When 28-year-old Kevin Kühnert took the stage last month at the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) federal congress in Bonn, Germany, he seemed ready to spearhead a left-wing insurrection. Kühnert is the leader of Jusos (an abbreviation for Jungsozialisten, or young socialists), the youth wing of the left-leaning SPD, Germany’s oldest and second-most-powerful political party. At the gathering in Bonn, he showed little deference to leader Martin Schulz and his call to begin talks on forming yet another “Grand Coalition” government with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister-party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union. Jusos and its supporters have called this plan a suicide pact, arguing that the SPD will forfeit all credibility with its rapidly shrinking base if it chooses to govern with Merkel’s conservatives for the third time in 12 years. Kühnert’s message resonated widely, with only 56 percent of SPD delegates at the congress voting to enter negotiations to build a new government with Merkel.
Early on Wednesday, Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD announced that they had finally concluded those negotiations, after more than a week of intensive talks. Following SPD protocol, the final deal must be approved by popular vote sometime in early March by the SPD’s 463,723 members. Loyalties in the party are evenly split between the party leaders and Kühnert, and the infighting, which has intensified since last fall, will continue even after the vote. But even though Jusos faces long odds, it is determined to break Merkel’s hold on the SPD and restore the socialist values that, in its view, once helped the party shape German society.
The origins of Jusos date back to the early 1900s, when its predecessors existed chiefly as a loose collection of makeshift night schools and political clubs for young working people. Steeped in the Marxist tradition, these Arbeiterjugendvereine, or young workers’ associations, taught their members about the concept of a living wage and workers’ rights. 1914 saw the founding of a distinct youth section within the Munich branch of the SPD, whose founder, Felix Fechenbach, coined the term Jungsozialisten. More SPD youth groups began appearing in the 1920s, around the time that the party entered government for the first time. There, it championed reforms that protected workers’ unions and helped establish benefits for the sick, elderly, and unemployed.
In 1931, the SPD dissolved Jusos for its increasingly radical leftist views, as the group began to openly protest against the party’s support for the policies of Germany’s Weimer-era minority conservative government. Hitler’s ban on the SPD in 1933 did little to brighten the prospects for the group’s future. After World War II, however, the reconstituted SPD revived Jusos in West Germany, with a significant chunk of its membership comprising of former soldiers.
In the late 1960s, Jusos veered left of the party line once again. It offered a platform for young leftists and students who rejected American-style consumer capitalism, and railed against the failure of their parents’ generation to atone for Germany’s fascist past. By the mid-1970s, Jusos had some 300,000 members—roughly a third of the SPD’s total membership—and successfully lobbied for elements of the “dare for more democracy” policies of Willy Brandt, who in 1969 became Germany’s first postwar SPD chancellor. This platform mandated that students and workers be granted seats on university boards of directors; analogous measures for workers’ unions and the boards of large corporations followed in the mid-1970s. Jusos also became a training ground for future party leaders like Hans Eichel, Rudolf Scharping, and former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who served as the head of the Jusos in the 1970s.
But by the early 1980s, German socialists began moving to the center as the SPD tried to extend its reach into the growing West German middle class. So followed Jusos. Its members distanced themselves from the Marxist lingo of class conflict, replacing it with less charged terms like “progressivism” and “fairness” to describe their view of social democracy. “In the SPD, politics came to be oriented according to the existing beliefs of voters, and thus more arbitrary. Rather than aiming to change society's beliefs, the SPD measured and approximated around them,” Heinz Thoermer and Edgar Einemann wrote in the Rise and Fall of the Schroeder Generation.
Today, the political mood in Germany is leaning away from centrism. The SPD’s electoral calamity last September came as voters abandoned it for far-left and far-right alternatives, including the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). “Only a few percentage points separate us and the SPD in the polls, and that’s for a reason: The SPD has long since lost its relationship with the working class. We will replace the SPD as the people’s party,” Alice Weidel, the leader of the AfD, recently wrote in a series of sarcastic tweets. Judging from recent studies of the German electorate, she was hardly exaggerating.
Last year, DiW, a Berlin-based economic research institute published a report examining how the German electorate changed between 2000 and 2016. The researchers found that the SPD had lost touch with its working-class base over the last 15 years, making gains instead with white-collar workers and pensioners.The report also found that the electorates of Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD increasingly came to resemble one another over the same interval. “Although the proportion of laborers in the overall German workforce has decreased dramatically, we see a disproportionately large decline in the SPD voting base. One cannot say anymore that it is a workers’ party,” Alexander Kritikos, one of the authors of the report, said.
After SPD delegates voted for new coalition talks, the party negotiated a coalition agreement with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. SPD leaders tried to push Merkel to the left on a number of issues, including migration and public healthcare—to some, it seemed the clear handiwork of Jusos. Not to Kühnert, however, who has accused the SPD of playing centrist handmaiden to Merkel, lashing out at his party’s “bizarre” agreements with the conservatives on healthcare. He has argued that the negotiations should be called off altogether. In particular, he spoke out against an agreement between the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democrats to cap the number of reunifications between migrants and their families at 12,000 persons per year, an important priority for the right-wing elements of Merkel's party.
In the lead up to the SPD’s upcoming vote on the coalition decision, Kühnert is formulating his final arguments to try to persuade the aging SPD party base to swerve left. Dressed in quarter-zips and wrinkled button-downs, he is now a frequent guest on primetime talk shows, haranguing against what he sees as his party’s unnecessary suicide. But his opponents have plans of their own: Schulz intends to tour Germany to campaign in favor of the grand coalition. (He will step down after the vote.) The party also wants to organize conferences at SPD headquarters in Berlin and allow for open debate between members.
That Jusos champions an old-school leftism when much of German political culture opposes such ideas has given it something of an underdog appeal to SPD members of all ages and backgrounds. “The fact that 44 percent of the delegates voted against coalition negotiations goes to show: There weren't just a few renegade Jusos at work here. It shows a mood and a belief that is deeply anchored within our party,” Kühnert said. Schulz’s departure, announced just yesterday, may also send a message about the SPD’s future: He will be replaced by Andrea Nahles, who led Jusos in the 1990s.
But the mood is still divided. Even a small wing of the Jusos membership has begun to argue against Kühnert, saying that the SPD has a responsibility to work with Merkel to build a stable majority government. If Jusos fails, as most expect it will, then the era of Merkel’s managerial centrism will live on for another four years. But with the SPD polling at a historic low of 17 percent in early February, it’s perhaps time for the rest of the party to listen.