According to the latest opinion polls, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is currently the second strongest political force in Germany, after the Christian Democrats (CDU), at around 19 to 20 percent. Since the 2021 federal elections, when the AfD scored 10.3 percent, the party has almost doubled its support in polls. The AfD is particularly strong in eastern Germany (i.e. the former GDR): in Thuringia, for example, the AfD is currently polling around 30 percent of the vote, making it the strongest of all parties in the state.
There are many reasons for the AfD’s success. If you ask AfD voters why they support the party, it is clear that the AfD is primarily profiting from dissatisfaction with the German government’s immigration policies and with the climate policies of the governing coalition’s partner, the Green Party. Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, which opened the country’s borders to millions of migrants (many of them with economic motives), have long been a reason for the rise of the AfD.
But even under the current Ampelkoalition (“traffic light coalition”) of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP), millions of migrants continue to enter the country. And not only from Ukraine, whose refugees tend to be accepted in Germany to a much greater extent than other migrants, but also from Africa and the Middle East.
Another cause of discontent is the governing coalition’s climate policy, which, in international comparison, is particularly radical. Most recently, the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck of the Green Party announced plans for a new “heating law” that would have cost citizens hundreds of billions of euros. His plan caused a massive uproar all across the country. The FDP, which is in a coalition with the SPD and the Green, was able to prevent the very worst, but in general, Germany’s radical, planned economy climate policy is another reason for the rise of the AfD.
In many European countries, left-wing and right-wing populist movements have emerged that, for all their differences, are united by their opposition to economic liberalism and capitalism. In some cases, right-wing populist parties began by promoting at least partially liberal economic policies, before transforming into anti-capitalist parties.
This is precisely what happened in Germany, where the AfD was initially founded in 2013 as a party with an economically liberal program. Certainly, there are still members of the AfD in the West who are pro-capitalist. But compared to 10 years ago when the AfD was founded, it is now populists and anti-capitalists that hold the greatest sway, while many formerly influential pro-market members have left the party in frustration.
Anti-capitalism is particularly strong in eastern Germany, where it feeds on the notion of “social patriotism” and thus wins over many voters who previously voted for the far-left Die Linke. This party is the latest incarnation of the Communist SED, which ruled East Germany until 1990 and has changed its name several times in recent decades.
Right-wing anti-capitalism also has a theoretical basis – for example, thanks to authors such as Benedikt Kaiser and Götz Kubitschek from the right-wing Institut für Staatspolitik think tank. They tap into a long historical tradition of right-wing anti-capitalism in Germany – from the so-called “Conservative Revolution” of the Weimar Republic to the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler.
The anti-capitalist Right’s critique of capitalism and its economic policies differs only slightly from those of the Left. In his writings, Kaiser, the best-known pioneer of this movement, repeatedly quotes left-wing authors – from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Thomas Piketty, Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno. The enemies, on the other hand, are “market radicals,” “neoliberals,” and “libertarians” – including Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman and Friedrich August von Hayek. Incidentally, Kaiser has been a research assistant to the AfD Member of Parliament Jürgen Pohl since 2023.
Are left-wingers and big business in cahoots?
The core thesis of right-wing German anti-capitalists is that left-wing multicultural ideologists and big business are in cahoots. The real beneficiaries of mass immigration, they argue, are the capitalists, who benefit from access to a large reservoir of cheap labor. The left-wing ideologues who demand “open borders” are, so the argument goes, in fact pursuing a policy in the interests of capital: “It is not ‘the Left’ that is driving mass migration, even if it approves for ideological reasons and acclaims it in the media. It is primarily driven by what was once called ‘big business’ in the form of industry and business federations.”
On this point in particular, however, questions remain. It is incomprehensible as to why mass immigration should be in the best interest of “big business”. Yes, “business” wants qualified specialists to move to Germany, and this is not only in the interest of companies, but of society as a whole, because it is not clear how demographic problems can realistically be overcome in any other way.
But this immigration of qualified workers, which business leaders repeatedly call for, faces a lot of obstacles in Germany. There are countless bureaucratic hurdles for skilled workers, while immigration is comparatively much easier for those seeking to access social benefits – saying the word “asylum” at the border is all it takes. For this reason, mass immigration by people only looking to exploit the welfare system has been taking place in Germany for years, which is of course neither in the interest of “big business’” nor of workers – and is also something the majority of people in Germany do not want, as all surveys show.
In fact, mass immigration by people only looking to exploit the welfare system makes the necessary immigration of skilled workers even more difficult, because the resulting cultural problems reduce the acceptance of immigration across the population as a whole. As this example reveals, the thesis that left-wing multicultural ideologues and “big business” allegedly share the same goals is absurd, because it makes no distinction between different types of immigration. There is no doubt that corporate leaders today often compliantly bend to the left-wing/green zeitgeist, but this is a sign of opportunism and not evidence that they are the real driving force behind the shift to the Left.
At best, lip service to private ownership
Just as left-wing anti-capitalists in Germany say they are committed to the “social market economy”, so right-wing anti-capitalists say they oppose capitalism but are not against the market economy. But their commitment to the market economy cannot be taken seriously, since the central features of the market economy, such as private ownership, are roundly rejected. As lip service, of course, both left-wing and right-wing anti-capitalists today often profess their support for private ownership. But — subscribing as they do to the “primacy of politics” — they want the state to set very narrow limits on ownership.
Kaiser approvingly quotes Axel Honneth, a prominent theorist of the left-wing Frankfurt School, who raises the question “why mere ownership of the means of production should justify any claim at all to the returns on capital it generates”. Accordingly, parts of the economy should be nationalised. Götz Kubitschek, one of the masterminds of the anti-capitalist right, believes that “the state should ensure the provision of basic services in the areas of transport, banking, communications, education, health, energy, housing, culture and security, and not just create a regulatory framework for private providers, who are primarily concerned with creaming off the most profitable sectors.” The task, according to Kubitschek, is therefore to “nationalise and simultaneously cut red tape” – although he does not seem to recognize that the more the state interferes in the economy, the more bureaucracy inevitably proliferates. Kaiser advocates considering the nationalisation of all sectors of the economy that are crucial to the country’s development, e.g., heavy industry, chemicals and transportation. He also sees no justification for privately operated electricity plants, waterworks and other utilities. On the other hand, he generously concedes that light and consumer goods industries could remain “fields of activity for cooperative and private capitalist initiative”.
Marx, Engels and Lenin, to whom the right-wing anti-capitalists also frequently refer, would have branded the ideology of the right-wing anti-capitalists as a petty-bourgeois reactionary criticism of capitalism. All large enterprises and corporations are regarded as problematic, while “consumer communities, cooperative village inns, which issue a dividend in the form of a community feast, and farms, which supply their small investors with free food (return on shares)” are idealised. East Germany has been selected as the testing ground for such anti-capitalist dreams. After all, Kaiser argues, surveys show that 75 percent of East Germans are in favour of a socialist system, but believe it has never been correctly implemented.
Following Otto Strasser, the leader of the “left-wing National Socialists”, Kaiser proposes the concept of a “hereditary fiefdom” that could replace private ownership. Accordingly, the state would remain the sole owner of land and means of production, leaving the management to the individual “according to ability and worthiness as a hereditary fiefdom”.
AfD social policies echo those of the Left
In all other respects, these social policy proposals are closely aligned with those of Germany’s left-wing parties. The rich are to be burdened more in every respect: for example, by increasing income taxes on top earners and reintroducing the wealth tax, which has not been levied in Germany since 1996. The image of a “cherished and regulated social market economy” or “regulated social market economy of the twenty-first century” (Kaiser) actually has very little to do with a real market economy. The hope of the anti-capitalist right is to bring together national and social elements in one movement, with a hatred of “the rich” common to both. Approvingly, Kaiser cites the demand of the former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich: “We need to create a movement that brings right and left together to fight the rich elite.”
The right-wing anti-capitalists first set their sights on pushing back the AfD’s economic liberal elements to make way for the “social patriotism” propagated by Björn Höcke, the leader of the right-wing of the AfD in its eastern stronghold of Thüringen (Thuringia). It is important not to underestimate the right-wing anti-capitalists, because they have already come close to achieving their goal. The synthesis of nationalism and socialism exerts a strong appeal over voters. This is not only proven by recent movements in France (such as the Rassemblement National from the right, or the left-wing nationalist Mélenchon movement), it is also clear from German history, which shows just how explosive this mixture of nationalism and socialism can become. This is not to say that the new right-wing anti-capitalists are national socialists (Nazis) in the traditional sense, but their movement certainly combines the ideologies of nationalism and socialism.
This strategy has been particularly successful in eastern Germany. After more than half a century of National Socialist and Socialist indoctrination, anti-capitalism is much stronger in Germany’s eastern states than it is in the West, as many polls confirm. The mixture of anti-capitalism and nationalism, as propagated by Björn Höcke and other AfD leaders in eastern Germany, for example, has been very successful across the region. Many voters in the east who used to vote for the radical left-wing Die Linke now vote AfD.
Die Linke and the AfD have one more thing in common, namely anti-Americanism. And this anti-Americanism is one of the main reasons why both parties reject military support for Ukraine and downplay Russian imperialism. Putin’s friend, the former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder (SPD) and the AfD’s leader Tino Chrupalla, demonstratively attended a reception at the Russian Embassy in Berlin recently to mark the anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Hitler’s Germany.
A clear majority of West Germans side with Ukraine, but in East Germany, support for Ukraine is met with a great deal of scepticism. That is another factor behind the continued rise of the AfD in the East.
Rainer Zitelmann is the author of the recently published book Hitler’s National Socialism https://hitlers-national-socialism.com/
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