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Green Politics and Socialism

Terry Liddle

WHILE SOME may see forerunners in socialists such as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Henry Salt, green politics are very much the product of modern times, of a growing understanding of the profound ecological crisis which humanity now faces. The world’s first green party was New Zealand’s Values Party, which advocated "an expansion of the functions and autonomy of local and regional government". In Germany, Die Grünen arose out of anti-nuclear campaigns. In the early ’70s the Ecologist magazine published the influential Blueprint for Survival, and in 1973 the People Party was formed. This later became the Ecology Party and then the Green Party.1 Within the Green Party and the wider green movement there are differing strands and ideas. These include fundamentalists, who oppose any compromise or dilution of principle, and eco-socialists. It is from an eco-socialist position that this article is written.

What does the Green Party want? In its Manifesto for a Sustainable Society it states: "We believe that every individual in society has an equal right to food, water, warmth and housing. For life to have quality and meaning, and to allow individual dignity and respect, the basic requirements must be adequate and must be accessible." It continues: "The ultimate aim is the achievement of a steady state economy based on stock rather than flow economics where wealth is assessed from what we have rather than how quickly we use it. Such an economy should encourage the conservation of natural resources, the enhancement of the environment, and a way of life which gives each person the opportunity of fulfilment in work and leisure. It must function within a system of small communities each of which is as self sufficient as possible."2

The Green Party 1997 General Election Manifesto stated: "There is no physical barrier to a world where everyone can enjoy a good quality of life. Our culture of waste needs to change to one where we make efficient use of global resources. Greens believe that we can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. To do this we must use resources wisely and cut pollution to levels nature can cope with."3

Socialism has been mostly anthropocentric. At its best it has been a "consistent naturalism or humanism". Greens extend the circle of compassion to other species in the realisation that humanity is not alone, that we share the planet with other life forms and are the product of the same evolutionary process. For this process to continue, a large gene pool and great biodiversity are necessary. Yet due to the ravages of capitalism resulting in large scale destruction of natural habitats, more and more species are becoming extinct or are under threat. It is not, as some have posed the question, a choice between humans and animals, but between life and death, between continuing evolution and large scale extinction, and that includes the possible extinction of the bipedal species which calls itself wise. There is an essential truth in the slogan heard on animal rights demonstrations – "Animal liberation, human rights – one struggle, one fight".

While the Green Party is not the Animal Liberation Front, socialists should note that there are people willing to take militant direct action, and in so doing risk years in prison, to save life. And if this sort of action by a liberation movement is wrong in Britain, why wasn’t it wrong in South Africa or Ireland? And how can socialists, particularly when both abuse people and animals in the name of profit, justify supporting vivisection (as the Socialist Workers Party seems to do) and eating at McDonald’s?

In the Netherlands and Scandinavia there have emerged Green Left groupings which have won a measure of popular support. However, in Britain some socialists are highly critical of the Greens. An extreme example is the call made by John Sullivan in New Interventions, Vol.8, No.3, to treat Greens "as you would an open fascist". This sort of irrational diatribe should be treated with the contempt it deserves. It is starkly reminiscent of the attacks on "social fascists" and "Trotskyite fascists" made by Stalinism in the ’30s!

More typical is the following from the Weekly Worker of 2 July 1998: "The Greens are a petty bourgeois movement happily containing within themselves a wide spectrum, ranging from the critical-utopian to the overtly fascist ... most green ideas are confused, naive and at the end of the day reactionary. There is an underlying neo-Malthusian assumption which sees human beings as the fundamental problem. A general prejudice also exists against economic growth and technological progress. The world’s ecological problems are to be solved through an impossible return to nature – itself, of course, a social construct."

John Bridge, the author of this criticism, uses "petty bourgeois" not to describe an economic class, a relationship to the means of production, but to describe an ideology. In so doing, he deprives the term of meaning to the extent that it becomes itself ideological. Thus the term can mean anything anyone using it wants it to mean, although in practice it usually means people whose politics differ from our own.

"Critical-utopian"? As Oscar Wilde put it, it’s a poor map of the world that doesn’t have room for an island of Utopia on it. It is likely that without the utopian socialism of such as Fourier and Owen the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels would have taken much longer to develop. And the glimpse of the future socialist society given us by William Morris in News from Nowhere (this is recommended reading for Greens) is far more attractive than the civil service paternalism of Fabianism or the "actually existing socialism" which had as its foundation stones the bones of forced labourers. Much of the left has locked itself into a narrow economism which can’t see beyond the next strike, and in so doing has lost sight of the big picture, the vision of socialism. It is perhaps time to stop using "utopian" as an insult.

"Overtly fascist?" Can anyone name even one member of the Green Party who could be so described? The Manifesto for a Sustainable Society states: "the Green Party opposes all forms of racism." The Green Party has also been threatened by the Nazi paramilitary group Column 88. In Germany, Die Grünen were the only party in the Bundestag to expel members for having been in the Nazi Party, and in Britain an attempt by a National Front splinter to set up a front called Greenwave was rapidly exposed for what it really was. As for David Icke, whose mental degeneration is evidenced by his bizarre conspiracy theories, he and the Green Party parted company a long time ago. If accusations of fascism are going to be made, then some solid evidence must be produced to back them up!

For Greens pluralism and diversity, various tendencies being able to work together, are a plus. No Green would tolerate for a second the totalitarian thought police regimes existing within some socialist groups. These negate freedom of opinion, stifle initiative and lead to the infighting and splits which are all too common. Both inside and outside the Green Party there exists The Way Ahead, a network of radical and left Greens and Green socialists.4 It provides a space in which a wide range of Green, eco-socialist and socialist ideas can be debated. It has not been purged, nor have I been disciplined for submitting an article on Marxian economics to a Green journal.5

Many of its members would argue that the Green Party is not as coherent as it should be and that this needs changing. While not a revolutionary party in the Marxian sense, the Green Party is revolutionary-reformist in that it would require a revolution, the abolition of capitalism, to implement the reforms the party advocates. Some Greens may be naive in thinking that this can be done by a mixture of electoral politics and non-violent direct action. Those who know the capitalist system know too that its overturn may still require "the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions". The biggest challenge for eco-socialists is convincing fellow Green Party members and many in the wider green movement that sustainability and social justice can only be achieved in a society based on the common ownership, and a multiplicity of democratic forms of control, of the means of production. The negative attitude of some socialists is of no help in this.

Again, "reactionary" seems to mean anything those using it want it to mean. Considering the disgusting dictatorships to which socialists have in the past given support, the Biblical adage about the beam in one’s own eye and the speck in the eye of one’s brother seems to apply.

The word "neo-Malthusian" conjures up images of the Poor Law and starvation in the midst of plenty. Unlike some socialists who seem to think that the Earth and its ability to support an ever growing human population are infinite, Greens recognise that all natural resources are finite and understand the pressure that human population places on them. At present, world population is 6 billion; in 50 years time it will be 11 billion. Millions lack adequate access to food, clean water, shelter, education, medical care and contraception. Capitalism has been able to expand the production of food, but at a high price. This price is a massive negative impact on the environment, the poisoning of land, water and the food itself by chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Already capitalism is talking about the resource wars of the 21st century and is making ready to fight them.

Greens do not advocate mass starvation or forcible sterilisation. We seek a steady voluntary reduction in human numbers coupled with changes in the quality of life and social attitudes which would reduce the negative impact of the Western high consumption lifestyle. The Green Party Population Working Group’s pamphlet Standing Room Only?6 asks: "Do we wish to sink to a low standard of living, along with a reduced number of marginalised species? ... Or do we hope to continue and increase our present living standards without the disastrous harm we presently inflict on our environment – which can only be done by voluntarily reducing our numbers." That indeed is the choice humanity now faces.

Humans as such are not "the fundamental problem". The problem is a system which serves the interests of a minority of humans. Part of this has been the encouragement of population growth, and denying women control over their own fertility, in order to ensure a ready supply of wage slaves and cannon fodder for armies. Yet, in becoming increasingly global, capitalism has transformed the majority of the world’s population into proletarians, men and women of no property. It is in their hands that a potential solution to the problem may be found.

Greens do not want a return to the Neolithic. The Manifesto for a Sustainable Society states: "Modern technology is valuable and should be used where appropriate." However, some technologies, such as the generation of power by atomic fission and agribusinesses, are not appropriate and need to be replaced by more sustainable methods which are safe and clean, e.g. solar energy and organic farming. Much of what capitalism produces is what Ruskin called "illth" – that which is damaging to humanity and/or life itself. Such production needs to be abolished. There is also the question of the satisfaction the worker derives from his/her work. Clearly some technologies are more conducive to this than others.

Nature is not a "social construct". While humanity has had an impact on nature, it has also been shaped by it. We cannot return to nature – it is where we are already. We can try to bend nature to our will and subjugate it, or we can try to live in harmony with it. The green choice is obvious and if we are to survive may be the only one we have.

To be fair to the CPGB/Weekly Worker, it has twice invited me to explain Green politics at its Communist University, and I have been able to contribute to an exchange of ideas in the pages of Action for Solidarity, the paper associated with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This article is based on a talk I gave to the Socialist Discussion Forum organised by New Interventions and What Next? There is, then, hope for a constructive, mutually rewarding Red-Green dialogue. However, unless eco-socialism can become a mass movement capable of winning the hearts and minds of the people and changing the world, such a dialogue will be of little real value.

If radical environmentalism is not to repeat the tragic history of social democracy and official Communism, and end up as part of the system it set out to destroy, as the German Greens seem to be doing right now, such a movement is an urgent necessity.

The position of eco-socialism was well stated by Jutta Ditfurth of Die Grünen. Speaking in Moscow in 1987, she said: "I would like to recall the words of Marx, who said that capitalism is destroying both the workers and the earth.7 Progressive, socialist and Communist forces should not do the same. Any production technique harmful to the environment should be abandoned because of the damage it inflicts on all of us: famine, soil erosion, the appearance of new diseases.... All of this is part of the ecological time bomb that exists along with the nuclear threat. Ecological considerations should underlie social reforms."

"It is all very simple: he who cannot breathe will never have sufficient air for a second wind. In other words he will not be sufficiently strong for the political struggle for peace, for the democratic and social rights of the individual, for a fair economic order in the world, for the struggle against capitalism and fascism. The ecological revolution is inseparably linked with the social revolution."8

If socialism isn’t the answer, then it’s likely there is no answer. However, there is also another question: the content of socialism. If it is the continuing rape of the earth sanitised with a red flag or two it will fail, just as it will fail if it merely replaces one set of exploiters with another. If, however, by the conscious activity of the mass of humanity it can start building a society where sustainability and social justice go like lovers hand in hand, it stands a chance. It may be our only hope!

Reds and Greens unite! You not only have a world to win, you have a planet to save!



1. The history of the Green Party can be found in Derek Wall, Weaving a Bower Against Endless Night ..., Green Party, London, 1994.

2. Manifesto for a Sustainable Society, Green Party, London, 1988. The Manifesto is amended and updated at Green Party conferences twice a year.

3. Green Party Election Manifesto, Green Party, London, 1997.

4. The Way Ahead is free on request, but a donation of £10 is suggested. Write to: The Way Ahead, 13 Shetland Drive Nuneaton CV10 7LA.

5. "Some Red Economics for Greens", Sustainable Economics, November 1999.

6. Standing Room Only?, Green Population Working Group, London, no date.

7. The reference is to Chapter XIII Section 10 of Capital Volume 1, where Marx writes: "Capitalist production, therefore, is only able to develop the technique and the combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the foundations of all wealth – the land and the workers" (Everyman edition, Dent, London, 1930, pp.547-8).

8. Meeting of Representatives of the Parties and Movements Participating in the Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Novosti, Moscow, 1987, pp.170-1.