Anarchist Lens: The Green Experiment
Parliamentary politics and the demolilisation of struggle ...
In this post, Anarchist Lens returns to the subject of electoral politics and how it demobilises the struggle for change. The example of the German Greens is examined. In the late 70s, Die Grünen (The Greens) emerged as a new force on the German and European left. Radical and activist led, they claimed to be aware of the pitfalls of the electoral process and were, in their own words, an ‘anti-party party’. Yet, in less than twenty years, they had capitulated on all their key principles: tolerating nuclear power, rubber-stamping German participation in NATO and even agreeing to capitalist-friendly market reforms. How did this transformation come about?
The town of Wyhl is located in south-west Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg, not far from the Alps. Wyhl and its hinterland is largely agricultural and is also rich in terms of natural beauty. Even so, in the early 70s, Wyhl was chosen as the preferred location for a nuclear power plant. The technology had been under development in West Germany since the 1950s but it was really only in the late 60s and early 70s that the German state moved to make nuclear power the cornerstone of its future energy needs.
There was immediate opposition to the proposal in Wyhl and over a number of years planners and politicians were lobbied to oppose the project – all to no avail. In February 1975, building contractors moved onto land near the town to prepare for construction. A few days later local activists and farmers occupied the site and prevented preparatory work from progressing. The police intervened and removed the protesters but the subsequent publicity – which exposed heavy-handed police tactics – drew attention to the struggle in Wyhl. A short while after nearly 30,000 people – including large numbers of students from nearby Freiberg University – converged on the site and all work was halted on the construction of the power station. Less than a month after, faced with ongoing protests and occupations, the grand plan to make Wyhl nuclear was abandoned. In an ironic twist the site for the power plant was later turned into a nature reserve. (1)
The victory at Wyhl is considered to be one of the first major successes of West Germany’s impressive anti-nuclear movement which held sway mainly in the 1970s and 80s. Other significant confrontations were to follow – such as that at Grohnde (2) and Brokdorff (3) – but Wyhl is noteworthy for the decisiveness of the victory. How did this happen? A key factor was local involvement and resistance. A second feature was the willingness to commit to direct action – such as the site occupations. A third and vital factor was the movement’s ability to win practical support in large numbers when the West German state opted to use its repressive hand. This wider support and solidarity was vital to what was eventually achieved.
The German green movement was an important component of the broad anti-nuclear mobilisation in that country. They played a role in building that struggle and were, at the same time, fundamentally influenced by it. Local activity, which focused on local issues and which utilised local action, was a key ingredient in growth. Grass roots participation was also highly valued as was consciousness-raising around the issues and concerns of the day. In other words before the greens ever became Die Grünen, the political party, they were a coalition of all sorts of practical activists – citizens action groups, campaigners against nuclear power, anti-militarists and pacifists as well as anti-capitalists. (4) Politically speaking they drew their membership largely from the radical left – anarchist, New Left and Maoist ideas were all part of the mix – but no one ideology wielded a decisive influence. (5)
Two factors were important to the political challenge that the green movement came to represent. The first was the emerging importance of “environmentalism” and “ecologism” as political issues. Seen from the perspective of today, environmentalism and concern about the earth’s resources appear to be a mainstream issues, but back in the early 70s, concern about the impact of human development on the earth’s ecology was decidedly new. (6) Central to this was the green perception that capitalism itself was a key part of problem that the environmental movement faced. Capitalism’s unrelenting demand for growth, its voracious search for new markets and cheaper raw materials were core to its dynamism. Yet these same elements were directly at odds with the earth’s environment and green movement’s contention that the planet had exhaustible, finite resources that needed to be carefully managed and minded. For this reason significant sections of the Green movement held that social and economic transformation away from the dictates of the ‘free market’ would have to take place if the environment was to be saved. (7)
A second factor was that the early green movement was also about a different way of doing things. Its evolution – as indicated by protests such as that at Wyhl – emphasised grassroots involvement and participative democracy. But in practice too there was a commitment to doing things ‘a different way’. This translated into an anti-professional, participatory and decentralised attitude to party organisation. Horizontal organisational forms were favoured over traditional ‘top-down’ arrangements, as were internal organisational practices that promoted and maintained grassroots empowerment and participation.
The overall praxis then – maintaining a radical organisational form that encouraged and facilitated participation as part of the process of building a movement for change – was seen as core to the green perspective.
Key protests such as that at Wyhl had been successful because such actions were locally based and relied heavily on the active participation of grassroots members. However this ‘local’ nature of the early green movement also meant that from early days and in some regional areas, sections of the greens also openly intervened at city and regional level elections. These initiatives were initially tactical and relied heavily on the emerging movement’s ability to exploit the rivalries that existed between the dominant political parties in West German politics – the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. (8) Broadly speaking these electoral initiatives fared well (winning modest, locally valued concessions) with the result that there was increasing openness to using such methods if the opportunities presented themselves. In the early days these electoral tactics were used in conjunction with (or parallel to) tactics involving direct action. (9) This parallel approach – using extra-parliamentary action alongside a visible parliamentary presence – was an old strategy of the Left’s and quite viable.
Inevitably, however, the greens moved to consolidate this base of operations and this culminated in the formation of the German Green Party (Die Grünen or The Greens) in 1980 at Karlsruhe. (11) The central tenets of this new organisation were environmental concern and action, social justice,(12) grassroots democracy and non-violence. (13)
Die Grünen had negligible impact in the Federal elections of 1980 but this was not surprising given that it had only just formed. (14) The situation, however, changed radically just three years later when the new party burst onto the Federal and European political scene capturing 27 seats or 5.7% of the vote. Further significant growth followed, fortuitously accelerated by a series of high profile controversies. The first, involving the deployment of Pershing II (15) missiles on German soil, further underscored the precarious position that West German society found itself in at this time i.e. at the epicentre of any future East-West nuclear war. The other equal worrying issue was radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl (16) nuclear accident (1986) which underlined further the dubious safety record of nuclear power plants as well as the silent danger that nuclear radiation posed. Not surprisingly when Die Grünen marshalled their forces for the 1987 Federal elections they achieved another high vote, this time of 8.3%.
The meteoric rise in support, however, papered over a serious internal crisis. This schism, which revolved around the extent to which The Greens were remaining true to their original principles and aims, was sharpened considerably by the reality of German unification. The ending of the Cold War in the late 1980s and, with that, the uniting of East and West Germany, precipitated a new round of Federal elections. Die Grünen however was unable to agree a unity programme with their counterparts from the former East Germany, Alliance 90, with the result that its vote actually shrunk to 4.8 percent and – crucially – came in under the politically decisive 5% threshold mark – reserved within German parliamentary politics as minimum level of support needed to establish a parliamentary presence. (17)
A decisive and bitter period of internal conflict, often termed the ‘Realos’ versus ‘Fundis’ debate, now broke out within Die Grünen. This was a conflict over the movement’s political soul and future direction and it resolved itself decisively in favour of the ‘Realos’ faction in the early 90s. Consequently, in 1993, The Greens (in a new alliance with Alliance 90) re-emerged as a serious electoral force, capturing 7.3% of the popular vote in the Federal election. (18)
With the issue of internal party wrangling more or less finished with, and the Realos faction in the ascendency, Die Grünen as a political party moved closer to the centre of German politics and went on to emerge as the third largest party in the country in the 1998 elections. In effect they now displaced the right-of-centre Free Democrats from their sitting role as coalition king-maker. (19) Soon after this Die Grünen entered into their first Federal level coalition with their old rivals, the SPD and the ‘red-green’ coalition emerged.
On the one hand it could be said that The Greens had achieved success but the nature of this was tempered by the knowledge that the organisation had abandoned its core principles. This became glaringly clear when Die Grünen backed the decision to allow German participation in the NATO intervention in Kosovo in the early 90s. Not only did Joschka Fischer (Green leader and Foreign Minister in the ‘red-green’ coalition) actively defended participation in the aerial bombings of Serbia, he was supported by one time ’68 hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit. (20) The controversy provoked a massive crisis inside Die Grünen and nearly a full third of its membership resigned in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s bombing of Serbia. In any case just as significant was the party’s endorsement and participation in the implementation of a raft of neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’ (the Agenda 2010 programme) which sought to revitalise the flagging Germany economy via ‘workplace’ reforms. As one commentator noted, ‘this led to [the] plundering of the public assets, social insurance and pension funds, while repressing wages and granting tax cuts to business worth billions of euros – effectively a redistribution of wealth from poor to rich’. In a sense so much for social justice. (21)
It could be argued The Greens were naive and ultimately unprepared for the process they engaged in, but this is far from being the full story. As is obvious from some of the early, formative debates in the movement there was a good deal of discussion about what the road ahead involved. In part this reflected the influence of New Left (22) ideas inside Green party ranks, but in part it also reflected an acute awareness of the past compromises and capitulations – particularly poignant in terms of Germany’s own tragic history.
To recap the socialist movement in Europe, during the early 20th century, was numerically strong and hugely popular. In many countries this translated into electoral success and many socialist parties had actually entered into government. Yet sell-outs and betrayals were the order of the day – an outcome that was particularly true in the case of Germany where the once powerful Social Democratic Party (the GSPD) (23) had not only voted for war in the prelude to WW1 but had also played a pivotal part in the suppression of the workers uprisings in 1919 – a course of action that did, in time, pave the way for the rise of Nazism.
Another factor was the influence of anarchist ideas and in particular that movement’s critique of the parliamentary process. As a political theory anarchism had warned about (and predicted) a good deal of what had come to pass in the mainstream socialist movement in Europe in the 20th century i.e. dilution and abandonment of political principles as part of full engagement with the parliamentary process. These predictions had been made during various debates with Marxists and other reform oriented socialists in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century period. (24) But, for the most part, these concerns and criticism were swept aside.
Many socialist leaders believed that they understood the project of reforming capitalism and that all that was required was that they be handed the levers of power and the working masses would see the benefit. In addition these same socialist leaders held a superficial (even innocent) appreciation of how the State (as a structure) operated on the political front. Many regarded the ‘state’ benignly: a ‘bad’ thing in the wrong hands, a force for ‘good’ once steered in the correct direction by enlightened vision. (25) How the State was actually structured – its hierarchical core – and how this affected decision-making as well the means for the mobilisation of resources – was largely ignored.
Yet the evidence of the 20th century history had done much to vindicate the anarchist critique. So much so that the critique and the debate itself – centring on whether the parliamentary process was fatal to ideals – was to the fore in Die Grünen in its early days. Thus Frieder Otto Wolf, a former Green European MEP, noted about the organisation: "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’ ‘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." (26)
To an important extent then the parliamentary process was viewed by Die Grünen as treacherous. What was devised to protect the organisation and its aims was the construction of an organisational bulwark known as basisdemokratie. It was inevitable that the party would taste electoral success and popularity, the point was to prepare for it. Basisdemokratie was essentially a set of ‘institutional rules’ designed to protect the new party and organisation from the corrupting aspects of the parliamentary success. (27) Its key features were:
• Any party member could attend any party meeting at any time. Although this might seem like a basic matter in a democratic party, in reality the majority of political parties don’t allow this; for example an ordinary member is not allowed attend a meeting of, say, the parliamentary party.
• Consensus would be sought in important debates and was to be preferred over outright majority rule. However majority vote decisions were acceptable after an appropriate amount of debate.
• Important items of policy were subject to a collective decision making process – involving the grassroots. This was considered to be particularly important and was to act as brake on the scenario whereby key party policy decision could come to be seen as decision that should be the preserve of the elected parliamentarians.
• There would be strict limitations on the holding of party officer-ships while also holding a parliamentary seat.
• Green deputies were to be mandated and bound by the party conference and the agreed party programme if they took up elected ‘member of parliament’ status. Note that this was an effort to introduce a modicum of ‘direct-democracy’ practice over representational parliamentary democracy.
• Members elected to state and Federal assemblies would step down halfway through their terms of office – to be replaced by the next Green on the electoral list.
• Party roles and officer positions were rotated to as to avoid the development of career politicians.
• The party was committed to gender balance in officership roles.
• Finally The Greens were committed to basisanbingdung or “tied up with the grassroots”. This concept stressed the ‘importance of ensuring that members in senior offices within the federal party maintained a direct link with those active at local and regional levels’. (28) This was to be achieved by attending meetings or activities organised by local branches.
Underpinning the idea of basisdemokratie was a specific concern about ‘professionalisation’. This was not just the issue of career politicians and the deformities that could arise from the influence of a particular ‘shining light’ or ‘leader’. It was also about confronting the process of change that occurred within a party through prolonged exposure to the electioneering process and the media limelight. In traditional parties, the Federal MPs often became ‘the face’ of those parties. Consequently they accrued power, linked to their media profile that was outside the grassroots mandate. It was a development that distorted the internal culture of the party unless specifically countered; basisdemokratie was an attempt to provide that. (29)
Early electoral success meant Die Grünen was flooded with offers to participate in coalition arrangements. These had to be acted upon. In favour of forming coalitions was the age old desire to achieve a certain number of real reforms. If well chosen, these could then be further used to underline the party’s future potential. The downside was that Die Grünen might have to support unsavoury measures that clearly weren’t in the party’s manifesto. Such measures were capable of damaging the party’s prized image of being ‘new’ and ‘different. They also risked antagonising the party’s activist base – which was a corner stone of Die Grünen’s organisational achievements.
It proved impossible to resist the lure of office. In Hesse in 1984, Die Grünen formally agreed to enter into a full coalition arrangement when they agreed to support a minority SPD government. Interestingly this arrangement was opposed by the Federal Die Grünen organisation but local autonomy was highly prized and, in this case, triumphed. As a result, and with time, other local Green organisations in Berlin (1989) and Lower Saxony (1990) also entered into State coalition arrangements. (30) Moreover, in an early sign of the seismic shift underway in the party, in Brandenburg and Bremen, the Greens entered into three-way coalitions with the SPDs and their ideological adversaries the right-wing Free Democrats (FDP). In the state of Hesse the coalition lasted until the Greens pulled out following the decision by Hesse state parliament to grant a new licence for a nuclear power station! (31) This case highlighted the challenging situation that Die Grünen was now finding itself in on the policy front.
What was happening internally? As the opportunities for coalition proliferated, the practices of basisdemokratie moved more centre stage – as might be expected. However, the manner in which happened was not fully anticipated. The nub of the matter was that at some level basisdemokratie actually worked. It stipulated certain ways of acting and this was given legal effect by Die Grünen’s rule book. In effect a brake was put on the headlong rush to reconfigure Die Grünen into a traditional ‘professional’ party.
In particular basisdemokratie was effective in the decision-making arena. Die Grünen’s rule book instructed its politicians, if involved, to refer back to the party’s membership before signing off on important decisions. (32) However this style of ‘horizontal’ consultation jarred with the ‘top-down’ operation of the State. If Die Grünen had been the sole political party in an administrative structure, it might have had some means to insist on an accommodation (from the State) but instead, in those early days, it was often working in coalition partnerships. These partners were also antagonistic to the practices ordained by basisdemokratie. Thus Die Grünen discovered quickly that its consensus decision-making stipulations were the source of considerable friction.
‘Top-down’ decision-making, of course, has a logic all of its own. State power rests on a number of pillars, but one of those is the State’s ‘right’ to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Most of officialdom accepts and supports top-down decision making. This is a product of the elite mindset, but there is also an element of ‘custom and practice’: this is how things are done and have always been done. To up-scuttle the ‘top-down’ way of doing things is, in and of itself, not easy and this is precisely what the Die Grünen discovered. The Greens found themselves battling a conservative civil structure, sceptical coalition partners and, in time, a section inside its own ranks that did itself support basisdemokratie – because it was causing too much friction with the various coalition partners.
This internal faction, elements of which became the Realos wing of the Die Grünen, had existed from the party’s foundation. Recall that Die Grünen was a heterogeneous organisation in terms of its constituent identities. This was widely viewed as a positive aspect, as Petra Kelly explained: "The variety of currents enrich our party, even in the absence of a common consensus in the analysis of society. I don’t want to exclude communists and conservatives and I don’t have to. One current learns from the other. There is not mutual destruction, but a convergence of views. That what is new about our movement." (33)
However Die Grünen was not operating in a political vacuum. It faced, as does any radical movement, strong political headwinds; these were forces that wanted to steer policy and The Greens away from change and towards an accommodation with the status quo. It is worth noting that Die Grünen’s anti-capitalist tendencies were seriously resented by privileged interest in Germany, not to say opposed by Germany’s formidable industrial sector.
As happened then with the socialist movements of the past, Die Grünen found that it contained within itself the seeds of its demise. A pragmatic wing that was content to compromise on long-term aspirations if it meant leveraging any immediate gains came to the fore. (34) In time this wing grew stronger and larger. Election successes accelerated its rise. The balance of forces within the party shifted (35) and as they did the electoral road took on an even more important role. A middle ground in the party – swelled in numbers by electoral successes – moved towards seeing further success in the electoral arena as the sure way to move forward in terms of the party’s prime objectives. It was still worthwhile to have an occasional large protest or mobilisation, but within the movement itself the real fight, as they saw it, had now moved decisively from the street arena to winning elections and, eventually, a majority in the parliament.
Naturally the newer members of Die Grünen were also less likely to see the value in basisdemokratie – and many indeed considered it to be outdated. Additionally a further problem appeared. Basisdemokratie supporters – drawn heavily from the grassroots base – became disenchanted as they were forced to work with traditional professionalised parties that were sceptical of (or even antagonistic to) their ‘alternative’ ways. Many didn’t even stay to fight the swing to pragmatism seeing the battle, from early on, as unwinnable.
The conflict inside The Greens intensified. However continued electoral success now became a defining factor in deciding the outcome. As De Grünen continued to poll well it became easier for the ‘Realos’ to argue that those who supported basisdemokratie were ‘out of touch’ and ‘hung up on principles’ and ‘old ways’. Realos supporters could argue that even though the party was operating in mixed coalitions and adopting ‘professional’ ways, it was still winning public support. If the electorate was with Die Grünen and trusted its promise, what was the need of basisdemokratie and its cumbersome rules?
The logic of the ‘Realos’ faction was further buttressed by a conservative media and political establishment which desperately wanted Die Grünen to ‘behave normally’ and play the game. In their logic Die Grünen needed to be more like the other parties; this was the perquisite for success but also the price to be paid.
The organisational strictures at the core of basisdemokratie became the target. Consensus decision took too long and was unwieldy. For example too much consultation was cited as key reason why the Green were unable to strike an arrangement with Alliance 90 ahead of the first ‘unified’ German elections in 1990 – the poor performance at this juncture becoming as it did a major bone of contention between the Fundis and Realos wings.
Also under threat was the rotation of officer-ship positions. It was argued that it took a party member a long time to gain experience of how a governmental role functioned. But due to the party rules, just as she did, she had to be moved on anyway – in order to minimise the ill-effects of ‘professionalism’. So this rotation concept was also deemed to be quite problematic; best to get rid of that too. And so on. The ‘separation of role from mandate principle’ insisted that Die Grünen parliamentarians did not necessarily sit on party councils at local, Lund/State or Federal level. But this was discredited as the parliamentary arm of the party grew numerically and politically more powerful. The party council – containing ordinary members – was deemed to be ‘removed’ from the reality of the parliamentary arm. Now instead of the dog wagging its tail, the opposite made sense. The parliamentarians moreover were at the cutting edge of where decisions and policy was being implemented: they needed to be able to direct Die Grünen’s resources accordingly. And so – in a way that we’ve come to know only too well – a complete upturning of common sense came to make more sense.
At the Neumunster Conference (1991) Die Grünen took the controversial decisions that gutted basisdemokratie. From that point on, the party moved quickly from its activist origins towards the professionalised party model. Symbolic elements of ‘rotation’ and ‘participation’ were retained and occasionally paraded to the public to insist that Die Grünen were still ‘new and different’, but these were largely for show. Basisdemokratie and, more importantly, the thinking that lay behind its development and inclusion, was abandoned so that in time a leadership could come to the fore which was able to sell to the membership the twists, turns and compromises of high office.
If any one person was to typify the scale of the transformation that Die Grünen had now undergone it had to the Green leader of that era, Joschka Fischer. A one-time squatter activist in the 1970s, Fischer was a key proponent of the ‘red-green’ coalition which saw Die Grünen abandon all its main principles for the trappings of power. Later on Fischer would take up a number of lucrative private sector roles as a lobbyist and handler for corporate business interests. (36) His own personal wealth benefited accordingly.
The fate of the German Greens had a significant impact outside Germany. Die Grünen, to an important extent, was seen as the flagship party of the broad electoral Green movement that emerged in the 80s and 90s in Europe. Organisationally and intellectually it led the way, with the result that the fight for its political soul was intense. But, once the battle inside Die Grünen was lost, it appeared to catalyse a generalised wave of compromise across a range of other similar political parties internationally. In other words, key principles were compromised upon, aims were moderated and organisational structures were modified in favour of the traditional professional party model. (37)
However, the fact that various Green parties succumbed to reformism and moderation in a variety of conditions can also be interpreted in another way. The multi-country experience underlines the fact that the experience of Die Grünen was not a ‘German’ event or something intrinsic to the character of German politics. Rather, instead, the multi-country experience upholds the anarchist analysis that a fundamental process of political corruption is at work when radical organisations – seeking egalitarian objectives – enter into the parliamentary process. The concerted manner in which that process happened to the Green parties at this time in a multitude of scenarios is surely proof that the anarchists are onto something.
The transformation of Die Grünen from radical movement into conventional political party was repeated in a number of other countries in Europe in the same time period. This was no accident. Anarchists then are right to argue, as they have in the past, that electoralist strategies are corrupting and destructive to movement that wish to overthrow capitalism. The rise and fall of Die Grünen is one of the best, recent examples of the anarchist argument that radical democratic movements are undermined and demobilised when they involve themselves in electoral (or parliamentary) strategies.
First published on Kevin Doyle Blog at https://kfdoyle.wordpress.com
All references listed at https://kfdoyle.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/anarchism-germ...eens/