Germany: SPD's Third Way, a recipe for disaster

Things are changing fast in Germany. In September 1998, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) scored a big victory in the Bundestag elections, ousting the bourgeois coalition under Kohl which had held power for 16 years. The new "red-green" coalition government under chancellor Schröder was greeted with great hope by millions of workers, unemployed, old age pensioners and youth. Now the SPD as well as the Greens are stumbling from defeat to catastrophe to disaster.

Things are changing fast in Germany. In September 1998, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) scored a big victory in the Bundestag elections, ousting the bourgeois coalition under Kohl which had held power for 16 years. The new "red-green" coalition government under chancellor Schröder was greeted with great hope by millions of workers, unemployed, old age pensioners and youth. Now the SPD as well as the Greens are stumbling from defeat to catastrophe to disaster.

In June 1999 a four month election marathon began with the elections to the European parliament and ended with the council elections in Berlin on October 10th. The SPD losses in the Berlin local elections of October 10 were smaller than many activists and commentators had expected, after the previous disastrous results. Immediately the Schröderites in the party apparatus celebrated this as a positive sign of stabilisation. Yet 22.4% in the city of Willy Brandt where the party had safe overall majorities in the 1950s and 1960s was the worst result since World War Two.

Superficial observers could come to the conclusion that the masses are turning back to Kohl's Christian Democrats. In fact, the Christian Democrats scored big gains in percentage terms in virtually all of these elections and managed to take over SPD strongholds such as the state governments of Hessen and the Saarland and the councils of important cities such as Cologne, Düsseldorf and Essen. Should this trend continue and should the SPD lose their strongholds in Schlesweig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia next Spring, the Schröder administration will be in most serious trouble.

The CDs do appear to be the strongest and most stable bourgeois party of Europe, having recovered rapidly from the historic defeat in 1998. However, the election results of 1999 are not an expression of enthusiasm with the CDs but rather an expression of frustration and disappointment with the SPD dominated Schröder government.

A general feature has been the low turn-out in all the recent elections, in some urban areas reaching British and American dimensions well below 50%, and there was no major swing of millions to the CDs. In the states of Brandenburg and the Saarland the number of non-voters has doubled since the 1998 general election. Whereas the CDs managed to mobilise their electoral potential much better, the SPD failed completely.

In comparison with the number of SPD voters in September 1998, the SPD lost:

  • 26% in Hessen in February
  • 38% in Bremen in June
  • 59% in the Euro elections nationally
  • 31% in the Saarland in September
  • 61% in Thuringia in September
  • 71% in Saxony in September
  • 53% in Berlin in October.

In addition to the generally high levels of abstention, in the Eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony, Brandenburg, and East Berlin, the PDS (the former East German Communist Party which in the last two national elections scored over 5% and has stabilised itself) gained at the expense of the SPD. In Thuringia the PDS for the first time eclipsed the SPD, and in Saxony the SPD scored less than half of the votes cast for the PDS. This shows that when there is a strong and established party to the left of the SPD (and not just a small sectarian grouplet) taking up burning questions facing the workers, the unemployed and one parent families and raising "social equality" slogans, gains are possible.

However, the PDS is still mainly a party of the East and has only just managed to reach 3000 members in the West (whereas it has over 85,000 in the East). Nevertheless, in the elections in West Berlin as well as in the municipal elections in the industrial heartlands of the West, in North Rhine Westphalia, the PDS made some advances and gained dozens of local councillors (over 4% in the City of Duisburg). But elsewhere (such as in the Saarland state elections) the PDS in the West is still at the level of a one percenter.

Of course, Marxists should not be surprised by the fact that a government lead by the German Blairite Schröder, and firmly based on capitalism and liberalism, should come into serious trouble and frustrate their working class and left wing supporters. What is surprising is how quickly this crisis has developed.

SPD election Manifesto

Under pressure from below and from the unions, the SPD election manifesto had contained some clear statements in favour of the reversal of some drastic cuts and attacks carried out under Kohl. This was enthusiastically applauded in the election rallies and - against the background of a general time-for-a-change feeling - secured victory. However, the manifesto also stated that any further reforms were strictly subject to the financial premises in the state budget, thus hinting that after an initial honeymoon period harsh cuts would be on the order of the day.

The Hessen election in February marked the end of the honeymoon period for the Schröder administration when the Christian Democrats, on the basis of a racist campaign, managed to score a narrow, unexpected victory and take over the state government there. Their ambitious and reactionary leader Koch had campaigned with law and order slogans, mainly with his opposition to double nationality for immigrants. This was a relatively progressive step and an overdue piece of legislation proposed by the Schröder government to enable millions of immigrants to acquire German nationality without necessarily abandoning their original nationality (a matter of course in many Western countries). However, the CDs mobilised to collect signatures "against the foreigners" up and down the country. This was followed by the victory of Koch. The tame Social Democrats were intimidated by all this and Schröder rushed to make a watered down compromise on the issue with the liberal Free Democrats (who had been in Kohl's government for 16 years but would not support the racist campaign).

Only a few weeks later, the conflict between big business and the Schröderites on the one hand and the then finance minister and SPD chairman, Oskar Lafonaine, reached new heights. Twenty-two top managers from the commanding heights of the economy warned Schröder not to introduce changes in the tax system proposed by Lafontaine. The major insurance company, Allianz, threatened to move their headquarters abroad. The Handelsblatt newspaper, (a sort of German Financial Times), on March 1st quoted a top manager saying that the "revolution of big business has begun". Against Schröder and the minister of the economy, Müller (a non-party member and former industrial manager), Lafontaine made public statements in those days saying that the big companies and banks had enough cash to make a bigger financial contribution to the state revenue. With ideas based on Keynesianism and with the aim of exerting an effective political control over the finance sector, Lafontaine provoked conflicts with big business and their direct representatives in the cabinet and at the same time encouraged the unions to fight for bigger wage rises in the February-March wage round.

Lafontaine's resignation

In mid March, Lafontaine resigned from all his political positions (cabinet minister, party chairman and MP). Although he had never been a consistent left winger, he had raised hopes and had been a point of reference for many left wing activists and trade unionists and was seen as a counterweight to Blairism in the SPD. His resignation came as a major shock to many grassroots activists. Lafontaine renounced everything, leaving the path open to Schröder who was elected party chairman in a special conference convened a month later. It is clear that on the basis of an open political fight against the right turn of the government, Lafontaine could have got an enormous echo and support. But he went home and kept his mouth shut. It was not until May Day that he reappeared in public and made statements critical of the policy pursued by the Schröder administration.

Party and union activists had only just digested the shock after Lafontaine's resignation when for the first time in 54 years the German army was involved in warfare. The new coalition, above all the new Green foreign minister Fischer, had emphasised "continuity" in German foreign policy and thus for them it was a matter of course that Germany should actively participate in the NATO war against Yugoslavia. Whereas in other European imperialist countries such as Britain and France imperialist wars had always been on the order of the day even in the so-called "post war period", in Germany pacifism and the idea of abstention from international military intervention had had a strong basis in the labour movement. The fact that it was a "red-green" coalition that launched the third aggressive war of Germany against Serbia this century produced shock and disgust with many labour movement activists. Although under the impact of media and government propaganda a silent majority in the country (especially in the West) and loyal members in the labour organisations tolerated the war (there was no enthusiasm for the war), a number of party activists with a long tradition broke with the party apparatus and resigned from membership.

Another blow followed suit. Just a few days before the Euro elections the Blair-Schröder document arguing for the "third way" was launched, allegedly to mobilise voters from the "new centre". Yet Schröder's SPD and Blair's New Labour turned out to be the main losers of the Euro elections. Of the 20 millions votes cast nationally for the SPD in 1998, the party lost nearly 12 million this time!

Although ordinary working people do not normally bother much about manifestos and lengthy documents, the message was clearly felt by many party and union activists - many of whom keep the local ward branches, the district organisations, the union branches and shop steward committees going: This allegedly "modern" Blair-Schröder document represents an attempt to break with 150 years of labour movement traditions and is a recipe for privatisation, for the further dismantling of the welfare state and attacks on the poor and the unemployed.

Programme of cuts

The practical consequences of this document followed suit. Just before the summer holidays, the cabinet passed a programme of cuts to the amount of 30 billion DM per year which will hit especially the unemployed and pensioners, whereas corporations and the rich in general are to be found on the winning side. Whereas in the 1998 election Schröder had promised that combating unemployment was going to be the number one task of his new administration, now it is sound budgets, sound budgets, sound budgets, with the unemployed being subjected to more pressure to accept any job however badly paid it might be.

Schröder would like to present himself as an iron chancellor, and after the defeat in the Euro elections he promised that his home policy was "going to be as good as his foreign policy" (what a threat!!!). As though they lived in cloud cuckoo land, the government argues that their course may be unpopular for the time being but will produce results in the medium term and lay the basis for a sustained boom and a return to office in the 2002 elections. However, even before a world economic crisis they could quickly find themselves facing the abyss.

It should not come as a surprise that party and union activists at recent conferences have voiced strong criticism of the government line. This is the most serious crisis of the SPD for decades: landslide defeats in elections have acquired proportions not reached since the 1920s and 1930s. The question is: how is this opposition voiced and organised? Here you see the problem of left wing activists who hope that someone at the top will voice their criticism and express some sort of left alternative. Lafontaine, in his typical individualist approach, gave up all his positions and consulted nobody. Although his new book expresses important points of criticism, his has remained virtually silent for more than six, decisive, months. A close friend of Lafontaine's and his successor as prime minister in the Saarland, Reinhard Klimmt, was seen as a new champion and mouthpiece by many workers in the region when he openly voiced criticism of the government cuts and demanded more social justice. With his semi opposition against Schröder, Klimmt managed to motivate party activists to show a fighting spirit in the election campaign. In fact, the SPD there lost to a smaller degree than elsewhere (see figures above) and was only defeated by the regional CDs by a very narrow margin. Yet only three days after his defeat in the Saarland, this "working class champion" who had promised that he would keep on course before and after the elections was bought off as he agreed to move to Berlin to become the new minister of transport in the Schröder administration.

Many of those who are seen as the party "left", MPs and regional leading figures loosely grouped around the "Frankfurter Kreis", have stated they were not too happy about the lack of social justice in the recent programme of cuts but that they were going to vote in favour anyway.

A new opposition current of some 40 MPs (not the leading figures of the Frankfurter Kreis but a number of "back benchers" with more grassroots connections and with a bit of a left wing identity) has come out with an open document which puts forward fundamental criticism of both the Blair-Schröder document and the programme of cuts. Yet the decisive driving force of this loose opposition, former Juso deputy chair Uwe Hiksch, surprised his co-supporters in late September as he suddenly decided to resign from the SPD and join the PDS two days later. The problem is that again this was a purely individualist step. Hiksch had won a Bavarian constituency from the CDs in 1998. So far he has not found even a handful of local party activists who would be prepared to follow him. If he had remained an SPD MP and voted against the cuts, he could have become a point of reference for many activists. His resignation, before any real fight against the Schröderites has taken place, has caused further confusion rather than strengthening the opposition.

Nevertheless, in local party organisations there is a ferment taking place. Schröder got a hammering from delegates at a regional party conference in Bochum (Ruhr) at the end of September. In Frankfurt local party activists pressed for a special city party conference which eventually condemned the programme of cuts. Some have formed opposition circles with the aim of retying the knot with the "good old days" of Willy Brandt. Although there is a lot of political confusion and all those who have left the party in the past period are missing when it comes to taking a vote or electing delegates for higher organs, the ferment and crisis will continue.

Schröder is not in exactly the same position as Blair. Party and union activists as well as millions of working people are about to learn painful lessons. There is no progressive solution to unemployment or the huge budget deficit without the nationalisation of the banks and giant industrial monopolies. The ideas of Marxism have a strong tradition in the German labour movement and are going to find fertile soil again in the coming period. What we need is not a saviour from the top but to organise the alternative from below.