Sacha Ismail and Peter Tatchell debate the issues
Most of those present at the London AWL forum on 20 January will have agreed with much of speaker Peter Tatchell’s diagnosis of “What’s wrong with the left” (see transcript Solidarity 3/66) — that, increasingly, most self-styled revolutionary socialists substitute an entirely negative, classless “anti-imperialism” for the positive criteria of working-class struggle and consistent democracy. More controversial was Tatchell’s proposed solution for the moral collapse of the left. He advocates that socialists do as he has done and join the Green Party, working to make it a socialist, or at least “more socialist”, party.
AWL members and others pointed to some of the obvious facts about the Green Party: it does not have any connection, either organisational or ideological, to the workers’ movement; in fact many of its members are actively hostile to unions, seeing workers as “producers” with an entrenched interest in polluting the environment rather than social actors with the potential to reorganise the economy on a different basis from capitalism’s short-termist drive for profits. Where it has become strong enough to play a noticeable role in local politics, it has done deals with right-wing parties, including the Lib Dems (Oxford) and even the Tories (Leeds), on the basis of simple anti-Labourism.
In countries where Green Parties are strong enough to play a role in national politics, such as France and Germany, they have become routine government parties.
Surprising? Not to Marxists, for whom class is the central axis in developing left-wing politics, and who have spent decades analysing the trajectory of various non-working class “radical” populists into mainstream bourgeois politics.
What was more surprising was the weakness of Peter Tatchell’s defence of his new political home. Admitting the Greens were “by no means perfect”, he was reduced to the favourable comparison between their formal policies and those of the main political parties.
Now, Peter has spent 20 years campaigning for causes unpopular not just with official society but with much of the left; he doesn’t generally strike you as one for the lesser evil. Yet, his argument for socialists to join the Greens really didn’t seem to amount to much beyond saying there’s nothing better around.
Perhaps this is because, as he himself admitted in the meeting, he no longer sees the working class as playing the absolutely central role in socialist politics he once did. In any case, that such a brave fighter against injustice and oppression feels that his only remaining political option is to join the Green Party makes it all the more urgent that we arm ourselves with the arguments as to why the Greens are not and cannot be a solution. We should continue the debate with socialist Greens as an important part of that process.
Labour has ditched socialism and internal party democracy. It is now beyond reform. The various radical left groupings are dismally small, with little influence. The most significant left alternative to Labour is Respect. But it is politically compromised. Following in New Labour’s footsteps, it has a top-down, command-style leadership, and its leaders have declared that it is not a socialist party. Compounding this rightward drift, Respect has made alliances with reactionary movements like the Muslim Association of Britain.
All my life the radical left has been in the political wilderness. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t. There is no point being a socialist if you can’t influence things in a socialist direction. That is just self-indulgence.
Political purity is fine, but not if it means remaining marginal and ineffectual. The whole point of being a socialist is to change the world.
There is, alas, no serious prospect of social transformation being initiated by the old-style radical left. For those of us who want to secure social justice and human rights, there is only one option left — the Green Party.
Respect and its forerunner, the Socialist Alliance, have never made a political impact. In the 2004 European elections, Respect won a mere 1.7 per cent of the vote in England. Even its high-profile, nationally-known star candidate, George Galloway, managed to poll only 4.84%.
The Greens are, in contrast, winners. They have seats on local councils, the London Assembly and in the Scottish and European Parliaments.
If most left-wingers and progressive social movements united together in the Green Party, the Greens could do even better. Indeed, the Greens have the potential to become a very influential electoral force — pressuring Labour and the Lib Dems to adopt more radical policies and perhaps, one day, even holding the balance of power.
After three decades of moving from right to left, the Greens now occupy the progressive political space once held by left Labour. They offer a clear alternative to Blair’s pro-war, pro-big business and pro-Bush agenda.
The Green Party’s Manifesto for a Sustainable Society incorporates key socialist principles. It rejects privatisation, free market economics and globalisation; and includes commitments to public ownership, workers’ rights, economic democracy, progressive taxation, and the redistribution of wealth and power.
The Green’s synthesis of ecology and socialism integrates policies for social justice and human rights with policies for tackling the life-threatening dangers posed by global warming, environmental pollution, resource depletion and species extinction.
Greens recognise that preventing environmental catastrophe requires constraints on the power of big corporations. Profiteering and free trade has to be subordinated to policies for the survival of humanity. Can any socialist disagree with that?
It is true that the Green Party includes people who are not on the left. The political alliances and policies of some elected Green councillors have been shameful and disastrous. But many Green Party members recognise these errors and are working to make sure they don’t happen again.
The Greens are less than perfect. But will someone please show me the perfect left-wing party? There has never been one and there never will be one. Even the Bolsheviks had their shortcomings.
Left-wing critics complain that the Greens are not a pure socialist party and are not working class-based. But look at the implications of what they say. Their goals and policies are often much the same as the radical left’s, but expressed without jargon in a more voter-friendly, appealing way.
The Greens may have few links to organised labour. But that is changing too. Green conferences and public meetings increasingly feature trade union activists. With more pressure from within, the Greens will strengthen their ties to the workers’ movement. The way the Australian trade unions have enforced “green bans” on environmentally-destructive developments shows the potential for workers and greens to work together for the betterment of all.
The great virtue of the Greens is that they are a grassroots democratic party, controlled by the ordinary membership and with no power elite or embedded hierarchy. Moreover, the Greens value idealism and principles. This means the party is open to further radicalisation in a socialist direction.
But I don’t want to see the left infiltrate and take over the Green Party. I certainly don’t want left-wing sectarianism to poison the comradely atmosphere. My desire is a joining together of the red and the green, with a mutual recognition and fusing together of the respective values and strengths of each movement.
Unity is strength, as evidenced in the list vote for the London Assembly in 2000. The combined poll for the Greens (11%) and the various left slates (5%) totalled 16% — out-polling the Lib Dems by two per cent and making red-green the third strongest political force in London. The potential is there. Don’t sit on the sidelines of politics. Let’s seize the opportunity. Go red and green.