Sunday, September 18, 2005

Left on the rise in Germany

This analysis of the Left Party's dramatic rise in German politics was originally published on Aug. 16. I am republishing it here for the convenience of my readers. The party's final score in Germany's federal election on Sept. 18 was 8.7 percent—more than 4 million voters.

Lothar Bisky
The sudden and unexpected "high-altitude flight" of the reborn "Left Party" in Germany's pre-election polls has baffled political reporters, especially in the U.S.

Formed by an alliance between the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the upstart "Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice" (WASG), and led by two of Germany's most charismatic politicians, the Left Party might win an unprecedented 8 to 12 percent when Germans vote on Sept. 18. If current trends hold, it could become the third-strongest force in the German Bundestag with as many as 60
to 70 seats—a dramatic reversal of fortune for a party that is now represented by two lonely back-benchers.

Struggling to interpret the dramatic rise of a party reorganized in just two months by politically marginalized trade-union officials and the despised ex-communists of East Germany, some American reporters are repeating the same formulas the German political establishment has been testing in its campaign to beat back the rising Left tide. "It is the classic protest party," Richard Bernstein wrote dismissively on July 29 in the New York Times. "It stands for almost nothing, and certainly it has no program to govern Germany—nor, in fact, will it ever govern Germany." According to Peter Schneider, a German pundit quoted by Bernstein, the party's sudden rise as a political force is "an unsettling sign that Germany is doing badly enough to have generated a political reaction reminiscent of Weimar."

Christian Social Union anti-Left poster
Schneider's reference to the ill-fated Weimar Republic, with the sinister subtext that soon street warfare could break out between armed Communists and Nazis, was subtle compared to Markus Söder's attack on Left Party co-founder Oskar Lafontaine as a "National Communist." Söder is general secretary of the conservative ruling party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which together with the federal Christian Democratic Union (CDU) hopes to win this election.

Söder's primal scream was echoed by his boss, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber: the Left's supporters in eastern Germany, he said, are "stupid calves" who are prepared to vote for their own "butcher." In one of many conservative gaffes that could drive even more voters into the Left camp, Stoiber said that east Germans are not as "intelligent" as Bavarians.

German historian Götz Aly pushes the dark vision of the Left Party as born-again Nazi-Communists to its extreme limit: voters attracted to the Left, he theorizes, are Germany's last disciples of the Nazi theory of a racial "People's State." Thus, the party is fighting for such "national socialist concepts" as extra pay for Sunday workers. The sillygism here is fairly typical of the panic with which Germany's traditional parties have reacted to the prospect that the Left will scoop up millions of their voters on Sept. 18: (1) The Left Party supports Sunday overtime pay. (2) The Nazis introduced Sunday overtime pay during the Third Reich. (3) The Left Party is "national socialist." In logic this fallacy is called an "undistributed middle term," as in the following: (1) Mel Gibson has an opposable thumb. (2) All lesbians have opposable thumbs. (3) Mel Gibson is a lesbian.

Logical or not, Aly's reasoning was given wide play by the English-language service of the German Press Agency (DPA) under the headline, "Historian links Germany's new Left Party to Nazis."

Clearly, the parties that stand to lose the most to the Left are trying to demonize their unwelcome competitor as simultaneously "red" and "brown"—a dangerous force that appeals both to the extreme left and the extreme right. The attacks have already knocked a percentage point or two from the Left's ratings in the polls. But German voters tend to be well-informed, and they could hardly fail to take note that two of the Left Party's three most important leaders are Jewish, that the party's membership includes a number of Holocaust survivors, that among its Bundestag candidates is the leader of Germany's Turkish community, or that it advocates same-sex marriage. It can have no conceivable appeal to the anti-semitic, anti-immigrant,
ultra-nationalist and homophobic clientele of Germany's small right-wing parties. It could hardly be "brown."

Left parties normal in western Europe

If not "brown," how "red" is the Left?

The Left Party clearly has roots in Communist as well as Social Democratic traditions, but this is not unusual in Europe (apart from Britain). Relatively strong parties of the left have by now become a normal feature of politics in several countries in western and northern Europe. This new "European Left" has stabilized partly because millions of unemployed and under-employed voters have lost not only jobs and incomes but also their confidence in the political establishment they once supported.

Voters have noticed that European corporate executives—who once were willing participants in a three-way social pact with government and labor—have begun to behave like their predatory colleagues in the United States: a "creative destruction" of labor to boost stock dividends is becoming a fixture of management policy in Frankfurt and Paris. Jobs can be sacrificed at any time, during economic upturns as well as downturns, in fat years as well as lean, after profits and after losses. One symbol of the Americanization of Europe's corporate culture was the announcement in March by Germany's Deutsche Bank that its net profits had reached an unprecedented $3.2 billion—an 87-percent increase over the previous year. Managers celebrated by promptly eliminating 6,400 jobs and shifting another 1,200 to low-wage countries. This is normal business practice in the United States, but a shock for many voters in Europe.

Meanwhile, European governments of both the center-right and center-left have come to the conclusion that their economies can't compete globally unless they cut social and labor costs. Their move to the right has opened up a new space for left competitors—one that has been filled mostly by reformed and restyled communist parties who jettisoned the last remnants of orthodox Marxist ideology in the 1980s and 90s. In some countries, they represent between five and ten percent of voters.

In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder's center-left coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens has followed this rightward trend. Concretely, that means no extra pay for Sunday work. No minimum wage. Tuition fees. Increased payments for medical care. Reduced unemployment compensation and compulsory low-wage jobs for the long-term unemployed.

Instead of reinvigorating the German economy, the reforms have failed so far to make a dent in unemployment rates that are well above 10 percent and closing in on the record levels of Germany's worst year of the 20th century—1945. But apart from their failure as a job-creating mechanism, Schroeder's policies have not gone down well with many Germans who still believe that the state has a moral and legal responsibility to protect them from the predations of private capital.

"Social" values are family values in Germany

The idea of a strong social safety net has the status of a "family value" in Germany. As early as 1883—more than 50 years before the advent of Social Security in the U.S.—Germany was the first country in the world to adopt social legislation providing for government retirement pensions, disability pay and universal health insurance. Social Democrats expanded the safety net during the Weimar Republic and the Nazis coopted it as a centerpiece of their caring "racial community." The racist Nazi concept of a Volksstaat ("race state") did not survive the war, but there was hardly a democratic party in postwar West Germany that opposed the idea of a strong Sozialstaat ("social state"). It was by no means a uniquely German trend: the social zeitgeist was replicated almost everywhere in the capitalist societies of western Europe. It became practically an article of political faith for parties of the center-right as well as the center-left. The "social market economics" of West Germany's conservative Christian Democratic government (1949-1968) fostered economic growth through a mix of private and public investment, promoted peaceful relations between capital and labor, and guaranteed protection for industrial workers during normally brief episodes of unemployment. Germans of all classes feared nothing so much as economic and political instability: the Weimar Republic was a constant reminder that a democratic order can go under if a stable government cannot secure some measure of social and economic justice.

Those values, simultaneously conservative and progressive, still have a resonance in German society. The word sozial has never gone out
of usage in the political vocabulary of most German parties, and wohlstand (welfare) still evokes an image of public responsibility. Germany's Protestant and Roman Catholic churches continue to warn against the breakdown of social solidarity under the pressure of neoliberal economics: sozialer wohlstand for them is a moral question. At a mass meeting of German Protestants in May, one church leader denounced "the romanticism of market-liberal" economics which "subordinates moral values to economic goals." This is a "fatal reversal of social relations," he said. "The economic question must be reversed: How can the economy be shaped so it serves the life of the individual and the community?"

German Supreme Court justice Wolfgang Nesković explained this mentality in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt on Aug. 4:
ABENDBLATT: Can we actually still afford the social state?

NESKOVIC: Regardless, the Basic Law [the German Constitution] is socially orientated. In our Constitution's general moral structure, the principle of the social state is a fundamental value right at its center. Whoever says we can no longer afford the social state is no longer speaking on the grounds of the Basic Law. The state is obligated to be able to procure the necessary means to guarantee the existence of the social state.

ABENDBLATT: What do you understand by social justice?

NESKOVIC: Social justice means that the economically strong must shoulder a heavier burden than the weak.
Judge Nesković is now a Left Party candidate in this election: it's the only party, he believes, that still defends social values. Another Left candidate, Lothar Bisky, is not appealing to either red or brown extremists when he says that "the market cannot rule everything" and that "whoever looks upon the world only as a profit zone sins against the nations." In a sense, these are conservative, Christian values in Germany.

Strong in the east, weak in the west

The rise of the Left is a stunning change of fortunes for the widely-reviled Party of Democratic Socialism. Until now, the reformed post-communists have been a relatively strong force in eastern Germany, but virtually a non-entity in the west. East of the Elbe river, they co-govern with the Social Democrats in two federal states and are the largest opposition party in two others. More than five dozen municipal governments are in their hands. The PDS has worked hard over the years since German unification to cultivate an image as an honest, moderate, pragmatic party that delivers good government when elected to office. As a result, the party is trusted by many east German voters despite its origins in the despised ruling party of the former GDR. Its share of the eastern vote in federal elections has oscillated between 17 and 22 percent. But the PDS never gained a foothold in the west of Germany, where its electoral potential with voters seemed permanently thwarted by its communist past.

The party's future was precarious. When, after an ambitious and trendy campaign, the PDS scored only 4 percent of the vote in the 2002 federal election, it seemed on its way towards footnote status
in German history books. But the post-communists quickly recovered
and recalled one of their most pragmatic and media-oriented politicians, Lothar Bisky. New leadership restored self-confidence and a sense of mission. The PDS bounced back in time for the European parliament elections in 2004, winning a record 6.1 percent nationwide.

So the party's immediate prospects were reasonably bright when public opinion forced SPD Chancellor Schroeder to call for early elections in September—one year ahead of schedule. Bisky and others persuaded the party's former media star—a fast-talking Berlin lawyer named Gregor Gysi—to return to public life only months after brain surgery and two heart attacks. With Gysi's silver tongue and his relative popularity among east German voters, with new political capital accumulated by the party's support for nationwide protests against Schroeder's failed reforms, and with the promise of a snappy, professional campaign, it seemed likely the PDS would at least reach the five-percent threshold required for full representation in the Bundestag. Cautiously, the party announced that "five percent plus" was its goal. But no one, least of all the PDS, expected the post-communists to compete seriously with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats in the race to become Germany's number-three party behind the dominant CDU/CSU and SPD. An electoral breakthrough of that magnitude would require a miracle: the support of at least 4 or 5 percent of the western vote.

Oskar Lafontaine
Party's fortunes changed overnight

But everything changed literally overnight. The day after Schroeder fixed the date for new elections, his Social Democrats were stunned to learn that Oskar Lafontaine, their former leader and one-time chancellor candidate, was handing in his red party book and joining the rebellious "Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice" (WASG) founded in 2004 by trade unionists who had lost faith in their traditional party, the SPD. One of Germany's most flamboyant power politicians, long recognized as the éminence grise of the SPD left, reviled by his enemies and revered by his supporters as "Red Oskar" and the "Napoleon of the Saar" during his 13 years as premier of the industrial western state of Saarland, Lafontaine announced he was available to lead the fight against Schroeder ... but on one condition. The WASG and the PDS could not afford to split the potential left vote. They must form a united ticket before the election.

It was an ideal but improbable marriage. Lafontaine and Gysi are arguably Germany's two most charismatic politicians: both are powerful speakers and brilliant debaters. Lafontaine and the WASG gave the alliance credibility in the west, Gysi and the PDS gave it a strong electoral base in the east.

In less than four weeks, the two parties hammered out an agreement. Fusion will be postponed until after the election, but in the meantime Lafontaine and other WASG candidates will run on the PDS ticket. As a gesture to its new allies, who said the PDS brand name was electoral poison in the west, the party renamed itself "Left Party.PDS" or simply "The Left.PDS," with the letters "PDS" optional in western states.

Almost immediately, the new alliance's poll numbers took off on what the German media described as a "high-altitude flight"—from 5 to 9 percent, then 10, 11, 12, 13. Both the environmentalist Greens (tarnished by their support for Schroeder's policies) and the pro-business Free Democrats fell behind. Recent polls track the Left at 26 to 33 percent in the east, 6 to 8 in the west. The momentum cannot last, but the party does appear to be winning support broadly across Germany's political spectrum. Nearly 30 percent of its current electoral base supported the SPD in the last election, another 30 percent voted for the PDS. More than 20 percent did not vote at all: apparently the new movement is winning over many disillusioned Germans who saw no point in supporting any party in 2002. Even the conservative Christian Democrats could lose half a million voters to the Left. And in an obvious rebuff to the accusation that the Left is appealing to an anti-immigrant clientele, less than 4 percent of its potential voters said they had supported extreme right-wing parties in the previous election.

According to polls, the Left's high-altitude flight is already levelling off. But a diminished result of only 8 percent would put the Left Party in the same league as the Greens and Free Democrats—an electoral breakthrough no one imagined two months ago.

After the election, the Left's future is uncertain. The very different political cultures of the two partners reflect the social and ideological divisions between eastern and western Germany. It will be a difficult marriage. But the will to form a credible and stable alternative force in German politics is strong on both sides.

Yes to a new social idea

Meanwhile, the party has unveiled its new display ads and its commercials for TV and movie theaters. The 270,000 billboards and posters strike a positive note: "yes" to a "new social idea." The aggressive red and black color scheme of previous PDS campaigns has been modified by a palette of cheerful pastels. A lone red triangle on the party's new logo is a subtle reminder of its socialist heritage: it could be a red flag, or a red arrow pointing left, or a red megaphone.*

The cinema ad similarly deconstructs the Left's former image as the angry protest party of a traumatized minority. Two cleancut women boxers are fighting it out in the ring. One is wearing a red helmet and trunks, the other is in conservative blue. Red is taking a pounding as her coach shouts, "lead with the left!" Exasperated, he cries out, "the left! the left!" Red advances on Blue with her left glove extended. The motion freezes and the roar of the crowd fades. Then the Red boxer puts her left arm around the shoulders of the Blue fighter, and together they stop the match.

Will that conservative message of social reconciliation, mixed with feminist and pacifist undertones, win over voters to a party whose distant political heritage includes the militant "Red Front" of the Weimar Republic? The Left is betting that it will. Both a party of protest and a party of pragmatism, both progressive and conservative, both east and west, both red and blue, the reborn Left is hoping to transform the political balance of power in Germany. It may succeed ... at least for this year.

More links on this subject

We can't realistically expect to win (Deutsche Welle)
Historian links German Left Party to Nazis (DPA)
Left Party puts cats among the pigeons (Der Spiegel)
Left Party's TV, cinema and radio spots
Left Party's display ads
History of Left Party.PDS (English)
Left Party's campaign platform (English)
Left Party's online newsletter (English)
Norman Birnbaum on Germany's political scene (DIRELAND)
Why Europe is moving towards the left (Monthly Review)
German capital flees in search of more profit (Le Monde)
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (English)
André Brie, Left MEP (English)
Sahra Wagenknecht, Left MEP (English)


At 9:02 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

How do we get one of those Left parties over here? Or even a not-quite-so-obnoxiously-right party?

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

Excellent piece. The analysis of how the reporting has become a sort of lazy, derogatory propaganda is useful. The large issue remains of how Germany, or any nation with an aging population and a stagnant economic base, can pay for the kind of social state it may want. The most frightening statement you quoted was from the official who, in response to that very question, just pivoted and said, well, it's our constitution.
The West, in general, has had a two century run of pretty fair weather in an economic sense. If, in 1800, the average standard of living of the average German, the average American, the average Brazilian and the average Indian were roughly the same, rooted in farming with basic craft industry, the spectacular economic growth of the West, not matched elsewhere, has created a huge set of expectations for Western societies. If, over time, things tend to regress to the mean, we should expect the West to slow or even decline as India and China grow.

This is not due to pernicious action by companies, though that does exist, nor does it seem to be stoppable. How the West, including Germany, manages the expectations of people who have come to believe it will always be "fair weather" is a serious political, and yes, moral issue. Would it be moral to try to stop India from growing a middle class to keep middle class benefits in the West? Eventually, one hopes there would be room for world-wide increases in living standards, but the way the Third World is growing now is at the expense of the West.
The Left needs a coherent answer to this.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

Steve, if you're interested, you can take a look at the Left Party's platform.

In summary, the program aims to increase purchasing power to stimulate investment--except that Germans are not inclined (unlike U.S. governments) to run up big budget deficits, so programs that redirect wealth towards social programs and the unemployed are financed partly by adopting U.S.-style capital gains and wealth taxes.

The program would subsidize work rather than unemployment, partly on the theory that increased employment (vs. direct unemployment compensation) not only increases demand but also expands the tax base for social spending.

There is no legal minimum wage in Germany: the platform advocates for one.

To reduce labor costs, the party advocates taxing companies for social security based not on their number of employees but rather on the value a company adds to the economy, thus reducing the temptation to reduce costs by eliminating jobs.

In another nod to U.S.-style policies, the program would empower state governments to determine how best to use federal subsidies for structural investment, education, housing, etc.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous jeff house said...

Good article! But surely the present unemployment rate pales when compared with the rates after WWI and during the twenties?

At 3:32 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

"Spiked," a British online news and opinion magazine, has published a very cogent summary of the election platforms of the major parties in Germany's election.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Mike Moore said...

You may want the left to come to your country now, but this kind of government will leave your country vulnerable to islam, and germany will have many islamic problems in the next few years, mark my words.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Chris Jerdonek said...

To answer Rebecca's question:

"How do we get one of those Left parties over here? Or even a not-quite-so-obnoxiously-right party?"

We first need an election system that represents the people accurately.

In our current system of electing state and federal representatives, we elect only representative per district. But when you elect only one representative per district, you're really giving representation to perhaps only 40-50% of the voters in those districts. It makes the representation of all political viewpoints impossible.

The alternative is a system of proportional representation like they use in Germany, New Zealand, or most countries in Europe.


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