On the PDS: An Exchange

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Eric Canepa

KEN TODD’S WELL-meaning depiction in his article “Germany Unraveled” (ATC 50) of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, formerly the ruling Communist party of East Germany — ed.) contains some significant misinformation. I believe the source of such misinformation is the set of cultural particularities of some German left circles through which most information on the PDS is channelled.(1)

The statement that the “party’s failure to attract popular and electoral support results in part from its failure to come to terms with its past” was already at odds with reality before the party’s electoral successes in June of this year.

In May 1992 the PDS averaged 30% in East Berlin in municipal elections, with majorities in some districts, and 22% in the December 1993 Brandenburg state municipal elections, numbers that clearly constitute a refutation of Todd’s claim.

Further, the ex-GDR (i.e. former East German — ed.) population is no longer impressed with “surprise” Stasi revelations — the ineffectiveness of Stasi accusations was widely acknowledged in the PDS’s electoral results (45%) in Potsdam.(2) Polls also show that most Easterners no longer equate the PDS with the former East German ruling party SED (the old CP — ed.), and except among much of the anti-communist citizens movements, there is increasing disinterest in the SED theme.

The assertion that the party has failed to come to terms with the past and the citing of “authoritarian and bureaucratic measures” suppressing the “most crucial debates” is astounding. The party carries on a relentless program of self-criticism of the GDR’s Stalinist past, scrutinizing even the subtlest kind of internalized authoritarian attitudes.

This process of criticism, required in all rank-and-file party organizations at frequent intervals, stalls the work of the executive council every two weeks with ruthlessly honest discussions of almost every aspect of left practice and thought. This ambience of endlessly morbid, penitent, highly idealistic “Trauerarbeit” (mourning-work) is largely unknown here; yet it is from those steeped in that guilt-ridden culture (which includes most of the German left) that come charges of inadequate self-criticism, etc.

This penitent bent is, furthermore, related to the German new left’s anti-populism through the underlying attitude that people are not good enough for this world. Despite our critique of populism, we in the United States accept working with left populists. We must therefore become aware of much of the German new left’s tendency to shun any trace of populism.

The German left is largely cut off from the population through being long unused to any organizing around domestic social issues, through their fear of the non-radicalized core working class, their resentment of that class being organized in social-democratic unions, and the association of populism with Nazism.

“Populism” is the main charge levelled at the PDS by the left. Although the eclectic PDS program and practice include some criticizable populism, the culture of its German left critics must be borne in mind. This is difficult for us, since this fanatical anti-populism is often found in socialists who otherwise display attractive ideas and theoretical astuteness.

The PDS obviously threatens the comfort of many German left intellectuals by challenging them to deal with the politically “impure” native population. The Eastern population has a kind of love-hate intimacy with the PDS, which is both a problem for the party and an opportunity for the left to interact with masses of people.

Even the formerly solidly pro-CDU potassium miners of Bischofferode have asked Gregor Gysi (former PDS leader — ed.) to represent them in Bonn, and their leader is now a candidate on the PDS’s open list (i.e. candidates sponsored by the party but not members — ed.).

Related to the above-mentioned penchant for breast-beating are a number of widely publicized dramatic displays on the part of some PDS members who had not been SED members before the “Wende.”(3) Their guilt-ridden acting out of symbolic resistance to a phantom SED has spread much misinformation.

Then there is the extraordinarily anti-organizational bent of much of German youth (contradicting the stereotype of German discipline prevalent in the United States), which makes their integration into any party very difficult. Their resistance to organization is far greater than that often found in the United States — but such youth constitute much of the West’s conduit of information on the PDS.

In a conversation on September 9, 1994 Angela Marquardt, chair of the Young Comrades Task Force, informed me that her Task Force did not criticize the party’s executive for authoritarian treatment of Sahra Wagenknecht. It wanted her to be handled more harshly.

“Michael” Brie (identified by Todd as party chair in Berlin) should be corrected to “Andre” Brie.

The assertion that the party maintains a large staff and enjoys some of the SED fortune is totally false. The party has been financed exclusively from members’ dues since January 1992 (see my article in the 1994 Socialist Register).

One must distinguish between old property confiscated by the state trusteeship and usable property. The PDS is poorer than the Greens. It has only 150 staff in all Germany, half of whom are not on regular salary. Federal headquarters at the Liebknecht Haus has a staff of thirty, and “important” people do night duty at the switchboard. The staff will give up their “thirteenth month” wage this November, and the party ran out of election funds on September 3 and totally depends on a new contribution campaign.

Distinguishing between Eastern and Western Germany as regards the PDS’s possible nationwide 5% in this October’s Bundestag elections is crucial, since the East is a socio-politically distinct country swallowed up by a larger one. Polls show a possible 15-20% PDS vote there. Also, in the context of the near-complete disappearance of the West German left, the change in PDS support from 0.3% to around 1.0-2.1% in polls of Westerners in the last six months is important.(4)

The PDS did not initiate the Committees for Justice. Gysi, as an individual, was part of the first initiative, but the party not only rejected an electoral alliance with the Committees but also could not find its way to any real support due to the Committees’ insufficiently progressive character. They did not “dissipate the energy of the party’s base,” only parts of which, in Saxony, involved themselves, and it is certainly a non-issue now.

Some of the most balanced evaluations of the PDS come from non-sectarian Trotskyist PDS activists, e.g. Jakob Moneta, who edited the West-German metal-workers’ union paper in the 1960s and is a member of the PDS’s executive council, and Harald Wolf, a non-member, who is a Berlin deputy on the PDS open list and was part of West Berlin’s Red-Green Alternative Liste in the 1980s. Readers of ATC ought to become acquainted with their views.


  1. I have tried to deal with the PDS problem at length in an essay published in the 1994 Socialist Register.
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  2. [Stasi is the former East German secret police; “Stasi accusations” means accusations of complicity with Stasi levelled against individuals based on the now-opened Stasi files — ed.]
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  3. The syndrome is called “wanting to be loved by Barbel Bohley” (of the New Forum). For example, a PDS member very close to New Forum recently acted as though the massive apology offered to Wolf Biermann by the party during the Wende had not taken place, and demanded that the hapless young PDS press secretary (not previously an SED member), whom the Forum implied to be an “apparatchik,” give up his apartment which, it turns out, had been occupied by Biermann years ago.
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  4. Moreover, it is well known that the PDS could also get three “direct mandates,” which would obviate the 5% rule for entrance into the Bundestag. “Direct mandates” refer to the second vote each German citizen casts for a person, not for a party, thus allowing Easterners to register a protest vote for a local celebrity representing Eastern resistance to the established Western parties. The PDS can get more than three of these.
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ATC 53, November-December 1994