Transform, or else

Alban Werner

For Kipping and Riexinger, it all began eight years ago. Who will now succeed them?

DIE LINKE (The Left) After eight years, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger are stepping down as co-chairs of the party. A good time, then, for a thorough critical assessment of their time at the helm.

For Kipping and Riexinger, it all began eight years ago. Who will now succeed them?

When Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger took the chair of DIE LINKE, the party was facing difficult times. After Oskar Lafontaine announced in the wake of the 2009 federal elections that he was resigning as party chair and parliamentary leader, the legendary ‘long night’ saw the establishment by Gregor Gysi of a federal executive committee to avert the power vacuum he and his colleagues feared would follow. However, as it turned out, shortly after the election the new leadership with Gesine Lötzsch and Klaus Ernst came under fire. With the Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands (SPD – Social Democratic Party) no longer in the federal government, meaning that the days of DIE LINKE being able to use it  as a constant bogeyman were over, the differences within the party soon became apparent.

From 2011 onwards, DIE LINKE was gradually voted out of the parliaments of the Länder (federal states) in western Germany’s Flächenländer (territorial states). In 2012, in the Sonntagsfrage opinion poll it sank dangerously close nationwide to the minimum 5% threshold required for parliamentary representation. After becoming co-chairs in 2012, Kipping and Riexinger had to keep the party together in a situation in which the desire to establish a left-wing party to the left of the traditional political mainstream had worn off for the first time in the western German Länder since the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD – Communist Party of Germany) was banned and the early days of the Greens.

The ‘stable recovery position’ into which Kipping and Riexinger got the party ensured it was in a position to run for the 2013 federal elections, in which it managed to maintain a presence in the German parliament, the Bundestag. However, its results in that ballot anticipated many of its later problems: for the first time, DIE LINKE won more votes in the west of the country than in the new federal Länder of the former East Germany. However, at the same time, the western German vote remained largely federal and DIE LINKE was unable to match this result in any of the elections at Land or local (municipal) level.

Not only an eastern German party

The party had lost the potential protest voters who had backed it in 2005 and 2009. After 2010, they switched first to the Piratenpartei (Pirate Party) and later to Alternative für Deutschland (AfD – Alternative for Germany). This was particularly painful for the internal ranks of the party, especially in the west of the country, as DIE LINKE‘s popularity among protest voters had allowed it to concentrate on protest positions vis-à-vis the mainstream parties and thus contain the considerable potential for dissent within the party. At the same time, from the mid-2010s onwards, the Land-level elections in the eastern federal states marked the end of the status of the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) and DIE LINKE, its successor, as the natural defenders of eastern German interests.

Although this development was not triggered by the AfD’s successes at the expense of DIE LINKE and other parties in the east, they did accelerate the process. Some of DIE LINKE‘s voters died, while others switched to the AfD, and DIE LINKE was unable to replace them with new groups of voters of a similar size. One of Kipping and Riexinger’s strengths during their time as co-chairs of the party has been their approach, which involved uninhibitedly urging the SPD and the Greens to cooperate politically with them, provided they could agree on a progressive programme. Quite early in their term of office, in 2013, they presented a paper, entitled Verankern, verbreiten, verbinden: Projekt Parteientwicklung. Eine strategische Orientierung für DIE LINKE (Anchor, extend, connect: Project Party Development, a strategic focus for DIE LINKE), whose gist was that the party should seek to plough its own furrow but leave the door open to cooperation, based on a realpolitik approach, with other parties.

They can hardly be blamed for being overshadowed in public perception by the chairs of the parliamentary party, first Gregor Gysi and then Sahra Wagenknecht, given these figureheads’ charisma and the mass media’s well-known predilection for reporting on events in the Bundestag. However, one of Kipping and Riexinger’s weaknesses has been their problems with tackling European integration, an issue which was of interest beyond the campaigns for European Parliament elections and their preparation.

Moreover, Kipping and Riexinger did not take any effective action to overcome the pointless opposition, largely fuelled by the media, between Europhiles on the one hand and Europhobes on the other, which remains with us to this day. After another series of defeats in the second half of the 2010s, the party did not appear to have any ideas, let alone a strategy, to ensure its revival in the west of the country. For the most part, the Das muss drin sein (It Must Be In) campaign strategy decided in 2015 sank without trace.

Disagreements over the ‘refugee crisis’

In retrospect, the period until the middle/end of 2015 was just a warm-up phase for Kipping and Riexinger. Until then, it had been conceivable that DIE LINKE might be able to return to the role it had played until the end of 2009, namely that of the socio-political opposition force which brought most pressure to bear on the government. In terms of content, overall organisation and political methods, this was shown to be no more than an illusion by the ‘refugee crisis’, when a conflict flared up between the supporters of “open borders for all forever” and those who favoured a more restrictive policy. An internal fault line over the increased geopolitical aggression of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the subsequent Friedenswinter (Peace Winter) had been developing since 2014. Now, however, the conflicts within the party overshadowed almost everything else, first in the wake of the refugees’ arrival and again after the 2017 federal elections.

It would be fair to say that Kipping and Riexinger did not shine on these occasions. Of course, they were not responsible for the disputes that had erupted, but they did little or nothing to resolve them. It is unclear whether this could have been done in full, but to some extent this fundamental conflict could have been dealt with in a more business-like and civil way.

It would have been possible, for instance, to mention and work on the fact that the ‘open borders’ issue does not arise in Germany anyway due to its geographical and geopolitical position in the European Union; that regulating unforced migration is not the same as accepting refugees, especially as the latter are only rejected by a tiny minority within the party; that if underpinned by an appropriately expansive economic policy, even rising immigrant numbers do not necessarily increase labour shortages to the detriment of existing residents as the number of jobs increases faster than that of new arrivals. With their open borders fundamentalism, however, Kipping and Riexinger and their supporters within the party (whose intransigence was matched by that of their internal opponents) did nothing to remedy the internal rift that has been a dominant feature of the party to this day by at least zealously working through the small differences which trigger so much reflex aggression.

Although the ‘refugee crisis’ shattered the belief that after the SPD’s Agenda 2010 came to an end, the anti-Agenda 2010 consensus would be enough to viably restore party unity, it was crystal clear, too, that DIE LINKE was struggling with its organisational structure. Given the constraints and conditions imposed by the Parteiengesetz (Political Parties Act) as well as German federalism, the idea that DIE LINKE could be steered from the top down proved unworkable. Looking back, it is disingenuous to attribute responsibility for all the wrong turns apparently taken by DIE LINKE between 2012 and 2020 to Kipping and Riexinger.

Successes as a force in government

Indeed, DIE LINKE‘s development in the wake of the refugee crisis showed, perhaps more than anything else, that despite its formal powers, the Party Executive Committee does not and cannot function as an actual leadership, but at best as a type of clearing house for any demands originating from within the party, and at worst as a largely helpless entity overseeing these demands, which are mostly defined by the Land-level associations and local balances of power. This helplessness became apparent on several occasions when Sahra Wagenknecht used the attention she received in the mass media to express positions on European or migration policy that were neither covered by the programmes adopted by the party or a faction of it nor agreed with their leaders. The fact is that a party cannot be successfully led by two chairs unless they are dealing with and answerable to an appropriately structured party which is able and willing to be led.

Intricately linked to this, DIE LINKE‘s political self-image and approach to politics changed in both eastern and western Germany under Kipping and Riexinger. In the eastern Länder, the party criticised its own earlier approach to governance – a remarkable though not revolutionary development most clearly apparent in the writings of Harald Wolf, a former Senator for the Economy in the Berlin state government, and partly due to a generational shift in the leadership and officials of the Land-level associations. In Thuringia, the party managed – certainly due in part to the popularity of elder statesperson Bodo Ramelow – to achieve a historic improvement in its position within the Red-Red-Green coalition at the time of the 2019 Land-level elections, a first for DIE LINKE and its forerunners in the government.

This was achieved despite (through the loss of many protest voters to the AfD) and because of (Ramelow being a ‘safe choice’ for many, including non-left-wing voters) the real possibility that the radical right-wing populists might achieve electoral success. So whereas in the east – despite all the telling electoral defeats outside Thuringia – learning processes and progress ultimately tend to dominate the picture, in the west the party has suffered, and continues to suffer, significant setbacks and unwanted developments.

The problem is not that, as some like to complain, that the party is attracting “more migrants, more women and younger people and has significantly increased the social recognition of DIE LINKE”, making it a carbon copy of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens), but rather in the self-perception and practices of many members old and new, who have little in common with that party. In the west, DIE LINKE largely serves as a machine for expressing indignation, clinging to issues on which it can take the moral high ground, but failing to develop any expertise or forge the broad and resilient political alliances required to help push through progressive political alternatives on important current issues.

The unwanted developments mentioned above are most certainly not caused by the ‘refugee crisis’ alone. Rather, the party’s most fundamental problem is that it straddles several largely unconnected worlds. The everyday actions of DIE LINKE‘s grassroots activists mainly shape local politics and to a lesser extent Land-level politics, in which the party continually has to prove itself. That is where most of its battles are fought and won or lost.

Too many strategy papers and not enough politics

Under Kipping and Riexinger, the local level continued to be severely underestimated, although existing party activists have yet to develop meaningful forms of cooperation and division of labour and the next generations of DIE LINKE members need to be politically socialised. The Land level, on the other hand, was insufficiently taken into account, although there is no way around it in a federal political system such as that of Germany, where majorities in both federal parliamentary chambers are required if progressive change is to be implemented. European policy was not treated as a cross-cutting issue which affected the national level in a multitude of policy areas, but as part of foreign policy.

Again and again, there has been amazement at the successes of the left in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the United States, and so on despite their lack of transferability to the German context, while completely overlooking the possibilities in their own backyard. As a result, a kind of schizophrenia became increasingly widespread within the party. There was a complete disconnect between DIE LINKE’s commendable achievements at municipal and Land levels and the announcements at federal level. Nothing was done to link the party’s everyday activities to its lofty pronouncements or vice versa.

Neither the notorious strategy papers nor, at any rate, the now infamous ‘strategy conference’ of early 2020 could take its place. Even disregarding Riexinger’s rhetorical faux pas (“We do not shoot empires, but make them work for us”), probably the most memorable part of the event, the conference left the clear impression that it and other events did not serve to develop strategies but as echo chambers for leftist beliefs.

Due to the disconnect between the various levels of the party, there was an increasing conceptual vacuum, which those within the party for whom indignation is their stock and trade were only too happy to exploit. The process was supported by developments in society as a whole, where the main focus was on issues such as the environment, migration and gender relations, which in recent years have become more and more morally charged and are being presented by means of increasingly fundamentalist slogans. However, the party was also giving in to the temptation to limit itself to amplifying indignation. Working out alternatives that are justified by reality yet radical due to the challenges to be overcome, and forging alliances around them, is a long and arduous task. And why work your way through studies of gender, social, religious or colour-based discrimination when you can organise demonstrations against Horst Seehofer, the former leader of the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU – Christian Social Union), or the police? Fostering indignation also provides an excuse for putting off the analysis of the party’s internal workings.

Everyday irony

Under Kipping and Riexinger, nonchalance increasingly took hold even with regard to highly complex and (in terms of implementation at least) conflict-ridden issues such as socio-environmental restructuring, and sooner rather than later this will come back to haunt us. In view of its dwindling political capacity, however, the practical value of DIE LINKE for its well-intentioned members – trade unions, welfare and environmental organisations and academic critics – will decline to become insignificant. Readers who feel this amounts to unfounded panic-mongering should consider how few economically, financially and labour market-oriented politicians and lawyers represent DIE LINKE, the party of democratic socialism, in the Bundestag, compared with the all too many individuals speaking about issues arousing indignation, such as foreign or environmental policy.

The bitterest irony of the party’s everyday reality is that those patented anti-capitalists who criticise coalitions, conventional politics and parliamentary work as ineffective and corrupting are also those most determined to secure lucrative roles, while those less inclined to constantly cry shame and more willing to buckle down to more bread-and-butter issues display greater reticence. Kipping and Riexinger’s term has set in motion a vicious circle of socio-political isolation concealed by the volume of protest, and it is unclear whether this can now be stopped and reversed.

These developments also explain why the party’s story since 2012 has been a tale of one missed opportunity after another. Again, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger are not primarily to blame for this. Since they took office, many worthy papers have been written and congresses and conferences held, and in its voting behaviour in local authorities, Land parliaments, the Bundestag and the European Parliament, DIE LINKE has acted like the reliable, albeit often unexciting, left-wing social-democratic party it still is despite a measure of socialist and anti-capitalist folklore. However, it has not managed to disseminate within the party the existing political knowledge gained from its failed and successful initiatives and make this knowledge ready to deploy.

The fact that the vast majority of debates were confined to federal level, where DIE LINKE‘s own opportunities were most limited, deprived its members of many opportunities to learn from each other. Fortunately, the good papers are being rediscovered years later, for instance on the subject of the transport revolution, which is back on the agenda. On the other hand, Kipping and Riexinger could do little to change the fact that the party remained stuck in outdated patterns of thought and action. In many quarters, the image of neoliberalism as the enemy is cultivated as if we were still in 2005 rather than 2020, as if the adoption of minimum wages, retirement at 63, successful collective bargaining rounds in the manufacturing industry and public services or the separation of the neoliberal political bloc after the financial crisis had not yet been achieved.

Rollercoaster rides

The shift in German economic thinking away from many neoliberal beliefs, remarkable for its starting point, played no role in the internal party debate  ̶  probably partly because one of Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger’s more regrettable shared traits is a lack of affinity with the most important traditions of left-wing economic policy. As a result, important and interesting debates on national debt, monetary or wage policy on the progressive side of the political spectrum have been taking place outside or at best on the margins of the party. The sad reality is that DIE LINKE has been representing all the potentially divisive issues of the progressive spectrum (especially migration, conflict in the Middle East and European integration), while not playing a genuinely formative part in any forward-looking discussions.

Although under Kipping and Riexinger, lasting measures were probably taken, I believe they should be considered to be regressive. At the Göttingen party conference, the party members close to Kipping, who support the demand for an unconditional basic income (BGE), succeeded in pushing through their demand for a flat-rate minimum income of €1,050 (instead of the previous basic standard rate of €500 plus rent), and so far it has not been possible to go back on this. This created a damaging precedent which has led to escalating demands and forced DIE LINKE politicians into an uncomfortable position in which they are faced with the disapproval of representatives of social organisations that actually sympathise with their party.

Moreover, the supporters of the unconditional basic income showed that they were no longer satisfied with the formal compromise in the programme and pushed for a decision to be made through a members’ ballot, which could at any rate be postponed until after the federal elections in 2021. While such issues, generally far removed from voters’ actual lives, used up the party’s energy, it was almost impossible to productively integrate emerging socio-political trends. For instance, Fridays for Future was not given the opportunity at a transport or energy summit to work on the ways in which manufacturing and lifestyles could be changed to make them more environmentally friendly. The recent anti-racism protests have not led to a blueprint for combating structural discrimination and everyday racism, even though a left-wing party is precisely the type of organisation most suited not only to join the burgeoning protests but to convert their emancipatory potential into workable concepts and projects.

In any response to the question why the demands that Kipping and Riexinger clear-sightedly formulated in their paper Verankern, verbreiten, verbinden as early as 2013 were not achieved, there is an inevitable need to consider the basic nature of their party. Recently, Spiegel Online pointed out that since 2005 the popularity of all of Germany’s other existing parties – and of the AfD since 2013 – has fluctuated tremendously at federal level – but this has not extended to DIE LINKE. Rather, it seems “ossified. Neither the debacle of the European elections nor the severe slowdown in the east caused a lasting slump in the federal government. Nor did the triumph in Thuringia or the return of social issues to the political agenda due to the coronavirus crisis bring about a significant upswing”.

A quest for self-understanding

In light of this comparison, there is one worrying possibility: could it be that DIE LINKE’s lively beginnings were an exception and that the current sluggishness of the party, which these days is roused only now and then by disputes over the Middle East, migration, Europe or, more generally, co-government, is the rule? Is the situation under the leadership of Kipping and Riexinger, which the general public finds unexciting and many of the party’s members frustrating, possibly even a normal state of affairs for a constellation of left-wing groups which came together not as part of a love match but as the result of a shotgun wedding dictated by circumstances?

In my view, that immobility is both a curse and a blessing for the party, which is why much of the criticism levelled at Kipping and Riexinger is basically of little import. This is where a historical comparison with the development of the Greens helps. From an ‘anti-party’ party with a strong anti-capitalist wing to the party of Baden-Württemberg Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann, from the meeting place for pacifists and radical reformists to the state-supporting party of the wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, the Greens underwent a number of rebirths. In concrete terms, the Greens mutated due to the fact that some of their protagonists changed their views (e.g. Joschka Fischer became a supporter of war in the wake of the massacre at Srebrenica), some factions left the party (e.g. the eco-socialist and radical environmental movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s) or new groups joined (e.g. the mass entry of the eastern German activists of Bündnis 90 (Alliance 90) after 1990).

The significant repositioning of content as well as changes to the self-image and practices of a party are the result of resignations and deaths, the arrival of new members and individual or collective changes of opinion. However, DIE LINKE has only undergone this kind of makeover to a very limited extent. Collectively, the trade unions which had co-founded the party Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit – Die Wahlalternative (WASG – Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative) did change, but then they did not support a merger with DIE LINKE, either because they were anti-Communist or they were outmanoeuvred in the party, following this merger, by radical left-wing movements from both WASG and DIE LINKE – movements which, despite their negligible political skills, managed to manipulate and dominate some party meetings.

After the exodus of trade unionists, however, DIE LINKE – unlike today’s Bündnis 90/Die Grünen – experienced no further large, coordinated waves of walkouts. Subsequently, only individual members would resign, sometimes quite sensationally, on the basis that the party had become too left-wing, too right-wing or too dominated by Wagenknecht or by Kipping. This obviously had consequences: by way of comparison, the history of Italy’s Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party), France’s Front de Gauche (Left Front) and the Portuguese and Greek Communists and left-wing socialists is full of organised breakaways and new beginnings.

In the case of DIE LINKE, this was not so. Its lack of reboots and breakaways stands in stark contrast to other left-wing parties in Germany and abroad. But this USP has had implications, being achieved at the expense of learning processes and socio-political influence. If everyone can stay, but only on the condition that no one interferes with each other’s internal fiefdoms, the result is bound to be political, i.e. intellectual and practical, stagnation. Also, another inevitable prerequisite is that the precarious peace within the party must not be disturbed by offers of political participation from outside, such as a Red-Green or Green-Red coalition.

The secret truth

We shall never know for sure whether Kipping and Riexinger decided against demanding that their party develop the political capability (in the sense of “drawing up and presenting policies in various fields, and genuinely wanting and being able to assert them during negotiations, alliances and conflicts”) which their offers of an alliance with the SPD and the Greens would have required, because they did not take such offers seriously, i.e. did not expect a positive response from these parties – or whether they did not push for a party that was truly able to negotiate with the SPD and the Greens as they knew full well that this process would tear DIE LINKE apart.

The secret truth about DIE LINKE is that its isolation at federal level also acts as life insurance for its present membership. The ossification cited by Spiegel Online, as well as a loss of relevance, is the price DIE LINKE has to pay for its stability. Otherwise, the party would have to commit itself to one course. But since the positions of the proponents and opponents of radical left-wing opposition and openness to co-government, of ‘No Borders’ and realpolitik on immigration issues, of pacifism and openness to UN-mandated military missions, of unconditional solidarity with Putin and a foreign policy based on human rights do not coincide yet overlap in many ways, the process of plotting a course of action would probably be more painful, not to say brutal, than has been the case for the modern-day Greens. The latest appeal for peace, with DIE LINKE officials at all levels and from all Land-level associations and wings of the party opposing Gregor Gysi and Dietmar Bartsch’s attempts to show a willingness to compromise with the SPD and the Greens on foreign policy issues, provides a mere foretaste of what may be yet to come.

This complex situation leaves very little room for decisions on the party’s programme and personnel policy if they are not to trigger major conflict. The fact that few if any controversial decisions have been made has caused the party under Kipping and Riexinger to come to a standstill and become unexciting. Even periodically reinvented catchphrases such as Riexinger’s “class politics”, which ignore all the critical issues, e.g. prioritisation, target groups and policy details, have made no real difference.

The internal state of DIE LINKE reflects its electoral position at federal level. Limited battles are fought out before party conferences and, occasionally, following individual statements by party celebrities or participation in government decisions; but the general principle remains keeping the “same procedure as each year”. At Land and district levels, the party is losing voter support and the respect of its members. As a result, DIE LINKE perceives itself and acts in completely different ways in the various regions.

At best, you have dynamic district-level associations which constructively aim for and achieve internal plurality, at worst a ‘closed shop’, home to a number of small cliques which the party primarily uses as a self-service store. The latter is a dead end where the party can move neither forwards nor backwards in the foreseeable future. This variation on a quotation by Niklas Luhmann, “What we can do depends on what we have in stock”, also applies to political parties.

Although there is much to criticise in their concept of democracy, their Sahra Wagenknecht personality cult and their lack of organisational talent, there is no denying that the founders of the collective movement Aufstehen have recognised the roots of DIE LINKE‘s permanent frustration with itself. Understandably, they were also keen to swing the majority of the party in their favour, and therefore also away from Kipping and Riexinger, by attracting sections of the population the party had not previously managed to reach. However much one might reject the beliefs and methods of Aufstehen, it is clear that without a substantial transformation DIE LINKE will continue to stagnate – in which case who is chairing DIE LINKE will at best be of secondary importance.

Alban Werner is a political scientist and has been campaigning in various areas within DIE LINKE since 2005. He writes for Sozialismus and Das Argument, among other publications.

This article was first published in