After the fall: The inheritance problem of democratic socialism
An interview with Stefan Bollinger
Platypus Review #85 | April 2016
On July 13, 2015, Jerzy Sobotta spoke with Stefan Bollinger, member of the Historical Commission of Die LINKE (the Left Party) and former political scientist and historian at Humboldt University, Berlin. Their discussion concerned the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the transformation of its formerly governing party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED) into a new political entity, Die LINKE. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Jerzy Sobotta: Let’s begin with some background about Die LINKE and its predecessor, the SED. How did people in East Germany, and in the SED in particular, react when Gorbachev announced a new course for the Soviet Union, under the banner of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness)?
Stefan Bollinger: Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The expectation of the SED leadership was that relations with the Soviet Union would be stabilized. It had become clear that action needed to be taken in the USSR concerning economic development. In Gorbachev you had a General Secretary who was perceptibly more flexible, modern, and radical in his demeanor and political claims. He got across to you. His willingness to call out flaws in the Soviet Union’s economic policies was welcomed by many.
The problems began in 1986, when it became apparent that the plans for reform were vague. Parts of the SED leadership were unconvinced. Gorbachev emphasized that economic changes needed to be coupled with democratization of the party and of society, but what exactly he meant by this remained unclear. Accordingly, the SED leadership withdrew their support. Memories of Czechoslovakia, 1968—the Prague Spring—resurfaced. When you open things up, unpleasant matters can quickly come to light. Most of all, the SED leadership worried that reforms would render the historical self-understanding and legitimacy of the party vulnerable to attack. However, among the people, including many rank-and-file comrades, you saw a more positive reception.
Any hopes for a trouble-free German perestroika were soon dashed. If anything, there were a number of regressive developments: ethnic conflicts (particularly in the Caucus, the Baltics and Central Asia), obvious disorganization in the national economy, strikes, and standoffs. The situation came to a head in 1987, when the SED leadership openly set themselves apart from Moscow. Soviet films, plays, and newspapers were censored in the GDR, including the magazine Sputnik, which had criticized the line of the Communist Party of Germany in the 1930s. Meanwhile, all the problems were becoming more obvious to everyone: The economy was stagnant, citizens were excluded from decision-making processes, and you couldn’t drive to the West. Many saw in glasnost and perestroika an alternative to the GDR. In October of 1989, Gorbachev came to Berlin and was enthusiastically received by citizens of the GDR, some of whom were organizing in civil movements for reform.
JS: Who were the people who wanted to reform the SED? How would you characterize their political orientation?
SB: The agents of these reforms came from different groups. For one, there were people within the Party who, partly out of insight, partly out of self-interest, called for the removal of Erich Honecker as General Secretary of the SED. This group, which included Günter Schabowski and head of the secret police Erich Mielke, had decided to back Egon Krenz as the new General Secretary. They replaced Honecker in October.
Other reformers came from a group of district secretaries, mid-level party functionaries, and intellectuals who had internalized the ideological demands of the situation a bit more. This group wanted to advance the opposition movement outside of party talk and political proposals. Driven by a group of young intellectuals inside the SED, this group had tried since Moscow’s announcement of perestroika to develop alternative concepts of society. What emerged from this was the concept of “modern socialism,” an idea developed by Andre and Michael Brie, Dieter Segert, Rosi Will, and Rainer Land, among others. At the prompting of the Prorector for Social Sciences at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Dieter Klein, they sought to work out how to reform socialism. They set as their goal a democratic socialist society that did not depart too much from the already existing GDR system; their task was to articulate a democratic alternative, but still under the leadership of the SED. They had the idea that the economy should be reformed in the direction of a socialist market economy, based on analyses of Eastern European development of the preceding decade. Their approach was a kindred spirit to the Prague Spring, the set of reforms attempted by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KPC) in 1968. So there is a deeper history to these reformers’ ideas. There were also smaller pro-reform circles at the Academy for Social Sciences, at the central committee of the SED around Rolf Reissig, and around Bernd Okun at Karl-Marx University in Leipzig. Meanwhile, journalists such as Thomas Falkner sought to popularize various reformers’ ideas.
This network was crucial during the upheaval between October and December 1989 and during the SED’s conversion into a different political entity, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). In September, demands for reform were quickly gaining influence and support, not least via pressure on the streets. On the third of December, 1989, the old politburo was disempowered; Krenz and Schabowski were booted out. The party’s new power centers, the democratized district secretaries and party activists, constituted a working committee out of their ranks. One can also view this as the revolt of the new first district secretaries, who until then had wielded little influence. In other words, the task of actually implementing any reforms fell to the next tier of the party apparatus. The reform intellectuals played a rather secondary role; they were not “real politicians.” The ideas had to be implemented in laws and policy decisions, and the reformers failed on that point.
JS: When and how did the citizen movements emerge? What role did they play in these changes?
SB: The SED was a microcosm of 2.3 million people. Initially, the questions of mass emigration and of a guided reform process were discussed at some remove from most citizens. This changed in the summer of 1989, when the social crisis dragged these questions before the masses of people. Prior to this, the citizen movements were small and marginal. The crisis of 1989 had different causes, though the roots of the problems that led finally to the downfall of the GDR were not all so deep. There were economic problems, complications in the world market, and a latent frailty in the Soviet Union, which was becoming increasingly unreliable. Furthermore, there were huge debts the GDR had taken out since the 1970s from the West in the form of credits, which carried a political price. These were all manageable issues that could have been resolved. However, in addition to all of this, the GDR apparatus was susceptible to blackmail and incapable of action. While the West appeared outwardly ever more glamorous, individualistic, and consumer-fixated, the attractiveness of socialism in the East had diminished, particularly in the minds of younger people. The Polish were “stirring up trouble,” and in Hungary the opening toward the West was contrasted with growing social problems and ideological decline. Identification with “actually existing” socialism was rapidly degenerating. Because of the weakening economy, you could no longer counteract these mood swings with social policies and consumption hikes.
JS: How did the crisis of 1989 unfold?
SB: The civil movements were in the beginning marginal forces. The ministry for state security estimated them in the summer of 1989 to be around 6,000 people, half of whom reported to State Security. However, a relatively large group of younger people was coming to believe that the country would not let itself be reformed. They wanted to live now, to experience something. Thousands applied to leave the country. In the summer of 1989 they made use of new means of escape, via Hungary in particular. Emigration increasingly characterized the social climate, triggering widespread politicization. As the crisis deepened, the SED responded with repression, trying in vain to hush up the topic. From July on, the party was saying nothing. Then, all at once, it went badly for General Secretary Honecker.
The position of the civil movements was that one should at least be able to discuss all these problems openly. Initially they held events in the churches, the only space not controlled by the state, and won more and more influence. In August and September these groups demanded an open dialogue. The movement offered a public sphere to discuss these issues, but mostly with the understanding that the GDR would be developed further as a sovereign state. At this point, these discussions had nothing to do with reunification. The movement wanted to change the GDR, not to abolish it. Many had seen the problems with West Germany and did not want their model; they were against profit-oriented policy, stark individualism, and so forth. In any case, their weak point was their relation to political power: The reformers wanted discussion and democracy, but did not want to take formal political responsibility. They could offer themselves as an actual alternative to the SED only conditionally. On top of that, they had absolutely no competence when it came to matters like economic policy. Their link to the greater masses of the people could only work in the short term. After the opening of the borders in November 1989, any sense of widespread agreement was soon lost.
JS: What was happening in the SED as it became clear that the crisis was leading to reunification?
SB: The depth of the crisis became apparent in October. Protestors had been holding demonstrations every Monday through most of 1989. On the ninth of October, the largest such demonstration to that point was held in Leipzig. The gathering was not dispersed, as intended, but rather a security partnership was struck up between the demonstrators and the SED functionaries. In the meantime, discussions that had taken place only inside party groups now occurred in the open. Party members demonstrated in front of the doors of the central committee conference.
Parallel to the opening of the wall there was a central committee assembly from the eighth to the tenth of November, 1989, which aimed to set the program for regenerating the SED. Egon Krenz tried to restructure the politburo with new as well as old personnel. When this proved controversial, Krenz pressed for a party congress, which occasioned an enormous conflict inside the party, through which the party administration was replaced. The new people came up out of second and third rows, if they weren’t new to politics entirely. The bulk of the circle, and the district administrations, were replaced. So, within 26 days between November and December, a radical shift took place: There was a de facto overthrow of the politburo and of the central committee. The party aspired to a new politics of reform, in the sense of renovating the GDR. Many comrades were ready to hit the streets and organize in support of that. In the party organization circles, there were conferences and the election of delegates for the party congress. Yet, during these upheavals, every day the party was losing members by the thousands. Most exited after a sobering assessment of their own biography and prospects. One repositioned himself politically or left politics entirely for the sake of his career.
At this time, you began to see lots of schemes for reform in state politics. Hans Modrow, who was elected chairman on November 13th, tried for the first time in the history of the GDR to form a real coalition government on the basis of a program to which they could all agree. The central point was the question of how to revamp development by means of a hybrid socialist–market economy that decentralized the economic administration. Until the middle of December this was still being worked out in some detail, even as overall political developments superseded such plans.
After the wall opened, the sentiment changed dramatically. The big democratic debate was now displaced by the possibility of travel. That was the wish of many people, which the SED had long struggled with. People drove to the West and saw a functioning and wealthy capitalism. They did not see the hooks and the problems that come with that. The people wanted to have this capitalism, too—not just a policy shift in the GDR. The idea of a German reunification was met with increasing sympathy. Out of material interest people decided that they did not want the GDR’s system any longer. Here the sentiment in the masses shifted fundamentally. The Federal Republic of Germany and the Western media encouraged them. By that point in time, the reunification could hardly be stopped.
JS: What was the role of the civil movements in this phase and what was the influence of the Federal Republic (West Germany)?
SB: The movement had continued to function in the meantime, even if their support in the masses was not nearly so large as it had been. They demanded round tables for discussion, which had been so successful in Poland. At the beginning of December came the first set of these discussions. The political ideas of this movement can be summarized on the basis of three points: hold new elections; adopt a new constitution; and provide checks on the government, preferably through veto power. The disputes between the citizen movements and the party came to a head with the question of dissolving the ministry for State Security, which demonstrators stormed a short time later.
The opposition movement participated in the government and achieved partly good results. In addition, democratic measures for trade unions, including the possibility of elections, were enacted. This was battled out in the social charters and the constitution, which, as a draft for a renovated GDR, stands as a testament to what had taken place in autumn 1989.
The Federal Republic of Germany involved itself in all these processes covertly, just as the West German media had a significant influence. By the time the wall fell, at least, the Federal Republic was striving to force the party back by awakening expectations of reunification. From this point on, the West German parties established contact with forces in the East that they saw as future partners. Only the leftist forces in the GDR remained without support. After reunification, entire law texts were adopted from the Federal Republic while the West parties sent their consultants, who found the round table process to be profoundly “undemocratic” and suspect.
The question as to how Gorbachev would react had a great deal of influence on reunification, as well. The USSR pursued its interests as a big power. The Soviet Union was willing to relinquish East Germany and to be satisfied with a neutral, unified Germany. With this attitude, these processes were pre-programmed, as can be seen in Yugoslavia and recently, somewhat, in Ukraine.
JS: How did the transition of the SED to the PDS take place?
SB: All the radical changes in the party that we have been discussing amounted to the admission that the social system in the East Bloc had definite, genetic defects such that socialism could not be democratically realized. Suddenly, everyone wanted “democratic socialism,” which is what was always supposed to be the goal in the first place.
The party functionaries wanted to keep on doing politics. There was a very painful process of cutting the umbilical cord to power. You had to find yourself again in this new role as an opposition party. The most important thing was to survive politically in the new realities, when there was a strong pressure to ban the communist parties.
At the party congress the details of a new political formation were discussed. Are we founding a new party? Or should we establish two parties, one communist and one social democratic? Or should we, for political and material reasons, salvage this party under a new name, for the new times? These were harsh disputes. Many wanted to dissolve the party, but two arguments for continuing it proved decisive. First, Hans Modrow, who stood at the peak of this transition regime, demanded that the transition process be anchored in the political party. He feared a total forfeiture of control. Second, Gregor Gysi stressed that, if the party were dissolved, this would mean losing party funds and leaving comrades jobless. What should you do with the party assets?
We resolved to re-brand ourselves as the “party of democratic socialism” and to keep on going. Strife over money continued for many years. Many party functionaries and a lot of political work were needed in the aftermath of reunification. A lot of the money also landed in private pockets; there was a great deal of profiteering. Some tried to transfer funds to the Soviet Union, but most of the money was publicly released. The party apparatus had to be drastically dismantled. The possibility of surviving inside the party structure was severely reduced. However, even up to the present day, there are still colleagues and elected functionaries who have backgrounds in the SED. But that will be settled in ten years, at the latest. A new generation is growing up—a generation of people who also must earn their money with politics.
JS: What does this history mean for the program and ideological orientation of Die LINKE, today? In many countries in the East Bloc, the post-communist parties were utilized to keep the old clientele and the apparatus afloat by mobilizing those who lost out during the transition. How did that play out in the GDR?
SB: In the GDR there was, starting early in the year 1990, a relatively rapid decoupling of the party from the economy. Most captains of economy resigned from the party. The economic elites, combination directors, company directors, leading economy functionaries, and managers had a very good chance at surviving in their realms of responsibility. They knew the enterprises, had competence, and were needed as experts. In any case, Western cadres were quickly set before their nose. In the scientific realm, relatively few professors owned up to their former party affiliations. Radical cleansings occurred, in particular, in the realms near to the state: Around 90% of the philosophers, law theorists, and historians were replaced. The upheaval of 1989 and 1990 also had a generational dimension; many older people were pensioned off and could weather the process with some degree of composure.
Ideologically, the PDS had to be active in many fields. This was also to be true of its successor, Die LINKE. To start, the “democratic socialism” of the party had to be defined: a social/welfare state, which must be democratically bound with society and with the economy. There had to be a strict demarcation of democratic socialism from the GDR and from what one, in a broad sense of the word, could call Stalinism: an administratively centralized and dictatorial regime that often served as a substitute for the working class. That was the consensus in the PDS.
With this demarcation comes the question of how one is to grapple with the former history of the PDS and later, Die LINKE. Since the beginning of the 1990s all the way to the last party program in 2011, there have been disputes concerning what “actually existing” socialism actually was. To be sure, one can say that Stalinism was not real socialism; nevertheless, one must take a position with respect to that and say, despite all that, it was an important attempt. The GDR facilitated social development and advancement for wide swathes of the population.
Any left party that identifies itself with the past grapples with this problem of inheritance, which generates its inverse: people who want to have nothing more to do with that past. They no longer ask after what was once possible. There were crimes—that is uncontested. But you cannot keep reinventing socialism ad infinitum. Socialism has its history and its prior experience. So we have to grapple predominantly with negatives. This means we need to understand what the GDR was. After all, there have also been many attempts to erect a more just society through the reformist path of social democracy, but these efforts have only been successful to a limited degree. You have to conduct a wide examination on these questions. Unfortunately, such examinations today have tended to be rather feeble.
For the most part, the road that was taken involved pragmatic and unorthodox solutions that were at least minimally acceptable by the Left. In practice, this meant neoliberalism, especially wherever the Left found itself in the government. This raises a number of controversial questions about how you can act in this society. Are you only an opposition party, as was largely the case in the 1990s, or do you attempt to intervene creatively in politics? Should you enter the government via elections, as happened in some federal states? How far can you go, and how pragmatic are you allowed to be? Is there a “red line” that you shouldn’t cross? Can you, for example, back the dismantling of the welfare state or the privatization of public services? For all intents and purposes, the pragmatic forces have always managed to win out. The government positions are generally very enticing.
In any case, all involvement in the government until now was bought with a significant forfeiture of votes. A relatively small party of around 60,000 members naturally has to establish its own “party apparatus”: delegates and full-time party functionaries, from the federal executive board to all the way down, who in each case also had employees financed by the party or by the delegates’ funds. Each delegate has his electoral constituency office that serves as the backbone of party work. To this end, there are the federal and state-level foundations in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation network. On the whole, there are well over a thousand people who live directly off the party—and don’t live that bad, either. Those are relatively risk-free and well-paid jobs that nobody wants to lose. So there is some personal interest involved to pursue a rather pragmatic politics.
JS: Given what you have said about the problem of the Left’s historical inheritance of the 20th century, would you refer to Die LINKE as a post-communist party?
SB: I would not use that language. As it presently functions, Die LINKE tries to be a left-socialist party and develop itself in a social democratic direction. After all, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leaves a lot of room on the Left to act. However, the party is drifting off to the right and is ready—or, at least, its political elites are ready—to move with the base of this society in accordance with the neoliberal system. Of course, that is not unconditionally true for all of the members, nor for all the paid functionaries, but there are strong tendencies in this direction. If you allow yourself a party apparatus financed by the state, then in principle you live on campaign cost reimbursements, on the delegates’ parliamentary allowances, on grants in the constituencies, on the state aids for the Rosa Luxemburg foundation, and so on. They don’t want to jeopardize that.
JS: Was this pragmatic logic inscribed in the transition from the SED to the PDS, and then to Die LINKE?
SB: In the 1990s our motto was, “We must arrive”—that is, we need to get involved actively. We recognized that the GDR and “real” socialism were going down, and that you had to do politics on the basis of the existing society. From this, the question that emerges is whether a left party should function as an oppositional power within existing legal systems. Can it position itself in Parliament and act effectively in this role? With which political forces will it cooperate? In the last analysis, that can push the Left into playing the role Social Democracy has occupied for a long time, sustaining itself on votes for “the lesser evil.” I doubt that you can overcome the present society with that perspective.
JS: So one is trying to grab a space to the left of Social Democracy—which has moved to the right?
SB: Here’s the pitfall: There’s actually a lot of space there, politically. But you have got to ask what the price for taking a radical course would be. You also have to look at other parties that have undergone a comparable fate, in particular the Italian Communist Party, later renamed, Democratic Party of the Left, and then just the Democratic Party. And now also SYRIZA! SYRIZA reached an understanding with the creditors and had to accept the cutbacks and social dismantling. They emerged as a party that wanted to halt Greece’s social descent and achieve a change in Europe’s course, away from austerity politics and neoliberalism. Primarily, though, they could only position themselves adeptly as a left coalition movement and try to absorb other left currents.
JS: How did the PDS differ?
SB: The only thing the PDS could perhaps absorb was the Labor and Social Justice party (WASG). Maybe also some Trotskyist dogmatists or split-offs from the German Communist Party (DKP). There was not so much to absorb, really.
SYRIZA has definitely been more successful in that regard, absorbing parts of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the trade union movement. They managed to play some of their cards well and integrated the right-leaning ANEL (Independent Greeks), something that was tactically a very interesting move. SYRIZA understands how to get backing from left parties in Europe. Albeit with only limited successes, they sought out coalitions with social democratic parties in Italy and France. All of this was positive.
Here is my problem: When a left party comes into such a fatal situation in the government, it has to take crisis measures. In such a situation, you cannot trust democratic institutions alone. It is great to win an election or a referendum, but, in the last analysis, if you want to have a chance to get lasting support and advance real changes, you have to mobilize people. Preferably, you have to turn many into accomplices so that they know, if the cause goes awry, they too have something to lose. In history there are plenty of examples of how neighborhood committees, alternative structures, and so on, can be established. You had to involve a lot of people in a way that could not be easily rejected by the creditors, even though they would call it “undemocratic” regardless. None of that has been done since SYRIZA came to power. It is necessary to build up your own structures and relocate democracy at the base.
JS: Does that apply generally for leftist parties today?
SB: Yes, but one cannot achieve radical changes in just any given economic or political organization. What needs to be done, as I described above, is not really possible within the institutions of the European Union, for instance, because the EU has been built up under an entirely different political ambition: to form an anti-communist front in the interest of stabilizing post-1989 Eastern Europe and securing a sphere of influence there. The EU exists in order to give the strongest economic power on the continent, Germany, the leeway that it needs to achieve the greatest possible profits. That has been successfully put into practice. The EU is not a leftist project, nor even a democratic one. Above all, the Left is, for the foreseeable future, probably too weak to overturn this power-relation at a national level, and certainly too weak to do so at a continental level.
JS: How does the slogan “arrive” that you mentioned earlier point to a radical program, today? You have already arrived. You are involved in party politics. What now?
SB: Either you want to arrive to play the game—or you come to clean up the field! Right now, Die LINKE is being pragmatic. I don’t know if they have actually thought about what exactly is happening in the South. One has to be willing to rethink the entire strategic approach, even if a change in course could have major consequences. Perhaps Die LINKE should say, directly, “We do not want this Europe.” If we tried this tack, then we would have no problem with Greece leaving the EU.
JS: Doesn’t such a change in course risk political marginalization?
SB: One can, of course, be proud and true to their principles, but then you end up like the DKP, with 3,000 members. That is a real risk. The longer you delay these matters, the uglier it gets. In terms of party politics, you face a dilemma: either a flight of members from the party, or schisms within it. |P
Translated from German by Clint Montgomery