Sovereign Virtues?

After eighteen years, Die Linke is no longer a presence in the German Bundestag. When Sahra Wagenknecht and nine other MPs quit the party last October, the remaining deputies lost their status as a parliamentary group. The defectors are now planning to contest the upcoming European elections along with three state elections in eastern Germany. Initial polls put support for their new outfit, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – for Reason and Justice (BSW), at an impressive 12%. For many commentators, including Joshua Rahtz in a recent article for Sidecar, this is a hopeful development. Wagenknecht, he writes, directly addresses the material concerns of the German public: the ruling-class attack on living standards, the retrenchment of the social state, and the subordination of the national interest to that of Washington. He views her programme, focused on redistribution and opposition to NATO, as a serious response to the Repräsentationslücke – or representation gap – in the electoral system, where nearly half of the population does not identify with any party. To assess whether Rahtz’s optimism is warranted, we need to take a closer look at the character of the BSW. How radical are its policies? And, beyond them, does it have an intellectual or philosophical orientation towards the left?

Back in the 1990s, Sarah Wagenknecht was still a colourful Stalinoid communist who defended the legacy of Walter Ulbricht and served on the National Committee of the Party of Democratic Socialism. Her political transformation began in the 2010s, when, as Die Linke’s vice president and economic spokesperson, she embraced the ordoliberal vision of a ‘social market economy’. Since then, she has talked a lot about Schumpeterian innovation and little about socialism. She now describes her politics as ‘left-conservative’, holding up the family entrepreneur as the model citizen. She speaks to a supposedly traditionalist section of the working class which has seen its social position decline in recent decades, but which has been insulated from the worst predations of the neoliberal era. For Wagenknecht, protecting such workers from further hardship is a zero-sum game in which migrants pose a potential threat. ‘Cultural issues’ such as gender are at best a distraction, and current climate mitigation efforts – such as carbon pricing or phasing out combustion engines – are untenable. Instead, the aim should be to create decent jobs and develop ‘future technologies’ by reviving Germany’s industrial base.

To its supporters, the Wagenknecht phenomenon combines social democracy, Peronist populism and working-class common sense (or ‘reason’). Rahtz appears to agree with her that the starting point for the twenty-first-century left is a resovereigntization of the nation, which seeks to reclaim the political system, the welfare state and international relations from elites. This approach correctly identifies the defects in contemporary European democracies: the cartelization of party politics, the erosion of the social settlement and the forcible imposition of austerity, along with Atlanticist foreign policies. It has provided a consistent opposition to the Zeitenwende and to the often paternalist lockdown and vaccination policies rolled out during the pandemic. Yet it also suffers from a number of incurable problems.

Most notably, by juxtaposing ‘globalist’ institutions to national ones, Wagenknecht’s counter-programme offers nothing more than an improbable return to capitalism’s Golden Age. Rahtz, to his credit, acknowledges the ‘difficulties of attempting to increase German manufacturing competitiveness . . . in the context of a chronically weakened global economy’. But for him, these difficulties are practical rather than ideological. He does not ask whether ‘sovereignty’ or ‘industrial competition’ should be priorities for socialists in the first place. Both concepts, which feature heavily in the work of sociologists like Wolfgang Streeck and Anthony Giddens, are dubious from a Marxist point of view, since they substitute internationalism with national-Keynesianism, cooperation with capitalist rivalry. Moreover, if reverting to an embedded national welfare state is difficult in a world where capital flows and productive relations have become transnational, the likelihood is that this project will simply end up producing a regressive form of politics.

Wagenknecht exemplifies this danger. Her singular focus on resovereigntization has supplanted a politics of class with one of the nation. It is not true that, as Rahtz claims, the significance of immigration to her platform is ‘often exaggerated’, and that ‘the issue is given minimal emphasis in her public addresses’. In fact, Wagenknecht is constantly scapegoating migrants – slamming Merkel’s ‘uncontrolled opening of borders’, demanding more deportations, crackdowns on smugglers, strict limits on new arrivals and welfare caps for asylum seekers. The launch of the BSW was one of the few moments when she refrained from placing this issue front and centre. When state and federal leaders held a summit on migration in Berlin last month, however, she attacked them forcefully from the right: ‘Today the message to the world should have been: Germany is overwhelmed, Germany has no more room, Germany is no longer prepared to be the number one destination.’

Wagenknecht’s supporters assume that this rhetoric will help the BSW to win back the constituency that defected from the left to the AfD. But this narrative is not supported by the data. Although Die Linke lost 400,000 voters to the AfD in 2017, that was the year in which it achieved its second-best electoral result in history (9.2%). Since then the situation has changed. In 2021, when Die Linke received only 4.8% of the vote, it lost only 90,000 voters to the AfD and more than a million to the Greens and SPD. Most authoritative studies show that, in the years ahead, Die Linke will be primarily in competition with the latter two parties, while the BSW is more likely to compete with the AfD and, to some extent, with the CDU and SPD.

Rather than drawing its strength from former leftists, the AfD has picked up most of its support from right-wing parties, as well as mobilizing large numbers of abstentionists. If Wagenknecht is encroaching on the AfD’s territory, this is not because she is winning them over to the left, but because she is recycling the talking points of the nationalist right. Although her approach appeals to a small segment of the electorate that favours redistribution but opposes diversity, it is more popular among the demographic that opposes both. As one study put it, Wagenknecht performs well among ‘those who tend to position themselves as more socio-culturally right-leaning and more market-oriented, and those who support a more restrictive migration policy, ceteris paribus’.

One of the most comprehensive recent surveys on the German class structure and public opinion, by Steffen Mau, Linus Westheuser and Thomas Lux, shows that manufacturing workers are on average more critical of migration than the rest of the population. Yet it also finds that this group is characterized by significant ‘intra-class dissent’, with more than a third having no xenophobic attitudes at all, and the others being more equivocal than Wagenknecht’s talk of a socially conservative working class would suggest. This applies particularly to questions of gender and sexuality, where there is a clear progressive majority. Wagenknecht neglects these simple facts. She rejects contemporary feminism, queer politics and anti-racism as the faddish preserves of a ‘lifestyle left’, whom she dismisses as ‘self-righteous’ – waging a culture war whose only beneficiary is the right.

On certain issues, such as militarism and Covid, Wagenknecht has indeed resisted elite groupthink and sounded a dissenting note. Yet her positions must be placed in the context of her general political outlook. Her refusal to toe the line on NATO is not motivated by a principled anti-imperialism. It is based on an assessment that a stronger orientation towards Russia would bolster Germany’s energy security and aid its reindustrialization. It is parochialist, not internationalist. This was evident in the anti-NATO rallies that Wagenknecht has helped to organize, where those close to her – particularly her husband, the former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine – were unconcerned by the participation of AfD supporters.

Likewise, Wagenknecht’s opposition to the government’s pandemic policies is more than just a defence of ‘civil liberties’. It also reflects a sceptical attitude towards science itself, which often strays into conspiracism – talking up the risks of vaccine side-effects and so on. Her criticism of lockdowns, whether one agrees or not, relies on a reified middle-class concept of ‘freedom’ which frames it as an individual right rather than a social project. It employs the tropes of right-wing populism rather than the discourse of solidarity.

Finally, Wagenknecht not only lacks ‘an active social movement’, as Rahtz puts it. She has no allies whatsoever in the trade unions, including the most active left-wing ones. Other social-democratic leaders in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, from Corbyn to Sanders to Iglesias, all sought to forge ties with the labour movement, with varying degrees of success. But though she claims to care about workers’ pay and conditions, Wagenknecht has little interest in the institutions that are fighting to improve them – perhaps because forming alliances with such collective organizations would be at odds with her top-down personalist style. The unfortunate truth is that, shorn of these commitments, Wagenknechtism is simply a new form of Bonapartism, seeking to represent the passive and reactionary sections of the lower and middle classes.

Read on: Joachim Jachnow, ‘What’s Become of the German Greens?’, NLR 81.