To be sure, the PDS, as Western democrats and civic activists constantly remind us in admonishing tones, is the successor organization to the accursed SED. By renaming the party after its refounding, Gysi and his comrades had primarily sought to secure the assets of the former Unity Party* – by now the Treuhand has control over them. But the legacy includes not only burdensome guilt, but also a piece of the political culture of the workers’ movement, which is alive in the East like nowhere else in Germany: solidarity among work colleagues and neighbors, commitment to each other and the common good, a sense of duty, empathy.
Long ago, the SED first channeled the old workers’ culture with its strict party organization and then paralyzed it. Anyone who was working and was also a party member belonged to a workplace party organization. Pensioners, housewives, the unemployable, and other homebodies were integrated into their neighborhoods through residential party organizations.
When the GDR collapsed in 1990, the secretaries of the new PDS saw to it that the remaining party comrades transferred from the endangered workplace party organizations to the residential party organizations. This created the new grassroots groups that form the backbone of the party today. The 131,000 members of the PDS are organized into approximately 12,000 grassroots groups.
The groups meet at least once a month. The program includes readings, discussions with the party leadership, lectures on the history and theory of socialism, and – time and again – debates about the SED past. For many party members, the grassroots group has become a pillar of support in an environment full of insults; it protects them against the cold wind from the West.
Woven around the party groups are entire neighborhood initiatives that provide help in matters of everyday life: filling out pension applications and forms for housing benefits, joining together to resist unfair increases in utility costs, defending endangered children’s daycare facilities, looking for space for small, cash-strapped art galleries, organizing May Day festivities.
Thus the PDS is the successor party to the SED, though in a sense that’s very different from what Westerners suspect: the new party didn’t secure all the assets of the old one nor are ominous cliques [Seilschaften] still at work. No, it is the Eastern party’s grassroots structures, which perhaps only now, after the liberation from centralization and the introduction of free elections, are truly coming into their own.
Today’s PDS members see themselves as the critical part of the old SED, the part that already failed to agree with the real socialism of the Honecker regime back then; the segment of the party that placed its hopes in Gorbachev and perestroika. André Brie, head of campaigning for the PDS in Berlin, puts it this way: “There was a large potential for criticism in the SED. Half of the PDS is made up of those critical people. The other half is a large self-help organization.” One can read the numbers in different ways: ninety percent of PDS members were already in the SED, but today’s PDS members account for only six percent of the SED’s former comrades.
Anyone who visits a party meeting will have to search for a long time to find a face without wrinkles. The PDS is the party of sprightly pensioners. In 1991, the last year for which party data was analyzed, a mere 9% of members were below thirty, but 48% – one out of two – were retired. That also has its advantages. The pensioners – many are early retirees who lost their jobs under the free market economy – have a lot of free time. They are brimming with anger and are eager to get back at capitalism one more time.
* Reference to the former Socialist Unity Party (SED) – eds.