Is a left renewal of the Greens possible?

In late 2016 an anonymous group of NSW Greens members launched an internal faction called “Left Renewal”. In their statement they said “our struggle for social justice brings us into irreconcilable conflict with the capitalist mode of production, and all other forms of class society…This means that we reject the idea that society can truly be changed through ‘good people’ gaining control of these authoritarian and exploitative power structures and or do not believe that individual changes to our consumption will create change…Democracy must come from the people, not from the bureaucracy.”

This clearly socialist statement coming from a grouping inside the Greens surprised many, including the party’s leaders. Greens leader Richard Di Natale ridiculed the statement, reassuring the media that “of course the Greens do not support the overthrow of capitalism or any other ridiculous notion of the sort.” He went on to suggest that “if the authors of this ill-thought through manifesto are so unhappy with Greens’ policies, perhaps they should consider finding a new political home.”

Even less diplomatic than Di Natale was former Greens leader Bob Brown. He described the statement as “a litany of anti-Greens policies” and suggested that “no member of such a group could agree with the our charter or remain a member of the Greens.” So much for internal democracy! But he is not wrong.

The statement of Left Renewal should be welcomed by all socialists. But the question is: What does a socialist faction within the Greens hope to achieve? When Bob Brown furiously declared Left Renewal’s statement “anti-Greens” he was right.

Since it’s founding the Greens has always had a left minority. The remnants of this still exists to some extent in NSW, headed by state senators Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge. But elsewhere around the country the Greens have moved in the opposite direction.

When Greens leader Richard Di Natale won the party leadership in 2015 one media outlet triumphantly declared that “the Tasmanian era [of the Greens] is over.” The point was more political than geographical. What was being hailed was the end of an epoch where the Greens were associated with ecological activism and progressive movements. Early Greens came to prominence in the Franklin River Dam campaign and other environmental campaigns in Tasmania. The new generation of Greens, represented by Di Natale, are largely middle class professionals with none of that activist baggage.

In 2015 The Monthly published a cover article celebrating the “New Greens” who had taken over the reins of the party. In the article it was advised that “if the Greens are going to attain that magical 20% that will make them a major party they must begin to rebrand themselves as the new-generation capitalists of a sustainable and more equitable future.” It would seem the “New Greens” took this advice to heart. Or rather they were already keen to shake the legacy of the Greens as a nominally left party and bury its activist history.

During the 2016 Federal election campaign Richard Di Natale staged a press conference with the sole purpose of boasting of an endorsement from the multi-millionaire heir to the Myer empire. In recent years Peter Whish-Wilson, a former Wall Street banker who opposes penalty rates, has been promoted to senior economic, finance and trade portfolios in the party. In general, the narrative coming from the Green leadership is to build ties with business and the wealthy elite rather than building democratic grassroots movements to end Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels, defend refugees and fight racism, and improve people’s living conditions through investment in jobs, housing, health care and education. While Greens politicians will often turn up to speak at various protests, the party plays almost no role in building campaigns and grassroots movements.

Even the activist history of the Greens has been largely limited to a certain kind of activism. When it comes to questioning how a democracy can function when so few people own and control the economy, the Greens have always shied away from advocating structural change.

In this context Left Renewal’s statement is as much a repudiation of Greens politics as it is a call to arms. The Greens have never been a socialist party and the policies espoused by the current leadership express, more or less, the politics of the Greens since day one.

The Greens behind Left Renewal have been inspired by the resurgence of socialist ideas seen in many countries across the world. But in very few cases have Green parties been a factor in these movements. As people begin to revolt over material and economic questions, the feel-good liberalism of the Greens doesn’t cut it. This is because Greens politics does not stem from a class analysis of society and a commitment to flipping power structures in favour of working class people. The Greens are not interested in replacing the current corporate and political establishment with real democratic decision-making forums that require broad working class involvement. The Greens simply want to win government and become the new friendly face of capitalism.

Both in Australia and overseas the Greens have entered into coalition governments with capitalist parties, believing that the tiny concessions they recieve in return are worth selling out their principles for. This is the logic of a political party that sees capturing ministerial positions as the pinnacle of success. But this approach has failed. The more the Greens have relied on electoral manoeuvring to assert their authority, the less they have achieved. The Greens/Labor coalition government led by Julia Gillard saw not a single Greens policy enacted. At a state and local level the Greens have privatised public services, cut public service jobs, employed scab labour to break strikes and voted for budgets that included tax cuts for the rich and increased rates and taxes on the poor and working class.

In the countries where the Greens have formed government they are now seen as part and parcel of the political establishment people want thrown out of power. Rather than learn from this experience, the Australian Greens are trying to fast-track their road to government by cosying up to Liberals! This will only serve to further alienate them from working class people and make them incapable of relating to any working class struggles that arise in the future.

If forming coalition governments was the strategy of the Greens leadership, but not supported by the membership, a socialist faction in the Greens could gain traction. But a Greens membership survey from 2016 suggests 85% of Greens members want to be a party of government, rather than one of protest. This suggests the Greens is a party based on liberal capitalism, not democratic socialism.

Much of the dispute between the Greens factions has centred on which approach is most beneficial to the party electorally. Left Renewal makes the case that US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won over millions of voters with socialist ideas. But what they fail to recognise is that front and centre in Sanders’ message was the need to build a mass movement from below to effect change. He knew he could not rely on the Democratic Party establishment to turn his platform into reality. In the end it was they who ensured his defeat. Has Sanders split from the Democrats and launched a new socialist party it would by now have tens of thousands of members ready to fight the Trump administration and challenge the two-party system.

Fighting for socialist solutions to the crises created by capitalism cannot happen solely through electoralism. Nor can it be led by a party that does not have deep connections in working class communities. While the world’s first Green party was partly inspired into being by the heroic union Green Ban movement in NSW in the 1970’s, nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find a Greens member on a picket line.

The class nature of the capitalist assault on people’s living standards is lost on those who have long identified with Green politics. As the Greens delve further into Liberal heartland in search of votes, the anti-working class character of many Greens policies will only worsen.

This does not mean that those in Left Renewal should abandon their socialist ideas.  Many people around Australia are coming to similar conclusions. If the Australian Greens is no home for socialists, then we welcome them to join with us in organising authentic, democratic, working class representation and building momentum towards a new workers’ party that fights for socialism.

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