Even in these globalized times, most political movements are a reflection of national political culture, a particular individual or voting system, but the launch in Germany of Aufstehen, or Get Up, encourages comparisons with the momentum of Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece and France, insubordination led by Jean-Luc Melanchon.
If Aufstehen succeeds in its goal of uniting and reframing the German left, it could mean Europe’s largest economy joins other countries in housing Eurosceptic, nationalistic, anti-establishment parties at both ends of the political spectrum, united in their opposition to liberal elites, globalisation, excessive migration and even Nato.
At the moment, Aufstehen is very much a reflection of its founders, especially the polarising Sahra Wagenknecht. Her insistence that the German left has to listen harder to German working-class anger over migration weakens the parallels with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Saunders. Some have described her as seeking a “red-brown” coalition, a reference to Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is polling as the second largest party in the country.
If anything, her preoccupations take her closer to Blue Labour, the near-defunct movement associated with Lord Glasman, a one-time adviser to Ed Miliband.
Aufstehen’s methods – it has a strong faith in digital campaigning – are similar to the Italian Five Star Movement. The idea of launching a movement, possibly as a precursor to a party, has echoes of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, but also of Podemos in Spain.
Its very specific pitch is a universal concern of the European left: reversing the loss of working-class votes to either abstention or the right. Its target is the left behind.
Wagenknecht herself says the inspiration for Aufstehen was La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, the populist leftist movement founded by Mélenchon, a candidate in France’s last presidential elections.
Mélenchon, a 65-year-old former senator and former junior Socialist minister, is also Russia-friendly and a critic of Nato who wants France to withdraw from EU treaties. He has targeted foreign newcomers, declaring that he’s “never been in favour of freedom of arrival” and disapproves of migrants “stealing the bread” of French workers.
Wagenknecht insists the aim is not to form a new party, but to bring together the divided left, including her own Die Linke, the Green party and the SPD.
But some of her language is apocalyptic, and primarily aimed at former SPD voters who have defected to AfD. She says, for instance: “Germany is changing in a direction that many people do not want.” The climate is becoming rougher and more aggressive, “the cohesion is lost”. If left unchecked, “then this country will be unrecognisable in five or 10 years”.
At the launch of her movement on Tuesday she was reluctant to be specific about migration, saying excessive migration was putting pressure on public services
Her critics claim she tilts at windmills. In a recent interview, for instance, she said that if the core concern of leftist politics was to represent the disadvantaged, then the no-borders position was the opposite of being on the left.
She said: “All successes in restraining and regulating capitalism have been achieved within individual states, and states have borders.”
But she says it is inequality, as much as migration, that has been the breeding ground for resentment. Germany is full of contradictions: “We build internationally popular cars and machines, but we send our children in dilapidated schools where teachers are missing and repeatedly the class fails.” The government saves banks and subsidises corporations, but is not willing to protect old people from poverty.
Her many critics on the left claim that, far from uniting the left, she is on the verge of forming a fourth party. Her rhetoric has the effect of amplifying AfD rhetoric rather than combating it.