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The Historic Significance of the New German Left Party

An earlier version of this article appeared as xTransformation des deutschen Parteiensystems und europäische historische Verantwortung der Linkspartei« in the issue of »Das Argument« dedicated to the founding of the German Left Party in June 2007 (Das Argument 49.3, no. 271: “Theorie und Politik einer neuen Linken,” pp. 329-47). I thank Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, Stephen Gill, Ingo Schmidt, Julian Germann, Sam Putinja and particularly Leonie Knebel for critical comments on different drafts of this paper. Ingar Solty

 

Wann seid ihr noch Linkspartei
Für die Arbeitsleute,
Tut was gegen Dienerei
Gegen die Beamtenmeute?
(Barbara Thalheim, Der alte Sozi, 2007)
Jetzt weiß ich, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin.
Dem Märchen aus uralten Zeiten
Fehlt heute ein Neubeginn.
(Barbara Thalheim, Ich weiß nicht, was, 2004)

 

“There are centuries in which nothing happens, and weeks in which decades happen” (Lenin). In such historic moments, what flourishes is not just the battle of ideas and the freedom social actors experience to change the social structures that determine them; frequently historical advance also depends on coincidence and individuals. In our time of pessimism, relativism and posthistoire, it is not easy to think historically and grasp historic time-compressions. This kind of thinking needs to be wrested from the culture-destroying media which turns even our historical responsibility and position into a spectacle created for the purpose of improved TV ratings. In what follows, an attempt will be made to do the necessary kind of thinking, as we focus our attention on the historical break which, to all appearances, we are now living through. A symptom of this break is the rise of a left political force in Germany.

I am going to argue, first of all, that the German Left Party, Die LINKE, is the first (party-)political leftist articulation of the contradictions of neoliberalism in the core capitalist countries (i.e. outside the Latin American [semi-]periphery). In recent years in many of these countries attempts have been made to establish leftist parties (both by regrouping old parties and by founding entirely new ones) which could counteract the neoliberalization or marginalization of the traditional parties of the labor movement. The parties include, first and foremost, Italy’s (somewhat compromised) Rifondazione Comunista, but also Jan Marijnissen’s Dutch Socialist Party (as the currently most influential opposition party in the Netherlands) and the Norwegian Left Party (with its promising national coalition government program and the contradictory role it played afterwards)[1] as well as smaller attempts with Québec Solidaire, the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect! in the UK, etc. However, in all of these countries the new articulations either have not been exclusively left ones – often being in heavy competition with, or helpless in the face of, strong right-wing populist parties (France, Italy, the Netherlands) – or have been of limited relevance because of either their organizational size (Canada, the UK), their financial, intellectual and political resources (the UK, Canada, but to a degree also the Netherlands and the fragmented left in France), or simply the size of their countries and their relevance in the global political economy.

Second, apart from its exceptional status, I am arguing that the relevance of Germany’s Left Party can only be unravelled through the lens of hegemony theory and needs to be seen in the context of an emerging hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism. In this context, parallels can be drawn between the impact of the 1968 events and the aftermath of 1848. Both historical eras are characterized by failed revolutions, the cooptation of certain revolutionary elements compatible with a new system of rule, and the marginalization of other – more radical – elements that were incompatible. In the post-1968 case, we are dealing with the partial cooptation of the “old” New Left and its absorption into neoliberalism – a new means of production and a way of life – followed by the emerging hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism and the consequent rise of a new left party, Die LINKE. In looking at the aftermath of 1848, we have to consider the subsequent relationships among the bourgeois-democratic revolutionaries, the failure of all 1848 revolutions as a result of the historic conservative turn of the liberal bourgeoisie,[2] the ensuing boom period that was partly due to the 1848 compromise between the old feudal elites and the ascending bourgeoisie, and finally the hegemonic crisis of Manchester Capitalism after 1873 that would mark the political ascent of the socialist labor movement as well as the rise of what Robert Cox has analyzed as the “era of rival imperialisms.”[3] What this parallel suggests, is that just as the socialist labor movement differed from the bourgeois-democratic project of emancipation, so the new left will necessarily be politically and culturally distinct from the old left and the old “New Left”.

Third, the distinctive character of Die LINKE marks its rise as more than simply a normalization of Germany in the context of Western European proportional representation electoral systems, i.e. political systems characterized by the existence of (post-)communist left parties (to the left of traditional social democratic parties) which tend to gain from social democratic right-turns. Fourth, without Die LINKE, Germany would have been the next country (after France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland etc.) to lose a significant share of the fragmented or declassed working class to modern right-wing populism or right-wing extremism. Fifth, because of all this, Die LINKE carries a historic responsibility transcending the German context (and arguably even the European context). Sixth, nonetheless, modern right-wing populism has not been eclipsed for good, as can be seen in cases where the PDS suffered electoral defeats as a result of having participated in or tolerated state governments led by the SPD. Therefore, seventh, in order to retain credibility, Die LINKE must insist on setting strictly anti-neoliberal conditions for government participation.

Finally, in the current conjuncture new political formations may find themselves in a situation in which they have to use the parliamentary rostrum to make their own classes, for example by shifting the discourse, by connecting themselves to and politically strengthening the trade-union movement (etc.), in an initial top-down approach (according to Gramsci’s understanding of socialism also being “organization”). This means that class re-formation must rely on political parties of a new type and that political parties can – if they are conscious of it – create precisely the forces they need in order to “stay left” in the political sphere, which presupposes that these parties understand or come to understand how they need to construct their efforts around a clear class project.[4]

 


[1] Cf. Asbjørn Wahl, “Der Fall Norwegen,” Sozialismus, October 2006.

[2] The failure of all 1848 revolutions has been explained by Eric Hobsbawm (1996: 9-26), following Marx’s own analysis, invoking the idea of two hearts beating in the chest of the bourgeoisie. The split of the Tiers État into capital and labor – resulting from the dynamism of capitalist development – led to the first independent political articulation of the Quatrième État, the proletariat, making far-reaching demands on its former (bourgeois) partner in revolution. Leo Kofler (1984) has analyzed the bourgeoisie’s need to stop the revolutions from radicalizing as its conservative turn leading to the emergence of two converging ideologies, feudal liberal conservatism (in Germany represented by the Free Conservatives) and capitalist conservative liberalism (represented in Germany by the National Liberals). In Germany, overdetermined by the passive revolution which Gramsci has analyzed as the path taken by nations coming late to capitalism (Gefängnishefte [Prison Notebooks] 5, Heft 8, § 236, p.1080; idem 5, Heft 9, § 89, pp.1137-41; idem 6, Heft 10, Teil 1, § 9, pp.1242-44), the economic ambitions of the liberal bourgeoisie were widely achieved in a process of co-optation (Bismarck’s “revolution from above”) whereas its political ambitions failed and its representatives became marginalized. In the aftermath, many of the more politically liberal and radically minded elements of the bourgeoisie (including the successors to the small sector of German Jacobins) needed to switch to the social democratic labor movement to realize their original Enlightenment goals in a new context and through a different revolutionary subject, the proletariat. The parallels to the split of the 1960s reform movement into the widely – albeit in a perverted sense – successful “critique artiste” (as opposed to the marginalized “critique sociale”) should be obvious (Boltanski/Chiapello 2003).

[3] Cox 1987: 151-210; cf. Deppe et al. 2004: 11-36.

[4] Assessing whether these requirements are met or can be met by the German Left Party is crucial and yet it cannot be done in the space available here and therefore will have to be adressed elsewhere. However, without being able to determine the party’s future course at this point, what can be said for sure is that also in this respect there exist reasons for optimism (of the will).

 

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