The Missing Split in Germany's Left Party

Berlin – A disaster was almost certain. Almost the entire German media, if it deigned to discuss the Left party at all, was sure of a major split at the party congress June 20th and June 21st. They had it all figured out, and were kind enough to help make it happen.

Well before the 500 delegates met in Berlin, they began to spell it out details of the coming fight between the left and right wing. The left wing, pictured by the usual experts as nuttos, sectarians and Stalinists who made impossible demands, up to and including socialism, was trying to seize control – in the minds of the media - while the more sensible party people, hitherto also included in the general media condemnation, were in mortal danger, and almost meriting sympathy. A split would mean the serious weakening if not the demise of this young party, founded only two years ago when the former, mostly East German Party of Democratic Socialism – the reformed offshoot of the old ruling party in East Germany – joined with the WASG, an amalgamation of militant West German trade unionists, disgruntled Social Democrats and a variety of leftists.

The main media villain was one of three top party leaders, Oskar Lafontaine, once a top man in the West German Social Democratic Party, a minister president in the state of Saarland, and an able speaker who in any debate had total command of the facts, kept his cool and smiled while trouncing the most aggressive opponents from other parties. Perhaps more than anyone else he made it possible for the Left to break out of relative isolation in the East German states and spread westward. The first national election of the new party four years ago had netted over 8 percent of the vote and more than 50 seats in the Bundestag, a huge success compared to the previous count of only two deputies. Now the media charged him with authoritarianism, opportunism, nationalism, dangerous leftwing militancy and whatever else they could think of. Those experts smelled blood and almost audibly rubbed their hands in anticipation of the self-destructive weekend battle.

There is no denying the problems. Two weeks earlier, the Left had garnered only 7.5 percent of the votes in European Union elections, far less than the hoped-for ten percent. Constant media sniping had certainly had its effects, especially in West Germany. And there were clear, often sharp differences within the party, some reflecting the completely different political backgrounds of people in eastern and western Germany. While West Germans had a tradition of strikes and militant actions in the streets, East Germans had – until the final months – never had such experiences (and members of the Left party had rarely taken part in those final upheavals). Lafontaine’s statements that German workers should “learn French” and think in terms of possible general strikes, even though political strikes and sympathy strikes were forbidden in Germany, made some East Germans nervous. Demands for a minimum wage of 10 Euros seemed too exorbitant to be taken seriously; original demands of the Left for 8 Euros forced the Social Democrats and then the others into talking about 7.50, but now to raise the demands seemed foolhardy. The call for raising the welfare rate - after jobless compensation ran out – not to 435 but to 500 Euros – seemed equally unrealistic.

The differences were by no means strictly on an East-West basis. The small but active Communist Platform within the party, one of a number of special groups representing special views and interests in the explicitly pluralistic party, worried constantly that many eastern party leaders seemed too willing to compromise principles, such as nationalizing utilities or even the ideal of socialism, in hopes of joining with the Social Democrats and perhaps the Greens to form governments with cushy appointments to cabinet jobs. There had been ups and downs in internal conflicts on these and other issues, a few “right-wing” leaders had given interviews too eagerly to the unfriendly press on their differences, and two fairly prominent Left functionaries had recently quit the party. All of this was grist for the electronic and especially the print media mills, and the suspense increased.

But whaddayaknow? The split failed to materialize! Both Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi – the two are co-chairmen of the Left wing caucus in the Bundestag, as well as party chairman Lothar Bisky, instead of biting and scratching had obviously joined to talk with leaders of the different factions and convince them of the need to stick together and achieve good results in the four state elections and the big Bundestag election in August and September. Their attempts were successful. When the election program had been opened for discussion weeks earlier, over a thousand amendments had been handed in. But during the party convention, while some speakers expressed varying opinions and criticized things that displeased them, they all rejected any loud, harsh attacks on those with different views and contributed instead to uniting the party. Chairman Bisky told the press: “If anyone came here expecting to watch a slaughterhouse melee he better go find some other butcher shop!” Gysi said it was more important to fight for the rights of the people than against opponents within the party. Lafontaine stressed that the relatively small Left party, by standing up for working people, pensioners and students had forced the other parties to take positions well to the left of what they once advocated, while the Social Democrats and Greens unblushingly opposed the same anti-social measures they had themselves introduced when they formed the government – like cutting aid to the jobless, raising retirement age from 65 to 67, radically cutting taxes on the big corporations and the super wealthy, and sending soldiers off to war despite the German constitution. Their current election promises were caused by their great fear of any growth of the Left.

Thus, the party congress agreed to compromise on controversial points, postponing any arguments on principles until the official party program is worked out. For now, they agreed to oppose sending troops to Afghanistan, reverse the current of wealth from the poor to the super-rich by raising taxes for the wealthy, including financial speculators, nationalizing big banks, while improving life for those facing growing poverty and insecurity by furthering ecological measures, child care, education, health services. The election program was passed with only seven No votes and four abstentions, Lafontaine and Gysi hugged each other heartily (if a bit clumsily, Gysi is quite short). The election season for the Left was officially opened with a goal of ten percent plus X. Need it be added: The lack of a split meant only minimum coverage in most of the media?