The Guardian, 19 March 1990
East Berlin is a city in shellshock today. Bonn, meanwhile, is a city of headless chickens. Forget everything you thought you knew about current affairs: after yesterday’s surprise election result, all bets are off.
Yesterday, for the first time in its forty-year history, the German Democratic Republic did what democratic republics are supposed to do: hold a free and fair democratic election. Until last night’s exit poll, all pollsters and all pundits agreed on one thing: that the GDR’s first-ever democratic election would also be its last. Whatever government would emerge from it would immediately start working towards its own abolition. Within less than a year, a Reunification Treaty was supposed to be signed and ratified. East Germany was supposed to merge with the Federal Republic. The GDR – and with it, socialism itself – were supposed to be on their way out.
Yesterday’s election thwarted all those plans. The new party that emerged as last night’s surprise election winner is mostly an unknown quantity, but we do know one thing for sure: With them anywhere near the levers of power, there will be no German reunification, and no return to the market economy in East Germany. Socialism was supposed to be a dead man walking. Yesterday’s election result has given it a new lease of life.
Polls have been wrong before. Voters have had last-minute changes of hearts before. Undecided voters or unexpected patterns of turnout have dumbfounded experts before. But never before has a party that used to poll at less than a third of a percent end up securing one third of the votes. The polls were off by factor of over 100.
So who are the United Left (VL), the new socialist party that will now, in all likelihood, lead the next East German government?
The first thing to note about them is that they are not new. Most East Germans are familiar with them, and most of us have read about them too – just not under that name. They emerged out of the GDR’s democratic protest movement, which played such an important role in the lead up to the opening of the Berlin Wall four months ago. In hindsight, it is tempting to assume that the anti-regime protesters must all have been staunch anti-socialists, but nothing could be further from the truth. The protest movement has always contained groups that explicitly described themselves as democratic socialists. Their opposition to the rule of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) was, in no way, an opposition to socialism. Rather, they saw themselves as the torchbearers of ‘true’ socialism. They saw the SED leadership as sell-outs, who had betrayed the idea of socialism to further their own careers.
The VL is simply the party-political arm of this movement. Their aim was never to dismantle the GDR, but to democratise it from within. They want socialism – just not the hierarchical, Soviet-inspired socialism that the GDR currently has. Their idea of socialism is a socialism from below, a grassroots socialism, a socialism which empowers ordinary working people, not party apparatchiks or technocratic elites. It is a socialism with civil liberties, political rights and widespread democratic participation, a socialism which thoroughly democratises each and every aspect of life.
The young AV voter we spoke to at the polling station yesterday deserves to be quoted in full, because he no doubt spoke for many of his fellow countrymen:
“I was going to vote CDU or SPD, but then I thought, hang on – this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m not opposed to socialism. I’m opposed to Stalinism. I’m opposed to the SED. I’m opposed to the Stasi. I’m opposed to being told what to think, what to say, what to do. I’m sick to death of the arrogant, out-of-touch elite that is running this country. But that’s not socialism. That’s the opposite of socialism.
I want to live in a country where the economy exists to satisfy the needs of the people, not the other way round. That is socialism. Some say it has ‘failed’. It hasn’t. We’ve never had socialism here. It just hasn’t been tried.”
Indeed: Socialism, so defined, has never been tried. But it looks as though the GDR is about to try it now. We are witnessing the beginning of a remarkable experiment.
Continue to Part 2.