Paul Anderson, review of Werner Hulsberg, The German Greens (Verso, £9.95), Tribune, 15 January 1988

The West German Greens are, without a doubt, one of the most significant political phenomena of Europe in the eighties – on that everyone agrees.

But how should they be judged? Some commentators, both left and right, see them as either willing dupes of Moscow or a worrying reminder of the romantic German nationalism that played such a key role in Nazism. (Some French leftists see them as both, but that’s another story.)

Other believe they are a temporary aberration in West German politics, an amalgam of single-issue campaigns owing its apparent strength to circumstances, particularly in international relations, that will soon pass. Still others see them as the prototype of a new type of politics that is destined to sweep the world.

Werner Hulsberg agrees with none of these propositions. The West German Greens is an engaged but critical attempt to show that the Greens are a movement of the left, internationally non-aligned and not easily imitable outside West Germany, with deep enough social roots to survive and prosper – if they sort out their political strategy.

The best bits of the book are its detailed analyses of the Greens’ programmes and the social origins and beliefs of Green voters and members. Hulsberg shows convincingly that the Greens have very little in common with the movement that swept Hitler to power.

Supporters of the Greens are noticeably less nationalistic and authoritarian than supporters of all other West German parties; and the Greens’ political programmes and practices are consistently leftist on every key issue. What’s more, Green voters and, members come not from the traditional petty bourgeiosie but from highly educated skilled urban white collar employees, many in the service sector. (Hulsberg sees these people as the “proletariat of the 21st century”, which begs a lot of questions – but you don’t have to swallow his sometimes rather neanderthal Marxism to appreciate the data.)

Hulsberg backs up his sociological and textual analyses with a narrative account of the Greens’ history. First, he describes the political stasis to which the Greens were a response and outlines the various cultural and political milieux from which they emerged in 1978-79 — the remnants of the far-left groupuscules from the sixties Anti-Parliamentary Opposition, the alternative culture, the “citizens’ initiatives” of the seventies. (“Citizens’ initiative” –  Burgerinitiativen – started out as the blanket West German term for the voluntary committees set up in any democracy to resist roadbuilding, demand more nursery school places and so on. In Germany, these multifarious examples of “do-it-yourself’ politics, largely ignored by the left, consolidated their organisation and broadened their political perspectives. Initially hailed by the establishment as paragons of civic virtue, by the mid-seventies they came to embrace an environmentalist political outlook and mobilised widespread opposition to pollution and nuclear power station building.)

Hulsberg goes on to detail the left’s defeat of the conservative-conservationist right of the new party in its first couple of years, then tracks the Greens’ fortunes from their entry to the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) in 1983 until mid-1987.

His history is very good on the internal politics of the Greens – the arguments about coalition with the Social Democrats (Labour’s West German sister party), the battles over manifestos and so forth. He rather over-simplifies factional differences, but then it is difficult to see how he could have avoided this without making his story unintelligible to the uninitiated. Less forgiveably, he is weak on the activities of Greens in the Bundestag and on the effect Greens have had in local and state governments where  they have held office; he says little on the Greens’ foreign and defence policy initiatives; and he gives scant consideration to the movement’s cultural and intellectual influence.

Much of the problem here stems from Hulsberg’s underlying world-view. As you might expect from an author who quotes Trotsky and Ernest Mandel at most available opportunities, he sees questions of “correct lines” and political leadership as central; and although his Leninism is subtle enough to allow him some useful insights (particularly on the Greens’ economic programme, their relationship with the SDP, and the impossibility of parties like the Greens making headway in countries that don’t enjoy a West German electoral system) too much of what he says makes assumptions that should have been jettisoned years back.

Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly the most comprehensive analysis of the Greens in English, and it should be read by everyone concerned with the future of the left in Britain. Even if the British electoral system rules out the formation of a serious British Green party and the British left is stuck with Labour, we can still learn from the West German Greens’ experience: to put it mildly, British left political culture could do with an injection of their imaginative, decentralist anti-authoritarianism, and the Labour Party needs something more than improving its public image if it is to cope with the modern world.

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