The Red and the Green

Raymond Williams

  • Socialism and Survival by Rudolf Bahro, translated by David Fernbach
    Heretic Books, 160 pp, £6.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 946097 02 X
  • Capitalist Democracy in Britain by Ralph Miliband
    Oxford, 76 pp, £8.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 827445 9
  • Socialist Register 1982 edited by Martin Eve and David Musson
    Merlin, 314 pp, £8.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 85036 292 X

Some very important changes in socialist ideas are now beginning to come through in Europe. Yet at the surface of politics they are invisible in Britain, even though there are those here who have contributed to them. Where they have become visible at the surface, as most notably in the rise of the Green Party in the German Federal Republic, they are still commonly interpreted as a local ‘ecological’ variation, without long-term effect on the main body of socialist institutions and ideas. Similarly, the difficult argument about relations between the Left and the popular campaigns for nuclear disarmament – description of these as the Peace Movement raises the precise point – is often displaced to the idea of a ‘single issue’, which leaves the main body of politics intact.

It is impossible to predict what will happen to these ideas and to the movements within which they are active. But it will clear the air if we can begin to recognise that they are an attempted redefinition of the whole socialist project, on the basis of a new kind of analysis of the systems which are being opposed. From this point of view, it is arguments about the relations between the Labour Party and the Militant Tendency, or between the parliamentary versions of socialism and social democracy, which are local and residual. Similarly the long argument about Soviet Communism and its consequences, though it has many vested interests on both sides, is no longer central: its lessons, rather than its enclosed antagonisms, have been placed in a new perspective. The most difficult term in the redefinition is ‘ecology’. As this has come through, in its most obvious forms, it is indeed a set of special issues: campaigns against industrial pollution, environmental damage, dangerous technologies such as nuclear power, and the exploitation and waste of scarce resources. All these command growing support but are widely seen as either non-political or at the fringes of real politics. Even when they are brought together as the crisis of industrial society, there is still no obvious engagement with our orthodox political forms, within which a commitment to this form of society is taken for granted. What is then new in the new socialism is that it takes the ecological arguments through to the point where they engage with the arguments of economics, and so to new positions about industrial capitalism and world production and trade.

It is at first, for many, a strange intellectual experience. The familiar starting-points, in the Labour movement or in the radical tradition, become stages in an argument which has set out from a much wider base. The interlock with established politics is obviously difficult, and is still unresolved. But it ought at least to be an intellectual responsibility to look at what this movement is really saying.

Rudolf Bahro, who wrote The Alternative and was imprisoned and then released in East Germany, is one of its most articulate spokesmen. He is a Marxist who has taken a position in classical terms but with far from classical results. What he is saying, in these terms, is that in the old industrial societies ‘external contradictions’ have become more important than the ‘internal contradictions’ on which the traditional labour movements were founded. This probably needs to be translated, since many people have got into the habit of switching off when Marxism or a term like ‘contradiction’ is mentioned. Specifically, then, the argument is that all human societies are now dominated by three active conflicts of interest: between ‘East’ and ‘West’, in the special form of the arms race; between ‘North’ and ‘South’, in the special form of the world economic and monetary crisis; between ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’, in the special forms of the exploitation of scarce resources and of widespread environmental damage. The effect of these definitions on socialist ideas and movements is that these conflicts must take priority over the internal conflict, to do with wages and the distribution of national production. Indeed Bahro returns the charge often made against ecological or disarmament or feminist campaigns by saying that ‘if there is anything today that really does deserve the label of a single-issue movement, it is the institutionalised wage struggle.’

It can be objected that these definitions of the three major conflicts merely restate well-known problems, without contributing to a solution. In evocative campaigning this is indeed often so. It is occasionally a weakness even in Bahro that the moral challenge represented by naming these conflicts, supported by the deep emotions now provoked by the evils of war and poverty and disease which they cause, is seen as leading to what is in effect a movement of conversion. An analogy with the situation of the first Christians is often directly made. Styles of campaigning, in the peace movement and also in ecological and ‘Third World’ demonstrations, are often visibly of this kind. What is offered is witness, in a call to turn away from unarguable evil.

Yet it is a fact that, working mainly at this level, the movements have already made a difference to orthodox politics. The disarmament campaigns, especially, are now being taken very seriously by the most orthodox parties. The instant diagnosis, however, is that they are all primarily ‘emotional’ campaigns: understandable, but at best raw material, at worst hysterical distraction, in terms of ‘real politics’. Some elements of this diagnosis are themselves evasive, but at a certain level the challenge is real. It is not by evoking these conflicts and dramatising their dangers that their central political processes can be altered. What is necessary is a unified theory, and then a unified movement, within which the three major external conflicts, and then necessarily the continuing internal conflict, can be seen as interconnected. Such a theory may now be in sight. Its basis is the progressive unification of economics and ecology. It is not industrial production as such which has led to these major contradictions. That is the weakest side of the ecology movement, which has correctly identified current symptoms but supposes that these can be removed by some option for a pre-industrial or post-industrial order. The root cause is not in the isolated forces of production, but in the mode of production as a whole. Its most evident damage has been in the relentless drive for profit and the accumulation of capital, but underlying even this has been a basic orientation to the world – at once its resources and its peoples – which defines it as raw material. The idea of ‘resources’ may itself often include this orientation. What is seen is not life-forms and land-forms, in an intricate interdependence, but a range of opportunities for their profitable exploitation, which at certain definite technical stages becomes, on a rising scale, a form, not only of production, but of destruction and self-destruction.

It is true that the major phase of this long history has been the specific combination of capitalist drives for profit and ever more powerful technologies of transformation. But this cannot reduce the argument to one against the property forms of capitalism. If that were true, we would have no way of explaining the continuing appropriation and exploitation of the world as raw material – again including people as well as other life-forms and land-forms – in the ‘Communist’ economies: what Bahro calls the societies of ‘actually existing socialism’. It is crucial to the whole argument that what the orientation involves is not only or even mainly the exploitation of the resources of the earth, but, as the critical factor which makes it practically and powerfully destructive, the use of actual majorities of other people as the raw material without which the material processes could not be carried through. Thus the subordination of such majorities, by military, political or cultural means, is a central element of the whole orientation, which cannot be reduced to its ‘material’ or ‘industrial’ results.

It is ironic that what is now seen as the central problem of the old industrial societies, in rising unemployment, is actually a phase in this general development, in which an increasing number of the people previously seen as raw material are being classified, through various technical changes, as ‘surplus to requirement’ and therefore, in that most significant term, ‘redundant’. Bahro continues to argue, against other Marxists, that the concept of the revolutionary proletariat has failed, and that other agencies of change or challenge must be found. In some obvious ways he is right, but it is still much too early to know what will happen in the working class of the old industrial countries, seen by Bahro as tamed and incorporated by the wage-bargaining of a relatively successful capitalism, when more and more workers are forced beyond these forms, by being turned out of their jobs and the styles of life which these supported. In his anxiety to get beyond an old ideology, he may be failing to notice a now rapidly changing situation.

Yet it remains true that the existing institutions of nationally-based labour movements, whether in trade unions or in political parties, are peculiarly unadapted to the scale of the current crisis in the world economy. All that they can generate is a set of defensive campaigns, aimed at restoring previous stabilities and resuming what they see as only temporarily abandoned policies. Yet whether the general crisis is seen in economic or in ecological terms, and all the more when these terms are combined, it is probable that those stabilities are permanently lost, and with them the relevance of the traditional policies. This is only one of several instances of the otherwise surprising political fact that the hard Right and the hard Left are now addressing the same levels of problem – in each case with a conviction of radical discontinuity and the consequent need for radical change.

It is primarily in seeing the crisis as that of a world economy that this divergence from more familiar political forms arises. Yet as between hard Right and hard Left there is then an even more important divergence than the obviously different directions of interest and policy. For the Right talks the same apparent language as the Centre, when it bases its policies on economic growth. Its difference from the Centre is that it sees this as possible only by harsh reductions in all other areas of social policy, and by the development both of more aggressive marketing and more intransigent competition with all other economic forces, in the ‘Communist bloc’ and among ‘Third World’ suppliers of commodities. The international Left, by contrast, is increasingly resisting growth of that unequal kind. When the ecological argument is added, there is some significant divergence. One of its forms is suspected of being, and often is, a further discrimination against the poor countries, in its campaigns against development and in its concentration on population growth as a primary cause of poverty. Bahro’s position is quite different. The industrial drives which are already causing environmental damage, and which are threatening to cause ecological disaster or even collapse, are firmly located in the old but still dominant industrial economies: the same source from which the dangers of nuclear weapons and of indiscriminate arms export also proceed. Thus it is in these powerful societies – Western capitalist but also Eastern ‘Communist’ – that these drives must be halted and turned back. A new broad social movement, as distinct from the received socialist or social-democratic forms, has then to be built in these countries, around the central issues of ecology and peace. This is the new radical form of the red and the green.

Such movements are now growing, in many countries, and are beginning to co-operate with each other. Yet there are still problems of interlock with the existing and dominant political processes. Moreover, the problems vary in different societies. The Greens in the Federal Republic have the advantage, which might also in some circumstances be the disadvantage, of proportional representation and thus entry into the parliamentary system. It is what they do when they get there, in the complications and pressures of coalition politics, that has still to be judged. It seems safe to say that there would be a Green Party in Britain within a year of any introduction of proportional representation, but then with the same problems ahead of it. Meanwhile its potential members, against the odds but with many formal successes in the adoption of policies, are looking primarily to convert the Labour Party. It is again too early to say, but this may prove at least as difficult as Bahro’s policy of a more general public conversion.

Ralph Miliband’s incisive essay on capitalist democracy in Britain will be read as a challenge to more orthodox arguments. ‘Capitalist’ is still a term which only the hard Right can live with, as socialist intellectuals and militants now use it. ‘Liberal’ or ‘Western’ democracy is the widely preferred description. But Miliband’s detailed analysis of its main features – the containment of pressure, the management of class conflict, politics as parliamentarism – offers a wider challenge. More clearly than any other British socialist, Miliband has steadily opposed these deliberately limited forms of democracy, with a persistent scepticism about their practicality as forms of radical change. Yet it is because in every argument he is notably and soberly realistic that his work is also a challenge to what passes for political theory in the most programmatic elements in Bahro and in the movements for which he speaks. As a call to direct action, these movements have notably succeeded, but what they are now experiencing, because of this success, is the full weight of the practices of containment and management – in some ways even harder than more open opposition – which Miliband so lucidly describes.

On the other hand, containment and management work best in conditions of relative stability, and it is the open provocation of instability, from the new hard Right which is now in power in Britain, which reopens all the questions. Stuart Hall, in the Socialist Register, continues his important analysis of these surprising new policies, arguing that this Thatcherite response to real instabilities has articulated genuine public reactions, making possible a new kind of ‘authoritarian populism’. He is especially bitter about the persistent assumption that the Left has all the good popular ideas, and that it is merely accidental that it is out of power and visibly shrinking. He is writing mainly about Britain, at a still early stage of this new situation, but his arguments are congruent with those of Bahro, especially in his insistence that the real struggle is now at the level of ‘the root values, the root concepts, the root images and ideas in popular consciousness’. It is in this kind of argument that the whole question of ‘practicality’ in politics, and of its relation to the increasingly disregarded routines of ‘real politics’, is now being fought out. One test will occur in the year of a general election in which the movements are determined to intervene on ground constitutionally and culturally reserved for the orthodox parties. I would expect Miliband’s sober analysis to be confirmed. But if the general instabilities are indeed as deep as the movements now claim – and I believe this to be true – the real tests will occur on less staked-out ground, over the dangerous years towards 2000.