Nachricht | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Western Europe - Democratic Socialism Rebuilding Die Linke

Can Germany’s only democratic socialist party recover lost momentum after a damaging split?


Die Linke finds itself in a difficult situation. The breaking away of the Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, BSW) and subsequent formation of a new party constitutes a watershed moment in the development of both Die Linke as well as the broader Left in Germany. The party has been weakened by its loss of status as a caucus in the German parliament. As a parliamentary “group”, it now has fewer rights as well as fewer opportunities to present itself on the political stage.

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

Ines Schwerdtner is a candidate for Die Linke in the 2024 European elections.

At the same time, the split represents the conclusion of a dispute that has long hamstrung Die Linke’s development. Some speak of it in terms of clearing the decks that has opened up new possibilities for the party, with the many new members joining the party following Wagenknecht’s departure (which greatly outnumber the departures) pointed to as evidence.

However you want to slice it, it certainly offers the party with a chance for renewal, even if its future direction is yet to be clearly defined. It is not only the new arrangement of political parties but also — and above all — the current social upheaval which means it is now necessary to redefine Die Linke and the kind of politics it wishes to practice.

More Necessary than Ever

We find ourselves in a deep-seated economic, social, and political crisis. Last year was a year of recession, and according to projections, 2024 is not expected to be much better. A slowdown in investment, declining orders in the industrial sector, and interest-rate policies have all intensified the economic situation in Germany. In addition, there are also unresolved structural changes, especially those resulting from environmental challenges as well as digitalization.

Society has become extremely polarized. The majority of people are barely able to afford the marked increase in prices for groceries, energy, and housing. Meanwhile, at least some companies continue to record excessive profits, such as those in the energy sector. Precarious forms of employment and ways of life are on the rise.

This situation offers a starting point for a different kind of politics, including for Die Linke.

Politically, we are witnessing a marked shift to the Right that poses a considerable threat to democracy. Germany’s traffic-light coalition government is in disarray, having proven entirely incapable of providing convincing responses to the key challenges of our time. The Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling that crucial parts of the government’s budget were unconstitutional, which reduced its capacity to act, was simply the icing on the cake.

This situation offers a starting point for a different kind of politics, including for Die Linke. We find ourselves, however, in a paradoxical situation in which the Left is faced with fragmentation and is undergoing a process of self-marginalization, despite the fact that a strong Left is needed even more than ever. Despite the mass protests we have been seeing recently, dissatisfaction with those in power is largely fuelling the cause of the Right — including the extreme right.

How Can Die Linke Distinguish Itself from BSW?

As left-wing politics takes the contradictions of real-life developments as its point of origin, it must be grounded in material reality. We are witnessing wide-reaching social upheaval which necessitates a redefining of left-wing politics. The existential environmental challenges that call into question our methods of production and consumption are of particular urgency and importance. The economy as a whole and industry in particular are faced with large-scale processes of transformation which will consequently have a large impact on infrastructure as a whole.

The pandemic, surges of migration primarily caused by wars occurring in various parts of the world such as Ukraine and now the Middle East, and the growing battle for global hegemony all present additional challenges. Questions of gender equality and combatting racism and all other forms of discrimination are of high importance. The consensus agreed upon by Die Linke’s members when the party was established — which essentially consisted of the rejection of and resistance to neoliberal economic and social policy and focussed on social justice — no longer holds in light of the social and also political changes that have occurred.

Because this consensus long concealed the party’s deep divisions over its political orientation and strategy, BSW’s ultimate departure from Die Linke materialized at a comparably late point in time. The establishment of the new party, which has largely recruited from ex-members of Die Linke, means that the latter now has to deal with a new competitor on the political stage. The BSW enjoys a high level of media visibility, has demonstrated good polling numbers (although their significance remains unclear), and is viewed by many as a second left-wing party. Wagenknecht herself, however, has spoken out strongly against BSW being characterized as “Die Linke 2.0”.

Good ideas alone will simply not suffice. Instead, it is essential that Die Linke become involved in the society-wide debate over changes to our modes of production and ways of life, politically engaging with the worries and fears of the population.

In truth, BSW can hardly be designated a left-wing party at all when one considers the programmatic concepts it has presented thus far. Its founding manifesto features four political orientations: economic pragmatism, social justice, peace, and freedom. Its economic policy is ordoliberal and geared towards the strengthening of the middle class, but also exhibits Keynesian tendencies with its emphasis on public investment. It aims for an improved form of capitalism, without calling the system itself into question.

A desire for peace and social justice are its programme’s strengths. At the same time, these are the political issues that contributed to the process of fragmentation in the first place, as they were the source of a great deal of the criticism that has been levelled at Die Linke. With respect to social issues, this criticism was largely unjustified, while when it comes to peace. it does have some merit.

In terms of freedom, a commitment to democracy is closely tied to the struggle against the political right. This position is not exactly convincing, however, especially given that BSW puts forward a restrictive approach and therefore a more right-wing position with respect to migration. It is here that a clear distinction can be made between BSW and Die Linke.

Overall, it is clear that the BSW does not manifest as a genuine challenge on the Left, although it does present a real political one. It is therefore all the more important that Die Linke establish itself as a convincing political alternative.

Socio-Ecological Transformation

In order to do this, however, the party requires much more than a redesign or the implementation of other cosmetic changes. Instead, what is necessary is a serious discussion concerning strategy that has largely been neglected to date. In our view, there are three central areas which are vital for Die Linke’s development: a clear positioning with respect to the large-scale processes of transformation that society faces, the issue of peace, and the question of democracy.

Everyone recognizes the need for socio-ecological transformation. There are, however, a great variety of characterizations of what this should look like, especially when it comes to weighting its respective social and ecological dimensions. The issue of growth is also anything but undisputed among the Left — whether it is in fact still possible or desirable, and, if so, in which areas, are all part of a theoretical debate that quite finds practical expression in the reorganization of the economy every day.

Despite repeated efforts, the party has proven unsuccessful in its attempts to present itself as a party of peace.

What is clear is that the environmental and social challenges we face will not be able to be overcome within the framework of capitalist development. That is why Die Linke must distinguish itself as the protagonist of a comprehensive and wide-ranging transformation that incorporates a socialist perspective. This is contingent on an intensification of the debate concerning its political orientation and the further development of existing approaches and concepts with respect to economic and industrial policy. In this regard, the democratization of the economy and the involvement of employees plays a central role.

Good ideas alone will simply not suffice. Instead, it is essential that Die Linke become involved in the society-wide debate over changes to our modes of production and ways of life, politically engaging with the worries and fears of the population. This means concrete projects in which necessary ecological adjustments are combined with a defence of the interests of wage-earners. Closer cooperation with unions is imperative.

A Clear Stance on Peace

Major political differences still persist in Die Linke concerning peace, an existential issue for the party. Although executive party resolutions condemning weapon exports and in favour of disarmament have been unambiguous, there is no genuinely shared position on the war in Ukraine. Above all, there is a difference of opinion when it comes to categorizing the war within the broader context of hegemonic conflict.

We are currently living through a struggle for global hegemony, one in which NATO and the war in Ukraine are being instrumentalized to benefit the interests of the United States. As NATO’s decisions in recent years make clear, this struggle is first and foremost one being fought against China.

Die Linke’s position concerning the military conflict in the Middle East is also controversial. While it is unequivocal in denouncing the brutal massacre by Hamas, its assessment of Israel’s actions is varied. The spectrum of opinion ranges from a complete defence of Israel’s course of action in the Gaza Strip to the unconditional support of Palestinians, including the massacre perpetrated by Hamas. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, whose work in the Middle East is directly affected by the conflict, has aimed for a balanced response by condemning Hamas’s massacre while also criticizing the blockading and bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the many civilian casualties that have resulted. The escalation of the situation is viewed as an expression of the international community’s political failure to find a just and permanent peaceful solution.

Despite repeated efforts, the party has proven unsuccessful in its attempts to present itself as a party of peace. This must urgently be rectified. The party must definitively position itself, advocating for new initiatives concerning a policy of détente and propose new solutions for diplomacy involving international allies. It is imperative to strengthen the peace movement while also attempting to forge an alliance with unions. The same is true for the relationship between the peace and climate movements, although a close connection between fighting the climate crisis and advocating for peace already exists.

Discontent Fuels the Political Right

The contradictions inherent to societal development, unresolved structural issues, and the worsening of living conditions are leading to ever-greater resentment and even rage and a sense of hopelessness across broad swathes of the population. Its most striking expressions are the farmers’ protests, as well as the mass protests against the far right.

Politically, this dissatisfaction and outrage is largely translating into rising support for the Right, leading to ascendant extreme right wing and at least somewhat fascistic parties. This development presents a significant threat to democracy. This is why the defence and expansion of the democratic process must be a strong focus of left-wing politics, and involves resisting any rightward advances. In this sense, the enormous protests of recent times — unusual for Germany — are an encouraging sign.

The best resource in the fight against the Right is a strong Left with a convincing political message.

However, these protests have also included the presence of the very people who, as members of the government, bear some responsibility for this development due to their disastrous policies. That is all the more reason that these policies must be criticized — ultimately, the Right can only be successfully combatted through a different kind of politics, such as that espoused by Die Linke. The best resource in the fight against the Right is a strong Left with a convincing political message. At the same time, Die Linke must be able to expand its critique of the apparently indifferent traffic-light coalition and deploy a larger, more democratic narrative centred around economic as well as political and democratic rights.

Opportunities for Die Linke

Die Linke does stand a chance of success if it is able to come to agreement about certain core political tenets. Alongside socio-ecological transformation, peace, and the defence and expansion of democracy, these include championing social justice, the fight against rising living costs and for the improvement of working and living conditions, advocating for humane and integrative migration policy, and the fight against all forms of discrimination. Overall, it is essential to approach this from the standpoint of labour and correspondingly from the perspective of wage-earners.

These ambitions can only be realized, however, if the party is invigorated and strengthened. A crucial point in this regard concerns the creation of a strategic centre, the absence of which has been lamented by many. This very lack was laid out by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation two years ago in the form of its ten challenges, with which it presented its position on the situation facing Die Linke and which is worthy of being revisited and built upon. The party’s local and regional structures must also be strengthened.

Instead of creating a new organization, the goal should be a changed organization. In this respect, the party congress ahead of the EU elections was a heartening sign and certainly represents a springboard for a constructive renewal of the party. The resignation of its general secretary shortly after the conference was a setback, however. The party leadership would do well to focus on the causes and not be content to let the matter rest at the level of personal scapegoating. What is needed is a constructive critical dialogue around the overhaul of the party and its programmatic and strategic renewal.

This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Ryan Eyers and Bradley Schmidt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.