The Greens: a history to learn from


By Lisa Macdonald There are around 70 Green parties in the world, almost all having grown out of the environment and anti-nuclear movements that developed in the advanced capitalist countries from the end of the 1960s. Throughout the '70s, these movements were large, broad and organised. By the early 1980s, however, they were on the wain. They had failed to rid the world, or even their own countries, of nuclear weapons. The major capitalist parties had learned to talk peace and environment, and the economic crisis and government austerity drives had started to shift public concern from environmental and foreign policy issues to jobs and the economy. Leaders of these movements turned to political solutions and formed Green parties. The emergence of the Greens was a big advance over the environmentalism of the 1970s. The formation of parties and the need to engage with capitalist parliaments challenged many of the simplistic solutions advocated by the ecology movement until that time. Discussion broadened to encompass the linkages between environmental and social problems. Green parties were the strongest and most radical where they arose from and incorporated stronger social movements. In Germany, for example, by 1977 there were more than 1500 anti-nuclear groups and in autumn of 1983 more than 1 million people went onto the streets for disarmament. In these conditions, the Greens' membership grew from 18,000 in 1980 to 40,000 in 1985. The breadth of the German Greens was its strength. It resulted in a very progressive political program which consciously linked environmental sustainability and disarmament to social justice and democracy — the four Green principles. In Britain, the situation was quite different. The Labour Party had a strong grip on the social movements, and while the British Greens did draw from the anti-nuclear/peace movement during the '80s, it was nevertheless weaker than in Germany. Its membership never exceeded 20,000 and has averaged more like 10,000. In Australia, the Green Party grew out of a peace movement which was strong enough to get a Nuclear Disarmament Party senator elected in 1984, and out of campaigns around environmental issues such as stopping the Franklin Dam. But these movements were increasingly controlled and coopted by the ALP. By the time the national Green Party project was being seriously discussed in the early 1990s, the movements had been thoroughly demobilised — either incorporated into Labor's political framework or demoralised by defeats.

Left and right

The theoretical foundation of Green politics was the idea that they represented a new political perspective, one that was "neither left nor right but out in front". Generalising from the fact that, in the 1970s, the most dynamic social movements formed mostly around cross-class issues, Green theorists argued that "capitalism has not rendered the working class a class-for-itself, let alone a class that tends to mobilise itself on behalf of universal human interests". Instead, according to US Green theorist Howard Hawkins, "working people are mobilising around other identities in the new social movements" which tend to challenge capitalism in "universal democratic terms" rather than the "simplistic two-class struggle of old left theory". Former anarchist, now Queensland Greens leader, Drew Hutton argued in 1987 in Green Politics in Australia: "Green politics does not accept the philosophical dualism which underpins modern industrial society (mind/body, humanity/nature, boss/worker, male/female) nor that of the traditional left (class struggle and class war leading to a classless society)". By emphasising "harmony with nature" and "a sense of wholeness and oneness", while simultaneously caricaturing socialism, the Greens attempt to render class divisions and class struggle (left and right) irrelevant. But no amount of philosophical rejection of "old dualisms" or the culture of violence in capitalist society will make them any less real. As that struggle escalates (such as in periods of economic crisis), a party that does not orient to and have firm roots in the working class, and that does not understand class society and how to change it, will either follow the capitalist class ideology and go to the right, or follow the lead of the working class in struggle and go to the left.

Internal struggle

The Green parties' inability to develop a coherent strategy for change which went "beyond class politics" was manifested most clearly in the constant struggle over the relationship between parliamentary and extraparliamentary activity, and over how the Greens should relate to the major capitalist parties. Throughout the 1980s, for example, the German Greens' program attempted to compromise. On one side were the proponents of Realpolitik (realos), who argued for an ecological transformation of capitalism by means of political compromise, and the eco-libertarians who wanted to promote ecological change through market mechanisms. On the other side were the fundamentalists (fundis), who argued that the efforts to create for ourselves a different life by opting out would have such a drawing power that the ruling class would be forced to subsidise socioeconomic reconstruction. They were allied with eco-socialists, who started from a principled opposition to the capitalist order and placed their emphasis on extraparliamentary activity in the social movements. The fake unity between these left and right forces in the name of electoral success reflected and reinforced the failure to deal with the fundamental question of how their policies were to be put into practice. Until the mid-1980s, the German Greens had a clear policy and practice in solidarity with trade union and Third World liberation struggles, against the rearmament of Europe, in defence of democratic rights and so on. With the decline of the social movements and growing electoral success, which put Green MPs onto opposition benches alongside the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the policy and practice of the Greens moved rapidly to the right. By 1990, nearly half of the fundis and eco-socialists had left or been thrown out, and the party was taking positions of support for NATO, almost unqualified support for coalition with the SPD in government and a much less clear opposition to nuclear armament. At their December 1995 annual congress, 38% of party delegates and most of the parliamentarians supported the sending of German troops as part of imperialism's "peacekeeping" force to Bosnia.

Illusions in parliament

In most cases, Green parties formed both to better organise mass action and to represent in parliament a green-thinking constituency. However, as the Greens won electoral success, and simultaneously the social movements declined, the balance between these two goals shifted. The parties became increasingly separated from their extraparliamentary campaigning base, and today the majority of Green parties are purely parliamentarist. From the beginning, right-wing Greens theorised that the "movement phase of politics is over"; now the struggle has to take place in parliaments. They argue that parliament is where the power is, and the Greens have to be included. In the words of former British Greens leader Sarah Parkin, "The only pressure that is really respected by governments is the ballot box". These leaders think that as the ecological and social crises deepen, support for environmental and social justice parties will grow exponentially, until the Greens will win majority support at the polls, take government and implement their policies. This view is advanced by many in the Australian Greens today. But this belief has proved an illusion in the more developed Green parties. Despite escalating ecological and social crises, nowhere in the world have Green voting patterns at the national level increased significantly. In Germany, the Greens results have been: 1.5% in 1980, 5.6% in 1983, 8.3% in 1987 and 4.7% in 1990. In Britain, the Greens scored 1.5% in 1979, 1% in 1983, 1.4% in 1987 and 1.3% in 1992. In almost all the Green parties, the pattern has been the same. The early German Greens took the position that the parliamentary party was an extension of the mass movements. They tried to institutionalise this by developing a party organisation in which the fundamental idea was "continuous control over all officials and elected representatives in parliament and their recallability". In addition to allowing different political currents to organise, fundraise and publish their ideas inside the party:
  • all elected members were rotated after two terms or six years;
  • no person could hold a political office and be a party functionary at the same time;
  • MPs received only the average pay of a factory worker, the remainder of their salary being returned to the party;
  • party meetings and election slates were open to non-party members from the social movements.
As their parliamentary aspirations and representation increased, however, the Greens' attention to extraparliamentary mobilisation declined. In the words of Jutta Ditfurth, a fundi who led a walkout from the party's April 1991 congress: "We once said that the Green Party had a 'standing leg' — its centre of gravity — outside parliament, and that this leg was more important than the 'play leg' inside parliament. But then the leg in parliament became the 'standing leg' and the movement leg was being cut off."

Pressure groups

In all Green parties that have found themselves holding, or with the prospect of holding, the balance of power in parliaments, there has been a shift from seeing themselves as independent of the major parties to being a pressure group on those parties. From 1983, when the German Greens were first elected to federal parliament, the question of coalition with the SPD was the key debate between left and right in the party. The fundis and eco-socialists were generally united in their opposition to coalitions with the Social Democrats, while the realos and eco-libertarians argued for a "responsible" and "realistic" perspective on the question. Eco-socialist Thomas Ebermann commented after leaving the party, "It became so important to us to look at concrete electoral results, to win a certain number of votes ... that an absolutely overwhelming proportion of the left flipped out over SPD-Green coalitions". Green electoral success has always been accompanied by a shift in the decision-making weight in favour of the parliamentary group. The parliamentarians and their staff, by virtue of their positions, are usually better organised and have more resources than the rest of the party. Engaging on a daily basis in political discussion and decisions, parliamentarians also end up making party policy on the run — democratic policy making at the grassroots would take more time than the structures and rhythm of capitalist parliament allow. The increasing weight of the MPs in Green parties has consistently led to priority being given to the (illusory) attainment of reforms within the system, at the expense of mass action, participation and rank and file control. The underlying perspective of reforming the system through parliament has meant that respect for and accommodation to parliamentary procedures, expectations and other parties has been inevitable. At the time of the 1990 federal election, the German Greens had 48 MPs. In that election, their vote dropped below the 5% cut-off, and they lost all 48 positions. The realo parliamentarians blamed the diminishing left in the party for the loss and moved quickly to "reform" the Greens. There was to be no more collective structure or responsibility, the "obstacle" of rotation was abolished, the party was to have only one party president, and the rule preventing MPs from being on the party executive was abolished. Participation in capitalist parliaments does offer possibilities for the radical left to intervene in politics, to exert more influence on the conditions in which social struggles occur. To adopt an in principle opposition to electoral work is foolishness. But the history of the Greens illustrates that, if you really want to change the world, electoral work must be approached with the understanding that parliaments are not useful for changing the relations of power in capitalist society. On the contrary, the parliamentary system is a form of domination, the entire purpose of which is to prevent a radical overturning of the relations of power. The conditions of parliamentary cooperation have always served to tame and integrate once rebellious politicians. Ebermann, arguing that the left has much to learn from the electoralism of the German Greens, contends that rather than using this institution of "integration, moderation and assimilation" to achieve our goals, we must learn how to "misuse it".