Once were radicals! An interview with the Left Renewal

In the flux of rolling controversies during the past year, the future of the Greens as a party that stands for inclusivity – a party supposedly embroiled in the struggles of marginalised people and the environment – seemed increasingly precarious. Grassroots democracy within the Greens is under fire from the vanguard as two ex-leaders Bob Brown and Christine Milne publicly vilified NSW Senator, Lee Rhiannon, while current leader Richard Di Natale described the anti-capitalist politics of the Left Renewal as ‘ridiculous’.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the emergence of the LR (in December 2016) within the NSW Greens was a recent force, materialising in the wake of political insurgents like Bernie Sanders, and to another extent Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps they were opportunists rallying behind the recent demystification of that old dirty word: Socialism! But no, the NSW Greens have always had a socialist grassroots presence – they were born out of the forging collaborative/grassroots/unionised politics of the Green Bans in the 1970s. LR, as a formalised grouping of socialist tendencies within the party, are not new: socialism is inherent to the formation of the Greens.

To the very core of the NSW Greens is a culture of accountability and participatory democracy. They have an enshrined fidelity to their rank and file through binding directives that prohibit MPs and Senators from ‘going it alone’ and voting according to their conscience. Rhiannon was bound by the directive of the grassroots membership to act in their interests – the same cannot be said for the national Greens party. Like all the behemoths of representative politics, they don’t so much tow the party line as much as they tow the ‘party room’ line.

In an interview with Ish Varlin, an Anarchist, Greens member and defender of the LR, I sought to contextualise the role of socialism in the Greens and the work they are doing in commitment to the struggle.

How are the LR organised?

I describe us as a tendency. A progressive, socialist, anti-capitalist tendency within the Greens. There are some people who describe us as a faction, but its perhaps most accurate to call us a tendency. We are a voluntary grassroots association of Greens members who’ve come together to discuss and make collective decisions about Greens policies. It’s not super controversial.

Was the LR a way of getting back to the original tendencies of the NSW Greens?

Certainly. That’s a big part of how we see ourselves. We’re young and weren’t around for any of the Green Bans stuff, and there is a trap of romanticising and being trapped in the past, but it is an important part of our identity. Our Facebook page has a banner from the 70s which says liberty, ecology and disarmament. The NSW party came together out of disaffected people from the Labour Party, socialists, anarchists, feminists, unionists – all of these groups we identify with. They are political groups without an objective interest, they want to see the world as a better place. So these tendencies have always existed in the greens.

Was LR seen as a way to reinvigorate those tendencies?

The name was tongue in cheek. Bob Brown was in the media a few months prior saying that ‘Lee Rhiannon has done her time’, ‘it’s time for renewal’, she ‘should leave the party’. The basis of support that he was trying to claim he had, was to make way for the younger people in the party. Being young people in the party, we thought that it was a really out-of-touch comment, patronising and opportunistic. That is what we see from mainstream politics all the time. The call for renewal seemed really powerful. Ordinary people seen this guy claiming that the old guard should stand aside, that it was time for renewal. So we wanted to challenge how well that cuts through.

What political persuasions make up the group?

Some identify as Anarchists, some as Anarcho-communists, Platformists, Marxists, Leninists and Trotskyists. It’s a mix in LR, which is also representative of the mix within the greens.

The image of the inner-city cosmopolitan professional comes to mind when I think Greens voter. Is LR more aligned with marginalised working-class people?

Yeah absolutely! We are anti-capitalist radical socialist progressives. We feel that anyone who holds these perspectives is anti-oppression, you have to stand up for those people, and you have to work in solidarity with other groups and interests. You fight injustice and oppression wherever you find it. We don’t have all the answers and we can’t go into marginalised areas and say that we can fix all the problems. We recognise that capitalism doesn’t affect everybody equally. It does oppress people in different ways. ‘Inner-city voters’ is a valid critique that we [the Greens] do get a lot. We are in a rapidly changing world and it is hard to classify people as ‘not working-class’ just because of a high income or high educational attainment. People are still being exploited even if they do have a high income. A good example is the effect that unions have on wages. A union member in any industry is going to be earning more than a non-union member. Unionism wins these fights through collective struggle and that is what we should be working towards. Whether that is in the inner-cities or out in suburbs and more overtly marginalised communities. We should be encouraging collective responses to the inequalities that capitalism produces.

How did LR respond to criticisms within the party?

People wondered if we were white anting the greens, but we have been very public about who we are and what we stand for. For a lot of people in the Greens there was a concern about the public statements. There is a very strong culture in the greens around accountability and a need to moderate messaging. And our response was that LR only speaks for LR. But the Greens has a tradition of consensus politics. So those socialist tendencies exist regardless.

Is the NSW Greens special in that way?

When the constitution of the federal Greens was written, it did allow room for conscience votes, with the exception of NSW. That’s not to say that any of the states encourage conscience votes, they don’t address it explicitly, but recognise it might be needed one say. The NSW exemption has existed for years. I think that what came about as a result of the Lee Rhiannon dispute, is that other states began having a look at the decision making process. And quite a few grassroots members were asking why they don’t have binding of their MPs. NSW does have a specific exemption which is a reflection of a stronger culture of accountability of elected representatives, which existed in the NSW party prior to federation – it was part of the conditions of NSW joining that federation. It is my personal hope that all state parties have a similar structure someday.

That looks like it might be under threat?

It is very difficult to change the constitution of any party – the greens are no exception. There isn’t any strong movement to get rid of that provision. Even the criticisms of the NSW greens at the time of those disputes, none of them involved the removing that tradition of strong MP accountability.

Is the formation of LR supported by its context in the NSW Greens?

It is fair to say the NSW Greens are a little more conducive to a group like LR forming. However, these tendencies occur everywhere within the greens.

Has the tendency been given more weight with the rise of Sanders and Corbyn?

Yeah certainly. The thing that figures like Sanders and Corbyn do, is that they demonstrate that having a strong principled stance on these issues is okay; taking an anti-capitalist stance, gaining working class voters, engaging diverse people in movements. Sanders and Corbyn did have a strong democratic tendency that goes beyond the view that democracy is putting a vote in the ballot box every few years. Their politics talk of democratising society through our workplaces, civil institutions and they ran decentralised campaigns. What they did, was demonstrate that being anti-capitalist isn’t counter to potentially winning elections anymore. The Marxist perspective of this is that as the exploitation gets worse, we are seeing a larger class consciousness. We [LR] were able to capitalise on those ideas by demonstrating that those socialist tendencies do exist within the Greens and if the Greens do talk more openly about it, it might not be electoral suicide.

For LR, what are the inhibitory forces of people adopting more socialist tendencies?

Good question, perhaps one for the whole left! Nobody really has the answer. From my own perspective, it is a mix of things. Lack of education and that cold war imagery. They picture Joseph Stalin and the tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia. There is certainly a lot of baggage attached to those words. There is certainly a lot of examples of socialist ideas being expressed by politicians but through the use of different words and ideas, or strong caveats on those words. At LR we do the same thing. We didn’t call ourselves the Communist Greens or anything, we had a broader message.

So, its inclusive?

We’re accepting of all anti-capitalist politics and anti-capitalist interpretations of the Four Pillars of the Greens. We are united in an anti-capitalist understanding of those four pillars.

In the case of traditional working class support, do LR see a need to push the sentiments of the working class. I mean traditionally, they’re not Greens voters?

Yeah, I definitely think so and certainly we do. But we do so in the same way that the Greens have always approached these issues, and they have done well. And that is talking about unions, rights at work, how the sustainable population argument can be quite racist. Its talking about why there is need for universal healthcare in Australia, universalism in welfare policies. Some of the best campaigns that the greens have ran have been around the expansion of healthcare to include dental, expanding of free education etc. Those are all campaigns that benefit the people left behind and the more traditionally defined working-class people / communities. Those are the campaigns that we want the greens to do more of. We want to point out that those campaigns have been very successful. We encourage activity everywhere, and we do have a high basis of support and membership in traditional working-class areas.

Central to why Left Renewal was formed was disagreement over support for different versions of the Gonski Commonwealth education packages Why did the NSW Greens oppose Gonski 2.0 and support Gonski 1.0?

All parliamentary politics for those on the left is to some extent a politics of compromise. The NSW Greens don’t support any funding to private schools. One of the things we saw during the debate around Gonski 2.0 was elements of the federal Greens calling for “sector blind” funding, which is disappointing when we should be standing up for fully funded public education. That said, Gonksi 1.0 had the support of the education unions, who represent the workers in the sector and, although we would recognise that the reforms didn’t go far enough, supported greater needs based funding through their I Give a Gonski campaign. This support by the workers allows such a compromise to be amenable in the short term. Part of the role of the Greens in parliament is to support the activist and social movements where we can. In contrast, Gonski 2.0 was a real cut in funding compared to Gonksi 1.0, and very significantly did not make any mention of the funding arrangements that would be expected of the states, which provide 80% of education funding. This is no real compromise but rather a conservative attack on public education, which the grassroots membership and the union movement saw through immediately and did not support.

Does Gonski 1.0 reflect a socialist education platform in the view of the LR?

Without abolishing funding to private schools, it’s impossible to see Gonski 1.0 as a truly socialist education platform.

What version of an education policy does NSW Greens support and does this reflect the socialist tendency of the LR?

We’d like to see a public-schools-only funding package developed which has the support of the workers in this sector. LR is very pleased Lee Rhiannon followed the direction of the union and progressive movement, as well as the will of NSW Greens members. We’re also glad the rest of Party Room eventually came to the same conclusion, though completely condemn ever having negotiated with the Libs in the first place.

What is the future of LR, it looked precarious for a while there?

I’m optimistic. Those comments from Richard Di Natale and Bob Brown, they have been walked back to a degree; they avoid talking about them now. They realise that there is a large basis of support. It is hard to say where it is going to go, we would to see more people get involved and the activity of the greens to specifically speak to working class voters and communities. But the first fight is always about grassroots democracy and accountability within the party. We’re seeing an increasing tendency toward professionalization and centralisation, and the relay of an ‘acceptability’ message in order to win the most votes. Those tendencies are in the Greens and never with enough debate, so we will continue with that fight and advocating for our principles. People with anti-capitalist and socialist politics have always existed in the Greens, so in that sense there is no threat of losing that in the short-to-medium term. There will always be a tendency regardless of whether there is a formal group called Left Renewal in the Greens. Long term, if that trend toward centralisation and professionalisation continues – well radicals find it hard to survive in those situations.

If it needed reiteration, perhaps to those Greens members and politicians, the Four Pillars of the Greens are:

  1. Ecological sustainability;
  2. Grassroots participatory democracy;
  3. Social justice; and
  4. Peace and non-violence.

To put it in Ish’s words, it is hardly ‘super controversial’ to assert that these are socialist principles in line with the foundational adherents of the Greens. Indeed, these principles are shared among many progressives, whether you be an environmentalist, Marxist, anarchist, feminist, anti-colonialist or intersectional activist. The Left Renewal provides socialism with narrative of solidarity and intervention – all the while being mindful that ‘compromise’ is a red herring when it comes to redistributing public goods for public need. Where we see injustice and exploitation, we must collectively call it out for what it is. There can be little room for accommodating and reconciling modes of oppression and struggle with capitalist neoliberal policies. As Ish says:

…you can’t really achieve ecological sustainability or participatory democracy unless you address the elephant in the room: capitalism


– Interview by David Kelly






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