BERLIN – The party called Die Linke, or The Left, is in the news here.
It was formed in 2007 when the fully renovated heir to the ruling party in the (East) German Democratic Republic, the Party for Democratic Socialism, wed a new West German party of people angry at the abandonment of past principles by Greens and Social Democrats.
In 2009, with about a quarter of East German voters and about 5-8 percent in the more populous West German states, the new party got a healthy 12 percent of the total vote, which meant getting 76 Bundestag deputies.
Two keys to its success were its co-presidents, charismatic Oskar Lafontaine, a clear-spoken man, once head of the Social Democrats, and the witty, skilled orator, East Germany’s Gregor Gysi.
The Greens and Social Democrats, to regain popularity lost after they moved to the right, lifted the program of The Left and adopted much of it, at least in their official documents. Sadly for The Left, it has failed recently find new, burning issues or hot slogans.
The Left has also suffered from self-inflicted wounds. Its “reformer” wing or “pragmatists,” hoping to join governing coalitions on the state level in places like Brandenburg and Berlin, took a more moderate approach to avoid rejection by such possible partners.
But the “left” of The Left opposed compromises it viewed as too fundamental. It wanted to reject all deployment of German military forces, even on NATO or UN missions. Though often labeled “humanitarian,” these deployments often meant extending German strength in the whole world. Hadn’t two indescribably horrific extensions in the past century been enough? But extension was again an overt goal of military leaders. Yet the reformer wing wanted to leave a loophole open for possible peacekeeping exceptions, as the other parties demanded.
Many in The Left supported Palestinian rights. The media, of course, jumped in with “anti-Semitism” accusations; a bit ironically since Gregor Gysi, who had become caucus chairman in the Bundestag, is the only Jewish party leader in all of Germany.
But some in The Left also backed Israeli policies, causing one more unhappy party dispute.
The leftists wanted a total ban on further privatization of public utilities and, as soon as possible, nationalization of giant banks and utilities, with democratic socialism as a future objective. They opposed the unrelenting condemnation of the German Democratic Republic daily in the media, making it seem as bad or worse than the Nazi era so as to squelch any thoughts of socialism. They favored a balance: condemnation of nasty oppressive features and rejection of failing democracy but appreciation of its uniquely anti-fascist base, its full employment, the ban on evictions, total medical and dental coverage, free education, child care and abortions.
As a result of the in-fighting, The Left dropped to about half its 12 percent high; it was weakened or defeated in seven elections in 2011, failing to get into two important state legislatures in western Germany and, after ten years of coalition rule with the Social Democrats in Berlin, losing that position as well. Many began to worry about its survival.
After months of hard work, however, at conference in Erfurt, a 40-page text was worked out which somehow, without great changes, satisfied nearly everybody. Lafontaine (known always as Oskar), who had withdrawn to state politics in his Saarland home after a bout with cancer, was again playing a big part; in general he favored more “left” views but voiced them in ways which could hardly offend anyone.
Gysi, as often in the past, took what he called a “centrist” position and maintained the team spirit, while they both defended the present co-presidents, East Berlin leader Gesine Loetzsch, a fighter and fine speaker but often under attack, and Klaus Ernst, an activist metal trades union man.
Here is one sample of what was agreed upon: “We demand an immediate end to all military deployment of the Bundeswehr [German armed forces]. This also includes German participation in military deployments mandated by the UN…”
Here is another: “Because of the horrific crimes committed by Germans against Jewish men and women during the fascist era, Germany bears a special responsibility and must combat every kind of anti-Semitism, racism, oppression and war. This responsibility requires especially that we support Israel’s right of existence. At the same time we support a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict within the framework of a two-state solution and therefore the recognition under international law of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state as based on the resolutions of the United Nations.”
In her keynote speech, co-chair Gesine Loetzsch stated unequivocally: “For us, capitalism is not the final station of history; in this question we differ from all the other parties…”
And “We are now the only anti-war party and we must always remain an anti-war party!”
Gregor Gysi spoke of relationships with other parties. “The Social Democratic Party is not our enemy… anyone who thinks that way is wrong, I believe. History, too, has proven this to be a completely false path. We have nothing against cooperation with the Social Democratic Party, but first they must at least become social democratic again. And in my view, they will never succeed in achieving that without us.”
Turning to the new party, the Pirates, which had such success in the Berlin election as a youthful protest, he said, “There is a question as to whether we must take them seriously? Yes, we must. The Pirate party takes some rebellious voters away from us. I don’t want to lose any voters. In fact, I prefer winning some more. That is not so easy, for some view us as being all too established. We are already looked upon as too politically tamed. And not only that, the Pirates express a new way of living. This does not only refer to computer use but to other differences as well. Unlike us, they don’t speak of “work time” and “leisure,” but of online and off-line time. Sometimes I need a translator just to know what they are talking about … What we must understand and what I want to point out is: we must find bridges to the younger generation! We must open up to them! …We must talk with them! We need not agree with everything they say. But we need to connect with them!”
One resolution, accepted by acclimation, expressed the solidarity of delegates with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Another demanded the nationalization of big banks and electrical utilities plus a special tax on millionaires.