Germany’s Die Linke is set to split, as former leading light Sahra Wagenknecht threatens to start her own party. The two sides have rival ideas on how to market themselves to voters — but neither has a strategy for building a working-class movement.

Sarah Wagenknecht speaks at an election campaign event ahead of the 2021 Bundestag election on September 23, 2021, in Bonn, Germany. (Ulrich Baumgarten / Getty Images)

After years of electoral setbacks and factional feuding, the downward spiral of Germany’s socialist party, Die Linke, may finally be coming to a close — or, at least, entering a new phase.

In June, cochairs Janine Wissler and Martin Schirdewan announced that Die Linke would have “a future without Sahra Wagenknecht” — thus shutting the door to the party’s best-known but also most controversial figure. Once Die Linke’s parliamentary cospeaker, but now rarely present in the Bundestag, her detractors have long accused her of defying party discipline to promote her own political agenda, with her attacks on what she calls the middle-class “lifestyle left” increasingly dominating her public interventions.

Since the cochairs’ announcement, it has been clear that the party such as it has existed since the mid-2000s is not long for this world. Wagenknecht’s supporters have for months openly speculated about leaving Die Linke, but with the party leadership’s unanimous decision, along with the announcement of human-rights activist Carola Rackete and doctor and social worker Gerhard Trabert as its top candidates for the European Union (EU) elections, a long-brewing split now seems imminent.

Sahra Wagenknecht’s detractors have long accused her of defying party discipline to promote her own political agenda, with her attacks on what she calls the middle-class ‘lifestyle left’ increasingly dominating her public interventions.

Such a parting of the ways carries clear risks, including that no party to the left of the Social Democrats (SPD) will be represented in parliament come 2025. Yet, in some ways it comes as a relief. The atmosphere in Die Linke has long grown toxic, with neither side engaging in anything approaching constructive dialogue, and each blaming the other for all the party’s difficulties. The prospective exit of Wagenknecht’s supporters will give both sides the chance to measure their political projects on their own merits, rather than the alleged sins of their competitors.

Still, many questions remain. What are their projects — and can they do any better than Die Linke has in the last decade and a half? Years of backbiting and self-sabotage have produced only weakness, with little grounds for political clarity. Even after a split with Wagenknecht’s supporters, Die Linke will remain divided between a more conciliatory, center-left wing and an outspokenly radical “movement” wing, and this could well bring further splits in future. Anything is better than the dead-end of the last years, but recovery will be a long slog. In a worst-case scenario, neither side will extricate itself from the self-imposed downward spiral — and the Left in Germany could be set back decades.

Poles of Helplessness

The press conference announcing Rackete’s and Trabert’s candidacies on July 17 was clearly calculated to signal a new era. The choice of Rackete, best-known for her work on migrant rescue boats, and the rhetoric around that choice, embodies the political path previously associated with the current leadership’s predecessors. Wissler’s announcement that Die Linke is now “opening itself up to activists and social movements” is practically identical to former cochair Katja Kipping’s expressed goal to make the party the “first address” for “young people who want to change the world.” To underline this (not so) new orientation, the press conference was followed by another press conference in front of Die Linke headquarters, in which self-described “movement activists” (representatives of various human rights and climate NGOs) “expressed their expectations, wishes and critique to the party.”

By recruiting Carola Rackete, a well-known progressive name from outside the party, Die Linke’s leadership sent the message that the page had been turned, and extended an invitation to sympathizers and former members to return to the fold.

The announcement was hailed as a “coup” on Twitter and in some sections of leftish media. By recruiting a well-known progressive name from outside the party, Die Linke’s leadership was sending a message that the page had turned, and extended an invitation to sympathizers and former members to return to the fold. Undoubtedly, Rackete is a high-profile movement activist, well-liked among Die Linke’s younger supporters and the broader center-left milieu that appears to be the core of the leadership’s strategy. At least for now, it seems leading figures of the party’s fading eastern wing like Dietmar Bartsch have given their blessing. In this sense, a new “strategic center” as demanded by party members for so long appears to be emerging. But do the movement activists who spoke at the press conference really represent a reliable electoral base?

Die Linke’s leadership seems to be staking its survival on the idea that activists able to periodically organize large demonstrations constitute a coherent social milieu that could be tied to the party over the long term. Yet the “#unteilbar” anti-racism demonstrations and Fridays for Future, to take two often-cited examples, were anything but coherent. Both mobilized around progressive goals — a humane migration policy and urgently needed climate action — but their class composition and party-political loyalties are deeply heterogenous. Some, perhaps many, can be convinced to vote for Die Linke occasionally, but because they are essentially temporary elective affinities rather than class fractions or cohesive social blocs, molding them into the kind of social base historical left-wing parties rested on is a tall order.

In Berlin and across Germany, individual social movements have scored small victories here and there, but overall the party appears to be assembling a coalition of groups who stand helpless to resist the greater convulsions in society.

On top of the sociological realities complicating the party’s “movement orientation”, there is the question of the broader political conjuncture. This announcement comes at a time when these movements are at an impasse: the big climate mobilizations of recent years, some of the world’s largest, failed to push the government to accelerate the ecological transition — indeed, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, himself a Green, appears to be backsliding on his promise to phase out coal power by 2038, something the increasingly desperate tactics of some sections of the movement have proven unable to change.

Despite #unteilbar’s success in mobilizing in favor of a humane migration policy, a government led by the Greens and SPD endorsed the EU’s draconian asylum reforms, while Interior Minister Nancy Faeser brokers deals with authoritarian leaders in North Africa to detain potential migrants outside of Europe’s borders. The #unteilbar coalition itself quietly dissolved in 2022 after “the dynamic had been lost”. Now that a right-wing asylum policy is being adopted by Germany’s self-described “progress coalition,” it appears unable to recapture that dynamic.

In Berlin and across Germany, individual social movements have scored small victories here and there, but overall the party appears to be assembling a coalition of groups who stand helpless to resist the greater convulsions in society. Albeit unconsciously, Wissler’s reference to Die Linke as a “pole of hope” echoes that helplessness — neither the party nor any other progressive force in Germany is currently on the rise, but together they can hope to scrape together 5 percent at the next election and save what remains to be saved.

This pivot may well suffice to rescue the party from immediate electoral oblivion. The government’s backsliding on campaign promises and general willingness to jettison its residual credibility has left room for Die Linke to peel away a sliver of the Green and social democratic electorate. What it won’t do, however, is place the party on firm footing for the future. Die Linke once had a core vote in the East, long considered its “life insurance” against electoral irrelevance, but that base is now history. The Die Linke of the future will depend on the shifting electoral winds and a fragile coalition of voters whose choices are driven largely by conviction and electoral tactics. Should the Greens unexpectedly begin to talk left in the next campaign, for example, this coalition could quickly splinter.

Wageknecht Wanders Into the Void

On the other side of the divide, Wagenknecht’s wing must decide whether their future lies elsewhere. Despite her enduring popularity both among a section of Die Linke and the broader public, her supporters have been isolated within the party apparatus for years, and since the most recent congress are not represented in the leadership. Despite publicly insisting that she has yet to decide whether to found a new party, her inner circle is actively preparing such a move and quietly reaching out to Die Linke functionaries across the country to gauge their interest.

Should the Greens unexpectedly adopt more left-wing rhetoric in the next campaign, Die Linke’s voter coalition could quickly splinter.

Yet what that party will be — or when it will appear — remains anybody’s guess, as its protagonists have remained remarkably tight-lipped about specifics. Rumors that they hope to establish a “cadre party,” and Wagenknecht’s own public statements that new parties can also attract difficult people, suggest that it will not be another Aufstehen, her failed attempt to launch a mass movement along the lines of the gilet jaunes, but a rather tighter formation. Rather than a 100,000-strong mailing list with little in the way of organizational infrastructure at the top, we can expect a much more controlled, top-heavy operation that bets on Wagenknecht’s popularity as a ticket to political relevance.

The prospect is not that far-fetched, either. Polling regularly confirms Wagenknecht’s position as one of Germany’s most popular politicians, well outside the left-wing camp. The most recent poll suggested a Wagenknecht-led party could take first place in state elections in Thuringia next year, while another in June showed 19 percent of voters were at least open to voting for a Wagenknecht party.

Given Die Linke’s languishing at 4 or 5 percent, these numbers sound impressive. The prospect that Wagenknecht could peel off a significant chunk of voters from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is especially encouraging given that party’s current surge. Yet, not all polling has been so positive — a recent YouGov poll saw only 2 percent of Germans willing to back Wagenknecht in a national election — and it is as of yet unclear whether she will actually stand for election for the new party, or merely serve as its symbolic figurehead.

Even apart from the methodological difficulties of gauging support for a hypothetical party, speculation over Wagenknecht’s polling numbers points to a deeper problem for the project: namely, its total dependence on her choosing to stand for election, and its glaring lack of prominent personnel behind her. This is arguably an even bigger problem than for Die Linke itself, which has also struggled to produce new leaders of the same caliber as its founding generation.

Speculation over Sahra Wagenknecht’s polling numbers points to a deeper problem for the project: namely, its total dependence on her choosing to stand for election, and its glaring lack of prominent personnel behind her.

Should she run, Wagenknecht cannot contest every race, and that alone suffices to cast significant doubt over the accuracy of such polls. It is one thing for a frustrated center-right voter to tell a telephone pollster that he would cast his ballot for a theoretical Wagenknecht party; it is quite another for him to switch to some relatively unknown other candidate who happens to share an electoral list with Germany’s most polarizing talk-show guest. Should she choose not to run, and instead opt for a figurehead role, turning those early polling numbers into electoral results will likely prove much harder, and turning those results into a nationwide political organization even more so. So, it is more likely that a Wagenknecht-inspired list of candidates will stand for the European elections in 2024 as a test balloon before founding an actual party.

Roads to Socialism

But it’s not just about polling. For socialists in Germany, the relevant question around the emerging split is which, if either, of the sides has more potential for consolidating an increasingly fragmented left-wing bloc and sinking deeper roots in the country’s comparatively large and powerful trade unions. Here, as well, the immediate outlook is discouraging.

Die Linke’s choice to nominate Carola Rackete and Gerhard Trabert arguably confirms, at least in superficial terms, Wagenknecht’s core accusation that the party has successively moved away from its core constituency, the “traditional” working class, instead opting to appeal to progressive middle-class voters in the cities. It’s hardly the case that Die Linke has stopped talking about social issues — in July cochair Martin Schirdewan and veteran leader Gregor Gysi presented a raft of proposals to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by taxing the rich. But the party has indeed shifted its rhetoric and presentation to appear, with varying degrees of success, as a party of social-movement activists rather than a party of working people.

Die Linke’s leadership rejects this accusation and insists it can simultaneously address different lines of social conflict. Yet this statement, albeit correct in the abstract, misses the point. Certainly, socialist parties can and should maintain positions on all kinds of issues. The question is rather how to communicate these positions, which ones to emphasize, and how the party envisions social change. Does it choose to present itself as a party of morally correct do-gooders, or as a party of the disenfranchised, abandoned and fed up? Whether consciously or not, Die Linke seems to have chosen the former.

So far, it seems, a large part of Die Linke’s base aren’t buying it, as the party’s disastrous performance among working-class voters and trade unionists in the 2021 election reflected. Even in Berlin, a city more conducive to the “movementist” strategy than other parts of Germany, recent elections have seen its support in its historical eastern strongholds crater, while its gains in the western part of the city are simply unable to keep pace. Whether the root causes of this decline are really located in the party’s changing public face or due to deeper, more complex dynamics is open for debate. But it doesn’t take a PhD in political science to reason that the party’s difficulties cannot be reduced to Wagenknecht’s scathing public attacks alone.

Yet if Wagenknecht accurately identifies that Die Linke is drifting away from the workers’ movement, her proposed solution remains far less convincing. Contrary to the radical contrarian figure she cuts on the public stage, most of Wagenknecht’s politics would be comfortably at home in the left wing of 1980s social democracy. Her economic policy stances are broadly in line with those of the trade unions, and sometimes even to the right of them, like when she denounces excessive public debt, attacks the government’s attempt to phase out gas heating systems, or polemically describes low interest rates as expropriating the middle class.

She also devotes noticeably little time to talking about trade unions. You would be hard-pressed to find a picture of Wagenknecht on a picket line or talking to the “normal people” she accuses her party of ignoring, preferring instead, at least in recent years, to criticize the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic or its conduct around the current war in Ukraine. And while accusing her erstwhile comrades of alienating workers by accommodating to left-liberal culture wars — real or imagined — Wagenknecht increasingly takes the inverse approach, devoting ever-more attention to those same culture wars in the apparent belief that the working class will be won back to left-wing politics by polemicizing against “wokeness.”

By staking out an unapologetically polarizing position on these issues, Wagenknecht generates massive attention and becomes a point of identification for frustrated people of all stripes. But though bread-and-butter issues regularly crop up in her media appearances and weekly newsletter, they are often subsumed — as is the case with her opponents in the Die Linke, by the way — into a longer list of criticisms of the government and pointed political demands. An overarching, systematic critique of capitalism as a system or the invocation of a subject — like, for example, the organized workers’ movement — that could launch a coordinated assault on the said system is largely absent.

While accusing Die Linke of alienating workers by accommodating to left-liberal culture wars, Wagenknecht increasingly takes the inverse approach, devoting ever-more attention to those same culture wars in the apparent belief that the working class will be won back by polemicizing against ‘wokeness.’

Socialists in Germany are thus caught between a rock and a hard place. Neither Die Linke as it stands, nor a Wagenknecht party (should it come to exist) offer promising prospects for building a mass, working-class-rooted socialist movement in the near to medium term. While Die Linke has part of its roots in the western German trade unions of the 2000s, it failed to maintain, let alone expand, this union base, and Wagenknecht and her supporters — though surely popular among a wide swathe of working-class voters — have few organizational foundations to speak of. Indeed, their organizational base is precisely in Die Linke’s parliamentary group and a dwindling network of sympathizers in the party apparatus. A talented group of organizers could perhaps leverage Wagenknecht’s popularity to reverse engineer a working-class party the way socialists in the United States sought to do with the Bernie Sanders campaigns, but given the track record of Aufstehen, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Up the Hill Backwards

The last two decades saw a process across Europe where many social-movement activists realized that protest was not enough, and began to channel their efforts into founding new political parties or seeking to transform historical ones such as Labour in Britain. In Die Linke, it seems, the opposite appears to be happening, as the party moves to close ranks with “left-wing civil society,” a vague term that encompass everything from social welfare associations to refugee rights NGOs and Fridays for Future.

Die Linke is thus reverting to earlier developments in the European left in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when traditional left-wing parties sought to reinvent themselves as “parties of movements” and the parliamentary voice of “the street.” The energy of the antiglobalization and antiwar movements carried some of them into parliament, but little more. The most successful example at the time, Italy’s Communist Refoundation Party, has been politically marginalized since the late 2000s.

Die Linke is reverting to earlier developments in the European left in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when traditional left-wing parties sought to reinvent themselves as ‘parties of movements’ and the parliamentary voice of ‘the street’

The 2008 financial crisis and the political convulsions it caused seemed to offer the opportunity to repolarize society along class lines and unite the broad majority against a capitalist elite that had caused the crisis and continued to profit from it while the rest suffered. Frustrated with the sluggish pace of the New Left parties, political entrepreneurs like Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Melénchon built new formations that made impressive electoral gains seemingly overnight. These too, however, struggled to translate that momentum into durable organizational structures. Both Podemos and France Insoumise have since by and large sought to move towardx more traditional party structures in an attempt to correct for this problem. Wagenknecht appears to now be moving in a similar direction, but in a period where the class issues have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and the political momentum is with the far right.

Rather than emulating the formulas of previous European left projects past, the German left in and outside of Die Linke ought to take a closer look at the slumbering giant in its own backyard: the organized working class. Socialists drone on about the centrality of workers not due to an aesthetic preference, but as a consequence of the simple fact that their role in the process of production and with it the ability to shut down that process and stop profits from flowing gives them incredible potential power, which not even the biggest demonstration can compare to. This potential was seen last spring in the country’s strike wave, when workers in several sectors were able to win raises exceeding inflation, thus making a tangible difference in the lives of millions.

This potential power is, of course, merely potential, and the Left in Germany is currently far from speaking to the large majority of the working class, let alone channeling it into mass political movement. Yet doing so remains the Left’s best bet at not only entering government, but wielding state power in a way that ushers in more fundamental social change. Ultimately, anyone who wants to end capitalism has no choice but to take on this gargantuan task.

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