We are pleased to be able to present here the text of an address given by Prof Theo Bergmann to a recent meeting in London called jointly by New Interventions and What Next? Prof Bergmann is a most distinguished scholar and historian, with a record of political activity lasting over 70 years. His earliest political experience was with the Brandler tendency in the German working class movement, and he represents the continuity of a political tradition too little known outside Germany.
Present state, perspectives and problems of the German labour movement
Since 1998 Germany is ruled by a "red-green" government. After a few cosmetic repairs of the measures of the preceding coalition of CDU and FDP (so-called liberals) the new government started a neo-liberal policy in all fields, which was called "reform of the welfare state".
Step by step the system of social security was and is further dismantled, and this process is systematically continued. All social payments (old-age pensions, sickness and unemployment allowances are lowered, while the method of contributions is fundamentally changed: Hitherto employers and employees contributed 50% each; now the employers' part is frozen, while the employees' part is rising. Old-age and health insurance are partly privatised: the employees are asked and compelled to sign up with private insurance companies to supplement the now entirely insufficient and declining payments from the public schemes.
We face a concerted attack of government, the organisations of the industrialists and the media on all achievements of the struggle of the trade-unions; working hours are extended - in times of rising unemployment! - holidays are cut, salaries and wages are lowered. Worst are the attacks on the unemployed. Hitherto statutory payments are stopped after one year; payments from the 13th month onwards are means-tested and radically cut to 345 Euro/month - below the poverty-line.
In foreign policy the government follows the line of its predecessor. It joined actively the aggression against Yugoslavia, which was broken into small pieces. For this military intervention similar lies were produced as the lies of Blair and Bush for the war in Iraq. The German minister of Defence, Rudolf Scharping. SPD, invented a Yugoslav "horse-shoe-plan" for the eviction of all Albanians from Kosovo. No trace of this plan was found; and it is entirely forgotten today. The government joined the war in Afghanistan and gives active support to the US war in Iraq - except for the dispatch of frontline soldiers. The German army is modernised and equipped to be available for "peace-keeping" and other missions all over the world. In addition to NATO commitments a joint military force of the EU is slowly developed - also for intervention "out of area" (which means beyond the defence and protection of their own and NATO territory), As a reward for what the government calls "taking higher responsibility and enforcing peace", it aspires to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, hitherto reserved for the five victors of World War II.
At home the Minister of Home Affairs tightens all controls both against the citizens and against refugees and immigrants, knocking at German doors. Step by step bourgeois democracy is undermined by lobbyism, corruption on the highest level, government committees outside of parliament, the capitalist media monopoly, which implies hegemony, an administration, judiciary and police openly biased against the working class. For this I shall give two examples. During the strike of the metal workers in eastern Germany in 2003, scabs were flown into the factories by police helicopters. Open-air demonstrations of neo-fascists are always permitted and protected, while left-wing demonstrations face bureaucratic barriers and often a hostile police force.
There is no difference between the strategy of the present government and its predecessor, as also between the government and the two capitalist "opposition" parties. These support most of the measures; they only ask for more and for a faster implementation. The leaders of the industrialists' organisations praise Schröder and encourage him to continue in the same direction. The difference with the former government is, that the red-greens succeeded much better in the integration of the trade-unions and in the political coordination of the SPD in its strategy.
Some people claim, that Schröder has no clear strategy and direction, which is allegedly proved by quarrels between his ministers and frequent changes in government measures. This is nonsense. The clear aim of the government is to support the effort of industrialists and bankers. They use the deep economic crisis and the weakness, acquiescence and submission of the reformist union leadership to roll back all achievements of working-class struggles; It is an open offensive of German capitalism. This offensive is supported by an almost full media-monopoly (what Gramsci called hegemony) and by the fact, that almost all reformist leaders have accepted and internalised the thinking and arguments of the capitalist class.
Thus, the bourgeoisie claims, that the economic competitiveness in the world market is threatened, in spite of the fact, that the German industry is competing with Japan only as export world-master, that the great enterprises can lose billions on purchasing half-bankrupt firms abroad. Thus the carmaker Daimler bought Chrysler and half Mitsubishi and part of Hyundai. The same is true for Siemens, for Deutsche Bank and München Re-Insurance and many others.
Furthermore, the industrialists complain, that German wages and social security fees are unbearable. But they have billions in profit anyhow. Exploiting the fear of growing unemployment they now systematically blackmail the employees with the threat: Either you accept lower wages and unpaid longer working hours - 40 hours and more as against officially 35 hours, or we transfer our production lines to low-wage countries. Partly the threat cannot be materialised, but already the fear of unemployment works.
Until two years ago, there was the "Alliance for employment, training and competitiveness" Under government guidance the leaders of the capitalists and the trade-unions held several meetings. The other side "promised", rather deceived the union leaders by the promise, they would "create jobs" under the condition of very moderate wage demands. No new jobs were offered; on the contrary. unemployment rose and rises all the time. Now, after the servile behaviour of the union leadership this alliance is entirely forgotten; the attacks of the industrial managers are open, direct, and the demands are growing. The free press accompanies the attacks with the wise and beautiful "argument": When we work more hours, we shall create more jobs(in the long run).
The freedom of the big capitalists to own and rule the media gives them the means to stupefy and to deride us.
The neo-liberal strategy slowly shows its effects. Before the general elections in 2002 the SPD had promised social improvements. The opposite was practiced after the narrow electoral success. The response is: Many thousands of members are leaving the party, hundreds of thousands of voters have deserted the SPD during all elections in 2004. But even the electoral defeats have not changed the mind of the SPD-leaders. Schröder insisted, that there is no alternative to his strategy, thus also no need for any debate He assured his party, he would not waver and would continue this inevitable "modernisation" and "reform", even if a defeat in the next general elections would be awaiting him.
The day after the last defeat he joined a meeting of the industrialists; their leader Rogowski praised and encouraged him to continue on his way. He blamed his opponents on the left, that they intend to topple his "red-green" government - another mendacious argument, since we can be quite sure, that his strategy will bring a defeat in the 2006 elections. Not his few critics in the SPD and the many critics in the unions, rather his strategy is on the way to destroy the last remnants of social democracy, though the SPD 130 years ago was an outstanding cultural achievement of the working class.
The same existential threat hovers over the unions; during the last 12 years they lost more than one third of the membership due to "inactivity", rather too much cooperation with and servility towards our class enemies. But even today the unions are the largest, most important and potentially democratic organisations of the working class, originally founded for the protection of their class interests. The membership is still around 8 millions.
The decline of the SPD and of the trade unions, which are dominated by the SPD, seems to me the logical final phase of reformism, Its history began in 1898 with Eduard Bernstein's revision of Marxism, which was eagerly accepted by the union leaders. The reformist theory at that time fit well together with the ascent of capitalism and the electoral victories of the SPD, the formal recognition of the unions by their capitalist counterparts and the growth of our organisations. Some reformists seriously extrapolated, when the SPD had gained a majority in the central parliament, it would introduce socialism by a parliamentary vote. It was also the time of a rise in the living standard of the workers.
The next step was taken in 1914, when the majority of the SPD leadership joined the war policies of imperial Germany and believed that the capitalist state also was "ours".
The move of 1914 revealed the deep ideological split, which later had to be followed by the organisational split. Next step was the cooperation of the SPD leaders with the defeated army in the bloody oppression of the revolution of 1918. In the party conference in Leipzig in 1925 the programme was adapted a bit to the real tactics: No more social revolution, and only stepwise progress towards socialism by reforms in the limits of the bourgeois constitution.
After the defeat of the German working class in 1933, there was a very brief period, when some leftists in exile confessed the errors of the party and demanded, the SPD should become a revolutionary party again. This spell, however, was very short-lived, probably due to an interregnum, until the leadership from Berlin was able to take over the reins again in exile.
Since then, the road to further revisionism was taken. After 1945 the re-established SPD in the western zones under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher was strongly anti-communist and anti-Soviet Russia. In 1959, at the party conference in Bad Godesberg a new programme was accepted, omitting all verbal socialist wording and confirming, that the SPD as a people's party would "fight" for reforming capitalism. The political leader on this road was Herbert Wehner. a former ultra-leftist communist. When the SPD later formed first a coalition government in Bonn with the CDU (1966), thereafter with the FDP (1969), it implemented a pure capitalist line in all fields. This period lasted from 1969 to 1980.
After 18 years of the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl (CDU) and several changes of the SPD chairmen in 1998 the SPD again won the general elections and formed a coalition with the green party. But the SPD is not red anymore; the greens are not green, as I sketched out briefly before.
Clearly, there is no inner party democracy in the SPD at all. In the upper layers of the party cadres no one expresses any criticism of the neo-liberal policy of Schröder and his assistants. The social structure and composition of the membership has changed in an outdrawn process. Real workers have largely left the party, which is now largely composed of lower middle-class, employees of government and public services. And the leadership has wholeheartedly accepted the idea, that they represent the centre of society. They feel integrated in the capitalist state and responsible for the "modernisation" of the economy, which means (without the Orwellian doublespeak) support of the capitalist attack on working class standards, maximum reduction of the social security system, privatisation of all profitable branches of services and the ascent of German capitalism as an important power in world politics. Schröder, Müntefering and Benneter, .the troika leading the SPD, emphasise all the time: There is no alternative. Therefore there is deep dissatisfaction, but no debate. In the upper ranks of the SPD and among its approximately 250 members of parliament there was only one, Mrs. Larcher, who dared to oppose the militarist decision in 2002 to join the war in Afghanistan. She resigned from parliament and left the party. I cannot see anyone in the party in this bureaucratised stratum, who is willing to lift a red flag, like Karl Liebknecht did in 1914. This, however, does not at all reflect the real mood of the working class masses.
The situation of the trade unions
A similar division is visible in the trade unions. (We have to understand, that the situation is different from the one in your unions. Here the secretary general or president is really elected and sometimes replaced. In our unions and in our most democratic country of the world, a union leader once elected, mostly the only one nominated to be elected, remains in office until retirement.) A small part of the membership might be or might have been happy until now with the standard achieved, until the new comprehensive attack on this standard. A large part, however, of the membership is deeply dissatisfied and distances itself from this government.
In the lower ranks of the union employees and among a large part of the shop stewards there is deep dissatisfaction with the leadership and a desire is apparent for another strategy, one of active resistance and confrontation, of the real use of our tools of pressure and defence. Several local committees of leftist trade unionists have sprung up in 2003 and 2004, and a certain coordination has been achieved in a loose network and a small network newsletter. This network is called Alle gemeinsam gegen Sozialkahlschlag (All united against abolition of social security). It plans its activities nationwide and tries to channel all local and regional activities into another large day of demonstrations in November 2004.
This left current in the unions looks for allies outside of the unionised workers and employees, among the groups of jobless and among the new social movements. The actually best known is Attac, which both cooperates with and partly tries to dominate the rising protest activities. The new social movements are clearly an important factor just at this moment. My criticism and doubt is briefly summarised in two main points. Attac is even less democratic than the unions. It is volatile and has no clear structure, really elected by the basis. It is not at all really anti-capitalist and socialist in its "programme". It is a very heterogeneous body.
A new electoral alternative
The dissatisfaction with Schröder's capitalist offensive and the hitherto close collaboration of the union leadership has led to the emergence of the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (Electoral alternative employment and social justice). It intends to offer an alternative to the SPD in the forthcoming general elections, normally planned for 2006, and might later form a party. Its formation is in its first stage, its programme not yet clear. Thus, it is difficult for the moment to evaluate it. However, it responds to the deep unrest and dissatisfaction of the working class (including the unemployed and the old-age pensioners) with the government. This group is largely supported by lower functionaries of the two largest-unions (metal workers, public and service employees).
The PDS is mainly rooted in eastern Germany, has not taken root in western Germany. After the electoral defeat in 2002 it has now picked up a bit in the late spring elections of 2004 (European parliament and some regional elections in the east). This success was, however, achieved due to a quite low turnout of the voters. Thus, a similar success in 2006 is not assured at all. The PDS and the electoral alternative, mentioned above, will have to join hands and establish a joint list, if they want to overcome the 5% barrier. (The electoral law demands either winning three constituencies or 5%, if the party's votes in all constituencies shall be taken into account. )
The official communist party, the DKP, has lost 90% of its membership during the late 1980's, because it rejected any self-criticism and reform. There are at present a few signs of beginning self-criticism.
A broad offensive of the industrialists
The latest developments in the leading economic sector and its leading enterprises is significant for the aims of the industrialists and the attitude of the metalworkers union. In spring 2004 a new wage agreement was signed first for the metalworkers of the pilot district Baden-Württemberg. The union made several concessions - extended working hours, some cuts in the "extra payments" (night-shift bonus, xmas bonus etc.). All wages should be raised by 2.7% in 2004 and by 2.79% in 2005. A few weeks later, the country's second largest employer, Daimler Chrysler, declared, the workers around Stuttgart should lower production costs by 500 million Euros otherwise 6,000 workers would be fired and the production of some models transferred partly to South Africa and to northern Germany, where wages are lower.
A storm of protest rose in the workshops, spontaneous strikes, during which the workers in some factories left the lines and blocked a main highway. A few days after this protest Berthold Huber, vice-chairman of the metal-union, took the negotiations in his hands and signed a new agreement. The main points are: The workers renounce the agreed increase of 2.79% in 2005; all "non-productive" workers (cleaners, canteen and similar services) are excluded from the higher salaries of the metalworkers. As "equivalent" the enterprise "promised" no firing of employees until 2012, if the economic conditions are favourable (!); the management foregoes altogether 4 million Euros of its remuneration(after they raised it by 130% in 2003). (Thus, the workers will contribute 496 million Euros.)
Naturally, many enterprises will now follow this example of successful blackmail, achieved with full cooperation of the union leadership. The encouragement for the industrialists implies discouragement and deep disappointment for the union membership. The new agreement, which rejects the earlier agreement of 2004, was signed by the union negotiators without any democratic legitimation. Neither the workers nor the wage committee were involved or were asked. Furthermore, a deep split is created between producers and services on the workshop floor, this also flouts the principle of our union: One workshop - one union.
I shall try to summarise the lessons.
1. Reformism in politics and economy is possible in "good weather" only, and it is advantageous for the bourgeoisie, because cooperation with the capitalists limits the adequate demands of the workers. It is even more harmful to the workers in times of economic crisis.
2. The bourgeois state is a class state and acts always in the interests of the capitalists. The reformists are accepted, tolerated in government for the "dirty work"; when this is done, they might be kicked out.
3. Capitalism cannot be ridden of its characteristic features. The system is one of maximum exploitation and profit maximisation and prone to frequent crises. It creates and welcomes mass unemployment. The reformist "ideal" of an educated, domesticated, restrained, organised capitalism is unrealistic. The system is tame only when labour is strong and instils fear in its counterpart. . The appeal to patriotism, morality, ethics of our capitalists and managers is a primitive joke.
4. The idea of economic democracy in the capitalist society, first developed in the 1920's, and revived as Mitbestimmung (co-management) of workers' representatives in the management of factories and enterprises is unrealistic,
5. The neo-liberal strategy of the SPD, accepted and supported by the union leadership, undermines the trust of the members and voters and might finally destroy the basic organisations of labour. The special type of negotiations with the employers (undemocratic and secret) undermines the self-confidence of the workers, harms solidarity on the shop floor and class consciousness.
There are two main issues, for which we still have to find internationalist solutions, if we want to bar the introduction of nationalist propaganda: The effects of globalisation and the transnational mobility of capital and capital goods.
There is no reply yet to the threat of transfer of production lines to low-wage countries - whether this is feasible or only an empty threat. The "national" reply given by the German union leaders; lowering of salaries and cooperation and co-responsibility for the competitiveness of German capitalism might inter alia support nationalism and hostility against our peers in the poorer countries. The nationalist reply of the majority of union leaders in US "Buy American" also cannot be ours. The internationalist reply might contain the following components:
1. Checking the assertions of the management and finding arguments against them.
2. Refuting the demands for higher profits.
3. Demand of shorter working hours against firing of employees.
4. Creation of jobs in an enlarged public sector, which is not micro-economically profitable, but vital for maintenance and improvement of our livelihood.
5. Active protection of the machines in the workshop against dismantling. Here we might learn from factory occupations in Germany after 1945 against dismantling and in France in the 60's and 70's.
6. Since bourgeoisie and government reject these demands of ours, we must aim at a non-capitalist, i.e. a socialist society.
One of the main effects of neo-liberal strategy is de-solidarisation on all levels - national and international. Our defence and offensive should be based on international solidarity. This should be both goal and instrument of our socialist strategy.