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Die Linke in Germany Shows That “Government Socialism” Is a Dead End

In the German elections on September 26, the Left Party lost almost half its voters and came close to being thrown out of parliament. The party’s different wings are blaming each other. What can the international Left learn from this?

Nathaniel Flakin

October 12, 2021
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Two weeks after the German elections, the Left Party (Die Linke) is in chaos. The party got just 4.9 percent of votes, meaning it lost almost half its voters and half its seats in the Bundestag compared to the last elections five years ago. In fact, the party came close to being thrown out of parliament entirely — but the 5 percent threshold does not apply to parties that win three electoral districts, and the Die Linke just barely squeezed by.

What is to blame for this catastrophe?


During the election, Die Linke’s leadership campaigned in favor of a “red-red-green coalition” together with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens. They wanted to be the junior partners in government alongside these neoliberal, militaristic parties — meaning all criticism of them was muted.

The SPD and the Greens both carried out hypocritical election campaigns. The two parties were in government from 1998 to 2005, and they were responsible for the worst social cuts in the Federal Republic’s history, as well as the war against Serbia, the first German war of aggression since 1945. The SPD has further been in government with Merkel for years. Yet both these parties put up posters in favor of “social justice,” “stabile pensions,” and “ending child poverty” — slogan that oppose their own policies.

Die Linke could have presented itself as a militant opposition — left-wing policies are very popular in Germany, as shown by the 59 percent of people in Berlin who voted to expropriate big landlords.

Left Party leaders, however, aimed to be a corrective inside a new “red-green” government. They issued an “immediate program” for such a coalition, and this document was nothing less than a capitulation. Die Linke declared that it would happily throw its program out the window if it could get only a few ministerial seats. So while Die Linke at least theoretically opposes Germany’s imperialist military interventions in a dozen countries, during the campaign it said it would happily take its place in a government that kept German soldiers stationed around the world.

The result of this policy of adaptation was a disaster foretold. Over a million former Die Linke voters switched to the SPD and the Greens. If you want these parties in government, after all, you should vote for one of them directly, and not a smaller copy.

“Government Socialism”

Die Linke has always been a government party. It was founded in 2007 by a fusion of the PDS, which had emerged from the old ruling party of East Germany, and the WASG, a left-wing split by midlevel bureaucrats from the SPD. The PDS was already in multiple state governments before Die Linke was founded. Thus Die Linke has been in government every day for several decades, somewhere. Currently, Die Linke has ministers in the states of Thuringia, Bremen, and Berlin.

The Left Party politicians most associated with “government socialism” are Dietmar Bartsch, cochair of the parliamentary group, and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, cochair of the party. They say the problem is that Die Linke was not perceived as a “serious” option for government. Their conclusion that they need to adapt even further to the SPD and the Greens — they want to strike the party’s opposition to foreign military interventions, for example.

This turns reality on its head. Die Linke is always perceived as a party of “government socialism” — to use a derogatory term coined by Rosa Luxemburg). Luxemburg argued that when socialists joined the government of a bourgeois state, they would only be able to implement capitalist policies. This is why she said the only way to build socialism was by destryoing the bourgeois state in a revolution.

While in office, Die Linke has consistently shown itself to be a “serious” party that can manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie. For many years, it has taken responsibility for privatizations, union busting in public companies, deportations, and evictions — more or less the exact opposite of the party’s program.

It’s no wonder that it’s precisely in east Germany that Die Linke’s support has bled away — this is where the party has always been a mass party that belongs to the establishment. This is where the far-right party AfD can present itself as an “alternative.” But government socialism is not just an eastern problem: in Bremen, western Germany, Die Linke has also joined a state government, where it is firing 440 employees from public hospitals.

A similar idea came from former party cochair Katja Kipping in an interview with the taz newspaper: The result “shows very clearly that our voters do not just want more riots, but rather are seriously looking for a perspective for implementing things. And we could not offer that.”

Kipping is saying that a “perspective for implementing things” (that’s one word in German, by the way!) can come only by joining a government. All reformists believe this, but it is wrong. History shows, in contrast, that the oppressed can implement their policies via “riots” — via independent movements that force the bourgeois state to make concessions.

The idea that Die Linke ever had anything to do with riots is absurd — its leaders are more likely to be commanding the cops beating up rioters.

Social Chauvinism

Die Linke’s most famous dissident is Sahra Wagenknecht. The lead candidate in Germany’s most populous state was the first representative of the party to appear on public TV on election night. In Wagenknecht’s view, Die Linke failed because it failed to address the needs of “normal wage earners,” instead focusing on questions of racism, sexism, climate change, and other concerns of “bizarre minorities.”

Who, exactly, is normal? It is a telling choice of words, given that the far-right AfD was running a campaign for “Germany, but normal.”

Wagenknecht defines herself as a “left conservative.” Earlier this year, she published a book-length polemic against everyone she refers to as the “lifestyle Left.” In her most recent column in Focus, she writes that she favors “enlightened conservatism in the sense of a defense of safety, stability, and tradition — against the challenges of unchecked globalization, as well as against parallel societies, illiberal identity politics, and bad German.”

Wagenknecht has often been accused of using “dog whistles” to attract racists. But you don’t need dog ears to hear the racist message here. “Parallel societies” is a term that right-wing politicians in Germany have used to stigmatize migrants for the last two decades, accusing them of refusing to integrate into German society. In the last year, Wagenknecht has also worked to appeal to anti-vaxxers.

At times, Wagenknecht might sound like a left-wing critic of “government socialists.” She is, for example, a vocal opponent of NATO, while unwavering loyalty to the imperialist military alliance is nonnegotiable for both the SPD and the Greens. But this is a misreading. Wagenknecht herself attempted to form a party with the SPD and the Greens, and since the election she has reaffirmed her ongoing alliance with Dietmar Bartsch.

Wagenknecht was an enormous burden to Die Linke’s election campaign. Many queer and immigrant party members refused to campaign for her. But it is wrong to blame the election result entirely on Wagenknecht — as the party’s general secretary, Jörg Schindler, is trying to do. The government ministers are equally to blame, having destroyed the party’s credibility with their years of neoliberal policies.

With these two wings at war, it is natural to ask: Who is the right wing? Who is the left wing? But to paraphrase Lenin, these are both right wings.

Movement Bureaucrats

Yet another tendency took over the party leadership earlier this year, promising a #Aufbruch (Take Off). Half a year later, Die Linke suffered its worst-ever result. The tendency calling itself the Movement Left is made up of lower-level bureaucrats of the party and the unions.

These self-proclaimed “movementists” are no different from the first two tendencies on the question of joining capitalist governments. They proclaim that a “left-wing government” should be accompanied by “pressure from below.” This empty phrase does nothing to change the fundamental bankruptcy of reformism. In Bremen, Die Linke ministers connected to the Movement Left are ignoring all pressure from below to cut jobs in public hospitals.

Die Linke thus has not two but three main wings, and they are all right wings.

Of course, there are more than a few genuine anti-capitalists and revolutionary socialists in Die Linke. But they have almost zero weight within the party. The Anticapitalist Left (AKL), for example, is critical of joining capitalist governments while not strictly opposed — and it has exactly one seat on the party’s 42-seat executive. Only one local group of the AKL was willing to come out explicitly against all capitalist governments (link in German).

English-Language Reformism and Centrism

In the last 15 years, Die Linke has often been presented as a model for the Left internationally, and thus discussions about the catastrophe have made it into the English-language socialist press. Jacobin, for example, has a truly bizarre article titled “Things Can’t Go On Like This.” The author argues that Die Linke needs to “return to its working class roots” — but what could they possibly be talking about? Die Linke’s roots lie with former East German bureaucrats trying to win positions in Germany’s reunified capitalist state.

To explain Die Linke’s defeat, Jacobin offers marketing buzzwords (the problem was “an inward-facing campaign” with “contradictory messaging”) and nothing about politics. It sounds quite militant to talk about the need for “class formation” — but the article says this requires “socialist influence inside state institutions.” While one can criticize countless things about Die Linke, but worming its way into the state apparatus is something it has been doing consistently.

Tempest has published a document from the post-Trotskyist network Marx21 (made up of former members of the International Socialist Tendency [IST] who dissolved into the bureaucracies of Die Linke and the trade unions). This article makes some correct (but notably brief) criticisms of Die Linke’s role in government: “In state governments the party participates in the deportation regime and agrees to privatizations.” But they are hiding more than they reveal when they claim that

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.

Marx21 somehow forgets to mention that the hospital strikes are directed against Die Linke — the party was responsible for implementing outsourcing and privatization in Berlin 15 years ago, and it still defends these policies. Harald Wolf, who as Berlin’s Economics Senator cut public-sector wages by 10 percent, was just recently reelected as Die Linke’s national treasurer.

Die Linke in government has been disastrous for the working class in general and the party in particular. Yet Marx21 refuses to explicitly come out against joining capitalist governments in principle, writing,

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.

Marx21 have a contradictory position: while they say they oppose participation in capitalist governments, they believe voters would never understand such a radical position. Thus, Marx21 members who are candidates for Die Linke consistently say they support a “red-red-green” governments — but then they attempt to make concrete demands that the SPD or the Greens would never agree to and blame the other parties when negotiations collapse. Janine Wissler, a longtime Marx21 leader who was recently elected chair of Die Linke, even carried out coalition negotiations with the SPD and Greens, repeating endlessly, “We want to govern.”

The founder of the German workers’ movement, Ferdinand Lasalle, emphasized that the most revolutionary deed is to “say what is.” But somehow, Marx21 members on the campaign trail can’t manage to say that they oppose socialists joining capitalist governments. Rosa Luxemburg, in contrast, was able to state clearly that a socialist party “can only enter on the scene as a government party on the ruins of bourgeois society.”

Revolutionary socialists inside Die Linke end up creating a false impression of a reformist government party. They say “we support striking hospital workers” — and in the best case, they might end up tricking workers into trusting the ministers who have spent more than a decade cutting their wages. This is no way to convince workers to break with reformism.

The Way Forward

What can be learned from Die Linke’s catastrophe? All the party’s wings are saying it is time for a “restart” and a “reorientation” — but in what direction?

From our perspective as revolutionary socialists, this electoral disaster for Die Linke should serve as a wakeup call. For the last 15 years, a big chunk of the socialist Left in Germany has tied itself to this government party. Groups from a Trotskyist background (including Marx21, the CWI, the ISA, the IMT, the USec, and others) have convinced themselves that Die Linke offers them a chance to reach the masses.

This was always a dubious proposition: Die Linke has 60,000 members, more than two-thirds of whom are past retirement age. Among the relatively small number of its young members, tons are sucked into the bureaucracies in and around Die Linke (just ask Marx21!) and are thus prevented from supporting revolutionary ideas.

Some socialists want to believe that workers in struggle would sign up for a widely known Left Party. In reality, however, workers in Germany are more likely to protest Die Linke politicians than to see them as allies. Die Linke has all the reformist policies of old social democracy — but none of the social weight.

Fifteen years after its formation, Die Linke has failed to boost the radical Left. At most, the party has managed to integrate a middle-aged generation of former radicals into cushy apparatus jobs.

The working class in Germany needs a party that stands on the side of working people — a party in opposition to the capitalists and their state. Die Linke is not, has never been, and will never be such a party. Nothing in the history of the workers’ movement indicates that a reformist government party can be transformed into an oppositional “movement party” (to use a catchy term) — much less into a revolutionary one.Instead, the radical Left could gather under a new banner — one that is independent of government socialists, social chauvinists, and bureaucrats. There are exciting experiences in Argentina, Chile, and France, to name just a few examples, in which revolutionaries are uniting to create a new political alternative that is openly revolutionary. Socialists in Germany have no business campaigning for Bartsch, Wagenknecht, or other reformist bureaucrats. Rather than presenting themselves as the “left wing” of a government party, socialists should be taking steps to build a truly socialist party. That is what our sister site in Germany, Klasse Gegen Klasse, is fighting for.

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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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