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The Left Opposition in Germany: Why Is the Left So Weak When So Many Look for Political Alternatives?

Ingo Schmidt teaches economics at the University of Northern British Colombia in Prince George and is coeditor of Goettinger Betriebsexpress, a labor magazine in Germany. He is affiliated with the Scientific Advisory Board of ATTAC-Germany. He also works as a labor educator.

The Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) is experiencing right now what the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) had to learn after the accession to power of a Red-Green Coalition in 1998: People’s parties are elected because they promise to reconcile the interests of businesses, working people, and the receivers of any sort of social assistance. They lose approval if they pursue policies that one-sidedly benefit the corporate sector. Although cabinet ministers occasionally bemoan the exorbitant salaries received by top managers and the unpatriotic behavior of a company that decides to relocate, most voters do not fail to notice that such company policies are encouraged by a politically driven redistribution of income in favor of profits. People who expected more socially oriented policies from the CDU are turning away from that party, but only some are turning toward the SPD. The latter gained somewhat in recent polls and was able to win state elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but it still is nowhere near its former approval rates. Moreover, the relative distribution of votes hides the absolute decline in voter turnout.

Rampant electoral abstention is only seen as a problem when it helps the fascist National-Democratic Party (NPD) to win a larger share of the total vote. In this case, public money is spent to inform us about the merits of a democratic system. However, it is questionable whether those who are tired of the broken pre-election promises of the major parties will let these very parties prescribe them extra-political lessons. Parties, like the CDU and the SPD, who simply accomodated themselves to the fact that highly concentrated wealth in the hands of a few counts more in today’s politics than masses of voters, should not be surprised by the public’s disappointment and their turning away from the political system.

The left has more reason to wonder at this turn of events and also more responsibility in the fight against the right. Grassroots activists critical of electoral politics understand electoral abstention as a learning process; occasionally they have been able to use the dissatisfaction with the political system and economic conditions to mobilize considerable protest movements, for example, against the unfettered power of global financial markets, the war in Iraq, and social spending cuts.

Many activists who earned their credentials building these movements planned to deliver their masterpiece by forging a Left Party that would provide a permanent left voice in parliament. However, they seem in reality to be just as ill-prepared to do so as the two groups that would no doubt form the core of the new party: veterans from East Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and those from the (former) left wing of the SPD.

With street protest waning, at least temporarily, and negative election results for the PDS in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, grassroots activists and the parliamentary left alike have to ask themselves why their political offerings are not well received in a time when many people are looking for alternatives. Considering the quarrels between the West German Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG—largely a left offspring from the SPD) and the East German PDS, as well as the “image affectation” of some individuals from East and West, it is understandable that the self-appointed “New Left” hardly resonates beyond its own activist and deputy circles.
Have leftists not understood what is at stake for themselves and democracy in Germany? Do they try to scrape incompatible things together? Since the protest movements are currently weak and the formation of the Left Party is determined, but also blocked, by an “East-West Conflict,” answers to these two questions must be sought in the history of German unification.

East-West Dialogue

When West German chancellor Willy Brandt labeled his then new Ostpolitik as “Change Through Rapprochement” in the early 1970s, the East German government claimed political self-reliance under the banner of “Two states—one nation.” Changes that have taken place since the (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR) acceded to the (Western) Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1990 leave lots of room for rapprochement even a decade and a half later. At this point, there seem to be at least two nations within one state. Communication problems among leftists from East and West are an expression of this socio-cultural divide. They are a result of different experiences before and after unification. (In passing, it should be mentioned that foreigners whose social integration is being promoted by language courses might well ask themselves whether it would be better to learn “East German” or “West German.”)

An overwhelming majority of members of the PDS lost not only their former social status but also patterns of social norms and consciousness when the GDR disintegrated. Some have responded to these experiences by ideologically insisting on old party verities and others by earnest attempts to develop a new Marxist interpretation of the history of the GDR and German unification. However, many used the occasion of the GDR’s discredited state and party Marxism to adopt uncritically, at least for awhile, western patterns of thought.

Although accession to the FRG implied fundamental changes in the social order and in day-to-day experiences, pretty soon there was a return to circumstances that resembled those faced in the old GDR. Big brother West Germany replaced the big brother Soviet Union. The daily routine under capitalism was as bleak in relation to the “blossoming landscapes,” that Chancellor Helmut Kohl once promised, as everyday socialist life had been in comparison to the proclaimed “superiority of the socialist relations of production.” Eventually the non-development of an East German economic miracle led to skeptical views on the western patterns of thought and new uncertainties. Under these circumstances the presence of PDS deputies in municipal and state parliaments offered a certain degree of orientation. However, states and municipalities are strictly subordinated to federal budget guidelines and therefore doomed to administer budgetary shortages. Socialist shortages of available means of production were replaced by the capitalist shortage of jobs. The administration of either spawns bureaucracies that, different ideological justifications notwithstanding, do not care much about theoretical consistency in their practical muddling through.

Nothing of this blend of theoretical skepticism and practical opportunism can be found in the experience kitbag of WASG activists. Most of them come from the SPD, in which they eventually had to abandon the idea to use this left people’s party as a transmission belt for their socialist politics. That it was not possible to realize their ideas within the SPD is attributed to the treason of the party’s right wing, which supposedly surrendered the SPD under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder to capital’s claims to profit. (There is some resemblance in this party-treason formulation to that of their comrades from the PDS’s Communist Platform, who blame the demise of the Soviet empire on Gorbachev’s capitulationism.) Most WASG activists are still convinced that their political ideas are right and are now looking for a new mass base to pursue them. There are, however, communication problems with the PDS mainstream, which is not very inclined to adopt the welfarist principles of the WASG after the disenchantment with state-socialist and liberal-capitalist ideologies.

Maybe political insiders East and West will eventually find a common language. Yet, outsiders are unlikely to regard an extended learning period within and between PDS and WASG as a welcome mat to participate, and may see it as just another case of elitist detachment from pressing social concerns. What is more, a common language does not ensure the success of a common program. The latter will only help to win voters for the joint Left Party if it is built on the different social and economic living conditions in East and West Germany and is capable of translating these differences into commonly acceptable claims. This calls not just for a common language of political insiders but also one that common folks understand and speak and can put into practice.

Economic Inequalities and Different Programmatic Conclusions

The divide between (long-term) unemployed and employed in East Germany is much deeper than it is in the West. Not only are unemployment rates higher but also the share of long-term unemployment is disproportionately high. Moreover, the division between workers covered by collective agreements and precarious jobs is much sharper. The convergence of working conditions and wages that collective agreements induced in the West did not come about in the East after the change from one social system to the other. For that reason, in the East significant numbers of workers covered by collective agreements can only be found in the public sector and a number of outlets of large corporations. It’s true that the number of unionized workplaces is decreasing in the West, but this process started at a fairly high base level. Given these regional differences in economic conditions, it is no surprise that the political views of the PDS and the WASG differ significantly in a number of crucial areas.

In the face of more than precarious labor market conditions in the East, it is understandable that the creation of jobs, not to speak of full employment, seems to be unrealistic to many people. Therefore the PDS is more inclined than the WASG to talk about the introduction of a basic income whose receipt would not, as opposed to unemployment benefits, be conditional on prior employment. Within the WASG, whose main base lies with union activists of export-oriented corporations in the West, such propositions are met with some reservations. It’s not just that they infringe upon a deeply entrenched work ethic according to which somebody who does not work has no right to eat. There is also the apprehension that the potential voters the WASG is aiming for, and whose taxes would be needed to pay for any such program, would not like the idea of a basic income. However, the union-oriented WASG champions the idea of a legal minimum wage as a partial substitute for the decreasing coverage of collective bargaining agreements. Although the left faction in the federal parliament supports these claims, there are dissenting voices from the PDS at the state level where lower wages are seen as one of the few tools companies in the East can use to compete against all-powerful Western corporations.

Different labor market conditions in East and West led to divergent ideas within the PDS and the WASG on the relation between wage labor and income that imply a distributional conflict between Western taxpayers and Eastern recipients of social benefits. In view of politically regulated redistribution, there are contradictory views between the PDS and WASG, while at the same time there are certain realities denied on both sides. The necessity to balance the budget, which is announced by the government and accepted by the established parties, contrasts with the public spending and redistribution programs promoted by the WASG aimed at increasing aggregate demand and employment. But the PDS, especially when it is part of state governments, has widely accepted the necessity of balancing the budget.

In fact, German unification led to an almost complete destruction of the East German economy but also triggered a redistributional Keynesianism that, through the mechanisms of fiscal transfers and social insurances, prevents income levels in the East from collapsing, creates demand for imported goods from the West, and thus helps to keep jobs there. However, the additional jobs the WASG wishes to achieve by applying Keynesian economic policies are scarcely to be created through these redistributional mechanisms. At the same time, the PDS has to face the question whether it is in fact undermining its own social bases by insisting on budget balancing at the same time as it is helping to administer the redistribution from West to East in a number of states and a significant number of municipalities. If the financial constraints mean slashing the number of deputies, voter approval and jobs in public administration might go down as well. In Berlin this has already resulted in a massive setback for the PDS in the last elections.

In summary, it can be said that there are different points of view on the individual income entitlements and on the level of macroeconomic redistribution in East and West. Maybe a shift of focus from income distribution to the production process would help to promote left unity. If the left in both East and West could abandon the idea that only goods that can be sold at a profit should be produced, perspectives beyond the economic divide—separating export-oriented industrial regions and markets that are dependent on financial transfers—might open up. Production based on the needs of the people, replacing the hierarchical command structures of capitalist companies with self-government of the immediate producers, might be developed, particularly in regions that do not have locational or competitive advantages. This could create much needed space for radical political alternatives.


I believe it is not necessary to give evidence of the admiration I felt for Compañero Baran, as well as for his work on underdevelopment, which was so constructive in our nascent (and still weak) state of knowledge of economics.
—Ernesto Che Guevara, Monthly Review, March 1965, 107.

2007, Volume 59, Issue 01 (May)
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