At the Crossroads: The German Left

Article excerpt


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.


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. …