Interview with an opportunist - Weekly Worker

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Sahra Wagenknecht offers no real alternative to global capital, argues Paul Demarty. But moralism is no response

The latest edition of New Left Review carries an interview with Sahra Wagenknecht by Thomas Meaney and Joshua Rahtz. (Wagenknecht, of course, heads a German left formation that bears her own name - the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht - for Reason and Justice).

Since the interview was announced a day or two before publication, there immediately commenced a Twitter-storm of the old school (it is almost cheering to see that ailing platform still capable of driving a cycle of leftwing controversy). The two sides may be readily anticipated: there were those horrified that such an individual should be given space in this strangely invincible journal, and there were those who mocked the outrage as an outburst of exactly the purism that Wagenknecht denounces. At this point, of course, nobody had read the interview; indeed, it was not clear from the announcement that it was even an interview, rather than a kind of op-ed by this strangely divisive figure.

For an example of the kind of outrage on offer, we turn to Daniela Gabor, a leftish activist and Bristol-based economics professor associated with the heterodox economics movement, who declared:

So let’s get this straight: at this historical juncture, Perry Anderson is courting red-brown (German) reactionaries, while Adam Tooze is in the street defending students. Who’s running with the hare and hunting with the hounds now?1

Tooze, readers may be aware, is a left-liberal academic historian with some following outside academe, who teaches at Columbia University and has, as Gabor notes, acquitted himself well in all the recent excitement on his campus. (He was also, in his youth, a Socialist Workers Party member, and spoke at last year’s Marxism festival, apparently out of an intellectual debt to Alex Callinicos.) The “running with the hare” quip appears to be a reference to Anderson’s critical review of Tooze’s Crashed, a history of the 2008 crisis and its aftermath, which used that archaic idiom to question how far Tooze’s avowed liberalism could truly get a handle on the events he described.2

I think I liked the book more than Anderson did, and heartily recommend it; but Anderson’s central criticism - that Tooze fails to really account for US hegemony in his scathing picture of the EU’s (and especially Germany’s) failures during the crisis - seems fair. Tooze’s conclusion is, crudely, that the Germans fucked it up, and the Americans did not, and that this was in the end more a matter of policy choices than the world system.

So far as I can tell, as a moderately observant Tooze-watcher, the sage of Columbia has not yet commented on the strange political career of Wagenknecht, despite his expertise in German politics as a long-time resident of that country. Yet, if he was right that the Germans had essentially the same options available as the Americans in 2008-12, she would be an interesting figure to consider: a popular politician prepared to realign Germany internationally in the interests of a workable industrial policy. Fifteen years later, is she the counterfactual to Merkel come true?


The NLR interview allows her to describe her political pitch at length to an Anglophone audience. At the core of it, by her telling, is the fate of the Mittelstand (medium-sized enterprises). Germany’s industrial power is based on such firms, who often feed the marquee names of German industry with machine tools, parts and so forth. They are to be distinguished from those larger firms, both internationally and domestically headquartered, by

their own sort of business culture, focused on the longer term, the next generation, rather than quarterly returns. They’re embedded in their local communities, often doing business-to-business trading. They want to retain their workers, instead of exploiting every loophole, like the big corporations.3

This peculiar Mittelstand is under threat in multiple dimensions. In particular, there is the soaring cost of energy, which is slowly bearing fruit in the form of layoffs and business closures. That she blames, fairly, on the costs of the war in Ukraine, which she correctly identifies as a proxy war driven by the United States; but also on the insistence of the Green Party on inflicting the costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels on the lower orders. She gets some pushback from her interviewers on the green question, and replies:

We need extensive public provision for the immediate consequences of climate change, from city planning to forestry, from agriculture to public transport. This will be expensive. We prefer public expenditures for the mitigation of climate change … [But] nobody now alive will live to see average temperatures going down again, regardless of how much we reduce carbon emissions. First equip homes for the elderly and hospitals and childcare centres with air conditioning at public expense, and make places close to rivers and streams safe against flooding. Make sure that the costs of pursuing ambitious emissions-reduction deadlines are not imposed on ordinary people who already have a hard time making ends meet.

This stuff is familiar from other unorthodox green-sceptical leftist writers (see, for example, Thomas Fazi in an article for Unherd last year4). But not only writers: see the pinkish-wave government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico, with its programme of extending oil drilling as a form of economic stimulus - and for that matter the Scottish government’s abandonment of net-zero targets, which occasioned the split between the Nats and the Greens and thereby the fall of Humza Yousaf.

This is not the stuff that Gabor (and innumerable less notable commentators) have in mind when they call Wagenknecht ‘red-brown’, of course, though admittedly neither of those colours are green. It is, instead, her willingness, on the one hand, to adopt an explicit policy of managed and reduced inward migration and, on the other, her scorn for the particular pieties of identity politics (Gabor, as a migrant in Britain, is more concerned with that question, and links the NLR’s “platforming” of Wagenknecht to the follies of the Lexiteers in 2016; other critics are more concerned with the identity issues).

Her answer on the migration question is largely practical: the German welfare state has been ground down by years of government neglect; there is a considerable housing shortage and, so long as this remains the case, it will be necessary to restrict incomers. It simply does not bear analysis that huge waves of immigration stemming from imperialist misadventures can have no effect on the overall pressure on essential services. So it goes. She does also hint at “cultural” problems with mass migration, attributing to some of her Bundestag colleagues the view that they “are happy to live in a country that has by and large overcome patriarchy and they don’t want to see it being reintroduced through the back door” - by Muslims, one assumes (or who else?). She has little enough to say about the identity “discourse”, as she puts it, except that it is a fetish of the political class that is alienating to voters.

Towards the end of the interview, she is given the opportunity to comment on her own political history. We quote her at length:

Rosa Luxemburg has always been an important figure for me, her letters, in particular; I could identify with her. Thomas Mann, of course, certainly influenced and impressed me … Marx used to be a major influence on me and I still find his analyses of capitalist crises and property relations very useful. I’m not in favour of total nationalisation or central planning, but I’m interested in exploring third options, between private property and state ownership - foundations or stewardships, for example, that prevent a firm from being plundered by shareholders …

I’ve held key positions in the [Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus] and Die Linke. I’ve been a member of the Bundestag since 2009 and was co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group from 2015 to 2019. But I would say that I’ve remained true to the goals for which I entered politics in the first place. We need a different economic system that puts people at the centre, not profit … I’m on the road a lot and, wherever I go, I sense there are many people who no longer feel represented by any of the parties. There is a huge political void. That leads to people getting angry - it’s not good for a democracy.

This is an oddly partial memoir. After all, she was known in the PDS - the inheritor party of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, which ruled the former German Democratic Republic - as an old-fashioned hardliner. She describes being “changed … a bit” by encountering real voters on the road, but leaves out of view her conversion from old-line Stalinism to - whatever this is. Perhaps there exist letters of Rosa Luxemburg - one of the communist movement’s more astringent critics of nationalism and tailoring one’s message to the ‘man in the street’ - where she says the exact opposite; I am no expert.

Not alone

The interest of Wagenknecht’s comments to Anglophone readers, of course, is that she is hardly alone. In Britain, we have George Galloway’s Workers Party, which takes a red, white and blue logo, and pursues much the same programme of national economic rebuilding, coupled to managed migration and law-and-order social policies as Wagenknecht’s eponymous party in Germany.

In the US, the two-party system is even more restrictive of alternatives than in Britain, but we have nonetheless got a clutch of Republican politicians - among them senators JD Vance and Josh Hawley - who pursue at least cosmetically pro-labour policies, and a wider intellectual milieu that enables them, encompassing for example publications like Compact and American Affairs (the American version, typically, is much more overtly rightwing). Third-world state-building is very much of interest to such people, and Compact is for example quite enamoured of the AMLO government in Mexico, despite its enthusiasm for punishing border policies in the US.

There is, it seems, a strange complicity between Wagenknecht and her identitarian critics on one point. Extremely vague hand-waves towards Luxemburg are common enough among those who fancy themselves as Marxist-feminists in this day and age; the visceral hostility of Luxemburg and other prominent Marxist women of her day towards, at least, the feminism they knew remains a discreet embarrassment. For both, Luxemburg barely exists as a political figure, with all her strengths and weaknesses and historical peculiarities. She is instead a kind of saint, on which one may project whatever concerns one wishes.

Among both the ‘conservative left’ and the identitarian left, there is a commonality of origin - at least among those who come upon it from more traditional socialist outlooks, as Wagenknecht did. (The conservatives, and the radical liberals, who meet them halfway, tend to have the virtue of honesty.) There is a search for the path not taken, and an inability to settle accounts with former views. Above all, there is a salutary recognition that conventional socialist leftism has not exactly covered itself in glory, leading to a less than salutary effort to find something to graft onto it that will redeem the package. Among those who turned to identitarianism, there is the view that picking up on particular struggles of identity groups will get us the breakthrough; among the conservatives the exact reverse. Both make their judgments on the basis of what is popular now, differing mainly on the particular constituencies in which popularity is to be sought.

In this respect, Wagenknecht is at least true to her recent history in Die Linke, one of the marquee names of the new European left that rose to prominence between, roughly, 2005 and 2015; others include Syriza in Greece, La France Insoumise and Podemos in Spain. (In the interview, Wagenknecht also mentions Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S - a more ambiguous case.) In all cases, these movements were characterised by a search for immediate popularity, often couched in the form of pseudo-Gramscian meditations on the pursuit of hegemony.

Podemos was perhaps the paradigmatic case, set up by followers of Ernesto Laclau after spontaneous revolts against the fiscal punishment beatings so ably recounted in Tooze’s book. It was clear from day one that for all its jeremiads against la casta - ‘the caste’, Podemos-speak for the political mainstream - it would join any coalition that would have them, as indeed it did in due course. Well-meaning leftists abroad, who would not renege on any of the identitarian commitments now cited against Wagenknecht, supported such a policy, and indeed all of the above organisations.

The problem was that there was precisely no reason why such a political approach (rabble-rousing populism) should not lead to, especially, anti-migrant policy. Indeed, in the case of M5S, it did very rapidly, and this party ended up governing in coalition with the far right in short order. Yet other, less dramatic, examples are available. Bernie Sanders famously called open borders “a Koch brothers policy”. Oskar Lafontaine, one of the founders of Die Linke, held to a restrictive immigration policy (and he came from the other founding section of the party to Wagenknecht).

After all, the sorts of arguments made by Wagenknecht are not entirely meritless: huge movements of people from one place to another are rarely good in themselves, normally betokening some disaster - military, economic or environmental - that has set them on the move. Those who migrate often do end up competing for (artificially) scarce resources. To actually solve these problems would require political action on an international scale; but both identitarian-liberal and ‘conservative left’ opportunism limit themselves to a national horizon of action. The identitarians can only offer a moral injunction to abjure migration scaremongering, vulnerable to the hard-headed ‘realism’ of their adversaries.

The ‘conservative left’ simply joins the adversaries, which tends to exacerbate the problem over time, by leaning into the ‘beggar thy neighbour’ politics of the state system. Wagenknecht’s plan for this is to withdraw from great-power competition and make friends with everyone, but that assumes that ‘everyone’ will be happy with such an arrangement. As Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face”.

Those who consider the NLR interview to cross some important line are, in the end, simply not familiar enough with the journal’s history. After all, its modus operandi has always been this sub-Gramscian hegemony-mongering in thin air. I remember Alex Callinicos snarkily rejecting the tendency of Anderson to view himself as “generalissimo of the class struggle” - in context, it was a disreputable and indirect attack on factional opponents within the Socialist Workers Party, but he had a point. NLR has always been composed of generalissimi without armies, and its great theoretical inheritance is the hypothesis - the so-called Nairn-Anderson thesis, after Anderson and colleague Tom Nairn - that the failure to complete the bourgeois revolution in Britain entailed its breakup along national lines, consequently auguring support especially for Scottish nationalism. Why not German nationalism too? Perhaps there is a grand ‘Gramscian’ theory to tell us why ‘this time it’s different’.

Shell game

In any case, the moral argument for open borders is necessary, but not sufficient. There is the more fundamental question of class interests - specifically the interest of the proletariat in the maximum unity in action of the whole class. Policies that set native against migrant workers are dangerous, because they appeal to quite real short-term interests on the part of native workers, but cannot in fact deliver the improvements they promise, since it is flatly not the case that legal restrictions prevent the employment of migrant labour, but merely reduce the associated labour costs and therefore worsen downward pressure.

Sanders was wrong to call open borders a Koch brothers policy, and Wagenknecht is wrong to call it “neoliberal” in the NLR. The Koch-neoliberal policy is rather to play a shell game - reactionary parties promise atomised native workers immigration restrictions, and ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties promise migrant workers and their sympathisers free movement, Actually delivered - by the alternation in government of both - is a restricted migration regime that offers the facsimile of cosmopolitanism in the great cities, but fundamentally allows labour costs to be driven down across the board, exacerbating popular resentment and introducing ever greater dysfunction to domestic politics.

To break out of the shell game, however, means abandoning the worship of short-term popularity. There are real common interests between native and migrant workers, but these interests are obscure in a situation where these workers really are thrown into competition with each other. The missing ingredient here is deep political organisation. The socialist movement of the early 20th century faced similar challenges from those who wanted to support immigration controls, and successfully fought at congresses of the international movement to take a different course. But it could only do so because there was an international movement that represented serious forces in enough countries that the general interest could prevail. It is precisely this which we lack; and the lack of it frames the ease with which Wagenknecht, Galloway and (God help us) JD Vance can argue for their politics.

To take a communist position in such debates means registering that lack, and fighting above all to overcome it - because it is that which we lack: an international and internationalist communist movement, not the correct momentary policy to interest atomised voters, as they are presently constituted. Movement towards the desired outcome is no small matter; there is therefore a kind of sense in trying instead to build more just societies within national frameworks, and that is part of communist politics as well, so far as it can be achieved. The record of parties like Die Linke, Syriza, Podemos and the like should immunise us against any fantasy that it is easily done. Reactionary remixes of those more ‘progressive’ outfits will fail for the same reasons (as did the M5S).

The capitalist class is an international class, and always has been. This is precisely what Tooze fails to truly grapple with in Crashed; but it is also what Wagenknecht avoids in her encomia to the Mittelstand firms and their stabilising role in German society. She acknowledges, to some extent, that they are subordinated to the great German and international concerns, but fails to draw the conclusion: the bourgeoisie’s only viable adversary is the other international class - the proletariat, insofar as it understands its position and its destiny.

Nationalist and identitarian forms of sectionalism alike constitute obstacles to this understanding.