Public sector strikes for higher wages and the emergence of the newly founded Left Party (Die Linke) in the West of the country have dominated the political scenario of Germany in recent weeks.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel and her "Grand Coalition" of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) pride themselves about economic growth and a reduction in the official unemployment figures, tens of millions of ordinary working class people are living in a different reality.
Unlike in some European countries, real wages have fallen in Germany in recent years. In a number of sectors of the economy where there is no strong union even the absolute level of wages has gone down considerably. The process of casualisation of labour is continuing. Millions of working poor cannot live on their wages and have to ask for additional welfare benefits.
It is therefore not an accident that the idea of a national minimum wage has gained majority support among the population within a short period of time. A wage of 7.50 Euros per hour (as demanded by the DGB trade union federation) or 8.44 Euros (as demanded by the Left Party, since this corresponds with the French minimum wage, SMIC) would be seen as a blessing for millions of hotel workers, private security workers, hairdressers, private logistics workers, call centre employees, cleaners and many others.
The discontent of millions is trying to find an expression in a wave of strikes such as the national wage round in the public sector and the present strike in the municipal Berlin underground and bus company. Wherever the unions show determination and give a lead, many workers are prepared to come out for the first time in their lives and many are prepared to join a union.
Criticism of big business and increasing inequality under capitalism is being nurtured by scandals involving a number of prominent CEOs such as multi-millionaire Klaus Zumwinkel who had to give up his position after revelations of tax fraud involving accounts in the principality of Liechtenstein.
The intention to close the Nokia plant in Bochum (Ruhr) has sparked off a protest movement there and triggered off a political discussion on big business, state subsidies, public control and private ownership. The BMW management have recently announced they are slashing 8,100 jobs in spite of the fact that the trust is highly profitable. The problem is that the shareholders are pressing for a higher return on capital invested.
The public debate on the level of salaries of CEOs is partly being used as a safety valve to divert the attention away from the key issue of ownership of the means of production, banks, insurance companies and investment trusts.
At the same time, this general uneasiness is finding an expression on the political plane. In three important recent state elections the Left Party, Die Linke registered a significant breakthrough in the West. In Hessen, Lower Saxony and Hamburg, the party that was set up last June as a merger between the WASG (mainly a left split from the SPD) and the PDS (former East German CP) has managed to pass the 5 percent threshold required to get any seats at all.
This development was not a foregone conclusion and has in a way changed political relations. Serious bourgeois commentators now accept that they have to live with a five-party system in Germany. Germany has not had a relatively strong (workers') party, which has an appeal, to the left of the SPD for generations. Die Linke is now emerging in opinion polls as the number one party in the East with over 30 percent and as potential ten-percenter on a national level. In the East, the party has a strong basis in local administration and the regional parliament and is in fact a kind of left Social Democracy.
The political crisis is most advanced in Hessen. In this state in the heart of Germany numbering six million inhabitants, the local CDU had gained an overall majority with over 48% of the votes cast in 2003 and had used this position to launch a "neoliberal" offensive. This year the election on January 27 ended with a thrilling neck-to-neck race between the CDU (36.8%) und SPD (36.7%).
This is significant as the local CDU in Hessen is notorious for being particularly reactionary and when just two weeks before the election they felt that they would lose, they launched a desperate and vicious racist and anti-communist campaign, claiming that if the Left were to be elected to parliament and possibly involved in a regional government, they would gradually transform Hessen into another DDR (the former Stalinist state in East Germany which was dissolved in 1990 and taken over by the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany).
All this reactionary propaganda failed to achieve the desired effect. It was accompanied by a massive liberal campaign of posters with the slogan "freedom or socialism?" but it failed to win a majority for the two traditional bourgeois parties.
On the other hand, the SPD and Greens, who had announced that they would like to form a coalition in Hessen, also failed to win an overall majority between them and therefore will have to lean on the six MPs elected on the Die Linke slate to get the local SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti elected as state prime minister. Die Linke MPs have stated that they would vote for the Social Democratic leader to become prime minister and nominate her cabinet but would not enter a coalition in Hessen. "We are not aiming at ministerial portfolios", announced Willi van Ooyen, the parliamentary leader of Die Linke, indicating his intention to support any progressive aspects of a possible Ypsilanti government and oppose whatever is deemed reactionary.
Yet this is where the problem starts. While the SPD, Greens and Die Linke coincide on some major programmatic demands, such as the abolition of tuition fees for students and other important social and trade unions demands, and between them have a joint majority of 57 seats as against the 53 seats for the Christian Democrats and Liberals, Ypsilanti's aim of getting elected with the support of Die Linke in the state parliament has caused a major crisis within the local and national SPD in the last few days.
It is important to understand that Ypsilanti represents a "left" trend within the SPD that has never fully swallowed the Blairite policies of the Social Democratic ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder who resigned from politics after his defeat in 2005 and is now working as a lobbyist for the Russian Gazprom trust.
In the run-up to the elections within the Hessen SPD in 2006, Ypsilanti defeated her Schröderite rival Jürgen Walter by a hair's breadth. The SPD right-wingers had hoped that they could stab Ypsilanti in the back after a poor election performance and until late 2007 nobody even thought that she would have any chance of winning.
However, in the end she put on a left wing face during the election battle, openly campaigning for a national minimum wage and other social demands, and by doing so she managed to raise new hopes. This was also attractive for some disenchanted former SPD supporters who were thinking of voting for Die Linke this time round, but in the end decided to support the SPD to give Ypsilanti a chance.
In spite of this, Die Linke still managed to win 5.1 percent, with some 3,500 votes above the decisive five percent threshold. In a certain way the SPD gains in Hessen underline the fact that given the traditional orientation of the German working class towards the SPD, an SPD moving to the "left" has the potential to recover some of the ground lost. At the same time, given years of right-wing domination of the SPD, Die Linke is now consolidating itself and gaining new members.
Given Ypsilanti's unexpectedly good performance, it has proved to be difficult for the right wing within the party apparatus and parliamentary party to get their knives out and oust Ypsilanti - at least for the time being. But her hopes of forming a minority government with the Greens and getting herself elected prime minister with the six votes from the Die Linke in April were dashed last weekend after a newly elected right-wing SPD MP in the state parliament returned from holidays in Switzerland. On her return she came out against any cooperation with Die Linke and declared that she would not vote for Ypsilanti in April.
This right-wing dissident by the name of Metzger (which happens to mean "butcher") claims "conscientious reasons", arguing that she had always hated the "communists" since her childhood in West Berlin in the 1960s and therefore could not vote for Ypsilanti together with Die Linke MPs, it is clear that this is only the tip of the iceberg, behind which there is an organised intrigue of influential and well-organised right wing circles within the SPD.
The mainstream media presented Mrs Metzger as "Germany's most courageous politician" who was going to "save the credibility" of the SPD and "strengthen democracy". They want to stop any tentative shift to the left and press the SPD into a Grand Coalition with the CDU. It is not an accident that this woman is being used as a stooge and Trojan horse since her chief "coach" and father-in-law, Günther Metzger ‑ a right-wing MP in the Bundestag (national parliament) and lord mayor in the early 1970s, and a major founder of the influential right wing "Seeheimer Kreis" ‑ has just denounced the Ypsilanti leadership as a "left wing mafia".
Those people have big business connections and are prepared to do anything to prevent an open shift to the left in Hessen, which would find an echo nationally. It is clear that such an Ypsilanti government, far from being a fully fledged left-reformist government, would do many things by halves and sooner or later would enter into crisis, come under the increased pressure of the ruling class and disappoint its supporters.
However, in spite of these pressures from the bosses, they would also come under enormous pressure from the rank and file to carry out their promises and reverse the worst aspects of the "neoliberal" counter-revolution of the last 20 years. Above all, since the 16 state (Länder) governments also have a say in national politics through the Bundesrat, (Germany's second chamber), an Ypsilanti government may sooner or later have come into conflict with Merkel's federal government where SPD-right wingers such as Frank Walter Steinmeier (foreign minister) and Peer Steinbrück (finance minister) hold key positions and are now hastily preparing the privatisation of Germany's railway company, Deutsche Bahn, against the will of the party rank and file and the majority of the population.
While any comparison is inappropriate, it must not be forgotten that in 1923, the right-wing Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, then the president of the Republic, ordered the Army (Reichswehr) to intervene in the states of Saxony and Thuringia and bring down the governments there which had been formed by local left-wing Social Democrats and members of the Communist Party (KPD).
While the SPD has been in a local coalition government with Die Linke (former PDS) in the city state of Berlin since 2001 and the Die Linke there is rather tame and prepared to make many political concessions to keep their positions and privileges and whilst similar state governments might be formed elsewhere in the East in the coming years, the political establishment and SPD right-wingers regard any cooperation with Die Linke in the West as breaking a taboo.
In the case of Hessen, they hope that - with the help of the media - they can prevent such a precedent and gradually wear down and force the Ypsilanti wing to surrender. Thus they are prepared to keep the sitting, arch-reactionary Prime Minister Roland Koch in office for an indefinite period even without a parliamentary majority of his own. It remains to be seen to what extent the honest reformists around Ypsilanti are prepared to fight against the SPD right wing or whether they will seek a deal with them.
If Die Linke avoids both opportunism and ultra-leftism, it could and would only gain from such a situation. It is correct that Die Linke in Hessen has offered to vote for the Social Democratic candidate in parliament to get the sitting reactionary Christian Democrat ousted. It is also correct to resist any temptation to go for ministerial portfolios and gradually get absorbed into the state apparatus.
Die Linke must avoid at all costs making the same mistakes as the Italian PRC leadership which has fallen into the trap of a coalition government. However, staying outside a Social Democratic government while at the same time opportunistically supporting the Social Democratic leaders can also be disastrous as the recent example of the Spanish United Left indicates.
Differences in foreign policy are still an important factor in Germany as pacifist traditions prevail and Die Linke is opposed to any military intervention of the German Army in Afghanistan and elsewhere and it is unlikely that in the near future right-wing protagonists within Die Linke would be prepared to sell this principle in order to be seen "worthy" and "respectable" for a national government.
The major task is to offer a united front to the SPD and trade union members and supporters and win them over in joint action. Above all, Die Linke needs to overcome the limitations of left reformism, avoid parliamentary cretinism and adopt a full-fledged socialist programme explaining that you cannot consolidate any positive advance and reform without taking over the commanding heights of the economy under workers' control and management.
In the case of Hessen, for instance, the demand for re-nationalisation of Deutsche Telekom with compensation only on the basis of proven need, was accepted by the Die Linke conference last summer with virtually no opposition at all. This was also included in the election manifesto. The current hysterical media campaigns against "communism" and Die Linke shows that the ruling class is afraid that the idea of genuine socialist democracy is not dead and can increasingly gain support in the years that lie ahead. Let us make sure that their fear is justified.
- German rail strikes - Activism on the wage front but no united resistance against privatisation by Hans-Gerd Öfinger (July 16, 2007)
- Merger of two left parties in Germany by Hans-Gerd Öfinger (April 25, 2007)