Only a socialist society will meet human needs and
sustain ecological diversity
Interview with Derek Wall, Green Party Executive Committee
position do you hold in the Green Party and what have you achieved as a member?
I am local party support
co-ordinator on the Party Executive. I was elected jointly with Xanthe Bevis,
who helped found Corporate Watch and was active in the direct action movement.
We write the monthly e-newsletter for members, help local parties set up,
produce 'green activist'. I also run an interview in most issue of the party
magazine Green World (Joel Kovel, Nandor Tanczos, Caroline Lucas, the late Mike
Woodin…) and chair the Executive sometimes...its great as a socialist to have so
much political space but it keeps me busy. I joined the Party in 1980. Helped
set up the Association of Socialist Greens in the 1980s. I was one of three
national speakers with Jean Lambert and Sara Parkin in 1989. I am also an
associate editor of Red Pepper. I teach political economy at Goldsmiths
College, University of London, have three sons, write and I am devoted to Zen.
I write as well, my book Babylon and Beyond which looks at different forms of
anti-capitalism including Marxist, green and autonomist is out in September from
Pluto and the Green Economic Institute.
describe yourself as an eco-Marxist. How would you define that term?
Well the big man himself
sums it with his usual clarity:
From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society,
private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as
private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or
even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of
the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and like boni
patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an
improved condition. (Marx quoted in Kovel 2002: 238)
Its probably worth filling
in where I am coming from because I guess not everybody is familiar with the
Marxist tradition in the Green Party, I can give you a personal perspective and
if you read Kovel you can get an idea of socialism within the US Greens
When I joined the Party in
1980, it was still the Ecology Party and in some ways much more ideological than
it is at present. The emphasis was very much that economic growth was
unsustainable, this critique of accumulation, very much separated the Party from
other groups including those on the left. This has never really left me, I am
sceptical that continuous growth is ecologically sustainable or socially
desirable that's pretty much the alpha and omega of my commitment and everything
else flows from it. I suppose I became an eco-Marxist by about 1983 and though
my ideas have developed since in some ways I have learnt very little since.
Marx still provides the best explanation of why capitalism demands continuous
accumulation. I read Andre Gorz 'Ecology as Politics', Rudolf Bahro's
'Socialism and Survival' some stuff from the SWP and the SPGB including 'Ecology
and Socialism' that I would still recommend. Marx is great, Capital is
literature and history. I love reading Marx.
Terry Eagleton is one of my
favourite socialist writers. Marxism is a sophisticated, subtle, philosophical
system with inexhaustible insights. As an eco-Marxist I believe that only a
socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity,
politics is based on class struggle, it isn't a matter of changing a few laws we
live in a social totality that is utterly destructive and must be replaced.
Revolution is a break between one social system and another. The market is
intrinsically unjust and is the very DNA from which capitalism in its worst form
springs. This does not mean I accept much of the baggage of the far left, I
think Marxist Party politics can be pretty dire and the evil twins of British
Trotskyism and British Stalinism are still not properly buried. Thus I
understand why many radicals are wary of the label 'Marxist'.
Traditionally many of the
left have uncritically regarded economic development as innately progressive,
and all. Where do you think this misconception came from and how can it be
Well the first Marxist
organisation in Britain the Social Democratic Federation contained not only
Engels and Eleanor Marx but William Morris. Morris has always been an important
eco-Marxist with books like News from Nowhere. Gould's book 'Early Green
Politics' shows how between 1880 and 1905 socialism in Britain was dominated by
green concerns. During the Russian Revolution green concern fed into the left
and, perhaps surprisingly, Lenin was keen to set up national parks. There is a
debate as to whether Marx was a productivist, however recently John Bellamy
Foster has suggested that he was keen student of environmental science, whose
concept of a 'metabolism' between humanity and the rest of nature is vital.
Much of the modern left has flowed from sources with little concern for the
environment. Trotsky never had anything but admiration for industrial
agriculture and hyper industrialisation as far as I can see. Stalin was even
worse; however, the CPGB member Benny Rothman's Kinder Scout trespass in the
1930s was part of a working class campaign for access to the countryside for
walking and climbing. Benny spoke at Twyford Down to resist the M3 cutting
through on an Earth First! rally in the 1990s. The managerial approach of the
Fabians distorted British social democracy, although the 1945 Atlee governments’
creation of National Parks shows that the Morris influence continued a little.
We can end poverty without
'growth'. The important point is to separate 'use' values from 'exchange'
values to show that through making goods to last longer, sharing more,
constructing libraries not just for books but pretty much everything, we can
gain access to the goods we need without reproducing ever larger quantities of
rubbish. Socialism is not just a faster version of capitalism with more of
everything but a society based on meeting human need cooperatively. Economic
growth measures the growth of the economy of abstract figures, prosperity
without pollution demands access. Capitalism has to artificially construct
scarcity to maintain accumulation, it is a system of alienation, a system
constructed by human ingenuity and labour, that acts as a prison for humanity
and the rest of nature. Capitalist economics is very much about the tail
wagging the dog. If something has utility in terms of abstract economic
accumulation, the accumulation of figures we do it, if not we don't. We live in
a world run by fucking hedge funds. This is what Marx's described well before
such complex financial instruments were in existence by the term 'fetishism'.
like to include some thoughts from John Bellamy Foster which illustrate the
eco-Marxist position with clarity
John Bellamy Foster summaries the ecosocialist account of
globalisation by comparing it to a giant treadmill:,
First, built into this global system, and
constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by
a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid.
Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and
into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production.
Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of
extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary
technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in
a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes
increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while
ensuring some degree of "social security" for a least a portion of its
citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of
the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.
[…] Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of
this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers
are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their
operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the
vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they
simply need to obtain jobs at liveable wages. But to retain those jobs and to
maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like
the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in
order to stay in the same place. (Foster 2002: 44-45)
of the Green Party it states that:
economic ideas, institutions and organisations are needed to reduce our
dependence on [money]. Economic policy should be directed not to maximising the
forms of wealth that can be measured in monetary terms, but to ensuring that the
needs of all are met.”
Would you define that as a socialist economic policy?
Its an excellent start.
Greens at their very best are deeply critical of capitalist economics... however
the point is to develop practical means of regulation that go beyond the market
and bureaucratic planning, I am very excited by the potential that open source,
commons regimes and other forms of social sharing provide for building an
economy beyond capitalism which grows organically.
Party in Britain seems very quiet on trade union issues, and workplace rights,
in contrast for example to the Australian Green party. Why do you think this is?
We have solid policy, plenty
of members are trade unionists, the best of the awkward squad such as Bob Crow
and Mark Serwotka are acclaimed with standing ovations when they speak at Party
conference. We have supported numerous trade union battles. The fire fighters
pay dispute was given unanimous support. There are dozens of examples of trade
union work by our two excellent MEPs. The Party has a good record on trade
unions, I just guess much of left assumes we are more concerned with wildlife
issues (not that these aren't important) and ignore us.
think it has been a mistake for the Greens to go into coalition with the Lib
Dems or the Tories in various councils?
Yes. However I am not going
to be too harsh. We all know of right wing and corrupt Labour authorities and
any kind of radical or not so radical party that gains council seats is going to
have a choice between supporting or opposing. It's a structural problem. I
think where Greens have gone alone this has been a much better approach but
these choices are very very difficult.
left organised within the Green Party, and do you have a perspective of
systematically advancing left policies within the party?
The Party has no organised
factions at present, I think socialists, outside the Party, would have very very
few problems with our policies or the stand of our MEPs, GLA members, etc...
however the achievement of an ecologically sustainable, socially justice and
truly democratic society is an immensely difficult and contradictory task that
demands intense intellectual effort and practical struggle, so consideration of
the 'systematic advance' is still important. I can give you a history of how the
left has developed in the party and where the very diverse and diffuse Green
Party left are moving.
In the 1980s around the time
when we went from 'Ecology' to 'Green', liberal members created a body to build
links with the then Liberal Party. This like most things was of a contradictory
nature. On the one hand, there was a strong left/green tradition in the
Liberals, think of the Red Guard of the Young Liberals in the 1970s or the
Liberal Ecology Group... equally it helped the right of the Party organise and
ultimately make a bid for hegemony.
At the same time the
Association of Socialist Greens, was created by Party members like co-chair
Penny Kemp. Peter Tatchell, although then in Labour, was supportive and his
long term commitment to serious green politics is very inspiring. I being
unusually 'Leninist' about these things, felt that the party needed an
explicitly Marxist analysis, so got involved as the newsletter editor. What
basically unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a period of intense
internal political bloodshed that would compare well with anything in the Labour
Party or far left groups. The right around the Green 2000 faction wanted to
make us into a mainstream party with mass appeal, ditch the radicalism,
reengineer the Party constitution and centralise power. We fought them. I
remember Sara Parkin talking to the Independent about 'socialist parasites' i.e.
myself and Penny Kemp who had been members nearly as long as her. They won and
then imploded, when the Party received just a couple of percentage at the 1992
General Election. When the 'realists' believe in achieving a Westminster
Parliamentary government by 2000 (thus Green 2000), give me fundamentalism.
One of the reasons why the
left has space in the Party at present is because the right won and then finding
that they were not on the road to number 10 resigned. The rise of the
anti-capitalist movement and the direct action environmental movement in the
1990s helped a lot, with the growth of New Labour the political space has moved
to the left. Out of the 6,000 members many, many of them are ex-Labour. My
election agent, the neighbouring candidate and most of the activists in my East
Berkshire Party are ex-Labour, I met Richard Scarse the present Green World
editor when I used to canvass him in Walcot, Bath where he was Labour ward
The left have organised in
the Party when there was a factional war of manoeuvre, it's not necessary at
present and the last left group The Way Ahead wound up maybe five years ago.
I decided to have a go at
mobilising the left about two and a half years ago. I was inspired by Joel
Kovel's bid for the US Green Party presidential nomination standing against
Nader in 2000, when he stood on an explicitly eco-socialist ticket. He
supported Nader but felt that by standing he could raise some real debate and
push things in a greener and redder direction. So I decided to stand against
Caroline Lucas on a socialist platform, in the hope of moving her further to the
left. You can do this because there is a list of ten candidates... I was quite
explicit about being a Marxist and was elected on to the list, albeit in the
number eight position. Things then became quite odd... a first indication was
when I took part in the candidate hustings and found that only one person in the
room wasn't a candidate, so bang went my carefully prepared anti-capitalist
speech... there was no audience.
The project pretty quickly
switched to simply getting Caroline re-elected, it was clear that she was in
danger and that her impressive contribution would be lost in Europe. In 1999
she had been elected with a margin of 240 votes out of many million and outside
of Brighton and Oxfordshire, the Party organisation was frankly poor. So it was
a matter of working very very hard and enduring the worse kind of pedantic
committee meetings, just to help get Caroline back in 2004. Ran a Red Pepper
editorial supporting her, got ex-Socialist Alliance's Liz Davies to support her
and Jean Lambert, canvassed solidly, helped appoint her election worker Athene
Reiss and ran about like a maniac, like plenty of other people.
There are a lot of
socialists and even some eco-Marxists in the Party at present, my personal focus
is on trying to make the Party more dynamic and well organised, this seems to be
the area of weakness not any absence of left policies. I am working quite hard
on political education trying to get people to think but not in a didactic way,
not saying ecosocialists have a truth... I also feel this cuts both ways and the
non Green Party left could do well to think about Marx and ecology more. This
is my approach, others like Peter Tatchell have different but complementary
priorities but socialists in the Party as I say enjoy a lot of political space
which makes the experience a positive one, especially when ten to 15 years ago
we were being severally persecuted. I know Peter enjoys being in the Party, so
we don't feel that organising a socialist group is a priority, although it might
be useful in the future.
2.2 million people voted for the Greens, but the promised breakthrough never
quite happened. Do you think that the Greens can ever break out of the political
Difficult without PR. Green
Parties receive between 5 and 10% in most systems, it is important to use this
vote to build new ideas, promote solidarity and struggle and to develop
transitional policies. Caroline and Jean do this effectively in the European
Parliament, complementing extra-parliamentary struggle. The naive old Ecology
Party view of electing a Green government and legislate for ecotopia is not on
the agenda. The mainstream European Green Party model of propping up social
democratic/third way governments is also highly problematic... Fischer is a very
creative and popular politician, yes his opposition to the Iraq War really put
the Greens in a position of influence... however the move to the right is
unacceptable. We will come out of this election well, its great to be fighting
Westminster seats such as Brighton Pavilion and Lewisham Deptford with
candidates who can win, equally candidates with a good record of opposing
I think if the Party could
sustain radical and dynamic local parties across Britain they could have a very
positive effect in a wider battle for ideas as well as creating practical
alternatives. Thus I am interested in the nuts and bolts of local party
organisation as well as wider questions.
think it would be advantageous for there to be greater co-operation between the
Greens and the left, and what are the obstacles to achieving this?
Green politics does not work
in my opinion without a Marxist analysis of economics, I would hope that
co-operation would promote mutual learning. In terms of electoral politics it
would be beneficial to maximise opportunities for voters to vote for radicals,
it's silly to have Greens and socialists contesting say the same seat if this
can be avoided. Practical grassroots campaigns from opposing incinerators to
supporting union action is also very important.
The Party has a tendency to
be defensive, short term logic in the 1980s, would have meant that we should
have dissolved into some kind of anti-Thatcher campaign or the Bennite left, we
scraped through 15 years when we often received humiliating votes, so we had to
keep motoring on and fighting elections because the long term matters. So there
is a basic hostility to 'deals'. However, there is a recognition from the
Executive and most members that we part of the left and should work with the
left. This said we are wary of the political culture of the left that often
seems to be based on infighting and intrigue rather than inclusive debate.
The RESPECT project was
heavily strongly criticised by many, but not all, on the left of the Green
Party. We were consulted and really if you can't gain the confidence of the
Green Party left you are not going to get very far. While the Scottish
Socialist Party has provided a rare example of a pluralist and democratic far
left, the domination of the Socialist Alliance by the SWP encouraged nobody with
confidence in RESPECT. I know of several Executive members who would like to
build better links with the Socialist Party because there is a feeling that it
has changed in a positive direction. I think if the SWP genuinely became a more
open and democratic organisation there would be room for some discussion.
However, there is always the suspicion that the politics is a bit shallow and
based on short term tactical measures. SWP have run some stuff from Bellemy
Foster in International Socialism but have ignored Kovel, they don't really seem
to have got to grips with an eco-Marxist perspective which you find in journals
like the US Capitalism Nature Socialism. Even if the SWP changed radically,
trust would have to grow over a long time. I also feel that it is important to
recognised the achievements and aspiration for ecosocialism in Cuba and
Venezuela, this doesn't mean hero worshipping Castro or Chavez, but it is
important to provide practical solidarity. This is an area of weakness with the
SWP in particular.
The Green Party Executive
were pleased to be approached by the Green Socialist Unity coalition, there is a
definite sympathy for the GSU along with recognition that we have different
constituencies and traditions. A motion to talk was passed unanimously which I
think was progress. It does not look as if much practical will come out of it
for this General Election but I think at worst at future elections we can avoid
some clashes which has to be worthwhile. There is going to be friction as well
but its worth talking.
optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Well Gramsci's 'pessimism of
the intellect, optimism of the will' is always worth quoting. Things are not
good on Planet Earth in the early years of the 21st century but the Green Party
at least provides a positive and generally enjoyable way of promoting an
alternative. I guess I am one of the few socialists in any Party who feels that
they have space. It's all a matter of doing more, thinking more, campaigning,
keeping on keeping on.
Foster, J. (2000)
Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Foster, J. (2002)
Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Kovel, J. (2002) The
Enemy of Nature. London/New York: Zed.