Are These the Last Days of Die Linke?

Die Linke was founded on the promise of unifying Germany’s left and rejuvenating what was once the world’s leading socialist movement. Fifteen years later, it’s struggling to survive.

You couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Susanne Hennig-Wellsow and Janine Wissler on Germany’s election night. The pair had only led Die Linke for a few months — hardly enough time to halt the party’s downward spiral, let alone reverse it. Nevertheless, as results began to roll in on September 26, 2021, the fresh-faced cochairs found themselves in front of the cameras, forced to explain why their party was teetering on the brink of annihilation.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Back in February 2021, Hennig-Wellsow and Wissler had been elected to lead Germany’s socialists to greener pastures. After nearly a decade of stagnation and dysfunction characterized by ongoing public feuds between leading party figures, Die Linke was hoping to begin anew. Instead, it’s now on life support, its 4.9 percent September performance just the latest sign that Die Linke’s survival as a national political force is anything but certain.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Since the election, an at times almost surreal spectacle has unfolded: practically everyone, from Die Linke’s aging cohort of East German pragmatists to the young activists who increasingly shape the party’s direction, has issued some kind of mea culpa acknowledging shared responsibility for the defeat and vowing to do better.

Hennig-Wellsow promised to “leave no stone unturned.” Amira Mohamed Ali, who took over as parliamentary cochair from controversial populist Sahra Wagenknecht in 2019, told a major news magazine that “we have to be honest with ourselves” and undertake a “critical review” of the election results. Some party members, frustrated with the leadership, even launched a petition calling for an independent commission of experts to investigate Die Linke’s decline.

And yet, for all the hand-wringing about the need for radical honesty, little change can be seen.

Both nationally and in states such as Saxony-Anhalt, where support for Die Linke has more than halved in the last decade, the status quo prevails. Not a single reshuffle has taken place among the party leadership — oftentimes, it seems, because no one else is up for the job.

As an unprecedented global health crisis drags into its third year, tensions on the European Union’s eastern border escalate, and an austerity hawk assumes control of the German finance ministry, the only significant force to the left of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) appears politically exhausted and institutionally paralyzed. No one denies that Die Linke is in free fall, but no one knows how to change its course.

“Do You Remember the Time . . . ”

When leaders of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the “Electoral Alternative” (WASG) met in Frankfurt for secret talks about founding a new party in March 2005, history appeared to be on their side. Germany’s center-left government had just passed harsh labor market reforms, provoking weekly protests around the country and a wave of defections from the Social Democrats. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had rejuvenated the antiwar movement, and planned tuition hikes were bringing thousands of students onto the streets.

The PDS would be the senior partner in any merger, bringing with it about sixty thousand members (albeit two-thirds of whom were retirees) and a stable base in the eastern states. Most of its active cadre came from the middle ranks of the East German state apparatus — teachers, government officials, and a not-insignificant number of dedicated Marxists for whom the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had represented a genuine, if flawed, attempt to build socialism. They weren’t necessarily the most agile social movement activists, but they were rooted in their communities and, perhaps more important, understood from experience the stakes of politics: not as a question of individual morality but as a collective undertaking that can end in spectacular success — or catastrophe.

Politically, the PDS combined a largely pragmatic — one might even say technocratic — approach with the intellectual heritage of East German reformers like Michael Brie who, together with other young academics at the country’s universities, cut their teeth pushing for democratic socialist reforms in the GDR.

Such reform, of course, never came to East Germany. Instead, the country plunged into reunification with its western sibling, and 2 million members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) abandoned the organization overnight. Amid the chaos, those who remained, led by the maverick human rights lawyer Gregor Gysi, expelled the top brass and renamed the party “SED-PDS” — soon just “PDS” — as part of its “irreversible break with the Stalinist system,” as the East German philosopher Michael Schumann described it in a seminal speech in December 1989.

Essentially annexed into a liberal democracy, the rump PDS continued to bleed members as it struggled to find its footing in a united, capitalist Germany. Meanwhile, party intellectuals latched on to their newfound academic freedom to conduct serious studies of state socialism’s shortcomings and explore the limits of actually existing capitalism, often under the aegis of the party’s newly founded think tank, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

By the mid-1990s, as factory closures and mass unemployment swept across the former GDR, the PDS defied predictions of its imminent demise and consolidated a stable base as the voice of disenfranchised Easterners, even joining a few regional governments. Nevertheless, it had never made meaningful progress in expanding outside its core strongholds, and in 2002, it missed the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament — underlining how precarious its existence really was. The union with the WASG was supposed to change that.

Despite numbering only twelve thousand members, the WASG offered an arguably more promising foundation for a new socialist party. Its core members were West German trade unionists, many coming from the left wing of the Social Democrats or the German Communist Party’s old Eurocommunist faction. Many of them — like IG Metall functionaries Thomas Händel, who sat in the European Parliament for Die Linke until 2019, and Klaus Ernst, who is still a member of the Bundestag — had participated in the last big upsurge of labor struggles in the 1970s and 1980s and spent most of their lives involved in the workers’ movement.

Intellectually, this cohort also had an impressive array of resources to draw on. Quite a few of them had learned from veterans of the interwar workers’ movement like Wolfgang Abendroth and Leo Kofler, and the infrastructure they built up — journals like Probleme des Klassenkampfs and publishing houses like the Verlag für das Studium der Arbeiterbewegung — not only kept socialist ideas alive but produced a mountain of literature that popularized them among a new generation. Whatever their weaknesses, they represented what was, in retrospect, probably the last generation of German socialists who were both steeped in Marxist theory and rooted in the country’s powerful labor movement.

By 2005, both the reform communism of the PDS and the left social democratic tradition that the WASG drew from bore the scars of decades of defeats. Nevertheless, the merger between the two offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance of finally, after fifty years of electoral marginalization, establishing a national political force to the left of the SPD and, if only symbolically, healing the historical divisions that had plagued the movement for nearly a century.

All That Glitters

Things moved quickly after those first meetings in Frankfurt. By June 2005, the two parties had agreed to nominate joint electoral lists, and the PDS symbolically renamed itself the “Left Party” to reflect this new openness. The new formation received a huge boost from former finance minister and beloved Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine, who joined in May after then chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced snap elections in what many saw as an attempt to dash the Left’s growing electoral momentum. The gamble backfired, and the union between the PDS and the WASG, now helmed by Gysi and Lafontaine, rolled into parliament with 8.7 percent of the vote.

In hindsight, one could argue that Die Linke’s current impasse was inevitable — that once the party’s core voters in the East died off (250,000 of them in the last four years alone) and the SPD pivoted away from its worst neoliberal excesses, the protest vote that catapulted the party to nearly 12 percent in 2009 and crowned it leader of the opposition in 2013 would dissipate. After all, the 4.9 percent Die Linke received in September is strikingly close to the PDS’s results in the 1990s, and its membership figures are almost identical to that party’s on the eve of its fusion with the WASG.

But the iteration of Die Linke currently clinging to life is quite a different beast from the one that Gysi, Lafontaine, and company stitched together a decade and a half ago.

Bolstered by 2005’s sensational result, Die Linke sailed from one success to the next. After formally becoming a single entity in June 2007, its seventy thousand members made it the third-largest party in the country, and it passed the 5 percent threshold in every state election except for the deeply conservative Bavaria until 2010. Internally, the party remained sharply divided along ideological, strategic, and even cultural lines, but the rising electoral tide and the shared hostility of the mainstream parties helped to paper over these differences, at least for a while.

The first signs of turbulence came in early 2010, when a cancer diagnosis prompted Lafontaine to resign as party leader, robbing Die Linke of its most popular national figure. By 2011, the winning streak was over, and by 2013, despite still having a prominent national position, the party had failed to reenter parliament in three different states. Since then, the only bright spot has been its ongoing success in Thuringia, where it runs the state government. Everywhere else, the party has stagnated at best — in most of the eastern states, the situation can only be described as catastrophic, dipping below double digits in many of its former strongholds.

It’s not that no one is joining the party. Though the loss of the PDS’s older Eastern base continues to plague Die Linke, a new generation has been recruited to its ranks. Roughly one-third of the current membership joined within the last five years, and more than half of these new members are from the West.

Growth in the West has not, however, translated into a strengthening of the trade union base the WASG had promised back in 2005. Indeed, as Marxist sociologist Frank Deppe diplomatically put it several years ago, “For the party as a whole,” the trade unions “did not acquire the degree of significance the WASG’s founders had hoped for.”

The causes of this development can be traced back to a number of factors. According to Heinz Hillebrand, a cofounder of the WASG and later head of Die Linke’s political education department, the trade unionists were quickly outmaneuvered and their influence limited. They occupied positions in parliament and the party leadership, and a few were given jobs in the old PDS apparatus, but they found themselves caught in a pincer grip between PDS members with more experience and younger activists with plenty of time to devote to faction fights.

At the same time, Germany’s core industrial unions were becoming a significantly less hospitable environment for socialists of all stripes. While the WASG and later Die Linke drew key left-wing figures out of the labor movement and into the party apparatus, the twin pressures of globalization and neoliberalism pushed many unions toward a protectionist approach, away from the class struggle orientation prevalent as late as the 1980s.

Thus, at the moment when a socialist current inside the unions would have been crucial to fight the slide to the right, many of those best positioned to do so found themselves winning seats in parliament or taking jobs as full-time party functionaries instead. The party still counts a considerable number of trade unionists among its active membership, but at no point did Die Linke consolidate anything resembling a current within organized labor as a whole, whose own ranks declined from a peak of 11 million in 1990 to 6 million today.

This growing gap between Die Linke and the class it seeks to represent is starkly reflected in its dwindling electoral support. In 2009, exit polls indicated that the party won 17 percent of the trade union vote. By 2021, that number had fallen to 6 percent. An equally grave collapse can be observed among the unemployed, where Die Linke once commanded 25 percent of the vote but now wins only 11 percent. Among workers, it’s down to 5 percent.

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

Alongside the undeniable gulf between Die Linke and the working class, however, was a persistent generational gap within the party itself. Though both the PDS and the WASG counted talented politicians among the ranks of its founders, many of them were nearing the end of their careers by the time Die Linke emerged.

Oskar Lafontaine was already in his early sixties, as was PDS chairman Lothar Bisky, who died in 2013. Gregor Gysi, an icon of national politics for decades and still a moral authority in the party today, was in his late fifties. Werner Dreibus, another key trade unionist involved in the WASG’s founding, was sixty-three when he was elected federal secretary in 2010.

Beneath them was a relatively thin layer of Gen Xers — people born in the 1960s and 1970s who otherwise could have served as a political and intellectual link between the founding generation and the younger milieus now coming into the party. Like the Left in most of the Western world, German socialists’ ranks had been thinned by the rise of the Greens and the anti-globalization movement in the 1980s and 1990s. For Die Linke, this translated into incredible difficulties building a coherent political culture and a consistent strategic vision after the founding generation began to retire, as those who succeeded them lacked the authority as well as the experience to convince wider layers beyond the party faithful.

Over the last decade, its lack of a political center has meant that Die Linke remains an awkward amalgam of rival currents, held together by the federal funds that come with parliamentary representation and the hope that, someday, the party will transcend its current constraints and live up to the potential many members believe it still has.

Consequently, the absence of a long-term vision has meant that Die Linke’s strategy is dictated largely by circumstance. Historically, it has chosen to be a party of opposition when electoral arithmetic forces it to, but it is more than happy to jump into any coalition it’s offered, oftentimes embracing painful concessions as proof of its willingness to compromise while watching its support dip in subsequent elections. Those who oppose this trend tend to invoke nebulous “movements” as the true vehicle of change, but they have even fewer successes to point to than their electorally inclined comrades.

You Can’t Tread Water Forever

Today, Die Linke encompasses everything from Trotskyist groups for whom the party is little more than a stepping stone to a more radical formation, to the politicians in Thuringia who run the state government competently but have taken few steps toward anything resembling socialist reform.

Most young people joining the party these days come not from the ranks of the trade unions but from social movements and autonomist groups, or perhaps the party’s youth organization. The politics and aesthetic preferences of this milieu have increasingly come to dictate the party’s public image, reflecting a broader convergence between Die Linke and some sections of the radical left that had been quite skeptical at the time of the party’s founding but increasingly see the utility of a left-wing opposition in parliament (if nothing else, as an attractive employer to sustain movement work).

An aging party like Die Linke necessarily has to welcome any infusion of young blood, but in this case, it appears to come at the cost of alienating much of its traditional base. Take, for instance, the party’s annual street festival, held every summer in central Berlin: in 2010, celebrations lasted three whole days, attracted more than ten thousand guests, and featured Angela Davis as the guest of honor. This year, covid-19 cut the festival down to a half-day of livestreams, featuring headliners like a local band whose name roughly translates as “The Dead Crack Whores in the Trunk.”

As its institutional and community roots withered, the party’s warring factions responded with their own initiatives to win back lost ground among the working class. The most visible was by far Wagenknecht’s “Aufstehen” project, launched in 2018 as a nonpartisan campaigning group that would pressure the government on social issues without the baggage of party labels. It faced vehement opposition from the liberal media as well as large sections of Die Linke’s membership, who viewed it as little more than another maneuver in the ongoing faction fight. Despite making a big splash in the press and signing up more than a hundred thousand people in a few weeks, the buzz quickly faded as it became clear that neither Wagenknecht nor anyone else had thought much about what to do with all those email addresses. Today, it’s little more than a mailing list, while Wagenknecht herself has pivoted to her immensely popular YouTube channel, which has increasingly become a platform for vaccine skepticism in recent months.

Wagenknecht’s opponents in the party leadership sought to counter her populist style with an orientation they called “connective class politics.” Though this particularly unwieldy phrase has since fallen out of fashion, most of the party’s younger cohort has converged around a nebulously defined tactic of “organizing,” which in practice tends to mean knocking on doors and participating in local political initiatives. Inspired by the success of Bernie Sanders in the United States, the party apparatus and a large chunk of the membership now seeks to go out into the neighborhoods and turn Die Linke into a tribune of the oppressed that doesn’t do politics for the people but with them.

This approach dovetails with the orientation that has become the default among young radicals in Germany today: an emphasis on process and sloganeering coupled with a glaring absence of any coherent theory of change and an aversion to talking explicitly about political power. Every big demonstration — whether for migrants’ rights, more aggressive climate policies, or, more recently, the nationalization of major housing corporations — is treated as an indication that public sentiment is on the party’s side and it’s only a matter of time before this is reflected at the ballot box. Yet each subsequent election has ended in gut-wrenching disappointment.

September’s electoral body blow was yet another chapter in this ongoing, increasingly bleak saga: the electorate moved, however tepidly, to the left, but without Die Linke.

Do or Die

In 2003, as the PDS was fighting for its life and down to its last two members of parliament, Michael Brie wrote that the party possessed “important and indispensable resources.” Nevertheless, he noted, these were “not sufficient to develop the existing potential of a socialist party in Germany to the necessary extent.” If it wanted to survive, something would have to change.

In many ways, those lines could have been written yesterday. Die Linke still commands a few electoral strongholds, a parliamentary presence, offices and chapters spanning the country, and tens of thousands of members who believe another world is possible. That’s a lot more than any other left-wing force in Germany can claim, but it evidently isn’t enough, and it’s difficult to say what could reverse its fortunes.

Even so, the party’s contribution shouldn’t be underestimated. Die Linke amplified opposition to a center-left government’s neoliberal turn and forced the mainstream press to pay attention to issues like poverty wages, rampant privatization, and the deep structural inequality between East and West. Without it, Germany probably still wouldn’t have a minimum wage, and the Social Democratic Party may never have undertaken its halting return to something resembling a progressive agenda.

It may be the case, however, that Die Linke has run its course. The party managed to make waves in the media and, for a while, catalyze diffuse antiestablishment sentiment to score a few impressive electoral victories. Yet, like so many other attempts to rebuild the socialist movement over the last decade, it failed to translate those into long-term organizational growth among the layers of society that suffer most under capitalism. Once the political winds began to shift, the party found itself reduced to the same subcultures and left-wing milieus it was supposed to transcend. Reversing that trend would have taken a substantial, long-term commitment with buy-in from majorities at the top and among the members. Lacking both, the backslide now threatens to become terminal.

After taking a few months to lick their wounds, cochairs Hennig-Wellsow and Wissler addressed the membership in December with a lengthy statement on how they plan to help their party “realign the compass.” Anyone hoping for groundbreaking political analysis was disappointed, but the duo at least emphasized the need to speak with a unified voice and focus on four key issues with which the party is most positively identified: housing, health care, green public transportation, and defending workers affected by privatization and globalization.

In most other respects, the leaders struck a conciliatory tone, emphasizing unity as well as the kind of pluralism that has kept the party in a holding pattern for so long. The only thing every faction in Die Linke probably agrees on is their conclusion: “We can only win back trust if we change ourselves.” Much more controversial, on the other hand, is the question, “Change into what?”