• Who and What is “Left” Today? Contours of a Left-aligned Milieu in Germany

  • By Frank Kleemann , Uwe Krähnke , Ingo Matuschek | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Germany
  • Based on survey data, it has often been postulated in the past few years that Germans lean towards the left in their basic political views. Setting aside entirely appropriate methodological misgivings, the task now is to explain how this supposed shift to the left is manifest (see critique in Misik 2009:17): How can we characterise left views nowadays. In what social groups are such views found? 

    We will rely on the results of our own empirical studies to answer these questions.1 In group discussions and qualitative one-on-one interviews, we talked with individuals who in their political orientation locate themselves as “left” in the broadest sense of the term and refer positively to left positions. The views range from radical orientations to reform perspectives or to weakly expressed views on political formation. The sample includes individuals active in party politics as well as those in public and professional left contexts. Also surveyed were individuals who although inactive, consider themselves part of the left-wing spectrum.

    The broad range of this sample in terms of basic political positioning and affiliation reveals an important initial finding: The left identity in Germany does not exist. Rather than one homogeneous basic political attitude, there is a plurality of political patterns of interpretation and practices existing alongside one another. The unity of the left is revealed, as it were, in the multiplicity of its voices. If one wants to know who and what “left” is nowadays, then this multiplicity must be taken into account. In this sense, in the present contribution we speak of “left-aligned milieus”. The following text aims to uncover the initial contours of such milieus.

    Indeed, there is no clearly definable left position, as we have indicated, but a lowest common denominator for a left-aligned milieu can nonetheless be established: criticism of social conditions, i.e. unsatisfactory conditions, in a broad sense, is formulated on the basis of socialist/social-democratic ways of thinking. A common point of departure is awareness of deficits – formulated at various levels of clarity – in the existing social order, especially in economic and political relations. Within the left-aligned spectrum, a critical perspective with regard to the basic economic and political order proves constitutive for situating oneself politically within society.2

    How can the critical position of the “left-aligned” be more precisely characterised with regard to the basic economic and political order, and what are the resulting consequences for action, that is, for political practice?

    Basic orientations regarding the political-economic order

    Traditionally, criticism of the social exclusions caused by economic relations forms the core of a left-wing identity. Based on our study, typical forms of this can be distinguished here. Several of those questioned express, at most, a partial criticism. The social market economy is not questioned fundamentally as a system, but rather, criticism is directed at some of its specific features that are viewed as negative. For others (especially from the radical left spectrum), a general critique of capitalism is most important. As a rule, they refer to fundamentally negative consequences, such as structural unemployment, arms production, etc. It is possible to distinguish three basic orientations:

    1) Dominance of the Economy: The existing economic system, especially since the failure of the communist counter model, is perceived as the only alternative in terms of structure, and is seen as dominant with regard to other social structures due to its self-regulation. Consequent alternative political designs can only aim at shaping the system in the direction of a cushioning welfare-state variant (“social market economy” as Rhenish capitalism in contrast to Anglo-Saxon variants). Social governance of the economic system as a whole, however, is considered rather unrealistic. Neoliberalism, which dominates the discourse in mainstream mass-media, thus implicitly enters left-aligned thought patterns. Whereas previously it was possible to apply the axiomatic assumption that capitalism’s structural problems can be derived from the opposition of property-owning classes and exploited classes, today, for the left-aligned who take the dominance of the economy as their starting point, this type of class perspective no longer plays a role. Instead, their focus is on the “dependently employed” (as a class) in itself.

    2) Regulation of the (dominant) economic system: The starting point of this basic orientation is that economy and society are two interlinked systems incapable of existing in isolation from one another. The currently overpowering economy has negative effects on society, but could be tamed through appropriate state regulation measures. Focus is on concrete social ills, such as tangible exclusion of unemployed individuals and social welfare recipients, the growing gap between rich and poor, but also on the provision of essential social goods and services. A socio-economic, non-profit oriented economy is attributed its own significance, to the extent that areas can be identified in which the private economy is inefficient. Only rarely are demands made for a general “democratizing” of the economy. In contrast to the first basic orientation, a (Marxist) class concept has not entirely disappeared here. “Precarious workers”, “the lower classes”, and socially “excluded”, in particular, are identified as modern capitalism’s economically exploited.

    3) Structural change: Starting from a fundamental critique of the existing social order, the economy is viewed as subordinate to social development and is consequently considered a social subsystem that can be structurally altered. The analytical sharpness and the consequent political inferences yield only minimal practical consequences in terms of concrete political action. For that reason, proponents of this basic orientation pragmatically fall back on essential demands of the regulators. Thus, a fundamental transformation of the economic system is longed for as utopia rather than being tackled as a matter for everyday politics.

    As a whole, (in part fundamental) criticism is directed at the social ills that have been provoked by the economy. Only a few individuals formulate a consistent perspective calling for the dissolution of capitalist structures. For the most part, the existing economic order is understood as a more or less well regulated version of capitalism (in the sense of a social market economy) that must strengthen its welfare-state components. In the parallel demands that are raised calling for a democratic social order, at the forefront are opportunities for individuals to participate in the shaping of society and the degree of integration of those who think differently (and tied to this, especially the question of consensual vs. majority democracy). Should this include a critique of non-egalitarian distribution of social resources, then, depending on the individual perspective, a class concept is used as an analytical category based on the control of material resources, i.e., the means of production (which is also characteristic of the fundamental critics), or further central expressions of inequality are introduced, such as gender, social prestige, possibilities for political influence, and education. In some conceptions an eco-social perspective is laid out, which in the sense of a sustainability concept, formulates the goal of a resource-conserving mode of economy as a sub-goal of the political shaping of the economy. 

    Cutting across the basic orientations listed above, expressed remarkably often in the interviews was the self-conception of being incompetent in the economic field. This once again displays the ideological power possessed by the past decades’ neoliberalism. Its interpretative sovereignty in public discourse has evidently contributed to the self-perception of having deficient economic competence among quite a few of those aligned with the left wing. In light of the characteristic centrality of a capitalism-critical perspective for the left spectrum, a necessary project seems to be to once again strengthen these competences and to put perspectives other than neoliberal ones on the agenda, so as to counter the crisis not just with proposals for repairing the welfare state but to sketch out realistic-utopian alternative social models and to understand the crisis as an opportunity for left approaches to politics and the economy that are against the dominant neoliberal discourse. (This has been achieved in an incipient way, in any case, in the question of ecologising the economy – for example, in the concept of growth.)

    The fundamental political-economic orientations within the “left-aligned” spectrum reveal distinct differences that in most cases revolve around a specific dominant reference point, but include further substantive reference points.3 The contrasting assessments unfold along different basic perspectives on prioritizing economic over socials aspects, or vice versa. In these assessments are assumptions about the power to shape politics, which – since they arise from the basic perspectives – have a legitimating function for political practice. For example: since the central position of the economy is untouchable, no other fundamentally different orientation is worthwhile; since only structural change brings with it the promise of salvation, efforts at reform do not pay off, etc. At their core, these touch on the view of the political effectiveness of the political practice advocated by the left.

    Understandings of politics and forms of political practice

    Following the above explanations, it is possible to distinguish a total of four ideal-typical basic positions with regard to shaping society. While the first two aim at a system transformation, the last two are basically oriented to maintaining the existing social order and thus represent the “right wing” of the left-aligned spectrum.

    The statist-socialist perspective aims at a (socialist) social order in which a “strong” state creates just social relations by means of control and redistribution policies.

    The libertarian-anti-capitalist perspective has a decidedly anti-statist orientation. The elimination of capitalism is seen as the basis for a “liberated” society that is self-organised “from below”.

    The reform-oriented perspective sees deficits in the existing social order and focuses on (mainly civil-society based) movements in search of improvements in the social system based on the existing basic order.

    The subsidiary perspective basically accepts the existing politico-economic order. Social deficits or inequalities that are nonetheless perceived within its framework should be compensated for by self-initiatives of the members of society.

    Various concepts of politics also correspond, in part, to these basic orientations: In the party politics-statist understanding, politics is largely limited to party-based parliamentary democracy (including the organisations and associations which relate to it) and the state activities based on it. This understanding is also transmitted by the political education communicated in schools and media reporting and is, to that extent, the most common. The civil society understanding of politics – that is commonly encountered among those involved in the arena of informal political action (for example, in NGO’s or citizens’ initiatives) – also subsumes under politics socially effective groups and organisations outside of the established political system, as well as the “active citizen”. Both positions see political action (in contrast, for example, to charitable activity) as relating to problems that have general relevance and oriented to the development of independent structures and methods of resolution. A further, life-world-based understanding includes as “political” all actions that are related to the interests of others (thus including voluntary work in non-political, smaller organisations or charitable activities). The perspective here is not that of changing society, but rather, of concretely sticking up for others. A further understanding is the ubiquitous political concept, according to the 1960s motto “the private is political”, which tends to include all everyday activities (including politically correct shopping and sorting of trash). With the increasing “hollowing” out of the concept of politics there is, at the level of political practice, a distancing from one’s own activities at the “core” of the political system.

    The following groups are identifiable in the spectrum of the “left-aligned”, based on the current state of analysis, in terms of their everyday-life relationship to politics:

    • “traditional” institutional leftists holding state-centred view of the political system, who are involved in left party politics (in Die LINKE, in left splinter parties, the Green Partyy, but also in the SPD) or in left organisations,
    • “radical” leftists who, on the basis of libertarian subcultural-alternative lifestyles, practice counter-societal (or anti-establishment) politics outside of the established political system,
    • “unorthodox” leftists, who are likewise anchored in a subculture and pursue concrete reform-oriented activities for the most part in the context of base-democratic “grassroots” initiatives in opposition to established social and economic forms,
    • “profession-centred” individuals who through their consciously sought for political, or socially related employment, do political work,
    • “volunteers”, who, themselves largely established professionally and socially, do what they can for social needs and issues and, in part, also associate more far-reaching political reform goals with their activities,
    • “sporadically active” participants, who are interested in politics in a variety of ways without being permanently active or in a specific set function, but who are temporarily active,
    • the “critically interested”, who follow political processes and debates without being active themselves in politics or society,
    • the “socially marginalised”, who basically feel themselves to be excluded from the activities of society, and inhabit parallel worlds, and, finally,
    • “powerless” and “resigned” individuals who indeed see the abstract need for action, but no personal opportunities for action to effect any change whatsoever.


    Prospects: The left as political movement – contours of a project for left hegemony

    It is clear that the left-aligned spectrum – in the broadest understanding of “left-aligned” – is heterogeneous in terms of its image of society and its political ideas: paternalistic expectations of an extensive state welfare policy are just as present as civil-society reform orientations and libertarian capitalism critique oriented toward social reform. To that extent, different facets of a possible shared general orientation for democratic socialism as a political and social formation are a central theme; at the same time, a search for a coherent left model is not discernible. The society-critical left-aligned spectrum currently has more the character of a heterogeneous gathering point. Should a socially effective movement arise from it, a pressing political task would be to formulate a plurality of left political proposals that offer an attractive perspective for as many of the disparate left-aligned as possible. The resultant combinations could bridge the various left-aligned core positions. Consequently, the demand of a common left project for hegemony would be to sound out the bridgeheads of each of the individual positions, that is, to take as a central theme the intersections of concrete politics rather than the supposedly insurmountable contrasts and to try out entirely practical projects. 

    Plurality can neither be forced into the corset of party politics nor remain at an abstract level outside of the concrete problems of the concrete life-world problems. What seems more promising is to contemplate ways of bringing a left identity into public discourse as something to be newly defined, offering a new, emancipatory societal perspective to counter the neoliberalism that was dominant in the wake of the “geistig-moralische Wende” (intellectual-moral reversal) since the 1990s.



    Matuschek, Ingo / Krähnke, Uwe / Kleemann, Frank / Ernst, Frank (2008): “Politische Praxen und Orientierungen in linksaffinen Alltagsmilieus”, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, http://www.rosalux.de/cms/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/PP_INAG_.pdf

    Misik, Robert (2009): Politik der Paranoia: Gegen die neuen Konservativen, Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag.



    1. At issue are two studies commissioned by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung carried out in 2007-2009. See, on the results of the first study, Matuschek et al. 2008 A book publication that includes the entire project is planned for spring 2010.
    2. Criticism of existing social conditions is, of course, also carried out in other political milieus. Though in the case of the Neonazis, to take an extreme example, political self-assessment is nourished by regressive idealisation of the NS regime. 
    3. In this context, different ideas arise, for example, about whether the social integration and material security of society’s members should occur predominantly via salaried labour, or if other models should be given preference. Three basic positions can be distinguished: a classical employment-centred position, citizen’s dividend model, and the idea of an unconditional basic income. Behind them are, in addition to different assessments of the social-integrative and identity-creating effects of regular work as well as the quality of work under capitalist conditions, different normative conceptions and conceptions of justice.

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