Australia: The nature of the Greens: a rejoinder to Nick Fredman

Australian Greens MPs and federal Labor Party leaders sign the agreement to back the ALP in government.

By Ben Hillier

October 23, 2010 -- In a recent article (“A Marxist critique of the Australian Greens”, available at marxistleftreview.org) I argue that the Greens cannot be regarded as a left alternative to the Australian Labor Party. My conclusions are based on the following considerations:

1. The Australian Greens is a pro-capitalist party with no organic links to the working class – either ideologically or organisationally.

2. The Greens is an organisation 9000 strong that has several thousand unionists as members. Yet they have no activist base in the union movement. There is no union/workers’ fraction in the organisation; no Greens unionist conference; and it has no rank-and-file groups. The organisation has made no serious attempt to intervene into the workers’ movement at all. It has a number of officers from the union movement as members, but no organised current in the bureaucracy.

3. On university campuses the party has no significant activist base, and is outnumbered at least four to one by the socialist left, which has organisational claim to less than 5 per cent of the Greens’ total membership. Where the party does have a presence it is not unusual for the Greens to contest student union elections on a platform to the right of the Labor left – and sometimes to the right of the Labor right.

4. Ideologically, the party is dominated by progressive-liberal individualism and lifestyle politics. Its active membership seems heavily drawn from the middle classes. Up to 40 per cent hold Masters or PhD qualifications, 60 per cent are professionals and the average age is around 50 – indicating that they are not a bunch of entry-level white-collar workers.

5. The Greens is not an activist party. Some individual members are activists and most members have attended protest rallies. But with the exception of some of its leading members, the majority are in attendance to bear moral witness as individuals rather than to build the campaigns or build political organisation.

6. There is no organised left-wing current within the party. A class-struggle platform, an anti-capitalist platform, a socialist platform, or anything resembling such is not to be found. There has been no group that has attempted to unite opposition to the dominant parliamentary orientation of the party or that has even publicly criticised the attempts to collaborate with the Liberals (see next paragraph).

7. At state level, the Greens supported the Liberals (the Liberal Party of Australia is the conservative party) in minority government in the past and attempted to form coalition with them in the state of Tasmania this year. Overtures to the Liberals are continually made at the federal level; and in the state of Victoria the party does not rule out supporting a Liberal minority government if the opportunity arises after the state election in November. Bob Brown, the party [federal] leader, holds up the deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Britain as something to emulate in Australia.

8. Over the last decade the party has become the third force in parliamentary politics by positioning itself to the left of the Labor Party in policy terms and through its outspoken opposition to war, mistreatment of refugees and equal rights among other things. However, its positioning to the left is mainly due to Labor’s shift to the right over decades. The Greens party is to the right of where Labor was in the 1970s; today it is significantly to the right of formations such as Die Linke in Europe.

9. Over the last three to four years the party has become more integrated into the management of the state through its electoral success at local, state and federal levels. The Greens have more and more emphasised their credentials as responsible and reliable managers/overseers of government rather than campaigners for social justice.

Nick Fredman, in his critique of my article (“A response to Socialist Alternative on the Greens and class”, available at links.org.au/node/1938), doesn’t actually contest any of this (with the exception of sentence 2 in paragraph 4). He simply ignores these realities and concludes: “The Greens should be recognised as a partial alternative to the Labor Party towards which Marxists should adopt a careful, nuanced, united front approach…” Nick seems to base this conclusion on several claims, which even if they are true, do not support his argument.

First, Nick calculates that the voter composition of the Greens is around 50 per cent working class. If Nick is right (he probably is: but more on this and my alleged confusion over the nature of the middle class below), this means concretely that at the recently held federal election, the Greens received about 750,000 working-class votes as opposed to 500,000 using my estimate of the composition. What is the political significance of this in relation to my article? It has very little. Not one of my substantive conclusions regarding the nature of the party is threatened by such a revision.

Second, Nick claims that those voting for the Greens are generally (on average) both more progressive than those voting for the Liberal or Labor parties and see the Greens as to the left of Labor. No disagreement there, in fact my article clearly states that the Greens’ vote is “more progressive” – although I make important qualifications. In terms of analysing the nature of the party, however, are these voter dispositions/attitudes the most relevant thing?

A cursory glance at the Democratic Party vote in the United States shows that (similar to the Australian Greens) highly educated progressives and young people overwhelmingly vote Democrat.[1] Unlike the Greens, union members overwhelmingly vote Democrat.[2] In fact, the portion of unionists that vote for the Democrats looks to be similar to that of the ALP.[3] Does this have ramifications for the nature of the Democratic Party? No: it is a bourgeois party, regardless of what people think of its progressive credentials and regardless of how many unionists vote for it. The same can be said of the Australian Greens (it can be debated whether to characterise the Greens as a “bourgeois party” or a “middle-class party”, but that is beside the point here).

(In a related claim Nick writes that Greens voters are just as class conscious as ALP voters. Proportionally far fewer Greens’ voters self-identify as working class. But let’s say that Nick’s attitudinal gauge is more accurate. Presumably, working-class members of the Greens would be more class conscious than those who simply vote for the party. How then to explain the party’s lack of any activist base in the union movement?)

Nick rebukes me for:

[a] churlish formulation that the Greens are “perceived to be to the left of the ALP”. Given that Ben states that the Greens are “no alternative” to the ALP, presumably he thinks they are not really to the left of the ALP. A whole lot of perceptions must be wrong then.

The Greens’ policies are to the left of the ALP in many respects, no question (to a lesser extent, so were the Australian Democrats over the last decade; that party was definitively no left alternative to Labor). But Nick fails to mention that the party itself often doesn’t claim to be left wing. Leading figures – though by no means all – characterise the party as neither left, nor right, but forward. The Greens previously supported the conservatives; the leadership have made it clear that they are prepared to govern with them if given the opportunity. If there were a serious backlash within the party against those who are completely comfortable sitting with the Tories, the situation might be more complex. This is not the case today.

As Corey Oakley recently wrote in Socialist Alternative:

That there is even the possibility of the Greens backing a Liberal government…is an indication of how different the Greens are from other organisations around the world that have emerged in the context of growing disillusionment with social-democratic parties like the ALP.

In Europe, the debate in groups like the German Die Linke (Left Party) is whether or not they should be willing to form governmental coalitions with the social democrats. The argument put by the left in Die Linke is that they should not – as to do so would tie the left in to supporting the neoliberal policies that the social democrats are determined to implement.

But here that important question is not even raised, as the Greens will not even rule out working with the conservatives. Instead of debating how we can build a fighting left-wing alternative to Labor, we are stuck arguing about what should be self-evident to anyone on the left: you shouldn’t cooperate with the Liberals![4]

United front?

The basic conception [of the united front, as outline by Lenin and Trotsky] was that a revolutionary party should propose to both the leaders and members of reformist organisations joint struggle around concrete demands in defence of living standards and democratic rights. If the reformist leaders agreed to participate in such united activity there was a greater chance of these struggles being successful and in the course of struggle revolutionaries would have an opportunity to demonstrate to the supporters of the reformist organisations the superiority of revolutionary politics in practice. [5]

Given the reality outlined in paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 above, how exactly is the united front to be applied? Nick doesn’t say – probably because in any meaningful sense it can’t. Where there are Greens members involved in campaigns, they are invariably involved as individuals – not as an organised current. The Greens as an organisation effectively ignore the class struggle and do not orient to grassroots campaigning, despite their rhetoric. This makes it impossible to engage in a united front in the classic sense outlined above. Many of us believe that it would be positive if the party organised their several thousand union members into rank and file groups to challenge the existing union bureaucracies and attempt a fight-back against the ALP’s anti-worker industrial agenda. They won’t.

At the base of the party, there is no evidence that there is a significant audience within the membership for such an orientation. At the top of the party, there have been no attempts at such a strategy. Further, the Greens’ leadership recently signed a deal guaranteeing support for a minority Labor government at the federal level. Despite the Greens’ policy on industrial relations (which Nick mentions) being better than the ALP’s, and despite their occasional claim come election time to “defend your rights at work”, you will not find – either in the principles of the agreement, or in the measures contained within it – any reference to changing Labor’s industrial laws. This is a clear indication that it is not a party priority. In fact, it seems to have been considered less important than establishing a Leaders’ Debate Commission.

Nick doesn’t seem to believe any of this is important. Apparently the united front is possible, because there are socially progressive workers who vote Green. The vistas of united front collaboration, by this logic are truly expansive. Perhaps Nick simply means the method of the united front in relation to the individual Greens activists that do exist, such that where there are individual Greens involved in a campaign/workplace or on a campus Marxists should work alongside them. This is the case already. Marxists should and do also attempt to, as Nick writes, draw in Greens members “into joint activity and discussion wherever possible”. There is nothing new about that.

But the opportunities for collaborating with Greens members are relatively limited. Nick wants to suggest that it is sectarian to admit to this, as it is a “barrier to the critical dialogue and interaction needed between the socialist left and the Greens”. The real barrier is the lack of Greens who are involved in the campaigns. It is not a problem of my creation, but a reality of the Greens as an organisation. It is significant that Nick regales readers with a Tom Mann story from the nineteenth century. Possibly he cannot name a Greens union organiser from the twenty-first century. His relaying of the story shows only that which is uncontested – that individuals from the middle class and those influenced by middle-class ideology can become part of the workers movement.

The politics of distraction

Nick suggests that I am “quite muddled about white-collar labour, and [seem] to exaggerate the extent to which skilled and educated sectors of this form of labour should be understood as middle class.” Nick doesn’t take issue with my [incomplete] list of categories composing the middles classes: “sections of the state bureaucracy, lawyers, doctors, middle/high-grade professionals, professors and senior academic staff, middle managers and small business owners.” I think I’m fairly clear here – in fact I am literally categorical. He goes on to write that “in regard to the very relevant area of white-collar labour, [we can] make much clearer (if not entirely sharp) distinctions between workers and the middle class than Ben allows…” In fact, I clearly state:

[T]he Greens have a substantial working-class vote. There is a significant correlation between a high Greens vote and areas with a greater concentration of service industries such as arts, education, media and IT. Employees in these industries all generally require bachelor degrees, but most – teachers being a case in point – are workers.

You wouldn’t know it from reading Nick’s criticisms, but the section in my article on the Greens vote was in part an argument against the generally made assertion that Greens voters are simply “middle-class progressives”. I welcome Nick’s statistical corrective, but he has overplayed his hand. His response to my article suggests that a small section on voter composition is the proverbial spoonful of oil that ruins the barrel of honey. It is not. It simply proves a distraction from dealing with the nature of the party itself. When this is interrogated, Nick’s conclusion that the Greens represent a “partial alternative” does not stand up to scrutiny.

[Ben Hillier is a member of Socialist Alternative, Australia.]

Notes

[1] Election Results 2008, National exit polls table 1972-2008, New York Times, November 5, 2008, http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/national-exit-polls.html.

[3] See Andrew Leigh, “How Do Unionists Vote? Estimating the Causal Impact of Union Membership on Voting Behaviour from 1966 to 2004”, Centre for Economic Policy Research, discussion paper no. 516, March 2006, http://econrsss.anu.edu.au/pdf/DP516.pdf.

[4] Corey Oakley, “Victorian Greens must reject any deal with the Liberals”, Socialist Alternative, October 22, 2010, http://www.sa.org.au/australian-politics/2958-victorian-greens-must-reject-any-deal-with-liberals.

[5] See Mick Armstrong “The origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate”, Marxist Left Review, no. 1, p. 128.

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