When Left is Right

The Sahra Wagenknecht Experience

It was inevitable that Sahra Wagenknecht ditched Die Linke. From her perspective, she was the only thing keeping the party afloat.

Nationalist socialist. Wagenknecht, 2017.

And since Wagenknecht’s most abiding political principle is “no compromise in defence of Sahra Wagenknecht”,  departing Die Linke’s sinking ship was the most obvious path forward.

Something of the colouration of this new path can be gleaned from the name of the new vehicle meant to travel down it: Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht – Für Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit (Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – For Reason and Justice).

The dash is significant: reason and justice are there, but they’re clearly in second position.

Sometimes musicians will make their own name the band name (Alan Parsons Project, J. Geils Band, etc). This indicates a degree of direction for a creative enterprise and is agreeable in that context.

For a leftist with national ambitions, the associations are somewhat creepier, a feeling slightly alleviated by the likelihood that Wagenknecht will fail.

The response to her move from Germany’s politerati ranged from annoyance to indifference. Wagenknecht’s former colleagues in Die Linke were less than impressed.

Party vice chairman Lorenz Gösta Beutin adverted the fundraising dimension of Wagenknecht’s new enterprise: “The millionaire Wagenknecht founds a party for Wagenknecht in order to collect corporate donations for a Wagenknecht party.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of the SPD was unruffled by developments to their left.

The SPD’s general secretary, Kevin Kühnert, pointed out on RTL/ntv’s Frühstart program that Wagenknecht has never really done anything to positively affect people’s lives, which is not surprising since she is rarely present in the Bundestag.

Regarding what the new party might stand for, Kühnert noted that this was still an open question.

A newly founded political group is always a bit of a “jack of all trades,” and people can see in it many things that they hope for, he said. “But at some point a new party will have to say what it actually stands for, and then things usually become very different.”

This is a point well worth making with respect to Wagenknecht. Her previous foray into the netherworld of left populism was the Aufstehen (Rise) organisation.

Founded in September 2018, it was billed as an attempt to move modern leftist politics closer to the views of the people. In practice, this meant democratic socialist politics alloyed with an uncomfortable measure of xenophobia meant to syphon off support from the likes of AfD.

It didn’t fly. Six months later, in March 2019, Wagenknecht resigned from her leadership position, taking most of her prominent associates. But her attempt to deploy anti-foreigner hysteria failed.

It was always going to be a hard sell, given the degree to which said hysteria is inscribed in the broader narrative of resurgent German nationalism and “the West in peril” type fascist rhetoric.

Many on the left pointed out that this was not an organisation based on an upsurge of widespread interest but a transparent, self-serving attempt by Wagenknecht to boost her profile.

This new vehicle is a similar endeavour, with an even tighter connection to Wagenknecht’s political capital.

The actual direction this new vehicle will travel still needs to be determined. Wagenknecht’s past positions may be some guide, although they are a mish-mash of left and right.

As a rule, the things that tend to follow from invocations of the connection between “reason” and “justice,” when uttered by politicians trying to establish populist cred, tend to lack human decency.

Wagenknecht has not shied away from controversy. The half-Iranian politician publicly described Gaza as “an open-air prison”.

This is a weighty accusation in Germany, where the rehabilitation of the post-Nazi republic is predicated on unflinching and uncritical support for Israel and extreme philosemitism.

On the other hand, Wagenknecht has frequently instrumentalised anti-foreigner sentiment in her attempts to create a left populism by taking away support from the fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

The latter recognises this. A leading figure in the AfD in Brandenburg described Wagenknecht’s new group as “a half-hearted neo-communist experiment” meant “to lure voters”.

Going further along the left-populist path, Wagenknecht has espoused other unappealing views.

In her 2021 book Die Selbstgerechten (The Self-Righteous), she criticised so-called “lifestyle leftists,” by which she meant academics and other educated people obsessed with the environment and trans rights.

While she seemed to have some sympathy for class-oriented politics, she also came out forcefully for a strong national state and against more intensive European integration.

To be fair, Wagenknecht is still a socialist. But what sort of socialism? The kind obsessively focused on questions of the national.

Readers will undoubtedly be able to do the math to add the first term to the second.

Putting aside for a moment Wagenknecht’s personal and political journey, we are left with populism. Specifically, is a left populism possible and if so, is it desirable? If those questions are answered in the affirmative, we might also ask whether it is possible now.

So far as the question of left populism tout court, it is certainly a possibility, at least for some value of the term.

If we take populism to mean a movement of the lower orders against the elites, it fits pretty comfortably in the history of the left. Here, though, the devil is very much in the details.

Masses versus elites is great when it is a matter of the former dehumanising the latter, be it through economic exploitation, patriarchy, or racial hierarchies.

It is less so when the guiding narrative becomes, “They’re poisoning us with vaccines” or “They’re trying to replace us with foreigners.”

Populism exerts a certain degree of fascination on the left, which has been ailing since the 1930s.

There is a natural desire for the mass engagement that leftist organisations could once call forth. This may be a matter of looking better in hindsight.

But it’s a definite improvement on the current situation when half a dozen guys in an apartment in Brooklyn can declare themselves the vanguard of the working class and get taken seriously.

We’re in the grips of The Great Moving Right Show, 21st century edition. Stuart Hall coined this phrase on the cusp of the Thatcher era, whereas now we’re several years into a hegemonic phase of rightwing populism. Still, there are some useful similarities.

Hall argued that the conjuncture that led to the rise of Thatcherism (a term he also claimed to coin) was the need to maintain the structure of British society in the face of the recession at the end of the postwar boom.

Our version of the Moving Right Show arises from an era of slow growth, which has limited the prospects of people in the bottom 70% of the income distribution.

As with Thatcherism, the solution is a political narrative that recasts an economic crisis: the system continues to function because people disadvantaged by it are convinced to vote against their economic interests.

In this context, left populism can seem like an appealing alternative, especially for leftist politicians wishing to emulate the Trumpist, top-down take on the genre.

Sadly, the top down there, which has worked so well for the right, is structurally unsuited for transposition into the politics of the left.

Sahra Wagenknecht’s political stylings make this clear. Populist right narratives bind together nationalist themes with perceived threats from non-whites, educated people, trans people, etc.

The problem is making such prejudices work for the left.

It’s not as if it is impossible to do this. But it is unlikely that this can challenge a rightwing politics that knows what it fights for and loves what it knows.

When populists talk of “reason”, it implies that certain things that seem rational (for example, environmentalism or concern for refugees) are irrational and unappealing to working people.

Given the rightward shift in politics, it is tempting to think that the left can rebuild itself by adopting reactionary grievances. However, the tools of populism fall from a poisoned tree.

Harry Truman once said, “Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time.”

The same holds for leftists who appropriate reactionary politics.

Sahra Wagenknecht may be aiming to fight national populists with their own weapons. Or she may be aiming for personal aggrandisement. Or both.

But it’s unlikely that either will make a difference for anyone except Wagenknecht.

Photograph courtesy of Die Linke. Published under a Creative Commons license.