The pull of parliament: can The Greens learn Germany’s lessons?

The conservatising influence of parliament is having its effect on the The Greens. James Supple argues they must heed the warning from the history of the German Greens

The Australian Greens stand at a crossroads. There is a concerted push to move the party to the right. Nationally party leader Christine Milne and former leader Bob Brown want to consolidate The Greens as a party that joins coalition governments, tones down its policies for electoral gain and trades on its parliamentary numbers for influence.

Inside the party they are constantly trying to undermine the more left-wing NSW branch, assisted in NSW by allies grouped around this election’s lead NSW Senate candidate, Cate Faehrmann.
Other Greens parties around the world have experienced similar pressures as they have grown in electoral influence.

The German Greens provide a lesson in the dangers of parliamentary coalitions and compromisesAs Green parties have gained more seats, the view of influence in parliament as the key way to bring change has often drawn Greens into striking parliamentary deals and joining governments. This process has involved rejecting political principles in order to gain more influence and has drawn them to the right.

Those who continue to oppose these kind of moves inside the Australian Greens have posed the issue as one of whether to stick to political principle or concede to parliamentary, or electoral, pressures. Their efforts to stand firm over issues like private schools funding and drugs policy are commendable. Many of these Greens also have a greater appreciation of working class issues like privatisation and union rights.

But they have a more left-wing version of the same narrow parliamentary strategy as the right of the Greens. Former NSW Greens MP Sylvia Hale, a stalwart of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, has argued that the choices about the Greens’ future direction is simply, “with which devil [Labor or Liberal] should they sup and what, if anything, should they attempt to extract in return”.

The consequences of heading down this road can be seen in the transformation of the German Greens, one of the most famous and significant of the world’s Green parties.

But by contrast with the contemporary Australian Greens, the debate inside the German Greens revolved around a real alternative to the narrow parliamentary approach: whether struggles outside parliament, as opposed to participating in government, was the key to winning change.

Radical generation

The German Greens were formed in 1980. The party was a product of the 1968 generation of radicals and many saw themselves as an “anti-party party”, a party of the movements committed to challenging the existing political system—not joining it.

The party emerged out of the movement fighting the introduction of nuclear power. The anti-nuclear movement was winning victories, succeeding in stopping plans for Germany’s first nuclear plant at Wyhl with a mass site occupation in 1975.

At the Green party’s founding conference, former Green Jutta Ditfurth remembers how, “Farmers from the Kaiserstuhl region occupying the [nuclear plant] building site rubbed shoulders with radical feminists from Cologne. Militant anti-nuclear protesters from Hamburg and Hessen had conversations with Christian pacifists from Bavaria or bird-protectors from Lower Saxony. Punks talked with suit-wearers; communists with anthroposophists [followers of Rudolf Steiner]”.

But as the German Greens gained more seats in parliament, leading members began to argue that change could only come through parliament, and pushed for involvement in coalition governments.

This led to the famous division between their faction, the Realos, and another grouping known as the Fundis. The Fundis opposed any participation in government, maintaining a view of the Greens as a party of the movements that saw struggles outside parliament as the key to bringing change.

By the 1990s the Realos had become dominant, taking the party into a whole series of coalition governments at a state level.

The party’s evolution rightwards is personified in the figure of Joshka Fischer, who from beginnings as a radical left-wing activist in the 1970s, where he helped organise street battles with police, became the German Foreign Minister that presided over the bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

In the lead up to the 1998 federal election Realos including Joshka Fischer demanded changes to party policy to remove “unrealistic demands” that would make securing a place in a coalition government difficult. These included policies of an immediate end to use of nuclear power and opposition to NATO.

The result was that the German Greens entered their first national coalition government between 1998 and 2005, with the German equivalent of the Labor Party, the Social Democrats (SPD).

In a step further than the Australian Greens have gone thus far at a federal level, Joshka Fischer, one of the party’s main leaders, became Foreign Minister and another Green took the Environment Ministry.

Being part of government produced a further dramatic shift to the right in party policy. Peace and anti-militarism had been one of the core principles of the German Greens. Situated on the edge of the Cold War Iron Curtin between East and West, Germany was home to a large peace movement in the 1980s, reinforcing the hatred of militarism Germans felt after the horrors of the Second World War. Even the party’s watered down 1998 election manifesto pledged the party to reject “military peace enforcement and fighting deployments”.

Yet a Green foreign minister ended up presiding over the first German military operation abroad since the Second World War, when the country joined the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. The bombing, justified as a “humanitarian intervention”, led to the mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing of refugees it was supposed to prevent and killed 1500 civilians.

Fischer, now Foreign Minister, was well aware that he was revising and over-riding party policy, later admitting that, “without the pressure of participating in government, I was anything but sure about the outcome of a vote in the Green parliamentary delegation”.

An ever starker capitulation was the Greens’ later support for a massive neo-liberal attack on the welfare state known as Agenda 2010, which cut pensions and stripped unemployment benefits from hundreds of thousands of people. This triggered protests against the government hundreds of thousands strong and a split from the SPD that created the Left Party.


The German Greens are not the only Green party to have made the decision to join government in the hope of extracting concessions.

In 2007 the Irish Greens discovered the costs of doing so in the context of the economic crisis. In exchange for the introduction of a carbon tax and some government spending on renewable energy projects, the Irish Greens joined a coalition government with Fiana Fail, and agreed to a savage austerity program following the collapse of the Irish economy.

They supported the bailing out the Irish banks to the tune of €150 billion, and cuts to pay for it including a 15 per cent cut to public sector wages, a 25 per cent cut to unemployment payments for those under 21, and a 13 per cent cut to the minimum wage. The anger against the Fiana Fail/Greens government saw 100,000 people take to the streets of Dublin in protest. At the next general election in 2011 the Greens suffered an electoral wipeout, losing all their seats in the Irish parliament.

These experiences show that it was not simply the lure of electoral popularity that led Greens parties to water down their policies.

More important was the need to adopt policies that made them acceptable governing partners within the parliamentary system. The issue was not that support for the NATO war in Serbia or cuts to the welfare state were popular, but that without agreeing to them the mainstream capitalist parties would not allow the Greens to remain inside a coalition government.

Parliaments are a part of the capitalist state and therefore designed to deliver governments acceptable to the ruling class. Coexisting with a capitalist economy where wealth is concentrated in the hands of corporations and shareholders, parliamentary governments have no choice but to manage and prop up capitalist interests.

For The Greens or any other small left-wing party, the perspective of joining a coalition government means co-operating with one of the mainstream capitalist parties. Joining any such government, by taking ministries and agreeing to defend the decisions of the government, means that a party is drawn into defending the system in general, and bailing it out during a crisis.

The only way to avoid succumbing to this pressure is to refuse to enter coalition governments, to look for a social force outside parliament that can pressure governments to deliver change, and ultimately replace parliament with genuinely democratic institutions.

This means building a party that aims first and foremost to build social movements and the wider class struggle. The role of left-wing MPs should be helping to popularise and promote these struggles, not burying themselves in the machinations of parliament itself.

Such a strategy is the only way to shift public opinion and society to the left.

It was because of the mass struggles of the period of the 1970s around women’s liberation, gay liberation, the Vietnam War and workers’ rights that governments of the time, whether the Liberals or Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, began to concede enormous changes. By contrast when these struggles, particularly workers’ struggles, receded in the 1980s governments were able to introduce savage neo-liberal attacks on ordinary people’s living standards.

It was the misfortune of the German Greens that they emerged just as the last great wave of struggles were receding in the 1980s, which made the Fundis’ argument that building the struggle outside parliament was the way to win change seem less realistic. But it remains correct.

It is only an orientation of building the struggle that could halt The Greens drift to the right, and begin to shift Australian politics back to the left.


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