At the Crossroads: The German Left
Stern, Ivan, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs
After the elections in September 2009, Gregor Gysi--the co-chairman of the German post-communist party the Left (Die Linke)--said that the time has come for cooperation between the two major leftist parties, the Social Democrats and the Left. He continued with one stipulation: German social democracy must return from its trip down liberalism lane and become "socially democratized" again. The party's insufficient emphasis on the social question and its insufficient social understanding were, according to him, the reason why the Social Democrats lost in September 2009.
Perhaps surprisingly, the echo from the Social Democrats (especially from the more leftist ones) was not negative. They too, however, had one condition: the Left should either explain how it plans to pay for all of its social welfare promises, or forget about cooperation. Additionally, it must begin exercising a trustworthy foreign policy and cease distancing itself from the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance. In another words, it ought to undergo the same changes the Social Democrats underwent at the Bad Godesberg rally in 1959. It was at this time that the Social Democrats definitively rejected Marxist ideologies and joined the spiritual values of the West.
THE UNFINISHED POST-COMMUNIST REFORM
In the 1970s Wolf Biermann, a poet and renowned critic of the communist regime in the German Democratic Republic, expected that the SED (the Socialist Unity Party or the Communist Party) would produce their own "Dubcek"--i.e., an individual (akin to the Czech communist reformer Alexander Dubcek) who would embody hope for reform and lead the GDR towards democracy. In 1976 when the East German regime expatriated Biermann and forced him to stay in the West, he understood that there were no "Dubceks" in the SED and there would never be one.
This fact became even clearer in 1989 when the Communist Party fell apart and another party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), attempted to rise from the SED's ashes. The public face of the PDS was Lothar Bisky, the rector of the University of Film and Television (Potsdam-Babelsberg) and Gregor Gysi, who had been a practicing attorney in the GDR since 1971.
The party was supposed to evoke something similar to the "Prague Spring." In reality it only offered space for politicians who were less compromised and more pragmatic than the hardliners of the collapsed communist regime. The empty politics of the two politicians only appealed to people who went to the election polls in protest, such as those who had lost privileges with the fall of the regime (e.g., well-positioned state employees, academic officers, and employees of the justice branch under communism). When Germany united and the public sphere was built anew, these individuals were replaced by West Germans.
In the 1990s, democratic socialism simply became a hollow space filled by the PDS and its social populism. Within the past few years the party has received a second chance, but only after the Social Democratic German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder irritated East Germans with his Agenda 2010--a reform package meant to make deep cuts into the German social system and labor market--and after the runaway Social Democratic politician Oskar Lafontaine left the SPD to join the ranks of the PDS. In 2004, Lafontaine encouraged people in East German towns to protest against the reforms of Schroder's government.
The truly authentic left in East Germany was represented by opposition groups such as peace and ecological activists, whose activities were shielded by the local Protestant church. Social democracy's renewal in the GDR began in the Schwante village close to Berlin at an Evangelical rectory in October 1989. Its founders, Marcus Meckel and Martin Gutzeit, were Evangelical theologists who had been thinking of reestablishing social democracy in the East since April of that year. In September 1990, these new East German Social Democrats, who called themselves SPD to emphasize their solidarity with the West, united with their Western sister. They united just in time for elections, which not only allocated MP seats, but also unified Germany. The unification was the main electoral topic of discussion.
In contrast to the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Kohl, the Social Democrats correctly pointed out that unification would not come without a cost, i.e., a tax increase. Oskar Lafontaine, who was at this time the leader of the Social Democrats and prime minister of the Saarland region, and Gerhard Schroder, the future Social Democratic chancellor, agreed on this point too. And while the Christian Democratic competition swore against tax increases, Kohl's government increased taxes in the West shortly after they won the elections; the so-called solidarity charge was supposed to help develop the new states.
From the view of the German public (especially the East Germans), the Social Democrats chose an unfortunate tactic. The party appeared to be anti-unification. Things improved slightly when East Germans realized that the SPD was right: an equitable unification would require a lot of hard work. Being right, however, did not help them much.
POSTPONING REFORM OF THE SOCIAL STATE
At the end of the 1980s, West Germany truly needed to reform its social welfare state. It was defined by a high degree of atrophy: it was too generous, even wasteful. It did not encourage people to help themselves. It did not consider, with regard to health care and pension plans, the permanence of society's demographic aging. Financing the social welfare state appeared increasingly impossible without running a deficit.
The unification of Germany provided Kohl's government with an excuse to shove this unpleasant issue aside and deal primarily with issues connected with unification. The problems associated with the German welfare state were thus not addressed for another decade. Nor were they even addressed in 1998 when the first "Red-Green" coalition government between Alliance '90/The Greens and Social Democrats came to power under Chancellor Schroder.
The growing budget deficit at the beginning of the new century, the stern warnings from the European Union, the rise of unemployment rates (especially in regions in the former GDR), and the inability of labor offices to deal with long-term unemployed persons, forced the leftist "Red-Green" government to work intensely on the necessary reforms. The reforms were collectively called Agenda 2010, and the specific reforms geared towards mitigating long-term unemployment were named Hartz IV. Agenda 2010 subsequently became the fuse behind the explosion of social unrest in (mainly) East Germany in 2004. The social unrest was largely fueled by the post-communists of the PDS and un accompanied by the Social Democratic runaway Oskar Lafontaine.
THE EUROPEAN CRISIS OF SOCIALISM
Oskar Lafontaine is, to a certain degree, the key to understanding why the current socialist movement is in crisis--and not only in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. Having held positions as the prime minister of the Saarland, leader of the Social Democrats, and minister of finance in Schroder's first government, Lafontaine symbolized traditional and traditionalist social democratic politics, which were oriented towards the working class (the industrial workers).
Times have, however, changed and so has the structure of society. Industrial workers have slowly disappeared with the development of technologies and automatic production lines.
If social democrats wish to retain the image of a people's party, they have to broaden their political platform and address other social groups, especially the developing middle class. Social democrats must learn to deal with issues that are not exclusively collectivist. It is not simply enough to deal with conditions for collective negotiations, i.e., questions of minimum wage or collective decision-making in businesses. It is time to remember the basic values of the socialist movement: the aim to equate solidarity and social justice with individual freedoms.
Inspired by the English social thinker Anthony Giddens, Gerhard Schroder and Tony Blair of the British Labour Party created a new concept of socialist politics for the twenty-first century. They called it the Third Way. In essence, the Third Way reflects a more liberal concept from the 1950s related to the socialist market economy. It supports free, competitive markets while also supporting the social state, which is responsible for balancing the inequalities created by the market economy. This time the concept supports the principle: "we will help you to help yourself." In 2002, Gerhard Schroder applied the theoretical concept of the Third Way and presented it to the Federal Parliament as Agenda 2010. It was a definitive departure from traditional social democratic politics and represented one of the key reasons why Oskar Lafontaine resigned from the post of finance minister and subsequently left the Social Democratic Party altogether.
Agenda 2010, and especially Hartz IV, mostly angered the East German population. At that time and despite economic growth, Germany had two million more unemployed individuals than it has today in these times of economic crisis. Throughout the nineties and into the new century, East Germany suffered from overwhelming and chronic unemployment rates which resulted from privatization, restructuring the local industry, and the departure of German investors to other post-communist states. While average unemployment rates in Germany hovered around eight percent, in some Eastern states (such as Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, and Lusatia) unemployment rates reached up to 20-25 percent.
Unemployment reached these levels on account of entire towns moving away, young people escaping to the more prosperous West, population aging, privatization policies, and overly bureaucratic yet feeble support for the development of small and medium-sized businesses (even the small businesses which survived communism did not make it through the nineties).
AGENDA 2010 AND THE RADICAL LEFT
The unemployment reform turned out to be a social fuse in East Germany. It led to mass demonstrations in Leipzig, Magdeburg, and other East German towns.
The situation became a lifesaver for the post-communists of the PDS. While they had received 20 to 30 percent of the vote in local elections throughout the nineties, their electoral base was entirely comprised of people who had lost out on the GDR's fall. Considering the whole of Germany, their electoral results were insignificant. Now, however, they even began to address the East German people who had shouted in autumn of 1989: "Wir sind das Volk!" [We are the People!] In an attempt to strengthen their influence in the protest movement, the PDS post-communists joined forces with Oskar Lafontaine and his new radical leftwing party: Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative (WASG). WASG was composed of radical Social Democrats, former West German communists, anarchists, Maoists and Trockists.
Lafontaine had already established himself as the main speaker at the protest gatherings organized in East German towns. He sympathized with the unemployed East Germans and referred to the Hartz IV reform as an attack on their dignity and means to humiliate them further. In essence, the reform cut down the period of assistance in long-term unemployment. Either the unemployed would return to work under the new conditions, or he or she would officially become a social welfare recipient. For many unemployed Germans, unemployment was socially acceptable; to become officially dependent on social welfare was, however, understood as a humiliating fall to the very bottom of the social ladder. Oskar Lafontaine excelled at playing this card.
Lafontaine's WASG diverged from traditional social democratic politics. In an unprecedented move, he distanced WASG from the unions, which used to be the obvious ally and co-creator of socialist politics. Additionally, he sought to modernize not only the politics of his own party, but also the notion of the welfare state to an extent which had not even been attempted by the Christian Democrats during their ten year rule. All of the above had an effect on the states of East and West Germany.
In spring 2005, the Social Democrats lost the regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (the most industrialized state in the country), which had been their political bastion for 30 years, and the new parliament elected the Christian Democrat Jurgen Ruttgers as their leader. It is interesting to note that Ruttgers has since leaned strongly leftward: he promotes the same socially generous politics as those of Oskar Lafontaine.
Chancellor Schroder reacted to this electoral failure by convincing his own MPs to pass a motion of no confidence in order to call early elections, which then took place in September of that year. Even though the election polls predicted that the Christian Democrats would receive a landslide victory and that the radical left (i.e., the PDS and Lafontaine's Alternative) would strengthen, Schroder only lost to the Christian Democrats by a few points.
Essentially, Agenda 2010 brought electoral profit for Lothar Bisky and Gregor Gysi of the PDS and for Oskar Lanfontaine and his Alternative Party. In 2005 the two parties even formed a coalition in parliament which represented, at least for the radical left, an unprecedented eight percent of all MP votes. At that time, they vowed to merge the two parties into one in 2007; and so, two years after their 2005 parliamentary success, the Left (Die Linke) was formed. Agenda 2010 has since become almost a rude word in German politics, despite embodying reforms which were necessary for Germany to remain free, democratic, and just.
THE REFORM COALITION WITHOUT THE REFORMS
The real reason for creating the grand coalition in 2005 was not, as both parties claimed in unison, the need to finish the reforms, but simply the reluctance of the Greens to form a coalition with the Christian Democrats and liberals. In reality, the Christian Democrats were terrified of the flogging their competition received in local as well as federal elections as a result of the reforms and did not intend to continue the process. The grand coalition between the PDS and WASG was created because it was the only option left. The completion of the reforms was simply a suitable political alibi.
But this political alibi soon turned into an obligation. The coalition needed to pull through in front of the German public. The vice-chancellor and minister of labor as well as one of the co-creators of Agenda 2010, Franz Munterfering, had become an advocate of the reforms to the dismay of many of his fellow Social Democrats. When the radical left of the Social Democrats discovered that he intended to continue with Schroder's reform, they practically forced him to resign by electing a radical leftist, Andrea Nahles, as the general secretary.
The reforms--especially the financing of the health care system, pension plans and employment policies--functioned within the scope of the coalition only as long as Muntefering was around. He does not only deserve credit for gradually decreasing unemployment rates, but also for increasing the retirement age limit to 67 years. When personal reasons led him to leave politics, the reform efforts of Angela Merkel's government weakened and eventually died out entirely.
At the crossroads
The series of crushing defeats in 2009--beginning with the defeat in European elections, including the defeat in local elections in the Saarland, Thuringia, and Saxony, and ending with the major defeat in elections to the Federal Parliament--can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that the Social Democrats have failed to harmonize the social dimension of democracy with its liberal dimension. While they have sought to create a sustainable social welfare state, they were left alone on this path and have since paid a very high price.
Gregor Gysi is not right when he says (and a number of Social Democrats share his opinion) that the party must "socially democratize" again. This move leftward would only borrow from the rhetoric of the parasitical left, which simply pursues immediate political profit and refuses to consider that the social state needs reform. The parasitical left keeps its supporters hoping that by some miracle the unique and amazing era of wealth and above average living standards in the 1960s and 1970s will return. They will not return. The following Czech saying is applicable in Germany for the next couple of decades: "We had it good!"
The essence of the current social democratic crisis (and not just in Germany) is primarily the fact that they do not know how to move forward out of this complicated situation; essentially, they do not know how to make a square from a circle.
They know that the threat of the social state's collapse is not only real, but will also quite possibly lead to the collapse of democracy itself. They know that reforms are necessary if they wish to not only sustain the social state but also continue to uphold the basic political values of freedom, justice, and solidarity. But they also know that if they attempt reform and try to unite liberalism with social sensibility, they will open up the floodgates of the irresponsible and populist politics of the far left, represented by a party of the same name. At the same time, it is unlikely that they will gain support from the other side of the political spectrum, let alone Westerwell's liberals. They risk that they will end up in the political basement. And if they do move further to the left according to Gregor Gysi's advice, sooner or later they will have to determine how they differ from other post-communists and if they really represent what we believe to be leftist politics.
The position of the Social Democrats in the current political climate essentially explains their failure. In an interview for Berlin's Inforadio, the former "Danny the Red" and today's Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit, compared the position of young people in the 1960s and today: "In 1968 we didn't know unemployment; we didn't know AIDS; we didn't know climate change; we didn't know globalization and all its influences; and we could mark any kind of nonsense as an alternative. The interesting thing is that today the critics of globalization say that another world is possible. That is correct. But they cannot describe it. It is complicated because in the 1960s, we knew we had a future and we intended to fulfill it. But today young people ask: 'Where is our future?' That is a big difference."
Cohn-Bendit does not envy the youth of today. On the contrary, he emphasizes that their position is much worse than his own was forty years ago. This is applicable to the current left too. Actually, it's worse. The left has given up its mission to bring a future vision to the political scene. Instead, it wastes energy on "realpolitik" and struggles with the unpredictable and capricious moods of the electorate.
It is appropriate to question whether leftist parties actually stopped being leftist a long time ago. Just like the French playwright Eugene Ionesco waited for Godot, we are still waiting for the real left.
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Ivan Stern is the Editor-in-Chief of Czech Radio 6 and a political commentator.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: At the Crossroads: The German Left. Contributors: Stern, Ivan - Author. Magazine title: The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs. Volume: 12. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 2009. Page number: 10+. © 2009 Martin Jan Stransky. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.