The choice is not between social movements and workers’ rights. We need both
Updated: Apr 19
The politics of Sahra Wagenknecht revisited
by Phil Butland
In this year’s general election Sahra Wagenknecht will be the #1 candidate (Spitzenkandidatin) for die LINKE in Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW). Sixty-one % of the delegates decided this at a meeting last week-end. Some see Wagenknecht’s candidature as a victory for the left. Others – in particular People of Colour and LGBT people - both inside and outside the party, are not so sure.
I have already written at length about aufstehen – the movement that Wagenknecht launched after she failed to win the party to a position more hostile to refugees. Fortunately, this project was stillborn, and despite all the initial hype it is now largely irrelevant. But Wagenknecht, and her politics, have not gone away.
It’s not just about the elections. This week also saw the release of Wagenknecht's new book “Die Selbstgerechten” (the self-righteous). In case you’re not sure what it's about, the subtitle she writes is “My counter-programme [PB: presumably to the LINKE election manifesto] for community spirit and cohesion”.
The timing cannot be accidental. With her book and her candidature, Wagenknecht is using her celebrity status (she is a regular guest on chat shows) to offer a challenge. Like her earlier positions on refugees – she has not been able to win that challenge at party conferences.
The press reacts
So, what is this challenge? According to Stefan Reinecke in the taz, Wagenknecht argues that: “poisonous neo-liberalism and ostensibly humanitarian left-liberalism are almost the same”. Reinecke goes on to say that “Wagenknecht’s Arcadia is a republic without mosques, gender politics and quotas and it bears strong similarities to the Republic of Germany 50 years ago.”
In der Freitag, Bastian Reichardt remarked that: “One look at Wagenknecht’s books shows that she has both economically and culturally alienated herself from her party”. Reichardt notes that Wagenknecht: "propagates Ordoliberalism a variety of neoliberalism that characterized the post-war German economy.” Reichardt asks “why such an economic programme should be pushed into the centre of a socialist programme?” (italics in the original).
Reichardt notes that “the fact that Wagenknecht has received so much support in a LINKE region like Nordrhein-Westfalen reveals a clear shift to the right in the party. A few years ago the bourgeois press called the Nordrhein-Westfalen region the ‘refuge of madness’”, that is the home of the dangerous radical Left. Yet now, Reichardt thinks this “refuge of madness” could soon becoming “nothing more than an ‘SPD against war’, and would be just as ready to make compromises with the SPD and Greens as the right wing of the party.
Pascal Beucker in the taz reported that “while she pulls her own party to pieces, she testifies for, of all people, the nationalistic and clerical-reactionary orientated Polish governing party PIS, which stand ‘for a courageous social politics which one would wish from social democratic and left parties in Western Europe.’”
Not everyone was critical of Wagenknecht. The AfD in NRW took a brief break from flirting with neo-Nazis to post a tweet saying: “Sahra #Wagenknecht hits the nail on the head. Note: Leftists love their victim status, that they don’t want to give up at any price, because it provides their benefits and audience. Its not about real equal rights but about personal advantage.”
Similarly, in Saxony the AfD produced an election poster: with the text "Sahra is right: limit migration." Local AfD leader Daniel Roi justified the poster, saying Die LINKE in Saxony-Anhalt is fighting an election with Wagenknecht, although her views do not correspond with their programme. They fit better to us."
Response from within the party
Many LINKE members also responded quickly, and I don’t think that its an accident that most of these initial responses came from victims of racism and homophobia. Many were particularly angry with this passage on page 102 of the book:
“Identity politics comes down to focusing attention on an increasingly small and peculiar minority, who find their identity in some sort of fad, by which they differentiate themselves from the main part of society, which leads them to claim that they are a victim. It has not bothered anyone that few poor people or low earners take part in discussions of identity politics. Sexual orientation, skin colour or ethnicity always count against this …
Also religious convictions, as long as they are shared by a minority in the country can make you a victim and therefore unassailable.”
Links*Kanax, the network of party members and sympathisers with a “migration background” issued a statement. This noted that: “2 years ago, we set up our group of a network of migrants in and around die LINKE as a reaction to the anti-migrant positions and the attack on our left-wing party by Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters”
The statement goes on: “She writes that she stands for a left conservatism. Sahra Wagenknecht’s solution for a better society is not a joint struggle against capitalism and its forms of oppression. Instead she propagates a national identity with a Leitkultur to which everyone should integrate. This national society should on the one hand be social for everyone who finds themself in it, and on the other be sealed off from immigration.”
Niema Movassat, the NRW MP who is no longer standing for office this year told the taz that “in her book Wagenknecht attacks any emancipatory movement to which the Left party feels associated. From 'Fridays for Future' via 'Black Lives Matter', the 'Seebrücke alliance' up to the ‘Unteilbar’ demonstrations.” Seebrücke and Unteilbar are both movements which have mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in support of refugees and against racism.
Movassat commented elsewhere: “It makes me shudder. So, Oury Jalloh had a fad when he was murdered by policemen because of his skin colour. Is it a fad when I mention racism? My father, who because of his background could not get a job as a qualified engineer and became a taxi driver and had to muddle through for years … a fad that he must experience? Are experiences of racism or of homo- or transphobia only fads of people, self-chosen victim roles? How can she so disqualify people who experience racism and homo- and transphobia. I am so angry.”
Elif Eralp, member of the Berlin LINKE executive added: “You have written an alternative version to the election programme which has just been decided by the party and to the engagement of thousands of comrades. In your book, you are settling with us all, with die LINKE, with the left in society, and with all people daily exposed to racism, hostility to queers, homophobia and discrimination … according to Sahra Wagenknecht, I and my parents who fled torture and violence are ‘peculiar minorities’ with ‘fads’. That is simply hate and rabble rousing!”
Raul Zelik, member of the national executive of the LINKE summed up Wagenknecht’s book by calling it “a slap in the face…
...for the non-German workers who must work 12 hours a day to make ends meet, as they earn less because of racist migration politics.
… for members of the LINKE who are currently standing every free day in pedestrian precincts to collect signatures for the expropriation of the real estate companies
--- for young climate activists, who get up at dawn to support striking transport workers.
… for health workers at intensive care units, who must pay for what Corona liars, bosses’ organisations and neo-liberals send them.”
Zelik finished his contribution by saying “opportunism is the death of the left”
Even former party leader Bernd Riexinger felt compelled to intervene. Riexinger is a long-standing trade union activist who Wagenknecht casually dismissed as someone “whose name has now been correctly forgotten”. Riexinger posted: “a tip from a former ‘leader of a German left party’: if you stand as a candidate for a party, it must be self-evident that you support and strengthen the basic positions of this party.”
Might Wagenknecht have a point?
Wagenknecht rejected these criticisms, issuing a statement which said “my book is a plea for a strong left and an analysis of the causes why most left and social democratic parties in Europe in recent years have lost their former voters. The transformation of left parties which reach fewer and fewer low earners and disadvantaged people is an undesirable development.”
Should we be so quick to dismiss the whole book as reactionary nonsense? A number of her points do ring true. Yes, working conditions have suffered serious attacks, and yes refugees have been used to undercut wages.
Even here, two points need to be made. Firstly, there is a serious problem with Wagenknecht’s insinuations that the people who gain from low pay for refugees are not the profiteer bosses but the refugees themselves. Secondly, the recent attacks on wages in Germany started under Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green government – long before there was any serious influx of refugees.
Another area where Wagenknecht identifies a potential problem without providing an adequate solution is her attack on so-called “Sternchen politics” – the idea that rather than using traditional masculine words (the English equivalents would be fireman, postman etc.), a * (Sternchen) should be used to show that women can also take these roles.
Wagenknecht is right that adding Sternchen will not rid the world of sexism, and that this sort of politics is particularly popular among a middle-class academic milieu. But rather than proposing concrete fights that we can win, she portrays the people fighting sexist language as being part of the problem.
The truth is, that our side has suffered a number of recent defeats, and the fight for anti-sexist language is at least a winnable progressive demand. Surely it is a good thing to ensure that racists and sexists understand that many of their opinions are not acceptable in a pluralist society. Yet Wagenknecht counterposes these small but palpable gains with a theoretical radicalism that has no basis in the current political reality.
Even Wagenknecht’s apparent celebration of the PiS and far right parties is not as simple as some of her critics imply. On page 177 of the book, she argues the following:
“if a right wing party demands better social safeguards and abandoning economic liberalism, as Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, or if they have already implemented social programmes like the PiS in Poland … the right wing will receive more votes, particularly from the disadvantaged, the workers and the lower middle who are threatened with things getting worse.”
We should not deny that the PiS has gained support for their reactionary programme in Poland partly because they have also delivered real reforms. In Northern France, 'Rassemblement National' (formerly the Front National) do pose as the champions of deindustrialized ex-workers. The Left should take these developments seriously. The question is: what conclusions should we draw?
Wagenknecht's concentration on populism means that even though she does not directly suggest that the German Left emulate the PiS, she is unable to suggest a serious class-based alternative to capitalist exploitation. This leaves her open to populist solutions like those provided by the PiS, Rassemblement National and even the AfD.
Wagenknecht makes some decent points about what she calls the “re-feudalisation” of society, and yet her solution is to appeal to a “people” rather than a “class”. We have seen this before. Her previous book “Prosperity without greed” contains a chapter titled “why genuine entrepreneurs do not need capitalism.” If you see entrepreneurs as potential allies, it is not surprising that your vision for changing the world is a little askew.
Saving the planet – another fad?
Left-wing politics is not just about identifying the problems in society, but in seeing the people who have the power to change things. As an unreconstructed Marxist, my orientation is on the working class. Not just because workers suffer from capitalism, but because through strike action, we have the power to stop capitalism in its tracks, and to build the unity which overcomes the divisions sown by our exploiters.
Wagenknecht in her own way also orientates on the working class, but she has a fundamentally different interpretation of who comprises this class. Reading Wagenknecht write about workers, you feel she has a vision of an exclusive group of middle aged white heterosexual men who are resistant to any form of social change.
With one exception (which we will come to later) Wagenknecht always seems to describe social movements as being in opposition to workers. So, for example, on page 32 she notes that “at the end of 2019 young people from Fridays for Future travelled to Lausitz and made demands for an immediate withdrawal from coal confronting around 1000 residents... whose social existence depends on coal mining, and were purposefully identified by activists as coal-Nazis.”
To a degree, Wagenknecht does acknowledge some cooperation between Fridays for Future and trade unions. On page 34 she says “there are climate activists who have also stood up for social issues and supported bus drivers in their fight for higher pay.” But, she insists, “these actions are unfortunately not typical for the movement.”
Little mention is made of the fact that many workers in the unsafe and environmentally damaging coal industry would prefer to have other options. Despite any initial suspicions, trade unions and environmentalists have a common interest in uniting against a capitalist system which is damaging both our planet AND our working conditions.
If environmentalists and trade unionists are currently divided, a left wing answer would be to try to bring the two movements together – to encourage environmental activists to generalise and unite with workers. This is indeed what Fridays for Future – and in particular LINKE activists inside the movement – are currently doing. And only last week, the German trade union federation, the DGB published a paper examining how trade unions and environmental activists can work together.
Yet Wagenknecht appears unable to conceive of this happening. Looking at the way that she dismisses the environmental movement, it is unclear whether she would even see this as being a good thing.
Black Lives Matter – but how much?
Wagenknecht’s lack of solidarity with most social movements is even more clear in relation to Black Lives Matter. On page 115 she approvingly cites the US-American political scientist Mark Lilla when he said “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of creating no solidarity”. Lilla elsewhere argues “we need no more marchers. We need more mayors“– an idea of change only coming from above which is often reflected in Wagenknecht’s stances.
On page 22, Wagenknecht analyses the development of BLM after the police murder of George Floyd: “in Europe, Black Lives Matter activists now also began to dismantle the statues of slave traders from the colonial time. They did this with zeal and conviction, as if this was the key to escape the modern slavery of bullshit jobs, humiliation and poverty.”
Once more she seems to make a distinction between ordinary workers and dilettante middle class Black Lives Matters activists. And yet the BLM demonstrations in Berlin last year were dominated by working class people. Normally when you get the U-Bahn to a demo from the working class district of Wedding you see a couple of familiar faces from the left scene and that’s it. That day, the train was full – largely of young Black girls. From other reports that I’ve read, this experience was repeated throughout the world.
Wagenknecht’s statements on Black Lives Matter are made more problematic by a long-standing mistrust shown by Black activists about her positions on race and racism – Jacinta Nandi, for example, accuses her of “victim blaming oppressor off-hooking bollocks”. In 2017, an open letter was issued accusing her of racism. Thomas Seibert explained why he signed it, saying “Wagenknecht deliberately amplifies the mood in which the dismantling of the rights of non-German people is pursued.”
The aforementioned statement by Links*Kanax explores the ideological background to Wagenknecht’s ideology: “her ideas are not particularly new. She rejects genealogical racism, but practises a cultural racism à la Huntington’s ‘Clash of Cultures’. This implies an anti-materialist interpretation from her that its not capitalist relations that exclude people, but the marginalized themselves, who isolate themselves and live in “parallel worlds”.
I could go on, but will leave it here for the moment. If you really want to pursue the argument, I wrote much more about the racist implications of Wagenknecht’s politics in my earlier article about the formation of aufstehen.
A movement worth supporting? Wagenknecht, the Yellow Vests and the Querdenker
There is one movement (and only one as far as I can tell) that is unscathed from Wagenknecht’s ire. On pp36-37, she devotes a section to the French “Yellow Vests”.
She argues: “unlike the demos of the Lifestyle Left the Yellow Vests put social issues in the foreground – initially the withdrawal of the petrol price increase introduced by Macron and then a general improvement of living conditions”. As if the “Lifestyle Left’s” demands for a sustainable environment and an end to the police killing black people would not consist an improvement of living conditions.
Wagenknecht notes approvingly that “the yellow vests considered themselves neither right nor left. This was above all because they associated the label ‘left’ with the Lifestyle left. As the Yellow Vests courageously ignored the left-liberal world view they were immediately suspected – in particular from German Lifestyle lefts – of extreme right wing sympathies."
Could I just pause for a moment to note that although there was an attempt by fans of Marine Le Pen to take over the Yellow Vest movement, they were quickly rejected – and that the German left media regularly reported on the Yellow Vests’ outstanding resistance to Macron – not least in the reports from Paris that John Mullen wrote for theleftberlin website.
This is, however, secondary to the next pernicious step that Wagenknecht makes, eliding the French Yellow Vest movement with the much more dubious Querdenken movement in Germany. Immediately after berating the German Left for dismissing the Yellow Vests as Nazis, Wagenknecht writes the following:
“Also during the large anti-Corona demonstrations, for example in August 2020 in Berlin, the executive of the same party saw only ‘conspiracy theorists’ and ‘Nazis’ on the streets although anyone who saw the pictures of these rallies impartially could not overlook the large number of relatively unpolitical but dissatisfied ordinary citizens.”
At the time, the criticism from the left was never that everyone on the demonstration was a Nazi, but that Nazis were invited to march (and sometimes to address rallies). This meant that everyone on the demos was clearly and consciously marching alongside Nazis – the same Nazis who would later storm parliament with right wing banners, after being invited by the AfD.
As Niema Movassat notes: “the demonstrators, who Sahra doesn’t want to be describe as Nazis are the people who tried to storm the German Bundestag”
How do ideas change?
Non-Germans regularly ask me 2 questions about Wagenknecht: “does she really believe what she’s saying?” and “is she a racist?” The questions are related, as some of her utterances are indeed pretty racist. It can be therefore more convenient to think that she’s playing a trick – appealing to racist prejudices just as a means of winning votes.
I do believe that Wagenknecht is genuinely shocked when people accuse her of racism, but her world view is trapped inside a white German Leitkultur that is itself intrinsically racist. Like a good Marxist scholar, she looks to the working class, but she only understands a working class which is not just white and male but also irrevocably racist and homophobic. This has little to do with the real existing working class in Germany in 2021.
And yet, there is a small grain of truth in Wagenknecht’s assumptions. Leandros Fischer writes:
“Neil Davidson wrote of how the identity of male white workers under Keynesianism was tied to forms of racialized white identity formed in opposition to the unskilled Gastarbeiter, Punjabi or Caribbean worker. This was most accentuated in Germany owing to the more generous welfare state, the ideology that ‘Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland’, the prevailing victim mentality post-1945 of German being ‘divided people’ etc.
This feeling must have been particularly strong among those 'unrepentant communists' from the GDR like Wagenknecht after reunification. I see Wagenknecht's rants as the confluence of leading an electoralist party, which is stagnating amidst a crisis characterized by trade union complacency and German hegemony within Europe. She consciously seeks out fragments from another era, in this case Keynesianism, hoping to weaponise them as tools of opposition.“
Whether or not most white German workers are racist, Wagenknecht appears to have no conception of the Marxist understanding of how ideas change in struggle. As Marx and Engels argue in the German Ideology:
“the alteration of people on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.“
In other words, most of us, for most of the time, carry the burden of defeat. We do not believe that change is possible, and some of us use that pessimism to blame other people and ethnic groups. But the alienation that causes such reactionary ideas is challenged by the emergence of vibrant movements like Fridays for Future, Black Lives Matter which bring us together and show that both unity and change are indeed possible.
1968 – a movement of prosperous dilettantes?
Another such exemplary movement is that of 1968. which Wagenknecht also dismisses in her book as “a movement primarily led by prosperous children of the middle class and upper middle class” (p297). Although she concedes that some of the radical students came from working-class families, she believes that the movement as a whole was divorced from the working class:
“The spokesmen of the 68-movement were however children of the prosperous middle classes, who were culturally protesting against their parents’ generation. Many came from the bourgeoisie, in which the rejection of “suburban narrow-mindedness” and the “provincial values” had a tradition of separating themselves from those below and was in no sense an expression of a rebellion in the name of the oppressed.” (p96)
In truth, the 68 movement was in part the result of the proletarianisation of higher education. Until the 1950s, universities in most country were exclusively institutions for the sons and some daughters of the rich. For example, only around 2% of the German population went to university. Increased access to education for working class people contributed towards the radicalisation of the late 1960s.
This is partly why the 1968 movement did not just fight oppression, giving birth to the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements. It also developed an organic link with working class struggle. In May 1968, students rioted alongside young workers on Paris’s Night of the Barricades, precipitating the largest strike in world history – when 10 million workers struck the following week.
This was not just a French phenomenon. In Germany, many of the wildcat strikes of 1969 were led by Gastarbeiter. This was the moment in which the German student movement abandoned its Adorno-inspired “reflective” outlook at this point, and to relate to real-existing struggles that Critical Theory thought belonged to another time.
In his book The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Chris Harman comments on the aftermath of 1968 in Great Britain:
“This began with a revolt against wage controls in 1969, suffered a lull after the defeat of the postal workers’ strike early in 1971, then revived with a vengeance that summer when shipbuilding workers on the Clyde ‘worked in’ in opposition to a scheme close the shipyards with large scale redundancies. In 1972 there was a wave of factory occupations, the first national miners’ strike for 46 years, and national strikes by builders and dockers, while 1973 saw the first ever industrial action by civil servants and hospital workers."
According to Harman, "the climax came in the winter of 1973-74.” with a miners’ strike which brought down the Tory government (Herman, The Fire Last Time p223).
Later in his book, Harman talks about the gains made by workers across Europe in the aftermath of the student protests:
“the wage increases granted in May and June 1968 in France, the concessions made by the newly elected Labour government to the miners and others in Britain in 1974, the 30 percent increase in the minimum wage in Portugal in the same year, the grant of automatic cost of living increases in Italy in 1975” (Harman op cit, p352).
The 1968 movement proves above all else that social movements and workplace activism belong together, reinforce each other, and should not be played off against each other.
Whither die LINKE?
The selection of Wagenknecht as electoral candidate is a significant step backwards. It has been estimated that in the few days following the vote, 50 people left die LINKE in NRW, with 20 of these clearly saying that they left the party because of Wagenknecht’s election. I have had several discussions with friends – mainly Black people or those with Black children – who have said that they can no longer vote for this LINKE.
For others, a LINKE with Wagenknecht has not been attractive for some time. This comment is typical: “I dropped out years ago, because of her vile "Gastrecht" talk … she accords as much blame to left liberals as to the right for the desolate state of society. And maybe [you should] put more emphasis that her market capitalist vision is inherently nationalist, violating the left principle of internationalism and international solidarity.”
I also feel this pain, but would like to emphasize what die LINKE is and what it isn’t. Die LINKE started as a compromise. It was an attempt to build a Left political opposition to the Red-Green government which bombed Yugoslavia and brought in the Hartz IV “reforms”. It was never meant to be a small sect, ineffectually planning the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but a mass organisation which unites the best militants who organise social and workplace struggles.
Such an organisation is always going to contain tensions between those who believe that all we need is a left hand on the tiller of capitalism and those who want to sink the whole bloody ship. Indeed many of Wagenknecht’s beliefs in change from above are shared by prominent people on all wings of the party. But the party also contains many others who are central to social movements which are actively fighting for social change.
Politics from below
Wagenknecht’s belief that change can only come from above is not new and not confined to Germany. Her appeal to crude nationalism based on her belief that workers are necessarily nationalist and racist is not radically different to the flag-shagging of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in Britain, or the French social democrats who believed that the nascent fascists of the Front National (FN) could be countered by repeating their racism.
But, as FN leader of the time Jean Marie Le Pen said “people prefer the original to the copy”. Adopting right wing racism ultimately means making these ideas socially acceptable and enabling their main propagators. Racism is not fought with concessions but by challenging every instance in which it appears. Movements are built by uniting people in a common struggle not in pandering to the prejudices of the most reactionary part of the class.
Sahra Wagenknecht’s “old woman shouting at clouds” act does not represent the whole of the Left, or die LINKE. It most certainly does not reflect our potential. I don’t think that Wagenknecht belongs in the party, certainly not as Spitzenkandidatin, but there is much more to die LINKE than just her.
Having said all this, Wagenknecht does seem to be on a mission to liquidate the left within die LINKE and to regroup the party on a nationalist basis. Precisely because of her capital both as a (former) radical and a regular talk-show guest, she is winning support from some people who should know better. These people may distrust her politics, but see her as “the only face that wins elections.”
And yet it is not clear that her strategy will result in more votes. And even if it does, are the votes worth the wholesale abandonment of our principles? We are better than that.
As they said on the Parisian barricades, La Lutte continue.
Many thanks to Chris Cheeseman, Leandros Fischer, Georgina Darcy and Hari Kumar for their comments on an early version of this article