Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Whatever happened to the German Greens?

Back in the early 1980s the West German Greens were a bastion of radicalism, challenging US imperialism, advocating pacifism and describing their own position as one of 'ecological socialism'. By the late 1990s the party seemed to have changed beyond all recognition: as a member of Gerhard Schroeder's 'third way' coalition, the Greens were defending radically neoliberal policies and staunchly supporting military interventions for humanitarian purposes.

August 1, 2003
7 min read

So, what happened? There have been a number of more general developments that non-German readers will understand from developments in their own societies. The entrenchment of the neo-liberal hegemony has been accompanied by the hijacking of a whole series of social movement demands. For example, the demand for individual (and social) ‘autonomy’ from the overweening state has been used to justify privatisation and deregulation.

Yet there are more specific things to say about the recent history of the German Greens. This history contains important lessons for the wider debate about the relevance of political parties in struggles for progressive social change and the role of governments in the process of transforming societies.

The 20-year history of the German Greens inevitably raises questions asked throughout the 20th century. What form should left parties take in parliamentary democracies? And should these parties participate in governments that are, at least in part, committed to managing the existing, capitalist economy? The case of the German Greens is especially interesting because they achieved their role in government as a result of success in elections – rather than through deals with other parties.

The German Greens were always highly conscious of their role – mainly because many of the party’s founders had been part of the 1968 generation that strove to reconstruct the historical and theoretical memory of the left that was destroyed by the Nazis.

One key debate was about how far social emancipation could be a matter of party politics as they had been in the 1920s. This debate involved addressing questions of internal party democracy and challenging political scientist Robert Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’.

Michels argued that parties are always doomed to degenerate into apparatuses by which the leadership dominates the mass membership. To counter this effect, the Greens devised the principle of ‘grassroots democracy’. The party developed a strong set of institutional rules to prevent the development of a permanent party elite and to ensure that power spread constantly out to the membership. This would renew the leadership with fresh energies and experience.

If the fate of the German Greens simply vindicates Michels (even when a party consciously works to counter the inevitability of elite domination), then the history of the party would be of little interest. But the failure of the Green left in Germany to maintain its early influence within the wider Green movement and party is far more worthy of attention. It points to key strategic mistakes from which all green and radical activists can learn.

There has always been an electoral aspect to the Greens’ politics. This has been the case at all three levels (federal, regional and city) of the German state. But in itself this cannot explain why the leading Greens eventually allowed themselves to become acquiescent coalition partners with the Social Democrats (SPD) on the federal level. After all, green-left radicalism continued to dominate the party – even (for some time) within its parliamentary group -long after its entry into the federal parliament. It was, after all, a left-influenced proposal of a new social contract bringing ecological, feminist and trade union demands into one radical agenda for reform that helped revive the party’s federal fortunes in 1994.

But it was also at this time that the party’s ‘realists’ gained control of the parliamentary group. They used this control – along with the media presence of their leaders – to extend their ideological influence within the party as a whole. In this way, and by offering career prospects to their followers and allies, the ‘realists’ developed a rather authoritarian culture of subservience to their leaders. They propelled Joschka Fischer into a position of supreme informal authority, which further enhanced their position in the media.

The party’s left wing, in contrast, had few clear ideas about how to use the party’s parliamentary position other than for reinforcing extra-parliamentary mobilisation. Moreover, in terms of policies it had stood still – simply holding fast to ideas that had been developed to counter cold-war ‘extremism’ and which were not applicable to the neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies that dominated The 1990s.

The pressure of the neo-liberal offensive against workers and trade unions undermined the immediate possibility of uniting a large majority of the workforce around the green and feminist policies of less work for everybody. And middle-class green voters were attracted to eco-tax mechanisms as an alternative to more complicated forms of ecological controls on production or consumption. Moreover, the myth that the welfare state was somehow responsible for mass unemployment began to gain a foothold among new generations of greens.

And yet, even in the run-up to the 1998 federal elections that brought the ‘red-green’ coalition into government the Greens ran on a programme that still bore the imprint of the party’s left wing, though the electoral slate and, therefore, the people who would drive the programme did not reflect this political balance.

The original coalition agreement gave some grounds for hope that the new government would introduce real social and ecological reforms. This was helped by the presence of the SPD’s former leader and finance minister Oscar Lafontaine, who had been a main architect of German reform coalition-building efforts in the late 1980s.

The realists soon won a strategic victory, however. They polarised party members against an ‘old-party left wing’ that failed to provide answers to the new challenges of the mono-polar world order under the reinforced power of the US. The spectacular decision of the Greens to support German participation in the Nato war against the Serbs over Kosovo was the symbolic climax of this development.

Other important milestones have been the Green parliamentary group’s distancing of itself from those NGOs and grassroots movements that challenge corporate globalisation, the vanishing of the proposal to reduce working time from Green economic policy, and the abandonment of proposals for political control of ecological transformations in favour of ‘economic instruments’. The party has also replaced radical feminist demands with a policy of ‘gender mainstreaming’ for a minority of career women. Similarly indicative is the compromise the Green Party has made on the slow phasing-out of nuclear energy. This last betrayal led to the breaking away of the anti-nuclear movements from the party.

By 1999 the Greens’ left wing had lost its grip on party congresses and its coordinating structures began to disintegrate. Many activists have left the party, mostly individually. Many have thrown themselves into new organisations like the anti-globalisation initiative Attac or the new protest movement against the war in Iraq. In Germany these new transnational movements have developed without any party political support. Yet again activists are faced with the problem of trying to build real political pressure without having reliable party political counterparts. The same has become true for the trade unions, which have had to look for a new capacity for strategic action without their traditional allies in the SPD.

The Green party’s left wing has not vanished entirely, however. In June grassroots Greens were able to force an extraordinary congress upon the party because of its parliamentary leadership’s attempts to be more neoliberal than Schroeder. The left is still a force to be reckoned with at grassroots level.

When, in 2006, the German Greens come to grips with electoral defeat, voices will be present within the party that will be able to explain how and why the opportunism of Fischer and Schroeder led to defeat for all sorts of demands for social, democratic, feminist and ecological goals. The ‘realist’ strategic idea that the Greens would take the political space of the liberals, while giving it a new ecological and anti-discriminatory edge, has failed.

Hopefully, this will not be the end of the German Greens or Germany’s more radical left-wing forces (who are also in the SDP). But if these left green forces do not develop a new political project that is capable of forming the basis for a broader alliance of social and political forces than the ‘new social movements’ of the 1970s and 1980s, then they will be defeated again. The subsequent emergence of a ‘realist’ hegemony on the left would be grim indeed – and not just for Germany.

Green Party member Frieder Otto Wolf is an ex-MEP and teaches political philosophy at the Freie Universitat Berlin

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair


22