By Matt Heaney
Many left wingers, disgusted and dismayed at the ever-rightward lurch of the Labour Party, see the Green Party as a viable alternative.
The Green Party in Britain is one of the oldest in Europe. However, since is founding (as the Ecology Party) 23 years ago, it has remained marginalised, partly because of the British electoral system. Since the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament in 1999, the Greens have been represented by two MEPs from Britain. It seems likely that the Greens could win seats in regional UK parliaments in the future.
A socialist Green in London argues: “The Green Party… argues for things which Labour once stood for. The Greens are for nuclear disarmament, for public services run by democratically accountable local authorities and against New Labour’s privatisation mania,”.1 There is a strong minority of socialists in the Green Party… there is a wide range of people involved, with radical ideas. That is a strength, but also a weakness. Sometimes it lacks some cohesion.”
The German Greens are Europe’s most successful. In its twenty years of existence the party has gone from nowhere to providing a number of ministers in the German government. The German Greens are in coalition with the Social Democrats and have “proved themselves” on the world stage. Germany’s most popular politician is the Foreign Minister and leading Green, Joseph Fischer.
But that is only one side of the story.
In the twenty years of their existence, the German Greens have gone from an active organisation which tried to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work — activity on the strets, mobilising tens of thousands of people and getting elected on the back of this work — to a party which, while not quite as professional as the rest, almost exclusively concentrates on fighting elections.
The founders of the party announced the beginning of “a long march through the institutions”. These people are now sitting at the top of the same institutions where very little has changed.
Germany’s SPD-Green coalition took part in the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosova; is selling tanks to Turkey to use in Kurdistan; has given grants to the Chinese government to build nuclear power stations; despite promising an immediate end to nuclear power in Germany are in the process of agreeing the gradual shut-down over 30 years or more with the industry’s bosses; and is pushing through cuts in the health service. In this government the Environment Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Health Minister are all Greens.
A “strong minority of socialists” were involved in the founding of the German Greens. A “wide range of people were involved” too, many of whom had radical ideas. What happened? The experience of the Greens in Germany may have some relevance to what happens to the Greens in Britain.
The forerunners of the German Greens were a number of “colourful”, “alternative” or “green” electoral lists which in the 1970s began standing, with varying levels of success, in regional elections. Success came from the strength of the peace and anti-nuclear power movements, in which many people who went to found the Green Party were actively involved. However, the founding of the Green Party on 12 January 1980, came out of the defeat and winding-down of these movements.
“Eco-socialist” and former leading member of the Greens Jutta Ditfurth (who resigned from the party in 1991) described the founding conference:
“…rustic building site-squatters met radical feminists from Cologne. Militant demonstrators from Hamburg and Hesse discussed with Christian pacifists from Bavaria or with ornithologists from Lower Saxony. Punks met suits. Communists met anthrophosphists.” 2
The Greens were founded on four principles: rank and file party democracy, ecology, non-violence, and some belief in a “social” (but not social-ist — for most Germans, “actually existing socialism” was the Stalinist dictatorship in East Germany) society.
“We wanted a world without nuclear power stations, without repression, without hunger. A world without fear. We had a dream!” (Ditfurth). And the young party did indeed get off to a very good start: more than 10,000 people joined in its first three months.
Many of those who founded the Greens had been discussing the pros and cons of founding a party for years. “Haven’t legions of MPs been corrupted by parties and parliaments?” (Ditfurth) Leading founder member, Petra Kelly, described the Greens as an “anti-party party”. This “anti-party” had a high level of internal democracy: members elected into parliament could not hold party office, elected members had to give a large percentage of their wages back to the party, the abscence of a party chair or leader (at least officially), instead a number of “speakers”, a women’s quota, all party meetings to be held in public.
Not much remains today of this democracy. Many get away with flouting the rules that remain e.g. the giving back of wages. The Greens still have no official leader, but the unofficial and actual leader is Joseph Fischer. If Green members were to get fed up with him as leader, he could not be removed because his leadership is not official. Fischer has made no secret of his desire to be party leader but has not been able to push the required rule change through the party’s conference. This shows that, although the members can live with accepting nuclear power etc, they still have some memory of their party’s roots! But then very few of the founding members are still involved and the party has a higher turnover than McDonald’s.
In its early years the German Greens organised massive campaigns, for example against the western runway (Startbahn West) at Frankfurt am Main airport. In June 1981 the six Green members of the Frankfurt city council applied to discuss the proposed runway in the council chamber. The Frankfurt Greens flyposted the city, calling upon residents to lobby the council, to coincide with the discussion. The conservative CDU described the Greens’ actions as “coercion” and attempted legal action against the Green representative. Thousands of people turned out to lobby the town hall. From this a movement grew. Action moved into the forest to prevent the falling of trees, against which the Frankfurth police took brutal action, not only against the protestors, but also against journalists trying to cover the events and they attacked demonstrations in the city itself. When the Greens organised protests against the police thuggery, the party gained members and support.
Two important figures joined the Frankfurt Greens at this time: Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joseph “Joschka” Fischer. Cohn-Bendit, who was in his 1968 past known as “Dany the red” is today a right-wing French Green MEP. Ditfurth describes Cohn-Bendit:
“‘Dany the red’ lives from his image… But it was more of a coincidence. The French government Minister for Youth, Misoffe, opened a swimming pool on the Nanterre university campus. Cohn Bendit attempted to provoke him by telling the minister about his sexual problems. Misoffe told Cohn-Bendit to jump into the pool. Dany swore back that Misoffe was a fascist, which made headlines. Dany apologised. Misoffe invited him to dinner. Cohn-Bendit became famous. The students at Nanterre elected him as their speaker. When Cohn-Bendit visited Nanterre in 1998… left-wing students threw apie into his face.”3
Fischer is an ex-Maoist who spent a short period in jail after demonstrating against the “suicide” of Red Army Faction member Ulrike Meinhof. These days in his capacity of Foreign Minister he travels the world visiting the likes of Clinton, Blair or Putin. Fischer once described the mass murderer Joseph Stalin as “a bloke like us… a bloke in the real sense of the word.” Fischer and Cohn-Bendit and their friends took over the German Greens nationally. In March 1983, Fischer entered the German Parliament in Bonn.
Throughout the 1980s the Greens continued to have a “left-wing” image: they campaigned for the abolition of the Bundeswehr (the west German army), the abolition of NATO, and sometimes for a shorter working week without loss of pay. When the Greens had their most left-wing manifesto in 1987 they got their highest vote.
The party was pacifist. Unfortunately this led to a rather friendly relationship with the Stalinist regime in east Berlin where there was also (though fully state-controlled) “peace movement”. Leading Greens met with the east German dictator, Erich Honecker. It cannot be coincidence that the Greens are pratically non-existent today in the territory of the former GDR.
In west Germany today the Greens are a party of a particular milieu: well-off, intellectual or petit-bourgeois people. In government they have little independent profile, and they often seem like the right-wing of the Social-Democrat-Green coalition.
Since the election, in the space of 18 months, the Greens’ pacifism has been reduced to nothing. They have praised and taken part in public oath-wearing ceremonies of Bundeswehr soliders whereas before the election they rightly criticised this as the “militarisation of everyday life”. In the very recent past the Greens campaigned on the slogan, “for a federal republic without an army” and for immediate withdrawal from NATO. Now they are the most strident supporters of NATO intervention in Serbia and Kosova. Instead of calling for the abolition of (male) compulsory military service, sections of the party are calling for it to be extended to women.
The Greens are now a capitalist party, albeit one with a slightly different image to the rest; a no longer particularly successful capitalist party, but one which has found its place in the German political landscape. They represent the interests of small businessmen and women. They are openly pro-privatisation. They are still for a shorter working week but with a loss of pay — of around 7% for the average worker.4 The Greens are effectively taking on the role of Germany’s tiny Liberal party, the FDP, which traditionally represented out-and-out capitalists. Trade unions and the working class play no role whatsover in the life and policies of the Greens.
Much of the old “leftness” of the Greens was in fact little more than an image: refusing to stand up and sing the national anthem in parliament when the Berlin wall came down; knitting during parliamentary debates; wearing triainers and t-shirts in parliament, having their photos taken in front of nuclear trains.
It is astounding how quickly the German Greens got sucked into the Parliamentary ssytem. Set up by people who wanted the change the world, who moved into “alternative culture” and then into the Greens, these same people have managed to build fine political careers out of making their peace with capitalism.
In fact the founding of the German Greens marked a defeat for the left: so many socialists and ex-socialists joined the party in the illusion that it represented something new, that it was a new way of changing the world without the irritating need for “theory”. Unlike someone like Joseph Fischer, most ex-left wingers who joined the Greens didn’t become career politicians, they simply went off into the political wilderness. This should be a warning to any socialist in Britain who feels compelled to find in the Greens an alternative to New Labour. They should put their energy into rebuilding working-class representation. If the German left had done that 20 years ago rather than turn to the Greens, today’s European political system would look very different.
1. Terry Liddle, in Action for Solidarity, 3 September 1999.
2. Jutta Ditfurth ‘Zahltag, Junker Joschka!’ in Neue Revue, Issue 42/1999.
3. Jutta Ditfurth, ‘Zahltag, Junker Joschka!, Teil 2’ in Neue Revue, Issue 43/1999.
(available to read at http://meltingpot. fortunecity.com/dunsmuir/801/presse/neuerevue9942.htm.
4. Berlin Green Party Manifesto, October 1999.
Jutta Ditfurth, Träumen, Kämpfen, Verwirklichen, Köln 1988. (Journalistic accounts of the early movement)
Klaus Dräger/Werner Hülsberg, Aus für Grün?: Die grüne Orientierungskrise zwischen Anpassung under Systemopposition. (A history of the movement).