The German Left Needs to Speak to the Working-Class Majority

This weekend, Germany’s left-wing party Die Linke meets for a congress to respond to its recent electoral decline. For too long, the party has soaked in the language of activist subcultures — and voters have lost faith that it’s serious about wielding power.

Hundreds of members of Germany’s Die Linke will convene this weekend in Erfurt for a party congress tasked with electing a new leadership and beginning to right the ship. ( / Flickr)

Recently, a young left-winger from western Germany told me that he couldn’t remember a time before Die Linke. He’d been in primary school when Germany’s only socialist party was founded fifteen years ago, and it had been a constant presence throughout his life — often, he said, a rather “embarrassing” one. Despite voting for Die Linke, he’d never even considered becoming a member.

As someone who joined the party in 2007, soon after its creation, I couldn’t help but wince a little. I remember the hopeful atmosphere of Die Linke’s early days, when it was demonized in the media and denounced by the political establishment as a cabal of dangerous extremists. The more pushback the party got, it seemed, the more people loved it: campaign rallies were energetic and well-attended, and it marched from one electoral success to another. It was a good time to be a socialist.

As an intern during the 2009 general election campaign, I traveled up and down the country and saw how Die Linke brought together the disparate strands of Germany’s fragmented left, united by the desire to — as Oskar Lafontaine put it at the party’s founding congress — “contribute to the construction of twenty-first century socialism.” The party was far from perfect, and many problems remained unresolved, but things were broadly moving in the right direction. For the first time since the 1950s, Germany had a united socialist opposition, in Parliament and on the streets.

Somewhere along the way, Die Linke lost its groove. After nearly failing to reenter Parliament last September, it has had to respond to the war in Ukraine, #MeToo accusations against several leading members, and now a wave of prominent resignations, beginning with founding father Lafontaine. All this threatens to make the party’s crisis terminal.

Hundreds of members will convene this weekend in Erfurt for a party congress tasked with electing a new leadership and beginning to right the ship. With the entire leadership up for election, many hope the party will finally bury its long-running internal battles and speak “with one voice.” But beyond deciding who that voice will be, it also has to decide who it’s actually speaking to.

Germany’s Degrowth Socialists

Given its current woes, today the idea of Die Linke building socialism for the twenty-first century might sound a bit absurd. But at the time Lafontaine was articulating a widely shared feeling: Die Linke was part of a wave of new parties across Europe that seemed to represent a revival of the Left’s fortunes, after a long slumber. The founding of the Party of the European Left in 2004 and the election of left-wing presidents like Lula, Hugo Chávez, and Evo Morales in Latin America only helped cement that optimism.

Our movement experienced plenty of ups and downs over the 2010s: the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn, the electoral victory and political defeat of Syriza, and Bernie Sanders’s ultimately failed quest for the Democratic nomination. Die Linke, however, obeyed a remarkable kind of secular stagnation: after 2010, advances were rare, but so were its defeats. Indeed, had a perfect storm of internal and external factors not combined to nearly knock Die Linke out of Parliament last September, it’s quite likely that it could have limped on in its current form for another decade. It took a sharp and monumental collapse in its fortunes to — as party elder Michael Brie recently put it — “openly and bluntly reveal what everyone who had watched the party with a degree of sobriety already knew for a long time.”

The reasons for Die Linke’s dire state have been dissected exhaustively by party members and fellow travelers over the last nine months. For some, it’s an allegedly dogmatic and one-sided foreign policy that makes it unelectable, for others a political and aesthetic drift toward middle-class milieus whose interests have proven irreconcilable with those of blue-collar workers. But whatever narrative you sympathize with, they each have one thing in common: the arguments and rhetoric have largely stayed the same since 2012, the last time the party nearly underwent a public collapse.

Today, the divides that have plagued the party for the last decade are as deep as ever, with little prospect of reconciliation. Ahead of the congress, we have the “Appeal for a Popular Left” published on May 31, which largely recapitulates the left-populist, antiestablishment strategy put forward by Sahra Wagenknecht over the last decade; the ecosocialist response to it, signed by a number of prominent party members and sympathizing intellectuals; and other contributions published by functionaries who occupy posts in state governments.

Wagenknecht and her supporters want a party that polemicizes against the government and focuses on defending the welfare state. The ecosocialist majority in the party apparatus, strengthened by an influx of young activists in recent years, advocates for building alliances between the climate movement and the trade unions as the key to reviving its fortunes. Where Die Linke is in power, albeit usually as a junior partner, the argument is to “just make good policy” and let the results speak for themselves.

This factious constellation has held together for fifteen years but never really grew together into a coherent political formation. Facing a series of catastrophic losses in recent months, the mutual resentment is now worse than it ever was. So, it seems unlikely that this weekend will end with Die Linke electing a leadership capable of formulating and enforcing a party line with a degree of authority — even if that’s what seemingly everyone wants.

A strong, united leadership would be a welcome development and a precondition to Die Linke’s survival as a national political force, but the current “frozen conflict” between now well-entrenched factions won’t be solved by a few policy tweaks. Its potential disappearance from Parliament, and the catastrophic implications that would have across Europe, point to a wider malaise on the Left as a whole.

The Scars of Defeat

More than anywhere else in the West, left-wing forces in Germany have been shaped by, well, losing. Whether 1914, 1919, 1933, or 1989, the German socialist movement — once an inspiration and role model for compatriots around the world — has been repeatedly outmaneuvered and rendered helpless through a combination of repression, co-optation, and outright annihilation. Though the Nazis failed to exterminate this movement entirely, in the postwar Federal Republic it was increasingly defined by its cultural and political marginality. While Germany continues to boast one of the strongest labor movements in the Western world, the “radical left” as an organized political force has long ceased to occupy a meaningful place within it.

That’s not to say people didn’t try. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, relatively small groups of socialists in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (DKP) built networks of shop stewards in the country’s industrial heartlands, organized workers’ academies, and sought to rekindle the once deep connections between the socialist movement and organized labor. Their successes, however modest, far outpaced anything the Left has to offer today but tragically were more or less wiped out by the collapse of state socialism in the East and with it large parts of the Marxist and socialist left in the West.

Today’s estrangement between the labor movement and the radical left thus was thus cemented in the 1990s. But it has its roots in the rise of the autonomist movement in West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s, which, after a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to radicalize the industrial workforce, instead chose to fashion its marginalization as a virtue and develop a sprawling countercultural infrastructure based in squatted apartments, so-called “autonomous centers,” and left-wing bars and concert venues.

For this left, which continued to number in the tens of thousands well into the 1990s, working in the unions or in electoral politics raised the specter of reformist integration into the capitalist system rather than its revolutionary overthrow. Accordingly, the most important class struggles of the 1980s weren’t conflicts like IG Metall’s fight for the thirty-five-hour week in 1984 — when nearly 60,000 workers went on strike for five weeks demanding not only shorter working days but also 2.5 million new jobs — but rather the May Day riots in West Berlin three years later, largely remembered today for the torching of a supermarket that, as it later emerged, was committed by an utterly apolitical arsonist.

For lack of an alternative, this kind of politics increasingly became the default route into radicalism for young people across Germany. Now being “left-wing” meant diffuse, angry slogans like “State. Nation. Capital. Shit.” or “Kick nationalism out of your heads!”, expressed in exciting but purely symbolic demonstrations that did more to placate the demonstrators themselves than shift public opinion or pressure the government. Rather than a popular force seeking to change society from within, for many, the radical left became a kind of fortress or refuge from that very society and the evils ascribed to it.

The politics of autonomist resistance may have carved out space for itself in a prosperous Fordist society, but it hasn’t been very useful when building a radical reformist party with mass appeal. Autonomism may not find explicit ideological expression in Die Linke today, but the influence of the period is rampant. We see it both in subcultural aesthetics and rhetoric that might appeal to niche audiences but remain indecipherable to the average voter or in the aversion to party discipline and strong leadership.

More generally, the defeats of the twentieth century are reflected in Die Linke’s deeper lack of ambition. If overtaking the SPD electorally seemed like a real prospect fifteen years ago, the party soon reconciled itself to being a party of ten percent at best, a thorn in the center-left’s side that outflanks them rhetorically with a few utopian demands but not a serious contender for hegemony in the workers’ movement, let alone state power. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that the party finally founded a trade union council to strengthen its ties with organized labor.

Mosaics and Mass Parties

Regardless of what becomes of Die Linke in the months and years to come, there is a strong case to be made that the current caesura marks the end of an entire cycle of left-wing politics in Germany.

Following the post-1989 collapse, the first stirrings of a left revival came in the late 1990s with the anti-globalization movement and opposition to NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. It picked up steam with the protests against the Iraq War in 2003 and “Third Way” Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s labor market reforms one year later, creating the momentum that ultimately birthed Die Linke. Yet throughout this period — much unlike in the twentieth-century experience — no force has been able to assert anything resembling political leadership over this fragmented landscape nor even seemed to try.

For a little over a decade, the dominant framework for theorizing the shape of the Left in Germany has been the euphemistic formulation of the “Mosaic Left,” first coined in 2009 by political scientist Hans-Jürgen Urban. Writing at the height of the financial crisis, Urban argued that the systemic crisis of capitalism had reached a point in which a “social-ecological system change” had become necessary, but that in turn required “an acting subject, a Left willing and capable of acting,” which, unfortunately, was “nowhere to be seen.” Urban ascribed to the Left “signs of paralysis” that prevented it from generating any political capital from its — technically correct — analysis of the crisis. The same was true of Germany’s unions, he argued, which despite their considerable economic and social weight were hemmed in by a structural conservatism induced by their primary obligation to members’ jobs.

The Left’s inability to grasp the opportunity posed by the crisis of capitalism demanded the creation of a new strategic alliance between the unions, the anti-globalization movement, progressive NGOs, and what Urban called the “cultural left” — artists, intellectuals, and other progressive-minded public figures. Operating according to the “principle of autonomous coordination,” this Mosaic Left would have to engage in a process of “collective theoretical efforts” to both develop an analysis of the conjuncture and begin to formulate a strategy of resistance. In the medium term, Urban hoped, this process could lead to the revitalization of both organized labor as well as “possibly offer the Left the chance to return as a political beacon of hope in the post-neoliberal period.”

As a member of the IG Metall union’s executive board, Hans-Jürgen Urban is probably one of the most influential Marxists in Germany today, whose dedication to strengthening the workers’ movement is beyond reproach. But thirteen years since his seminal essay first appeared, it’s worth asking whether this formulation did more harm than good. Whether in Die Linke, the unions, or the extraparliamentary left, referring to the “Mosaic Left” has become a convenient metaphor to skirt around the question of how to become hegemonic and ultimately take state power. Not only does the Left today lack an identifiable leadership, its absence is oftentimes treated as a positive — or at least inalterable — trait.

In the meantime, the “Mosaic” itself, to the extent that it ever existed, seems to be falling apart. The Interventionist Left, a “multi-centric post-autonomist organization” founded in 2005 with the intention of uniting the country’s scattered autonomist scenes into a powerful movement, has been unraveling for years, with chapters either dissolving or leaving the organization and its trademark mobilizations growing smaller by the year. The nominal left wings of the Social Democrats and the Greens, embodied by former Young Socialist leader Kevin Kühnert’s seamless transition from left-wing dissident to loyal government functionary, now find themselves tied to a government that just resolved to turn Germany into a leading military power. Indeed, the only part of the Mosaic Left that hasn’t seen its influence erode over the last decade appears to be IG Metall, which just last week won a 6.5-percent wage increase for steelworkers.

Many of the tasks Urban assigned to the Mosaic Left, such as developing a common theoretical understanding and strategic perspective, remain unfulfilled. In many ways, we aren’t any further along than we were in 2009. As it turns out, some kind of strategic center — a role once occupied by socialist and later communist mass parties — is vital to bring together the various strands of protest and opposition in society and cohere them into a force capable of challenging and ultimately capturing state power. The unions are of course significantly weaker than they were decades ago, and rebuilding them is no simple task, but we have yet to encounter any alternative organizational form capable of matching it in terms of effectiveness and durability. For Die Linke, this would mean directly appealing to workers already in unions while at the same time campaigning among the unorganized. Here, Urban was onto something — socialist parties, not tied down by the same structural role as unions, can afford to advocate for more radical policies and speak directly to the downtrodden in and out of the workplace.

Tragically, by convincing ourselves that such a project was no longer possible or even desirable, Die Linke may have wasted ten years that could have been spent trying to become that force and experimenting with the kind of populist campaigning that proved so successful for Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, or — closer to home — the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB). Founded as a small Maoist grouplet in the wake of 1968, the PTB initiated a fundamental transformation of its party culture and strategic outlook in the early 2000s, focusing on grassroots, neighborhood-level organizing and emphasizing its practical rather than ideological opposition to government policy. Since then, it has gone from less than 1 percent in the 2008 elections to nearly 9 percent in 2019 and is currently polling over 20 percent in some working-class areas while growing its membership twenty times over.

Belgium isn’t Germany, and the PTB is quick to caution that its experience cannot simply be copy-pasted onto other countries. But its track record over recent years serves as a testament that the kind of stagnation Die Linke suffered over the same period was by no means inevitable.

More Than an Election to Win

What will happen this weekend at Die Linke’s crisis congress in Erfurt is anybody’s guess. The increasingly combative tone being adopted on social media suggests that some kind of split may be in the offing, even if the result would be two rump formations, neither of which could muster the votes needed to stay in Parliament. As a party member and someone deeply convinced of the need for a strong socialist movement at all levels of German society, I hope this does not happen. It would not only represent a major step backward for Die Linke but could mean that democratic socialism vanishes from the political stage for a decade or more.

Nevertheless, the dire state of the party and of the broader left has to serve as a wake-up call that the way we have done politics for the last few decades is a strategic dead end. Mobilizing for big, spectacular protests is a worthy activity, but without the backing of unions capable of exerting economic pressure and a strong presence in Parliament to turn public sentiment into effective legislation, it rarely leads to little more than a mass expression of moral outrage. Usually, it ends in individual burnout and collective retreat.

If Die Linke is to survive, its immediate priority has to be remaining in Parliament beyond 2025. But even to that end, it must identify and prioritize the sectors of society where it can develop deeper social roots, with the medium- to long-term goal of representing not 5 or 10 percent of the population but the majority. Democratic socialism’s future, in Germany and everywhere, lies in building a mass movement of the broad working class.

Saying that today may sounds as overoptimistic as Lafontaine calling for twenty-first-century socialism in 2007. Die Linke will not become a mass movement overnight and probably not in the next five or ten years. But the potential is there.

Germany may be a prosperous society, but there are still millions of workers living on poverty wages, for whom the economic boom of the last decade has meant little and who still struggle to make ends meet. Their lives have gotten a lot harder in recent months thanks to skyrocketing inflation and rising gas prices, and right now, most of them probably feel like the government doesn’t care about them at all. Some of them used to vote for Die Linke but don’t anymore. Others have never voted to begin with. Developing a new strategy that prioritizes them would be an important first step to renewing the party.

The same is true on the foreign policy front, for which Die Linke has come under particularly harsh criticism since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even if SPD chancellor Olaf Scholz’s plans to spend €100 billion on new armaments are popular today, a significant minority views Germany’s hawkish new foreign policy with hesitation. Its size will inevitably grow as the country reemerges as a military power after, as SPD chairman Lars Klingbeil put it the other day, “eighty years of holding back.” For generations, opposition to war and militarization has been an important catalyst for renewing the Left, and there is little reason to think it couldn’t be one this time around, too.

With the German far right in disarray and the political establishment unified behind an increasingly unpopular government, the objective conditions for Die Linke to recover its role as the voice of the disenfranchised and begin to build toward a brighter future aren’t actually that bad. But for that to happen, it must finally coalesce into a united socialist party capable of speaking with one voice. Since its founding, Die Linke has functioned not as a political party but as a marriage of convenience between any number of warring factions. A house divided cannot stand forever. And if it falls now, it might not get another chance to stand back up.