This is the second article in the series that began with this piece and typology. Today, the focus is on leftist green parties and those between the left and liberal categories. A recent tweet from Jacobin Magazine founder Bhaskar Sunkara claimed that many greens shouldn’t exist, because “Environmental demands have been effectively integrated into the programs of traditional left/labor parties, which are generally more reliable politically”. This interesting point displays some of the contention between the traditional anticapitalist left and many of the rising green parties that don’t align with that tradition. However, in some cases, environmental issues haven’t just been integrated into leftist party platforms, but instead guide the concerns of these parties. This would make up what I call the “Red-Green” category, a grouping of parties who advocate for eco-socialism. To their right are those that fall in between leftist and liberal, mostly left-leaning but usually representing a new left outlook more than a left/labor view of the world. This distinction is this piece’s focus.
Red greens represent those green parties to the farthest left of the political spectrum, at least relative to the political context they militate in. For the most part, their lens combines a class-warfare approach prominent in the old left with more modern ecological concerns. However, their core ideology revolves around socialism and the deconstruction of capitalism as a means to environmental salvation.
While not a path I personally agree with, this approach is not philosophically ignorant. Karl Marx had much to say about the deleterious impacts of capitalism on the planet. For example, he posited that capitalism creates a separation between nature and humanity, which are in reality inextricably linked. This is a point I’m tempted to concede, and Frederich Engels further noted that capitalist structures discuss nature as a constraint to be overcome. Companies seek profit, and often that profit comes out of the ground or at the expense of the air and water. These same companies often marketize the commons, or the spaces we share. After all, the drive for growth inherently involves the consumption of limited resources. So, according to red-greens, capitalism’s frenzied consumption results in plundering of natural resources and disregard for the earth’s health. Data exists to support such a mindset too. According to the Carbon Majors Report, 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of all emissions since 1988. Individual solutions can only go so far. If ones accepts at face value the claims that corporations are at fault and that capitalism’s paradigm encourages environmental degradation, then it might make sense on paper to overturn capitalism as a way to save the planet.
Never mind that the USSR, despite beginning with strong environmental bearings, in reality left behind soiled water, dirty air, and one of humanity’s worst nuclear catastrophes in Chernobyl. Even today, socialist Venezuela’s economy is based on the fact that 95% of their exports consist of oil. However, I digress, because it’s theory that fuels leftist green outfits, most of which are unlikely to form government any time soon. This theoretical positioning makes the red greens different from liberal greens. They do not see the market as a potential framework for climate solutions, but rather as the illness itself. In doing so, these parties often reject the international institutions that liberal greens tend to embrace. Organizations like the IMF, World Bank, and European Union appear less as forums for cooperation and more as tools for the proliferation of free market neoliberalism. Euroskepticism is thus a differentiating mark between European red greens and liberal greens.
But, even within the group, a spectrum between whether an economic or ecological paradigm dominates exists. Some parties in this category represent the most ‘old-left’ green parties and are nothing more than alliances with traditional materially oriented Communists. Portugal’s Partido Ecologista “Os Verdes”is the perfect example of such a party, existing in government under the banner of the “Coligação Democrática Unitária”, their coalition with the Portuguese Communist Party. The PEV platform explicitly rejects “liberal and neoliberal models” and decries the World Bank and IMF as pushing economies in the direction of environmental exploitation. In the same document, PEV advocates for economic decentralization, a capital transaction tax, and the use of national planning to minimize planetary impact. These policies represent a challenge to the market regime and to globalization as we know it, stemming from a core opposition to capitalism. While their policy platform itself omits references to Communism, their partnership with the PCP affords them nothing more than a small voice within a broader communist movement. In fact, since 1983, one year after their founding, the PEV has never run on an independent ticket. Their affiliation with the PCP and smaller size effectively prevents PEV from serving as a free standing green movement. The PCP’s decidedly old left politics, which include support for North Korea over Western countries, overshadow the Greens and their agenda, leading to the CDU’s effective consideration as a unified old left Communist party.
Other red greens are eco-socialists who oppose market policies while also pushing for environmentalism with a different framework. These parties place a greater priority on ecological concerns than the PEV for example, but at their core continue to represent a leftist agenda.
Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance exemplifies such a party, old-left in its orientations but also promoting a distinctly eco-socialist agenda, as their name suggests. Its formation is revealing; the Red-Green Alliance is made up of the Left Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Denmark, and the Socialist Workers Party, which merged in 1989. Interestingly, each of these parties represented a squarely Communist outfit with roots in the Danish labor movement. Each party, however, maintained a longstanding opposition to nuclear power that allowed them to collectively claim a green mantle around their ecosocialism once they merged.
While the anti-capitalist Red-Green Alliance occasionally cooperates with the center-left Social Democratic Party and the democratic socialist Socialist People’s Party, this relationship is often strained due to the Social Democrats’ neoliberal policies, which included privatization in the early 2010s. The Social Democrats recently re-ascended to government, but on the promise of increased social spending in exchange for support from leftist parties. Neoliberalism directly clashes with RGA’s anti-capitalism, and the fraught relationship Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s actions created displays why the Red-Green Alliance cannot be seen as a liberal green party–they remain reluctant to go along with capitalism.
Beyond the Red-Greens’ origin story and fraught relationship with the center left, their platform reflects the theoretical underpinnings of eco-socialism. Ever since their founding, the RGA has stood against capitalism, against the EU, and for environmental conservation. This all places them squarely to the left of the Socialist People’s’ Party, which advocates a more moderate, globally integrated albeit-still-left perspective. Moreover, RGA’s current platform hearkens back to classic ecosocialist ideas. Their 2019 election platform, called 100 Days, included a ‘Green Program’ which according to the International Journal of Socialist Renewal, “start[ed] from a concise but all-round analysis of the roots of the ecological crisis in production for profit, stressing its impact on inequality within and between nations, and the inadequacy of the mainstream treatments such as ‘green growth’.” The ‘Green Program’ rejects the very notion that the market has a role to play in encouraging environmentalism, panning growth-driven mindsets as the problem.
Additionally, postmaterial issues of the new left remain challenging for the party, another differentiator from the liberal greens and in between parties. The RGA’s 2007 debate over inclusion of a practicing Muslim candidate, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, on the party list shows their division more on post material issues than on class-based ones. Indeed, the old left in Europe sometimes incorporates moral traditionalists. During the campaign, Abdol-Hamid’s wearing of a headscarf stirred up controversy, but not only from the right wing. Some backers of the RGA criticized Abdol-Hamid over the purported symbolism of her wearing a headscarf and over concerns about her ability to represent the party. They proved willing to reject orthodox left-wing views on social issues (tolerance of different religious practices) in order to promote an anti-capitalist line and retain a voter base that might be more socially traditional and aging. While new left parties often uphold religious tolerance and praise diversity, older communist outfits are not as uniformly quick to do so because it creates cracks in a coalition primarily concerned with anti-capitalism. Thus, the Red-Green Alliance sees the market as the fundamental problem preventing progress on environmental issues, a materialistic diagnosis. Unlike the PEV though, they exist as a freestanding party and represent one of the few outfits committed to eco-communism based on a theoretical framework that rejects liberalism.
The red greens address the concerns of observers like Sunkara who worry about mainstream green parties by melding environmentalism with an old left outlook. That said, they’re a relatively small group.
The In Betweeners
However, a larger group fills in the broad category of left-greens. The many parties I see as too left-leaning to be liberal greens like the Canadian or German outfits but too pragmatic to merit consideration alongside eco-communist parties are the in-betweeners. They often criticize capitalism, but blend the ecological values (as opposed to class conflict values) dominant in the liberal green strain with the economically left-wing positioning of the left-greens. This is distinct from a Marxist approach to the environment that constructs liberalism as the root cause. Moreover, these parties tend to draw in more postmaterial concerns than the red greens do and some of them do gravitate center-left. The combination of some liberal green elements and some red-green elements is common with parties that are decidedly left wing but not openly eco-socialist or in line with the far left of their respective countries.
Who Are They?
The British, American, and Australian Green Parties fall in between red and liberal-left wing but not radically so. They represent leftist movements in their countries’ contexts, but nonetheless leftists less inclined to view politics through the lens of overturning capitalism than red-green parties.
The UK is a good example. In 2014, UK Greens leader Caroline Lucas staked the party out as the true left-wing alternative in British politics with a speech at the 2014 party conference that addressed issues like ending workfare, nationalizing railroads, and attacking “tax-dodging, low-paying, exploitative multinational companies”. Some supporters of the Greens back them as a leftist outfit that can actually win seats, unlike smaller parties. While Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the head of Labour moved that party decidedly leftward, the Greens have maintained their leftist positioning, albeit trying to reach pro-remain left-wing voters turned off by Corbyn’s previous ambivalence on the issue and new left leaning youth. Different from the largely isolationist red greens, the UK Greens seek to remain in the EU (it’s even in their Twitter bio) and vocally oppose Boris Johnson’s moves towards a hard Brexit. They also include platform planks encouraging legal recognition for transgender Brits, ending migrant detention, and increasing the global aid budget by 33%. Leader Caroline Lucas even proposed an all-female unity cabinet to prevent a no-deal Brexit. These planks reflect the postmaterialistic priorities of younger voters and those who seek to move beyond a left politics revolving around class. Nonetheless, the UK Green platform remains left-wing. Shifting to a four-day work week and introducing a universal basic income also appear in the UK Green platform. Regardless, some leftists criticize the party, including by attacking their tenure in charge of Brighton, England, one of their strongholds. According to these observers, Green government locally was defined by austerity measures, anathema to spendthrifty socialists. Therefore, the British Greens exemplify the crossover that can exist between liberal greens and left greens. They’ve proven more flexible than red greens, able to tailor their left-wing rhetoric to reach younger voters who espouse postmaterialistic concerns, and not abandon progressive economic rhetoric.
The Australian Greens similarly include a ‘Socialist Tendency’ within their party that opposes capitalism. Leaders of this new movement criticize the party’s leaders for becoming too professional, too liberal, displaying the tension that can exist between both subgroups of greens, tension visible in back-and-forth within the Australian Green Party. Even broadly, the Greens call themselves “the party of public ownership”. Various elected Green officials maintained ties to socialist organizations. Additionally, the Greens’ initial rise was fueled by a left-wing backlash against the Australian Labor Party’s centrist drift.
Yet, at the same time, Green voters in Australia have for years been young professionals, college students, and artsy types. In countries like Germany, these same voters fuel the rise of liberal green parties. By the late 2000s, in fact, 60% of AGP members were professionals. These signs point, similarly to the UK Green Party, towards a positioning somewhere in between two categories, a positioning that allows them to rather effectively position themselves as an alternative to the main parties. With left-wing roots and a reach into a more liberal crowd, the Australian Greens exemplify how parties can operate between these categories.
A Hopeful Path for Progressive Greens?
Interestingly, the best hope for green leftism perhaps comes not from the red-greens that socialists might hope for, but from these more middling parties. While embracing them may require embracing most postmaterialistic politics, these parties tend to encounter more success than usually marginal hard left outfits. In Belgium, Groen received their highest vote ever in recent local elections. The Danish Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF) went from near collapse to a respectable 5th place in 2019’s elections. Recent polling from Switzerland shows the Grüne Partei der Schweiz/Parti écologiste suisse (GPS/PES) posting their best-ever election result later this year, clearing 10% in a fragmented party system. Each of these examples, and others, operates in a context that places them decidedly on the left of their national political scene. Nonetheless, they’ve been able to find success, possibly because of their appeal to traditional green voting blocs as well as younger left-wing voters. With the rising salience of climate change as an issue, perhaps the path forward for the left is to embrace the parties that put it at the forefront of an overall left-wing politics. Then again, these parties aren’t the hard left some are used to, illustrating the challenges between the old left and new left, challenges unlikely to vanish soon.