News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Western Europe - Democratic Socialism Die Linke as a Protagonist of Transformation

The case for a constructive renewal of Germany’s only socialist party



Heinz Bierbaum,

CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr / DIE LINKE, Martin Heinlein

Despite countless appeals and attempts to unite Die Linke’s various factions, and thus to stabilize the party and ensure its survival, the situation continues to deteriorate. The parliamentary group is at risk of disintegrating, while there are growing signs that Sahra Wagenknecht will form a breakaway left-wing party. Should this development continue unchecked, it could spell the end of a genuinely socialist party, whose foundation as a party to the left of the Social Democrats still represents a major historic achievement. We must prevent this from happening. But how?

Heinz Bierbaum is the Chair of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Executive Board.

An array of strategies have been proposed, and the main debate seems to be between the ideas of “disruptive” and “constructive” renewal (as illustrated by the debate between Mario Candeias and Michael Brie and Ines Schwerdtner). There is widespread agreement that left-wing politics needs a fresh start. Given the changes that have taken place in society, the party’s founding consensus, i.e. to oppose the neoliberal policies that even the SPD was championing, has lost its ability to define the party’s identity. The fight for social justice remains key, but the social conditions have changed considerably. We are dealing with profound upheavals.

This is particularly true with regard to environmental challenges that threaten our very existence and call on us to rethink how we produce and consume. Our economy and especially our industries will have to undergo a radical transformation that will also shake up our entire infrastructure. COVID-19, widespread migration primarily driven by wars in many parts of the world, the conflict in Ukraine, and the intensifying battle for global hegemony also represent additional challenges. Issues concerning gender equity as well as the fight against racism and discrimination in all its forms play a vital role. All of this demands a new approach to left-wing politics.

There is a wide-ranging discussion about how best to define these major social shifts. Klaus Dörre, for instance, speaks of an economic and environmental “pincer-grip” crisis, stressing the environmental challenges in particular. British economic historian Adam Tooze uses the term “polycrisis” to describe the interplay between various developments that culminate in crises, such as the financial crisis, the pandemic, climate change, and the war in Ukraine.

Reference is often made to Gramsci’s definition of an “interregnum” — a situation in which existing social orders are drawing to a close, but a new social formation has yet to establish itself. Of course, no one can say with certainty whether we find ourselves in such a scenario, or whether the interregnum has in fact ended and we are now dealing with a new, relatively stable form of capitalism that could be described as capitalist ecological modernization. Only in-depth analysis and intensive debate can provide an answer. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is playing its part by making the analysis of current social trends a key pillar of its work.

Whatever label one may attach to the latest developments, it is undeniable that capitalism is in a profound state of crisis and that the existing production model is no longer viable. This objectively presents us with the opportunity to formulate a new kind of politics, one that takes shape within capitalism but that envisages a world beyond it, i.e. to make the case for left-wing, socialist politics.

Left-wing politics starts from the real contradictions — it has to have a material basis.

Admittedly, Die Linke has so far been unable to effectively seize this opportunity and to make this form of politics appeal to a majority of voters. Instead, people’s fears over an uncertain future, and their protest against worsening circumstances and the contradictions bound up with the ongoing crises, are increasingly being politically articulated and exploited by the right — as can be seen throughout Europe.

Left-wing politics starts from the real contradictions — it has to have a material basis. As Michael Brie and I recently argued, “We are facing a transformation on two fronts: an economic shift towards net zero and revolutionary new technologies, and wider geopolitical shifts. The question is not whether these transformations will take place but rather how and who will benefit”.

Virtually everyone seems to recognize the need for social-ecological transformation; however, their visions vary considerably in terms of how and in what proportion environmental and social changes are to take place. Some are focused on climate change, others put social issues front and centre. Those who place greater importance on tackling environmental challenges are sometimes accused of wanting to be greener than the Greens, while those who believe that social questions should be top of the agenda are occasionally labelled as socially conservative.

This is particularly the case for the so-called Wagenknecht camp. Both within the “Progressive Left” as well as among those pushing for a disruptive renewal, voices seen as being left-conservative are being side-lined. Deserving of criticism as Sahra Wagenknecht’s positions are, particularly those on migration, the baby is ultimately being thrown out with the bathwater. Even if Wagenknecht identifies herself as left conservative, being labelled as such should not lead to exclusion as this would likely impact a considerably larger section of the party. These members care about defending the interests of wage earners as society undergoes these profound transformational processes — a point, it is worth noting, that was also implied by Die Linke’s council of elders in their most recent statement.

Instead of pushing each other to the margins, our energies should be focused on debating policy. The social upheavals we face are so immense that we should not be pitting social issues against environmental action but considering them as two halves of a whole. Capitalism does not have an answer to the social and environmental challenges we face. That is why Die Linke must distinguish itself as agent of a sweeping and radical transformation with a socialist vision. This will require us to step up our internal policy discussions while also looking at how we can develop existing approaches and concepts, particularly with regard to economic and industrial policy. Here, the democratization of the economy will play a pivotal role.

Of course, good ideas alone are not enough. Die Linke must also become a leading voice in the wider conversation around how we change our mode of production and our way of life and, in doing so, come up with policy that addresses people’s concerns. What is needed are specific projects that facilitate the necessary shift towards sustainability while defending the interests of wage earners.

Here, it is vital that we work hand in hand with the trade unions. This was shown quite clearly at a recent conference organized by the foundation called  “Strategies for Constructive Renewal”. A key example discussed was the steel industry, where efforts are underway to shift production to hydrogen-generated electricity. This can only happen with public support. But most importantly, this process requires the backing of employees and the unions. Here our party can offer political support and be a key driver of change. The situation is similar for the car industry, and the foundation’s “Future of the Car — Environment — Mobility” discussion group is engaging with these issues.

Die Linke can overcome its present crisis if it adopts a unified strategic approach and pursues an inclusive rather than exclusionary form of politics.

The question of class is decisive. Left-wing politics must be made from the perspective of those dependent on wages. In principle, this logic already has broad support within the party. However, some bemoan Die Linke’s supposed isolation from the working class. But here too there are different emphases.

One such example is the concept of “connective class politics”. As an idea that aims to overcome class fragmentation among wage earners, the concept forms a sound basis from which to develop left-wing politics, particularly as it incorporates crucial concepts such as how to establish a “new normal” in the world of work. But if, as is often the case, this means that every struggle against the many forms of discrimination that exist gets subsumed under a wider concept, then the project risks becoming arbitrary. This is an issue in urgent need of debate — and it is vital that we also consider why this concept has failed to bring about the strategic goals it set out to accomplish.

Considerable political differences still exist concerning Die Linke’s stance on peace, a matter of existential importance to the party. Although the party executive’s decisions to oppose the supply of arms to Kyiv and to back a campaign for disarmament sent a clear message, the party has so far failed to reach a consensus on the war in Ukraine. Attempts to portray Die Linke as a party of peace have failed. This must be addressed urgently. Most importantly, an understanding has to be reached on the way the war in Ukraine is part of a wider hegemonic struggle. We are currently witnessing a fight for global dominance in which NATO and the war in Ukraine are being instrumentalized in the interests of the United States.

As NATO’s decisions in recent years have demonstrated, the primary aim is to restrict China’s influence. Die Linke must firmly oppose this stance and call for renewed efforts towards de-escalation. It is necessary to bolster the peace movement while at the same time seeking alliances with trade unions. The trade union peace conference which took place at the end of June and was organized by the foundation together with the Hanau office of IG Metall was a huge success upon which we should build. It is also important to emphasize the strong link between peace and social-ecological transformation, which demands close cooperation between peace and climate activists.

Die Linke can overcome its present crisis if it adopts a unified strategic approach to the key issues I have outlined here and pursues an inclusive rather than exclusionary form of politics. This is the path of constructive renewal. For this to happen, formats must be found in which all factions feel represented. The Strategies for Constructive Renewal conference that took place at the end of July was an initial, tentative step — now the journey must begin in earnest.

This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Nivene Rafaat and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.