News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Western Europe - Democratic Socialism Die Linke at a Crossroads

How can Germany’s ailing socialist party overcome its current impasse and return to its former strength?


Supporters of Die Linke at the kick-off demonstration for the party’s planned “Hot Autumn” in Leipzig, 5 September 2022. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr/DIE LINKE

Crises are coming to a head around the world: the consequences of climate change are becoming more and more apparent, social inequalities are growing, and right-wing authoritarian forces are gaining popularity in many countries. War continues to be a political tool, as was most recently forcefully confirmed by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war have triggered immense economic consequences, disrupting production supply chains and drastically increasing energy prices in particular.

Cornelia Hildebrandt is a philosopher and advisor for political parties, social movements, and Christian-Marxist dialogue at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis, as well as co-president of transform! Europe.

Translated by Hanna Grześkiewicz and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

As a result of the worsening crises, a wave of impoverishment also threatens to sweep across German society, potentially affecting not only the lower classes but the middle classes as well. Despite this state of affairs, the relief packages passed by Germany’s ruling coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and the economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP)––also known as the “traffic light coalition”, after the three parties’ colours––remain half-hearted. In the face of permanent price increases, one-off payments to citizens and other temporary solutions (such as the petrol price freeze) are likely to fizzle out. The increase in social welfare for the permanently unemployed, negligible as compared to inflation, is not improving the situation for those affected.

The same applies to the measures adopted against the rapid increase in rents and the crisis in the care sector: they are also insufficient. The German government counters criticism of its dithering course by invoking the so-called “debt brake”, which sets a legal limit for new debt — and to which the government is sticking.

On the other hand, there are measures that the government is justifying on the basis of the Russian war against Ukraine. Above all, this refers to the armament of the German armed forces by means of a 100-billion-euro “special fund” and the sanctions against Russia, which have led to an explosion in energy costs. Sustainable relief for citizens against these rising expenses continues to be ruled out — the new “Energy Security Act” (Energiesicherungsgesetz) even makes it possible to pass price increases on to consumers.

Against the backdrop of these developments, a party committed to social justice is urgently needed — a role that seems tailor-made for Die Linke. After all, the party emerged in the years following the 2004 protests against the neoliberal Hartz IV laws that drastically cut welfare benefits, especially for the long-term unemployed. Die Linke positions itself as a force against redistribution from the bottom to the top and wants to reverse this process. At the same time, its fight against deepening social divisions is a plea for renewed social cohesion, the decline of which has favoured the rise of right-wing populism.

In this sense, Die Linke also defends the democratic constitution of society, which — far beyond Germany — is severely threatened by right-wing populist and neo-fascist forces. Its activists therefore resolutely oppose the hijacking of social protests by the radical right or a political Querfront (i.e., a coalition of left- and right-wing actors). In short: Die Linke is needed as a social and democratic protective force that both opposes green imperial capitalism and puts concrete projects for a real socio-ecological transformation on the agenda.

Die Linke after the Party Congress

At its party congress in June 2022, Die Linke took important steps in the right direction, but naturally was not able to solve all the problems that had built up over the years in one fell swoop.

Nonetheless, the election of party leaders Marin Schirdewan and Janine Wissler was clear — they were elected with around 60 percent of the vote. In the party executive elections, prominent representatives of the faction that formed around MP Sahra Wagenknecht failed, and the new executive no longer includes any representatives of this group.

On a positive note, the first structural changes have been introduced, including reducing the executive board from 44 to 26 people, which should make it more functional. Following repeated conflicts in recent times, the resolutions passed by the new party executive aim to strengthen its cooperation with the executive of the party parliamentary group so that their actions are better calibrated. However, it remains to be seen whether these innovations will be effective or whether the party’s internal divisions will continue to deepen.

With regard to peace and security policy, the party congress passed a resolution opposing war and rearmament, and calling for a new international peace order. Die Linke condemns the Russian war of aggression and expresses itssolidarity with people in Ukraine and the war refugees. It opposes arms exports and supplying weapons, but at the same time vocally supports sanctions that disrupt the ‘Putin regime’. The party vehemently opposes the massive armament of the German military through the special fund and rejects an extension of coal mine and nuclear power plant operationsas an alternative to Russian gas. However, a critical analysis of the causes of the war, including the West’s share of responsibility, has been absent from the debates.

Instead of arming the military with 100 billion euro, Die Linke demands that the money be spent on socio-ecological transformation: expansion of public infrastructure, strengthening public utilities, energy cooperatives, free public transport, re-municipalization of hospitals and care facilities, and free day-care centres. As a socialist party, Die Linke also demands the nationalization of energy companies and the return of public services to public ownership.

With regard to concrete crisis management, the party demands permanent bonus payments to the lower classes, instead of one-off citizen relief payments. It also wants to increase social benefits (such as a housing allowance and state transfer payments) and introduce state control of energy and food prices, as well as a rent cap, a cap on gas prices, and an excess profits tax. These last two demands are being made with reference to neighbouring countries that have already implemented these policies.

The resolution renewing the party’s fundamental commitment to being a feminist party is particularly directed against recent sexual assaults within the party’s own ranks — cases of sexual harassment, abuse of power, and sexual violence are to be dealt with consistently and prevented in future.

These resolutions were passed at the party conference with large majorities. However, the results of the votes, which include the executive board elections, also point to the fact that relevant minorities within the party are not or are only partially behind the resolutions and the new executive board.

How to deal with the ongoing conflicts therefore remains a controversial topic within the party. There are two opposing approaches. Some argue that if the party leadership sees the congress as a new start, it must approach the minority and involve them in such a way as to prevent further power struggles. As evidence that this is possible, they point to the success of the demonstration against the social consequences of the crisis in Leipzig in early September 2022.

Others in the party see this conciliatory approach as a failure. They point out that the faction around Sahra Wagenknecht repeatedly questions party congress resolutions in public — as confirmed by recent statements aboutPutin and the sanctions against Russia.

Regardless of how these minority positions are perceived within the party, they are presented to the public on equal footing with the majority view, solidifying the image of a politically divided party. Neither the party nor itsparliamentary leadership have the necessary authority to discipline these actors for behaviour that does harm to the party. Averting a definitive split in the party parliamentary group through “pacification” appears to be the best available option.

In light of the fact that the party lacks young charismatic personalities, the need for collective leadership is growing. This is the only way to strengthen the party’s collective capacity to act, its ability to cooperate, and the concrete actions it takes — in parliament as well as at the grassroots level. That is why the issue of a strong strategic leadership centre is what will determine the party’s success or failure.

The Social Question

As a result of rising energy and food prices, growing inflation, and uncontrolled rent increases, the impending wave of impoverishment could produce a dynamic in which the interests of the lower and middle strata of society come together (“centre-bottom alliance”). However, unlike during the protests against the neoliberal social benefit reforms (Hartz IV), in the wake of which Die Linke was formed, this time there is no focused, central demand spurring a mobilization. Moreover, the social question is directly linked to global crises caused by capitalism transitioning from the fossil to the post-fossil stage. The interlinking of war, crises, climate change, and inflation — unlike in 2004–5 — have a direct impact on the social question. So it is to be expected that the coming protests will be much more diverse and contradictory. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for the protesters to unite.

At the same time, it can be assumed that the SPD and the Greens will try to pass further citizen relief measures. It remains an open question how far Die Linke will be able to make its mark on social policy, especially since the conservative Christian Democrats are also trying to score points with social policy proposals, however reductively and half-heartedly. In addition, the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) wants to fill the social question with radical right-wing content (“It's all the foreigners' fault”, etc.) and mobilize people to protest in the streets, which could well be successful in certain milieus. Even if Die Linke seeks to distinguish itself in the Bundestag as a party for social justice, unlike in 2004–5, the social question today is being posed not only from the left but also from the right.

It follows that Die Linke has a two-pronged task. On the one hand, it must resolutely reject

attempts by right-wing radicals to take over the party, and in this way defend itself against the media’s widespread equation of the “extreme fringes of the left and the right”. On the other hand, the party must present itself in such a way that it is recognized by broad social groups — i.e., including those beyond its normal electorate — as a social protection force capable of cooperation and defending democracy, and that combines these with socio-ecological transformation strategies for overcoming capitalism. This can only succeed if Die Linke intensifies its relations with social movements, trade unions, social associations, civil society initiatives, socio-ecological initiatives, and churches and religious communities on all levels of its political work while developing alternative strategies together with them.

Building the Party

The return of the social question, toward which the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the forerunner of Die Linke) was able to orient itself during its existential crisis after missing the hurdle for re-election to the Bundestag in 2002, is taking place 20 years later under changed party-political and social conditions. Nevertheless, there are a number of parallels.

The party’s electoral defeat in 2002 — similar to that of 2021 — took place against the backdrop of open questions about the party’s programme and strategy, weak leadership, and massive deficiencies in organizational development. Even then, there were conflicts over different approaches, which were mainly concentrated on the question of whether the party should primarily be a one of social movements or a political actor in the struggle for social reform majorities. Improvements came only with the attempt to combine the different approaches in a so-called strategic triangle, according to which the PDS wanted to both participate in shaping government and offer resistance through protest and developing alternatives to capitalism. This enabled the party to halt its decline.

However, due to the new challenges posed by the neoliberal reforms and the dismantling of welfare state services, this was not enough. The potential of the PDS was too limited outside eastern Germany, and the party’s westward expansion had failed, as the election results there proved. Only a party that went beyond the PDS — a “PDS+”, as Michael Brie strategically anticipated in May 2003 — had the chance to re-establish the party-political Left as a social force to be taken seriously. The key to success was merging with the new party, the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG), which had formed mainly in western Germany over the course of the protests against the neoliberal reforms.

Die Linke, which was finally founded in 2007, had a dual function within the German party system: it was a popularparty in the East and a single-issue party in the West. Today it is neither: in the East it has lost its presence in the countryside, and in the West it has only established itself in a few regions. Die Linke is now a medium- to small-sized party in both East and West, with strongholds in the big cities. Its influence in the trade unions and among working class, precarious, and unemployed people has been declining for years. Whether the party will succeed in winning over relevant sections of these social groups again remains to be seen — especially given the difficulties other left-wing parties in Europe have had in reversing this trend.

In addition, the party’s cultural appeal is rather weak today and its intellectual appeal is predominantly limited to its immediate surroundings. This is also true of its debates on alternative socialist concepts of society, which have become rare and are hardly noticed — although conferences and publications on socialism occasionally enjoy broader resonance.

What Can Die Linke Do?

Die Linke is at a crossroads. It will only be able to survive if it overcomes its internal disputes and consistently sharpens its value as a militant party for social justice. It must be present on the streets and in the squares, in alliance with trade unions, social movements, civic associations, and other interest groups. It needs to further develop its socio-political base with its core demands for renewing the welfare state, strengthening public services, and expanding public infrastructure under new conditions.

The evidence that this option is possible can be seen in the proclamations for a “hot autumn” (“relieve people, cap prices, tax excess profits”). Die Linke can rely on its strong activist core, which is trained in organizing and campaigning and can take the party’s messages to the streets. An important resource for the party’s renewal from below is its more than 5,000 local politicians, who can combine protest in the municipalities with concrete solidarity-based help on the ground. One prerequisite for success, however, is that party members once again treat each other with solidarity and appreciation — and that non-academics and people of different generations also feel at home in left-wing spaces and debates.

At the same time, there is a need for the party to reposition itself in terms of its programme and strategy. The 2011 party platform does not offer sufficient answers to some current questions, such as the urgency of combating climate change, peace and security policy, and the downward social spiral in the wake of inflation and recession. It is necessary to link these questions together — as a party prepared to participate in left-wing reform governments at the state and local level, without denying the limits of this participation, as a party that sees itself as vehicle for transformation as well as an anti-capitalist opposition, and as a party that understands the European Union as terrain for parliamentary and political struggle, while at the same time addressing its structural flaws.

Die Linke is thus faced with the task of clarifying its role as a party that is currently small, but that has the greatest socially transformative aspirations. To do this, it must sharpen its profile as a modern socialist party of justice with the long-term goal of a society that is free and equal in social and economic terms as well as with regards to civil and human rights. It must prove itself as a party with concrete practical value and, to this end, it must be able to protect, shape, and create change, while further developing its methods bridging the class divide. For example, instead of always discussing which social groups Die Linke primarily relies on, the party should work on building “centre-bottom alliances”. The recent protests in Saxony and Thuringia show that it is capable of doing this.

Looking to the Future

If Die Linke wants to be succeed at repositioning itself, it must start preparing for the European elections now. This election, planned for 2024 — only one year before the next federal election — will be an important indicator of whether the party is able to stabilize itself and remain in parliament (by securing at least five percent of the vote).

In autumn 2022, social and peace issues will take centre stage. Unlike 20 years ago, the social question is closely linked to global, peace, and European policy issues. This means that Die Linke has to deal with the intertwining of the social question, war, and crisis in greater depth. To do this, it must use the window of opportunity that is now opening for aggressively raising the social question. While Die Linke is united on the social question, it presents itself as a divided party on foreign policy issues, despite the decisions taken in June.

Its ability to strategically deal with its divisions in a spirit of solidarity will determine the party’s prospects. Only if Die Linke is able to reconnect the political milieus that are drifting apart within the party will it be able to do the same in society.