The SPD Must Change Course or Die

Hilde Mattheis
Loren Balhorn

The Social Democrats’ subordination to Angela Merkel has brought the German center-left to its knees. If the party wants to stop its voters from fleeing to the Greens and the far right, it needs to decide what side it’s on — and fight for it.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz (SPD), arrive for the weekly government cabinet meeting on January 30, 2019 in Berlin. Michele Tantussi / Getty

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Germany’s oldest political party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is today trapped in a seemingly irreversible downward spiral. The party’s latest calamity came at the end of May, as it slumped to a crushing defeat in the European elections. After the results came in, leader Andrea Nahles announced her resignation, explaining that she would be departing the political stage in order to make way for “renewal” at the top of the party. With the loss of yet another short-lived leader, a three-person commission has now taken the reins while the SPD plots what to do next.

Nahles is just the latest casualty of a deeper crisis in the SPD, as the party struggles to shore up its weakened brand or appeal to an increasingly alienated electorate. As other ideas for reviving the party flounder, SPD elites have floated the idea of a membership-wide ballot to choose the next chairperson and perhaps even a co-chairpersonship split between a man and a woman. But with the party still caught in a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and its leadership largely populated by out-of-touch careerists and bureaucrats, it seems unlikely that merely cosmetic changes will lift the party out of its rut.

However, the SPD is not simply a monolith, and a minority of party functionaries are pressuring the leadership to take bolder, more radical action. One such figure is the Social Democratic member of parliament Hilde Mattheis. Having joined the party as a schoolteacher in the 1980s, she spent years active at the local level in her hometown of Ulm, rising up the ranks of the SPD women’s organization before entering the state leadership and becoming a member of parliament in 2002. From the outset a sharp critic of the party’s turn to the center, since 2011 she has served as chairwoman of the “Forum Demokratische Linke” (DL21), the main current representing the SPD’s left wing.

Mattheis spoke with Ines Schwerdtner and Steve Hudson of the podcast about the debates currently raging in the SPD, the struggle to renew the party’s internal democracy, and the crucial role the wider membership can play in reviving the German left.

Hilde, what’s the state of the SPD right now?

Hilde Mattheis

It’s really quite tragic. It seems like we’ve made every effort to bring about our own downfall and have now basically perfected it. I’m being blunt, because right now I don’t see a way out. The debates kicking off now — some calling for a membership-wide vote on the new leader, others for a co-chairpersonship — I think they’re all too shallow. We need a more comprehensive response. I don’t even feel confident saying the SPD needs a clear political profile, given that all previous attempts to develop one have flopped.

In my eyes, the track we have gone down as a party is already so well-worn that we can’t turn around. I don’t see any easy answers right now. Rather, I have the impression that the party has a long, hard road ahead of it. More than anything, the important thing now is that the local and regional chapters get involved and demand more influence. The glass ceiling that’s separating the party elite from the broader membership has to be shattered.

Wouldn’t a membership-wide vote be a first step? Even that would be revolutionary for the SPD.

Hilde Mattheis

I’m not opposed to the membership-wide vote. But based on my experience, I think a lot of people believe that it represents the answer to all of our problems. This kind of easy solution doesn’t exist anymore.

Then what should we do? I welcome the vote, because even the referendum on the grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after the 2017 election led to a small revival and lots of new members. They were of course disappointed that they had no more involvement after that. But we at least have to demand that people should be able to join and vote.

Hilde Mattheis

We have to work on that, because it’s about actually being able to decide. The vote alone is perhaps a small sliver of hope, but it has to mean that actual policies are up for debate and members are involved in an ongoing way. Will we have party leaders who embody and represent the membership’s political demands? The leadership has to be scrutinized so that it doesn’t slip back into the same direction as recent years.

Someone who’s been opposed for decades to the neoliberal labor reforms involved in Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV would probably be a better fit than someone who just started thinking that way a few days ago, right?

Hilde Mattheis

Exactly. That’s why I say people have to come after the policies. We need people who represent crystal-clear policies.

You could almost say that the interim three-person leadership, and all the debates about striking a balance between the party’s different wings, are really a distraction from the real changes needed?

Hilde Mattheis

The co-chairpersonship might look revolutionary at first glance, but it’s still too narrow. After all, we already had “debate camps” in recent years where discussions were held. But in the end what happens is that the only thing discussed was the party executive’s main policy paper. If that’s the case, the co-chairpersonship doesn’t give us anything.

So, we can talk of a democratization of internal party structures. But what, in your eyes, are the new political positions that are needed? When I spoke at an SPD debate camp about class politics, the debt brake [a constitutional limit on state borrowing introduced in 2009], and appealing to working-class milieus, people looked at me like I was crazy. What issues are the left wing of the party emphasizing?

Hilde Mattheis

Our points are pretty close to what you just described. The whole issue of distribution justice and sustainability must be core planks of our renewal. This can’t be done in just a few weeks or months, but it’s important that in the years to come we work on rebuilding trust. What I mean by that is when a political issue becomes a hot topic, the SPD’s position is reliable, the SPD’s answer is predictable.

Let me give you an example: the issue of asylum and refugees. In fact, on this very topic, the SPD just passed a stricter immigration law. It has to become clear again that we won’t let anyone drown in the Mediterranean, that we support rescue programs, and that we can be relied on to take such a stance.

We claim that compromises are unavoidable in a grand coalition. But that’s precisely the problem: for it means that you can be sure that we will engage in this kind of political calculation, but you can’t be sure about our policies. That has eroded the public trust in the SPD down to the bare bones.

The SPD publishes a lot of position papers on these issues for voters to read. But when you look at the reality — with the right-wing Seeheimer Kreis current on one side and the Parliamentary Left on the other, though both voted in favor of the grand coalition — a lot of people get the feeling that the leadership likes to talk left, but when push comes to shove they’re more than happy to strike compromises. How could the left wing of the party organize to take power? You’re still a minority in the parliamentary group, after all — or is that changing?

Hilde Mattheis

I can’t tell yet, but roll-call votes always show who positions themselves and how. In that regard I think we as DL21 have an important job in parliament, but it’s more important that the local chapters and members become more influential. They should nominate the candidates. The members have to become aware of their power again and assert it within the party.

That’s something the SPD forgot a long time ago: we don’t just want to be right, we want to win. I’m quite active in Momentum in Britain’s Labour Party, which taught us that the struggle for leadership also has to be organized.

Hilde Mattheis

The membership should feel confident enough to ask party leaders: how did you vote? Members of parliament and delegates need to be held accountable.

But what other political points need making? There’s obviously the self-destructive policy of the leadership. As members, we hung up posters that said “Tax Google and Co.”, but our finance minister, himself an SPD member, just blocked precisely such a tax in Brussels. You already mentioned sea rescue of refugees. What else?

Hilde Mattheis

We have to go back to a fair distribution of financial resources, through taxation. We are one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, and yet still we have some of the greatest wealth inequality. The health care system cannot be subjected to further privatization.

We’ve lost touch with the promise of sharing prosperity. We have never had such an extreme divide between rich and poor in this country as we do now. These are injustices that we can’t just gloss over or reassure ourselves about by invoking growth statistics. We’ve utterly lost our political bearings.

The biggest tragedy is that after pushing this kind of policy for twenty years, the SPD itself is largely responsible for neoliberalism. Do you think it will take another twenty for the SPD to re-social-democratize itself? The way you’re talking, it sounds like there’s a very long road ahead. Sometimes there are windows of opportunity for left-wing politics, like what’s arguably happening with the Labour Party or Bernie Sanders, where things can move pretty fast. Do you see anything like that coming about in Germany?

Hilde Mattheis

Even these two examples remain under severe threat. They represent two iconic figures that are on the right path, yes, and their success would also help us a lot. But the window of opportunity remains open. And experience shows that to really, deeply change politics we need ongoing grassroots work — and neither Corbyn nor Sanders is in power yet. I do think a comparable figure in Germany would be very useful, but we need many, many, many people like that to really change things.

Many of the current elites were socialized to believe that parties could be run like businesses. A lot of people have forgotten that a political party represents a shared understanding about how society should function and constitutes a labor of love. Thus, it will take a while to push back against this kind of thinking.

The iron law of oligarchy, I guess. But the SPD is at 12 percent in the polls right now — surely, even cynical careerists must see the need to change course?

Hilde Mattheis

Yes, but too many still think: “No matter how big the SPD island is, at least I’m still on it.” And as long as there are so many who think that way, we’ll continue to sink.

It seems like now sea levels are really starting to rise, even for those people.

Hilde Mattheis

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Hilde Mattheis is a Social Democratic member of the German parliament from the southern district of Ulm/Alb-Donau and chairwoman of the Forum Demokratische Linke (DL21). is a podcast hosted by Ines Schwerdtner and Steve Hudson.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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