Sprouting up across Europe in the early 1980s, Green Parties were styled as non-sectarian, refreshing alternatives to the largely Maoist revolutionary left of the 1970s, from which they drew many former members. These parties united frustrated sections of the radical left with activists from the ecological and feminist movements in what seemed like a promising alternative path to the dogmatism and verbal radicalism of the post-1968 upsurge.
In the United States, the country’s inherently restrictive electoral system has prevented the Greens from gaining any meaningful footholds in elected office, but the party has, whatever its faults, largely stuck to the radical ecological principles it adhered to at its founding.
Yet the German and Austrian Greens were able to enter their countries’ respective political systems by the late 1980s — and in the German case, even managed to join a governing coalition in 1998. Both parties have since shed their radical veneer in pursuit of political power and legitimacy. Their trajectories point towards the fundamental limitations of the “Green” political approach, suggesting that a set of floating policies decoupled from any durable social base or wider social vision prove an insufficient anchor for radical politics.
This July, Jacobin contributor Sarah Nagel convened a conversation to discuss the origins and futures of two of Europe’s key Green Parties.
In Germany, the Greens came together in the late 1970s as a coalition of the far left with social liberals and a few conservatives. It was an interesting period for this kind of formation. You had a fairly conservative social-democratic government in office and industrial struggles were in decline, but there were many other social movements — against nuclear power, the women’s movement, and so on.
To some, it seemed that the “old social movements” with their class orientation were being replaced by “new social movements.” Obviously, environmental issues involve class as much as labor issues do. But the divide appeared to reflect different movement experiences and cultures, and organized labor was in retreat while the new struggles had the wind in their sails.
The Green Party embodied the hope that these new movements with their post-materialist concerns with peace, identity, and the environment would define the political arena more and more. The Greens wanted to be the political vehicle of these currents, an anti-imperialist, feminist party. But in the early 1980s these movements too were weakening, and the Greens increasingly oriented towards parliamentary politics.
They became incorporated as a normal party, despite their best efforts to prevent this by organizational innovations, such as a rotation system for seats in parliament and collective leadership.
Similar to Germany, in Austria the Greens emerged out of two distinct currents: a left wing and a bourgeois-conservative one. Environmental questions were very important in the 1970s and ’80s. Some connected them to anticapitalist themes, while others tied them to conservative notions like protecting the “homeland’s” natural environment.
The party’s left stood for grassroots democracy and saw itself as a mouthpiece for social and ecological movements. In this sense, they can be viewed as the successors to 1968, though in the context of the gradual decline of class-based politics. The Greens entered parliament for the first time in 1986, but the party wasn’t fully formed from the outset. Various groupings came together, and in the years after entering parliament, they had to situate themselves.
In the beginning, grassroots principles were experimented with, such as the rotation principle, but over time the Left began to lose out. In the meantime, the bourgeois wing had built ties to local citizens’ movements concerned with issues like local conservation issues. Their goal was a “clean, transparent” political system, but this was a relatively superficial criticism that failed to move beyond the status quo.
By the time the Greens were founded, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) had increasingly detached itself from its working-class base, in a climate characterized by neoliberalization and atomization. The Greens, by contrast, embodied the model of a small party without a large apparatus, but with strong internal democracy. Of course, the party had few members and little social base or local roots.
To this day, the Greens primarily draw votes from well-to-do, urban milieus. In many states, they tend to win more support from former conservative voters (ÖVP) than frustrated SPÖ voters. Theyare weaker in the countryside, as well as among industrial skilled workers. This was basically always the case. What has changed since the 1980s and ’90s is that the party has become more attractive to middle-class voters. The politics have grown softer. Many high-earners with a social conscience vote for the Greens, almost as a form of charity.
The Green Party in Germany is also dominated by the middle class. This doesn’t make it unusual — the same applies to social-democratic parties. But for social-democratic parties, the pivotal middle-class voices tend to be trade union officials, whereas for the Greens, it is a less focused mix: public-sector managers and professionals, charity-shop owners, software engineers, and so on. Both types of party are in a sense led by the middle class, but one has a sustained link to the working class.
In Germany and Britain, Green Party voters are on average well-educated. In Germany, the Green electorate tends to be wealthier — in fact, it is the richest of any German party. The stereotype in Germany is of the squatter in a northern city who riots each May Day; their squat is then legalized; they open a shop, their views on property destruction soften, and they evolve into a Green. But in the country’s south, the Green constituency tends to be more conservative, and their regional parties have entered coalition governments with the Christian Democrats (in Baden-Wurtemberg and elsewhere).
It’s worth noting that in the United Kingdom, Green Party supporters are often relatively poor — often students or ex-students who cannot find decent work, especially after the recession. It’s not unrelated to the fact that the British Green parties are more left-wing.
Joining a coalition government at state level in 1980 was one turning point. This was a major step of the incorporation of the Greens into the system and helped to consolidate the party’s liberal “realo” wing. Next, joining Schröder’s government in 1998 was decisive. That was the backdrop to the 1999 decision to back the NATO war on Yugoslavia, a justification that was framed as liberal humanitarianism but in reality spelled the reassertion of German imperialism.
In that government, too, the Green support for austerity was consolidated as well as their toleration of a very dirty coal industry, the extension of the nuclear power program, and restrictions on civil rights. Within two decades, the Green Party had become the opposite of its original program in many respects. They had become “neoliberals with wind farms.”
The party began life during the early stages of neoliberal ascendancy in Germany and adapted completely to that context. In Britain, by contrast, the Greens were set up by more conservative forces but Labour’s embrace of neoliberalism allowed the Greens to occupy the vacated space on the left. They became known for progressive views on immigration, opposition to austerity, renationalization of the railways, and so on.
In Austria, an initial significant point in the spread of environmentalist ideas were the protests against the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, a project pushed through by a Social Democratic government in 1979. Ultimately, a popular referendum was held which decided against the power plant — to this day, there are no nuclear power plants in Austria. The movement to which the Greens themselves most often refer was the occupation of the Hainburger Au in protest against a hydroelectric plant in 1984. The Greens were not the major initiator of these protests, but gained a lot of momentum from them.
They entered parliament two years later — another decisive step. The Waldheim Affair, which also broke out in 1986, finally ended the long era of silence regarding the Nazi period in Austrian society, at the same time that the extreme right of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) under Jörg Haider took over the party and began attacking the postwar political system from the far right.
The Greens were not a uniform political formation at this point. There was an electoral list with the clear intent of getting into parliament. Alexander van der Bellen became the party’s public spokesperson and managed to domesticate and professionalize the party over the next ten years. He is a fairly bourgeois politician and made the Greens fit for government, and the party joined an increasing number of governing coalitions under the leadership of his successor, Glawischnig, in places like Carinthia, Tyrol, and Vienna.
The approach of politics-as-marketing grew more pronounced and the party failed to develop any plausible sort of strategy. Van der Bellen’s 2016 presidential campaign was also important. Here, it became evident how completely detached the party functionaries are: his candidacy was decided on by an executive board, a body of thirty people. During the campaign itself, we began to see how weak the Greens’ local structures are.
The party conducted a patriotic electoral campaign. This meant strongly tacking rightwards and a break with previous positions, the implications of which were hardly reflected on within party ranks. At this point, there are even some signs of dissolution. Shortly after the campaign in 2016, strategic debates began to emerge within the party, culminating in the expulsion of the party’s youth section, the Young Greens, in late March 2017. The party was simply incapable of conducting internal debates.
Following the call for snap elections in October 2017, the Young Greens began to look at their options for further political work. We conducted discussions with various left-wing forces, including the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ), leading to the formation of KPÖ PLUS. PLUS stands for “Plattform unabhängig und solidarisch” (Independent and Solidary Platform), an independent, multi-party electoral platform which unites left-wing forces and strives to remain politically relevant outside of elections as well. A congress is planned for the months after the October elections to discuss and develop the platform’s political positions and structures.
Did Things Have to End So Badly?
It was heavily conditioned by a parliamentary orientation within a context defined by ascendant neoliberalism, but it was not inevitable. If a clear left strategy within the Greens had evolved, toward the labor movement in particular, their trajectory could have been different.
I don’t think so, no. But this path is certainly plausible for a party without a social basis or a social project. The Green’s naïve, abstract anti-institutionalism also failed to provide a clear concept of how to deal with institutions and work within them without becoming coopted by them.
The Austrian Greens’ main project in recent years has been joining the federal government. This won’t work this time, either — in terms of the numbers, there just isn’t a realistic governing majority with the Greens. If they want to survive the next five years, they will have to reorient themselves.
There is still a left-wing reserve in the party, albeit one with hardly any institutional voice. I think the party left could use the current crisis to instigate a debate on what the Greens actually want to achieve in terms of a broader social vision. The question is whether they manage to overcome their political drift and democratize the party.
Our analysis in the Young Greens is that we need a project in the next decade in which local politics develops local roots and, potentially, turns into a left-wing party project. By engaging in KPÖ PLUS, we’ll attempt to establish a new political force to the left of the Greens. That said, given the likelihood of a government with far-right participation following the October elections, we need all left-wing forces to engage in resistance. It will require the energy of all democratic forces.
The Green project faces a fascinating challenge. On the one hand, the environmental crisis is becoming far graver than was recognized even twenty years ago. On the other, the root cause of the environmental crisis is capitalism — yet most Green parties have adapted themselves to a role as that system’s managers. We can only hope that anticapitalists within Green Parties can develop and relate to other left-wing movements to forge eco-socialist coalitions.