Where is Germany Going? What ‘Awakening’? What Renewal?

Karel Ludenhoff

Summary: Some considerations about the recent German elections and a remarkable election result in Austria – Editors.

Dutch translation

German translation

While the negotiations about the constitution of a new government in Germany are just beginning and are expected to be lengthy and drawn out, there are two reasons for us, the Left, to look closer to the recent elections in Germany at the federal level on September 26. Firstly, when we talk about Germany, we are talking about a country that is the dominating economic and political power within Europe and, because of its domination, carries the most weight for the political and economic role of the European Union in the world(-market). Secondly, we can observe a tendency in the German political domain (in which there is a lot of talk about “awakening” and “renewal”) a tendency we see everywhere in all election campaigns nowadays and, connected with this, a misunderstanding of the concept of a “turn to the left”.

The elections on the federal level in Germany had the following results, in which we have to take into account the complicated system of elections in Germany with its first and second votes and the existence of the so-called direct-mandates:

In the federal election on September 26, 2021, the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands— Social Democratic Party of Germany) received the largest proportion of valid second votes. With 25.7% of the votes, it won significantly more than the second-place CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands— Christian Democratic Union of Germany), which received 18.9% of the votes. Behind the CDU are die Grünen (The Greens) (14.8%), the FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei— Free Democratic Party) (11.5%), the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland— Alternative to Germany) (10.3%), a right-wing populist party which carries a strong fascist tendency, and the CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union— Christian-Social Union; active in the state Bavaria and, on the federal level, a sister party of the CDU, forming the combination CDU/CSU in the federal German parliament) (5.2%). Although the following parties did not achieve even five percent of the two votes, these two parties also moved into parliament: Die Linke (4.9%) benefited from the fact that parties that win at least three direct mandates are exempt from the five percent threshold. The SSW (Südschleswigscher Wählerverband— South Schleswig Voters’ Committee) (0.1%), as a party of national minorities, was also not subject to the threshold clause.

While several parties were able to gain shares, others lagged significantly behind their 2017 results. On the winning side are the Greens with a gain of 5.9 percentage points as well as the SPD, which gained 5.2 percentage points. The results of the FDP (+ 0.8%) and the SSW (+ 0.1%), which did not start in 2017, are also positive. The clearest loss recorded was that of the CDU, which lost 7.9 percentage points compared to 2017. Die Linke also lost a significant 4.3 percentage points. AfD (-2.3%) and CSU (-1.0%) also lost votes.[1]

These results do not deviate from what the polls indicated over the past year. In the polls, we saw a series of remarkable turns, with a spectacular collapse and then partial recovery of Merkel’s Christian Democratic CDU/CSU, an equally spectacular rise followed by an equally large decline of the Greens, and a remarkable catch-up by the Social Democrats over the summer, resulting in the SPD leading the way.

The election results so far make the possibility of a reissue of the Grand Coalition (Grosse Koalition) between CDU/CSU and the SPD very small. There is, rather, a prospective coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and FDP instead of a coalition between CDU/CSU, the Greens, and FDP. If either one of the last two possible coalitions becomes reality, it would mean that, for the first time in the history of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the constitution of a government would include three parties. Furthermore, it is remarkable that each of the two biggest parties, the SPD and the CDU/CSU, contrary to their performance in the last 10 years, have as little as 30% of the votes.

In order to understand what the above-mentioned figures mean we have to understand how they reflect the political and economic context of Germany.

In a comment for this journal about the elections in Germany in 2017, I wrote that “We can interpret these German election results [in 2017] as a microcosm of a crisis-ridden world.”[2] This context also holds for the elections of 2021. The increasing enrichment of capital for its owners, which has been going on for a long period in Germany, is stronger now than ever before. There is rising exploitation of working people, cuts in public welfare, the browbeating of poor and jobless people through Hartz IV law, corruption in both industry and the financial sector, discrimination against Muslims, rising anti-Semitism, and the revival of fascism as exemplified by the AfD. Moreover, there are rising fascist and xenophobic tendencies in the police and army. And it is certain that the pandemic, starting in 2020, strengthened these ongoing processes and tendencies. Further, there is a continuation in the imperialist pursuits of the German capitalists as to their hegemony within the European Union and their attempts to secure their class interests outside of Europe– for example, recently, in Afghanistan and Mali. We also are also seeing how German capitalists are using ecology as a new model for enhancing their profits.

In the journal Junge Welt, on September 27th, Arnold Schölzel refers to the “motto” of these elections: “The three candidates for Chancellor[3] led an FDP, that is, a “capitalism is good” election campaign. After 16 years of political crisis management by Angela Merkel, which was particularly well received by younger voters under the age of 30, this same group voted around 20 percent for the FDP and the Greens combined. This age group apparently associates them with “awakening” and “renewal”.”

In contemporary election campaigns, we are bombarded with banter about “awakening” and “renewal” in the ideological discourse of the protagonists of the status quo of contemporary capitalist society. These phrases are completely hollow when not placed in a genuine anti-capitalist alternative, consisting of a humanist vision of an alternative to capital.

These younger people, with their leaning towards “openness”, are not aware of their own ideological constraints–that their ideology operates in a capitalist context. What they conceive as “liberal” is actually the drive of capital for greater mobility and profits.

According to Schölzel, “More dangerous than this reserve force of the worst capital faction (Schölzel points here to the neofascist AfD), however, seems the youth’s belief in ‘new beginnings’ and ‘renewal’ by the FDP and the Greens.” Schölzel is right here and has, in my opinion, a strong point. This belief reflects one of the ideological pollutions brought about in contemporary capitalism by this youth’s blind confidence in “awakening” and “renewal” as notions that express a progressive attitude without asking themselves what “progression” in capitalism actually means. This issue is certainly not only fitting in the German situation.

As to how this discourse about “new beginnings” and “renewal” works out in practice, Schölzel gives an example of the operation of the Greens in Berlin where “a Green transport senator in the city, which 100 years ago had the best local public transport system in the world, initiated the privatization of the S-Bahn.”

In a comment on the elections in The Los Angeles Times, September 27, Jan Peter Mueller writes: “First, the bad news. In Germany’s federal election, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) suffered losses, but still polled in excess of 10%. Despite constant infighting and numerous scandals, the party seems set to be a lasting feature on the German political landscape.” Mueller then continues with, “But the good news is that the election disproved various kinds of conventional wisdom about the far right: Western democracies are not fated to fight culture wars constantly; grand coalitions between center-left and center-right do not necessarily strengthen political extremes; and social democratic parties can do well without pandering to nativism and Islamophobia.”

We can agree with Mueller that the AfD is a lasting feature in the German political landscape and is, in some parts of Germany, even a dominating political force. As to the good news, we have to say that his opinion is, at the least, open to question. For he is taking the situation in Germany as a model for his notion of disproval of various kinds of conventional wisdom about the far right but forgets that the politics of the Social Democrats with their Hartz IV — a disaster for great parts of the working class— in the social-economic area and their coalition with the CDU/CSU just laid a basis for the populist movements and the rise of fascist tendencies in these movements in Germany. Indeed, Mueller claims, “Instead, the Social Democrats signaled a clear leftward turn and a break with the era of Merkel.” In fact, the SPD is not distancing itself from the Hartz IV laws, nor from imperialist adventures, or inhumane migration policies. Moreover, it is, in important respects, connected with the industrial and financial world.

Perhaps it is just wishful thinking on Mueller’s part, but his way of thinking actually propagates dangerous illusions about progressive and Left politics– illusions which we see illustrated in the case of Die Linke.

In the above-presented election results, we see that Die Linke’s vote total fell from 9.2% in 2017 to 4.9% in 2021 and only could enter the German Parliament (Bundestag) through the election rule of direct mandates. This almost halving in percentage takes a dramatic shape when we look to the loss in absolute votes:  2.27 million votes in 2021 while in 2017 it obtained 4.29 million. In the coming period, a vehement confrontation within that party about the course it has taken in the last years will undoubtedly break out. The dominant faction within Die Linke set course on participation in a possible future government of red (SPD), red (Die Linke), green (Greens).

The course of Die Linke was built on illusions about the SPD and the Greens.  Above, I already pointed to an SPD that does not distance itself from the Hartz IV laws, imperialist adventures, or inhumane migration policies. Moreover, it is, in important respects, connected with the industrial and financial world. How could Die Linke nevertheless choose to engage itself with the option of a red (SPD)— red (Die Linke)— green (Greens) government?

As we saw, the fact is that Die Linke lost half of their voters. Whichever way you look at it, this perspective (a “red—red—green” perspective) did not have appeal for a lot of the traditional supporters of Die Linke. They distrusted the realization of such a government—that prospect would mean giving up a working-class position. Also, in regard to gender, race, migration, and ecology problems in Germany, the discussions within Die Linke and of Die Linke towards organizations and activities of people who engage themselves in these social domains have had (and continue to have) a laborious course. (Actually, these issues demand a serious debate about their interconnectedness based on a value dimension, a Marxist notion of intersectionality. It will be interesting to follow how Die Linke seize hold of these questions because these exact questions are also relevant for Left parties and organizations in other countries.)

After these considerations about the negative result of the elections for the Left in Germany, we see in Austria’s second-largest city, Graz, a remarkable election result in the municipal elections, also September 26, for the KPÖ (Communist Party of Austria). The KPÖ with its top candidate Elke Kahr had a surprising victory in the municipal elections in Graz. According to the last figures published, it relegated the conservative ÖVP (25.7%) to second place with 28.9% of the votes. Compared to the 2017 elections, the KPÖ gained 8.6 percentage points while the ÖVP fell by 12.1 points. ÖVP mayor Siegfried Nagl announced his resignation on the evening of the election after an 18-year term in office.

In a September 27 interview with Robert Krotzer, a councilor of the KPÖ (Kommunistische Partei Österreichs— Communist party of Austria) in Graz since 2013, in Junge Welt, Krotzer makes clear how the KPÖ came to this result: “Towards the end of the 1980s, we in Graz began to be a useful party for people’s daily lives based on our political orientation. It is our great goal to fill the labor movement with life in the most varied of ways. Be it the tenant emergency number, the aid fund for victims of speculators, the work for tenants in community apartments – the KPÖ has made a name for itself in years of persistent detailed work through this commitment. As members of the local council, Elke Kahr and I have held thousands of consultations together with our team. We thus became a perceptible force in people’s everyday lives. In this way, we were also able to prevent large projects by the ÖVP-FPÖ city government, such as the candidacy for the Olympic Games or a multi-million-dollar gondola across our city.”

The above manner of unfolding activities by Graz’s local party organization of the KPÖ (the specific way they come in contact with and listen to working-class and minority inhabitants of Graz) makes this local organization a maverick within the federal orthodox KPÖ– For the KPÖ, on the federal level, is a party that still adheres to the traditional East European line of Marxism in which the top of the party establishes the political activities of the local organizations.

Krotzer, when asked, “For years we have been observing a shift to the right across Europe. Is this election victory a sign of the beginning of a new era?”, answered, “I am afraid that cannot be said. I am convinced that as long as we live under capitalist conditions, the system with all its mechanisms of exploitation and exclusion, the pressure of competition, and elbow mentality[4], is a basis for serving racist resentments and for stirring up hostility. One can only meet this in a very concrete way by making people experience that only when we stand on our feet for our own interests something can change.”

It will be clear that to achieve this “standing on our feet” we will have to pull open all possible registers of the dialectic of both subjective and objective factors in the historical process in order to come to an end of capitalist society.


Footnotes

[1] https://www.bpb.de/nachschlagen/zahlen-und-fakten/bundestagswahlen/340863/waehlerstimmen

[2] https://imhojournal.org/articles/turmoil-german-politics-bundestag-elections-karel-ludenhoff/

[3] Olaf Scholz for the SPD, Christian Lindner for the FDP and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens— K.L

[4] In talking about “elbow mentality”, Krotzer is pointing to a mentality, specifically in “neo-liberal” capitalism, with which individuals try to climb higher up the social and economic ladder at the expense of other individuals.

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