Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The bankruptcy of reformist and national organizations

217. The liquidation of the Soviet Union by the Stalinist bureaucracy was a manifestation of an international phenomenon. On January 4, 1992, just over a week after the formal dissolution of the USSR, David North explained: “All over the world the working class is confronted with the fact that the trade unions, parties and even states which they created in an earlier period have been transformed into the direct instruments of imperialism. The days are over when the bureaucracies “mediated” the class struggle and played the role of buffer between the classes. Though the bureaucracies generally betrayed the historical interests of the working class, they still, in a limited sense, served its daily practical needs; and, to that extent, “justified” their existence as leaders of working class organizations. That period is over. The bureaucracy cannot play any such independent role in the present period.”[1]

218. That was valid for the Stalinist and reformist parties and for the trade unions. Their program, the suppression of class conflict by means of social reforms, failed due to globalization, and they openly placed themselves in opposition to the elementary interests of the working class. The trade unions were no longer, even in the broadest sense of the word, “workers’ organizations”. They wrested no more concessions from the employers and the government, but, rather, forced workers to make concessions in order to strengthen national competitiveness and attract capital. During the reunification of Germany, the DGB and its affiliated trade unions strangled every attempt at resistance against privatisation and factory closures and co-operated closely with the Treuhand agency (responsible for privatisation). “The trade unions, together with the churches, ensured protests did not become radicalised”, Franz Steinkühler, chairman of the Metalworkers Union, later boasted. His deputy Klaus Zwickel spoke of the “dangerous high-wire act”, which the trade union had undertaken. “If we had not done so, I am convinced that violence or political extremism would have taken over.”[2] Later, the trade unions assisted in the transfer of low wages from East to West Germany. Since then, every plan for rationalization and staff cuts such as by the car maker Opel has carried the signature of the trade unions and their works councils.

219. The SPD, and above all its chairman Willy Brandt, supported the reunification without reservation. In the following years in the states and regions, it competed with the CDU and the FDP to lower the living standards of workers. And in 1998, when the SPD took office for the first time in 16 years, it introduced the Agenda 2010 program, the most comprehensive welfare cuts since the founding of the Federal Republic. Chancellor Schröder had the support of large sections of the bourgeoisie, who thought the Kohl government was no longer capable of leading such a frontal attack against the working class. Likewise in foreign policy, the SPD-Green coalition carried out a radical change of course, deploying German troops to international theatres of war for the first time since the country’s defeat in World War II.

220. In 1990, the BSA definitively abandoned the tactic of calling for electoral votes for the SPD or placing socialist demands on it. This was explained in its 1993 perspectives document: “The BSA has always regarded as its foremost task the need to break the working class from the influence of the SPD, which has been, for many decades, the most important mechanism for the maintenance of bourgeois rule in the Federal Republic. … In the elaboration of its tactics, however, the BSA was obliged to recognise that the SPD was still identified in the working class with social reforms. … Today, holding to such a tactic would be misplaced. The SPD has completely transformed itself from a bourgeois reformist party into a right-wing bourgeois party. A call for the casting of votes for the SPD, or placing demands on the SPD to take power would, under these circumstances, only contribute to extending the death agony of this bankrupt party and prevent the working class from carrying out the necessary political re-orientation.”[3]

221. The same perspectives document declared, with regard to the trade unions: “The destruction of the trade unions by the bureaucracy is far advanced, and any conception that the path of the working class must proceed through the old reformist organizations only serves to chain workers to the rotting corpse of the trade unions.”[4] In the current economic crisis, the reactionary character of the trade unions has been even more evident. While the banks have attempted to shift the consequences of their unrestrained speculative transactions upon the working class, the trade unions openly place themselves on their side and suppress every genuine mobilization of the working class. Both the rescue packages for the banks and the government savings programs have been supported by the majority of trade unions. The struggle against these attacks can only be developed further in a systematic fight against union suppression.

222. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the International Committee also undertook a thorough examination of its attitude towards the national movements and the right of national self-determination. Numerous nationalistic and separatist movements were emerging, demanding their own national states. Multinational states, which had been relatively stable under the conditions of the post-war period, were torn apart by national, ethnic and religious tensions, stoked, in the main, by imperialist powers prosecuting their own interests. Thus Germany and the US supported the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the US regarded the dissolution of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to expand its influence into the Caucasus and Central Asia. The growth of separatist movements, however, also had objective causes. Globalization provided “an objective impulse for a new type of nationalist movement, seeking the dismemberment of existing states. Globally-mobile capital has given smaller territories the ability to link themselves directly to the world market. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan have become the new models of development. A small coastal enclave, possessing adequate transportation links, infrastructure and a supply of cheap labor may prove a more attractive base for multinational capital than a larger country with a less productive hinterland.”[5]

223. The International Committee opposed these separatist movements and counterpoised to them the international unity of the working class. Their goal was not to unite different peoples in a common struggle against imperialism, as progressive national movements had once sought to carry out in India and China, but rather the fragmentation of existing states in the interests of local exploiters. Far from embodying the democratic aspirations of the oppressed masses, they served to split the working class. The stereotyped repetition of the phrase “for the right of nations to self-determination” could not replace a concrete analysis of these movements. The International Committee stressed: “It has often been the case in the history of the Marxist movement that formulations and slogans which had a progressive and revolutionary content in one period take on an entirely different meaning in another. National self-determination presents just such a case. The right to self-determination has come to mean something very different from the way in which Lenin defined it more than eighty years ago. It is not only the Marxists who have advanced the right to self-determination, but the national bourgeoisie in the backward countries and the imperialists themselves.”[6]

224. The clarification of the demand for self-determination and the associated struggle against the petty-bourgeois nationalists strengthened the Fourth International’s internationalist program. The International Committee clearly disassociated itself from the numerous ex-lefts and ex-radicals, who―like the Greens―supported, in the name of the right of nations to self-determination, the imperialist bloodbath in the Balkans and in other regions of the world. The analysis of the International Committee confirmed that a genuine internationalist program for the working class could be developed only on the basis of the theory of permanent revolution.


David North, The End of the USSR, Fourth International Vol 19, No. 1, Autumn 1992, p. 127.


Quoted in: Socialist Perspectives after the collapse of Stalinism, Program of the BSA, Arbeiterpresse Verlag 1993, p. 88.


ibid. p. 83-84.


ibid. p. 91-92.


Globalization and international working class. A Marxist assessment, Statement of the International Committee the Fourth International, 7 Nov. 1998.