Germany’s Left Party convulsed by effort to expel internal critic

Sahra Wagenknecht’s criticism of left-wing politics has triggered a bitter debate

Sahra Wagenknecht argues that German left-wing politics has been co-opted by a middle-class academic elite. Photograph: Peter Niedung/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sahra Wagenknecht argues that German left-wing politics has been co-opted by a middle-class academic elite. Photograph: Peter Niedung/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

If there was a competition for Germany’s most contrary politician, Sahra Wagenknecht would easily make the final round – and possibly take the top prize.

After a lively 30-year career, however, she faces expulsion from her political home, the Left Party, over her claims in a new book that it – and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) – are betraying their traditional voters.

The Holier-Than-Thous argues that German left-wing politics has been co-opted by a middle-class academic elite which has little interest in the concerns of today’s working class, from precarious labour contracts to a growing housing crisis.

Behind their professions of solidarity, she sees an evangelical obsession with identity politics, political correctness and the welfare of minority groups – and a rabid intolerance of those who see things differently.

”An important claim of liberalism is tolerance . . . while the left understood itself as engaging for those who have it harder in life,” she writes. “But many people the ‘left’ label no longer stands for the pursuit of social justice but for aloof academic debates that bypass people’s needs.”

In her analysis, Germany started on its downward slope during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, gathered speed in the climate debate and, with the pandemic, has reached a political nadir.

What unites all three debates, she suggests, is a reflex in Germany’s media and political classes to negate critics of mainstream positions rather than engage with – and challenge constructively – their concerns.

She attributes some of this aggressive atmosphere to the rise of Trump-era populism, but says his new far-right has found an unlikely ally in the new left-liberal milieu. Together, she argues, these two camps “need each other, amplify each other and live off each other” with a shared love of “emotionalised outrage rituals, moralised defamation and open hatred” of those who think differently.

Cancel culture

The book picks up on the international debate on so-called cancel culture and a recent survey in which 44 per cent of Germans – the highest number ever – said they feel unable to express their views in public, particularly on immigration.

Her warning, that the Left Party is heading towards self-imposed extinction, hung over election night earlier this month in Saxony-Anhalt.

The eastern state was once a Left Party stronghold but this time around it secured just 11 per cent backing, with the SPD faring even worse on 8.4 per cent. Meanwhile, more than a fifth of voters backed the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), making it the second most popular party.

While her party struggles for survival ahead of September’s federal poll, Wagenknecht was nominated with two-thirds support of constituency party members as their Bundestag candidate.

Among her loudest critics is Left Party co-leader Susanne Hennig-Wellsow. She accuses Wagenknecht of left-wing populism and of causing “huge damage” to the party’s efforts for a more progressive, emancipatory leftist politics that embraces feminist, queer and migrant concerns.

But not even the Left Party’s own Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is convinced, warning that this political focus has resulted in an “inability to hold voters, leading to former voters orienting themselves in new, colourful ways”.

Sensing growing divisions, and an upcoming election disaster, Hennig-Wellsow has attacked the push inside the party to expel Wagenknecht as “counterproductive”.

What Wagenknecht’s rivals hoped would be an open-and-shut case against her has been complicated by her top spot in the non-fiction chart – and rave reviews. The liberal Zeit weekly, in a deliberate nod to her party critics, noted: “Wagenknecht doesn’t push emotional buttons, she argues and analyses.”

The Süddeutsche daily said the book was “convincing . . . not as a counter-programme to the Left Party’s election manifesto but to a left-wing politics she thinks is wrong”.

Even the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) daily called the book “spectacular”. A century after Germany’s left lost its voters to far-right fascism, with catastrophic results for Europe and the world, the FAZ urged Wagenknecht’s party to heed her warnings.

Rather than shoot the messenger, it urged a radical rethink of 21st century left-wing politics “in the interests of the lower social half of the population in Germany”.

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