A wake-up call for Germany’s left

October 11, 2017

The results of September's elections in Germany sent political shock waves across the country and the continent after the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) won 12.6 percent of the vote, making it the third largest party in parliament, where a far-right party will have representatives for the first time in half a century.

Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed in power, but her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) suffered losses, as did the other major German party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). As for the left, Die Linke (The Left) made modest electoral gains, but now faces the reality of a more divided Germany and a far right growing in confidence. Here, the Marx 21 Network puts forward five theses about the German elections to help the left meet its challenges, in an English translation by Einde O'Callaghan.

1. The result of the federal election is the expression of a crisis of the political system. The historically developed political center, the CDU and the SPD, has lost. The AfD has won with a clear anti-establishment attitude and by linking up with racist resentment.

It's happened: The AfD is entering the German Bundestag [parliament] with 94 deputies. At the same time, the departure of Frauke Petry on the day after the election shows who's calling the tune in the parliamentary group and in the party: the strengthened neo-fascist wing around Alexander Gauland and Björn Höcke.

So now, after Trump and Le Pen, we also have Gauland--in Germany, a similar process is taking place as in many other countries: the political center is eroding. Angela Merkel's jubilation about her "election victory" is a farce when you consider that it was the worst result for the CDU/Christian Social Union (CSU) since 1949. Decades of social devastation by neoliberal policies and bourgeois governments that claimed there was no alternative to their policies on behalf of the rich and the corporations have aroused deep antipathy towards "the powers that be"--toward the parties, the corporate press and the elites.

Marching with the far-right Alternative for Germany
Marching with the far-right Alternative for Germany

On top of that, there are the contradictions of the "Merkel boom." Not a cent of the enormous growth of wealth has reached the pockets of large parts of the population, and 50 percent earn even less that they did in 2000. In view of these experiences, the anti-establishment mood is justified. It doesn't automatically have to be right wing, but could also be turned to the left into a joint struggle for a better life for all. We've seen elements of this in the inspiring election campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the U.S.

In the German federal election, the opposite happened: The mood wasn't directed against those above, but against those below, against those who are weaker. Eighty-five percent of AfD voters state that they voted for the party "because that way they could express their protest." Sixty percent say they voted for the AfD because it's "against all other parties." Obviously a large proportion of the AfD voters saw their voting as the greatest possible challenge to the hated status quo. At the same time, 55 percent of AfD voters are of the opinion that the party isn't doing enough to distance itself from right-wing extremist positions.

Nevertheless, these protest votes are anything but uncertain. That can be seen from a glance at the reasons AfD voters give. They say "people don't feel safe any more" (99 percent); "the influence of Islam should be reduced" (99 percent); and the influx of refugees should be limited (96 percent). They are also worried about the loss of German culture (95 percent) and are afraid that life in Germany will be changed (94 percent). The AfD has successfully steered existing anger and fears in the direction of racism and law-and-order policies.

AfD voters are therefore neither just a little bit angry--so that it would be possible to separate them from their now-consolidated racist and authoritarian positions with more social justice--nor are the vast majority of them fans of establishing a fascist dictatorship. Social misery is the fertile ground on which their anger is thriving, and the AfD is growing.

Developing a perspective for overcoming this misery through solidarity and for building resistance to the attacks on wage earners and the social security systems is now an important task. However, the root that the AfD uses to anchor itself in this fertile ground is racism--particularly against Muslims. It has to be fought separately, with good arguments and joint struggles.

For Die Linke, the election results should be a wake-up call. The party mustn't leave radical opposition to the system in the hands of the AfD, but must be identifiable as an anti-capitalist force.

This is something that it has in part succeeded in doing: The sharp challenge to the banks, the corporations and their parties and its orientation towards the movements expressed, for example, in the campaign for better nursing care, resulted in the strong results achieved by Die Linke in the West. But this hasn't been able to prevent the drop by 6.1 percentage points in the East with a massive loss of voters to the AfD.

In view of the limited leeway for implementing reforms and the fact that the right-wing SPD is the partner in government, the approach of taking on responsibility in state governments obviously hasn't developed the appeal that was hoped for. Die Linke was unable to distinguish itself from "the others" in such a way that it would have been able to avoid the slap in the face delivered to the established parties. The fact that Die Linke agreed in Saxony to the constitutional commitment to a balanced budget and supported in Thuringia, Brandenburg and Berlin the privatization of the motorways stood in clear contradiction to the anti-capitalist image that the party wanted to project.

2. It isn't a law of nature that a massive rejection of the political system should lead to a move to the right. However, the chances of this happening rise drastically when the bourgeois forces--primarily the parties, but also the media--try to combat the petty bourgeois right by adopting their agenda. The AfD's results are a logical consequence of an election campaign where they succeeded with all their might in shifting the topics of refugees, Islam, terrorism and internal security into the center of the debate.

The absolutely grotesque TV duel between Martin Schulz of the SPD and Angela Merkel made clear that the AfD had many "campaigners" outside their own ranks. With great tenacity, the moderators steered the whole debate toward immigration, Muslims and terrorism, while topics such as nursing care, education and those who had missed out on the so-called "Merkel boom" were totally ignored. Even before this the impression had already been created that the editorial board of Bild [the German newspaper with the largest circulation] was staffed by the executive of the AfD; various front pages were indistinguishable from AfD election posters.

All the parties with the exception of Die Linke accepted this dictation of the issues or, as in the case of the Greens, kept a low profile. In addition to its well-known ragbag of employers' demands, the Free Democratic Party placed the re-equipment of the police and the military in the middle of its campaign, and on the refugee issue, it helped itself to the demands of the AfD. So, for example, the party and its leader Lindner demanded that rejected asylum seekers be expelled more quickly, that the borders be sealed off using the "most modern surveillance methods" and that the borders should be closed if large numbers of people were suddenly to seek refuge.

The CDU ran a classical "law-and-order" campaign totally blocking out social issues and emphasized its "achievements" in eroding the right to asylum. The SPD played a particularly ignominious role: At the beginning of August, Martin Schulz was the first person who with all his might brought the refugee issue back into the election campaign as a threat scenario.

So it's no wonder that with 44 percent, almost half the voters said that immigration was the most important political problem in the country--even more than social justice--and together with the topic internal security, it was on the same scale as all the social and economic issues together. And only the AfD profited from this. Indicative of this was the result in Bavaria: There, the CSU continually attacked Merkel from the right on the refugee issue--always proclaiming loudly that its aim was to keep the AfD down. Instead, with 12.4 percent, the AfD got its strongest result in the West there.

In Germany, what is being repeated is what has been seen for years in France and Austria with regard to the Front National and the FPÖ: The bourgeois parties, including the SPD, and the media have been trying to undermine extreme right-wing parties by adopting their agenda. But in the final analysis, that only strengthens the right-wing parties. Thus, the AfD leadership can justifiably claim that as a small party they were able to set the whole agenda for the election campaign from the opposition. That is indeed a triumph for the party.

3. The good performance of the AfD is also due to the low level of social struggles. The discussion about a strategy against the advance of the right should not leave out the question of the capacity of the trade unions to put up a fight.

The tiny ray of hope in the gloom of an unedifying public debate during the election campaign was the intervention of a young nurse on the program "Wahlarena," who sharply attacked Merkel for the degrading conditions in the hospitals. Shortly afterward, protest actions followed in various hospitals.

Suddenly, for two short days, the whole dynamic was shifted: The actual social frontline between those in the governments and corporate headquarters who are plundering public service provision and the overwhelming majority of the population, whether native Germans, Muslims or refugees, became clear once again. The large parties were outbidding each other with promises to remedy the crisis in nursing care.

What would have happened if the leaderships of the trade unions--first and foremost ver.di, which has been severely hit by the hemorrhaging of the public sector--had initiated a massive mobilization of their members for better nursing care, education and public infrastructure instead of the policy of keeping quiet that they are practicing? But they didn't do so--on the contrary: Activists from the hospitals and local trade union secretaries prepared to organize protests reported consistently that they faced enormous resistance in the bureaucracy, even to the preparation of these smaller strike and protest actions.

This indicates an underlying problem: The best antidote to the AfD would be the joint struggle of the many for their political and social rights. Through this, their feelings of helplessness would be overcome, links between these people would be made, and their view of the real enemy would be sharpened. The real experience of solidarity would stand in opposition to the racism of the AfD, and the effectiveness of its divisive ideology would come up against barriers.

But such a struggle isn't happening to a sufficient extent in Germany, and for this, the leaderships of the trade unions bear major responsibility. Three times in the last 15 years, they have shot themselves in the foot and worsened their own fighting position.

First, by not supporting the movement against the Hartz welfare "reforms" in 2003 ("Monday demonstrations"), they laid the foundation for a decade of wage stagnation and partial wage reduction, because fear of plummeting living standards as a result of the Hartz welfare "reforms" made it easier to blackmail the workforce. Second, the acceptance of subcontracting and service contracts led to splitting the workforce into the core workforce and those who are precariously employed--and the latter are often left in the lurch by both works councils and the trade unions. This was finally followed after the onset of the crisis in 2008 by integration into large-scale crisis corporatism, consisting of the state, the corporations and the trade unions, which among other things foisted the total costs of the crisis onto the public sector.

All in all, the development of the trade unions is principally characterized by two problems. On the one hand, there is the strong integration into the ideology of "competitive location"--in other words, the hope that by strengthening German capital in international competition, some crumbs might be left over for the workers. Essentially, this view is widespread in the export industries. On the other hand, there is a dominant feeling of strategic helplessness in dealing with the devastation that they have helped produce or acquiesced to (particularly tangible in the public sector in education and health care).

This is where Die Linke must engage if it wants to do something against the shift to the right on a sustained basis. In recent years, a layer of workplace activists and left-wing officials has developed on the lower levels of the unions, a layer that advocates another trade union policy based on struggle. Die Linke can be an important catalyst to unite these people in a new trade union current that is in a position to intervene in the debates in the unions and to shape their orientation.

As large organizations, the unions also have a social role both in the economic struggle and in political confrontations such as the struggle against racism. On these issues, more pressure from the left would be very useful.

4. Anybody who speaks about the success of the AfD can't be allowed to remain silent about one-and-a-half decades of anti-Muslim racism. Any strategy against the AfD that doesn't include the fight against racism will fail.

In addition to its anti-Establishment attitude, the AfD's greatest hit in the election campaign was the demonization of Muslims and refugees as alleged terrorists and misogynists. The "Islamic bogeyman" wasn't first invented in this election campaign nor was it invented by the AfD. Before Gauland, there was Sarrazin. The campaign against Muslims has been running without break since September 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, Islamophobia has become the dominant form of racism in Germany. The AfD and the right wing can rely on the fact that both politicians from the established parties and a large proportion of the media will continue to build up the "Islamic bogeyman" by deliberately linking the religion with negative buzzwords such as terrorism, women's oppression, homophobia or anti-Semitism. The effects of this are devastating--by now more than half of the population are afraid of Muslims.

Die Linke would make a huge mistake if it were to shy away from this issue because of opportunism with regard to racist resentment among its own voters. Racism will split and paralyze the struggle we need to undermine the AfD. Therefore, the social justice project, which can't exist without extra-parliamentary social struggles, is linked inextricably with the struggle against racism.

As is well known, in Die Linke, this is contentious. Sahra Wagenknecht hinted that the party had "made things too easy" for itself on the question of refugees, but left open what she actually meant by that.

It can't be the response to social questions. In the election campaign, Die Linke argued constantly that there are enough resources in this rich country to provide good opportunities in life for everybody including refugees--it's only necessary to redistribute these resources.

From the election result, it's impossible to prove the thesis that Die Linke is isolating itself through its strong anti-racist profile. In Berlin-Neukölln and in Münster, for example, the profile against the AfD and in defense of Muslims played an important role--in these constituencies Die Linke achieved its best-ever results with 18.3 percent and 10.1 percent respectively.

It is, of course, possible that some unclear protest voters were put off by the clear anti-racist position--at the same time, however, Die Linke was able to a far greater degree to gain support from non-voters and former SPD and Green voters who wished to take a different stance against racism in view of the opportunist tendencies of their parties to adapt to racism.

Die Linke's loss of 400,000 voters to the AfD also shows that we have to educate our members for the struggle against racism--for example, by means of the training sessions [known as "Stammtisch" training] offered by the Aufstehen gegen Rassismus [Stand Up to Racism] alliance--so that they will be better able to argue against racist prejudices. Part of class solidarity is solidarity with oppressed minorities such as refugees and Muslims as well as the struggle against all forms of sexist oppression.

5. In Die Linke's election result, there are in part considerable gains in the West, standing in sharp contrast to heavy losses in the East. But at this moment, we don't need a divisive East-West debate. Instead, we require a sober discussion about the correct political orientation for Die Linke. The election results achieved by the various branches provide important clues here.

The prize for the largest increase in a constituency in the West goes to--Hamburg-Altona. Hamburg of all places! Considering what Die Linke has had to put up with here as the whole corporate press opened fire on them because of their support for the G20 protests.

But in the final analysis, the orientation toward the protests against the impositions of capitalism strengthened the party, because this is precisely the kind of high-profile opposition directed against the system that many people want. In Hamburg, Die Linke achieved a strong result with 12.2 percent, and in several neighborhoods, of the Altona district, it has become the strongest party.

But Hamburg was by no means an exception: an anti-capitalist profile, clear positions on social issues, a high profile against the advance of the right and good work on a local level led to good election results in many places.

A further identifiable element for a strong Die Linke is the orientation toward an active membership that develops political activity on a local level together with the social movements. The background to the strong result in Nuremberg North, with 11.7 percent, was the recruitment of 100 new members. Many of them organized an election rally that was attended by 3,500 people. In addition, there is an active relationship with the disputes in the city, such as the threatened expulsion of an Afghan school student back to Afghanistan, an issue that provoked considerable resistance.

In Berlin-Neukölln, which is in the Western part of the city, Die Linke received 18.3 of the party list votes, an increase of 4.1 percent, and in the poor northern part of Neukölln the party got as many as 30 percent.

This success is, on the one hand, due to the political orientation of the branch, which was very active against the right, but has also strongly supported social protests. On the other hand, it's also a confirmation that actively building the party works. Since 2007, the number of members has more than doubled from 223 to almost 500.

In this way, a positive dynamic is developed: With more active members, Die Linke can build up a better political presence in the area and intervene better in social struggles and in turn the better presence brings new members.

It is also instructive to take a look at Münster: Here, Die Linke was involved in various large protests against the AfD. The result: Münster is the only community in Germany where the AfD got less than 5 percent.

At the same time, Die Linke was able to increase its vote by two-thirds. Of course, a West German university city isn't comparable with a rural constituency in the East. But we should also not make the differences in approach to successfully building Die Linke greater than they are.

In the East, too, there are many young people who, alarmed by Trump and the AfD shock, are prepared to build Die Linke as an anti-capitalist force against the advance of the right. They are the future of the party in the East, and they need to be offered appropriate activities locally, which mustn't be limited to a passive orientation on the activities of Die Linke's parliamentary groups or ministers and senators.

Particularly in the East, the party must take its place at the front of the anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle and place its considerable resources completely in the service of the struggle against the AfD.

Die Linke in Leipzig shows the way. From the very outset, it was part of the constant protests against the local Pegida offshoot Legida and, as a result, became attractive for many people. The reward for this work was that the party won a direct mandate and got a relatively stable result compared with the crash in the rest of Saxony.

An anti-capitalist profile, a clear focus on the struggle against the AfD and its racism, close contacts with the combative nuclei in the trade unions, implemented by an active and activating membership party: These are the elements for Die Linke if wants to live up to the requirements for its current challenges.

The AfD wasn't just able to win hundreds of thousands of votes from Die Linke with its racist slogans. It was also able to win a higher proportion of workers for its anti-Merkel protest which has been diverted in a racist direction.

At the moment, Die Linke isn't strong enough to initiate class struggles on a grand scale that would be able to give hope to layers of petty bourgeois voters threatened by downward social mobility and to open up a perspective for progress. But the party must attempt to stop the further advance into the working class of protests steered toward racism, particularly into the ranks of those in precarious employment and the unemployed.

To do so, it must itself become an anti-capitalist, socialist force that takes up social struggles and combines them politically, and at the same time, it must commit itself to the cause of fighting against neo-fascism and racism.

The first opportunities to implement this policy are the continuation of the campaign for better health care alongside workers and a powerful protest against the AfD at the opening session of the Bundestag on October 24 and at the AfD party congress in Hanover on December 2 and 3.

First published in German at Marx 21. Translated into English by Einde O'Callaghan.

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