Die Linke: Rotten politics and rotten terms

This weekend’s elections will be a test for Die Linke, argues Ben Lewis, especially when it comes to the coalition-making that will follow

As Germany prepares to go to the polls on September 22, there are enormous issues that confront both Europe’s most important power and the continent as a whole. Given Germany’s dominance of institutions such as the European Central Bank, the commission and so on, there is a sense in which the outcome could have more of an impact on the populations of Spain, Greece or Portugal than their own national elections, especially in light of the EU’s recent attempts to ‘delegitimise’ elected governments not intent on fulfilling its demands.

Yet, as is so typical of bourgeois politics in this particular period, there appears to exist a kind of inverse relationship between the seriousness of the political matters at hand and the level at which these problems are addressed in political discourse, campaigning and the media. Even in the more serious sections of the German media, the parties’ battle for hearts and minds has hitherto been characterised more by silly gaffes than by serious strategic debate and ideas. In public at least, Eurobonds, the possibility of a banking union or the role of Germany in Europe have thus taken a back seat to things like the ‘Stinkefinger incident’ (Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück pictured sticking up his middle finger on the cover of a leading magazine), infighting within the Free Democratic Party that is currently governing in coalition with Merkel’s Conservatives, or the Green Party’s suggestion that Germans should enjoy a meat-free ‘veggie day’ once a week.

Common agenda

It is hard to tell what exactly lies behind this Politikverdrossenheit, this voter apathy and indifference towards the political process in times of such upheaval and change across Europe. It may reflect the simple fact that there appears to be very little to choose between the two forerunners for office - the CDU and SPD - and their preferred coalition partners. Fundamentally, both major parties are agreed on the need for austerity in the form of low wages, ‘labour flexibility’ and increasingly harsh sanctions against the unemployed.

Indeed, the foundations for this contemporary ‘common sense’ agenda were laid by the SPD (and the Green Party) in the form of the neoliberal ‘Agenda 2010’, of which Merkel’s proposals are a mere continuation. It says everything about the current outlook of the SPD that Peer Steinbrück, its putative replacement for chancellor Angela Merkel, was one of the chief architects of Agenda 2010, alongside Gerhard Schröder, the German, and ever so slightly less self-serving, version of Tony Blair. The SPD has even attempted to market its ‘vision’ for Germany under the title of … you guessed it, ‘Agenda 2020’. Wow.

Chancellor Merkel, the continental queen of austerity, remains popular. This is in part thanks to the hard yards put in by Schröder and Steinbrück in imposing Agenda 2010 on the trade unions. The organised working class has by and large passively endured Merkel’s austerity agenda, including the freeze on wages and living standards that, or so it is claimed, lies behind the exports-based German economic ‘recovery’. However fragile this may be, and however much it has come at the expense of the peripheral countries of the EU, it is undoubtedly true that, as of yet, austerity has hit nowhere near as hard as in Greece, Portugal or Spain. Merkel has thus had a relatively easy ride.

There is also very little between the parties when it comes to imposing austerity abroad - ie, across the euro zone - despite the hollow exchange between Merkel and Steinbrück on this very matter in their recent televised debate (the latter labelled Merkel’s strategy “disastrous”, whereupon Merkel pointed out that the SPD had voted for it from the outset).

The German electorate is probably all too aware of the fact that, in the possible absence of a clear outcome, the two main parties may even end up being forced into a ‘grand coalition’ anyway, as they were in 2005. This outcome would certainly upset their supporters and not come without certain costs to both. Yet, as we draw closer to September 22 with things still tight, that possibility is starting to be broached in the German media.

After all, last Sunday’s Bavarian results have highlighted how this most boring of elections might just have us all glued to our television screens. Hopefully presaging the fate of the Liberal Democrats on these shores, the German ‘liberal’ FDP, upon whom Merkel depends for the moment, took a hammering, receiving barely 3% of the vote. This may reflect some of the ‘particularities’ of Bavaria, not least the near dominance of the Christian Social Union. Yet if the miserable showing of the FDP, which has stumbled from internal crisis to internal crisis, is replicated on a national scale, then the party would not even make it past the (extremely undemocratic, purportedly anti-totalitarian) 5% hurdle to win representation in the Bundestag. Would this happen, then it would be bad news for Merkel.

Should it not make 5% of the vote, then the FDP could join such luminaries of the electoral process as the rightwing, anti-EU Alternative For Germany (AFG) and the Pirate Party. However, AFG appears not to have been very successful in seeking to pinch votes from CDU rightists disgruntled with bailing out so-called ‘lazy Greeks’ when there is the alternative of returning to the halcyon days of the Deutschmark. Even the Pirate Party, once hailed by some as a glorious example of the supposedly ‘new’ politics in the age of Facebook and the 160-character sound bite, appears to have hit the rocks.


What of the other parties? It is to the tried and tested Green Party that the SPD is turning for a loyal government partner. When pressed on the matter of a ‘grand coalition’, leading Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel retorted: “We are fighting for red-green - nothing else.”

The fate of the Green Party should be of interest to the left, in that it underlines how there is nothing like the lure of office to undermine both the principles and supporter base of a petty bourgeois party. It may have taken Joschka Fischer, former leading Green Party parliamentarian, just over 30 years to be transformed from a leather-jacket-sporting ‘68er’ clashing with police into the foreign minister overseeing the bombing of Kosova, but the Green Party’s fate was sealed much more quickly. The Greens’ claim to uphold environmentalism, peace, social justice and other nice things evaporated into thin air when they first sat on a ministerial chair.

They may be the most successful Green Party in Europe, but their credibility as a force for any kind of serious change has been irreparably damaged. As Joachim Jachnow argues in New Left Review, “The Greens may still play king (or queen)-maker in Berlin. There was a time when that prospect might have caused anxiety in Washington, but the Greens are the American embassy’s favourite German party nowadays. And why not? The Green Party has reduced the struggle for radical reform to the small change of ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ consumerism. The harmless memory of a dissident past now serves as a inexhaustible source of legitimacy, not just for their own actions, but for German power and the state apparatus itself”.1

Plagued by the ‘veggie scandal’ and now by accusations of paedophilia against its leader, Jürgen Trittin,2 the party is losing more and more support - so much so that it is now polling between one and two points below the left party, Die Linke. Its predicted 10% share of the vote could, in circumstances where both the preferred coalitions of the SPD and the CDU proves to be arithmetically impossible, and where government pretenders are looking for help onto the throne, turn out to be an important player.

Can Die Linke go the way of the Greens? It has always insisted that there are “red holding lines” that will determine whether it plays a part in coalition government or not. Yet that is far removed from any kind of commitment to fundamentally changing the system. Instead of utilising its share of the vote to expose the pro-capitalism of the SPD and the Greens, several leaders of Die Linke are making it rather obvious that these “holding lines” are both flimsy and not particularly red.

In a recent interview with the Berliner Zeitung, Die Linke co-chair Bernd Riexinger extended a conciliatory hand to the Greens and the SPD: “If there is a majority against Merkel then I will not rule out any option.” There is now talk of ‘tolerating’ a red-green government - ie, voting with the SPD and Greens to form a government and elect a chancellor, but not becoming part of that government. Riexinger is certainly not asking a lot in exchange: “a minimum wage, fair pensions, social security, an end to cuts in social services - that would be the minimum programme of a government that we would support”.3 Quite aside from the obvious shortcomings and lack of ambition involved in such a strategy (all of the major parties, with the possible exception of the FDP, now see the need for a minimum wage), Riexinger’s memory appears to be short: in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin, so-called ‘red-red’ local government alliances between the SPD and Die Linke’s forerunner, the Linkspartei, did little other than provide ‘left’ cover for “cuts in social services”.

Gregor Gysi, leader of Die Linke’s parliamentary fraction, went even further. He rejected SPD/ Green Party accusations of being an “unreliable government partner”, stating: “If it came down to it, we would be more disciplined than the SPD.”4 Fear not, capital! Riexinger’s co-chair, Katja Kipping, who has been regarded as being on the left of the party, and whose election was seen as an embrace of the ‘social movements’, simply repeated the conditions outlined by Riexinger, adding only the need to stop German combat missions abroad. The fact that she also assured her readers that “ministerial posts are not decisive for us” and that “we do not merely want to avoid the worst, but to change something” does nothing to obviate the absolute dead-end strategy of the left administering the capitalist state5.


Only the most naive should be surprised by these developments. Some of Die Linke’s demands for a (paltry) minimum wage of €10 an hour, a ‘Robin Hood tax’, a basic pension and so on, together with its level of support, political ‘breadth’ and Sunday school nods in the direction of “democratic socialism in the 21st century”, will certainly have excited many an advocate of ‘broad anti-capitalist parties’. Yet Die Linke’s pro-capitalist, social democratic outlook has been obvious for quite some time.

Die Linke’s 30,000-word programme6 is a fudge of epic proportions. Vague platitudes and generalities substitute for clear politics and principles. The odd ‘anti-capitalist’ bone is thrown to the left of the party, but the main question - under what conditions Die Linke would enter a government - is consciously, studiously, cynically tip-toed around.

Nothing more could really have been expected. Die Linke resulted from the coming together of a section of the former ruling ‘official’ Communist Party in the German Democratic Republic and a split in the middle ranks of Germany’s trade union movement in the west, which in part came as a response to the Schröder ‘reforms’ outlined above. It did, however, provide an opportunity for revolutionaries to fight within it for working class independence and Marxism.

Yet, both in Germany and abroad, most of left has simply tailed the reformist outlook of Die Linke, sowed a whole number of illusions in the nature of the party and held it up as some kind of a ‘model’ to which 21st century revolutionaries must aspire. Take Marx 21, the group within Die Linke dominated by the German section of the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency. Marx 21, whose members now have become Die Linke MPs and have served as loyal lieutenants in the party’s bureaucracy, have fawned over the allegedly “clear anti-capitalist character” of Die Linke’s programme.7 Excuse me? Moreover, according to Wladek Flakin, the coalitionist fever spreads far beyond the leadership of Die Linke. Apparently, Janine Wissler of Marx 21 has argued that forming a government would be OK “if the terms are right.”8

Taken abstractly, of course, there is nothing wrong with such an approach. There would be no problem in forming a government based on a clear commitment to dismantle the German capitalist state. Moreover, if the SPD could be convinced to join a government based on the arming of the masses, the abolition of the standing army, the socialisation of production and so on, then any serious revolutionary would be mad to dismiss such “terms”. Yet this is Germany September 2013, not June 1920. The terms, as things stand, are wrong. Die Linke’s election material has made it patently clear that it is not out to win a majority for the revolutionary transformation of society.9

It goes without saying that all communists and partisans of our class should call for the biggest possible vote for Die Linke this weekend. A big vote for a party of the ‘left’, however fuzzily defined and strategically forlorn, can provide some cause for hope across Europe. Yet in calling for such a vote it would be criminal for us to remain silent about the true nature of the project, about the reality behind the purportedly ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric and about the current leftwing fantasy of joining capitalist governments as some kind of ‘step towards’ socialism and human liberation.

Whatever the result of Sunday’s election and the governmental forces that crystallise as a result, for those of us involved in the discussions around the outlook of Left Unity and the fight for a principled political alternative in Britain and beyond, Die Linke should serve as a warning, not a model. Fudge and compromise are invariably in the interests of the right.


1. J Jachnow, ‘What’s become of the German greens?’ New Left Review May-June 2013.

2. The allegations refer to a manifesto written by Trittin over 30 years ago. As I have not seen the pamphlet, it is unclear whether it simply called for the abolition of the age of consent or actually, as claimed by newspapers like The Daily Tel­egraph, sought to “legalise paedophilia”, which is, of course, a different matter altogether.

3. Riexinger would also like to see Germany’s trade unions “moderate” such discussions between the SPD, the Green Party and Die Linke: www.berliner-zeitung.de/bundestagswahl-2013/ bundestagswahl-2013-linke-an-rot-gruen--merkel-gemeinsam-stuerzen,20889098,24133766.html.

4. www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/koalition-nach-der-bundestagswahl-2013-gregor-gysi-fordert-riesenruck-von-der-spd-um-rot-rot-gruen-moeg­lich-zu-machen/8621644.html.

5. www.neues-deutschland.de/artikel/832925.ministerposten-sind-fuer-uns-nicht-entscheidend.html?sstr=kipping.

6. Now available in English at www.die-linke.de/ fileadmin/download/dokumente/englisch_die_ linke_programm_erfurt.pdf.

7. http://marx21.de/content/view/1549/32. For similar illusions closer to home, see the Inter­national Socialist Network’s amendments to the Left Party Platform’s proposals for the founding conference of Left Unity in November, which talk of how parties like Die Linke have, “at their very best”, “shown that anti-capitalist political parties are possible”: http://internationalsocialistnetwork. org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/ left-unity/233-proposed-draft-amendments-to-left-unity-platforms.

8. However, comrade Flakin does not provide a reference for this quote. His article makes some very good points against running a capitalist government, but his call for an active boycott of the elections amounts to rather absurd leftist posturing. See www.klassegegenklasse.org/ klassenkampf-oder-regierungsbeteiligung.

9. A recent Die Linke election poster cries out: ‘Revolution? No, just in touch with the times’ - and then proceeds to list a series of the economic demands I have discussed in this article: www.neues-deutschland.de/weiteres/ fotogalerie/?sid=530#0.