The crisis of capitalism is creating an unstable social and political situation in Germany. Tensions are emerging within the coalition government, elected only last year. Most interestingly, this is having a radicalising effect inside DIE LINKE, which is being pulled both left and right, with some of the leaders attracted by coalition politics while the more radical ranks react against and seek an alternative to the left.
Only five months after the General Election that brought a right-wing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) into office, Germany is gripped by enormous economic and political instability, social uneasiness and tensions. Divisions between the bourgeois government parties and mutual verbal attacks reveal that they are split over a whole series of political issues.
This is a reflection of the fact that while some bourgeois have tried to create the impression that “the crisis is over” and a boom is on the order of the day, they know that the severe effects of the crisis have only begun to be felt. Unemployment is rising, with hundreds of thousands of workers on short time work, hoping desperately that demand will increase before long and that their jobs can be saved. There is a serious municipal budget crisis opening up, with an increasing number of city administrations facing huge deficits, being incapable of delivering balanced budgets, and coming under pressure to cut all sorts of spending on social and cultural facilities and to raise local rates. This is going to undermine local autonomy, as increasingly state officers from supervisory authorities are going to intervene in the town halls and effectively deprive local bodies of their power and autonomy.
Apart from the USA, Germany is the industrial country where the proportion of the population classed as working poor has grown most rapidly. A quarter of all workers are marginalized from the core staff, with outsourcing, precarious forms of work such as contract work, pseudo-selfemployment affecting the lives of millions, serving as a warning to the core staff of what will happen to them if they rebel against their bosses. Increasing pressure at work and uneasiness is affecting all sections of the working class - from labourers toiling on the poverty line to well paid employees and civil servants.
In the first few weeks of the new year, the scandal around billionaire Anton Schlecker´s drugstore chain founding his own temporary employment agency to halve the wages of his shop workers overshadowed the political debate, forcing even some conservative Christian Democrats to condemn this brazen form of wage-dumping. For some time, Schlecker was the most hated capitalist in the country.
In recent days, however, a verbal attack by FDP leader and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle on the unemployed has triggered off a heated and polarised debate. Westerwelle criticised demands for an increase in the so-called Hartz IV benefits for unemployed people as “socialism” and as an expression of ‘late Roman Decadence'. People who work, Westerwelle argued, were increasingly becoming the "idiots of the nation”, whereas many of the unemployed were lazy bones, living on the backs of those in society that got up early every morning and worked hard. This is a typical attempt to play off higher-income against low-income earners. The FDP is a faithful mouthpiece of big business and Westerwelle's phrase mongering is an indication of the sort of attacks they are going to launch in the coming period. On the other hand Westerwelle is also desperately trying to stop the erosion in support for the FDP. The Liberals had scored an all-time peak of 14.6% last September and have seen their support virtually halved according to recent opinion polls.
There is enormous nervousness on the part of all political players just over ten weeks before the crucial state elections in North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) on May 9. NRW has 18 million inhabitants (more than the DDR, the former East German state which was dissolved in 1990), and had been an SPD stronghold for decades until 2005 when the CDU and FDP got a majority there. Now there are fears on the part of the CDU and FDP that they might lose their majority there, thus also losing the conservative majority in the Bundesrat, Germany`s second chamber composed of representatives from the 16 German state governments. Some in the CDU leadership would not mind leaning on the Greens who had started 30 years ago as radical pacifists and environmentalists and are now a progressive liberal party whose social base is made up of higher-income earners. Already, the Greens are represented in coalition governments under the leadership of the CDU in the states of Hamburg and the Saarland and also in some important municipalities such as Frankfurt and Wiesbaden.
On the other hand, the SPD that suffered a historic defeat in 2009 will try to demonstrate that they have overcome their all-time low. And last but not least, the Left Party (DIE LINKE) which scored 11.9% nationally, is fighting to get a good result in NRW well over the crucial five per cent threshold and demonstrate its viability nationally and that it has firm roots in the West. DIE LINKE still has its strongholds in the East and enjoys support above-average, especially amongst blue-collar and unemployed workers, being identified as the most consistent critic of the dismantling of the welfare state in recent years.
And yet, whereas you might think that DIE LINKE would automatically go from strength to strength and is bound to get a double-digit result in NRW in May, the party has been seriously haunted by a crisis of leadership in recent weeks. This was triggered off by party chairman Oskar Lafontaine's announcement to withdraw from national politics, give up his seat in the national parliament and not to stand again for re-election as party chair at the forthcoming party congress in May. Although this announcement is mainly due to his suffering from cancer, and Lafontaine has also stated his intention to continue to lead the party group in the regional parliament of his home state of the Saarland where they scored over 21 per cent last August, this has caused a crisis of leadership and served to initiate a fresh debate between the different party currents on fundamental issues of strategy and perspectives.
Oskar Lafontaine is undoubtedly leaving behind a vacuum in the national party leadership. He played a historic role in the merger of the former (mainly Eastern, ex-Stalinist) PDS and the WASG, a mainly Western split-away from the SPD, into DIE LINKE in 2007. Lafontaine had been national SPD chairman from 1995 to 1999 and resigned from all political positions in 1999 in protest against the shift to the right under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a right-wing social democrat who had been elected head of a coalition government of SPD and Greens in 1998.
"Oskar is not a Marxist, but he has got more class consciousness and political instinct than many others in the party leadership", a very intelligent 93 year old party veteran told me recently. There is some truth in this. Lafontaine has got a flair for key political issues. He has raised questions such as the need for a political, all-out general strike as well as raising the question of capitalist property when in 2008 he called for the expropriation of the billionaires that own the automotive supplier Schaeffler when try tried to take over their larger rival Continental. Although Lafontaine mixes these issues with demands for workers’ shares and participation and does not pose a bold socialist programme, such statements place him far to the left of most of the other reformist party leaders. He also annoyed the party’s moderate reformist wing when he criticised the terms under which they had accepted a coalition programme for the state of Brandenburg which includes a cut in public sector jobs. He repeatedly warned against any watering down of the programme for the sake of being accepted as a junior partner in a coalition government with the SPD, pointing out that the Italian Rifondazione Comunista had been wiped out of parliament after they had joined a government that conducted war in Afghanistan and dismantled the welfare state.
Many mainstream media call Lafontaine a "populist" because unlike other aging politicians he has not adopted a more moderate and right-wing position so far. The media would like to turn DIE LINKE into a tame and obedient reformist tool since they know that the inevitable attacks on the working class, the welfare state and education will tend to strengthen the party if it is still seen as a clear and consistent left alternative, campaigning on bread-and-butter issues. Thus the ruling class and their media cadres do their utmost to drive a wedge between the "radical fundamentalists" and "sectarians" on the one hand and the "modern reformers" on the other hand. Berlin and Brandenburg, where DIE LINKE is a junior partner of the SPD in regional governments, are strongholds of the more moderate currents who believe that you can only change things by joining governments. Left Social Democrats and Greens and moderate politicians of DIE LINKE are trying to build an alternative bloc with the aim of forming a coalition government nationally after the 2013 general election. Some of them and some media claim that without Lafontaine this task would be much easier to achieve. Yet quite a few left activists in DIE LINKE fear that this might increase the temptation to sacrifice essential points of the programme for the sake of joining a coalition government.
On the other hand, the regional party in NRW is lead by more left-wing elements who are demanding some nationalisations of the energy sector and other commanding heights of the economy as well as the re-nationalisation of the Post Office and Deutsche Telekom. Now the media are waging a campaign against these "NRW sectarians", trying to portray them as "irresponsible utopians" not fit for government. Some of the right wing in DIE LINKE have even echoed these prejudices.
So a lot is at stake for DIE LINKE this spring. A very good result in NRW in May could shift the balance within the party towards the left and the West and demonstrate that you can perform well in elections with a relatively radical programme.
The national party congress will take place in mid-May, only a weekend after the NRW election. After Lafontaine's announcement to withdraw from the national leadership, a somewhat artificial new slate of candidates for the leadership was cobbled together, trying to find a balance between the different organised currents, East and West, left and right, male and female, and include Eastern reformists as well as Sahra Wagenknecht as a representative from the "Communist Platform".
This slate, however, was worked out behind closed doors and will tend to strengthen the parliamentary element in the party and the fulltime party apparatus. That is why it is all the more urgent that the rank and file decisively intervenes in the political debate, tables as many left motions as possible and puts pressure on the congress, demanding a bold approach against the capitalist crisis and a clear socialist programme. DIE LINKE is rightly calling for the nationalisation of the banks. But we need to nationalise the major industrial enterprises and monopolies as well if we are going to offer a way out of the crisis of capitalism in the interest of the working class and the vast majority of the population.
(Article first posted on www.marxist.com 1/3/10)