Germany as a new political powder keg – can the left rise to the challenge?

Christine Buchholz looks at the crisis enveloping all political parties as the winds of change blow through

Though Germany has been seen as a stable liberal democracy for many decades, the climate crisis, pandemic, Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the increase in the cost-of-living are causing political conditions there to slide into the unknown. Before this, the formation of the ‘traffic light’ coalition (SPD social democrats, Greens and the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party) led by the SPD in late 2021 seemed to have ended the permanent crisis of social democracy that had existed since Agenda 2010.

In the spring, the government used the population’s justified outrage over the Russian attack to rush through an unprecedented arms program. SPD Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced in the Bundestag on 27 February, 2022, in his speech about the ‘Zeitenwende’ (‘turning point’) that in the future, in addition to the military budget, which has been increasing for years, a special fund for the Bundeswehr would be established to the tune of 100 billion euros. For decades, Germany’s rulers have complained that the rearmament they (and NATO) want is politically unenforceable against the deeply rooted anti-militarism of the broad population. Now they seized the opportunity.

Opposition to the special fund for the Bundeswehr is still isolated and weak in the public debate and on the streets. But there is a rumbling underground. To be sure, initial polls conducted under the immediate impression of the Russian invasion have shown strong support for the rearmament package. But this support may crumble as soon as it becomes clear that the state is withholding the money it is putting into fighter bombers from public and social infrastructure. Logo

The decisive factor could be the dramatic inflation rate, now at 7.5%. For the autumn, the Bundesbank expects 10% inflation. Galloping inflation means mass impoverishment that goes even beyond the effects of the Agenda 2010 poverty program – the poorer people are, the harder it hits them. Already, workers have lost a month’s salary. The savings rate is falling dramatically. Whereas a year ago only 15% of the population had no money left over to save at the end of the month, the figure is now 60%.

Inflation is not only eating up all the wage increases of recent years. It is also canceling out the effects of the traffic light’s central social reform project: the introduction of the minimum wage of 12 euros. This project was intended in particular to make the SPD shine as a social reform party and was important in cementing the relationship with the unions, which had been cracked since Agenda 2010, and taking the wind out of the sails of DIE LINKE (The Left).

Now the Scholz government is watching the greatest impoverishment in decades and is being confronted from the unions and the public with demands for further relief packages which contradict the channeling of resources into armaments. The measures taken so far by the traffic light coalition have had little effect. The 30-cent reduction in the mineral oil tax from June 1 onward was simply bagged by the major mineral oil companies as extra profit, i.e., not passed on to consumers. And other ‘relief measures’ such as the 300-euro ‘energy flat rate’ for employed persons subject to income tax is only a drop in the bucket in view of the massive price increases. The Scholz government is sitting on a political and social powder keg.

After years of stagnation, the racist, right-wing populist, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is trying to use the current situation to rebuild. The AfD has been able to successfully penetrate both the milieu of the poor and union-oriented areas. The ‘racism of the bourgeois middle’ – driven by figures such as Thilo Sarrazin and with the BILD newspaper as a mouthpiece have prepared the ground for it. This upsurge of the AfD and the seemingly unstoppable shift to the right that accompanied it from 2013 to 2018 has stalled for now with the new social movements against racism, sexism and climate catastrophe. In any case, the AfD is a long way from its peak of 18% in the September 2018 polls, as is its 2021 federal election result of just under 11% showed. Instead, there has been a return of the center-left. While it has failed to mobilise new groups of voters via pandemic period politics, the AfD is now trying to exploit fear and anger about impoverishment and mobilise against the cost-of-living crisis and the government. AfD leader, Tino Chrupalla, announced in an interview the party would ‘to take the protest to the streets and support the people’s anger’.

The upswing of the SPD and the Greens has narrowed the spaces for DIE LINKE in recent years – but that need not have automatically led DIE LINKE into crisis. The situation was favourable: through an anti-racist mass movement in response to the rise of the AfD, then through a mass movement against the threat of climate catastrophe, and finally through a revitalised, young women’s movement, polarisation to the right was slowed down and the rise of the AfD was stopped. These movements have also been reflected in a rejuvenation and revitalisation of DIE LINKE’s membership.

DIE LINKE could have countered the revival of social democracy and, thus, highlighted the gap between the pro-capitalist SPD and itself. Knowing full well that the brittleness of the SPD’s upswing would become apparent once it sat in government with its primary responsibility of managing capitalism in Germany, it could have continued the position it had already attained through its campaigning in union and social struggles and its participation in the movement for union renewal, even under more adverse circumstances. This has not happened enough. In the party and the Bundestag faction, the wrong political responses to the new situation have prevailed instead.

A part of the party around Sahra Wagenknecht focused on dissociation from the new movements, combined with the false claim that the party was losing sight of wage-dependent workers and the poor. This was never true, either programmatically or in terms of general issues, but if leading figures in the party maintain it for long enough, this image eventually becomes entrenched.  The willingness of the Wagenknecht wing to make concessions to the racism of the AfD disposed of an essential core of socialist politics, namely that the struggle against exploitation and oppression belong inseparably together, because only a united class, across borders of origin, gender and sexual orientation, can successfully fight against capitalism. This line led DIE LINKE into a permanent conflict. Some tried to found a parallel organisation to DIE LINKE with ‘Aufstehen’. They failed, but also prevented an unrestricted positioning of DIE LINKE on the side of the new mass movements.

On the other side are so-called ‘reformers’ who saw in the upswing of the SPD and the Greens an opportunity to increase the party’s apparent utility by offering itself as a coalition partner. The idea behind this: Survival as a functioning party, pulling the SPD to the left. This already did not work when the party was in government at the state level. In the 2021 federal election, this course did not come to fruition, hence the loss of 30 MPS, down from 69 in 2017.

Despite a generally good election program, DIE LINKE repeatedly offered itself to the SPD as a government partner. Not only did the party chairwoman at the time, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, talk down the differences with the Social Democrats, she instead emphasised what Scholz could implement with DIE LINKE but not with the FDP. ‘Preventing Laschet (the conservative candidate)’ was the goal in the election strategy. The path was to lead via a coalition with DIE LINKE. But both the SPD and the Greens announced early on that they would rather get the FDP on board than DIE LINKE. The ingratiation was wrong. The poor election result followed from the camp election campaign. In a camp election campaign, the largest parties of the respective camp always win. DIE LINKE fell into a trap of its own making in the federal election.

DIE LINKE reaped the worst of both worlds thanks to the two wrong political orientations. The orientation towards government and ‘red-red-green’ (SPD/DIE LINKE/Greens) prevented a sharp profile vis-à-vis social democracy, and the playing off of new movements and issues such as anti-racism and climate catastrophe against those workers who held conservative social positions prevented a clear position and practice in these fields. To make matters worse, the two currents representing these misorientations have entered into a power alliance within DIE LINKE, the so-called ‘Hufeisen’ (‘horseshoe’) and, thus, have a firm grip on important structures such as the Bundestag parliamentary group.

Both party leaders elected in June, Janine Wissler and Martin Schirdewan, are calling for a hot autumn and over the summer launched a relief campaign ‘Schluss mit Teuer’ (‘Enough with Expensive’). DIE LINKE remains the largest political force that can contribute to the formation of resistance. In particular, it is the largest force that can intervene politically in the foreseeable ferment in the unions, which are coming under massive pressure to counteract the social decline of their members through an offensive wage policy.

Despite the most serious party crisis in its history, a new study by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation attests DIE LINK a voter potential of 18% among households with a monthly income of less than 2,500 euros and possible 24%. Nothing has been gained from such analyses automatically, but it shows how fragile the revival of social democracy is and how quickly political cycles can turn.

The many young people whom the party has won over from the new mass movements, despite the disruptive of an unclear profile, have not (yet) left the party in most cases. DIE LINKE still has 60,000 members in 2022. The new members are not automatically in favor of class-struggle politics as distinct from the Wagenknecht or reformer line, yet there is potential here for an open strategic debate about the party’s orientation the strengthening of the revolutionary pole inside.

Further reading

Christine Buchholz is part of the national executive of DIE LINKE and a leading member of Marx21. She was an MP from 2009-2021 and is active in anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-war movements.