Olsen, J. (2002). Germany’s PDS: Between East and West. Středoevropské politické studie, 4(2–3). Získáno z https://journals.muni.cz/cepsr/article/view/3900/5375
GERMANY’S PDS: BETWEEN EAST AND WEST

Středoevropské politické studie – Central European Political Studies Review

ČÍSLO 2-3, ROČNÍK IV, JARO-LÉTO 2002, ISSN 1212-7817 - PART 2-3, VOLUME IV, SPRING-SUMMER 2002, ISSN 1212-7817

 

 

 

GERMANY’S PDS: BETWEEN EAST AND WEST

 

Jonathan Olsen

 

 

 

Abstract

As with other communist successor parties, Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) enjoyed a political comeback in the mid-1990s. The PDS's success can be explained by many eastern German voters' disenchantment with the social, cultural, and economic effects of reunification as well as by the distinctive regional and fragmented character of the German Political Party System that allows the PDS, as the self-proclaimed defender of "eastern interests," disproportionate political influence. The PDS is faced with a dilemma, however. In the long-term it will have to become a true all-German party of the left if it wishes to survive electorally. Yet in becoming an all-German party the PDS risks losing the distinctive eastern identity that has been so essential to its success hitherto.

Key words

Post-Communist Parties, Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), German Political Party System, Ideology

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

Ten years ago few political observers would have predicted that Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism would have survived, let alone flourished, in reunified Germany’s political party system.  Once seen as a communist dinosaur that would find no resonance with voters in eastern Germany’s new “flowering landscape” (as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl once described eastern Germany’s future) and would eventually die out as its voting base of former communist functionaries themselves died out, the PDS today plays a pivotal role in German politics.  While still finding little support in the old states of Germany, in the new states of eastern Germany it receives almost one-quarter of the vote in state and national elections, has an ubiquitous presence in local communities throughout eastern Germany, serves as coalition partner or coalition-partner-in-waiting in all of the states of the East, and commands attention in the national media disproportionate to its vote totals. 

This article will attempt to explain the success of the PDS through an analysis of its historical evolution, changing voting and membership base, place in the German party system, and ideological and programmatic development.  The main argument here is that the PDS, unlike its party competitors, has managed to capitalize on the disappointments that followed in eastern Germany in the wake of reunification, presenting itself as the advocate of eastern interests.  Although this role has brought unquestionable success for the party, however, problems loom on the horizon for the PDS.  Above all, the PDS is faced with a huge dilemma: although the largest part of its popularity depends upon its role as eastern regional party, the PDS cannot afford in the long-run to stay a de facto regional party.  This has been recognized quite clearly by the leadership of the party who never tire in proclaiming the PDS a nation-wide party of the (alternative) left.  Yet because of vast differences in political attitudes and social cleavages between eastern and western Germany, in truly becoming a nationwide party of the left the PDS risks alienating its core voters.   It is this delicate balancing act between East and West that will preoccupy the PDS for many years to come.

 

The Evolution of the PDS

As perhaps Moscow’s most faithful ally up until the time of Perestroika, the GDR, ruled for over forty years by the “Socialist Unity Party” (SED), experienced the end of state socialism in the most dramatic of fashion.  The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 symbolized like nothing else the abrupt and unlikely end of communist rule in Eastern Europe.  After its initial attempts to salvage the GDR and transform itself into a representative of “Socialism with a Human Face” foundered on the harsh reality of a rapidly imploding East German state, the SED adopted a new, transitional name - the SED-PDS, later changed to simply “PDS” in February, 1990 - and attempted to adjust itself to the new realities of post-communist politics and a reunified German state.

At its very inception the new party leadership, headed by the reformist socialist and charismatic lawyer Gregor Gysi, was torn between two equally unpalatable alternatives.  The party could completely break with the SED, both ideologically and institutionally, by dissolving and then reconstituting itself as a new political party to the left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).  Yet such a rupture would deprive the party of much needed institutional, financial, and organizational resources inherited from the SED crucial to the PDS’s political survival.  Moreover, it was clear that a majority of party members, for whom the SED represented their “home”, were against such a move (Barker 1998: 1 – 17).  On the other hand, retaining the historical linkage to the SED and its resources would send the signal, both externally and internally, that the PDS had changed from its predecessor in name only.  It was the latter course that was chosen.  As will be discussed later, the preservation of links to the SED and GDR has provided significant advantages for the party but also growing disadvantages and marks the party as an incomplete “social-democratized” communist successor party.

Fresh financial scandals as well as the euphoria that surrounded preparations for an inevitable reunification with West Germany contributed to a free-fall of the new PDS in the Spring of 1990.  The party not only underwent a hemorrhage of party members from around 2.3 million in October 1989 to around 280,000 by August, 1990, it also performed poorly in the first (and last) fair election held in the GDR since 1947, garnering only 16.4% of the vote.  The party contributed to shed members and drop in the polls before the first all-German elections in December 1990, eventually netting only 2.4% nationwide, 11.1% in the former East Germany.  Many political analysts predicted a quick end for the party (Bortfeld 1991: 520 – 535). However, due to a federal constitutional court ruling that divided eastern and western Germany into separate electoral zones, the PDS was able to gain representation in the federal parliament (Bundestag) despite not having cleared the 5% minimum barrier of votes.  The ability of the party to use the federal parliament as a powerful pulpit for its articulation of “eastern interests” explains in part why the PDS was able to stage a resurgence in the mid-1990s.

Yet resurgence looked quite unlikely in 1990-91, with resignations of prominent PDS politicians, the continued weakening of the party membership, declining popularity in the polls, and the lack of respect shown the party by the media and the PDS’ political competitors.  Thus it was stunning to many that the PDS was indeed able to rebound in the “superelection year” of 1994, with gains in several eastern German state elections and in elections to the European parliament.  The PDS’ s showing in the federal elections of 1994, where it took 4.4% of the vote nationally and almost 20% in the states of eastern Germany, confirmed the phoenix-like rise of the party.[1]  As table 1 shows, the 1998 federal elections cemented the PDS’s place in the German political party system: its 5.1% share of the vote represents more than double its vote in 1990, with over 20% of the eastern German electorate voting for the PDS.  Moreover, the party’s strong showing in the state election in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania held on the same day allowed the PDS and SPD to form a coalition government, the first “red-red” government in the history of the Federal Republic.

 

Table 1:  Results of the parties in federal elections, 1990-1998

 

PARTY

1990 % RESULT

1994 % RESULT

1998 % RESULT

CDU/CSU

43.8

41.5

35.1

SPD

33.5

36.4

40.9

GREENS

5.1

7.3

6.7

FDP

11.0

6.9

6.2

PDS

2.4

4.4

5.1

 

 

  The upward electoral trend of the PDS has continued almost unabated since 1998.  The Berlin state elections in 2001 illustrate this vividly.  Overall, the PDS scored 22% of the vote.  In eastern Berlin, moreover, the PDS netted some 47% of the vote and is by far the largest party there.  Even in western Berlin the PDS was able to increase its share of the vote to around 7%.  After coalition talks between the SPD and the Free Democrats and Greens broke down in acrimony, discussions were held between the SPD and PDS.  As a consequence, the second red-red coalition in Germany has come into being in Berlin, a remarkable development considering the division of the city by the Berlin Wall a scant 12 years earlier.

Putting a damper on the relatively optimistic picture for the PDS, however, are several long-range developments.  First, the PDS continues to lose party members (see Table 2).  Although this is true of all the German political parties the problem for the PDS is particularly acute.  In addition, as table 3 shows, the PDS is a rapidly aging party, so much so that there is some fear that unless the PDS can aggressively recruit new members it will eventually (and literally) die out. 

 

Table 2:  The PDS membership, 1990-2000

 

 

TOTAL MEMBERS

% CHANGE  PREVIOUS YEAR

 

TOTAL MEMBERS

% CHANGE, PREVIOUS YEAR

1990

280, 882

 

1996

105, 029

-8.6

1991

172, 579

-38.6

1997

98, 624

-6.1

1992

146, 742

-5.0

1998

94, 627

-4.1

1993

131, 406

-10.5

1999

88, 594

-6.4

1994

123, 751

-5.8

2000

83, 475

-5.8

1995

114, 940

-7.1

2001

not available

 

Source: Moreau and Grabiak, 2002

 

Table 3: Age structure of PDS members in Easterhn and Western Germany

 

AGE

EAST

WEST

AGE

EAST

WEST

Under 30

0.6

15.6

60-69

30.7

11.2

30-39

2.2

22.8

70-79

41.1

9.4

40-49

7.9

23.3

over 80

8.5

1.3

50-59

9.1

16.5

 

 

 

 

Source: Moreau and Grabiak, 2002

 

 

The second long-range problem for the PDS is its electoral showings in the western half of the country and the continued “east-west” divide within the PDS.  In western Germany the party’s results remain at a very low level, a mere 1.2% in the 1998 federal elections.  Whereas the PDS was able to increase its absolute numbers of the national vote in western Germany from some 125,000 to around 460,000 from 1990 to 1998, its percentage of the vote in western Germany is around one-twentieth of its vote percentage in eastern Germany (21.6% in 1998) (Neu 2000, Olsen 2002: 147 – 172). Moreover, eastern PDS voters differ dramatically from western PDS voters.  For example, although the party receives a significant amount of support from older voters in eastern Germany, it finds little resonance among older voting groups in western Germany.   This “generation” gap is also evident in the memberships of eastern and western Germany.  As table 3 shows, eastern and western PDS members present a mirror image, with older members in the East dominating, younger members in the West.  Of course, the relatively youthful voters of the PDS in the West could be considered an advantage:  the party is seen to be hip, relevant, and a genuine alternative to the traditional parties in western Germany - a role once played by the Greens in the Federal Republic! Yet young voters are notoriously fickle as well, and it is unclear whether the PDS will be able to hold on to these young voters in western Germany as time goes by (Neu 2000).

 

The PDS’s Place in the German Political Party System

For several decades after the founding of the Federal Republic, Germany was thought to have one of the most stable party systems in the developed world, with only three main parties - the CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP - represented in the federal parliament and in the large majority of state parliaments.  With the rise of the Green party (and to some extent, the rise of right-wing radical parties such as the Republicans) in the early 1980s this situation changed and the German party system became much more volatile.  However, the most significant change to the German party system occurred as a result of reunification.  Although there was much continuity here in terms of parties - for example, the two large parties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, have continued to attract the large majority of the vote - this continuity has been dwarfed by the very different party constellations in eastern and western Germany.  In the West, the four pre-unification parties (CSU/CSU, SPD, FDP, and Greens) continue to dominate, with the PDS playing the role of a minor “third party.”  In the East, however, only the CDU/CSU, SPD, and PDS have significant representation, with the FDP leading a tenuous existence and the Greens for all intents and purposes non-existent.  Thus one cannot really speak of a single party system in Germany, but rather three party systems - one at the national level, one in eastern Germany, and one in western Germany.  Drawing on Giovanni Sartori’s famous discussion of “polarized pluralism” in Weimar Germany, David Patton has aptly described the party system(s) in Germany as embodying a

“regionalized pluralism” (Patton 2000: 144 – 160).

The electoral fortunes of the PDS in turn - and thus the party’s place in the German party system - can quite simply be characterized as successful in the eastern German party system, failing in the western German party system, and significant, if nevertheless relatively powerless due to other parties’ unwillingness to have it as a coalition partner, in the national party system. Table 4 illustrates the relative position of the PDS quite well: while the party was able to capture around 21% of the eastern electorate in the 1998 federal election, it scored but a paltry 1.2% in the West.  Thus despite the insistence of the PDS’s federal leadership that it is a nation-wide party of the left, the PDS remains a de facto eastern regional party.[2]

 

Table 4: Electoral result of the PDS in the 1998 1998 FEDERAL ELECTION

 

 

1998 TOTAL VOTE

% OF VOTE

Germany, Entire

2,515,454

5.1%

Eastern Germany

2,054,773

21.6%

Western Germany

460,681

1.2%

 

 

At the state level in eastern Germany the PDS has also been extremely successful.  Not only is the PDS now receiving over 20% of the vote in eastern Germany, it has also in several eastern states overtaken the SPD as the second-strongest party.  Thus for example while the PDS received 21.3% of the vote in the Thuringia state election of September 12, 1999, the SPD mustered only 18.5%.  In the Spring, 2002 state election in Saxony-Anhalt, the PDS received 20.4% of the vote compared to 20.1% for the SPD.  The results of the Saxony state  election of September 19, 1999 were even more dramatic.  Here the PDS received more than double the vote of the SPD, scoring an impressive 22.2% of the vote versus the SPD’ miserable showing of 10.7%. 

Electoral success in the east has, moreover, been translated into substantial political power for the PDS.  Operating within this de facto three-party system, the PDS has begun to play a critical in determining the composition of state governments there.  The political strength of the PDS has been clearly recognized by the SPD.  Although still spurning any coalition with the PDS at the federal level, a change in attitude on the part of the federal leadership of the SPD from 1996 onwards – and changes in the balance of power within the PDS that gave reformers and those in favor of coalitions a clear majority in the party – have made it possible for closer cooperation between the PDS and SPD in eastern Germany, especially in Saxony-Anhalt (the so-called “toleration” model of government up until the Spring of 2002) and in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where reunified Germany’s first state-level SPD-PDS coalition came to power in 1998 (Berg, Koch 2000, Olsen 2000). Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the party’s strong showing in the Fall, 2001 state election in Berlin - here it received 22% of the total vote, and 47% of the vote in eastern Berlin - opened the door to a second “red-red” coalition in Germany’s capital city.

How can one explain the relative position of the PDS in the three different party systems of Germany?  Put simply, it can be traced to the East-West division in German politics.  As the political scientists Gero Neugebauer and Richard Stöss have argued, the East-West conflict in German politics is a result of the different “tempo of modernization” in the two halves of Germany thus this conflict stands for a “value conflict” between the more “postmaterialist” (neoliberal and libertarian) West and the more “materialist” (social and authoritarian) East.  Moreover, even though other parties are divided internally by this conflict, the PDS is the only party whose very existence depends upon it (Neuegebauer, Stöss 1996).

This value conflict and “modernization” divide can be seen quite clearly in the two halves of Germany.  In the East, a gradual disillusionment among some parts of the eastern German electorate with German reunification and its social, economic, and political effects.  Thus, for example, the high level of unemployment in the east - which still today in some eastern states stands at 20%, more than twice the average in western Germany - has engendered a backlash against life in the new Federal Republic.  As the only political party indigenous to eastern Germany - the other parties in the east being in essence branches of the western German political parties - the PDS has been able to portray itself as the only legitimate defender of “eastern interests” against western Germany and the national government.  Meanwhile, the same things that make the PDS a successful party in the east account, at least in part, for its lack of success in western Germany.  First, unlike the PDS-East, the PDS-West is organizationally and materially weak.  The 4,000 members in western Germany represent about 3% of the total membership.  There are not enough party members in western Germany to staff all local party branches, and where the PDS is represented it only has a handful of members, usually quite political inexperienced.  Second, the PDS-West emerged out of an attempt by the eastern party leadership to expand into western Germany by striking electoral alliances with already existing, but politically marginal, left-wing parties.  Problems between the PDS and its new “allies” soon surfaced.  While the PDS was attempting, at least publicly, to distance itself from the SED’s Stalinist ideology, many of its western German counterparts were almost completely unfazed by the fall of communism and continued to assert their highly sectarian views of “true” socialism.  Third, and most importantly, the PDS is not an indigenous product of the old Federal Republic and is seen by many western Germans as an “alien” import.  Having retained for the most part its structural/institutional linkages, the PDS in eastern Germany is represented in nearly every locality at the local level in eastern Germany.  PDS local party offices in the East often act as a kind of “Citizen’s bureau” where average citizens come for advice and help in securing an apartment, getting their pension checks, or finding suitable partners for business and charitable projects.  In western Germany, the PDS performs almost none of these functions. 

In short, while the party in eastern Germany has enjoyed electoral and political success to a degree unexpected by anyone familiar with German politics in 1990-91, the PDS in western Germany remains a party on the edges of political life.  Even party insiders no longer think that the PDS will be able to establish itself quickly in western Germany and think rather in terms of decades, rather than in years, in hoping for PDS success in the west.  The dilemmas of the PDS are much in evidence when one looks macroscopically at the PDS’s place in the German party system.  Although the PDS leadership recognizes that the key to political success in the western half of the country (and thus continued long-term success nationally) depends upon moving the PDS away from both its sectarian and ideologically dogmatic politics as well as its purely “eastern” profile, such moves are fraught with difficulty.   In order to demonstrate the PDS’ practical political competence and its suitability as a coalition partner the PDS needs the experience of governing (thus, it is also hoped, broadening its base of support).  This can only be achieved, however, in coalitions with the SPD which will invariably - indeed, already have in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania - dilute the party’s left-wing and “opposition” profile as the imperatives of coalition government move the PDS onto more politically pragmatic ground.  The upside of this is that the PDS will be seen as more attractive to a western electorate the PDS sorely needs.  The downside of this is that the PDS risks undermining its own ideological raison d’etre.  Indeed, those radical leftists in the party who warn that the PDS is heading towards its own “Bad Godesberg” that would spell the end of the party may have their own ideological agenda but nevertheless have a point.[3]  Moreover, additional electoral support in the west depends in part upon the public’s perception that the PDS is an all-German, rather than an eastern regional, party, thus risking a dilution of its distinctive regional profile.  Calls to abandon the western expansion of the PDS in order to concentrate on its base in the East are not infrequently heard, although always dismissed by the national leadership.[4]  Yet such doubts cannot be easily dispelled. 

 

Ideology and Programmatic Policies of the PDS: On the Way to Bad Godesberg?

There are, at least, three ways to measure a party’s ideological profile.  First, one can look at official party programs and election programs to get a sense of the party’s agreed-upon ideological “principles.”  Second, one can look at the policies pursued or advocated by a particular party.  Third, one can look at public statements by party leaders, studies of the attitudes of the rank and file, and internal debates within a party.  If one looks at the first two of these elements, the party programs and concrete policies, it seems clear that the PDS cannot be called an “orthodox” or unreformed communist party and offers an ideology somewhere between traditional state socialism/communism, social democracy, and a more radical-democratic view of socialism (Gerner 1994).  In terms of the attitudes of the rank and file - especially regarding the question of how to view the history of the GDR and SED - the situation is much more complex.  Indeed, one could say that the PDS’s inability or unwillingness to fully come to terms with its past is the single most important element providing ideological continuity between the SED and PDS.

In regards to party programs, it was already clear by 1990 that the PDS had undertaken a decisive break with its past.  Its first party program, written in the early months of 1990, already rejected the “leading role” of the party and explicitly defined the PDS as a “Marxian Socialist” party rather than a “Marxist-Leninist” party.  Reflecting the new reality of a pluralistic PDS, the 1990 program also paid tribute to a host of “theoretical forefathers” in the socialist tradition, many of whom represent diametrically opposed positions within that tradition, for example Lenin and Bernstein.[5]  Despite this ideological ambiguity or incoherence, in its welcoming of parliamentary democracy, as well as its acceptance (if not unbridled enthusiasm) for capitalism and the free market, the 1990 program served to illustrate the PDS’s evolution from totalitarian communist party to democratic socialist party, an evolution also highlighted in its 1993 (and still current) party program.  The 1993 program, however, also reflected the disappointments of many eastern Germans with reunification.  Thus in contrast to the 1990 program, there is much more criticism of capitalism, for example an argument that the “capitalist character of modern society is chiefly responsible for the endangerment of human civilization and culture.”  What is most striking about the 1993 program, however, is the nationalistic/regionalistic tenor of the entire document.  It describes reunification as the Anschluss (forcible takeover, the word conjuring up the Nazi takeover of Austria) of the GDR by the Federal Republic and argues that eastern Germans have been humiliated by western Germans and the German state.  Moreover, the GDR is treated much less critically in the 1993 program than the 1990 program, illustrating the pervasive Ostalgie (nostalgia for GDR society and history) that had taken hold of eastern Germany by 1993.  Although the GDR leadership is accused of “mistakes, false paths, even crimes,” GDR society nevertheless is said to demonstrate “valuable results, experiences, and values,” such as “social justice, the subordination of production goals to the interests of the working people, and a solidaristic and peaceful communal life in Germany.”[6]

Just recently, however, the PDS leadership has offered a new draft party program to the membership for discussion.  For some time the leadership has been convinced that the 1993 party program is too fixated on the past, does not go far enough in criticizing the old GDR, does not deal adequately with new and pressing social and political issues, and offers no fresh definition of what “modern socialism” means in the 21st century.  In short, the leadership is convinced that the PDS, in the words of one of its most articulate (if controversial) spokesman, Andre Brie, still “needs to arrive, to be a part of the Federal Republic” (ankommen in der Bundesrepublik müssen).  “Modernity” plays a key role throughout the new document, both in terms of the party’s self-understanding as well as in its appraisal of the political and economic system of the FRG.  Gone are most of the positive references to the GDR as well as praise for the Bolshevik revolution.  Gone as well are those more backward-looking elements of the previous programs which attempted to justify the political and economic system of state socialism while at the same time criticizing its “mistakes.”  And while global capitalism continues to be singled out for criticism by the PDS, it is no longer capitalism per se that is made responsible for “the endangerment of human civilization and culture” but rather the “most powerful, profit- and power-driven elements of modern capitalism.”  Indeed, long passages in the text praise certain aspects of modern capitalism as an essential part of “modernity”, with even the profit motive of modern business seen as a net contributor to human freedom.  Accordingly, the new program argues that businesses that reinvest their profits so as to maximize employment and care for their workers should enjoy tax breaks from the state!  The role of the state, meanwhile, should be to secure the main goals of social solidarity, equality, and social justice - with whatever variety of instruments it can.

Despite some elements of traditional state socialism, the party programs of the PDS - and most especially, its new draft program - show unequivocally that the PDS can in no way be considered an orthodox communist party, and instead merges traditional state socialist ideology with both social-democratic thinking and a vaguely utopian, radical democratic socialism.  This same ideological melange can be seen in the party’s concrete policy proposals, for example in economic policy.  The PDS has, at first glance, seemed content to merely defend the classic welfare state that is rapidly being called into question by global realities but which nevertheless remains the single most important “positive legacy”, as seen by the PDS, of the old GDR.  Among other things, the party’s official policy calls for a greater amount of spending by the state in the areas of public transport, welfare benefits, education, and tax breaks for couples with children (Kindergeld) (PDS im Bundestag.  Von A bis Z). At the same time, the PDS has argued against the restructuring of the tax brackets to reduce the tax burden, wants to retain inheritance and capital gains taxes, and advocates an environmental tax more far-reaching (and costlier) than that proposed by the SPD-Greens coalition.  It has also argued against changing the pension system and has rejected the still rather modest reform of pensions put forth by the government.  In light of these policy stances it would be hard to resist the notion that PDS’ policies are nothing more than traditional “tax-and-spend” policies designed to prop up the welfare state.  Yet actions by the PDS at the state level belie somewhat this simple image.  In Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, for example, the PDS has gone along with its SPD coalition partner - despite a lot of displeasure from the PDS base - and scaled down state debt by drastically cutting current spending and reducing new state-financed initiatives to a minimum.  Similarly, the Berlin PDS has already shown that it will not be afraid to use the budget knife to reduce that city’s out-of-control spending.  After the new SPD-PDS coalition came to power, it agreed upon a new budget that would involve substantial cuts in government spending across the board.[7]

In contrast to the party’s economic policies (which at least hint at some movement away from orthodoxy), the PDS’ foreign policy is still by and large utopian, if not backward-looking, colored largely by the PDS’s communist heritage.  Thus the PDS wants to limit NATO to a “purely defensive function” (whatever this might mean) for the foreseeable future and also foresees its dissolution and “replacement by civil structures.”[8]  Indeed, the PDS’s party congress in the Spring of 2000 even voted down a modest attempt by the party leadership to move the PDS onto more politically pragmatic ground concerning the German armed forced (Bundeswehr).  At that meeting, the leadership proposed that the PDS group in parliament be empowered to decide on a case-to-case basis whether German troops might be used in peacekeeping actions under the auspices of the UN only.  Party leaders argued that, being strong supporters in theory of the UN, the PDS should be prepared to authorize the use of German troops should the UN deem such troops necessary to prevent large-scale violence in a particular region.  Although this would have meant a still very limited role for the German armed forces, the rank-and-file of the party would have none of this, and more radical members and groups within the party accused the leadership of breaking the so-called “pacifist consensus” of the PDS, or worse, of being passive accomplices in a purported “remilitarization” of Germany.[9] Moreover, after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, Gregor Gysi suggested that although he was fundamentally against unilateral military action, he would support a “commando” type raid (perhaps under the auspices of the UN) to bring the terrorists to justice.  The left-wing of the PDS was outraged, and after the US military response, even Gysi had to back down from his earlier comments.[10]

The party’s attitude towards NATO and the Bundeswehr is colored not only by many of its members’ avowed pacifism but also by a long-ingrained hostility.  In the east, this hostility is the legacy of the anti-western propaganda of the old communist regime, where the western powers were always blamed for the heightening of cold war tensions while the GDR and other communist states were seen as peaceloving.  In western Germany, anti-NATO and anti-military sentiment was part and parcel of the student revolts of the 1960s that led to the radicalization of the West German left that now forms the backbone of PDS support (meager that it is) in the West.  These long-held prejudices combine with a unrefined pacifism in shaping the PDS’ foreign policy positions, something quite evident in the party’s stance towards the Kosovo conflict.  Although proclaiming the party’s neutrality between the warring parties and claiming only to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict, many members sympathy for the “socialist” government of Slobodan Milosevic was transparent. Similarly, many PDS members could not resists suggesting that whil they condemned “terrorism,” US actions in the Middle East were ultimately to blame for the September 11th attacks.

It is its inability or unwillingness to deal adequately with its communist past, however, that marks the PDS most vividly as an incomplete “social-democratized” party.  At its core, the PDS consists of a reformist leadership at the top, several groups of orthodox-unreformed communists who, while relatively organizationally impotent neverthless exert considerable ideological power within the party, and a fundamentalist, leftist-conservative political base.  The latter two groups and their pivotal role within the party account for the PDS’s leadership’s awkward and incomplete attempts statements on the GDR and the SED.  The place of the “Communist Platform” and the “Marxist Forum” - two sub-groups within the PDS - demonstrate this vividly. The Communist Platform is led by Sahra Wagenknecht, much loved in the media for her outrageous statements.  Wagenknecht has argued that the GDR was “in every phase of its development...the more peaceful, socially just, and humane Germany,” called the Prague Spring a “counterrevolution,” suggested that Stalin was on the whole “necessary” for state socialism to succeed against its capitalist enemies, hinted that the downfall of state socialism began with the “thaw” under Khrushchev, and labeled Mikhail Gorbachev an “objective traitor” to the cause of socialism (Ditfurth 1998: 29-30). While Wagenknecht has been a thorn in the side of the reformist leadership it has not been able to effectively silence her or her group.  The reason it cannot do this is undoubtedly because Wagenknecht, even if in an exaggerated form, expresses much of the sentiment of the generally silent, fundamentalist base.  That base feels overwhelming resentment at the contemporary Federal Republic and a concomittant need to reaffirm its GDR identity.   Indeed, Wagenknecht was reelected to the party leadership board (Vorstand) at the PDS’s party Congress in Cottbus in the Fall of 2000 (Olsen 2001: 61 – 79). The problem for the PDS is that while the PDS leadership continues to insist that the party has broken completely with “Stalinism” and the old SED and is instead a new left-wing democratic alternative to existing parties, the PDS not only shares an organizational continuity with the SED but also still must rely “for mobilization purposed on a rank and file of aging unapologetic former SED members whose intellectual home remains the GDR.” (Thompson 1996: 435-452) The party leadership has thus moved extremely carefully in its public statements on the past.  To take one example, in the Spring of 2001, the party leadership finally condemned the forced merger of the Social Democrats and Communists into the SED in the late 1940s, a statement that rankled the fundamentalist base.  Similarly, during the campaign for the Berlin state election in the Fall of 2001, the PDS issued a statement of “regret” for the building of the Berlin Wall, but refused to “apologize” for the Wall on the grounds that this was the responsibility of the SED, not the PDS.  Even this statement of “regret” met with loud protests from some of the party base, and the leader of the PDS’s state party organization in Saxony even issued his own statement defending the building of the Wall as a contribution to the lessening of the tensions of the Cold War.

Designed to show the suitability of the PDS as a coalition partner to the SPD in Berlin, these recent moves by the leadership once again demonstrate the difficulties in breaking out of the fundamental dilemmas of the party.  Without more decisive moves away from its totalitarian past the PDS has very little chance to continue to play a key role in eastern Germany, let alone to establish itself in western Germany.  At the same time, a complete break with the historical traditions, political values, and cultural habits of the SED and East German state would weaken its core base of supporters in the East.   Similarly, while modifying its party ideology to reflect a more politically pragmatic left-wing politics will undoubtedly increase the PDS’ chances of expanding its voting base in western Germany, a too-hasty move in the direction of the SPD risks alienating its fundamentalist membership in both eastern and western Germany for whom socialism is still associated with a radical “overcoming” of modern capitalism and parliamentary democracy.                            

 

Conclusion

The PDS finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.  Although it wishes to become a nation-wide party of the left (a desire seen clearly in both its ideological evolution as well as its concrete policies) such a desire runs counter to the true source of the PDS’s political influence - it role as the advocate for eastern interests.  Indeed, the PDS’s political resonance in eastern Germany stems from an East-West divide in German politics, with the PDS the only party able to truly profit from this divide.  Thus the essential dilemma.  Without truly becoming an all-German party of the left the PDS risks irrelevance in the long-term as eastern and western Germany become more (although probably never completely!) alike.  Yet abandoning or modifying its role as the protector of the East risks diluting the party’s message.  It is this dilemma which will occupy the best minds in the party leadership for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1]Notes:

. The German electoral system is a variation of a proportional representation system.  Although PR sets the overall percentage of the seats to which a party is entitled, individual candidates run in electoral districts divided up between the different German states.  The PDS was able to gain representation in the federal parliament despite not having won 5% of the vote due to an electoral rule - rarely used before or since - that mandates that all parties which have won at least 3 electoral districts in these individual races must receive representation corresponding to their overall percentage of the vote.  Thus the PDS was entitled to roughly 4.4% of the seats in the Bundestag on the basis of winning four electoral districts outright.

[2]. Several scholars see the PDS less as a left-wing party, radical socialist party than as a regional party, sharing certain characteristics with other regional parties in Europe (Patton 1998: 500-526; Hough 2000: 125-148).

[3]. After continued defeat at the polls, at their 1958-59 conference in Bad Godesberg, the Social Democratic Party renounced many of its longstanding ideological pillars (present since the days of Bebel and Kautsky) such as its opposition to capitalism and its goal of a socialist revolution. It thus announced itself as a modern social-democratic, rather than socialist, party.

[4]. Thus for example the famous “Letter from Saxony,” an open letter to the party leadership from several leading Saxony state PDS politicians, urged the party to abandon its quest to establish itself in western Germany in favor of concentrating on being a party representing eastern German interests only.  This letter was quickly denounced by just about everyone in the leadership (and among the rank-and-file as well).  Nevertheless, the “Letter from Saxony” was rejected not because of its undoubtedly correct analysis of the reality of the party in western Germany but because it threatened a certain orthodoxy about the party’s desired role in the German political system.

[5]. All quotations are from the 1990, 1993, and new draft party programs of the PDS.

[6]. For a discussion of the PDS’s ideological direction and 1990 and 1993 party programs see Olsen 1998: 42-52.

[7]. Among the cuts in the Berlin budget announced by the new SPD-PDS government were cuts in personal costs through retirements, cuts in public transportation services, cuts in youth services, cuts in financial support for sports clubs, and cuts in the budget for theaters and museums.  The proposed budget has met with criticism both from those who think it cuts too much and from those who think it cuts too little.  See “Wir schneiden eine sehr, sehr kleine Scheibe,” Berliner Zeitung, March 20, 2002, 2.

[8]. Ibid., 52.

[9]. Die Zeit, April 13, 2000, 6.  

[10]. Der Spiegel, at www.spiegel.de, October 10, 2001, 1.

 

 

 


    Literature:

Barker, P. (1998): From SED to PDS, in: (Barker, P. ed.):  The Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany.  Modern Post-Communism or Nostalgic Populism? Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, s. 1-17.

Berg, F, Koch, T. (2000): Politikwechsel in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern? Berlin/Schwerin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Bortfeldt, H. (1991): The German Communists in Disarray, Journal of Communist Studies, vol. 7, 4, s. 520-535.

Ditfurth, von Ch. (1998): Ostalgie oder linke Alternative. Meine Reise durch die PDS.  Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch.

Gerner, M. (1994): Partei ohne Zukunft?  Von der SED zur PDS.  Munich: Tilsner.

Hough, D.: (2000): Made in Eastern Germany: The PDS and the Articulation of Eastern German Interests, German Politics, vol. 9, 2, s. 125-148.

Moreau, P., Grabiak, R.(2002): Nach der Berliner Wahl: Zustand und Perspektiven der PDS, Berlin: Hans-Seidel-Stiftung, Akademie für Politik und Zeitgeschehen.

Neu, V. (2002): Am Ende der Hoffnung.  Die PDS im Westen. Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Neugebauer, G., Stöss, R (1996): Die PDS.  Geschichte.  Organization.  Wähler.  Konkurrenten.  Opladen: Leske + Budrich.

Olsen, J. (1998): Germany’s PDS and Varieties of Post-Communist Socialism, Problems of Post-Communism, November/December 1998, s. 42 – 52.

Olsen, J. (2000): Seeing Red: The SPD-PDS Government in Mecklenburg-West Pomerani, German Studies Review, vol. XXIII, 3 (October 2000), s. 557-580.

Olsen, J. (2001): The PDS After Gysi: A Report from the PDS Party Congress in Cottbus, German Politics and Society, vol. 19, 1, s. 61-79.

Olsen, J. (2002): The PDS in Western Germany: An Empirical Study of Local PDS Politicians, German Politics, vol. 11, 1, s. 147-172.

Patton, D. (1998): Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism in Comparative Persective, East European Politics and Society, 3, s. 500-526.

Patton, D. (2000):  The Rise of Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism: ‘Regionalized Pluralism’ in the Federal Republic? West European Politics, vol. 23, nr. 1, s. 144-160.

PDS im Bundestag.  Von A bis Z (1999).  Bundestagsgruppe der PDS.

Thompson, C. W. (1996): The Party of Democratic Socialism in the New Germany, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 29, 4, s. 435-452.

 

 



Copyright (c) 2002 Jonathan Olsen

Creative Commons License
Tato práce je licencována pod licencí Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.