German Socialists have lately been in the throes of two very socialist contradictions that help explain why they are likely to lose in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The left-wing violence that accompanied the recent G-20 meeting in Hamburg shocked Germans, who had come to expect their young people to focus on their studies, jobs, and careers, but it also unleashed a debate about the degree to which the violence may be characterized as left-wing. Conservatives asserted that German socialists had too long given priority to right-wing violence and thereby enabled left-wingers to mobilize for the Hamburg meeting undeterred. Many socialists argued that the left and violence are incompatible. Some intellectuals tried to find a middle ground by suggesting that left and right were anachronistic terms.
In fact, a dispassionate look at the historical record shows that communist movements and regimes killed tens of millions of innocents. So, too, did fascist movements and regimes, which suggests that extremists of both the left and right are dangerous. Yet, this perfectly sensible position is very hard for socialists to accept, as it suggests that there is something intrinsically malignant about the socialist ideal—a classless society. Socialists like to argue that, while communist regimes may have been bloodthirsty, the communist ideal is humanistic. In fact, classlessness is as hostile to the diversity and richness of living human beings as is fascism. Both communism and fascism want to create an ideal person that corresponds to their notion of the good. But human beings are not ideal and never will be, which means that both communists and fascists must arrogate to themselves the power to decide the fate of millions. Which they do, to the inevitable woe of those millions.
Were Germany’s socialists, like their comrades in other countries, to abandon the dream of Marxist classlessness and just opt for improving the lot of their constituents, they’d have to repudiate their organizational past and their ideological origins, and become a simple party of the center-left. That may eventually happen, but it won’t be easy, at least as long as the 68-er generation that took part in many of the student rebellions of that time still has a major say in party affairs.
The second contradiction concerns Germany’s rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey. After Turkey arrested a German human rights activist, the socialists exploded with ire and righteous anger, arguing that President Erdogan’s actions required a tough response. After all, they insisted, he was a dictator who was dismantling democracy and violating civil and human rights. Moreover, he was intent on weakening Europe and expanding Turkey’s geopolitical influence. Their conclusion—that it was high time for Germany to respond with tough actions of its own—was all the more appealing, as it enabled them to don the mantle of German nationalism just before the elections and accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel of being soft.
The irony of the socialist outrage was painfully obvious. Every one of their criticisms of Erdogan could just as easily be applied to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a dictator who had already dismantled his country’s democracy, consistently violates civil and human rights, desires to weaken Europe, and pursues imperialist wars in Ukraine and Georgia. But, instead of demanding a tough response to Putin’s provocations and insults, Germany’s socialists have consistently supported him, called for understanding the Kremlin’s motives, and been indifferent to the geopolitical concerns of the countries between Russia and Germany. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s employment in the Russian state firm Gazprom and his insistence, at the height of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, that Putin was a “true democrat” are emblematic of socialist kowtowing to Russian authoritarianism.
Don’t the socialists see that their position vis-à-vis Russia and Putin is a violation of everything they stand for? Obviously, they must. Their inability to act logically and consistently, however, is due to their long-standing ideological tradition of fixating on Russia and ignoring the nations in between. It was a socialist government that pursued Ostpolitik in the 1960s and 1970s—by coming to an agreement with Moscow that stabilized inter-German relations and normalized relations with communist Poland, but at the cost of the democratic nationalist oppositions who rejected accommodation with communism.
Ostpolitik, like the current socialist desire of détente with Russia, was a great-power accommodation that focused on states, and downplayed the masses—the very people the socialists claim to represent. Could Germany’s socialists ever come to abandon this preference for the powerful and rediscover their traditional constituency, the people? Once again, not until the 68-er generation passes power to other, less ideologically compromised generations.
In the meantime, the socialists will continue to decay. If they do in fact lose the elections, they will have no one to blame but themselves. Their high-minded rhetoric cannot survive the reality—that they have lost their ideals, while becoming captive to a dead ideology and geopolitics.
Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark