Aufstehen: Stand Up or “Pop-Up Populism”?

Aufstehen, which translates to “Stand up,” is a left collective movement founded in the summer of 2018 by, among others, Sahra Wagenknecht, a leader in the political party die Linke (“the Left”). Die Linke is left populist in character, the result of a merger of the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (“Party of Democratic Socialism,” or PDS) and Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit—Die Wahlalternative (“Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice,” or WASG). PDS emerged from a Marxist-Leninist orientation but was retooled for current historical conditions. WASG emerged in 2005 in opposition to neoliberalism, criticizing both center-left and center-right politics. Within two years WASG had merged with PDS to form die LinkeAufstehenlinks die Linke with two other left-oriented parties Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (“Social Democratic Party of Germany,” or SPD) and Die Grünenor Grüne (“Greens”). 

Aufstehen is a collective in the spirit of Momentum, founded to support the Jeremy Corbyn tack of the British Labor Party, as well as the Jean-Luc Mélenchon movement, represented by the ecosocialist party La France Insoumise (“Unsubdued France”), founded in 2016. Aufstehen is a response to right populism, represented in Germany, for example, by Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany” or AfD). Prominent voices in Aufstehen are Wolgang Streeck, an economic sociologist who argues that late capitalism is marked by several problems portending its demise (such as austerity, declining growth, and oligarchy), Bernd Stegemann, a dramatuge, Andrea Nahles, who served as leader of the SPD, as well as Wagenknecht and her husband, Oskar Lafontaine, who served as fiancé minister under Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Aufstehen’s left populism prioritizes Germany’s working class, opposing corporate strategies that undermine labor’s power, for example, the exploitation of immigrant labor as a strategy to drive down wages in order to raise the profit rate. Aufstehen opposes or at least seeks to modify transnational capitalists relations. The attitude is similar to Brexit in that regional and global economic linkages are theorized to disadvantage the proletariat of the advanced state economies of Europe (and North America) and undermine national sovereignty. Readers of my blog will know that these are politics I associate very much with my own. 

The summer edition of Dissent magazine has published an article, “Pop-Up Populism: The Failure of Left-Wing Nationalism in Germany,” announcing Aufstehen’s death (as everything is tensed in the past, the entire essay is in the form of an obituary). “Aufstehen’s leaders insisted that their movement was not defined by its opposition to migrants,” write Quinn Slobadian (a historian of modern Germany) and William Callison (a PhD student of political science at Berkeley). “But they consistently cast migrants as either pawns in the game of finance capital or as the phony poster children of misguided urban idealists.” The mood of the piece immediately apparent, the authors blow several opening paragraphs describing key players as if this were the first chapter of a snarky novel. Bernd Stegemann was “a large man in wire-framed glasses with the slumped mien of an eternal graduate student.” Streeck was “a partisan of earth-tone sweaters with a paintbrush mustache.” And so on.

The upshot of the article is that populism is good politics no more and that Aufstehen is an anti-immigrant tendency in the trans-Atlantic community that has infected the right and the left. Hardly unexpected. This is a general take by multiculturalist intellectuals who find concern for native-born workers, ecological overshoot, overpopulation, religious fanaticism, and cultural disorganization to be contemptible no matter from what point along the political spectrum they hail. Slobadian and Callison quote Wagenknecht: “Cosmopolitanism, anti-racism, and protection of minorities are feel-good labels to conceal crude upward redistribution and to preserve a good conscience for the beneficiaries.” The authors lament that “Streeck went further, calling the use of taxpayer euros for migrant resettlement ‘morally obligatory expropriation’ and casting doubt on the motives of the refugees coming to Germany.” The doubt expressed was over whether refugees entering Germany were actually refugees or economic migrants traveling under cover of humanitarian crises and taking advantage of the lax borders of the European Union. Anybody who took even a cursory look at the composition of those pouring into Europe during the migrant crisis had no difficulty doubting the official narrative. Anybody familiar with the work of Streeck knows that the looks he takes are more than cursory.

Stegemann, to use the authors’ words, “casts ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘postmodernism’ as the dramatis personae of our time. It was this twin menace, he argues, that decimated the welfare state, exterminated class consciousness, and transformed race, gender, and class into matters of mere ‘social construction.’” Those who read my writings on this blog know that I am largely in accord with Stegemann’s opinion on this matter. Slobadian and Callison continue (cleverly): “To reclaim power, left populists need to Make Class Hegemonic Again, thereby blurring established lines between right and left.” The way they frame the argument, it would seem that the authors do not agree that neoliberalism and postmodernism are a twin menace. And while I would disagree that the effect of postmodernism has been merely to transform the structures of social reality into constituents of discourse (the effect has rather been the essentializing of such social construction as gender and race), I do agree that moving the focus to social class is how those who speak for the working class regain an authentic left politics and, moreover, that left populism, class solidarity, cultural unity, and civic nationalism are the necessary ingredients for such a politics. 

The authors write, “The first step, it would seem, is casting opponents of immigration as the designated representatives of ‘the people.’” Here, the reader is supposed to scoff along with the authors. But, given that the proponents of immigration scheme in opposition to working class interests, this formulation makes qualified sense—qualified in that one should consider the political sentiments of the opponent in question. Indeed, the authors worry that the approach “cater[s] to AfD voters, who studies have shown tend to be of average or above-average income, disproportionately male, over thirty, of average education, and skeptical of not only immigration but also gender equality and the human provenance of climate change.” But the authors invert the causal order. Aufstehen does not reflect the AfD tendency, but rather AfD attempts to fill its ranks with those abandoned by the left on this very issue. Indeed, this is the point of Aufstehen: to pull disaffected workers back into the sphere of leftwing politics; not only to build solidarity, but to weaken the rightwing tendencies that oppose gender equality, homosexual rights, and environmentalism. Does the left really want to give up on these folks?

As for Slobadian and Callison’s concern about marginalizing Muslims, stifling the Islamization of European societies is key to keeping secular society, the political, legal, and cultural basis for progress for women, gays and lesbians, and other historically marginalized groups. Islam is an ideology, like Christianity and Nazism. I am doubtful the authors of this piece would worry about marginalizing those ideologies. (People give quite a lot away with their concern over the minimization of Islam in Europe.)

The authors note that observers compare “Stegemann’s polemics against the German left to Mark Lilla’s denunciations of American liberals.” In 2017, Lilla, a political scientist at Columbia University, published The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, in which he argues for a politics that emphasizes what citizens have in common rather than a politics that emphasizes the differences of identity. (A man after my own heart.) “Both trace the breakdown of the center and the rise of the right to the evils of identity politics,” the authors write, “and both envision center-left coalitions reforming around concepts like border security, national citizenship, the traditional family, and the homeland.” I seriously doubt either Stegemann or Lilla would accept the authors’ wording here, phrasing apparently designed to call to mind the rhetoric of white nationalism (if not national socialism). Stegemann and Lilla would almost certainly put the matter differently, namely that national integrity and integrated communities, organized around shared economic and environmental concerns, and a politics operating in the liberal secular framework of democratic-republicanism, would represent an authentic working-class politics. At least that’s the way I would put it. 

I do agree with the authors when they write: “Giving up on the young and urban, the educated but underemployed, the paperless and the stateless means falling back to the same problems that sank the old left: seeking salvation only from the factory floor when the material base for that kind of politics no longer exists.” However, giving up on the young and urban does not explain the failures of socialism in the West. The Old Left did not just merely give up on the youth. The Old Left abandoned the youth to the corruption of postmodernism and identity politics of the New Left. As co-editor of Dissent, Michael Kazin, once noted, persons usually do not become aware of historical pivots until decades after history has already pivoted. Perhaps it is unfair to lay the failure to combat the anti-proletarian anti-Enlightenment notions of the postmodern turn in culture and politics at the Old Left’s doorstep. But what it did not see then, surely we can see now. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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