Australia: A response to Socialist Alternative on the Greens and class

Image removed.

Greens' leader Senator Bob Brown addresses a rally demanding action on climate change.

Ben Hillier replies at

By Nick Fredman

October 13, 2010 -- Ben Hillier’s article, “A Marxist critique of the Australian Greens” (available at contains some useful information and analysis on the Australian Greens, a formation that has achieved a significant breakthrough in the recent federal election. Hillier is correct, generally, in writing of the Greens’ “populist left nationalism” and “middle class ideological basis”. But he over-emphasises the sociologically middle-class nature of the Greens’ voting base (and probably membership), as part of a general confusion on class today. In a related error, he is quite wrong, and quite sectarian, to state that the Greens “do not in any sense represent an alternative to the ALP” [Australian Labor Party].

In should be borne in mind that populism and nationalism are hallmarks of social democracy, even the more militant and class struggle elements that Marxists have always been keen to work with and influence[1]. It is my view that irrespective of the Greens’ particular origins in the conservation and other “new social movements”, the party today represent much of the leftist end of the social-democratic oriented electorate: in that, the Greens’ base consists of much of the more educated and skilled sectors of the working class, as well as much of the more progressive sectors of the middle classes (understanding these terms properly, as Ben does not really seem to). Below I’ll set out some evidence of the nature of the Greens electorate from my own research.

Before discussing the actual nature of the Australian Greens, it's worth mentioning a few methodological limitations in Ben's article. He cites a number of academic articles that relate to the class nature of the Greens, which have generally used aggregate voting figures in different areas as data. That's OK as part of an argument, but such figures, aggregating people of different backgrounds, are quite limited in drawing strong conclusions, because although class varies with geography, it does so with quite a lot of variability. Better is the large-scale academic sample surveys of voters, the Australian Election Study (AES), conducted after each federal election, and the bienniel Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which allow one to correlate demographic factors (including class), opinions on various questions asked and voting behaviour.

Now there simply hasn’t been enough Green voters in the AES samples until the 2007 study to make any valid claims about. In the latter survey the number of Greens voters in the workforce was still quite small: only 128 voting for the Greens in the lower house, which I use in the analyses below, as a measure of stronger identification than votes for the Senate. Such a size means margins of error are still considerable (I say in the workforce as that is what I’ve used in analysing class relationships – for some respondents not in the workforce you could reasonably use carers or partners who are, but that’s a bit complicated and wouldn’t make that much difference to the numbers). The error for this size ranges up to 9%. So quite a lot of caution, and understanding of statistical significance, is in order. Ben tries to make points about sub-sub groups of Green voters and other voters, such as white-collar workers from non-English speaking backgrounds, which due to the very small sample size and hence very large sampling errors simply aren’t valid at all for the Greens voters.

Class today

In any case Ben’s much more significant error is his understanding of the middle classes and working class today. He is quite correct (I think to fairly paraphrase him) in stating the that the concept of the “middle classes” is best understood as including variegated layers of the self-employed, small business owners and some salaried layers, which have some material conditions and forms of consciousness in common.

But he is quite muddled about white-collar labour, and seems to exaggerate the extent to which skilled and educated sectors of this form of labour should be understood as middle class. He argues:

In places like the public service there are a series of “grades” of employment seniority, each higher level bestowing greater autonomy, responsibility and control. In such circumstances, it is impossible to clearly demarcate (except at the margins) working class from middle class.

Two rough proxies for class however are income and union membership. A quarter to a third of Greens voters belong to a union. While many of the middle classes are union members – particularly in the public service – union members are obviously more likely to be from the working class. Income is probably the best proxy. Those earning under $50,000 are unlikely to be middle class. One-quarter to one-third of Greens voters come from income brackets below $50,000. This is consistent with the finding that one-third self-identify as working class (compared with around half of ALP voters). The Greens’ lowest vote comes from blue-collar workers – in particular non-English speaking background migrants. While self-identification does not determine a person’s class position, the disparity between Greens and Labor on this front is significant. It suggests that class-conscious workers are less important for the Greens than for Labor.

It is true, as Ben alludes to in the first paragraph above and at other points in his article, that class is understood in the Marxist sense as a field of relationships, particularly related to production, within a social formation, and not as different coloured labels that each individual gets. The latter is how mainstream social science views class, if at all: as a designation of occupation, “collar” colour, status or self-identification, things that can be neatly ticked on a questionnaire. It is also true that in areas in which there are income/skill grades there will be some blurring at the edges of the class. Given all that I think we can still make good use of things like the AES for class analysis with care and correct interpretation.

But Ben makes several errors and confuses points in the second paragraph. Income is not much of a proxy for class at all, in differentiating the working class from the middle classes. Many small business owners earn quite moderate incomes (and are often bankrupted), and many miners, waterside workers and building workers with a bit of overtime can earn A$60,000 or $80,000. In this regard, $50,000 is also quite an erroneous benchmark of anything: it’s about what 21-year-old first-year nurses and teachers can earn, and is also about the median income in Australia, i.e. the figures around which the bulk of full-time incomes are clustered.

Further, trade union membership as a behaviour and even more so as an indicator of class self-identification as a subjective attitude are only related to the objective structures of class in quite mediated ways. In regard to union membership, Ben might have noted that the figure for Green-voting AES respondents in the workforce – 26% – is higher than the national average, and only marginally different to that for ALP voters in the survey, at 34%. In fact this difference is not statistically significant, to the level of confidence, as we say, that we usually like in the social sciences (when Ben writes of the “proxies” of union membership and income perhaps he only means within graduated white-collar situations – but then he is wrong to make any points about Greens voters as a whole as he does).

And there’s a quite a bit more related to class consciousness that we can get from the AES. For my research I made an index out of four AES questions, that I contend is a valid measure of pro-working-class consciousness: “Does big business have too much power?”; “Do unions have too much power?”; “Income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary working people”; “Still thinking about WorkChoices, how much do you approve or disapprove of these changes?” [WorkChoices was the previous Liberal Party-National Party federal government’s anti-union legislation]. In mean scores I found no significant difference between Labor and Greens voters, and large and significant differences between these and Coalition voters.

Left alternative?

While I’m on the topic of class consciousness, relevant here is Ben’s 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. AES respondents, in identifying parties on a left-right scale, put the Greens well to the left. Greens voters in the survey on a similar scale put themselves on the whole to the left of Labor voters. As did Greens candidates in the 2007 Australian Candidate Study (all statistically significant results).[2] Might this have something to do with accurate assessments of, and agreement with, Greens’ policies on war, refugees, climate change, same sex marriage, the Australian Building and Construction Commission [a draconian industrial police agency] and other industrial relations matters, rather than the false consciousness Ben is implying?

So what do we make of the relationship between class and the Greens? Apart from the clear distinction between employed and self-employed, we can in my opinion, in regard to the very relevant area of white-collar labour, make much clearer (if not entirely sharp) distinctions between workers and the middle class than Ben allows: it is between the managed and the managers, real levels of control in the productive process. While there are grades in the public service, and in IT, finance, schools and universities, there are, in a pleasingly dialectical way, points at which quantitative change turns into the qualitative. Many if not most workers in these areas can point to the “us” and “them”, and understand there’s some blurring (common comments in my experience at universities: “He used to be a good union member, now he’s managing a department and is on the management bargaining team”; “She thinks she’s a manager ‘cos she’s been promoted ... and supervises two people.”).

Another very relevant aspect of the AES Ben that doesn’t look at is that it can divide respondents into non-managerial employed, managerial employed and self-employed.[3] If we do this for Liberal, Labor and Greens voters we get:

Class composition of vote in the Australian House of Representatives


Salaried manager


Liberal Party








National Party








The Greens voter composition appears to be between the mainly proletarian Labor voters and the mainly petty-bourgeois Liberal and National voters, while the proportion of workers among the Greens in my definition is quite a bit higher than Ben’s “about a third” (with managerial types appearing to be equally prevalent among Green and Labor voter bases). Note as well, that while the difference between Labor and Liberal, and Greens and Liberal are easily statistically significant, the difference between Greens and Labor is again not at the level of confidence social scientists usually like (although it is most likely about what is apparent here).

It is also apparent from the AES, as Ben alludes to, that Greens voters on the whole have higher incomes than Labor voters, and have more degrees among them, and less trade qualifications. So perhaps the differences between Ben and I are terminological: for some layers, he says “middle class”, I say “better-paid, educated white-collar workers”?

`Upper strata’ of the working class

But I think for two reasons my analysis is more valid: the findings on pro-working class and leftist consciousness I noted, and the fact that the working class has always had wide variations in skills, education and income, that has always had contradictory political effects. That is, the “upper strata” of the working class has often been better organised and more advanced politically in some respects, but also is sometimes elitist and a brake on radicalism.

Consider the sketch of the young Tom Mann in the late nineteenth century presented in Paul Mason’s interesting book, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global:

As a teenager he spends three nights a week at college, one night at Bible class, one night at a temperance meeting and Sunday night at church… He became an agitator against alcohol and the eating of meat. Armed with these principles he moves to London as a skilled engineer, adding astronomy to his hobbies after being the job of dissecting a meterorite for the British museum.

The atmosphere of the engineering factory then is like the atmosphere of a software company or design studio now – a world of relaxed innovation and the techie obsessions of meticulous men. Mann works personally alongside George Westinghouse, the inventor of the hydraulic brake, and Peter Brotherhood, the inventor of the torpedo engine…

He becomes a minor figure in the socialist pulpits of the time and graduates to organizing marches for the unemployed. After he recites Shelley’s Rise Like Lions at a demonstration in Trafalgar Square a riot breaks out. By this time he owns a “fairly good collection of books, a violin and a telescope”.

Before the dock strike, the British labour movement was dominated by men like Tom Mann – self-taught, proud of their skills, more at home with socialist painters and philosophers than with “labour of a humbler kind”. [4]

As Mason goes to discuss, the 1889 dock strike, and the birth of mass industrial unionism, led Mann on a path to revolutionary syndicalism and later to communism. Of course most of the “men like Tom Mann” became mainstays of reformism, with varying degrees of militancy and better or worse politics. The point being that the working class has always been divided by income, skills, education, moral values and interest in “middle class” pursuits like vegetarianism. The political impact of the better-educated and skilled sections (often better organised and more politicised, but often moderate and elitist) have always had varied and generally contradictory effects.

The “new class” or “new middle class” analyses, apart from still calling something “new” that was well under way 50 years ago, often underestimate both the variation within the working class and the extent to which broad socioeconomic changes have entailed a restructure of the class. Bob Connell and Terry Irving in the very useful Class Structure in Australian History are clear that the proletarianisation of intellectual labour has reproduced old general patterns in new forms, when discussing the growth of white-collar unionism from the 1950s, even if they put it I think a bit too negatively:

In some ways, what was happening here was a revision to a very old pattern, the use of industrial action by privileged groups in the workforce to maintain their distance and extend their privileges over other employees. The ‘labour aristocracy’ of the nineteenth century was reincarnated on a basis, not of traditional manual skill, but of professional knowledge certified by specialized higher education.[5]

The Australian Greens today represent much of the leftist end of the social-democratic oriented electorate, and much of the more-educated and skilled sectors of the working class, as well as much of the more progressive sectors of the middle classes. The Greens should be recognised as a partial alternative to the Labor Party, towards which Marxists should adopt a careful, nuanced, united front approach, particularly in drawing Greens activists into joint activity and discussion wherever possible.

Much of Ben’s article is useful in analysing the limitations of the particular forms of reformism that have emerged within the Greens. However, his conclusion that the Greens are “no alternative”, buttressed with an analysis that exaggerates the middle-class – and presumably then the alien nature – of the Greens, is a barrier to the critical dialogue and interaction needed between the socialist left and the Greens, and hence is a sectarian stance.

[Nick Fredman is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.]


[1] I cover how the rhetoric and practice of the Greens owes a lot to Laborite traditions of economic nationalism and a left nationalist conception of Australia as politically dependent upon great powers, along with elements of internationalism, in Fredman, N. 2009, Nation, Class and the Australian Left, 2003-2007. PhD Thesis. Lismore: School of Arts and Social Sciences Southern Cross University.

[2] The leftist nature of the Greens, and why the party is more likely to retain a significant vote by appearing at least to be leftist rather than a Australian Democrat-type “third party”, is covered in Charnock, D. 2009. “Can the Australian Greens Replace the Australian Democrats as a `Third Party’ in the Senate?”, Australian Journal of Political Science 44, pp. 245-258.

[3] This method may miscategorise some, for example, salaried employees with significant wealth, who are better understood as middle class, and some formally self-employed contractors, who are in reality workers. But I think the numbers would be fairly small and the proportions between the parties shouldn’t change much.

[4] Mason, P. 2007, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Chicago: Haymarket Books, pp. 115-16.

[5] Connell, R.W. and T.H. Irving 1992, Class Structure in Australian History, 2nd edition, Sydney: Longman Cheshire, p. 203.