The LEFT received 8.4 percent of the vote in the 2005 federal elections and is now represented with fraction strength in the German Bundestag. As is generally known, in their agreement the Left Party.PDS and the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Social Justice) did not confine themselves to run jointly in the 2005 early federal elections; they also committed themselves to found a united party with a platform on which the left could overcome divisive political positions and East-West issues. Starting then in June 2007, the new formation which positioned itself to the left of Social Democracy exists as an independent party in all of Germany. One of East Germany’s major parties, the PDS, equipped with decades-long political experience, organisational and financial strength, full-time employees, and several thousand office-holders at the local and regional/Lander level, has fused with the young WASG, which in its brief history had the attraction of a colourful political grouping which stood for a new political style and culture as well as for a specific political agenda. Thus the emergence of The LEFT represents an historical process of change in the German federal party system.
The evaluation of the party on the part of official politics and mainstream media is ambiguous. On the one hand, some of them suggest that it is a mere “brain-child”, conjured into being by “drawing-board strategists” who were able to “sweep under the carpet all inner-party conflicts, e.g. the women’s quota, the controversy over German military interventions abroad and the question of government participation. However, other commentators believe the party is viable, since it has shown itself to be “capable of mobilising” and “extremely populist”.
The prejudice against populism is widespread in Germany. Social Democracy, above all, strictly distinguishes itself from “populism”. For it, TheLEFT has no future since many of its demands are “old fashioned” and “nostalgic” ones aimed at restoring the Federal Republic of the 1970s and 1980s. It is insinuated that The LEFT seeks national isolation and the refusal of any international responsibility. The new party is thus regarded as backward-looking, populist and conservative. It has allegedly not drawn conclusions from globalisation, the changes in the world of work and demographic shifts. As a result it is accused of not being able to defend the interests of the unemployed and the dependently employed.
Social justice and the overcoming of globalised financial-market capitalism are indeed essential issues for the new party. While the neoliberal mainstream claims that in the age of globalisation, workers income of the type that provides security, adequate unemployment compensation and poverty-resistant old-age pensions are no longer possible, The LEFT presents itself as the only party that champions a poverty-resistant social state. And this is its “nostalgia”: Under today’s new conditions, it demands the creation of poverty-resistant social nets that halt the further expansion of modern capitalism’s culture of insecurity, restore support and planned security to the great majority of the population and make possible a more extensive basis for individual development.
The strategy of dismantling the social state and Agenda 2010 have, under Social democratic leadership, accelerated structural changes in German capitalism – with the resulting deepening of social divisions, massive impoverishment and processes of increasing social estrangement. German capitalism’s competitive capacity was fostered by orgies of wage-cost reduction and a brutal extension of the work day. Tax give-aways for enterprises and the well-to-do boosted the rise of financial-market capitalism. Gregor Gysi is correct in writing: “In the last ten years, the only industrialised country in which real wages declined by 5 percent is Germany under the watch of Social Democracy. And as a consequence we suddenly get a critique of capitalism in the old Federal Republic such as has never occurred after 1949.” (Gysi 2007: 60). This is the basic raison d’etre of the new party. “Against many predictions, it has shown that the forces of the PDS and WASG dispose of a sufficient social consensus of values and can also achieve the minimal necessary strategic agreement on the goals required.” (Brie 2007: 30)
The massive social changes, growing social polarisation and lack of alternatives within the established party system have not “automatically” brought The LEFT into being. Without the many activists belonging to very small left parties, without trade union activists and civil society organisations contributing their experience and capacities, the party would not have been created. However, the converse is also true: The LEFT on its side has been essential to the strengthening of the tendency inside the trade unions already underway for some years to seek political autonomy and independence from the parties. The SPD’s strategy to turn the limitations of the minimum wage into an instrument of their campaign for the federal elections in 2009 will fail to re-establish the long-standing privileged alliance between trade unions and the SPD. The experience with Agenda 2010, the Hartz IV laws and the silent pension reduction – pension age of 67 – have heavily damaged the political credibility of Social Democracy. Without any doubt, the WASG and PDS have reshuffled the cards in the political playing field.
However, along with the excellent results in the 2005 federal elections, the party-building process also has its negative aspects. The low participation in the WASG’s final membership survey had to do with the fact that after the initial euphoria quite a few of the approximately 10,000 members withdrew from active political engagement. Most protagonists of the unification process are well aware that the organisational tour de force of the last two years occurred at the expense of programmatic and strategic clarity. The cultural, historical, and political differences between the constituent parties were and still are great, even if in the so called “Programmatic Cornerstones” it is stated that “the degree of programmatic commonality worked out by the WASG and Left Party.PDS on the path to a new party … is a sufficiently stable basis on which to found a new party of the left.” (Programmatic Cornerstones, 2007: 1)
In the current capitalist logic, wages, work time and labour conditions are regarded as mere residuals. The massive extension of precarious life and work conditions resulting from this – and further exacerbated by politics – hampers the articulation of an effective social protest by those affected. The fear of social decline arising from precarisation also has repercussions on the majority of wage dependent workers. The consequences are an increase in right-wing populist views as well as a growing distance from all forms of political participation. The decline of confidence in the political system and in the parties can be measured by the continual increase in the proportion of non-voters. The major parties are losing their guiding objectives, their historical subjects and their social roots. There is no guarantee of success for the new political formation. “Organisations, trade unions, parties – they are never goals in themselves. They are always only means to the end of giving a voice to the powerless, to those who want to participate, who can only achieve something if they act together.” (Lafontaine 2007:15).
What The LEFT must do is more than to become, in professional politics, the advocate who simply points to the lack of justice and by doing so gets good results in popular surveys regarding his competence in the area of social justice. As a matter of fact, the social basis of The LEFT itself, its members as well as its electorate, is affected by the social divisions produced by both the hard and the soft forms of neoliberal policies. This development is dynamic and diverse and leads to a generally contradictory and precarious income picture for wage-dependent workers, divisions that also touch middle-class sectors, both in their “fear of being crushed” as well as in their resentment of the reform of the solidary social security systems. Not all actors and currents in the party are equally conscious of what the historical moment demands of the party’s claims to carry out a transitional politics.
The new party’s success corresponds to the decline of Social Democracy. The SPD is being squeezed by both the decline in its membership and its diminishing share of the popular vote. It is coming under pressure from two sides: the better-earning social strata with high educational capital are renouncing their allegiance and see their political sensibility better addressed by the Greens and the parties of the bourgeois camp. The lower social strata also see their interests increasingly less well represented by the SPD. The watering down of the SPD has been going on for decades and after 2005 it spread to all levels of politics (Gullner 2007: 20).
The SPD leadership hopes against hope. Somewhere, sometime, they believe, there will be a harnessing of capital movements at the European or international level. The return to an economic coalition for prosperity – this is the illusion of Social Democracy – will make us forget the many cut-backs in, and damage done to, the social security system. Under these conditions, they believe, unemployment will be further reduced, and through a minimum-wage policy as well as a struggle against poverty, we shall be able to provide for general participation in the economic expansion.
In order to withstand the logic of financialmarket capitalism, there needs to be a political holding of the line against wage pressure and the expansion of poverty. The foundation of left politics must be the improvement of precarious work and life conditions. Neoliberal politics has introduced a constant increase in the existing social gaps in wealth distribution. The spread of precarisation has to a large extent undermined social security and social citizens’ rights. Minimum-wage policy, work-time reduction and the struggle against poverty are indispensable; however, they need to be integrated into a policy of change in wealth distribution and a basic social reform.
Wage labour is also of central importance in the longer-term future. Achieving, through economic policy, high employment levels requires passing a dynamised minimum-wage law, a policy of work-time reduction with supporting political measures, and a strategy of re-extension of the public sectors. Such a social policy programme can only be financed if the asymmetry in wealth distribution between incomes from work, on the one hand, and enterprise and wealth incomes, on the other hand, is changed.
Under the prevailing conditions, the political left considers the return to a lasting constellation of prosperity to be an illusion. The predominant export orientation, with a domestic market marred by insufficient mass purchasing power, not only leads to an increasing division between earnings, i.e. wealth income on the one hand, and wages on the other, but at the same time to a generally contradictory and increasingly precarious evolution of income among the wage dependent. A survey confirms that despite the rise in business activity, 36 % of citizens are financially worse off than a year ago. Fifty-one percent did not notice any change in their economic situation; and only 12 % are better off today than in the year 2006. (Suddeutsche Zeitung, July 20, 2007: 17). The LEFT therefore can and must, on the basis of a policy of transitional demand, turn social division into a general topic, which means that in the economy and the social security systems it must try to force a policy switch against hard and soft forms of neoliberalism.
The LEFT can only do justice to the claim that they give the weak a voice and represent their social positions, if it is capable, through educational offerings at all levels, of confronting the most important political and economic phenomena of the present and suggesting cogent theoretical explanations.
However, The LEFT must be more than a “voice” in the sense of political relationships of representation. Now that the parliament and the party system themselves are in real crisis, The LEFT should also project itself as a force for the renewal of politics and its structures. The new party should prove itself not only to be a force of expansion, but also of the opening up of the political system to new actors – that would be a truly democratic reform.
The left faces this task not only in Germany. In recent years, the European Left on the whole has again and again been confronted with at least three challenges that force it to rethink and to renew its method of political work.
On the one hand, European Social Democracy, since the collapse of state socialism and not without the powerful influence of neoliberal ideology, is undergoing a transformation that is not yet complete. Moments of breakdown, correction, and renewal are intertwined here. The “left wing of the left” is always asked to provide itself with detailed accounts of the contours and potential effect of a modernised Social Democracy.
On the other hand, the European Left has tried to establish new forms of cooperation with the global-justice movements. Constellations that can grow, however, have up to now have not been developed.
Nevertheless, the Left in Germany and in the European Union can become stronger. In order to unfold its potential, it ought not to see its goal mainly in becoming a party of government, and least of all in situations where its action programme becomes unrecognisable behind a mountain of alleged “realpolitik”. It is crucial that its activities open up alternatives in social opinion formation: introduction of a social minimum wage, a solidary citizens’ insurance, a new world economic order as a perspective coming from the critique of the G8 and a global structure of peace that brings a reformed United Nations into play. Decisive for the development of the new formation is the credibility of its social and systemic criticism. Already now, The LEFT has to agree programmatically on one main task – on the change in the relationship of forces as the condition of another politics.
Brie, Michael (2007): The Left Party – Partner for a Reform Alternative, in: New Society 6.
Gullner, Manfred (2007): Criticism of the Contours, in: Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, July 20, 2007.
Gysi, Gregor (2007): We Are Becoming More Important, What Then?, in: Disput, June.
Lafontaine, Oskar (2007): We Should Not Disappoint the Hopes of the 4.1 million, in: Disput, June.
Programmatic Cornerstones (2007).
Solty, Ingar (2007): The Transformation of the German Party System and the Historical European Responsibility of the Left Party, in: Argument 271.
Spier, Tim, Butzlaff, Felix et al.(2007), The Left Party, Wiesbaden.