What’s Happening in Germany Reveals the Strange State of the Left

The leftist politician Sahra Wagenknecht apparently now has a different idea of what “left” means. John MacDougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The leftist politician Sahra Wagenknecht apparently now has a different idea of what “left” means. John MacDougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Monday morning, Sahra Wagenknecht, the most charismatic politician in Germany’s Left party, led an uprising against it. A longtime member of the national Parliament and until 2019 a co-leader of the Left’s parliamentary delegation, Ms. Wagenknecht apparently now has a different idea of what “left” means. She announced that she and nine fellow Parliament members will start a new party in January to court voters who share her discontent.

Ms. Wagenknecht has been hinting at the break for months. The Left party descends from Communist East Germany’s old ruling party, which Ms. Wagenknecht joined in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it is not the party it once was. To put it in crude American terms: It has become too woke for Ms. Wagenknecht. Germany’s present government is made up of Social Democrats, Greens and market-oriented Free Democrats. It offers an agenda for a “lifestyle left”, to use Ms. Wagenknecht’s phrase, not a real left. And yet many of her longtime colleagues have been seduced by it.

At a time of housing shortages and weak wage growth, the government’s unwillingness to stem the influx of economic migrants is “irresponsible”, Ms. Wagenknecht says. Its heavy-handed energy regulations are burdening poorer families. Its uncritical assent to the United States’ backing of Ukraine is prolonging the war, driving up energy prices and crippling the German economy.

Ms. Wagenknecht faults her party not just for failing to oppose the government but also for bullying and belittling those citizens who do. In 2021 she wrote a best-selling attack on fashionable leftism that she titled “The Self-Righteous”. That fall she appeared on one of Germany’s top political talk shows to insist that those who dissented from Germany’s draconian Covid rules were “normal citizens” and to explain why she was unvaccinated.

Ms. Wagenknecht’s detractors say that what is going on is simple: She is turning into a right-winger.

This is not quite right. Her thinking still bears the stamp of her formative Communist years. Her stance on immigration may be restrictive, but she favors opening Germany’s borders to political asylum seekers. (It is labor immigration she wants to restrict.) She may bemoan the flow of migrants from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but she blames American foreign policy for it.

It is true, however, that what Ms. Wagenknecht is trying to do with her new party is transformative. It has implications not only for the future of German politics but also for how we think about what the left is becoming in much of the Western world.

In Germany as in the United States, a deep divide has opened in the electorate between “populists” and “elitists”. Neither side is happy with these epithets, still less with the imputations of extremism that tend to accompany them. Ms. Wagenknecht is certainly a populist. But in a German context the question of whether she is a populist of the left or of the right has a special urgency.

After seven postwar decades in which moderation was the country’s political watchword and the Christian Democrats were the repository of almost all the country’s conservative tendencies, Germany has changed. Lashed by the euro crisis of 2010, the migration crisis since 2015 and the Ukraine-war-induced industrial crisis, the country has radicalized almost beyond recognition. Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials, AfD, is the country’s first broad nationalist party since World War II. It comes in second in most opinion polls.

The legislator Björn Höcke, the leader of the most hard-line wing of AfD, recently referred to Ms. Wagenknecht’s difficulties with the Left party in a speech, concluding, “Come to us”.

Ms. Wagenknecht has said she considers Mr. Höcke a right-wing extremist and wants nothing to do with him. Germans’ attitudes about her new party tend to revolve around whether they think she will broaden the right-wing populist uprising or dilute it. The polls point to dilution: In August the newspaper Die Zeit published an Insa survey taken in the state of Thuringia, where AfD is the largest party, showing that, were a Wagenknecht-led party to run there, it would finish first, with 25 percent, followed by AfD at 22. Polls previously showed AfD with 30 percent.

Others are more skeptical that Ms. Wagenknecht will draw voters from the far right. In a much-remarked-on essay in the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the social scientist Oliver Nachtwey, who is based in Basel, Switzerland, emphasized that her preferred targets were not at Germany’s extremes but at its liberal center — and that her criticism was “not so different from the right’s culture war”.

The liberal center is already vulnerable. There were state elections in Hesse and Bavaria this month, and in both of them all three parties in the federal ruling coalition — Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats — lost ground. The coalition, which until recently seemed to represent the aspirations of a more global, environmentally conscious Germany, is reeling.

Something is happening in Western countries to drive the masses (as they used to be called) away from parties of the left and center left that were set up over the past century to welcome and champion them. At times Ms. Wagenknecht blames the laziness of professional politicians. “It is easier to regulate speech”, she once said, “than to raise the minimum wage”. She often talks as if there are really two lefts: a wage-raising left that wants to distribute wealth fairly and a speech-regulating left that wants to affirm gender identity or fight racism. For a long time those two lefts — economic and cultural — tended to find a home in the same parties.

But perhaps this was a historical accident rather than a real affinity. Generations ago, farmers and industrial workers set the tone in left-wing movements. Their project to secure fairer economic treatment had some overlap with the projects of migrants, racial and ethnic minorities, women and intellectuals. Today, though, farm laborers make up an infinitesimal percentage of most Western work forces, and industrial employment has contracted sharply, too. So the left, quite naturally, has become not just a different political movement but also a different kind of political movement. Not because anybody changed his mind or made an ideological mistake but because the left now reflects different people’s interests.

Abounding in minorities, the left is increasingly attentive to hierarchies of respect and vigilant about monitoring them. Abounding in intellectuals, it is increasingly — and mistakenly — inclined to view democracy as a search for truth rather than as a search for consensus; it is prone to cast those who disagree with it, no matter how numerous, as democracy’s enemies and even as authoritarians. There might still be people on the left preoccupied with the sort of economic grievances that inflamed Ms. Wagenknecht when she was reading Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg in the 20th century. But there won’t necessarily be.

There is nothing illegitimate about this latter-day left politics. But it is no longer self-evidently an egalitarian vision and may even wind up an elite vision. It is natural that those whose memory of the left stretches back as far as Ms. Wagenknecht’s should have a hard time viewing it as a politics of the left at all.

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing Opinion writer for The Times and a contributing editor at The Claremont Review of Books. He is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West and The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

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