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Martin Shulz, ex-leader of the SPD. Photo: Pixabay

Martin Shulz, ex-leader of the SPD. Photo: Pixabay

In Germany, the left is at a crossroads, and what path it takes depends on the strength of the movements, argues Evan Sedgwick-Jell

A week before the announcement of the SPD membership’s 66% endorsement of a renewed GroKo (Grand Coalition) this Sunday, a poll had been published in which the proto-fascist AfD were placed ahead of the SPD for the first time. After the energetic #NoGroko campaign led by the SPD’s youth wing, the JuSos, many expected the vote to be closer. The reason that many ultimately decided to vote for the GroKo must be seen in a conjunctural fear of Germany’s resurgent far-right, and thus too of new elections.

At an SPD event in Berlin some weeks earlier, JuSo’s chair Kevin Kühnert, speaking against a GroKo, argued that fear should never be the basis for political decision making. Unfortunately, however, it is precisely this fear that has guided the shortsighted decision to re-enter into power-sharing with the republic’s Conservatives. It is not merely fear of the surge in the AfD’s support, yet also of the inability to influence the country’s politics in opposition which has guided the SPD’s decision, displaying the reduction of it’s political strategy to the question of ministerial posts and laboured compromise, as opposed to programmatic vision.

Movement and Party

From a socialist standpoint, the SPD is a party with a long and important history. The party of Friedrich Engels, August Bebel and Rosa Luxemburg was for a time the direct result of the application of Marx’s political ideas to an electoral formation. Once upon a time, electoral politics were always one with the party’s rootedness in the wider socialist and workers’ movement. These days, however, lie one hundred years in the party’s past. From the decision to pit worker against worker upon entering the First World War in 1914, to 2003’s sweeping neoliberal labour market reforms, the SPD has long ridden an arc in which its proximity to the wider socialist movement has become increasingly distant.

This most recent members’ vote can be seen as much as a referendum on the party’s relation to the movement, as it was a simple choice of whether or not to participate in government. The #NoGroko campaign was not only popular among the left of the party and many of its young members, but also those outside of it opposing the caprices of capitalism in the Federal Republic. Despite longstanding cynicism regarding the SPD, few on the left could deny that Kevin Kühnert’s sharp criticism of the poverty of vision inherent in the very concept of a GroKo echoed something of their own feelings. Yet if this was also a referendum on whether or not the party might return to being a genuine option for the left, the answer was a resounding no.

A Tale of Two Parties

This development, of course, stands in stark contrast to the trajectory of the British Labour Party. While it may sound hopelessly naive to speak of socialism and the German SPD in the same breath, many would have felt the same regarding UK Labour 3 years ago.

A party is never a movement in and of itself, yet changes in the political landscape always accompany fluctuations in the balance of forces in wider society; the party not necessarily representing the vehicle of change itself, but the means through which antagonism towards the current system might be articulated at a given moment. Momentum is a good example of this in/out logic, yet also countless socialist groups who have re-orientated themselves in terms of a Labour party no longer scared of the S-word. Most importantly Corbyn’s election as leader occurred as a result of the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of members, both new and old, who demanded change.

In the debate around the successor to Martin Schulz’s leadership of the SPD it is significant that the majority of those leading the party saw little problem in him simply handing the role over to Andrea Nahles, the once left, yet now hopelessly centrist establishment candidate. Ultimately Nahles will be ordained at an upcoming congress, in which 2 other candidates with no hope of winning will stand as challengers, and the delegates will have been pre-selected to ensure no surprises. Within the SPD, the idea of the members voting directly for a leadership candidate remains unthinkable.

Many of the youth responsible for Corbyn’s success had previously had little to do with the Labour party. The #NoGroko campaign is quite different however, led and organised primarily by the JuSos. While perhaps inspiring others, it remains to be seen where the not inconsiderable momentum of the JuSo’s insurgency will flow, now that their mother party has nevertheless taken the decision to enter government. Their organisation is primarily focused on influencing the party and schooling future generations of its politicians, doggedly committed to supporting the party despite ruthlessly criticising it. This said, the discussion around GroKo has raised questions that strike at the very heart of Federal Republic’s social contract, questions that will not go away.

Renewal or Decline?

Movements are often presented as a ‘flash in the pan’, one thinks of Occupy, the UK Student protests of 2010 and countless others. Yet the revolutionary’s relation to the movement is to that which will outlast the party; a coalition, a set of organizing principles and ideas, that will most likely survive beyond specific political organizations. Movements do not simply disappear, at least not in an immediate sense.

In these terms, the SPD’s decision was taken as a party and not as a movement. The many members who voted out of fear of new elections in which their party would harvest a lower vote share than the AfD were likely right in their prediction. Yet precisely this type of thinking defines the shortsightedness of the party’s strategy; counterposed to the idea that in taking a radically new direction one must inevitably encounter turbulence.

For so long Corbyn was viewed as unelectable, adrift in the polls; it cannot, however, be a coincidence that the only 2 European Social Democratic parties to have garnered over 30% of vote share in the last 4 years are UK Labour and the Portuguese PS, both currently challenging the logic of austerity.

The word on everybody’s lips within the SPD currently is ‘Erneuerung’ (Renewal). #NoGroko argued that the party must rekindle a culture of combative politics and renew itself in opposition, while those on the other side also claimed that even in entering government, the party must renew itself, strengthening its commitment to social justice and considering the possibility of leaving the coalition after 2 of the 4 years mandate in order to take this new vision to the electorate.

The dominant feeling within those on the left in Germany is that SPD has dug its own grave, and that the downward trend in its vote-share will intensify in the wake of this second consecutive grand coalition.

I am inclined to agree, yet we must not forget that the SPD is not the Greek PASOK, the French PS, or the Dutch PvdA, all of whom have all but disappeared in electoral terms in their respective countries. The SPD bears more in common with a band of parties such as the Austrian SPÖ and the Spanish PSOE who despite perpetual decline and centrist politics, nevertheless remain major players with membership in the hundreds of thousands. If a renewal in socialist politics is to occur, it will come from without the SPD, yet if the party dies, it will do slowly.

Most interestingly of all, the five-month vacuum of power within the heart of the EU’s austerity machine has raised the question of alternatives. In the first instance, it would appear that this question has been answered: there are none; at least not within SPD and its commitment to a failed economic system.

Yet precisely the seeming impossibility of an alternative can become the catalyst for change, as those seemingly disparate elements who recognize that all is not well with the world cast around for openings. As Marxist thinker Mark Fisher once put it: “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again”.  

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