The Wagenknecht Question

The German left’s response to right-wing populism will determine its future.

Sahra Wagenknecht in 2014. DIE LINKE / Flickr

Die Linke, Germany’s largest left party, has long been split between a reformist and radical wing. Now, in the wake of refugee arrivals in Germany and the resurgence of far-right populism, this division has blurred.

Sahra Wagenknecht, long-time icon of the party’s radical wing, has begun a campaign to win over the supporters of the new right, expressing concerns about the country’s border policy and empathizing with voters who worry how an influx of refugees might affect their lives. Her erstwhile followers accuse her of surrendering to racism and xenophobia and insist that the party uphold the principles of openness and inclusion. This new conflict strands Wagenknecht between the two established camps: she now finds herself equally alienated from both the urban radical circles and the party’s reformists.

Germany will hold elections in September, but the political landscape seems to preclude any chance of meaningful change. Barring unexpected developments, we can predict that Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU/CSU, an alliance between Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, will once again control the largest faction in the Bundestag. Its poll numbers have been relatively stable (around 35 percent), far ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD), whose decline continues. The SPD now pulls around 20 percent of voters.

The populist right will likely make a strong showing, estimated around 10–15 percent. Despite the open flirtation between some of its members and neo-Nazi circles, Alternative for Germany (AfD) will not only gain access to parliament but is currently set to become its third-largest faction.

The Green Party, competing with Die Linke and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) for fourth place, has signaled it would form a coalition with center-right and liberal parties rather than cooperating with Die Linke. The current alignment of political forces means that any role for the Left in the next government is highly unlikely.

It is in this climate that the fight over Wagenknecht’s comments has evolved from a conflict over policy into an existential choice that will make or break the German left. Party members should reject the racism and xenophobia that undergirds AfD’s appeal (and that some see creeping into Wagenknecht’s rhetoric). But they also need to recognize that strong political coalitions and social movements are built by working with voters, many of whom hold less than perfectly antiracist views — not lecturing them.

Merkel’s Political Genius

If Die Linke won’t participate in the next government, why should 2017 be a crucial year for the German left, both as a party and as a movement? Like most political questions in Germany today, the answer revolves around refugees.

Merkel initially took a liberal position, proclaiming a new German Willkommenskultur, a policy of open arms and selfless humanitarian efforts. Although heavily criticized within her own party, there is no question that Merkel’s strategy represents an example of her political genius.

On the surface, the conservative critics in her own party were proven right: Willkommenskultur helped the AfD establish itself to the right of the CDU. But while the CDU has lost more votes to the AfD in recent state elections than any one other party, the AfD has found supporters across all party lines, as well as among previous non-voters. As a result, all parties are losing ground to this insurgency.

Merkel’s strategy may not have won new voters, but it has allowed the CDU to declare itself not only the last remaining mass party, but also the party of responsible government, situated firmly in the middle of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, its local — and often overtly reactionary — chapters benefit from the growing acceptance of xenophobia and racism in the wake of the AfD’s meteoric rise.

Today, the CDU can appeal to both sides of the refugee debate. To liberal centrists, it presents itself as the defender of refugees, the party that opened borders when others built walls and fences. To its rural and conservative base — many of whom hesitate to embrace the AfD’s grandstanding, its noxious revisionism, and its blood-and-soil nationalism — it promises a more respectable resistance to immigration and cultural change.

Die Linke, too, has lost votes to the AfD in Berlin and in former East Germany, but its problems run deeper than that.

For years, Die Linke has tried and failed to reach the downtrodden “losers” of Germany’s neoliberal turn with the prospects of a “left-wing” coalition with the SPD and the Green Party. Within a few short months, the AfD succeeded where Die Linke failed, by establishing a connection between the socioeconomic threat many Germans experience and lingering resentments toward immigrants and Muslims.

In a specifically German configuration, right-wing populism has successfully exploited not only economic fears in the wake of globalization but also the long-standing European distrust of American imperialism. This potent combination creates a narrative in which the fight against those “up there” — the capitalists, politicians, European Union bureaucrats, and American hawks — transforms into hatred for and violence against the most vulnerable groups available: refugees and immigrants.

Government policies have only made this story more convincing. The proposed minimum wage for refugees — which would sit below the normal minimum wage — poses a concrete threat to Germany’s low-wage workers and provides credence to the right-wing anti-immigrant narrative.

So far, so familiar. Why shouldn’t what worked so well for Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen work for the AfD? What makes German politics different — and what makes the Sahra question so pressing — is the unique position Die Linke occupies in the German political landscape.

Unlike the US Democrats, Die Linke does not depend on private donations from the capitalist class; compared to the British Labour Party, it is much less integrated into the state. These differences give the party more latitude to take strong positions, but they also reveal the party’s electoral weakness.

It cannot hold its activists hostage by evoking the specter of conservative government or by arguing that moving to the left means losing voters in the imaginary middle — Die Linke simply doesn’t have those votes to begin with.

That’s Enough, Sahra!

And yet Die Linke has struggled to agree on a coherent position on refugees and immigration. To many observers, the party is caught in a bind: many of the party’s most radical activists are socialized in the antifascist tradition, particularly prevalent in university politics and urban semi-academic circles and committed not only to anticapitalism but also antiracism and antisexism.

These positions are both laudable and perfectly consistent in theory. But the right-wing strategy of combining class-based grievances with latent racist and xenophobic attitudes poses a serious problem of political practice that does not adhere to the usual distinction between election-minded reformers and radical activists. How, then, should the party respond to this challenge?

On paper, the answer is simple: by disentangling the issues and identifying the true culprits of growing inequality and poverty — not immigrants and refugees, but the capitalist class. The answer is an obvious one for the radical wing of the party; both Wagenknecht and her critics identify with it. The main controversy is not whether but how to accomplish this task.

There is, on the one hand, the course suggested — and stubbornly followed — by Sahra Wagenknecht. She has been selected as one of the two leading candidates for the 2017 elections, as a representative of the radical wing. Her previous history with the party’s communist platform established her radical credentials, and her public demeanor — a somewhat anachronistic presence harkening back to the traditions of straight-backed and highly organized socialist movements of the twentieth century — coupled with sharp oratory have gained her respect across party lines.

And yet, on the central issue of refugees, Wagenknecht has alienated many of her former supporters. She has repeatedly questioned Merkel’s original suggestion that Germany has an “unlimited” capacity to accept refugees and declared a certain level of empathy with those who feel threatened by the mass arrival and its associated uncertainties — in stark contrast to many of her fellow party members who appear content to simply draw up the utopia of a borderless future without thinking seriously about such a project’s viability today or how to deal with the political fallout of such a call.

Wagenknecht’s critics are right, of course, to resist the idea that Die Linke should call for deportations or support the notion that Germany is ”full.” But she has never endorsed such calls. Her overall strategy is to fight the AfD directly, challenging the right-wing narrative that combines very real material concerns with latent prejudice into a resurgence of nationalism and racism. Wagenknecht’s counter-narrative combines a left-wing analysis of the causes of the refugee crisis (from Western-sponsored conflict to arms exports and international pressures on developing countries to “open up” their economies) and policy alternatives (generous support to ensure adequate treatment of refugees at countries’ neighboring conflict zones).

Crucially, however, she explicitly rejects the notion that objective analysis alone can trump concrete experiences and subjective concerns.

The basic idea is simply that both can be true: that refugees and migrants are themselves the first and hardest-hit victims, and certainly not plotting against the economic survival of the German working class, and that the creation of a foreign-born sub-proletariat threatens to become fodder for the forces looking to further disintegrate what is left of Germany’s social democracy.

Confident in her and her party’s ability to prevail in the debate, Wagenknecht is trying to win over large chunks of working- and middle-class supporters of the AfD.

The result so far, at least within Die Linke, has been an astonishing amount of hostility.

Her critics now denounce both her and her husband, former left-wing social democrat Oskar Lafontaine as “pragmatic center-left politicians, and ones who pander to xenophobic populism at that.” At last year’s party convention, the group Torten für Menschenfeinde — Pies for the Enemies of Humanity — organized its own vintage event and welcomed Wagenknecht with a chocolate cake — tossed in her face. An online petition titled “Sahra, es reicht!” (“That’s enough, Sahra!”) gathered several thousand signatures demanding an end to what critics see as her right-wing pandering. Most recently, activists have turned to the desperate strategy of “defending” Die Linke despite Wagenknecht.

The rationale for such actions seems valid on the surface: as an unapologetic left party, Die Linke needs to defend the most vulnerable groups as a matter of principle, even if doing so endangers electoral success. Any appearance of “common ground” between Die Linke and the AfD — eagerly reported by the press — seems to threaten everything the party’s antifascist tradition stands for. Regretfully, then, Die Linke activists seem to have no choice but to turn their back on their most popular public figure.

Left Essentialism

Despite this position’s surface validity, however, a quick examination of political realities reveals two major flaws.

First, a party that follows its moral imperatives without recognizing citizens’ concrete experience cannot hope to win new supporters. A political ideal, even one as laudable as antiracism, needs to be connected to a broader class-based politics in order to gain mass appeal. The failures of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and the Remain campaign in the United Kingdom are the most prominent recent examples of what happens when such a connection is nowhere to be found.

Critics of Wagenknecht can rightfully point out that their antiracism is, in fact, a matter of principle, rather than a hypocritical ploy in support of capitalism and the political establishment; but what matters here is not the motivation behind the rhetoric but the fact that it failed.

Given the dire outlook for any kind of left politics in Germany, it should also be clear that party strategy today cannot be subsumed under electoral strategy. The goal must be to create a grassroots movement capable of carrying the party’s cause outside narrow electoral politics and increase its influence in the institutions of civil society, from trade unions to local community organizations and the many private associations that continue to shape social life outside the urban centers.

To their credit, Wagenknecht’s critics recognize that having a moral imperative and building a movement are not mutually exclusive. That said, their perspective has been shaped by the endless intraparty conflict between radicals and reformers. Accustomed to being sidelined by the career politicians in their own party, many Die Linke activists fail to acknowledge that the reformists’ excessive compromises in government differ from Wagenknecht’s strategy to reach out to those currently enthralled by right-wing populism. As a result, they also conflate malicious right-wing agitators like Björn Höcke with their despairing audience.

This leads us to the second flaw in the anti-Sahra movement: her critics display a hypersensitivity to language and a desire for political purity to the point where movement-building becomes effectively impossible.

Perhaps due to the academic, middle-class milieu from which many Die Linke radicals emerge, its younger activists in particular tend to accept a false dichotomy of either ignoring people’s concerns or engaging with them at the price of adopting a “right-wing” language and accept an inherently racist framework.

That they are immediately repulsed by the slightest sentiments perceived as racist reflects their commitment to a better world, of course. But that commitment has no practical value if it means shutting themselves off from those who do not distinguish antiracism from “political correctness,” or internationalist solidarity from the undemocratic regime of an increasingly cohesive global ruling class.

That many victims of neoliberalism will express some form of racist, nativist, or sexist sentiment is a reality that cannot simply be wished away. Those sentiments have to be engaged with and fought over. But in order to do so, the Left must engage with those that hold such beliefs.

After all, if the majority of the population were already on board with leftist values, why would there be any need for radical politics? A left party that engages in its own kind of essentialism — deplorable and irredeemable racists here, enlightened worker-citizens there — can only cement the neoliberal hold on political power and sever the party’s already tenuous connection to those left behind over the last thirty years.

Just as importantly, the critics’ position accepts rules that benefit Merkel and the AfD by conceding the power of anti-establishment sentiments to the Right without so much as a fight, limiting its outreach to those who, for one reason or another, already subscribe to the values widely shared — in theory at least — among centrist and left parties. Right-wing populists derive much of their legitimacy from those parties’ exclusionary gestures. Joining the choir of “principled” voices opposed to the AfD’s rhetoric will only serve to group Die Linke among the “establishment.”

The Future of the German Left

If Die Linke is committed to radical social change — and that remains a big if — it needs to be less professorial and patronizing, and more confident in the alternative it offers.

Its activists will have to endure painful encounters with working- and middle-class people who hold regressive values. They will have to accept that many Germans will not let go of their prejudices easily, and that it is only through the combined actions of marginalized groups that those prejudices can truly be overcome. The residents of Germany’s crumbling low-income neighborhoods have no desire for Die Linke activists to descend from Berlin and explain the world to them.

If a class-based, antiracist bloc can be built at all, it can only be done gradually, trusting in people’s inherent capacity to develop a different understanding of the world.

It’s a narrow path, and it won’t always be pleasant. But left politics have never been the sanitized efforts of pure conscience and saintly devotion that we are all tempted to believe in at times. Creating a different kind of movement will take time and, more importantly, patience. Racist or xenophobic sentiments exist, not as essential personality traits but as attitudes that can change through experience. Those need to be addressed, but they can be opposed effectively only on a basis of solidarity and mutual trust.

That left politics can be messy and even unappealing is a forgotten truism. Among leading radicals on the German left, only Wagenknecht appears to have come to terms with this fact. No matter what the elections will bring, 2017 is the year in which Die Linke will either be doomed to irrelevance or reinvent itself with a new generation of Sahras who are prepared to meet the ugly realities of our age.

At its core, the Sahra question concerns much more than the fate of one politician’s career or the party’s immigration policy. Wagenknecht’s name has become synonymous with a critical juncture in the development of the German left.

Die Linke can either compete with the FDP and the Green Party for the title of the true progressive party, an organization that at every moment will base its rhetoric and actions on a shallow vision of inclusion and multiculturalism and not much more. Or it can take a leap of faith and build a socialist alternative from below, sharing the picket lines with the deplorables and working with them to develop the principles and practices of antiracism and other ideals through political action.