Die Linke: Ten Years On

A decade after its formation, can Germany's Die Linke manage its contradictions and live up to its promise?

Political organizations, particularly those committed to radical change, face their greatest tests in times of crisis. In 1914, German social democracy, the international socialist movement’s crown jewel, was brought to its knees by its inability to confront the outbreak of World War I.

Two decades later, German Communism’s ultra-leftism proved similarly impotent in the face of the growing Nazi threat, and Europe’s most powerful labor movement was decimated within a couple of years.

Drawing direct historical parallels between 2016 and 1914 or 1933 would be mistaken — but it is fair to say that Die Linke, the largest force on the German left, is now facing the biggest test in its ten-year history.

The ongoing European refugee crisis is forcing the party to meet complicated political challenges. In the process, it has revealed many of Die Linke’s latent weaknesses and contradictions.

Rather than exploiting the Christian Democratic UnionSocial Democratic Party (CDU-SDP) coalition’s increasingly vulnerable position, Die Linke is being pulled by wider social forces, unable to articulate a coherent political response, let alone intervene effectively, around the refugee question.

The impact of Die Linke’s ambiguous political and strategic messaging — necessitated by its disparate composition — as well as ongoing stagnation and decline in its activist and political infrastructure have finally been made obvious.

Missed Opportunities

The refugee crisis gave Die Linke a unique opportunity to articulate a principled, leftist response that connects antiracist and antifascist groups to the national pro-refugee movement.

Although the party largely continues to maintain a firm open borders stance, it has not been proactive in any real sense, outmaneuvered by Angela Merkel’s surprisingly humane policies in the crisis’s first months.

Since then, members of Die Linke’s leadership have squirmed in response to intensifying contradictions and a shattered consensus over the open border policy.

Oskar Lafontaine — former Die Linke party leader who also served as SPD minister of finance in the late nineties — fired the opening salvo last November, calling for a cap on the number of refugees entering the country.

After the Cologne “sex attacks” on New Year’s Eve, parliamentary co-leader Sahra Wagenknecht suggested that the party would support deporting refugees convicted of crimes.

Although the mainstream media has its own reasons for sensationalizing these statements, they should nevertheless worry the left-reformist party.

Lafontaine and Wagenknecht, long perceived by many as bulwarks against a rightward drift in Die Linke’s leadership, are now behaving like pragmatic center-left politicians, and ones who pander to xenophobic populism at that.

The party leadership and members of the party’s more pragmatic wing like Petra Pau and Katja Kipping denounced these anti-refugee statements.

But Pau and Kipping have both stayed largely silent as the Linke-led state government in Thuringia, considered by many in the party’s right as a model for future coalitions, cooperates with federal authorities to deport rejected asylum applicants.

Growing Pains

It is an irony of recent German history that Die Linke figures with no influence over policy call for restrictions and deportations, while those with power publicly advocate open borders while quietly cooperating with the state’s deportation program in the background. But looking back at the party’s formation helps to understand this fault line.

Die Linke is both part of a broad European trend and uniquely German. Like other new left parties, its social and political base rests on a crisis of class representation and a rising but uneven wave of social protest that began in the early 2000s.

These European parties are — to a greater or lesser extent — contradictory formations, described by Daniel Bensaid as “part of a range of forces polarized between resistance and the social movements, on the one hand, and the temptation of institutional respectability, on the other.”

Charlie Post has argued that these parties — Die Linke specifically — face “the same strategic issues that confronted socialists before 1914,” reproducing “not only the political debates but also the same practical contradictions that Leninism had sought to resolve politically and organizationally.”

Post’s analogy is in part correct. Die Linke is torn between seeking political office and, as Post puts it, “constructing an independent organization of anticapitalist organizers and activists.” But Germany’s recent history makes Die Linke different.

No other European left party shares its unique confluence of forces: a former ruling Communist party on the one hand and a hastily assembled leftward-moving split from social democracy on the other.

As Oliver Nachtwey pointed out shortly after the two wings’ merger, its main currents are not divided over strategies of reform and revolution, but rather those of “office seeking” and “policy seeking.”

While office seekers pursue legislative influence and are willing to make policy compromises in order to do so, policy seekers aim for specific reforms, like the institution of a minimum wage, and are more flexible in their strategic choices.

Although these two projects conflict sharply from time to time, they are not — at least in the medium- to long-term — mutually exclusive. They also reproduce the division of labor that Post identifies.

Although Die Linke’s dominant currents are ideologically diverse, they all adhere to some form of Hal Draper’s “socialism from above.” Draper’s definition is dated in its specifics and does not fit Die Linke’s ideological and historical nuances, but remains a useful guide for understanding the party.

After all, Die Linke’s practical orientation is toward building socialism through a series of policies and institutions conceived from on high, rather than through the masses’ active creation of a postcapitalist society.

The seemingly endless battles over programmatic formulations at party conferences and meetings in the face of a decline in the party’s activist and organizing capacity prove this.

Even the so-called Anticapitalist Left, comprised largely of Trotskyist and post-Communist groups, is peculiarly focused on defending the party program against possible right-wing alterations, thus producing the inverse of the party majority’s programmatic focus.

This orientation forces Die Linke to represent parliamentary movements’ demands without actively engaging in extra-parliamentary organization.

While the party can produce detailed policy blueprints for progressive reform throughout society, it can’t seem to catalyze social movements or trade unions around them, even when it pays lip service to this aim.

Unlike many of its West European counterparts, Die Linke had no significant revolutionary current at its founding in 2005–7. Instead, it was created when West Germany left-moving ex-Social Democrats joined up with a very different stream of left history, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the institutional and political legacy of East German Communism.

Blocked from joining (or rather, becoming) social democracy — as most of their Eastern European counterparts did after 1989 — the PDS became an established political force in the East, earning 20–30 percent of the vote and building a political apparatus based on thousands of low-level representatives and parliamentary deputies.

While Die Linke’s handful of far-left currents are generally restricted to a few cities and nominal positions in leadership and the party apparatus, the pragmatic, Eastern wing of Die Linke enjoys considerable weight within the party as a whole.

This milieu’s strategies tend toward the “transformational,” including a variety of scenarios in which capitalism is gradually restructured and transformed into a solidarity economy.

Although most if not all transformationists acknowledge the deep-seated and structural nature of class power and the limitations of capitalist democracy, they are still committed to electoral politics and broad left alliances.

In immediate and practical terms — especially considering Die Linke’s precarious connection to social movements in many areas — this strategy has translated into center-left governments that push through spending cuts and force party candidates to go back on their campaign promises.

When neither transformational left-center coalitions nor mass social movements are on the immediate horizon, these forms of socialism from above reduce the party to nothing more than a parliamentary voice for the marginalized.

Particularly after Die Linke’s success in the 2009–2010 regional elections, “parliamentarization from below” began to take effect. Hundreds of active party members were pulled into local legislative bodies.

As a result, parliamentary politics and personalities began to play a larger role in party life, to the detriment of activist or campaign organization. Many members who were once local groups’ lifeblood became increasingly occupied by parliamentary routines.

Certainly, Die Linke’s ad hoc composition and its lack of time-tested, established party structures accelerated this process. But the relative decline in social struggle following the financial crisis was probably the most significant factor.

Essentially, the German establishment’s skillful handling of austerity allowed it to harness public opinion and marginalize opposition.

For a party that was always much better at representing social movements in parliament than actually organizing them, this meant that Die Linke suffered a relative decline in relevance and a degree of organizational drift.

The window of opportunity that opened in the mid-2000s narrowed as the crisis of class representation began to recede.

These factors help explain why the party has buckled in the face of an increasingly volatile political situation. Confronted with a sharpening refugee crisis and growing xenophobic sentiment, one section of party leadership is attempting to accommodate to popular racism through political concessions.

The other, jumping at the opportunity to attack left-wing party opponents, denounces this capitulation to the xenophobic mood while quietly submitting to deportation only a few months after promising not to.

What neither group seriously considers, however, is a strategy that values movement building from below just as — if not more — highly than political maneuvering from above.

Although the situation on the ground remains grim, some hopeful signs have emerged. Co-chairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger are pushing the party toward a more activist- and movement-oriented approach.

The duo’s most recent position paper, “Revolution for Social Justice and Democracy,” calls for an “offensive strategy” to combat the Right’s growth and declares with surprising frankness that “there is no ‘camp’ of left-wing parties anymore.”

Instead, Kipping and Riexinger envision building a “pro-solidarity camp” within German society, which basically amounts to an expanded conception of the united front, albeit with understandably little focus on winning over the SPD.

The paper also mentions pro-refugee and antiracist initiatives like Aufstehen gegen Rassismus and Welcome2Stay positively. Social movements like these could provide the party with some concrete points of orientation in the coming months.

Results and Prospects

Die Linke is now an established, nationwide political force and seems poised to remain so. Arguably, its presence has generated enough pressure on the grand coalition to dull austerity’s sharpest edges and institute a (meager) minimum wage.

The infrastructure it provides, whether the financial and logistical support to trade unions and social movements or the spaces opened for critical scholarship by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, represent tangible, qualitative improvements in the German left’s operational and functional capacity.

Nevertheless, it has yet to become more than an opposition party. Last year the party had roughly sixty thousand members, down from a peak of seventy-eight thousand in 2009. Only 10 percent of party members are under thirty years old, and only 19 percent were classified as “workers.”

While this is the highest percentage of worker membership in any major German party, Die Linke’s relatively thin base among young people poses the single biggest obstacle to implementing the leadership’s pro-solidarity camp strategy on the ground.

Syriza’s capitulation has created new urgency around the European Union question, making Die Linke’s situation even trickier. Historically, the party, like most of the European left, has floundered on this issue. Even its most radical figures usually refrain from directly advocating for an exit from or a dissolution of the union.

Now that Brussels has demonstrated what will happen to any and all left governments that try to break with the logic of austerity, abstract calls to transform the European Union on the basis of parliamentary majorities appear increasingly hollow.

The Alternative for Germany’s strident, albeit chauvinist, anti-EU position no doubt contributed to its alarming string of victories last March and underlines how important this issue is for Die Linke.

Strategies that aim to solve the current crisis through long-discredited institutional structures will likely turn off the disenfranchised. Nor do they offer much hope to the thousands of politicized young Germans who are volunteering at refugee shelters and building antiracist movements.

Rather than pandering to chauvinism or trying to minimize the injury of deportation by having a “left government” carry them out more humanely, Die Linke ought to defend refugee rights as a matter of principle, while continuing to develop a popular narrative that links the current situation with wider international and social questions to win over disenfranchised German workers.

This is an enormous and immensely difficult task, but as is so often the case with the Left, we have facts and a plausible counter-argument on our side.

Wars and conflicts in which Europe and NATO are implicated are largely to blame for the stream of refugees entering Germany and other European countries.

The appearance of hundreds of thousands of refugees on Germany’s doorstep opens a space to discuss and highlight the country’s role in imperialist conflicts in the Middle East and its powerful, export-oriented armaments industry.

Demonstrating that refugees are not only fleeing wars, but wars that have been armed by the German state itself, is a much stronger argument for refugee rights than the opportunistic humanism of the mainstream parties.

As the only major party consistently opposed to armament exports and foreign interventions, Die Linke can use this argument to convince some sections of the electorate. This stance also gives it more political credibility than the SPD or Greens, both of whom have tried to exploit the crisis for political capital.

Further, by relating the refugee crisis to the European border regime as a whole, Die Linke can strengthen socialist EU-critical arguments and discourses within the country in a way that other left formations, lacking a parliamentary platform, cannot.

In this way, Die Linke can situate the debt colonization of Greece, the refugee crisis, and years of stagnant wages and spending cuts within a larger conversation about democracy and capitalism, refusing to meet these individual problems with technocratic (and often racist) solutions.

Even more important for the party’s long-term prospects, however, is whether or not it can channel the outpouring of support for incoming refugees into a coherent political movement.

The refugee solidarity movement represents one of, if not the, biggest upticks in social movement activity since the beginning of the financial crisis.

It has also triggered a major right-wing surge, a milieu that grows more powerful while violence against refugees increases. For now, movement activity has been largely dedicated to providing material aid to refugees, a logical response to the dire situation.

Nevertheless, as the popular mood shifts and the far right grows bolder, Die Linke must mount a concerted political response.

As the only German party that— beyond a few disappointing exceptions — has maintained a principled stance on the refugee issue, it can authentically and effectively intervene in building a movement for refugee rights and against the rising tide of right populism.

This will deepen its connections to existing antifascist and antiracist networks and perhaps establish a foothold for growth and recruitment within social movements.

Die Linke has inherited its predecessors’ strategic and political traditions, particularly their vision of a “social EU” and their narrow parliamentary focus in times of austerity and budgetary constraints. By themselves, these traditions have proven inadequate.

But the party’s inevitable institutionalization has continued apace. Riexinger and Kipping’s current strategy, vague as it may be, marks a step in the right direction. As long as the other center-left parties refuse to form a coalition with Die Linke, they constrain its institutionalization.

But a Red-Red-Green coalition will likely be possible at some point in the future, particularly now that SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel has published an open letter calling for broad progressive alliances against the rise of the far right.

It would be a mistake to reject this offer outright, but also an illusion to believe that the party can change its fortunes by hitching them to Social Democracy’s dying star.

Should Die Linke successfully assemble a pro-solidarity camp that applies pressure on the mainstream parties (as opposed to the other way around), the party and the wider movement will be much better positioned to resist the pull of compromise and to apply pressure on other parliamentary parties when it comes time to negotiate a cabinet.

By deepening links between the refugee and other social movements, organized labor, and the party itself, Die Linke can push toward the distant goal of a modern mass socialist movement that would be present in both national politics and the lives of millions of working people.

This is a project of tremendous scope, but ultimately represents the only plausible way forward for the party and the Left as a whole.

Germany’s time as an island of relative stability seems to be ending, and as it does, Die Linke will have to learn to respond accordingly. Historically, German socialist parties have either risen boldly to the occasion or failed spectacularly in moments of deep social crisis.

If nothing else, Die Linke’s response in the coming period will play a decisive role in its ability to overcome the traditional division of labor between party and movement that Post and others argue will be decisive to European new left parties’ future. And that, in turn, is a big deal for not only the future of Germany but also the rest of Europe.