5 Jul 2006

Only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity

I wrote this last year when I was on the party exec as local party support person with Xanthe Bevis, I circulated a draft to exec members and was surprised by how positive a response I got.


Any way this interview although slightly dated gives some background on socialism and the Green Party of England and Wales



Only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity
Interview with Derek Wall, Green Party Executive Committee
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What position do you hold in the Green Party and what have you achieved as a member?

I am local party support co-ordinator on the Party Executive. I was elected jointly with Xanthe Bevis, who helped found Corporate Watch and was active in the direct action movement. We write the monthly e-newsletter for members, help local parties set up, produce 'green activist'. I also run an interview in most issue of the party magazine Green World (Joel Kovel, Nandor Tanczos, Caroline Lucas, the late Mike Woodin…) and chair the Executive sometimes...its great as a socialist to have so much political space but it keeps me busy. I joined the Party in 1980. Helped set up the Association of Socialist Greens in the 1980s. I was one of three national speakers with Jean Lambert and Sara Parkin in 1989. I am also an associate editor of Red Pepper. I teach political economy at Goldsmiths College, University of London, have three sons, write and I am devoted to Zen. I write as well, my book Babylon and Beyond which looks at different forms of anti-capitalism including Marxist, green and autonomist is out in September from Pluto and the Green Economic Institute.



You describe yourself as an eco-Marxist. How would you define that term?

Well the big man himself sums it with his usual clarity:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. (Marx quoted in Kovel 2002: 238)

Its probably worth filling in where I am coming from because I guess not everybody is familiar with the Marxist tradition in the Green Party, I can give you a personal perspective and if you read Kovel you can get an idea of socialism within the US Greens

When I joined the Party in 1980, it was still the Ecology Party and in some ways much more ideological than it is at present. The emphasis was very much that economic growth was unsustainable, this critique of accumulation, very much separated the Party from other groups including those on the left. This has never really left me, I am sceptical that continuous growth is ecologically sustainable or socially desirable that's pretty much the alpha and omega of my commitment and everything else flows from it. I suppose I became an eco-Marxist by about 1983 and though my ideas have developed since in some ways I have learnt very little since. Marx still provides the best explanation of why capitalism demands continuous accumulation. I read Andre Gorz 'Ecology as Politics', Rudolf Bahro's 'Socialism and Survival' some stuff from the SWP and the SPGB including 'Ecology and Socialism' that I would still recommend. Marx is great, Capital is literature and history. I love reading Marx.

Terry Eagleton is one of my favourite socialist writers. Marxism is a sophisticated, subtle, philosophical system with inexhaustible insights. As an eco-Marxist I believe that only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity, politics is based on class struggle, it isn't a matter of changing a few laws we live in a social totality that is utterly destructive and must be replaced. Revolution is a break between one social system and another. The market is intrinsically unjust and is the very DNA from which capitalism in its worst form springs. This does not mean I accept much of the baggage of the far left, I think Marxist Party politics can be pretty dire and the evil twins of British Trotskyism and British Stalinism are still not properly buried. Thus I understand why many radicals are wary of the label 'Marxist'.



Traditionally many of the left have uncritically regarded economic development as innately progressive, “belching smokestacks” and all. Where do you think this misconception came from and how can it be corrected?

Well the first Marxist organisation in Britain the Social Democratic Federation contained not only Engels and Eleanor Marx but William Morris. Morris has always been an important eco-Marxist with books like News from Nowhere. Gould's book 'Early Green Politics' shows how between 1880 and 1905 socialism in Britain was dominated by green concerns. During the Russian Revolution green concern fed into the left and, perhaps surprisingly, Lenin was keen to set up national parks. There is a debate as to whether Marx was a productivist, however recently John Bellamy Foster has suggested that he was keen student of environmental science, whose concept of a 'metabolism' between humanity and the rest of nature is vital. Much of the modern left has flowed from sources with little concern for the environment. Trotsky never had anything but admiration for industrial agriculture and hyper industrialisation as far as I can see. Stalin was even worse; however, the CPGB member Benny Rothman's Kinder Scout trespass in the 1930s was part of a working class campaign for access to the countryside for walking and climbing. Benny spoke at Twyford Down to resist the M3 cutting through on an Earth First! rally in the 1990s. The managerial approach of the Fabians distorted British social democracy, although the 1945 Atlee governments’ creation of National Parks shows that the Morris influence continued a little.

We can end poverty without 'growth'. The important point is to separate 'use' values from 'exchange' values to show that through making goods to last longer, sharing more, constructing libraries not just for books but pretty much everything, we can gain access to the goods we need without reproducing ever larger quantities of rubbish. Socialism is not just a faster version of capitalism with more of everything but a society based on meeting human need cooperatively. Economic growth measures the growth of the economy of abstract figures, prosperity without pollution demands access. Capitalism has to artificially construct scarcity to maintain accumulation, it is a system of alienation, a system constructed by human ingenuity and labour, that acts as a prison for humanity and the rest of nature. Capitalist economics is very much about the tail wagging the dog. If something has utility in terms of abstract economic accumulation, the accumulation of figures we do it, if not we don't. We live in a world run by fucking hedge funds. This is what Marx's described well before such complex financial instruments were in existence by the term 'fetishism'.

I would like to include some thoughts from John Bellamy Foster which illustrate the eco-Marxist position with clarity John Bellamy Foster summaries the ecosocialist account of globalisation by comparing it to a giant treadmill:,

First, built into this global system, and constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of "social security" for a least a portion of its citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.

[…] Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at liveable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place. (Foster 2002: 44-45)



In the “philosophical ideals” of the Green Party it states that: “New economic ideas, institutions and organisations are needed to reduce our dependence on [money]. Economic policy should be directed not to maximising the forms of wealth that can be measured in monetary terms, but to ensuring that the needs of all are met.” Would you define that as a socialist economic policy?

Its an excellent start. Greens at their very best are deeply critical of capitalist economics... however the point is to develop practical means of regulation that go beyond the market and bureaucratic planning, I am very excited by the potential that open source, commons regimes and other forms of social sharing provide for building an economy beyond capitalism which grows organically.



The Green Party in Britain seems very quiet on trade union issues, and workplace rights, in contrast for example to the Australian Green party. Why do you think this is?

We have solid policy, plenty of members are trade unionists, the best of the awkward squad such as Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka are acclaimed with standing ovations when they speak at Party conference. We have supported numerous trade union battles. The fire fighters pay dispute was given unanimous support. There are dozens of examples of trade union work by our two excellent MEPs. The Party has a good record on trade unions, I just guess much of left assumes we are more concerned with wildlife issues (not that these aren't important) and ignore us.



Do you think it has been a mistake for the Greens to go into coalition with the Lib Dems or the Tories in various councils?

Yes. However I am not going to be too harsh. We all know of right wing and corrupt Labour authorities and any kind of radical or not so radical party that gains council seats is going to have a choice between supporting or opposing. It's a structural problem. I think where Greens have gone alone this has been a much better approach but these choices are very very difficult.



Is the left organised within the Green Party, and do you have a perspective of systematically advancing left policies within the party?

The Party has no organised factions at present, I think socialists, outside the Party, would have very very few problems with our policies or the stand of our MEPs, GLA members, etc... however the achievement of an ecologically sustainable, socially justice and truly democratic society is an immensely difficult and contradictory task that demands intense intellectual effort and practical struggle, so consideration of the 'systematic advance' is still important. I can give you a history of how the left has developed in the party and where the very diverse and diffuse Green Party left are moving.

In the 1980s around the time when we went from 'Ecology' to 'Green', liberal members created a body to build links with the then Liberal Party. This like most things was of a contradictory nature. On the one hand, there was a strong left/green tradition in the Liberals, think of the Red Guard of the Young Liberals in the 1970s or the Liberal Ecology Group... equally it helped the right of the Party organise and ultimately make a bid for hegemony.

At the same time the Association of Socialist Greens, was created by Party members like co-chair Penny Kemp. Peter Tatchell, although then in Labour, was supportive and his long term commitment to serious green politics is very inspiring. I being unusually 'Leninist' about these things, felt that the party needed an explicitly Marxist analysis, so got involved as the newsletter editor. What basically unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a period of intense internal political bloodshed that would compare well with anything in the Labour Party or far left groups. The right around the Green 2000 faction wanted to make us into a mainstream party with mass appeal, ditch the radicalism, reengineer the Party constitution and centralise power. We fought them. I remember Sara Parkin talking to the Independent about 'socialist parasites' i.e. myself and Penny Kemp who had been members nearly as long as her. They won and then imploded, when the Party received just a couple of percentage at the 1992 General Election. When the 'realists' believe in achieving a Westminster Parliamentary government by 2000 (thus Green 2000), give me fundamentalism.

One of the reasons why the left has space in the Party at present is because the right won and then finding that they were not on the road to number 10 resigned. The rise of the anti-capitalist movement and the direct action environmental movement in the 1990s helped a lot, with the growth of New Labour the political space has moved to the left. Out of the 6,000 members many, many of them are ex-Labour. My election agent, the neighbouring candidate and most of the activists in my East Berkshire Party are ex-Labour, I met Richard Scarse the present Green World editor when I used to canvass him in Walcot, Bath where he was Labour ward secretary.

The left have organised in the Party when there was a factional war of manoeuvre, it's not necessary at present and the last left group The Way Ahead wound up maybe five years ago.

I decided to have a go at mobilising the left about two and a half years ago. I was inspired by Joel Kovel's bid for the US Green Party presidential nomination standing against Nader in 2000, when he stood on an explicitly eco-socialist ticket. He supported Nader but felt that by standing he could raise some real debate and push things in a greener and redder direction. So I decided to stand against Caroline Lucas on a socialist platform, in the hope of moving her further to the left. You can do this because there is a list of ten candidates... I was quite explicit about being a Marxist and was elected on to the list, albeit in the number eight position. Things then became quite odd... a first indication was when I took part in the candidate hustings and found that only one person in the room wasn't a candidate, so bang went my carefully prepared anti-capitalist speech... there was no audience.

The project pretty quickly switched to simply getting Caroline re-elected, it was clear that she was in danger and that her impressive contribution would be lost in Europe. In 1999 she had been elected with a margin of 240 votes out of many million and outside of Brighton and Oxfordshire, the Party organisation was frankly poor. So it was a matter of working very very hard and enduring the worse kind of pedantic committee meetings, just to help get Caroline back in 2004. Ran a Red Pepper editorial supporting her, got ex-Socialist Alliance's Liz Davies to support her and Jean Lambert, canvassed solidly, helped appoint her election worker Athene Reiss and ran about like a maniac, like plenty of other people.

There are a lot of socialists and even some eco-Marxists in the Party at present, my personal focus is on trying to make the Party more dynamic and well organised, this seems to be the area of weakness not any absence of left policies. I am working quite hard on political education trying to get people to think but not in a didactic way, not saying ecosocialists have a truth... I also feel this cuts both ways and the non Green Party left could do well to think about Marx and ecology more. This is my approach, others like Peter Tatchell have different but complementary priorities but socialists in the Party as I say enjoy a lot of political space which makes the experience a positive one, especially when ten to 15 years ago we were being severally persecuted. I know Peter enjoys being in the Party, so we don't feel that organising a socialist group is a priority, although it might be useful in the future.



In 1989 2.2 million people voted for the Greens, but the promised breakthrough never quite happened. Do you think that the Greens can ever break out of the political margin?

Difficult without PR. Green Parties receive between 5 and 10% in most systems, it is important to use this vote to build new ideas, promote solidarity and struggle and to develop transitional policies. Caroline and Jean do this effectively in the European Parliament, complementing extra-parliamentary struggle. The naive old Ecology Party view of electing a Green government and legislate for ecotopia is not on the agenda. The mainstream European Green Party model of propping up social democratic/third way governments is also highly problematic... Fischer is a very creative and popular politician, yes his opposition to the Iraq War really put the Greens in a position of influence... however the move to the right is unacceptable. We will come out of this election well, its great to be fighting Westminster seats such as Brighton Pavilion and Lewisham Deptford with candidates who can win, equally candidates with a good record of opposing neo-liberalism

I think if the Party could sustain radical and dynamic local parties across Britain they could have a very positive effect in a wider battle for ideas as well as creating practical alternatives. Thus I am interested in the nuts and bolts of local party organisation as well as wider questions.



Do you think it would be advantageous for there to be greater co-operation between the Greens and the left, and what are the obstacles to achieving this?

Green politics does not work in my opinion without a Marxist analysis of economics, I would hope that co-operation would promote mutual learning. In terms of electoral politics it would be beneficial to maximise opportunities for voters to vote for radicals, it's silly to have Greens and socialists contesting say the same seat if this can be avoided. Practical grassroots campaigns from opposing incinerators to supporting union action is also very important.

The Party has a tendency to be defensive, short term logic in the 1980s, would have meant that we should have dissolved into some kind of anti-Thatcher campaign or the Bennite left, we scraped through 15 years when we often received humiliating votes, so we had to keep motoring on and fighting elections because the long term matters. So there is a basic hostility to 'deals'. However, there is a recognition from the Executive and most members that we part of the left and should work with the left. This said we are wary of the political culture of the left that often seems to be based on infighting and intrigue rather than inclusive debate.

The RESPECT project was heavily strongly criticised by many, but not all, on the left of the Green Party. We were consulted and really if you can't gain the confidence of the Green Party left you are not going to get very far. While the Scottish Socialist Party has provided a rare example of a pluralist and democratic far left, the domination of the Socialist Alliance by the SWP encouraged nobody with confidence in RESPECT. I know of several Executive members who would like to build better links with the Socialist Party because there is a feeling that it has changed in a positive direction. I think if the SWP genuinely became a more open and democratic organisation there would be room for some discussion. However, there is always the suspicion that the politics is a bit shallow and based on short term tactical measures. SWP have run some stuff from Bellemy Foster in International Socialism but have ignored Kovel, they don't really seem to have got to grips with an eco-Marxist perspective which you find in journals like the US Capitalism Nature Socialism. Even if the SWP changed radically, trust would have to grow over a long time. I also feel that it is important to recognised the achievements and aspiration for ecosocialism in Cuba and Venezuela, this doesn't mean hero worshipping Castro or Chavez, but it is important to provide practical solidarity. This is an area of weakness with the SWP in particular.

The Green Party Executive were pleased to be approached by the Green Socialist Unity coalition, there is a definite sympathy for the GSU along with recognition that we have different constituencies and traditions. A motion to talk was passed unanimously which I think was progress. It does not look as if much practical will come out of it for this General Election but I think at worst at future elections we can avoid some clashes which has to be worthwhile. There is going to be friction as well but its worth talking.



Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Well Gramsci's 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will' is always worth quoting. Things are not good on Planet Earth in the early years of the 21st century but the Green Party at least provides a positive and generally enjoyable way of promoting an alternative. I guess I am one of the few socialists in any Party who feels that they have space. It's all a matter of doing more, thinking more, campaigning, keeping on keeping on.



References

Foster, J. (2000) Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, J. (2002) Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Kovel, J. (2002) The Enemy of Nature. London/New York: Zed.



March 2005

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the topic of socialism, just curious what your comments would be on this article called IS THERE ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMMUNISM AND SOCIALISM.

Anonymous said...

"... though my ideas have developed since in some ways I have learnt very little since..."

Yes, you do appear to be stuck in 1980s time warp - "socialism" as the solution to everything from ecological crisis to the common cold... Do you every do more than just root around in the dull declining sub-culture of the far left preaching to the converted?