Can progressive think tanks fix Germany’s red-red-green problem?

German Social Democracy is in the doldrums. The traditional power house of European Social Democracy is but a shadow of itself. Voter support in European elections fell to 15.8 percent. Recent polls have Social Democrats sharing third place behind Christian Democrats and Greens with the right wing opposition party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – hovering around 13 percent. Although the Greens have experienced all-time highs in recent elections and polls taking over first place according to some, and the left wing party Die Linke is stable around 8 to 9 percent,  it would not be possible for a green-red-red coalition government to have the majority. In the past, when the three parties jointly crossed the 50 percent mark, most Social Democrats and most Greens higher up in the party hierarchy did not want to make use of such parliamentary majority except during the same sex marriage vote. Even if the Greens and a humiliated junior partner SPD would now be willing to include the Left, at the moment they cannot. German Social Democracy has been exhausted thanks to the neoliberal turn in labor markets and social policy under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder with the Greens as junior partner and several Christian Democrat-Social Democrat coalition governments under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even though Christian Democrats and all the catch-all parties can no longer integrate constituencies across all segments of the population and across all walks of life, the electorate has grosso modo shifted to the right in Germany much like in so many other countries.

This is the situation facing the Institut für eine solidarische Moderne (Institute for a solidary modern spirit), which aims to develop a new left and a red-red-green coalition (R2G) in Germany. Founded in 2010, the think tank’s mission statement calls for a counter proposal to hegemonic neoliberalism and for concrete policy solutions in response to the destruction of natural resources and the living environment, growing social inequality and the increasing contempt for human rights. Its founders include prominent left wing Social Democrats and Greens and leading representatives of the Left party. The political base is best described by Hans-Jürgen Urban’s concept of the mosaic left, a non-vanguard vision of collaborating left wing groups inside and outside of political parties, trade unions, and social movements.

While a few red-red and red-red-green coalitions took shape at the Länder level (state governments in Berlin, Thüringen, and most recently in Bremen), the project was stalled at the federal level. Centrist leaders of the Social Democrats and Greens set up another think tank (Denkwerk Demokratie) to promote alternatives while excluding the Left party. Social Democrats preferred coalition governments with Christian Democrats and the Greens entered into coalitions with Christian Democrats in the wealthy industrial and financial heartlands of Baden-Württemberg and Hessen. In spite of evident ambivalence of the Greens with regard to political orientation, the party appears to benefit even more than the hard right from the stagnation of grand coalition politics and is certainly poised to benefit from the growing awareness towards climate damage. The young voters in particular have turned their backs against both Social and Christian Democracy in a sudden shift to the Greens.

Such are the circumstances of the latest crossover strategy conference of the Institut für eine Solidarische Moderne, which took place in Berlin in June 2019. A position paper written in advance spells out a drift towards Green and welcomes the new horizon of a post-social democratic and post-welfare state left wing project. According to the authors, some ranks of the left party’s efforts (and the Social Democrats?) to focus on social inequality and national social policy are doomed (labeled retro-fordist). Accordingly, the future option of a social-ecological transformation results from intersectional struggles (feminist, migrant) and from mobilizations beyond the traditional bases of trade unions and progressive civil society. Instead of a primarily nation-level social policy, a progressive internationalist agenda supported by vital new elements of civil society (examples listed are Fridays for Future, Seebrücke, Unteilbar etc.) and directed against the right wing neo-nationalist and authoritarian movements is more promising. The conference’s collection of results emphasizes the need to develop feminist struggles, the new wave of collective action in the workplace, new internationalism, unification against right wing forces and the urban struggles to reclaim city spaces (socializing privatized social housing, large real estate companies etc.). In order to develop climate change related social and ecological transformation proposals, a meeting will be organized to develop a government program. The role of Social Democrats, the Left and the ISM itself in a future government coalition under Green hegemony is to remind the narrow-minded Realpolitik wing of the Greens of the “Gretchen question” of the left: the need to overcome capitalism.

Although ISM professes to be the guardian of the mosaic left, the pre-conference statement is characterized by classical vanguard language. Based on this, those who want to emphasize social inequality and social policy are wrong, and those who focus on diverse social struggles and human rights are right. Once again, the problem of the contemporary German left appears to be the traditional problem of left wing divisions. On the one hand: when Sarah Wagenknecht, the leader of a traditionalist social equality perspective, attacked the (200,000 strong) Unteilbar (Undivided) demonstration in Berlin that focused on human rights of migrants and minorities calling for a unification against the right, she frustrated many of her followers who joined the demonstration and who share both perspectives. The Aufstehen (Rise up) movement, which Wagenknecht had launched in the hope of mobilizing a crusade similar to the French yellow vests movement, was doomed as a result of such ill-conceived leadership instead of bolstering the larger mosaic left.

On the other hand, it is quite unclear on which basis the demonstrated self-confidence of the counter position of the ISM discussion paper rests. While normatively pleasing, the political perspectives are exceedingly vague. What exactly do we need to think of as a post-social-democratic and post-welfare state project? There is very little written on the transformation of capitalism, necessary redistribution within and across borders, and the need to start matching the domestic, European and international policy-making capacities of the opponents and contenders of the left. ISM appears to be big on the strategy rhetoric, but weak on policy proposals and coalitions. Much like the few other progressive think tanks in Germany, ISM does not provide policy related expertise and critical comment on a regular basis to public policy debates in the various important areas relevant to the mosaic left. An impressive network of academics and policy people notwithstanding, no fundraising infrastructure appears to be in place to build up staff and expand capacity. Selecting key projects relevant to the different communities of the mosaic left – developing key diverse projects – and building a new consensus among the fractured communities could be a way to mend fences and to overcome divisions as well as to provide a desperately needed orientation. Unless the mosaic left becomes quite a bit stronger and concrete in challenging its opponents, Green (and other) centrist pragmatists are unlikely to show much concern for the Gretchen questions of the left.

Unsurprisingly, the representative from the Green leadership invited to the cross over roundtable discussion in June, Anton Hofreiter, refused to answer questions regarding the potential green-red-red project. Because of the climate crisis, arithmetical speculations do not help according to Hofreiter; we have to deal with the big question. When the likely coalition government of Greens and Christian Democrats will be formed after the next election, however, the new arithmetic will be revealed. It will remain to be seen if Social Democrats in opposition, together with the Left party will build more bridges than the ISM has been able to supply, and develop strength to pull the Greens away from the pragmatic liaison with center-right Christian Democracy. Recovering or declining Social Democrats and a stagnating Left may also end up harboring GR2 illusions similar to the R2G desire of the ISM. It may be time to dedicate more energy to mosaic opposition politics instead.