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PDS: Germany’s SLP?

Communist Party of Great Britain

Weekly Worker

December 11 1997


PDS: Germany’s SLP?

The German PDS is viewed by some as a sister organisation of Britain’s SLP. Others contrast this ‘party of recomposition’ favourably to Scargill’s party, citing a broader, more inclusive democracy. PDS member Kathrin Becker examines the reality

The current situation in Germany is obviously affected by the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union in 1991 and the incorporation of the German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989. The fundamentally different system in the east of Germany was simply swallowed by the capitalist system in the west. Today we have a politically bolstered, though economically uncertain, ‘new Germany’.

At least six million people in Germany are unemployed: 20% of workers in the east and 10% in the west are without a job – the highest unemployment rate since 1949. The Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union coalition government has officially renounced its aim of halving the unemployment rate by the year 2000, which was a pillar of its election campaign in 1994.

At the same time the trade unions are weaker then ever before. More and more employers – especially in the east – are cancelling wage agreements and undermining social gains which were won over many years of struggle. At least one million people are homeless, and one million children live on social welfare.

Under these circumstances the German working class is crying out for a political organisation capable of arresting the ruling class assault, taking the movement onto the offensive and infusing it with independent working class politics. Can the Party of Democratic Socialism provide that alternative?

The foundation of the PDS – or, more correctly, the transformation of the former ruling party in the east (the SED) into the PDS – was certainly one of the most interesting political developments after 1989.

In the west, many of its initial members came from the German Communist Party (DKP), largely financed from the GDR. But there were also dissident members or supporters of the Green Party, left Social Democrats and members of various leftwing organisations – a variety of political forces had got together to build this socialist alternative. Unlike the SLP the new party permitted the right of internal factions and dual membership with existing political groups.

Although the PDS has its own distinguishing characteristics, it has been classified by some as a ‘party of recomposition’ like Communist Refoundation in Italy, the United Left (UI) in Spain, or even the SLP in Britain.

The common feature shared by these organisations is that they are all products of the period of reaction ushered in by the final defeat of the Russian Revolution – an historical setback for the entire working class. In Spain, Italy, and Germany the crisis of ‘official communism’ sparked off by the collapse of the USSR and the states of eastern Europe led directly to members of the old communist parties redefining themselves and their organisations. In Britain the SLP arose as a response to the transformation of the Labour Party – itself possible only because of historical defeats.

There was no new space in west German politics for the PDS to fill, such as the vacuum created in Britain by New Labour’s transformation. The PDS’s significance lies in the nature of the forces involved in setting it up. It played the limited, but useful initial role of being a pole of attraction for all the forces who had fought on the political left for years and who otherwise might have been scattered. The party’s candidates, supporters, and members did not come from nowhere: they represented a variety of political backgrounds and experiences.

After reunification, the membership in the east and the west was fairly united in the opinion that the PDS needed to be an oppositional party, a party that fights in and outside parliament against capitalism and for a socialist alternative – although, self-evidently, there were considerable differences as to what kind of ‘socialism’ that should be.

In the 1990 federal elections the PDS gained 4.4% of the votes and, thanks to the German system of proportional representation, was able to send 34 deputies to the Bundestag (parliament). At first the bourgeoisie reacted strongly to the ‘socialist threat’. The CDU’s main slogan in the election campaign was ‘Freedom or socialism’ – a slogan from the 50s, then employed against ‘the communist threat’. The intelligence service shadowed PDS leaders in Bavaria and Berlin and there was a vitriolic campaign launched against the party’s leaders as personalities. Gregor Gysi (parliamentary leader) and other deputies were constantly accused of having worked for the GDR state security forces, the Stasi (allegations not always without foundation). PDS members were subject to attack by fascists.

Despite this more than two million people voted for the PDS in the 1994 federal elections and no fewer than 6,000 PDS deputies were elected to the various German parliaments. In the state of Sachsen-Anhalt the PDS held the balance of power. Eventually an agreement was reached whereby the PDS would be consulted by the governing coalition in exchange for parliamentary support.

This arrangement aroused fierce opposition within the party. The leadership reacted by condemning the ‘fundamentalists’ (including the Communist Platform and the Young Comrades) for opposing this deal and proposed entering into governing coalitions with the Social Democrats in other states. In the east a few members even called for the formation of coalitions with the CDU.

The Social Democrats took up negotiations with the PDS and the media started to give the PDS much more favourable publicity. The media and the Social Democrats continue to seduce the PDS with the offer of a share of power – if only it would agree to become politikfähig, fit for politics. It is called upon to condemn the former GDR, renounce its remaining anti-capitalist demands and break with the communists inside and outside the party.

The 1993 PDS official programme says: “Socialism is for us a necessary goal – a society in which the free development of one has become the condition for the free development of all. Socialism is for us a movement against the exploitation of man by man, against patriarchal oppression … We affirm that the dominance of private capitalist property relations has to be overcome.”

In contrast to that the ’10 theses’ proposed by the leadership declare: “The problems of the present and the future cannot be solved when people still think in the old categories of class struggle”. Instead of this old-fashioned class struggle the leadership wants a new “contract of society” – the adoption of crude class collaboration. Gregor Gysi, leader of the PDS parliamentary group, writes of new opportunities that could arise: “But by no means are they to be found in a state-socialist smashing of the institutions of the market.” The ’10 theses’ were withdrawn two weeks before this year’s March congress.

A complete break from anti-capitalist politics would leave the PDS irrelevant – both to the working class and the bourgeois establishment. In the context of contemporary Germany, with independent working class ideology completely marginalised, the bourgeoisie has no use for a new version of the old Social Democrats. From the standpoint of the proletariat however, there is a clear necessity for a socialist party which fights against this barbaric system in a revolutionary way.

In parallel with this accommodation to the capitalist market and its state institutions, the PDS leadership is moving to rid itself of the DKP. The party congress in March abolished dual membership. In addition the PDS has now renounced “direct or indirect alliance with other parties”, ruling out any cooperation with the DKP. Previously DKP members were tolerated as foot soldiers for the right wing, but now the leadership feels able to dispense with them altogether.

However, the PDS still permits the existence of factions, including the Communist Platform (KPF), founded in 1989. The KPF is at the moment the most organised force standing against the rightwing leadership. It calls for a clearly anti-capitalist PDS that cooperates with other anti-capitalist and communist forces in Germany – that is, the DKP.

The existence of the KPF is seen as a hindrance, preventing the PDS from being accepted as a ‘responsible’ political party. For this reason many PDS leaders are looking for ways to exclude it, as the media and Social Democrats demand. As Oskar Lafontaine, leader of the Social Democrats put it, “Being the former SED, the PDS has responsibility for the injustice in the GDR and with this is also responsible for the oppression of the Social Democrats … If the PDS wants to become fit for society, it must acknowledge this historic guilt – and must split from the KPF.”

For several months in 1994, members of the leadership used a wide variety of bourgeois media platforms in their campaign for the ‘renewal’ of the PDS, purged of its ‘Stalinist’ forces – a campaign that was clearly and openly directed against the KPF. This was despite the fact that no controversial article had been published nor had any KPF member openly defended Stalin or his politics. Even the members of the leadership making the accusations were not able to quote extracts from any published material to back up their claims.

In fact the KPF’s publications defend the previous position of the PDS leadership on the GDR and the USSR. They neither condemn it sweepingly as a state of injustice nor celebrate it as a successful experience of socialism – the KPF certainly claims that the GDR’s social system, its record on women’s rights, etc. were superior to what exists in Germany today, but also gives lack of democracy as one of the causes of its collapse. Here it is not referring to the democratic rule of the working class, organised in workers’ councils, but the absence of bourgeois democratic freedoms. The KPF remains stuck in its ‘official communist’ past, and its idea of ‘socialism’ is certainly not unlike that of Arthur Scargill.

The whole ‘Stalinism’ debate was undoubtedly engineered by the leadership, not only for public consumption, but in order to convince PDS members that the KPF was a liability. The party president, Lothar Bisky, took advantage of this atmosphere to blackmail delegates at the party congress in 1994: he threatened to stand down if Sahra Wagenknecht, a KPF leader, was re-elected onto the party executive. Although many delegates were disgusted at this behaviour, most did not feel confident enough to challenge Bisky, and Sahra Wagenknecht failed by just four votes to be re-elected.

However, the leadership was not so successful at this year’s party congress. It proposed a motion which would have in effect abolished the right of factions by limiting their remit to a single issue: for example, women, anti-racism, etc. This change would also have denied the KPF the right as a recognised faction to be represented by six delegates at congress. The change was defeated – the leadership’s intentions were too obvious and most of the delegates were too well prepared and fully aware of what lay behind this manoeuvre.

Like the SLP therefore, the PDS is characterised by a bureaucratic internal regime. Perhaps it is this, rather than dissimilarities such as the existence of factions, that leads elements in the SLP – in particular followers of the Fourth International Supporters Caucus – to express affinity with it. While a greater degree of democracy exists within the PDS, this is largely formal and subject to constant erosion.

The PDS, despite the continuing rightward drift of the leadership, should not be written off. It still has the potential to rally all existing left forces. Even in its present form it could attract to its ranks considerable support from the class in the event of a new upsurge – again like the SLP.

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