An opportunity too easily missed: The Left & the post-Brown Greens

by · April 14, 2012

Cross-posted at the Left Flank blog at Overland Journal

What does the change in leadership of the Australian Greens mean for Left politics? At one level it would be easy to write off the shift as largely irrelevant, proof that there is an essential continuity in the party’s drift into the mainstream. Given Christine Milne’s apparent track record as a tough negotiator but more politically orthodox than Bob Brown, it seems like it’s full steam ahead towards the Greens being just a slightly greener-tinged and more progressive version of the ALP.

This would represent a betrayal of the hopes invested in the Greens as a Left alternative, one that had been willing to take a stand against Labor’s capitulation over asylum seekers, the War on Terror and neoliberalism, and which had captured a chunk of the ALP’s traditional base as a result.

Alternatively, one could look at headlines like that in today’s AFR (“Greens to veer Left under Milne”), note recent party-room frustrations that Brown had steered the Greens too close to a disastrous ALP government, recognise that Adam Bandt — on the party’s Left and closely aligned with the union movement — is now deputy leader, and think that the party will now shift Left with the new balance of forces in operation in the party room.

Both these narratives contain elements of truth, yet both fail to capture either the depth of contradictions faced by the Greens or the political opportunities that something as apparently distant as a Canberra leadership transition can present for building an independent Left. This is because the Greens have been (and remain) a contradictory formation, rising to unprecedented success in an unusual political period.

Starting with an essay in Overland Journal 199, I’ve argued that the Greens’ success rested in part on a split in the base of social democracy because of Labor’s long-run move to the Right and abandonment of its traditional supporters. Labor was particularly vulnerable because of the decline of the trade unions, a process caused by the union bureaucracy’s willing imposition of the burden of economic restructuring on its members. The kinds of class ties the ALP relied on were damaged, undercutting “rusted-on” support.

But the Greens’ rise was also made possible by the party’s ability to provide a national political focus to issues raised by a series of important social movements in the first half of the 2000s, including protests against corporate globalisation, the refugee rights movement and the anti-war movement. While these social movements were relatively weak and transient when compared with the cycle of resistance of the 1960s and 1970s, they nevertheless posited an alternative to the deadening political consensus of the major parties. This was the tentative beginning of a new Left after the defeats of the 1980s and 90s, and the Greens played both a positive role in providing an explicitly political shape to the social resistance but also — once they became increasingly electorally successful — a negative role in demobilising protest in favour of the logic of parliament. So both Milne and Bandt were at the centre of the carbon price package, which has for the most part locked in their party’s existing support but potentially cut them off from disaffected ALP voters with its explicitly neoliberal overtones.

In that sense the party has become much more part of a political class in crisis, rather than being able to present itself as a force opposed to it. Brown, with his maverick persona and ability to play the old-fashioned social democratic card when Labor sold out, could often bridge such gaps. He could be both insider and outsider in a way that Milne will have trouble articulating.

Brown’s authority inside the party — while never absolute — did make it possible for him to pull even the party’s Left towards a strategy of seeking the electoral mainstream. In this he was helped by the decline of social movement activity after 2007 and the continuing fragmentation of Labor’s vote in the 2010 election. It meant, for example, that disquiet about his closeness to Gillard and worries about the single-minded focus on a carbon price rarely saw the light outside inner-party circles. But his supporters’ use of the media to run their factional war with the NSW party’s Left also caused uneasiness and hardening of positions.

Despite moves towards “professionalization” and mass media campaigning, the party still has a sizeable activist core that in some parts of the country has significant social roots. Many members continue to participate in community-based campaigns, there is a layer of low-level union organisers in its ranks, and the Greens remain connected to all manner of activist projects (however limited these may be right now).

Thus, the mainstreaming of the Greens in recent years is not yet a completed process, and the party remains in a better position to relate to any revival of social resistance than the ALP could. The departure of Brown also means that even if Milne wants to (and that is not yet clear), she will find it harder to hold back internal dissent, and instead have to manage greater instability. Milne is also seen as more of team player, compared with Brown’s tendency to provocative and authoritarian internal behaviour.

The real problem the Greens pose in building a new Left is that their electoralism pulls them into replicating the problems of an exhausted political class rather than building the new politics many of their supporters hope for. You can see this already in Milne’s empty appeals to the bush and “progressive” business. But if the level of social resistance rises, perhaps in response to worsening austerity, the Greens are likely to continue to relate to such activity as well as try to keep it close to official channels. Bandt’s links could serve as a conduit for disgruntled union officials frustrated by Labor’s crisis, for example.

Nevertheless, the new fluidity following Friday’s events means that the radical Left is going to find dealing with Greens politics in debates on the ground a continuing and inevitable aspect of building something better. That’s much trickier than either leaving it for the Greens to be that alternative or writing them off as a spent force.

Discussion26 Comments

  1. Dave Riley says:

    Two features where I reckon ya zing:

    “Thus, the mainstreaming of the Greens in recent years is not yet a completed process, and the party remains in a better position to relate to any revival of social resistance than the ALP could…”



    “Nevertheless, the new fluidity following Friday’s events means that the radical Left is going to find dealing with Greens politics in debates on the ground a continuing and inevitable aspect of building something better. That’s much trickier than either leaving it for the Greens to be that alternative or writing them off as a spent force.”

    Very true.

    So the question is: what happens now? What is to be/what could be done?

    On that point you so often pass on the challenge.

    The Greens are not ‘a spent force’ but their tactical approach has soured a potential base of support within the ALP heartland. In similar mode the sharp attacks on and dismissal of the Greens by some segments of the radical Left has only served to sour Greens members about radical politics.

    We’re talking about a party of 10,000 members with maybe a > 10% (give or take) level of voter support…and the radical left wants to denigrate the significance by counterposing their marginalised selves!

    So the first task is one of promoting an ongoing alliance between the radical left and the left, activist, wing of the Greens.

    Inasmuch as it exists,and is aware of itself, of course…

    The second task is one of challenging the Greens ideologically in their support for capitalism by, among other approaches, also standing against them at election time — despite the fact that the Greens for now soak up most of the alternative left vote.

    The only two parties that consciously do that are the Socialist Party in inner city Melbourne and the Socialist Alliance around the country.

    To allow the Greens to pose as the only left alternative on polling day is problematical.To support them unconditionally is also problematical. So the radical left should support ‘radical left’ alternatives to the Greens as matter of course — while also deferring to the Greens by utilising the preferential system (in #2).

    For now that should be the rule of thumb.

    The third task is to try and draw Greens into ongoing campaigns outside the parliamentary axis. That has proven rather difficult as the Greens have been , in my experience, much more parliamentarist in orientation than some of the best of the Labor Party lefts of the past.

    While the Greens may be in a “better position to relate to any revival of social resistance than the ALP ” they still are far short of where the ALP was at 25 plus years ago.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I think I have every right to say what I say without finishing with a “what is to be done?” It is too often a cover for not having a clear political analysis of what actually is.

      I think the elections thing you raise is problematic, because it is clear that the radical Left has been unable to find a way to position itself against the political class, to build a base in the context of the specific circumstances of this political crisis. In short, I think the radical Left organisations have a defective analysis of what’s going on.

      To break from that is a trickier task than simply running anti-capitalist candidates, and speaks to the current confusion of the radical Left.

      I think there’s something in the fact that the radical Left organisations almost completely avoid trying to use mainstream channels to push their arguments. There are some impressive intellectuals within their ranks but they don’t appear on The Drum or whatever, as a method to build a wider audience. It’s this combination of formally good politics but not reading the political situation, its inflection points, that’s the problem.

      I don’t want to pretend that Left Flank has it sewn up. We are just a blog. But I spent too many years getting on with building an irrelevant organisation because of a mistaken analysis to repeat that journey right now.

      • Michael Douglas says:

        “I spent too many years getting on with building an irrelevant organisation because of a mistaken analysis to repeat that journey right now.”

        My recollection of you in those years was being in the trenches of every significant campaign from the Gulf war to French nuclear testing. From anti-Hansonism to student fees. From laying siege to parliament in Canberra and the Sydney stock exchange to leading occupations against student fees and union solidarity work from Weipa to Botany Bay.

        Of course you may have been referring to your somewhat less noteworthy time spent in the Greens. In which case I agree.

        • Dr_Tad says:

          I don’t see why both the quote from me and your first paragraph of reply contradict each other. Both can be true, and I think both were true.

          As to your last sentence, I’m not sure I ever claimed what I did in the Greens was particularly socially relevant. But the party itself certainly is, whether we like it or not.

          • James Supple says:

            I don’t think “mainstream channels” are limited to the blogosphere and The Drum. While those sites, and places like New Matilda, have some use they are a lot less mainstream than the mainstream media. And there are several left campaigns that keep up quite a serious effort to punch into the mainstream media.

            The Stop the Intervention campaign has had real influence in re-establishing a political framework for the “rights agenda” in Aboriginal affairs and mounting an ideological offensive against the Intervention and the assimilationist framework behind it.

            Refugee Action Coalition has helped get numerous pieces about the crisis in detention centres onto programs like Lateline, Four Corners and gets a very good amount of coverage in the media for a left campaign. RAC activists have also had pieces on New Matilda.

            So it’s mainly through our campaign work that the far left has tried to intervene in the mainstream debate recently. There might be other examples but those above are two Solidarity’s involved with that I am familiar with. I’m not snubbing the efforts of individuals to build themselves up as commentators through new media, but it’s only one sphere for intervention in the wider political debate.

            This site has some good analysis. But at the end of the day it’s a weakness that it is the work of individuals without an organisation. And the fact that’s it’s only online means it is harder to target a specific audience for specific interventions, in the way an activist group with a print publication, leaflets and meetings can.

            (I’ve just realised I’ve allowed myself to be diverted into a post that really has very little to do with The Greens. Which is a shame because I think relating to The Greens is an important topic, but will have to leave that for another time.)

          • Dr_Tad says:

            James, I wasn’t trying to counterpose the campaign work the radical Left groups do to seeking to engage in debate in mainstream channels. My point was to say that there is a curious absence of such a strategy around ideas in the organised Marxist Left.

            Left Flank also doesn’t claim to be an organisation or an activist hub. So I’m not sure why you need to remind us of this. We’re well aware of our limitations in that respect.

            But your response simply demonstrates exactly the problem that we faced when I was a member of a radical Left group — we rarely took the analysis of the concrete political situation seriously (except in a very facile way). And there was no small measure of moralism employed when anyone suggested we take some time out from our frenetic activism and party building to try to come to grips with these matters more seriously. I know because I could be as guilty as anyone of that kind of moralism. In retrospect I see that as a serious mistake, and positively disorienting.

            Reading the publications of the Marxist groups today gives me little impression that this has changed in the years since I left that scene. In that sense I think it is something about the perspectives that dominate those groups (perhaps rooted in traditions in the Australian Left) that is a more general problem. But I’m not really sure where its origins lie.

          • Michael Douglas says:

            “I don’t see why both the quote from me and your first paragraph of reply contradict each other”

            Yes I understand you don’t see why. And I am thus reminded of a debate in the aftermath of the 1998 waterfront lockout. A long time union member believed the lockout ended as a political victory for the union leadership but as an unnecessary economic defeat for its members. He wanted to quit the union and the waterfront as a result. He was shocked to hear me agree with him that the union was a grubby hierarchy of Dragons led by Poodles. But that I intended to stand my ground within it and fight for a better union. The majority of us grit our teeth and adopted that view. And he remains a member to this day and the union is better for it. It is this logic that has helped me remain involved in the urgent task of building an imperfect revolutionary socialist organisation for the past twenty three years. And as events in Egypt have recently demonstrated, imperfect revolutionary socialist organisations matter.

  2. Dave says:

    Sensible sections of the far Left already vote Green in preference to the two-bit distractions such as the Socialist Alliance, who can rarely muster a vote above that of the LaRouchites.

    ‘Ignoring’ or ‘counterposing’ ourselves to the Greens is a non-issue as the ‘Greens activist’ is largely a mythological being. I am honestly quite perplexed about this argument that Greens members play an activist role on the ground. Since September 11 the Greens have been largely invisible in any of the subsequent mobilizations and treat organizing meetings as infected with the plague.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Some organising meetings are infected with the plague.

      • James Supple says:

        Some bug is stopping me replying to the previous thread above so I’ll do it here, sorry if this is confusing.

        I agree you’re not counterposing the work left groups do around campaigns and theoretical development, you’re trying to differentiate them. I don’t think they can be separated in that way: Surely ideological interventions around and through particular issue based campaigns are part of a “strategy around ideas”.

        In any case the point I was addressing is that some of us on the far left do make an effort to intervene into the mainstream media debate, despite our small size and influence–not about the quality of our general political analysis and theoretical contributions. I was responding to your counterfactual claim about the radical left not utilising “mainstream channels” to push its arguments. So you haven’t made you case about any demonstrated problem.

        Developing an analysis of the current political situation, our history etc is clearly important. We can always put more effort in developing political analysis and defending our conception of the period and what to do. There are plenty of things I’d like to have done in that respect that our group hasn’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t take our assessment of the period and the political situation seriously. One of the key elements of that is identifying and connecting wtih an audience for your ideas.

        But to justify the claim that it’s a major strategic weakness you need to point to the areas where it’s taken the left into error–concretely. I actually think the bigger strategic weakness on the far left in Australia is the failure to develop a sensible practical orientation and ability to relate to the real world and the wider left, not the failure in theoretical development. (Although of course a faulty pratice reshapes and distorts theory–something which we are all too familar with on the left.)

        • lizhumphrys says:

          ‘I actually think the bigger strategic weakness on the far left in Australia is the failure to develop a sensible practical orientation and ability to relate to the real world and the wider left, not the failure in theoretical development’.

          The fact you see these two things as counterposed is a significant problem, and an ongoing impasse for much of the far left in Australia. Your comment in parentheses does nothing to dissuade me from thinking you see these two things as separate. Practice does not impact back on theory in the way you formulate, they are the same thing. Separable only analytically.

  3. Timothy Wong says:

    Hi Tad,

    I wonder if you have had a chance yet to read Guy Standing’s “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”?

    As for “what is to be done”, see particularly his last chapter “The Politics of Paradise”.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    Michael & James: I think it’s telling that I raised specific political criticisms of the Marxist Left groups and you both reply almost entirely in terms of fidelity to particular organisational models.

    I’d contend that both your arguments imply the exclusion of political discussion that would lead to a serious rethink of those organisational forms (or, more importantly, the theoretical and strategic assumptions that lie behind them).

    I have no problem with the notion of building “imperfect revolutionary organisation” but not any such organisation will do. History is littered with such groups that manifestly failed to concretely analyse the concrete situation and therefore failed to respond effectively to shape events.

    The ISO was socially irrelevant. That should be uncontroversial. But the bigger problem was that we talked about “what is to be done” without having any clear idea of “what is actually happening”. Thus we made sure we stayed socially irrelevant. That’s what I was complaining about. I don’t resile from not wanting to make the mistake again (nor to join an organisation that persists in repeating it).

    • Michael Douglas says:

      The ISO led the defeat of Hansonism. You played a leading role in that successful campaign. Not bad for an irrelevant organisation. But in your schema it has been airbrushed. Along with much else. I remember you sending me down to The Block in Redfern with a camera and tape recorder to document the struggle against gentrification. We held the line there for a few years but alas that community received a hammering by developers, egged on by Sussex street. Outright victories in the labour movement are rare. Most strikes are defeated. Most movements compromise with the existing order. If it were otherwise we would have stormed heaven a long time ago. The worst reaction to this reality is to disavow the attempt and abstain from further attempts for fear of failure. You invite us to believe all this history of struggle in the ISO was politically misinformed and doomed to fail as a result. I decline your invitation. Because regardless of our personal ledgers, to accept it would prevent me being active in the imperfect Solidarity today. As it prevents you. And that is always the real test for any Marxist isn’t it Are you able to get out your front door and organise with other Marxists despite past defeats. Sure you can inoculate yourself against mistakes by abstaining from further attempts to build an organisation. I would prefer to have the discussion you cite as a prerequisite while we are marching together. But I suspect it will not be discussion that brings you back into the orbit of organised revolutionary politics. Only events will have that power now. And those events just might be in the wind.

      • Dr_Tad says:

        Michael, If you want to make up things I didn’t say to rebut then feel free, but don’t expect me to respond.

        And if you want to make wild claims like “the ISO led the defeat of Hansonism” that no-one even half-sane in the ISO would’ve made at the time we were part of those protests, then I would suggest it’s you who’s engaging in historical “airbrushing”, not to mention displaying a complete lack of perspective.

        I’m starting to think you didn’t come here for discussion or debate but merely to moralise about your particular organisational commitment.

        • Michael Douglas says:

          It was the ISO that won the no platform argument in the movement against Hansonism. And cohering the movement around no platform was the key to defeating Hansonism. Hardly a wild claim. But on that issue it is probably better that you just speak for yourself rather than for anyone else. As for “fidelity to particular organisational models’, no comrade. No such grandiose ideas are in either James’s mind or mine. We are chipping away at the good old cause with no guarantee of success. And we can offer you no guarantees either. But we do refuse to retreat into blogging our Sunday meditations. That does not make me a moraliser. It is the only way to practice Marxism.

          • lizhumphrys says:

            Michael – please read the comments policy for this blog and abide by it. There is no need for rudeness or patronising tone.

            I notice you suggest James and you (‘we’) refuse to retreat into inactivity. The last time I saw James, he and I were organising a demonstration about the arrest of Austin Mackell (the independent journalist) in Egypt. Today I finished yet another article in relation to Austin’s situation, and am again attempting to publicise his plight while the Australian government lets him languish. Unless you think this work is a retreat into Sunday meditations (although I admit the rally James and I organised was on a Sunday), I suggest you take a deep breath and stick to politics instead of personal slight.

  5. Michael Douglas says:

    Understood and agreed. But if Tad slanders the ISO he can expect to be challenged on it. I do look forward to working with you both.

  6. Daniel says:

    Michael I think the left needs to work together in the next few years or we will get nowhere in defeating Abbott and nutty Hockey.

    • Michael Douglas says:

      If I sought an echo, Daniel, I would address a mountain. You may be relieved to learn Tad, Liz, James and myself have a history of united action. Long may it continue.

  7. Daniel says:

    Michael, How dare you! I was once a member of the ISO myself many moons agao until I woke up and realised they were flogging a dead horse with the chatter on Revolution.

  8. The IS and the ISO had very little to do with the defeat of Hansonism. It was all achieved by John Howard when he took over Hanson’s “politics” and turned them into his own.
    The left in Australia has always been its own worst enemy because it is always so fractured and unable to work with its different manifestations that there are never enough groups able to mobilise enough ongoing actions such as we saw with the opposition to the Bush/Howard/Blair wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 11 September 2000 in Melbourne.
    The Greens won’t succeed in the longer term because they, too, are unable to capitalise (sorry to use that word) on the support they have gained over time and they have alienated supporters who have tried to give them assistance but have failed to respond to activist approaches because they would be seen to be too “left” for Australian real-politik.
    The left has generally faded into irrelevance in Australia because it hasn’t got a cause big enough to cause a mass revolt of workers and left-supporters.
    After a life-time of trying to support various organisations, I have given up trying and remain a frustrated marxist with nowhere to go.