May 2012, Week 4


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Thu, 24 May 2012 20:59:23 -0400
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Once Again: Problems on the German Left

by Victor Grossman

Published by Portside

Berlin Bulletin No. 43
May 25, 2012

What is the matter with Germany's Left Party? Or, more
bluntly, can it be saved? What is the truth about the
charismatic leader Oskar Lafontaine, from West German
Saarland, who suddenly, surprisingly withdrew from the fight
for party leadership? Is he really out of the running? And is
that good or bad? What are the chances for the two young women
who now want the job as co-presidents? The tradition in the
party - a very brief two year old tradition - requires one man
and one woman, one easterner and one westerner. What about two

Up until two years ago the party was growing handily. Before
2007 its East German predecessor could depend on about 18 to
30 percent in the five eastern states, but only 1-2 percent in
the West. After uniting with a new leftwing party in the West
this jumped in 2009 to almost 12 percent nationally, which
meant 76 seats in the Bundestag. It cleared the 5 percent
hurdle in one West German state after the other, winning seats
in state parliaments - not many, but enough to shake things
up. On all levels it was a threat to Social Democrats and
Greens, hitherto largely unchallenged as "the progressives" of
West Germany even when their policies, when in power, were
hardly distinguishable from the two rightist parties. The
successes of the Left made them panic! The old government
cart, with two wheels clearly on the right and two sort of
just a little to the left, was bumping smugly along until a
truly left fifth wheel threatened to spill all the apples!

Uncompromising disclosure of their past sins and many voters'
leftward switch were due in no small measure to the clear,
persuasive, knowledgeable contributions of Oskar Lafontaine,
the head of the Social Democrat Party until he abandoned it
for abandoning working people.

Most members of the Left were enthusiastic. But then two
things happened. He withdrew from active politics because of a
luckily successful fight with cancer. And a tide of opposition
to Lafontaine gradually heightened, both to his person and to
his policies.

The media kept up a two-pronged policy, wrapping every
accomplishment of the party in deep, dark silence but
triumphantly exaggerating every blunder, quarrel or mishap -
often, sadly, with the help of one of the party leadership.
And there was the nub of the problem. Two wings of the party
flapped so hard that they prevented any flight upwards. It was
often difficult to rise up from the ground.

The issues have often been outlined in these articles. The
party went on record rejecting any use of German weapons and
warriors outside German borders, as stated in the
constitution, and based on German history. But Social
Democratic and Greens leaders angrily reject any coalition
with a party holding to such a ban. After all, they helped
bomb Serbia, and German servicemen now wield weapons from
Somalia and Lebanon to the heights of Hindu Kush. The Left
party reformers, always dreaming of just such a coalition,
want to loosen this ban on all military allocation, which they
call dogmatic. Loosen it just a little; for a start, the
others fear.

These others, the "fundis" - fundamentalists, who mostly
consider themselves Marxists - reject any further
privatization of utilities or public housing; some call for
nationalizing failed banks. The reformers generally agree, but
not so strictly; they can imagine compromises.

There are also disputes about the GDR, the late East German
Democratic Republic, which the reformers usually condemn and
reject as harshly as the other four parties, while the fundis
call for a balanced view, weighing good and bad aspects in the
failed attempt to build socialism.

There are variations: some lean both ways. But what is boils
down to, when fancy duds are removed and the naked truth
exposed: The reformers hope to improve life here, if possible
as recognized players in the game, and seek alliances,
especially with Social Democrats. The latter are not trusted
by the fundamentalists, who reject the capitalist system, want
a democratic but basic change and fear becoming just a
slightly leftish part of the establishment.

Dietmar Bartsch, the tall young man from Mecklenburg, north of
Berlin, is a reformer; last autumn he announced his wish to
become president. His hopes were enhanced when the popular
East Berlin Gesine Loetzsch, left of center, withdrew from the
race because of the ill health of her husband. Bartsch and the
Forum for Democratic Socialism which supports him wanted an
election by ballot even before the June Congress; this idea
was ruled out and he continued to build up his campaign. Those
opposing his policies feared his presidency and rejoiced when
Lafontaine offered to run for the top job. His ability,
authority and above all his relative popularity among West
Germans, so important for the future, seemed the only hope of
a response to Bartsch. The fronts were growing sharper and
nastier by the day while the media, including Neues
Deutschland, the newspaper close to the party, kept pushing
Bartsch, who was backed above all by party leaders in the
eastern states. No one really knew which side East German
grass roots delegates would prefer but a nasty split seemed
inevitable, resulting in an end to hopes for that 5 percent in
2013, and basically for the future of the party.

The reformers pointed out that while the party lost out in two
West German states, it won several local elections in eastern
Thuringia, partly because of electoral agreements with the
Social Democrats. The fact that its policy of coalition
governments in the east had twice ended in a fiasco - and was
costing more and more Left votes where it still held - was
conveniently forgotten and overlooked.

This controversy, lasting at least two years, was largely
responsible for the lack of much visible activity for the
benefit of the German people. In disgust with all the parties,
now including the Left, a sizable number of voters, especially
young ones, opted for the glamorous new Pirates party, even
though it has yet to offer any real program and has also been
plagued by conflicts. But it got the wide and favorable media
attention denied the Left, which was increasingly ignored even
on the official national level and despite its 76 Bundestag

Now, suddenly, the picture has altered completely. Lafontaine
withdrew from the race, saying he did not wish to engage in a
win-or-lose duel which could split the party. The media, whose
campaign of slurs and cunning innuendo had influenced his
decision, now rejoiced, but many in the party were greatly
saddened, seeing in him perhaps the most successful fighter
the party had ever had. They now feared an easy Bartsch
victory and a switch of the party to one compromise after the

Then, unexpectedly, two new hats landed in the ring, both of
them female. One belonged to Katja Kipping, 34, a youthful
redhead with an MA in Slavic Studies, American Studies and
Public Law, who worked her way up in the party, was elected to
the Bundestag and in 2009 became one of the party's vice-
chairpersons. Always a staunch advocate of a guaranteed basic
income for everyone, she cannot be clearly categorized in
either party wing.

Her new partner is Katharina Schwabedissen, 39, a trained
nurse, who headed the state party in its bitter defeat in
North Rhine-Westphalia - not exactly a big plus point, but no
one doubts that she fought a tough battle. She, too, has
avoided taking clear sides in the party conflict. That is
perhaps the hope for the party. The idea of these two young
women assuming the lead seems to have raised hopes that the
party will survive and at last quit quarreling and fight
harder for all the causes so urgently needed in Germany,
especially since economic predictions have again grown

Still, the election on June 2-3 in Goettingen is by no means
certain. Bartsch is resisting growing pressure to withdraw his
candidacy, several others have suggested that they, too, might
be willing, and an interesting "third woman" is not fully out
of the question. Sahra Wagenknecht, 43, is probably the best
theoretician in the party and a forceful, expressive speaker,
able to hold her own in the most one-sided talk show debates.
Like Kipping, she is now a vice-chair of the party, though
definitely from the party's left wing. She had an unusual
handicap: for some time she has had a very close relationship
with Lafontaine, not only political in nature. They love each
other (to the malicious glee of the media). Had he become top
leader, it would not have been forbidden but still quite
embarrassing for her to assume any leading position. Now she
may just possibly be in the running. Most certainly for some
executive job.

All in all, it seems certain to be a difficult congress, but
the chances have increased that a left-wing party can be
saved - such as was sadly missing for so many pre-war and
post-war decades, and is needed so urgently for what look like
many rough, tough years ahead, not only in Greece, Spain,
Italy and Portugal, but also in one of the economically,
politically and militarily most important countries in Europe
and the world.



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