Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Green Issue

Check the message box for Morbo's election vermin of the week, there's an interesting debate there (we may have to change the subtitle of the blog, you never know). The issue of Respect and the Greens is an interesting one.

The tug of war over the anti-war vote and the continuing heritage of the movement is actually between the Socialist Workers Party and the Greens, Respect is a medium in this case.

My opinion is that what is at stake, in terms of Respect, is bigger than two small 'left-wing' parties (we'll get onto the politics later). Respect is the best attempt sofar to constitute a new left in Britain. The anti-war movement is the big success story of the British left, so it makes sense to constitute a new political platform round the movement. In France (where the stakes are currently higher) you'd want something along the lines of the anti-cpe and anti-EU constitution movements.

The SWP understood this and chose to involve itself in the new party that was being formed around late-2003/early 2004. After taking a quick look, the Greens chose not to, and have been actively hostile to the newleft project ever since.

In so far as this is discussed, this fact is put down to Green sectarianism. But, that doesn't tell the whole story. The SWP went through a period of sectarianism during the 80s and early 90s, based on an analysis of the period of political and economic "downturn" in the working-class movement. It was able to come out of that period and relate to the outside world around the time of Seattle and the anti-war movement.

The question is, where does the Green's sectarianism come from. I think its something more deeprooted.

The first, and most obvious problem with Green politics is one of agency (that age old Marxist complaint!). By what means are Green politics brought to life? There's a variety of answers, from electoralism (by the way, is there a Green international) to direct action and advocacy. While the working class movement has secured various gains at various stages, the Green movement, though young, it has to be pointed out, hasn't made much headway. Has the electoralism of the Green parties shifted states decisively toward eco-friendly policy? Have the stunts of Greenpeace radicalised any significant sections of society to any great effect?

At the heart of Green politics is a contradiction. One wing of Green politics points to the left, to a democratically planned economy with redistribution of wealth in order to decrease mankind's impact on earth while sustaining standards of living. The other wing points to the right. Deep ecology, for example, maintains that industry and civilisation in themselves are the problem. Deep ecology essentially looks to turn the clock back. It is a reactionary philosophy with dangerous implications. A philosophy that can attract both Martin Heidegger and Prince Charles.

Whether or not the Greens decide to throw their lot in with the new left project in Britain depends upon which strand of Green politics wins out. As things stand the Green leadership know they have a left flank to cover. If the Greens move to the left they are likely to be subsumed by a more coherent and consistent left philosophy. While this might elevate left politics it would negate Green politics.

The definition of sectarianism is putting your organisation before the movement. This suits the Green party to a t.

11 comments:

Jim Jay said...

Interesting post, I've a couple of disagreements but before I start I always feel in a bit of a strange situation in that I end up defending Greens to those who critise and criticising them to those who praise... so although I'm going to defend them now I want to make clear that's not from a position of infatuation.

"Greens... have been actively hostile to the newleft project"

I don't think this bears scrutiny. How many Greens are hostile to a project for a new left? In what way are they 'active' in that hostility?

It's one thing to say that most Greens have decided Respect is not for them (otherwise they would have defected) it's quite another to say they are "actively hostile". It's not true either at a grass roots level or at the top, whilst it's probably true that some areas and individuals may be more hostile than others.

It is true that some Greens are very opposed to Respect and others see them as allies - but to ascribe to Greens 'en masse' this hostility may serve the interests of Respect in the short term but isn't actually a representation of how Greens feel and behave.

Green sectarianism

I think it's a mistake to use the term sectarianism in this context. Not just because it's an over used and perjorative (spelling?) term, but because there is a difference between not joining with someone because you see your rivals for the same political constituency as the main threat and having genuine political differences.

Seeing as the Green Party and Respect are very different organisations refusing to fuse is not sectarianism but common sense. It is far more important that the Greens and Respect learn to work together despite their differences than it is for them to unite in one organisation pretending they have more common ground than they do.

Sectarianism is a term that is so misused on the left I personally think it's lost all meaning. Where does a political disagreement end and sectarianism begin? For the left it is usually the case that sectarianism begins the moment you leave the boundary of their particular organisation.

I think it's important to recognise the political disagreements rather than put them down to grumpy people who just wont play.

"Is there a Green international?"

Yes. Because the Green Party has had a lot of international success at the ballot box it's an extremely influencial organisation internally - which is constantly best by rows, cough, I mean democratic discussions. It's very different from most left internationals in that whilst some Green Parties are more successful than others there are a number of strong parties with lots of MEPs MPs etc elected from a number of countries. Most left internationals have one strong group that calls the shots and their tributaries.

"Have the stunts of Greenpeace radicalised any significant sections of society to any great effect?"

It's important not to confuse GreenPeace with the Green Party. When I first got involved in Green Peace I was very surprised to learn that there was not a single Green Party supporter in the group.

But the green movement has put onto the agenda a large number of crucial issues that everyone else, including the left, completely ignored. Whilst it's nice that the left is now organising against climate change for instance the hard bit was twenty years ago when the issue was seen as the preserve of cranks and kooks. One of the problems with going with issues that are popular 'right now' is you rise and fall with that issue and are essentially being led by popular opinion rahter than trying to lead it.

Militant found this with the poll tax for instance, and it would be a big mistake for the french left to base their politics on the cpe struggle - instead they should be invovled in that struggle and look to the forces it contains.

Respect orientated itself as the anti-war party, but its task today is to broaden its political outlook because being anti-war in Britain today includes 90% of the population and is not radical at all. To influence the mass of people rather than follow them (as Greens did over climate change) involves putting forward ideas that are unpopular as well as those that are popular.

I've gone on too long so I'll stop there.

AN said...

“The definition of sectarianism is putting your organisation before the movement. “

This is a very poor definitaion, and I would say exhibits the “problem of Marxism” in that so many on the Marxist left repeat things from scripture without critically examining the content.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Greens consider themselves part of “the movement” anyway, surely any organisation promotes their own interests, and organisations within the Labour movement tend to act on the ideological assumptions that they are indeed acting for the best, whether or not it is true. Very few peo
ple or organisations are villains in their own eyes.

The trouble with your definition, is that the Labour Party, the GMB, the labour representation Committee, the campaign group of MPs and the RMT are all sects! (not to mention the SWP). –as they all promote their own interests. Since theories and ideologies change an organisation can be acting in the interests if the working class at one moment, and against it at another.

A much more useful reference point for the concept of sectarianism is the “regressive problem shift”, whch calllinicos promotes in his book “Trotskyism”, following the philospher Lakatos. As we develop theories to explain the world we need a mechanism for deciding which theories are a better approximation to the truth, in the philosophy of science, a theory advanced to solve one problem, that at the same time is reconciled with all known facts also represents a progressive problem shift if it further contributes to the validation of other unrelated theories.

Whereas, if your defence of a theory requires you to reject established theories or facts that are inconvenient for your pet theory you are trapped in a regressive problem shift. A labour movement organisation that is trapped into defending an incorrect ideology, and therefore a regressive problem shift will have to systematically act in a destructive and “sectish” way to try to self-justify that its behaviour is correct.

The Green Party may be excessively electoral, and many of its activists can be annoying, but it is such a complex organisation, with so any competing facets that it is non-sensical to describe it as a sect, any more than it would be useful to characterise the Labour Party as a sect.

If we take the insight about regressive problem shifts from Callinicos, we are left with a problem if trying to organisationally separate based upon a priori theoretical considerations, such as state cap. Can any small group of Marxists develop a thorough going understanding of the world, and isn’t it equally likely that other Marxists, or non-Marxists may develop richer understandings in other areas? Many years ago Mike Kidron pointed out that the theories of state cap and the permanent arms economy that he did so much himself to develop, contained a number of loose ends that fell short of a coherent theory.

As any group trying to organisationally separate over ideological questions is likely to be wrong as often as it is right, then they will all be equally prone to sectarianism. It is in the nature of Leninism, and the worst aspect of the Cliff/Grant/Healy legacy that we struggle with today.

Roobin said...

I have a moment. 'Ere...

"I don't think this bears scrutiny. How many Greens are hostile to a project for a new left? In what way are they 'active' in that hostility?"

There is weighty empirical evidence that is the case. Never mind the Greens joining, it would be so simple for the parties to agree a non-agression pact. Respect has continually proposed this, at various levels, and has been turned down.

"I think it's a mistake to use the term sectarianism in this context.
"

Which is why, sighs, I go into the whole Green politics 101 schtik. The point is that it isn't quite the case of two equally valid, equally left wing parties blocking each others way. Subjectively the Greens are a left-wing party, but then, subjectively the Lib Dems are often seen as left-wing.

In reality, Green politics pulls in two directions, which is why we have the current impasse.

"It's important not to confuse GreenPeace with the Green Party."

Then it's a good job I didn't. Read again. The passage you are quoting from is about the Green movement.

On a lighter note, are you seriously "happy" that Morbo the Newsmonster would like to see Respect stand down in favour of the Greens in some areas?

Roobin said...

An, ahem, it is a very good definition, so good that you need to twist it in order to generate some kind of argument.

Putting your party before the movement is not the same promoting your "own interests". If a party has staked its interest in a certain movement then its interest and the movement's interest should coincide.

Sectarianism is building your own organisation independently of and (often) to the detriment of the movement. If Respect has a strategy of trying to achieve rapid breakthroughs in certain areas so that the anti-war movement (at least to the extent it can be claimed by Respect, which is a large extent in the example I'm about to use) may have representation in mainstream politics, and the Greens strategy of standing paper candidates and committing itself to slow, workaday building frustrates that, as it did in Preston, where the Greens stood an undeniable paper candidate, got 82 votes, while Respect lost by 7, that is sectarianism.

Jim Jay said...

it would be so simple for the parties to agree a non-agression pact

I think you're definition of simple must be different from mine. But seeing as neither side made any offers at this election we don't know how easy it would be for that to happen - thankfully a few local groups did come to agreements.

There is very little active hostility to Respect in the Greens, although most Greens are not part of the Respect fan club either. Although Respect bloggers quite often post in a hostile way against the Greens though.

"It's important not to confuse GreenPeace with the Green Party."

Then it's a good job I didn't. Read again. The passage you are quoting from is about the Green movement.


Don't be so touchy - I wasn't having a go at you I was making a particular point about the way that Green activists can often be anything other that Green Party supporters.

On a lighter note, are you seriously "happy" that Morbo the Newsmonster would like to see Respect stand down in favour of the Greens in some areas?

Ummm... I think he's right about that. Also I was pleased when I read it because it made him seem like a reasonable, thinking person with a nuanced position rather than someone just arguing a party line. Why do you think I'm not happy about it?

I agree with you that the Greens made a mistake in Preston, they undoubtedly cost Respect a seat and this is a very bad thing. Likewise where Respect stood in London and cost the Greens at least three seats this is also bad.

It is important for there to be some sort of agreement because I think it would benefit both progressive organisations.

AN said...

But Roobin, if we accept your definition of sectarianism then we cannot account where sectarianism comes from, other than it being because people act in bad faith. Which is really rarely the case, or certianly not often enough the case to explain why there is so much sectarianism around. having been in the movement for more than 30 years, and 20 years plus in the SWP, I have seen enough sectarinism from all sides to want to understand why the movement is so cursed by it. Whish requires more than rote repetition of what we have heard others already say about it - which is why i like Callinicos's attempt to get beyond that.

I believe your (admittedly conventional) description ultimately derives from Marx/Engels in the Manifesto: Section 2, "Communists and proletarians".
Where of course Marx points out that socialists: "have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. "

I am not fond of quoting scripture, but as your argument derives from Marx, it is worth pointing out that setting up such "sectarian " pronciples would include the idea of organisationally separating on questions of theory, which is why Marx also argues: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties"

AN said...

and Roobin - do you disagree with Lakotos?

Roobin said...

Jim Jay: Morbo is a character, in more ways than one. Look behind the scaly green armour and you'll find the beating heart and throbbing brain of a renaissance alien.

"There is very little active hostility to Respect in the Greens, although most Greens are not part of the Respect fan club either. Although Respect bloggers quite often post in a hostile way against the Greens though."

1. That's not my experience of Greens. We'll have to disagree.
2. Bloggers, ahem... Bloggers are agressive by nature. Do you think I'd talk to anyone like this face-to-face?

"I agree with you that the Greens made a mistake in Preston, they undoubtedly cost Respect a seat and this is a very bad thing. Likewise where Respect stood in London and cost the Greens at least three seats this is also bad."

My inside track was the Hackney result was a mixture of hubris and the lack of a satisfactory deal. There were areas where Respect and the Greens had a case for standing. In which case there should have been an agreed ratio of candidates.

Roobin said...

"But Roobin, if we accept your definition of sectarianism then we cannot account where sectarianism comes from, other than it being because people act in bad faith."

Except that I did better than that. I gave a material account of the Green's sectarianism. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong. There's not point pretending that I didn't though.

"Whish requires more than rote repetition of what we have heard others already say about it - which is why i like Callinicos's attempt to get beyond that."

Excuse me, perfect stranger, what the fuck do you know about where I "got" my opinions from. If I was being as unfair as you were I'd say your "learned by rote" insult is an identikit academic slur... Marxist + disagreement = learned by rote (with the innuendo of stalinism thrown in). But you might have thought it up yourself, who knows.

Perhaps I should be please. By chance I came up with the idea of workers councils after hearing that Glenda Jackson, an actress, had been made minister for shipping. Now, without having consulted it or having it on my mind at the time, I independently came up with a definition of sectarianism worthy of Karl Marx and Fred Engels.

I'm a fucking genius.

Montmarcey Brown said...

We're arguing about the same war, but the battlegrounds are forever shifting.

Before you define what sectarianism is, you first have to define exactly which movement we are talking about. Stop the war is a movement, but I think it's fair to say that Respect activists often determine the direction it takes. Stop the war is also increadibly broad as we see on the demonstrations, which have become a launch pad and pit stop for many different campaigns and organisations. Respect thinks this is increadibly important, so Respect activists generally do most of the leg work when building for a demo.

You won't often see a respect activist out flyposting for energy saving lightbulbs or launching a campaign for electric cars or going to Kyoto to make a noise about whale hunting. A lot of Greens think that these are the most important things. They see the movement differently to how we do. It's a different movement. It's the 'Stop the War, whilst telling everyone that they are crap and consume too much.' movement.

They don't go so far as to arrive on a demo and shout 'Stop the War, kill everyone because we're crap!' but they would like to.

I was a part of it, I know. I went to Genoa to wag my finger and tut at Blair, but also to tut at people who were too angry about things. 'I agree with you, but you're wrong and you shout too much.'

In order to be sectarian you have to know where you stand. The Greens stand everywhere and nowhere. Because of this they can be shit, but they can't be sectarian. I think we need to make a distinction between being shit and being a sectarian.

Montmarcey Brown said...

By the way, greenpeace are a little less 'finger wagging'. I generally like where they aim things, but they have a problem because they don't see environmental activism as a class thing. They think that you could save the planet under any party as long as you've got a big boat.