No Corbyn in Sight

A membership surge in the German Social Democratic Party has sparked talks of a Corbyn-like transformation. But don’t get too excited just yet.

German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz speaks before a party gathering last December. SPD Schleswig-Holstein / Flickr

For a minute, it almost looked like the membership of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) might grow a spine. Ahead of the SPD’s conference last Sunday to decide whether to enter into talks with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), several eastern state parties as well as the Berlin SPD declared their opposition to the negotiations, while particularly vocal resistance emerged from the party’s youth wing, the Jusos.

And indeed, the conference vote ended up being remarkably close, with only 56 percent of the assembled delegates endorsing the negotiations for a new “GroKo” — the German media’s awkward abbreviation for “große Koalition,” a grand coalition between the country’s two main parties, the CDU and SPD. But fifty-six percent is still fifty-six percent. Formal talks to assemble a grand coalition — the third in sixteen years — will soon be underway.

While Sunday’s vote clearly points to widespread dissatisfaction among the SPD base, party politics in the weeks leading up to the conference suggest that the SPD apparatus remains in control of the situation. The leaderships of most major states voiced their support for the negotiations ahead of the meeting, and the three state parties that objected represented just thirty-six delegates. The SPD leadership stood largely united in the face of this small revolt, leaving no opening for a left-wing renewal figure, let alone movement, to rescue the party from its ongoing decline.

Perhaps no one captured the absurd twists and turns and unprincipled flip-flopping better than party leader Martin Schulz, who — after being elected as precisely such a renewal candidate, and then swearing off any kind of government with Merkel following the party’s humiliating defeat last September — now finds himself arguing for the same constellation of power he vowed could no longer be an option for his SPD.

An uninspired character, Schulz did his best on Sunday to play the part of the passionate statesman forced to join the government out of a sense of national duty, while at the same time insisting that he and his team had wrung substantial concessions from Merkel. The initial agreement between the SPD and CDU, which forms the basis of coalition negotiations, includes several noteworthy, arguably “Social Democratic” reforms.

Yet most of the party’s main election demands, including abolishing Germany’s “two-class” health care system, are absent. It also appears that the parties have agreed to limit the country’s refugee intake to between 180,000 and 220,000 annually — something the SPD has loudly opposed until now. Most damning, perhaps, were the pre-conference leaks that the parties would quietly abandon the German government’s goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

Schulz and company want their supporters to believe that these concessions are the result of hard bargaining, but the fact is, after two decades of neoliberal convergence, very little difference remains between the two major parties. As Oliver Nachtwey argued in the lead up to last year’s elections, Merkel largely abandoned fiscally conservative policies after taking government, and has since presided over a stable spending and social welfare policy that has even seen her overturn the most extreme of the SPD’s neoliberal reforms of the early 2000s. Tweaking a few details to appease the Social Democrats probably didn’t take much work.

A Revolt From Below?

It’s hard to imagine how a third grand coalition could be squared with the party’s public claims to be on a path of “renewal,” yet this is exactly what the leadership is attempting. According to Schulz and his team, renewal is not only possible in the parliamentary opposition, but is just as plausible by pushing Merkel to the center-left in government. The electorate seems to disagree, and by Monday at least one poll had the SPD down to 17 percent.

If the broader electorate has made up its mind, the SPD base seems less decisive. The German media was rife with post-conference commentaries declaring the SPD’s political death, while social media was alight with members of Die Linke encouraging frustrated SPD members to decamp for sunnier shores.

But rather than the predicted Social Democratic bloodletting, the party has registered several thousand new members and sustained hardly any resignations this week. The reason is clear: while the party conference may have signed off on negotiations with the CDU, members will still have the chance to vote on whether to accept the conditions. (A similar vote, in 2013, saw 76 percent of SPD members back entering a coalition.)

This new rule — introduced several years ago to counteract widespread perceptions of a democratic deficit in the party — has provided opponents of the coalition with a singular opportunity to tip the scales in their favor by recruiting new members in time for the vote. Launched by left-wing members of the Jusos, the campaign is calling for “a tenner against the GroKo” (10€ representing the minimum dues for two months of membership), and has provoked the ire of a party leadership already nervous about winning the vote.

The parallels to Jeremy Corbyn’s rise are evident — a social-democratic party in a seemingly irreversible slide introduces elements of enhanced internal democracy in order to give the appearance of dynamism and revival, only to be seized upon by the party’s marginalized left wing in an unexpected turn of events, reinvigorating the base, attracting thousands of new members, and seemingly transforming the party. Given the unexpected developments in British and American electoral politics over the last two years, it would be unwise to rule out a Corbyn-like renovation of the SPD. But the specifics of the German situation make such a revolt much less likely.

First, there is the undeniable lack of a left-wing figure capable of leading such a revolt. The SPD’s nominal left stands united behind the grand coalition proposal, and even the Jusos members seeking to build momentum against the move are largely functionaries themselves, arguably seeking to save the party from collapse before their own careers can blossom. Little is left of the lively intellectual culture, youth activism, and trade union base that characterized the party for most of its postwar history. If there is a Jeremy Corbyn waiting somewhere in the rank and file, she has yet to show her face.

Until the 1990s, the SPD was a proud, progressive reformist party. While the radical left may have associated it primarily with holding back the 1919 revolutionary wave and complicity in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, for the overwhelming majority of German workers it represented social security, a robust welfare state, and a degree of co-determination in the workplace. Leaders like Willy Brandt, whatever their political flaws, inspired genuine enthusiasm and even adoration in broad segments of the labor movement.

Yet since its neoliberal turn, the party’s membership has more than halved, down from over a million to a little over four hundred thousand. The Jusos, for their part, claim a membership of seventy thousand, but it is unclear how precise these figures are and unlikely that more than a few thousand are actually active in any practical sense. Most Jusos chapters are devoted to student parliament elections and padding the resumés of its leading functionaries. Its days as a radical leftist mass youth organization are long over, and both organizations lack the kind of far-left fringe characters like Corbyn or Sanders that could pioneer such a renewal.

More fundamental, though, are the vast differences between the UK and the Federal Republic. Unlike the first-past-the-post systems in the US and UK, Germany’s proportional representation system makes it much easier for smaller parties to obtain seats in parliament and thus appear as a relevant political alternative.

Thus, whereas the Labour Party continued to host a proud, albeit battered, left wing throughout the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, and many on the US left figure they have no choice but to eke out an existence on the margins of the Democratic Party, the left wing of the SPD split from the party in the early 2000s to form the WASG, which later fused into Die Linke, currently the country’s fourth-strongest party with around 10 percent in the polls. The presence of Die Linke means that a principled socialist opposition is already visible in politics and the media, functionally cutting off the political space for a “Corbyn moment” with German characteristics. With most of the SPD’s left wing already gone and a firmly entrenched left-wing opposition in parliament, the SPD appears to have nowhere to go but down.

What does this mean for Germany in the medium term? Assuming the grand coalition wins the day (likely but by no means certain), it appears the country is in for another four years of gradual political atrophy. The German export sector seems set to continue its minor boom for the foreseeable future, which will keep tax revenues high and allow the government to avoid any major spending cuts. If Schulz’s public statements are to believed, Germany will also make higher financial contributions to the European Union following Brexit, and work to strengthen and consolidate European institutions. Little will change, but the growing apathy and disaffection with mainstream politics will continue to eat away at the foundations of the political order.

At the same time, this will not be a grand coalition like any other. Last year’s elections not only delivered humiliatingly low results for both of the major parties, but also witnessed the far-right Alternative für Deutschland’s meteoric rise. With the SPD back in government, the AfD will now be the largest opposition party in parliament, posing the very real danger that further hollowing out of the political center will benefit not the Left, but the radical right.