Options for Ecosocialists in 2008

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(The general line of document below was endorsed by a meeting of the Green Left (a group within the Green Party of England and Wales) at their meeting this month. I met Sean Thompson at the founding meeting of the Ecosocialist International Network on Paris in October. He has been a socialist activist in Britain for many years; he is the a GPEW representative in the Stop the War Coalition.)

by Sean Thompson
January 2008

I woke up on New Years Day with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had just survived an medical emergency, so I was mightily pleased to be waking up at all. On the other, the situation facing the Left in Britain has seldom seemed bleaker. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the erosion of civil liberties grinds on relentlessly, the privatisation of our education and health services gathers pace, as does the rate of global warming – and as I write, the government has announced a new nuclear power programme. I have been politically engaged since the early sixties, and during that time the left has never been weaker or more fragmented than it is today.

Given that Rosa Luxemburg’s description of the choice before us being socialism or barbarism has never been more stark it would be easy to surmise from the above that my view is that that there is no future for the left nor possibility of humanity’s self emancipation – in short that we are all fucked. I admit that any sober assessment of our situation must lead to the conclusion that at the moment the odds seem to be heavily on barbarism (but then, when weren’t they?), but there are a few glimmers of hope to be seen and there remains no alternative for us to but continue to work against the odds. So in the short dark days of January 2008, we ecosocialists (or green socialists or socialist greens or whatever) need to plan a course of action for the coming year.

Vacuum on the left

Ever since the mid seventies I have believed that a regroupment and refoundation of the left in Britain was a necessary precondition for the building of a mass party of humanist and environmentally aware socialism based within the working class and its institutions. I remain convinced that such a project must remain the central task for us today, in parallel with and informed by our activities as trade unionists, anti war activists or in whatever areas of day to day resistance to capitalism we are jointly and severally able to engage.

The leverage for such a refoundation could conceivably be based on one (at least) of three main agencies; the Left in the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, a regroupment of the far left sects or the developing social movements, in particular the green movement. 2007 wasn’t a good year for any of those three potential routes to progress.

Despite the trajectory of the Labour Party since the mid eighties, from a notionally social democratic party to Blair’s corrupt, neo liberal election machine, there was always a residual organised left within it, with a real, if declining, base within the trade union movement and among elements of the trade unions bureaucracies. Socialists within the Labour Party had a good(ish) case when they argued that all attempts to build an alternative to Labour to its left by small groups recruiting in ones and twos had failed in the past and that the natural home for socialists was within the Party in order to fight for its rebirth. However, last summer, the remnants of the Left in the Labour Party failed even to get to the starting line in NuLab’s leadership race and at its conference in September the Trade Union bureaucracy gave away the last tenuous ribbons of democratic control by party members. NuLab is now explicitly and irreversibly a party of the right.

However, while the vast majority of the Trade Union bureaucracy appears to be welded immovably to the apparatus of NuLab, there is growing dissent and disillusionment with the whole Blairite/Brownite project on the part of growing numbers of trade union activists, including a minority of the bureaucracy. Thus, despite the steady erosion of membership, the traditional ‘official’ sections of the Labour Movement remain a key battle ground for socialist ideas.

In a touching, if slightly embarrassing, example of the triumph of hope over experience, I have been involved in many of the attempts at regroupment of the left, from the Socialist Movement and the Chesterfield Conferences, through the SLP and the Socialist Alliance to Respect. All of these initiatives have failed, most recently last autumn, when the SWP leadership’s hysterical reaction to their erstwhile greatest ally, George Galloway’s, rather modest criticisms of their incompetence and autocracy led to the implosion of Respect. So now we have the absurd spectacle of two ‘Respects’. The SWP’s version of Respect now effectively consists just of the SWP – a ‘united front of a special type’ indeed. Respect Renewal contains the best elements of the original initiative, including Ken Loach, the impressive Salma Yaqoob and the ISG/Socialist Resistance group (and, for better and/or worse, the Gorgeous One). Sadly however, it seems unlikely that RR will be able to become a viable national organisation with a real popular base.

Finally, and most ludicrously, in November the Green Party’s electoral obsessives’ wing overwhelmingly won the day in a referendum aimed at making the Green Party look like a miniscule copy of the three ‘grown-up parties’ for PR purposes. On first sight, the modest growth of the Green Party seems like good news for the left. With over seven thousand members, over a hundred local councillors and two MEPs, and with policy positions that place it well to the left of the three neo-liberal parties, the Green Party would seem to be naturally a major player in the development of a mass movement of the left. However, in reality it has an active membership of probably less than 1500, its political composition is an extraordinarily eclectic (and incompatible) mish-mash ranging from reactionary Neo Malthusians, through hippy lifestylists to socialists trying to develop a modern environmentally aware praxis. The dominant politics of the organisation is a narrow obsession with ‘environmental’ issues largely divorced from their social and political context, married to an exclusively electoralist practice with not one whit of analysis of the nature of the state or structure of society.

As it currently operates, the Green Party is likely to remain within the comfortable minority niche it has established for itself, unable – and to a large extent unwilling – to develop a base among working class communities and organisations.

So there is a vacuum on the left and, with the exception of activism within the trade unions, no consensus among socialists on which way to move forwards organisationally.

This situation cannot just be willed away, it is only through activity and over a period of time, that the issues willed be clarified. It is possible that our comrades in Socialist Resistance might be right and there is a realistic chance for Respect Renewal to consolidate and begin to grow as a core of a genuinely broad based socialist party. It is possible that a significant group of left trade unions and trade union bureaucrats will definitively break from NuLab and form the basis for a new party of labour. It is even possible that we in Green Left will succeed in moving the Green Party away from the electoralist anoraks and towards a more explicit understanding of the socialist implications of its egalitarian, environmentalist and fuzzily anti-capitalist program and recognition of the role it could play in rebuilding the left. All of the above are possible, but unfortunately I don’t think any of them are likely.

What next for Green Left

We have to move Green Left on from being little more than an internal email discussion group to being an activist group that has clear (if minimal) strategic objectives. As socialists who recognise the scale and urgency of the crises that capitalism brought upon mankind, our aims and objectives have to be more ambitious than maintaining a left discussion group in the Green party.

Ian Angus has written that ‘It is far easier to write socialist essays about climate change than to actively build movements against it. But, as Marx wrote, interpreting the world is not enough — the point is to change it. The time is ripe for ecosocialists to move beyond criticizing capitalism, into supporting, building, and learning from real movements for change. If we don’t do so, all of our words and theories will be irrelevant.’

He has also described the role of ecosocialists as ‘making the greens redder and the reds greener’. I think that what this all means for us in Green Left is that we need to have a twin track strategy over the next year.

Our internal strategy

We have to work within the Green Party to spread a wider understanding that, as Ian says ‘ecological destruction is not an accidental feature of capitalism, it is built into the system’s DNA.’ We need to be developing an understanding among fellow party members that the system’s insatiable need to increase profits – ‘the ecological tyranny of the bottom line’ – cannot be reformed away.

We are not going to do that by endless abstract discussions – although formal debate does have its place. And we are certainly not going to do it by getting bogged down in endless navel gazing and inward looking arguments about abstruse points of internal organisation.

Firstly, we need to do it by involving Green Party members in real world campaigns and day-to-day agitational, rather than simply propaganda activity in the wider movement; for example getting our local parties working with local CND or StWC branches, with tenants involved in DCH, with local community groups and civil rights activists in the defence of refugees and with trade unionists in local campaigns to organize low paid workers – and continually explaining the commonality of these and the environmental concerns of the membership.

Secondly, we need to be making proposals within the Party for action that promote debate and raise awareness among rank and file party members that chime with their level of consciousness but which move them to begin to question some of the fundamental assumptions of bourgeois ideology and which raise demands that cannot be met within the limitations of a capitalist state. In other words, we should be developing transitional demands.

For example, the Justice for Palestinians motion at our Spring Conference in a few weeks (modesty forbids me from mentioning its author) is not dramatically different from the rather anodyne motion on Israel and Palestine from Richard Lawson – except that while the latter merely states opinions that I broadly share (except for the issue of the Two State Solution) the former commits the party to campaigning for the release of Hamas MPs and to supporting the boycott campaign against Israel. In other words it challenges Greens to move from sentiment to action on the side of the oppressed. Similarly, the proposed amendment to the MfSS section on Income and Economic Security (oh dear, I’m blushing) doesn’t make a stirring – and to most GP members incomprehensible – call to ‘expropriate the expropriators’. Instead it calls for a minimum wage to be based on a widely recognized benchmark of decency – and calls for a maximum wage tied to it. Such a call widely resonates with Greens’ (and very many non Greens’) sense of justice, but at the same time it challenges the structure of capitalism and the state. If the Old Man was with us today he would probably agree that this was an example of transitional politics (although obviously he would condemn it as he hadn’t thought of it himself).

As a continuation of this strategy I suggest that at the Autumn Conference we should press for the GP to affiliate to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Organic Support Group (COSG is an organisation which supports the organic movement in Cuba through speakers, publicity and the promotion of Gardening Brigades to Cuba). In addition, if the vote goes with us at Reading, we should perhaps move for affiliation to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Thirdly, as a continuation of the approach described above, we should be making a consistent attempt to develop the consciousness of our activists by organising debates and discussions, whether within the context of ‘official’ political education programmes as we are starting to do in London, or independently as Green Left.

Fourthly, we should be seeking to challenge the electoralist anoraks and amateur bonapartists within the structure of the party at every opportunity. We should try to ensure that we have as many left candidates as possible for GPEX in the Autumn – to let posts on our leading committee go uncontested is unforgivable. Our external strategy

But working within the Green Party is not enough. The second track of our strategy must be to work, as an organised group of independent ecosocialists, within the broader movement. In other words, if our work within the Green Party is fundamentally about ‘making greens redder’, then our external work must be about ‘making reds greener’. Central to this, I think, is the establishment of a network of green socialists (or whatever) in Britain.

One of the high points of 2007 for me was the meeting in Paris which established the fledgling Ecosocialist International Network. At that meeting were twenty comrades from Britain, including members of Green Left, the Red-Green Study Group, Socialist Resistance and the Alliance for Green Socialism, along with two SWP members who play a leading part in the Campaign Against Climate Change. While it was heartening to see that among the thirteen countries represented at the meeting, the largest contingent was from Britain, but it was salutary to note that among the British groups there had previously been an absolute minimum of contact and even less collaboration.

Consequently, on leaving hospital just before Christmas, I wrote on behalf of Green Left to all the British participant in the Paris ecosocialist meeting, to suggest that all the groups and/or individuals who were at the Paris event have an initial meeting to exchange experiences and to explore potential areas of practical joint activity. I immediately received a positive response from Edward Maltby, a Paris based AWL member who was at the initial meeting and in the last day or two have received expressions of support from Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance and Richard Kuper of the Red-Green Study Group. I propose that we should now get moving on organising the meeting as soon as possible, but leaving ourselves with a bit of space in order to give us time to cast the net wider than the original participants. If we can establish a formal (though necessarily loose) network by late Spring I believe that it should be the focus of Green Left’s external orientation in the coming year.

While we obviously shouldn’t approach the initial meeting in a prescriptive way, I think that we should have a couple of modest proposals for practical joint activity by members of the network. At the same time I think that we should be very open to any suggestions from any of the other participants.

In addition a modest programme of activity aimed, I would have thought, at providing a socialist alternative to SERA, we should consider two slightly longer term projects. The first is to either assist the Greeks in setting up a European network meeting in the summer or early autumn or to do it ourselves. I think it very important that at this stage we, either as Green Left alone or a wider British ecosocialist network, make contact with the constituent members of the Nordic Green Left, Groen Links and perhaps the Dutch Socialist Party with a view to involving them in a European meeting.

The second project is that we (as part of a wider network) should organise an ecosocialist delegation to Cuba next winter. Such an initiative could support and promote our work within the Green Party and be a useful promotional gambit in spreading the key concepts of ecosocialism with the wider labour movement.

While there may or may not be a long term possibility for socialists to transform the Green Party, or for Respect Renewal to develop a real popular base, or for socialist to build any meaningful opposition in NuLab, or for the AGS to achieve whatever it is trying to achieve, I believe that the establishment of an ecosocialist network will make a positive – and, I believe essential, contribution to the rebuilding of our movement. An emphasis on the fact that our joint commitment to developing a dynamic ecosocialist praxis is far more significant than the varying tactical choices we have individually made about membership of this or that organisation is vital for building the network. And our explicit recognition that none of us hold sole copyright on the Way, the Truth and the Correct Line can help us to start to develop new ways and areas of joint work that can prefigure not just a renewed socialist politics but a renewed socialist movement.

1 Comment

  • “While we obviously shouldn’t approach the initial meeting in a prescriptive way, I think that we should have a couple of modest proposals for practical joint activity by members of the network.”

    The meetings should be held internationally, online, at 0 extra cost in relation to GHG emissions.

    Let’s get forward thinking about this, I for one feel we could have a meeting that could last several days, allowing individuals to post on a web board and get some real discussion going between ecosocialists world wide.

    We have to take account of the international need and the potential for the internet to provide the means. We need to start talking, start organizing and start moving on this now. Time is short and I am tired of old academics talking and then returning to their positions with little real action.

    Obviously my youth and desire for change is starting to show, but I am embracing it these days in the declining state of the world.