The Adnan restaurant in Berlin is famous for its €17 lamb chops and its truffled pasta so it was a bit of a surprise that champagne-socialists like Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi did not turn up at a recent party there for Der Spiegel journalist Jan Fleischauer.
Perhaps it was to do with the title of his new book, “Among Leftists – From One of Them Who Accidentally Became a Conservative.” Or perhaps they simply weren’t very hungry.
Still the place was full of top-shelf German right-wingers including Axel Springer’s Matthias Döpfner and Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Plus a whole cruise ship full of second-fiddle conservatives in attendance added to the celebratory mood as if they had just won an election and were dancing on the graves of the left.
And you have to see their point. For some mysterious reason Europe’s left (except in tiny Iceland) is in retreat. We have the biggest crisis of capitalism in human memory and what is the hard left doing? Hiding under the bedcovers when this should be their hour.
Did not Oskar predict all this in his anti-globalisation books? Lafontaine was never shy before about telling us that he was right, even when he manifestly was not. It was his cleverly named party The Left that first identified bankers as “gangsters,” who called for bank nationalisations and massive taxes on the rich.
And yet there they are in opinion polls in recent weeks stubbornly stuck at 10 percent, just a nose ahead of the almost invisible environmentalist Greens. The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) meanwhile is surging ahead thanks partly to Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück’s bullying of Ouagadogu and other shanty-towns like Zürich (one thing I have noticed over the years: Germans hate bullies in everyday life but love them in politics).
Steinbrück has understood something about the zeitgeist. The electorate wants to castrate bankers but at the same time wants politicians with testosterone, a kind of weird societal manhood-transplant. And this being a big election year, this is the season when voters get what they want.
But what about the country’s lefties? I worry about them. There was obviously a structural defect, an engineering problem as soon as The Left was born out of an awkward union of disgruntled western German trade unionists and eastern German ex-communists. The point of the merger was to soak up large numbers of unhappy west SPD voters who admired Lafontaine for leaving the Social Democrats in a pouty huff, but it never happened.
Instead, the western members of The Left are largely crazies and the kind of obsessive bean-counters that so scarred poor Jan Fleischauer’s childhood. The eastern leftists meanwhile have turned themselves from Bolsheviks into Mensheviks and from Mensheviks into Gutmenschen – they are the party that actually listens to their constituents and empties their bed-pans. How were these two bits ever going to merge? They are like two rats in a sack.
And so the only way The Left can survive is by constant radicalisation to disguise the cracks. Their programme shows that they have given up the idea of national government: a €100 billion future fund, another €100 billion every year for education, climate change measures and health, plus the scrapping of NATO.
The fundamental problem, of course, is that the Germans like their left-wingers to be cuddly.
The Left’s leaders were never as successful nationally as when Oskar preferred a glass of Sekt to class warfare. That is, he came across as a fat, loving father who liked to eat well. The same went for party-Gysi, dancing with women who were at least a metre taller than him. It was as if they were saying, yes, let’s have a revolution – but one in which every citizen, however poor, has the right to eat oysters washed down with a good dry white wine.
That, I discovered this week in a new biography written by Tristram Hunt, is what Friedrich Engels actually wanted. “Engels believed in cascading the pleasures of life – food, sex, drink, culture, travel – down to all classes,” writes Hunt. “Socialism was not a never-ending committee meeting, but a life of satiated enjoyment.”
Every Sunday, Engels would open up his house in London’s Primrose Hill and throw a party. August Bebel remembers leaving at two in the morning after a night of pilsner, claret and Maitrank.
Now that is a leftist political thinker who would get my vote. If Engels had been in charge, Fleischauer would not have had to write his reckoning with the German left-wing. And Gysi could have come along to Adnan and had a lamb chop with a good conscience.