Germany: Die Linke's road to an anti-capitalist program

Delegates vote at Die Linke's conference.
November 19, 2011

Late on October 23, the culminating vote of the program congress of the German Left Party (Die Linke) came in Erfurt’s cavernous Congress Centre: 503 delegates raised their voting cards to support the document as finally amended by the congress, with only four against and 12 abstentions.

Die Linke has operated since 2007 on the basis of the “programmatic key points” that created Die Linke from the fusion of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG).

Die Linke’s new program depicts the 75,000-strong party’s “genetic code” much more sharply — it is anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist, feminist, ecological, pacifist, internationalist, and for social justice and democratic rights.

The program pinpoints capitalist property as the source of social and environmental ills. It champions working people against the “rulers of the universe” — as evoked in the stirring Bertolt Brecht poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads”, adopted by the congress as the program’s preface.

The road to Erfurt

This 96.9% yes vote showed overwhelming support for a document whose initial draft, drawn up by the party’s former co-chairs Lothar Bisky and Oskar Lafontaine, first appeared in March 2010. An exhaustive discussion was organised, culminating in an 800-strong program convention in November 2010.

In March, an editorial commission under new party co-chairs Klaus Ernst and Gesine Lotzsch evaluated all feedback from this first phase. In July, the party’s executive board sent out an amended document as the congress’s main motion.

The feedback, reflecting Die Linke’s involvement in many areas of struggle, made the second draft more radical and concrete.

The main economic features of what Die Linke means by democratic socialism were spelled out, including democratic socialisation of large scale industry, key sections of the finance sector, infrastructure, utilities and transport.

Die Linke was defined as a “socialist and feminist political party that wants to eliminate patriarchal and capitalist relationships”.

The party’s anti-war stance was more clearly specified. The draft also greatly upgraded its treatment of the environmental crisis and climate change.

There was also a clearer specification of Die Linke’s conditions for taking part in coalition governments. This stressed that “we want another policy and are fighting for hegemony in the public discussion” and that “left policy must always be able to rely on the trade unions and other social movements and the mobilisation of extra-parliamentary pressure”.

1400 amendments

In just two months, Die Linke members offered nearly 1400 changes to this new text — which needed to be discussed and voted on over just three days.

It was inevitable that the party program process would accentuate the many different perspectives inside Die Linke. It is probably the broadest European left organisation, covering trends from revolutionary socialist to democratic-liberal. It contains at least six organised currents.

The main questions in dispute were:
Under what conditions to take part in government? The first pole is made up of those inclined to support Die Linke participation in Social Democratic Party (SPD)-majority governments. Their argument is that this is what the party’s voters want — especially in the East — and that the resulting administrations have always been better than otherwise. Against are those such as Lafontaine, who stress that Die Linke “must always make very clear that we do not belong to the neoliberal party cartel”.

To support a guaranteed minimum income or not? The Emancipatory Left current supports this so as “to uncouple the right to a secure existence and social participation for everyone from employment”. It is resisted by the party’s trade unionists, who see it as potentially undermining the struggle for jobs and decent wages and conditions.

Is Die Linke a pacifist party? The strong pacifist tradition in Germany, a product of the country’s militaristic past, is reflected inside the party in a broad rejection of any German military operation. Opponents point to humanitarian disasters that might have been avoided by military intervention —such as in Rwanda and Darfur. They argue Die Linke should take a case-by-case approach.

Should Die Linke oppose all cuts in public service jobs? Privatisation of public services has led some to demand no cuts to public service numbers. But members in the east point to declining population, demand for services and public sector jobs.

Is opposition to Israel anti-Semitic? Die Linke took part in the “boycott Israel” campaign and the first Gaza aid flotilla. This provoked a media barrage about “left-wing anti-Semitism”. Die Linke has since withdrawn from these campaigns, disappointing its supporters of Palestinian rights.





These tensions were heightened by its stagnation in support in the seven state polls this year. In Berlin elections in September, its vote fell by 4.5% and for the first time a new political force appeared on Die Linke’s left flank — the Pirate Party.

The pirates’ success haunted the conference. There was great concern that, in Berlin at least, Die Linke had ceased to be the cool anti-establishment party for young people.

The program debate was also becoming another corporate media stick to beat Die Linke with. Lurid publicity was given to the “mad” positions of some members in such areas as drug reform.

The Social Democratic party (SPD) also smelled blood: SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel kept up a steady drumbeat of “invitations” to Die Linke trade unionists to “leave the madhouse” and return to their rightful home in the SPD.

The compromise

In this atmosphere, it was clear the decision on how to handle the amendments wasn’t just an organisational challenge. The party had to judge what the political impact would be of an all-out fight over its differences.

The first step, taken by the executive board a week before the conference, was to incorporate amendments acceptable to it. This removed about 270 amendments.

It also produced new sections on equality on the internet, open borders for people in need, youth and aged rights, sexuality rights, religion and sport, as well as a demand for the minimum wage to be set at 60% of average earnings.

This amended text also incorporated a number of compromise positions on some of the controversial issues: guaranteed minimum income was to be a subject of ongoing discussion and Die Linke would propose a “Will Brandt Peace Corps” to help in case of genuine humanitarian crises.

Three other proposed steps were to only discuss amendments proposed by party organisations or at least 25 congress delegates, not vote on purely editorial amendments and to group remaining amendments in blocs according to the sections of the draft program.

Movers would be given a minute to explain their amendment. Then congress would vote whether it wanted to move to discussion of amendments individually (with two speakers for and two against).

The congress overwhelmingly voted for this procedure. Delegates then faced the enormous task of working through the congress’s 110 page amendment book.

Party deputy-chair and leading radical figure Sarah Wagenknecht gave a speech on behalf of the executive board, calling for delegates to “pass a program that you know we can all support”.

Discussion

After voting up this filtering process, the single amendments finally adopted came to only 18. One committed Die Linke to oppose genetically modified organisms, while most of the rest involved reinforcing the party’s stances of principle (on anti-fascism and sexual freedom, for example).

One, however, caused controversy (and stirred the media to frenzy) — a proposal to eliminate the distinction between soft and hard drugs.

It seemed to commit Die Linke to the legalisation of hard drugs. Gregor Gysi, the party’s Bundestag fraction leader, immediately sought to explain it only meant making hard drugs available where needed medically, but that was not in the wording.

A special amendment to the amendment was then proposed to make this clear, which delegates overwhelmingly supported.

In the debate on German military engagements, the case-by-case position was soundly defeated.

After two-and-a-half days of gruelling work, the delegates’ job was done. To fit everything in, breaks were shortened and the Saturday evening dance cancelled.

But political inspiration came from the speeches by Gysi and Lafontaine. Gysi stressed the achievement involved in Die Linke adopting a program “from the bottom up”. The job now, he half-joked, “is to make it intelligible to the women on the check-out counters — our natural supporters”.

He urged the party to “take the pirates seriously — this is a warning sign for us. It says we are being seen as establishment when we are not.

“If we don’t re-win youth support, we are lost.”

As for inner-party tensions, Gysi said it was far better to have a variegated Die Linke than the old unanimity of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party. “We need both our wings. If we had only our ‘realistic’ wing, we would be too like the SPD; if we had only our radical wing we would be isolated.”

Gysi urged the delegates to appreciate that the new program was a magnificent weapon with which to outgun Die Linke’s political rivals — “Greens who are not green nor peace-loving, Social Democrats who don’t support workers’ rights and the ‘small business-loving’ Free Democrats who ruin small business”.

Lafontaine said in relation to government alliances: “We have to show that we are ready to cooperate with anyone who’s prepared to put people’s interests first: Social Democrats who recover some social democracy, Greens who get some colour back. But on our terms, and when we can show concrete benefits for working people.”

He said: “The financial crisis can be for us what Fukushima was to the Greens — it gives us an invaluable opening to convince millions about what has to be done about the banks and the economy.”
Lafontaine urged the delegates to turn confidently outward now that the program had been adopted: “We are needed there more than ever before.”

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Green Left Weekly. He represented Australia’s Socialist Alliance at the conference. A longer version of this article can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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