Wladek Flakin, of the German section of the Revolutionary Internationalist Organisation, discusses opportunities and obstacles facing the German working class with Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty.
What austerity measures does the government plan?
They plan to cut 80 billion from the federal budget over the next 10 years. The cuts effect different sections of the working class in different ways. There are supposed to be 15,000 job cuts in the federal bureaucracy, combined with a wage freeze. There are also massive attacks on unemployed people: unemployed workers will no longer be eligible for “parents’ money”. The government will no longer pay retirement contributions for long-term unemployed people.
Industrial workers have not been the main focus of the attacks so far. Party that’s because they were already subject to substantial attacks under the last Social Democratic government (up to 2005). The SPD raised the retirement age from 65 to 67. They also massively expanded the number of precarious jobs. The current government is hoping, though, that its attacks will create pressure on industrial workers by increasing fear of unemployment.
There are also planned cuts in military spending. Germany still has compulsory national service, but this unpopular and doesn’t really fit in with the interests of German imperialism — the military can’t do much with all the people who do the service for a year, such as send them to Afghanistan.
A number of bourgeois commentators have expressed their surprise that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) haven’t shifted to the left in opposition. They’re not opposed to the cuts, they’re just saying they need to be socially balanced. They’re calling for increase of 2 percentage points in the highest tax bracket — as an addition rather than as an alternative to the cuts. The governing conservatives came under pressure on this because Germany’s dominant ideology is “social partnership” — the whole of society, rich and poor, bosses and workers, should share the burden for paying for the crisis. However, the conservatives’ coalition partner, the hyper-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), is firmly opposed to any tax increases for the rich.
What’s the state of the labour movement and the left?
The trade union leaderships are tied to the SPD. Historically the German trade union movement has been very dominated by large apparatuses. There are some leftish elements in the lower strata of the bureaucracy, and they generally have a more combative position.
The biggest force to the left of the SPD is the Left Party. This was founded in 2005 as a fusion of the old East German [Stalinist] ruling party, the PDS, and the WASG, which was a leftish split from the SPD based mainly on low-level trade union bureaucrats.
The East German base of the Left Party is made up of pensioners and local politicians. In West Germany its base is more in the trade union bureaucracy.
Their latest draft programme is fairly radical but in practice the party is involved in two provincial governments which are carrying out massive social cuts.
No one is fighting for the perspective of a workers’ government, even from the revolutionary left; both the SAV (Committee for a Workers International — Socialist Party in UK) and the Marx21 (loosely affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency — Socialist Workers Party in UK) sections in Germany participate in the Left Party.
Marx21 leads the Left Party’s student group and the SAV focuses on oppositional work in their youth organisation. The IST acts as a pressure group within the Left Party and isn’t visible as an organisation. They’ve been rewarded for their loyalty to the party leadership with all sorts of posts: for example there are two ISTers in the German parliament! The CWI, on the other hand, is genuinely oppositional and has been the victim of witch-hunts and defamation. However, their perspective is limited to calling on the Left Party to be a “fighting party of workers and youth” rather than a revolutionary socialist party.
On 12 June there were demonstrations in Berlin and Stuttgart under the slogan “We won’t pay for your crisis!” These were organised by an alliance initiated by elements of the radical left and some elements of the trade union bureaucracy. Cuts announcements bolstered numbers. National trade unions and the Left Party jumped on board, which helped build the demos but they were very dominated by the bureaucracy. These elements certainly aren’t universally popular, though — at the Stuttgart demo an SPD speaker was egged!
There’s no alternative strategy coming from any significant part of the labour movement. The revolutionary left is very weak and isolated.
The autonomist movement is still one of the most important sections of the far-left. Some of them are becoming more oriented towards workers’ struggles, but they’re more interested in influencing the left-wing sectors of the bureaucracy, than developing rank-and-file organisation.
The Trotskyist left in Germany has historically always been very weak. Of the small number of Trotskyists in Germany in 1933, less than half survived fascism and only a handful returned to activism. When the movement was being rebuilt after the war, there were only one or two cadres who had experience from before fascism. The Trotskyist left has never really recovered.
Now, the biggest Trotskyist groups are all focused on the Left Party. It’s a shame, because that’s reduced the visibility of Trotskyists as independent revolutionaries.
Has the left focused much on the “eurozone” aspect of the crisis? Have their been any calls for Germany to quit the eurozone or the EU?
In relation to the Greek crisis there was a lot of chauvinist propaganda referring to the “garlic zone” of the EU where everyone is lazy and workshy. The tabloid press was dreaming about a return of the Deutschmark so Germany wouldn’t have to pay for the “lazy Greeks”. But that was never seriously considered by the ruling class.
Our view is that the EU is an imperialist bloc designed to help European capital compete more effectively with its rivals. But individual European imperialisms are no better, so we think calls for a withdrawal from the EU (as are raised by sections of the Greek left) by themselves are dead-ends.
The bigger problem on the German left is the mystification of the EU as some kind of progressive historical project designed to unite people and make wars impossible. While the freer movement of people within Europe is positive, it’s tangential to the EU project — it’s a by-product rather than a direct intention.
What are the next steps?
The government has been in crisis for at least the last month; the parties within the coalition have been rabidly attacking each other.
Post-war Germany has been based on social partnership which has involved a very high level of integration of the trade union bureaucracies into the state and individual corporations. That costs the ruling-class a lot in terms of making at least cosmetic concessions to the workers’ movement, and it takes a long time to implement things like cuts because everything has to be mediated.
A minority in the ruling class is getting tired of this; they want to break up that relationship and give themselves more of a free hand. They’re represented by the FDP, but the reality is that the only speak for a minority of the ruling class. The bourgeois press (such as the business newspaper Handelsblatt) is very critical of them.
In many ways this is a perfect time for a working-class offensive. We need to raise the slogan that workers shouldn’t pay for the capitalist crisis. There have been some significant struggles recently, including actions against mass lay-offs at Opel factories and wildcat strikes last winter at Daimler plants near Stuttgart. There have also been big education strikes which have brought hundreds of thousands of school and university students out onto the streets.
But for any of this to lead anywhere, we need to create a revolutionary current in the working-class movement. That means orienting to the labour movement but also fighting within the student movement, for example, for a clear orientation towards the working class. This has got to be a rank-and-file orientation — orienting to the trade union apparatus will only lead to radical left activists being co-opted.
Illusions still exist in the SPD and the Left Party; the revolutionary left needs to relate to these parties in terms of putting pressure on them to act in the interests of workers. We don’t think there are too much opportunities for revolutionary entry work in either the SPD or the Left Party but it is necessary to have a certain engagement with the workers who believe in them.