Sahra Wagenknecht Is Less Radical Than She Seems

One of Germany’s most divisive politicians, Sahra Wagenknecht has quit the left-wing party Die Linke to form her own vehicle. Her new party has a strong “anti-establishment” aura — but behind the rhetoric is the call to return to an old class compromise.

Sahra Wagenknecht prepares to depart after presenting her new political alliance to the media on October 23, 2023, in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

After years of public infighting, the agonizing self-immolation of the only socialist party in the German parliament, Die Linke, has finally come to an end. This Monday, Sahra Wagenknecht — a bestselling author, one of Germany’s most popular (and controversial) politicians, and Die Linke’s former parliamentary cospeaker — announced that she and nine other MPs are leaving the party and founding a nonprofit called “Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht — For Reason and Justice,” or BSW for short. The move is a first step toward launching a new party in time for June’s European elections.

Wagenknecht and the other nine MPs have offered to stay in Die Linke’s parliamentary group until their new party is founded. This owes to a practical concern: once they do leave, Die Linke will not have enough MPs to constitute a formal group in the Bundestag, and will have its parliamentary privileges downgraded. Whether Die Linke takes them up on their offer remains to be seen. Either way, the long, messy divorce between Die Linke and its most popular member is now a done deal.

Wagenknecht’s departure preempts a motion to expel her filed by dozens of mid-level functionaries several weeks ago, which accused her of breaking party discipline and sabotaging Die Linke’s fortunes by attacking its positions in public. To some, the split is a long overdue move and an exciting opportunity; to others it’s an irresponsible weakening of the Left at a critical time, little more than an “ego trip.” There may be some truth to those claims, but ultimately the damage Wagenknecht may have done to her former party will have little impact on her new project’s viability. That will boil down to whether she can convert her massive fan base into a voting bloc — and if initial polling data is any indication, the potential is certainly there.

For now, the future party’s public face remains a bare-bones website without a proper name, let alone candidates or an apparatus. But with the centrist coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) polling under 40 percent, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) hitting record highs, and the only left opposition in parliament floundering between 4 and 5 percent, the emergence of a new, nationally viable party could shake up the political landscape. What that shake-up will look like, however, is harder to say.

Bank Managers of the World, Unite!

The alliance that faced the press on Monday morning consisted more or less of the usual suspects, Wagenknecht’s closest allies in Die Linke, with one surprise: Ralph Suikat, an IT entrepreneur who made a fortune selling software to lawyers’ offices in the 2000s. He has spent much of his time since becoming a millionaire funding campaigns in support of a progressive tax system, and cites the late Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as one of his biggest inspirations.

Suikat’s presence alongside some of Wagenknecht’s prominent allies, all from what is now referred to as the “left-conservative” wing of Die Linke, says a lot about the political triangulation she is trying to pull off: namely, a diffuse alliance between the established segments of Germany’s working class and the downwardly mobile middle class, along with what the Chinese Communists used to refer to as the “progressive national bourgeoisie.”

Rather than a left-right fusion or a so-called Querfront, the BSW seems to imitate something like an electoral popular front. Wagenknecht and others sharply demarcated themselves from the AfD and emphasized the threat posed by its rise, while laying blame at the feet of the government and their own former party, which they accuse of alienating its traditional base. Rather than increased migration controls or the possible side effects of COVID vaccines — familiar past themes of Wagenknecht’s — Monday’s press conference emphasized familiar social democratic themes: “social justice,” “peace,” “freedom,” and “economic reason.”

By their own admission, Wagenknecht and her supporters are building a top-down, tightly controlled operation. Having learned from their mistakes with Aufstehen, a Wagenknecht-inspired “social movement” that tanked after a few weeks, the new outfit seems set on establishing the party methodically and only with preselected personnel. For now, there is no way to actually join.

All the more curious, then, are the new party’s lackluster public relations. The website is filled with generic stock photos, while its launch video combines more stock footage with shots of Wagenknecht in parliament, including a somewhat uncanny close-up of her feet clad in black leather pumps. The aesthetic feels much more like the opening of a regional bank branch somewhere in suburban Germany than the launch of an antiestablishment political movement. Gone is any talk of socialism, capitalism, or anything else that might scare away middle-of-the-road voters, replaced with measured rhetoric of fairness, reasonableness, and social justice. Perhaps the regional bank branch aesthetic is the right visual language for Wagenknecht’s new target audience. But given that she presumably spent months preparing the launch, its execution is still a bit puzzling.

A Moderate Threat

The most remarkable thing about Wagenknecht’s new project is the fact that, at least in the immediate term, it poses a more credible threat to the political establishment than Die Linke does, despite the latter holding positions that are for all intents and purposes significantly to its left.

Wagenknecht, it must be said, is a political enigma. No German politician today generates as much excitement nor polarizes opinions so heavily. Anything she writes becomes a bestseller, and her public engagements are always sold out. Because of her status as a political wildcard and her outsized public persona, she is able to compete with political elites on their own terms, whether as a talk show guest or a heterodox economist attacking the government’s economic and social policies. Her broadly anti-monopolist bent and pleas to protect the German domestic economy are from revolutionary. But they represent a real challenge to mainstream orthodoxy and strike panic in the hearts of many of her political opponents, prompting the kind of venom that used to be directed at Die Linke in its early years.

Die Linke, by contrast, continues to adhere to a sharply anti-capitalist program on paper, but has toned down its rhetoric in many areas, and no longer seems to provoke the same ire from the establishment as it once did. Its dwindling electoral fortunes make it objectively less of a threat, while its participation in a number of state governments has revealed it to be a perfectly reasonable coalition party, willing to make grand programmatic concessions for the sake of governing. Wagenknecht, as an eminently national-level politician, has never had to confront this predicament in her career.

At this point, Die Linke is a largely marginalized force that hasn’t outperformed electoral expectations in over a decade. Its shrinking base has undeniably shifted to the big cities, where it competes with the rest of the center left over the progressive vote — with expressly mixed results. Now it will have to compete with Wagenknecht for protest votes, while at the same time reconciling that with the fact that it continues to participate in several perfectly moderate state governments, at a time when wide swathes of the population, including much of the party’s traditional base, views the political establishment with deep suspicion.

Wagenknecht’s project is in the fortunate position of being able to wash its hands of this problem, by dropping much of Die Linke’s socialist rhetoric while continuing to position itself as a fundamental opposition to the political mainstream. She makes concessions to the Right in hopes of attracting voters from the AfD, such as calling for an “upper limit” on migration, but she is clearly not targeting the existing left-wing milieu in Germany as her primary clientele anyway. Some of her positions may be sacrilegious to most socialists, but are by no means beyond the pale of mainstream politics, and far from the kind of “national socialism” that some of her most fiery-tongued critics accuse her of.

Social Capital to Burn

Assuming that the team behind Wagenknecht is able to avoid the organizational mistakes it made in 2018 and put together a functioning apparatus by early next year, they stand a good chance of sending a few representatives to Brussels in 2024 and making strong gains in the three state elections in eastern Germany next year. Should they succeed there, they will head into the 2025 federal elections with the wind at their backs, and likely either replace Die Linke or form a seventh parliamentary group somewhere between them and the SPD.

Wagenknecht’s party won’t be a socialist party, but it wouldn’t be fair to call it right wing, either. It will hold similar positions to Die Linke on many issues, albeit dressed up in different rhetoric. Programmatically, it will likely resemble the Danish Social Democrats or the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, both of which have adopted more hard-nosed stances on migration and cultural issues in recent years. By focusing largely on nonvoters and rural and suburban protest voters, where Die Linke’s support has long since eroded, it will not necessarily be an immediate electoral competitor.

But even if Wagenknecht and co. aren’t interested in feuding with their former party, they won’t be able to avoid the problem of recruiting members on the ground — people who organize branch meetings, hang up election posters, and hand out flyers. Unless BSW is able to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of disciplined political activists out of nowhere overnight, the most obvious candidates will be members and ex-members of Die Linke, and other people with organizational experience. They will bring with them attitudes that could sooner or later clash with Wagenknecht’s pivot to small- and medium-sized businesses, and will ensure that culturally, the party rank and file resembles the traditional left a lot more than the “regional bank” aesthetic suggests. It could also mean that the party becomes an attractive alternative for members of Die Linke as time goes on.

None of that matters much in the immediate term, but it points to deeper tensions at the heart of the project. For now, issues like the economic fallout of the sanctions against Russia (primarily rising energy prices), the German government’s newfound willingness to send weapons into conflict zones, and alienation at perceived political correctness run amok offer significant points of convergence for an alliance between industrial workers and Germany’s “hidden champions,” as medium-sized enterprises in the country are called. But class conflicts do not magically cease to exist in workplaces just because they are smaller. Indeed, small- and medium-sized businesses are often characterized by lower wages and less secure employment, as they are more difficult to unionize and more vulnerable to shifting economic winds. A party that “stands up for the working people in this country,” as Wagenknecht’s comrade-in-arms Christian Leye put it on Monday, will have to confront that dilemma sooner or later — at the very latest when it has to form a government.

While Sahra Wagenknecht completes the long march from Marxist-Leninist philosopher to heterodox-ordoliberal economist she embarked on more than a decade ago, her former party continues to adhere to a vision of democratic socialism in which the majority owns and controls the means of production in society. Theoretically, there is plenty of space for a socialist party in Germany, where nearly one-fifth of the working population is trapped in the low-wage sector and industrial disputes have recently been on the rise. But over time, Die Linke has proven less and less able to reconcile its anti-capitalist agenda with its pliability in office. It hasn’t been a driving force in the social conflicts of recent years, nor does it fulfill the role of a fundamental opposition the way it once did. Wagenknecht, long frustrated by this stagnation, seems to have given up on socialism altogether and is now set on making the market economy a little bit more “social.” If nothing else, at least she’s honest.