The Needed Nail

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of…“ In the end, the old rhyme tells us, the kingdom was lost, “all for the want of a horseshoe nail”.

In Germany, with national elections just a year away, the missing nail could be one tiny decimal point under the 5.0 per cent needed by the LEFT party to stay in the Bundestag. And three months ago the horseshoe looked very brittle!

Yet isn’t this worry exaggerated, premature – or fully irrelevant? The German media treat LEFT party views commonly like a sort of unhealthy appendix, to be removed next year by a painless operation. TV – as obligated – does offer an occasional sound bite, most often a harmless, carefully-selected sentence or two. Talk shows do invite its telegenic leaders: quick, witty little Gregor Gysi, smilingly sovereign Oskar Lafontaine, the unorthodox new co-chairperson Katja Kipping with her striking red hair, the over-tall, highly intelligent Dietmar Bartsch or the brilliant, passionate new co-vice-president and theoretician Sahra Wagenknecht. But care is usually taken to have three or four loud, aggressive opponents to join in outshouting them. In rare interviews, as recently with Ms. Kipping on state-run TV, her interrogator threw one vicious cliché-punch after another, constantly interrupting her polite answers in a tone inconceivable towards leaders of other parties. Statistically, the legally-impartial public TV channels give the LEFT four percent of air time, the popular private channels, also required to be impartial, one or two percent, averaging one appearance per month.

When out of power both Social Democrats and Greens don shiny, left-leaning armour – which proves stiff and uncomfortable if the soft, perk-lined armchairs of Cabinet positions are regained

Like waiters who can pass by without noticing customers from whom they expect no good tip, the established parties ignore the LEFT when possible, treating it as an unimportant has-been to be barred from decision-making meetings like agreeing on a new president or determining European fiscal policy. But, as with the waiters, a wary eye is kept on it all the same! It represents the only genuine opposition within the Bundestag.

With Germany’s vaunted prosperity crumbling, all the parties face earnest problems. Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) prescribe stark austerity but hope to rescue a shaky euro and a European Union which a dominant Germany can use for never-ending expansion plans. But this is threatened by xenophobic hatred, viciously fanned by the mass media, against ‘lazy, spoiled Greeks’ and, increasingly, Spanish, Italian or other ‘southern weaklings’. Even her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), usually in step, now fears losing supremacy in state elections and is resorting to defiant harangues against saving ‘debtor nations’ while her coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), fighting for survival, demand shamelessly that the Athenian Jonah be heaved overboard to the sea monsters. Merkel somehow remains cool, smiling and quite popular, but the weakness or virtual demise of the FDP in 2013, with ‘Christians’ lacking a majority – could well cost her the throne.

When out of power both Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens don shiny, left-leaning armour – which proves stiff and uncomfortable if the soft, perk-lined armchairs of Cabinet positions are regained. Currently in opposition, they have purloined the very demands of the LEFT which they abandoned, opposed or thwarted when in power, like a minimum wage, fair, high taxes for the very wealthy and lower ones (if any) for the working poor, keeping the pension age down, humane support for the jobless, lower medical costs, no deploying of troops abroad. But their bad record in office is often forgotten, thanks to the media and short memories.

Nonetheless, polls indicate that the SPD and the Greens can hardly achieve a majority in September 2013. Barring unexpected strength by the hazy new Pirates Party, this would leave the SPD two alternatives; jilt the Greens, abandon remaining principles and join Merkel in a “Grand Coalition”, or, with the Greens, accept the support of LEFT deputies. But nationally, and in all states but one (Brandenburg), SPD and Greens reject all ties with those political ragamuffins. Far more than Merkel they hope that the spoilsports, with their nerving appeal to their own bad consciences – and rival voter appeal – will disappear from the national scene.

In the 2009 elections the LEFT did indeed cut sharply into the ranks of the SPD and the Greens, gaining almost 12 per cent nationally (8.3 per cent in western Germany, 28.3 per cent in the smaller east). In six of the nine West German states it cleared the five per cent hurdle and entered legislatures while holding a healthy second place in four Eastern states – and the lead in a fifth one. Its strength forced opponents, fearful of losing more heavily, to move – hesitantly – toward some progressive positions and legislation. And its success served as incentive and encouragement to splintered leftwing groups in Western Europe and a link to tiny leftwing parties in the East.

Just regaining the strength and influence of three years ago could help the Left Party to serve again as an inspiration to the splintered left in many countries of Europe, east and west, and help bring them together in concerted resistance to pressures, led by a powerful Germany, to force down living standards and squelch popular opposition from Athens to Lisbon.

Sadly (though happily for its rivals), this picture soon darkened when the LEFT lost badly in a several state elections, was knocked out of the coalition in Berlin and now teeters shakily at about six percent nationally, with small changes both up and down. What drenching could cause this rapid shrinkage to half its one-time high?

A basic explanation, already discussed, is the silent media treatment of the LEFT except when it digs up something nasty. But this is neither unexpected nor easily remediable. Is the other main problem remediable? A long-lasting inner conflict virtually lamed the party, alienated sympathizers and eroded the self-confidence and resolve of many members, whose Eastern ranks are sadly thinning due to age, disability and death of faithful old GDR-members.

The conflict revolves around one basic question: how much should the party accommodate itself to Germany’s basic economic and political system? The ‘reformer’ wing of the LEFT is strongest among political leaders in Eastern Germany, where its support from about a quarter of the voters (with choices among at least five or six parties) provides hopes and possibilities for participation in government on municipal, county and state levels. In some communities it wins the job of mayor or even county head; in Brandenburg it is in the state government (but lost its coalition position in Berlin and one other state). Such local victories are won by fighting for better conditions in local areas, from more street lights or improving schools to saving jobs while trying to balance the budget. Based on such a strategy, the reformers hope to become a more social component of a national government, left-leaning partners of the SPD and the Greens. Such an achievement might finally overcome its “bad boy” status as a Communist-tainted leftover from the terrible old “German Democratic Republic” and make it an established, respected competitor in the political chess game. It claims it can accomplish far more for working people from this position than from atop an agitator’s soapbox.

Doubters, often but not exclusively from western states with more militant histories of opposition, point out that leaders of the two desired partners, the larger SPD and the Greens, have repeatedly insisted that they will not ally with the LEFT; it is too – well, too left! Their hopes for regaining power in 2013 do not rest on assistance from the LEFT, but on weakening or eliminating it from the decisive Bundestag. Especially the SPD competes with the LEFT, after all, in trying to win the same voter groups.

LEFT reformers, undismayed, hope that election results will make the SPD and Greens gnash their teeth but change their minds. But this leads them to avoid positions causing alienation. It means joining obediently in denigrating the GDR, bowing their heads in unison at every memorial to misdeeds and victims, of which there were certainly many, while blocking virtually all positive recollections: GDR achievements in child care, equal education, health care, full employment and a guaranteed home for everyone. More basically, overlooking the ousting of the corporations and banks which built up Hitler and were again planning expansion, and the considerable support for forces fighting to gain or keep their freedom, from Cuba, Nicaragua and Chile to South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique – and Vietnam. Most reformers are timid about rejecting the daily ‘totalitarianism’ clichés equating fascism with ‘Stalinism’, with the latter rather worse, and clearly meant to prejudice present and coming generations against any form of socialism.

Another difference involves the privatising of state-owned housing estates and utilities. The reformers may permit exceptions and leave a few doors ajar; the others, the ‘leftists’, in line with the leading LEFT figure in West Germany, Oskar Lafontaine, oppose all compromises.

An extremely hot issue concerns German troops. The leftists say that in light of German history, including recent history since ‘unification’, Germany’s troops must never be deployed anywhere outside its boundaries, not with NATO in wars like Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, not in EU deployments like Kosovo, not even in UN peace-making or humanitarian missions. The reasoning is simple: troops or weapons of the current German state and system can never be beneficial, they are intrinsically expansionist.

Such a stand cannot and will not be tolerated by the SPD or the Greens. Undoubtedly with this in mind, the reformers try over and over to insist that while we indeed oppose sending troops abroad we must considerer each case individually on its merits. Some humanitarian UN missions might well deserve support. The leftists warn about any crack in the dyke of a party distinguished from all others by its insistence on peace and peaceful methods. The reformers recall the past necessity of fighting Hitler with military means. But Germany is no anti-fascist or even progressive factor, the leftists reply. This is part of a basic debate: could or should the LEFT join any national government or rather base its policies on a slow but steady move away from increasingly discredited capitalism and toward democratic socialism.

Debates on basics have been rather rare. Instead, personality questions came to the fore. On one side was Oskar Lafontaine, now 70, once a leading Social Democrat, now a militant leftist, and in no small measure responsible for the big gains in western Germany in 2009, truly spectacular in his little home state of Saarland.

Leading those who distrust his uncompromising views is Dietmar Bartsch, tall, handsome, also well-spoken, from Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the former GDR, who frankly wishes to work more closely with the SPD – and has not given up hopes of membership in a liberal-leftish coalition next year. The left wingers warned: joining the two ‘loyal opposition’ parties, SPD and Greens, is like a dog moving into a lion’s den in hopes of sharing power and booty; in the end it can expect only to gnaw the bony remains of any prey – and get thrown out again into the cold, skinnier than ever. This is exactly what happened both in northern Mecklenburg and in Berlin.

This conflict threatened to split and thus destroy the party at the congress in Göttingen in late May – to a degree, though by no means sharply, along east-west lines. There were emotional speeches, especially from the party’s traditional leader Gregor Gysi, now caucus chair in the Bundestag, and Lafontaine. Damocles’ threatening sword hung over the former railroad repair building where the congress was held, with lots of manoeuvring in its shadow. Then Lafontaine withdrew from any candidacy on a national level and a young eastern woman from Dresden, Katja Kipping, who belonged to no wing of the party except her own, was elected as co-chairperson (a woman is always chosen first). A widely accepted equation – one woman, one man, one easterner, one westerner – contributed to the narrow defeat of the eastern Bartsch as second co-chairperson by Bernd Riexinger, a West German trade union leader, a rather mild type closer to the leftist wing of the party.

Party officials from both sides were elected to the many other posts; the Göttingen congress was basically a compromise between the two main groups. Some reformers sulked, but nearly everyone breathed a sigh of collective relief, for the party had remained together. For a proclaimed period of 120 days Kipping and Riexlinger set about mending fences, smoothing ruffled feelings, and trying to establish a base for a vigorous, forward-looking election campaign during the coming year, with Riexlinger visiting East German centres to get acquainted – for he hardly knew the region. Thus far both of them seem to have had success.

The most pronounced group ‘on the left of the LEFT’, the Communist Platform (organised quite legitimately, like about 25 other groups within the party) has long disputed with the Forum of Democratic Socialism, with Bartsch and his backers. But now it calls for what may be seen as a truce. Both wings of the party agree on fighting neo-Nazis, opposing the Afghanistan military adventure, a minimum wage, supporting women’s rights and equality in education, free college studies, lower costs and more service with health care and utilities, no more gentrification of the inner cities. Despite disagreements, even on some basics, the two wings of the party must now work and fight together or they will lose that necessary little nail – the five per cent of all voters required to stay in the Bundestag. A split would scuttle both sides, leaving Germany with only the established parties, a disastrous, indeed dangerous prospect if the recession, now rumbling so threateningly, further worsens.

Even on the divisive question of relations with the SPD, co-chair Katja Kipping has offered an original suggestion. She congratulated SPD-leader Sigmar Gabriel on his surprisingly sensible proposals regarding the European financial crisis (he is currently fighting tough rivalry in his party on his leadership position). When the Bundestag meets again, she pointed out, his advocacy of strict regulation of the banks would get further with LEFT support, and she offered such support. Indeed, she argued, a real political change could only succeed with the LEFT, and so she offered to join a coalition. But she stressed two LEFT conditions; courageous taxation of the wealthiest fortunes and no more German weapons exports. Gabriel was expectedly dismissive; perhaps recalling his Biblical namesake, his only reply was arrogant horn-blowing.

Can the truce within the party hold – and bear fruit? Can the LEFT break out of its overly parliamentary bias and become more active in the streets, the workplaces, trade schools and universities? Can it more fully tap the potential of millions in Germany with immigrant backgrounds, especially the large Turkish group? How urgently such nails are needed!

And not only for Germany. As elsewhere, there are numerous small, more radical groups and parties: the anti-bank ATTAC, two separate Communist parties, Maoists, Stalinists, ‘autonomous’ anti-fascists, anarchists and somewhat dubious ‘Marxist-Leninist’ groups. There is the young Pirates Party- now fading with no political program thus far, and the original media support now dwindling. But the LEFT party is by far the largest and most important. Just regaining the strength and influence of three years ago could help it, in the centre of the continent, to serve again as an inspiration to the splintered left in many countries of Europe, east and west, and help bring them together in concerted resistance to pressures, led by a powerful Germany, to force down living standards and squelch popular opposition from Athens to Lisbon. It must learn from the militancy displayed in many of those cities. Occasionally – but far too rarely – it has flared up, even in Germany, in recent years. With a well-nailed shoe what a kick would be possible!