Behold the Zeitenwende in action.
The government in Berlin has declared its unconditional support for Israel through increased arms sales and backing at the ICJ. Meanwhile, it aggressively suppresses criticism of such moves, labeling it as antisemitism.
On the Ukraine front, the government continues to rob from the country’s youth in order to support not-so-young-anymore Ukrainians’ march into the meat grinder. The escalation of commitment continues despite the austerity it’s set to bring on the homefront, and the latest German program on the chopping block to free up more money for Ukraine is theFederal Education and Training Assistance Act – a program provides grants so that low income students can get a higher education. The traffic light coalition of the Greens, Social Democrats and the Free Democrats promised an increase of funding upon entering office in 2021. Now, that long-awaited boost will instead be smaller relief for less recipients.
It’s difficult to take seriously the German Defense Ministry’s planning for war against Russia recently leaked to the tabloid Bild. This is the same country that is deindustrializing and can’t even send a brigade of soldiers to Lithuania without it setting off alarm bells that the country is low on manpower and also facing shortfalls in everything ranging from artillery shells to tents.
As Germany doubles down not only on Ukraine, but also on its mission to join itself more tightly at the hip to the American empire and become more interventionist and more belligerent towards Russia and China, critical voices are hard to find in Germany. The media instead spends its time vilifying anyone who questions the logic of all these self-defeating measures.
This is a bit of a long-winded introduction to the topic of this post, but hopefully provides an idea of the lay of the land on which a new political party in Germany arrives with the aims of restoring some reason to the discourse. The temporarily named Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht – For Reason and Justice
is a breakaway faction from Die Linke (The Left) and launched on January 8.
Along with the ethno-nationalist Alternative for Germany, the Wagenknecht-led party is the only one playing out of tune to the drumbeats of war, and for that they are relentlessly attacked.
Born in 1969 in East Germany to German and Iranian parents, Wagenknecht was a longtime member of the Party of Democratic Socialism, which later became Die Linke. She represented the party in the Bundestag from 2009 until last year when, after years of disagreeing with the party’s abandonment of working class politics, she left to form her own party.
Front and center in Wagenknecht’s new party is her acknowledgment that Germany’s current foreign policy has cast a shadow over domestic policy and is decimating the working class. It’s worth quoting Wagenknecht in full on her views of what German foreign policy should be:
Our foreign policy sits in the tradition of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt and the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who opposed thinking and acting in the logic of the Cold War with a policy of détente, reconciliation of interests and international cooperation. We fundamentally reject the resolution of conflicts by military means. We oppose the fact that more and more resources flow into weapons and war equipment instead of into the education of our children, research into environmentally friendly technologies or our health and care facilities. Nuclear armament and escalating conflicts between nuclear powers put the survival of humanity at risk and must be stopped. We seek a new era of détente and new treaties on disarmament and common security. The Bundeswehr has the mission to defend our country. It must be adequately equipped for this task. We reject the deployment of German soldiers in international wars as well as their stationing on the Russian border or in the South China Sea.
A military alliance (NATO) whose leading power has invaded five countries in the past years in violation of international law and killed more than 1 million people in these wars threatens others and leads to defensive reactions and thus contributes to global instability. Instead of an instrument of power for geopolitical goals, we need a defensive defence alliance that respects the principles of the UN Charter, strives for disarmament instead of committing to rearmament, and in which members meet as equals. Europe needs a stable security architecture, which in the longer term should also include Russia.
Our country deserves a self-confident policy that puts the well-being of its citizens at the centre and is driven by the realisation that US interests are sometimes very different from our interests. Our goal is an independent Europe of sovereign democracies in a multipolar world and not a new bloc confrontation in which Europe is ground down between the USA and the increasingly self-confident new power bloc around China and Russia.
These arguments are already resonating with German voters who are enormously dissatisfied with the current government and the state of the country as austerity is being implemented in order to increase military spending.The war against Russia has been an unmitigated disaster for most Germans. By severing itself from Russian energy, its industry has become uncompetitive and the effort to subsidize energy has drained government coffers; at the same time, after emptying its military stockpile for Ukraine, money is needed to replenish it, and Berlin wants to increase military spending overall in order to become more interventionist.
Although Wagenknecht’s party is still in its infant stages, it could take 14 percent of the vote in national elections according to an Insa poll published in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Jan. 13.
According to most national polls, that would mean Wagenknecht’s party is already fighting for third place despite only officially forming a few weeks ago. She’s ahead of the fake left parties like the war mongering Greens, a largely bourgeoisie cult that celebrates Germany’s deindustrialization and economic contraction because that means emissions reductions.
And she’s way ahead of the party she left, Die Linke, which has completely collapsed after abandoning nearly all of its former working class platform in favor of identity politics in an attempt to appear “ready to govern.” Much like the Greens, The Left increasingly stands for neoliberal, pro-war and anti-Russia policies. Former Left voters have increasingly switched to the AfD in response.
Wagenknecht might be clawing some of those voters back.
According to the Insa poll, her party could take 4 percentage points from the AfD and three percentage points from the conservative Christian Democratic Union. And one point each from the SDP and FDP.
In addition to Wagenknecht’s foreign policy positions, her platform consists of the following (oversimplified here, but it’s the usual for a class-based party on the left [hat tip MD in Berlin]):
- A fairer tax system that benefits the working class.
- Secure and well-paid jobs, with an emphasis on restoring Russian energy and thereby German manufacturing.
- More education funding.
- Continue to take climate action but do so in a way that doesn’t make the working class shoulder the majority of the burden.
- Strengthen the social safety net.
- Encourage robust public debate with an end to cancel culture and strengthen public broadcasting.
From the outside, Wagenknecht’s positions seem relatively boilerplate for a party on the left, but at the moment in Germany with the current atmosphere of uniformity in politics and the press, they are almost revolutionary.
She draws a clear line between Berlin’s belligerence towards Russia and how the weight of that stance falls most heavily on the German working class through deindustrialization and austerity in almost all areas of the budget except military.
Germans and European members of the working class as a whole agree.
The EU-wide division along class lines remains clear. 71 percent of the working class feel the war hurts them financially. Only 40 percent of the upper class feels the same way. 71 percent of those struggling financially say their situation has deteriorated in the past year while only 26 percent of the well-off feel similarly. Even the European Commission admits the following:
Respondents who have difficulties paying bills at least some of the time, and those who consider they belong to a lower social class are less satisfied with the EU and national responses to the war and are more likely to report serious personal financial consequences as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. They are also less supportive of proposed defence co-operation and spending measures, and less supportive of the energy policy directions presented in the survey.
And yet few parties across Europe make the connection between the war against Russia and the worsening economic fortunes of most citizens. Wagenknecht does. For that reason and the fact she ignores identity politics in favor of positions built firmly on class, she is being attacked just as much from supposed leftists as from the right.
It’s one thing to have Viktor Orban in Hungary or the new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico speak the truth about Ukraine, but a voice on the left in the heart of Europe would be quite another.
Success from Wagenknecht could help alter the direction of the European left, reorienting it back to class-based politics, which could also mean a political voice for working class opposition to not only the proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, but also whichever future wars the US-NATO cheerleaders want to sign up for without considering the repercussions for European workers.
Liberal Lines of Attack
Maybe more interesting than Wagenknecht’s platform is the response to it.
The fear it causes are evident in the intensifying attacks on Wagenknecht and are best summed up by a few recent pieces by liberal Oliver Nachtwey and a supposed expert in ideological polarization, Torben Lütjen.
Nachtwey, a voice of liberalism and an associate professor of social structure analysis at the University of Basel, has penned recent pieces in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Jacobin, and New Left Review lampooning Wafenknecht. He ridicules her neat clothes and hairstyle. He’s fond of reciting former German Party of Democratic Socialism chair Lothar Bisky’s comparison of Wagenknecht with Rosa Luxemburg: “Soon she’ll be limping too.”
It’s an odd line of attack for someone claiming the leftist ground to make – mocking someone for wanting to emulate Luxemburg, a dedicated antiwar activist and Marxist – but also one that provides insight to Nachtwey’s allegiances.
Beneath such character assassination attempts lies a real fear of Wagenknecht and the politics she represents. In FAZ Nachtwey writes the following:
Wagenknecht has set her sights on the anti-vanguard, or conservative workers who have managed some upward mobility and now fear backsliding. Politically speaking, this strategy is far from baseless. Although other German parties are also trying to win over this group, no one offers them the same cultural validation as Wagenknecht. No one is better at giving voice to their dark emotions — the emotions of those who consider themselves mainstream but feel like outsiders.
The horror. How is she doing this? By appealing to voters who don’t fit neatly into a liberal box. Nachtwey explains that she is “attempting to link milieus that are alienated from democracy for different reasons” and “is a populist in the classical sense, posing as a champion of the people against a corrupt and incompetent establishment.”
She goes against the establishment line that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a madman prepared to conquer all of Europe:
In Wagenknecht’s geopolitical coordinate system, Russia’s war of aggression is a defensive reaction to NATO expansion, and Putin is a rational power player simply trying to keep the West in check. This line has its roots in the West German peace movement and the SED/PDS, and Wagenknecht has been able to garner support with it in the former East, where it still enjoys considerable purchase. At the same time, it has also made her a star among internet conspiracy theorists.
At New Left Review he writes that, “By juxtaposing ‘globalist’ institutions to national ones, Wagenknecht’s counter-programme offers nothing more than an improbable return to capitalism’s Golden Age.” On the ideas of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘industrial competition’ Nachtwey writes:
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.
If Nachtwey doesn’t have you convinced, there is the serious argument put forward by serious people that Wagenknecht is a 21st century version of Benito Mussolini.
Torben Lütjen, a German author and political scientist who from 2009-15 headed a Volkswagen-Foundation-funded research group at the University of Düsseldorf that explored ideological polarization in Western democracies, makes this case in a November piece published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It is titled “The Great Metamorphosis. From the Early German Romantics to Benito Mussolini to Sahra Wagenknecht and Back: A Sociologically Informed History of Political Conversions.”
In it Lütjen compares Wagenknecht to Mussolini who was a socialist before he went on to his more infamous role. One of the problems with analyses like these that compare a present day figure to an historical one is that it’s fairly easy to come up with parallels. For example, you could note how Mussolini fancied himself an intellectual and later favored war with the USSR, therefore any highbrow European supporting today’s Russophobia is similar to the fascist dictator who ruled Italy for two decades a century ago.
Anyways, according to Lütjen, Wagenknecht is “join[ing] a long line of political defectors from left to right.” More:
From the statements surrounding her founding of the party, however, it becomes clear that Wagenknecht has long since taken a step further: she is already in the stage of the renegade, the convert.
The renegade is already clearly and publicly breaking with his old beliefs, claiming to have freed himself from a corset of outdated and ossified beliefs. Because he is finally free, he can now speak the truth without regard to the old dogmas.
This argument that Wagenknecht is not of the left rests upon the belief that she has changed rather than the political parties around her, which is demonstrably false. After all, Die Linke, the party Wagenknecht bolted from, once held her same positions. It was only in recent years with neoliberalism’s takeover in Germany that it began to abandon most of what it previously stood for.
It seems to me what Nachtwey and Lütjen are saying is that favoring working class policies is regressive and dangerous, and these arguments are representative of the fear that the return of a class-based left would crash the cushy party of a finance-centered political economy that is welded to the politics of recognition.
In this sense, Wagenknecht is “anti-vanguard” as Nachtwey claims, as her progressive populism aims to return to a worker-centered counterhegemony against that of finance capital.
I wonder if Nachtwey and Lutjen’s writings reach or are even intended to reach many of the working class voters Wagenknecht is trying to appeal to; instead their arguments are more likely for upper class liberals in order to reassure them that neoliberalism is on the side of the angels, that Putin and the Russians are evil, and that this Wagenknecht character who questions these certitudes is a member of the riff raff.
These efforts to depict Wagenknecht as right-wing (also recently featured in The Guardian), are similar to what was coming from Wagenknecht’s former party and unintentionally show the bankruptcy and increasing irrelevance of neoliberalism and its parties’ attempts to pretend to be on the left while ignoring class-based politics. Die Linke, which was already in a tailspin, has collapsed since Wagenknecht’s departure.
Wagenknecht had become a pariah in Die Linke for her arguments against joining the political groupthink on Russia, as well as a refusal to focus on identity politics instead of class.
Back in 2016 at a Die Linke party conference, a member of the “antifascist” group, “Cake for Misanthropists,” shoved a pie in her face apparently in retaliation for Wagenknecht suggesting there were limits to the amount of refugees and immigrants Germany could take in.
Based on her early strong polling, Wagenknecht may yet have the last laugh.