Since the second world war, there has not been a stable party to the left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany able to compete successfully for working class votes and represent socialist values. In the 1980s West Germany saw the rise of a green-alternative party in the Greens. But in contrast to other European experiences there has not been a communist or left socialist party since the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was banned in 1956.
There have been numerous attempts both from outside the SPD and by left SPD members to break away and found a new party, but they all failed. No matter how far the SPD might move to the right there was, it seemed, no possibility of establishing a left party that could stand its ground. It was as if the SPD's monopoly of working class politics was written in stone.
As a legally, formally constituted party, Die Linke (the Left) is still only a few weeks old, but it has already had a sizeable impact. At the 2005 federal election, standing as a coalition of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), with its roots in East Germany, and Labour and Social Justice - the Electoral Alternative (WASG), coming from the west, it obtained 8.7 per cent of the vote, gaining 54 seats in the German parliament. In eastern Germany, it has reached about 25 per cent at state elections. In Berlin it is part of the government with the SPD. In Bremen, the smallest German state, the party entered the state parliament with 8.4 per cent of the vote.
All current national polls see Die Linke above 10 per cent of the vote.There is a steady flow of SPD members switching to the party, especially trade unionists. Formally launched on 16 June 2007 with 71,800 members (60,300 from the PDS and 11,500 from WASG), it attracted about 2,500 new members in the first week of its existence.
What kind of a party is it? Can it become a new political force, changing the German party system forever? What is the source of its sudden strength?
The legacy of the German divide: the east
Die Linke is a fusion between two older parties, overcoming the historical divide between east and west.The PDS, the Party of Democratic Socialism, was founded in 1990 in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). After the Berlin wall fell and the GDR ceased to exist, the progressive and democratic parts of the state's single political party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), decided to build a new party, the PDS. The PDS broke from the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, from state socialism and authoritarian political organisation but worked with the practical, organisational legacy of the old SED.
In the reunited Germany of the 1990s, the PDS established itself as a major political force in the five eastern states and in Berlin, divided in the cold war between the east and west.The PDS appealed both to the material impoverishment and moral mortification that many east Germans experienced in the unified but westerndominated Germany, and to former GDR citizens' experience of positive features of their past system.
Coming from a system that had raised 'spin-doctoring' to an art form, suppressing every failure and problem, the former GDR citizens were all the more disillusioned when west German parties promised prosperity but then carried out economic policies that led to economic and social decline in the east.The PDS became a kind of civil rights party for the eastern citizens of Germany. It developed a very practical reform-focused politics rooted in the problems of everyday life.
In the ten states of western Germany, however, the PDS was unable to become a significant political force. It was so identified with the GDR that it couldn't overcome its image as purely an 'eastern' party however sharply it tried to distance itself from that history. Since two thirds of German voters live in the west, the PDS never achieved more than about 5 per cent of the vote at the federal elections. Indeed, in 2002 it fell below the 5 per cent minimum for representation in the national parliament.
The legacy of the German divide: the west
The other half of Die Linke was founded in the western states. Its origins go back to disillusionment with Gerhard Schröder's 'red-green' government, which took over in 1998 after 16 years of chancellor Helmut Kohl.This followed a course very similar to that of Tony Blair and New Labour. Its 'job market reforms' hit German people as a hard shock and during the eight years it was in power, poverty and insecurity increased on a scale unprecedented in the era of the welfare state.The new government also led Germany to war for the first time since 1945, actively participating in the military action in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.
The SPD went on to lose hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters. For the left of the Social Democrats, it became almost impossible to remain loyal to the party. Party members were willing to accept some harsh consequences of global competition and had recognised the need for compromise. But what many members could not cope with was the fact that the party's leaders treated the unemployed, the low paid, manual workers and the poor in general as the new outcasts, self-inflicted losers, the ones too dumb to catch up. For anybody who had any sense of a class instinct, the SPD was simply no longer a home.
After the re-election of the SPD-Green coalition in 2002 and no sign that the government was reconsidering its course, preparations began for a new left party. The final decision was made in circles close to the two biggest trade unions - the metal workers' union, IG Metall, and the public services trade union, ver.di. For them a new left party would be a means to put pressure on the SPD.The new party was called Labour and Social Justice - The Electoral Alternative (WASG). It was a mixture of trade unionists and ex Social Democrats on the one hand, and people from radical left groups and social movements on the other.
In the first state elections in which it participated, those of North Rhine- Westphalia, the new party proved that it could hurt the SPD but would most likely share the fate other left-of-SPDparties in the past.Though the SPD lost heavily, the WASG achieved only 2.2 per cent of the vote and the PDS 0.9 per cent.There seemed little likelihood that the WASG could win representation at federal or state level. The laws of German politics would, it seemed, remain unbroken.
Flunking the written: the new party
After the SPD's dramatic defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of its traditional strongholds, Gerhard Schröder decided to go on the offensive. He brought forward the federal elections to 2005. One reason was to try to ensure that the WASG initiative would be stillborn.The WASG was inexperienced and would have great difficulties in setting up an effective campaign in so short a time.
Schröder's strategy did not take account of an old personal enemy, however. Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD chairman and minister of finance until his resignation in 1999, announced that if WASG and PDS would run for the election together, he would offer himself as front-runner.WASG and PDS accepted this as the only chance of gaining federal representation in the 2005 elections.They went to the elections under the label 'the Left' and won a surprisingly strong 8.7 per cent of the vote.The two parties then decided to go one step further and fuse into a new party of the same name.
It took two years to implement this decision. Fusing two parties is an extremely difficult process in the German political system. Meanwhile, polls and elections like the recent one at Bremen state have proven that the new party is both stable and electorally effective. For the first time since 1945, a party to the left of the SPD and the Greens has been established.
Why is it possible to 'flunk the written' now when it has previously proved impossible?
There are three major reasons.The first is that the shift to the right of the Social Democrats and the Greens has opened a huge space, leaving thousands of activists and millions of voters without proper political representation.
The second is that Die Linke has been able to challenge effectively the prejudices that people have against the idea of a left party.The party has shown it can work together. Its activists put aside internal fights and power struggles.They have created a party that is neither a purist ideological enterprise nor simply an exercise in realpolitik.
The third reason is that the process of fusion at ground level has led everyone to accept a much higher degree of plurality, diversity and equality than you would normally find in a left party - a precondition for success in a complex society with very different social experiences and political traditions.
The future of Die Linke depends on these conditions continuing to hold. But on the basis of the foundations created so far this will be measured not in years but in decades. It is written.