‘why the left party?’ reflecting on the research journey

(research notebook)

Something I’ve often been quizzed on is my reason for writing about the Left Party. In fact, my Viva examination opened with this very question. By that point, I’d been buried in theory, literature and writing for so long that the initial inspiration seemed but a distant memory. So this post is about casting my mind back to where it all started. And, clichéd though it sounds, it’s also about the importance of having a genuine and enduring passion for your research topic.

I actually remember quite vividly the first time I started thinking about the Left Party’s predecessor, the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism). It was the autumn of 1994 and the start of the undergraduate year abroad in Heidelberg, Germany. My task was to write a locally-based, German-language project on a political theme; some (vague) ideas about the Green Party were floating around, but nothing really concrete. As it happened, I arrived in Heidelberg on General Election day. The next morning, heading for the university, I crossed a busy square awash with by now redundant election posters adorning every railing, traffic light and signpost. Lampposts were festooned with four or five placards, one above the other, each making an earnest appeal or pledge on behalf of a different party. But what really caught my attention among this profusion of smiles and slogans was a handful of PDS placards. The PDS? In Heidelberg? I wasn’t a stranger to the PDS, but thought of it typically in the context of unification, post-communism and, above all, the East. What was the party doing here, what did it hope to achieve and who (if anyone) voted for it? So right there, on day one, I had my project topic.

The project was hard work but a completely transforming experience. It was all done without the Internet, so the research involved serious legwork and demanded a level of German I’d never imagined possible. But the obvious language benefits aside, the project also sparked a deep curiosity about this party, and I wanted to find out more.

IMG_0671
mapping the research: collected notes and ideas from past work(s) in progress

Later on, during postgraduate study, I delved further into the PDS in its more familiar, eastern setting. As the party took on regional governmental responsibilities with the Social Democrats (SPD), what policy compromises were necessary? What was the party’s ‘USP’ in the post-unification era? Was it still the representative of eastern interests? Or on its way to becoming a left-of-centre regional party? For the final dissertation, though, I felt compelled to show that my knowledge extended beyond an individual party and opted for an altogether different topic. But despite the interesting theme of civil society and representation in the final year of the GDR, it was quite a battle. Today, with the twenty-twenty vision that hindsight affords, I recognise that the missing ingredient was a deep-rooted passion for the subject. It just wasn’t ‘my’ topic, at least not at that time.

And so, realising that I had unfinished business with the PDS, I turned my thoughts to the PhD. Unfortunately, the PDS was undergoing something of a crisis, or, more accurately, multiple crises. Although intriguing to witness, this predicament was a risky prospect as a research topic; it would mean keeping pace with a party so volatile that it threatened to implode before the research was actually complete. The idea was to write a doctoral thesis, not a running commentary.

But before long another transformation had taken place. Against the backdrop of widespread protests against welfare and employment reforms, the SPD-Green federal government lost the General Election and the freshly forged Left Party (Die Linke) alliance won seats in the new parliament. Most importantly, it performed well in the western states and would soon go on to do the previously unthinkable: enter a western regional parliament. I distinctly recall a workplace conversation with a despondent SPD voter after the General Election. He complained that the Left Party had ‘ruined the SPD’. My off-the-cuff reply was to point out that, no, the SPD had actually ruined itself. Afterwards, I reflected some more on this situation. How important was the class issue in the Left Party’s success in the West? How different was the Left Party to other western parties, in terms of policies and organisation? Finally, my research topic was beginning to take shape.

Looking back, two things really stand out. First, real enthusiasm — excitement — for the research topic is indispensable. In my own experience, that passion grew from increasingly intimate knowledge of the subject; the dialectic process of learning reveals new contradictions and challenges; new perspectives to investigate and new problems to solve. You could argue, of course, that there’s only so much research mileage to be had out of one political party. But my research on the Left Party has covered substantial ground and opened many doors of enquiry. The fascinating historical context; political strategy; policy development; theories on political parties and party systems; social cleavage; party organisation; election analysis; local social and political issues (Bremen)… and so on. Even after the epic journey of the PhD, I see that there is still so much to explore: low electoral turnout; austerity and its impact on policy choice and democratic representation and the Left Party’s attempt to influence the (current) rightwing turn in the public narrative, to name but a few. Secondly, I’ve learned to always keep my eyes, ears and mind open. I suspect these two points are even related: in-depth subject knowledge enriches our understanding of what we observe and witness. At the same time, that sudden spark of inspiration or the elusive piece of a puzzle materialises in something we see, in a comment we overhear or even in an everyday conversation. And so the journey continues.

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