The Radical Left in Germany

Frieder Otto

Introduction and overview

In order to understand the present perspectives of the radical left in Germany today, five main considerations are needed:

a.) a non-sectarian idea of the radical left
b.) a realistic idea of the impact of unification on the German left
c.) a deepened understanding of the European dimension of German politics
d.) a sufficiently clear idea of the dangers presented by a political turn to the radical right
e.) a sufficiently clear theoretical basis for understanding the comprehensive dynamics of the present constellation of structures of domination (capitalist, imperial, male supremacist, anti-ecological)

a.) It is no longer possible – and never has been – to define the radical left by a simple idea of socialist/communist revolution or by referring to an existing model of socialism or communism. Instead, all political currents, groups, and initiatives which aim – in their practice and/or their program – at overcoming the present constellation of domination should be considered as a genuine part of the radical left. Capitalist domination is central, but patriarchal/heterosexist and imperial/racist structures of domination should not be neglected. In Germany, this pertains not only to political alliances based on social movements, but also to attempts at creating a hegemonic alliance among radical left political forces, in order to create an alternative governing coalition. On the other hand, as any such initiative requires further theoretical and political clarification of radical left-wing perspectives and strategies, it will also require significant input from left radical networks.

b.) German left politics has been in some way traumatized by the unification, i.e. the absorption of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the resulting defeat of the transformation program of the West German left. This trauma has been due, on the one hand, to insufficient critical study of ‘really existing socialism’, and, on the other, to the insufficient reaction of the post-1968 ‘alternative left’ to the absorption of the global youth revolt into a neoliberal strategy of re-structuring capitalism. In the meantime, this trauma has been largely overcome – without however opening a new historical opportunity for the radical left in Germany. Instead, the subaltern integration of the Eastern territories,1 by producing unemployment and precarization as well as an increase in East-West labour migration, has given neoliberal politics a powerful instrument for destroying the ‘fordist’ elements of a ‘welfare state’ class compromise that had been won in the West.2 The history of the party with the ambitious name Die Linke (The Left), which is now the third or fourth political party in Germany, competing for this place with the Greens, testifies to this. The successor to the ‘leading party’ of the GDR, the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei, SED), namely the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus, PDS),3 whose main strength was in the Eastern regions, merged in 2007 with the Western German Electoral Initiative for Labor and Social Justice (Wahlinitiative für Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit, WASG) to form Die Linke, which gained representation also in the Western states of Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse and Saarland.

Radical left groups stemming from the marginalized and splintered communist tradition in the West have not attained any electoral significance (except for some local councillors of the German Communist Party (Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, DKP) in a few older industrial zones, but they have maintained a certain limited role in trade unions.4 The very weak current of Trotskyist groups in Germany5 has not been able to overcome the marginalization of the Group of International Marxists (Gruppe Internationale Marxisten, GIM) after its splits in the 1980s (on the issue of the ‘new social movements’ and on a strategy of ‘entry-ism’ into the newly forming Green party), but parts of it gained some signficance within a youth and student organisation which has revived the abbreviation SDS (Sozialistisch-Demokratischer Studentenverband ) from the 1960s, while associating itself to Die Linke. These marginal groups are concentrated in Western Germany.

In practice, Die Linke has built a significant hegemony over the entire field of the German radical left. Apart from the ‘entry-ism’ of the various ex-Maoist and ex-Trotskyist groups, new groups (e.g. Interventionist Left [Interventionistische Linke, IL], and For a Left Current [Für eine linke Strömung]),6 have more recently been taking advantage of the parliamentary presence of Die Linke, as well as its presence within trade unions and social movements, as a basis for their own operations, while aiming beyond its perceived limitations as a ‘reformist’ political force.

c.) The political system of the new Germany (taken over from the FRG) tends to centre on national and regional state politics, while practically treating European politics as a government prerogative. A symptom of this is lower voter participation in European elections – 43.3% in 2009; 48.1% in 2014 – than in regional state or national elections. This has passively contributed to the technocratic build-up of a European framework of politics dominated by capital and administrative elites, over the opposition of popular mobilizations which have been frequent and relatively strong since the peace movement of the 1980s, in the form of various ‘alternative’ or ‘counter-summits’ in the EU, and ‘euro-marches against unemployment and social exclusions’, or the World Social Forum initiatives and the recent transnational mobilizations of ‘Blockupy’. In spite of some good showimgs by a ‘Blockupy’ movement with a European core,7  these mibilizations have not yet led to a significant European dimension of left-wing politics, notwithstanding the continuous efforts of some parts of Die Linke. The present debates on building European solidarity for the SYRIZA government and people of Greece against the European diktat of austerity politics may mark a new departure in this respect.

d.) The mobilizations (and the terror) of a new right – going beyond fascist nostalgia – have been a reality of the new Germany (not only of its Eastern regions). Although to a more limited degree than in other Western European states, they have been able to constitute a mass following among the ‘middle classes’, and thereby effectively block any possibility of a left use of nationalist arguments against dominant EU policies.8

e.) After a long period in which the critique of capitalist political economy had been altogether marginalized (under the double impact of global post-modernism and the primacy of the German unification process), it is now – especially after the global crisis of 2007/08 – broadly acknowledged that the critique of capitalist domination is central to understanding the present constellation of domination, without relinquishing feminist or anti-imperial critique. In the German context the convergence of struggles against the combined structures of domination constitutes the central challenge for a contemporary critical theory, still struggling to overcome the after-effects of the demise of Eastern socialism and the defeat of the post-1968 ‘alternative movements’ in the West. There is a spreading sense of a lack of relevant theorizing, in a situation in some ways the reminiscent of the very early years of socialism and communism in the 19th century: A project of social liberation needs to be reinvented and is not spontaneouly emerging out of predominantly defensive struggles.

 Left parties and movements in Germany after 1989

Just before unification, there seemed to be a moment in the FRG in which a reformist left coalition under Oskar Lafontaine, then president of the SPD, could have taken over the government on the basis of a left coalition of social democrats and greens, capable of implementing a green-left new deal and mobilizing the extra-parliamentary left in a way comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s early New Deal. This outcome was blocked by the very process of German unification, made possible by the end of the Cold War, which brought a landslide victory to the parties Christian Democratic Union (Christlich-Demokratische Union, CDU) and the Christian Social Unity (Christlich-Soziale Union, Bavarian CSU) of the conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl and his (neo)liberal coalition partner the Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP).

In spite of this, and the further desorientation of significant parts of the German left after the demise of the GDR, an initiative emerged to build a left-wing alternative as an essential instrument for social and ecological transformation. Left green and left social democratic politicians – soon joined by politicians from the then PDS – deliberated in a ‘crossover’ process on a common programmatic alternative as a basis for a left-wing government.9 In spite of some influence that could be exerted in the first phase of the ‘red-green’ Schröder government (1998-2005), before its neoliberal turn-around and Oskar Lafontaine’s resignation,10 this initiative has remained a top-down construction and could therefore be easily defeated.

As there are no other possibilities of a left turn of the government of Germany, the initative for such a left-wing crossover re-emerged after the defeat of the Schröder government, taking an institutionalized form in the Institut Solidarische Moderne (Institute for solidarity-based modernity), and articulated by a number of books and articles by leading trade unionists and politicians.11 It has remained, however, unable to link with any real movement from below in German society.

The major factor of change in the German party system after 1990 has been the advent of the former regime party of the SED which – surprisingly, for many West Germans – neither disbanded nor vanished. Instead, it has shown important popular support, capable activists, and a considerable intellectual capacity for critically coming to terms with the heritage of Stalinism and the GDR’s politics of authoritarian socialist transformation, and has managed to establish itself as one of the leading parties in the new regional states formed on the territory of the former GDR.12 Its programmatic renewal on a more or less ‘democratic-communist’ basis (continuing the ‘perestrojka’ debates)13 justified its renaming itself the ‘PDS’. It has, since then, established itself simultaneously as a party open and supportive of grassroots and civil society movements, an active partner within the unified trade union movement (in co-operation with social-democratic, green, and non-party left forces), and, occasionally, though only on state level, as a force participating in government.14 Its merger with the Western split-away from the SPD (i.e. the WASG) has then solidly reinforced its extension into the regions of the former FRG,15 where Die Linke is now represented in a slight majority of regional state parliaments, with the significant Western ‘exceptions’ of North-Rhine-Westfalia, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Rheinland Pfalz.

Within the Eastern parts of Germany, Die Linke has never had any problem in supporting (as in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt from 1994 to 2002) or in participating in governments (as in the years 2001-2011 in the state of Berlin or 1998-2006 in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern); since 2014, they are leading the state government of Thuringia, with the SPD as a junior partner in a coalition. The Western parts, under stronger pressures of marginalization and exclusion, still tend to be more reticent in this respect – certainly also due to the fact that occasions for such a coalition government have not yet been presented by elections in the West. As to a participation of Die Linke in a federal government coalition (electorally possible with Social Democrats and Greens, on the basis of the last federal elections), the SPD and Grüne have formulated conditions – especially on foreign policy and on military interventions – which would exclude any participation of Die Linke. Whether this exclusion can be lifted will be a central issue for electoral politics in Germany on the federal level for at least the next decade.16 Due to a loss of votes in comparison to the federal elections in 2009, the last federal elections in 2013 have not even resulted numerically in a clear ‘majority left of the centre’. Even in 2009, politically, there was not a sufficient common basis for such a majority, as some of the voters (and activists) of the three parties involved seem already to have drifted towards the neoliberal camp. Consequently, this exclusion – which prevented the formation of a left-leaning coalition government in 2009 – is now ruling out an active strategy of building a common majority.

Government participation and electoral majority-building have limited potential; it cannot be expected that a government elected by left parties including Die Linke would immediately take a radical political turn – but at least, it would open the possibility for taking initial first steps towards a radical alternative.

Major mobilizations and their outcomes for the radical left

Social mobilization has been continuous since the advent of the red-green coalition in 1998. The goal has been to undo the neoliberal Schröder reforms, which dismantled social protection on the labor markets, eliminating most mechanisms of unemployment insurance. The effort has not been successful.

Trade union mobilization has been low key, but strong enough to stop the bleeding out of trade union organizations which had started in the 1980s, leading to rising membership figures in key industrial and public service trade unions.17

Alliances of various social movements have been built with a political focus against the rise of the extreme right, as well as against racist mobilizations, e.g. against ‘foreigners’ or later, ‘refugees’, especially in those marginalized areas of Germany which have served as a laboratory for the implementation of more radical neoliberal strategies of deregulation and precarization, which threatened even parts of the lower middle class.

The most interesting new forms of mobilization of the extra-parliamentary left since 2012 have been those of ‘Blockupy’.18 Recently, there have been broad citizen mobilizations against right-wing initiatives (like PEGIDA and similar groupings in parts of Eastern Germany) and against more or less violent attacks on refugees, again especially in Eastern Germany. In this context, left and left-leaning grass roots initiatives have been able – with divided roles – to acquire both ‘street credibility’ and political respectability, in a broad anti-fascist front against new right-wing populism.19

Changes in Germany after 2008

In order to understand why the political potential of the radical left in Germany has been reduced, instead of finding additional opportunities with the global crisis of capital accumulation in 2008, it is essential to see why and how Germany’s economy has been less impaired by this crisis than other countries, and has even drawn certain short-term advantages from it. Four factors seem to have been decisive for this: a.) the export-led model of accumulation developed by German industry – which could profit directly from the still high growth rates in the BRIC states, especially China;20 b.) the capacity of the German trade unions to gain important concessions to stabilize employment (by so-called support for shorter labour hours, as well as by short-term investment programs which have helped to avoid larger lay-offs in industry); c.) the successful implementation of a low-wage and precarious sector of employment out of reach of the trade unions – comprising about 10% of the overall work force, but a slight majority of the newly created jobs – by a series of government measures which have significantly lowered comparative average labour costs and increased pressure on the wage-earning middle classes. d.) A considerable advance in the German penetration of the European single market has served to strengthen the industrial position of Germany, while weakening other member states (especially Italy and France) to the point of de-industrialization

All these points are unsustainable, and in combination they are even inherently self-destructive, as they typically rely on beggar-your-neighbour-strategies in the transnational dimension, and on destroying wage-labour solidarity internally.21 They may therefore still turn from assets into heavy liabilities at the next turn of historical development – leaving Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, without her essential resources, while faced by a still utterly unprepared radical left.

The radical left in Germany after 2008

The radical left in Germany has not been able to make a political issue out of the advance of technocratic, supposedly apolitical crisis management on the European and EU level.22 Initiatives toward a broader European alliance for radical political alternatives have been attempted, but they have not had significant impact on the German political system, as they have remained limited largely to academic youth movements with an emerging transnational culture.

Die Linke has established itself as a significant force of parliamentary and extra-paliamentary opposition. Because of its exclusion from alliances with the social-democratic and the green party (which, with its ecological and internationalist sensivities, still draws in large parts of the feminist left), Die Linke is not challenged to develop a realistic strategy of poltical intervention within the political system. At the same time, due to the defensive thrust of most social movements – against neoliberal deregulation and against technocratic de-politicization – it is not challenged to propose a strategy of transformative action from below.

Very small political initiatives have been taken to describe these challenges, namely, a.) the need for a political ‘crossover’ between social-democratic, green and Die Linke forces to impose a government that could give an alternative political direction to Germany, to the EU, and to Europe; b.) the need to create a productive collaboration between parliamentary (and government) initiatives and those of grassroots social movements, especially with regard to ‘stretching’ and overcoming the institutional straitjacket that has been imposed on national politics by EU programs and regulations; c.) the need to create a common counter-power to the European elites dominating EU institutions and the Eurozone.

The strategic debate on the reasons for the relative failure of the German radical left has not yet been fully engaged. It will be utterly impossible to meet these challenges effectively by continuing to ignore them. Even the unfolding of such a strategic debate will take a considerable and sustained effort – the need for which has been understood in only a handful of initiatives.

Prospects for the radical left in Germany

Near-term prospects for the radical left in Germany will depend largely on the future of the dominant neoliberal model of politics. If this ‘Merkel model’ continues to succeed at least relatively, by keeping the crisis at bay and continuing to steer Germany into the quiet eye of the tornado, the German left will have very limited options of changing German politics. It may, however, be moved to make a more important contribution to building European solidarity against the EU neoliberal model of politics, and to resisting (and reducing) the growing antagonism between the EU and Russia. If, however, the crisis makes itself felt within Germany much more acutely, the German left will have to master a really major, if not historic challenge: that of imposing a real political turn-around which would open a protracted period of struggle – with effects extending well beyond Germany –  raising the possibility of a deeper transformation of the very structures of capitalist society and its state.

The recent mobilizations in Germany against the EU’s diktat of austerity on the Syriza government in Greece, initiated by Die Linke (and ‘Blockupy’),23 offer a promising example of a new capacity for building political solidarity.

To translate this into a political strategy presupposes a specific advance in formulating and solving the key problem of the unity of the left at large – primarily within Germany, but developing a European dimension. This problem, based on the experiences of the global popular fronts of the 1970s and 1980s (Chile, Portugal, Nicaragua), as well as on the present experience of SYRIZA, can be formulated as the challenge to combine a realistic assessment and use of the different levels of political action – government, parties, civil society/social movements, grassroots initiatives – with a continuous struggle to change and overcome their existing, institutionally reinforced limitations. As such, this is a new challenge; it asks for a limited, and conditioned, but effective unity of action on each of these levels, while opening the possibility for conflict and critcism, as well as for an autonomous initiatives of each.

Even if radical political parties or social movements do not agree with important decisions taken by a left-wing government, this does not constitute a reason for – in effect – replacing it by a centre or right-wing government. By the same token, even if a government judges the mobilizations of a trade union or a social movement extremely inconvenient, this does not constitute a justification for using institutional power in order to impose discipline upon it. This need for a new plurality within left politics24 – which as a whole should build the pressure towards societal transformation, not trying to push it through technocratically and in isolation from other dimensions of politics – should not be considered a pretext for avoiding common action and solidarity, wherever needed to prevent the imposition of a mainstream or right-wing counter-offensive.

A new constellation of crises25 seems to be emerging now: a crisis of the Euro, a European refugee crisis, and multiple crises at the broader European periphery26 which the European Neighborhood Policy is addressing in an increasingly imperial way (competing, in a still subaltern way, with the USA). These will all elicit additional German participation and initiative – which the present government will continue to provide on a neoliberal and authoritarian model. The German radical left is challenged to present realistic alternatives to this on all political levels, and to impose at least initial steps toward implementing them.

This would entail broad civil society mobilization – going beyond what has been possible within the ‘Blockupy’experience or the Social Forum process – combined with clearly articulated and well organized offers of political orientation, unfolding within a common space of theoretical and normative deliberation, combining the specific possibilities of local, regional, and national political spaces with the requirements of the political space of European and EU politics. Neither government action nor social movements alone can be sufficient; the two must act in concert. Transformational politics will not depend only on political parties, but it will not be possible without radical left parties participating in government. Societal mobilization alone, without state intervention tends, unfortunately, to be a zero sum game. State action without societal mobilization can, at best, produce technocratic change.

In other words, the radical German left – in all of its different components – will have to struggle in new ways to address ‘the simple task’ which it is so difficult to carry out."


1. The quasi-colonial form of ‘integrating’ the territories of the former GDR is still visible today in economic and political structures, as well as in mentalities. See Robert Böhmer, Der Geist des Kapitalismus und der Aufbau Ost (Dresden: W.E.B. Universitätsverlag, 2005).

2. See Gerhard A. Ritter, Der Preis der Einheit. Die Wiedervereinigung und die Krise des Sozialstaats (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2006).

3. Drawing significant entries from loosely Trotskyist and Maoist quarters of the West German Greens immediately after German unification.

4. Mostly the DKP, but in a more limited way also the Maoist Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD).

5. In contrast to the development in the UK, a lot of political mobilization and organization after 1968 went into a broad array of Maoist tendencies in Western Germany and West Berlin, leaving very limited space for Trotskyist initiatives.

6. Even more recently, initiatives have re-emerged (and, foreseeably, largely failed) aiming at a theoretico-political reconstruction of a radical left in Germany capable of defining an autonomous strategic and tactical program (e.g. the debate process for a New Anticapitalist Organization (Neue antikapitalistische Organisation, NaO [], or the Sharp Left (scharf-links) initiative).

7. In which cadre organizations like IL and its counterparts in Italy, Spain and France claim and play a relatively hegemonic role.

8. The issue of nationalism vs. Europeanism, i.e. of the adequate spatial framing of left-wing strategy, is controversial, also within the German radical left. See [Reference is missing]

9. W. Brüggen (ed.), Crossover (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1997); S. Buckel, A. Ypsilanti, ‘Crossover’, in Ulrich Brand, Bettina Lösch, Benjamin Opratko, and Stefan Thimmel (eds.), ABC der Alternativen 2.0 (Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 2012).

10. Lafontaine was minister of finance in the Schröder government. After 2007, he was the co-president of Die Linke until 2010.

11. A. Brie, M. Brie, P. Brandt, and F.O. Wolf , ‘Von unten sieht man besser’, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, No. 7 (2015), 81-88; H.-J. Urban, Der Tiger und seine Dompteure: Gewerkschaften und Wohlfahrtsstaat unter dem Druck der Finanzmärkte (Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2013).

12. It is the second or third party, electorally, in all the states formed out of the former GDR, and in Thuringia it is the strongest party.

13. See Archie Brown, Seven Years That Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective, (Oxford University Press, 2007). There has been a direct echo of this debate in the so-called ‘Umbau-Papier’ which served as a common program of the reformist current in the last months of the SED and its transition to the PDS; see Rainer Land (ed.), Das Umbau-Papier (West-Berlin: Rotbuch. 1989/90).

14. See I. Solty, ‘The Historic Breakthrough of Germany’s LEFT Party’, Socialism and Democracy 22:1 (March 2008), 1-33.

15. Which immediately after the unification had been carried mainly by ‘Euro-communist’ reformers driven out by or splitting away from the DKP, by ex-Maoist groups – transiting via the Greens – and by some ex-Trotskyists most of whom had taken the same path.

16. The electoral dynamics of Die Linke in recent elections have been skilfully analyzed by Horst Kahrs, Ziemlich viel Klasse (May 2015); available at

17. From organizing about 40% of the work force in 1980, the German trade unions declined to 27% in 2004. Since then, while the global trend has continued, although more slowly, some key trade unions like IG Metall (industry) and ver.di (services) have achieved a slight growth in membership.

18. See Jule Axmann, Martin Müller, Werner Rätz: Blockupy. Europäischer Widerstand in der demokratiefreien Zone (Frankfurt am Main: Attac Trägerverein, 2012); and Wolf-Dieter Narr, Elke Steven, Blockupy 2013 - Der Frankfurter Polizei-Kessel am 1. Juni 2013. Bericht zur Demonstrationsbeobachtung vom 30. Mai bis 1. Juni 2013 (Köln: Komitee für Grundrechte und Demokratie, 2014).

19. The impact of which seems still to be limited – by democratic counter-mobilization or by relative economic stability (see Gerd Wiegel, ‘Right-wing Populism in Germany too? A European Trend and its Special German Features’, Transform! (September 2011).

20. For the unsustainable economics of this new ‘German model’, see S. Lehndorff, ‘The paradox of the German Model’; available at

21. Some trade unions – especially IG Metall and BAU – have begun to develop specific counter.strategies, reaching out to precarious and migrant workers.

22. This distinction is still relevant – not because of the parts of Europe that are not parts of the EU (which, except for Russia and Belarus, have all entered into subaltern relations with the EU), but because it has often been the practice of the “heads of state and government” assembled in the European Council to step out of their role as defined by the European treaties, in order to conclude important ‘international agreements’ e.g. for fighting the financial crisis of 2008 by mobilizing thousands of billions of Euros as credits to stabilize the banking system.

23. For example, its mobilzation of March 18, 2015 in Frankfurt, against the European Central Bank, drew about 17,000 participants.

24. See T. Seibert, Krise und Ereignis. Siebenundzwanzig Thesen zum Kommunismus (Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 2009).

25. See L. Brangsch, J. Dellheim, J. Spangenberg, F. O. Wolf, Den Krisen entkommen. Sozialökologische Transformation (Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2012).

26. Which now effectively stretches now from Ukraine or the Caucasus, to the Near and Middle East (including Iraq and Syria) to Libya.