Germany: 'Not the poor, but the rich must pay' ― a proposal from the past to fight austerity

Issue 

Economic collapse drives workers into hunger and destitution. Foreign powers extort huge payments, forcing the national economy toward bankruptcy. The government forces workers to pay the costs of capitalist crisis.

This description of Greece in 2012 applies equally to Germany in 1921.

How should a workers’ party respond? The German Communist Party (KPD) proposed a simple fiscal policy: tax those who own the country’s productive wealth.

The KPD's policy received lip service from Germany's two social-democratic parties and trade union leaders. The Communists, however, called on all workers’ organisations to unite in concerted action to win the demand.

Florian Wilde, a Berlin-based historian and member of Die Linke (The Left), looks at the KPD approach below. The article was translated by Daniel Tucker-Simmons for Socialist Review, from which the article is reprinted.

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The story is always the same: the state's coffers are empty.

In Germany, 90 years ago, that raised the question of who should pay for the burgeoning public debt. This had been caused by the reparations payments to the victors of World War I stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles.

Towards the end of 1921, an attempt was made to shift the burden of debt to the working class through higher sales taxes. The German Communist Party (KPD) opposed this, demanding instead higher taxes on wealth and the seizure of assets.

To realise these demands, the KPD employed its united front strategy, which had been adopted at the Jena party congress in August.

The guiding principle behind the Communists' tax policy, wrote KPD chairperson Ernst Meyer in the party's paper, was "to prevent the deterioration of the living standards of the broad masses" and "to shift the entire tax burden to the owning class".

For that reason, the KPD’s parliamentary deputies would "resist all taxes that worsen the living standards of the proletariat".

In contrast to the other parties, the KPD would primarily try to "pressure the government and the bourgeoisie to prevent the [sales] taxes by all extraparliamentary means".

If the Communists were unable to stop the new taxes, they would intensify the struggle for higher wages, Meyer said. The principal task of the KPD was to "harness all proletarian forces for this extraparliamentary struggle".

To that end, the party would be prepared to support the inadequate proposals of other workers' parties "if these proposals provide a basis to initiate struggles and thus accelerate the establishment of a United Front of the entire proletariat against the capitalists".

For Meyer, the struggle for "partial goals" was therefore linked to the Communists' "final goals" as he underscored at the party conference in November.

"We fight taxes," he said, "in order to shift the balance of power".

By its demand to seize assets, the KPD intended the state to expropriate a proportion of stocks, bonds, landholdings, factories and mines. It said this was how the debts should be paid off and how higher wages and an active social policy could be financed.

This demand, it was hoped, would make it possible for all workers to join in common defensive actions, especially as the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were on record backing similar proposals.

The KPD proposed to union and SPD executive committees a coordinated mobilisation of the working class to implement the asset seizure, as well as to defend the eight-hour workday and the right to strike.

In its national newsletter, the KPD's central leaders explained that the asset seizure was "a spark to ignite revolutionary struggles with limited goals, and to expand these struggles from the fight over taxes to general confrontations with the bourgeoisie".

This explanation was necessary because the campaign for asset seizure was far from uncontroversial even in the KPD. The left flank of the party called it inadequate and reformist. It sharply criticised the central leaders.

In an article for Inprekorr, the newspaper of the Moscow-based Communist International, Meyer countered that the demands for asset seizure were admittedly not "purely communist or, in themselves, revolutionary. They can be supported and are put forward by all workers' organisations.

“But the attempt to implement them means the intensification of the class struggle against all the capitalist parties, who will oppose the realisation of these demands with all their power ...

“The attempt to implement them also means rejecting of any coalition with the bourgeoisie, and further, it presages the replacement of the bourgeois parliamentary government with a purely socialist one."

Thus, the united front policy's goal was to raise demands that were in the interests of the entire working class, that were also shared with other workers' organisations, and necessitated an intensified confrontation with capital.

These demands were to be achieved above all by extra-parliamentary action, going beyond the scope of parliament-centred, social-democratic politics.