The ‘New’ German Reformism

WASG & the ‘Far Left’

In June 2004, dissident members of Germany’s governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a handful of trade-union officials launched the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (WASG—Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice). The WASG’s founders sought to tap into the simmering discontent of German workers over the austerity policies implemented by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD/Green coalition government. During the summer of 2004, tens of thousands of workers participated in a series of “Montags-Demos” (“Monday Demonstrations,” named after the 1989 protests that took place during the twilight of the East German deformed workers’ state [DDR]). The WASG appealed to those who opposed the SPD’s rightward drift, but were not willing to support its reformist rival, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the successor to the Socialist Unity Party [SED], which had been the instrument of Stalinist rule in the former DDR).

After recruiting several thousand new members, mostly trade unionists and unemployed workers, the fledgling WASG won a respectable 2.2 percent of votes cast in the May 2005 regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (a traditional social-democratic stronghold which includes the highly industrialized Ruhr area). The victory of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in May prompted Schröder to call elections to the Bundestag (national parliament) for September 2005, a year ahead of schedule.

Schröder’s electoral disaster in North Rhine-Westphalia led Oskar Lafontaine, a prominent SPD leader who had previously served as party chair and finance minister, to jump ship. Lafontaine joined the WASG and immediately set out to broker an alliance with the PDS for the upcoming national election. At a special WASG congress in Kassel on 3 July 2005, a majority of delegates approved the idea of an electoral bloc with the PDS.

Lafontaine’s adherence was a major coup for the WASG, but during the election campaign he embarrassed his new comrades in a June 2005 campaign speech in Chemnitz, when he attacked immigrants for putting Germans out of work: “[t]he state has a duty to prevent fathers with families, and women, from becoming unemployed because foreign workers have taken away their jobs at lower wages” (Der Tagesspiegel online, 18 June 2005).

For the PDS, the bloc with the much smaller WASG presented an opportunity for expanding its influence beyond its traditional base in eastern Germany. It re-branded itself the “Linkspartei.PDS” (Left Party/PDS) and agreed to include WASG members on its candidate list. In its election manifesto the Linkspartei came out strongly against further cuts to social programs, while discreetly sidestepping its record of implementing austerity measures when PDS/SPD coalitions governed in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

In September 2005, the Linkspartei slate won 8.8 percent of the vote, which translated into 54 seats in the Bundestag (12 of which went to WASG members). At the WASG’s party congress in Ludwigshafen on 29 April 2006, a majority of delegates approved the idea of fusing with the PDS. A month later Lafontaine and Klaus Ernst of the WASG co-signed a letter with Lothar Byski and Gregor Gysi of the PDS declaring:

“The time has come to bring together the divided forces of the left. The PDS has changed since its origins in the SED. It has gained many new members and has become a democratic socialist party. This change is reflected in the new name: Linkspartei. The WASG was largely formed by disillusioned trade unionists, social democrats and members of social movements. In the 2005 Bundestag elections, over four million voters called on the Linkspartei and the WASG to found a new left-wing party.”
—“Call for the Founding of a New Left,” 2 June 2006

While the projected fusion into a unified Linkspartei, set for June 2007, has been greeted with enthusiasm by much of the German left, there is no reason for revolutionaries to be excited. The formerly Stalinist PDS is today overtly pro-capitalist, and the WASG never pretended to stand for more than 1970s-era social-democratic reformism.

German ‘Far Left’ & WASG

In certain circumstances it is necessary for revolutionaries to enter reformist organizations to help crystallize a Marxist wing and thereby lay the basis for the creation of an independent, revolutionary workers’ party (see “The ‘French Turn,’” 1917 No. 9, First Quarter 1991). In 1996, British supporters of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) joined the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), launched by Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite his Stalinist background and left-reformist politics, Scargill had a reputation within the British working class as a militant fighter, and a small, but significant, layer of working people were drawn to the SLP on this basis. The SLP openly proclaimed itself a socialist organization with a working-class orientation. It represented a left split from the Labour Party and many of its initial adherents were open to seriously reassessing the whole social-democratic tradition. In the SLP’s formative period there were serious discussions of socialist program and policy. When the Scargill leadership clamped down on internal dissent and launched a series of purges that transformed the SLP into a hardened reformist micro-sect, our comrades walked out (see “SLP: a Postmortem,” 1917 No. 21, 1999).

Unlike the SLP, the WASG was, from its inception, an explicitly pro-capitalist organization:

“Other central democratic demands must be taken up (especially peace, ecology, women’s rights, criticism of globalization, open access to education, criticism of official science, immigrants’ rights). A lot of the groundwork has been laid through the ‘Inititative for Political Change,’ Memorandum-Gruppe, ATTAC, trade unions etc. There are differences in detail, and differences in emphasis, but there are sufficient things in common. These common positions of progressive social and political forces must be put forward in a popular form, in order to mobilize the masses. This does not mean a new explicitly left-socialist party.”
—Founding Paper, 15 March 2004

While revolutionaries would not, in principle, exclude entry into such a formation, it made little sense when there was general agreement among the membership with the “Founding Paper’s” assertion that: “Today, the issue is not ‘Reform or Revolution’ but social reformism or the further advance of neoliberal reaction.”

The standard reformism of the WASG program includes a “law and order” plank:

“The WASG therefore stands for the democratization of the economy, the full participation of the population in all parts of society and the defense of democratic rights, and against the state running society in the interests of business and the wealthy. The state and police must provide more security from crime.”
—Founding Program of the WASG

The left-liberal daily Junge Welt (28 August 2004) characterized the WASG as a group that:

“wants to give working people parliamentary represent-ation again. Their activists consciously distance themselves from ‘long-term’ demands and stress the reformist nature of their project.”

While the WASG leadership initially banned “left socialist” formations, it nonetheless provides a home for a variety of “revolutionary” organizations, from the Stalinist German Communist Party (DKP) to various ostensibly Trotskyist groups, including the International Socialist Left (ISL—affiliated with the United Secretariat) and the Sozialistische Alternative Voran (SAV—the German section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International [CWI]). Linksruck, the German section of the International Socialist Tendency (IST—headed by the British Socialist Workers Party) was particularly keen on the WASG’s ultra-reformist politics, warning that it “would render itself superfluous if it adopted a socialist program because it would then exclude the majority of people it could otherwise win over” (Argumente No. 6, March 2005).

Supporters of the Gruppe Arbeitermacht (GAM—the German affiliate of Britain’s Workers Power group), while sharing the opportunist appetites of their fellow “revolutionaries” in the WASG, have been considerably less constant in their affections. Initially the GAM was full of enthusiasm:

“The large and growing number of militants in the WASG reflects the process of the workers’ movement separating itself from the SPD due to its policy under Schröder of attacking the working class and the masses. That’s why Arbeitermacht is actively intervening in this process with the goal of constructing a new, revolutionary workers’ party.”
—GAM Infomail 173, 23 June 2004

However, by the time of the election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the GAM had walked out of the WASG declaring:

“The struggle against the general capitalist offensive and Steinbrück’s [SPD] government cannot be carried out by voting for the PDS and the WASG. Therefore, in the North Rhine-Westphalia elections, we say: spoil your ballot! No vote for Red-Green [SPD-Green coalition]! No vote for WASG and PDS!”
—GAM Infomail 210, 14 May 2005

When the WASG’s electoral results were better than anticipated, and Lafontaine signed on, the GAM changed its tune yet again and rejoined in time to participate in the September 2005 election campaign:

“The elections and the formation of the Linkspartei have generated growing interest and offer revolutionaries the opportunity to get ‘nearer’ to the masses. However correct our criticisms of the Linkspartei or parliamentarianism are, as mere criticism they are insufficient and purely passive! Communists must actively intervene in the process and fight openly for their positions.”
—GAM Infomail 222, 19 August 2005

A year later, though still in the WASG, the comical confusionists of the GAM were back to denouncing their host:

“We warn all leftists that they are joining a party which clearly professes support for capitalism, despite the social reforms they want to make. In the name of ‘specific obligations’ they are turning themselves into auxiliary troops of capitalism, just as the SPD and PDS have been doing for many years.”
—GAM Infomail 278, 27 September 2006

Contretemps in Berlin

The SAV has also been critical of the WASG leadership, particularly its plan to formalize the alliance with the PDS. The Taaffeites offered the following advice to the former Stalinists:

“If you do not find political partners and majorities, then—and this is what the Linkspartei.PDS in Berlin should do—you have to leave the government rather than accept and execute capitalist austerity. There was no mention of the option of applying pressure through extra-parliamentary protest to begin to reverse the balance of forces in favor of the working class and youth. This is precisely the task of an anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal left party. In the view of the SAV, this would be the best way to build a strong and combative new formation. The potential is there.”
—, 24 February 2006

The SAV worries that the alliance with the PDS threatens the WASG’s anti-austerity credentials, particularly in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where voters have had a taste of the PDS in power. SAV supporters in Berlin (who exert considerable influence on the branch) played a major role in the Berlin WASG’s decision to field its own slate in the September 2006 regional elections.

Christine Buchholz, a Linksruck supporter who is a member of the WASG’s national leadership, was highly critical of this decision:

“Despite justified criticism of the ‘Red-Red’ [SPD-PDS] senate and the policies of the Berlin Linkspartei, we need a strong left in east and west to develop the social resistance that is needed. That is only possible through the Linkspartei. The support of workers and the unemployed will amount to nothing if a rival candidacy from the Berlin WASG puts this united left into question.”
Junge Welt, 16 May 2006

When the WASG tops sought to replace the rebellious Berlin leadership, the SAV ran to the capitalist courts, which endorsed the local leaders’ right to run their own independent campaign. Lafontaine & Co. retaliated by cutting off funding for their Berlin branch.

The CWI leadership in London applauded the SAV’s role in this squalid affair, and suggested that it opened up great opportunities for the German left:

“The continuing national media publicity given to the debate in the Berlin WASG is an indication of how a successful anti-cuts election campaign could play an important part in building a new all-German force that can both defend living standards and challenge capitalism.”
The Socialist [London], 27 April-3 May 2006

In fact, the SAV violated a fundamental principle of the workers’ movement—the necessity of maintaining complete independence from the capitalist state—by inviting the bourgeois courts to intervene in the affairs of the WASG.

In its campaign, the Berlin WASG made clear that its intention was only to “pressure” the capitalist rulers: “Within the Berlin senate, we want to combine and strengthen parliamentary and extra-parliamentary pressure for social policies” (Berlin WASG Program, 22 April 2006).

The contemptible reformism of the Berlin WASG was most clearly expressed in its plans for reforming the capitalist police:

“The Berlin WASG therefore rejects further cuts in the Berlin police, the Berlin fire service and the disaster relief organization. In order to replace aging staff a new hiring system must be put in place. Police must be trained in non-violent conflict resolution and cultural awareness must be given even more weight. More young people with immigrant backgrounds must be recruited to the police service. A multicultural city needs a multicultural police force.”

Only a few months earlier, Berlin police violently evicted anarchist squatters of the Yorck 59 project. In Germany, as everywhere else, cops routinely harass immigrants and act as strikebreakers. Marxists are distinguished from social democrats like the SAV by the recognition that the “bodies of armed men” at the core of the bourgeois state exist to “serve and protect” the interests of the capitalist class. This is why the exploiters’ state cannot be reformed—it must be smashed by workers’ revolution.

The GAM made similar criticisms of the SAV and the independent Berlin WASG’s campaign:

“despite all the protestations about social programs and workers’ struggles, the strategic orientation is still one of rearranging the existing capitalist order in Berlin and Germany. This leads only to a strengthened (bourgeois) state. The consequences of such adjustments are most clearly seen in the Berlin WASG’s call for additional recruits for the police in Berlin, the city with the highest density of police in the country.”
Neue Internationale 110, May 2006

Yet instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that there was no reason for revolutionaries to give any support to the advocates of “a strengthened bourgeois state,” the GAM still called for workers to vote for the candidates of the Berlin WASG.

Linkspartei: ‘Neither Attractive Nor Useful’

The SAV viewed the Berlin WASG’s electoral campaign as a limited success, even though it failed to win any seats. But the WASG’s national party congress in November 2006 reaffirmed the leadership’s criticisms of the Berlin mutiny, and voted to step up the fusion process with the PDS.

The capitalist media enjoys pointing out the disparity between the “anti-cuts” rhetoric of the PDS and its record in office:

“On the national level they [PDS] agitate against Hartz IV [austerity program], but in local politics they are implementing the hated reforms. On the national level they rant against the privatization of public enterprises, while selling off housing in Berlin. They denounce welfare cuts, but cut back on social services in Berlin. Many voters clearly did not understand that.”
Berliner Morgenpost, 18 September 2006

While well aware of the PDS record of betrayal, many leftists in the WASG appear to agree with Linksruck that somehow a PDS/WASG fusion will represent a “step toward the rebirth of a socialist workers’ movement in Germany” (Linksruck No. 224, 15 November 2006).

At the November congress, two “left” critics were elected to the WASG’s national leadership: Thies Gleiss, a co-thinker of the ISL, and SAV supporter Lucy Redler from the dissident Berlin branch. The SAV commented:

“Despite the welcome election of Berlin oppositionist Lucy Redler to the national leadership, the majority of this Party Congress in Westphalia has moved to the right since the [April 2006] Ludwigshafen WASG Congress. A decrease in dynamism and life at the base of the party is reflected at all levels. Nevertheless, the process of fusion between the WASG and the L.PDS remains a bone of contention.”
—, 20 November 2006

While this sounds like an explanation for abandoning ship, the SAV leadership seems reluctant to make a break, particularly after Redler’s promotion, which may offer opportunities for more maneuvers. Sascha Stanicic of the SAV observed:

“The position of the SAV members who spoke at the congress was that there should be a number of minimum conditions to a merger, particularly opposition to joining any government with the SPD, which participates in social cuts and privatisations.”
The Socialist [London], 7 December 2006

Edith Bartelmus-Scholich, a prominent ISL supporter, also expressed reservations about the pending fusion with the PDS:

“Such a left party will appear neither attractive nor useful to most people, and only has relevance on the electoral level. Indirectly it therefore has a certain influence on public opinion, and for a limited period can gain modest electoral success as the lesser evil. Such a party does not represent progress, which could have happened if the WASG had been built successfully. It represents a step backward in nearly every respect.”
Linke Zeitung, 22 November 2006

The ISL talks vaguely about how nice it would be to see “a new political force throughout Germany to the left of the ‘new left’,” but is careful to specify that “[t]his does not mean rushing into founding a new party” (Ibid.).

For its part, the GAM has declared that it intends to remain inside the WASG, at least until the fusion. The GAM leadership’s zig-zag record means that nothing they say can be taken too seriously, but they have suggested that after a merger they may opt for the WASG’s Netzwerk Linke Opposition (NLO—Left Opposition Network):

“The fight against the bureaucratic fusion of the WASG and the PDS must be used to build up the NLO in order to be able to function independently should the WASG be taken over by the PDS. In short, this fight must be part of forming a real new workers’ party, one which is worthy of the name.”
—GAM Infomail 287, 16 November 2006

“Building up” the social democrats of the NLO—who, if they do not end up inside the new Linkspartei, would constitute little more than a WASG rump with a very short half-life—hardly constitutes a step toward the creation of the “new, revolutionary workers’ party” the GAM supposedly stands for. But such contradictions are par for the course with these ruddlerless confusionists.

What Way Forward?

The German comrades of the IBT, who have refused to wade into the WASG swamp, have been accused of “preaching from the sidelines” by some of the supposed Trotskyists who have taken up residence there. While we are prepared to energetically participate in any mass organization that represents a political step forward for the working class, the WASG is not such an organization, and never has been.

Working people need a genuinely socialist party to champion the interests of all the oppressed. Such a party would side militarily with the Iraqi and Afghan victims of imperialist aggression, rather than engaging in pacifist hand-wringing. It would advance a policy of militant class-struggle leadership in the trade unions, rather than endorsing the organized class collaboration of the “social partners.” It would flatly oppose all funding for the capitalists’ cops and military. It would stand for a socialist revolution to expropriate the expropriators and replace the bourgeois state with organs of direct working-class power.

Leon Trotsky, the great Marxist whose name is sometimes invoked by the fake socialists of the GAM, ISL, Linksruck and SAV, observed:

“The tragic defeats suffered by the world proletariat over a long period of years doomed the official organizations to yet greater conservatism and simultaneously sent disillusioned petty bourgeois ‘revolutionists’ in pursuit of ‘new ways.’ As always during epochs of reaction and decay, quacks and charlatans appear on all sides, desirous of revising the whole course of revolutionary thought.”
The Transitional Program

The pseudo-revolutionaries who trumpet the WASG may imagine that they are engaged in clever tactical maneuvers to help build their groups—some may even (briefly) have entertained the notion that somehow they had found a shortcut to the creation of a mass socialist movement. In reality, by promoting the WASG, they have only helped legitimize another obstacle (albeit a small one) on the road to the self-emancipation of the working class. The “whole course of revolutionary thought,” and a century of working-class experience, demonstrates that socialist revolution requires the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party. The construction of such a party must begin with a willingness to “speak the truth to the masses” and expose reformist dead-ends like the WASG, PDS and Linkspartei for what they are.