The Ideological Battle
issue 171 - May 1987
Photo: Debbie Bookchin
The ideological battle
Germany has proved the most fertile ground for the seeds
of Green politics. But it has proven to be a tense and quarrelsome
flowering. Debbie Bookchin argues that the lively contradictions
of the German Greens are a source of their strength.
A bitter December wind whistles through the courtyard of the onetime palace of the Duke of Hesse-Nassau, now the Hessian Parliament in Wiesbaden. Inside, parliament deputies and their guests, warmed by parquet floors and chandeliers, celebrate a first in West German history; the inauguration of Joseph 'Joschka' Fischer as Environmental Minister for the state of Hesse.
Joschka is no ordinary Minister. Unlike his fellow Cabinet members, puffy men dressed in suits and ties, Joschka sports sneakers and jeans topped with a sweatshirt and blazer. No-one is surprised any more. He is a Green. And Greens, whether tramping through the woods to occupy the site of a proposed nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant or sporting colorful home-knit sweaters while addressing their fellow legislators, have become a fixture in the German political landscape.
In addition to their distinctive garb, they have brought life to the staid chamber with unsettling speeches on foreign affairs, air pollution, nuclear disarmament, women's issues and sexuality - often to the chagrin of members of the establishment parties who heckled and urged them to unleash their philosophy somewhere else.
But disappearance was not on the agenda. The Greens steadily increased their membership and representation in town, city, province and state governments throughout the Federal Republic. In the January 1987 federal elections, almost one million more people voted for the Greens than had done so four years earlier. Greens increased their share of votes by more than 25 per cent with 3.12 million Germans voting for them. Of the 44 Green deputies that took their seats in the Bundestag more than half were women - a first for any West German political party. The Greens hold a unique position in the spectrum of social change. Formed in 1979 from anti-nuclear, communitarian, feminist, Third World and popular protest movements, they have given political voice to extra-parliamentary citizen's initiatives without undermining them. They have integrated a rich variety of radical concerns into a unified political party in which diverse interests are wedded in an ecological outlook.
The ecological concept of diversity, a key to balance and stabilization in the natural world, finds its social counterpart in the Green philosophy of decentralization and grassroots democracy. The idea is that a democracy must provide people with opportunities to air a variety of views in shaping their own decisions rather than always deferring to professional politicians and experts.
The Green example of party democracy ts reshaping German politics. In a society accustomed to highly centralized Government and bureaucratic parties, the Greens conveys an unusual democratic ambience. Disputes are aired in public, the leadership is responsible to the membership and principles outweigh tactics. They have not only added new life to the parliament, they've become a grassroots parliament in their own right: issue debates can go on for days and everyone who wants to participates.
But it has not been an easy road. The Greens have weathered the practical and ideological pitfalls of trying to retain a radical opposition stance in the face of an establishment that attempts to alternatively absorb and destroy them. Tenets such as the rotation of public office every two years to discourage 'professional' politicians have been discarded as unfeasible within the present system. Ideological debates over issues like experimentation on animals and even child sexuality have strained emotions.
But the fiercest debate has been over how closely the Greens should co-operate with the giant left-of-centre Social Democratic Party (SPD) - Germany's official opposition.
Supporters of 'coalition' politics believe the Greens have an obligation to go beyond being an opposition party. They support the Greens becoming a partner in a ruling Government with the SPD as quickly as possible as a way of pushing for piecemeal reforms that might not otherwise occur. These realpolitikers, known as realos in German political slang, see incremental reform, implemented by taking power with the Government and working with the SPD, as the key to social change.
But much of the membership has reservations. They are acutely aware of the party's original mission: to stand in fundamental opposition to the interlocking evils of industrial society. These so-called fundis are concerned the Greens will be forced to compromise ideals, such as the elimination of nuclear power and withdrawal from NATO, by entering into a coalition Government where they will be bound to support their senior partner, the SPD, even in matters they oppose. They fear the party and its Ministers in Government will be severed from the grassroots movements from which the party grew. At issue are philosphical and political questions that face radical movements everywhere. Is becoming a Cabinet Minister consistent with a movement that is attempting to decentralize power? Will piecemeal reforms come at the expense of long-range changes? And finally, can the Greens best achieve even their short-term goals by working in co-operation with the established parties - or by remaining in opposition?
The answers to these questions cut to the heart of the party's vision for the future.
'I no longer consider myself a revolutionary,' says Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former Paris student leader, now a leading spokesman for the realo wing of the Greens. Sitting in the kitchen of his Frankfurt commune, Cohn-Bendit explains: 'I consider myself a radical Democrat. To me the function for an ecological party is to put forward radical, alternative ideas for the democratization of society. In the long run, I think the main fight between the Greens and SPD is who will be leading the reformist camp. And I think the Greens have to lead the reformist camp.'
Jutta Ditfurth, a speaker for the National Executive committee, has a different vision; 'the so-called realistic people say ours is a politics which is very dreamy, just emotions and you can't get any real change with it. I say: I think this kind of politics is much more realistic because it is planning for the future.'
In his keynote address to the December 1984 Green national convention in Hamburg, national executive committee member Rainer Trampert articulated a position still held by much of the party membership: 'I want reforms. And every small and large improvement that slows down environmental destruction, alleviates social misery, protects minorities or pro-serves democratic rights is a small victory for us. But I also know that today's system is based on the striving for capital accumulation, the striving for economic growth and thus cannot overcome its foundation of environmental destruction.'
If the tension between realos and fundis has at times threatened to split the party, it may also have contributed to the Greens' political success. Frankfurt University sociology Professor Karl-Ludwig Schibel feels the debate reflects the ambivalence felt by inhabitants of the modern industrial world as they watch their forests die and rivers become wells of poison. It is a schism between the despair at being on the brink of an ecological catastrophe - that only a fundamental restructuring of society can alter - and the effort to fight that despair by absorbing oneself in the simple decisions of every day life.
The realos argue that if the threat is so great, every small reform is critical - even if it means occasional compromises. The fundis counter that the threat is so great that it demands non-compromising, structural change. Meanwhile, the party incorporates both positions. In a two-pronged approach that sets it apart from any other German party, the Greens call for the fundamental change that alone will solve the modern crisis, yet take the small concrete steps - like getting more money for day care or reducing waste emissions - that appeal to the desire to proceed normally even in the face of doom.
The schizophrenic play between a deep sense of dread and the pursuit of normality wherever possible - both parts of every German psyche - has spelled electoral success for the Greens. But the debate between the two wings, played out in tabloids, and the authoritative West German news weekly Der Spiegel, remains furious.
The rise and fall of the Hessian coalition provides a striking example. In the 1983 elections, the Hessian Greens with 5.9 per cent of the vote found themselves holding the balance of power after the SPD fell just short of the 50 per cent majority needed to form a Government.
'I think we have to try participation in power,' urged Joschka Fischer in an interview. 'Many of our voters want this. And if we say, "No, never," we'll lose part of our constituency to the SPD.'
Ditfurth disagreed. She charges the realos with a 'mechanistic view' of history. 'They don't understand the dialectic between an individual and the structure: that if you go as an individual good Green Minister into the institutions of this capitalistic society, you are forced to behave in a way acceptable within the structure. Either you make yourself ridiculous by trying to work against 2,000 other bureaucrats carrying out the law below you or you're forced to fit into the system. Parliamentary change can happen only if you build social pressure, social consciousness, outside the parliament.'
After months of negotiation, between the SPD and the realo-dominated Hessian Greens, the Hessian coalition was sealed. The Greens won a lone cabinet position for Fischer as Minister of Environment and an office for women's affairs.
Joschka Fischer was almost immediately caught between his own party and his responsibility as a Government Minister - part of his job was finding dump sites for the deadly toxic garbage produced by the sprawling Hoechst chemical plant outside Frankfurt. But Joschka's dilemma was relatively short-lived. Fifteen months after his inauguration, he no longer had to shoulder the burden of fighting his constituency over unwanted toxic wastes. The coalition fell on other grounds - the decision of the SPD to push forward the re-licensing of the ALKEM nuclear fuel-rod plant. That was more than even the realos could bear.
But for some Greens a coalition on the federal level remains the hope for 1991.
Oskar Lafontaine, the left-leaning SPD Minister-President of Saarland, who is expected to be the next chancellor candidate, has been actively wooing the Greens.
For people like Cohn-Bendit, who advocates 'making politics' independently of the extra-parliamentary protest movements, a Red-Green embrace would be a dream come true. 'We have to make politics. We have to change the conditions of politics and this is by intervention in the institutions through elections,' he says.
Others see a tougher road ahead, one of education, not merely mobilization. 'We have to build a politics from within the very foundations of society,' says Tampert, 'one that goes further than just marking a ballot, that encourages people to make politics themselves... so that a new society can grow out of the old.'
Debbie Bookchin is a US journalist who spent two years in West Germany with the Greens.