With the departure of Angela Merkel, centrist hopes for maintaining the status quo are withering, while the left is at a strategic cross roads, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Following a disastrous set of election results for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Hesse on 28 October, when the CDU dropped from over 38 to just 27 percent of the vote, Angela Merkel announced she was stepping down as the party leader.
She stays on as chancellor of Germany for the time being. But her resignation as party leader has been widely perceived as the end of an era in German politics. Merkel, now 64, led the CDU since 2000 and was the chancellor since 2005.
She has dominated European politics in recent years and was seen as the best hope of those wishing for centrist politics to overcome the turbulent times we have seen recently.
Her legacy is now in question. Although she remains chancellor and had already announced she would not be standing for chancellor in 2021, Merkel has opened a period of uncertainty in Germany and Europe by withdrawing.
Resigning from the position of party leader opens her up to challenge from within her party’s ranks, and makes early elections more likely. Indeed, polls are already suggesting that a right wing rival, Friedrich Merz, is favourite to succeed her.
The latter’s victory would jeopardise the centre-right’s coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The latter is also under pressure to revise its support for the government after dropping from almost 31 to just under 20 percent of the vote in Hesse and continuing to slide in national opinion polls.
And as the “extreme centre” continues to lose votes, there is evidence of deeper polarisation in Germany, which is unlikely to disappear in an early election.
Indeed, what we are seeing is still polarisation and not the triumph of the far right as presented by much of the mainstream media.
In Hesse, the anti-immigrant AfD won just over 13 percent of the vote – a rise of nine percent. But, positioning themselves as the progressive alternative, the Greens won almost 20 percent, also a rise of almost nine percent.
Moreover, the right liberal FDP rose from five to seven and a half percent, while the Left Party went up from five to just over six percent.
It is therefore unclear that any new election would give rise to strong and stable government. Indeed, the Hesse elections came just two weeks after an earthquake in the Bavaria state election on 14 October, which saw the centre-right win but with the lowest vote since 1950.
While this was seen as punishment of the federal government, it is noteworthy that the local centre-right – the Christian Social Union (CSU), allied with the CDU at the federal level – ran a right wing campaign and still lost more than 10 percent of the vote.
By contrast, the Greens gained at the expense of the SPD and beat the SPD to second place. Meanwhile, the AfD gained at the expense of the centre-right but only came in fourth.
Misreading the conjuncture
The story is therefore far from one in which the far right is making all the gains, dramatic and worrying as its gains are.
Moreover, the evidence so far is that the CDU will only stand to lose by re-positioning itself to the right after Merkel, if the Bavaria vote is anything to go by, even though that seems to be the intention of centre-right voters.
That will serve to legitimate the AfD at the CDU’s expense, and continue to undermine the stability of German politics.
However, the notion that German voters are rich and selfish, and therefore angry at Merkel for allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country since 2015, oversimplifies the issues and exaggerates the success of Germany’s economic model.
The evidence points to a more complex electoral field in which the left wing case has often proven as attractive as the right, as support for the “extreme centre” has dwindled without settling to the right or the left.
Neoliberalism and the erosion of the “extreme centre”
Arguably, Merkel presided over an economic boom, the basis for which was laid by her Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder – his harsh labour market reforms and cuts to the welfare state had allowed Germany to dominate Europe since the introduction of the Euro.
In fact, Merkel’s long dominance since 2005 was in fact enabled by the SPD rather than any right wing consensus in German politics. The SPD often chose partnership with the CDU over a Red-Red-Green coalition, as in 2005-2009 and again in 2013-2018. After the elections of 2017, it once again preferred to prop up the CDU, rather than to enter re-opposition.
Furthermore, although Germany has seen economic growth continue and unemployment is low, the longer-term impact of the squeeze on workers and the welfare state started before the CDU rose to power explains the unpopularity of both the CDU and SPD.
In this wider context, as stated, not all the discontent is going to the right. This is because arguments have been put from the left that have given a different interpretation to the notion that prosperous Germany is being overly generous to foreigners – the standard right wing trope put out to explain hardships in Germany, and often repeated uncritically by liberal media in English.
This left ability to provide a counter-narrative was visible during the major Euro crisis involving Greece.
The Left Party in Germany opposed Germany’s punishment of Greece, arguing that the bailouts that the German parliament voted for were not in fact acts of selfless aid to lazy Southern Europeans but in fact bailouts of German banks at the expense of both the German taxpayer and the Greek working class.
Moreover, the Greens have clearly benefited in recent elections from revulsion among many Germans at the lack of decisive response from the governing parties to the AfD’s racist scapegoating of refugees and migrants.
While the Left Party has not made similar major gains, its vote has held up or even slightly increased. The field is still therefore open to a revival of the left in German politics.
Between hope and despair
This explains why the SPD has been increasingly divided over its long-term support for grand coalition with the CDU. Sections of the party are beginning to realise that the base is becoming irretrievably alienated by the rightward policy drift of the last two decades.
And there is a real danger for the SPD that it could be taken over by the Greens as the main centre-left party. Support for the Greens has to be read at least in part as a consequence of some centre-left supporters seeking a more left wing home, and finding attractive the Greens’ positioning on issues ranging from aiding popular constituencies ailing from globalisation to their support for immigration.
But the Greens are fundamentally a middle class protest party. Their ability to occasionally position themselves to the left is often rhetorical but not reflected in real programmatic commitments, as evidenced by their apparent openness to a coalition deal with the CDU after the elections of 2017. Unlike the SPD, the Greens do not have historic ties with the organised working class movement.
This is why there are real pressures to re-position the SPD, breaking its alliance with the CDU and preventing its eclipse by the Greens. That would entail a programmatic shift to the left. But decades of domination of the party by the right make it impossible to say if such a shift will occur, and it is unlikely that that would entail a decisive orientation to extra-parliamentary mobilisation.
Evidence across Europe points to the extreme difficulty social democracy is facing in reviving its links with the working class, with Jeremy Corbyn’s success being an almost inimitable outlier. There are few social democratic figures of the left with a comparable campaigning record.
And without one, there is no automatic route to winning back lost voters after decades of betrayals. Those that still have hope in Germany have shifted largely to the Greens, and while they can be relatively easily won back, in the last federal elections the SPD lost 470,000 voters and the Left Party lost 400,000 to the AfD.
Winning back those who are giving in to the politics of despair requires more decisive and practical action like protests and strikes that win concrete and immediate victories, and revive people’s self-confidence, as well as faith in the political project of the left. That is where the SPD is looking weak.
Confusion on the left
If reviving the SPD is an unlikely project, the task should, at least theoretically, be easier for the Left Party.
The latter is a relatively new party, founded in 2007 and fusing older and conservative elements of the formerly ruling Communist Party in East Germany, with more vibrant and combative elements of different left strands from Western Germany.
The Left Party has established itself as a viable left presence in German politics, winning between 8 and 12 percent of the votes in four national elections. But it has failed to move beyond this standard following and, though it has been involved in unions and social movements, has not come to be associated with the growing anti-establishment feeling among many in Germany.
Its participation in state governments that participated in implementing neoliberal policies accounts for part of this failure.
The weight of the past, the stifling bureaucracy and the electoralist orientation of much of its leadership, arising both from the ex-Communist East and the left reformist ex-Social Democratic West, are also impediments.
This helps explain the recent appearance of a populist left politician Sahra Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen (Get Up!). Wagenknecht, partner of one of the party’s founders, Oscar Lafontaine, represents a wing of the party that has often been more dynamic than some of the traditional top-down functionaries that have run it.
Aufstehen wants the Left Party to relate to the anti-establishment mood in the country, which represents a good instinct, but the solution has been disastrous. Aufstehen leaders, especially Wagenknecht, have refused to participate in the emergence of a rising anti-racist and pro-refugee movement or to directly protest against the AfD. That has been a marked contrast to party policy, which has been consistently to the left.
The notion underlying Wagenknecht's approach is that resisting racism and the right will alienate those who have been temporarily won to supporting the AfD. According to more extreme versions of this approach, it is even deleterious to speak of left and right. Outmanoeuvring the right necessitates taking for granted your support on the left and trying to win workers by making concessions to their current views.
Left populism as a dead end
There is nothing particularly new to this approach, however, despite claims that it is somehow a breakthrough for left strategy. It has been tried and it has failed before. Its fundamental flaw is its inability to see class as an international category.
Defenders of its approach may suggest that migrants are simply part of the reserve army of labour, which will be used to erode rights won by hard worker struggles over previous eras. That was certainly how social democrats justified introducing migration controls in the inter-war period in the twentieth century. These were necessary for the state to manage the economy.
While the appeal of the times when a capital-labour compromise was possible in the middle of the twentieth century, during capitalism’s golden era, is understandable, it still ignores very concrete political realities today. In an era of greater interdependency of global capital, and deeper capitalist crisis, such an approach will run into much more intense levels of capitalist sabotage than before.
Any attempt to overcome such sabotage would need to prepare for confrontation for capital and raise the capacity of workers to fight back. That requires a fighting united front of the working class. But the Aufstehen approach, which does not see migrants as part of the working class, neither prepares workers for confrontation with capital nor does it unite current workers with potential workers.
Rather the opposite, it opens the space for interpretations that see workers of a particular state as having more in common with that state than with workers coming from elsewhere. How does that help combat racism that sets workers apart by their countries of origin? And how can migrant controls be implemented other than using the repressive capacities of the nation-state? And who would more decisively implement an anti-migrant policy, the left or the right?
Anti-racism and defence of migrants is necessary for class unity
This is a slippery slope that makes it harder to argue not just against racism at home but imperialist policies abroad – for it implies that workers at home are more important than workers abroad, and there must be a reason for that. Does it have to do with an inherent superiority of ‘us’ versus ‘them’?
Racism and imperialism are thus mutually reinforcing planks of capitalist ruling class power, which feeds on divisions among workers at home and abroad. At the current time, when both are receiving ever more open support from ruling class politicians across the Western world, believing that the left can establish hegemony over migration controls is fanciful at best, and criminal politics at worst.
That does not imply that politicians like Wagenknecht are racist, but that their approach fails to stop racism, as argued ably by Leandros Fischer. There is nothing inevitable about workers turning to the right if anti-racist campaigning goes hand in hand with anti-imperialist and anti-austerity campaigning. This has been demonstrated time and again.
Witness the much more inclusive labour movement in Greece during the crisis, which had blocked the rise of the far right through a combination of anti-racist work and anti-austerity activism. If this was possible in a more dramatic situation and in a poorer country like Greece, it is possible in countries of more advanced capitalism.
Indeed, we should notice the collective power that acts of mass migration involve. While they are a reflection of weakness and a need to escape a dire situation at home, they also show the strength of the collective.
When hundreds of thousands force their way across capitalist borders and make it impossible for the likes of centre-right politicians like Angela Merkel to turn them away without use of forced mass deportation, they show the kind of solidarity and power that should move the working class more generally.
Instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator at home in the vain hope of winning back a small section of the working class that temporarily moves to the right given the lacklustre performance of the reformist left, the truly insurgent radical left should be seeking ways to unite workers of all backgrounds to take on the capitalist state.
The Left Party in Germany should continue to resist the Aufstehen approach, but more resolutely build on struggles that, in Kevin Ovenden’s words, ‘range from opposing soaring rents and a housing crisis through strikes by, for example, the Ryanair workers to fights by hospital workers over health care for all to a campaign for a referendum in the conservative state of Bavaria over social care for the elderly and infirm.’
It is only the mass self-activity of the working class that can give hope when hope is denied by a broken status quo which pushes millions into poverty across Europe and drowns tens of thousands in the Mediterranean, and when the far right is feeding on the rising anger and despair to divide workers and reinforce the power of big capital. The left across Europe should take note.
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