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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

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