Green and Socialist Fit Naturally

Red/Green versus Green Party

Gwydion M. Williams[A] argues that the positive ideals of the Green movement have always been a part of the Left and Labour Party tradition. Labour should not tail-end the Green Party on environmental matters, nor does it need to do so.

“Thatcher’s talking about ten per cent this and five per cent that…. in 1939 we didn’t say ‘well, we’ll try for a ten per cent reduction in Nazis this year and see how it goes. We’ll see if we can afford to fight the Nazis, we’ll see if we can afford to send up Spitfires to stop us being bombed.’

“So we’ll see if we can afford to stop our food being poisoned, our cities being flooded. It’s an astonishing mentality. Why is it that we can see our human enemies, but we can’t see the enemy in ourselves.”

Thus speaks Alternative comic Ben Elton (Labour Party News No. 16). And as far as it goes, it’s fine.

Sad to say, most Labour Party people, including Ben Elton, have been tail-ending the Green Party lobby on matters that are now called Green issues. People accept the view of what is and isn’t important put forward by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. But, though these are non-partisan organisations, they are part of the same anti-growth lobby who are trying to push an anti-Labour political programme by identifying it with some very basic and necessary concerns about the state of the world.

Porritt, director of Friends of the Earth, is also a founder of the Green Party. His ideas dominate the whole outlook of the wider Green movement. Friends of the Earth literature gives him publicity, as well as promoting various more or less worthy causes. And Porritt’s long-term aims are not just to save the planet from pollution, but also to carry through a radical but definitely non-socialist transformation of society. Some of his aims could be shared by socialists, but a lot of them could not. Tail-ending Porritt’s sort of Green Politics would be fatal for Labour.

Labour has a ‘Green’ heritage of its own, and one that is much older than the modern Green movement. It started out as a way of improving the environment for working people. This involved many things – political rights, homes, jobs, good wages, as well as environment in the narrower sense that Porritt and his ilk would use it. All classes have a common interest in seeing that the planet doesn’t get poisoned. But the way it is done can vary. Porritt wants it done for the benefit mostly of the middle class – thus issues like factory safety just don’t get a mention. ‘Petty-bourgeoise is beautiful’ is more or less their attitude, though I’m sure they’ll object to my putting it like that. They want neither socialism nor large-scale capitalism. They want what the petty-bourgeoisie has always wanted – a small-scale society based on private property.

“It is inevitable that greens should find themselves at odds with the conventional socialist analysis of class politics” says Porritt. (Seeing Green, page 226).


” … one must of course acknowledge that the post-industrial revolution is likely to be pioneered by middle-class people.” (Ibid, p 116).

True, his long-term hope is for a society of perfect equality. But his understanding of what people need in the immediate future is a very middle-class one.

Green Party politics are pure anti-growth greenery. They represent a stratum of young anti-nuclear green urban middle-class people – YANGUMs for short. They have no interest in the welfare of the working class, or indeed of anyone who isn’t a Yangum. They hate growth for the same reason that a large stratum of the middle-class have always hated growth and change – it threatens to undermine their positions of modest power and privilege.

Porritt can even say ‘There may well have been a time, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when Adam Smith’s assertion that the sum of individual decisions in pursuit of self-interest added up to a pretty fair approximation of public welfare, with the ‘invisible hand’ of the market ensuring that individualism and the general interest of society were one and the same thing.” (Ibid, p 116). This is pure Green Thatcherism. It could only be true if you identified ‘public welfare’ with the interests of the middle class and ruling class. The working class was squeezed down to a level of poverty that you’d only find these days in the Third World, by the operation of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market at the start of the industrial revolution.

Labour would never have been open to the Green onslaught if it had continued to pay serious attention to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, subtitled ‘An epoch of rest’. The Green Party’s vision of the future is no more than a rehash of the vision of William Morris, repackaged and stripped of some of its more generous aspects. It is Morris with the socialism removed, in so far as it can be removed without destroying the entire vision. ‘News from Suburbia’, in fact.

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At the time when Morris wrote, the working class had suffered a great deal from industrialism, and had had only a limited number of benefits. Large portions of the working class were living at more or less the minimum level the capitalists could get away with. In the context of the 1890s, Morris’s vision was a generous one. In the context of the 1990s, where there is a real possibility for a decent life with modern technology being extended to the whole world, the Green movement’s vision is a bad one. The poor must stay poor, and the prosperous be returned to poverty, ‘for the sake of the planet’.

Naturally enough, Green Party ideologues like Jonathon Porritt are careful not to say a single word about Morris. Porritt actually says

“The task confronting ‘green’ socialists in Britain is therefore enormous – and they will find that there’s a great deal more to green politics than simply nicking our slogan”. (Ibid, p 228).

The old Chinese saying, ‘thief crying stop thief, seems appropriate.

Labour has always had a concern for the environment, both in the broad sense of the entire world human beings actually live in and the narrow Green sense of the natural world excluding man. Though it has to be admitted that during its last two periods of power Labour did very little to implement any of these policies. The world has grown so interdependent that no national government can really control its own future. As I[B] put it, “The Labour Party cannot build socialism in Britain, because there is no longer a British economy. There is only a British sector of a global economy” (L&TUR No. 10).

The Trade Union movement has been floundering since the 1970s. Having seen off the Heath government and established themselves as the power in the land, most of the trade unions had no idea what to do next. A minority wanted workers control, real power for workers over their environment, their place of work. A rival minority wanted Britain turned into something very much like an East European state and economy – a more fashionable option in those days. The majority rejected both options, and then for want of anything better to do undermined the Labour government in the ‘Winter of Discontent’. We all know what came next.

This year’s TUC Conference had a few motions on Green issues. The whole drift of world opinion is towards more care for the total global environment: the Green Party and the wider Green movement is only a part of that drift. But, as usual, the Trade Unions mostly took a very narrow view of the matter. Not realising that the problems are global, they called for a phasing out of nuclear power and a ban on the import of toxic wastes.

Neither of these are wise policies. The British nuclear industry has a good safety record. For the number of people it employs, it is one of the safest industries there is. Living next to a nuclear power station is much safer than living next to most chemical plants. There are several quite dangerous chemical plants situated in densely populated parts of London, but everyone forgets about them in their hysteria about ultra-safe nuclear power stations. And of course, a British ban on nuclear power would do nothing at all to protect us from another Chernobyl. The USSR has no intention of giving up its own rather dangerous and badly-designed power stations. We could declare Britain a nuclear-free zone, but nuclear isotopes have a way of drifting over national boundaries regardless.

So too do chemical toxins. There is a logic to taking certain pollutants to special plants that have the skills to make them safe. By all means, make strict regulations. Call for jail sentences, not just fines, for businessmen who dump pollutants.  (Businessmen will risk fines, because making and losing large sums of money is a day-to-day matter for them. But prison has a stigma, and the threat of it would make them behave.)

A total ban on the import of chemicals, when there is no one who can safely deal with them in their country of origin, and when there are such people in Britain – that’s daft. The next group of foreigners who find a load of obnoxious chemicals will probably quietly and illegally dump them rather than face world protest when they try to dispose of them in a safe and responsible manner.

The working class is the product of industrial civilisation. Before industrialism, most of us were poor and downtrodden in a way that people today can hardly conceive of. Nineteenth-century city slums were appallingly bad – read Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in 1844 to see just how bad. Yet people fled to those slums from the countryside. Rural life was no arcadian paradise for the vast majority of our ancestors.

Engels, incidentally, understood the interconnectedness of the world very clearly. In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man he says:

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the result we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first… Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a. foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst …

“… we are more than ever in a position to realise and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.”

The Leninist variant of Marxism largely forgot about this side of things, in its struggle for economic growth in competition with capitalism. Marxists in the Labour Party have also tended to give this view of Engels (repeated in more complex forms by Marx) vastly less attention than it deserved. But that viewpoint has always been there. Socialists do not need the likes of Porritt to tell them that human beings are a part of nature and depend on the well-being of the other parts.

Engels, indeed, was more perceptive that destructiveness was not unique to industrial society, or even to specifically to humans:

“… all animals waste a great deal of food, and, in addition, destroy in germ the next generation of the food supply. Unlike the hunter, the wolf does not spare the doe which would provide it with the young next year; the goats in Greece, that eat away the young bushes before they grow to maturity, have eaten bare all the mountains of the country.”

He might also have mentioned parasites – mosquitoes, liver flukes, tapeworms and a great variety of other creatures that do nothing but harm to other creatures. There are more species of parasites than there are species of free-living creatures. This is something people should remember when they talk as if nature (excluding man) was entirely benevolent and harmonious.

Socialists must seek to improve the total human environment. Since Western Europe has a food surplus, it makes sense to encourage farmers to grow less food and to use methods like organic farming that will be better for the land in the long run; Also, since very large numbers of people like to visit the countryside, which is also the farmers’ workplace, it would be sensible to pay farmers compensation for the inevitable trouble that visitors from the city will bring.

The Green Party basically stands for ‘protecting the environment’ instead of a decent life for ordinary people. They aim for a particular sort of future, and then use popular and justified fears about the environment to try to create that sort of future. A lot of their judgments are bad. Porritt didn’t think to mention the Greenhouse Effect in Seeing Green (published 1984). He should have known about it – it’s been discussed in places like the magazine New Scientist for a lot longer than that. But he missed it.

[Slightly unfair – in 1984 there was no scientific consensus on Global Warming.  But it was a large potential threat and Porritt should have mentioned it.]

Now all the Green movement spokesman are emphasising it, ignoring the possibility that it might turn out to be less drastic than expected. (For instance – if higher temperatures meant more of certain types of cloud, this would greatly limit the effect and stabilise the world’s weather. If it meant a greater snowfall in the Antarctic, the feared rise in sea levels might not happen after all. These are possibilities that scientists are · still looking into – along with others that might mean things would be worse than expected.)

The Green Party are unlikely to amount to much electorally. In so far as they have an effect, it will be to finish off the centre parties. They may take people of a YANG UM persuasion who are currently in the Labour Party – frankly I think that Labour would be better off with them gone. If people regard other issues as more important than securing a decent life for ordinary people, then the Labour Party is not the place for them.

Labour must carve out its own role – as the representative of people who were created by industrial society. A true red-green perspective must start from this: only industrial civilisation gives the possibility of human freedom for everyone. Pre-industrial societies flourished on the basis of the work of an oppressed and politically inert majority. Clearly, long-term threats to human survival must be dealt with. But they can be. The capitalists are already doing this, in their own way. Read papers like The Economist to see how fast the ideologists of the Free Market are reacting to the changing climate of opinion, and to the understanding that their own long-term interests are at risk. Socialists too must respond in their own way and for their own causes.


This article appeared in January 1990, in Issue 15 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[A] Writing then as Madawc Williams

[B] Using the pen-name ‘Michael Alexander’