Skip to main content

Great and severe tasks lie ahead of us

Speech by Oskar Lafontaine, Chairperson of DIE LINKE, Cottbus, 24th May 2008

Dear Comrades, Friends, Ladies and gentlemen,

A lot was written about the new Left in the run-up to this congress and, of course, we welcome this because it is better when they write a lot about us than nothing at all. DIE LINKE relies on public communication. A few tricks were also pulled in the run-up to the congress as we have known from many years. One of these tricks is to depict a chairman as an autocrat, even a Stalinist to stir up resentment among the delegates. I’d like to say the following about it: It was not by chance that we made a membership vote the basis for changes of direction in our party work. DIE LINKE is a democratic party. The members and not single people decide what to do in this party.

We are a party of 73,500 members, that’s not a question. Naturally, a party also needs leadership figures. We are not just one leadership figure; we are a team. We are also the party of Lothar Bisky and, on this day, we are especially the party of Gregor Gysi. We entirely reject the public assaults on him.

There were also overtures to us in the run-up to this congress. We read that DIE LINKE had been the most successful party project of the past decades and that we set the agenda for German politics more and more. It could be a temptation for us to lean back and be content. Yet, a look across the borders shows that this would be a big mistake. Because, while we are growing in Germany Rifondazione Comunista in Italy is no longer in parliament after the recent elections and Veltroni’s party was clearly beaten by Berlusconi. In Spain Izqierda Unida was marginalised while PSOE managed to win a relative majority. In France the Communist Party suffered a crushing defeat in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections; and the Partie Socialiste is in the middle of a clarification process of indeterminate ending.

Facing the question of how to behave in the concert of other parties there is only one clear answer to me: DIE LINKE always needs to stand out as independent. If it does not it won’t survive. Many politicians of the European Left, therefore, pin their hopes on Germany and wonder why we developed the way we did. They expect DIE LINKE in Germany to become a stable force which exudes impulses for the entire European Left. This shows the sheer magnitude of our responsibility. In fact it is like this: Many in Europe now look at us in hope and trepidation so that this project DIE LINKE in Germany will become a success. We not only bear national responsibility, we also bear European responsibility. And I wish for us to live up to that responsibility.

In this connection we are proud today of our Berlin association. Berlin’s abstention in the Bundesrat was necessary to give a signal meaning: The majority of the French, the majority of the Dutch who were opposed to this treaty (originally constitution, now referring to Lisbon treaty – the edit.) found at least one voice in Germany, the party DIE LINKE.

Despite the remarkable news coverage we cannot be content with the development in Germany on close inspection. On the one hand, the other parties copy, in a reduced version, proposals made by DIE LINKE – in terms of unemployment benefit, pensions, child allowance, accommodation allowance, minimum wage, commuter tax allowance, income tax rate, removal of cold progression, increase in the full unemployment benefit II (UBII) amount as well as the amount of wealth not to be included in calculating UBII or in terms of regulating energy prices. This list is not complete. Let me say something at this point: Reading that some parties copy our programme issues it is quite strange noticing the allegations in the news coverage we still had no programme. Well, colleagues journalists, make up your minds. Either the others take over sections of our programme or we have no programme. Both at the same time are impossible.

For simplification purposes DIE LINKE in the Bundestag produced a flyer for everyday work that you can take – 100 programme items our parliamentary party submitted. May be this is little. Yet, once the others have copied them Germany has a different face. We don’t want any more. Please, take a look at the 100 programme items of DIE LINKE.

Although neo-liberal hegemony has vanished from public discussion and modest corrections in the social field have been started the current stocktaking of the grand coalition is more than sobering. The redistribution from the bottom to the top is still going on. By means of VAT €
22 billion annually are collected from pensioners, employees and recipients of welfare. After the new corporate tax reform and lowering the unemployment insurance contribution, what is often overlooked is that, the businesses were given exactly the same amount every year, i.e. € 22 billion, which had been taken from consumers before. And that is despite an explosion of profits in the last years. At the end of the day, this is a redistribution of € 22 billion you take and € 22 billion you give. Keeping in mind that this has been going on for many years, it is hardly surprising that the poverty report shows such figures. The poverty report boils down to a grade for a government. The poverty report is an indication of this and the previous governments’ inability.

Due to the devastating labour market legislation the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens have to account for the low-wage sector this year is the biggest amongst the OECD countries. Let me repeat this: In 2005 we were still behind the United States. Today we are top of the list of all OECD countries when it comes to the low-wage sector. Almost one in four employees works for a wage of € 15,000 a year or less. According to the definition this is the low-wage sector. And having a monthly income of € 1,000 you can expect a ‘pension’ of € 400. If there was only this cause, i.e. that a shop assistant earns € 1,000 a month and gets a pension of € 400 while in Denmark she would get € 1,200 for the same wage, i.e. three times as much, - if there was only this cause, this alone would be reason enough for us to campaign tirelessly towards ending this social policy disgrace. We want pensions this side of the poverty line.

What is often ignored: The share of wages and salaries in the national income has dropped from 72% in 2000 to 64% now. Basically, that says it all. Without that slide employees would have € 135 billion more in incomes. The state and the social budget would earn about half of it in taxes and charges. You see, how too slow a growth in wages, and we’ve had that for 20 years now, can totally change the structural situation of a country. 2.5 million children live in poverty. The negative social selection of our three-ply schooling system is appalling. If you are poor you have to die earlier in this rich society. Sure, our economy is growing. And the Chancellor travels a lot and is met with a friendly welcome. Yet, due to an increase in temporary employment, limited contracts, mini and midi jobs the population at large does not benefit from the economic upturn. We don’t want a boom for a few only. We want a boom for the majority; otherwise it is not a boom.

Germany, which at the time of Willy Brandt, was a generally respected power of peace in the world, is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in defiance of international law and has ended up in No 3 position in arms exports as Lothar has pointed out already. Weapons to the tune of € 7.7 billion were exported in 2006. What is the worst about it is that weapons amounting to € 1.5 billion were sent to developing countries where human rights are not guaranteed. The Chancellor is as credible on environmental and human rights issues as the Greens in terms of war.  If you want credibility for your human rights commitment you must not supply weapons to developing countries and areas of tension.

Dear friends, our party, and I say this despite all the successes that have been reported here, is no end in itself. We want to change politics. In other words: We want to change the living conditions o f the people. In order to be successful in it we must learn from history and the experiences made by the working class movement. Naturally, bearing in mind our past and the composition of this party it is important to this end that we come to grips with the history of the GDR and draw consequences from it. Sure, progress was made in the GDR too – more social equality, more equal opportunities for women at work and in society, more social safeguards, a better health system and good education. Yet, the GDR also failed because it lacked the rule of the law, because it was not a democracy and because employees did not have enough say. These are essential components of a society in which the free development of the individual is the condition for the free development of all. This is the lesson from GDR history.

However, friends, it is just as important for us to study the experience of the working class movement in capitalist countries. We would make a mistake if we allowed our adversaries to force us and narrow down our perspective to 40 years of GDR in the last century alone. After the merger of two left parties it is always necessary to recall why the working class movement split up about 90 years ago. The answer is inseparably linked to the work of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg whose political legacy is an obligation now more than ever: Liebknecht’s “Down with war” reflected in Willy Brandt’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which he called war the ‘ultima irratio’. In contrast, to the other parties in the Bundestag including the SPD war has become the ‘ultima ratio’ again. We adhere to war not being a political instrument. No war must ever emanate from German soil again.

NATO, friends, once used to be a defence alliance. Meanwhile it has become an alliance for intervention led by the United States. Mikhail Gorbachev recently told the Daily Telegraph about the leading Western power the US could not tolerate any other country acting independently. Every US President needed their war. He sometimes thought the US intended to wage war against the entire world. This truth Mikhail Gorbachev mentioned has to be heard in the West at last. We, DIE LINKE, do not want a foreign policy that is based on military conquests of raw material sources and markets. We refuse a NATO alliance that intervenes everywhere in the world and violates international law. We need a system of collective security instead, in which partners assist each other in case of attack and in which they abstain from any threat or use of force that is not in keeping with the goals of the United Nations. What is more important still is to disarm at last instead of rearming and dispel nuclear arms from this world. This is what the countries of the world should concentrate their efforts on.
Instead of combat troops operational world-wide, Germany would need auxiliary forces that could be sent to disasters such as in Myanmar or China to help people and relieve their distress. Let us make such auxiliary forces the trademark of DIE LINKE when it comes to making a commitment to people world-wide. This way we would draw the lesson from the history of this country in the last century.

Rosa Luxemburg, friends, was a great visionary. Well, and as if she guessed which mistakes the working class movement would make in state socialism and capitalism she had us notice: Equality without freedom means oppression and freedom without equality means exploitation. She gave a clear answer to the oft-asked question what democratic socialism was. Democratic socialism is a society which is based on freedom and equality, a society without exploitation and oppression. East Germans experienced in the GDR what equality without freedom meant. And what freedom without equality means ask the recipients of Hartz IV support, temp employees, children who live in poverty or the shop assistants in the supermarkets who do mini jobs and are followed by cameras even to the toilets. This is freedom without equality.

Some reports in the press about freedom do cause me to clarify on that. Sometimes one even has to try logic talking about such issues. As freshers of maths we learned that many conclusions follow the same pattern: There is a flea: I shout at it and it leaps. Then I tear out its legs and shout at it. Of course, it does not leap. Therefore, it hears with its legs. The conclusions of many speaking up in public about certain issues follow this pattern. What do I mean? If you want to differentiate you have to know two terms and they are: Sufficient and necessary. The following applies to freedom: What is necessary for freedom is political and intellectual freedom. What is necessary for freedom is, of course, social equality for it makes sense that Africans suffering from AIDS can benefit little from political and intellectual freedom. However, only both are sufficient for freedom as a whole. Social equality and political and intellectual freedom. Only both are sufficient. One alone does not work.

After the demise of state socialism it is the job of the Left in society to work towards more equality and less exploitation. Italian philosopher Noberto Bobio was right to view equality as the pivotal value of left parties. With a glance at the CDU/CSU I may add, the term they defame as egalitarian can, without a doubt, be traced back to Christianity in the European occident, to the doctrine of equality of all God’s children. Let me remind you of my speech at the founding congress. The literal translation of ‘love thy neighbour as yourself’ from Hebrew is: You shall love your comrade as yourself.

Well friends, it is easy for DIE LINKE to demand more freedom and equality in today’s society in its programmes. It is much more difficult, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today, to implement them. Asking why that is, it is worthwhile looking back at our history: For instance at the time when the working class movement split up. For Sebastian Haffner “the German revolution of 1918/19 was a social democratic revolution that was defeated by the social democratic leadership; an event almost unparalleled in world history.” A short anecdote illustrates to what degree the then SPD leadership identified with the existing order. Asked by Reich Chancellor Max von Baden “Do I see you by my side in the fight against the social revolution?” Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert replied: “If the Kaiser does not abdicate social revolution is inevitable. I, however, do not want it, in fact, I loathe it.” And he acted accordingly. From January to May 1919 a bloody civil war raged in Germany leaving thousands of casualties and much bitterness behind. It set the course for the disastrous history of the Weimar Republic and led to the final division of the working class movement. Certainly, history does not repeat itself. Yet, 80 years later a Social Democratic Chancellor pushed through the biggest social cuts in the Federal Republic of Germany and took part in wars illegal under international law. I recall these two periods of the working class movement because they inexorably pose the question why politicians of the Left have disappointed the expectations of their followers so badly in history. This is not a question others should ask; This is a question we must ask ourselves. If we don’t face this question we won’t learn from our history and we cannot draw lessons from it.

Marx and Engels gave a decisive hint in German ideology why that is so difficult. “The thoughts of the ruling class are the ruling thoughts in every epoch. That means the class which is the ruling material power in society is also its ruling intellectual power.” Goethe had already anticipated this analysis by the mentors of the working class movement in his Faust: “What you call the spirit of the time is, fundamentally, the rulers’ own spirit, which the times reflect.” Therefore, friends, if you want to pursue a left policy you must have the courage to make use of your own brains without being guided by someone else. In simpler words: You must not cave in to the economy and the newspapers and media representing the interests of the economy. Often this is easier said than done. You must even have the courage to speak your own language.

And now another interesting quotation: “It is part of the hopeless situation that even the most sincere reformer, who recommends renewal in hackneyed language rather strengthens the power of the existing he endeavours to break, by making use of the refined structure of categories and the bad philosophy behind it.” Horckheimer and Adorno wrote this in their Dialectics of Enlightenment in 1947. In other words, the challenge to DIE LINKE is the following: Whoever speaks the language of the rulers consolidates the existing conditions. And, friends, this is a major challenge.

A standard example for this mechanism is the term non-wage labour costs. All parties competing with us want to lower the non-wage labour costs. This means, they want to cut funds for pensioners, the unemployed, sick persons and those in need of nursing care as Lothar has already explained. A single term, not the politicians, I exaggerate a bit now, a single term has substantially determined politics in the past few years. DIE LINKE must find its own language, or better still, return to dialectics. Being a dialectician means having the wind of history blow in your sails. It is not enough to have the sails. You must also be able to set them. That is what matters. According to Walter Benjamin.

We set the terms: DIE LINKE, the minimum wage, Hartz IV must go, we want a poverty-proof pension and the Bundeswehr must get out of Afghanistan. And we have the wind of history blow in our sails. This is what makes us successful, friends.

Once the task Walter Benjamin indicated has been tackled and once you have an idea of what the new social order should look like it is necessary to check out the possibilities for changing society. Marx said: “A social order never perishes before all productive forces for which it is developed enough have evolved to the full and new, higher relations of production do not take over before the conditions for their existence have been hatched in the womb of the old society. Do we live in such a time of transition, friends? What is being hatched in the womb of our society today? If you want to present a modern left policy you must deal with capitalism’s new clothes, the capitalism driven by financial markets, because this is the most decisive issue of our time: How does politics confront finance-market-driven capitalism? Our proposals for regulating the financial markets are known:

1. Capital movement across borders must be controlled again.

2. Exchange rates must be stabilised.

3. A Tobin tax must be imposed on international financial transactions.

4. Tax havens must be dried up.

5. Rating agencies must be controlled by society, by the government at best, because they have caused much harm over the past few years.

6. Hedge funds need to be outlawed. These funds, too, have contributed tremendously to the demise of entire national economies.

7. International rules will be imposed on the banking sector.

8. Financial supervision is being coordinated internationally based on universal standards. By and large the aim is to establish minimum capital requirements to guard banks against loan risks.

9. We must introduce a stock exchange tax like in other countries in Germany at last. Other countries in Europe do so, why not we?

10. We demand that stock options are outlawed as pay for managers as well as bonuses for top executives in the banking sector, for stock options lead to announcement of mass dismissal in order to increase their own wealth. This is the perversion of finance-market-driven capitalism. Basically, bonuses lead to the development of financial products, which then, are no longer understood by those who developed them as we have seen from the examples of the IKB and the state banks in Bavaria, North Rhine Westphalia and Saxony. I am anxious to see public news coverage especially in ‘BILD’ if a left politician and not Mr Hubert had been Finance Minister in the case of the Bavarian state bank, if a Left had been in charge and not Rüttgers and Steinbrück in North Rhine Westphalia and if a Left had borne responsibility in Saxony and not Milbradt – the newspapers would not have been big enough to carry the headlines. The others cannot handle money. We can now easily throw the reproach back in their faces.

11. It must be outlawed in Germany to shift risks to special-purpose entities.

12. Trade in evidenced products, i.e. those that caused all these billions in losses, must be banned.

The global financial wealth has grown three times as fast as the global social product, i.e. from $ 12 to 170 trillion or 170,000 billion. The global social product rose from $ 10 to 50 trillion during the same time.

Not entrepreneurs and managers are the main actors of today’s capitalism in the first place but financial investors. The time is gone when one of the founders of Siemens, Werner von Siemens, said: “I do not sell the future for a moment’s profit.” One can turn this around. Today the future is sold for a moment’s profit. This is exactly what politics must change if it wants to get to the core.

The world economy is marked by a chase for high returns in conjunction with adventurous speculation on exchange rates, raw materials and food. Companies including personnel are bought up, cannibalised and resold after only a short time. New standards are imposed on companies to achieve higher profits. Wages are lowered, working hours extended, overtime not paid, company benefits cut and longer-term research and development cancelled under pressure from financial investors. Once such conduct has been established in some companies competition makes sure it will develop into a universal standard throughout the economy. If you wish, this is the explanation for the situation, for the drop in the share of wages and salaries in the national income we have in Germany today, i.e. that wages and pensions drop despite a real growth in the economy. What counts now is only an increase in the shareholder value. Those in governments and parliaments only have the job to make sure under pressure from financial investors that Germany is attractive for financial investments. And that is why Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals and the Greens sing the song about the necessity to decrease the non-wage labour costs every day to strengthen German competitiveness. They feel obliged to reduce corporate taxes time and again to make Germany fit for the future. What matters particularly to them is privatising public property. After Post and Telekom now Deutsche Bahn is next. What a tragedy that the SPD has caved in again. If you say 24.9% today you are under pressure to say 25% or 50% for private investors and so on soon. When will they ever learn from their own failure of the past few years? Deutsche Bahn belongs in public property.

The privatisation of the social protection systems is as bad if not worse. For long the financial industry looked enviously and greedily at the social funds and made big efforts to invest for profit part of the billions employees save for safeguards against life risks. In the course of these privatisation orgies not only politicians – I think of those big-shots who now work for some corporation, temp-work business or private equity company or wherever – but also trade unionists such as Riester or Hansen became sad lackeys of investment-seeking finance capital.

Finance capital has led to a dramatic shift in the balance of power and forces in politics and society, friends. Shortly before the SPD and Greens got into office the then President of the German Federal Bank, Tietmeyer, addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos saying to the company of heads of government: Gentlemen, you are all subjected to the control of international financial markets now.” And at the beginning of his term in government Green politician Joschka Fischer passed legislation saying: “You don’t really believe you can implement policies against international financial markets.” We can see the consequences of this rule in Germany today – the drop in wages and salaries as part of the national income, child poverty, a steadily growing low-wage sector, insecure and precarious working conditions – in a nutshell, undermining representative democracy.

Democracy, we insist, is a political order in which things are done in the interest of the majority instead of the interests of a few. For many years things have not been done in the interest of the majority any more. Decreasing wages and pensions lead more and more people to have doubts about our representative democracy.

DIE LINKE sees itself as a democratic and social movement for renewal. If you want to save democracy and stop the wheel of finance-market driven capitalism spinning faster and faster you must question its pivotal condition: The sole disposal over profits, investment and capital of company owners and financial investors. As long as we have not changed that we shall not live in a democratic society. That is why DIE LINKE will submit a bill in the Bundestag for codetermination in companies of regional and national importance. And I am really intrigued to know how trade unionists such as Brandner and others will behave in a roll call vote. Yes, we challenge them all again.

A different distribution of the increase in company assets is just as important because it changes the system and overcomes it eventually. If an employer erects a factory hall and pays for the fixtures himself to start production the assets are his. If, however, a second hall including equipment is erected on the basis of running production this hall is not entirely the owner’s, but also that of the employees without the work of which this property would never have come into existence. That is why we suggest leaving half the increase in assets to the employees. When I mentioned the basics of this idea in the Bundestag recently I encountered heads shaken in astonishment. Once again we saw how changing capitalism deforms people’s thinking. In the second half of the last century it was still normal for the political parties to discuss the redistribution of production assets. The SPD for instance said in its Godesberg Programme: An essential element of the modern economy is the concentration process which is permanently increasing. Those who in major economic organisations have disposal over assets worth millions and tens of thousands of employees do not only run the economy they exercise power over people. Suitable measures should ensure that an appropriate share of the permanent increase in the assets of big businesses is distributed among a widespread ownership or allocated to the common good.

The Freiburg theses of the FDP of October 1971 contain revolutionary ideas: “Today the increase in productive capital is concentrated in the hands of a few capital owners. In terms  of society this is dangerous, socially unjust and incompatible with liberal demands for equal opportunities in life and optimum conditions for self-development.” Can you believe it? This economic order we have today and which is not questioned any more was neither in keeping with equal chances in life nor with the conditions for people’s self-development according to the Freiburg FDP. And the same applies today. We want a redistribution of company assents to dare more democracy at last.

Finance capitalism demands of the manpower a permanent adaptation to the apparatus and subordination to authority to an unparalleled degree. Apart from pressure to perform and other-directedness of dependent employment another strain is the fact that the employee is integrated in processes which they often hardly understand for lack of information on the overall picture. All this leads to the situation that democratic or antidemocratic attitudes and behaviour develops depending on varying experience in the company in the context of mutual super- and subordination. Yes, that’s how it is. Industrial relations determine whether democratic or antidemocratic attitudes develop. The politically mature and enlightened citizen wants to be a subject as an employee as well and not feel like an object in the midst of decision-making processes they do not understand. They want to be able to rate their role and position properly in a system of social relations. They want to be informed and influence decision-making and arrangements. Democracy calls for good and proper information. This applies to the economy as well as the entire development of society.

This brings me to another subject, friends, which has also disappeared from attention in recent years, yet which has been raised again by finance capitalism. I am talking about freedom of the press. The media corporations and Springer being top of the list get excited as soon you quote one of them. Freedom of the press Paul Sehte once said is the freedom of 200 people to tell their opinion. After the waves of concentration in the past few decades Paul Sehte would speak of perhaps 20 people today. Yet, at the time of finance capitalism freedom of the press is undermined more and more. ‘The Wall Street Journal’ is the most spectacular case. Rupert Murdoch bought it for $ 5.6 billion. ‘The Wall Street Journal’ has spread Rupert Murdoch’s opinion ever since. The battle of the editorial staff for independence was hopeless from the very outset.

Berlusconi rules in Italy because he has control over the biggest part of the media. In France a debate is underway about the independence of the press because ‘Le Monde’, ‘Le Figaro’, ‘Liberation’, ‘Paris Match’, free newspapers, radio and TV stations are partly or entirely owned by industrialists or financial investors.

In Germany, too, the concentration process is going on. Here newspapers are bought and subordinated to the standards of finance capitalism. Profit margins of 20 per cent are demanded. ‘Berliner Zeitung’, ‘Frankfurter Rundschau’ and many other papers can tell you more. Sections of the companies are outsourced; naturally they hire temp workers and try to cut down on wages. More and more journalists recognise that profit margins of 20% and quality journalism do not go together. We must find a remedy here, friends, for democracy needs a functioning free press. Codetermination and workforce participation, just to mention ‘Der Spiegel’, are also ways to improve the position of the editorial staff.

DIE LINKE must raise this forgotten issue, the subject of internal freedom of the press. Editorial charters must guarantee the independence of editors and their staff again. When talking about freedom of the press we do not only mean independence from the state. This also applies to freedom from economic power, from influence by economic power. And there is no safeguard for that in this country. Only a blind person can ignore this.

Friends, these proposals on economic democracy are meant to address issues spelled out at the end of the Key Programmatic Points. What possibilities and instruments are there for democratising the economy and subjecting the power of disposal over property to social criteria? To what extent must capitalist property relationships be abolished for that purpose? If we really want to get down to business about democracy, if we want to dare more democracy, we shall come up against tremendous resistance. Yet, DIE LINKE has no other choice than resisting the zeitgeist, which is always the rulers’ spirit.

At the end of my speech at the founding congress I appealed to our credibility and quoted Mayakovsky: We must never step on the vocal chords of our song. Today I appeal to your courage to swim against the tide so that we shall never feel the wrath of Peter Hacks, which he wrote down in a poem about the party: “They have no guts, their heart is confused and those who ever banked on them have long regretted it.” We don’t want this to happen to us, friends. But we must really make an effort.

The Greens once saw themselves as an anti-party party. That was a long time ago. We ought to see ourselves as a party against the zeitgeist against the background of what I said earlier on. Only those who have an answer to finance-market-driven capitalism have a serious modern programme. All other programmes that do not raise this question are no programmes but programming with the programmers being the economically powerful. We have a programme.

Friends, we have made good headway. Yet, we must never get trapped being content with ourselves. Never. We must not take the patting on our backs in the media at face value. No, we must recognise that big and severe tasks lie ahead of us. We can tackle them in self-confidence. I keep saying: We need more members. So I say: Whenever you’re in a pub and someone accosts you and says: So you’re with DIE LINKE. Just don’t look at your feet. Say: Why, are you not? It’s high time you were.

On this note, Good luck.