A socialist activist in the Scottish Green Party discusses whether and how socialists and greens can work together to win change for people and the environment
By Tim Gee
(From Scottish Left Review May-June, 2008)
Following a recent article on ‘Transitional Alliances’ by Justin Kenrick in Scottish Left Review, a question on many people’s lips has been how and whether activists with a common cause can work together to win positive, equitable change for people and the environment. This article will attempt to answer this question, coming up with some possibilities for progress. It will show that Green and Socialist ideas have converged somewhat, possibly clearing the path for future co-operation.
For some commentators, the 2007 election spelled the end of the left. The Greens’ seats were reduced to two while the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Solidarity and the Socialist Labour Party won no seats at all. Across Scotland, 109,539 people voted for a radical anti-capitalist party however votes were down for these parties compared to previous elections as left voters opted to display their frustration with Labour by voting SNP (perceived to be to the left of Labour). So far, being in opposition has not created a move to the left inside the Labour party as evidenced by the lack of challenge from the Labour Campaign for Socialism to Wendy Alexander. Meanwhile, the stances of the SNP show that an independent critical left is more important than ever. On one hand, we should provide support if and when the new Scottish government delivers on free education, opposing PFI and Trident. However, we should be vocal in our opposition if and when it disappoints by reducing taxes for corporations and the rich, accepting donations and advice from Stagecoach boss Brian Souter and backtracking on climate change commitments.
Greens and Socialists in the UK have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of each other. To simplify, Socialists have viewed Greens as having the wrong analysis and Greens have worried that Socialists do not sufficiently take seriously the threat of ecological crisis, which could make all of their promises null. However in the past 15 years Green and Socialist positions have changed sufficiently to be compatible, as this section shows. To clarify, by Green I do not simply mean ‘environmental,’ I mean a politics based on five pillars: environment, social justice, democracy, decentralisation and peace.
From an ecological perspective, orthodox Marxist analysis is somewhat un-environmentally friendly. Marx claims that the extraction of natural resources from the earth is a positive step in the creation of surplus which will lead to human emancipation when the proletariat rise up to redistribute it. Those natural resources only acquire value when they are transformed by human initiative. Because of this, in the past, there has been much resistance to the language of socialism amongst Greens. Famously, in1984 Jonathan Porritt claimed that communism and capitalism were nothing but a ‘super ideology of industrialism.’ Marxists dismissed such a stance, seeing industrialism as the harbinger of socialism/communism, and Greens as attempting to return society to a bygone mode of production.
Yet the picture 15 years later is somewhat different: former principal speaker of GPEW, Derek Wall explicitly calls himself an eco-socialist while Caroline Lucas’ book on Green alternatives to economic globalization takes a historical structuralist approach to the world economy. In Scotland the Greens were represented between 2003 and 2007 by a committed Socialist, Mark Ballard. Socialism too is changing in line with scientific realities and many Socialist activists from all parties, including Greens, see the struggle against capitalism and the struggle for environmental justice as one. Thus we see two paths converging.
Another potential difference comes with the fact that a central point of Green thought and practice is to engage in struggles as well as the class struggle, for example calling for equality between sexualities, genders and races, arguing against the exploitation of nature by the human and against the oppression of the human from the worst excesses of the state. In the opinion of some of the SSP’s predecessors, any struggle other than the class struggle is a distraction at best. Again though, this notion has almost entirely disappeared from recent language and practice of the Socialist movements of Scotland, with Socialists at the forefront of struggles for all forms of equality. Many Greens too have come to recognize that pollution is a class issue because it is the
Another perceived difference is in attitudes to the state. Greens are usually characterised as influenced by anarchist, anti-state thought. Characterizations of Socialists are more varied: at the more reformist wing are those who embrace the state as a tool of emancipation, and at the revolutionary end of the spectrum are those seeking to overthrow it. In fact, a more nuanced position can be detected in Scotland. For instance in the period 2003 – 2007, SSP and Green Party MSPs voted to oppose ID cards. This implies suspicion of state power. However they also both argued for a stronger role for the state in providing free education, free school meals, and a nationalized railway system. Thus the state is viewed by both as holding the potential to oppress and also (at least transitionally) to emancipate. Whilst revolutionary Marxists seek the eventual withering away of the state, Greens too provide a vision of the future based on social enterprises, co-operatives, subsidiarity and consociational democracy, to make certain that as Peter McColl argues, “the workers ensure the full fruits of their labours.”
Both the SSP and the Green Party are coalitions. The SSP was born of the ‘Scottish turn’ by the members of the Committee for a Workers’ International, who joined up with unaffiliated socialists, ex-members of the Labour party and members of smaller groups such as the International Socialist group, the Alliance for Workers Liberty and the Scottish Republican Socialist Party to form the Scottish Socialist Alliance, then the SSP. They were later joined by the Socialist Workers Party. The Scottish Green coalition is less clear-cut, but a recent study revealed that the Scottish Greens are essentially a coalition of leftists, social libertarians, feminists/liberation campaigners, anti-war activists and environmentalists.
The research also revealed that 73.9 per cent of council candidates surveyed considered themselves ‘eco-socialists’ followed by the labels ‘ecologist’ and ‘feminist.’ Most socialists consider their natural allies those in the Green coalition, and the fact that so many Green activists consider themselves Socialists implies that this works both ways. It seems greater co-operation would be a sensible next step. But what strategies of co-operation might work? 3 options come to mind:
1. Outside the electoral arena
Many Greens and Socialists have positive memories of working together in the campaign against the M77 in South Glasgow in the 1990s. Similarly the campaigns against the Iraq war and Trident have brought Greens and Socialists together, leading in part to the election victories of 2003. Greens and Socialists at Edinburgh University have long co-operated, by for example supporting each-other’s candidates in student elections, running joint campaigns for free education, and in 2004 campaigning together for congestion charging in Edinburgh (in the latter case the student Socialist group rebelled against their elder counter parts).
Such co-operation would make sense in the wider student and trade union movement. A possible joint campaign might be to persuade the STUC to increase its political bargaining chips by taking a more independent approach to financing political parties, which would be more in the interest of their members. On both levels they might co-operate in making the case for a citizens’ income.
Yet it is worth remembering that the relationship has not always been cosy. Tensions grew due to differences of opinion and approach during the M74 campaign and around the G8 summit. Could future co-operation overcome differences in style? Could we avoid the acrimonious splits of the past that have done so much to limit the success of progressive and socialist movements? Again, I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I hope that they exist.
One easy step towards this would be to use the non-party/all-party autonomous radical network already existing in Scotland, Democratic Left Scotland, to bring together radicals and socialists in all parties and none, with the intention of working as a cross party movement for justice and to bring the overall debate to the left.
2. Inside in the electoral arena
A second option is to unite inside the electoral arena. Another look at the 2007 election shows that Socialist and Green votes combined could have won further seats in Glasgow and Central Scotland. Looking to the European election, the SSP with 61, 356 votes in 2004 and the Greens with 79, 695 votes in the same year would each have to double their votes for either to have a chance of a seat in 2009. This is made harder by the possibility that the SSP vote could half because of the SSP/Solidarity split. The only logical way forward seems to be co-operation in some capacity. By merging voters and activists there might be a chance. This indeed was proposed by the SSP in 2003, and rejected by the Greens.
This is a path with many obstacles. How would we come to an agreement which includes the membership, not just leadership bargaining? Would everyone agree with the chosen candidate? Although Green and Socialist activists may be converging in their philosophy, are Green and Socialist voters doing the same? If the previous statement is true, would an alliance change that? If it didn’t work, would each party end up worse off than when they started? Again, I don’t know the answers to these questions but a good way to test the water would be to co-operate in a by-election. This would involve finding a way of choosing a mutually agreeable candidate and merging activists and voters for a high profile and possibly successful campaign.
3. In the Green Party
A third option is to launch a Scottish equivalent of Green Left – an explicitly eco-socialist current autonomous from the Green Party and open to all, with the dual aim of running campaigns outside the electoral arena and bringing the Greens to the left. Such a move would make sense in making the Greens more Socialist in their language. On the other hand, Green policies are for the most part already Socialist but communicated in such a way that the public and non-Socialist members feel comfortable voting and campaigning for them. Greens and Socialists might want to ask themselves whether that is something they would want to change. Indeed, what is more important, the language or the outcome?
The ideas laid out above are preliminary and discursive, designed to help foster a discussion that might lead to a more constructive relationship between activists of the same cause. I have shown that Socialist and Green thought has converged over the years and suggested that the logical next step should be to work together more closely. Some ways that this might take place have been proposed. The very basis of the ideas of many activists in this movement is that co-operation is better than competition. Let’s see if we can live up to this in practice.
Tim Gee is a Socialist and activist studying at Edinburgh University. He is a member of the Scottish Green Party and Democratic Left Scotland. This article is written entirely in a personal capacity.