Can environmental left populism work? The case of the West German Green Party


A left populism with a major green element has been advocated as a way to reconstitute the left and address ecological crisis. However, the experience of the German Greens points to the limits of this project.

In January 1976, Rudi Dutschke met activists for a discussion in a bookshop in Freiburg, a picturesque university town in the Black Forest in southwest Germany. He had been invited to speak at the university before catching up with locals in the evening to find out more about the political scene. Dutschke, Germany’s most prominent student leader of 1968, was particularly interested in what was happening at the university, but some in his audience had other concerns: the construction of a new nuclear power station in nearby Wyhl.

Wyhl, a sleepy Black Forest village of 3,000 inhabitants, lies at the feet of the Kaiserstuhl hill range, an area that is known for its fertile volcanic soil and flourishing agriculture and wine industry. As soon as plans for the nuclear power station became public, residents and farmers started to form citizen initiatives to protest against it.1 They feared that the construction of the power station and the resulting nuclear waste would destroy the quality of the soil and jeopardize the natural beauty of the region – and with it, their livelihoods.

Residents were right to worry: at the time, the government of Baden-Wurttemberg envisioned the power station as forming part of an “industrial axis between Basel and Rotterdam” with a view to industrialise the complete Rhine valley. The scale of the industrialisation plans would have made large swathes of the Black Forest uninhabitable, surrendering the area almost completely to businesses.

In January, Dutschke had not yet paid proper attention to the emerging anti-Atomkraftwerk (anti-AKW, or anti-nuclear) movement, or environmental politics more broadly. A listener in the Freiburg bookshop complained that Dutschke had “only generalisations” to offer when asked about Wyhl, and that it seemed that the assembled audience of student left-wingers was not taking the concerns of the anti-AKW groups seriously enough.2

Over the spring and summer of 1976, the anti-AWK movement grew. Dutschke, starting to realise that something politically significant was developing there, travelled back to the Black Forest. He spent two weeks in Freiburg, immersing himself within the movement. According to his widow Gretchen, this engagement with the anti-AKW activists and local farmers led his “traditional left views of what was important in society to alter and expand”.3

But Whyl has wider significance than its impact on Rudi Dutschke’s personal politics: in 1977, the construction of the power station was halted and it became the first planned German nuclear power station to be stopped by the anti-AKW movement. The success of the campaigners is regarded as a key event in the coherence of an ecological political movement which formed the backdrop to the establishment of a Green political party. The sonstige politische Vereinigung die Grünen (Other Political Association/The Greens) was formed in March 1979 to contest the European Parliament elections on 10th June 1979. They achieved 3.2% of votes overall, regarded as a breakthrough success by political commentators.

Dutschke believed that the political situation in the 1970s assigned it renewed importance as a site of struggle. In 1979 he wrote:

Some say: parliamentarism, others say direct democracy, or council democracy, I am neither here nor there but believe that we need to understand the historical juncture in which we are in, that is not possible without the parliament. Parliament is a historical inheritance of the bourgeois revolution and we cannot eliminate it but must take it seriously […] A growing direct democracy will be possible if we unite parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements […] the extra-parliamentary opposition can in the 1970s never play the same historic role that we once did in the 1960s. Especially because of this difference, parliament has emerged as more important for us.4

The ‘historical juncture’ of the 1970s was shaped by the fracturing of Dutschke’s Außerparlamentarische Opposition (APO, or extra-parliamentary opposition) into different communist groups and movements with the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS, or Socialist German Student Union, the leading element of the APO) formally dissolving in March 1970. Just a few months earlier, the social democrat Willy Brandt became Chancellor, leading West Germany’s first SPD-liberal coalition. The freeing of Andreas Baader on 14th May 1970 marked the constitution of the Red Army Faction and the start of an almost decade-long violent urban guerilla struggle climaxing in the ‘German Autumn’ in 1977. The Vietnam War, which had mobilised so many to take to the streets against US imperialism, drew to a close as US troops left the country in 1973.

Views among the left on ‘actually existing socialism’ in the form of the DDR and Soviet Union too were not straightforward. Within the SDS, some followed a Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist or Maoist tradition. But the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 brought to the forefront conflicts around activists’ understanding of the dynamics between individual freedom, democracy and socialism, in which Dutschke supported a ‘Luxemburgist’ line, emphasising the importance of democratic freedoms in the construction of socialism. As a high school student in East Germany, he had spoken out against conscription on the grounds of pacifism. This earned him a lowering of his grades in his high school diploma, meaning he was unable to attend university to study his course of choice: sports journalism. He eventually moved to West Berlin to enroll at university there.

The sectarianism of the left was among the things that worried Dutschke most about the movement’s prospects for success. Already in 1969, Dutschke wrote in his diary:

When I look at the conflicts within the left in West Berlin it gives the impression of a process of decomposition of the revolutionary substance. There are more and more [left groups and activists] but for a long time they have not been mobilised through clear revolutionary content, with the right slogans at the right time. They have not been mobilised through clear education […] and out of this contradiction grows the confusion, dissolving, left integration – precisely because they [conflicts caused by contradictions] are not getting resolved.5

Dutschke’s bruising experiences of left infighting informed his desire to build broader coalitions to achieve his aims, although his later Green electoralism blurred the line between wanting to achieve a united left or a wider social coalition without a common political foundation. Unlike other socialists and communists who rejected conservative and reactionary elements of the Green movement, Dutschke saw its broad appeal as an advantage. When the leader of the Maoist Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – Aufbauorganisation (KPD – AO), Christian Semler, proposed that the Greens should become a melting pot for left groups to drive out the right, Dutschke disagreed: an alliance of the left with conservative environmentalists could open the doors to break into a right-wing voter base. These voters might be dissatisfied with the conservative Chancellor Franz-Josef Strauss and whilst they would not turn towards socialism, they might look at the Greens as an alternative to the CDU.6 Perhaps Dutschke did not think that it mattered that conservative Green voters did not want to turn towards socialism, if his desire was not to use the parliamentary route to govern but to create a new platform for the left to articulate its message to a wider audience and raise the political consciousness of those not previously drawn into the left.

Dutschke’s experiences of left infighting informed his desire to build broader coalitions, although his later Green electoralism blurred the line between a united left or a wider coalition without a common political foundation.

Dutschke, who had toured the country giving speeches in support of Green European parliamentary candidate Joseph Beuys, viewed his role strategically: it was his job to bring left voters into the fold. He believed that the ecological movement needed the left, and vice versa. Consequently, Dutschke joined the Bremen Green List in August 1979, just a few months before his death on Christmas Eve. He did not live to see the official constitution of the Green Party in January 1980.

Just a few weeks after Dutschke’s death, the West German Green Party was founded at its federal congress on 12th and 13th January 1980 and passed its first manifesto at a subsequent national meeting in March. Despite earlier conflicts between the more conservative and left elements, the programme was one of the radical left. Petra Kelly, one of the early party leaders, described the Greens as an ‘anti-party party’ that saw itself primarily as a social movement with parliament as its ‘second leg’. On this premise, the Greens should see parliament as a platform to popularise the movement’s demands rather than a vehicle for power.7

The End of the Long March

The hopes of left Greens for the party to be a vehicle for socialist organising and a challenge to political conventions were ground to an abrupt halt a decade later. The party was heavily defeated at the ballot box in 1990, the first Bundestag elections of the newly constituted Federal Republic, missing out on the five percent mark required to enter parliament.8 Left-wing Greens who viewed the reunification more critically had pushed for an electoral strategy under the slogan “Everybody talks about Germany but we are talking about the weather” to highlight that the historical events should not overshadow climate concerns.9

The subsequent defeat, blamed on the left’s failure to gauge the public mood over the constitutional question, paired with the collapse and discrediting of ‘actually existing socialism’, paved the way for a moderate takeover. At the Green conference in April 1991, moderate members secured a change of the party structure, erasing the “anti-party party” slogan from its manifesto and replacing it with a commitment to parliamentary democracy, reformism, and the party’s “professionalisation”. Following the congress many of the ecological socialist members left the party in protest and abandoned it to moderates and conservative environmental activists.

As the party shifted away from the “second leg” strategy towards becoming a party that wanted to govern, lines had to be redrawn and new partners had to be sought. Soon the Greens would embark on a political journey of junior coalition partnerships in state elections before entering national government alongside the SPD in 1998. Among those now governing was Joschka Fischer, arguably one of Germany’s most prominent Greens, who started his political career as a type of left-wing street fighter.10 He went on to become the Foreign Secretary in Gerhard Schroeder’s ‘Third Way’ government that sent German troops into Afghanistan.

As the party shifted away from the “second leg” strategy towards becoming a party that wanted to govern, lines had to be redrawn and new partners had to be sought.

Some decades after the Whyl anti-nuclear protest made history, another Green breakthrough, but of a quite different kind, occurred in Baden-Wurttemberg: in May 2011 Winfried Kretschmann was elected as the first Green Minister-President to lead a German state.

Kretschmann, like Fischer, is the embodiment of the Green Party’s ideological trajectory away from radical roots towards political moderation and incorporation. In Kretschmann’s case it led him all the way from a past as an anti-authoritarian student leader and member of the Maoist Communist League of West Germany to being a Minister-President presiding over a coalition government with the conservative CDU as his junior partners.

Our historical Juncture

The example of the West German Green Party gives some insight into the challenges and opportunities that Green politics presents as a vehicle for both socialist organising and electoralism. Today some thinkers and campaigners are once again suggesting that environmental issues can serve as a unifier of a broader coalition of ‘the people’ against an adversary to bring about change.

‘Left populists’ have mapped out a strategy that seeks to establish ‘counterhegemony’ to neoliberalism. In an article for OpenDemocracy, Chantal Mouffe leans on Karl Polanyi to explain the appeal of right-wing populists in a world characterised by uncertainty. She writes that our current circumstances force security high up on people’s agenda and consequently the desire for protection becomes a central political demand. Mouffe argues that right-wing populists frame protectionism and sovereignty in a nationalistic and xenophobic way, which has aided their recent success. To combat this, the left cannot leave the desire for protection and sovereignty to be defined by the right. It must construct an alternative – a Green Democratic Transformation – which links the reduction of greenhouse emissions to security questions: by saving the planet we are eliminating the biggest threat to security and sovereignty that humanity currently faces. At the same time, the climate movement can capture other activists for social justice issues, linking the impact of climate change to wider questions of inequality. She praises Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal in the US and Jeremy Corbyn’s Green Industrial Revolution in the UK as good examples of what such a strategy could look like for political parties.

In response to Mouffe, the former Head of Strategic Communications for Corbyn, James Schneider, argues that a left populist strategy around the Green New Deal is the right way forward for the left. Schneider sees the left-populist Green New Deal in contrast to Labour’s normal managerial-technocratic framing around ‘competence’ and the ‘national interest’. Schneider also advocates for the left to throw its net wide to capture a broad coalition of a ‘we’, the many, that can together bring down the adversary – the ‘few’ elites and neoliberalism. Schneider hopes that a coordinated Green New Deal campaign can unite the post-Corbyn left with its various grassroots, social movements, trade unions and its parliamentary strands in the form of left Labour MPs. Unlike Mouffe, whose analysis seems focused more on broadening the electoral coalition, Schneider focuses his analysis first and foremost on a strategy that can ‘regroup’ the left, which he then hopes will be able to make advances again in the future.

Momentum also published its post-Corbyn strategy document which identifies ‘winning support for a Green New Deal’ as their priority campaign – although its proposals at this stage seem to boil down to passing motions to win policy commitments from within the Labour Party rather than wider political campaigning. This suggests that Momentum, too, believes that a construction of a shared left politics for the fractured post-Corbyn left is possible around the ecological question – but this is still suggested within the narrow framing of organising a very specific, rather than broad, group (Labour Party members) to carry out particular actions (passing CLP motions) geared towards inward-facing milestones (Labour Party annual conference).

Left populism’s coalition-building rests on an assumption that a ‘people’ can be created “as a popular majority independent of previous political affiliations”, but this vacuum of politics is what makes it so dangerous.11 It is not possible to construct a coalition – whether that is for electoral purposes or around a single-issue policy solution – on the basis of a lowest common denominator without exploring underlying motivations. Green activism already can lend itself to conservatism – the idea of preserving, nurturing or protecting the natural environment has been cultivated by many right-wing philosophers or politicians from the past and present, from Edmund Burke to Martin Heidegger to Zac Goldsmith in the UK.

Left populism’s coalition-building rests on an assumption that a ‘people’ can be created “as a popular majority independent of previous political affiliations”, but this vacuum of politics is what makes it so dangerous.

An example of why Mouffe’s suggested security framing runs considerable risks is offered by the New Social Covenant, a grouping which includes a co-founder of Blue Labour and Conservative Party MPs. Amongst its core political manifesto is a section on ‘environmental nationalism’ which calls for a “deal between the left and right to save the planet and reduce mass migration into Europe”. Rather than having a “globalist, anti-national agenda” like current climate movements, the group suggests that climate change must be framed and addressed as a security challenge to the nation state.

These proposals for “environmental nationalism” include major investment in border security and the Royal Navy patrolling the English Channel. This action at home is combined with a ‘muscular foreign policy’ that supports (what the British state deems to be) ‘good governance’ in the Global South via developmental aid, and intervenes in countries from which ‘security threats’ and ‘terrorism’ originates.

The underlying logic on which this climate activism is built does not challenge the current social and political realities but rather reinforces them: imperialism and economic liberalism, with freedom, security and prosperity for those politically defined as ‘citizens’ within the boundaries of the nation state. The group’s vision is that of a broad alliance for the climate on the lowest common denominator of ‘security’, where “the right will help save the planet if the left will help save the nation”.

This explains why environmentalism cannot function as an instrument for popular mobilisation and coalition-building in a left populist sense – if environmental politics is stripped of a socialist political foundation it can become actively dangerous. Is it worth pushing through moderate reforms to emission trading systems or plastic straws via the UK Parliament and a broad-church coalition of MPs, if it comes on the back of a rejection of migrants rights because the British nation state has to be protected from the influx of climate refugees? It is questionable that one can capitalise on the climate emergency as an existential threat and at the same time detach it from the reactionary interpretation of the ‘national security’ question as it is defined in Britain. Audience members in one of the electoral television debates between Corbyn and Johnson laughed at the former for suggesting that climate change disproportionately impacts people in the Global South, and that international solidarity was needed to tackle the issue for everyone. Hoping that these attitudes can be shifted quickly does not correspond with the political and societal realities in which we find ourselves.

As Chris Green explains in his review of For a Left Populism for New Socialist, Mouffe asserts that it is ‘at the national level that the question of radicalising democracy must first be posed’ for we “cannot ignore the strong libidinal investment at work in national – or regional – forms of identification”. This gives way to the familiar attempts of the left to construct a ‘progressive patriotism’ which Mouffe defines as “a patriotic identification with the best and more egalitarian aspects of the national tradition”’12

Green further points out the dangers of focusing on the adversary of ‘neoliberalism’ as a particular ideological expression or form of capitalism, rather than on capitalism in its totality or generality. Without an understanding of capitalism as a political, economic and social system one might arrive at the conclusion that another capitalism is possible. Not wanting to abolish capitalism but merely hoping to enact reforms to achieve e.g. a social market economy and a stronger welfare state within national boundaries is an inherently social democratic position. This ‘social democracy in one country’ logic results in an obscuring of questions around imperialism and with that an endorsement of foreign and economic policies that put ‘the nation’ first.

An example of how these themes interact was provided by Lisa Nandy in a Chatham House speech: in Nandy’s approach, “radicalising democracy’ is interpreted as ensuring a form of participatory buy-in into foreign policy decisions of the British state, by linking overseas missions directly to the material benefits to people here. Consent for it will be established by ‘giving ordinary people more of a say” – Nandy suggests “town hall” style meetings of ‘foreign policy institutions’ reminiscent of initiatives such as citizen’s assemblies, a method suggested by Mouffe (and XR) to overcome the ‘antagonistic struggles’ within our current system. Foreign policy questions are therefore bizarrely framed as a social conflict that exists domestically, between those who understand the ‘need’ for Britain to intervene for the good of others, and those who believe that it is bad for people here – rather than acknowledging that a proactive foreign policy pursued by a country like Britain can have detrimental impacts for people in other parts of the world. It is questionable that social justice can be achieved if the policy decisions of a country in the imperial core remains focused on the ‘national interest’, even if it is dressed up in the ‘progressive’ language of ‘radical democracy’.

The question of the viability of a left populist strategy is as much an institutional as a political one. Looking back to April 1991, as the moderate Greens were victorious over the left in stripping radical approaches to party organising and parliamentary democracy out of their strategy, perhaps there was simply no way to utilise the organisation and going elsewhere was better than wasting time and energy on reclaiming a failed project. The Green members who left might not have succeeded in starting a new socialist project but their historic circumstance – the fall of the Soviet Union, regardless of the subjective attitude of what was largely a New Left, critical of aspects of actually existing socialism – would have made building for socialism extraordinarily hard regardless. The question is whether disillusioned Labour members find themselves in a more favourable environment now – either to turn outwards or to achieve anything within Labour.

To build a successful environmental movement in the UK we must first define what success constitutes and then draw our lines accordingly. For a political programme that unites climate campaigns with social justice from a global perspective, socialist underpinnings are essential. Left populism is not a useful strategic framework for anyone seeking to seriously organise for these outcomes because of its reluctance to draw these political lines and its desires to construct a new coalition without grappling with the trade-offs that this forces, especially if this framework is adopted by a political party contesting parliamentary elections.

Labour, even under Corbyn, has been reluctant to reconstruct the ‘people’ in any meaningful sense, leaving it significantly determined by existing ideological content. Thus we see (and saw) a consistent framing around the nuclear family, ‘responsible’ economic budgeting or the willingness to push aside a defence of migrants’ rights for some perceived greater electoral good. Ultimately, broadening an electoral or political coalition through bringing on new members on conservative terms is more likely to pull that coalition to the right, legitimating the articulation of radical needs to conservatism and the state than to offer a basis for a process of ideological struggle that brings these people towards a liberatory project, even if that process is gentle and careful. There is a paradox here in the left populist project: on the one hand certain themes like security (or a non-political ecology) are held to be useful for the left, precisely because they engage existing conservative voters, yet at the same time the meaning of these themes is held to be so indeterminate that they can easily be polarised leftwards, cutting their connection to any right-wing meaning whilst continuing to draw in conservative voters.

Broadening an electoral or political coalition through bringing on new members on conservative terms is more likely to pull that coalition to the right, legitimating the articulation of radical needs to conservatism and the state.

Left-wingers in Britain today might, unlike the German left-wing Greens, not be faced with a strategic challenge as enormous as the total breakdown of the political world order, but their circumstances remain difficult. The constitutional questions of Brexit and Scottish independence, the strength of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in Parliament and the impact of the COVID19 pandemic means we find ourselves not short of challenges to work through. Valuable time that should be used thinking through our political context and working with socialist comrades inside and outside the Labour Party to find a way forward is likely wasted by seeking to influence Keir Starmer. Similarly, a Labour Party that is taken over by ‘left populists’ might not be up to facing the fundamental challenges we encounter, precisely because of the rejection of firm left-wing politics as a basis for its coalition-building and line-drawing.

What we can learn from the example of the German Green Party is that it is natural for people to turn towards parliamentarism, and seek bigger coalitions, at a time of struggle and defeat – at the time Dutschke sought out his Green comrades, the German SDS was dissolved, West Germany was dealing with the fall-out of the Red Army Faction’s urban guerrilla warfare, with some ex-comrades from the APO days either imprisoned or dead, and he himself still recovering from the assassination attempt years earlier, the consequences of which would eventually end his life so prematurely.

Currently many of the left activists who burnt themselves out in CLPs and Momentum groups might find the thought of organising within Labour to take it back from Starmer comforting, familiarity and security bringing comfort in hard times. Everyone will likely feel bruised from their experiences in the pandemic. But as we slowly emerge out of lockdown, the question is whether fighting over an institution that already represents a compromise, on the basis of a compromised strategic framework, will be the best thing to do. History might tell us not to give into the temptation.

  1. Citizen initiatives are single-issue grassroots democracy groups that aim to achieve a concrete political, social or ecological goal through influencing public opinion, state institutions such as parliaments or ministries and political parties. They believe that societal change has to be led by the people. 

  2. Gretchen Dutschke. 2006. Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schoenes Leben. Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH. p. 384. Translation from German by the author. 

  3. Dutschke. Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schoenes Leben. p. 387. 

  4. Dutschke. Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schoenes Leben. p. 444. 

  5. Rudi Dutschke. 2003. Die Tagebücher 1963-1979. Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH. p.396. Translation from German by the author. 

  6. Dutschke. Wir hatten ein barbarisches, schoenes Leben. pp.449-450. 

  7. Of course we can only second-guess Dutschke’s position on some of these matters given his untimely death. But in 2019 his widow Gretchen said in an interview that she believes Dutschke might not have supported the Greens’ trajectory all the way to a party of government – and that his goal was the creation of a new independent social democratic party. In his view, the extra-parliamentary arm of the movement should set the direction for the parliamentary arm. 

  8. The East German Greens, however, made it into the Bundestag because the five percent rule did not apply to parties in the former DDR on this occasion. They chose not to discuss the reunification in their campaign. 

  9. “Everybody talks about the weather – we don’t” originated in 1966 as an advertising slogan of the train company Deutsche Bahn to illustrate that it was a good choice of transport under all conditions. The slogan was then appropriated by members of the SDS in Stuttgart who designed the “Everybody talks about the weather” poster with the pictures of Marx, Engels and Lenin in 1968. Copies of the poster were sold by student movement activists to pay for legal fees of those charged after riots at demonstrations in the late 1960s. 

  10. Interestingly, the journalist uncovering much of Fischer’s radical past was Bettina Roehl, the daughter of Red Army Faction co-founder Ulrike Meinhof. Roehl went as far as trying to report Fischer for ‘attempted murder’ of a policeman but the case never took off. Fischer at the time was one of Germany’s most popular politicians and Roehl’s attempts to discredit him were received critically even by large parts of the mainstream media. Her planned biography of Fischer was eventually dropped by publishers in favour of sustaining their working relationship with him instead. 

  11. Chantal Mouffe. 2019. For a Left Populism London: Verso. p. 83. 

  12. It is worth noting that Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left’s preferred leadership candidate, sought to both inhabit the ‘Green New Deal’ as its ‘architect’ on the Shadow Front Bench as well as appealing to a ‘Progressive Patriotism’, which gives us a taste of what ‘left populism’ in the context of the Labour left post-Corbyn intended to look like. 


Sabrina Huck (@Sabrina_Huck)

Sabrina is a freelance writer based in London. Her interests include migration and borders, socialist approaches to the state and the legacy of Germany’s 1968.