New Internationalist

Greening The Left

Issue 171

new internationalist
issue 171 - May 1987

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Illustration: Alan Hughes
Greening the Left
The Left needs the Greens and the Greens need
the Left - though the two often regard each other with
deep suspicion or even hostility. Diana Johnston
explains what they have to do to get together.

For well over a decade, the parties of the old Left in Europe have been admitting their need to bring in the 'new social movements' - ecology, women, peace. This new 'Green' constituency is important to them because their old base, the traditional labour force, is in decline. There is no getting away from it; the industrial working class is shrinking numerically across the Western world.

But the Left has also been hampered by a failure of vision: they have had no effective strategy for socialism. French Communism, British Labourism and German social democracy - all have merely been hoping that if the workers got a bigger share of the pie then one day, by some more or less mechanical process, capitalism would be turned into socialism. Demands for higher wages have been regarded as contributing to a better world, without thinking out what that better world should be like.

The Left has therefore usually attached itself to economic growth. But economic growth no longer necessarily creates jobs and may very well demolish them. Technological innovation has enabled management to renew its control over the production process - and reduce the number of workers. As a result the working class is being drastically disinherited. Worse than being exploited, it is being rejected, marginalized.

In Europe, this is producing what Social Democrat Peter Glotz calls the 'two-thirds society', in which two-thirds of the people are happily integrated into production, consumption and a high living standard, while another third of 'losers' drop into poverty and oblivion. The same thing exists in the United States, but is called the problem of the 'underclass'. In the US, however, the 'underclass' is largely black and isolated in urban ghettos, so its marginalization is much less disturbing to prosperous Americans than are the visible unemployed within more homogeneous European countries.

To stand a chance of success, political movements have to appeal to the two-thirds of 'winners', something that socialists are finding increasingly difficult to do. 'The big problem the Left has is that of the middle classes,' according to Joschka Fischer, the Green Minister of Environment in the West German state of Hesse. According to Fischer, the middle classes in the US have gone to Ronald Reagan and thus become allied with corporate America.

But there is another option for the middle-classes - and one that has been demonstrated in West Germany. Fischer argues that the Greens and the new social movements have provided an alternate political pole of attraction and saved German yuppies from crass Reaganite selfishness. The upwardly mobile young urban professionals voted heavily for the German Greens in the 25 January elections - proof that these 'new classes' can be interested in a more generous kind of politics.

The Greens, as Fischer has pointed out, are the political solution to the old Left's 'middle class problem'. The combination of the old industrial Left and the new post-industrial Green Left - 'the red-green alliance' - does in fact provide the only functioning oasis in today's dry political desert.

But there is a danger for the Greens: that they will be simply used by vote-hungry Left parties. 'We want to eat the Greens - like spinach,' a leading German Social Democratic intellectual once said to me with a cannibalistic grin. This is just what Greens fear, they do not want to be devoured by the SPD Popeye. And it would be as well if they weren't. Indeed if the SPD has gone further than others in greening its programme, this is no doubt because it has not been able to devour Green movements but has had to compete with them. The old Left parties often cannot easily digest the Green spinach and this indigestion has helped the greenish left inside the SPD win its battle on such decisive issues as phasing out nuclear power.

France illustrates the situation of an old Left undisturbed by fresh Green rivals. The French Communist Party is the prototype of the hopelessly declining old Left. It clings to its working-class culture and its centralist organization, staring helplessly at what its leaders call society's 'drift to the Right'. The French Socialist Party on the other hand, with no serious competition on its Left, has been seduced by the notion that 'technology', like 'modernity', is an end in itself the solution to all problems. A vigorous Green movement, if it existed, would point out that choices must be made between technologies and also be very discriminating about the ways in which they should be used.

The difference in political climate between France and Germany has a lot to do with the opposite directions taken by the radical generations of the sixties. In both cases, old Left revolutionary illusions have long since faded. But while veterans of the German student movements went on to become Green radical reformers, many veterans of May 1968 in France have degenerated into professional cynics both about revolution and reform The French far Left used, for example, to support Third World revolutions as the vanguard of world revolution. But disillusionment set in and now there is a tendency to stigmatize all communist countries as 'the gulag' - allowing French 'yuppiedom' the excuse to forget about old causes in messy parts of the world. Thus André Glucksmann, once a Maoist revolutionary, now worships the nuclear bomb and would rather see his children dead than red. He blasts humanitarian aid to Ethiopia as complicity in the 'African gulag'.

The Greens' attitude toward the Third World is closer to the feelings of a younger generation which is not suffering from personal resentment against disappointing revolutions. It is based on a realistic recognition that different sorts of problems face rich countries like Germany and poor countries like Nicaragua. And moral problems, like the use of violence, are not posed in exactly the same way in such different settings. Green non-violence thus retains sympathy for Third World liberation struggles. They insist that the obligation of people in the rich countries is to help provide those in the poor countries with the means to find non-violent solutions to their own problems.

Greens are also developing a fresh approach to issues like peace and disarmament Even conservative German politicians acknowledge that they are 'raising the right questions'. And the Greens have made a thorough study of new problems, such as the dangers of the nuclear state', trash recycling and genetic engineering. But they have also combined these with a vigorous activist determination both to dramatize such issues and to do something about them. The Greens have managed to transform them into important points of national political debate.

In the United States such problems tend to remain isolated - and even compete with each other in the fund-raising mailings that besiege civic-minded check-book owners. As a response, some strains of Green in the United States stress 'holistic' philosophy and would also claim to be more together than the Left - which they identify with the fragmenting rationalism of a dying industrial culture.

But the European Left naturally see things very differently. Indeed one of the hardest things for them to accept about the Greens is that they seem to act in such a fragmentary way. It is difficult for veterans of the Marxist tradition to take seriously political demands which are not clearly logical parts of a global project. The Greens seem to be going off half-cocked in many different directions. For many Europeans, steeped in a rather more philosophical tradition than pragmatic America, the world is not becoming more organically unified: it is in fact becoming harder and harder to grasp as a whole.

How then have the German Greens managed to bridge this gap in perception? The unique success of the German Grünen party stems from its unique origins: it is the product of an unexpected mating between single issue 'Green' movements and militant remnants of the old Left It is this crossbreeding between cultures that usually refuse to have anything to do with each other that has endowed the Die Grünen with exceptional vigour. Some of this mix is highly unstable, and the nature of the final product remains in doubt. But the Left orientation provided by the presence of various Marxist, radical democratic and Christian Left components has so far saved the German Greens from the pitfalls that threaten ecological movements in other countries, such as crankery, provincialism and mystical sectarianism. Greens need the influence of the Left to keep them aware of the social dimension.

Awareness of the social dimension means that while German Greens give the environment priority over jobs - for instance, in demanding the closing of the plutonium industry in Havau, near Frankfurt - they admit that the problem of mass unemployment cannot be ignored. Thus they look for novel, even radical solutions, such as a guaranteed minimum income. Such ideas are not yet developed enough to have the status of an economic programme; they are part of an exploratory process that in conjunction with the Left may produce an economic policy for the future.

Awareness of the social dimension also contributes to a certain seriousness which makes it possible to use the media effectively. Die Grünen do usually manage to do this, without watering down content or falling into individualistic exhibitionism.

The success of the Die Grünen is largely due to three factors:

· The presence of a large Left party with which to work politically.

· The strength and seriousness of grassroots organizations.

· The willingness of the many single-issue and politically diverse components of Die Grünen to overcome their differences enough to act together politically.

In countries where these factors are absent, there is a tendency for small, ultra-sectarian groups or even individuals to set themselves up as judges or high priests of what is 'Green', hoping that by words alone they may repeat the enviable success of Die Griinen. The first 'priority' in such fantasies is to exclude everybody with whom the high priests disagree, for example those contaminated by previous Left party experience.

A Green party cannot of course succeed as a front for some Trotskyist vanguard. But people must be allowed and encouraged to evolve. The energy of individuals who are devoted to changing the world for the better is too valuable to be spent on excommunicating each other. Mutual need argues for mutual tolerance.

Diana Johnston is a Paris-based freelance journalist.

The fight for Lyell Island
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The Queen Charlotte Islands off Canada's west coast, are the ancestral home of the Haida Indians. Haida society was integrated harmoniously into the eco-system of the islands for thousands of years. But the arrival of the Europeans brought a hurricane of destruction which continues to this day. The islands are being ruthlessly destroyed by the logging industry abetted by the Social Credit government of British Columbia.

In 1983 the Federal Government accepted for negotiation the Haida land claim to all the Queen Charlottes. But the BC provincial Government rejected the claim. As early as the 1970s it was clear that it had slated nearly all the forests on the Queen Charlottes as an industrial tree farm. But as logging activities moved into steeper terrain causing slope failure and severe erosion, local people (Haida and non-Haida) started to protest. The Islands Protection Society petitioned the BC Government to preserve the South Moresby area as a wilderness. The Government responded by making matters worse: awarding logging permits on unspoilt LyelI Island Today two-thirds of the Queen Charlottes are under intensive logging.

Photo: Camera Press In November 1985 the Haida decided to fight for Lyell Island. They formed a human blockade across a road denying access to the loggers - 72 Haida were arrested. This was a significant challenge to the BC government. It was also a media event which captured headlines around the world, exposing the plight of the Haida and their islands to millions of people. Above all it was an occasion of spiritual and cultural renewal.

As one Haida, Diane Brown, put it: 'For over two hundred years disease and alcohol and foreign ideas have accumulated, clouding my intuition into the ancient spiritual forces. On Lyell Island the clouds began to part. I knew more than ever what it meant to be Haida.'

To the Haida their land is not a commodity to be mined or bartered away for money. Attempting to assess their attachment to their land by using the dollar value assigned to hunting and fishing rights misses the point entirely, It is like trying to work out the value Canadians assign to freedom of expression as the price of notebooks and pencils. To the Haida their land is a complex network of living beings, including themselves, who sustain one another through the cycles of birth, death and regeneration. The Haida know that if the Islands die they will die too.

For further information contact: Western Island Wilderness Committee, 1200 Hornby St., Vancouver, BC V6Z 2E2.

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