The deaths of Willy Brandt and Petra Kelly in a way mark the end of two successive generations of mass leaders, two eras of the West European Left, spanning more than fifty years. Willy Brandt, a man of very modest beginnings, identified from his earliest youth with the struggle of the organized labour movement for socialism. When resolute resistance to the rise of fascism was demanded in Germany, he broke with social democracy, joined the sap (Socialist Workers Party), became leader of its youth organization, and even participated in a conference with the Trotskyists to prepare a new revolutionary youth international. But from then on he moved steadily to the right. He supported the People’s Front policy in Spain, which led to defeat, refused to condemn the Moscow Trials, abandoned the feeble attempt to maintain a ‘21/2–31/2 International’ (the London Bureau), and dissolved his own party. He joined the social-democratic movement in Norway and then in Germany. As mayor of West Berlin, he identified with the Cold War. He became a staunch supporter of the international imperialist alliance, nato.
Having thus given all the necessary guarantees to the West German bourgeoisie, Willy Brandt could then begin to challenge conservative rule. First in a ‘great coalition’ with them, and subsequently at the head of a ‘centre left’ government with the liberal fdp, Brandt became the key political statesman of the Federal Republic. His project of modest reform reached its peak after the massive youth rebellion of 1968. He succeeded by and large in transforming the ‘extraparliamentary opposition’, through the intermediary agency of the sdp, into that of a parliamentary movement. West Germany thereby became, politically and socially, the most stable country of Europe. This relative stability was of course made possible by certain powerful economic and social transformations. West Germany had become the strongest capitalist exporting country in the world, with a per-capita export total three times that of the usa and far in advance of Japan.
During the long postwar boom there occurred a significant shift in the recruitment of the leading political personnel of the mass social-democratic parties in Western Europe. The proportion of labour-movement bureaucrats declined dramatically in favour of functionaries from para-state and state institutions.footnote1 A wider transformation involving both political personnel and the composition of party membership also took place. Growing numbers of middle-ranking capitalists have subsequently aligned themselves with these parties, especially when they are in power. The symbiosis of these social groups has tended to produce corruption on a growing scale. While it was Willy Brandt who presided
In particular, Brandt helped the West German bourgeoisie tackle two major problems that were increasingly weighing upon that powerful capitalist system, although his reforms were to have a considerably wider social impact. Brandt’s Ostpolitik was a conscious attempt to undermine politically the weak bureaucratic dictatorship in the gdr by appealing to humanitarian, democratic and national sentiments, and granting economic concessions to the rulers of the gdr. Brandt had an anti-fascist background. He never represented the German bourgeois ‘elite’ which, by and large, had cynically made the transition from supporting the Third Reich to administering the Federal Republic. His Ostpolitik thus had an anti-fascist, not a fascist character. His famous kneel before the monument to the heroes and victims of the Warsaw ghetto had that precise significance, and its resonance throughout the world was dramatic. The act undoubtedly helped the German bourgeoisie to dispel the impression that it wanted to forget the Nazi crimes and its responsibility for them. But it also created a considerable ideological-political momentum in West Germany, which today constitutes an additional obstacle to the rise of mass neo-fascism in Germany.
Meanwhile, export-oriented German imperialism was increasingly confronted with the perverse economic effects of the overexploitation of the ‘Third World’, which exploded concretely with the ‘debt crisis’. Brandt’s offensive, as president of the Socialist International, in favour of a more ‘reasonable’ attitude towards this problem was supportive of German industry’s export drive. But at the same time it nourished a greater awareness among important layers of the West German population of the problem of Third World overexploitation and misery—indeed, it strengthened solidarity with the ‘Third World’. This awareness is probably more widespread today in West Germany than in any other European country.
However, first as leader, then as ‘elder statesman’, of German social democracy, Willy Brandt was faced with an unresolvable dilemma. In spite of his personal commitment to ‘traditional’ social-democratic values, the trajectory of spd politics went in the opposite direction and thus tended more and more to undermine these values. Increasingly, policy differences between the centre-right and centre-left dissolved—as was confirmed by the consensus reached between the cdu-led government and the spd-led opposition in favour of restricting the constitutional right of asylum for foreigners.
The absence of real political choice for the mass of the German population has fed political frustration and apathy. It has strengthened the general rightward shift in German society, which in the long run can only encourage the growth of the extreme Right. But not everyone, it must be said, accepted that process as a foregone conclusion. A political void had opened at the left of social democracy, which no social democratic or socialist left was able to fill. However, the Green Party