A few days ago there was an interesting discussion on the Socialist Unity blog (I say interesting; lengthy and fractious more like) about a post from a young comrade in York University Green Party entitled Can the Green Party become the main party of the left? http://socialistunity.com/can-the-green-party-become-the-main-party-of-the-left/#.URUymKWYW1w I replied that I didn’t believe that any existing political formation is the actual or potential nucleus of the mass socialist party ‘of a new kind’ that we so desperately need – certainly not the Green Party. As I posted it I realised that it might seem a tad strange for a member of the Green Party and of Green Left, the ecosocialist current within it, to be making such a statement. So let me explain…
Comrade Sally and I were always ‘green’ in the sense that we had an interest in environmental concerns, right from the beginning of our political activism. We had both read Silent Spring shortly after it had come out in paperback in Britain in 1965 and in the late 60s and early seventies were influenced by the growth of the anti-nuclear movement, but the real game changer for me was the publication, in 1976, of the second edition of EP Thompson’s magisterial biography of William Morris. Here was the most important British marxist of the 19th century who not only campaigned against the exploitation of the workers and despoliation of culture and the environment, but who understood, in a clear and direct way what the socialist movement seemed to have since forgotten, the nature of alienation and the creative potential of unalienated work as a means of self expression:
‘Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making; or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers…Worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill. All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work — mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.’
A brief acquaintance with the Ecology Party in the late 70’s left me distinctly underwhelmed by the ‘Green Movement’, but the issues that concerned it (the non-cranky ones of climate change, resource depletion and pollution and the need for radically different energy, transport and food policies) became ever more pressing through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In 2004 Comrade Sally and I joined the newly established Respect, but in 2006, sickened by the dishonesty and manipulativeness of the SWP within it, we both left. This left me in something of a quandary since I believe that political activity is, for socialists rather like sex – it is possible to do it on your own, but it is much more satisfying doing it in concert with others.
In the area where we live the only other group around on the left was the Green Party and since an explicitly socialist grouping – Green Left – had recently been established within the party, we joined.
The Green Party, whose birth roughly coincided with the beginning of the decline of much of the traditional left in Britain, seems to me a curious hybrid beast. Its organisational origins are certainly not within any part of the working class movement, even though strong elements of socialist thinking were present (albeit often unrecognised) more or less from the start. It is clearly of the left and is – fuzzily – anti-capitalist. However, its politics are syncretic and impressionistic, having largely developed out of and still marked by, a narrow and essentially middle class environmentalism. As a result, to a large degree the Party’s politics are built on sentiment rather than rigorous analysis.
It is a social democratic sect, by which I mean that it is implicitly (and to a modestly increasing degree, explicitly) anti-capitalist, but that it has no real analysis of the nature of capitalism, the state, or who where or what are the agencies for change; and consequently no overall strategy for how to get from where we are to where we want to be. However, in terms of the development of the party, the more or less conscious move to the left of much of its membership over the past few years, away from the the narrow reformism and environmentalist niche politics that were, and to some degree still are, the party’s comfort zone, has been extremely positive.
The Green Party may be an unusual sect (and, unusually, a pretty relaxed and tolerant one), but it is a sect nonetheless. Like other sects it is obsessed with the Full and Correct Programme (in this case its Policies for a Sustainable Society rather than the Transitional Programme of 1938 or the British Road to Socialism) which, if presented to the unenlightened masses for long enough will lead them to recognise their previous shortsightedness. Like other sects it tends to view actual concrete struggles through the distorting prism of its own programmatic priorities. Of course, it doesn’t share with most far left sects an obsession with the Leninist conception of the party (although, arguably, neither did Lenin) and it doesn’t have a class analysis (or much of any kind of analysis) of society and the state. It doesn’t have any of the various laughable programmatic tics and obsessions of what has been called ‘the 20th century left’ – but then it doesn’t need to as it has plenty of its own.
Because of the party’s lack of any organic connection to the broader working class movement, because of its politically heterogeneous nature, because of its blinkered obsession with the purity of its programme, and because of its consequent failure to relate to the concrete concerns of working people, it is unlikely to be able to fully escape the limitations of a sect. So what is the point in socialists being in the Green Party?
As a result of the ongoing fragmentation of the the far left and the steady erosion of socialists from the Labour Party since 1997 (and especially since 2003), the Green Party has become a sort of Sargasso Sea into which some hundreds of isolated socialists have drifted. Some of those have become influenced by the concept of ecosocialism promoted by people like Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster and have coalesced into Green Left, which describes itself as the ecosocialist current within the Green Party. They have concerned themselves largely with the task of ‘making greens redder and reds greener’ – and they have had a certain modest amount of success.
However, we shouldn’t have too many illusions about being able to change the nature of the party. While the combination of the efforts of the left within it and (much more critically) events in the real world outside might succeed in moving it in the direction of a broad based green socialist party, I don’t think that that is likely; but anyway that aim should not be the basis for socialists’ continuing active membership of the organisation. For all its manifold flaws (which I think, in the long term are likely to be fatal) the Green Party is currently the largest organisation to the left of Labour and almost certainly contains within it the largest concentration of activists broadly sympathetic to green socialist ideas under one roof (or perhaps, within one yurt). It is therefore an important forum – although not the only one – in which socialists should be actively developing and promoting ideas, as well as being an organisation whose direction of travel we should be seeking to influence.
So that is why I think that membership of the Green Party is still currently worthwhile; certainly not as an article of faith, nor as a matter of principle, but as a tactical choice.