Victory in Stagnation?

Die Linke’s electoral result shows what the party must do to really contend for power.

Katja Kipping, co-chairwoman of Die Linke, and Joerg Meuthen, federal co-chairman of the AfD, attend a TV discussion with the top candidates in the German federal elections on September 24, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Felipe Trueba / Getty

The news was predictable, but still bitter. After September 24’s general election, the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has entered the Bundestag with ninety-four MPs. For the first time since World War II, parliament will include a party to the right of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU).

Germany’s ostensible safeguards against the reemergence of fascism as a political force — the 5 percent electoral threshold, the celebrated process of Geschichtsaufarbeitung (coming to grips with the past), and other social policies — have all failed.

The success of the far right partially reflects the decimation of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The historic party of the German working class won just 20 percent of the vote, its worst result since 1949. This, however, is just the nadir of a decline that began with the SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s early 2000s neoliberal reforms. His Agenda 2010 rolled back huge swathes of the once generous German welfare state, liberalized the labor market, and allowed low-wage contract labor to spread, dramatically accelerating the decline of organized labor, the party’s historical backbone.

But the apparent victor, Angela Merkel, has no reason to celebrate either. Winning only 30.2 percent of the vote, the Christian Democrats (CDU) fared badly, hemorrhaging around a million supporters to the AfD.

The neoliberal center’s combined result dropped to a historic low of 53.5 percent. Postwar parliamentarism, the pillar of German capitalism’s political stability, is becoming undone.

The reinvigorated neoliberal fundamentalists of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) benefited from the center’s decline. The party’s chief, Christian Lindner, has reinvented the Liberals as the voice of law and order, an AfD for pro-Europeans. Given the SPD’s decision not to participate in a grand coalition with the CDU, the FDP will probably find itself in government with Merkel. But this success may be ephemeral — after a phenomenal breakthrough in 2009, the Liberals were kicked out of parliament just four years later, and we can expect a similar result this time as well.

Nevertheless, the FDP’s participation in a coalition signals that Germany will adopt an even tougher stance on the eurozone crisis and increase its attacks on living standards. In North Rhine-Westphalia, where a CDU-Liberal coalition is already in power, the government has announced tuition fees for non-EU students, and launched a campaign to convince non-Germans to “simplify” their names. In addition, Angela Merkel’s promise to win back voters from the AfD indicates she will take more right-wing positions on immigration and other social issues.

The Greens remained stagnant at 8 percent and are poised to enter government with the CDU and the FDP. Once perceived as Germany’s taboo-breaking party, the Greens ran a thoroughly conformist campaign this year — they even avoided strong statements against the AfD’s racism. But the party couldn’t capitalize on its role in the opposition over the past four years, and their possible entry into government with the CDU and the FDP will likely damage their “alternative” credentials, as such a coalition will potentially entail compromises on questions of immigration and nuclear power.

The West is Red

There is, nevertheless, a silver lining for Germany’s biggest party on the Left. Die Linke managed to increase its vote share by 0.6 percent, winning 9.2 percent of the electorate. Around 4.3 million people voted for Die Linke, up from 3.75 million in 2013. The party gained around 700,000 votes from the SPD, over 300,000 from the Greens, and even 200,000 from the Christian Democrats. This growth is even more remarkable given Die Linke’s demographic-driven decline in its eastern strongholds, where it historically attracted pensioners who lost out during German reunification.

The elections confirmed that Die Linke’s core electorate has undergone a massive geographic shift. The party increased its share of the vote in nearly all formerly West German constituencies, particularly in urban centers, the heart of Germany’s political life.

Die Linke climbed to 12 percent in Hamburg, where its members visibly supported anti-gentrification and pro-refugee social movements. In Cologne — where it also received around 12 percent, up from 8.9 percent in 2009 — Die Linke did well in working-class neighborhoods like Kalk and Nippes, strongholds for the party’s left-wing where activists joined protests against skyrocketing rents and the AfD.

Die Linke also performed above average in Frankfurt (around 12 percent) and Munich (about 8 percent), but the results in Berlin are even more remarkable. Here, Die Linke did well in all former West Berlin constituencies, including Neukölln, where it regularly campaigns against gentrification and Islamophobia. Meanwhile, in former East Berlin — long considered the center of gravity for the party’s government-oriented right wing — support for Die Linke declined.

The party scored well among young voters (11 percent for the age groups of 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds) and as such performed particularly well in university towns like Freiburg and Münster.

These results show that Die Linke has left behind its reputation as a curious relic, a formation supported by East German pensioners and the West German unemployed — the so-called “losers of globalization.” It now attracts non-voters as well as former SPD and Green members who no longer identify with their parties’ tame responses to “Mutti Merkel.”

Whether Die Linke can sustain this trend will depend on a multitude of factors, but it is safe to assume that Germany’s left-wing voters share a number of features with those who support Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States — though the country lacks a politician with comparable popularity.

The flipside of this success in the West is Eastern voters’ massive loss of confidence in the party. Die Linke’s record here is well-known: it has participated in coalition governments with the SPD, accepted the monetarist consensus on public spending, and even implemented cuts in social services.

In Thüringen, where Die Linke heads a coalition government with the SPD and the Greens, the party suffered heavy losses. For the party’s reformist wing, Thüringen was meant as a trial run for a federal coalition with the SPD and the Greens. Now, it simply confirms that Die Linke “humanely” managing neoliberal policy has disastrous results.

The Refugee Question

Die Linke’s losses in the East are largely the result of the AfD’s surge. The far right has gained massively from the three so-called people’s parties — the Christian Democrats, the SPD, and Die Linke.

Thirty years of neoliberal destruction of the geographical fixes of the working class in Germany, combined with the decline of political milieus, have produced a layer of atomized individuals among large segments of the working class and the unemployed, consumed by feelings of powerlessness toward the status quo, and often susceptible to racism and conspiracy theories. Around 21 percent of AfD voters self-identify as “workers,” another 21 percent as “unemployed,” and 12 percent as “employees.”

We cannot attribute this phenomenon solely to East German ethnic homogeneity and particular history; the AfD also performed well in the Ruhr Valley’s deindustrialized cities — West Germany’s rust belt and the SPD’s former heartland.

In the election’s aftermath, Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke’s chief candidate, and Oskar Lafontaine, the former chairman, ignited a debate about why AfD succeeded. According to both, Die Linke had not “adequately addressed” Angela Merkel’s “mishandling” of the refugee crisis.

Lafontaine’s editorial in Neues Deutschland, the party’s unofficial newspaper, declared that the refugee question should not be allowed to “suspend” the principles of social justice, claiming that Germany’s poorest citizens should not bear the burden of socially integrating refugees.

Lafontaine went as far as to suggest that many of those seeking asylum in Germany do not even constitute the most destitute segment of their societies, since they have the financial means to flee. Rather than opening Germany’s borders, Lafontaine proposed a financial aid program for resettling refugees in countries neighboring war zones, combined with an almost tangential call for terminating arms sales to states like Saudi Arabia.

What’s more, Lafontaine’s attacks on Die Linke’s principled defence of the right to asylum have come with a personal twist: he also states that co-leaders Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping are deeply unpopular and could never situate themselves with Die Linke’s campaign being led by Sahra Wagenknecht and Reformer-turned-Wagenknecht ally, Dietmar Bartsch.

He’s right that Die Linke did not make many gains in Baden Württemberg and Saxony, the deeply conservative states from which Riexinger and Kipping respectively hail. He’s also right that Wagenknecht proved quite popular after each televised debate. But the public respected her opposition to Merkel’s handling of the eurozone crisis and the growing gap between rich and poor, not her calls to increase the police budget after the Berlin Christmas market terror attack.

The Lafontaine-Wagenknecht faction are stuck in a circular argument. They rightly point out that those less well-off should not bear the brunt of a complex logistical, fiscal, and bureaucratic endeavor. And they can easily point to right-wingers in their own party — like Bodo Ramelow, the prime minister of Thuringia — who followed Merkel’s lead on this issue by not demanding that the rich pay for integrating refugees and even deporting rejected asylum seekers. They point to some inconsistencies in the party’s electoral manifesto regarding the right to asylum, as well as the “unrealistic” and “adventurist” character of the demand of “right to stay for all.” But they sound exactly like right-wing Social Democrats when they claim that open borders are not “financially viable.”

Die Linke could make radical demands to deal with the cost of integration — like a reduction in the defense budget or a tax hike on higher incomes — that would contribute to a much-needed heightening of class contradictions in Germany. Instead some of the party has opted for opportunistically following the current initiated by the AfD and the mainstream parties. Even the argument that refugees increase the competition in the labor market to the detriment of local workers is remarkably shallow, as the same could theoretically be said about the increase in the women’s share of the labor force, something that Wagenknecht and Lafontaine, of course, have no intention of rolling back.

The AfD Vote

Instead of placing blame on Die Linke’s alleged “downplaying” of the refugee question, we should view the successes of both Die Linke and the AfD more closely, for these point to some interesting facts.

As already mentioned, Die Linke did well where its local branches invested in antiracist struggles and party building. The Lafontaine-Wagenknecht faction often argues that Die Linke is in the middle of an electoral trade-off, replacing workers and the unemployed with the middle classes and a young intelligentsia more motivated by normative issues than material interests.

But this argument merely reflects mainstream sociological accounts of the working class, as one defined by the range of income or sociocultural milieu, not one’s position within the production process. Die Linke’s campaign supported strikes in weakly unionized branches of the economy, and it is encouraging that around 70 percent of its voters cited the party’s platform as the main reason for supporting it, rather than the role of personalities.

Conversely, the AfD not only performed well among precarious workers and the unemployed, but it also attracted hundreds of thousands of middle-class voters from the CDU. The AfD is not a working-class party by any stretch of the imagination: its positions on the welfare state and the labor market are thoroughly neoliberal, and its activist core are an assortment of former Christian Democrat functionaries, small business owners, and avowed Nazis. It paid for its expensive campaign through murky channels linked to strange sources of wealth, like the eccentric billionaire Baron August von Finck, who has a long history of combining his fascism with a passion for “fiscally sane” policies.

Further, the election results in Bavaria and Saxony show that the AfD did particularly well where the CDU and CSU tried to copy its racism most aggressively, thereby lending the far-right party an aura of legitimacy among the middle and upper-middle classes. In Ingolstadt, for example, a rich Bavarian town with full employment and the site of major automobile and aviation industries, the AfD scored 15.3 percent of the vote. Even when workers vote for the AfD, it is not necessarily the most precarious segments of the working class that do so.

Preliminary surveys among AfD voters shed some light on why they supported the neo-fascist formation. They cited “terrorism,” “crime,” and “immigration” as their top three reasons for supporting for the AfD, indicating just how much mainstream political discourse and Islamophobia have accommodated the party’s rise. Moreover, only 30 percent of AfD voters fully identify with the party — the remainder explained that they made their decision because of a feeling of “disappointment at the other parties.”

What do these figures tell us about Germany’s resurgent far right? It is certainly undeniable that the AfD’s vote was overwhelmingly a protest vote that transcended class. The theatrical departure of “moderate” Frauke Petry from the party during a news conference a day after the elections – out of protest at the party’s neo-fascist orientation, which she helped initiate in 2015 — already points to unresolved conflicts and personal squabbles within the party, casting doubts on the its ability to anchor itself in the political mainstream.

There is also no use in denying the AfD’s appeal among the less well-off. The fact that a sizable portion of its voters are workers and unemployed who voted for the party out of protest, means that Die Linke can and should try to win these people over to progressive ideas. However, the fact that this protest is articulated in racist and law-and-order terms means that the argument against the AfD cannot be solely won by pointing to the party’s neoliberal policies.

Instead, Die Linke should highlight that racism and terrorism are ideological smokescreens aimed at diverting attention from the real issues at stake: crumbling infrastructure thanks to Wolfgang Schäuble’s Schwarze Null budget policies, precarious living conditions for millions of contract workers, and the chronic under-funding of education.

Left-Wing Populism

To their credit, Kipping and Riexinger have pinned a large part of the blame for the AfD’s success on the mainstream parties’ enabling role. Across the board, the CDU and SPD have adopted the far right’s themes while sidelining social issues.

Riexinger responded to Lafontaine’s intervention by correctly stating that Die Linke should resist any position that pits local workers against newly arrived ones. This is a principled position, but it certainly needs to transcend the necessary critique of arguments that call for reducing immigration.

Indeed, the current discourse within the party is highly confusing. A large segment of the party’s left has adopted the Wagenknecht line on immigration, often as a reflex against accusations of racism from the party’s office-seeking right. However, while correctly criticizing Wagenknecht and Lafontaine, the latter are going out of their way to avoid the elephant in the room responsible for the party’s miserable results in the East: Die Linke’s disastrous and ineffectual participation in local coalition governments. Any path forward that does not address this central issue will only perpetuate the cycle of radical posturing, government participation, and electoral failure.

Lots of ink has been spilled in an attempt to resolve this apparent contradict and formulate an alternative, left-wing populism that can counter the far right’s popularity among workers and the unemployed, with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders often cited as role models. Inspired by theorists like Chantal Mouffe, some have proposed creating a “people of the left” — a radical democratic alliance that unites society’s downtrodden across national lines.

The is certainly something an anticapitalist left can and should identify with to a certain extent. However, this often-vague discourse of creating an understanding between different “milieus” — the “workers,” “the intelligentsia,” the “refugees” — tends to view these subjectivities as separate, autonomous categories. Moreover, the idea of allying with “green-alternative” and “social-democratic milieus,” as suggested by Riexinger in his response to Lafontaine, can easily be co-opted in the direction of forging a SPD-Green-Linke government project in 2021. We should not dismiss this possibility, as the SPD will likely start hitting left-sounding notes in order win back lost voters.

In fact, one of the great weaknesses within Die Linke — and the contemporary left in general — is the implicit ideology of a division of labor between different political sectors, pioneered, even if inadvertently, by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, and granted extra legitimacy by Antonio Negri’s theory of the “multitude.”

Thus, the parliamentary party is responsible for conducting day-to-day affairs, whereas the workers’ movement and the various social movements remain autonomous and leave their representation up to the party, which in turn does not interfere with their day-to-day functions in order to avoid appearing “paternalistic.” In this (very schematic) illustration of such thinking, the workers’ movement appears as just one of many political subjects, and often as the most “old-fashioned” or irrelevant one, an impression guided by a flawed diagnosis about the total transformation of the working class in “post-Fordism” and an overdetermining belief in power of “affects” in practical politics.

Die Linke’s history actually provides the most convincing refutation of this approach. The party owes its existence to the grassroots revolt within the trade unions that produced the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG), which merged with the Party of Democratic Socialism to form Die Linke in 2007.

Die Linke’s implicit ideology of “separating the fields” means that it has not paid adequate attention to building a base within the labor movement. While the party has launched several commendable efforts to extend its appeal to the organized working class — for example, by connecting left-wing trade unionists with the help of the party’s think tank, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung — most of its apparatus only pays lip service to creating a strong left-wing pole within the labor movement. Instead, they focus on electoral contests, talk-show appearances, and winning over new demographics.

Building Struggles Together

The importance of strengthening the Left within labor cannot be emphasized enough, especially considering one of the most alarming aspects of the latest elections: the AfD’s success among unionized workers.

In recent years, German trade unions have positioned themselves as antiracist and pro-migration, but this has not made their members immune to the AfD’s message. According to a study by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), male union members disproportionately voted for the AfD. (Female unionists, on the other hand, were less likely to support the far right.)

We can offer some possible explanations for this: solidarity with refugees and migrants has become common sense in the labor movement, but this has produced a backlash, with some members leaving their unions on political grounds. It’s hard to determine the exact number of these cases, but sections of the German working class have supported far-right parties in the past, such as the German People’s Union (DVU) in the 1990s. These workers may hold onto welfare chauvinism — a phenomenon the trade union bureaucracy encourages through its economic nationalism — as a means to protect their standards of living.

Another interpretation argues that pensioners, more likely to vote for the AfD than young people, make up an ever-larger proportion of trade union membership.

Determining why union members turned to the far right remains an intellectual and organizational task for the Left in Germany — as well as in the United States, where many union members supported Donald Trump.

We must also consider the decline of German trade unions. This phenomenon, particularly troubling given unions’ previous strength, has forced the labor movement to organize workers through campaigning, coalition-building with social movements, and more confrontational tactics. In sectors where groups of workers hold structural power, organizing drives and strikes have been most successful.

Despite these bright spots, we’re unlikely to see a return to the 2015 labor upsurge given existing contracts, many of which include no-strike rules. Unions are even less likely to challenge these arrangements in industries where employers have used temporary workers to undermine the system of codetermination, like the automobile industry.

The labor movement’s historical weakness became particularly obvious during the diesel scandal. Unions remained silent because any hint of confrontation would have pushed share prices even lower and endangered workers’ jobs.

The alliance between unions and corporate interests remains the biggest obstacle to left-wing hegemony in Germany, but this state of affairs isn’t eternal. Even workers in the still-profitable export-oriented industries will eventually experience the global financial crisis’s effects.

But we cannot wait for the “right objective conditions” to provoke another left-wing revolt within the rank and file. Given the AfD’s success among the working class — organized, non-unionized, and unemployed — the Left should take practical steps to reverse this development and go on the offensive in the immediate future. We do not know what concrete form these steps will assume, but we believe they should move along three axes.

First, Die Linke — as an organization with significant material resources unequaled by any other left-wing formation in Europe — must play a crucial role. Europe’s traditional working-class parties mostly emerged from the labor movement in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the opposite should take place today: Die Linke should use its established presence to politicize labor struggles. By taking a more strategic approach to emerging disputes in the service, care, and logistics sectors, Die Linke can begin building a viable left-wing position against the trade union bureaucracy’s crisis corporatism and economic nationalism.

Secondly, we must overcome the idea that social struggles are autonomous, instead emphasizing the shared class content of struggles to integrate refugees and to build affordable housing. Ideally, this process should go hand-in-hand with efforts to create geographical points of convergence between various struggles, leading to something like a unified anticapitalist “moral milieu.”

Already, the vote for Die Linke among many previously unpoliticized young people is disproportionate to the party’s ground game. We can assume that voting for the left in Germany today constitutes a gut feeling in favor of social justice, against neoliberalism and racism. Die Linke can add substance to this moral stance.

Finally, and most relevant to the outcome of this election, we must put to rest the idea that antiracist and class struggles form two entirely different fields. Racism plays an important role in the logic of German capital, as evidenced by the official unions campaigning for Standort Deutschland (“Location Germany”) and chastising “lazy Greeks” some years ago or by German industry’s reliance on low-paid, segregated, and racialized labor from the European periphery during the postwar boom.

Both wings of Die Linke — the advocates for “understanding the fears of the working class towards immigration,” as well as the “cosmopolitan” defenders of government participation — share an image of the working class as white, ethnically German, and male, something far from the truth. Having a broader conception of the working class is a small step the Left ought to take in order contribute to the much-needed development of a unified working-class consciousness. This would be a long-term project, but would represent a real breakthrough for the socialist movement worldwide.