Why the left needs the Green Party
When I talk to left wing friends who aren’t members of the greens about why they should join, there are usually three reasons given for why they would not do so:
1. Political parties are inevitably reactionary, bureaucratic, undemocratic and unnecessary
2. The Green Party is not anti-capitalist
3. The Green Party is not a working class party
The first of these reactions is based upon a misunderstanding of why the left needs a political party, I do not purpose that a radical transformation of capitalism is possible by a certain political party gaining a parliamentary majority. I think history is fairly consistent in showing that social change comes from social movements demanding it. Power corrupts and so political parties will tend to only be as good as the social movements forcing them to act. However, parties are an effective way for putting forward a concrete alternative program. These are important for inspiring people with the idea that there are realisable alternatives, the Alternative Economic Strategy in the 1980’s is a good example. A certain anarchist fetishism has crystallised in activist circles. This seems mainly a reaction against the aberrations of Leninist political parties and organisations. Leninist democratic centralism, elitist vanguardism and dogmatic ‘Marxism‘ inhibits democracy and participation. As a right of passage, it seems that every activist must, at one point or another find themselves inadvertently trapped in a Trotskyist front group. Yet a democratic centralist party is qualitatively different from decentralised parties such as the Greens.
It is unfortunate that the 1917 Bolshevik coup led the left everywhere to follow an organisational form intended for Tsarist Russia not liberal democracies. It is a double shame that Rosa Luxemburg, the leading Marxist after the death of Engels, was murdered by the SPD in 1919. Luxemburg, castigated Lenin‘s lack of democracy as a deviation from Marxism, theorising instead how a mass decentralised socialist party is directly linked into a process of spontaneous revolution. Unfortunately, her untimely death allowed Leninism to come unopposed to pre-eminence amongst the left.
After experiencing Leninism it is understandable why anarchism is appealing, especially as anarcho methods of organising within small to medium sized social movements are beneficial in terms of participation, democracy and identification. And anarchists have of course played an important role in the development social movements such as the global and environmental justice movements. Yet anarcho organisation within social movements is a different matter to fetishising anarchism as an entire program. It is possible to have decentralised organisations and even anarcho organisations as well as a party. From which we can put forward a concrete political program to engage in the battle of ideas; moving beyond single issue protestations and inspire people to action by providing realistic immediate goals combined with a plan for achieving the overall aim of a socialist future. As Trotsky put it, when arguing against the left communists: “generally they have no need of a bridge in the form of transitional demands because they do not intend to cross over to the other shore. They simply dawdle in one place, satisfying themselves with a repetition of the same meager abstractions. Political events are for them an occasion for comment but not for action”.
The second response is based on an inadequate understanding of Green Party polices, the heterogeneous nature of any party and the role of transitional demands. Green Party polices include:
- A large scale increase in taxation of the rich and corporations.
- The weakening of wage labour through a universal Citizens’ Income and Pension covering an individuals basic needs.
- The extension of public ownership over the entire rail, port and energy distribution networks.
- An opening of our borders
- ILO enshrined workers rights established.
A post capitalist society requires common ownership of the means of production and this aim should be enshrined in the Greens constitution as it was in Labour’s. Nevertheless, the above represents a promising number of anti-capital policies. Far more so, then what can be hoped of New Labour. Undoubtedly, New Labour retains much support and this will swell as people reach for an alternative to the cuts. But unfortunately, Ed Milibands‘ father’s work remains even more pertinent then when first published in 1961. Ralph argued even then that Labour’s dogmatic attachment to parliamentarianism means that Labour will always be more concerned with gaining and retaining a parliamentary majority by propping up capitalism then implementing socialism or supporting extra parliamentary actions such as protests and strikes (a good example is Ed ducking attendance of the student demonstrations). The Green Party on the other hand was born out of the protest movement and is bound by a constitution which states that elections are not the best way of achieving social change, while few of its members’ aim is to win a parliamentary majority.
The third response is based upon an incorrect and romanticised view of what constitutes the working class in post industrial societies. Under 10% of the working population is now employed in manufacturing, in contemporary capitalism the working class is made up of the working poor in the service industry along with perpetually insecure temporary white collar workers. Someone is a worker not because they work in factory but because they do not own the means of production and are a wage earner paid to produce a piece of capital. It is true that the Green Party does not have affiliated unions and this needs to be rectified but the idea that socialists should simply follow the lead of union bureaucrats; who are generally not even socialists themselves is ludicrous.
With 15,000 members the Green Party is a promising platform for spring boarding socialist ideas and values.
the main reason i don’t respect the green party is because they are spineless capitalists
James thanks for commenting, I agree when I wrote this I was thinking of it purely as a response to Marxists who believe that only the working class has the potential to be revolutionary and then identify the working class with industrial labour. I wanted to show that a contradiction existed between an actual marxist conception of the working class (as opposed to a stratification conception) and how these marxists are applying it. I also realised that I’d written nearly 1000 words rather than the 500 I had intended so cut it short.
But I agree with all your points and I think the green party is trying to do what you suggest but it is not easy and we need more people to make it happen and that’s why you should join.
Hi Alex. Good Post. You address arguments 1 and 2 well. But I think you miss the point slightly on 3.
I would think a lot of people would still describe themselves as ‘working class’ even if they aren’t employed in manufacturing. And I would think some of the people who would describe themselves as ‘working class’ may find it harder to identify with people they might consider ‘middle class’, even if theoretically these two groups are both being exploited and don’t own the means of production.
Because the Green Party is hardly the most diverse political group around, I think it could seem quite alienating and elitist, even if they are far more socially progressive than any of the other main parties. This is why Labour can call on the most votes from cultural and ethnic minorities as well as the white working class.
The Green party probably needs to work harder to attract members from different sections of society, but I guess its a ‘chicken and egg’ thing, it needs to change its image to do this.
The responses have kind of confirned why I dont want to join (despite agreeing with 95% of your policies):
“I dont agree that “equality, fairness, justice along with real democracy and participation” are in conflict with capitalism” – this just defies the reality we all see every day.
It’s also interesting to see this debate in connection with this post by Phil Hosking – about the need to relate to / connect with national movements:
which seems to echo the issues raised here about the inability of the greens to break out of their demographic bubble?
Hi Mike, just to be clear, Douglas is an Orange Book Lib Dem, not a Green. So please don’t let his opinions put you off us. We very rarely agree with his comments here.
I dont agree that “equality, fairness, justice along with real democracy and participation” are in conflict with capitalism and more so than other political and economic systems that involve real human beings (with all our inherent flaws).
No far left system has ever been implemented has come closer than capitalism to bringing about “equality, fairness, justice along with real democracy and participation”.
Certainly the capitalist system, based on every increasing growth in a world with finite resources, is destined to fail at some point. And it may be that by that point human beings are more inclined to peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence (something that has never been seen before). By that is centuries into the future. But environmental concerns are now.
For the sake of the environment I would not seek to make the Green movement Marxists. Instead I would seek to address the current problems through current political and economic structures.
A fascinating discussion – my concern is that a discussion on ‘the left’ starts with the green party and pegs even further to the left without taking in the groups that Joe Smith may consider left, the Labour Party and (depending on Geography!) the Liberal Democrats.
Also, anyone any ideas on diversity survey or the like?
Thanks for all the really interesting and thought provoking comments. Personally I think Nishma hit the nail on the head when she said it’s about values. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should be knocking on doors and asking people to vote for us because we are anti-capitalist or think that common ownership is a good thing. What we need to be doing is appealing to people based on our values. As Monbiot shows http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/oct/11/left-values-progressive-self-interest
I really do think that socialist values such as equality, fairness, justice along with real democracy and participation reverberate far beyond self declared “Marxists” and these values can only be totally actualised in a post capitalist society. This is because of the simple fact that capitalism is inherently an exploitative way of organising society. The challenge is to connect are values to policies that would move society closer to our ideals. It is socialist solutions, not socialism as the solution which we need to provide e.g. the positive solutions to the current crises which take us close to our ideal world.
The idea that we should be content with merely managing capitalism and all the misery, poverty and inequality (not to mention ecological destruction) that goes with it, is not one that many people are going to be inspired by. It is socialist values which mobilised 7.2 million people to join the Labour Party in 1979, 11 million people to vote for an irreversible shift of wealth and power to workers in 1974, and led to Tony Benn being consistently the most popular politician in the country for over 25 years.
To quote the great man: “We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values”
I don’t think you can’t defend the environment without challenging capitalism and anti-capitalism does not mean creaky central planning, the key is commons.
All I am saying is that Green economic policy is clearly based on a mixed economy model. Clause after clause of our policy clearly envisages a continuing role for private enterprise, albeit with much stronger regulation and a much larger role for the public sector.
Those on the far left would dispute that such a position could be defined as anti-capitalist. Personally, I don’t find the term helpful in defining our economic policies because I would prefer to define ourselves by what we are rather than what we are not.
I’m interested to see so many comments indicating an uncertainty about whether or not Greens are, or even ought to be, anti-capitalist. A good starting point might be to return to Caroline Lucas and Mike Woodin’s book ‘Green Alternatives to Globalisation’, on page 14 of which we find the following:
The contrast between Green economics and capitalism, the driving force of economic globalisation, could not be more stark. Capitalism is a system that seeks unprecedented priviliges for capital and disproportionate rewards for its owners. It directly violates all the basic principles of Green economics.’
The authors go on, of course, and say they have no nervousness about calling themselves anti-capitalists. But they do also acknowledge that others do not share their stance, and that therefore it is more important to define what a Green economics is for, than what it is against. I go along with this to a point. But I’m concerned about Darren’s use of the term ‘Marxists’. Do we mean by this term people who have read and digested Marx and openly proclaim themselves to be Marxists of a particularly dogmatic type? In this case, I don’t think the Greens need to worry too much about attracting this relatively small constituency. But if, on the other hand, we are using the term Marxists as a catch-all term for anybody opposed to capitalism or desiring an alternative economic system, then I think we are treading down a dangerous path.
It ought to be possible to be a party of the left without necessarily feeling like we have to imitate the traditional social democratic partys, clustering round suitably ambiguous terms like ‘progressive politics’. Caroline has said publicly time and again that being anti-capitalist is nothing to be ashamed of; she’s even crossed the taboo of publicly using the word socialism in a non-derogatory fashion. If we’re going to start to outline our position better, I’d agree with those above who say we need more theorising, but also more work as part of active social and community movements.
While suggesting that current Green Party economic policy is merely a set of transitional demands may be a good tactic for attracting Marxists to the party, where does that leave other supporters? I would suggest that the vast majority of those who vote Green (and the vast majority of those who join the party) believe in a mixed economy – one where we have a much stronger role for the public sector and much better regulation of the private sector but where we do not banish properly regulated private enterprise altogether.
People could feel a bit misled if they spend years voting or working for a party only to find that the policies the party agrees, publishes and campaigns on are just some sort of gateway drug to get people warmed up for a fully-fledged (but hidden) marxist programme.
The Green Party is a party of the left and I am proud that it is – but it is not a party of the far left.
This was a really interesting article and it is clear that being ‘Green’ is naturally a left wing proposition.
But I think that you are taking the original environmental beliefs of the party into a fantasy land when you talk about a ‘post capitalist society’ and ‘ownership of the means of production’. It is easy to believe in being green, seeking a society where environmental concerns are much higher up the political agenda and pollution is vastly reduced. Less so a Green Communist State.
I agree with the Greens in Scotland regarding North Sea Fishing. It is laughable that anyone believes that anything other than an almost complete cessation of fishing endangered stocks will result in a long term recovery. But, I have yet to hear a single Green advocate taking ownership of all the fishing vessels in Scotland and those fishing in Scottish waters.
And what production is there left to take ownership of? I am not up on international communism but for Scottish people to maintain even a level of the lifestyles that they have there would need to be some kind of international revolution in every country in the world. Is that likely? Where would we get our fridge freezers, DVD player and computers as they are not made in Scotland.
Rather than the Greens be a body for some kind of radical entryism I think that Scotland and Scottish Greens can lead the world in renewable energy and the associated benefits that would bring.
“Secondly, yes – we are the Guardian-reading Green Geezers – but that is changing. We are looking to build the party now, and we can still mould it”
Those of us who debate online may be but what about our wider membership? Has anyone run diversity monitoring of events and membership – and if not what would we have to do to bring it in.
Without diluting the Green message so far that it doesn’t actually solve the problem, which would be easy to do.
Clever messaging and strategy are definitely needed – but while still ensuring that internally activists have enough of a shared picture that we are actually going in roughly the same direction. 🙂
Michaeljon and John Cooper raise my feelings exactly on anti-capitalism, which is that John Smith on the street doesn’t care (or may even be slightly put off) if you start shouting about neo-liberalism and Marxism at him, but does care about having a poor job with poor working hours and would might support the renationalisation of services that were privatised.
We have to find a place in the political spectrum where we can still appeal to those on the Left who you mention above, while gaining the support of those who in the past have voted Labour, and more recently possibly Lib Dem. Only when we can sell our Green message to John Smith (without doing it the lazy New Labour way and moving to the right to give him what he expects) can we have a chance at getting enough influence to make a difference.
Sorry I was combining the numbers for England and Wales Party with the Scotland Party which is over 12,000 members in the former and over a thousand in the latter.
You’ve got a couple of typos by the way; ‘polices’ where I’m fairly sure you mean ‘policies’, and ‘purpose’ where I think you may have meant ‘propose’.
I’m a floating voter who has occasionally voted Green, but not often, and not recently. My main objection of late has been the rather bizarre set of science policies, many of which were the polar opposite of evidence-based the last time I looked. I know quite a lot of work has been done to address this recently, but Caroline Lucas was still supporting homeopathy in Parliament as recently as July last year, so I’m not convinced that work has been successful.
The green movement rightly makes much of scientific consensus on the climate change issue – I think the Green Party would do well to pay a little more attention to the consensus on other issues.
That said, I do have great respect for the party’s social justice policies, and may well find myself voting for them again in forthcoming elections for that reason alone.
Neither a deformed workers’ state, or stare capitalist, but Revolutionary Bonapartism…
I really enjoyed this article, but to go back to Mike’s point- is the 15,000 UK Greens or GPEW?
Really enjoyed this post, Alex.
With regards to (2) – I think within GPEW, we are slowly shifting towards an anti-capitalist ideology as we are beginning to recognise that with capitalism we cannot integrate the social & environmental measures we would like to take.
There is a large problem with people who claim to be ‘anti-capitalist’ but have no further thought on the economic system they would like to adopt, taking into consideration that a complete upheaval led to Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Perhaps our response should focus on the changes we need to make – creating more sustainable and equal communities on an international level. Whatever that means in the name-game (Marxist, socialist, etc) doesn’t matter as it is the values that we need to speak about.
As for (3) you’re right in saying that there are different challenges presented to us. As part of a global movement, we have strong links to numerous groups around the world who are exactly grassroots and the workers themselves.
Secondly, yes – we are the Guardian-reading Green Geezers – but that is changing. We are looking to build the party now, and we can still mould it. That is the beauty of the current Green Party. We can represent the poorest by finding out their concerns – and, like Matt says, we need to endeavour to do so.
Deformed workers’ state.
I have no desire for Greens to start splitting hairs about whether the USSR was a degenerated workers state, or for us to spend all of our time in internal debates about theories of anarcho-syndicalism….but there is a healthy middle way between the obsessive theorism of far-left sects and the current state of Green Party theoretical analysis, which is minimal at best, IMO.
A fascinating article and certainly a theme that the party should grasp – and grasp now- is the vacum that is on the left.
However by starting with discussions over if we are ‘capitalist’ etc I would echo the concerns raised by ‘Michaeljon’ – we don’t then appeal to the electorate. We are a political party and one (I would hope) that wishes to gain power at all levels possible. To do so we need to be clear and outward talking in what we believe, and the last 100 years plus of electoral maths has demonstrated that discussions over if we are capitalist don’t work.
Discussions over public ownership etc can and do work – and no one is putting forward such opinons in a coherant way therefore the question for me is a simple one
With the Labour Party and the Lib Dems both chasing and taking to the right – what can the Greens do nationaly, locally and in Europe to demonstrate the force for good that the green philosophy can be – one that tackles injustices both economic and environmental and one that delivers equity and prosperity for all.
I don’t think we need to be too concerned with the name being the Green Party. The Australian Greens managed to get over 10% of the vote and have demonstrated that they can reach out well beyond the core green vote. For example my climate denying father voted Green in the last Australian national elections because the Green Party policies on non green issues were what he wanted.
But of course as clearly stated already any real change is not going to result from the success of any one political party at the ballot box, social movements, activist networks are fundamentally important at creating the space for change.
Interesting post – giving me something good to read whilst having my lunch.
With regards to the Green Party being a mass party, another issue that hasn’t be mentioned yet is something as simple as the name. Calling a party ‘The Green Party’ is similar to calling a party ‘The Health Party’ or ‘The Education Party’.
I’m sure for a lot of people this implies the over-prioritisation of a single issue (namely the environment). As a result, whether consciously or sub-consciously, this may well instill in people a perception that the Green Party is ‘light-weight’ (or perhaps distracted) when it comes to other policy issues, reinforcing the idea that the Green Party is a ‘niche’ party.
Right, back to the code..
Or the Labour Party, perhaps.
Yet we don’t think Labour are only, or even very much at all, concerned with employment rights.
There is an issue there, however, but the problem is people conflating Green with environment, they’re not the same thing. We do need to do more to stress that point and explain the difference, though.
Interesting post, thank you.
I worked on the Green general election campaign in Brighton, Lewisham and Norwich and completely agree with the last comment by Jim Jepps. There is a perception among working class that i’ve spoken to that Greens live their lives in a “Guardian-reading Ghetto”.
The Greens will never be a mass party as long as this perception remains. Also, most people in this country (working and middle class) are less concerned with ending capitalism, and just want to get on with their lives without feeling like they’re destroying the planet. They are unhappy with their lives and what they see of society around them but are unaware of an alternative. Whether it’s “steady-state economy” or something else, there needs to be a coherent narrative that explains what we want society to look like, what it means, and why it’s preferable.
I know that’s off-topic a little but feel it’s a huge barrier. Guess it comes down to whether you want anti-capitalists to join the party or genuine social-democrats and the disillusioned left.
Thanks for a great blog.
In terms of 3) you make a good point, I agree the party is not diverse enough in terms of the socio-economic and ethnic groups it represents. I was thinking more in terms of a response to Marxists who argue that only a party based on the industrial working class can be truly radical.
I’ll check out your posts, I’m sure they’ll be interesting.
Good article, good responses.
To add some very quick points:
1. I think it’s up to us to show people in a very concrete way how a political party can do things other kinds of organisations can’t (and vica versa of course).
2. Unlike Matt I think ‘lack of clarity’ on capitalism is a strength – because we’re a politial party not a religious sect. Diversity is good and an insistance on a shared ontology (apologies for that word, can’t think of a better, clearer one) is a centralising step too far.
I do think we should discuss it more and the party certainly does contain people who have clear ideas on this but it’s just not the kind of policy we need to have 100% agreement on.
3. If the Greens are ever to become what’s known as a ‘mass party’ it needs to break out of some of it’s demographic bubble. It simply is not working class enough – I don’t want to replicate labour where more than half their MPs are bloody lawyers or the Tories where they’re businessmen.
We have excellent left policies and we are full square with the majority of trade union demands, or ahead of them, but there are too many branches that contain too few or no working class activists.
We need to address that rather than rely on redefining the term working class to suit what the party looks like.
Interesting thoughts, and you’ve certainly isolated the three main objections from the left that I have encountered over the years. Like Derek, however, I think perhaps it is wise to give them more credence than you do in this article – to enable ourselves to navigate around the very real pitfalls which they represent.
Number 1 is a point of outlook. It sounds as though our opinions are similar here – it is possible to be anti-authoritarian, decentralist and revolutionary while still embracing the political party as one tool for social change amongst many. The trick is to keep your chosen political party flexible and radical enough to be a useful tool.
On Number 2, again I think your analysis of the Green Party manifesto as a decent set of transitional policies is a sound one. I’ve had a few debates with Darren Johnson and others on whether the Party is anti-capitalist, and we tend to come to the conclusion that while we have different end goals, in fact for 80% of our political journeys we are on largely the same path – and we can worry about the last 20% when we get there! Again, however, the trick here is to make sure the Party sticks to enough of its manifesto not to slip and slide into ‘green lib demmery’ – which is a not insubstantial danger given political and electoral pressures.
Number 3, I think, actually has the most to recommend it as an objection. Your analysis is fine when arguing with those people who really still believe in a traditional Marxian working class, but I don’t think that is where the thrust of this objection is coming from, most of the time. People are pointing out, rightly, that the Green Party does not properly reflect in its membership and supporter base those communities which we claim to want to represent. This is not a small problem. Not only does it leave us open to accusations of hypocrisy and of being out of touch, but more importantly it actually means we *are* to some extent out of touch – and therefore less able to make an impact on society, economics and politics.
So I guess my response to those three objections would be:
1 – No they aren’t.
2 – It’s complicated and the Party does not have sufficient clarity on this, but we have a manifesto which is radical enough to represent a major shift away from the rule of capital, and that’s good enough for me.
3 – You’re right, and while it is unlikely ever to be a ‘working class party’ in the way that you mean, Green activists need to work much harder and in a much more concerted fashion to ensure that the Party looks more like society as a whole – which includes membership from a more diverse economic background, a more diverse ethnic background, and so on.
Anyway, just some thoughts. 🙂
P.S. Don’t know if you ever saw the various articles I wrote on similar themes a year or two ago, might be of interest: http://anglobuddhistcombine.blogspot.com/2009/03/left-and-greens-some-thoughts.html
Great piece, thanks alot. I want to repsonmd propeorly this afternoon but just to clarify, is that 15,000 in England and Wales or in the whole of the UK or in Scotland?
I think while I am a member of the Green Party you need to be self-critical, parties are more often changed by power than able to introduce change. The barriers to creating political change are high and cannot be dismissed.
Social movements have huge impact but you also, as Latin America, has shown need to take state power and start changing structures.
None of this is easy and we need to constantly reflect on our strategies…I do think we need to learn more about the Latin American left who though imperfect and diverse have made some modest gains, where in contrast the European left (with the possible exception of Iceland) has been in retreat.
Serious anti-capitalist economics is of course vital but I am not always convinced that the traditional left have all the answers here either.