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Die Linke flag. Photo: DIE LINKE NRW / Irina Neszeri / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked below article

Leandros Fischer assesses the roots of the political crisis engulfing Germany’s Die Linke and its significance for the European left

Once hailed as Europe’s most successful radical left party, Germany’s Die Linke is embroiled in a deep crisis that could well signal its eventual demise. A year ago, the party suffered its worst electoral result on the federal level. Falling just short of the required five-percent threshold, the party only managed to enter the Bundestag by gaining a small number of direct mandates in eastern Germany, and a corresponding clause in German electoral law allowing for the formation of a parliamentary caucus in such an event. The main reason for the defeat was widely attributed to weak campaigning, that presented Die Linke as a coalition party in waiting, rather than emphasizing its platform. The victorious Social Democrats under Olaf Scholz and the Greens chose to form a coalition government with the ultra-neoliberal Free Democrats instead.

The potential collapse of Die Linke would be an event of great significance for the European Left. The party managed to outlast other contemporaries, such as Britain’s RESPECT and Italy’s Rifondazione, while playing a leading role within both the Party of the European Left and the Left fraction within the EU parliament. Its Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has long established itself as an important transnational actor, with numerous offices around the world providing funding to many left-wing projects. The federal funding for party-affiliated foundations is proportional to their number of Bundestag seats. Should Die Linke stay out of parliament in 2024, this could also seal the fate of its foundation.

But the party does not seem to have learned its lesson from last year’s debacle. Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia last May, Germany’s most populous state, saw Die Linke failing to enter parliament again, receiving a mere 2.3% of the vote. And a few weeks ago, Die Linke defied the polls, performing much worse with 2.7% of the vote in the equally significant western state of Lower Saxony. These are just two of the most recent examples. Throughout Germany, Die Linke has been performing miserably for some years now, failing to enter (or getting kicked out of) parliaments in western Germany, or seeing its percentages decreasing dramatically in its traditional eastern German strongholds.

At the same time, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has stabilized nationally at around 10-15%, exploiting discontent with Germany’s policy vis-à-vis Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine last February. This is highly alarming, considering that Germany is plagued by rising inflation, decreasing working class living standards, rising heating costs, and a diffuse feeling of uncertainty about the future. This begs the crucial question of why the Left is unable to capitalize on feelings of anger against the status quo at all.

From protest party to potential coalition partner

There are no simple explanations for the party’s ongoing malaise. Starting out as a merger of East Germany’s established “post-communist” Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and a western-based Social Democrat split, the early Linke rode on a wave of opposition to both Gerhard Schröder’s neoliberal reforms in the early 2000s, as well as the Greens’ betrayal of pacifism in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The figures of renegade former SPD chairman and finance minister Oskar Lafontaine on the one hand, and the PDS’s charismatic Gregor Gysi were instrumental in ensuring a relatively fast and smooth fusion process of both components.

The new party essentially resulted from an understanding between office-seeking “reformers” based largely (but not only) in eastern Germany and represented most prominently by Gysi on the one hand, and an assortment of mostly western-based protest-oriented left-leaning trade unionists represented by Lafontaine, as well as “orthodox” communists like Sahra Wagenknecht, on the other. These forces were joined by smaller tendencies, specifically an eastern based left-libertarian or “post-autonomist” tendency centered in the eastern state of Saxony, as well as various activists and organized networks from alter-globalization movements and the extra-parliamentary left. What united all these disparate tendencies was a strong desire to overcome the traditional fragmentation of the postwar German radical left, as well as its weak institutionalization.

Die Linke’s early years saw it entering one regional parliament after another, peaking at almost 12% in the 2009 Bundestag election. But it has all been downhill from here. On the one hand, Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat partners managed to hijack standard Linke positions, such the demand for a minimum wage. But there were more structural factors at play as well.

Die Linke started out as a protest party. However, with the Eurozone crisis engulfing most of Europe, the trade unions rallying behind the Angela Merkel’s “crisis corporatism”, as well as the scaling back of some of the most extreme neoliberal measures, the party’s character as a protest party was thrown into question. This inevitably strengthened the hand of the “reformers”, who envisioned the party’s future role as one in a potential coalition with the SPD and the Greens. Since then, a red-red-green coalition has established itself as Die Linke’s main reason for existence. With the social movement-driven Syriza in Greece poised to take office following its 2012 electoral breakthrough, the office-seekers could even add a radical veneer to their project of governmentality.

The attempts to make Die Linke more government-friendly at that time were particularly vicious and concentrated on three aspects. First – and prefiguring perhaps later events within the Corbyn-led Labour Party – party right-wingers worked in concert with the mainstream media to smear prominent left-wing members critical of Israel as “anti-Semites”. This was done to make the party conform to Germany’s historically specific raison d’état of unconditional support to Israel, a precondition for joining any government.

Second, those same forces have been trying for many years to dent one of the party’s most important “red lines”, namely opposition to German military intervention abroad. Wrapped around the same debate is also the question of Western alliance structures, which the party had “solved” in its 2011 manifesto with the compromise of “dissolving Nato and replacing it with a collective security system that encompasses Russia”. Predictably, this debate has been reignited due to recent events. We will return to this later. 

The third, and arguably less controversial aspect, was the adoption of “Left Europeanist” perspective on the Eurozone crisis, fluid political events in Greece, and growing fundamental criticism against the common currency. Here, the right-wingers like Gysi could claim a much broader constituency, as the party’s left-libertarian tendency and others on the “soft left” argued that dissolving the Eurozone or supporting Greece’s exit from it constituted a “regressive return to the nation-state”. Conversely, the EU’s democratic deficit was perceived as reformable, to be solved by deepening integration.  Those critical of such naiveté, such as Lafontaine and Wagenknecht, found themselves in a minority in opposing Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika following the 2015 Greek referendum.

The “culture wars” reach Die Linke

The existing faultlines within the party were dramatically reconfigured in the face of the so-called “summer of migration” in 2015, as well as the meteoric rise of an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic populist far right in the guise of the AfD.  While not making the old divisions between “reformers” and “protesters” entirely obsolete, the far right’s rise brought new questions to the fore.

On the one hand, a majority of younger members, most parts of the organized radical left, as well as the left-libertarian tendency under then-chairman Katja Kipping (rightly) pursued a line in favour of refugees and the solidarity movements supporting them. Meanwhile, Lafontaine and Wagenknecht – long considered the party left’s most recognizable figures – pursued an anti-immigration line. They claimed that the party’s verbal support for open borders was costing Die Linke votes among its working class and unemployed constituencies, while attracting a “latte macchiato left” to the party concerned mostly with “identity politics”. While Wagenknecht was pointing to Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders as an inspiration for her brand of politics, in truth she was probably much closer to George Galloway and his “left-wing conservatism”, or even the anti-immigrant Danish Social Democrat prime minister Mette Frederiksen.

Underlying these crude assumptions were banal electoral reasons, namely competition from the AfD. The far right had supplanted Die Linke as eastern Germany’s protest party. That it did so partly had do to with the fudging of the question of the common currency by Die Linke’s leadership. It was Tory-style Euroscepticism rather than open racism that initially characterized the AfD. The right-wing populists expressed middle class resentment with the misnamed “rescue packages” for Greece’s mostly German creditors, framed as a burden on taxpayers to bail out “lazy Greeks”. Die Linke rejected these out of principle, but also out of solidarity with its Greek “sister party”.

When Syriza capitulated to the Troika, Die Linke’s leadership merely repeated Syriza’s excuses of “having been left with no other choice”. The far right, on the other hand, translated tropes on “lazy Greeks” into outright racism against refugees from the Middle East that were beginning to arrive in Germany in increasing numbers around the same time. In a pattern familiar across Europe, the AfD, an essentially ultra-neoliberal party, was taking a real problem – the Eurozone crisis regime, with its prioritization of bank bailouts and lack of investment within Germany – and framing it in culturalist terms, blaming Merkel’s refugee policies and an alleged “left-green” cultural hegemony for the country’s perceived decline. Fusing with the PEGIDA anti-immigrant street protest movement, the AfD made a dramatic shift to the right, its original founders being kicked out by an openly far-right leadership. This was arguably the critical juncture, where the title of Germany’s anti-establishment party passed from Die Linke to the AfD. Whereas the left was inadvertently saying that There Is No Alternative (other than a coalition with the same parties imposing austerity on Greece), the far right was throwing up extremely reactionary alternatives of its own.

Wagenknecht and Lafontaine were aware of this. Once an unapologetic communist, Wagenknecht had embraced “post-Marxist” treatises on left populism, adopting Chantal Mouffe’s assertion of a “democratic nucleus” in the demands of right-wing populists (as opposed to outright fascists). It was simply the job of the left to reach out to the “common people” and help steer them towards the left. Interestingly, Wagenknecht and her allies entered into a tactical understanding with a section of the “reformers”, once their diehard enemies, who were now uneasy with the election of the younger libertarian Katja Kipping to the party leadership. Conversely, and united around the issue of confronting the AfD head-on, Wagenknecht’s positions on immigration led to the formation of a new institutionalized current, the Movement Left (Bewegungslinke), comprised of left-libertarians, “post-Trotskyists”, and soft left trade unionists, such as Kipping’s co-chairman Bernd Riexinger.

The next step in solidifying the divisions within Die Linke came in 2018, when Wagenknecht and Lafontaine launched Aufstehen (“Rise up”) conceptualized as not a party but an umbrella organization of citizens. Geared towards dissenting voters from her party, as well as disillusioned Social Democrats and Greens, it was most likely modelled on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, with Wagenknecht hoping that Aufstehen would eventually overshadow Die Linke, the way that the looser La France Insoumise supplanted Mélenchon’s own Parti de Gauche. But it flopped barely a year later, as its top-down character and its lack of rooting in any real-existing struggles quickly became evident.

Whereas Lafontaine has recently quit the party, following years of retreat into local politics, Wagenknecht has stayed on as the party’s caucus chairman in the Bundestag. Despite openly defying party decisions around migration, she remains the party’s most popular figure, giving her leverage in her competition for power with the current Movement Left associated leadership of ex-Trotskyist Janine Wissler and Martin Schirderwan. Wagenknecht’s flirtation with vaccine skepticism during the pandemic probably counts as one of the low-points of an opportunistic style of politics that trails behind any kind of perceived “anti-establishment” current.       

“Don’t rock the boat”

It is true that the widely perceived “dual power” character among the party’s top ranks does not do Die Linke any favours in getting across a coherent message. But too many within the Movement Left and beyond have been complacent in exclusively blaming Wagenknecht’s renegade posturing for the party’s consecutive losses on both the national and regional levels. In reality, the forces associated with the Movement Left, including all leaderships since 2012, have been equally – if not more – responsible for Die Linke’s current disintegration.

One of the negative by-products of Die Linke’s trajectory as an outsider-cum-insider party was a habitus imbued to its members, which can simply be summed up in the phase “don’t rock the boat”. The sheer historical pressure of having for the first time an all-German party to the left of Social Democracy in parliament meant that many on the party’s left wing went out of their away to avoid conflicts, fearing that a split would drive Die Linke out of the Bundestag and into irrelevance (the material benefits flowing to elected officials from Germany’s particularly generous parliamentary system should also not be underestimated). Of course, such a development was good news to those in the party who merely wanted a “responsible” outlet willing and able to govern at all costs.

Faced with party stagnation in the early 2010s, one of the lessons radical left forces within Die Linke drew was that the party was simply not growing because of its weak presence on the ground and lack of immersion into daily working-class struggles. Many activists, bringing expertise from social movements and years of experience in the extra-parliamentary left, threw themselves into organizing campaigns, especially in the care sector, while at the same time focusing on building more sustainable party organizations or running more engaging electoral campaigns.

Of course, this was and still remains highly commendable in principle. Party left-wingers were trying to prove that they were the most consistent supporters of the party’s agreed agenda. But it also functioned as an alibi for not confronting those “difficult” questions – Palestine, German hegemony within the EU, or Nato. This inevitably led to the emergence of an economistic outlook, whereby the “real” bread-and-butter issues were counterpoised to what was actual politics. At worse, it led to the spread of a gutless electoralism that attempts to shape party policy according to what one hears within one’s social milieu. The phrase that “many people agree with our positions on socio-economic issues but cannot understand our opposition to Nato” was one easily thrown around by Movement Left activists after last year’s election, implying that opposition to Nato was a position of minor significance, that one can and should easily dump.

This means that the construction of actual political antagonisms is by default left to Wagenknecht and her eclectic and not rarely disturbing politics. What those, now ritualistically infuriated by her positions fail to grasp, is that while Wagenknecht may provide wrong answers to a number of burning questions, she did not conjure up these questions – they were already there and are becoming more pressing by the day. Wagenknecht may talk about a shifting the structure of Die Linke’s membership and core electorate away from the working class and towards the more well-off, framing this with the tired cliché binary of “class” vs. “identity politics”. But the reality is that most Linke cadre usually interact with a middle class and overwhelmingly university educated milieu that might vote for Die Linke on mainly normative rather than material grounds, because the Greens are just so transparently unreliable even on their “own” standard issues of ecology and social rights. Nothing symbolizes this real shift more than Die Linke membership recently voting to adopt the demand for a Universal Basic Income – a libertarian, to say the least, position – at the expense of the standard demand for an increase in the minimum wage, shared not just by Wagenknecht but also every party official with a trade union background.

Don’t mention the war!

However, it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February that has reignited Die Linke’s most neuralgic divisions around foreign policy. The invasion was a blow for those within the party that upheld Russian foreign policy – in contrast to that of Western states – as one adhering to “international law”, Die Linke’s signature position on international affairs.  The party manifesto’s call for dissolving Nato and establishing a “collective security system that includes Russia” was a convenient way to paper over differences during the party’s early years. Obviously, Nato would not be dissolved in case Die Linke was poised to enter a government with pro-Nato parties, but neither would Die Linke demand the Federal Republic unilaterally exit the alliance. The usual suspects that aim to soften the party’s rejection of militarism now asked predictable questions, namely if Russia can even be a part of any security arrangement, and – of course – if Nato is really that bad. One libertarian top official even decided that any kind of understanding with Russia is impossible as long as Putin remains in power. “Sanctions against Russian oligarchs” have advanced as the magical, non-military solution to Putin’s onslaught, leaving one to wonder if the left would ever call for sanctioning those Western oligarchs with obscene amounts of wealth, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates.

Out of conviction, fear of being labelled a Putinversteher (somebody that “understands” Putin), opportunism, or some combination of the three, a majority during the party’s conference last summer rejected an amendment by Wagenknecht and her supporters, which condemned the Russian invasion, but also mentioned Nato’s responsibility, not least in creating a precedent by waging those wars in Yugoslavia and elsewhere that were part of Die Linke’s reason for existing in the first place.

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine deserves nothing but the outmost condemnation. But the hypocrisy was not lost to those who remembered Die Linke’s equidistant (if not outright biased) position during the 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza, signed off by none other than a co-chairman that was, until relatively recently, a member of a Trotskyist network within the party. Die Linke has fallen victim to the general onslaught waged by those who accuse anyone calling for a negotiated end to hostilities as a “Westsplaining” and Ukrainian agency-denying instrument of the Kremlin. And sadly, those advancing these arguments are not necessarily the “reformer” – to his credit, Gregor Gysi has repeatedly emphasized the need for diplomacy – but those with ultra-radical pretensions.

A position that views the conflict around Ukraine as having started on February the 24th might shield Die Linke from the most egregious accusations of being “pro-Russian”. Public television reports on the party are quintessential hit pieces that parrot the narrative of a division between a “modern left” in Die Linke on the one hand, and another one which is “authoritarian”, “pro-Russian”, or “GDR-nostalgic” on the other.  However, a softer line from the mainstream is not translating into a surge in the polls. On the contrary, Die Linke is stagnating around the five-percent threshold.

Germany is faced with a recession on previously unimaginable proportions. Sanctions against Russia and the reciprocal reduction in Russian gas supplies are objectively leading to a process of gradual deindustrialization, especially in eastern Germany. Businesses are outsourcing production, in some cases to the United States, whose fracking gas exports to Germany have soared. This trend is set to continue, given the “mysterious” explosions that have sealed the fate of the NordStream pipeline. Meanwhile, both the energy supply from environmentally harmful coal extraction as well as the lifetime of some nuclear power plants have been extended. Every child understands that this situation – harmful to both livelihoods and the environment – results from the economic warfare waged by the West against the Kremlin. The buffoonish Green economic affairs minister Robert Habeck admitted as much, whereas the hawkish Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock spoke of sanctions that “will ruin Russia” at the beginning of the war.

However, when during last September’s Bundestag budget debate Wagenknecht spoke of economic warfare against Russia that was plunging ordinary people into crisis, she was met with a chorus of indignation, both outside and within her party. According to her critics, Wagenknecht was relativizing Russia’s guilt in launching the war and simply repeating Kremlin talking points. It is true that Wagenknecht’s speech was full of national-sovereigntist references to “our economy” and the fate of the Mittelstand – Germany’s small- and medium-sized enterprises, which in many cases employ hundreds of workers. All this was consistent with Wagenknecht’s transformation in recent years from Marxist to admirer of West German “Rhineland capitalism”, and her distinction between creative innovators on the one hand, and “feudal capitalists” on the other. 

But her critics were not so much bothered by her economic outlook, but rather any hint that the West, which also includes the German government, shares responsibility for both the situation in the Ukraine and its consequences for ordinary workers. Former party chairman Riexinger went so far as to flat-out deny that the West was waging economic warfare on Russia. Not just Die Linke, but also major trade unions have decided that inflation and rising energy costs have nothing to do with the war. Their “Autumn of Solidarity” demonstrations called for in mid-October were a disaster, considering the mobilizing power of the organizations involved (the main Berlin demonstration attracted a mere five to six thousand participants). Moreover, the demonstration call made no mention of the 100 billion euro boost in military expenditure, signed off in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion by all Bundestag parties – the AfD included – with the exception of Die Linke.

No wonder then that the AfD has a much easier job in getting its message through. Calling for an end to sanctions, the parliamentary far right has solidified its appeal especially among workers faced with immediate factory closures. Many in Die Linke and beyond are content with self-righteously pointing out that calling for negotiations and an end to sanctions brings you in the same company with the far right. What they forget to mention, however, is that the far right pursues a dual strategy. It supports the lifting of sanctions, in cases where it is more established and where this proves electorally more convenient. Where the far right is in greater need of respectability – especially when its fascist roots are more difficult to obscure – it has expressed enthusiastic support for the Ukrainian war effort. This is not only true for Giorgia Meloni in Italy; one of Germany’s most important neo-Nazi organizations has been collecting donations for likeminded forces fighting Russia’s “neo-Bolshevist” invasion.

Perspectives for the German left

All these developments leave Die Linke in a suspended state. The current situation is characterized by rhetorical fireworks on social media by Wagenknecht – she recently tweeted that the Greens are Germany’s “most dangerous party” – following recitals of indignation by other Linke officials, accusing Wagenknecht of relativizing the danger from the far right. Wagenknecht’s style is meant to provoke controversy, and this often takes some irresponsible and outright dangerous forms. But one cannot deny that the Greens, the most hawkish of all German parties and in charge of foreign affairs, are pursuing a policy vis-à-vis Russia that is clearly to the right of even the Biden administration. Polls show that a staggering 70 percent of their voters favour a tougher stance towards Russia, regardless of the risks of mounting escalation and possible deployment of “tactical” nuclear weapons, which will in all certainty lead to global nuclear war and the end of life on earth as we know it. Once again, Wagenknecht is not entirely off the mark.

Recent polls have showed that a possible new party led by her would siphon off the greater part of Die Linke’s voting base, while also decreasing the AfD’s share of the vote by half. While Wagenknecht could theoretically move now and create a new formation – some important allies have given up their positions within the party or have publicly left it – it is more likely that she will wait until next year’s European elections, as there is a real danger that any momentum will fizzle out by the time an important election can be contested. At the same time, Die Linke’s leadership might censure Wagenknecht for her transgressions, but it is too aware of her popularity, leaving the current situation at a stalemate. Should things continue as they are now, the only hope for Die Linke’s survival would be a boost from disappointed Green voters in 2025. But even in such a scenario, the party’s character would be a fundamentally different one than during its founding in 2007. In ideology, program and class composition, the party would likely end up resembling the “socialist people’s parties” in Norway and Denmark, which today are effectively more socially conscious green parties of the middle classes.

On the other hand, a new party led by Wagenknecht would neither be a step forward nor backwards, but a predictable result of the incompetence and political timidity of the Die Linke’s current leadership on a series of issues, most importantly the Ukraine war and its effects. It would create a real problem for the AfD, which in principle would be a welcome development. It would do this, however, by adopting the most right-wing social democratic traditions on issues like immigration, while counterpoising socio-economic issues to “identity politics”. The electoral decline of the Dutch Socialist Party shows that such posturing is not necessarily a ticket to success. The potential new party’s reliance on Wagenknecht’s personality would also mean that it will likely not be a very democratic one and would not tolerate any meaningful dissent. Ultimately, such a party’s representative rather than organic relationship to the working class (or what it perceives to be the working class) would mean that it will be faced with the same dilemmas that have strained Die Linke.

Despite their differences, Wagenknecht’s politics and those of the “movementist” current leadership, both share an essentially reformist outlook aimed at a more social and/or sustainable management of German capitalism through the ballot box, with the goal of social transformation reduced to an ideological resource or postponed for the long durée. While Wagenknecht preaches a social corporatism that unites workers with those good small- and medium-sized enterprises, Die Linke’s leadership is hoping that the convulsions created by the pandemic and the war in the Ukraine will accelerate the coming of an imagined “post-neoliberal” future, characterized by independence from fossil fuels and green energy investments. Both visions are truly lacking in political imagination.

What is needed in practice is not reformism but anti-capitalism. If this sounds too utopian or premature, then it is worth asking what conditions could be more pressing that mass pauperization, real-existing climate catastrophe, and the threat of nuclear war. This does not mean giving up on elections. But what the German Left in its parliamentary manifestations has so far failed to formulate is a sharp political antagonism, the way Jean Luc Mélenchon, for example, has done in France during this year’s elections – namely one that is able to unite behind it the working class in the current and former industrial heartlands with the racialized youth of the great urban centers, bound together by a program that is indisputably ecological and looks beyond capitalism, while not entertaining any illusions about “our” imperialism.  

If such an electoral challenge would appear in Germany – even if its essence would be reformist like that of La France Insoumise – it would definitely provide a better platform for putting forth the possibility of a future beyond capitalism than the two lackluster visions currently on offer. For now, the immediate tasks of those within and outside of Die Linke, who think that such a future is not only worth fighting for but is of existential importance for the planet’s survival, have the task of intervening in social protests against the current crisis and steer them to the left where they belong. They will not do this by denying the responsibility of the German government in the inter-imperialist squabble over Ukraine, but by pointing to humankind’s – not “our economy’s” – interest in ending this war immediately, against the wishes of those in power in Moscow, Washington, London, or Berlin.

Leandros Fischer was a member of Die Linke from 2007 until 2022.

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