The rise of the (Alt-)Right in Germany’s Elections: A commentary

by Ralph Keller

Editor’s note: Below is the updated and corrected version of October 20, 2017. An endnote, [1], details the changes.

The German general parliamentary elections revealed ‘surprises’ to the CDU / CSU (Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union) coalition, led by Angela Merkel, and the SPD (Social-Democratic Party of Germany) led by Martin Schulz, which received a slap in the face from voters. These three parties obtained their lowest results since the end of World War II. The CDU / CSU coalition received 33% of the popular vote; the SPD received 20%. Yet for people outside these parties, the principal reason these results are shocking and very concerning is that they reveal the rise of the German (Alt-)Right AfD (Alternative for Germany), which one might call proto-fascist. They received 13% of the popular vote.

The other important result of the election is that it resulted in a ‘hung parliament’. No political stream––(Alt-)Right, traditional conservative, centre, or left––is able to form a government by itself. Another interesting result is that the Bundestag (parliament) will, for the first time since World War II, consist of seven parties.

Because no party has achieved a majority, or a result close to majority, coalitions consisting of a number of parties will have to be formed. The CDU / CSU, under Angela Merkel, will probably continue to lead the new government, with the participation of the FDP (Free Democratic Party) and the Greens, in what German political jargon is calling the ‘Jamaica coalition’. It is called that because (given some fantasy) the party colours resemble the Jamaican flag. The CDU / CSU’s colour is black; the FDP’s is yellow; and, of course, the Greens’ is green.

Views, opinions and analyses about ‘Jamaica’ are plentiful, but no-one has looked at the election results from a Marxist perspective and a philosophy for freedom. That is what this commentary attempts.

So, who voted for the AfD? According to Horst Kahrs, a left social scientist, the party does not disproportionately recruit their voters from low-income people. Instead, men are disproportionately represented, as are men and women with a mid-range education (similar to those with a GCSE or an A-Level education in the United Kingdom, or a high-school degree in the United States). Voters with higher education disproportionately voted for parties other than the AfD.

In my opinion, the reasons so many cast their vote for the AfD boil down to two main ones (see also Kahrs’ commentary):

(1) ‘To teach a lesson’ to the CDU / CSU and the SPD, for not representing the German people (das Volk) any longer. (The two parties had been in a coalition government together.) This reason is associated with the argument that some voters do not necessarily buy into the AfD’s ideology of chauvinism, misogyny, nationalism, racism, etc.

2) To bring about real change, in light of voters losing ‘faith’ in the established parties. These voters really do buy into the AfD far-right ideology.

Voting for the AfD in order to ‘teach a lesson’ is, of course, dangerous. Even if the voters who did this do not subscribe to the party’s ideology, they have nevertheless voted for that ideology—and the AfD are now the third-strongest party in the Bundestag. This means that my commentary can focus on the second reason: ideological affinity with the AfD.

Why do so many voters buy into the AfD’s ideology? One major concern of voters was the ‘flood’ of refugees, and the associated fears of the rise of Islamic terrorism and the Islamisation of Western Europe. When AfD voters are asked why the refugees are in Germany, their simplistic answer is that these people are freeloaders. This is the typical bourgeois horizon of ‘the problem fell from the sky’. When then presented with reasons like civil war in the refugees’ native countries, in which Western countries have played their part, the reply is either ‘you are lying’––which is the promotion of post-truth in an attempt to twist, turn upside-down, or ignore facts in order to fit one’s agenda––or ‘not my fault, so why should I care?’ The (Alt-)Right’s solution to everything is thus to deport every refugee and to close the border—even to the point of shooting refugees, including children. (This was the publicly-stated position of some AfD party members; they later retracted the part about shooting children.)

In response to the AfD’s strong showing in the election, the CDU / CSU and the SPD, not surprisingly, unanimously expressed their dismay and their concerns. In other words, they simply paid lip service to the need to reverse the rise of the AfD. They stated categorically that they will not form a coalition in the Bundestag with the AfD. That is all well and good, but the response did not stop there. Another response from some members of the CDU / CSU, notably Saxony’s head of state government Stanisław Tillig, is much more worrying and disconcerting. He calls for the adoption of AfD themes and arguments to win their voters over! On October 17 the German media reported that Tillig has resigned and will step down in December.

On the one hand, the CDU / CSU coalition reject the AfD and inclusion of them in the government; on the other hand, they want to become an ‘AfD-lite’ party for the sake of winning voters back. Apart from revealing how the CDU / CSU coalition is attempting to remain in power, this response is also a confession of helplessness, plain and simple.

The real danger is, of course, that this response serves to further the advance of AfD ideology, which is only a step away from the brown terror of Nazism between 1933 and 1945. Study of the AfD manifesto reveals that it makes moderate populist noises; yet AfD public appearances have repeatedly revealed their nationalist, racist, chauvinist and white-supremacist body of thought. A Heinrich Heine quote comes to mind here: “Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht”. (This, unpoetically, translates as: ‘When I think of Germany at night, I can no longer sleep’.) Heine wrote this in exile in Paris, in 1848, as a poetic polemic against Germany’s nationalism and chauvinism at the time. History, it seems, is repeating.

Another major reason why the AfD became the third-strongest party is that many people feel that they have lost out in the 27 years since the unification of East Germany and West Germany in 1990. This feeling relates to low wages in eastern Germany—certainly the biggest low-wage sector in Europe––and, in particular, to the fact that the work experience and achievements of many who lived in the former East Germany are not valued as highly as those of their West German counterparts. This has led to a situation in which many pensioners in the east have had their pensions cut because their contribution during their working lives is not counted. Since the country’s unification, governments led by the CDU / CSU and the SPD have done very little to alleviate the situation. The CDU and CSU have not even discussed the issue meaningfully––until now, as a result of the slap in the face they received in the elections.

Even though Die Linke have been arguing for years to bring pensions in line with work-life contributions and to abolish the low-wage sector, a large number of voters opted instead for the AfD, especially in eastern Germany. In particular, the AfD have become the strongest party in the state of Saxony; its 27% vote share narrowly surpassed that of the CDU.

Considering that fair pay and fair pensions are core positions of Die Linke, it is a puzzling fact that the party only managed to gain 500,000 more votes than in the 2013 election, increasing their share by just 0.6 percentage points. This puzzle has also been observed by Ingo Schmidt, among others. Writing in the The Bullet, a Canadian left social-democratic publication, Schmidt commented:

Die Linke had social justice written on its birth certificate. … One of its frontrunners, Sarah [sic] Wagenknecht, routinely deconstructed neoliberal mythologies about the welfare state and union triggered crises and developed alternative policies out of the rubble of these mythologies. This ability made her something like a media darling. But neither Wagenknecht’s media presence nor the endless hours party activists spent on the campaign trail helped to translate the widespread taste for social justice, time and again revealed in opinion polls, into rising support for Die Linke.

When the SPD candidate Schulz hinted at a social democratic turn early in his campaign, SPD ratings shot up. When these hints turned out as fake news, SPD ratings collapsed but it still wasn’t Die Linke that benefited from the widespread taste for social democratic policies that the SPD couldn’t satisfy.

On the surface, there are three reasons in my opinion as to why Die Linke do not capitalise on the ‘widespread taste for social justice’. First, the party is not well grounded in West Germany, where it has been the SPD that represented social justice matters. Half of Die Linke came from the former PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), which emerged from the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Deutschland), the Stalinist ruling party of the former German Democratic Republic––i.e., East Germany. The other half came from the WASG (Voting Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice), a West-German left-wing breakaway from the SPD. This means that many voters, especially in western Germany, are still reluctant to choose Die Linke.

Second, many voters reject the concern, which parts of Die Linke voice, that Angela Merkel’s 2015 ‘we will manage’ attitude of welcoming refugees has accounted for the ‘flood’ of refugees. In addition, Die Linke appear divided on introducing quotas to the numbers of refugees ‘taken up’ by member states of the European Union. This concern relates to the view that Die Linke do not properly engage with the questions, doubts and worries of voters regarding large-scale immigration and the perceived Islamisation of Germany.

Third, Die Linke’s struggle for fair pay and pensions is seen, among the people who didn’t vote for them, as an attempt to achieve forced egalitarianism—via the large-scale redistribution of income—which is often vehemently rejected. Rejecting forced egalitarianism comes as no surprise under the capitalist mode of production, mainly because of capitalism’s defining law: the law of value.

The law of value is a mechanism that equalizes individual amounts of labour, expended to produce a commodity, to an average—the social amount. But the individual values remain in effect and thus aren’t equal. This is because different workers create different amounts of value per hour worked and thus get paid different amounts of money. Although there can be many other reasons why wages are unequal, the point is that there will always be wage inequality under capitalism—apart from these other reasons. Expressed differently, the other reasons only contribute to the degree of wage inequality; they do not create it. It becomes a ‘natural state’. Workers who are better off therefore reject the idea of possibly being worse off. And this leads them to embrace an idea that is ‘natural’ under capitalism, the idea that their contributions are superior and thus deserve superior rewards.

As long as capitalism exists, no political party will be able to suspend the law of value; at best, it can only be mediated against to different degrees. For example, Die Linke call for ‘just’ pensions that fairly reflect life’s work and a higher income tax, ‘to benefit all’. The AfD, on the other hand, would intensify the effects of the law of value, because it advocates policies that would unleash the law.

It is true that the AfD’s election manifesto makes some noises about forced equality and populist measures. For example, it supports the minimum wage (but leaves open the level at which it would be set); it advocates pensions that fairly reflect individuals’ work-life and prevent poverty among the elderly; and it wants to tackle the out-of-control rents for private dwellings. But a closer look reveals the AfD’s true intentions. These policies are, at least partly, funded through taxes. Given that the party intends to reduce income taxes and abolish the inheritance tax altogether, and given that it rejects the re-introduction of a wealth tax, it is not clear how its anti-inequality policies would be funded and therefore implemented. In addition, the party’s policy around rented private dwellings relies on strengthening the market and encouraging private investment—an approach that contributed to the recent Grenfell Tower catastrophe in London. A closer look at their manifesto thus reveals that the AfD actually stand for promoting inequality, and thus for unshackling the law of value.

This means that competition among workers would intensify. As Marx argued in 1844, the reason why workers in capitalism compete in the first place is the alienation of labour, whereby the process and the product of labour increasingly become forces that dominate the worker. This brings with it a situation in which one worker increasingly sees another as a hostile force that dominates him or her. Even though alienated labour explains the material conditions workers find themselves in, the attempt to shield oneself from the potential competition of refugee workers, by putting the AfD into power, will not change the material conditions of the German workers.

On the other hand, voting for Die Linke will also fail to bring about a fundamental change in the material conditions, described by the law of value and alienated labour, that workers find themselves in. We should therefore reject the hypothesis, which underlies Ingo Schmidt’s commentary, quoted above, that the SPD only needs to ‘go back to its roots’ and capitalism will be fixed. In addition, we should also reject the view expressed by Horst Kahrs, the left social scientist, that Die Linke needs to ‘fix’ itself by engaging with the concerns of the people (das Volk).

The basis for rejecting these views is that going ‘back to the roots’ and/or a left that has ‘fixed’ itself would tackle neither the law of value nor the alienation of labour. And because these strategies would leave all that untouched, left populist policies, in the form of Die Linke, the Sandernistas, etc. sound dangerous to people and disconnected from reality, because they propose a forced form of equality. That is, they propose equalizing incomes without challenging the social conditions within which inequality makes perfect sense. As Marx wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, “Right [das Recht] can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” Because of this, he didn’t favour trying to make capitalism something it is not, by tinkering with its mode of distribution while leaving the law of value and alienated labour intact. Instead, all working people must unite to gain strength in their common struggle for freedom from the capitalist mode of production.


Editor’s Note

[1] The current version of the article replaces “obtaining” with “obtained” in the second sentence. In addition, the end of the eleventh paragraph has been changed and updated. In the original Oct. 15 version, it read “That is all well and good, but the needed response does not stop there. Another response from some members of the CDU / CSU, notably Saxony’s head of state government Stanisław Tillig, is much more worrying and disconcerting: ‘we need to adopt AfD themes and arguments to win their voters over’!”


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