Why Greens go wrong on Balkans war

May 12, 1999

By Allen Myers

The German Greens are to hold a special congress on May 13 to decide their stand on the war in the Balkans. The party has been deeply divided by the issue, and there is even talk of a split between the pro-NATO wing, which includes foreign minister Joschka Fischer and a majority of the party's MPs, and opponents of the attack on Serbia.

Whatever the outcome of the congress, the war has already dealt a severe blow to Green claims to represent something new in politics.

US President Bill Clinton is clearly aware of the political importance of Fischer's backing for the war. For example, speaking to US newspaper editors on April 15, he declared: "... NATO is more united today than when the operation began. Whether they are conservatives in Spain, socialists in France, New Labour in Britain or Greens in Germany, the leaders of Europe and the people they represent are determined to maintain and intensify our attacks ...".

The French Greens, who have ministers in the "socialist" government of Lionel Jospin, have also backed the NATO bombing. The Greens in France, known for the claim that their politics were "neither left nor right", are no more able than their German counterparts to live up to their rhetoric.

This is a severe setback in the fight for a new society of peace, social justice, democracy and ecological sustainability. The question is why the Greens, in both countries, failed so ignominiously at the first real test.

Much of the answer lies in the Greens' view of parliament. By and large, Green parties around the world have accepted the notion that parliament is where the important decisions are made — the decisions about questions such as war and peace, or environmental sustainability.

This idea is easy to accept because it is part of the official ideology of capitalist society; it's drummed into us all the time. But it's not true.

The wealthy individuals and corporations aren't about to let what they can or can't do to protect and increase their wealth be decided by a democratic vote. So the powers of parliament are carefully circumscribed by the constitution, by the courts and by the top public servants. And who can get into parliament is controlled by an electoral system in which lots of money and support from the big media are prerequisites for serious involvement.

The reality of who really makes decisions can be illustrated by a simple example. If you conducted a survey of all Australians, you'd get a nearly unanimous "yes" answer to the question, "Should Australia's wealthiest person pay substantial taxes on his wealth?". But Kerry Packer's "no" is enough to veto that near unanimity, and the "powers" of parliament.

The Greens, because they accept the false idea that parliament is where the real decisions are made, naturally concentrate their efforts on trying to achieve parliamentary representation. Some Green parties or members may also attach importance to building grassroots movements, but even this is usually seen as primarily a way of providing support for the "decisive" struggle over legislation or deciding who forms government.

When the German Greens achieved the parliamentary numbers to form a coalition with the Social Democrats, it no doubt seemed to many of them that they were now on the threshold of achieving many of their goals. In reality, they had made themselves hostage to exactly the sort of dilemma they now confront.

To the majority of the German Green MPs, opposing the NATO attack is unthinkable because that would destroy the coalition government. The illusory power of parliamentary government is seen as the higher good, to which their anti-war principles must be sacrificed.

Something very similar happened to the Tasmanian Greens in their coalition or "accord" with the state ALP between 1989 and 1996. As the Greens followed their Labor "partner" to the right, they lost support among voters who had been promised a different sort of politics, suffering a 25% drop in their vote in 1992 and a smaller decline in 1996.

Last year, Labor and the Liberals decided that enthusiasm for the Greens had declined to the point where it was safe to rig the electoral laws against them, and they did so.

Of course, at least some of the German Greens, like Fischer, claim that they are not sacrificing their principles, but that support for the NATO bombing is a lesser evil than not taking action against the brutal government of Slobodan Milosevic.

"It's a contradiction, but we have to live with it. If we accept Milosevic as a winner, it would be the end of the Europe I believe in", Fischer said last month in an interview with the Washington Post.

Fischer's argument is really an evasion, however. It simply shifts to the international level the false dilemma that the Greens create for themselves within the national parliament. In both cases, the view is that those "at the top" — capitalist governments — are the only forces that can solve problems, and so Fischer chooses what he perceives or hopes is the lesser evil.

In reality, capitalist governments are not the solution to any problem, no matter how "democratic" their election laws may seem. The idea of participating in "responsible government" is a pipe dream because capitalist governments are responsible only to capitalists.

"But what can we do now?", defenders of Green parliamentarians demand to know.

The sad truth is that we can do very little immediately to aid the Kosovars, and backing NATO is not part of that little.

The crimes that capitalism inflicts on the world's peoples can be stopped only by a mass political movement that overthrows capitalism and its governments and creates a real democracy. A major reason for the inability to aid the Kosovars is that too many people of good will have allowed themselves to be diverted from the job of building such a movement. The Greens' failure on Kosova demonstrates why the socialist goal is not something for the distant future, but a necessary guide for politics today.

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