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A Three-Way Split in Marx21 — Which Way Forward for the Revolutionary Left in Germany?

Marx21, the post-Trotskyist network inside Die Linke, has split into three different groups. How can revolutionary socialists move forward?

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Germany’s Left Party, Die Linke, is in the throes of a terminal crisis, after Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters split off to form a new party. Wagenknecht is infamous for her social chauvinism: her scapegoating of immigrants, and her chasing of right-wing agenda points like vaccine skepticism. Yet as odious as her views are, Die Linke is in some ways worse: When announcing the split, Wagenknecht referred briefly to Gaza as an “open-air prison.” Dietmar Bartsch, Die Linke’s main speaker, responded by expressing his support for Israel. In other words, the split in The Left is between two-right-wing factions

For more than 15 years, the majority of Trotskyists in Germany have adapted to Die Linke. The party’s crisis has thrown all the groups attempting to ride on its coattails into crisis as well. The post-Trotskyist network Marx21 has now split into three separate groups. As we wrote half a year ago, this split was a result of years of adaptation to different reformist bureaucracies. Over the years, many members of Marx21 got cushy jobs in a government party. The most corrupt of them now run a for-profit company selling services to the trade union bureaucracy. Following Jane McAlevey’s theories of “organizing,” they are known as the “organizers.”

Marx21 functioned for a time as a group of young, low-level bureaucrats who like to talk about revolutionary socialism in their free time. It has now shattered.

Marx21

The split began on September 10, long before the conference that was supposed to mark the end of endless factional battles. At a meeting of Marx21’s leadership, a simple majority voted to expel the left-wing faction, known as FIST (For an International Socialist Tendency). The chutzpa! No democratic organization would allow the leadership to expel its opponents in the run up to a conference. But the “organizers” — long-accustomed to the bureaucratic functioning of the unions — did just this. Unfortunately, they had the support of Volkhard Mosler, a founder of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) in West Germany back in 1966-68, and one of the oldest veteran Trotskyists still active in Germany.

When the conference finally took place on October 14, there were two groups left: the organizers called themselves “Ringo” (for unknown reasons), whereas the former “Middle Group” was named PRO (Platform for a Revolutionary Organization). With the left wing gone, there was no way for PRO to balance in the middle. The organizers won the day, with roughly 100 to 50 votes, and the organization’s property was divvied up. Marx21 put out a patronizing statement wishing “the best” to the comrades they had just expelled, and asking themselves how they can help Die Linke emerge from its crisis.

Since the split, however, the new Marx21 has ceased all public activity, publishing a grand total of two articles in three months. It seems that the organizers’ group will continue as an increasingly secretive career network: ambitious functionaries helping each other up the bureaucratic ladder. He who pays the piper calls the tunes — the organizers can’t sell their services to the bureaucracies if they’re too closely associated with revolutionary ideas. In the last year, the organizers had already prevented Marx21 from publishing any criticism of the union bureaucracies, even in the face of open betrayals. The magazine Marx21 will likely be wound down and the public profile drastically reduced.

Revolutionary Left

The first new group to emerge from the split launched in September: Revolutionäre Linke (RL), founded by FIST, has a few dozen activists in different German cities. With Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza beginning just a month later, RL started an intense activity in the Palestine solidarity movement. In November, they published a first issue of a magazine called revolinks. They are close to exiled comrades from the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, who publish their content in English. In line with the IST tradition, their understanding of anti-imperialist solidarity makes them hesitant to criticize the leadership of any movement in struggle with imperialism, and they advocate cooperation between socialists and Islamists.

RL is mostly made up of veteran members of Marx21 (and even of its predecessor organizations like Linksruck and SAG) who have spent 15 years or more in Die Linke. What balance sheet do they draw from this experience? In the first issue of their magazine, they quite correctly accuse Die Linke of a “Betrayal of Gaza.” (Die Linke’s unlimited solidarity with Israel’s far-right government is particularly disappointing because the party co-chair Janine Wissler was a leading member of Marx21 for decades.) RL compares this betrayal to August 4, 1914, when the then-socialist SPD voted to support the First World War:

DIE LINKE was founded fifteen years ago. At that time, it raised the hopes of millions for social change and stood for a pacifist foreign policy, against all German military missions and arms exports. But its reformism and opportunism towards the ruling class, coupled with the aim of assuming government responsibility, has made it a party of the political mainstream. It no longer represents a basis from which to work for a consistent, anti-imperialist policy.

Of course, there are still party members in DIE LINKE today who argue for a different, anti-colonial policy in solidarity with the Palestinian population. But their position has become untenable since Sahra Wagenknecht announced her imminent departure from the party. This will further strengthen the weight of those who most openly support the federal government’s pro-Israel war course, such as Dietmar Bartsch, Klaus Lederer and Bodo Ramelow.

Anyone who identifies with the party DIE LINKE in this situation cuts themselves off from the pro-Palestinian solidarity movement, contributes to the blurring of the fronts and threatens to use up their strength in fruitless intra-party trench warfare. In the best case scenario, empty formulaic compromises emerge at party conferences that conceal the betrayal of the DIE LINKE faction in the Bundestag.

The article ends with a call to “draw the consequences and build a new, revolutionary left.” This is a very positive step. In fact, this is something that Klasse Gegen Klasse — the sister site of Left Voice in Germany — has been advocating for several years. Last year, we supported a revolutionary break from Die Linke. We believe that RL and KGK should sit down and discuss possibilities to work together and concrete steps to build such a new revolutionary Left.

Looking at Die Linke with Rose-Colored Glasses

The picture that RL paints of Die Linke today is completely accurate — but they are looking at the party’s history through rose-colored glasses. Was Die Linke so different 15 years ago? Did it ever provide a “basis to work for a consistent, anti-imperialist policy”? Hardly. The party was founded by Oskar Lafontaine, a former social-democratic party chair and federal minister who went through a brief period of radicalization. Lafontaine had a decades-long record of anti-immigrant policies, and he always defended it. Even when founding a new “left” party, he argued that German workers needed to protect themselves against foreign workers. Marx21 campaigned in favor of Lafontaine despite consistent chauvinism.

More importantly, Die Linke did not just “aim” to assume government responsibility. The day the party was founded, it was already in government in Berlin and in several other German states. Die Linke members in these governments have been responsible for countless deportations, evictions, and neoliberal privatization schemes, from even before the party’s founding.

In a sense, it is correct to accuse Die Linke of a betrayal by supporting German imperialism’s foreign policy in the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza. This is a betrayal of the most basic left-wing principles of internationalism. In another sense, though, this formulation can only cause confusion. When the SPD committed its great betrayal in 1914, it was betraying the revolutionary, internationalist principles that it had held up for decades. Die Linke, in contrast, never in any way promised to smash capitalism and build a socialist world. The Left Party never had any aim besides participating in elections and joining coalition governments to help administer the bourgeois state.

The idea that a reformist government party like Die Linke could be a starting point for a revolutionary workers’ party is an expression of a mistaken and opportunist common sense that has been widespread in the international socialist Left in the last two decades. As we have written before, the strategic orientation to “broad left parties” has led to one fiasco after another. The case is particularly clear in Germany: Marx21 was founded in order to help revolutionaries gain influence via Die Linke. Now, after 15 years of hard work, a ton of former socialists have been pulled to the right, and many drawn into bureaucracies, but the party has not been pulled to the left at all.

Initiative Socialism from Below

The last of the three splinters of Marx21 has now constituted itself as Initiative Sozialismus von Unten (SvU), and its most prominent member is Christine Buchholz, a former member of the Bundestag for Die Linke. As she explains in a long interview presenting the new project, she is still very much active in Die Linke, participating in several important debates at the party congress last November. Despite the crisis, Buchholz emphasizes that “it is too early to declare Die Linke dead.” But she also points out, correctly, that Wagenknecht was far from the only politician to advocate racist policies. Wherever Die Linke is in government, “left-wing” ministers deport people every single day. (Some of them might officially call for “open borders” while carrying out deportations, but this is of little help to their victims.)

SvU’s positions represent a clear shift to the left — Marx21 had always refused to admit that all of Die Linke was responsible for racist policies. The new group is formulating a strategy with one foot inside the party and one foot outside. As Buchholz explains: “We also want to organize people who have turned away from Die Linke in disappointment.” SvU is also very active in the Palestine solidarity movement, and this is naturally impossible in a party that, in line with Germany’s Staatsräson, supports Israel’s genocidal war.

Both RL and SvU declare their allegiance to the International Socialist Tendency (IST), led by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of Great Britain. Both publish IST statements and articles by Alex Callinicos. The dividing line between these two groups is thus their attitude to Die Linke: RL is calling for a break, while SvU appears ambivalent. So what does the IST say?

Absurdly Undemocratic

Both RL and SvU want to be recognized as the German section of the IST. (It seems that Marx21, i.e. the organizers, have broken off all contact with their international co-thinkers.) So far, the SWP has made only deliberately vague comments about the crisis in its German sister group. Joseph Choonara has written that Die Linke “initially provided a conducive environment for revolutionaries,” while criticizing “how a part of [Marx21’s] leadership seems to have oriented on sections of the trade union bureaucracy,” in an oblique reference to the organizers.

In response to their bids for recognition, the SWP replied that both groups should fuse to form one IST group. This will not be easy due to the differences around Die Linke. As Choonara has explained in his article, the SWP remains committed to a strategy of “broad left parties,” in which revolutionaries build up reformist parties so they can then form a revolutionary tendency within them. This puts the SWP much closer to SvU than RL. Yet RL cannot be easily pushed aside due to their connections to their Egyptian comrades.

This problem draws attention to the IST’s absurdly undemocratic structures. It would be easy for the different groups who form the tendency to discuss and decide how to resolve the crisis in Germany. Yet the IST is the personal property of the SWP, and really of just a few people in the SWP’s leadership, who decide alone. As we’ve written in the past, SWP and IST founder Tony Cliff developed a theory around his “national Trotskyism,” arguing in the 1970s that an international tendency could only be formed by multiple large groups linking up. Over the following decades, however, numerous smaller groups formed with similar policies to the SWP, and they eventually all came together as the IST. The IST has never had even a shred of internal democracy — strange for an international tendency partially inspired by Leon Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinism. In our view, socialists should fight for international organization.

The Way Forward

The crisis of Die Linke represents an opportunity for the revolutionary socialist Left in Germany. Even the split in Marx21 gives comrades a chance to break from opportunist routines and take bold steps toward the formation of a new revolutionary Left.

The problem with the strategy of “broad left parties” is in no way limited to Die Linke. The experiences of parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in the Spanish State shows that revolutionaries cannot gain influence by constructing reformist parties. All such a strategy can accomplish, even in the best of cases, is installing new reformist governments, thus leading to new betrayals and demoralization. There is no need to repeat the experience of Die Linke — its failure was the inevitable result of the party’s reformist program from Day 0.

The alternative is for revolutionaries to come together on the basis of class independence, building up a revolutionary socialist pole. This is what different socialist groups in Argentina have done with the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U), which has won millions of votes and five seats in congress. And while the FIT-U has been the most successful example of this model, it’s something that revolutionary socialists have attempted in Brazil, Chile, and Ireland — and it could work for the German Left as well. This could provide a starting point for a revolutionary workers’ party — one that attempts to unite the vanguards of different struggles around a program to smash capitalism and build a worldwide socialist society. The goal should not be an electoral apparatus seeking votes, but rather a Leninist combat party that aims to lead millions in struggle.

We invite the comrades of RL and also SvU to work together with Klasse Gegen Klasse and other socialist groups and take steps toward the formation of a new political pole based on class struggle and revolutionary-socialist ideas. This also means critically rethinking the experience in Die Linke. We have numerous criticisms of the International Socialist tradition and we are happy to discuss them. But we do not need complete agreement on every question for socialists to take concrete steps together. Unity with the “government socialists” of Die Linke” has failed — let’s take steps towards the unity of revolutionaries as revolutionaries.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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