Course Correction?

The extreme centre in Germany is resented and outnumbered. In the Bavarian and Hessian state elections of early October, all three parties in the governing ‘traffic light coalition’ suffered a significant blow, with Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) plummeting to their worst ever result in both states. The much-diminished Die Linke performed poorly, too. Having failed to meet the 5% threshold for representation in parliament in 2021, surviving in the Bundestag only due to the technicality of retaining three independently elected constituencies, the party lost all its seats in Hesse. The rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged as the unambiguous success story, securing nearly 20% of the vote in Hesse, where it came second – a first for the party in a western state. By the end of the month, the AfD was polling nationally at an unprecedented 23%, behind only the main opposition Union bloc.

Last week, however, a new challenge to Germany’s ailing political establishment emerged. At a press conference on 23 October, Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht announced she was founding her own independent party, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – for Reason and Justice (BSW). On the evening of the announcement, anticipated for some time, her new party, which includes nine other MdBs formerly of Die Linke, was already commanding the support of 12% of the electorate, poaching its largest share from the AfD (which fell by 5%) and small parties; the SPD, CDU, Greens and Die Linke also lost support. Expected to launch as a party next January, ahead of the European elections in June, polls suggest the BSW could win up to 20% of the national vote. Wagenknecht’s initiative has shifted the weight of national politics further away from the centre, and, for the first time in years, significantly to the left.

The basis for a broad opposition programme is clear. Germany is once again in a recession, less than a decade after its putative second economic miracle was to be the model for the rest of Europe, if not the world. The temporary conditions that enabled its relatively good economic performance from 2010 to 2019 – world-historic growth in the export markets of Brazil and China, above all – are now exhausted. Yet in today’s straitened circumstances, Berlin has not even gestured towards shoring up the well-being of its citizenry. Instead, it has obediently signed up to Washington’s project of relentless militarization and endless war to the east. This posture has not only undercut Germany’s access to the cost-effective energy essential to its industrial competitiveness, but has also detonated another historic refugee crisis which, for many in the deindustrializing areas, is seen as compounding the effects of the economic slowdown.

The political opening Wagenknecht is hoping to exploit is equally glaring. The public has good reason to regard the current government as continuing the ruling-class attack on its living standards, pioneered, in 2003, by Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 programme, and pursued since by centre-right and centre-left governments alike. Two decades of austerity have led to a rise in poverty, general insecurity and deteriorating public services. As a consequence, there is a wellspring of opposition to further retrenchment of the social state. The Greens’ efforts to shift the cost of environmental measures onto individuals – such as replacing domestic gas heaters – have also been broadly unpopular, stirring dissent from a consensus that is in reality supported mainly by the affluent and highly educated.

Wagenknecht addresses these concerns more directly than any other politician on the right or left. Yet despite her broad popularity, in the Berlin Republic she is often regarded as a controversial figure, notably within the shrunken ranks of her former party. For her critical interventions – on the war in Ukraine and NATO’s part in it, on the contradictions of the government’s Covid policy, and on immigration, as well as on the ‘left-liberal’ politics of a self-satisfied Bildungsbürgertum – she has been denounced as a Putin sympathizer, a conspiracy theorist, an anti-immigrant populist and a treacherous ‘diagonalist’ blending left and right. Her East German formation – she was brought up in Jena and Berlin – combined with her intransigent Communist politics lasting into the 1990s, has in the past even attracted the attention of the state’s internal security services.

Intellectually superior to most members of the Bundestag – she is the author of several books, including an economics dissertation on savings and a critical study of the young Marx – Wagenknecht delivers her arguments in a direct, sober communicative style that has earned her regular invitations to Germany’s television talk shows, despite their hosts’ hostility to her views. Presenting herself as a ‘left-conservative’, though her politics might better be characterized as ‘left-realism’, she has positioned her breakaway formation as a response to the Repräsentationslücke – representation gap – in contemporary Germany, where nearly half of the population does not see its perspective reflected in the party system. She has set out four domains encompassing the BSW’s proposed reforms. 1. ‘Economic rationality’ – ‘innovation, education and better infrastructure’; 2. ‘Social justice’ – ‘solidarity, equal opportunity and social security’; 3. ‘Peace’ – ‘a new self-image in foreign policy’; and 4. ‘Freedom’ – ‘defending personal freedom, strengthening democracy’, which includes widening the Meinungskorridor, or spectrum of opinion.

Nowhere has Wagenknecht’s departure from orthodoxy been more pronounced and consistent than in matters of war. For a time, the Ukrainian flag adorned every official building in Berlin, and any questioning of the conflict – even invoking the postwar taboo against exporting weapons to warzones, much less mention of the right-wing orientation of much of Ukrainian ‘orange’ nationalism, NATO’s eastward expansion or the danger of escalation – was essentially proscribed as partisan alignment with Moscow. Despite this prevailing Gleichschaltung, Wagenknecht’s dissenting line in near-weekly interventions appears to have enhanced rather than hurt her standing. She has also been forthright in attacking the government for its conspicuous incuriosity concerning the sabotage of the country’s energy infrastructure in the probable US attack on Nord Stream 2. She deftly connects foreign policy to domestic issues – linking, for example, the shortfall in Germany’s domestic capacity for producing medicines to the government’s commitment to manufacturing ammunition for Ukraine. More recently, she has criticized Tel Aviv’s offensive against Gaza, a rarity in a country which has banned peaceful demonstrations of sympathy for Palestinians.

The other stance that has attracted criticism, especially from the left, is Wagenknecht’s position on immigration. Yet its significance to her political outlook is often exaggerated. The issue is given minimal emphasis in her public addresses; her weekly bulletin and video lectures almost never mention it. Her position is also hardly an outlier on the German political scene. As she noted at the press conference last month, she supports the full right of asylum-seekers to live in Germany, as well as legal protections for immigrants; she is opposed to what she describes as immigration’s present unregulated form. This is also now Scholz’s revised position; it was the de facto position of Merkel, too, after she reversed twice on the question. Neither is Wagenknecht’s view particularly unusual historically within the trade union and socialist left of West Germany and elsewhere. It is in effect a guild perspective, favouring the regulation of the labour market.

Wagenknecht’s politics are not without theoretical limitations and inconsistencies, of course. As with most left-parliamentary oppositions of the last decade, the economic vision put forward by her Alliance – especially the enthusiasm for reviving industry – is implicitly predicated on an upturn in profitability in the national economy as the basis for a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth. Not only does this framework fail to register the persistent troubles facing the world economy, it also ignores the difficulties of attempting to increase German manufacturing competitiveness while at the same time improving working-class living standards (Germany’s expansion during the 2010s, after all, came at the expense of its working class, as well as the south of the Eurozone). In the context of a chronically weakened global economy, the shallow recoveries states have mustered have been reliant on neoliberal measures that precipitated the erosion of living standards abhorred by Wagenknecht and the majority. Still, whether or not her economic agenda will be able to arrest the deindustrialization of the country and reverse its worst effects, it cannot be denied that the current path of unending war is hastening it gratuitously, as Germany’s resource-poor and export-oriented economy is battered by higher energy costs.

The major weakness of Wagenknecht’s initiative at present is not primarily theoretical but practical: her Alliance lacks an active social movement. In place of cadres, there is an inchoate mass of opinion which remains to be organized through mobilization. Wagenknecht has in the past appeared somewhat reluctant to transform the enthusiasm for her politics into something more disciplined and embedded. She has avoided speaking at events of the university left, or at those which she herself has not convened. Aufstehen (Stand Up), the movement she launched in 2018, fizzled quickly. Loosely modelled on Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, it has now been reduced to an email newsletter. The February 2023 anti-war protest she organized, which drew tens of thousands to Brandenburg Gate, was never followed by further calls for public demonstrations. The party’s theoretical shortcomings and contradictions will likely only be transcended through increased political association outside of the videosphere. Parts of the new platform – especially its commitment to greater democratic participation – may indicate an awareness, post-Aufstehen, of the importance of an active membership. This will be especially critical given the probable fallout for Die Linke, which is likely to be gravely weakened by Wagenknecht’s departure; here the left risks losing significant institutional linkages to the past.

Some view Wagenknecht’s Alliance as a cynical and potentially damaging attempt to appeal to AfD voters. Oliver Nachtwey, for example, has argued that in ‘trying to conform and adapt to the New Right’, Wagenknecht risks ‘legitimizing’ its discourse, which could ‘further normalize and even strengthen the AfD’. But this concern gets the sequence of events the wrong way round. The rise of the AfD, and more broadly of the so-called ‘populist’ right, was itself largely a symptom of the failure of the left generally, and Die Linke in particular, to maintain a credible opposition to the governing coalitions (often because it held out hope of joining them), and so to sustain the confidence of broad layers of society. Only then did much of the polity become available to the right, which capitalized on justifiable indignation against the extant parties. Far from signalling a ‘normalization’ of the AfD, the BSW’s efforts to win over those who have drifted away from Die Linke and other parties potentially points the way back to a more formidable and dissident left, one which foregrounds its opposition to war, and ties this to domestic concerns.

Rather than representing a lurch to the right, then, Wagenknecht’s is a call for a return to popular sovereignty over foreign affairs, set against a political centre which courts nuclear conflagration from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Black Sea to the Taiwan Strait. The test for her Alliance is whether it can inspire the popular action needed to realize its platform, and overcome the many objective constraints faced by any government in contemporary Germany – let alone an opposition party – aiming to change the country’s course towards prosperity and peace.

Read on: Christine Buchholz, ‘Germany Re-Divided’, NLR 116/117.