In Europe, “populism” has long carried the stench of the beer hall on its breath. Nowhere more strongly than in Germany does the term evoke images of Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome or Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch a year later, the latter fomented in the tawdry Bierkeller of Munich’s brewery district. One thinks of rabble-rousing demagogues at the head of a resentful mob. The strong-arm leaders are also magnetic personalities who brandish sham solutions to complex problems, while their organizations serve as fronts for violent extremists lurking close by.
Europe’s current national populists—also called the New Right or far right—compare favorably to those of the interwar years, having made peace with elections and multiparty democracy. But for many, they still exude the essence of their ignominious predecessors, being authoritarian, illiberal, xenophobic, and racially nationalistic. In the past, European leftists had been loath to associate themselves with anything bearing the label of populism. This is a stark contrast with American progressives, who draw on a rich history of left-wing populism in the United States, which, at its peak in the 1890s, attracted the support of millions, especially in the rural West and South, and was closely allied with the labor movement.
But so adroitly has the far right capitalized on today’s pervasive discontent and pilfered the left’s traditional constituencies that Europe’s left (and centrists and conservatives, too, though separately from one another) has begun to examine populism’s appeal and mechanisms more closely—to learn from it. After all, if economic conditions starkly divide people into haves and have-nots, or the powerful and the powerless, there’s nothing inherently reactionary about recognizing those political fault lines rather than papering them over. Populism is anti-establishment, fiercely critical of elites, and willing to agitate outside of parliaments, should legislatures prove inept and unresponsive. All of this was once the stuff of the left, which the founders of the new German leftist project Aufstehen, or Rise Up, want to reclaim in order to win back the blue-collar and middle-class voters who have drifted into the far right’s camp.
There’s precedent, too. European leftists with diverse populist credentials have fared surprisingly well when one looks at Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, which garnered 20 percent in the first round of last year’s presidential election, has captured the imagination of many young people with calls for an economic stimulus package, hefty taxes on the wealthy, withdrawal from NATO, and a 32-hour work week. Mélenchon calls France Unbowed a “citizens’ revolution.” Europeans regularly invoke Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign as a new, popular example of left politics, as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing populism, which has shaken Britain’s political establishment.
Germany now has its own incarnation of left-wing populism in Rise Up, ostensibly a broadly based movement that wants to sweep away the ideological trench warfare of Germany’s beleaguered left-wing parties and win back the proletariat, among others.
In a very German way, Rise Up was born of theory, in addition to the US and European precedents. Separate and independently authored manifestos by Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe and American philosopher Nancy Fraser have recently attracted credence and energy to the idea of a populist leftism. They argue that populism is every bit as suited to leftist politics as to right-wing nationalists, if not more so—and should be yanked out of the right’s clutches. Right-wing populists recognize the symptoms of the core problems—growing inequality, government ineptitude, Potemkin democracy, the distant and dysfunctional EU—but they offer nothing solid to fix the maladies, instead blaming scapegoats like refugees and Muslims.
In her newly released For a Left Populism, Mouffe, a self-labeled post-Marxist, argues that western Europe is currently experiencing a “populist moment,” namely an upsurge of resistance against the “post-democratic condition” brought about by three decades of neoliberal hegemony. Although the far right has initially capitalized on this, it’s not too late for the left to rally the oppressed and discriminated of all stripes, setting “the people” against “the oligarchy” in “a great popular movement” for radical democracy. This isn’t socialist revolution, she emphasizes, but a heterogeneous democratic uprising in an age when real democracy, as exercised by the demos, is next to impossible, so thoroughly is neoliberalism embedded in the Staatsraison and the rationale of the mainstream opposition, too. Politics is inherently partisan, she opines, and progressives shouldn’t accept the claim that a broad, ostensibly temperate neoliberal middle ground is the best we can hope for in an age of Trumps and Putins.
Though focusing mostly on the United States, Fraser’s argument, aired in a January 2017 article in Dissent, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,” overlaps with Mouffe’s, for example in emphasizing that Brexit, France’s National Front (renamed this year as National Rally), and the Sanders campaign were all “rejections of corporate globalization, neoliberalism, and the political establishments” that promoted them. In every case, she argues, “voters are saying ‘No!’ to the lethal combination of austerity, free trade, predatory debt, and precarious, ill-paid work that characterize financialized capitalism today.” The mistake of left-minded constituencies, she argues, explicitly taking Clintonism to task, was to join forces with the proponents of market capitalism in exchange for watered-down compromises on “diversity,” “empowerment,” and “non-discrimination.” A “progressive populism,” she argues, has to eschew the identity politics that divides the outcasts of finance capitalism and get back to the essence of what unites them. Fraser calls for “a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against financialization.” She concludes that “a revitalized left could lay the foundation for a powerful new coalition committed to fighting for all.”
Germany’s Rise Up claims to have taken the prodding of Fraser and Mouffe to heart. The phenomenon (too young to be called a movement) is the brainchild of two well-known leftist politicos in Germany: Oskar Lafontaine and Sahra Wagenknecht, whose biographies speak volumes about the initiative. They are leading figures in Germany’s Die Linke, a democratic-socialist party that emerged after the Berlin Wall fell, when reform-minded eastern German socialists and an assortment of western leftists joined forces. The party’s predecessor, the PDS, entered the Bundestag in 1990 and has been there ever since (as Die Linke since 2007), a thorn in the side of both the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, with whom it shares the left bank of the party landscape.
Lafontaine, born in 1943, was for decades a leading West German Social Democrat; he shook the republic by resigning first from the SPD-led government in 1999 and then in 2005 from the party of Willy Brandt—so far was it straying from Brandt’s vison, he claimed—and joined PDS-Die Linke. The 49-year-old Wagenknecht, Lafontaine’s wife since 2014, is a steely eastern German Marxist who speaks for those in Die Linke—the party is bitterly divided—who hail overwhelmingly from eastern Germany, favor minimizing migration, and tend to think in national, rather than international, categories.
“AfD voters aren’t racists,” says Wagenknecht, referring to Germany’s national populist Alternative for Germany, a sentiment in line with Mouffe’s contention that the rightist rank and file are protest voters misled by the hard-right parties. (Tellingly, so as to not alienate these voters, Wagenknecht and Lafontaine refused to participate in the October 14 demonstration in Berlin against the far right and intolerance, which, with 240,000 protesters, was the largest in the West since the rise of the populist phenomenon.)
Rise Up began, and remains, a vague undertaking without a program or strategy. Wagenknecht, who is front and center, and Lafontaine, today in the background, call their project a “left-wing umbrella movement” that can bring together the splintered German left and hold off the far right. In a rambling five-page start-up appeal, the couple and several dozen artists and other leftist veterans claim that Rise Up “will give the voiceless a voice and the unseen a stage. We demand participation and democracy for all and not just for the wealthy.”
The document repeats many of the larger German left’s criticisms of the country’s social-welfare state: low-paid jobs, ever more part-time work, growing economic inequality, poverty-level pensions. “We live in a land of contradictions,” it reads. “We build internationally prized cars and machines, but we send our kids to dilapidated schools where teachers are missing and classes are canceled. The government rescues banks and subsidizes corporations, but is unwilling to protect old people from poverty.”
Rise Up has garnered plenty of media interest and, according to the organizers, encouraging popular support too: 150,000 have registered on the website (including myself, I suppose, because it is required to access Rise Up’s content). The handful of nationally known proponents comprise two no-longer-active founding members of the Greens, including Ludger Volmer. He told The Nation that Rise Up could bring the German left back to its roots, reinvigorate progressives, and bridge the parties’ differences; all of the parties, he says, though emphasizing the Greens, have lost their way. “The right has picked up on the social problems and turned them into nationalist issues,” he says. “We have to turn that back around. A left populism can reach the kind of people who are turned off by intellectual, didactic politicians.”
Volmer sees Rise Up as being a soul mate to the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. But that Europe-wide, pro-EU, socialist incarnation wants nothing to do with Rise Up, admits Volmer. Apparently, he says, they heard that Rise Up was nationalistic and even latently right-wing, which Volmer insists is absolutely not the case. He believes that they can still join forces.
“So far it’s really just a virtual movement,” explains Stefan Reinecke of the left-liberal paper Tageszeitung, or taz. “But Wagenknecht is a charismatic figure. They can build structures or maybe even develop a party out of it. This is probably the point, as it’s the only way they can hope to have real influence.”
Presently, Rise Up’s critics are considerably more plentiful than its fans, and include just about all relevant Green and Social Democratic politicians and half of Die Linke. One common fear is that the Wagenknecht-Lafontaine style of populism, versions of which the two have long practiced, gifts too much to the far right in the hope of wining voters back. Much like Italy’s Five Star Movement, Rise Up wants migration curtailed, blames immigrants for soaking up social benefits, and plays to Islamophobic fears. In contrast, the Greens and the urban, internationalist faction of Die Linke believe battling the right means wrenching migration out of the negative narrative that has so far won the day in Europe. This current of Die Linke even calls for completely open international borders.
So great are the antagonisms within Die Linke itself that many observers suspect that Wagenknecht and Lafontaine are testing the waters with Rise Up to see if another left-wing party will float. The two savvy political operatives have never shown an affinity with bottom-up social movements; indeed, Rise Up so far has nothing in common with those that transformed Germany, such as the women’s, the peace, or the anti–nuclear energy movements.
At the crux of Rise Up’s raison d’être is the hard reality that the current German left parties don’t see a path toward coming to power together—and the right hasn’t stopped gaining ground. In light of the SPD’s epic nosedive, all three of the parties together don’t comprise a majority in the Bundestag—and the SPD, utterly lost, doesn’t seem to be finished tanking (in the October 14 Bavarian election, the SPD fell to just 9.7 percent). The modest goal of the party of Brandt and Bebel seems to be to simply survive its current term as a partner in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic–led, grand-coalition government, and then finally repair to the opposition to heal and reload. As weakened as Merkel’s Christian Democrats are, they are and will remain the biggest party, and thus will probably lead governing coalitions for the foreseeable future.
The absence of a left-wing option is why the surging Greens, who chalked up a stunning 17.5 percent in archconservative Bavaria on October 14, are prepared to join the conservatives in so-called “black-green” coalitions, as they already have in some of the regional states and cities. One source of the Greens’ breakout success is the convincing act of their hugely popular dual party chiefs, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, both from the party’s moderate wing and not interested in a polarizing leftist populism—on the contrary, they’re all about bridge-building, they say. The Greens recognize that since they left the federal government in 2005, environmental issues, in particular climate, have been utterly neglected. Their presence in government, even as sidekick to the Christian Democrats, would change that. As true as this may be, the party’s willingness to chart a middle course is just what Mouffe and Fraser claim have opened up the way for the anti-establishment right.
Die Linke is so divided that it will either split or make do as best it can, hopefully weighing in at around 8 or 9 percent of the national vote, more than that in the east. Wagenknecht and Lafontaine, known for playing hardball, aren’t in politics for single-digit results, which ultimately explains Rise Up: a thinly veiled vehicle for their own political ambitions. Alas, in the recent past, Germany’s three left-wing parties had a majority in the Bundestag, but uncompromising positions prevented them from forming a coalition. The chief protagonists blocking such an all-leftist government: Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine.
At worst, Rise Up could push the mere possibility of a leftist government in Germany off the table for many years to come. At best, it could enliven discussion and compel both voters and party honchos to look more critically at the prevailing consensus. As for Mouffe’s and Fraser’s progressive populism, all of Germany’s left-wing parties could benefit from some of their coaching. In Germany, its desired outcome would be a three-party coalition pledged to resuscitating the postwar welfare state and transforming Germany into the world’s pioneer in climate protection.
With some luck at the polls, this could happen—if all the protagonists were prepared to look beyond the fences of their own little gardens.