In 2016, a dramaturge, a career politician, and a retired sociologist met at the Paris-Moskau Restaurant in Berlin to hatch a plan to disrupt the German left. The dramaturge was the fifty-something Bernd Stegemann, a large man in wire-framed glasses with the slumped mien of an eternal graduate student. He worked a five-minute cab ride away at the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht in the same year as socialist East Germany.
The politician was Sahra Wagenknecht, one of the country’s most poised and merciless critics of the status quo. Born in East Germany to an Iranian father and a German mother, Wagenknecht was the parliamentary chairperson of die Linke (the Left) party. Since its 2007 founding, die Linke’s mixture of ex–Social Democrats and former East German communists had polled around 10 percent nationally. Despite her party’s mediocre electoral performance, Wagenknecht had remained one of the most popular politicians in national polls and a fixture on primetime talk shows.
The sociologist, a partisan of earth-tone sweaters with a paintbrush mustache, was Wolfgang Streeck. One of Germany’s best-known intellectuals, Streeck achieved celebrity status in the leftward reaches of the Anglosphere after Verso published his 2014 book, Buying Time. To the readership of the London Review of Books and their broader penumbra, Streeck had become a trusted guide through the thickets of European politics in the age of the troika and the bailout.
Soon a fourth comrade emerged from the wings: Oskar Lafontaine, Wagenknecht’s husband and arguably the most seasoned left strategist in German politics. Lafontaine had served as finance minister under 1990s third-way–style Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder and was himself chair of the party before resigning in dramatic fashion. He helped found die Linke, for which he remains a member of parliament.
The quartet were drawn together by a shared distaste for how the center and the left were reacting to new threats from the right. In particular, they were angry with the political establishment’s embrace of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “welcoming” immigration policy. Most EU member states had clashed with Merkel over national refugee quotas, but within Germany the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was the only party to capitalize on criticism of the chancellor’s immigration policy. Wagenknecht and her allies believed that, to reverse the AfD’s electoral success, anti-Merkel and anti-migration politics could not be ceded to the far right. The rules of politics were changing, and “the center” would not hold.
Left-wing populism was an idea bouncing a...
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