The old left was too slow to see beyond materialist consumption. But an ecosocialism can underpin coalitions with the green parties which filled the gap.
‘Ecosocialism’ is not a new idea in politics. It has soared up the progressive agenda as floods and storms have given widespread credibility to the scientific account of climate change. But its implications are not yet evident for those socialist parties still standing in Europe. Up to the moment, wait-and-see attitudes and lip-service have prevailed.
The history of ideas teaches us that social democracy is actually quite familiar with political ecology. The problem is their convergence has failed.
In the 1920s, left-wing intellectuals such as Henri de Man and Willi Eichler, close to the parties, were already preoccupied in the context of Fordism with the consequences for life of an industrialist brand of socialism. However, the world economic crisis scuppered any such ‘qualitative’ agenda.
Postwar, the west-European left came to rely primarily on mass consumption to secure social progress and democratic stabilisation. After 1968, Michel Rocard in France and Willi Brandt in Germany were among the very few leaders to understand that a new, progressive Zeitgeist was coming.
The consolidation of green parties in western Europe from the 1980s was the result of a common social-democratic deafness to post-materialist claims. It was one of the reasons why the electoral base of the traditional left greyed rather than greened. In 1989 the Berliner Programm of the SPD came too late to pave the way for a pan-European ecosocialism: the future of German reunification and economic and monetary union, rather, were attracting citizens’ attention.
Pro-climate progressive alliance
For socialist parties, it is too late now to lament. To facilitate a pro-climate progressive alliance, the question of ‘what is to be done’ remains open.
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Electoral results and the story of coalition-building in the new millennium have provided the easy part of the answer. Despite diverse national performances, green parties have become game-changers in many countries, although they have not proved themselves natural allies of socialist organisations. The point is not to determine if political ecology is left-wing but to admit that green parties are mature enough to play the game of multiparty systems and to make choices based on a cost-and-benefits approach.
In Germany, the coalition led by Gerhard Schröder might have been a significant innovation but it did not prevent the Greens paying attention to the Christian democrats in 2021 or their Austrian counterpart joining the conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz in coalition. In Belgium, the ‘Ecolos’ have successfully resisted Elio di Rupo’s attempts to absorb them into an alliance inspired by Romano Prodi’s earlier such approach in Italy. In France, the greens contribute to a renewal of municipal policies and alliances while Parisian elites fail to update the late François Mitterrand’s union de la gauche.
In other words, social democracy can undoubtedly build a progressive front with green parties but the old left should forget about trapping them. Its only chance is to dare programmatic change and obtain decisive electoral results.
Preparing for government
Programmatic change should not however mean replicating an ecological agenda, for two main reasons. First, Tony Blair’s electoral successes in the United Kingdom or Joe Biden’s version of ‘America first’ prove that an efficient triangulation differs from imitation. Secondly, the lack of interest paid by the British public to the ecosocialist programme endorsed by the Labour Party during the 2019 campaign shows a sharp contrast between citizens’ fears as to the future of the earth and their electoral dispositions. A well-designed ecosocialist chapter in a programme is not the key to success, even if essential to prepare for government.
Leaving to focus groups the rebranding of social democracy as progressive or ecosocialist, the old left could adopt at least three programmatic changes to adapt to the climate issue, without breaking with its ideological identity as the historic European defender of workers and social rights.
The first is to build upon Labour’s 2019 manifesto by promoting public-investment banks and trade unions to ensure the evolution of national economies, in Stephany Griffith-Jones’ terms, in the direction of environmental sustainability. Calls for environmental laws by demonstrators are not enough. The transition needed is a day-to-day process requiring public control over the allocation of spending and the content of firms’ decisions. It does not mean adopting the Chinese political management model but empowering citizens through modern equivalents of German Mitbestimmung and the ‘wage-earner funds’ in the Swedish Meidner plan.
The second change is to promote new ways of working, to implement alternative models of production and consumption. Measures could include the traditional claim for shorter working hours and innovations such as a legal statute for autonomous remote working and social entrepreneurs. The point is to give people time to discover and contribute to the quality of life induced by local and collaborative economies.
Last but not least, socialist parties should resist the seduction of protectionism and the temptation to justify a new generation of EU-bashing over the negotiation of trade treaties with, among others, China and Brazil. A programmatic evolution in the direction of ecosocialism does not only require endorsement of the Green Deal put forward by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. It also means support for the exercise of soft power by the EU institutions.
Burden of internationalism
The biggest environmental threats do not lie on our small continent but in the comportment of the leading players in economic production. In the international game trade treaties are our only weapon to enhance environmental and social standards. The old left must choose here between the comfort of sterile vociferousness and the burden of internationalism.
Making a case for trade treaties in the name of ecosocialism might sound provocative to many socialist and ecological voters, yet it should be a rallying cry. The task of progressive leaders is to remind the citizens of Europe of two fundamental things. First, as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster showed, borders cannot protect any country from the worst kind of pollution nor shield anyone from global heating. Secondly, multilateral trade is the only peaceful way, according to John Maynard Keynes’ post-1945 design, to mutualise world supplies and define common standards of production or transport.
Even if an alliance of green and socialist parties were in government in most European countries, ecosocialism in one continent would fail in an interdependent world, just as ‘socialism in one country’ did in Albania. Alternative models of production and consumption at the local level are much needed but so too is their global dissemination.
The 2015 Paris Agreement is undoubtedly a landmark international accord on climate change. But its limits can be seen in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: treaties inspired by humanism are not enough and their day-to-day implementation in economic production requires incentives. That is precisely the function of the inclusion of social and environmental clauses in trade deals. They can consolidate evolutions in the behaviour of partners such as China or Mercosur.
After 1945 the 19th-century thesis according to which international trade could change the world by contributing to prosperity was proved right—in Europe at least. Since 1959 the European Commission has made not only steps beyond free trade but a leap forward. New generations of treaties have demonstrated the viability of long-term political regulation of international trade on one continent but also the plausibility of the extension of such regulation into transcontinental commerce, while the World Trade Organization has been paralysed. Ecosocialist progressives are right to be cautious about trade deals with other continents. But their political duty is to enhance, not block them.
In sum, ecosocialism is not a new ‘third way’—it is a crossroads to the future.