Named after the leaderene
Sahra Wagenknecht is that rarest of rare things - a popular politician - and she is set on a split with Die Linke and going her own way. Carla Roberts takes a look at her BSW project
After months of speculation, Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke has finally announced that she will indeed form a new party. For reasons to do with German legislation, the long-standing MP has formed a ‘club’ first, which carries the snazzy name, ‘Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht - für Vernunft und Gerechtitgkeit’ (Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht - for Reason and Justice).
While we would question how healthy any leftwing organisation can be that takes its name from its leader, she clearly does not suffer from any lack of self-confidence. She is indeed among the most popular politicians in Germany and has fans even outside the left milieu, because she regularly manages to eloquently demolish the platitudes of establishment politicians on this or that TV chat show. Wagenknecht takes obvious delight in railing against the liberal bourgeois consensus - a consensus increasingly embraced by Die Linke.
Die Linke came together with high hopes in 2007 and provided inspiration for the New Anticapitalist Party in France, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Left Unity in the UK. Wagenknecht has had well known differences with Die Linke for many years. So why split now? The answer is rather banal: Die Linke is now a sinking ship. By trying to appeal to traditional leftwingers, while also showing that it can run capitalism in the many ‘traffic light’ regional government coalitions it has participated in, it ended up disappointing everybody. It is increasingly seen as a rather lame, pro-establishment party, with its leader, Janine Wissler, perfectly summing up the problem of the party: she used to be a leading member of the German section of the International Socialist Tendency, Linksruck, but quickly rose up the career ladder in Die Linke and has now left most of her Cliffite baggage behind, functioning mainly as a ‘neutral’ bureaucrat.1
In last week’s federal elections in Hesse, Die Linke lost all nine of its parliamentarians, after its share of the vote crashed from 6.3% to just over 3%. It is unlikely to make it into the German Bundestag in the 2025 general election. Even in the 2021 election, it did not clear the 5% hurdle nationally and only retained a parliamentary fraction because a number of its candidates were elected directly by local majorities in eastern Germany - that, according to the complicated German electoral law, allows all votes to be counted.
It currently has 38 members in its national fraction and nine of those have now joined Wagenknecht’s BSW. However, they are not voluntarily bailing out. This puts Die Linke’s leadership in a difficult position: if it expels nine MPs, the party loses its status as a fraction and becomes a mere ‘group’, which comes with massive cuts in its state-funded finances.
According to a new poll conducted by the only national tabloid, Bild-Zeitung, the BSW would achieve 12% in a general election,2 while Die Linke would be kicked out of the Bundestag with a measly 4%. Other polls even predict that the Wagenknecht party could attract up to a quarter of the vote. Needless to say, such polls should be taken with a large pinch of salt, especially as they are being conducted two years prior to a general election and without the organisation having done or said anything yet. The 2024 European parliament elections, which Wagenknecht wants to contest with the new party, will give a clearer picture.
In any case, a split puts the survival of Die Linke in serious jeopardy. For a long time, its parliamentary presence has been the key reason why many on the left continued to support it, as the only left organisation with any chance of making it into the Bundestag. After a half-hearted attempt to ban political ‘platforms’ was defeated some 15 years ago, it continues to allow political trends to organise openly within its structures, move motions at conference, etc. In the absence of a principled party, Die Linke still offers Marxists an opportunity to engage with thousands of other socialists with their own political programme - in our view a worthwhile forum, despite the obvious political shortcomings.
Will the BSW be as democratic? Very unlikely. We will have to wait for the founding conference in January 2024 to see what is being proposed. The Times accurately describes its political outlook as “leftwing conservative” - its platitudes about ‘justice’ and ‘reason’ show where the party wants to position itself.
Wagenknecht comes from an ‘official communist’ background. Born in Jena, in the German Democratic Republic, she joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party as a 19-year-old in 1989 - just as the GDR collapsed. Intelligent, personable and articulate, she quickly became leader of the GDR-nostalgic Kommunistische Plattform within Die Linke. She left the Kommunistische Plattform some years ago, though politically she still seems to be of a similar persuasion.
She is quite similar to George Galloway on a number of levels: a populist, a rebel, a show pony who does not like to be told what to do. Like Galloway, she riles against the European Union not from an internationalist, but a nationalist perspective (‘bad for local people and national business’). Wagenknecht has often clashed with the party’s leadership and has been outspoken in her opposition to Germany’s financial and military support for Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine (not seriously opposed by Die Linke). And, just like Galloway, she is less than keen on “uncontrolled” migration, weaselly arguing that “the acceptance and integration of a very large number of refugees and migrants is linked to considerable problems”.3
The BSW has a meagre website, which contains the short, apolitical Founding manifesto. We read that, when it comes to “peace”, our “foreign policy is in the tradition of former [social democratic] chancellor Willy Brandt and president Mikhail Gorbachev”, who “opposed the logic of the cold war with a policy of relaxation, balancing interests and international cooperation”.4
The political overlap with the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland is obvious. Despite having a fair share of millionaires in its ranks, AfD has successfully positioned itself as the representative of the ‘little people’ - those left behind, the discontented - with increasing success: The party now stands at around 22% in the polls.5 Wagenknecht has been quite open that she is trying to attract the more leftish elements of that potential vote.
Rather than trying to provide positive answers and a coherent programme for international socialism, just like AfD she instead wants to protect “our country”, a classless Germany, from the “influx” of those who have no job, no skills and no visas - ie, those millions of people pushed to the bottom of the heap by imperialist wars and superexploitation. Unsurprisingly, there is not a single mention of the word ‘socialism’ to be found or what kind of society BSW is striving for. Her programme is characterised by crass political opportunism.
The slightly bizarre thing is that this is not the first time Wagenknecht has gone down this road: in 2018, she founded ‘Aufstehen’ (Get Up) on exactly the same mixture of vague platitudes and national chauvinism - and left it after a few months, when it became clear it was not a vote winner, and only attracted what Der Spiegel dubs “Verrückte” (crazies). This new effort is slightly more serious, with more MPs and possibly a few thousand members who could act as foot soldiers.
And, with Die Linke drifting steadily to the right, there certainly is a vacuum on the left. Perhaps she is hoping that the increasing opposition to the massive German support for the unwinnable war in Ukraine will translate into electoral support. In their joint statement, Die Linke’s 10 dissident MPs made great play about Wagenknecht’s now famous petition, Aufstand für den Frieden, which was followed by a peace demonstration under the same name in February 2023. It attracted over 50,000, but was shunned and denounced by all mainstream parties - including Die Linke, which boycotted the demonstration due to it being “rechtsoffen” (open to the right).6 A foolish decision by Wissler and co, not least because it had nothing to do with any of the official slogans, which mainly featured the usual pacifistic platitudes. No, it was merely that the AfD had announced that its supporters would attend. That is what led to the Die Linke boycott.
Die Linke did not want to be seen at the same protest as the AfD, which is now, worryingly, the clearest anti-war voice in the Bundestag. By contrast, Die Linke lays the blame firmly - and exclusively - at the feet of the Russian government, with no mention, let alone criticism, of the role of Nato and the attempt to reboot US global hegemony.7 By contrast the AfD has no problem publicly blaming the US and Nato for recklessly pursuing the Ukraine war which has resulted in Germany taking a huge economic hit.
According to a Bild-Zeitung poll, Wagenknecht might indeed ‘steal’ up to four percent of the AfD vote, which, standing at 18%, remains a major force. Of course, AfD has the ‘advantage’ of being so hated across the board by respectable politicians that it does not get asked to join regional or national coalitions, where its true nature would quickly be exposed. There is probably less such establishment shyness when it comes to a figure like Wagenknecht, who has steadily moved to the political centre.
The situation in the Middle East might have also taken some wind out of Wagenknecht’s chauvinist sails - the entire establishment is currently raging against Hamas and the “terrorists” in Palestine. Wagenknecht has been surprisingly quiet on the Middle East, perhaps because she does not want to ruin her new party’s chances of electoral success by coming out with a position that might easily be described as too critical of Israel - which these days is more commonly known as being ‘anti-Semitic’.
She has previously criticised the soft, pro-Zionist stance of Die Linke and famously refused to stand up and applaud when Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, visited the Bundestag in 2010 - a symbolic gesture unheard of in Germany, which typically kowtows before Israel for obvious historical reasons. Such a gesture would be unthinkable today and Wagenknecht has not come out with anything against Israel’s war against the Gaza population, as far as we can tell.
Die Linke, on the other hand, has produced a frankly bizarre statement, which peddles the much-dismissed “two state solution”, and pleads for international law and peace, etc. However the first half of the statement goes into overdrive in its condemnation of the “horrifying” and “barbaric terror attack”, before describing “Hamas’s declared aim” as “the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic dictatorship in Palestine ... We condemn the anti-Semitism of Hamas.” It claims: “Because of the history of the holocaust and because of anti-Semitism, the state of Israel is an historic necessity”, which is why Die Linke “will continue to oppose every form of anti-Semitism here, in the land of the perpetrator”.8
It seems that Die Linke has made the transition from soft to hardcore Zionism. Like the rest of the establishment, it sees a “dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents”. In a speech to the Bundestag on October 19, chancellor Olaf Scholz combined his “determination that we shall not lose control over immigration” with his “outrage about the way in which anti-Semitic hatred and inhuman agitation have been breaking out since that fateful October 7.”
The proof, however, is rather thin. Rias, the state-funded organisation tasked with measuring anti-Semitism, claims that in the 11 days between October 7 and 18 there were a staggering “202 anti-Semitic incidents”, representing “a rise of over 240% compared to last year”.9 But it is worth looking more closely at those incidents: “91% of the cases are Israel-related anti-Semitism” - ie, not anti-Semitism at all - “Israel was given the blame for the massacre, anti-Semitic terror [ie, Hamas] was legitimised and the state of Israel demonised”. In reality, out of the 202 cases, a mere 15 could be described as anti-Semitic (the star of David was daubed on some house walls). The others - as far as we can gather from the information provided - are of an anti-Zionist nature and express criticism of Israel. No matter. The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian echo the story about “a rising wave of attacks on Jews across Germany” in screaming headlines.
The German establishment, as throughout most of the west, is wielding the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism conflation as a weapon in the class war in order to silence criticism of Israel. In Berlin - perhaps the most multicultural, young and vibrant of the main German cities - pro-Palestinian demonstrations were banned. The Berlin state senate allowed schools to suspend students for chanting ‘Free Palestine’ - which led to appalling scenes, when young school girls were arrested and led away by armed police. Chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has also just been banned across Germany as “seditious”10 under the infamous paragraph 130, because it allegedly “incites hatred against a national, racial or ethnic group”.
So is the Wagenknecht party a split to the right? Yes and no. She may be ‘to the right’ of the liberal left in Die Linke on some social issues - certainly on asylum and immigration policy. But she is ‘to the left’ of it on questions of imperialism and war, and to some extent she wants to talk about the working class, which Die Linke has increasingly forgotten how to do. Those opposing Die Linke’s soft imperialist politics will probably be told to get out and follow Wagenknecht.
‘Mixing left and right’ Weekly Worker April 6: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1437/mixing-left-and-right.↩︎