No such thing as a ‘watermelon’. Why the Green world outlook is not left-wing.

Andrew Bolt and John Pilger both agree that there is something ‘red’ about being Green. Bolt claims that the Greens include those who are really red – hence the ‘watermelon’ metaphor – while Pilger sees them as being on the side of progress and the left. Both are wrong and in this article, which I originally wrote for ‘On-Line Opinion’ in 2008, I explain why.

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In the political discourse around green issues, the world outlook associated with various green groups is portrayed as left wing. This is largely because the green world outlook generally opposes capitalism, its leaders frequently use the rhetoric of the Left, are promoted as being left wing by the mainstream media, and usually identify themselves as being of the Left.

Moreover, many green leaders and activists were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and have genuinely left wing backgrounds. They see the green movement as a continuation of their previous left wing radicalism.

The measure of whether an outlook is on the Left needs to be assessed against criteria based on core values that have given meaning to the concept historically. Left wing traditions have never been green and, I would argue, the identification of the green outlook with left wing politics has only been possible over the past few decades because of the decline of the Left.

Contrary to what right wing commentators declare, the green movement is not the Left in new form but a product of its absence as a significant force in contemporary politics. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Green ideology has filled the vacuum created when the Left went into hibernation in the mid 1970s, after a spectacular rise during the second half of the previous decade.

What then are the core values that determine a left wing outlook, and what are the traditions of the Left in regard to nature and the non-synthetic environment?

The values of the Left are based on two interconnected qualities: opposition to oppression and tyranny (i.e., support for democracy and freedom); and enthusiastic support for material progress, for a world of (as we used to say in the communist party) “abundance for all”. These values have defined the Left since 1848, when Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto.

Marx, and the genuine Marxists, wanted to overthrow capitalism, not because it was supposedly bad for the natural environment, but because the key contradiction within it – between the social nature of production on one hand and private appropriation on the other – stood in the way of personal freedom for the workers and a real unleashing of the productive capacities of human beings.

Marx believed that wage slavery was based on exploitation and alienation, and that the workers should rise up and seize the means of production for their own ends rather than for the profit of the small group of owners. In a sense, Marx was a real supporter of “free enterprise”: but for the producers rather than the owners. There is nothing green at all in a Marxist position.

Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels, compiled the booklet ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ precisely to defeat the influence of the “greenies” (i.e. utopians) of his time. Marx and Engels established a left wing tradition that fully embraced – indeed waxed lyrical about – modernity and the achievements of industrial capitalism.

Their opposition to capitalism, I repeat, was based on an analysis that saw it as retarding social and material progress. Their views on the relationship between progress and nature were consistent with the “Age of Reason” and the scientific revolution: nature, to the Left, has never been something with which to seek harmony and balance – let alone with which to live “sustainably”.

The classical Marxist view was expressed at the left wing lastsuperpower website in the following way:

The whole history of humanity is that we are a species that does not adapt its lifestyle to its environment but develops “unsustainably” in ways that require transforming our environment, our technological forces of production and our social relations of production. Our unsustainable development has already terraformed most of this planet so that it is no longer a “wilderness”, substituted “synthetic” for “natural” products for everything we live on (including ancient things like domesticated wheat and other food staples) and will go much further both intensively here and extensively across the universe and at the same time it has totally transformed the way we relate to each other and will continue to do so.

Throughout our history there have been progressives wanting to speed up the movement forward and reactionaries demanding that we should live within our means. These ideologies are closely connected with the fact that ruling classes fear the instability and threat to their domination that goes with changes undermining our old mode of life while oppressed classes always want more from life than what their exploiters think they should live on.

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According to Engels, the struggle for human liberation required the overcoming of the limitations placed on people by the natural environment. Science, technology, and politics were ways by which humans constantly created something new, rendering the old “unsustainable”.

It’s hard to imagine a more reactionary and conservative notion than “sustainability”, but it has permeated the psyche of the populations of the advanced industrial nations and has become a mantra. It is a buzzword, basically meaning let’s not take risks, let’s get cosy with nature rather than continue to transform it for our own benefit; as we have done since the harnessing of fire.

The green outlook’s opposition to capitalism does not qualify it as being on the Left because its opposition is to the industrial and social advances ushered in by capitalism. The greens look backwards to small-scale production, to a social system based on village/community life, to a society in which humans were more in touch with nature. This type of society has existed, prior to capitalism, during the feudal era. However, capitalism, as Marx enthusiastically asserted:

… has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kin. ( See: Karl Marx, Chapter 1, Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Support for turning back the clock to small-scale production based on village/community life found expression in Australia in the 1940s, with the publication of B. A. Santamaria’s ‘The Earth, Our Mother’. Santamaria was on the far right of politics and never renounced his support for Mussolini and the Italian fascists. It made sense that someone on the right would support such a backward social system, and bemoan the liberating consequences and direction of modernity because this was the tradition of the right.

Leftists are the ones who want to “overcome nature” rather than be submissive before it. We are the ones who want to reach for the stars!

To understand just how completely opposite to the left wing position Santamaria’s view was, and how completely opposite to the left wing view the green world outlook is today, one can consider Engels, writing in ‘Anti-Duhring’ (1877). Engels speculates about the radical consequences of man finally confronting the material conditions of existence, and understands humanity’s mastery of nature as the key to its social liberation: the leap from the “kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”.

… for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Not surprisingly, there are left wingers around the world who speak out against the green outlook. Their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media but their critiques can be read at sites such as Spiked Online, and Strange Times (which archives of the old LastSuperpower site). Both are basically Marxist when it comes to the green issue. The UK-based editors of Spiked Online previously ran the journal ‘Living Marxism’. There are also occasional anti-green Marxist-influenced books, such as Austin Williams’ ‘Enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability’ and David McMullen’s ‘Bright future’, but these receive minimal publicity in the mainstream compared to the voices of doom and gloom.

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Conclusion

OK, so there’s no left wing green tradition, and the greens are antithetical to left wing values. Who then are these green ideologues who are described as, and claim to be, left wingers?

To me, a new concept is needed to understand their politics and that concept is “pseudo-left”. The concept has been around for a few years now and has been used by public intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen. In Australia it was promoted at strangetimes/lastsuperpower. It is time for the “pseudo-left” descriptor to be taken up by many more people, so that the green outlook can be situated where it rightly belongs.

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14 thoughts on “No such thing as a ‘watermelon’. Why the Green world outlook is not left-wing.

  1. Here is another example of the genre, more sedate and less robust because they have steadily banned dissenting voices, me amongst others from Trash. The pseudo left turned on itself and it has remained acrimonious ever since.

    http://theaimn.com/

    ‘…many green leaders and activists were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and have genuinely left wing backgrounds. They see the green movement as a continuation of their previous left wing radicalism.’

    Yes, but only in a pinky green sort of way, the free radicals came from the forum and effectively took over the country. Correct me if I’m wrong, gaining control of the Balmain green branch became a light on the hill for the German radicals.

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  2. This is an interesting topic and one that is worth discussing. I like the way you outline your case. I disagree with your assumption and conclusion. Your definition of ‘left’ is to me circular: “If things go bad, it is not left”.
    Ian MacLeod writes in support of your analysis, and he writes great SF, but that does not make it so. I think the problem is assuming that Marxism is scientific and then buying into the concept that if it is science it can not go bad. Marxism has not proven to be scientific, and science can go bad.
    Another is the idea that Marxism is some sort of ‘final state/ground truth’ to explain and guide humanity.

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    • Hunter is spot on in suggesting this is a topic well worth discussing but brings to the discussion some commonly held misconceptions that find expression in his view that Barry, in essence, was caught in a circular argument in defining the left: If things go bad it’s not left. That is, Barry’s position regarding what the left is is subjective, if not romanticized.
      Subjectivity is obviously involved in how people categorize themselves but subjectivity can never be the ultimate measure of how we define things (solipsism lurks around the corner) and certainly not how we distinguish between what is progressive in its outlook and direction and what is backward looking. We can discuss what we think is forward or backward with plenty of room for disagreement but we cannot get away from this:
      The values of the Left are based on two interconnected qualities: opposition to oppression and tyranny (i.e., support for democracy and freedom); and enthusiastic support for material progress, for a world of (as we used to say in the communist party) “abundance for all”. These values have defined the Left since 1848, when Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto.
      These are core values, foundation stones; the whims of the Cheshire cat have no place here. We can build variously on top of this foundation, guided by the changing circumstances the world brings to us and our own developing understandings of what is achievable now as opposed to what will be achievable in the future, but if what we build loses contact with the foundation the edifice will collapse – or, in dialectical jargon, it will turn into its opposite.
      Things went pear shaped for the left and it has turned into its opposite; in so doing the term pseudo left is an accurate descriptor that exposes the conceit of thinking that going backwards is going forwards. Most – perhaps all – of those who fall for this may subjectively believe that they are left, progressive or even revolutionary, but thinking it is so does not make it so. The responsibility for this cannot be externalized to ‘the system’ but must be owned by those with a commitment to trying to understand Marxism as an unfolding synthesis and not some holy text and I think that this is what this site, in its modest way, is about.

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      • Tom,
        You make good points but me you miss the core point: It is the capitalists who want material advance. It is the capitalists who are more likely to want societies that are based on freedom and tolerance.
        But look at the other assertion of Marxism being all about material progress: Why then at universities and elsewhere do the hardcore lefties and the hardcore enviros flock together and often support each other? What about Pol Pot, a well trained Marxist, and his pastoralist xenocide on Cambodia? What about N Korea and their disastrous treatment of industry, agriculture and labor?
        Perhaps somone could call me a lefty under this taxonomy?

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  3. “abundance for all”

    In the real world this can only be seriously attempted within a free market environment and political democracy. Hunter pointed out the failures of Pol Pot’s regime and also North Korea, and elsewhere Tomb suggested the Chinese are fascists.

    So Tom, when can we expect this Marxist revolution and how will it come about?

    Liked by 1 person

    • well thats the problem you want someone to tell when and where instead of working it out for yourself. If you think this is as good as it gets then thats a shame. The free markets isn’t free. The corruption and inefficiencies of the “free market” would seem obvious. the fact that the free market can’t provide education, health police armies etc might tell you something about the free market. The fact that it also has crisis which we are going through at the minute would be a small hint that this system has real flaws that we shouldn’t put up with and here only 35% of people vote for congress and they thinking that will actually be smaller this election. It is a free market for the 1%.

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      • ‘…well thats the problem you want someone to tell when and where instead of working it out for yourself.’

        Apologies, you are talking from a US perspective and I live in Oz. Marx may well be proven correct in your case, but I have my doubts.

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  4. tomb,
    Most of us, even very conservative ones like me, want mixed liberal economies. We want a well defined, limited power state to provide appropriate services.

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  5. Hunter I have no more idea of what most of us want than you and wanting something that doesn’t exist is called a dream, or in this case a nightmare. There is no such thing as a mixed economy Can you enlighten me to what it is?

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  6. ‘A mixed economy is an economic system in which both the private sector and state direct the economy, reflecting characteristics of both market economies and planned economies. Most mixed economies can be described as market economies with strong regulatory oversight and governmental provision of public goods. Some mixed economies also feature a variety of state-run enterprises.’

    Wiki

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    • I like Tomb’s point about there being no such thing as a mixed economy. We just have capitalism and capitalism has a state with the primary role of getting the system out of trouble. This includes tax funded programs to reduce rebelliousness among the masses. It also includes something very important in the present period – the emergency intervention 5 years ago to prevent or forestall a financial meltdown. This was after a decade or so of constant chatter about the declining role of government. Everyone rediscovered Keynes. And when the current ‘quantitative easing’ bubble bursts everyone will be screaming again for the government to do something.

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      • The US is not a good example of a mixed economy, while China’s new form of capitalism is probably still weighted in the other direction.

        By contrast Australia seems to have found the perfect balance, with the democratic socialists and conservatives doing the bidding of the electorate at different times.

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