Five Years of the PDS

Gregor Gysi

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Gregor Gysi is a member of the German Parliament and Chairperson of the deputy group of the Party of Democratic Socialism.

THE POLITICAL IDENTITY, PROGRAM, AND PRACTICE of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) are closely bound up with the failure of "really-existing socialism," the collapse of the GDR, and its "unification" into the Western Federal Republic. During the dramatic upheaval of Autumn 1989, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) found itself standing amid the debris of a failed social alternative. Not surprisingly, a good many members of the old party came out in favor of its complete dissolution.

The refusal to disband the SED entailed a huge risk. Having emerged from the SED, the PDS would find itself saddled with the entire legacy of the old party and the failed social model associated with it. There could be no doubt that the PDS would be permanently confronted and identified with its past, as well as denounced on account of it. As things turned out, the decision not to dissolve the party proved at first to be a handicap. But within two or three years, this apparent albatross became an advantage.

The other parties underwent a smooth fusion into the existing West German parties. This made it possible for members of the East German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under the aegis of their West German sister party to disavow their own past collaboration with the old regime. In contrast to the other parties, East German citizens could have a direct hand in determining how much the PDS had cleaned up its act and the extent to which it was capable of doing so. The PDS renewal process was open to public verification and ultimately proved more credible than the evasions of many members of the other parties of the GDR.

A great majority of the members of the one-time 2.3 million strong SED abandoned the party. Some dropped out for the same opportunistic reasons that they earlier joined it. Others flocked to rival parties. Still others saw no future for the SED even if they continued to remain communists or socialists.

At an extraordinary party congress in December 1989, those remaining in the SED made a collective decision not to dissolve the party but embark instead on an experiment. First, to break with the Stalinist bureaucratic system of "really-existing socialism" and its ruling ideology. Second, they would try to turn this rupture into the first step toward the renewal of a leftist democratic socialist politics which would find its expression in the new name Party of Democratic Socialism.

German reunification became the unique backdrop to a process of renewal in the PDS which was difficult, often painful, and very complicated. The West German political class was hoping that on the heels of the rout of "really-existing socialism," the SED as the sole responsible political party would disappear from the political landscape along with its successor.

THE WEST GERMAN POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT DID NOT MISS A TRICK in trying to smear the PDS with Cold War rhetoric, and continually attacked us with all the means at its disposal. The political battle against the PDS and its marginalization was completed through supplanting the ruling East German establishment with West German elites for whom new state institutions were expressly installed.

These authorities controlled the assets of the former East German secret police which had been dissolved after the fall of the Old Regime. All East Germans who had full-time or "unofficial" dealings with the secret police, suffered the same limited job entry into state institutions and the civil service as former top functionaries of the SED. The German situation differs markedly from the course of events in other Eastern European societies undergoing a similar transformation. In those countries where elites could not be simply replaced or swapped, secret state archives have been kept almost entirely closed.

These unique conditions alone gave the renovation of the PDS a specific resonance. In addition, the societies of East and West also differ mentally and socio-psychologically from each other. The PDS remains a mainly East German party and completely foreign to West Germans. To a great extent, West Germans identify the PDS with the old SED. The ruling parties and the media help to reinforce this popular stereotype by enlisting every anti-Communist cliché and posing as the victor lording it over a failed socialist model.

The great majority of East Germans quite rightly hold the SED responsible for the social collapse of the GDR. This has created considerable problems of credibility for the process of renovation, a difficulty that has been compounded by West Germany transferring its entire political cast of characters to East Germany and molding things in its own image. In the face of the apparently successful West German party system, what is the rationale for the continued existence of a party representing a defunct society?

The renovation of the PDS took place within the context of a social climate which marginalized the party and the high expectations of most former East German citizens who were very quickly caught up in the West German form of possessive individualism.

IN RETROSPECT, THE PARTIALLY OVERLAPPING FACTORS which spurred the renovation of the PDS become quite evident. First of all, there was a subjectively honest understanding of the failure of "really-existing socialism." This even extended to a recognition of the thoroughly deserved nature of the miscarriage of an experiment which collapsed from the weight of its own shortcomings with respect to democracy, economic efficiency, ecological transformation, and much more. Also, we should not forget the effect of "New Thinking", Perestroika, and Glasnost during the last years of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. The prospect of change in the Soviet Union aroused fresh hope among SED members about the possibilities for a reformable socialism. This was especially important because the impetus for renewal came from the Soviet Union which was perceived as an incontrovertible "guiding force."

For obvious reasons, there was no culture of democratic discussion and struggle in the SED. But there had been many strictly limited discussions of reform conducted within small groups which had not been open to the public. The subsequent renovation of the PDS was based, to a considerable extent, on such discussions undertaken by SED members during a period when the official leadership of the party and state saw no need for reform in the GDR.

Many of the members who stayed in the PDS were seeking shelter and refuge from the furious winds of change to which they were now exposed. They also demanded a steady reorientation of the new party leadership which no longer had anything in common with the Old Guard because the entire SED politburo and the top hierarchy were expelled from the party. There is a psychological explanation for this sort of behavior. Owing to the absence of democracy and democratic structures, many SED members could envisage no other way of doing things than waiting for "marching orders" from a newly incumbent leadership. The renovation was also fueled by the enormous pressure that the new social relations engendered. Not unexpectedly, the then SED/PDS made a complete break with Stalinism at its founding congress and issued a public apology to victims of that system whether they were ordinary citizens of the GDR or party members.

In this context, Stalinism no longer refers to the period of massive repression, the execution of thousands of Communists in the Soviet Union, or the liquidation of Cossacks, religious believers, and many others during the 1930s. Stalinism is used here to describe a bureaucratic centralist system that was based on the exclusion of particularistic social interests and tolerated no real democratic structures and institutions on penalty of death.

Even if such forms of Stalinist terror had not taken place in the GDR and the other "really-existing socialist" societies of Eastern Europe after 1945, all these postwar regimes demonstrate certain continuities. One was the "Marxist-Leninist" ideology of domination and legitimation which proclaimed at its core a monopoly over social development, as well as the divination of the putative "objective logic" of this development. By definition, this official fiction excluded all alternative courses of development. Other basic continuities include a paucity of democracy, no social pluralism, and no alternative parties, or ensuring their meaninglessness if they were allowed to exist.

Also of great practical significance was the break with the theory of the vanguard which flowed inevitably from a monopoly over the determination of social development. This meant, first of all, that the PDS defined itself not as the democratic socialist party but as merely one organization among other competing leftist parties.

Second, this decision meant that the PDS would repudiate any strategy which presumed that it possessed a knowledge of the objective logic of social development and derived from this the right to work toward a forcible revolutionary transformation of society by a minority. Socialism is unthinkable without democracy and its social acceptance and legitimacy by a majority. The establishment of greater direct democracy at all social levels creates the essential precondition for socialism. All conceptions of a vanguard claiming an exclusive right to representation are diametrically opposed to this imperative because, as a consequence, they imply far less democracy.

Third, by discarding the vanguard theory, the PDS encouraged the development of internal party democracy and pluralism. At present in the Federal Republic, there is no other party aside from the PDS with an equivalent number of possibilities for democratic participation. One example is the inclusion of non-members. There are well over 20 different "platforms," interest groups, and working groups. The spectrum includes a women's group, an ecological platform, a communist platform, a social-democratic platform, and an autonomous organized working group of teenagers and young people in their twenties.

Even after five years, we have not finished the process of coming to grips in a critical and self-critical manner with the shortcomings, mistakes, and outright crimes of the old regime. This observation also holds true for an appraisal of the positive aspects of the development of the "really-existing socialist" countries, especially the GDR. This is because the late GDR left behind a rich store of documents, including those recording the unsavory acts of the state security service, which are gradually being made available, first of all, to historians and for academic research. Earlier assessments and opinions are also changing with the passage of time since the demise of the GDR and greater exposure to life in the expanded Federal Republic.

THERE ARE ALSO VISIBLE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PDS and the other comparable successors of the Communist parties, in the manner, as well as the rapidity and depth, of a (self)-critical engagement. In the other East European states, it was first of all former dissidents who, if they had a mind to do so, might demand the opening of state archives and the punishment of one-time top members of the nomenklatura. In the case of a United Germany, it was not only the dissidents but also the West German political class which launched a remorseless public campaign against the PDS. These political forces are not primarily interested in a critical and discriminating assessment of the GDR's history. They seek a ruthless settling of accounts which will provide the new foundation for an "anti-totalitarian" consensus against both dictatorships, the GDR and National Socialism.

In particular, the conservatives are using the "refurbishing" of the history of the GDR to revise and relativize the history of the Nazi dictatorship. The singularity and, therefore, also the incomparable nature of the crimes of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust were relativized by equating fascism with the second German state and its history. At the end of World War II, the new authorities failed to carry out an extensive purge of Nazi rule in the FRG, and the newly-founded West German republic continued to rely upon the old elites of the Nazi era in the economy, the judiciary, and party organizations. Now these old historical defaults are being enlisted to argue that the country should more rigorously "make amends" in the case of the former East German elites. We all know that the dogmatic founders of the GDR also number among the victims of fascism. It is macabre that those who suffered torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis should now be subjected to a more rigorous final judgment in the name of expiating an earlier failure to "root out" the Nazi dictatorship in the FRG.

The case of Hans Modrow who was the last Prime Minister of the GDR offers an example of settling accounts in action. As head of the Dresden SED in the 1980s, Modrow had been considered the East German Gorbachev and lauded in the West German media as a reformer and bearer of hope. In November 1989, Modrow in his capacity as East German Prime Minister made a major contribution to assuring the peaceful dismantling of the old regime. Following the first elections after reunification in December 1990, Modrow entered the German parliament. Subsequently, legal action was initiated against him alleging election fraud in the GDR. The first proceeding ended with no sentence handed down. Almost immediately, another suit was lodged against Modrow but then, high-echelon pressure was brought to bear to have him punished severely.

While Hans Modrow was being subjected to criminal proceedings, reformers from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union still enjoyed great prestige. Like Modrow, Gorbachev belonged to the old nomenklatura. The former Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was the Georgian Interior Minister. The present Hungarian Prime Minister, Gyula Horn, took part in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. But that did not stop the German Federal government from awarding him a prize for his decision to open Hungarian borders for East German refugees during the late Summer of 1989.

The only difference is that Hans Modrow no longer has power of any kind while the other gentlemen in question were still in positions of authority. Moreover, the role that Hans Modrow played in the course of German unification, was now entirely passed over in silence. The former Modrow government can claim credit for German unification having proceeded in such a peaceful fashion.

The PDS has good reason not to embrace equating the GDR and Nazi regimes in the name of the theory of totalitarianism. The party has always tried to criticize and pass judgment on the GDR from a socialist standpoint. We criticize East German society, not because it was socialist, but because it was not nearly socialist enough. We criticize the old regime because it was deformed, intellectually rigid, and economically bankrupt. The GDR may have been more equitable in social terms but it was neither emancipatory nor democratic.

THE ENGAGEMENT WITH OUR OWN PAST EXTENDING DEEP DOWN into lndividual biographies is an inseparable part of the renovation and political potential of the PDS roughly five years after its founding. The internal renewal of the PDS confronts the following challenges. First, we must answer the question of what lessons the party can draw from a failed "really-existing socialism" for a new outline of the socialist project. Second, the SED was a state party in the fullest sense of the term. We must ask if its transformation into an anti-capitalist party of the parliamentary opposition, can be carried out with a majority of PDS members for whom politics in a bourgeois society is completely alien. Third, does the PDS face a future confined to the role of a regionally-based East German party? Do we want to limit ourselves to serving as the representative of specifically East German interests or lay the foundation for a new left-wing project applicable to the entire FRG?

With respect to its programmatic reorientation, the PDS has abandoned a purely bipolar point of view which reduces the world to socialist and capitalist spheres, catgorizes societies as bourgeois or socialist, and frames social conflicts solely in terms of the fundamental contradiction between the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Instead, the PDS has borrowed a page from Gorbachev's "New Thinking" and placed at the center of its analysis the unresolved social and ecological challenges, as well as the survival of humanity on a global scale. We also borrowed a page from Friedrich Engels who toward the end of his life suggested the possibility of a peaceful democratic transition to socialism in advanced capitalist societies. In this respect, the PDS is positioning itself as a modern democratic and socialist party convinced of the need to transcend social relations dominated by capital. We subscribe to the view that the prevailing social relations hold no solution to the social and ecological problems existing at the level of the nation-state, let alone globally. Quite the contrary, the continued existence of capitalism can only intensify and aggravate these problems.

Overcoming capitalism can only succeed on the basis of social consensus, along a democratic path, by means of political persuasion, and not through a "dictatorship of the proletariat." The conditio sine qua non of democratic socialism has become democracy in its representative form which urgently needs to be complemented by forms of direct democratic participation in all social spheres, including the economy.

The PDS has also arrived at new but by no means exhaustive conclusions on the question of property relations and discussions on plan versus market. In the Marxist-Leninist worldview, the whole debate was boiled down to settling problems of power and property by revolutionary means. However, instead of the expected sweeping qualitative transformation, there only emerged new relations of power and property with another set of owners at the head. The most important thing is not a turnover in the owners of power and property but changes in the content of power and property.

Whoever wants a truly positive transformation of state and society, must decentralize and democratize power and property in such a way that it will yield a mix of privately organized economic ventures alongside cooperative and state forms of property. Spheres from which the market should be unconditionally excluded would be health, culture, education, communications, and housing as a human right.

The PDS conceives of itself as an anti-capitalist and opposition party operating across the entire FRG. We will vigorously contest the debate around the question of what international role a unified Germany should play. The PDS will also deal with the question of what direction should be taken by a society confronted by rising mass unemployment, conservative deregulation and privatization, a social drift to the right, and mounting xenophobia and intolerance.

Since its founding, the PDS has favored a self-limiting foreign policy which encompasses a ban on arms exports, opposition to foreign military intervention within the framework of the UN and NATO, and a rejection of the return of Germany to its prewar role as an imperially assertive great power on the world stage.

Domestically, the PDS espouses more democracy and a liberal sensibility, greater social justice for an increasingly fragmented society in which the rich are becoming ever richer and the poor ever poorer. Whoever destroys the core relations of a society and disowns the consensus of postwar West German society, is also putting the axe to its civilizing achievements. The PDS has worked out these basic positions and demands together with a small part of the West German left which joined the party and took up its offer to draft a new leftist social project.

West Germany has imposed its entire system of jurisprudence, administration, social welfare, production, and finance on the former GDR. In the dogged struggle for the self-assertion of the PDS in a new society, the attitude of the party toward the consequences and effects of the "annexation" of East Germany will be decisive and have major relevance for the direction of its political activity.

The PDS has benefited from the campaign promises of the conservatives who assured the East Germans that they would have "booming regions" (Chancellor Helmut Kohl) within a few years. The bottom line after five years of German unity, however, is quite different. The establishment of identical living standards in East and West Germany is still decades away. The transformation of the industrial and agricultural structures of the GDR into competitive, modern, and market-organized enterprises has not yet started. Most productive capacity was irrevocably destroyed without sufficient new modern structures emerging to replace it.

Beyond that, the terms of unification have also put the East Germans at a disadvantage against the West Germans in another way. Their economic sphere has been reduced to a mere production appendage and extended workbench of West German firms. The West German State Trust Authority in charge of privatization and the liquidation of East German enterprises has organized the proceedings in such a way that their industrial assets have been redistributed overwhelmingly in favor of West German owners.

This policy especially impacted upon East German citizens who were employed in state institutions: hospitals, cultural and educational institutions, kindergartens right up to and including state administration, the judicial system, and scientific institutions. Another liquidation authority controlled the files of the former East German security police and used them to single out those citizens who were deemed "close to the state" under the old regime. Whether they were members of the SED or in the service of the state police, these people were fired from their jobs in state institutions. Almost the entire network of scientific and research personnel in the GDR was wiped out.

Finally those pensioners formally employed in state institutions were stripped of a portion of their income through the introduction of punitive legislation on pensions. Expectations have been repeatedly dashed. East Germans are placed at a disadvantage in economic, social, cultural, and socio-psychological terms. The PDS has been the only party to make a campaign issue of the many areas of discrimination and is now perceived as the representative of specifically East German interests. Through its efforts in this regard, the party has won acceptance.

It also helps that the PDS with its approximately 123,000 members (including roughly 2400 members in West Germany) has become far and away the strongest rank-and-file party in East Germany and now maintains a presence in all cities, districts, and municipalities.

AFTER FIVE YEARS, THE PDS HAS ESTABLISHED ITSELF as an East German regional party. In the territory of the former GDR, the party holds an average 20 percent of the seats in all provincial parliaments and has become the third strongest political force after the conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. In the October 16, 1994 elections the PDS managed to capture a nation-wide 4.4 percent of the seats in the Federal parliament despite a massive anti-PDS electoral campaign conducted by all other parties, including the Greens.

As a result, the PDS has succeeded in making a political breakthrough in West Germany, and for the first time since World War II, a party to the left of the Social Democrats and the Greens exists again. Equally evident is the fact that the PDS is still far from becoming a party of the left with a national following. In West Germany, the party could only muster roughly one percent of the vote in the elections to the Federal parliament. These results represent a tripling of PDS support since 1990 but the party continues to be only a marginal political force.

Whether the party will succeed in winning greater public acceptance in West Germany remains an open question. Many citizens of the FRG still harbor great resentment against the PDS which they identify with the old SED. The West German media nurtures this stereotype by failing to take cognizance of the renovation process described above or deliberately refusing to pay any attention to it.

Part of the reason for the electoral success of the PDS in the former GDR must be attributed to its offer to open its candidate lists for federal and regional parliaments to leftist democratic personalities of integrity. These individuals who come from the spheres of education, culture, the churches, the trade unions, the women's movement, and other social movements need not be party members. This strategy enables the party to enhance its social appeal while giving the people invited to stand as candidates a chance to speak out on their specific concerns in representative bodies and present their views to the public.

This experiment has succeeded in making a contribution to the national political culture by shattering the former rigid party system and allowing the public to see that the renovation process in the PDS is irreversible. Among others, Stefan Heym and Gerhard Zwerenz have played a crucial part in bringing about this breakthrough. One is from the East and the other from the West but both authors have an anti-fascist past and were later subject to persecution and surveillance in the former GDR.

Despite all the predictions to the contrary and the massive attacks by all other parties, including the Social Democrats and the Greens, the PDS has managed to hold its own. The PDS is no longer just a product of the process of transformation. The organization has now become a part of the overall party system. The PDS faces two challenges. First, will it be able to make a political breakthrough in West Germany? Second, the PDS has raised expectations among East German voters as a result of its electoral successes and it must make good on its promises. One of these expectations is for the PDS to help bring down the conservative governments in the East German provinces. With the aid of the Social Democrats or the Social Democrats and Greens (the Greens are still represented in only one of the five new federal provincial legislatures), this would be the first step in initiating a genuine project of social reform.

In light of the electoral success of the PDS, many Social Democrats as well as Greens are abandoning their previously strident strategy of marginalizing the party. They now acknowledge that this approach has done more harm than good. Some have even entered into a cooperative relation with the PDS. As a result, the PDS has agreed for the first time to support a Social-Democratic and Green minority government in the Sachsen-Anhalt region, in the form of a toleration-strategy, without itself directly participating in the responsibilities of governing. This alone clearly demonstrates that the PDS now confronts new and intricate challenges.

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