Publikation Soziale Bewegungen / Organisierung Left-wing Parties in Comparison





Januar 2003


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Paper for the workshop of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung on:

“Left-wing Parties in Comparison:
Basic Framework, Strategic Approaches and Success Criteria”

“Socialist Politics in Difficult Times: Tasks and Problems of the PDS in the Development of its Profile as a Left-Wing Democratic Party”


The “Party of Democratic Socialism” (PDS) currently finds itself in a highly complicated phase of development. The clear defeat in the Bundestag election in September 2002 and bitter inner-party conflicts are forcing members to seek a considerably clearer definition of the party’s profile and of its positioning within society. A mutually supportive discussion on the experiences of other left-wing parties in this search process is therefore of existential importance.

After more than ten years of generally successful development, the PDS has now entered a critical situation. Already in the spring of 2002 serious problems appeared within the party’s election campaign. In the Bundestag election of September 2002 the PDS lost around twenty percent of its previous share of the vote nation-wide, and was unable to renew its status as a parliamentary party in the Bundestag (see appendix, figure 1). [1] Closely linked to the electoral defeat, tumultuous conflicts arose at the subsequent party convention (October 2002), where fundamentally contradictory positions were formulated (cf. 8. PDS-Parteitag 2002). Even the possibility of a party split was discussed. Despite clear voting majorities in favour of the re-elected party chair, the controversies remain and threaten to paralyse the party. A political new beginning is thus more essential than ever if the PDS is not to become politically irrelevant.

A look toward Europe and other parts of the world shows that more than a few left-wing parties are confronted with similar difficulties. In many places the Left finds itself in a searching process. Stated in general terms, it needs to find convincing and politically productive answers to at least the following questions: What can a left-wing party genuinely change in complexly developed, globalised capitalist societies? With what profile and with what political themes and/or demands should it present itself? How should a modern party be structured in order to involve as many members as possible while at the same time having a noticeable impact on the public?

It is clearly impossible for a single party to find sufficient answers to these complicated questions. A theoretical discussion and the exchange of experiences with other left-wing players are thus urgently necessary. That is why this workshop, organised by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, can be an important step on the path towards more long-term learning processes.

The societal framework for the PDS’s activities in Germany is characterised by processes of economic stagnation and by a relative political balance between neo-liberal/conservative actors and powerful representatives of a rightist Social Democratic course. Despite growing social conflicts, the chances for a short-term change in the political power relationship remain relatively small.

German society currently finds itself in a complicated situation which in many respects can be characterised by the term “blockade.” For years, mass unemployment and only minimal economic growth rates have been recorded, so that the budget situation has become extremely tense. As a result, the relatively wide-ranging social security system, which may be considered as a significant achievement of modern civilisation, is threatened in its very essence. Realistic concepts for an economic upturn are nowhere to be seen. The power relationships among significant actors appear to have a blockading effect, so that profound constructive projects for German society cannot be undertaken. The alliance of a more or less rightist Social Democratic Party with the Greens, which is governing with only the barest of majorities, is faced with an almost equally powerful block of conservative/neo-liberal forces (in the political form of the Christian parties and the Liberals). In the decision-making process, compromises and a policy of “muddling through” dominate, but as a whole the system is headed toward a generally neo-liberal path of development.

A number of cultural and mental factors also represent significant structural conditions. Germany is a country with a strong fixation on order and on the state. Not only dynamism, the willingness to take risks and the ability to improvise, but also humour, composure and joie de vivre are not held in particularly high regard. Particularly in western Germany there is a situation where large segments of the population combine efforts to “maintain our standard of living at all costs” with growing fears of future insecurity. Eastern Germany remains a region characterised by continuing socio-economic discrimination and instability; nevertheless, many people here have come to terms with the aftershocks of national reunification following 1990 and have developed their own life strategies. The striving for the recognition of their achievements and for equal treatment is clearly felt in their thinking and feeling.

As a whole, it is above all the social conflicts but also the experienced power relations which are reflected in the population’s everyday consciousness (see appendix, table 1). The fact that mass unemployment has become a permanent feature and that the social security system is threatening to erode is thus expressed in the demands and/or expectations placed on the new government by many citizens (see appendix, table 2).

The spectrum of political forces able to resist a neo-liberal course is wide-ranging but also fragmented. Trade union actions develop but remain limited in scope. Environmental, peace and anti-globalisation movements have recently shown a certain upswing in Germany (see appendix, table 3); however, so far they have exerted no noticeable influence on political power relationships. Within the party system it is currently the PDS alone which consistently represents social, democratic and peace-oriented positions; however, at the moment it does not have the capability to provide a contribution to the necessary political new beginning.

The PDS is a party whose development is marked by a number of historically unique factors. Emerging from the painful break with a state socialism-fixated party model, it operated on a generally successful basis in the 1990s. However, currently a backlog of problems is emerging which have not been dealt with and/or have been suppressed within the framework of inner-party discussions for at least five years.

The PDS developed under special conditions which affect its inner structure to the present day. With the collapse of the state socialist “DDR model” a new party developed from sections of the former ruling party, the SED, and left-wing activists from West Germany. This new beginning was characterised by sharp and painful conflicts, which principally surrounded the failure of the socialist system, the issue of “Stalinism” and the perspectives for a left-wing alternative. From the beginning, it can be said that the PDS bore the marks of an “asymmetrical composition”. Of its membership, which has sunk from circa 200,000 persons in 1990 to around 78,000 women and men currently, more than half are of retirement age, most of them former members of the SED who are to a large extent closely linked to the history of the GDR. In the western part of Germany, some 5,000 persons so far form a network of PDS associations, whereby their political influence as a whole has remained marginal.

The PDS’s development can roughly be described using the following phases:

*1989/90: A period of “new beginnings”. This was the period of the transition from the SED to the PDS. This event was accompanied by turbulent events and conflicts, as a result of which members stated their will to form a “new” party which would distance itself from the Stalinist heritage and represent socialist values in a strictly democratic manner. Because of the special electoral laws prevailing at that time, the PDS became active in the federal parliament with the status of a “group”.

*1991 to 1993/94: A period of the consolidation of the PDS, in which the party structures strengthened and important discussions occurred on the exact determination of the PDS’s character. In 1993 a new party programme was adopted. In the 1994 elections the PDS barely missed the five-percent mark, but remained in the Bundestag. In one federal state the party achieved such a strong position that it was in a position to co-influence the government – in the form of toleration.

*1994 to 1998: A period of the strengthening of the PDS, but also of the emergence of new problem situations. The PDS was successful in distinctly increasing its influence on the local level. [2] People began to speak more earnestly about the problem of participation in government, whereby more often than not contrary positions emerged. In the 1998 elections the PDS won victories nearly everywhere and was able to enter the Bundestag as a full-fledged parliamentary party. In one federal state it formed a government coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). However, at the same time important problems remained unsolved: discussions on long-term strategy were repeatedly postponed; furthermore, the party was not successful in driving forward the development of the PDS in western Germany and in firmly anchoring it in the intellectual-cultural life of society.

*1999 to the end of 2001: A period of further successes, but also of one-sided developments. The PDS strengthened its influence on the local level and was more or less successfully engaged in developing its own political projects. As international conflicts and wars emerged on the horizon, the party advocated a clear, consistently peace-affirming course. When, in the wake of a financial scandal, new elections became necessary in the capital city of Berlin, the PDS achieved a very good electoral result and joined the SPD to form a “red-red” government. It remained problematic that the strategy discussions – also in view of new questions relating to a globalised, transformed world – and the necessary inner modernisation of the party were not advanced.

*End of 2001 to the end of 2002: A time of stagnation and the emergence of crises. On the whole, it was not possible to transmit a clear image of the PDS’s political profile to the public. Successes in government activity remained marginal and controversial; in Berlin the party was increasingly criticised by the public. An unconvincing and ambiguous election campaign starting in early 2002 intensified the negative tendencies. The PDS suffered losses in all elections. In the autumn of that year the party appeared to be inwardly torn and lacking any political or intellectual allure worth mentioning. It now needs to undertake profound steps on the path toward modernisation and renewal.

Within the PDS there is a range of several unresolved problems, backlogged conflicts and considerable deficits in regard to important political areas. The most significant of these include questions regarding the relationship between “systemic opposition” and “responsible construction” within society. Problems of “political-cultural hegemony” and handling power are addressed too seldom within this context.

As already suggested, different views on important issues have emerged in recent years. At the same time, more than a few problem areas have either been ignored outright or belittled. Dissent on concrete political positions or on the significance of individual items can particularly be found in regard to the following issues:

a) The relationship of “opposition” and “construction” forms a central point of the conflicts, whereby “construction” is particularly discussed in a converse way in regard to participation in government. The respective proponents of “extreme” positions take an “all or nothing” approach: The PDS should express either express virtually complete protest in fundamental opposition to the capitalist system, because participation in government is ineffective and only leads to conformity, or it should become active through participation in administration as well as government and set aside criticism and/or protest.

b) Closely linked to this, the PDS’s handling of its politically “strong” and “weak” points, which also emerges in popular opinion in the form of varying images of the party, is problematic (see appendix, table 4). As studies show, the PDS has several clearly positive image fields (commitment to social justice, the interests of eastern Germany, peace, democracy “from below” etc.). Here the number of people who expect something from the party is considerably larger than the number of won electoral ballots. At the same time it is clear that people have little confidence in the PDS in a variety of areas – in economic policy, in the field of inner security or generally in being able to really push through political demands. In the inner-party conflict this diversified public opinion toward the PDS is usually viewed one-sidedly: some forces only see the party’s “weakness” (e.g. in economic policy), then criticise this and demand that it quickly acquire the competencies of a governing party. Other members are of the opinion that the PDS’s political complexion should be developed in other fields where its “natural strengths” lie (e.g. commitment to social justice). However, a productive modus operandi with this contradictory relationship has not yet been found.

c) Within the framework of the PDS, political problems are hardly ever regarded from a clear power perspective. Questions on respective concrete power relationships (within governments or in parliament, but also in the public political arena) are still posed all too seldom. The result of this is that the PDS is often not in a position to influence the existing power relationships and to shift them to its benefit. So far, the creation of “counter-power”, e.g. via a mobilised public, or the focused staging of conflicts within party political coalitions only form part of the PDS’s political repertoire in isolated cases.

d) Within the PDS “cultural-political” questions, particularly problems of a transformed “cultural hegemony” within society or parts of it, are not being adequately discussed. Part of this lies in the fact that, because of their socialisation in the GDR, large portions of the (older) membership have little understanding for civil society or socio-cultural approaches or forms of action. In addition, in internal PDS debates in recent years considerations of a “critical counter-culture” have been treated with suspicion or have been simply neglected. For example, such discussions would touch on how to deal with the world of the media and with public opinion-making, with the modern role of art as well as with questions pertaining to a self-determined and mutually supportive everyday life of those citizens who are able to resist “marketing” tendencies.

e) In this context it is hardly surprising that the relationship of the PDS to the new social movements has so far not been developed productively. Precisely on this topic there were often sharp but not particularly fruitful conflicts in recent months, many of which were aimed at the PDS’s relationship to the anti-globalisation and peace movements. Numerous functionaries and leaders within the party do not recognise the new social movements as credible political forces, and fear that a close association of the PDS with these groups could damage the party’s reputation in the parliamentary arena. For more than a few members the movements seem bizarre, and they have a hard time visualising a co-operation with them. All in all, we can see that despite important thematic agreements with various new actors (e.g. with the demands of Attac), the PDS is de facto remaining in the position of a more or less interested observer of these phenomena.

f) The inner structure and/or the character and modus operandi of the party itself likewise represent points where the debates over the last years have not led to the necessary results. The desperately needed “renewal” of the party (structural reorganisation, communication, staff, recruitment etc.) was only conducted reluctantly. This was partially due to the fact that the positions of those persons who are striving for a further restructuring of the PDS as a “modern member party” have encountered opposition from those who favour the model of a “voter” and/or “professional politicians party” (cf. von Beyme 2000). The result of this has been a virtual blockade.

The PDS is facing extraordinarily important strategic resolutions. Alongside the final adoption of a new party programme it has to make decisions on strategic options for the next five to ten years. Contrasting positions are emerging in the current debate.

One decisive condition for the PDS’s political survival lies in the fact that in the 2002/2003 period clear decisions were made on the future programme of the PDS and on the party’s strategic course. It is intended that a new party programme should be brought to a vote by October 2003. The necessary discussions have so far been concentrated on a draft which was presented in April 2001. The core idea of this document, which deserves to be taken seriously from a theoretical point of view, is a certain “break” with certain earlier notions of socialism which essentially conceived of a new society as a “structural model”. In contrast to that, the new draft defines “socialism” not as an abstract model or as a system which should encompass society as a whole, but rather as the striving for a condition in which all citizens will have access to important commodities, which allows them a life in self-determination, freedom and social security. These “freedom commodities” include democratic participation, protection from violence, social security, access to gainful employment, a protected environment as well as access to education and culture. The draft programme states: “Socialism derives from the genuine needs and interests of human beings. Socialism asks what living conditions human beings must create in order to be free, and what they must do so that control over these commodities does not lead to the exploitation and suppression of others. For us, socialism is the historical movement which seeks to construct societal power and property relations in such a way that these commodities are genuinely produced effectively and in harmony with the environment, and that access to them is provided on a mutually supportive basis. (Draft programme of the PDS 2001: 4-5.) We can say without exaggeration that this draft programme outlines positions which embody a genuine intellectual new beginning for the German Left.

However, programmatic decisions are not the same thing as fixing necessary strategic options. At this point, “strategy” must be understood as a “cross-situational, success-oriented ends-means-environment calculation” (Raschke 2002: 210). For the PDS – proceeding from socialist values and goals – this means formulating a strategic orientation which corresponds to current political power relationships and thus takes both the PDS’s “strong” and “weak” points into consideration. In the current discussions within the PDS there are essentially three strategic approaches – formulated with varying degrees of clarity:

First, there is the approach which views neo-liberal capitalism as a sort of “superpower” which is increasingly dominating all areas of society. From this perspective, it is essential to ensure the defence of social and democratic achievements, consistent protest, the waging of defensive actions and sharp criticism of capitalist conditions. For the PDS this would mean that it would above all have to present itself as a “system-critical fighting party.” What is problematic about this approach is that it either downgrades or negates actual constructive possibilities in the here and now. Such a strategy bears within it the danger that, its apparent radicalism notwithstanding, the PDS will remain ineffective, isolate itself and take on the traits of a sect.

Second, there is a strategic option, supported by a range of prominent authorities within the party, to strive for reform projects in an alliance with the so-called “centre-leftist parties”, i.e. above all with the Social Democratic Party and the Greens. This includes achieving maximally strong positions within the parliamentary system and steering the party toward broad government participation (on the state and federal level), because – as one of the proponents of this project puts it – this is the only way changes can be achieved (“from above”). The strategic option outlined here doubtless contains important positive elements. Party alliances and government participation are also necessary from a left-wing socialist perspective and can be very useful under certain conditions. They open up new constructive areas and challenge a party’s practical competencies. However, what is problematic about this approach is that it ignores real societal and political power relationships and clearly overestimates the PDS’s chances. The “label” which would emerge for the PDS, namely that of a partner of Social Democracy, would lead to the loss of the party’s autonomous profile.

A third strategic option is pointedly oriented at an autonomous political project for the PDS. This approach is characterised as follows in a current strategy paper. For the PDS, the goal must be: “to tread a path of a constructive oppositional force with a very long-term perspective and to see its primary goal in making a contribution to the transformation of the intellectual and political power relationships within society, the creation of the preconditions for a distinct leftward turn. Under existing conditions, constructive oppositional force can only mean bringing radical democratic positions to bear in all areas of society. This constructive power should be developed above all in regard to the formation of alternative approaches and testing them on the local and regional level, the promotion of broad alternative social coalitions, the development of a critical counter-public, the strengthening of protest capability and genuine participation. This does not fundamentally exclude government participation (including potential participation on the federal level), but subordinates it to opposition to neo-liberalism in all its varied manifestations. (…) This is an approach which would seek to increase the activity, self-determination and participation of citizens rather than striving to achieve political goals by primarily providing a better administration for “our people”. It is an approach aimed at activating political society rather than administering it, bringing about change from below rather than issuing decrees from above, developing self-organisation rather than outside imposition. This does not exclude government coalitions on the state level, but subordinates them to the goal and thus emphasises the PDS’s strategic autonomy. The PDS would give itself an image as a party of social and democratic commitment to justice and the self-empowerment of citizens, as well as peaceful conflict resolution. This would be an approach which would make it possible to place one’s own concepts of a future beyond neo-liberal globalisation onto the agenda, together with other social groups, with increased effectiveness and acceptance. This includes points of contact with the SPD and the Greens, but comes from a different direction. Such an approach is aimed at gradually winning over the existing potential of left-wing citizens in all of Germany for the PDS and, in eastern Germany, regaining hegemony across the entire range of the left-of-centre, and also at regaining sections of that group who count themselves among the political centre and at the same time strongly emphasise values such as solidarity, justice and self-determination.” (Brie/Brie/Chrapa 2002: 11).

The advantage of the latter approach lies in its consistent realism. Gradual and partial transformations of society – accompanied by a precise evaluation of the actual power relationships – are hereby conceived of as a broad and complex process in which the democratic participation of self-determinedly acting individuals is decisive. In such an approach, the role of the PDS could be characterised as a “party of political society”. There are doubtless difficulties in this approach owing to the fact that such a long path as the one described here would demand enormous efforts and require a transformation of the PDS’s political style.

“Success criteria” for the functioning of a left-wing/democratic, socialist party cannot be set up in a formal way. In traditional terms, “power maximisation” within the political system is considered to be a politically valid success criterion. In addition and/or as an important clarification for left-wing parties, three further criteria are put up for discussion.

Parties operate in a complex environment which is subject to continual change. They behave as collective actors in competition with others and oriented toward goals within differing time horizons. It is thus extremely difficult to determine clear “success criteria” for the activity of parties. If such criteria are to have meaning, then they must be accessible to empirical examination, i.e. they must be “measurable” in some way. Thus partially formalised criteria have been named in contemporary political literature: parties are successful when they gain a maximum of “votes”, “offices” and “policies” (cf. Wiesendahl 2002: 194 f). Such an approach is undoubtedly practicable; certainly the share of votes and offices a party receives – at least when observed over an extended period – says something substantive about a party’s success or failure. Of course, when evaluating political influence a precise measurement is more difficult.

To be sure, the criterion of “power maximisation” outlined here remains formal and one-sided to the extent that it is largely centred on the role of parties in the political-parliamentary system. In order to better correspond to political content and the operation of parties in the extra-parliamentary/civil society arena, three further criteria are put up for discussion. In the view of the author, a party is successful if it fulfils the following conditions (and, connected to this, if it goes beyond growth in “policies” to achieve first “votes” and then “offices”):

First: Well-founded strategic positions within the range of important cleavages in society.Several well-founded theoretical approaches proceed from the assumption that significant cleavages mark the space within society in which parties determine their identity and can lay out fields of effective political activity. For the PDS this means aiming its strategic focus on selected, empirically checkable cleavages. These would particularly include such conflicts as “social exclusion vs. social inclusion” (with the issues: social justice, security, labour), “anti-democratic-hierarchical tendencies vs. democratic-self-determined participation of citizens” (with the issues: legislation, participation, the enhancement of plebiscitary elements etc.), and “military/violence-oriented vs. peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms” (with the issues: war prevention, international security etc.). It can be empirically proven that all these cleavages play a significant role in the thinking of large groups of people (see also appendix, tables 1 and 2).

Second: Distinctly perceptible advocacy of characteristic political projects in the public sphere (and in public opinion). For left-wing parties, access to “the public sphere” is more important than ever. This does not only affect parties’ actions as reflected by the large mass media, but equally the public sphere of everyday life (municipalities, communities, organisations). For the PDS a distinction between success and failure could be made to the extent that it is successful in reaching large groups of people on a discursive basis with selected, well-founded political projects within the diversity of the public sphere. These projects should represent alternative suggestions on such issues as the struggle against unemployment, modern educational policy, just pensions and wages, social redistribution, the securing of peace or the democratic construction of globalisation processes. Whether such an approach will ultimately be “successful” could be determined by means of empirical studies (e.g. media analyses, public opinion surveys etc.).

Third: perceptible further development (modernisation) of the party together with learning effects as a political organisation.This criterion derives from the construction of the contradiction of “stability (and stagnation)” vs. “transformation” within parties. The term “party reform” stands for such an approach, whereby this form of action is not to be understood as a one-time action but rather as a dynamic process of “reflexive learning”. For the PDS this means that the party must succeed in accomplishing perceptible transformations in the areas of “inner structure” (transparency of party life, the use of modern means of communication etc.) and “action capability” (operation in the public arena, campaigns, the opening of broad left-wing discussion circles etc.).

As already suggested, the “success” of a party cannot be expressed in numbers alone. On the other hand, there are opportunities to approach this factor analytically. If the party succeeds in performing regular and consistently realistic estimates (e.g. though special collective party authorities), and if this is linked with the possibility of an external screening by a panel of experts, than the criteria put up for discussion here could prove to be productive.