After a catastrophic defeat in last Sunday’s general election, Germany’s socialist party Die Linke faces a choice: return to its working-class roots or face political irrelevance.
By Alexander Brentler
Sep. 29, 2021
The party’s support was halved, from 9.2 to 4.9 percent — thus slipping below the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament. Its continued presence with thirty-nine MPs (down from sixty-nine) is only assured due to a quirk of German electoral law: Because it won three first-past-the-post constituencies in Berlin and Leipzig, it was awarded the rest of its seat share according to proportional representation. Therefore, a few thousand votes in two Eastern cities saved it from near-total electoral obliteration on the federal level. All three districts were won thanks to personal votes for respected and well-liked figures such as Gregor Gysi, former chairman of the parliamentary group and leader of the opposition, who hoisted the dysfunctional party into Parliament once more.
Die Linke’s leadership reacted to the resounding defeat with the usual phrases of contrition, promising introspection and careful evaluation. But it is already obvious that the party’s electoral strategy has failed on all fronts. Its self-conception in recent years has been to provide a relatively neutral platform for the advancement of a diverse set of activist causes. Advocates of this approach within the party have long depicted it as a necessary modernizing step, insisting that the influx of younger, progressive, and highly politicized members would rejuvenate an aging party once dominated by older, working-class members from former East Germany. As a result of this strategic turn, voters were confronted with chaotic and contradictory messaging. Instead of running on core issues, the party offered up a seemingly uncoordinated public image, paired with a boring and inward-facing campaign mostly aimed at preaching to a small group of loyalist voters instead of broader outreach.
A Million Activists Don’t Make a Class
In other words, like many people across the country, Berliners want left-wing policies, but they deeply distrust and dislike left-wing parties and politicians. The implementation of the nonbinding referendum faces an uncertain path forward under the incoming city government led by SPD mayor-elect Franziska Giffey, which will be deeply hostile to its aims. It will quickly become clear that transformations of this magnitude are not possible without socialist influence inside state institutions. An activist vanguard suspicious of electoral party politics will have to face the fact that, in societies like Germany, politically staffed institutions have greater leverage over matters of public administration than loosely affiliated social movements.
A party, especially a socialist party, needs to be more than a collection of social movements. It must bundle the voices of a diverse working class in city, town and country, migrant and nonmigrant alike — but more than that, it must articulate them as a common interest. For years, Die Linke clearly hasn’t aspired to this aim — with politics by and for the working class falling out of fashion. Sunday’s defeat was the electoral outcome of this longstanding neglect of class formation.
The Worst of All Worlds
On the other hand, Die Linke’s result isn’t quite disastrous enough to force a real renewal in terms of personnel and strategy. Neither Dietmar Bartsch nor Janine Wissler, jointly heading the party list, have done particularly badly in recent months — but a few strong appearances in political talk shows are not enough to make up for years of amateurish public relations and failed political communication. The party needs a new image, and that in turn means — at the very least — a change of personnel.
Die Linke’s continued status as a parliamentary group probably means that those mainly responsible for the disaster — whether at party headquarters, within the parliamentary caucus, or the party foundation — will probably be able to keep their posts. This means that what is likely the last opportunity to save the party from irrelevance is about to pass.
In terms of electoral strategy, the party can’t rely on small majorities in a handful of urban districts in the East, won, for now, by party grandees of yesteryear. It has to develop a political vision that connects with significant sections of mainstream society, not just specific, highly politicized subcultures. Sadly, those within the party who have in recent years called for outreach to the working class in its full diversity, including the unemployed and older workers, have been shouted down and denigrated as reactionaries. The dominant consensus within the party has instead been to regard these sections of the working class as expendable to its success, and as a cultural obstacle to reaching younger voters: a zero-sum demographic calculus that ignores that successful parties of the left need to unite and inspire disparate groups with a unifying message, instead of micro-targeting each activist constituency with maximalist demands.
With the staunch centrist Scholz likely to be the next chancellor, Germany urgently needs a party in Parliament that stands to the left of the SPD: as a corrective on issues of redistribution and the welfare state, as a mouthpiece for the excluded, as a voice for peace and disarmament, as an innovator in inclusive green industrial policy led by public sector investment. Yet the road to rebuilding Die Linke as such a force is steep. Only 6.6 percent of trade union members voted for the party on Sunday, compared to 17 percent in 2009, and it did even worse than the staunchly neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) among this group of voters. For a party that has long seen itself as the sole remaining voice of workers, this is an unprecedented failure.
Through Die Linke’s continued parliamentary presence, voters have given it one last chance to return to its roots — and once again become the voice of Germany’s struggling working class
Published at www.jacobinmag.com
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