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A. Gerbel

German Social-Democracy

From the Godesberg (1959) to the Dortmund (1960) Congress

(Autumn 1960)

From Fourth International [Amsterdam], No. 11, Autumn 1960, pp. 34–
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The decision to revise the programme of the German Social-Democratic Party, taken at the Godesberg Congress, only legalized inside the party a political praxis which had been applied ever since the adoption of the previous programme of action. The events at the Godesberg Congress made it clear that it was only the beginning of a transition period towards further adaptations to the policy of the ruling class represented by the Adenauer government. The SPD will continue along this road till the day that “the national interests of the German people” will “make necessary” a common attitude of all parties in internal and international politics, i.e., till the capitalist forces accept the desires of the SPD leaders and allow them to participate, partially or totally co-responsible, in the conduct of the affairs of bourgeois society, after such a long period of obedient “opposition.”

For a “United Front” with the Bourgeoisie in Foreign Policy

The leaders of the SPD state that the failure of the summit conference in Paris meant the beginning of a “national crisis” in which the parties of bourgeois democracy inside the Federal Republic have the duty to push into the background everything which separated them in order to arrive at a common front in foreign policy. This appeal in favor of a common foreign policy is only a first step towards a common internal policy, i.e., a “great coalition” (between the SPD and Adenauer’s CDU). “To arrive at the greatest possible measure of common positions in- the solution of the problems posed,” was the “slogan” launched by Herbert Wehner in his big parliamentary speech in which he explicitly declared himself also in support of the military policy of the German Federal Republic.

This offer of lackey services to the Adenauer government happened at a time when in the United States voices were heard which drew some conclusions from the blind alley into which American foreign policy had manoeuvred itself, voices which started also to criticize the policy of the Eisenhower administration and its military provocations. These voices refused for example to put the blame for the failure of the summit conference exclusively on the USSR government.

But together with Adenauer, Wehner declared during the debate on foreign policy in the Bundestag, obviously against his own intimate knowledge and convictions, that only the “Communists” were responsible for the failure of the Paris conference.

Adenauer and his government have in the field of foreign policy a line in common with the representatives of the “strong hand” orientation towards the workers’ states. Adenauer wants to continue the Foster Dulles line of “roll back” over the grave of his dead friend. It is significant for the SPD’s present course that it is ready to follow even these irresponsible representatives of the international bourgeoisie!

Less than a year ago, the same Wehner had clearly stated that Adenauer and his policy (together with Ulbricht) represented the greatest obstacle on the road to German reunification, that central objective of “German foreign policy” (Wehner dixit). At that time, the SPD group in the Bundestag presented to the party and to German public opinion the so-called “Deutschland-plan” (German plan) of the SPD, which, al-thought it did not contain proposals for a socialist reunification of the country, bad some dynamic progressive possibilities, especially because it put forward the demand of maintaining the integrity of nationalized property in Eastern Germany and because it supported the Rapacki Plan in that period of relative international detente, thereby liberating forces which undermined the rigid Adenauer policy. But the SPD leadership afterward buried this plan in the interest of its desire for a common policy with the CDU, explaining that it was correct only in a period of detente and not in a period of tension, when the SPD “naturally” had to work out a policy which takes into consideration the “common interests of the German people.”

Capitalism has not made it easy for the SPD leaders to pursue this course of capitulation in the field of programmatical and foreign policy. When, in its Godesberg programme, it threw overboard all remnants of a reformist Social-Democratic conception of society, the bourgeoisie and its press did not react with respect and gratitude, but by heaping contempt and ridicule on it. This brought strong pressure on the SPD leadership, already in full retreat, to retreat still further, and tried to blackmail it into new concessions. In order to prove its “good faith” to the bourgeoisie, the party sank back into complete passivity whenever it was confronted with good occasions for a political fight. Such favorable occasions as were offered for activizing the working class against the reactionary social and political line of the federal government were not exploited; wherever the workers reacted in a spontaneous way against this line, the SPD tried to dampen these initiatives.

A Completely Passive “Opposition”

There was for instance the government decision on rent increases, which represented a sharp attack against the standard of living of the masses. It was accepted without resistance. No fight was launched against the policy of subsidizing agriculture, which is paid for by the consumers through rising living costs. The Adenauer government planned to reform the system of social security, which would lead to a sharp decline of services for the sick, while at the same time forcing wage-earners who fell ill to contribute to the expenses for doctors and medicine. A wave of indignation swept through the factories and expressed itself in spontaneous common actions (petitions, resolutions, strike threats, short sit-down strikes, and street demonstrations) by Socialist, Catholic, and unorganized workers. But the Social-Democratic leadership did not push this movement forward, and let it die for lack of centralization.

Even Adenauer’s party became frightened by this wave of protest and put pressure on the CDU Minister of Labor, in order to soften the measures contained in the proposed bill to which the workers objected. The danger existed that the CDU would enter into sharp conflict with that fraction of the working class which still votes for it. As at the same time neither the SPD nor the leadership of the trade unions led or pushed forward this movement of protest on the extra-parliamentary field, but rather tried to break it down, the impression was even created that some corrections introduced into the new bill, which make the reform of the social security system a little less hard on the workers, are the results of a “better understanding” on the part of the CDU itself, and not of the extra-parliamentary pressure developed by the workers.

The leadership of the SPD also started to influence the leaders of the trade unions to abstain from causing too sharp a conflict in the question of reducing the working hours (fight for the 40-hour week), at least not before the 1961 elections, in order not to frighten the petty-bourgeois voters.

The SPD has likewise made no attempt to mobilize the masses against the danger of a new “martial law bill,” which, contrary to the Constitution, would give the state apparatus the legal means to break any active opposition through police repression, i.e., a new edition of the notorious “law for the defense of the Republic” from the time of the Weimar Republic, which was used almost exclusively against the left. The SPD leaders limit themselves to parliamentary opposition against this proposed bill, and try to arrive at a parliamentary compromise. This bill would seriously threaten the democratic rights of the working class, and the SPD leadership might one day have to pay a heavy price for its passivity in this question.

This passivity of the opposition allowed Adenauer even to bring off an extraordinary “coup” by creating a private television network, against the advice of his own party, and without any form of parliamentary control. This measure brings Adenauer to the brink of an open break with the Constitution; but the labor movement did not even appeal to the masses to protest against the autocratic ambitions of the old chancellor.

Because the SPD policy systematically prevents transforming into a political and social movement of protest the elements of discontent which are numerous among the masses, notwithstanding the economic “boom,” it contributes essentially to the fact that this “boom” is acting in a disintegrating way upon the class consciousness of the workers, thereby causing resignation and passivity to spread further and further inside the working class.

But it is precisely this growing passivity of the masses which the SPD bureaucracy uses in its turn in order to legalize inside the labor movement its policy of offering lackey services to the capitalist forces.

Neither the Godesberg Congress nor the SPD capitulation to Adenauer in the field of foreign policy have caused great emotion inside the working class. The great mass of the party members have accepted this change of party policy almost without resistance. There were only a few bharp discussions in some isolated spots, and even these discussions did not shake the party. The working-class members of the party react in a passive way. They more and more abstain from participating in party activities. This leads towards a paralysis of the whole SPD organization, and strengthens the petty-bourgeois tendencies and forces which today dominate the party units.

Resistance from the Youth

The SPD leadership, however, expects some resistance from the youth. They do not think that the youth will be able to launch a full-scale opposition against the decisions and the day-to-day policies of the party, but they believe that it will not accept the new line, and that thereby the discrepancies between the SPD line and the more leftist line of the youth organizations will be publicly revealed. The party leadership, therefore, is starting to bring strong pressure on the leaders of the youth organizations, threatening them with measures which would undermine the very existence of some of them. Wherever these threats do not quickly bring the expected results, the SPD leaders do not hesitate even to split the youth organizations, as they split the Socialist Student Federation.

Why does the SPD leadership – and especially Herbert Wehner, with the typically bureaucratic methods which he “imported” into the Social-Democracy from the CP apparatus – act in such a brutal way against young socialists? Above all because they fear that independent initiatives by these organizations, and even platonically socialist declarations of faith, could neutralize the SPD efforts to seduce the petty-bourgeois voters of the CDU.

It is very significant that it is precisely Wehner who is doing this dirty job. The liberal petty-bourgeois politicians in the SPD, who politically accept the new line without mental reservations, do not think themselves capable of imposing it upon the membership. They prefer to leave that job to the “apparatchniki,” behind whose backs they then express their abhorrence for their methods.

A Gamble on an Improbable Electoral Victory

Each of these rightward steps of the Social-Democratic leadership is exclusively directed toward the next elections. They hope to win the petty-bourgeois and unpolitical voters through “cleverness” and adaptation, to break through the “forty-percent ceiling” of Social-Democratic votes, and to be able thenafter either to form the government themselves, or to force upon the CDU a coalition with the SPD. The SPD has formed a list of candidate-ministers, headed by Willy Brandt, mayor of West Berlin, a former centrist, member of the London Bureau in the thirties. In this way, they hope to woo even bourgeois voters.

Willy Brandt is considered, inside the German labor movement, as the representative of the “Berlin, front-line city” policy, which is only in some details different from the Adenauer policy. Besides, he is the type of the ambitious young careerist inside the SPD who after a long and impatient period of opposition now feed that the time is ripe for “taking power.” Of course, when they talk about the importance of concentrating on “taking power,” they do not at all mean the power of the working class, but only personal power for themselves inside bourgeois society.

It is clear that Willy Brandt is not – even in the eyes of the SPD leadership – the mast capable candidate for Chancellor of the Federal Republic. They only hope that his mediocrity, which he tries to hide by superficial oratory, will be just what allows him to influence the group of unpolitical voters. The think that it is unnecessary to take into account the feelings of the workers, as they say that the working class “votes for us anyway.” They also hope to get some comfort or even support from certain American politicians.

For American imperialism, Willy Brandt is a guarantee that no fundamental changes will be made in German foreign policy in case of a Social-Democratic electoral victory. It could not happen that he should become enthusiastic about “experiments,” as it happened to the right-wing Social-Democratic Carlo Schmidt at the time of discussions about the Rapacki Plan. At the same time, Willy Brandt is more flexible in questions of detail than Adenauer is, and therefore he might be less of a nuisance than Adenauer in the new world situation.

The SPD has not yet decided on its electoral platform. But Willy Brandt has already demanded that he himself and not the party should decide the contents of that programme. He has already refused to execute party decisions. If he is considered able to bring “the party team” (shadow cabinet) to “power,” then he should be thought able also to decide upon “the road to power.” This means that the coming party congress at Dortmund will decide the electoral platform only in a formal manner. It will be a platform dictated to the party by Willy Brandt, a platform in the spirit of the “Berlin, front-line city” policy.

The opposition toward this platform will be even weaker than the opposition against the revised party programme at Godesberg. No draft resolutions have yet been published which could give any indications about the way in which the party leadership would try to break the resistance of the membership. It is certain that in the period ahead the passivity of the working-class rank and file will further increase. Even during the election campaign, which in general means higher activity, especially by the working-class party members, one cannot this time count upon a lessening of that passivity.

But the election results could be of decisive influence upon the formal unity or differenciation of the German Social-Democracy. This will depend not only upon the Marxist forces, who are still present inside the SPD, but above all upon the rank-and-file workers, who will have to decide whether they accept remaining the passive objects of a more and more rotten party leadership, or whether they are willing, in their present class situation, to set out upon a road which will in the end lead to the building of a new working-class leadership.

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Last updated: 27 March 2016