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Aufstehen, Germany's imperfect if promising new Left Populism

Writing: Rufus Pickles

Illustration: Hazel Laing

Germany is often seen as the industrial success story and beating heart of the Eurozone, with few issues in comparison with its debt-ridden, stagnating southern European partners. It is on the brink of having the world’s largest export surplus and has over a quarter of the Eurozone’s gross national product. Its elder stateswoman Angela Merkel has ruled over Germany as chancellor since 2005. She has for a long time been known by much of the German public as ‘mutti’- an almost mother-like figure that watches caringly and responsibly over her people. This exultant image does not resemble the reality and lived experience of many ordinary German people, however. According to Sarah Wagenknecht, a leading member of Germany’s radical left party Die Linke, Germany is witnessing a ‘tangible crisis in democracy’.

With 40% of Germans having less disposable income than they did 20 years ago and many giving up on politics or opting for the xenophobic, if not outright racist, Alternative für Deutschland there is a large and growing feeling of pent up anger directed at Germany’s political elites. Last September, around 6,000 far-right protesters with links to neo-Nazis took to the streets in the eastern city of Chemnitz. Many were seen making illegal Nazi salutes and immigrants were reportedly chased through the streets. It is against this deeply worrying background that Aufstehen (‘Stand Up’), a new left wing populist movement, has been formed. It was founded by Wagenknecht, a figure often compared to Rosa Luxemburg, in the summer of last year. It is not just a movement brought together by Germany’s official radical left, but brings together a number of high-profile figures from other left-of-centre parties and German civil society.

Aufstehen founders hope to emulate the success of other left-populist movements across Western Europe like Britain’s Momentum, France’s La France Insoumise and ‘gilet-jaunes’ street protesters. To understand Aufstehen’s political project one must delve into the ideological roots of Europe’s new left. They take much inspiration from the Belgian post-Marxist philosopher Chantal Mouffe who understands the centrist social democracy or ‘Third Way’ of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and today’s Emmanuel Macron as facilitating the rise of the far-right. The triangulation of traditionally left-wing, social-democratic parties towards a technocratic neoliberalism has caused capitalism to veer towards oligarchy and has left populations facing little real choice at the ballot box. Mainstream parties have for a long time simply offered voters slightly different variations of what is essentially the same hegemonic, neoliberal capitalism. Disgruntled voters faced with stagnating wages, insecure jobs, financial crises, and austerity have looked to the far-right for a genuine alternative to their misery. The new left-populists hope to channel this anger into progressive and inclusive movements that can fight for the common good against Europe’s self-serving establishments and oligarchies.

Since September last year more than 150,000 Germans have signed up to be part of Aufstehen, which is a promising start to what is still a nascent movement. The fact that it goes beyond Germany’s established radical left party Die Linke, attracting figures from across progressive German politics, is a welcome development. Die Linke is not necessarily a reliable antidote to Germany’s political crisis because it currently holds only 10% of the vote and has not yet been able to enact decisive change on German national politics.

Aufstehen’s emphasis on grassroots action and populist rhetoric could provide a solution to Germany’s malaise, if one buys into Mouffe’s diagnosis of Europe’s problems.

There is, however, one serious problem with Aufstehen’ politics. Whilst it is right to challenge Germany’s political elite, mainstream parties, and rigged economy, it wrongly brings the country’s immigration policy into question as well. Wagenknecht sees Merkel’s ‘open-borders’ approach to economic migration as contrary to the interests of Germany’s popular classes and benefitting only large corporations. She sees restricting immigration as one way in which German progressives can win back popular support. But the facts do not support this regressive narrative and strategy. Countless research studies have shown immigration to have no significant negative impact on native workers of advanced Western economies and to be vital for economic growth. Furthermore, as the eminent political scientist Cas Mudde has stated recently, academic research ‘consistently shows that when mainstream parties move to the right in an attempt to co-opt the issues of the radical right, it does not hurt populist right parties – in fact, it often helps them.’ Aufstehen’s right-wing deviation on immigration tarnishes its legitimacy and potential effectiveness as a movement. Nonetheless, its grassroots style of politics may still be Germany’s only hope against a resurgent far-right when mainstream left politicians lost touch with the people a long time ago. As Rosa Luxemburg said in 1919: ‘The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built.’

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