Despite the membership figures and the hype, notes Micky Coulter, the Green Party's increased popularity is not a sign of good times to come for socialists
With an impressively growing membership, increased media coverage, its own MP and various local council and Euro representatives, the Green Party seems to be on the march. Its advance is almost universally taken - by concerned Labour members, ex-Labour members who have joined the Greens, and by various socialist commentators - to be another manifestation of the decline of Labourism and its possibilities.
At the lower end of expectations, the success being experienced by the party is taken as a sign of space opening up for the left in general to exploit, as the Labour Party comes close and closer to ‘doing a Pasok’ and committing suicide, should it win the next election and continue the austerity programme. At the higher end, the Greens are seen as this country’s very own Syriza - dwarfing Left Unity - and the real ‘radical’ alternative which, though not immediately socialist, is sufficient to get things moving in the ‘right direction’ and which, through the course of time, future events and so on, promises good things to come. The slogan here is basically: ‘Build the Greens as the real radical alternative to Labour’.
Needless to say, we believe that it is the lower end of expectations which is nearer the mark: the Green Party’s growth is more a symptom of decay than an opportunity and its fundamental nature and programme are inimical to working class socialism, no matter how long a shopping list of its ‘progressive’ policies one could draw up (more of which later).
Indeed, it is the growth in the membership figures which is most impressive. In the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012, the Green membership rose from 5,268 - probably equal to around the total membership of all the far-left groups combined - to a healthier 12,619, an increase of just over 7,350 or 139.5%. However, in the much shorter period from 2012 to the present day, Green membership has rocketed to upwards of 49,000 in just three years - an increase of around 36,000. And this during a period, lasting many decades now, of the decline of political parties, conservative or social democratic, and of democratic political life as a whole, including trade unions, local politics and so on. For the sake of comparison, the Liberal Democrats retain a membership of some 44,000 and the Labour Party still boasts 189,000. The growth of the Greens is thus no mean feat, and defies the long-term trends.
However, it is a product, and a relatively barren one, of this long-term hollowing-out process. It does not represent either a political rejuvenation of the left or of ‘politics’ as whole. To be sure, the party has attracted a significant body of disgruntled Labour members and former members, as well as decamping Liberals and ‘social movements’ elements, but its programme remains one of utopian and petty bourgeois ‘green capitalism’. Much of its appeal surely derives from the disillusionment of many in the Liberal Democrats as a legitimate protest party, and the decay of social democracy, whose old political clothes it likes to wear in order to present itself as the real progressive party today - much to the chagrin, and even concern, of those in the Labour camp.
There has been much angry exchanging of statistics on the social composition of the Green Party membership online, as competing sides aim to either prove or disprove its petty bourgeois character, as if the whole question turned on this. The fact is that the Greens do well electorally in the kind of places and constituencies where one would previously have expected the Lib Dems to garner votes. Regardless of the social composition of the membership, or indeed what they feel themselves to be - particularly on the party’s left - its appeal is more to petty bourgeois voters, on the basis of a utopian, populist programme for a more ethical capitalism.
Here we find the usual clash between the politics of process and ‘transitionalism’, on the one hand, and the long-established, real importance of final aims and methods, on the other. The Green Party limits its world view and methods to those compatible with the capitalist system. It has no need for a materialist purview, and it goes without saying that the working class is not seen as the vehicle for real, historical change. Of course, one could say the same about the Labour Party, but it remains a workers’ party of sorts - specifically a bourgeois workers’ party, based on the organised workers’ movement in the shape of the trade unions - and its support still comes from the working class. Of course, Labour forms governments seeking to administer capitalism - a process which alienates its own supporters and members, who then risk being drawn into the orbit of populist, protest parties. The Greens, like the Lib Dems, continue to appear as all things to all people.
This comes out quite clearly in terms of the Greens’ programme. At their last conference they embraced the monetarist-originated policy of ‘positive money’: something which echoes the obsessive concern of the libertarian ‘gold bugs’ in the USA, who quite happily attribute the whole gamut of ills under capitalism - which they must acknowledge - to paper money and fractional reserve banking, and whose only cure is a return to the gold standard. Implementing such a programme would surely bring about massive deflation, mass unemployment and an austerity that would put George Osborne to shame. In effect the reintroduction of the gold standard is a call to restore a capitalism red in tooth and claw. That is, in fact, to invite spontaneous rebellion from the working class.
Another policy that laughably illustrates the character of the party, is its commitment to the state funding of political parties as a means for tackling corruption. The main target may, rhetorically, be “big Tory money”, but the emphasis is laid on stopping the ‘buying of politics’ - and that includes the funding of a working class party by working class organisations, such as trade unions. Here the Greens are at one with the Blairite right of the Labour Party, which seeks precisely to free itself from even the most tenuous of connections to the organised working class - not to mention the possibility of a membership that insists on the adoption of policies in the interests of the working class! A concern with corrupt forms under capitalism, rather than viewing the whole system of capitalist power as corrupt per se, and the idea that the state is fundamentally a neutral body, are again hallmarks, identified countless times by Marxists, of petty bourgeois politics.
Even insofar as we take the stated aims of the Green Party seriously, its methods mean the totality of those aims are beyond reach. Given that capitalism establishes what Marx called a “metabolic rift” between human productive activity and the environment, and that this rift has widened to such an extent that the future of civilisation is itself threatened, the only way to rescue the planet from the possibility of catastrophic climate change and achieve a truly human society is through socialist transformation. To state the obvious, the Green Party is not a candidate for taking up that historic task.