United Germany Disunited

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Ken Todd

Crisis grips Germany in 1994 as national elections approach. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the global recession have led to major social and political victories for the governing Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and have cost workers, women and immigrants heavily. The extreme right has gained serious influence.

Popular opposition to rapidly imposed austerity and to accelerated attacks on legal rights has remained limited. The principal political opposition has come from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reformed and renamed former East German governing party.

These struggles in the third strongest capitalist power illustrate the global scope of the ruling-class offensive and of the organizational and theoretical problems faced by the socialist opposition.

The Economic Offensive

The German capitalists’ offensive has centered on the economy. During the `80s high productivity and conservative Keynesianism secured growth and allowed the unions to resist reductions in wages and social services.

During 1990, economic policies in the newly annexed east held off the world recession. The opening of a new market, the destruction of two-thirds of the industry in the east and subsidies for consumption, through payments to the effectively unemployed half of the workforce, buoyed production.

In 1991 this demand exhausted itself. Recession began. By 1993 these direct and indirect subsidies to capital had doubled the federal debt. Inflation rose dramatically, officially to 4.5%, unofficially to as much as 16-23%. The government had reached fiscal and monetary crisis.

The fiscal and monetary crisis entailed by the annexation of the east provided the ruling class with leverage to launch the austerity program that they had wanted to impose for over a decade. In 1992 the government demanded that public employees accept wage increases below inflation. Coordinated strikes in the public and private sectors with broad public support defeated this first initiative.

To fund the debt the government obtained a “solidarity pact” that cost workers $1200 per capita and welfare recipients and pensioners $450. Two years of “reforms” in health-care shifted $5.2 billion in payments from businesses to workers.

In 1993 employers began a wholesale attack on regional contracts by renouncing the unification treaty’s guarantee of wage-parity for the east. Industry-wide strikes in the eastern metal industries and coordinated actions in the west blunted this attack, but as production continued to fall the employers’ position strengthened. The auto, steel and textile industries ultimately achieved work-force reductions of 10-20%, are planning another 10-20% of lay-offs and have obtained major wage and benefit cuts. The privatization of the rail and postal services will comparably reduce employment in those sectors. Within just three years teamwork and the two-tier labor market have restructured work-life.

The Ideological Offensive

An ideological offensive has cast the social crisis in moral and racist terms and curtailed personal freedom. The government scapegoated asylum seekers for rising crime and welfare costs and for the “over-foreigning” of German culture. These denunciations spurred neo-nazi violence against foreigners, and the violence provided evidence for the inhumane suffering that immigration imposed on Germans. Parliament amended the constitution to effectively eliminate the right to asylum and imposed harsh material and legal conditions on all applicants.

The annexation of East Germany also required the resolution of the conflict between the East German law, which allowed abortion, and the stringent limitations on abortion in the west. The CDU called for a complete ban, but their coalition partners in the Free Democrats joined with the Social-Democrats and CDU breakaways to pass a “liberal compromise” that further restricted and criminalized abortion. The Supreme Court overturned even this law and declared that any future law must give priority to the protection of “life.”

The government has broadened its police power to assert its sole and comprehensive responsibility for the decision who may and who must belong to its citizenry and work-force.

The nationalist agenda also aims to legitimize military intervention, a step the foreign minister calls the “central question of German foreign policy.” The steps taken appear modest by American standards: a small group of air-force inspectors in Iraq, army medical personnel in Cambodia, relief flights in Bosnia and Somalia, 1200 “humanitarian” ground troops in Somalia. But these deployments whittle away the practical meaning of the constitutional ban on foreign intervention other than in self-defense. The foreign minister’s argument that Germany needs intervention to secure unhindered access to goods and markets and to prevent threats to German economic stability make clear the ultimate scope intended for German military presence in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The CDU has achieved its ends with the collaboration of the Social-Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the unions, although the”opposition” leaders have often imposed these positions over the objections of their members. The SPD has supported the constitutional amendments needed to eliminate asylum, to allow privatization and to permit military intervention. Its leadership has endorsed the restructuring of the economy, and it has led the drive for “lean government” on the state level.

The Greens too support German military participation in intervention under UN auspices, and in state-level coalitions with the SPD they have approved sharpened police and administrative measures against asylum seekers. Some tendencies in the Greens have advocated unilateral intervention in Bosnia and the broader principle of armed intervention to protect ecological interests.

The German Trade Union Federation has also endorsed the fundamentals of economic restructuring and participated in its administration in the east. With various degrees of democratic shading an effective national consensus for intensified exploitation and stronger social discipline prevails.

Despite these successes the leading parties face a profound challenge in the coming elections. Crisis and corruption have weakened the CDU and the SPD. Both have lost support steeply in recent regional elections.

Voters have moved to the Greens and to the two parties of the extreme right, the German People’s Union and the Republicans. The extreme right now sits in several state parliaments and in numerous county and municipal councils. Only the mutual antagonism between these parties prevents their collaboration and precludes their national success. Their real victory lies in the shift to the right of all the other parties and the inherent legitimation of their positions.

The government’s anti-immigrant policy, for instance, originated in its entirety in their platforms. Their racism and apologies for nazism also provide cover for the small neo-nazi cadre organizations and their milieu. Although no longer well-publicized, the neo-nazis continue their vandalism, harassment, and beatings daily. The elections will ratify the conservative offensive regardless of which party takes power.

Problems in Forging A Resistance

Popular resistance to the conservative gains remains sporadic and ineffective. Economic restructuring has evoked militant resistance, particularly in the east, but the unions did not support the spontaneous, piecemeal strikes in the east and snubbed a shop-stewards’ movement to coordinate resistance. The unions did not themselves take coordinated actions until the attack on structures of collective bargaining opened by the restructuring in the east finally spilled over into the west. By then the balance had shifted against them.

The racism of the neo-nazis and the government provoked massive protest, concentrated in the west and in Berlin. But this movement suffered because the CDU and SPD had initiated it and blocked any official criticism of their policies and any explicitly anti-racist arguments, and because the outrage at neo-nazi crimes did not extend to active solidarity with the immigrants, who remained excluded organizationally and politically.

When parliament finally repealed the right to asylum, protests drew only 10,000 opponents. Nor could the women’s movement muster significant protest against the new restrictions on abortion. The isolated efforts of small groups and uncoordinated movements has no hope of matching the scope of the conservative offensive.

The PDS, Strengths and Weaknesses

The only consistent parliamentary opposition to every aspect of the conservative offensive has come from the Party of Democratic Socialism. The PDS originated with those members of the Socialist Unity Party, which governed East Germany before its annexation, who supported the democratic reform of “really existing socialism” and who sustained their socialist ideals after their absorption into the capitalist state.

Their program replaced the hegemonic claims of doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism  with an anti-capitalist program of economic reform and radical democratization of political, social and economic institutions. The PDS opened to socialists of all kinds and their collective heritage, and adopted a critical distance from all previous models of socialism and socialist politics.

For practical purposes, the party consists of four tendencies: those who uphold their Marxist-Leninist past but accept the PDS as their only meaningful political home; former bureaucrats and present office-holders oriented toward social-democratic, electoral reformism; a radical and activist intelligentsia who look to the left and advocate a sharp, break with Stalinism on moral grounds, but who do not address the system of authoritarian socialism in historical terms; and a mainstream of democratic anti-capitalists who had been the backbone of the reform of the Socialist Unity Party and want, at least in principle, an historical, theoretical reckoning with Stalinism.

Despite its reforms and innovations, the PDS suffers from major practical and theoretical weaknesses. In contrast to 1990 when the Supreme Court imposed special conditions on the election, the PDS must win 5% of the vote nationally to remain in parliament in 1994. Since their experiments in local electoral alliances with almost the entire radical left in the west have never gotten more than 1.5% of the vote, the PDS will likely fail to re-enter parliament. The concentration of its support in the east has reinforced its role as an advocate for the devastated east.

In this role the PDS has tried to initiate a popular mass movement against the social price of annexation. But the Committees for Justice could not attract activists away from the existing grassroots organizations and further dissipated the energies of the party’s limited activist base. This specialized role can even lead the PDS away from its socialist program, as in the short-lived negotiations for an “East Party,” a non-socialist cross-party alliance. Even in the eastern state parliaments where it has substantial representation, the PDS has not consistently and outspokenly supported the workers’ resistance to restructuring and has proposed no alternative program for the preservation and development of the east’s publically owned industrial base.

The party’s failure to attract popular and electoral support results in part from its failure to come to terms with its past. Authoritarian and bureaucratic measures have suppressed the most crucial debates, as when the leadership attempted to censure and remove from party office a factional leader for her public defense of Stalin without conducting public discussion or proceedings. When the Young Comrades, a formal faction that exemplifies the positions and work of the activist, anti-Stalinist intelligentsia, demanded instead a full and critical discussion of the party’s organizational and ideological past, they could not win a majority for their view.

Similarly, the PDS resolution calling on nominees for public offices and party posts to disclose any work with the Stasi, the former secret police, has repeatedly provoked scandals. Most notably, Michael Brie, the party chair in Berlin, a noted reformer and democrat and the principal author of the PDS program, had to resign after it became known he had concealed his Stasi connection. Gregor Gysi, the party’s national chair and best-known, most effective public figure had to resign in turn since he had known of his closest collaborator’s past and had colluded in his breach of discipline and confidence.
The party’s material ties with its past also leave it vulnerable. The party maintains a relatively large staff and active publishing program thanks to the resources it accrued when it governed East Germany.

Some on the left have called for the party to renounce its property and live from the dues of its members, but the more serious challenge has come from the right. No member of the PDS can speak on the floor of parliament without hearing taunts about the past deeds of the party and how those deeds supplied the money it depends on now.

The government has launched repeated lawsuits to strip the party of its holdings and leave it destitute. These resources may allow the PDS to survive in the east even if it fails to re-enter parliament this year, but they give the party the illusion of a strength that has no foundation in popular support. The historical, organizational and ideological remnants of “really existing socialism” riddle the party of democratic socialism with inconsistency, conflict and implausibility.

The CDU’s attempt to resolve Germany’s political and social crisis by intensifying that crisis, the emergence of a parliamentary consensus in support of that course and the growth of the extreme and far right strike an ominous note for progressive movements in Germany. We should by no means, however, equate the `90s with the `30s. Neither anti-democratic nor racist sentiments prevail.

The parties of the extreme right are not mass, militarized parties like the Nazis. The racist and militarist rhetoric of the capitalist offensive has not roused enthusiasm for national chauvinism or jingoism.

Yet the consensus on austerity, curtailed rights and nationalism leaves the radical and socialist left as the principal organized political alternative for those committed to social justice and equality. Under these circumstances, the heritage of an authoritarian state and party substantially impede the practical integration of electoral and mass politics and the organization of effective resistance to the capitalists’ social and economic attacks.

ATC 50, May-June 1994