The Green Party of Germany – From Beacon of Hope to a Bog-standard Party

Saral Sarkar

Of late, given the troubling international environmental scenario, eco-activists all over the world have been wondering whether attempts should be made in more countries, particularly in the developing world, to form green parties. My advice to them is: do not to hurry. No serious discussion has taken place, yet. However, just a few weeks ago, Pallav Das, editor of the RED website, requested me to write a contribution to the discussion on the basis of my study of and experience in the Green Party of Germany. The following text is the result of my trying to fulfill that request. I hope it would be useful for colleagues and readers of the RED website.

Theory Deficits and Programmatic Contradictions 

Already in my first year (1982) as an activist of the Green-alternative movement and a member of the Green Party, I found that the majority of their activists and members, and those leading persons whom I came to know, were rather unaware of the basic theoretical reasoning behind the compelling necessity of a green party: It was the fact that there are limits to growth, and that no established party was paying heed to it. I found that the majority had not even read the basic literature on this subject, e.g. Limits to Growth by Meadows et al., Ein Planet wird geplündert (a planet is being plundered) by Herbert Gruhl, Weltniveau – In der Sackgasse des Industriesystems (World Level – in the blind alley of the industrial system), by Otto Ullrich, Kommunismus ohne Wachstum (communism without growth) by Wolfgang Harich. These works were published in the 1970s. They had also sold very well.

The Green Party was founded in 1980, and the first members joined in the two years thereafter. But they were not really motivated by the discovery of the limits to growth. The majority of the early members were mainly disgruntled members of the established parties and cadres of the numerous small communist parties and groups. The main reason for their disgruntlement was, firstly, the failure of the antinuclear energy movement (hereafter, ANE-movement), in which many of them were very active, to persuade the German government to renounce nuclear energy, and, secondly, the failure of the peace movement to dissuade the government from deploying new middle range nukes aimed at the USSR. Their opposition to nuclear energy was due to the dangers that were associated with it. Among the founders and early members were also some sincere ecologists, but they were a small minority.

The German Greens attracted a large number of anti-nuclear and peace movement activists in its early years. Here, German soldiers in uniform take part in an anti-nuclear demonstration in Bonn, Oct. 1983

This was before the Chernobyl catastrophe (1986), which confirmed all the fears of the Greens and the ANE-movement. Thereafter, their sympathizers along with about 50 percent of the German population started to vehemently demand decommissioning of all nuclear power plants. When the ruling parties retorted, “Do you want the lights to go off?”, they could not give a convincing reply, for, in the meantime, they had also become aware of the worsening of the CO2-related warming problem, which is why they were opposing lignite mining. Or, they replied that all nuclear power plants could be replaced with gas-fired power plants, which emit much less CO2 than coal-fired ones, and that gas could be imported from the USSR. This was rejected by the ruling parties.

I criticized the proposed solution as follows: Nuclear energy is dangerous, but it is dangerous everywhere including in the USSR. So, why should we want the Soviets to export their gas to the Germans instead of using it for replacing all their own nuclear power plants? I did not get any proper reply to my question. In all these discussions, no Green leader said that the Germans must then simply reduce their energy consumption, although both in the programs of the forerunner organizations and in the party program there have also been statements against economic growth.

A similar drama was repeated in 2011 after the Fukushima catastrophe – with the difference that this time, rapid expansion of so-called “clean” and “renewable” energy technologies were advocated as replacement for nuclear energy, and the government accepted the proposal. It is, however, unaware of the many doubts (which I share) about the usefulness and viability of solar and wind energy technologies. These reservations have been expressed by many including some renowned scientists and economists, such as James Lovelock and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegan.1 If such doubts can be ignored, then, of course, everything can go on as before. But can they be ignored?2

The Melon Character of the Green Party

It is not for nothing that the Green Party was often ridiculed as the “Melon party” – outwardly green, but inside red. Sometimes it was also described as a tomato – in the beginning green, but later red. For example, in the program of one of its precursor organizations called Green Action for the Future, one reads inter alia:

“The untenable ideology of growth is in the process of breaking down … . The present efforts to achieve economic growth by force will aggravate the crisis and will lead to a much greater catastrophe.”3

It was an anti-materialistic, radical ecological program, but it threatened to cause job losses. It generated a lot of antipathy among working class people, who already felt threatened by the ANE movement. The Bunte Liste (Chequered List) of Hamburg, one of its leftist precursor groups, however, felt called upon primarily to defend and promote the interests of the working class and its already achieved prosperity. In their program, one finds, for example sentences like the following:

“We do not want destruction of jobs through nuclear energy and excessive rationalization. …We want more money for our children and adolescents. Schools that children can enjoy, playgrounds, kindergartens, youth centers, and training opportunities.”4

This stark contradiction between the two groups’ programs was glossed over when the Green Party was founded. There was a strong desire on both sides to found the party, because without this unity, neither the radical ecologists nor the radical leftists had any chance of winning some seats in the elections. So, compromise formulations were found, which were facilitated by the advent of new technologies, including solar and wind energy technologies. In their first program, on the crucial question of economic growth, the Greens wrote:

“We are fundamentally against every quantitative growth. … But we are for qualitative growth, [i.e.] if it is possible with the same or less use of energy and with the same or less use of raw materials.”5

The question whether qualitative growth in this sense was at all possible, and if possible, what that would mean for income and standard of living of Germans, was conveniently left undiscussed. What remained unexamined was also the economic soundness of the advocacy of solar and wind energy, which, as the Bunte Liste, Hamburg, correctly asserted, “create [i.e. require] eight times more jobs [i.e. labor cost] than nuclear energy.”

A Programmatic Synthesis Would Have Been Possible

This kind of fudging in programmatic and policy statements, which had made cohabitation of radical ecological and radical leftist forces possible, could only go on for some time. Soon after the birth of the party, however, radical ecologists found that they had no influence in the party, that radical leftists, who were more numerous in the party committees, were systematically ignoring some of their fundamental positions, such as those expressed in the following sentences:

“Truthful enlightenment must replace untenable promises, which only strengthen the materialist habit of making ever more demands – demands that cannot be fulfilled on a finite and overcrowded earth. It is no longer possible to make maximum promises to one section of the people after the other.”

“Everything must become simpler: the human being, administration, technology, traffic. Only then shall we have more freedom, less compulsive consumption, less performance terror, and with it less stress, neurosis, and other sufferings.”6

These fundamental positions were obviously contradictory to the fundamental positions of the radical leftists with their Marxist theories, with their total faith in and allegiance to the working class and their trade unions. When conflicts arising from this contradiction became unavoidable, the radical ecologists started refusing to accept majority decisions.

Yet, even in proper Marxist philosophical sense, these conflicts could have been resolved. Out of the contradiction between the old socialist thesis of the necessity of development of productive forces and the radical ecological antithesis of its impossibility without ruining the environment (hence its undesirability), a synthesis could have arisen if the leading people of the two major wings of the party opposing each other would have thought deeply about their respective positions. After all, one independent theoretical leader of the formation period of the Green Party, Rudolf Bahro, had already loudly proclaimed: “Red and green, Green and Red go well together.” 7

 Theoretical seeds of such a synthesis already existed in the works cited above. Harich’s book Communism without Growth hinted at this possibility. Ullrich’s new conception of socialism presented in the following two quotes cleared the debris of old thought from the path to that synthesis. Ullrich wrote:

“Socialism is a question of social constitution, of relations of humans to each other. It is unnecessary … even fatal to connect this question [as Marxists do] with an undefinable minimum technological and organizational development of equipment of work.”


“There is no lower limit of ‘development of productive forces’ below which socialism is impossible, but there is an upper limit. The level of industrialization that has been reached today by the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany] and the GDR [German Democratic Republic] is creating, via technology, a social structure which by itself makes a socialist relationship between humans impossible.” 8

 For those not conversant with Marxist political philosophy, the two quotes can be translated into plain English as follows: Socialism is possible even in a technologically and organizationally “underdeveloped” society. And, secondly, in highly industrialized societies, production and distribution processes become so complex that relations of humans to each other cannot be(come) socialistic.

The Green Party Lost its Way

The synthesis, however, did not arise. I am sure, at least some of the leaders of the Marxist-leftist wing had read the two books of Harich and Ullrich. I knew them, and they were intellectually aware of the challenge that the latter posed to their received traditional conception of socialism. But, I think, they did not have the courage to reject such a fundamental tenet of Marxist socialism that Harich and Ullrich were in effect demanding of them.

There may also have been some other reasons for that. Firstly, the new technologies like solar and wind energy, recycling technologies etc. and the expectation of more to come, may have given them the hope, as it did to many others, that the conflict between economy and ecology could after all be overcome. How false this hope has been could not be surmised in 1979–80, although Georgescu-Roegen had published his doubts already in 1971,9 and although the inexorable entropy law had become known among the reading public of Germany through the German translation of Jeremy Rifkin’s book on the subject.10

A second factor that played a strong role has been the usual inertia of thought observable in the general public. I could also observe it among large numbers of members of the Green Party and among the activists of the Green-alternative movement. Their resistance to any thought of an unresolvable contradiction between ecology and the current type of economy was expressed in simple arguments like, “If scientific and technological development could land man on the moon, why shouldn’t it be able to resolve this contradiction?” I once offered to deal with this question in a workshop. But already on the second day, a participant said: “That is too much theory. I do not like theory. We need action.” My riposte – “But with wrong theory and wrong analysis you may engage in wrong action” – was of no avail. The workshop was discontinued.

Another argument I sometimes heard, especially from leftists, was that one should not trust the Club of Rome, because Aurelio Peccei, its president, was a big capitalist. Similarly, they simply did not like the radical ecologists, because many of the latter, e.g. Herbert Gruhl and Baldur Springmann, came from a conservative background. They even disliked Rudolf Bahro, who, before he became a radical ecologist, was a renowned communist and had been exiled from his native country GDR for trying to reform traditional communism. Their more radical comrades outside the Green Party later branded him as a rightist and heckled him during his speeches in meetings.

A third reason was that it might not have helped at all even if some left leaders had accepted the arguments of the radical ecologists. Their dogmatic followers and comrades simply would not have listened to them. For, in the meantime, under the influence of anarchists, a culture of rejecting and defying any leadership, euphemistically called basis democracy, had become widespread both in the movement and in the Party.

For their part, value-conservative radical ecologists were also quite rigid. They refused to make any ideological compromise with socialism, the ideology of the leftists, with whom they had made a practical compromise. One may ask, why then did they, the two wings, who actually were adversaries, at all join hands to found this party? It was a big mistake. If I had been there at that time, I would have asked Herbert Gruhl, the leader of the value-conservative radical ecologists:

Do you think your radical ecological goals, which I share, can be realized within the framework of capitalism? If yes, then tell us how. If not, then should you not accept that they can only be realized in a new kind of socialist society with a planned economy? At least as a transitional stage to your ultimate ideal society?

I don’t know whether anybody had put this question to him, and whether he had gone into it. I at least did not find any text containing Gruhl’s reply to it.

The big mistake, however, was made somewhat knowingly, and also for some practical reason. In the German proportional representation electoral system, there has been a so-called 5-percent clause. It says that only parties or electoral lists that get at least 5 percent of all the votes cast get seats in the parliaments. In 1979–80, none of the left parties nor any united left party could have cleared this hurdle. The case with the value-conservative radical ecological groups was the same. Later, many Greens said quite candidly that the Green Party owed its birth only to the 5-percent clause. This chapter of the party was closed, when, after months of bickering, the federal executive committee dominated by the leftists gave the radical ecologists an ultimatum. They were told either to leave the party or get expelled. They left. The theoretical synthesis ultimately came, but much later, and not in but outside the Green Party. That however is another story.11

Opportunists Took Over

In the Bundestag election of 1983, the Green Party, founded just 3 years ago, won 5.5% votes and got 27 seats. There was great jubilation over the “victory”, but it was also the beginning of its end as an ecological party. The opportunistic alliance of disparate groups with disparate programs that had made its quick rise possible also attracted thousands of opportunists who just wanted to get some political posts quickly, without having to work their way up the hard way in the established parties. They simply jumped on the bandwagon. It should be noted here that in Germany, to be a member of the federal or a state parliament is a highly paid job with many perks, hence highly coveted. Moreover, it brings the MP in the limelight, which is very useful for her future career.

The Green Party, too, which was until then a small party, wanted to have more members. Anybody and everybody who wanted to become a member could become one by just signing a membership application form. Nobody cared about the bona fides of the applicants. Nobody was asked whether she had read the program. All kinds of people became members: political opportunists and apolitical sympathizers. For many of the latter it was a pastime-activity, but it was also a matter of some prestige to be a member of the new winning group which purported to be both an ecology party and a left party. They all claimed to want to protect the environment,12 or to work for peace. Most of them however remained just names in the file. Also, groups with a particular interest seeking a place on the political stage joined en masse: gays, lesbians, pedophiles, feminists, Christians, atheists, professional groups, foreigner groups etc. etc. Gradually, the radical leftists started getting outnumbered in the committees in such a motley crowd of new members.

Petra Kelly, one of the founders of the German Green Party – a poster image from the 80s.

The opportunists, who called themselves “Realos” (realists), put through their policy of becoming a power factor, i.e. becoming a ruling party in coalition with one of the big established parties. In 1985, they succeeded for the first time in the state of Hessen. This was a U-turn point. Sometime in the early1980s, Petra Kelly, one of its leaders, had declared that the Green Party would be a new kind of party, that it would be an “anti-parties party”. Other leaders had promised that it would be the “parliamentary arm of the anti-establishment movements”. In the years following 1985, however, the Green Party became an ordinary party, just like any other, competing for a share of power. In 1987, they passed a new program, in which they gave up their opposition to industrial society. Henceforth, they only wanted to “restructure” it (Umbau der Industriegesellschaft).

Ten years later, in 1997, they became a ruling party at the center, in coalition with the Social-Democratic Party. And as part of that alliance, they also waged war against Serbia in 1999, in collaboration with the NATO. Radical leftists had already deserted the party, now even serious peace activists left it. When the movement against neoliberal globalization began, the party even criticized the movement. In 2004, together with the coalition partner SPD, they put through the anti-labor law known as Hartz IV. Today, it is a totally nondescript party, neither ecological (it is a reliable ally of the German car industry), nor leftist, nor a party of the movements.

In Conclusion, if I Am Allowed to Give Advice

Today, any informed person can perceive everywhere signs, and in some places, even real pictures of impending or ongoing ecological and social collapse. In such a situation, if I am allowed to give an advice, those who are active in ecological and social movements that they understand as transformative, should not rush to form a green party or something like that, especially not in the developing world. It is necessary first to do the groundwork, i.e. a thorough, objective and sincere analysis of the whole situation in the world, free from our personal likes and dislikes, our private interests, our myths and our wishful thinking. Only then can we sketch an achievable good society. Make-believe utopias are no use. As far as I can see, till now, not many activists have done this groundwork.

Furthermore, only on the basis of such an analysis can we correctly decide what to do, when and in which order. However, I see among political activists, everywhere, too much arbitrariness in selecting one’s area of activity, as if anything and everything is good and important. There is simply no focus in the whole story of movements. But if everything is important, then really nothing is important. In the end, actually, it is a question of the right strategy.

I hope, with this article I have helped my readers to at least get some clarity on what not to do, which pitfalls to avoid.

We encourage our readers to use our discussion forum for a meaningful dialogue on the critical issue of alternative politics. You could also pose your questions to Saral Sarkar through the same channel.

Saral Sarkar was a member of the Green Party. He writes about alternative politics and radical ecology. In the 1980s, the United Nations University commissioned Sarkar to write an authoritative historical study of the Green-alternative Movement in West Germany. The result of this study was published by the United Nations University Press (Tokyo) as a two-volume work – Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany – in 1993 and 1994.  Sarkar is also the author of The Crises of Capitalism –A Different Study of Political Economy. Berkeley: Counterpoint. 2012.

Notes and References

1. Georgescu-Roegan, Nicholas (1978) “Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”;

In the 1990s, I heard James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, expressing in a BBC interview strong doubts about the usefulness of wind energy.

2. See Saral Sarkar (2017) “The Global Crisis and Role of So-Called Renewable Energies in Solving It

3, 4, 5, & 6. Quoted in ch. 3 of my book:

Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany.

Vol. II: The Greens.

Tokyo and New Delhi: UNU Press, and Promilla. 1994.

(Vol. I of the book is entitled The New Social Movements. 1993.)

7. Quoted in my above-mentioned book (P. 28).

8. The quotes from Ullrich are to be found on P. 203 of my book:

Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London and New Delhi: Zed Books & Orient Longman. 1999, 2000.

(I published a longish review article on Ullrich’s book entitled “Marxism and Productive Forces – A Critique” in Alternatives (New York and New Delhi) in 1983.)

9. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971) The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

(Georgescu-Roegen himself wrote a much shorter presentation of the substance of the book with the title: The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in Retrospect, which was published in 1986 in Eastern Economic Journal.)

 10. Rifkin, Jeremy (1980) Entropy: A New World View. New York: Viking Press.

11. I have made this synthesis in my Eco-Socialism book (see note 8), a synthesis being much more than and different from just an addition of environmental concerns to old Marxist conceptions of socialism.

In this connection, I would like to recommend a paper by a young Australian scholar, Jonathan Rutherford, who speaks of varieties of eco-socialism:

12. In this context, I think it is necessary to distinguish between an “environment protector“ (environmentalist”, Umweltschützer) and an “ecologist”. People like Herbert Gruhl are true ecologists. A person who e.g. merely fights to protect a few trees from being felled should better be called “environment protector”. The de-growth movement of today can be understood as an ecology movement.

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