The PDS: German Socialism Renewed

Dr. Mario Kessler is a member of the Historical Commission of Germany’s leading democratic leftist organization, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Interview by The Socialist.

In many countries in the former Soviet Bloc the old communist parties simply transformed into conservative parties. In Poland and Hungary the ruling parties transformed themselves into social democratic organizations with typical liberal economic policies. In contrast, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the inheritor of the old East German Communist Party, retained a leftist and socialist heritage. This had to due with the particularities of the division of Germany into two states. With unification of Germany the complete Western party system was offered, from the Christian Conservatives to the Green Party, and all contested for votes. But in unified Germany strong social democratic parties already existed, so there was no need to transform the PDS into such type of party. It might be an irony of history, as Issac Deutscher would say, that the swiftness of the unification process preserved a relatively consistent socialist organization. This might be seen as a burden of the past, particularly by the majority of Germans who would like to see this burden whither away.

The PDS is the successor of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the now-defunct ruling communist party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR—East Germany). When the regime in East Germany collapsed, the SED had a membership of two millions, including myself. Ninety-five percent of the membership then left the party. All those who wanted to make a brilliant career in the West left the party, as it was no use to keep any form of solidarity with the losing faction. Of course, they were promised jobs and flourishing landscapes in a unified Germany.

Many who joined the new PDS are from the old rank and file—old East German communists—because they see capitalism as not so good, and believe the West wants to sweep away everything from East Germany. Other younger PDS members joined the SED before 1989 because they wished to change the rigid East German society from within, and formed a reform faction, some of whom were expelled or left the SED. This latter group, to which I belonged, tried to preserve the idea of a third way or reform communism. Yet another group came from former East German technocrats who retained socialist convictions.  

Today the PDS has many platforms, including a communist platform, a pro-SPD (Social Democratic Party) platform, an ecological platform, and two comrades have created a Trotskyist platform. The PDS chairman is in his late 50s; Comrade Gregor Gysi, the head of the PDS faction in the Bundestag, is younger, and a charismatic political figure in Germany.


Eastern Base

The old SED considered itself the representative of the working class, although many GDR workers felt exploited by the ruling party. Many trade union rights were denied under Communist rule. Workers in the old GDR, particularly in the Southern states of Saxony and Thuringa—the most industrialized in Eastern Germany—suffered the most under Communist mismanagement. When the GDR collapsed the active core of East German workers were from these southern areas.  

Today the PDS is quite a political factor in the East. In recent elections more than 20 percent of workers in the East voted for the PDS, as many had become unemployed when factories in the East were closed as a result of unification, whereby the plants were taken over by West German enterprises. So among the workers in the East there is widespread dissatisfaction with unification. Once again they consider themselves the losers, as they had before 1989. Admittedly, very few blue-collar workers have joined the PDS. But keep in mind that the social democratic parties of Western Europe—Germany, Britain and the Scandinavian countries—have far more members who are white-collar workers than blue-collar workers. Indeed, the industrial proletariat in Western Europe is retrograding in every aspect.

Of the nearly 100,000 PDS members, two-thirds are more than 60 years old. Only 2,500 members live in Western Germany, while the rest reside in the old GDR territories. This means that the PDS is not yet anchored in the West.

Nevertheless, the party retains 20-30 percent of the vote in each election in all Eastern states. Among party members in the West, only a few hundred are originally from the old West Germany, mainly supporters from the far left and student milieus, but not enough to form a solid base for political work. There is no common language between PDS members in the East, who are either elderly or younger members who have climbed into the middle class, and our Western members from the alternative and radical circles.


SPD and Greens

The PDS differs from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Green Party in several ways. The PDS believes in establishing a socialized economy, although not a centrally planned economy. The SDP, in contrast, has transformed into a non-socialist party because the prospect of a socialized economy has been abandoned not only by its rank and file but also by its left wing. SPD membership is about 900,000, only nine times more than the PDS.  

The Green party is to some extent a two-issue party, focusing on ecological matters and on pacifism. But all German parties, from the Christian Democrats to the PDS, now have ecology platforms. And Green party pacifism has been distorted by its engagement in the Schroeder cabinet and its stance on the Balkan war. (There was also a communist party in Western Germany, who established close ties with Comrade Gus Hall in the U.S., as well as about 25 Trotskyists, organized into 26 different Internationals.)

Still, many Germans see the PDS only as the successor of the Stalinist East German Communist Party. This image is relentlessly put forward in the German mass media, so the influence of the PDS on the German mass consciousness is currently limited.

The PDS has some support in the German metal workers union and the printers union, but generally the party does not have a strong base in the SDP-dominated trade unions. The PDS is relatively weak in the countryside, except in the villages near Berlin, and is not considered to be representative of the peasantry. In the rural areas in the East many farmers retained their agricultural cooperatives, and though it seems unlikely that the Western heirs of the pre-GDR landowners will get their farms back, attempts to break up the cooperatives and expropriate the land have raised the mass consciousness of cooperative workers. The SPD has much more support in the countryside, as it is also opposed to returning land to the heirs of the old owners.

There is almost no relationship between the PDS and the Catholic Church, for historical reasons—East Germany was not a Catholic country. There are more Protestants, but most PDS members are atheists. There is a small party circle called Christians Within the PDS that includes several Protestant pastors who work publicly for the party.



When the Balkan war broke out, the Chancellor of Germany—an SDP member—declared full support of NATO and the U.S., and when Ms. Albright explained her tough stance against the Serbs, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Green party member, also professed full support for NATO and the U.S. These despite the fact that within the SPD-Green coalition which rules Germany today, pacifist and anti-military traditions are very strong.

The PDS was opposed to the war in Yugoslavia first and foremost because the bombing of Belgrade would not solve any of the social and ethnic problems. Second, German troops have invaded Belgrade twice in this century. Third, the previous Kohl government was the first to recognize the new states of Serbia and Croatia, which the PDS opposed. Pro-capitalist forces led these new states, and the German government favored the dissolution of Yugoslavia because it could better economically dominate a divided Yugoslavia. The PDS led several large anti-war demonstrations in Berlin, in which the Pro-Milosovic forces and the Croatian monarchists took part. The party opposed their viewpoints, and their participation made international anti-war unity difficult.

The PDS is devoted to internationalist positions and activities, has made no concessions to nationalist politics, and is not allied with the Russian Communist Party because of their anti-Semitism. The PDS believes that what is needed is a retreat to internationalism, instead of the forward movement to nationalism brought on by the break-up of the old Soviet bloc. Nationalism is now strong in contemporary Europe. We do not support the IRA, the Basque separatists, or other separatist movements, though the PDS tends to be pluralistic, so there are voices who do support certain movements for national independence, particularly in regards to the Kurdish question. (PDS officials have traveled to Kurdish areas in Turkey and expressed their solidarity, and have pressed the Kurdish cause in the Bundestag.) There is also solidarity with the Palestinian movement, though the PDS recognizes Germany’s historic role in the holocaust and supports the right of Israel to exist.

The issue of immigrants is key to contemporary German politics. The Government has lifted article 60.3 of the constitution, which gave all politically persecuted people the right to asylum in Germany. Among the German population there is a broad consensus directed against immigrants, who believe most immigrants come to Germany to enjoy its rich economy. All factions on the German left, including the PDS, have demanded the reinstatement of this article.

Of course the PDS declares official solidarity with minorities, including guest workers from Vietnam, Mozambique, and Turks and Kurds, however the Party has little influence within these groups due to the language barrier, and because these groups are denied rights as German citizens and can’t vote. There is some influence among left wing Turks, but the party has no support from immigrants from Eastern Europe, who apparently came to Germany not to find a renewed socialist party, but rather to seek a capitalist paradise

Regarding anti-Semitism, the PDS was in particular was confronted with this issue during the process of German unification in the early 1990s. PDS leader Gergor Gysi has been publicly attacked as a Jew, and the historic connection between such leading German communists as Rosa Luxemburg, many of whom were Jewish, became a pressure point. So we learned our internationalism the hard way, and from their examples.


Heritage and Growth

Among young members there are many students, since there is more activism in academia than in the general population. We welcome this section of the intelligentsia, because in Germany, as in the U.S., the intelligentsia is being proletarianized. Indeed, many of the older PDS members who came from the GDR intelligentsia subsequently lost their jobs during unification and were forced to find work in such attractive intellectual trades as insurance agencies. Moreover, the core of the old East German academic intelligentsia was not successfully recruited to the new conservatism, and remained loyal to socialist policies. As a result, the PDS retains support particularly among cultural workers, including writers, singer-songwriters, actors and others who are respected in the arts.

Certainly the PDS’s Stalinist heritage remains visible within the party. Keep in mind that for 28 years the East German population was completely separated from the west by the famous Berlin Wall. With unification the new western society appeared quite alien to East Germans, and to the PDS. The political discourse that took place within the PDS after 1989 may sound strange to U.S. leftists, who have operated continually in an open society, a result of the heritage of the Enlightenment that Marx himself also experienced. This was not applicable in the old, closed East Germany. Most East German intellectuals had no experience in dissident theories, including environmental and gender issues, even anti-Semitism.

Thus within the PDS there was a sentiment in favor of restoration and against the abandonment of Leninism, against dissident communists from German and European history such as Karl Korsch, August Thalheimer and particularly Leon Trotsky. There existed a communist platform in the party that could be considered “restorative” (with distinct similarities to the circle around Comrade Gus Hall in the U.S.) But today there is a realization that Stalinism as a political current is dead, and among older PDS members there is willingness to open their mind to a refreshment of ideas from the Western intellectual left.

Indeed, some younger PDS members had developed an interest in these issues before the wall came down, through their relationships to church-based dissident circles, ecological circles, etc., and shared some of the views of the grassroots opposition within East Germany before 1989. Nevertheless these issues have constituted one of the crucial debates within the party since unification. This will take time—I think it’s a question of changes of generations.

Copyright © 1999, The Socialist Party USA. All Rights Reserved. Views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily of the SPUSA or The Socialist.