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The New Left (June 25-26, 2005)

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A young East German who had set out in the early 1990s to get to know the Western Left outside of the SPD and the Greens encountered not only critical spirits but also many ideas that were all too familiar. He met orthodox leftists, for whom the doctrine in pure form was more important than a look out the window. He ran into distrustful people who smelled a Nazi around every corner and even promptly suspected him of nationalistic sentiments. Older gentlemen and ladies delighted in recalling heroic deeds from their rebellious youth, back when they started cheekily running across lawns. And they responded testily if he didn’t buy the subversiveness of their attitudes.

People who considered themselves leftists gave him unsolicited hugs and welcomed him into a community of people who all seemed to share the same consensual, unspoken convictions. They didn’t understand why, for him, it was irrelevant whether someone could reconcile the buying of South African grapes with his conscience. As different as they were, they attached great importance to those differences. But they were virtually unanimous in the importance they ascribed to not having anything in common with the philistines and functionaries of the PDS. East German socialists were the counter-image, against which they assured themselves of their own superiority.

If Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi now come together to run against Red-Green, then, whether we like it or not, this marks a caesura in the history of the German Left and the history of unification. This is not simply a matter of two old rivals of Helmut Kohl forming an odd East-West alliance. Socialists outside of the SPD are experiencing a renaissance. Those from whom one would have least expected it – those long written off – are performing a new piece with the same old actors.

So far, the public has reacted to the mere announcement with attempts at exorcism and defensive tactics consisting of horror and fascination in equal parts. While some declared the new Left alliance anachronistic and thus stillborn, others said the time had come for a true, genuine left-wing party, though unfortunately not the one we ended up with. Yet there is some indication that the alliance might prompt Germany’s party system to start adapting to the changed conditions.

As early as September 2003, Oskar Lafontaine had offered food for thought by wondering whether it would make sense for the SPD in the new federal states* and the PDS to join together to form an East German SPD. This would be for Social Democracy what the CSU** is for Christian Democrats: a regional party that is a bit more demanding and ideological. The suggestion – which was quickly dismissed by the Social Democrats as a crazy notion – shows most of all how little Lafontaine understood the East. In any case, he kept at it, and spoke at a rally in Leipzig in the summer of the Hartz IV*** hysteria, though he never really achieved the desired effect. The Monday demonstrations in the East had mostly been organized spontaneously by local coalitions as an articulation of popular disgruntlement with politics in general. Under new democratic conditions, the well-chosen slogan from the struggle against dictatorship – “We are the people” – quickly turns into an anti-parliamentarian message. Integrating enraged peers into the political system is a traditional task of the left-wing parties, the SPD and the Greens. The authors of the Hartz legislation of course have difficulty reaching their opponents.

Hartz IV marked the beginning of a period of agitation, without which the alliance could neither have come about in the first place nor been successful in elections. After the strenuous departure from revolutionary intentions or from strategies for overcoming the system, what is needed is excitement and the special feeling that this moment is a turning point. Today, a socialist organization left of Red-Green can only thrive in a situation where people fear harm to the system as a whole but still believe that change is possible.

The success of the PDS, for which only five percent of East Germans wanted to vote in December 1991, is at least halfway dependent on such sentiments. With its “red sock campaign”**** of 1994, the CDU made sure that the impression arose in the East that we were in the midst of a cultural struggle and had to decide between black and white. All the PDS had to do was to distribute hand-knit red socks as a symbol of East German defiance – and it became established as a lasting political force.

* Reference to the federal states in the former GDR – eds.
** The Christian Social Union only exists in Bavaria, but it always joins the CDU at the national level – eds.
*** Hartz IV is part of the package to reform the labor market. See Chapter 12, Document 13 – eds.
**** Reference to one of the CDU/CSU campaign slogans in the 1994 federal elections – eds.

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