European Union

The end of an era for Germany’s federal republic?

With the social democrats in disarray in front of a new ‘grand coalition’, what avenues are open for the country’s left?

Tom Strohschneider is a close observer of German politics and former chief editor of the socialist newspaper Neues Deutschland. In this interview with Mosaik, he explains how the grand Coalition between CDU, CSU and SPD could still fail, what challenges the SPD faces and why the left needs to return to dialectical thinking.

Half a year after the elections in Germany and after a lot of back and forth, the Grand Coalition between SPD, CDU and CSU is back again. Has everything returned to normal?

Nothing is settled just yet. Within the Social Democrats (SPD) there are a lot of discussions, and a conflict about resources and power among different associations and factions. In the latest infighting this has become very clear. Now we are waiting for the members’ decision. A new grand coalition is only another sign of the end of an era, the end of the old federal republic. The coalition is the paradigm of compromise, the essence of the middle ground. A bit for the investment funds here, something against neoliberalism there. Many of the measures announced won’t make the world worse than it already is. But there are also some suggestions that – as Gramsci might say – could wake up the monsters who emerge in transition periods. Take the migration policy, which is a concession to the right, and that of a new “homeland”  ministry. Meanwhile, the main challenges facing society, like inequality and climate change, are not seriously approached.

The Grand Coalition could still fail because of the SPD’s members’ vote. Do you think it will be a close call?

The conflict over positions in the SPD works in favour of the anti grand coalition movement (#NoGroKo). But in fact, even if the coalition has sufficient consensus the discussion will continue. Especially since, according to the latest polls, the three parties CDU, CSU and SPD would no longer get a majority. The anti grand coalition faction might lose the vote, but could still win the debate. But then what?

Success for the SPD’s left wing would be a sign, and nothing more. It still lacks an answer on the most important question: today, under the circumstances of a so-called free market, what does it mean to be social democratic? How can we create social integration, while welfare provision at a single-state level is under more and more pressure? Who has benefited up until now from capitalist expansion?

Then there is the question of the economy more generally. It is clear that solving wealth inequality in Germany would not solve global inequalities. The lifestyle of our industrial-capitalist society is exploitative up to a point, but left wing responses in a single country cannot challenge the real problems.

To challenge the Grand Coalition at the ballot box, the SPD’s youth wing started a campaign with the slogan: ‘Tritt ein, sag nein!’ (Join and say no). 25,000 people have since joined the party. This reminds one of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Can we expect a similar renewal of the SPD?

First I want to say that as a leftist, everyone should have an interest in the success of a renewed social democracy, even if you want to overcome the capitalist status quo. Without a strong social democracy, concerned with solidarity, positive changes won’t be possible in the short or middle term.

I know that people sympathise with developments like that in the UK, where a movement from the base of a social-democratic party was able to change the party’s orientation. The real question for them, however, will emerge if Corbyn is actually in government. In such a case he will have to show how a change of politics towards municipal-socialism, and an economy based on solidarity and redistribution can be possible within the European and Global capitalist system.

We had similar hopes when Syriza came to power in Greece. And there we saw that the European and international circumstances make a policy change to the left quite complicated. Then, in the German context, there is the specific situation inside the SPD. In my opinion, Kevin Kühnert, the head of the party’s youth, is a strong figure. This brings hope to a lot of people. But a renewal of the party has to come with much bigger changes, both in terms of personnel and the content of the political program.

What kind of program would be needed in this transition-period, as you call it?

In my opinion, there are three big questions to be answered. First: how can we achieve social integration in more and more globalised capitalist circumstances? Nowadays governing the economy is only possible at an international, or at least European level. And yet left-wing discourse about this has barely begun. We are still far away from pan-European unemployment protections, or a convergence of wages and salaries. In some countries, like Portugal and the UK things are changing, but we cannot yet see a European left awakening.

Secondly, the crisis we are facing is one of the political system itself. Substance and form no longer fit together. To take one example: In the SPD as well as Die Linke and the Green Party – in the whole society in fact – a new line of conflict is emerging. On one side, there is the illusion that social integration can be handled by nation-states, which necessarily bring exclusion. The other side, meanwhile, hopes for an international regulation of social integration. These conflicts are not between parties any more, but are conflicts within them, which could push the parties themselves towards dissolution, possibly resulting in the formation of a new political form.

Thirdly, we have to hope that the right does not profit from social democracy’s crisis. We have to approach this with sobriety, since the left will probably not have a majority and not be capable of acting in the coming years. While there is a huge roll-back in some other countries, we also have to ask, how at least some things can be defended. Yanis Varoufakis once said that we need to safeguard democratic capitalism. He was laughed at because of this. But considering the last 3 or 4 years, defending the situation we have from regression, anti-refugee radicalisation and so on, might have been a good tactical strategy. We need a strong left movement for that. But we do not have it. Instead, there are debates about new movements, that don’t convince me.

In Germany a new left movement is demanded in particular by Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine. They plan to strengthen the opposition against the grand coalition and at the same time gain votes from the AfD. What do you think about this attempt, which has also brought a lot of conflict within Die Linke?

The attempt by Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine originates from their own political instinct. They see how fragile the current situation is, and hope for the possibility of a rearrangement of the political system. They are the first to raise their hands and say: “We have an idea!” But to be successful, this kind of collective movement would need to come out of a broader unrest and movement within society. The attempt of Lafontaine and Wagenknecht, however, is not connected to any current conflicts. They want to start a social movement from the top. And we don’t have positive experiences with this. We first need to connect social struggles in everyday life, for example the struggles of care workers and unemployed people. We should aim to bring together a social class, which is divided by competition, into a common interest.

Does Wagenknecht’s and Lafontain’s attempt have a chance to be realized?

The reactions have mostly mostly negative. Most of the people in the SPD, the Green Party and even in Die Linke have rejected it. But the debate is not over yet. This spring Die Linke will have their party convention, where the executive board will be elected, and we know that these kind of questions might create conflicts about the party’s priorities and resources. We will find out if the idea of a such a movement might also be a dividing movement within the party.

Many of the lines of conflict today focus around the question of migration. When one looks at the discussion within the German left, it’s easy to get worried, the arguments are often sharply and spitefully polemicized. Why does the left in particular have trouble when dealing with this topic?

At the level of party politics the question often comes up of how it might be possible to reclaim the votes which went over to the right. Doing this by exploiting the same resentments, however, is very dangerous. On top of this there is a debate which makes up two poles: ‘class-politics’ versus ‘identity-politics’. This ignores how important the synthesis of identity, democracy and cultural issues with the social question was for our history, the history of the workers’ movement. This unity in difference was stronger in its beginnings. 150 years ago, we began demanding the right to vote for women. Today for some, fighting for women’s rights almost makes you a neoliberal. This is a grotesque historical amnesia. Moreover there is the aspect you mention, of exaggerated rhetoric. This makes the task of synthesis difficult, an action which actually safeguards good. A more calm, dialectical approach would do the left good these days.

This interview was first published in German at Mosaik. It was translated by Sofia Heuser.