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1 November 2023

Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left conservatism

Europe’s leaders are keenly watching the German breakaway party.

By Jeremy Cliffe

“Who’s afraid of Sahra W?” asks the cover of the latest issue of the German news magazine Focus over a black-and-white photo of Sahra Wagenknecht, a slight smile on her lips. The implied answer: Germany’s mainstream parties, and perhaps the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), may indeed have grounds to fear the new formation unveiled on 23 October by the former doyenne of the socialist Left party. At a press conference in Berlin she announced that she and nine other Left MPs were quitting and forming the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) before converting it into a formal political party in January 2024 and targeting voters who, as she put it, “no longer know who to vote for”.

That would be in time to contest the European Parliament elections next June and the three important state elections in Germany’s former-communist east (Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg) in September. Success there could set it up to enter the Bundestag at Germany’s next federal election, expected in 2025. Two national polls taken since the Berlin press conference put a prospective BSW party on 12 per cent and 14 per cent, with another indicating that up to 20 per cent of voters could imagine voting for it (and higher in the east – likely to be the party’s stronghold). In the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), debate has already broken out over whether it would be acceptable to enter into coalition with a BSW party.

Politicians in other parts of Europe are watching with interest. The backlash against social and economic liberalism has generated movement in the “left on economics, right on culture” segment of the political compass. In some countries, parties of the hard right have discovered a new welfarist vocation, most notably Poland’s Law and Justice party (which appears to have lost power at the country’s recent election after eight years in control). Elsewhere, conventional centre-left parties have strayed towards more conservative positions on immigration, as with Denmark’s Social Democrats. A version of this strategy also motivated Boris Johnson’s successful “Red Wall” offensive in Britain’s 2019 election. But a BSW party would be different from these: a new party founded specifically to occupy that ideological ground.

Much else about it remains uncertain, however. At the press conference Wagenknecht issued familiar criticisms of “unchecked migration”, sanctions on Russia and ideological “eco-activism”, but no finer detail on the party’s platform. And she has launched an initiative on these lines before: a movement called “Rise Up” founded in 2018. I interviewed Wagenknecht around that time for the Economist. “If you concentrate more on hip, urban sorts of voters – on identity and lifestyle debates – you don’t speak to the poorest in society,” she told me in what even then was a clear criticism of her own Left party. “They no longer feel properly represented.” Wagenknecht gave me a copy of her book Prosperity Without Greed, a 2016 treatise against the free market economy.

[See also: Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left-populist party should be taken seriously]

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Her writings, including her 2021 book The Self-Righteous, provide perhaps the best early guide to the policies of any BSW party – and a sense of the barriers that stand before it. Reading them, it quickly becomes clear that there are two Sahra Wagenknechts – distinct, and mostly but not always aligned. The prospects of her political project lie somewhere in the interaction, synergies and tensions between the two.

First is Wagenknecht the Theorist, who sets out a broadly ideologically consistent vision of what she calls Linkskonservatismus (left-wing conservatism). This starts from an analysis of what she calls a “feudalisation of society”, drawing on established left critiques of capitalism. Particularly influential is the French historian Fernand Braudel’s idea of a fundamentally “unequal exchange”, favouring big conglomerates over a swathe of groups ranging from workers and pensioners to artisans and small business owners. Wagenknecht writes, citing Braudel: “The early capitalist was a merchant who maintained trade relations with India, China or Arabia… not the shopkeeper in the centre of Madrid.” She marries this with the American economist Mancur Olson’s theories of how small elites entrench their interests in what he called an “exclusive distributional coalition”.

This economic credo – which leads her to the conclusion that limited liability corporate structures should be abandoned in favour of alternatives such as cooperatives, forms of state capitalism and social enterprises – is mirrored in Wagenknecht’s cultural-political vision. She sees political and societal power as working in a similar fashion: small Olson-esque elite coalitions wielding a sort of monopoly when it comes to setting and policing cultural codes and norms. In this related “unequal exchange” between the ruled and the rulers, that elite is the university-educated urban class forged by decades of globalisation and Europeanisation (and in Germany the contemporaneous process of reunification). Wagenknecht’s cultural conservatism is closely entangled with her scepticism towards the Atlantic alliance and preference for alternative partners to the east, notably Russia and China. It all amounts to a soft Poujadisme, a 21st-century echo of Pierre Poujade’s reactionary anti-establishment call to arms on behalf of the lower and lower-middle classes of 1950s France.

But her second political avatar is Wagenknecht the Opportunist, a more fluid and adaptive political player who follows the anti-establishment mood in Germany wherever it leads her. The last few years, and especially the double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, have seen a flourishing of what is known as Querpolitik, “diagonalist” politics fusing elements of populist left and right, particularly prominent in German anti-establishment circles but echoed in the English-speaking world by YouTube stars such as Russell Brand and Joe Rogan. Thus Wagenknecht has made her own well-watched clips railing against lockdowns and cancel culture, as well as an array of other totems of Western policy orthodoxy – including net-zero provisions such as heat pumps, support for Nato and Ukraine, and Covid-19 vaccines.

Often this (one might say) more cynical Wagenknecht draws on her Theorist persona. For example, her apparently genuine belief in the affinity between Germany and Russia provides a natural platform for her to exploit discontent among her audience about increased energy prices since the invasion of Ukraine. It also allows her to rail against sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s regime that she claims are motivated not by concern for the Ukrainian people but by American energy interests. Likewise, her argument about the “unfair exchange” of cultural power in 21st-century Western societies, to the benefit of “lifestyle leftists”, is a Christmas tree on which she can hang all manner of flimsy jibes at political correctness.

Yet to survey the two versions of Wagenknecht across her writings and appearances is also to witness the potential tensions within her project. She denounces the overbearing globalism of the Davos crowd, yet at other points undergirds her arguments for national control and identity with examples of how states, not supra-state organisations, have been pivotal to the resolution of recent crises such as Covid. Which is it? Are nation states withered puppets of globalist might or enduring bastions of strength? A BSW party will need to resolve that: the eastern German states where it can expect to do best are more Eurosceptic than the western ones, but are also densely integrated into European supply chains, and they are an emergent powerhouse of the electric car industry.

Wagenknecht’s analysis of class is valid – “left behind” groups are a phenomenon of Western politics, as liberals have learned to their cost – but her arguments leave all sorts of ambiguities unresolved. She has said that she would seek in next year’s eastern state elections to forge coalitions with the centre-right CDU, the prime political bastion of the German corporatist establishment. How does that sit with her assault on the “feudalisation of society”?

And what do her sermons against “eco-activism” mean for a country where the green industrial transition represents the best hope of future well-being for the blue-collar workers she purports to represent? Wagenknecht proclaims the importance of green energy but is disapproving of wind turbines and higher energy costs, and ends up fudging the issue with vague talk of investing in further research.

Much of this comes down to whether Wagenknecht’s Linkskonservatismus is ultimately more links or more konservatismus. It is too soon to be sure, but my hunch is that the BSW party will err on the side of cultural conservatism over economic leftism. It remains to be seen whether the party will find a durable place in the German party system. But if it does, this would most likely involve it either embracing the AfD’s conspiracist extremes and usurping it or, most probable, becoming a sort of populist flank to the CDU – a more nativist and economically redistributionist appendage of German Christian Democracy. Theorist? Opportunist? Perhaps “Sahra W” will settle for pragmatist.

[See also: Europe’s east-west divide is widening]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts