Been a while over the summer since I’ve written on here. Too much time spent with the natural to visit the virtual. Still someone send me a fragment of a discussion between a group of Green Party members which started on a proposed motion to conference but seems to have degenerated into some mutual misunderstanding of terms. So I thought I’d put fingers to keyboard and stir the soup.
The two terms that seem to have caused confusion are “vanguardist” and “anarchist”. Both are being used as what John Greer calls “snarl words” in different senses by different people.
There is a view from some of those that were involved at the time (I wasn’t so this is all hearsay) that the early days of the Ecology Party (1975-1979) saw an internal split between two factions. Over time these have acquired different labels as both supposed factions had quite complex motivations that are not easily summed up in one word.
One faction wanted to stick by the principles of the founding organisations (PEOPLE and Movement for Survival (MS) ) who saw the political role primarily as giving political voice to the wide range of disparate ‘green’ groups that were springing up in response to growing awareness of the dawning ecological crisis.
They tended to see the role of the political party as reflecting the concerns of the wider movement in the political space. Both PEOPLE and MS initially eschewed the “party” label, but saw political activity as an essential adjunct to ecological concerns. They also saw the need for an organisation (or party) to unite the green movement, providing a political umbrella under which all the various issues could be brought to the table.
This grouping was commonly known as the Fundamentalists, or “Fundos”. To some extent this was a grouping that also tended towards a more ecocentric, or deep-green, viewpoint as opposed to a more pragmatic “realistic” view of going for what is achievable rather than what is ideal. Already the label is acquiring two distinct meanings – those who stuck to the original fundamental approach of the founding organisations as movement creators, and those who took a primarily ecocentric view of life.
A further confusion arises in that whilst the founders were more or less conventional members of civil society, as the organisation grew a substantial body of members came from “alternative” or counter-cultural backgrounds and often self-identified as “anarchist”.
Anarchist/anarchism is of course itself a problematic term, meaning very different things to different people. Popular culture working for the status quo has successfully subverted the underlying philosophical positions of various branches of anarchism to give the term deeply negative connotations in the minds of not only the general public but also large sections of the thinking classes. Not surprising since anarchism, and particularly eco-anarchism or deep-ecology, does represent the deepest threat to the industrial capitalist status quo. Eco-anarchism is possibly the only current system of thought that is fundamentally incompatible with industrial civilisation. Nonetheless the popular conception makes the use of the A-words problematic.
After the change of name to Ecology Party (various options for a better name were considered in 1975) with more people joining the organisation there was another group who came to the fore who saw political activity in terms of winning representation in elections as the primary focus of the organisation.
This group saw the role of the party as taking a political lead and less in engaging with other green groups and building a consensual movement. The idea was that the party should be the political vanguard and that the rest of the green movement would automatically follow them as the only viable political option. Hence this group were often labelled as the “Vanguardists”.
By this time many of the founders had taken a bit of a back seat, allowing a new generation of activists to pick up the reins and drive the party forward. In practice thus it was pretty much the anarchist grouping who opposed the vanguardists, so there came to be a confusion of the fundo position with the anarchist tendency.
Just as ‘anarchist’ has technical meanings which are at variance with the popular meaning, so ‘vanguardist’ has technical meanings in Marxist-Leninist thought which are not the same as the way the term is being used in characterising the early divisions in the Ecology Party.
There are abstruse discussions in Marxist circles around the meaning of Lenin’s book “What Is To Be Done” (WITBD) and in particular whether it meant the party was to be a vanguard for revolutionary action. One of the correspondents in the email thread I referenced at the start was using ‘vanguard’ in this technical sense, whereas the other was using it in a simpler sense of “leading from the front”.
In fact it makes more sense to use ‘vanguard’ in the (arguably misinterpreted) Leninist sense to apply to the movement/anarchist/fundo side of the early debate. What they were trying to achieve seems to me to be closer to what today’s SWP is trying to achieve, but obviously the SWP operates in the socialist as opposed to green arena.
Despite calling itself a party, the SWP is not a political party in the conventional sense – its goals are to create the structures and organisation to allow a socialist revolution to succeed when the conditions arise. They are not trying to lead from the front, but are trying to embed leadership into an emerging revolutionary class. (there is a useful summary “What We Stand For” in any issue of Socialist Worker, usually a column on the What’s On page).
In effect what the Movement people wanted was to Lead from Within whereas what the Vanguard people wanted was to Lead from the Front. Both can be viable strategies in different circumstances. Hindsight tells us that leading from the front didn’t really deliver – of course it tells us nothing about whether leading from within would have done any better.
One possible aspect of the failure may be the electoral system in the UK which forces a binary choice on the electorate. If you want to successfully lead from the front then you have to be winning your battles – you can’t easily do this as a new entrant in a FPTP electoral system unless you are focussing on a very specific geographic constituency (Labour in S.Wales in early 1900’s). Without early success those who you are trying to lead will drift off to find some other leader who can deliver.
Leading from within can be far harder, but will also be more robust and possibly more likely to succeed against the odds as everyone in your movement has a vested interest in the success of the movement.
Should the Green Party today stop focussing on electoral success as a goal in itself – which seems to be their objective?