Germany’s Left Party deals with water, fire, air and dirt

BERLIN – Two elements threatened the congress of The Left Party in Dresden over the weekend. One was water; the river Elbe, whose floodwaters reached almost to the terrace just outside the congress hall. As congress co-president Katja Kipping reported: “Two weeks ago we didn’t know if we could get to this meeting without rubber dinghies!”

The other menacing element, but only figuratively, was fire. The media, true to form, searched out anything that might spark a conflict among the delegates or cause controversy they could exploit in the national arena. Last year, in this vein, they focused on Oskar Lafontaine, the former Social Democratic leader who became a stalwart of The Left Party, which, although it unites easterners and westerners, traces its lineage back to the Party for Democratic Socialism, which in turn came out of the Socialist Unity Party, the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

The issue for the media around Lafontaine last year was his call for elimination of the euro, which he saw as an impediment to the healing of Europe’s economic crisis. His proposal brought no applause from others in the party, and no media bellows – or bellowing – could turn it into a fire.

This year Oskar, now 69, has lost much of his wonderful charisma and political weight and he did not even address the convention.

But others did! And their speeches had real fire to them!

Two were on TV, and for viewers it was reportedly difficult for viewers to stay seated on their couches. After years of losing ground as one wing of The Left flapped against the other, the party united this time around some strong planks.

There were fifteen hours of debate without the anger, the sharp jibes and the hard battle lines of the past. The 550 delegates, with only a few abstentions and five “no” votes, approved an election program. The campaign for the Sept. 22 elections was launched in earnest with three very notable speeches.

The Left Party speakers all challenged statements by the two other opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, that they would not accept even limited support by The Left in forming a government; they would rather join Merkel’s right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or the even further-right Free Democrats (FDP).

The Left speakers turned the tables on the Social Democrats and the Greens. They said The Left Party was the one in the position of not being able to join any alliance unless the Social Democrats and the Greens changed some of their positions.

Despite some left-sounding electioneering, the Left party speakers noted, major parts of the programs of the Social Democrats and the Greens are indistinguishable from the program of the Christian Democrats.

The Left Party Congress Co-President Berndt Riexinger, previously a militant West German union leader, started with the day’s news: “Evidently a new reason for war in Syria is being dredged up. We saw that ten years ago when alleged chemical weapons were used to justify a war. That gives me every reason to say: Hands off Syria! No military involvement, no intervention! Our message is clear: peace. The federal government must support all initiatives for a multilateral peaceful solution. All participants must sit down at one table. And all of the Patriot rocket launchers must be removed from the region.”

Seeks close ties with union members

Riexinger also urged close ties with union members – something not stressed enough by the Left in the past: “As a union man I say that no path can dodge the issue of decreasing employment…It was a blunder for the unions to brush this important project aside. It’s an impossible situation when some people work much too hard, get burned out and break under constant stress while others have no work or are pushed into mini-jobs…

“For Angela Merkel things are simple. She has stated very clearly: there should be no tax increases for the wealthy, no, not with her. She has made the decision. Sharp and clear. Her camp is that of the upper ten percent of the population.”

Riexinger attacked Merkel’s frequent boast that Germany has been able to beat out the economic storm: “For millions that is not the case. They have not nicely weathered the crisis. Ten million people have to work in the low wage sector. More than four million earn less than seven euros an hour before taxes. One and a half million don’t even make five euros… Many of these are in the retail field, where employers have annulled all contracts. They want to blackmail the union… The owners of the top discount retail nets, all on the list of the ten wealthiest Germans, want to pauperize their employees. But these – mostly militant women – are fighting back. And our place is on the side of those who walk out to fight such policies. Also those in Madrid, in Athens and especially these days on Taksim Square in Turkey. The Left is the party of international solidarity.”

The other co-president, Katja Kipping, comes from Dresden: “I’m glad the congress is here, this is my election district. My daughter’s favorite swing is on a playground near here. Dresden is a beautiful city but, admittedly, it has a conservative reputation, the CDU is strong here. I can assure you however that we are working to change that. Things are happening.” And she told of the initiative of The Left in a successful referendum campaign to prevent city hospitals from being privatized.   

She voiced the sympathy of the congress for the many thousands who have suffered disastrously in recent weeks because of the weather.

“When we speak about the flood, we must of course speak about quick assistance, but also about how such destruction can be prevented in future…”

She, too, took a swipe at Angela Merkel’s European economic policy and its implicit blame on allegedly “wasteful” or “spoiled” people in the southern countries.

“The Black-Yellow government (in common political shorthand the color of the CDU is black, that of its partner FDP is yellow) tries to convince us that we are being forced to pay for the debts of the Greeks, the Spanish and the others. But we know that there is no conflict between the different nationalities, the conflict is always between those on top and those down below, and a nurse in Athens, who works under very difficult conditions, gets to see nothing at all from these rescue packages.”

 She also examined the position of the Green party.

“The Greens were once part of the peace movement. Today they are very eager when it comes to making war. We get constant new surprises. When Foreign Minister Westerwelle acted sensibly during the Libyan conflict, the Greens demanded instead that we join in the battle. With such a switch by this party from green to olive drab green we can really be glad that none of them were foreign minister…”

Kipping also hammered at the wage gap when she discussed the economy.

“The chairman of the board of the Bayer pharmaceutical concern gets paid 91 times as much as a nurse who also is on night shifts. Ninety-one times as much! Can anyone really merit 91 times as much as a nurse? I think not!”

More than just a good speaker

Kipping has a history of much more than just good speech making. Those at the congress were proud that the party co-president, with several Bundestag members, had been in the middle of the recent “Blockupy the banks” parade in Frankfurt and had tried vainly to prevent the very brutal police attacks on the demonstrators. She mentioned the event in her speech.

“Blockupy 2013 is not only a story of police repression but also of solidarity. The police wanted to split up the demonstration but all participants remained united, from the group opposed to air flight noise to the feminists, to those of us from The Left, from members of the Metal Workers Union to the anarchists – we all stuck together. Yes, the Blockupy demonstration showed the mosaic character of the left, its multiplicity in breadth and variety. We too were part of this. And our joy about this togetherness cannot be destroyed by any police attack in the world – not by any pepper spray…”

In the last of this trio of three keynote speeches, Gregor Gysi, leading founder of the party, head of The Left caucus in the Bundestag and a popular speaker well outside the ranks of his party, took a look at some still very controversial questions involving past and future:

“State socialism foundered, but that does not mean that the GDR had no achievements. I need only mention the chances for women to work and to qualify for better jobs, the child care, education, where there were unfortunately political limitations but never any financial ones, the all-round medical polyclinics, the chance to get both a college preparatory diploma and full apprenticeship training. And I find that we should learn at last to point to these with self-confidence and without always creeping away from the matter…

“Why have I remained a socialist? Because capitalism causes wars, it lives from wars, and will continue to do so as long as profits can be made from wars. Economic interests are basic to every war. I oppose this and that is why I want a democratic socialism. And because capitalism does not establish social justice, it always tends instead to concentrate wealth in a few hands and spread poverty. Because capitalism cannot establish ecological sustainability and because, of the 70 million who die on our earth every year, 18 million die of hunger. Even though world agriculture is capable of feeding the population twice over, 18 million die of hunger. Why isn’t capitalism even able to feed the world population – I cannot understand this. And that is why we want to transform society and achieve a democratic socialism…”

Turning to election issues, Gysi pointed out how important opposition from The Left had been: “We placed the question of an all-inclusive legal minimum wage on the agenda of the republic. It was we who pushed themes like justice in taxation. We are neither a tax-raising party nor a tax-cutting party. We are a party of tax justice…We put the subjects of controlling rent, of holding down electricity costs, of universal health insurance, of combating old age poverty, of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan – we put all of them on the agenda, and wherever you look, you see how we forced the others into motion and to copy our proposals. We shouldn’t complain about that, it was a success if the others were forced to copy from us – and we must now keep pushing, that is our task…

“The stronger The Left becomes the greater chance we have to turn majorities in the thinking of the population into political majorities and then go on to fight for further demands. That holds true for the fight against any military involvement of the armed forces, against poverty in old age, on a minimum wage law, justice in taxation, medical insurance, equal pay and equal pensions for men and women in East and West.”

Gysi listed 20 major demands on the election platform and set, as a goal for the September 22 vote, a result in the two-digit range.

Four years ago the ability of The Left to win nearly 12 percent of the vote gave the others political parties a great shock. At present the polls wobble between six and nine percent for The Left.

The politicians of the four established parties (the CDU, the SPD, the FDP and the Greens) will try to keep people from learning about the program of the Left Party and may even resort to that fourth element of Greek tradition – earth or, or in political terms – dirt.

If the three powerful speeches given at The Left Party congress last weekend can be followed by an equally vigorous election campaign, that two-digit goal may actually be reached.

Photo: Gregor Gysi (CC)



Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.