A Conversation About Green Socialism

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From Socialist Unity, a blog hosted by Andy Newman in Britain, January 4, 2008

Derek Wall is one of two Principal Speakers who act as spokespeople for the Green Party of England and Wales. I interviewed him recently about how he sees the current political situation, and how progressives in the Green party and outside it can work together for a sustainable and just future.

Andy: Now that the Green Party has voted to have a leader, are you out of office as Principal Male Speaker? What do you think of that?

Derek: I was elected last year beating Keith Taylor (then the Brighton Pavilion Parliamentary Candidate), London Assembly member Darren Johnson stood against me in 2007 and I was re-elected with an increased majority. However you know you are on the left when there is a Guardian editorial calling on your party to abolish your post, which I am sorry to say they have. For the time being I am Principal Speaker, I was pleasantly surprised to be elected and then re-elected so I am going to keep on fulfilling the role. So I will be doing as much TV, radio, letter writing, blogging and public speaking as I can, to get radical green ideas out to as many people as possible. And I guess when the role is abolished I will do as much TV, radio, letter writing, blogging and public speaking to get the message out to as many people as possible. Having a title isn’t everything, although it has allowed me to do a lot of useful work, but I am sad that the Speaker post has been abolished, running a bureaucracy and undertaking a media role are very different tasks. Rejecting the old style personality politics marked the Green Party of England and Wales as a Party prepared to do things differently from the mainstream.

Andy: At one level, the debate over the leader seemed to be about whether the Greens should be a more conventional party, but I know some on the left argued for the leader as a way of making the Green party more accountable – that the horizontal methods of organising for example also allow the local coalitions with Tories and Lib Dems. What do you think of that argument?

Derek: I am unconvinced by the accountability argument, there will be a lot of confusion between the role of Party Chair, the Leader and deputy leader or the co-leaders, having two co-leaders elected on the same slate will reduce accountability and this is a distinct possibility. A recipe for confusion. Members overwhelmingly want a better organised Party and more media coverage. However I think the logic of get a leader, get more media coverage, get an MP or three and change the world is naive. The danger is that it is the clause 4 moment and a whole load of bureaucratisation will result. Supporters of a single leader include those who tolerate such coalitions with Tories and Lib Dems.

Andy: You were elected, and then re-elected as Principal Male Speaker, standing as an open eco-socialist and Marxist. What do you think that tells us about the Green party of England and Wales?

Derek: Well ecosocialism is by no means a losing ticket, a socialism that respects the planet and has a libertarian edge, gets a lot of support. Ecosocialists when they have got active have had a pretty good record of putting their ideas forward and winning elections. William Morris was pretty popular, that other great ecosocialist EP Thompson was the leading figure in the peace movement in the 1980s and I would see Hugo Chavez as an ecosocialist, albeit one glued at present to the contradictions of a petroeconomy. Hopefully my election means the Party retains a radical edge, despite the single leader vote.

Andy: In contrast to most European Green parties, GPEW is much more left wing. Do you think as international movement the Greens are converging or diverging?

Derek: In Western Europe outside of England, most Green Parties can exploit proportional representation and greater regional government to take part in potential centre-left coalitions. As junior partners in coalitions in countries where the political gravity has generally moved to the right over recent decades Greens have become less radical. Greens have achieved office, to nearly everyone’s surprise, gained some concrete policy achievements and created an atmosphere where concern for the environment has become more mainstream.

In England and Wales without PR for Westminster and with a huge electoral space to the left of Labour, the Party has been much more radical. However if political opportunities shifted the Party like any other Party would shift with them to some extent. I think the creation of a single Leader (or co-leaders) gives out the wrong signal, however the Party membership shows little enthusiasm for centre ground environmentalism, so I think there is an excellent chance, if people are clear about the risks, of keeping the Party radical.

The creation of an Ecosocialist International Network seems a good institutional basis for making European Green Parties more radical and I would like to see the EU Greens working with the Nordic Green Left.

Globally the situation is complex, there are frankly centre right Green Parties in a minority of Eastern European countries, the Canadian Party are pretty much centre ground environmentalists as far as I can see, in turn most political greens in Latin America are linked to the social movements, although there is a Green Party which is very active in Brazil. In New Zealand, Australia and the US Green Parties are pretty radical. In the US despite the unfair two Party systems in patches such as San Francisco the Greens have a huge presence, the Party has a pretty effective black caucus and there is a solid radical African-American intellectual green tradition, one thinks of the novelist Alice Walker and the great great socialist journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row for a crime he didn’t commit since the 1980s! I am backing ex Congresswomen Cynthia McKinney as the Green Presidential candidate, she will be great. I was very pleased to meet her in South London a couple of months ago and to urge her to stand.

Andy: Staying on the international theme, you recently attended the Paris meeting of the Eco-Socialist international group, what hopes do you have for that?

Derek: I hope that it builds an ecosocialist network that links activists in every single state on this planet and as we agreed in Paris to work to ‘make greens redder and reds greener’.

There are a million activists at the grassroots proclaiming ecosocialism, a bit of gentle linking will help a lot, for example, just this week I have been really inspired to come across the work of Debal Deb…a typically hyper active ecosocialist. He proclaims the ecological model inherent in Marx, opposes top down development, as a scientist he runs a rural research centre in West Bengal…on a shoe string he has preserve over 500 strains of rice. In 2006 he co-wrote a report for Greenpeace on the future of rice, challenging GM. He has been active in the campaign to stop the Communist Party government of West Bengal seizing land from peasants for an Export Processing Zone at Nandigram. Making the links with such people is a good start on its own. He has a PhD in ecology but it doesn’t stop him from being practically and politically active

I expect the EIN to have a major impact on Latin American politics, I was surprised to meet the Venezuelan Ambassador to France who asked who is this guy who has been elected as an ecosocialist? He had got news of my re-election as Principal Speaker from an email from EIN comrades in Brazil. Morales have been made honorary head of the EIN. There should be a big EIN conference in Brazil in 2009 and there are several good EIN activists who work in the Ministry of the Environment in Caracas.

A practical push to build socialism in Green Parties and green ideas in the left will continue. For example, the Fourth International will be holding a weekend meeting in Amsterdam in February on climate change which will be addressed by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy. To be honest Joel, Michael and myself have kept very busy talking to audiences about green and red politics.

Andy: Since I last interviewed you, the Green Left group has emerged. What role does that play in the Green Party?

Derek: We push forward ecosocialist ideas and have an input into policy, for example, we are putting forward policies on Palestine to the spring conference in Reading and have managed to get troops out of Iraq and anti-ALMO policies through recent conferences. We work closely with the Party Trade Union group and there are a surprisingly large number of members who are active in trade union work. Both myself and Caroline Lucas will be speaking at the Trade Union Climate conference in February. We have also been working hard to recruit new Party members, to push forward work in the peace movement and run education events. As William Morris used to say ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.

Andy: Do you think that the Greens in Ireland and Scotland have sold their support for the governments too cheaply?

Derek: Ireland, sadly yes, I think it was unwise to go into government with Fianna Fail, a centre-right party with more than a whiff of corruption. However the members got to vote on it and the then leader who had promised not to govern with FF to his credit resigned. I guess some positive thing will come out of it and advocates suggest the poll ratings for the Party remain good. However, going into a government with a Party striving to build a motorway through Tara, one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in Europe, supporting a government that is keenly neo-liberal and allows rendition via Shannon Airport seems 100% wrong to me. Politics has to be about power with principles not the trappings of office without either. I get a lot of flack for criticising the Irish Greens but people equally know that one I praise the good work of Green MEPs such as Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert I am being honestly enthusiastic not just acting a party political role.

Scotland is very different, the arrangement is extremely loose and all the better for it and on the whole the SNP have some good points, just think of their opposition to Trident. The Trump affair is pretty nasty and the message that Scotland is open ‘for business’ shows the neo-liberal side of Salmond. The difference with Ireland is clear when you see prominent Greens like former MSP Mark Ballard criticising the SNP in a recent Morning Star article.

Of course in England I can’t see the possibility of a meaningful Westminster arrangement, Tories, Labour and Lib Dems are all pro nuclear weapons for a start, known as ‘multi-lateralism’. The awkward squads in both Labour and Lib Dems have both been silenced. Labour would need to go through a cultural revolution to be acceptable to pretty much any Green Party member and not just an ecosocialist radical.

Andy: I was really impressed by your book “Babylon and Beyond”, (though the references to Italism left me a little bemused) – what responses have you had to it?

Derek: Nice of you to say. Like standing for Principal Speaker I saw it as another opportunity for proclaiming ecosocialist politics and I think in a minor way it has succeeded, nonetheless John Bellemy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology and Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature have been important. It was good as well to outline the different schools of anti-capitalism including various forms of Marxist economics, autonomism via Negri, monetary reform/social credit, green localism…to criticise and show where they come from. I don’t think anyone else has done this….publishing books on radical politics is not the way to fame and fortune though. I will die a happy man if the Spanish edition ever comes out! And a few more reviews would be nice.

Andy: One of the themes you develop in the book is the argument to defend the scope of human activity that is outside market relations – the commons – I think this is a very useful contribution to the debate about socialist strategy. Do you have any practical projects you would care to use as examples of what people can get involved in?

Derek: Everything from permaculture to open source software is a practical approach to the commons. I think it is important at present to really take on the market, capitalist profits fall so to renew profitability they colonise new areas, the New Labour plan to create competition to run local GP surgeries is an example, your local Doctor will be replaced by a US based medical corporation, the dismembering of the postal service is another example. So all the usual union and community campaigning is about resisting capitalist enclosure. In 2008 I am going to make campaigning against the enclosure and destruction of forests for biofuel my big priority. Politics is about opening space for activity outside the market and resisting the capitalist drive to turn every aspect of human nature and the rest of nature into a platform for accumulation.

There are lots of ways of getting involved in practical campaigns for the commons. The amazing Corner House book, free online of course , outlines how we can defend, extend and deepen the commons. Corner House are interesting, they were essentially the left wing of the Ecologist magazine who fell out with the Goldsmiths…they have leading the campaign against the government and BAE over corruption in Saudi Arabia, so are well worth supporting.

Free software is an example of commons and is sweeping the world; I was surprised to find that one advocate is Stephen Fry who is rather more articulate than most at explaining the virtues of Sea Monkey and Firefox, have a look here

If you live in West Bengal go and have a look at Debal Deb’s research centre .

Andy: This also has a strategic implication for the Greens. The Green parties both here and internationally seem to have plateaued at a point where they are a stable minor party, but as the urgency of radical change is so great to defend the environment, then how do the Green party break out of that marginal position to affect the radical change that is needed? One solution is coalition with mainstream parties, but by definition that excludes radicalism. Do you think there is any possibility of the Greens (or some greens) participating in a wider progressive regroupment?

Derek: Well we need a campaign to achieve PR, sweep away the unelected House of Lords and create a democratic Britain. It would be great to see a strong left Party the Greens could work with but I am not optimistic that this will happen, I am not sure that the Scottish Socialist Party can be put together. Global it is countries where the social movements have grown and linked democracy, ecology and socialism that we have seen progress, Hugo Chavez will only succeed if he works with the social movements for example….I am optimistic that he will!

So I think the Green Party needs to get stuck into dialogue and joint action with what passes for social movements in Britain, Schnews still provide a great rallying point and to my shame I don’t do enough to support them, I did get involved a little with the climate camp which was very inspiring. Any serious attempt to create a left political party will have to be rooted in social movement activity, the SSP as well all know was born out of poll tax campaign and the Scottish anti-roads movement.

I am pleased that Green Party, Respect Renewed, AWL, SWP members and others are all working in harmony to promote the Trade Union Climate Conference, I disagree with all sorts of people about all sorts of things but common work amongst the left is essential and we can all do more in practical terms. Socialist Resistance deserve an honourable mention for their good work in promoting ecosocialism and the wider left project rather than just building their own organisation. The challenge for the far left is to be radical, which to me always means going back to Marx and at the same time being pluralist. Talk to people about direct action, anti-capitalism or read them bits of Marx and it is surprising how many of them will be on your side…however few people are attracted to far left organisations which suggests to me that need to find ways of being more user friendly.

Andy: In the light of the threat of Boris Johnson wining London mayor, do you think the Greens should argue for a second preference for Ken Livingston?

Derek: I can’t think of any Green who would vote for that racist buffoon Boris Johnson, Ken from Venezuela to public transport has done plenty of good however he has done his share of bad, he still looks like a friend of finance capital who wants to expand Heathrow. No politician is perfect, Ken is better than many but that is not saying that much, he will be running his own election campaign…I will be busy making sure Sian Berry maximises her vote and we re-elect our GLA members who do a good job, my particular priority is to see Noel Lynch re-elected as a green Assembly member…every progressive vote should go to the Greens to make sure we have a strong GLA block that push everything from public transport to better pay for workers in London and action in solidarity with Venezuela. Ken has won elections outside of New Labour, rejoining the Blairites has done little to shift them in a radical direction.

My work in what ever role is to campaign for ecosocialism, I still think Marx summed up radical green politics when in Capital III he noted:

“From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias” [good heads of the household].

What I have tried to do is link the ecosocialist theory to the real world of getting involved in practical politics, I think the various libertarian forms of Marxism in the 20th century whether council communism, various form of Western Marxism where often poor at being practically active, this is the challenge for socialists who are green and libertarian, to move beyond criticism to action despite the disappointments of history. I am going to keep talking about the difference between green politics and environmentalism, keep pushing ecosocialism, keep talking about the alternatives particularly those taking hold of Latin America. I don’t think wishing simply for a place in a centre left coalition is enough and the 2046 model where Greens sweep into Westminster form a government and change the world is not adequate. We need change now and it has to be wider than electoralism, vital as elections are.