to be kept on board. What is described as “democratic socialism” looks a lot like a benevolent version of the social market economy.

    The organisation has borrowed quite heavily from the tool kit of social democracy. Some demands are quite supportable: more democracy in the economy, a reduction in working hours, a national minimum wage and a basic income for the unemployed (Grundsicherung). But the party falls short when it comes to the “new social idea” it set out to promote in 2007.

    The party has been fighting hard for its positions on peace and war. The new programme calls for the banning of weapons exports and for Germany to leave Nato. It rejects the participation of the German armed forces in all foreign missions, even “peacekeeping missions” (chapter 7 of the UN charter). It is less clear on the role of the Bundeswehr in “humanitarian missions” (chapter 6). We can probably expect more controversy on this question, as some in the party support such missions.

    Lack of democracy

    Oskar Lafontaine in particular has in recent years emphasised over and over again that Die Linke is a movement for more democracy. Accordingly, the party has put forward demands for electoral reform, referendums, participatory budgets, more democracy in the workplace etc. However, programmes are one thing, reality is another: there is a lack of a truly democratic culture in the ranks of Die Linke.

    The conference showed how Die Linke actually works. The party conference is not the sovereign body of the organisation, as stipulated in the constitution. In reality, it is a dutiful assembly that nods through everything the real centre of power has decided beforehand. The decisions on the crucial questions are made by an informal meeting of representatives of these four main political platforms: Demokratischer Sozialismus, Emanzipatorische Linke, Sozialistische Linke and Antikapitalistische Linke.

    Just before the conference, the platforms got together and worked out compromise positions on six controversial questions: for example, the relationship to Israel, Bundeswehr foreign missions and the so-called ‘red holding lines’. The conference was urged to accept these compromises and agreed to do so almost without opposition.

    In order to prevent any big changes to the lead motion, a tight schedule was put in place, which effectively prevented any real debate. Most of the 1,393 amendments were not discussed at all. In general, all amendments to each section of the programme were ‘pooled’ and then, citing time constraints, the chair recommended that they should all be rejected together in a single vote. Only very rarely did the conference reject this method - and then each amendment had to be dealt with in two minutes: one minute to move it, one minute for the objection.

    A number of constitutional amendments were also dealt with in an extremely rushed manner. All amendments by the party leadership - which sought to restrict the rights of members - were voted through by the necessary two-thirds majority. But all amendments that sought to extend democracy were defeated.

    Despite the tight schedule, the party leadership treated the conference to six long speeches from leading members, which took up several hours. The delegates accepted that the time for debate had to be cut short so that they could listen to their leaders, particularly Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine - and they often did with glazed eyes.

    Lafontaine even succeeded in presenting former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt as some kind of figure of light to the conference. Lafontaine totally ignored the fact that Brandt is not just a former Nobel peace prize winner, but that he also introduced the Notstandsgesetze and the Berufsverbote. Incredibly, Lafontaine got conference to vote for the establishment of a “Willy Brandt peace corps in the Bundeswehr”, and this is now enshrined in the party’s programme.

    The leadership consciously tried to present the organisation as a traditional working class party - by staging the conference in Erfurt (where the SPD voted for its Erfurt programme in 1891), by putting wage-labour at the centre of its programme and especially in the speeches given by Lafontaine. But the party has chosen only those traditions that have come to be characterised as authoritarian. Conference voted down a motion by the Emanzipatorischen Plattform to include the libertarian tradition of German anarchism in the range of political views that have influenced Die Linke.

    When the SPD voted for its Erfurt programme it really was a growing working class party. It had survived the anti-socialist laws and emerged stronger. It was supported by millions of workers. In comparison to that, Die Linke is a Scheinriese, as former executive member Thies Gleiss has put it. It has about 70,000 members, only a small minority of whom are actively involved in the workers’ movement. Die Linke has a handful of workplace groups across Germany. A couple of hundred members have positions in the trade union movement and the organisation is hardly represented in any other extra-parliamentary organisations in Germany.

    The SPD still commands a huge influence over the German workers’ movement. It is a bulwark that Die Linke has to overcome before it can present itself as a (hopefully modern) workers’ party. Because it does not have real anchorage in the working class, the organisation’s self-image as a traditional workers’ party is nothing but a mirage, which will create illusion and disappointment.

    Crisis management

    according to the party’s leadership, down to a “lack of solidarity” and a lack of unity. To get out of the crisis, Gysi and Lafontaine especially demand “unity” - the members should stop criticising the leadership. Instead of “looking inwards”, members should “do politics”. They fail to see that a party that unites liberals, social democrats, socialists and communists will inevitably be embroiled in arguments.

    But instead of trying to work out what is at the root of these criticisms, the leadership reacts with authoritarianism. Gysi said that he understands that the Pirate Party has somewhat replaced Die Linke as the main protest party. He said that a lot of people in Germany support the pirates, because they ache for a different political culture, with an open society and radical democracy. And yet he commands the party to demonstrate unity and obedience.

    In my view, Die Linke is in crisis, because the leadership has failed on a range of issues. In my opinion, these are:

    - The breadth of the party’s political positions. They are supposed to make the party stronger and reflect the representation of many different views. In reality, the party is weakened by a lack of a clear vision. Where liberals, social democrats, socialists and communists work together, there will always be arguments over aims, strategies and personnel.
    - The party’s participation in coalition governments. Die Linke in government has helped impose cuts in jobs and social services, and force through privatisation.
    - The party lacks a strategy for opposition. For years, the party sought to create leftwing government coalitions in order to push the SPD and the Greens to the left. But after disastrous results in a number of regional elections, Die Linke currently only governs in the federal state of Brandenburg (with the SPD). Attempts to create left-leaning government coalitions elsewhere have backfired, as the SPD and the Greens have steadily moved to the right (with Peer Steinbrück as the most probable candidate for chancellor, the SPD will now move even further to the right).
    - The attempt to build the party in the west of the country has failed. The leadership is still attempting to create an idealised version of the SPD. Lafontaine was supposed to bring voters and members of the SPD on board. But this has only worked in the Saarland, Lafontaine’s home region. Still, the leadership persists.
    - A lack of democratic culture. For example, at the 2010 conference, delegates were forced into accepting a new leadership that was in effect put together by the old one. This carefully arranged Personaltableau reflected the different fractions in the party. That’s how mainstream political parties choose their leadership. A left party should do better.

    Even though Die Linke now has a programme, it is still in crisis.


    - The author is a member of the Revolutionär Sozialistischer Bund, part of the Fourth International.

    - Gregor Gysi is one of the most popular politicians in the east of Germany. Just like Lafontaine, he holds no official position in the party, but they are both the de facto leaders.
  2. Die Neue Zeit
    Die Neue Zeit

    I object

    I object to Edith Bartelmus-Scholich’s characterisation of the informal meetings of representatives of the four main political platforms in Die Linke as undemocratic, apart from transparency issues (‘A better version of social democracy’, October 27). This is similar to what should be occurring within any party’s media. Quota sampling should be used for cooperation between tendencies, platforms and currents in an editorial organ. This would go a long way towards ensuring that key political positions are not censored from the party press.

    Another statement that raised my eyebrows was: “This carefully arranged Personaltableau reflected the different fractions in the party. That’s how mainstream political parties choose their leadership. A left party should do better.” It’s rather rich when considering that the writer’s own organisation probably uses the highly problematic slate system, which, according to one Pat Byrne, is supposed to “recommend a list that consciously includes a good balance of talents and personalities, [but] in practice has allowed leaders to secure their continuous re-election, along with a body of like-minded and loyal followers”.

    Ideally Die Linke should employ probability-proportional-to-size sampling in order to measure the relative strength of the tendencies, platforms and currents.
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