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Germany’s Left Has New Leadership but Not a Strategy

After years of stagnant poll numbers and declining electoral results, Germany's Die Linke party hopes that its new leadership team will return it to the promise of the 2000s. But as its social base in the former East fragments, the left-wing party doesn't just need a different marketing strategy — it needs to rebuild its roots in working-class life.

Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (L) and Janine Wissler (R), the new federal leaders of Die Linke, speak on current issues at a press conference in Berlin on March 1, 2021. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images)

On February 27, Germany’s socialist party, Die Linke, finally held its much-delayed party congress. Janine Wissler, a rising star on the party’s left wing, and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, party leader in Thuringia, where Die Linke governs at the head of a center-left coalition, took over from long-serving party cochairs Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping.

Riexinger and Kipping’s nearly nine-year tenure was originally a marriage of convenience between the party’s nominal far left and a sizable chunk of its more moderate camp. They oversaw a degree of stabilization within the party, but also undeniable stagnation. Neither proved particularly charismatic or adept in the public eye, and repeatedly found their leadership challenged in the media by ex-parliamentary chair Sahra Wagenknecht, who launched an ill-fated attempt at a left-populist formation, Aufstehen, in 2018. Die Linke’s polling numbers have hovered between 6 and 9 percent for years, neither harmed by its own slipups nor able to capitalize on those of others — leading German weekly Der Spiegel to ask whether the party had grown “sclerotic.”

Wissler and Hennig-Wellsow are thus understandably being hailed as a chance at reviving the party’s fortunes. The online congress that elected them was remarkably tranquil compared to previous gatherings, with few open clashes and a general consensus that, with a string of state and federal elections scheduled for later this year, now is the time for unity and party-building. Yet for all the nods of agreement, the problem of what kind of party needs building remained rather vague.

Passing the Torch

The rise of Wissler and Hennig-Wellsow, who faced no opposition, marks the consolidation of a new party center that differs considerably from the forces that fused together to found Die Linke back in 2004–7.

At that time, the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) — successor to East Germany’s ruling party and a kind of East German special-interest group post-1990 — had failed to pass the 5 percent threshold to reenter parliament and was beginning to fear for its survival. Meanwhile, the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) under Gerhard Schröder sidelined its left wing, embodied by ex-minister of finance Oskar Lafontaine, and began enacting a series of harsh labor market reforms that alienated a significant chunk of its base, leading to a split (Labour and Social Justice – the Electoral Alternative, or WASG) headed by Lafontaine and several other SPD left-wingers.

With the PDS out of parliament and the SPD appearing to abandon social-democratic policies, a space had emerged for a new left-wing force. The two parties quickly formed an electoral alliance in 2004, which became Die Linke in 2007. The party’s main components upon its founding, they were joined by various smaller groups who saw Die Linke as a chance to bring radical-left ideas into the mainstream. Though they represented a minority in numerical terms, their comparative youth and capacity for full-time activism meant they had an outsized ability to shape the party on the ground from early on, while the PDS and WASG founding generations often struggled to reproduce new layers of cadre.

Fifteen years later, it is fair to say that of Die Linke’s initial components, only the PDS unreservedly achieved its goal: Die Linke is now without a doubt a nationwide political force, with more members hailing from the former West than East for the first time in its history. Yet this has come at the cost of the party’s East German identity and social base. Die Linke is rapidly losing ground in the eastern states, as its traditional membership dies off and the party loses its status as the natural home of East German protest voters to the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). While there is no small number of East Germans in the party leadership, most are too young to have spent much of their lives in the German Democratic Republic, and a specific Eastern identity plays little role in their politics.

The WASG, however, has seen its goal of pressuring the SPD to return to its old policies — or even replacing it as the leading party of labor — recede ever further from view. Die Linke’s support within Germany’s trade unions, which are still some of the strongest in Europe, is no stronger than it was upon its founding — if anything, it may even be weaker. While SPD support has cratered across Germany’s industrial heartland over the last decade, and it now polls at 15 percent, Die Linke has registered practically no gains from this development.

To his credit, outgoing party chairman Riexinger, himself a long-serving official in the service workers’ union Ver.di, spoke passionately about building a “connective party” uniting labor with other social movements. Die Linke has made some inroads among workers in the care sector, but on the whole, his message does not appear to resonate with the traditional social-democratic base, who have instead largely become politically passive, or, worse, defected to the Right. As a result, and arguably despite Die Linke’s best intentions, the party is increasingly one of young, progressive urbanites, with a dwindling presence among the industrial workforce or in rural areas.

A Party Transformed?

With organized labor and East German identity politics on the decline, these milieus of young activists have in many ways emerged as the winners of the party’s shifting internal composition, a reality embodied by the new cochairs themselves. Though their ideological backgrounds diverge considerably — Wissler was until recently a member of the Trotskyist group Marx21, while Hennig-Wellsow has led the Thuringian party throughout its time in government — both began their political careers as student activists in the early 2000s and have spent most of their adult lives as full-time party functionaries and parliamentarians.

Former parliamentary chair Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters raised doubts over the party’s shift toward young, urban progressives, but tended to characterize this development as the result of a conscious decision by the outgoing leadership to become a party of what they derisively call the “latte macchiato left.” (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

They are flanked by a party executive that increasingly draws on young politicians of similar provenance. While the new leadership is younger and outwardly more diverse than ever before, they are by and large also functionaries who began their careers as campus activists. For many of them, the party and its youth organizations are the only political arena they have ever known. As PDS doyen André Brie pointed out back in 2018, though Die Linke does attract young people, its overall dearth of active members means that young recruits often rise up the ranks so quickly that they “know how to organize majorities at a party congress, but don’t have a feel for normal people anymore.” This trend is evidenced by the “hip” subcultural aesthetic the party has tried to lend its public image in recent years, but which, frankly speaking, comes across as forced.

Wagenknecht and her supporters raised doubts over the party’s shift toward young, urban progressives, but tended to characterize this development as the result of a conscious decision by the outgoing leadership to become a party of what they derisively call the “latte macchiato left” — painting them as middle-class urbanites more concerned with tokenistic diversity and using the right pronouns than wealth redistribution. Though Kipping in particular has sought to position the party as the “prime address for young people who want to change the world,” it is doubtful whether that explains the party’s difficulties in its traditional milieus. Ultimately, all political parties need young, enthusiastic members to staff campaigns and generally keep the party going.

Whatever kernel of truth it contains, the Wagenknecht camp fails to do justice to the complexity of the real situation. It relies on stereotypes of what the “working class” is and wants (a bit more law and order, a bit less feminism), and, more importantly, ignores the broader historical context in favor of simplistic explanations. Ultimately, it confuses cause and effect, blaming what was by most accounts a fairly weak leadership for fundamental transformations that go beyond the scope of any single party, let alone one that barely polls 10 percent on a good day.

The shift to the urban middle class is not a phenomenon exclusive to Die Linke, nor did it begin under Kipping and Riexinger’s leadership. The Left’s unmooring from its historical working-class base has been a decades-long process, rooted less in shifting aesthetic preferences or policy changes at the top so much as the relative decline of manufacturing and the concurrent rise of service industries and white-collar employment. These developments accelerated the fragmentation of working-class milieus that began after World War II, hollowing out the communities that were once the Left’s bedrock. By the time the SPD undertook a neoliberal turn in the late 1990s, this process was already largely completed.

In practical terms, the erosion of the organized working class has meant that politics is increasingly the arena of the middle and upper classes. Historically, this was always the case for most political forces. But crucially, it wasn’t true for the Left, which succeeded in making millions of workers aware of their class interests and organizing them into a powerful bloc — one capable of asserting its interests through strikes, election campaigns, and sometimes even revolutions. This was particularly true in Germany, at least until 1933.

Yet from new European left parties like Die Linke to the Corbyn-led Labour Party, recent attempts at reviving the socialist movement have been largely staffed by well-intentioned activists recruited overwhelmingly from the educated middle class. This is truer in 2021 than ever before. In terms of active party membership, workers were probably never a major component to begin with and are even less so now. Die Linke members thus struggle to speak their language simply because it is not theirs.

In the historical working-class parties, young left intellectuals were organically linked to a proletarian base and politically educated through that. This is, naturally, no longer the case. For many in the party’s young generation, workers figure in their political imaginary as simply one oppressed group they seek to represent among many. An abstract affirmation of labor’s power might pop in their rhetoric from time to time, but practically, the working class does not play a particularly important subjective role. And how could it? A socialist workers’ movement is something they only know from history books, if at all.

Identity Politics Isn’t the Problem

Rather than the bogeyman of “identity politics,” a poorly defined term usually deployed as a slur, what appears to afflict Die Linke and many new left formations is a politics that could be described as “identitarian” — politics derived not from one’s objective economic interests, but rather as a set of moral convictions. Understood in such a way, politics becomes less about developing a strategy to win over a majority and more about conveying the correct ethical principles and projecting the right aesthetic sensibilities, a tendency recently criticized by outgoing Die Linke MP Fabio De Masi.

This political habitus also helps to explain why the central message that seemed to emanate from last week’s congress was not any specific policy position or Die Linke’s campaign platform, but rather the diversity of its new leadership and the unassailability of its pro-LGBTQ, feminist, and anti-racist credentials. Certainly, a socialist party should be all of these things, and it would be reductive to suggest that these things intrinsically repel working-class voters who only care about wages and health care. That said, it is fair to ask whether this kind of messaging resonates with people outside of Die Linke’s immediate supporters, let alone gives them a reason to vote for it.

This curation of Die Linke’s image often struggles to distinguish between moral principles and strategic priorities, fostering an approach that essentially says all issues are equally important; the task of a modern socialist party is to function as a “movement of movements” or, as the party describes itself, a “party in movement.” But what, concretely, does that mean? What kind of strategic levers can it identify and bolster in hopes of one day taking power and reshaping society?

Here, Die Linke has opted to fudge its response, offering up vague formulations about campaigning for progressive change both “on the streets and in parliament,” “supporting Fridays for Future, Black Lives Matter, and trade unions equally,” and emphasizing a nebulous focus on “organizing.” Rather than explicitly invoke the working class, the party speaks of “a society of the many,” a turn of phrase cribbed directly from the (discarded) Corbyn playbook that sounds even less inspiring in German than it did in English.

If the last six years have taught us anything, it is that this approach is woefully underprepared to deal with the considerable political and economic pressures that socialists face whenever they come within striking distance of winning a national election — which, given the grim prospects for a revolutionary upsurge anytime soon, is the only way Die Linke can realistically hope to make real change.

The Greek left party Syriza, quite similar to Die Linke in its composition, learned this lesson the hard way in 2015 after taking power on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment and popular frustration at the country’s European lenders. After assuming office, Syriza found itself unable to do more than rally its supporters at protests and demonstrations. The party proved defenseless against the EU’s institutional blackmail and soon capitulated on all fronts. Syriza is still Greece’s second-largest political force, but the “party of the movements” is now closer to the neoliberal social-democratic party it replaced, while the celebrated movements that brought it to power have yet to recover from the defeat.

Jeremy Corbyn never got the chance to see what political power felt like, but chances are he would have faced a similar predicament. Though he enjoyed real support in the trade unions, his campaign was powered primarily by young, enthusiastic supporters, many of whom cut their teeth in the 2010 student movement. Their intentions were no doubt noble, but their lack of deeper roots in British society or the institutions of the labor movement meant that as soon as Corbyn was defeated, much of the radical wave ebbed, and it was only a matter of months before the Labour Left was thoroughly routed, leaving in its wake demoralization and bewilderment.

The vague strategic formulations emanating from Die Linke’s party congress are designed to avoid public spats — and probably unavoidable in an election year. But they also speak to a deeper strategic malaise plaguing the entire Left, which seems unable to go beyond protest marches and the occasional surprise election victory. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts to building a socialist majority in Germany (or anywhere else), but the fact that what is arguably Europe’s most important socialist party seems to be repeating strategic nostrums that have already failed elsewhere is not exactly reassuring.

Kicking Ass for the Working Class

What, then, does the future hold for Die Linke? With the three center-left parties combined polling only slightly over 40 percent, the prospects of the party entering government in the fall appear low. In reality, Die Linke would be the weakest party in any coalition and probably forced to compromise away most of its platform. Assuming the party wins enough votes to remain in parliament, however, it will have to think hard about how it can reinvent itself as an effective opposition and recapture the public imagination as it briefly did in 2009, when it achieved its best-ever result.

Doing so will require more than knocking on enough doors or organizing enough demonstrations, as one wing of the party seems to believe. Organizing and activism are both worthwhile and necessary components of a socialist strategy, but organizers and activists alone do not constitute a sufficient social base upon which to build a mass movement. Most people are not necessarily interested in “activism” and don’t want to be “organized” — a socialist party has to accept that to some extent and think about how to reach them anyway. At the end of the day, most people evaluate a party not by whether it ticks the right ideological checkboxes but by its practical use value.

Die Linke will only be able to live up to its mission in the long term if it manages to become a mass working-class party, with deep roots in the still powerful labor movement. Crucially, this would allow it to mobilize the kind of support needed to take on powerful capitalist interests. That means campaigning around universal issues like housing, transportation, and wages that drive a wedge between Die Linke and the establishment parties, while demonstrating its ability to win concrete improvements for working people where possible, like the rent cap in Berlin. It also means deploying the kind of aggressive but serious rhetoric that Wagenknecht and De Masi have excelled in for years. That they are at loggerheads with their party is at the very least regrettable, given that many Linke politicians could stand to learn a few things from them when it comes to giving a convincing stump speech.

However, this does not mean, as some critics claim, that the party needs to ignore questions like sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression in order to be perceived as a workers’ party. The historical workers’ parties were always organizations that fought for the rights of women and minorities, often playing a pioneering role in these struggles. But unlike the left parties of today, they could plausibly argue that the only path to universal emancipation was to fight for a socialist order, and that the road to socialism necessarily went through building a strong workers’ movement led by a strong socialist party.

No such movement or party exists today — but they didn’t exist when the socialist movement was founded, either. They must be created. The good news is there are few countries that offer better conditions for doing so than Germany, with its strong unions and a robust welfare state to defend and build on. Whether Die Linke has the potential to become such a mass party is an open question. But as the only socialist organization worth mentioning in Germany, we can only hope it does.