After a year of climate disaster coming home and pandemic-induced political instability, Germany held its national elections on September 26, resulting in a thin victory of 25.7 percent of the vote for the Social Democratic party (SPD) under candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz. This comes after sixteen years of rule by Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) whose 24.1 percent result is their worst result ever. While no party received a decisive majority, the big winners beyond the SPD include the Greens, who achieved their best results in their history at 14.8 percent, and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party who won 11.5 percent of the vote. Scholz’s SPD will spend the coming months negotiating a coalition to form a government, most likely with some combination of the Greens and FDP, though there is a slight possibility that the CDU/CSU could still play some role in the government.
Far from some deep-rooted resurgence of the sclerotic SPD, the elections represent the weakness of the post-Merkel CDU/CSU. After former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder instituted a program of major neoliberal reforms (called “Agenda 2010”) to dismantle large parts of Germany’s welfare system and labor protections in the early 2000s, the SPD has had difficulty regaining a leading position among voters, a situation that was only exacerbated by their participation in ‘grand coalition’ governments with Merkel’s party for most of her chancellorship.
The fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party only received 10.3 percent of the vote, down from their previous 12.6 percent but still a present danger. More alarmingly however, the AfD have now become the strongest party in two East German states. In a devastating blow, Germany’s left party Die Linke met with a historic defeat receiving 4.9 percent of the vote, approximately half of its previous results. Only a technicality of German election law saved Die Linke from being booted out of parliament altogether and losing all of its seats for not meeting the five percent threshold.
Formed in 2007, Die Linke has always encompassed a wide range of organized tendencies within the party including moderate social democratic reformists like Dietmar Bartsch, former East German ‘communists’, activist youth movements, supposedly left ‘populists’ around Sahra Wagenknecht, and revolutionary socialists like the Marx21 network. Strategic debates have raged within Die Linke since its foundation. These debates have escalated sharply in recent years, heightened by Wagenknecht’s efforts to appeal to German workers through veiled xenophobia and concessions to the right, almost splitting off a section of the party in 2018. Earlier this year, Die Linke elected two new co-chairs, the left-wing Janine Wissler, a former member of Marx21, and the so-called pragmatic Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, who has long occupied the right-wing of the party. At the party’s base, Die Linke organizers have played a crucial role in strikes and social movements across the country, including the successful referendum to expropriate corporate landlords in Berlin.
The following statement by the Marx21 network, published on September 28, makes the case that the chief factor in Die Linke’s defeat was its decision to bet the house on an electoral front with the SPD and the Greens in the hopes of participating in a red-red-green government, rather than campaigning on its own policy and deepening ties with strikes and social movements.
The 2021 federal election in Germany resulted in a historic defeat for Die LinBut who or what is responsible for the debacle? And much more important: How will Die Linke continue on now? Seven theses of the Marx21 network on the present debate in the party.
1. Die Linke is, next to the CDU, the big loser in the 2021 federal election. The party was sidelined by the left-signaling Social Democrats and Greens.
This has never happened in the history of Die Linke: The party felt anxiety over whether it would meet the threshold to be seated in the Bundestag. It has lost more than 2 million votes and thus almost half of its voters. This is a historic defeat.
Only thanks to winning three direct mandates in Berlin and Leipzig is Die Linke still represented as a parliamentary fraction in the Bundestag. This election result is particularly painful for everyone who has been on the street, at discussion events, protests or at front doors in the past few weeks and months. Indeed, the election manifesto and the positions of Die Linke resonated positively in many places. The party carried out a committed and movement-oriented election campaign in many places, experimented with new forms of organizing and also gained new members.
The left election campaign of the SPD and the Greens
Nevertheless, Die Linke was eventually overrun by the “Scholz train.” In order to prevent the CDU’s candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, even people who fundamentally sympathize with Die Linke voted for the SPD in the end. Die Linke lost more than 800,000 votes to the Social Democrats, who, with a left-wing election campaign, managed to shake off their responsibility for “Agenda 2010” as well as for the catastrophic government policy of the grand coalition under Merkel.
In addition, for many voters, the issue of climate policy was crucial to the election. Although Die Linke is well positioned in terms of its program and clearly has more far-reaching demands than the Greens, most of these votes ended up with the latter – including more than 600,000 votes from former Linke voters. The calculation behind this was obviously to ensure that, by choosing the Greens,–regardless of the ultimate coalition makeup of the government–a “guarantee” for more climate protection is represented in the next federal government. So Die Linke was sidelined by the left-signaling Social Democrats and Greens. Just how much Die Linke was competing with the SPD and the Greens was underestimated. Ultimately, a total of 1.4 million votes from former Linke voters went to the two parties.
2. The election defeat of Die Linke was not inevitable. One of the main reasons for the heavy losses is the wrong approach to the SPD and the Greens. It was a serious mistake for Die Linke, in the most intense phase of the election campaign, to go easy on its direct competitors in order to ingratiate itself with them as potential coalition partners.
“Die Linke wants to govern,” was the main message of the Left Party during the hot phase of the election campaign. This type of communication was a grave mistake, because by fighting for an electoral front with the SPD and Greens, the party lost its ability to aggressively attack them.
That kind of attack would have been necessary in order to reach the many wavering and uncertain voters and to make clear why Die Linke is needed at all and a change of government does not mean a change in politics.
The desire for a fundamental change
The reservoir for Linke votes was definitely there: 40 percent of voters said they want a fundamental change. Social security, environment/climate and economy/work were the three key issues. In all three areas, however, the SPD and the Greens had also made left-wing demands and thus attracted the hopes of many.
Although it was clear that neither the SPD nor the Greens will implement a real social and ecological policy change after the election, Die Linke hardly questioned the credibility of the supposed left-wing course of the two parties during the election campaign. Instead of clearly naming the neoliberal policies of Scholz and his SPD in the grand coalition and attacking the Greens for their inadequate climate policy and their openness to militarism, such as the procurement of combat drones, Die Linke focused primarily on Laschet of the CDU and Lindner of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP): “A traffic light [coalition of green-yellow-red] ultimately is just a signal for electoral fraud,” said top Die Linke candidate Dietmar Bartsch. Instead of clearly contrasting Die Linke’s own profile and unique selling points in climate policy or on social issues with the Greens and the SPD, supposed overlaps with the latter parties were pointed out.
The maneuvers of the reformer camp
Worse still: already during the election campaign, parts of the party rushed to display obedience to these potential future partners. These segments of the party downplayed Die Linke’s own demands to what is financially viable under the given conditions – without significant tax increases for the rich and corporations – or justifiable vis-à-vis the “NATO partners.” It was the reformer camp of the party that publicly put in question the foreign policy positions of Die Linke in order to ingratiate themselves with the SPD and the Greens. The party co-chair, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, came out publicly for deployment of the German army in “peacekeeping” missions.
Given this context, it was not possible to stop or at least slow down the shift of many voters who found the promises made by Scholz and Baerbock [the leader of the Greens] credible. With this line, Die Linke even lost the votes of those who had lost faith in politics entirely, expressing their frustrations through not voting or voting for the smallest parties. In this election,850,000 former Linke voters didn’t vote or voted for other, smaller parties who will not be represented in the Bundestag.
An alternative to the electoral front approach
Many people expressed a desire for changes in government policy, and it’s absolutely correct that Die Linke has to respond to that desire and doesn’t categorically rule out the possibility of an actually left-wing government. But it made the mistake of cloaking the SPD and the Greens in a progressive mantel, in the hopes of becoming part of a coalition. Of course voters who support Die Linke want to see their party in government. At the same time, those voters expect that Die Linke will not betray its program by participating in austerity politics, privatizations, militarization and war in exchange for ministerial posts.
Instead of relying on an electoral front campaign, Die Linke should have emphasized its own profile much more and differentiated itself from the SPD and the Greens. Die Linke has clear red lines it is committed to not crossing in its policies, and it was a mistake to barely mention those red lines in the election campaign. Die Linke should have made it clear that it wants policy changes, but that governance is not an end in itself. That approach was only followed by individuals, but was not the basis of the election campaign as a whole. The election results we’re seeing now are the payoff of that decision.
3. The orientation of Die Linke’s campaign on an electoral front did not come from nowhere, but was from the beginning the orientation of the reformer wing of the party. The exclusive fixation on internal party disputes distracts from the actual cause of the election defeat.
Parts of the left-wing of Die Linke warned against it, and still it happened: Die Linke embarked on an electoral front campaign. The masterminds behind this course were the reformers led by Dietmar Bartsch, Bodo Ramelow and co-party chairwoman Susanne Hennig-Wellsow.
The wrong course for the election campaign was set already by Henning-Wellsow in her inaugural address. She declared: “My goal is a federal government without a CDU – preferably a green-red-red one. I am aiming to prepare us to be part of government.” In doing so, she made no secret of the fact that she is also willing to cross the party’s policy red lines, for example, to soften the party’s anti-war position. In sync with that approach, top candidate Dietmar Bartsch in particular endlessly repeated an emphasis on the willingness of Die Linke to compromise. This is not the first time that strategy of the reformer has failed. The PDS, predecessor party to Die Linke, took a similar approach as early as the 2002 election campaign.
Bartsch and the electoral front campaign in 2002
For a short period in the early summer of 2002, it looked as though the governing red-green coalition under Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and Joschka Fischer (Greens) would be replaced by a black-yellow coalition government headed by Edmund Stoiber (CSU). At the same time, poll results for the PDS were declining. The electoral campaign manager for the PDS at the time, Dietmar Bartsch, set the course for an electoral front campaign. An election manifesto drafted by the PDS under his leadership stated: “Preventing Stoiber is only possible with a strengthened PDS (…) If it comes to a decision between Stoiber and Schröder and if German participation in the Iraq war could be stopped, then we would also be ready to elect Schröder as Chancellor.”
Among other things, the first Schröder-Fischer government from 1998 to 2002 had launched the first war of aggression in German post-war history (against Yugoslavia), participated in the Afghanistan war and the partially privatized the state old-age pension. Despite this, Bartsch and the PDS election campaign management were ready to elect Schröder as Chancellor. When the election came, the PDS slipped below 5 percent. Schröder and Fischer had spoken out clearly against German participation in an Iraq war already at this point in time (August 2002). In this respect, the PDS’s single “condition” for the SPD and the Greens was in actuality preaching to the converted. As right as it was for the PDS to stand up against Stoiber, it was just as wrong to spare the SPD and the Greens criticism in the election campaign. As a result, the independent profile of the PDS was no longer recognizable. The PDS flew out of the Bundestag.
What lessons will Die Linke draw?
This drama almost repeated itself in the 2021 election campaign. But instead of occasioning a critical assessment of the election campaign strategy, the defeat is admitted while responsibility is rejected. The architects of the electoral front campaign are demanding that “Die Linke should reinvent itself,” but want to stick to the failed tactic. In an interview with Neues Deutschland, Linke chairwoman Susanne Hennig-Wellsow defended the aggressive advocacy of an alliance with the SPD and the Greens. She did not consider this to be a “comeuppance,” rejected any responsibility for the poor election result and said on Berlin radio that the result was “definitely not a product of the last few weeks.” After years of opposition in the Bundestag, her argument goes, it is difficult for Die Linke to show that it too is ready to take on responsibility. Dietmar Bartsch said of the election results: “We were too busy with internal disputes.” As long as leading representatives of the ‘realist’ wing cling to their failed positions, a new start at the federal level will be difficult to achieve.
4. The narrative that Die Linke has strayed too far from the interests of its traditional supporters and focuses too much on topics such as climate, anti-racism or feminism, is not only wrong, but has damaged the party in two ways.
As expected, in response to the election result, Sahra Wagenknecht repeated her thesis that Die Linke has “in recent years moved further and further away from what it was actually founded for: to represent the interests of normal workers and pensioners.” Klaus Ernst also thinks that the problem with Die Linke is that it is “barely anchored in the wage earners anymore, but chases after every movement, wanting to be greener than the Greens, arguing about open borders for everyone and about whether Wagenknecht should be expelled.”
It is true that Die Linke’s base in the working class is too small. It is also true that the dispute over Wagenknecht’s theses damaged the party. However, it is completely wrong to claim that Die Linke has given the social question too little priority and is too concerned with the fight against climate change or against racism and oppression. In fact, social issues – wages, rents, pensions, Hartz IV unemployment and welfare benefits – were clearly at the center of Die Linke’s election campaign.
Moreover, women’s struggles and struggles of sexual or ethnic minorities are an important part of the class struggle. The idea that these fights or the struggles of the climate movement would scare off workers is simply false. Certainly, there are conservative sections of the working class who have little to do with these issues – for example, the CSU is still the strongest force among the organized working class in Bavaria. The AfD has not only succeeded in winning over parts of the working class, but also in persuading union members to vote for them. However, if Die Linke members draw the conclusion from this that social issues and resistance to oppression or the climate crisis are playing off against each other, they are making a serious mistake. Class consciousness cannot be created by hiding from conservative or even reactionary attitudes, but rather is built through joint struggles, organizing, and the experience of solidarity.
Wagenknecht’s campaign for her “counter-program,” which was mainly carried out via the bourgeois media, damaged Die Linke in several ways: It scared off people who want to fight against oppression or for climate justice, as well as people who believe Wagenknecht’s story that Die Linke would no longer fight for their social interests. It is simply wrong to claim that the social question is not at the center of the politics of Die Linke. All you need to do is take a look at the election program or the campaigns of recent years.
Wagenknecht’s scolding of her own party gave the impression that Die Linke was a divided bunch, which, depending on the perspective, either no longer stood on the side of the socially disadvantaged or did not have a consistent stance on the climate movement or the fight against racism or sexism. It is obvious that this has doubly damaged Die Linke.
5. Die Linke can achieve a breakthrough if it continues to develop into a driving force in social conflicts. This must include a break with representational politics and the focus on parliaments.
The poor election results—also in the West—mask an important development in Die Linke. In the West, the downward trend in membership numbers was stopped. In fact, in the states of the old West Germany including Berlin, Die Linke almost broke the membership record from 2009 again at the end of last year. This has breathed new life into many party structures. But what were the conditions for this breakthrough?
Since it was founded, Die Linke has always been not just a parliamentary party, but a movement party as well. The party supported, mobilized and organized the most important protests in recent years: whether the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, the Blockupy protests in 2011, Dresden Nazi-Free, or the protests against the free trade agreement TTIP in 2013, the small or larger strikes and protests in hospitals and daycare centers, with train drivers, or in the education sector, the massive antiracist and anti-fascist movement over the entire decade, the fight against skyrocketing rents, the G20 protests in Hamburg, the women’s strikes, climate demonstrations, anti-AfD protests or the Black Lives Matter movement and local strike solidarity – all of these disputes were the driving forces behind electoral success, but even more so the party building of Die Linke. As a result, many new members poured into the party.
It wasn’t by participating in government that Die Linke was built, but its involvement in the most important movements and workplace disputes of recent years. Even today in many locales, party structures have a focus on activity in extra-parliamentary initiatives. What is missing, however, is the orientation of the party as a whole on these social conflicts. The work of Die Linke must be turned upside down and rethought from the perspective of the grassroots, movements and resistance in the neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and universities, at the both the state and federal level.
Berlin shows what this can look like in practice. There, the powerful tenant’s movement made the “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co.!” referendum a success. Die Linke was the only party that supported the referendum. At the same time, Die Linke’s government participation in Berlin was a liability: the party lost 1.6 percent of its previous votes in the city’s representative assembly election. Nevertheless, the poor trend was mitigated by the good election results in the districts in which Die Linke is a relevant part of movements – above all in organizing the referendum. The constituencies with the strongest increase in votes for Die Linke are all in those districts that also exhibited above-average support for the referendum. For example, in the constituency of Treptow-Köpenick 1, Die Linke managed to maintain its results in the election for the Berlin house of representatives against the trend (26.2 percent, -0.1) and defend the direct mandate of Katalin Gennburg. Gennburg, a movement-oriented candidate with a profile in the tenant and climate movements, stands in clear contrast to the rest of the district.
Successes also occurred in the districts of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln: In the latter, Die Linke was able to achieve 20 to 30 percent in three constituencies during the city election, adding up to 10 percentage points over the first list results. In the federal election too, despite losses, Neukölln achieved Die Linke’s best result in all of West Germany with 11.9 percent.
What does this show? It shows that Die Linke can tap its potential if it breaks with its fixation on parliaments as an essential field of action and lever for social change and instead puts its energy into building social movements and strikes. Through years of support for the strike movements in the hospitals – as is currently the case in Berlin at Charité and Vivantes – Die Linke has actually been able to expand its base in the militant sections of the working class, instead of just lamenting that support from the working class is waning. Over the course of the election campaign, Die Linke began to reactivate the structures in many other party branches as well, which had been weakened by the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite disappointing overall results, the party in Hesse was able to strengthen the party structures in many places and gain 68 new members. 1400 new members have joined Die Linke nationwide.
6. The credibility problem created by Die Linke’s actions in government are an obstacle to the further building of the party. Wherever it governs, Die Linke repeatedly comes into conflict with its program and its goals. In order for Die Linke to have a future, all government participations must be scrutinized.
It is not only the barrage from within its own ranks that calls Die Linke’s credibility into question. Wherever the party participates in governments, it repeatedly comes into fundamental contradiction with its own program and the political positions for which it was elected. At the federal level, Die Linke has a clear-cut profile against any privatizations and asylum law restrictions. At the same time, in state governments the party participates in the deportation regime and agrees to privatizations [Marx21 has assessed this here].
Bremen: cuts in the hospitals
The latest example: The red-red-green state government in Bremen is implementing cuts in hospitals in the middle of the pandemic. 440 positions are to be cut at the Bremen Clinic Association Geno. The health senator Claudia Bernhard from Die Linke supports the plans and defends them with the argument that the state-owned clinic association is in the red. This is a surefire way to destroy much of the trust that Die Linke has built up over the years through supporting the struggles for more hospital staff in one fell swoop.
Not an isolated case
Such a fatal course taken by Die Linke in government is anything but an isolated case: from the privatization of 70,000 apartments under red-red coalition in Berlin in 2002, to the threat of dismantling and privatization through public sale of the Berlin S-Bahn last year, to support for the coal industry against the climate movement in Brandenburg, to the deportation policy in Thuringia – every state government in which Die Linke has participated has supported political decisions that diametrically contradict the demands and goals of the party. The subsequent loss of credibility hits Die Linke all the harder, because it thereby breaks its promise to be different from the other parties.
To this it must be added: wherever Die Linke is part of governments, it disappears as an opposition and is less able to show up as an anti-capitalist force. This weakens the left resistance and creates space for the fascist right to benefit from the discontent. In this context, the triumph of the AfD in Thuringia is frightening. Under the red-red-green coalition, the AfD became the strongest party in the current federal election. For the Thuringian Linke, the election result is therefore particularly bitter, but it shows just how dangerous the government-oriented course can be.
The reason why Die Linke repeatedly contradicts its program and the interests of its voters when in government is not primarily the lack of steadfastness on the part of its politicians. The leeway for left government policy within the framework of a capitalist state is simply extremely limited – especially with business-financed coalition partners and under the constraints of a debt limit. In general, however, the following dynamic applies: Since the state itself is dependent on successful capital accumulation, taking over the administration of government will not only fail to break the power of corporations, it will also prevent all but the minimum of social improvements against the interests of capital. Experiments in government participation therefore quite easily become case studies. Even if a left government were to push through some reforms under a favorable balance of power, such conditions will not last. And whether through horse-trading with coalition partners or pressure from capital, the threat of betraying what the party stands for is a constant one.
7. Time to reboot! Opposition isn’t useless. Die Linke is sought after as a megaphone and engine for organizing both resistance and countervailing power.
Regardless of what kind of government coalition is formed in the federal government – the hopes that many people have for the next government will be disappointed. None of the possible constellations will have an adequate response to the climate crisis. None of the possible constellations will ask the rich and corporations to pay for the necessary efforts. The problem is the basic orientation of the SPD and the Greens: they want to secure the profit interests of the corporations in international capitalist competition instead of taking on the rich and corporations directly. Their project is a social-ecological modernization of capitalism – in agreement with the bosses and at the expense of wage earners.
The Bundestag election is no shift to the right
Nevertheless, the general election does not mark a shift to the right. The gains in the SPD and the Greens are significantly greater than the losses of Die Linke and the votes for both parties are tied to the hope of a progressive social and ecological policy. When they don’t deliver, it will soon become clear that a strong Die Linke is still urgently needed. In the next few years, the distribution battles over the question of who should pay for the COVID crisis will come to a head. The same applies to imperialist competition: the world is not becoming more peaceful – armaments spending rose to a record level in 2020. The effects of the climate crisis, the question of affordable housing and working conditions in care sectors and elsewhere will also remain the subject of social conflicts.
Die Linke is needed as a megaphone, discussion forum, and engine for organizing resistance and counter-power in these disputes. Die Linke can draw from a wide range of local experiences for how the party can develop as a movement party. The positive experiences in many district branches in recent years should form the basis for a “reorientation” of the party.
Featured Image Credit:Image by Marx21. Modified by Tempest.
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Marx21 is a network of revolutionary socialists within Die Linke. Sean Larson translated the article from German to English, and wrote the introduction.