Die Linke’s Identity Crisis

Loren Balhorn

With parliamentary elections looming this fall, the German left party is struggling to present itself as an exciting alternative to the status quo.

A Die Linke flag in Berlin in 2007. Fabian Bromann / Flickr

Interview by
Selim Nadi

With parliamentary elections coming up in September and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) set to become the country’s first national far-right force since World War II, Selim Nadi spoke with Berlin-based Jacobin contributing editor Loren Balhorn about the rise of German right-populism, the state of the German left, and what to look out for in the years to come.

Selim Nadi

In an article published in rs21, you wrote that the AfD has replaced Die Linke as the main protest party in the eyes of the working and middle classes. How would you explain this?

Loren Balhorn

Well, what I meant by that was in the regional elections earlier this spring, large groups (by no means a majority, but 10-25 percent) of trade unionists and workers more generally voted for the AfD, citing general political dissatisfaction and migration as their main reasons for doing so. It’s worth noting that the party has performed significantly worse in elections since then. While Die Linke’s returns vary from state to state and some areas show more promise than others, in general the party appears to be losing ground among sections of the working class and dissatisfied protest voters more generally, particularly in less urban and economically marginalized regions. The process is not a foregone conclusion, and to what extent the AfD can duplicate the success of its European counterparts remains to be seen (Germany is still not, or at least not yet, France or Hungary), but I think it’s fair to say that the honeymoon years of 2005–2010 when Die Linke was the paramount opposition in parliament and able to attract the politically disenfranchised by default has ended.

Around its founding, Die Linke managed to build on the politicization coming out of the antiwar and anti-austerity movements and harness a leftward trend in society, translating that into a series of electoral victories. Seven years later, Germany’s economy has stabilized under Merkel, voters see much worse living conditions developing in the EU countries around them, and Die Linke has entered several regional governments in which they have done little to demonstrate qualitative differences or strategic coherence vis-à-vis the political establishment. It’s thus no surprise in my eyes that the party would suffer in the polls and draw fewer protest votes.

The political instability the AfD has introduced into German politics, and the very real possibility of far-right politics developing an organized base in mainstream society, means Die Linke can’t afford to count on circumstance and clever public relations to build its political base, but rather has to think more seriously about what it means to represent the oppressed and exploited not only in parliament, but in politics and public life more generally. This is, to be frank, a huge challenge that many in the party spend too little time thinking about.

Selim Nadi

How can the German left mobilize against the rise of the AfD? Is Die Linke capable of offering a real political alternative? Besid street demonstrations, are there real political and theoretical reflections around antiracist strategy among the German left? 

Loren Balhorn

This is obviously the million-euro question for the German left these days, and I don’t think I can really give you a proper answer. Most of my practical antiracist organizing experience took place as a college student in the United States, so when I look at the German situation I always see it through that specific lens. But it seems to me like there are a few problems to work through:

Firstly, the German left is divided over what exactly the problem is. For some parts of the radical left, Germany is a uniquely racist society that ostracizes and threatens all “Others” by its very nature. This sentiment leads to pretty stupid slogans at antiracist demonstrations like “The problem is called Germany,” which, similar to American anarcho-liberals blaming Trump’s hollow presidential victory exclusively on racist whites, might make sense as a gut reaction, but is simply not true and thus not very helpful for developing effective strategy. We need to understand that racism doesn’t grow in a vacuum, but rather within a complicated and dynamic socio-economic context that must be addressed equally as vigorously as racism itself if we want to drain the social swamp on which it thrives.

In addition, we need to develop a realistic idea of who our enemies are, who our friends are, and who is on the fence, and craft our messaging and strategy accordingly. We can’t excuse or ignore oppression in any instance, but we also shouldn’t pathologize it as an inherent trait of certain social groups or an entire country more generally. A left that doesn’t try to win over a majority of the population to an antiracist platform doesn’t really want to win, and probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about people outside of educated, urban milieus.

Thankfully, my impression is that these ultra-left positions are growing increasingly unpopular and have little currency within Die Linke itself. There is certainly a real awareness in the party that right-populism is a growing danger that capitalizes on economic suffering and social exclusion to establish a foothold in the Left’s traditional bases. Still, where to go with that insight is less clear. There have been some great instances of antiracist organizing as well as initial, exploratory attempts at low-level community organizing in working-class neighborhoods.

At the same time, more unfortunate figures in Die Linke’s leadership have written some cringe-worthy think pieces that can only be described as workerist and reductionist, not to mention Wagenknecht’s well-known opinions on the matter. For what it’s worth, a Linke-led government in Thuringia is currently participating in federal deportations, citing political inevitability and the constraints of parliamentary democracy.

It is easy for me to sit here and say that Die Linke should combine antiracism with social struggles, I think anyone could tell you that. It’s obviously true, but equally hollow without some kind of concrete proposal – especially since I have already criticized the existing campaigns elsewhere. But when looking at antiracist organizing in the United States or United Kingdom, it seems to me that the distance between migrant and nonwhite communities and the Left more generally is comparatively wider in Germany. This has to do with various historical, cultural, and other issues that are beyond the scope of this interview (and I probably can’t answer anyway), but addressing this gap strikes me as an important hurdle. There have been some great instances of community cooperation in Berlin and other cities around rent struggles and other questions, and I think that these sorts of initiatives show a lot of promise for building a culturally and socially integrated left, but they are greenshoots at best.

Although there are individual immigrant personalities in the party and the Left, as a whole the movements remain painfully white for a country with so many millions of immigrants, large and established Turkish and Arab communities, etc. The same can be said of German society more generally, whose public image remains overwhelmingly white despite four decades of mass migration. I think a left that figured out how to overcome this — not overnight but through a long process, of course — would be better able to address the rise of the far right by combining real, organic antiracist organizing with an economically populist program to improve living standards for the broad majority, black and white alike.

The best moments of the socialist left’s history have been when it was a mass movement that attracted the most oppressed in society through its political program and reputation, but also actively integrated them (and taught its own members to treat them as equals) into a vibrant and organized fight for a vision of a better world. Of course, that’s little more than a phrase in 2017, but it’s still a worthy goal.

Selim Nadi

Could you please come back on Sarah Wagenknecht’s position concerning refugees? Do you think this is something new in the German left? Is this position well represented in Die Linke or more of an epiphenomenon?

Loren Balhorn

My friend Leandros Fischer addressed the Wagenknecht question in Jacobin a few months ago in a very thorough manner. I’d rather limit myself to referring readers to his article, as I couldn’t do it justice. On your second point, however, I would say that it’s complicated. Wagenknecht’s comments on immigration certainly don’t resonate with a majority of Die Linke members. However, I imagine they do get a hearing among some supporters in the more traditional export industries and rural areas.

The bigger problem is that many left-leaning party members have traditionally viewed Wagenknecht as a bulwark against the party’s “right wing” around Gregor Gysi etc. Yet anyone who bothered to read the books she’s written in recent years would know she’s been moving sharply to center on a range of issues, and is not vested in the long-term interests of any particular wing of the party. Her sharp turn has exposed the fundamental limitations of the party left’s long-term strategy (or rather, lack thereof), and frankly scares me a lot more than the dim prospect of national protectionist euphoria overtaking Die Linke anytime soon.

Selim Nadi

How would you evaluate Die Linke’s general position in the political balance of forces, both on the parliamentarian and on the extra-parliamentarian level?

Loren Balhorn

On the national political level, Die Linke has continued to be marginalized by the political mainstream, while simultaneously “normalized” through participation in a series of state governments in the former East. Their partial irrelevance at the federal level allows the mainstream parties to co-opt our most popular demands while sidelining our public figures and statements, while the state governments permit the party to appear as a normal parliamentary player, both more respectable and less appealing to disenfranchised voters at the same time.

This has gradually softened the party’s radical image and eaten away at its ability to attract attention by scandalizing popular but overlooked political issues like the minimum wage. The decline of many of the social movements (antiwar, etc.) has also robbed Die Linke of its natural base on the ground and reduced the visibility of the party and the Left more generally. I don’t think that the party’s drift towards the establishment is a foregone conclusion (at least not yet), so we’ll see what happens in the future.

Still, it should be emphasized what a huge material and practical difference the party makes for the radical left as a whole. Beyond giving it an unprecedented public stage, the party has brought the Left resources in terms of organizing spaces, employment in the party and parliamentary apparatuses, important allies in parliament and the media, and a trove of critical scholarship and left-wing research in the form of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. These are big qualitative steps that pushed conditions for the radical left forward and shouldn’t be disregarded, whatever their problems and limitations may be.

Although the radical left (groups like the Interventionistische Linke and other shades of post-autonomism) are recruiting among young activists at a much higher rate and are responsible for the nuts and bolts of many mass mobilizations in the country, Die Linke’s existence provides with them with new scopes of action and public visibility. Moreover, Die Linke is able to appeal to a much broader swath of German society than the groups to its left, who are simply too subcultural.

My impression is that opportunities for interaction and exchange are often ignored by both sides. They work together in campaigns and demonstrations, but there is nothing like a high-level strategic or theoretical exchange between the two camps as serious, comradely social forces working towards the same goal. Given the fact that most Linke members and most autonomists probably share a lot of political ideas in the long run, this is unfortunate to say the least.

As long as the political and economic constellation in Germany remains the same, I imagine that this dynamic will continue. The wild card, however, is I think still the refugee movement. So far, we haven’t witnessed anything like mass self-organization of asylum seekers in Germany. I imagine this is partially because conditions for refugees are comparatively worse in most of Europe, and many are thus understandably reluctant to engage in risky activities. But sooner or later, unless conditions improve dramatically, we will probably see more moves in this direction, and how the various parts of the Left relate to that could have big implications for their future development and ability to capitalize on the shifting political mood.

Selim Nadi

What are the limits faced by Die Linke in changing this balance of forces?

Loren Balhorn

Die Linke is essentially hampered by the fact that it lacks a real activist base in the young, progressive milieus in Germany and in the labor movement more broadly, although developments are more mixed and show more positive examples in the latter case. This limits the party to parliamentary work and symbolic appearances at demonstrations, while most of the movement organizing on the ground is not done by the party but by others, and a large portion of the young people involved end up joining the radical left rather than Die Linke. Winning these layers to the party has proven much more difficult than one would expect, and has prevented the party from assuming the kind of broader social influence that characterized earlier large socialist parties, both in Germany and internationally. I am as sympathetic as the next leftist to the idea that social movements must necessarily be politically autonomous from any individual political party, but the aversion to political parties on the German left (no doubt a product of the country’s particular history) has certainly also had the negative side effect of preventing Die Linke and the periphery around it from becoming a more coherent and palpable social force.

Unable to unfold a real dynamic on the ground, the political focus in the party has inevitably drifted towards parliament. There have been moments in the past when Die Linke successfully used this platform to galvanize mass demonstrations and provoke political controversies, but on the whole the establishment has proven surprisingly adept at marginalizing and domesticating the party’s parliamentary wing. As long as the party remains primarily reliant on this instrument, it is hostage to the shifting whims of German parliamentary politics.

Selim Nadi

To what extent are the historical currents of the German left represented in Die Linke today?

Loren Balhorn

The largest presence is of course that of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reform-socialist successor to the East German ruling party, a large chunk of which is now organized in the current known as the Forum for Democratic Socialism. This is — technically speaking, I guess — the institutional successor to the Communist Party of Germany, albeit in utterly unrecognizable form. Although the formal composition of the leadership is quite diverse, the former PDS enjoys an undeniable degree of political inertia through its political apparatus, which Die Linke inherited in 2007, and has amassed over two decades of experience in local and regional parliaments. It is by far the most significant “current” within the party, although it is not by any means politically uniform, and many former PDS members belong to Die Linke’s left wing.

Many West German members look back on political careers dating back to the pro-Soviet German Communist Party (DKP) or the Maoist parties of the 1970s. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of these have long since broken with those ideologies, and there is nothing like a Stalinist or Maoist wing of Die Linke (lingering geopolitical sympathies for Russia aside). There are also several variants of Trotskyism active within the party, usually limited to strongholds in several cities, and all kinds of working groups and ideological quirks of the German left, but there isn’t something like an organized, coherent “left wing.”

There are several formal currents generally considered to be on the left — the Anti-Capitalist Left (AKL) and the Socialist Left (SL) being the most noteworthy — but they have little independent political life beyond occasional conferences and summer schools, and the annual scramble when party elections come around. The SL was originally constituted as the “trade union-oriented” current, and is where many of the left-leaning trade unionists who left Social Democracy in the early 2000s can be found. The AKL is a more explicitly radical or revolutionary current with various Trotskyists and ex-Communists in its leadership, but in my opinion seems to focus on ideological debates and overturning “reformist” paragraphs in the party program to the detriment of organizing.

Selim Nadi

What about the radical left outside of the party?

Loren Balhorn

Germany is unique in Europe not only in the unique size and strength of its classical labor movement, but also in the extent to which the socialist and Marxist left was decimated by fascism and Cold War geopolitics. Whereas diverse currents of Eurocommunism, Trotskyism, and Maoism animated the politics and worldviews of many Western European New Lefts, Germany’s 1968 birthed a specific kind of autonomist politics that, for better or worse, is the dominant current on the diffuse and fragmented, but nevertheless relatively large, German radical left today. Its most prominent representative today is the Interventionist Left, one of the main actors behind the current mobilizations to the G20 summit in Hamburg. Another significant group is the “. . . ums Ganze!” coalition.

Compared to France, Italy, or the UK, Marxism is a much more marginal current among radicalizing youth. From a US perspective, of course, there is still an almost mind-bogglingly large number of institutional leftovers and micro-sects from the twentieth century. The DKP has several thousand members, and the country has two daily explicitly socialist newspapers in the form of Junge Welt and Neues Deutschland. As time goes on, however, I imagine many of these institutions will continue to recede, whereas the IL and other groups are arguably on the ascent.

Selim Nadi

How would you summarize Die Linke’s development since its creation?

Loren Balhorn

To understand what is happening to Die Linke today you have to look back to its first years and first big electoral victories, like the 11.9 percent result in 2009, or the wave of regional elections sending Die Linke into West German state parliaments for the first time in 2006–2011. These victories were perhaps expected but nevertheless unprepared for, and the party understandably sent many of its activists and notable personalities into parliament in the rush of excitement. At the time, Die Linke’s two main slogans were “Wealth for all” and “The stronger the Left gets, the more socially just the country becomes,” neither of which had much connection to anything plausible.

Next, the German ruling class managed to stabilize the economy in the immediate wake of the crisis while avoiding the kind of draconian austerity they impose on Greece and other southern neighbors. Merkel even introduced a minimum wage and talked about increased social spending. Suddenly, conditions for German workers didn’t seem so bad after all, and Germany’s political center held. The left-wing trend of the late 2000s began to ebb and Merkel ultimately became widely popular — a trend that continues even today, as seen in the most recent regional elections in mid-May.

Basically, Die Linke had promised its base that strong electoral returns would translate into increased pressure for social change by having a strong left-wing voice in parliament. But only few Linke politicians were able to use these public platforms effectively — working in the public eye is a very challenging and nuanced task, after all — and often fell into obscurity. The press was more than happy to ignore the party, particularly as the war in Afghanistan and other standard Linke topics receded from public view.

Meanwhile, and much more importantly, the local activists that often constituted the lifeblood of local party structures were increasingly involved in parliament, either as members or as staff for other MPs, pulling focus away from building organizations or conducting campaigns. Thus, a massive transfer of energy and resources from below to above occurred precisely at the time when the party would have required a strong base to prevent parliamentary work from taking on a life of its own.

As the promising 2000s passed into the anxious 2010s, Die Linke lost the left-moving social tailwind that propelled the party forward after its founding. As it turns out, a left-reformist protest party in times of austerity cannot just count on forward inertia over the medium term, but rather has to prove its political usefulness in order to remain relevant and grow its support.

The party’s claim to improve social justice just by existing may even be true — it has certainly forced the political establishment to the left on several issues — but voters’ memory spans are short. They don’t see the introduction of a minimum wage in 2015 as a byproduct of Die Linke’s emergence in the mid-2000s, nor will most people be thinking about the strategic long game when they go to the ballot box. They will vote for Die Linke if they think they can shake things up in a political system they see as corrupt and out of touch, and they will punish the party if it throws away their vote by participating in a neoliberal government.

Of course, voters also expect Die Linke to join government if presented with the option — that’s just how parliamentary democracy works — so it isn’t as easy as just saying “no” like some on the party’s left wing would have you believe. Either way, Die Linke has not found a way to articulate these contradictions to its base and formulate some sort of coherent way out of this bind. On the one hand, we see coalition governments in the eastern states that generally tend towards neoliberal policies; on the other, we find helpless oppositions in western state parliaments that often fail to get re-elected, let alone build a socialist current in the labor movement.

Unless Die Linke can somehow resolve these contradictions, proving itself useful as not only the floating platform of a disorganized and contradictory parliamentary left but as an institution capable of winning masses of people to a specific political vision, it will continue to drift. Its existence alone is still a huge gain for our side, and all of my criticisms aside I don’t want to give the impression that the party is dead on arrival. There are still a lot of promising milieus in the party and its future remains unwritten. But given recent developments across Europe and North America, I think it’s fair to say that politics and strategy are becoming more serious, and it’s important that the Left try to draw an honest balance of accounts about the last decade of socialist strategy. What did we expect to happen, what happened, and what should we perhaps re-think or change? Thankfully, the current Die Linke leadership around Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger seems to be aware of this fact and has put out some very sharp stuff for the leadership of a left-wing parliamentary formation recently. Their positions of course limit what they can say and how open they can be, but if nothing else they at least show that some parts of the party are trying to understand and relate to the new political situation in a more productive way. That gives me a little bit of hope for the future.

A version of this interview first appeared in Contretemps