Die Linke and the crisis of class representation

Issue: 124

Oliver Nachtwey

The European radical left is characterised by its lack of synchronicity.1 We can see decline, regroupment and regeneration happening almost simultaneously, and so far no role model for a successful left has emerged.2 The fate of the left in Italy, which a few years ago was a centre of regeneration, shows how hope can be transformed into disappointment. In Britain the split in Respect has destroyed the opportunity to build a visible left party for years. Besides the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party) in France, which has still to prove itself, the most successful product of left regeneration in Europe so far has been Die Linke (The Left) in Germany. Nevertheless, it is often seen as a new more or less reformist organisation which (this is the implicit conclusion) will soon revert to adaptation, de-radicalisation and participation in government.3 This perspective, which concentrates on the programmatic orientation of the party, underestimates Die Linke’s significance for class representation, its internal and external dynamism, and its political openness in a period of global turbulence.

The transformation of social democracy

The starting point for the emergence of Die Linke was the partial decline of social democratic hegemony in the labour movement, which had reached its highpoint during the period of the Red-Green coalition government.4 The decline began with an election victory. The decisive reason for the success of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Greens in the federal election in 1998 was the desire for more social justice. In the first six months the new Red-Green government honoured its promises. Above all it withdrew various measures introduced by the previous conservative-liberal government.5 The demographic factor in the 1997 pension reform was postponed, the loosening of job security was revised, the financial contribution to the health service was corrected and the law reducing the right to sick pay was withdrawn. The then chairman of the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine, who was also the finance minister invested with extensive powers, was a vehement advocate of this course. Lafontaine, rather than the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, seemed to be steering government policy in this period.

However, the Lafontaine era lasted just 163 days. His plans for a European economic policy, stronger regulation of the financial markets and political control over the European Central Bank were scuppered by the resistance of the business elite and chancellor Schröder. In March 1999 Lafontaine resigned from all his positions. After his resignation his demand-oriented course of budgetary expansion was given up in favour of a consolidation policy that withdrew almost all spending increases.6 Financial policy was no longer a question of “redistribution, but of the competitiveness of the economy”.7

On 14 March 2003 Schröder announced Agenda 2010, the overture to the “greatest reduction of the welfare state since 1949”,8 which was supposed to secure the long-term competitiveness of the German economy. The greatest controversy was provoked by the Hartz IV law, which developed out of Agenda 2010. This prescribed the amalgamation of unemployment benefit and social security benefit into what was called “unemployment benefit II”, worsening conditions for those receiving payments. The measures also reduced the period of eligibility for earnings related “unemployment benefit I” to 12 months from 36 months for unemployed people under 55, reduced the right of the unemployed to refuse to accept jobs they considered unreasonable and reduced the threshold for job protection. However, the Red-Green government retained the basic institutions of the German welfare state and in other places the role of the welfare state expanded (for instance in childcare).

Something that has not been investigated empirically but which appears self-evident is that Agenda 2010 undermined the self-confidence and combativity of the working class. For them the “shadow of the market” had become significantly greater and more threatening. Reduced job protection and the reduction of unemployment benefit I, which protected standards of living, weakened the readiness of the working class to enter into conflict and so also indirectly weakened the trade unions. This can be seen in the fact that the wage share after the announcement of Agenda 2010 fell drastically from what was already a low level. By the end of the Red-Green coalition the wage share had reached the lowest level for more than 50 years.

Left wing critics often use the term “social liberalism” to characterise the recent transformation of social democracy. The term appears to be imprecise for two reasons. First, it implies that post-war social democracy functioned according to significantly different principles from social democracy today. It is assumed that in the past “politics against markets”9 was the driving force for social democratic parties but that they have now broken from that. However, a realistic look at the history of European social democracy shows it carried out a contradictory combination of policies.10 It was a productive regenerator and protector of the market economy, but attempted at the same time to frame the effects of the market and its risks in such a way that they were tolerable for the individual. If you adopt this perspective, then both post-war social democracy and its latest transformation appear in quite another light. Transformed social democracy is not a break with the principles of post-war social democracy, as the term “social liberalism” implies, but its continuation by other means.

In my view it therefore makes sense to speak of “market social democracy”.11 Market social democracy differs qualitatively from anti-statist and anti-redistributive neoliberalism. Keynesian social democracy wanted to limit the powers of the markets but at the same time it wanted to retain them. In market social democracy the relationship has doubly metamorphosed: it is intended to promote the market using the means of the social realm and the social is only retained insofar as it supports the effects of the market. Tightening the criteria for unemployment support goes along with “investment” in human capital. This politics aims to increase economic efficiency, but occasionally has redistributive side-effects. Also even in its crudest period the SPD never distanced itself from the German system of worker co-determination because it saw this as contributing to economic growth.

The second problem with the concept of “social liberalism” is that it concentrates too much on the ideological orientation of social democracy and leaves the question of class representation under-exposed. From their very essence social democratic parties are, as Lenin said, “capitalist workers’ parties” which integrate the working class into the capitalist system but are also simultaneously in part tied to the articulation of working class interests. They exercise hegemony by “accommodating the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is supposed to be exercised so that a certain balance of compromise is formed”.12

For a period the social democratic model was in a position to integrate the working class and above all the trade unions, and it built up longstanding loyalties that continue to have an effect today. The concept of market social democracy assumes that, in a rudimentary form, the SPD continues to be a capitalist workers’ party, whereas the concept “social liberalism” implies that it is a bourgeois formation among others. In other words, German social democracy has indeed partially lost its hegemony in the (organised) labour movement but it has not yet completely forfeited its privileged position.

The crisis of class representation

The unions had supported the SPD in the 1998 election campaign but the relationship had been strained for some time. Shortly after the new government took office critical social scientists and trade union officials feared that through its adoption of the “Third Way” the SPD was distancing itself more and more from the labour movement.13 The unions and social movements mobilised more than half a million people against Agenda 2010 and there was a massive wave of protests in many cities—but they had no influence over the government.

This led to the establishment of a new left formation in West Germany. Independently of each other two initiatives went public in the spring of 2004 and they later united to form Work and Social Justice—the Electoral Alternative (Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit, WASG). One component of this came directly out of a split of trade union oriented SPD members in southern Germany, and the other came out of a process of convergence and regroupment involving left wing intellectuals who looked to the labour movement, trade unionists, critics of globalisation, organised socialists and Communists who wanted to create a left party covering all of Germany.14

The “united front of reformers”,15 which was supported by all other parliamentary parties—there was literally “no alternative”—and which was unique in post-war history, led to a crisis of representation. More precisely, there was no representation for those who advocated the welfare state arrangements as they had existed up until then—and they formed the great majority.16 Only the WASG and the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus, PDS), which emerged from the former ruling Communist Party in East Germany, criticised the dismantling of the welfare state and were able as a result to distinguish themselves as parties of social justice.

Die Linke was formed out of an electoral alliance of the PDS and WASG. It achieved its first big success in the federal elections on 18 September 2005. It won 8.7 percent of the party list vote, twice the result in the previous election when the PDS, with 4 percent, had failed to get over the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation. In 2005 more than 4.1 million voters gave their vote to the left alliance—2.2 million more than in 2002. Die Linke performed disproportionately well among workers, precisely the group where the SPD lost votes. At the beginning of the 1980s the SPD still took 68 percent of the votes among unionised workers. By 2005 they took just 55 percent (and in the East only 32 percent). The SPD’s link to the working class had deteriorated sharply.

The PDS, which had been massively under-represented among workers because of its role in the old East Germany, was, in alliance with WASG, able to register enormous growth among workers. This development continues to this day. Die Linke is strongly represented among workers and the unemployed, as well as among some higher income groups.17

There are admittedly also structural reasons for the decline of the SPD votes among workers and the unemployed. In recent decades the industrial working class has experienced a weakening of its traditions and has become culturally less homogeneous. As a result of the relative rise of the service sector and of the number of white collar workers, class conscious voting has declined. But there is also a counter-tendency. The dividing line between blue collar and white collar workers (which is socially and politically constructed in any case) has become blurred because of the increasingly precarious position of the workforce in recent years. For a long time Germany was one of the European countries where class differences were most blunted by a comprehensive welfare state and where there was a relatively high level of upward mobility, but this has now gone into reverse. Poverty, social exclusion and precarity are returning. A new social question is emerging, driven by a finance capitalist production model and the marketisation of the welfare state.18 It is necessary to count more and more of the white collar workforce as working class. Indeed for the first time in decades self-categorisation as a “worker” is increasing.19 The resulting social polarisation has broken the old patterns of class representation. The traditional representation of the cleavage between labour and capital20 has been eroded (but has not yet disintegrated).

While class positions in society are gaining significance, the SPD has increasingly distanced itself from class rhetoric and even more from any form of politics in the interests of the working class. This is leading to a crisis of representation.21 But the left did not just benefit from the crisis of the SPD. It was also able to take possession of the issue of social justice and to link it through intensive work with the unions and the social movements to the pro-welfare attitudes of the German population. It was thus able to shift the representation of the class in its favour.22

The contours of Die Linke

In Die Linke two dissimilar left projects came together. The PDS was anchored in East Germany. In West Germany in the early 1990s it remained confined to limited ultra-left milieus and was only to a limited extent part of the social movements. In some of the eastern Länder (state) governments the PDS operated as a reformist organisation with a quite orthodox socialist discourse, which alienated many potential sympathisers through its distance from real activity. In addition, it had only a slight orientation on social, workers’ and trade union interests in the West.23 For many on the left in the West, a passage from West to East did not seem possible and so WASG was founded. WASG understood itself primarily as pro welfare state and not necessarily socialist. While the PDS, a former state party, inherited a culture of ruling or wanting to rule, the trade union left wingers in West Germany in WASG nurtured a culture of opposition which maintained a certain distance from government power.24

To use the concepts of mainstream political science, the leadership of the former PDS, particularly in the eastern Länder organisations, are office seekers.25 Their central goal is to obtain government power in order to implement reforms from this position. This government socialism is fundamentally prepared to make compromises and adapts its programmatic principles to appear to the other parties as a suitable coalition partner. The western Länder organisations of Die Linke, which at their core consist of the old WASG and count many left wing trade unionists in their ranks, are policy seekers. They are primarily interested in the implementation of pro welfare state reforms. They are more open in their choice of methods and they are not fixated on participation in government. Neither participation in government nor opposition nor a politics of transforming the system are excluded. Thus the two source parties are not mutually exclusive party projects but they pursue different approaches to achieve their goals.

As yet there is no party programme—the “Programmatic Principles”, which were accepted in the course of the formal unification in 2007, were drafted as a unification document. They were a classic compromise which did not demand too much of either of the two source parties. No programmatic differentiation was made between anti-neoliberalism and anti-capitalism; indeed even the legitimacy of the pursuit of profit was included.

When two reformist, essentially left social democratic, parties unite into one, what can the result be other than a reformist formation? Historically the success of socialist and social democratic parties has been accompanied as a rule by a process of de-radicalisation.26 In the case of Die Linke this possibility cannot be excluded but so far it has not happened. On the contrary, Die Linke has developed to the left. It is still a left social democratic, sometimes even socialist, formation but at present most of the vectors of its programme and politics are pointing leftwards. How does this express itself and what are the reasons?

First, the return of the social question in Germany offers a strong sounding board for a left wing party. The recomposition of class representation is still in its early stages and the conflicts not only run between Die Linke and the SPD, but also through the middle of Die Linke itself.27 A factor temporarily aiding left wing forces in Die Linke is the continuing ostracism of the party at federal level. The prospect of participation in government and the exercise of power is usually a strong lever to “discipline” and domesticate a party. But ostracism from the parliamentary system and the consolidation of a right wing party leadership in the SPD mean that on the federal level Die Linke still (but not forever) has no option of holding power. Oskar Lafontaine, the former chairperson of the SPD who now heads Die Linke, plays a special role here. For the whole of the political establishment he is persona non grata to be fought at all costs.

Lafontaine has not mutated from a left social democrat to an anti-capitalist, but his development is exemplary for a whole cohort of former social democrats and trade unionists who are developing to the left and have now found their home in Die Linke. As an opponent of neoliberalism he rejects cuts in the welfare state on principle, just as he does German participation in wars. He represents a pro welfare state and left Keynesian programme, such as was acceptable in the SPD in the 1970s, advocates the right to have a general strike—something that is forbidden in Germany—and rejects all privatisation of public property. He is first and foremost a vote seeker who uses radical rhetoric in order to pursue several goals at once: raising the party’s share of the vote, putting pressure on the SPD and, not least, integrating the left wing parts of the party in order to use these as the backbone of his struggle against the eastern Länder organisations, which, because of their adaptation to economic liberalism and the SPD, he perceives as a barrier to the continuing success of Die Linke. “Stop lines” formulated by Lafontaine have provoked great internal debates in the party which have put the Berlin party organisation—the only one still participating in government—under massive pressure to justify itself and led to a split in the party group on the city council in Dresden. The majority of the Dresden party group agreed to the privatisation of the city’s housing associations but this was repudiated by the city party, and the minority split off to form a separate group supporting party policy.

The different components that formed Die Linke are reflected within its federal and pluralistic structure. Internally the party is fragmented into various tendencies and groups. The strongest grouping of the right wing is the Forum for Democratic Socialism which draws together advocates of participation in government, primarily but not exclusively from the east. In addition to being open to privatisations and preferring balanced state budgets, this group wants to shift the principled anti-militarist position of Die Linke in favour of military deployments under a UN mandate, rightly seeing that this as one of the main barriers to future government participation. So far, however, they have not been successful within the party on this question. And in the medium term they will lose forces because of the advanced age of the majority of party members in the East, while the western Länder organisations are constantly gaining members and significance.

On the other side there are the Anti-Capitalist Left (Antikapitalistische Linke, AKL) and the Socialist Left (Sozialistische Linke, SL) groupings. The former is comprised of Marxist and ultra-left parts of the WASG as well as some old school Marxists from the PDS. SL is characterised primarily by left-Keynesian intellectuals, trade unionists, former social democrats and a few Marxists. The AKL and the SL form the majority in the western organisations and have had an enormous influence in moulding the party in terms of its programme, politics and its personnel. For example, the AKL dominates the organisation in North Rhine-Westphalia, which in population is about as big as all the eastern Länder put together. In both left tendencies there are a large number of anti-capitalists who are not revolutionary Marxists but see the transcendence of capitalism as being the result of cumulative reforms and the struggle for reforms. Neither of the left tendencies has consolidated itself and there are various interfaces—particularly in the SL—with the right.

One of the most important milieus in the party consists of former SPD members and the trade unionists. What caused them to change parties was not the betrayal of socialism by the SPD but its betrayal of the welfare state. But it is precisely for this reason that they have a keen sense of what a policy of adaptation hidden behind socialist rhetoric means. Often it is the former social democrats who, despite their left-Keynesian philosophy, distance themselves most sharply from a course of coalition with the SPD and form a bastion against the politics of the eastern organisations. While the former SPD members and the trade unionists are further left than the eastern Länder organisations on the redistribution axis, one of their great weaknesses is their neglect of questions such as equal rights, civil rights and individual autonomy. This creates a barrier, particularly with younger members.

However, the largest and fastest growing grouping in the party is the Working Group on Workplaces and Trade Unions which gathers together works council members, trade unionists and rank and file activists. This is symptomatic of the shift in class representation both in the German party spectrum and in Die Linke—in the former PDS trade unionists were rare.

Perspectives in times of a passive revolution

In the 2006 election to the assembly in Berlin, Die Linke lost almost 9 percent because it was part of the governing coalition and had shared responsibility for welfare cuts. So far, however, the party has been successful in a project of reconstituting class representation. The lack of a coalition perspective for Die Linke on the federal level has been a barrier against adaptation. But this can be and will remain only a temporary phenomenon; the differentiation process within the party is in full flow. The greater the success of Die Linke the more the programmatic differences will increase.

So far Die Linke has been a party passively representing the widespread desire for social justice. It articulates the dissatisfaction present in the population but does not shape it in a sustained way. Before the economic crisis Die Linke was able to have a relatively strong influence on the political agenda in Germany and constantly gained acceptance among the voters. Initially the crisis did not play into the hands of the party as many had expected—people are rarely rewarded because they “always said it would happen”. The crisis has led to what Gramsci called “passive revolution”.28 Economics and politics are being restructured, among other things, by integrating demands made by the opposition and the trade unions without changing the relationships of power substantially. The conservative newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, formulates this concisely:

[Die Linke’s] suggestions have simply disappeared in a flood of previously unimaginable measures and discussions—from the “nationalisation” of banks to debates about tax increases or decreases or the limitation of managers’ salaries. Their idea of creating jobs by spending hundreds of billions no longer stands out among the economic stimulus plans, opportunities to work short time and plans for Germany. The analysis of Die Linke does not turn out in practice to be as radical as the criticism of capitalism. Even the dispute within the party about how strongly Die Linke should orient on the state is irrelevant at present: in the crisis the state is the most relevant protagonist until further notice.29

In this situation the right wing of the party are warning against a radicalism that it says would not appeal to the voters. They are counting on “pragmatic” solutions that only differ from the proposals of the other protagonists in that they contain a certain social element—and by doing so they strengthen the impact of the passive revolution and take away from the party its own strategic leeway. What Frank Deppe has written about the role of the trade union leaderships in the crisis is just as valid for Die Linke:

Political protagonists, their leadership groups and intellectuals who do not link their analysis of the current constellations for action in the crisis with reflection on possible (or probable or desirable) transformation perspectives as a result of the crisis persist in a conceptless pragmatism, cement the “strategic paralysis” of their organisations and thus help (unconsciously, of course) to strengthen their opponents and to accelerate the decline of the power of their own organisations.30

Admittedly parts of the left wing of the party tend towards a verbal radicalism without developing an active practice that relates to concrete social struggles—sometimes without even playing a role in these struggles as an independent participant. Here, too, there is a “strategic paralysis” which so far has not been resolved. This is also connected with the fact that many activists see the trade unions as being responsible for economics while the party is responsible for politics. One factor in the strategic paralysis is, therefore, the generally low level of class struggle—which in addition is being held artificially low by state interventions such as the short time working benefit. The trade unions have also not found an adequate response to the crisis yet. It is still an open question whether they will continue with competitive-corporatist strategies or will increasingly take up conflict oriented strategies.31 If they increasingly adopt the former strategy, this will also have consequences for Die Linke as, alongside rank and file union members, the party contains many full-time officials who tend to support the policies of their union organisations. As long as the level of class struggle remains low the danger will arise that some of the full-time union officials will turn against a “radicalisation” of the party.

The history of the adaptation of left wing parties is rich and long. Despite all these negative examples, there is also another history of left wing parties. When the General Union of German Workers and the Social Democratic Workers Party united to form the SPD in 1875, the programmatic orientation was initially disastrous—Marx’s anger at the “Gotha Programme” provides impressive evidence of this.32 But economic and political circumstances allowed the SPD to develop in the following years into a Marxist party. This was to remain only a stage in the history of the SPD. Revisionist forces soon gained the upper hand. But when the USPD split off from the social democrats in 1917 a number of the leaders of the old SPD, for instance Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, were among them. The leaders went back to the SPD and the majority of the members of the USPD united with the revolutionary KPD. History does not repeat itself, but this history shows what dynamic regroupment processes can develop in times of crisis.


1: This article was translated by Einde O’Callaghan. It was written before the state elections in Thuringia and Saarland on 30 August 2009 and the federal elections on 27 September 2009.

2: Callinicos, 2008.

3: Sabado, 2009; Fülberth, 2008.

4: From 1998 to 2005.

5: Egle, 2006.

6: Zohlnhöfer, 2003.

7: Egle, 2006, p168.

8: Soldt, 2004.

9: Esping-Andersen, 1985.

10: Sassoon, 1996.

11: Nachtwey, 2009.

12: Gramsci, 1991, pp1566-1567. Translated from German.

13: Schmitthenner, 1999; Mahnkopf, 2000.

14: Nachtwey, 2007.

15: Walter, 2006, p29.

16: For a detailed account of the attitudes of the German population to the welfare state see Nachtwey and Spier, 2007.

17: Kroh and Siedler, 2008.

18: Castel and Dörre, 2009; Lessenich and Nullmeier, 2006.

19: Geissler, 2006; Statistisches Bundesamt, 2006.

20: Lipset and Rokkan, 1967.

21: Vester and others, 2001, p13.

22: Nachtwey and Spier, 2007.

23: On this, see Nachtwey and Spier, 2007.

24: Schui, 2005.

25: Harmel and Janda, 1994; Koss and Hough, 2006.

26: Przeworski and Sprague, 1986.

27: In the case of both the SPD and Die Linke we are talking about a party model based on passive, ie parliamentary, representation.

28: Gramsci, 1991, pp1243, 1727.

29: Küpper, 2009.

30: Deppe, 2009, p9.

31: Deppe, 2009.

32: Marx, 1962.


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