Can left nationalism stop the rise of the far-right in Germany?

Sahra Wagenknecht and Bernd Stegemann launching Aufstehen, September 2018. Bernd von Jutrczenka/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

The return to the nation is a trend
that marks the politics of more and more European left-wing movements and
parties. Those many European social democratic parties that took the path of Tony
Blair’s New Labour and embraced globalisation, European integration and
economically liberal positions, have become objects of criticism if not
outright hostility in recent years. Instead, there has been a return to a
nationalist rhetoric.

French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon
and his movement La France Insoumise were
trendsetters in this regard. Founded in 2016, the party deliberately adopted nationalist
rhetoric in what they said was an attempt to regain traditionally left-leaning
and anti-capitalist supporters who had moved their support behind the nativist
Front National. In the years prior, the far-right Front National had
successfully branded itself “France’s first working class party” and a sole
voice against what it portrayed as a neoliberal EU dominated by German
interests. Mélenchon did not shy away from using the same rhetoric during the
French elections in 2017, a strategy gathering him almost 20 per cent of the
votes in the first round.

In the UK, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
represents a softer strain of the same trend. His continued strength can at least
partially be explained by his ambiguous position on Brexit and the EU, deeply
rooted in left-wing Euroscepticism. Through the deliberate lack of a clear
standpoint, Labour has managed to appeal both to working class leave-supporters
many of whom are keen to reduce immigration by ending EU freedom of movement to
the UK, and to younger, more liberal remain-supporters. Corbyn’s preference for
national solutions over European ones is widely assumed.

A similar convergence of classical left-
and right-wing positions under the umbrella of anti-capitalism,
anti-neoliberalism and neo-nationalism is currently emerging in Germany.
Similar to the Front National, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has developed a strong social
profile over recent years, slowly pushing aside the economically more liberal positions
that dominated the party’s inception in 2013. This has allowed the party to
become increasingly appealing to traditional left voters.

Inspired by the Front National,
AfD-strategists realised that the increasing weakness of the social democratic
SPD and the stagnant performance of the far-left Die Linke offers them a prime opportunity. In the end, around a
million former supporters of the SPD and Die Linke gave their vote to the AfD
in Germany’s 2017 federal elections. The shift in voting patterns was
particularly visible in the east of Germany. Much of the AfD’s more recent move
to the economic left has been led by Thuringia’s AfD-leader Björn Höcke, around
whom a circle with strong links to the far-right think tank Institut für Staatspolitik and its
founder Götz Kubitschek has formed. Together with a group of young activists
around self-proclaimed national-socialist Benedikt Kaiser, this circle
initiated attempts to hijack labour unions with proposals for a more generous
national pension, and books published on the utility of left-wing topics for
the far-right – a move provoking intense debate at last year’s AfD party
conference, where more moderate economic liberals clashed with economic
nationalists.

Höcke’s group is embedded in a
European far-right network and works in close collaboration with actors from
Italy and France, such as Alain de Benoist. Drawing on left theorists such as
Karl Marx, but also more recent authors such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto
Laclau, their central aim is to pave the way for a critique of capitalism from
the right and to reconcile it to far-right ethno- and anti-immigration
politics.

Another author applauded by Höcke’s
group is Bernhard Stegemann, now close political friend of Sahra Wagenknecht
and intellectual co-initiator of Aufstehen.
In 2017, he published the widely received book “The Spectre of Populism”
arguing the case for a leftist populism standing up against the hegemony of
neoliberal capitalism – a book that was equally celebrated by intellectuals on
the far-right. Together with Wagenknecht, the vocal and media savvy leader of
the Die Linke faction in the German
parliament, internationally renowned political economist Wolfgang Streeck and
politicians from the SPD and the Greens, he declared the official start of Aufstehen in Berlin last summer.

In the accompanying press
conference, Wagenknecht claimed that German democracy is in a deep crisis, a
crisis which, according to her, is also the driver behind last year’s violent
clashes and far-right protests in Chemnitz. For her, the rise of the AfD is not
a cultural but primarily a socio-economic question that has to be addressed
from the left. More recently, she attempted to gain momentum from the “yellow
vest” protests in France by posing in a yellow vest in front of the German
chancellery and calling for a similar movement in Germany.

Wagenknecht has repeatedly called
for the limitation of immigration into Germany in order to stabilise the
welfare state. While large parts of her
own party attacked her for this position, she was applauded by Höcke’s group on
the far-right, which called her an “isolated sign of hope in a leftist parallel
society”.

Electoral fortunes

In the light of three upcoming
regional East German elections in 2019, sending signals to the right on
migration may seem an intuitive electoral move. Here the AfD has started to
become a serious threat to Die Linke’s claim
to be the obvious representative of East Germans. In Sachsen, Brandenburg and
Thuringia recent polls see the AfD between 21 and 25 per cent, levelling with or
even ahead of Die Linke. At the
beginning of this year, the AfD’s persisting strength and its emphasis on a more
generous pension system even pushed the CDU into calling for a reform of the
pension system that would take into account those East Germans who lose their
jobs after reunification.

Giving frustrated voters a left-wing
alternative for restricted migration became a key selling point for the Aufstehen movement. Combined with the first German attempt to start a non-partisan
movement a la Macron’s En Marche,
Corbyn’s Momentum and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, this it was hoped
would mobilize non- and young voters yearning for new and alternative political
options. But the first polls have already raised doubts about this, suggesting
that Aufstehen so far primarily
appeals to an older, more socially conservative and economically left-leaning
electorate while largely meeting uninterest among young voters.

However, the appeal it has to the
far-right with its anti-immigration rhetoric is another matter. It is a  dangerous game that could end up not weakening
but strengthening the AfD. Rather than representing the genuine, forward
looking and innovative movement it pretends to be, Aufstehen can also be seen as yet another sign of the normalisation
of a new nationalism, this time in the German left – a nationalism driven by
the nostalgia for allegedly better times before globalisation and
Europeanisation took over, seen as the primary cause of the financial, Euro and
migration crises that have shaken Europe over the past decade.

In the long term, Aufstehen might have the chance to shake
up Germany’s political landscape. Whether this is for better or for worse
remains to be seen. What appears rather more certain is that the AfD strategy to adopt
a leftist-anti-capitalist rhetoric will make the party one of the strongest
competitors in the upcoming East German elections.

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