A Party that Can No Longer Be Ignored Will Germany Go Left of the Left?

At the far-left Left Party headquarters in Berlin there is a conflict of cultures, a war between dreamers and realists, mavericks and demagogues. Yet the party recently celebrated success in state elections. Once considered a motley crew of outsiders, the Left Party is an increasingly influential political force in Germany.

Oskar Lafontaine (left) and Gregor Gysi (right) have established the Left Party as a mainstream German political institution despite its roots in the former Communist Party.
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Oskar Lafontaine (left) and Gregor Gysi (right) have established the Left Party as a mainstream German political institution despite its roots in the former Communist Party.

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This time the battle against capitalism and oppression has led Ulla Jelpke to Münsterland, in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Left-wing politician Jelpke always said she wanted to change Germany. And after 16 years in the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, she hasn't changed her mind. "I am a Leftist, now and always!" she says.

Jelpke works for the far-left Left Party. The party, which was formed in 2007 after a merger of the successor party to the East German communists, left-wing groups in western Germany and disaffected former SPD voters, has gone through a variety of name changes. It used to be the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Then it was called SED-PDS. Then the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). And then the Left Party-PDS. And now? It is simply called the Left Party. And while the party may have changed names, Jelpke has always remained in the same place: Far on the left.

Jelpke is one of the founder members of her party, having helped build up the Left Party in the western German states. In Sunday's federal election, Jelpke is second on the candidate list in North Rhine-Westphalia, which virtually assures her another term in the Bundestag.

In addition to Jelpke, there are a number of other people from the "good old days" whose names are near the top of the Left Party lists. This includes former members of the German Communist Party (DKP), assorted fans of Cuba, South America and Che Guevara as well as people who used to be members of the Greens or the Social Democrats, who have thought that their parties were too accomodating.

It's a strange and interesting mixture of people, a group of individuals who have been trying to change the system for decades without actually coming any closer to that goal and who are just happy to have found a new party now, one that could be a vehicle for their dreams of a better world.

Without these veterans of the revolution, the Left Party would not exist in the West. However from the perspective of the party's leaders in Berlin, this is also the problem. Those building up the party in the west are very different from those doing so in the east and the latter are those who have, so far, largely defined the party's platforms. The classic Left Party functionary from the east is fundamentally conservative. He or she comes from a culture where this party was the dominant one for 40 years and, if it was up to them, it would be so again. Whereas the Left Party member from the west has always been in the minority. That's made them a little bit crazy and a little less able to make compromises.

Two or Even Two and a Half

The cultural battle between the radicals and the moderates is almost impossible to contain. Recent election successes in the eastern state of Thuringia and the western state of Saarland don't even help. Co-leader of Germany's Left Party Gregor Gysi (who leads the party's parliamentary group in the Bundestag and grew up in East Germany) and Oskar Lafontaine (a former governor of Saarland and chairman of the Social Democrats at the national level before he bolted the party) try to sell the Left Party as the solution to all problems as though they were salesmen praising the merits of a wrinkle-free suit. But the fact is, behind the scenes, the two wings of the party are fighting for dominance.

The Left Party is two -- or even two and a half -- parties. There is the pragmatic mainstream party that is in power in the east. That is party number one. Then there is party number two: the splinter party, full of dissenters from other parties, more common in the west. And then there's the Lafontaine Party, in the state of Saarland.

Parties one and two are tangled up in a row as to which of them is actually the Left Party. The western leftists think that the easterners are too careful, cowardly and spoiled through their participation in governments in the eastern states or by their desire to participate. The eastern leftists, on the other hand, think that the westerners are stubborn ideologists -- and even enemies of the German constitution in some of the more radical cases.

From the outside, it almost looks like the Left Party is going from one election success to the next. If there is one lesson learned from the state election results in Thuringia and Saarland earlier this summer, then it's that there's no way to bypass the far-left political group in the long term. But the closer you get to the Left Party, the more it dissolves into a stew of dueling factions. There are so many coalitions, workers' unions and different political currents, that even the party itself sometimes loses its overview. What's the difference between the socialist left and the anti-capitalist left? Ulla Jelpke, an anti-capitalist herself, doesn't know the answer. Perhaps there is none.

She is 58 now but Jelpke isn't giving up. When the Greens became too mainstream in Hamburg in the 1980s, Jelpke left the party. If the Left Party were to go the same way as the Greens did, she wouldn't hesitate to bolt again. When Germany reunified, Jelpke toured through the western part of the country with Gysi and entered the Bundestag with the PDS. She wants to dismantle NATO and wants to nationalize banks and "key industries." Never before has Jelpke felt as close to her goals as she does now.

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