On the evening of the 30th August the ghost of Weimar walked abroad in the Saarland. The social democrats of Heiko Maas were only just over three percentage points ahead of their left-wing rivals. This was uncannily reminiscent of the last Reichstag elections to be held in the Weimar Republic in November 1932. Then the SPD achieved only 20.4 per cent of the vote. The communist KPD was close behind on 16.9 per cent – so again, the gap that separated the two parties of the left was only around three percentage points.
That is about as far as the historical analogy goes, of course. Bonn was not Weimar, neither is Berlin, and Saarbrücken does not even come close. All the same, there is a depressing history of bitter feuding within the social democratic or socialist camp. When in the 1860s two social democratic parties were formed, one grouped around Lassalle and the other around August Bebel, they took to the streets to settle their differences. Each party would break up the other’s meetings, hurling insults and spitting on their opponents. Violent clashes between the opposing social democratic camps were an everyday occurrence during the founding years of the German Reich.
They did finally unite in 1875. But the sharp disagreements between the parliamentary groups and extreme wings of the party continued. In 1917 it reached the point where another split was inevitable. The USPD (German Independent Social Democratic Party) was founded, and in the years of revolution from 1918 to 1920 the social democratic workers of both party blocs gunned each other down in murderous brawls. It was largely because of this that the USPD in Germany gave birth to the largest communist party outside of Russia.
The split between the different factions on the left widened. The mutual hatred ran deep. The social democrats scorned the communists as “lumpenproletarians” and “tools of Moscow”; the communists denounced their social democratic rivals as “fascist socialists” and “bailiffs of the bourgeoisie”. We know how it all ended: they endured the same sufferings in the Nazi concentration camps.
The army of the long-term unemployed no longer feel connected to today’s upwardly mobile SPD
But in reality they had long since ceased to be the “fraternal parties” so often lauded in the rhetoric of the left during those years. The economic stresses that followed the First World War had split society apart, and with it the social underclass. By the end of the Weimar Republic the social democrats were the party of skilled workers and middle-aged white-collar workers with families, who made a reasonable living and had some options for shaping their future. Those who joined the street-fighting communists, on the other hand, were young, often unskilled workers from the lower echelons of the proletariat, with no future and no prospects. In short, the left was not only split ideologically into two camps, but their differences were rooted in very disparate social environments.
In the post-war German Federal Republic the economic and social changes associated with the running-down of industrial capacity since the 1970s and 80s have produced similar consequences. Some of the children from those families of skilled workers were able to climb the social ladder during these years, graduating to the broad middle class through better education and a rising income. These people now form the core of the new “Netzwerker” SPD (the Netzwerker are an inner-party faction broadly in the tradition of New Labour).
Meanwhile old industries were collapsing (textiles, mining, steel and shipbuilding) – and their demise put entire workforces on the dole. Now there was very little demand or need for unskilled manual labour. And so an army of the long-term unemployed was created.
For the past thirty years the SPD has been living off Lafontaine
The latter group, which feels no cultural affinity with the new upwardly mobile SPD, has turned in part to the Left Party. This was dramatically demonstrated in the Saarland state elections on 30th August. The SPD vote among unionised workers there was down by 26 percentage points, while Lafontaine’s Left Party picked up nearly 40 cent of the votes cast. When it came to the unemployed the Left Party was way out in front, on 46 per cent of the vote – a full 25 percentage points ahead of the SPD.
Or let us take Saxony, the original heartland of German industrialisation and the cradle of social democracy. Here the SPD garnered just eight per cent of the worker vote on 30th August, only enough to limp in in fifth place – behind the NPD, the FDP, the Left Party and the CDU.
So one can only marvel at the chutzpah of Messrs. Heil, Müntefering and Steinmeier when they spoke of the “momentum” generated for the SPD. The truth is that the social democrats are in danger of becoming a political sect, yet this alarming development is not being taken on board and debated within the party with anything like the urgency that it deserves.
The social democrats – and herein lies the paradox – have been living off Lafontaine for the last thirty years: when he was still in the party, and now once again, since it is entirely due to his power to mobilise support that the ailing SPD is to some extent back in contention again, following the defeats suffered by the CDU in the regional elections.
In the 1980s Lafontaine was the original leader of the pack for the social democrats of his generation. He it is, and not Schröder, let alone Müntefering, who possesses a sixth sense for the gradual tectonic shifts in society. He it is, and not Steinbrück, let alone Struck, who knew how to connect emerging issues and turn them into concrete projects, bringing them to a head in the arena of public debate. By doing so he gave the SPD a sense of direction.
And he successfully broadened the party’s appeal. In the late 1980s he was the darling of the employers because he laid into the trade unions with gusto. He was also the hero of the post-materialists, because he fought against nuclear power and medium-range ballistic missiles. He kept the marginalised workers on side by giving barnstorming socialist speeches. And he impressed educated middle-class sophisticates with his unapologetic love of the good things in life and his appointment of top chefs to the staff of the Saarland government delegation in Bonn.
What kind of left does Lafontaine want?
Some of this was subsequently mocked in the 1990s as Tuscan hedonism: the politics of Chiantishire. But then Lafontaine reinvented himself, and as party chairman he imposed order and discipline on a party that had been badly split and disunited, and led it into the final showdown with Kohl. Through his unyielding opposition in the Bundesrat he successfully destroyed the fiscal policy of the ruling CDU/FDP coalition and famously helped the social democrats winning the federal elections of 1998. Years later he was for a long time seen as the failed Federal Finance Minister from the early months of the Schröder government.
But in the meantime perspectives have shifted, calling into question much of non-Keynesian economic theory. Lafontaine’s projects for more regulation and coordination in fiscal policy now look startlingly prescient. And in the spring of 2005 he once again demonstrated his instinctive feeling for the right moment: with early federal elections now pending, he pushed the then WASG and PDS into a merger and so created a new, nationally viable Left Party – which in September of that year successfully blocked a majority coalition of Merkel and Westerwelle. Since then Germany’s established party system and the traditional coalition mechanisms have been transformed.
Lafontaine – one of the few strategic thinkers in German politics
This is no small achievement. Lafontaine is undoubtedly one of the most hated politicians in Germany: but what is equally clear is that he has achieved more, and pushed more political issues up the agenda, than most of his opponents. But what is he really after? Is it all a campaign to destroy the social democrats, by whom he feels betrayed and abandoned? Or is he seeking to unify the left, creating a new socialist unity party for our times, so to speak – but this time on a voluntary basis?
Lafontaine pulled off his biggest coups when he dealt a death blow to the hegemony of Kohl and when he brought down Schröder. By 2013 at the latest he wants to send Merkel, Westerwelle and the remaining Schröder crew packing. But is that enough to satisfy this gifted politician, who comes across as malcontent, or at the very least bored, as soon as he achieves what he has set out to do?
There is no doubt that Lafontaine is one of the few true strategic thinkers in German politics. He starts thinking from where he wants to end up, and not from the situation where he is now. 2013 is surely going to be a crucial year for him. By then the political landscape of the Federal Republic will have to be gradually reordered. From his perspective a national CDU/FDP coalition might not be at all a bad thing for an ongoing change of government in the German states, paving the way for a coalition of left-wing parties in Berlin, in the Saarland, in Thuringia, in Brandenburg, later on in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – and who knows, in North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2010?
Or is Lafontaine hoping for another Grand Coalition (CDU/SPD), on the grounds that this could destroy for good the SPD of the upwardly mobile centre? As he approaches 70, what kind of left does he want to see? Is he even interested in the left any more?
Questions, questions. But as yet, no answers.
(Translated by Allan Blunden)