Germany: What the Greens did in power

Seven years in coalition government showed Greens were an establishment party

Seven years in coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have revealed the German Greens as just another establishment party. Kim Opgenoorth, Sozialistische Alternative (CWI Germany), traces ‘the bourgeoisification of the sunflower’ (the Greens emblem).

He entered with tumultuous noise, but left quietly with the look of the elder statesman on his face. The retirement of Joschka Fischer, foreign minister in the ‘Red-Green’ government, from the German Bundestag (lower chamber of parliament) was perfectly staged.

In the unlikely case of the Greens entering the new coalition government, he would have offered his services as foreign minister once more. But to go back into opposition was too much for the well-travelled politician known throughout the world. He deems himself called to higher things, casting his eye on positions in the European Union (EU) or UN. Where the Bundestag is concerned, Fischer has achieved his goal of proving to German big business that the Greens are capable of doing policy in their interest. He enthusiastically sums up seven years of Red-Green coalition government: “During this period, Germany has become a different country. More open, for example, because of new citizenship and migration laws. More ecological. Although big business complained about these reforms, they worked in their favour. More liberated. We Germans are a lot clearer now about who we are. For example, where foreign policy is concerned, we are rooted in Europe and the west, we are a confident nation. Of all this, we Red-Greens can be extremely proud”.

He is right. Germany has become a different country. Restraint in foreign policy is a thing of the past. Imperialist demands are being formulated with new confidence. Germany participated in two wars, soldiers are positioned all over the world. The SPD defence minister declared, without being contradicted, that German interests are being defended in the Hindu Kush. Fischer has been congratulated by the bourgeois media. Only with him was it possible to de-pacify Germany. Only he could break this taboo which existed since the end of the second world war by asking: “What is the lesson of Auschwitz? Perhaps that sometimes soldiers have to be used in time?” Without offering any criticism, the Greens support bourgeois EU policy. Claudia Roth, the Greens’ national chair, sees the double-no vote in France and the Netherlands against the EU constitution as a “bitter disappointment”: “There is no alternative to a more democratic and transparent Europe capable of taking action. All European politicians to whom this project is close to their hearts now have to advertise the EU constitution even stronger… I am completely convinced that this constitution is a victory for the future unification of Europe”.

Apparently, the country has become more open. The anti-terror laws of SPD interior minister, Otto Schilly, were supported by the Greens, so was the increase in deportations. The right to double citizenship has been reduced after a baiting campaign by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Schilly sees his immigration policy as a continuation of previous governments, whose policies “he has no criticism of”. The new immigration law divides foreigners into categories according to their usefulness for big business. Racist views are widespread among Green party members. The new chair of the Greens’ parliamentary group admitted: “We have to become more honest about the question of what we mean by a multicultural democracy. Many Greens send their children to school in other areas than where they live in order to avoid the large percentage of foreigners in their own living areas”.

There are more organic food stores and wind farms in Germany. Ecology has become profitable. Wind and solar energy are boom sectors, receiving strong state support and good profits. The bio label has become a marketing advantage. This primarily means that the word ‘bio’ has to be on the package – not necessarily inside.

The Red-Green government liked to present itself as a European champion of the environment, but the results are rather pathetic. A new study by the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) proves that German coal power plants are extremely damaging for the environment. Nine of the 30 most harmful European coal plants can be found in Germany, five in the top ten. One is in second place, just behind Greece.

The demand to end nuclear energy use in one or two years has turned into 20-30 years. This is, in effect, a lifetime guarantee for what are, in parts, already outdated and unproductive power plants. Nuclear energy still provides 30% of German energy. The power of the main energy companies has not been questioned. Four major companies have divided up the market among themselves and, because of their monopoly, prevent the lowering of electricity prices. The Green election slogan, ‘get away from using oil’, can be supported by industry because it promises more energy independence.

Social attacks

Concerning the social situation, Germany really has become a different country. A massive transformation has taken place. The system of social partnership has ended. The class war from above has begun. With the help of the trade unions, the Red-Green government turned big business interests into reality. In 1998, the highest tax rate was 53%, fell to 45%, and is now 42% – a millionaire saves €100,000 per year. At the same time, the last pennies are robbed from the unemployed. At an amazing pace, workers are losing money, holidays, special rights in the workplaces, and democratic rights. Low-paid jobs and contracts not covered by union agreements muscle out those bound by national pay deals. The welfare state is being undermined, and preparations for the further destruction of pensions, health and education have been made. Schools are not being renovated, poverty can be seen in the streets.

The Greens have not just looked on but played a leading role in this. They saw themselves as the motor of reform and the SPD as a party too prepared to give in to working-class pressure. The Hartz IV reforms, which led to mass protests and the foundation of the new left party are, “apart from a few corrections”, still defended by Roth. Her criticism is of “strong promotional problems”: using “killer wordings like Hartz IV and €1 Jobs” did not promote trust. The Greens were against Gerhard Schröder’s call for new elections. They would have preferred hard government measures to carry on. Fischer commented about the lost elections: “We have begun the difficult renewal of society which the Kohl government was too sleepy to do during the 1990s…”

Not much is left of the radical democratic demands made by this once rebellious party, apart from the demand for more plebiscites on political issues. Internally, the ‘democrats from below’ have transformed themselves into a party where those coming to the top are those who are favoured by the secret general secretary. There are still women’s quotas. When the going gets tough, however, the one-man show starts. Difficult governmental decisions were made by Fischer and Schröder alone. During the elections, the Greens’ posters advertised: ‘Yes! To Joschka’, a ‘Joschka Tour’ for the ‘Joschka Vote’. There is no other party in which the national committee ignores decisions made by the membership so openly. The decision made by delegates at the last congress to oppose the delivery of 20 Fuchs tanks and 80 trucks to the Iraqi interim government did not even survive two days. Apparently, the parliamentary Greens did not have to stick to this decision as this was not a classic arms export but “equipment support”. “Iraqi police officers and soldiers serving the interim government are regularly being attacked, intimidated, shot at and bombed. All things considered, can we really deny the request of their government to send them secure vehicles?” Roth argued.

Using skilful rhetoric, leading Green politicians shape reality as they need it. The Afghanistan war was not a war but a liberation struggle against the oppression of women. Privatisation means self-determination and freedom. Hartz IV is ‘just’ because other measures, like raising pension contributions for the older generations, would be unjust. Fischer makes the point in his book, For a New Social Contract, that there is a need to adapt to the pressures of globalisation and that this puts into question some core values of the democratic left. This does not lead him to the open declaration of right-wing policies. Left is redefined as “modern left”. The larger the gap between self-perception and reality, the more bombastic the declarations: “A modern left party means to see society as it is. It is not the old work and class society. Left core values like social justice and equality of opportunity still have to be at the centre of our policies. But defined in a new way… equality of access, equality of the generations”.

The Greens are worse than they appear. The history of their foundation makes them look more leftwing then they have been for a long time. The voters have not yet realised the whole dimension of their shift to the right. Enthusiasm for this party has long gone, though. The TAZ, a daily newspaper close to the Greens, asked at the time of the 25th anniversary of their foundation: Why do people still vote Green? Although the typical green voter would vote for them out of conviction, s/he could not explain why. The TAZ found a new category, the “cultural voter”. The Green voter votes for what culturally or emotionally feels most comfortable. The last general election saw one last push for the Greens. Instead of the expected 6% they achieved just over 8%. But this was an election of the two camps against each other: Red-Green against conservative-liberal. A political scientist explains the less than expected fall in votes for the Greens with the fact that they “made an oppositional election campaign against their own policies”.


Sunflowers, self-made knitted pullovers and politicians on bikes, that is all gone now. The chair of the parliamentary group of the Left Party, Gregor Gysi, found the correct wording to describe this: “The Green flower has dried up”. At the time of their foundation they had many left demands and a lot of members who saw themselves as socialists. But a Marxist analysis of society, a clear class point of view and a coherent socialist programme were missing. Individual demands, without being embedded into a socialist programme, are like a tiny flag in the wind. They are nothing but nice ideas and will, if confronted with reality, sometimes turn into their direct opposite.

The production of economic goods could and should be ecologically harmonious. It should not be dangerous, neither at the workplace nor for the consumer. The needs of the population have to be paramount. Healthy food must not be a luxury. Fresh air, clean water and a responsible attitude towards natural needs are basic rights of humanity. They are being trampled upon all over the world by capitalism. Those who want to save the environment have to be prepared to declare war on the profit interests of big business. Especially where the environment is concerned it becomes clear that only a planned economy, democratically organised and based upon the needs of the population, would be capable of stopping the destruction of the environment and start regeneration measures. Individual lifestyle changes and private boycott actions combat a bad consciousness but not the systematic destruction of nature. Instead of discussing how to get individuals to reduce waste, the production of unnecessary packaging should be stopped. Instead of appealing to the individual to save energy, energy-saving vehicles should be produced. There is a need for a well-planned and attractive public transport system. Democracy and control from the working population is necessary for this, as the Stalinist regimes in the east showed – where the environment was destroyed without a second thought.

Many Greens were sceptical about a socialist alternative. Even the ‘socialist wing’ within the Greens saw Marxism’s positive views on progress, growth and technology as a threat to the environment. The productive forces in themselves, not how they were used, were seen as destructive: “The main point of attack of eco-socialist revisionism was the naivety of Marxism to believe in an objective, neutral and emancipatory character of science, technology and production”. This was written by the radical ‘eco-socialists’, Trampert and Ebermann, in the 1980s. According to them, a new society would have to be based on sacrifice and reduction of living standards. Small businesses should replace large-scale industry. Cycling and walking would replace cars and planes. Instead of revolutionising technology and using it in an ecological fashion, humanity should give up technology. These views, which condemned industrialisation and idealised the middle ages, could not provide a realistic perspective or solutions for existing problems.

No class perspective

These views resulted in a widening of the gulf towards the working population. The worker who drove to work was classified as stupid and fixated on consumerism. The working class was seen as an enemy instead of an ally. The membership of the early Greens consisted of a mixed bag of nature and environmental organisations, civic initiatives, and movements for peace, human rights, women and the third world. Left idealists sat next to right-wing reactionaries. They were only united in their concern about the environment. They saw this question as unrelated to class conflict, more as a question of survival for the human species which was above class struggle. The decline of the Greens is proof that environmental questions are class questions. The capitalist system, in which only profit maximisation and private accumulation count, considers laws against the use of poisonous chemicals or the poisoning of rivers as a massive hindrance. Environmental laws and health and safety regulations have only been achieved because of mass pressure from the workers’ movement and the population. No environmental problem can be solved without adopting a class perspective. Working-class control of production is necessary. The rescue of natural resources cannot be left to free-market forces. Appeals to reason of the guilty parties have achieved nothing.

The Voran newspaper (predecessor of Solidaritaet, paper of Sozialistische Alternative) wrote in 1978: “It will be impossible for the justified protest movement of the ‘Greens’, which is predominantly supported by activists from the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie, to stand between the two big classes in society. It will have to decide: with the workers’ movement or with big business”. Events have shown this analysis to be correct. The party transformed itself into a party sucking up to big business.

The more the Greens participated in government, the more bourgeois policies they forced their members to accept, the more their membership started to become bourgeois. Ralf Flücks, chief of the Böll-Foundation close to the Greens, describes the social composition of the Greens: “The leftwing has eroded. The Greens have won, however, self-employed people and people working in the information sector”. They would not necessarily be better paid, but well qualified. “The Greens represent the innovative aspects of society…” Statistics do show, however, that the Green voter of today is also better paid. In 1982, the largest percentage of votes from households with the lowest income went to the Greens. During the 1990s, the income of Green voters overtook that of CDU and SPD voters by a long shot. Statistics from 2002 show that the average Green voter takes home €1,750-2,000 a month. Every fourth Green has access to at least €3,000 monthly take-home pay. Their income is higher than voters of the right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP), which likes to be called the ‘party of high earners’.

Prospects for a conservative-green alliance

Accordingly Taz compares the Greens with the FDP: “The Greens have more common ground with traditional Liberals and Christian Democrats then with anything red. They would finally arrive in the bourgeois spheres they habitually represent already”.

The Greens opposed short-lived speculation about a black, yellow and green ‘Jamaica coalition’ (the party colours of the CDU, FDP and Greens) made after the elections. This was, claimed Roth, “not explainable to the party and voters”. She probably meant, not yet explainable. A bit of time and rhetoric is still needed. But conservative-green is not a new thing. On a local level, such coalitions have worked brilliantly: in Cologne, they pushed through the biggest cuts in post-war history! There were cuts in the cultural and social sectors as well as women’s and migrants’ services. Leading Green politicians recommend conservative-green coalitions on a regional level as the next step. The upcoming regional parliamentary elections in Baden Würtenberg would be an opportunity for this.

Like many others, Flücks is happy to be able to escape the tight limits of red-green: “Red-Green was important to show we are capable of participating in government. Programmatically, it was not that good for the Greens… We stand for a different way of reaching social justice than the SPD does. Green is a combination of self-determination, self-responsibility and solidarity. Social participation is being decided when it comes to access to public goods like education and culture. Social Democrats are more fixated on social transfer services”.

Fischer recommends “the opening up to both sides without becoming ‘a lost child’ in the centre. This is important for the programmatic renewal of the party. We have to be able to reach voters from the classical left as well as those from a bourgeois background”. The declaration of the Bavarian CSU’s top politician, Edmund Stoiber, that “one would have to get used to the idea of governing with a Jürgen Trittin” (a leading Green minister in the outgoing government), is seen as a “cultural step forward” by Fischer.

The foundation of the Left Party robs the Greens of those voters who have perceived them so far as being the smallest evil. During this year’s general election they lost almost a quarter of a million votes to the Left Party. The Greens have to position themselves in a new political landscape. In accordance with their membership composition, the Greens will move to the right.

Green issues are rooted widely within society. Ecological demands are present in all party programmes. This is because of the movement that mobilised large parts of the population during the 1970s and 1980s. The party that, coming out of these mass movements, rose to power, has achieved the opposite of its stated aims. Instead of enforcing green demands, it managed to discourage and de-politicise the public.

The sad sell-out of the Greens and their ideals is a warning for the building of a new mass workers’ party. The fewer principled attacks against the foundations of capitalism there are in a programme, the less chance there is to achieve even the smallest reforms. Without mass popular mobilisation a left party has no chance in a bourgeois parliament. Within the new Left Party, some leaders already want to be in government. The fate of the Greens shows: the participation of a left party in a bourgeois government does not lead to a shift to the left in government policies but to the bourgeoisification of the party.

Translated by Christian Bunke

This article first appeared in the November issue of Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, England and Wales

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November 2005