revolutionary reflections | The Crisis in German Politics and the Rise of the Radical Right


2016 has been a year in which right – wing and authoritarian agendas have been in the ascendant. With the French and German elections next year we will see if this trend continues. By focusing on the case of Germany, Adam Blanden puts forward an argument for the left to counter-pose the right with a reinvigorated popular democracy.


Europe has been hobbled for half a decade by an unprecedented crisis in its economic and political structures. The European Union has hollowed out democracy while the economics of financialisation have left it deeply vulnerable to crisis. In Europe’s most powerful state, Germany, a party of the populist right, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has unexpectedly taken advantage of the crisis in the country’s ruling institutions. Across the continent parties similar to the AfD are promising national sovereignty as a salve to global disorder. Meanwhile, the left has largely stagnated, ill-equipped to provide persuasive answers to the crisis or to fight the populist right electorally. The likes of AfD were created by the crisis, but only the left can defeat them. Its strategy must neutralise right-wing nationalism by promising people renewed dignity through participation in democratic movements. To the right’s promise of national sovereignty we must respond with a promise of democracy and dignity through shared struggle. This article will first concentrate on the structural weaknesses of Germany’s largest left-wing party , Die Linke, before analysing the recent successes of AfD. It then proposes a way for the left to beat the populist right through a specifically leftist notion of popular democracy. Though it focuses on one country in particular, the situation in Germany resonates with politics across the continent. The left has a historic responsibility to rise to the present challenge.

Liberal opinion has always held that the radical left and the radical right are two sides of the same coin, the better to dismiss both. The discourse of a stunned mainstream liberalism in the midst of the sudden rise of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been no exception. As one political correspondent put it in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the ‘far right’ and ‘the far left’ form a dangerous, unspoken partnership in which a suspicion of post-national politics and the need for homeland and security are a secretly shared currency. As with all mystifications there is a kernel of truth to this. Both the radical left and the radical right seek to break definitively with the crisis-addled political structures of neoliberalism. But they do so in divergent ways. While the right has sought to revive nationalism, closed borders, and in some cases elements of corporatism, the left broadly seeks greater social justice and the deepening of democracy. The new European populist right – from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy to Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) – have often arisen where the left is stagnating or has disappeared as a functioning entity. Though the crisis is what has fuelled the populist right’s rise, the left’s relative weakness has left the way open for them.

The task of differentiating the left from the right is urgent. In my view this cannot be done by occupying the right’s turf on national sovereignty, but rather by a simple promise of democracy. Yet some on the left have failed, through a combination of strategic blindness and gross opportunism, to make the distinction clear. In a ham-fisted intervention aimed at regaining ground lost to the AfD, Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke’s parliamentary leader, has called Angela Merkel’s refugee policy (Flüchtlingspolitik) ‘frivolous’ (leichtfertig) and argued that German people are entitled to  ‘feel secure’ in their country. This is a far from isolated instance of supposed  ‘pragmatism’ by Die Linke. While the party’s line remains officially one of open borders, there have been numerous attempts to alter the party’s strategy since the early optimism of Merkel’s Wilkommenskultur began to fray. When in a joint interview with AfD’s chairperson Frauke Petry, Wagenknecht made supposedly pragmatic criticisms of Merkel’s refugee policy and insisted that help be given to people in their country of origin, Petry was  ‘jubilant’:  ‘You have referred precisely to the AfD’s position.’

Die Linke has good reason to fear AfD. The latter has won a string of impressive state-level election results this year, from the prosperous, traditionally centre-right Baden-Wurttemberg where it came third to the poorer eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where it came second. It is mostly in the eastern states of the former German Democratic Republic (DDR), where Die Linke is most electorally successful and best organised, that AfD poses a significant threat. According to Der Spiegel AfD increased turnout in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election by ten percent, mobilising 56,000 former non-voters and winning 18,000 voters from Die Linke into the bargain. The immediate threat AfD poses to Die Linke in terms of voters should not be overstated. Rather it is AfD’s medium-term effect on the political landscape which is most dangerous for the left. The Der Spiegel article went on to suggest that most AfD voters had chosen the new party as a protest against the establishment rather than on explicitly racist grounds. AfD is becoming the natural home of disgruntled voters while Die Linke is stagnating.

Although Die Linke must find an adequate response to AfD, it is neither to be found in a discovery of concepts such as Heimat (homeland) nor simply in a more committed insistence on its traditional theme of social justice (soziale Gerechtigkeit). Rather, in this piece the argument is put forward that the threat of the populist right can only be beaten by a properly left-wing conception of democracy.

Germany’s Reluctant Hegemony and the European Crisis

The German state is the single most powerful political and economic force in Europe. Its quality-driven export industries guarantee billowing trade surpluses; its acquiescent trade unions help suppress wage growth; its low inflation model allows it to accrue ever-greater competitive advantages over its so called European partners; the historically weak euro strengthens Germany’s export position in the world at large whilst ensuring it dominates smaller import-driven economies within the Eurozone. In the age of punitive austerity and fiscal retrenchment, the German elite calls all the shots. Yet the country’s hand can sometimes be overstated. It is largely the weakness of its European partners that keeps the historically cautious and conservative German establishment in position as the continent’s dominant force. Despite this dominance all is not well for Europe’s ‘reluctant hegemon.

Germany’s high politics reflects this status of reluctant hegemony. Consensus-seeking politicians in both major parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the smaller Social Democratic Party (SPD) – have lasted since 2013 in an amicable coalition of centre-left and centre-right. Even before their current partnership the two parties regularly traded pole position, taking turns to hasten the internationalisation of German capital and with it the top-down restructuring of Germany’s labour market and welfare system. Meanwhile, on the international stage, Germany has continued to perceive its national self-interest as ‘becoming part of a larger European entity,’ in the words of the eminent sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. Yet even as German elites attempted to submerge themselves within Europe, they were thrust into an ever more dominant political role over Europe. As Streeck again observes, this has led to a silent assumption on the part of German elites that their interest must be identical with that of Europe as a whole. One might add the German working class into this mix, who have suffered decades of stagnant wages and rising inequality in the quest to keep German export manufacturers competitive. German predominance in Europe has come at the cost of its domestic politics, with both the SPD and the CDU losing support to newer formations – most recently a dynamic populist right in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland.

Angela Merkel once claimed that,  ‘If the euro fails, then Europe fails.’ This identification of the monetary union with the fate of Europe itself has been shared not only by the various national elites of the European Union but all too often the European left. As the economists Costas Lapavitsas and Heiner Flassbeck have pointed out, the euro is a monetary weapon for enforcing fiscal discipline. New forms of national conflict have been produced by the very European institutions which were supposed to overcome them. As a direct result of the neoliberal, authoritarian reorientation of European economies, enshrined in the treaties which make up the legal space of European integration, eurosceptic nationalism has emerged as a powerful force in practically all EU countries. As national elites have grown more distant from popular life and the state has become increasingly privatised and punitive, the whole spectrum of the far right has benefited immeasurably. In the 2014 elections to the European Parliament far right parties took over 22 percent of the vote. These are parties which have developed in the cracks of the state, feeding on disillusionment and infiltrating partially-privatised, corrupt institutions. With a few temporary exceptions, the left has stagnated.

The formation of Die Linke and its limits

Die Linke has been one of the largest and most stable parties on the European left since its formation in 2007. It currently holds the highest number of seats among the left-wing cohort in the European Parliament and is a highly competitive force in domestic German politics. What’s more its highly-active thinktank the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung produces some of the leading social and political analysis in the world. Yet its weaknesses have become increasingly pronounced since its early electoral successes.

Die Linke was formed in 2007 when the ex-Communist East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the ex-SPD West German Labour and Social JusticeThe Electoral Alternative unified as a single party. The latter were radical social democrats who had left the then-ruling SPD in defiance of Gerhard Schröder’s neoliberal Hartz IV reforms, while the former were increasingly West-oriented ex-communists in search of a parliamentary way forward for the socialist left. By 2009 the party had 78,000 members and scored 11.9 percent in federal elections. The resulting political formation was strongly defensive of the embattled German welfare state, resolutely environmentalist, feminist and anti-racist, broadly pro-European and keen to engage with social movements outside of the state. As the preamble to the party’s platform says,  ‘We will work with unions and movements to find alternative solutions and social alternatives.’ 

This coalition between left social democrats, euro-communists, ex-communists and alter-globalisation activists also characterised the other leading light of the European left, Greece’s SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), and the two share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. Die Linke combines a healthy commitment to social movementism with a rather more conventional parliamentary approach. As Dominic Heilig puts it in an analysis of Europe’s radical left for the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung,  ‘Hardly any political tendency [within Die Linke] rejects government participation. Instead, the subject of discussion is the conditions under which Die Linke is prepared to accept government participation.’ There is much talk of transforming a reified thing called  ‘society’ via the combined efforts of political party and broader social movements. The Party’s Co-Chair Katja Kipping is an experienced social activist and has spoken eloquently of how parties and movements must creatively interact.

What remains under-theorised is the precise role of the Party in mediating between the anti-democratic and authoritarian power of the state and the movements in society. There is little talk of the role of the state as such in structuring social relations, producing particular forms of political representation and carefully circumscribing the field of political action. Thus, welfare can be defended at the state and federal level, but the room for expansion of existing welfare programmes via this route is exceedingly narrow. Both Kipping and her co-chair Bernd Reixinger talk extensively of social justice and very little of building democratic resistance in a neoliberal state context. Although there is ample talk of democracy in the party’s preamble, there is little of substance on how to build it through interventions in state government.

Die Linke is similarly reluctant to break with the European Union, despite powerful interventions by luminaries such as Oskar Lafontaine. This weakness is partly ideological, based on the idealistic view of Europe as a force for limiting global war. However, it is also connected to Die Linke’s inability to deal with the problem of democracy in neoliberalised states and transnational institutions. While Die Linke’s parliamentary group leader, Sahra Wagenknecht, has referred to current monetary arrangements as  ‘a Europe-wide abolition of democracy’ and called for  ‘a different finance and monetary union’, there is little sense that Die Linke as a whole has internalised these problems and produced a strategy adequate to them.

Die Linke’s conventional parliamentarism has sometimes led to a failure to use state power for creative, strategic ends when actually in government. This can be seen at the regional level where Die Linke governs in a so-called ‘rot-rot-grün’ (SPD-Linke-Green) coalition in Thuringia, with Bodo Ramelow as minister president. In opposition Ramelow had opposed deportations of migrants and refugees, but after being elected Ramelow allowed the deportations to continue on the grounds of political pragmatism.  ‘There won’t be a blanket ban on deportations,’ he admitted. Ramelow’s position was extremely uncertain: one dissenting voter was enough to lose the coalition its majority in the state parliament. Yet it begs the question at what point the termination of government becomes a strategic form of resistance to racist state institutions and the complicity of establishment parties. Such an attitude would fly in the face of the consensus-seeking habits of politics in the German Rechtstaat, but would at the same time help Die Linke distinguish itself as a principled alternative to the systemic parties of neoliberalism. The left in government in the context of a neoliberal state apparatus must be an experiment in fostering popular democratic participation in otherwise distant state institutions or it will fail. 

Occasionally Die Linke’s conventional parliamentarism has resulted in damaging opportunism. In the midst of the refugee crisis earlier this year Die Linke’s parliamentary leader Sahra Wagenknecht claimed that she did not want the poor to pay for refugees and that in the face of a housing shortage the fear of mass immigration is not irrational. Lafontaine has also proposed an  ‘upper-limit’ (Obergrenze) on migration in the face of Merkel’s increasingly unpopular Flüchtlingspolitik (refugee policy). These efforts at triangulation are tragic missed opportunities to oppose the foreign policies which drive refugee crises and to critique the growing authoritarianism of domestic state power. Meanwhile, the party’s former leader in the Bundestag Gregor Gysi called for consideration of a grand coalition of the left and the centre-right against the hard-right in the form of AfD. Gysi’s narrow parliamentarism would lock Die Linke into minority status within an austerian, neoliberal and authoritarian government committed to the very policies which have helped drive support for AfD in the first place. Even worse it would put Die Linke in the position of  ‘kingmakers’ in an increasingly discredited, anti-democratic parliamentary system. The party’s conventional parliamentarism risks turning it into the ultimate ‘insider’ party.

‘It is only democracy if it applies to all,’ Kipping and Reixinger have written. Yet in their political vocabulary democracy occupies second place to the struggle for social justice (soziale Gerechtigkeit). The European left will only succeed when democratic participation is understood as the precondition for realising social justice. A programme of state socialism from above cannot succeed on its own. A party which seeks to govern on even a modest leftist platform must defy neoliberal state structures and carve out ways for the public at large to participate in political processes. Of course, the left will often participate in coalition governments, and those governments will almost certainly challenge the principles of the left. The question of when to withdraw from participation in a governing coalition is as important as when to participate in one in the first place.

Specific conditions allowed for the formation and initial success of Die Linke. The historic restructuring of German capital under successive governments of the centre-right and centre-left had significantly altered the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of capital. More specifically, in developing Germany’s neo-mercantilist position in the world (in which wealth is seen as coming from abroad), the German governing elite significantly reduced domestic consumption, deepening trade imbalances across Europe and depriving the German working class of rising incomes. German elites have increasingly privileged the demands of capital in general and of big German banks and exporters in particular over democracy itself. The internationalisation and financialisation of German capital flows (flows which emanate in part from the money hoards accrued by Germany’s exporters) have resulted in the breakdown of the post-war social settlement. Stagnating incomes and the retreat of elites from domestic politics have resulted in deep social resentment. The political symptom of these processes is the hollowing out of support for the traditional parties. Die Linke was formed in the historically unprecedented circumstances of radical social democrats abandoning the established party of social democracy and joining up with the democratic, parliamentary-oriented radical left. The political forces behind the growth of SYRIZA in Greece and the Front de gauche in France have been similar if not the same.

The politics of the Die Linke coalition, therefore, have been broadly defensive of existing state welfare structures, even seeking to advance or transform these welfare arrangements via existing state institutions. Similarly, its attitude to the European Union has been one of transformation from within, using existing European institutions in a broadly conventional way in the hope of realizing radical ends. Die Linke’s key weakness has been to neglect the anti-democratic nature of state institutions in the neoliberal era. No doubt Die Linke is cognisant of these anti-democratic tendencies, hence the emphasis the party places on promoting social movements. But there is something missing: a strategy for bringing the demands of social movements with the Party into government in order to challenge and overturn the neoliberal structures of the state.

Die Linke’s foundational promise has become its internal barrier. Its politics of engaging with the state in order to implement redistributive policies have been unable to confront the key question of left politics today: that is, how to build democratic, participatory processes into state institutions which are violently resistant to democracy. Die Linke has provided inadequate answers to the specifically political aspects of the European crisis – that is, the crisis of a specific kind of neoliberal governance. It was the crisis that created populist right parties like AfD. But the left has too often proved itself incapable of addressing the crisis of politics and the erosion of democracy. The inadequacies of the left have helped the growth of populist right parties with their authoritarian, nationalist solutions to the political crisis.

AfD and the Rise of the Populist Right

One way to understand the political role of the ‘populist’ right in European societies is as mediator between the  ‘soft’ mainstream right and the  ‘hard’ or extreme right proper. The term populist is used here as a simple catch-all to describe relatively new or re-formed insurgent political formations of the right, in full knowledge of the term’s deeply problematic character. As Michael Löwy has observed neoliberal ideology employs the term populism in a mystifying fashion, in order to paint the radical Right and the radical Left as equivalent. Despite the Left’s occasional embrace of the concept of  ‘populism’ – either as a tool of analysis or for its own political ends – caution is needed when deploying it across national contexts. Nevertheless these new and reformed parties of the European right – from the Front National to AfD itself – discursively pit an organic and homogeneous people against a liberal, left-leaning elite. This elite is supposed to have a clientelistic relationship to subversive minorities, usually racialised and/or dependent on state welfare. This unifying tendency among the parties in question is enough to merit tentative use of the term in a narrowly descriptive sense.

Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland is by no means a pioneer in this regard, but the story of its origin in well-to-do bourgeois German circles is nevertheless instructive for the left. The AfD was formed in 2013 by a number of eurosceptic establishment economists who had become increasingly critical of European integration since the onset of the Eurozone crisis in 2010-11. The intellectual establishment of German economics tends to be moderately, though sincerely conservative. Its leading lights, such as Hans Werner Sinn, tend to be sceptical of grand schemes designed to prevent the clearing of debt markets at their natural prices. This ordoliberal tradition in German economics predates the Second World War and the Great Depression, but those two experiences certainly helped shape its allergy to inflation and its dislike of so-called  ‘political’ interference with markets. Its concept of the social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtschaft), which has dominated German economic policy since the post-war era, stresses the need for a free market system underwritten by clear contractual relations, an even-handed state, and the careful allocation of welfare rights. The social values that accompany such a settlement are basically conservative, built around support for hetero, nuclear families, male breadwinners, and an obedient working class which is formally incorporated by trade union agreement into the social settlement.

This legacy has allowed AfD to consistently position itself not as an insurgency within German society, but as a return to type – indeed not as the radical right but as ‘the centre‘ of German politics. The early single-issue euroscepticism of the party chimed with deep mistrust of politicised meddling in markets, a mistrust which for a long time characterised the intellectual culture of Germany’s Bundesbank. This intellectual conservatism emerged as a driving force of academic euroscepticism in the wake of the Eurozone crisis. In 2012 the influential president of the Institute for Economic Research, Hans Werner Sinn, published an open letter in the German media, which criticised the European Central Bank for buying up EU member states’ public debt during the eurocrisis. Among the many co-signers was then-professor of macroeconomics at Hamburg, Bernd Lucke. Months later Lucke would co-found first the Wahlalternative 2013 (Electoral Alternative 2013) and then the Alternative für Deutschland. AfD’s founders and many of its leading figures are organic members of Germany’s traditional conservative voting bloc, including salaried professionals and conservative intellectuals. At one time it was known as the Professorenpartei – the party of professors.

Lucke’s AfD took these growing concerns about Germany’s – and the euro’s – economic stability and conjugated them with the traditional social preoccupations of the conservative middle classes. When in an interview with Lucke leading conservative paper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung accused AfD of being a mere single-issue party, Lucke responded by stressing his conventional conservative credentials: AfD was dedicated to resolving ‘the crisis of our social security system, the sorry state of our education and family policy, the demand for orderly immigration’ and so on. AfD’s early appeal was sufficiently broad to win it 4.7percent of the vote in the 2013 federal election. Success bred success, as right-wing voters flocked to the Party and at the 2014 European elections the party won 7percent of the vote and seven MEPs. The party also had a string of increasingly successful results in German state elections (Landtagswahlen) during 2014, including Saxony-Anhalt (9.7percent), Brandenburg (12.2 percent) and Thuringia (10.6 percent). The election campaigns in these eastern Länder placed a stronger emphasis on nativist themes.

While Lucke was overthrown in July 2015 by a more populist-leaning leader, the trained chemist and one-time Lucke ally Frauke Petry, AfD’s strategic concerns have remained largely consistent: a return to ordoliberal economic principles; the strengthening of ‘traditional’ German values; control of immigration and refugees; and above all a halt to European integration and monetary intervention at the transnational level. The discourse of AfD oscillates between supposedly reasonable, politically ‘acceptable’ statements and those designed to speak to the base. In pursuit of such acceptability Petry will insist that she is ‘not against immigration’ and that she wants only a ‘healthy patriotism’ in Germany. Yet, on the other hand, Petry has suggested that migrants who cross the German border illegally may have to be shot.  Reports of AfD’s links to far-and ultra-right groups surfaced early on and have continued to plague the group – most recently when Der Spiegel filmed a meeting between AfD members and the extreme right wing Identiäre Bewegung (Identity Movement).

As Tanja Gabelein has argued AfD toys with the limits of the ‘sayable’ (Saglichkeit). By shifting its emphasis from traditional far-right concerns with race to culture, it envisions a homogeneous, communitarian society more acceptable to modern German audiences than the traditional hard right. This has precedents, she argues, in Henning Eichberg’s designation of Ethnopluralismus and Alain de Benoist’s ethno-differencialisme as the enemy of orderly, coherent societies. For AfD the concept of gender symbolises a ‘society in which fixed categories and systems of order have lost their meaning.’ This emphasis on the control of gender identities results in a fiercely traditional biopolitics: Mehr kinder statt Masseinwanderung, as one AfD slogan has it – ‘more children instead of mass immigration’. By pushing the limits of what is sayable, AfD helps to forge a racist common sense whilst maintaining a reasonable front.

AfD has been highly successful in adapting far-right concerns to the mainstream. But in order to explain the demand for these views, we need to look beyond AfD itself. Behind the phenomenon of AfD we find years of far-right and ultra-right extra-parliamentary activity. Liz Fekete has catalogued many of these, among them the National Socialist Underground, which operated in Germany between 1999 and 2007 and was responsible for the murders of at least eleven people of Turkish origin. The ultra-right, she argues, is boosted by ‘neoliberal economic policy, emergency laws, a permanent war culture and the securitization of migration.’ One particularly advanced case of this was the situation of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, which was purged from the police and security services in 2013. Where state functions are outsourced or privatised, public oversight is destroyed. The permanent wars and increased violence of western societies has fed racist resentments. The reconstruction of social welfare systems as punitive and disciplinary regimes of social control has helped shred community solidarity. A series of scandals from Germany (the NSU) to Hungary (the murder of Roma people by neo-Nazi militias) ‘reveal collusion, either direct or indirect, between the neo-Nazis, the police, the military, the intelligence services, or a mixture of these elements.’ Fekete describes these far-right attacks as relatively spontaneous ‘racist mobilizations from below’. To this list we can add three hundred attacks on refugee shelters in Germany in the first half of 2016 alone.

AfD mobilises and reorganises conservative opinion for radical right-wing ends. In doing so,it legitimises law and order concerns, casting security concerns in a decidedly more authoritarian mould than the mainstream German CDU. AfD also mediates between the established centre-right and the less respectable far-right, creating a powerful space for convergence of interests and affinities. In this sense AfD cannot be regarded as a response to an accidental outburst of anger, but rather the tying together of fringe and mainstream political thinking. It is not a form of extremism but the form of extremism. It is the characteristic mode of politics in capitalist social formations wracked by crisis. AfD is both a product of neoliberalism and an authoritarian challenge to it. It is engaged in the creation of a powerful discursive hegemony, tying together conventional or mainstream conservative fears about social breakdown with much more extreme and outright fascist views about social control and authority. The danger it presents should not be underestimated.

The Promise of Democracy: A Way Forward for the Left in Europe?

Germany does not make an easy stand-in for Europe as a whole. There is a stark irony in the fact that, despite years of brutally imposed ‘convergence criteria’ on the peoples of Europe, each national polity continues to diverge in often ugly ways from the rest. This means that we have to relate the way in which a much broader crisis in neoliberalism is playing out across different countries.

As we have seen, the gradual transformation of Germany’s economy and its politics gave rise to a new party to the left of social democracy, Die Linke. Over the last three decades and across the different sectors of German society the old corporatist method of political decision making and corporate governance had gradually been replaced by market forces. According to Wolfgang Streeck in his excellent, finely detailed analysis of thirty years of evolutionary change in the German political economy Re-Forming Capitalism, the very power of the state to shape political outcomes through taxation, wage agreements, market regulation, social policy, and corporate agreement had by 2008 been eroded by the slow internationalisation of German capital. The re-formation of German capital – echoing similar transformations taking place elsewhere – significantly narrowed the space for political participation in decision making. With the onset of the crisis of neoliberal politics and economics, the populist right won unprecedented successes by offering people a solution based on a return to closed borders and racial homogeneity in a context of national sovereignty. This is a distinctly German story with pan-European resonances. Nevertheless, the lessons acquired here cannot simply be mapped onto struggles elsewhere. Germany is, in the final analysis, both more and less than a cipher for the crisis of Europe.

Where the populist right offers the chimera of closed national sovereignty, the left should best it with the promise of democracy. How to understand this notion of democracy? Of course, it has nothing to do with the absurdities of high European politics, with its parliaments robbed of legislative initiative. It has nothing to do with the sham democracy offered by the neoliberal state. Following the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, we should define the beginning of politics not as the ordering of  people into a state, but rather as the breaking away of a popular subject from that state. We on the left should define democracy as the moment when those with nothing declare their break from the dominant order of things. Politics is not the “management of interests” enacted by the state but the formation of a democratic political subject opposed to the state. This political subject is for Ranciere the “opening up of a place where those who are of no account are counted, where a connection is made” between all those who have no place in society.

In the wake of the brutal crushing of Greek democracy by the Troika since 2010, Greek intellectuals such as Panagiotis Sotiris called for the left to embrace the clear demand for popular sovereignty of the Greek masses. ‘The very notion of the people must be rethought in ways that include class antagonism,’ Sotiris wrote. Most recently Sotiris has argued that the people should be defined as ‘the emerging community of all those that work, struggle and hope on a particular territory.’ By forming a unity through struggle, the popular subject is never closed or rendered inaccessible to new entrants, thus avoiding nationalism. Sotiris hoped that such a popular subject would engage in new forms of non-parliamentary democracy. But we can go beyond Sotiris’s hope: by forming a political subject, we engage in democratic participation by our very actions.

This notion of the democratic political subject would not define an abstract ‘citizen’ to whom certain rights were allocated (with the correlative of invisible, excluded ‘non-citizens’), but would avoid the pitfalls of traditional social contract theory by conceiving the democratic subject as consisting of all those who are here and must sell their labour to live. In the contract theory of citizenship, the notion of the citizen falls into logical contradictions. Is a citizen simply one who agrees formally to abide by the law? Then if so, all those who obey the law are citizens and all those who break the law are non-citizens. Or is the citizen distinguished from those in our midst who are non-citizens by the special virtue of being from here? In which case the law should not apply to non-citizens and they become free to do as they choose. As Hannah Arendt observed a long time ago, even when the law prosecutes a foreigner it at least negatively brings the foreigner under its jurisdiction, a fact which threatens the whole coherence of the notion of the citizen. This abstraction – the citizen – strives constantly to distinguish itself from its necessary obverse – the excluded non-citizen. A leftist notion of democracy does not erect a normative theory against which the real world must measure up. The democratic political subject of the left operates with a different notion of citizenship. To use Alain Badiou’s motto, it operates with the conviction that ‘those who are here are from here.’

A peculiar type of political action defines this democratic subject of the left. Of course, it cannot always take the form of huge social mobilisations as it did in Greece after 2011. There the democratic political subject rejected the “natural” order of debt repayment and the supposed balancing of political interests by the Troika and asserted its identity as the people with its own political will. Such widespread, insurgent opposition can certainly not be anticipated everywhere. But Mark Bergfeld points to an interesting recent development in German industrial relations. A broad feminist current running through a strike among education workers helped the rank-and-file reject a meagre wage deal struck by its union ver.di. The education workers shocked even themselves, yet their democratic gesture of rejecting the deal forced their employers to come back with a far better offer. It also broke with the failed legacy of industrial codetermination which has dominated the unions for decades, even with the spread of precarity and peripheralisation throughout the workforce. For Ranciere a strike becomes a political act not simply by demanding greater wages, but by casting its participants as a unified democratic subject with a political will of its own, a will that the existing order is intent on denying. In this sense the importance of rank-and-file organising cannot be underestimated.

Sotiris’s rendering of popular sovereignty returns to Gramsci’s concept of the historical bloc. ‘Any break with austerity and neoliberalism has to take the form of the exercise of a sovereign collective will,’ he writes. Sovereignty as conceived here is simply the right of all those who live somewhere to form a popular will through collective struggle. Local, dispersed struggles or temporary uprisings do not have the sustained strength to challenge neoliberal, global capital. The political unity conceived by Sotiris is, like that of Gramsci and in a sense Ranciere, the “universality of subalternity.” What unites the popular democratic subject, or the historical bloc, or the popular sovereignty is precisely the experience of being subordinate, dominated by others. This form of politics unites all those who are excluded in a form of ‘post-national’ and ‘decolonial’ political participation. It defines the people as those who find themselves in a ‘common condition, present and struggle.’ The difficult question for Sotiris arises precisely when this popular sovereignty rises to the level of representation in the state: if this popular sovereignty is to challenge the ruling order, it must seek to organise at the national level, at which point it risks becoming just another nationalism. The project for a Gramscian style popular counter-hegemony runs the risk of reproducing the statist logic of nationalism wherever it rises to participate in national politics.

This returns us precisely to the question of the inadequacies of the political party to lead these struggles at the level of the state itself.

According to Die Linke activist Loren Balhorn the party is ‘facing the biggest test in its ten-year history.’ For Balhorn Die Linke’s aforementioned strategic limitations are pushing it into a corner, one which the surprisingly agile forces of mainstream politics are able to keep it in. Die Linke has not mobilised social movements effectively and it has not implemented its policies in government. For Balhorn this is all down to the party’s internal divisions between those who advocate social movements and those who seek government office. The site Marx21 offered a similar perspective after the success of AfD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommen earlier this year: ‘The central problem of Die Linke is not a mistaken programme, but their strategic helplessness in implementing it.’ Balhorn repeats the widespread call for ‘a concerted political response’ by Die Linke to threats like the rising tide of right-populism and the failures of EU-driven austerity. Similarly Marx21 has called for a ‘real sharpening of the social profile’ of the party, without necessarily specifying how this is to be brought about.

The parliamentary party becomes relevant to these broader struggles at the particularly thorny level of representation in the state. The job of a party like Die Linke is to take key democratic demands to the state at local and national level. And because Die Linke enters government not with a few social demands but as representatives of a movement for democracy, it has a clear right to withdraw from coalition governments when attempts are made to smother those demands, either by coalition partners or state institutions themselves. Die Linke must also open up key decisions to the public, so that if, say, Germany’s anti-state deficit rules kick in, the party is willing to go to the public and speak honestly about what is happening, inviting the opinion of the wider movements. These are not hypothetical concerns. A red-red-green coalition government beckons in Berlin. With Die Linke in power as a junior partner, it could be a rare opportunity to raise the profile of movements and to campaign for participatory, municipal forms of socialism. Whether or not Die Linke is in the right shape to pursue such radical strategies should not deter us from demanding this and more all the same.

There is the necessary risk in all of this that Die Linke could simply betray those democratic  demands. After all, nothing in its history suggests that it is capable of carrying such radical demands to their logical conclusion in the form of direct defiance of the state. However, where it remains rooted in the democratic participation of movements – in the unity formed through popular democratic struggle – it can form the parliamentary wing for a lasting challenge to neoliberal hegemony. This challenge to the authoritarian, anti-democratic tendencies of neoliberal capital is more important than ever in the face of the rising populist right. This direct experience of democracy and the demands for further democratisation that stem from it are crucial. The effect is to engage broader society in a dialogue about what we expect from the political system – do we expect a political system where democratic initiative is carefully circumscribed by neoliberal institutions and the concentrated power of capital? Or do we want to challenge that power and pursue progressive policies despite it? In the process we may develop newer, more adequate modes of political representation than those provided by neoliberal capitalism and its racist offspring.

Concluding remarks

Die Linke has been outflanked by the AfD on the basis of a simple right-wing conception of sovereignty. Working in a tradition that owes too much to reformist social democracy, Die Linke has assumed that the formal conditions of democracy are basically in place but that participation in them is hindered by the absence of social justice. As neoliberalism and austerity hollowed out state institutions, they also restructured political representation so that it became narrower and more technocratic. Today, democracy is the precondition of social justice. We cannot win social reforms without building new forms of democratic participation into the state.

Until now the right has been far more successful at mobilising people’s anger at their loss of democratic control than the left – with this year’s Brexit vote being a prime example. But ultimately the right will fail to meet people’s demands for control over their lives because they cannot offer anything like a militant form of democracy in which technocratic or authoritarian institutions are politicised with properly social demands. This is where the left can win back control of the argument across Europe on the basis of a few clearly articulated, democratic principles.

Adam Blanden is studying for an MA in European Thought at University College London. He blogs regularly and has contributed to many publications on a variety of themes and issues in European politics, including Dissent Magazine, Open Democracy, Red Pepper Magazine, Zmag, New Left Project, Critical Theory, and others. He has previously lived in both Poland and the Czech Republic and is a frequent visitor to Germany.


  1. “What we need are the moderate parties holding on and keeping our government in a state of sanity, in which problems are tackled instead of money being thrown at the symptoms of said problems.”

    Er,,,that’s what’s failed. Die Linke is hardly extreme. It has a few “extremist” leftovers from East Germany, but it’s just a moderate social democratic party that gives some strong rhetoric here and there but joins coalitions with the Social Democrats and even has backed cuts in social services in some state governments. So you’re an idiot.

  2. That quote refers to a theory of democratic participation. It involves movements, unions and parties, operating with their own internal democratic processes, formulating demands and taking them into state power. It’s a way of doing politics rather than a set of concrete proposals. Though one possibility would be more e-democracy in unions and parties. Or political parties that participate in local government inviting participation from movements.

  3. .” This is where the left can win back control of the argument across Europe on the basis of a few clearly articulated, democratic principles.”

    good article, but as with many of this type, there are not really any concrete proposals. ie the above quote.
    what are the ‘clearly articulated democratic principles’.

  4. Die Linke is as bad as the AfD (when it comes to the EU, even worse, since the AfD is Anti-Euro, not anti EU, while Die Linke would love to isolate Germany politically from everyone but Russia). It was a sad day when the extreme left managed to become part of the German parliament, and it will be an even sadder day when the extreme right will follow. What we need are the moderate parties holding on and keeping our government in a state of sanity, in which problems are tackled instead of money being thrown at the symptoms of said problems.

  5. Just out of curiosity, if we are to dismiss the legitimacy of right wing parties voted in, whats to stop people from just rejecting left wing parties?


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