Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Red Green Interview 1 - Sean Thompson - The Green Party, Socialism & Green Left


Martin O'Beirne: Via people contacting this blog, and with conversations through the social network profiles I have created over time, I have had an interesting vantage regards the feelings people have toward the ecosocialist movement. People identifying themselves under the umbrella term of ‘ecosocialists’ represent a very mixed bag. There are those with a well considered sense of their political standing, describing themselves in manifold ways: non-market socialists, Marxist-autonomists, anarcho-syndicalists, deep ecologists! etc. Others have more mainstream social-democratic type leanings,  are environmental activists or are those waking up to economic and environmental crises for the first time and are yet to develop a sense of political identity.

ST The thing that often strikes me, particularly in the UK is how many ecosocialists are politically unaffiliated but looking for an organisation to be a part of. I can relate to this, it took me a long time to join a party; generally disillusioned by politics and politicians whatever colour flag they wave.

Eventually I decided to join the Greens, in the absence of a significant number of people making like Zapatistas! and in the context of the unfolding ecological and economic crisis, joining the greens seemed like the best fit. There are elements of the party I struggle with; alas a complex democratic structure will never be perfect for each individual, and party politics is not the only battleground as I see it. I was particularly happy that the party officially recognised occupy and of course there is the Green Left, the omission of which would probably have had me looking elsewhere.

MB So my first question is this: If the greens are a social democratic party occupying the political space left by labour’s turn to neoliberalism and war, why should young people/any people think that the Greens are worthy of their affiliation i.e. why would the greens not be contaminated by the same forces that led Labour to occupy an indistinct position that Galloway recently described as one arse with three cheeks (Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems)?

ST As Green parties in Europe and elsewhere have grown, developed a bureaucracy and full time leadership of professional (or would be professional) politicians,  their ‘natural’ trajectory seems to have been to gradually make more and more accommodation to the political establishment until they have been largely absorbed into it, like the German and Irish Greens. However, over the past four or five years, the Green Party in Britain has tended to move to the left.

This is, I think, the result of a number of factors. First, the development of New Labour  created a huge vacuum on the left, into which the Green Party has been sucked - almost by default. Second, despite the narrow reformism and environmentalist niche politics that (traditionally) the bulk of Green Party members have felt comfortable with, the objective reality of British involvement in seemingly endless imperialist adventures, the greatest world financial crisis in history and the ever growing threat of climate change, have combined to lead to increasing numbers of Greens to develop a more generalised critique of capitalism. Third, while this tendency to move to the left has been effectively counteracted within other Green parties by the lure of elected office, in Britain the electoral system serves to marginalise us - and thus to some degree offsets the pressure to conform and accommodate. Fourth, the collapse of Labour Party membership and the increasing irrelevance of the far left sects over the last few years has resulted in a steady (if modest) stream of homeless socialists of various hues and traditions into the party.

MB Based on specific policy examples can we describe GPEW as an explicitly socialist party?

ST I don’t think so. It is de facto a social democratic party - but I mean a proper social democratic party rather than the post social democratic neoliberal parties like Labour in Britain and the SDP in Germany. By social democratic, I mean that it is implicitly (and to a modestly increasing degree, explicitly) anti-capitalist, but that it has no real analysis of the nature of capitalism and the state, and consequently no overall strategy for how to get from where we are to where we want to be.  As a result, the politics of the party tends to be a jumble of crankish nostrums, modest reformism and a few elements of various strands of socialist theory.

However, that is no reason for socialists not to be members of the Green Party; I was for a good few years a member of the Labour Party, which claimed to be socialist and until 1994 had an explicitly socialist constitution, though it was clearly a pro-capitalist party. So I feel perfectly comfortable being a member of a party way to the left of Labour, whose leader has repeatedly proclaimed it to be anti-capitalist and whose policies, though muddled and contradictory, are in many respects socialist.

The only reason that socialists should be active in this or that political formation is because they believe that it has the potential to play a part in building the mass movement of working people this is the only agency capable of rebuilding society.  I think that can be said of the Green Party.

MB Some green party members have argued that the Green Left is not relevant, after all the Green Party is ‘left’. How would you respond to that?

ST The Green Party is certainly a party of the left and is - fuzzily - anti-capitalist, but its politics are syncretic and impressionistic, having largely developed out of a narrow and essentially middle class environmentalism, mixed with elements of pacifism, feminism and (increasingly explicit) radical egalitarianism.  It is, in some ways, the heir of the politics of the ‘fruit juice drinkers and sandal wearers’ of the ILP that so irritated Orwell.  As a result, to a large degree the Party’s politics are built on sentiment rather than rigorous analysis. This is compounded by the fact the the Party has a very weak tradition of organised internal debate and political education.

It seems to me, therefore, that the role of Green Left within the Party should be, as Lenin put it, ‘to patiently explain’ the nature of capitalism and the interrelationship between it and the looming environmental and resource crises. Our role should be to make connections and point out conclusions to be drawn. In particular, we should be endeavouring to ensure the maximum amount of political discussion and debate at every level of the Party at all times.

In his essay Towards a Revolutionary Party, Duncan Hallas, wrote:

‘Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.’

I think that his view of the necessity for internal democracy and organised political debate is as relevant for the Green Party today as it was for the International Socialists 40 years ago - and Green Left’s central role should be to act as vigorous advocates of both ever more debate and ever more democracy in the Party.

MB You know Joel Kovel. What is it about his work that you have found particularly inspirational and informative?

What most impresses me about Joel is his intellectual courage and rigour. For example, his book Overcoming Zionism is a fearless and damning analysis of Zionism and what he calls the ‘state sponsored racism’ of Israel. He knew that to publish it would be to expose himself to organised abuse and would endanger his academic career, but he still spoke out - and lost his professorship as a result.

His book The Enemy of Nature remains one of the most important expositions of ecosocialist theory yet written. In it, he brings his original background as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst to play in making a creative contribution to a Marxist understanding of the concept of human nature and the dialectical relationship between humanity, social production and ‘nature’. He writes:

‘There is an inescapable tension between humanity and nature. From one side, a fully embodied creature, obeying all the laws of the universe; from the other, a stubborn, proud and willful creature who distinguishes the self from nature and even chooses to protest the natural. We can say it is a facet of human nature to quarrel with nature and even to reject the purely natural given…

Both social production and consumption are are direct extensions of human nature, in that each transforms nature through an engagement with the imagination and the ensemble of human powers. Production - and the human capacity for labour - is, as Marx insisted, a matter of looking ahead: every object that gets made exists in the imagination before it does so in reality’

In a speech to Occupy Wall Street a few months ago, he said:

‘An association of free people will take care of nature because they see themselves as part of nature. They will struggle for a new world based on a new kind of production that gives nature intrinsic value. They will develop the tools for overcoming and healing the cancer of accumulation and the ecological crisis it generates. Such a society will be in harmony with nature and not nature’s enemy. I would call it “ecosocialism,” and I hope you will join in its building. ‘

Stirring stuff.

MB You have recently written a chapter for a book, soon to be released. Can you tell us a bit about that book and your contribution?

ST The book is titled Capitalism, Crisis and Alternatives. It is a collection of essays attempting to present a comparative analysis of the world crisis in different regions and to contribute to the debate about alternatives to neoliberal policies, with particular reference to the the multiple dimensions of the crisis.

My contribution is a chapter entitled A Green Industrial Revolution. Starting from the position advocated in the Million Green Jobs pamphlet I argue that if we are to use the process of de-carbonising Britain to create more aggregate demand and hundreds of thousands of socially useful jobs, it will be necessary for us to rebuild our industrial base - to strategically re-industrialise in fact. However, we need to explicitly develop clear aims and objectives (that are completely different to those of the British ruling class) and new democratic forms of common ownership, control and planning. I suggest what some of those aims and objectives might be and use the electrical generation and distribution, transport and construction sectors as exemplars, as they would provide the base for all further re-industrialisation.

MB I think the Green Left, the anti-capitalist – ecosocialist group within the GPEW has enormous potential to grow and attract many of those unaffiliated ecosocialists I mentioned in my intro. Do you think this to be the case and would you have any suggestions for how it could move forward.

ST I agree, but perhaps not in the way that many comrades in Green Left or on the left in the Green Party would first think of. I don’t believe that we should aim to be primarily a recruiting sergeant for the Green Party within the wider labour movement, nor that we should just focus our efforts on drafting motions for conference which will notionally move Green Party policies to the left - and we certainly shouldn’t see ourselves as the beginning of yet another sect. I think that we should be building what Hal Draper, author of The Twin Souls of Socialism, described as a political centre.

What Draper meant by a political centre was not a sect that claims for itself exclusive rights on the Full and Correct Programme and which calls on working people to climb up to its level, nor an internal faction that is concerned almost exclusively with getting the correct line passed at conference and getting the right people elected to party office. He saw it primarily as a non or informal membership propaganda/educational centre as distinct from a membership group enclosed in organisational walls. He gave the loose grouping round Monthly Review at the time as an example - a contemporary British example might be Compass.

I see the key tasks of such a centre (or tendency) as being: to mutually develop a body of ideas and analysis and to publish a body of political literature expressing and promoting them; to form cadres of party workers and militants around this political core; to establish its ‘kind of socialism’ as a presence in left politics, with its own physiognomy and name.

For us, that ‘kind of socialism’ is ecosocialism,  and the task of Green Left is to develop and explain ecosocialist ideas, not only to members of the Green Party, but to all activists we work with in the wider movement. In my view, that means that first priority of Green Left should be building its capacity to be a forum for the development of ecosocialist ideas and as a broadcaster of those ideas in a range of media, starting with the regular publication of the Watermelon. Second, Green Left must be much more outward looking and seek to provide a forum for all those interested in ecosocialist ideas. Our membership requirements are pretty loose at the moment; all that is required is membership of the Green Party and a small subscription to cover running costs. I believe that we should open up Green Left to all socialists regardless of what party they are or are not members of. We should aim to be, if you like, a red/green equivalent of Compass.

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