Sahra Wagenknecht Can’t Unite Germany’s Working Class

Oliver Nachtwey
Adam Baltner

Long a leader of Germany’s left party Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht looks set on creating her own rival party. She accuses the Left of abandoning its historic base — but her appeal to conservative values divides the working class rather than uniting it.

Sahra Wagenknecht’s project of conforming and adapting to the New Right in the hopes of stopping Germany's rightward shift will not end well. (Steffi Loos / Getty Images)

“Soon she’ll be limping too.” Legend has it that Lothar Bisky, chair of the 1990s-era German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), uttered this sardonic remark about Sahra Wagenknecht back in the days when she was making waves both inside and outside the party as an open communist. Bisky’s comment was a reference to Rosa Luxemburg, who famously walked with a limp due to a disability. At the time, Wagenknecht’s haircut and clothing style, characterized by a penchant for lace blouses, bore a striking resemblance to textbook images of the most famous woman in the history of German socialism.

Like Luxemburg, Wagenknecht was eloquent and sharp — and ever at odds with her party’s leadership. Yet Bisky’s allusion took aim not only at Wagenknecht’s political position but also her sense for showmanship and the aesthetic side of politics. From the very beginning, Wagenknecht has been a brand, and a profitable one at that: as far back as 2002, she demanded a fee from the PDS for her appearances at campaign events in the run-up to that year’s federal election.

Sahra Wagenknecht is a contrarian by nature. Born in East Germany in 1969, she joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) — the PDS’s predecessor — in 1989, just as a democratic revolution was breaking out in her country. Against the prevailing mood, Wagenknecht saw little to celebrate in the antiauthoritarian uprising, describing it as a “counterrevolution.” In the following years, she criticized capitalist West Germany’s destruction of East German industry, careers, and living conditions more incisively than just about anyone else. At the same time, as the most high-profile member of the PDS’s Communist Platform, she also relished playing the role of the unapologetic Stalinist, marveling at Stalin’s “impressive modernization policy” and referring to East Germany as the “most humane commonwealth” in German history. In 2002, when the PDS issued a declaration that there had been “no justification” for the killings of East German citizens who tried to cross to the other side of the Berlin Wall, Wagenknecht was the sole dissenting vote on the party executive.

In the 1990s, Wagenknecht was an admirer of the New Economic System, the centrally planned economy introduced by Walter Ulbricht, first secretary of the SED in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet after the 2008 financial crisis, her economic politics underwent a metamorphosis. As she gained notoriety well beyond her own party as an astute critic of contemporary capitalism, her nostalgia for the former East successively gave way to a nostalgia for the West during the so-called golden age of capitalism. In her 2012 book Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (Freedom instead of capitalism), she positioned herself as a proponent of a progressive “social market economy.” Though she still paid lip service to a “creative socialism,” the social vision she outlined borrowed from Walter Eucken, Alfred Müller-Armack, and Ludwig Erhard — that is, the theorists of German ordoliberalism. Whereas once she praised Ulbricht’s economic policy for guaranteeing “a highly productive economy by stimulating efficiency while also providing social security,” she was now lauding ordoliberalism in essentially the same terms.

In her 2016 book Prosperity Without Greed, Wagenknecht dropped the word “socialism” entirely. Limiting her critique of capitalism to the semifeudal domination of major corporations, which she claimed hinder efficiency, innovation, and (genuine) competition, she adopted a line that was closer to Joseph Schumpeter than Karl Marx. Now she was writing not primarily for workers and trade unionists but rather for entrepreneurs, managers, and the self-employed — in other words, people who can afford to buy a book at the airport that tells them their economic superiors are making a mess of things while also flattering the reader’s intellect.

Made for the Spotlight

Once a curiosity, Wagenknecht has become a political star thanks to her books and talk show appearances. A naturally charismatic daughter of the working class and the first in her family to go to university, she has made a name for herself by using her expansive knowledge of the issues and quick wit to talk circles around her debate opponents. Reveling in both her upward mobility and conservative sensibility, she has fashioned herself as a heterodox left-wing intellectual who reveres bourgeois culture — as someone who has read all of Marx and knows Goethe’s Faust by heart, a communist who understands Weimar classicism better than the doyens of the bourgeoisie. All this has made her an ideal object of projection from above and from below: an outsider in the establishment who champions the interests of normal people. When she appears on television, people stay tuned. She makes for interesting viewing because she talks about political alternatives in a way that hardly anyone else in Germany does.

Doubtless, Wagenknecht has always had followers in the PDS and its successor party, Die Linke. She has held many important positions in both, and she even served as a co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group along with Dietmar Bartsch in 2015–19. Though she has little in common politically with Bartsch — a longtime moderate with little fondness for East Germany nostalgia — the two infamously struck a Machiavellian power-sharing agreement in opposition to Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, the party cochairs at the time. Nevertheless, Wagenknecht has remained an outsider within the party — partly because she has never had the patience for the daily grind of a parliamentary representative. She used to routinely show up late to appearances at party functions both to be the main attraction and also to avoid having to talk to anyone. Ultimately, her standing among the general public has proven inversely related to her reputation within her party, where she commands the loyalty of only a small circle of dedicated acolytes.

Wagenknecht has positioned herself as an intraparty opposition figure against the “left-liberal” Die Linke leadership, which she has accused of abandoning bread-and-butter economic issues. While it is true that Die Linke has increasingly taken up demands of the climate movement and that many of its activists prioritize fighting discrimination, the notion that the party has abandoned economics is a grotesque distortion. Yet this hasn’t stopped Wagenknecht from repeating the claim in major newspapers with working-class readerships. During the 2021 Bundestag electoral campaign, Wagenknecht was the most prominent voice of Die Linke — which she accused of having made itself unelectable. All this notwithstanding, Wagenknecht herself is more culturally distant from the German working class than your average local politician from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who is typically a member of not only the chamber of commerce but also the volunteer fire brigade. And in contrast to the current Die Linke chairwoman Janine Wissler and her predecessor, Riexinger, Wagenknecht has never been particularly close to the trade unions either.

Left-Wing Bonapartism Backfires

Already during Angela Merkel’s tenure, the media often treated Wagenknecht as chancellor material. Yet Wagenknecht knew that to make this a reality in any foreseeable future, she would have to free herself from Die Linke, then polling between 5 and 10 percent. This led her to found Aufstehen (Stand Up), a nonparty left-wing movement aiming to channel the antiestablishment sentiment that Die Linke had failed to mobilize — in part due to Wagenknecht’s own actions.

Aufstehen was Wagenknecht’s trial run for founding a new party. It backfired spectacularly, not least due to Wagenknecht’s lack of talent for or even interest in political organizing. Meetings, compromises, and mediocre opponents are anathema to her. After attracting a handful of intellectuals and (ex-)politicians from other parties, Aufstehen quickly fell apart. Wagenknecht then resigned as the cochair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group, citing burnout.

The Wagenknecht phenomenon is the expression of a wider crisis of representation. After Die Linke was founded through a 2007 merger between the PDS and the Labor and Social Justice Electoral Alternative (WASG), a left-wing breakaway from the Social Democrats (SPD), the party enjoyed considerable prominence as a leading oppositional force against Agenda 2010, a neoliberal restructuring of Germany’s welfare system implemented by the SPD and the Greens in the 2000s. Yet this initial momentum proved fleeting. The Agenda 2010 reforms have now themselves been reformed and had their sharp edge sanded down, and the labor market has considerably improved (although the low-wage sector has continued to grow). Nevertheless, a generalized sense of vulnerability going far beyond economic insecurity has remained, permeating well into Germany’s middle classes.

The Helpless Middle Class

As Agenda 2010 provided an answer to the question of competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy, capitalism after the financial crisis slid into a polycrisis of wars, refugee flows, the pandemic, and climate change. With the political establishment proving helpless to address these circumstances, the German middle class has come to perceive its way of life as under threat.

In 2015, Wagenknecht spoke out against the unchecked acceptance of refugees, which she argued would only further worsen the precarious circumstances of low-wage workers. This was a half-truth: competition was relatively low on the labor market, and housing market competition was mostly attributable to problems of public policy. Yet Wagenknecht’s comments exposed the authoritarianism at the heart of austerity: If it was possible to bail out the banks in 2008 and to house refugees in 2015, why is there supposedly never enough money for the welfare state?

Wagenknecht has given a voice to those who have become alienated from politics as the traditional major parties have converged on both economic and social issues. These parties are now all bunched somewhere in the political mainstream, leaving those on the edges without representation. In contrast to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has increasingly catered to the (extreme) right wing of the political spectrum, this is where Wagenknecht’s brand has its greatest resonance — simultaneously on the mainstream’s left and right edges.

Wagenknecht’s approach, which she refers to as “left conservatism,” blends social conservatism with economic progressivism. Its common thread is an opposition to left liberalism, a tendency that for Wagenknecht includes CDU politicians, such as Angela Merkel, who express openness toward refugees. Effectively, this object of scorn it the same phenomenon that Nancy Fraser has termed “progressive neoliberalism,” a corporate-friendly diversity culture that turns a blind eye toward material inequality. While neoliberalism celebrates diversity, Wagenknecht opts for a simple negation, championing all that is ostensibly average and normal. Yet as her opposition to progressive neoliberalism has deepened, her critique of capitalism has receded further into the background.

Mainstream Outsiders

Left-wing parties have always sought to organize what Vladimir Lenin described as the vanguard of the proletariat, or the most progressive workers. In contrast, Wagenknecht has set her sights on the anti-vanguard, or conservative workers who have managed some upward mobility and now fear backsliding. Politically speaking, this strategy is far from baseless. Although other German parties are also trying to win over this group, no one offers them the same cultural validation as Wagenknecht. No one is better at giving voice to their dark emotions — the emotions of those who consider themselves mainstream but feel like outsiders.

Wagenknecht has benefitted from liberalism’s helplessness in the face of the global polycrisis by posturing as an alternative to the moralism of liberal elites. Yet while liberals’ sense of their own moral superiority is hardly a fabrication, Wagenknecht laces legitimate critique with her own version of moralistic cultural resentment. This often leads to grotesque projections not all too different from those of right-wing culture warriors, which is what makes her brand so interesting to authoritarian personalities.

Wagenknecht is attempting to link milieus that are alienated from democracy for different reasons. In addition to conservative workers and elements of the middle class, she is also tailoring her appeals to what we call “libertarian authoritarians” and anti-immigrant welfare chauvinists. Yet, although she has been quite successful in smearing Die Linke for supposedly abandoning its focus on economics, her own narrative of people at the top versus people at the bottom is growing ever more threadbare and vacuous. She has little of value to say anymore about the fragmentation of the working class, the low-wage sector, or precarious employment; the image of the working class she projects has far more to do with her own biases than the class as it really exists. Although poorer Germans are more critical of migration than their middle-class counterparts, they are still far more heterogenous and open than Wagenknecht insinuates.

Wagenknecht is a populist in the classical sense, posing as a champion of the people against a corrupt and incompetent establishment. But in spite of what her followers believe, her politics have zero to do with left-wing populism, which seeks to counter elite usurpation of democracy by expanding political participation. Wagenknecht’s strategy of stoking resentments against the left-liberal establishment can be easily applied to emerging political issues. During the coronavirus pandemic, she became a prominent vaccine skeptic, and she does not shy away from spreading half-truths or alluding to the conspiracy theories popular within the milieus she is trying to win over. Based on a model of personalized opposition, her populism paradoxically functions because she now belongs to the media establishment. Her supporters identify with her in her nonidentity with them: she represents them precisely because she is not like them. This is why it doesn’t matter that Wagenknecht looks about as out of place wearing a strike vest at demonstrations as an actress who has just stumbled into the wrong play.

Unnatural Allies?

Wagenknecht is one of the most prominent opponents of Germany’s military support for Ukraine against Russia’s war of aggression. She has given voice to some of the central concerns of the peace movement, speaking out against weapons shipments and militarism. Yet just as she dismissed the “counterrevolution” in East Germany, she’s expressed little sympathy toward the victims in Ukraine. In her statements, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky appears as the real warmonger because he refuses to surrender.

In Wagenknecht’s geopolitical coordinate system, Russia’s war of aggression is a defensive reaction to NATO expansion, and Putin is a rational power player simply trying to keep the West in check. This line has its roots in the West German peace movement and the SED/PDS, and Wagenknecht has been able to garner support with it in the former East, where it still enjoys considerable purchase. At the same time, it has also made her a star among internet conspiracy theorists.

Wagenknecht now stands for a kind of West Germany noir. Her economic policies follow in the footsteps of postwar social democracy’s turn toward ordoliberalism, which saw the SPD reject socialism in favor of capitalist markets guided by welfare spending and Keynesianism. She has also completely jettisoned left-wing internationalism, adopting the nationally regulated welfare state as her model while criticizing cosmopolitan elites and European integration.

An electoral formation around Wagenknecht would result in a party the likes of which have never existed in Germany — a party that positions itself simultaneously as both left and right. It would compete for votes not only with the AfD but also with the more economically progressive wing of the CDU and the right wing of the SPD. In this sense, it would in fact represent something like a Querfront, or a “transversal” formation: whereas the Left has historically sought to win over alienated workers to international socialism, Wagenknecht’s project performs the reverse, trying to conform and adapt to the New Right in the hopes of stopping the rightward shift. Wagenknecht is neither a racist nor a right-winger, but this just makes matters worse: by legitimizing the discourse of the Right, her instrumental use of affective politics ultimately promises to further normalize and even strengthen the AfD.

By this point, it is almost certain that there will, indeed, be a Wagenknecht party. The demand is there, and many people have been working to make it a reality. At any rate, Wagenknecht has already achieved something remarkable: she has created a fictional politics that protects her from the risk of failures like Aufstehen.

Little Support

Still, the Aufstehen debacle has left its mark. Too many opportunists hopped on the bandwagon, and there were not enough cadres to carry the project forward.

Wagenknecht also proved incapable as an organizer, which is why her new attempt has been so long in the making. She lacks a political milieu that could support her productively. Among her supporters are WASG founder Klaus Ernst and Amira Mohamed Ali, Wagenknecht’s successor as cochair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group. After that, however, the list grows noticeably thin. Her most vocal followers in Die Linke are not necessarily the party’s greatest political talents. Of course, her husband, Oskar Lafontaine, a legendary former SPD and Die Linke politician, is an important pillar. But Lafontaine is now eighty years old, his most recent book is titled “American, it’s time to go!,” and he gained notoriety a few years back for his mutterings about an “invisible world government.”

Wagenknecht has various questionable figures in her orbit. They aren’t direct partners, but she exerts a tremendous pull on them. One of them is Diether Dehm, a former Die Linke representative in the Bundestag who is closely linked to the conspiracy theorist Ken Jebsen, who claims 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government and has compared COVID-19 lockdown measures to the Nazi seizure of power. Another is her ex-husband, Ralph T. Niemeyer. A failed Bundestag candidate, Niemeyer has become a member of the Reichsbürger, Germany’s own sovereign citizens movement, on whose behalf he maintains contact with Russia as a self-proclaimed representative of a German “government-in-exile.”

Wagenknecht is also an important point of reference for various other prominent German-speaking conspiracy theorists, such as Daniele Ganser, who has a huge YouTube audience and regularly fills large auditoriums with his appearances, and Ulrike Guérot, a publicist who has appeared regularly on talk shows. Both share, among other things, her vaccine skepticism and views on Russia. To be fair, Wagenknecht doesn’t cooperate with them any more than she does with Jürgen Elsässer, a former ultraleft journalist who now serves as the editor-in-chief of the far-right magazine Compact and has already declared her Germany’s next chancellor. That being said, Elsässer is an old acquaintance; the two even copublished a book on the actuality of communism in 1996.

Would a Wagenknecht party work? It would probably attract AfD voters and others whom sociological research classifies as “left authoritarian” — in favor of economic distribution but culturally right-wing, critical of immigration, and dissatisfied with democracy. At the same time, major question marks remain, for it is by no means clear that the hypothetical party’s strong polling data will translate into strong election results. Wagenknecht may enjoy national notoriety as a ubiquitous media presence, but a party built around one figurehead will come up against limits.

German parliamentary democracy functions differently than the presidential systems of France or the United States. Parties must be built, which is no small undertaking. Among other tasks, Wagenknecht will have to organize lists of candidates to run in state elections. Only in the EU elections scheduled for June 2024 will Wagenknecht be able to achieve the kind of massive breakthrough she needs as a lead candidate. Unlike in a German federal election, in which separate electoral lists have to be drawn up by party associations in each federal state, a central list of candidates is sufficient. Moreover, the 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament does not apply in these European elections. Wagenknecht could celebrate quick and easy successes and retain a high degree of control over the candidate lists. Should she succeed at earning enough votes and generating enough resources in this EU contest, she will have a chance to build a party.

A Limited Circle of Functionaries

Establishing a party not only in the polls but in the political system requires defectors from other parties. WASG was only able to emerge to the left of the SPD in the 2000s because experienced trade union functionaries who knew how to run meetings built up local chapters. Wagenknecht’s party won’t be able to count on an influx of social movement activists, as her brand is toxic to them.

In its early days, the AfD was also able to draw on a network of professors and local notables. Yet already during Aufstehen, it became clear that the circle of potential functionaries for a Wagenknecht party is and will remain limited. However, if it leans into its anti-migration and anti-diversity stances, it can be sure to attract numerous right-wing activists on the local level. Those who hope that a Wagenknecht party might serve as a bulwark against the AfD would do well to bear in mind that in the worst-case scenario, it will end in a strengthened right-wing bloc.