Why Wagenknecht Will Fail

In Germany and elsewhere, making tactical concessions to the Right isn’t just bad socialist politics — it won’t work.

Sahra Wagenknecht speaking in 2014. Die Linke / Flickr

Volker Schmitz recently wrote a thought-provoking piece concerning the strategy currently pursued by Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke’s top candidate for the upcoming Bundestag elections and the most recognizable figure on the party’s left wing. His article essentially amounts to a defense — though a conditional one — of Wagenknecht’s attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis. He reads these as a necessary tactical posture for winning over working-class voters, who might otherwise be tempted to vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The AfD is the country’s emerging “right-wing populist party,” although this description might be too sanitized for a party whose deputies in the state assembly of Saxony have recently submitted a formal inquiry on the costs of sterilizing refugee children.

Schmitz’s article is timely. Since Syriza’s capitulation in the summer of 2015, the weakened left, in Europe and also beyond, has been soul-searching. It is trying to reinvent itself in a world where its predictions about capitalism’s worst crisis since the 1930s are validated on a daily basis, but where the main beneficiaries of the political center’s unraveling are forces that fuse anti-establishment rhetoric with latent and not-so-latent racism. The situation poses a pressing challenge for the Left, not least because these racist forces appear to have made significant inroads among the “traditional” working class, historically the backbone of trade unionism and social democracy.

One can sense a diffuse admittance of guilt emanating from some segments of the Left in their effort to come to grips with the new situation. The Left, so the argument goes, has for too long focused on political correctness and identity politics, having abandoned its core base of support. Instead of preaching from the ivory tower of academia, it should try to listen to (and not judge) “ordinary people” and absorb their legitimate grievances in its political strategy.

If this outline of the debate appears too vague, it’s because Schmitz’s own arguments are mostly embedded in general statements. We never get to find out, for example, what “the academic, middle-class milieu from which many Die Linke radicals emerge” really is, nor the political character of Wagenknecht’s critics from within the Left. More to the point, we never learn how this engagement with the refugee-related economic insecurities of the less well-off in Germany is supposed to look like in practice.

In doing so, Schmitz sketches out a rather simplistic image of a debate between oversensitive middle-class leftist students, a working class (which, by implication, is completely of ethnic German extraction), and Wagenknecht’s cunning strategy of trying to beat the AfD in its own game. This illustration is rather inaccurate, for Wagenknecht’s positions have not only been met with derision but also with constructive criticism from within her party.

Nevertheless, the issues raised by Schmitz are important and not only relevant to the German context. Similar debates regarding the Left’s attitude to immigration and refugees are occurring among the radical left in France, Britain, Greece, and elsewhere. These debates are as old as the labor movement itself, but the Left’s answer to their current articulation, as Schmitz rightly points out, will be critical in determining its future.

But Schmitz ends up reproducing the false dichotomy between enlightened academic elitism and a working class inherently susceptible to racism, which the “Sahra strategy,” and Schmitz’s qualified defense of it, are meant to overcome. Simply put, Wagenknecht’s approach to the refugee question cannot be Die Linke’s preferred method of widening its appeal among the disenfranchised segments of the population alienated by mainstream politics.

This is not because Wagenknecht is racist, nor because she is “too radical” or “populist.” It is rather because her anti-establishment discourse against the banks and the European austerity consensus is significantly neutered by her attempts to find common grounds with potential AfD-voters.

The Roots of the “Sahra Strategy”

Wagenknecht has been accused by her critics of dancing to the AfD’s tune by making a series of statements with racist implications. Specifically, in the aftermath of the infamous “Cologne sex attacks,” she called for the deportation of individual refugees, should they be found guilty of participating in this incident of mass sexual harassment.

This statement signaled a break with Die Linke’s consensus concerning the inviolability of asylum rights, a consensus born not just out of ideological conviction, but also out of the historical experience of German fascism. What’s more, following a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market last December, Wagenknecht placed responsibility for the bloodbath on Merkel. According to her, this was not only because Merkel had opened the borders in an “uncontrollable fashion,” but also because “the police had suffered severe cutbacks.” Wagenknecht was trying to reinvent two of the far right’s standard themes — immigration and security — as left-wing causes.

More critical, however, are her statements that Germany does not possess an unlimited capacity to accommodate refugees, thereby attacking Merkel for provoking “chaos” by mismanaging something akin to a natural disaster. Similar statements have been made by her partner, the former Die Linke co-chair, Oskar Lafontaine, who has called for imposing limits on the flow of refugees.

Lafontaine might be a principled opponent of neoliberalism and military intervention abroad, but his record on this issue is less flattering. As SPD chairman in 1991, following a similar public debate on “limited capacities,” he endorsed the abolition of the absolute right to asylum. Moreover, while Die Linke was being constituted in 2005, he made statements at a rally in the eastern city of Chemnitz, where he referenced the plight of workers there, whose precarious jobs were allegedly under threat by low-wage “foreign workers” (Fremdarbeiter).

The speech was no accident, but a testament to Lafontaine’s long-standing ability to recognize and relate to a given public mood for the purpose of appropriating it for his own essentially social-democratic agenda. In the 1980s, he was known as a fiery opponent of the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Germany. Sensing the challenge posed by the emerging Green Party, he opened the SPD to the themes of ecology and sustainability. Aware of the “post-materialist” zeitgeist of the 1980s, he clashed with the industrial trade unions, then seen as a bastion of immobility and conservatism by younger party members belonging to the “new middle classes” in the public sector.

This June 2005 speech must be seen in this context, but it must also be viewed in conjunction with the declared aim of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) back then, to actively appeal to workers in the de-industrialized East, who might otherwise vote for the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.

Lafontaine had joined forces during that time with the PDS as the figurehead of the Western-based WASG, a trade-unionist split from the SPD, from which he had resigned following the neoliberal turn of the Schörder government. The WASG finally merged with the PDS to form Die Linke in 2007. The apparatus of the latter, including Wagenknecht, hails from the PDS, which has a long and rather successful history of relating to an anti-establishment mood.

As the successor to East Germany’s ruling party, it was initially confined to the GDR’s caste of state employees, those middle-class professionals who experienced downward mobility following reunification. But as Helmut Kohl’s promised economic wonder failed to materialize, the PDS reinvented itself as an anti-establishment protest party of East German interests, gaining a significant following among workers and the unemployed.

It could simultaneously appeal to the insecurities of pensioners as well as to a youthful left-libertarian milieu. The party figured prominently in antiracist mobilizations, even as some of its voters harbored xenophobic sentiments, partly the result of East Germany’s shameful policy of segregating native workers and “contract workers” from Cuba, Vietnam, Mozambique, and elsewhere.

The PDS’s “big tent” strategy proved successful in the East. It was also applied when the PDS merged with the dissident Social Democrats of the WASG in the West between 2005 and 2007. Indeed, the Left was the prime beneficiary of the anti-establishment mood that gripped Germany in the form of spontaneous protests, following the reform of social security on a disciplinarian basis (the Hartz IV laws) and the liberalization of the job market by the SPD-Green coalition in 2003. It is not an exaggeration to assume that Wagenknecht and Lafontaine aspire to successfully repeat this past success story, but this time in the context of Merkel’s dwindling popularity and the electoral threat posed by the AfD.

However, their strategy is deeply flawed, even its own terms, for it ascribes to individual politicians a capacity to dictate the course of social events, which they don’t really possess. It also remains trapped in the sphere of representation, excluding any prospect of self-activity from below. More importantly, it is based on misdiagnosis of the current conjuncture: what proved successful in 1990s and 2005, will not necessarily work amid structural capitalist crisis, the entry for the first time since 1945 of the far right in the national political arena, and a surge of racist attacks.

If anything, this strategy amounts to playing with fire, essentially granting more respectability to the AfD at the expense of Die Linke’s principled antiracism, while widening the far right’s appeal over more and more workers.

Viewed from a purely electoral perspective, the idea that discontent with Merkel will automatically start from the right and must therefore be appropriated from there, is also disproven by the recent meteoric rise of the SPD’s Martin Schulz in the polls, after announcing his candidacy for chancellor in this year’s upcoming elections.

Schulz is a mediocre “Third Way” social democrat, but his absence from national politics as chairman of the European Parliament, means that his is not widely associated with the disastrous neoliberal policies of the Schröder era. The election of Donald Trump has also curiously witnessed a surge in the memberships of the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke.

These trends show that a massive reentry into politics on a progressive basis is feasible if there is a perception of possible change looming ahead among wide layers of the electorate fed up with the neoliberal consensus. And even though the AfD’s “respectable” discourse has allowed German society’s far-right potential to come out in the open through a surge in hate crimes,  there is also a left-leaning mood expressed in social mobilization, such as the demonstrations against the TTIP and CETA trade agreements last September or in 2015. As with Germany’s “welcoming movement” in the summer of 2015, it would be wrong to locate the participants of these demonstrations, for which the trade unions also mobilized, entirely among the “enlightened” middle classes.

Are Sahra and Oskar “Racist”?

However problematic the current approach of Wagenknecht and Lafontaine is, a certain sense of proportion is in order. The statements mentioned previously form only a fraction of their overall discourse, which is overwhelmingly focused on attacking the banks, Merkel’s failed management of the eurozone crisis, military adventurism, as well as global inequality. In this, they display many similarities with Bernie Sanders, for whom both have repeatedly expressed their admiration.

There are no posters of Die Linke demanding limits on refugees, and the issue is far from assuming the primacy it enjoys in the discourse of the AfD or the Bavarian conservatives of the Christian Social Union. Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch, her Die Linke co-chair in the Bundestag, even presided over the publication of a ten-point action program for refugees in autumn 2015. The paper included reasonable demands, such as the abolition of the European Union’s Dublin II regulation on asylum, designed to keep refugees stranded in the European Union’s periphery, massive investments to ensure the humane accommodation of refugees, speeding up the processing of asylum applications, as well as fighting the exclusion of refugees. To her credit, Wagenknecht has also consistently voted down legislation to further restrict the right to political asylum.

Concerning Lafontaine, his opposition to open borders, something he also shares with Bernie Sanders, is not based on racism or any record of German chauvinism, but is rather the outgrowth of a social-democratic outlook in two senses. On the one hand, there is the old reformist argument of massive immigration as an instrument of wage suppression. In fact, the perceived strain on West German welfare systems by East German refugees was one of the reasons for Lafontaine’s opposition to a process of rapid reunification in 1990, amid a general climate of nationalist jingoism.

On the other hand, Lafontaine’s historical understanding of the rise of the far right can be described as economistic, in the sense that economic degradation causes the downtrodden to lash out at those weaker than them. This interpretation for the rise of Nazism was common among the social democrats of the Bonn republic, which was pathologically obsessed with maintaining economic and political stability through cross-class collaboration and a generous welfare state.

Even if Wagenknecht and Lafontaine desired to steer Die Linke in the radically different direction of a law-and-order party, something which is highly unlikely, institutional factors constrain them. Compared to similar parties of the European radical left, Die Linke is a highly centralized organization, where loyalty to the principles enshrined in the party’s manifesto has gained ground at the expense of loyalty to factional platforms. In almost all the controversial debates since the party’s founding, an increasingly visible “center” has emerged as the winner, for good and for bad.

Equating Wagenknecht to the hate-mongers of the AfD only serves then to relativize the latter’s toxic blend of racism, ethno-populism, and open flirtation with Nazi themes. The accusations of pandering to racism against her by some within the party indicate a certain amount of hypocrisy. Whereas Wagenknecht has suggested that some deportations might be in order, politicians of Die Linke’s “office-seeking” wing hostile to her anti-establishment rhetoric, such as Thuringia’s prime minister Bodo Ramelow, have already forced deportations citing, of course, the question of “limited capacities” or the fine points involved in preserving a delicate coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens.

Accusing Wagenknecht of racism is also a convenient way for some to attack her for her opposition to German militarism and US imperialism. Finally, the accusation of racism from some elements of the Antideutsch“-influenced wing of the German autonomist left, itself not immune from racism against Muslims and Arabs, borders on the absurd.

What Sahra Misses

The fact that Wagenknecht’s interventions need to be contextualized, does not mean, however, that they are not worthy of critique. While it is true that Germany’s mainstream media like the Spiegel or Die Welt are waiting for the slightest pretext to identify Die Linke’s positions with those of the AfD, the Left ought to hold Wagenknecht to a higher standard.

The problems with her approach is not just its electoralist character. The main issue at stake here is her perception of the AfD as just another neoliberal party, whose anti-social policies must simply be exposed to the workers — who are, of course, to be approached by the Left by its displaying of “understanding” towards their refugee-related fears and anxieties.

At every turn of the debate since the AfD’s transformation from a Euroskeptic to an openly racist party in July 2015, Wagenknecht and Lafontaine have attacked the formation solely from the angle of it being a counterfeit party only pretending to care for the “little people,” and by refusing to explicitly call out the racism at its core. Between this on the one hand, and the “official” Die Linke openly signaling its willingness for a coalition in 2017 with the discredited SPD and the Greens on the other, Wagenknecht’s stance has enabled Merkel to emerge as the “welcoming movement’s” patron saint, and to position herself as the logical Europeanist antidote against a xenophobic populism with both left and right manifestations.

Herein lies one of the main faults with Schmitz’s analysis. He mistakenly interprets Merkel’s decision to let refugees stay as an act of “political genius,” allowing her to appeal to both sides of the debate, the “liberal centrists” and the provincial xenophobes. This of course conceals the fact that the refugees came to Germany before Merkel said or did anything. She even made a teenage Palestinian girl who grew up in Germany cry in front of national television some weeks before, by telling her what is now essentially Wagenknecht’s line of argument — that “we cannot let everyone in.” More importantly, ascribing liberal qualities to Merkel is not congruent with the key role played by Germany in institutionalizing the “Fortress Europe” policy within the European Union.

Even if the prospect of a surge in low-wage labor and the ensuing benefits for capital played a part in her decision in 2015, a more plausible explanation would be that faced with the autonomous movement of hundreds of thousands of determined people, Merkel took a risky political gamble. This proved successful in the short term, allowing her to gain a considerable amount of political capital. But her subsequent gradual backtracking, for example, by forcing through deportations to Afghanistan by declaring it a “safe country of origin,” and the competition from the AfD for influence over the right-wing electorate traditionally integrated within Christian Democracy, indicate that the reality of Merkel’s refugee policy differs substantially from its image in public discourse.

Nothing disproves the “liberal Merkel” myth like the shameful agreement the European Union under Merkel’s auspices signed with Turkey, whose purpose was to assign the role of policing the European Union’s borders to Turkish president Erdoğan, a deal that Merkel eagerly seeks to replicate with North African countries. If Merkel can present herself today as a humanitarian, this not because of her genius, but because the direction of Wagenknecht’s criticism of her handling of the refugee crisis, has effectively allowed the latter to pose as a defender of centrist humanism against both “extremes.”

Arguably, the most problematic aspect of Wagenknecht’s reading of Merkel’s actions since 2015, and one also evident in Schmitz’s article, is the taking at face value of the center’s proclaimed antiracism, for instance by claiming that the only alternative to the Wagenknecht path lies in competing with the liberal FDP and the Greens for “the title of true progressive party” of a shallow multiculturalism. Schmitz forgets that these two parties have bid the ideal of a multicultural society farewell a long time ago.

Far from being the exclusive outcome of a spontaneous insurgency of some native underclass, or a reflexive response to downward mobility and the loss of a sense of community, the racism of the AfD and the Pegida movement would be inconceivable without the racism cultivated for years now by the same forces that today want to appropriate the antiracist cause. Islamophobia — evident in the demands on Muslims to “integrate,” debates on the hijab, the much-touted lamenting of the “failure of multiculturalism” by Merkel herself, or the externalization of the stigma of antisemitism to Muslims due to their criticism of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians — has been the acceptable form of racism in Germany for some time.

No wonder then that Pegida in Saxony, a movement expressing the grievances of a crisis-hit middle class in a federal state with a negligible percentage of Muslims, would frame its demands in the acceptable language of “defending the Occident” against “Islamization.” Now, the racism of the center has come back to haunt it in the form of a serious electoral challenge, whereas the constant deployment of Islamophobic tropes to “combat antisemitism” has in the end led to classical antisemites and Hitler-nostalgics such as Björn Höcke, the AfD’s spokesman in Thuringia, to appear as respectable politicians with access to state funding.

Contrary to Wagenknecht’s arguments, the AfD is not just another neoliberal party. Its racism is not incidental, nor a secondary feature of its character as a “populist” formation — it is its lifeblood. And like the French National Front, the AfD is perfectly capable of appropriating left-wing demands, such as defending the minimum wage, if this will ensure it of working-class support. Indeed, fascism’s relation to principles is an arbitrary one, and one structured differently from the one of the Left.

Nevertheless, lumping the AfD together with the “neoliberal block” and downplaying its racism or the danger emanating from its social demagogy, amounts to ignoring its unique character, despite the many socioeconomic policies it shares with the other neoliberal parties.

Wagenknecht’s Popular Front

So why has Wagenknecht opted to follow this line with regards to the AfD? Schmitz commits a further error by seeking to explain Wagenknecht’s approach solely through the desire to reach out to those downtrodden segments of the working class enthralled by the AfD, although he is probably closer to the truth when he also mentions the middle classes as the desired recipients of Wagenknecht’s message. Her political evolution in recent years lies at the heart of her current strategy. From being a prominent and unapologetic member of Die Linke`s Communist Platform, the media-savvy Wagenknecht went on to embrace the “social market,” while praising West Germany’s economic model. Her recent book Reichtum Ohne Gier (Wealth Without Greed) is an embrace of the virtues of “true entrepreneurs” who also toil under the “economic feudalism” of today’s capitalism.

On the one hand, those arguments can be read as part of a pattern among the generally ostracized post-communist left of eastern Germany, which seeks to popularize progressive ideas to a wider audience as “sensible” and “beneficial to all,” including capitalists. The charismatic Gregory Gysi, another leading East German figure of Die Linke, spent almost two decades doing just that through books and talk-show appearances.

But leaving this peculiarity of German political culture aside, Wagenknecht’s new ideas and her approach to the refugee question must be viewed as part of a larger effort to reconstitute the German left on a national-sovereigntist basis. The strategy dictates a “popular front” of sorts with Germany’s small- and medium-sized businesses.

Wagenknecht’s correct criticism of the euro, if not embedded in a general anticapitalist perspective, opens a potential avenue of understanding with petit-bourgeois Euroskepticism. Her fierce opposition to an aggressive stance towards Russia resonates with sections of German capital opposed to sanctions and distrustful of American policies. Her condemnations of authoritarianism in Turkey and the crude, as well as inaccurate portrayal of ISIS as Erdoğan’s brainchild, can easily be combined with “ordinary” anti-Turkish racism in Germany. Her appropriation of the issue of domestic security and her demand to deport refugees found guilty of criminal offenses, are not so much an effort to relate to working-class fears, but a somewhat opportunistic pandering to the prejudices of the German middle classes, even if the stated goal here is to undercut AfD support.

Even Wagenknecht’s less controversial “counternarrative” that Schmitz mentions — blaming Western intervention and trade policies for the refugee flows, while demanding economic aid for the adequate resettlement of refugees in countries such as Turkey or Jordan — leaves much to be desired. While the chaos provoked by the “war on terror” is one of the deeper reasons for the traumatic experience of uprooting experienced by millions in the Middle East today, her logistical phantasies of resettlement to other Middle Eastern countries are devoid of any seriousness, given their qualitatively different and purely transitory character as countries of destination.

Despite their common thrust, there is an important nuance between the approaches of Lafontaine and Wagenknecht, which are both often simply described as “populist.” Wrong as it may be, Lafontaine’s economistic perspective on migration reflects the poor situation the German labor movement currently finds itself in, and is articulated from a narrow social-democratic position of working-class interest. As such, it can be challenged easily by demonstrating that a potential unified front of indigenous and newly arrived workers signals trouble for capitalists. Bernie Sanders, while holding similar views to Lafontaine, was a candidate that skillfully combined opposition to neoliberalism with vocal opposition to racism, calling out Trump’s Islamophobia and embracing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wagenknecht, on the other hand, has constructed a worldview that, while appearing more radical given her past Communist credentials, has class collaboration against globally oriented capital at its heart. Its declared utopia is not so much a socialist society, but something resembling the West Germany of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt — a sovereign and regulated welfare capitalism, with a restrained foreign policy that reaches out to Russia.

Though it may seem more pragmatic, such a vision is in no position to inspire millions of people in Germany that haven’t experienced anything in their lives other than precarious working conditions. This implicit idealization of the past also tends to forget that Keynesian Germany was a deeply racist society, where the Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) endured segregation and exclusion.

Racism and German Workers

All of this begs the question of who the German working class is and how it really thinks. Schmitz criticizes middle-class “essentialist” leftists obsessed with political correctness. But he shares a common assumption with that milieu, when he states that Die Linke’s activists “will have to accept that many Germans will not let go of their prejudices easily.”

It is not entirely discernible if he shares the diffuse fatalistic sentiment expressed by many among many in the German radical left, of a “German exceptionalism” — that German workers are somehow more inclined to racism and xenophobia than other European workers. Even though he qualifies this statement by stating that “the combined actions of marginalized groups” will overcome those prejudices, it is also not fully clear just how exactly Wagenknecht’s strategy is in a position to enable these “combined actions.”

Herein lies the problem in any argument that declares that the road to the Left’s revitalization run through the “understanding” of workers’ refugee-related fears and anxieties — it implicitly locates the primary source of racism, understood as some free-floating pathology, among those facing economic hardships, thus letting capital completely off the hook.

Of course, workers can also be racist, sexist, and homophobic. But while racism might be widespread among the working class, its origins lie elsewhere. Nazi antisemitism, for example, did not stem from the workers but from lawyers, doctors, engineers, and academics, even if millions of workers became susceptible to the fascist poison.

By taking this important historical fact into account, fighting the racism of the AfD today firstly means clarifying who exactly the “ordinary people” Die Linke is supposed to reach, really are. Is it the workers, who have seen their living standards plummet and real wages stagnate over the years? Or is it the neurotic middle-class Pegida protesters, who blame their predicament on the workings of a conspiracy uniting the “liberal Merkel,” the Antifa, and ISIS?

Secondly, it means recognizing that there isn’t an ethnic German working class with specific social interests, but a German working class comprised of Germans, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Italians, and other nationalities, and soon to include a sizeable contingent of Syrians and Iraqis. Germany today is a highly diverse society that includes many first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants. Those people make up a quarter of North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s most populous state. A strategy of “reaching out to the working class” cannot accommodate itself to any fear of a “cultural change,” which is by nature not directed against capital but against a sizeable portion of this class.

And thirdly, it means that when confronted with racism within the working class, the “painful encounters” Schmitz speaks of, the Left must avoid even the slightest rhetorical concession to the dominant discourse of security and “limited capacities.” This does not mean assuming a posture of moral superiority against the “regressive underclasses.” In a way, Schmitz is right to point to an arrogant attitude displayed by some in the university-centered left-wing spectrum towards those not initiated in progressive discourse and the outright contempt with which ordinary workers are sometimes held.

Arguments such as Schmitz’s must also be understood as one of the responses to the failure of the “left Europeanist” ideology widespread among much of the Left during the rise of Syriza in Greece. Among others, this ideology consisted of the idea of a “democratic European Union” with a “eurozone based on solidarity,” often accompanied by a dismissal of working-class politics as “old-fashioned” and their replacement with an abstract “populism,” accompanied by a classless antiracism.

This vague discourse was embraced enthusiastically within Die Linke by those segments most keen on participating in coalition governments with the SPD and the Greens, something Wagenknecht and Lafontaine rightly opposed. The shallowness of a performative radical posture on the one hand and continuing “business as usual” on the other was put on full display in summer 2015, when the Tsipras government surrendered with little dissent to the monetarist consensus it promised to overthrow.

But Sahra’s current strategy amounts to taking one step forward and two steps back. While she is right in recognizing that socioeconomic grievances and policies at the level of the national state should be central to the Left’s agenda, her economistic approach on migration and the near-complete disappearance of an antiracist component in her attacks on the AfD not only amount to a dangerous concession, but also to a self-defeating acceptance of the national capitalist framework that left Europeanism, even in a highly distorted way, was meant to overcome on supposedly internationalist grounds.

Instead of “preaching from afar,” or effectively legitimizing racist sentiment, the Left must point out to those workers expressing regressive ideas that racism against refugees and Muslims isn’t just morally repugnant, but also completely alien to their own material interests. It should not attempt to dampen the legitimate anger felt by many, but to steer it at those responsible, not those less well-off. This is the actual difficult path that must be taken, for the other two lead to a dead end, which only reinforces the false image of “liberal elites versus the backward underclasses.”

The fight against racism in Germany is central today. It is the key polarizing issue, pitting every democratically minded person against the racism, not just of the AfD, but that of the center as well, which has engendered the former. It is wrong to counterpose this pressing fight and its immediate tasks, such as organizing demonstrations, blockades, and building grassroots coalitions at the local level, with an abstract struggle (how and with whom?) against the neoliberal parties “whose social policies only make racism possible in the first place.”

The answer lies in the fusion of antiracism with socioeconomic demands. But these will not fuse by themselves. The key for that is the activity of the subjective factor, such as in Greece, where the antifascist movement has successfully crafted its own counter-narrative of local workers and refugees as victims of the same policies, or in Catalonia, where tens of thousands have recently demonstrated for allowing more refugees in.

Already, the fightback against the AfD is bearing fruit, as thousands of protesters accompanied a meeting of the AfD in the city Münster, whereas massive demonstrations by a broad coalition against the AfD’s national convention in Cologne are expected this April.

If the task of fighting neoliberalism by emphasizing the centrality of fighting racism and supporting refugees appears near-utopian in Germany today, it is not because German workers are more racist than others, but because German capitalism is infinitely more powerful than its Southern European counterparts. The fragmentation of its working class into an increasing number of “atypical workers” on limited contracts and a relatively better-off core workforce, is reflected on the cultural level by a three-tier educational system, which impedes the formation of a unified working-class conscience.

However, this is the only available path for the Left, and one which, if proven successful, could signal a groundbreaking change for all of Europe. Stating that capacities are “limited” means conducting the debate on refugees and austerity on the terms set by capital. Wagenknecht and Lafontaine have a long history of expressing Die Linke’s most radical instincts. They should not dilute their record by accepting those terms.