After a year of stellar successes, almost 600 delegates from Germany's new left-wing party, Die Linke, came together for the party's first ever congress, held in the east German city of Cottbus on May 25 and 26.
Former East German communist Lothar Bisky and former Social
Democratic Party (SPD) national president Oscar Lafontaine, once dubbed
by the media as "Europe's most dangerous man", were re-elected as
co-chairs of the party, and a social justice-oriented platform was
adopted for the coming period, which includes state elections in Bavaria
this September and federal elections next year.
Die Linke was officially formed in 2007 as a fusion between the Party
of Democratic Socialism (PDS — the successor to the former East German
ruling party) and a collection of militants, unionists and socialists
from the west organised as the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social
Justice (WASG). Die Linke now has almost 80,000 members.
The PDS, still popular in the east, had failed to win electoral
support in the west. However, the anti-social "Hartz IV" laws of the SPD
government of Gerhard Schroder led to a grass-roots rebellion against
the SPD in the west. Thousands of militant unionists and community
activists revolted against Schroder's neoliberal policies, forming the
WASG. They were joined by Lafontaine and a left-wing split from the SPD
in the lead up to the 2005 federal elections.
After the PDS-WASG joint ticket out-polled the Greens in these
elections — winning 54 seats — the two groups fused into Die Linke.
Having won representation in 10 out of 16 state parliaments, it is now
Germany's third largest party, after the right-wing Christian Democratic
Union (CDU) and the centre-left SPD. While it is polling at around 14%
nationally, in Saarland, Lafontaine's home state, Die Linke has reached
29%, almost double the support for the SPD.
Die Linke's success can be attributed in part to the failure of
Germany — with Europe's strongest economy — to translate economic gains
into social benefits. While the neoliberal policies of the CDU/SPD
"grand-coalition" government have cut unemployment, they have done so by
increasing the working poor — forcing many people into extremely
According to a government report, up to 18% of Germans were living in
poverty in 2005, and a quarter of the population earns less than
US$24,000 per year. The country has also been rocked by a series of tax
avoidance scandals, while the gap between rich and poor continues to
While this travesty continues, Die Linke has begun to set the
political agenda. Their policies, such as introducing a minimum wage,
higher taxes for the rich, and paid maternity leave — once considered
taboo among the other parties — have suddenly re-appeared on the
mainstream national agenda in an attempt to neutralise Die Linke's
As a result, Lafontaine is now referred to by many as "Germany's secret chancellor".
At the Cottbus conference, Lafontaine gave an electrifying speech
laden with references to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and the Polish-born
revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg. He slammed the "perversity of financial
market-driven capitalism" for causing unemployment and poverty in the
name of profit, and argued that fighting the influence of markets is
"the central question of our times".
In April, Lafontaine also proposed including sections from the Communist Manifesto
in Die Linke's program. Conference delegates also called for greater
public expenditure on health, education and environmental repair, a ban
on layoffs by profitable firms and higher property, corporate and
Die Linke remains the only German party opposed to the war in
Afghanistan, and Lafontaine — who has called US President George Bush a
terrorist and praised Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez —
railed against NATO at the conference, calling it a US-led machine that
violates human rights around the world.
Die Linke is also the only German party to oppose the new European
Union constitution, on the grounds that it is entirely pro-business, and
was the sole opposition in the Bundestag (the national parliament) to a
recent proposal to increase politicians' salaries.
The rise of Die Linke has lit a fire under big business, which is
worried about a left-turn in Germany, and the German media has led an
ongoing attack on the party. The security services have taken part in
the onslaught — a recent security report decried "extremist" elements
within Die Linke.
While these attacks have failed to dampen support for Die Linke, the
party has vulnerabilities. Where it has entered coalition government
with the SPD, in eastern states like Berlin, Die Linke has joined in the
implementation of neoliberal policies, causing a revolt by local
While in the west, the SPD has refused to deal with Die Linke, the
left-wing party remains open to coalitions with the SPD. There is a
danger that Die Linke might be drawn into fruitless governing coalitions
unless the party adopts a set of clear policies in relation to the
There is a potential fault line in Die Linke between a more moderate
wing and a radical wing that includes Lafontaine, many unionists and a
number of smaller, explicitly socialist platforms. The direction Die
Linke takes will be determined in the struggle to forge a party with a
platform that seems to genuinely put people before profits, both in the
streets and in coming elections.
Until then, as Lafontaine argued in Cottbus – "the wind of history is in our sails".
First published in Green Left Weekly, May 30, 2008.