Thursday, May 27, 2010

What's left and right?

Simon requests that I say something about "right-wing Greens" no doubt to help people come to terms with the fact that the Green Party here-abouts stands on a clearly left-wing manifesto yet we hear about greens in foreign lands, and sadly sometimes closer to home, who're not exactly over burdened with socialist credentials.

I think this is a useful and interesting topic, so useful and interesting in fact that I'm going to take a little bit of a run up to it, so this is going to be the prequel to the readers request post itself.

The reason for this is not just that I'm an insufferable windbag who can't stop blathering on, it's also because I'd like to quickly grapple with a couple of points that would only clutter up the Green Right post.

The first is on the left-right spectrum and the second is the nature of parties.

I'm not one of those people who think that it's possible to step outside of the left-right axis. Loosely defined the left are people who want to see society become more egalitarian and are willing to challenge existing social structures to do so, and the right are those who hope to preserve the current way of doing things, or even move things backwards so that capitalism can function free and unhindered.

Whatever your politics you are somewhere on this scale. Objectively you will be either reinforcing inequality or challenging it no matter how slick your "new politics" PR machine may be.

However, this axis has never been an adequate way of describing someone's politics meaningfully. Simply saying that someone is more left or right wing than someone else is unlikely to tell you much about their politics unless you're hindered by a truly ultra-orthodox dogma.

For instance, there are people on the right who want a small state, low taxes, and think that the law should regulate the absolute minimum amount. There are others on the right who believe in a strong, authoritarian state with rock hard legislation to prevent anyone messing with an employer's right to make money - by joining a union or being unwell. Neither side of the big/small state argument is more or less right wing by default - they just disagree.

Add to this the complication that whilst political philosophies may be ideal types human beings rarely are. You can have those who do a bang up job challenging sexism but who despise immigrants. There are those who want to see radical progressive taxation create real redistribution of welath and who think the Queen is goodness personified. People are lovely and messy like that.

Then add on top of all this that sometimes political questions can be pretty tricky. For years even the most hardened socialists debated whether 'revolutionaries' should be members of the Labour Party. Whatever nuance you put on it you either end up with a party card or you don't and it's pretty hard to co-exist in the same organisation when glaring differences in strategy flow from that decision.

That's why I think it's fair to say that the thing that most divided the politics of the SWP and Militant in the eighties was not a competition about who was the most left wing but rather how they went about trying to achieve very similar programs for change.

Then you have emphasis. At anyone time a concentration on abortion laws, strike action, anti-war activity, building a rally, standing for Parliament or whatever may or may not be the right thing to do - but none of them are inherently more left or right wing than each other, but rather they are tactical considerations albeit ones that may have unintended political consequences.

All in all you have this complex mallange of strategy, tactics, personal history and tastes, errors of judgment, ways of working, accidents of philosophy, style and specific approaches to specific issues and the whole left/right thing starts to look less and less adequate as anything but a loose explanation.

Then we come to the second part of what I wanted to say - that all real parties, which have an actual internal life, are alliances of different political tendencies. Sometimes this is formal with specific in-party organisations (like the Fabians or Christian Socialists) and sometimes it's looser but no less real (like Blairites and Brownies).

Some people talk about Green Parties being divided between 'realos' and 'fundies' (or suits and tunics as I call them) but there are few Parties, if any, that actually have party groupings along those lines.

This means in general that parties can have both racists and anti-racists as members, pro-union and anti-union members, those who see elections as the be all and end all and those who come out in a rash at the very thought of canvassing the neighbourhood and asking for a vote or two. And, weirdly, that works.

There can be tensions or bouts of civil war but generally these alliances, of often very different kinds of politician, are stable, at least in established parties. That's stable and dynamic simultaneously, because of that very fact that we disagree and yet still come together.

When trying to capture the dynamic of any party we need to keep in mind that a) key fissures may not be left/right or revolutionary/reformist but over other kinds of disagreement, b) that parties are always in a process of change and development, c) that parties are also part of and influenced by more general social shifts and d) that decisions those parties take impact on how they behave in the future.

When I take a look at the 'Green Right' next time I'll try to keep things a little more concrete and practical, but I thought this might be a useful discussion to have first just to provide a kind of framework for debate.


Dave Riley said...

Everything, esp alignments, are relative. But it is a very big mistake to junk the left/right axis in regards to green politics.

Junking left and right alignments, is precisely the ideology of the green right wing.Green politics, the right argues, transcends the left/right axis and is a new pristine alignment where past identities, and ideologies, don't matter.

This POV goes back to Rudolf Bahro but I'm sure he didn't mean it to serve the conservative conservationists. He wanted to change progressive thinking. At its core the argument is that 'class' and 'capitalism' don't matter, that inherently mere incremental adjustments and appealing to good will should suffice in our environmental quest .

Art best this is a repackaged liberal ideology.

The political challenge is to change that dialogue back to a right/left axis otherwise you allow the right to obscure the key political issues.

In our work in the environment movement, which is extensive and of long standing, we try to occupy and consolidate a conscious active left wing. What politics constitutes that 'left', and esp what it does , is the key marker.

However, inferred here in Jim's post is the perspective that environment politics is a monopoly of green parties and that is a grossly mistaken view.

Fortunately 'green politics' transcend 'green parties'.

This trajectory is very clear in the sort of spin shift that has occurred in the New Zealand Green Party (esp Russell Norman, an ex socialist>Marxist) which has made a profession out of being 'neither left nor right' and if we were to be held hostage to 'green party politics' of this ilk there'd be no future for the planet worth getting excited about.

This raises the challenging question of what is 'green party politics' esp in the way that green parties try to run the argument that they are -- since they are supposedly neither left nor right -- a brand new political patent.

That spin may have worked in the early nineties, under Kropotkin and libertarian sponsorship, but today, it'd pretty clear that green parties are just another form of , albeit more progressive and generally left-er , parliamentary political parties.

Can they be something else? Thats' still an open question perhaps.But I suspect the answer lies not so much in how green they say they are but how much they stand up to neo liberalism. And you cannot save the planet and not stand up to neo-liberalism.

Peter Shield said...


I would have thought the key differences in approach are essentially at the economic policy level. What I mean by that is those who think you can create a sustainable world/country without having at the core of your strategy an approach that deals with social justice and those that think that social justice and ecological justice are two sides of the same coin.

Civil liberties is a cross theme that links right wing libertarians to left wing anarchists on one side to paternalistic conservationists to some social democrats and command economy marxists on the other. (Gross generalisation I know).

Then to confuse the issue even further is the whole population issue, which is not clearly a Right/Left thing either, with voices from all sides falling in the differing camps.

Your Green Left seems to be coming together on a broad canvas of sustainable left wing economics, pro civil liberties and anti-population control which is quite refreshing.

Here in France things are a little more complicated, as the instance of neither right nor left means we have Jose Bove, the left wing goat farmer, and Eva Joly the ex right wing environment minister, trying to pretend they are on the same side under the watchful eye of Danny CB.

The advantage of the French approach is of course that anyone from anywhere on the political spectrum can find a reason to vote Green / Europe Ecologie, though of course what they will actually do if anywhere near power is frankly anyone's guess.

Jim Jepps said...

Dave: I think you're right Dave that normally when someone seeks to junk the left/right axis it always seems to end up on the right (even unintentionally), precisely because they end up not challenging existing structures in seeking to by-pass them. I hope I've not junked them but just fleshed it out a bit.

I feel guilty because I avoided 'class' in this post in order to avoid that kind of gate keeping leftism that excludes people from the left on the basis of working class 'agency' - but it's pretty fundamental.

Apologies if I infered that environmental politics is exclusive to Green Parties - that's certainly not something I intended as I'm working up to writing specifically about Green Parties - but completely agree with your point on this.

Jim Jepps said...

Peter: thanks for this, very useful as I've only followed the French Greens in passing.

Personally I think economics is the central question no matter what the period - but I wanted to be careful not to define the left in those terms as there clearly are people who are lefties but who are entirely focused on other kinds of question (some feminists for instance).

I think what you characterise here as the Green Left is actually the Green Party - in fact it's others in the party that have really popularised a strong left-social democratic economic analysis and people sometimes forget that the left of the Green Party is far, far wider than the Green Left grouping.

I think though, on your last point, the French Greens do seem to have an orientation towards the Socialist Party - or at least combining with them as their more radical external wing - but agree that the vote is drawn from all sorts (which is of course true of all candidates who are able to mobilise mass support).

Peter Shield said...

Its a bit difficult to position say Eva Joly as the radical external wing of the Socialist Party.

Both the Communist Party and the Greens do deals with the PS on a council, departmental and regional level- and briefly in the Jospin government.

However I think this is all undergoing a change as all three are busy trying to transform themselves.

The Greens into a broader 'neither right nor left' formation in Europe Ecologie. The EE formation did very well in the Regionals and once the internal debate has quitened down and Danny CB rather dictatorial style been flattened out -they could do very well.

The PCF as a greener broader post tankie outfit. The PCF is too often written off but its still has 20 or so MPs, 10,000 approx local elected politicians, around 100,000 members- and amazingly an annual budget of 34 million Euro- not to say a very powerful voice in the Trade Union movement and many social movements. Our problem is we can no longer have a clear idea of our future strategy and are vacillating all over the place with tactical responses to situations rather than a direction.

Lord knows what the PS is actually doing- trying to survive and come up with an idea of why it exists would be one way of describing it.

On the left the LCR is busy also tearing itself to pieces over its rather weird sectarian approach to the recent Regional elections.

Of them all of us the Greens are best positioned to form some sort of lasting political initiative and clearly see themselves as being the third force in the country after the UMP and PS and Danny has sometimes got carried away and sees EE overtaking the PS.