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Eco-socialist almost wins Green Party leadership: What does this mean?

Dimitri Lascaris came within a narrow margin of winning the Green Party leadership race on October 3

Canadian Politics

Eco-socialist Dimitri Lascaris came within a narrow margin of winning the Green Party leadership race on October 3. With a call to “wrest power from private corporations and bring the economy under democratic control”, he gained 10,081 of 22,171 votes on the final ballot. How could this happen in a party that has derisively been labelled as “conservatives with composters”? And what does this mean for the New Democratic Party, Canada’s traditional labour party?

Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Greens since 2006, stepped down after the 2019 election. During her tenure she enforced a thoroughly green-tinged liberal politics. Solutions to the environmental crisis never went beyond the bounds of capitalism. The party proposed various market-based methods of limiting emissions such as cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. The prospect of taking the polluters into public ownership was anathema to the May-led bureaucracy. She even advanced the slogan, “Not left, not right, but forward.”

The eventual winner of the race to replace May was Annamie Paul, who represented the liberal establishment of the Green Party and a continuation of May’s pro-capitalist environmentalism. Paul highlighted that she is the first black Jewish woman to lead a major political party in Canada, focusing on questions of identity rather than policy.

Rise of the Greens

The Greens have had a certain success in recent years, growing their federal caucus to three MPs, joining the governing coalition in British Columbia, and becoming the main left party in New Brunswick. Over May’s tenure the party membership grew significantly. For example, in the 2006 leadership election 3,283 ballots were cast versus 23,877 in 2020.

However, as we explained previously, the rise of the Greens had little to do with their political policies and more to do with dissatisfaction with the reformism of the New Democratic Party leadership and its repeated betrayals and equivocations. The Greens had a comparatively clean banner, having never been corrupted by the temptations of power.

With the growing crisis of capitalism, many have looked to radical solutions to the environmental crisis. This is even more pronounced amongst the youth. “System change not climate change” was the rallying cry of the global Climate Strike movement. This wave of struggle also had its reflection in Canada with 500,000 marching in Montreal, and hundreds of thousands in other major cities and small towns. More and more understand that with 100 corporations responsible for 71 percent of emissions, it is impossible to solve the crisis while maintaining private ownership of production.

Within the green movement there is a growing “eco-socialist” contingent highlighting public ownership, socialist planning, and anti-imperialism. In the Green leadership race Dimitri Lascaris and Meryam Haddad represented this point of view. They built a coalition of older party members, younger activists, and even some layers of the old NDP left who had become disillusioned with the party. A notable event for the NDPers was when Paul Manly was blocked from running for the NDP due to his support for Palestinian liberation. He went on to win the Nanaimo by-election on the Green ticket.

Green establishment

But the Green establishment did not just sit idly by and allow an insurgent movement to develop underneath them. The question of Israel-Palestine was also a left/right fracture point in the Greens, with this issue being used in attempts to deny Lascaris and Haddad the right to run for the leadership. Lascaris was instrumental in passing a resolution at the Green Party convention to boycott sectors of Israel’s economy that profit from the occupation.

Only two days before the leadership vote, Paul appeared in the media to effectively accuse Lascaris of anti-Semitism. The same slur was used by the right wing of the British Labour Party to attack the Corbyn left leadership. They brought up a clumsy tweet where Lascaris appeared to say that some Jewish Liberal MPs were more devoted to Israel than to Canada’s prime minister. The question of dual loyalty is an anti-Semitic trope and the left should be very careful to not fall into such stereotypes when defending Palestinians against Israeli imperialism.

Annamie Paul said that she did not think it was appropriate for Lascaris to be a candidate for Green leader, despite the fact that he would go on to gain 45 percent of the vote! Elizabeth May also broke the direction to stay neutral in the contest by actively fundraising for Paul. In addition, there are rumours of extreme vetting of party memberships in an attempt to suppress the Lascaris/Haddad vote. This goes to show that the Green establishment is not much better than the orange NDP establishment.

Annamie Paul. Image courtesy of the Green Party of Canada.

Could Lascaris have won?

However, despite the attempts to block and diminish the eco-socialist faction the final result was very close. It is not at all ruled out that Lascaris could have won the vote. But what would have happened then?

All the structures of the Green party are controlled by the pro-capitalist bureaucracy built by Elizabeth May over the last decade and a half. A Lascaris leadership would have found itself blocked at every turn and would have likely fallen victim to a coup or a split. Lascaris does not have the base enjoyed by Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party, with Corbyn having recruited more than 200,000 new members. Corbyn also had areas of support in the trade unions and a small layer of socialist MPs. Lascaris only had new members, and not a mass wave like Corbyn. Not only did he not have any supportive MPs, but he isn’t even an MP himself.

The class base of the Greens is another important difference with the British Labour Party and the NDP. The Greens are a formation based on petit-bourgeois intermediate layers, eco-friendly small businesses, students, etc, with no base in the working class. They have even been hostile to organized labour at some points in history. This is seen in some recent polls of Green voters that show general sentiments to the right of NDP voters, and sometimes to the right of Liberal voters. For example, during the dispute between the Ford Conservatives and the teachers, 87 percent of NDPers supported the teachers compared with 80 percent of Liberals and 64 percent of Greens. A more recent poll asked Canadians who they would vote for in the US election (if they could): six percent of NDPers said Trump, versus 7 percent of Liberals and 11 percent of Greens. There is a logic to this when one considers the number of anti-vaccination activists who often vote Green in Canada, but are part of the Trump movement in the US. All this adds up to the conclusion that the class base to turn the Greens into a radical socialist party is very narrow indeed.

Some reply that Lascaris had no choice but to run for the Greens as the NDP bureaucracy would have blocked his candidacy. This is probably true, given that the latter disqualified and sabotaged a series of left-wing and pro-Palestinian candidates for the 2019 federal election, including former OFL president Sid Ryan. However we should not prettify the Green bureaucracy which also tried very hard to block and sabotage the left.

Deeper processes

The importance of the Green leadership vote is that it is symptomatic of deeper processes in society. People are looking for solutions that go beyond capitalism. Traditionally, the NDP would have been the outlet for such sentiments, but if there is no opening in one area the mass pressure will look for any outlet, even the petit-bourgeois Greens. With 45 percent of the vote Lascaris had the most successful leadership run of any left candidate—better than the 17 percent Niki Ashton won in the 2017 NDP vote, or the 37 percent James Laxer of the Waffle won in 1971. Ashton received a similar number of votes as Lascaris (11,374), but it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Lascaris gained the votes of some of the same people.

Should Lascaris stay and fight inside the Greens or split away? In our view, given the class base of the Greens, it would be very difficult to win the party to a socialist policy. However, it would also be wrong to direct the 10,000 Lascaris supporters to join an NDP that is led by a similar reformist bureaucracy as the Paul-led Greens.

Lascaris should be congratulated in taking the eco-socialist movement further than anyone expected in hostile terrain. But his next steps will determine whether the movement he has built will go on to bigger and better things, or dissipate into another sad tale of a contender who missed their opening. We believe it is a mistake to try and find an accommodation with the Green establishment, which is sure to do everything in its power to destroy and co-opt the eco-socialists. Given the anti-Semitism allegations by Paul, Lascaris may also be blocked from seeking a Green nomination.

But we also believe it would be a mistake to form a new “eco-socialist” party that competes against the Greens and NDP in elections. Lascaris does not have the profile to make this party an electoral success, even in the improbable event that all 10,000 of his supporters follow him. Such a party would likely be a mirror image of Maxime Bernier’s right-wing People’s Party, which failed to win any seats in the 2019 election. While some older NDP lefts sick at the bureaucracy might join a new party, left MPs like Niki Ashton and Matthew Green are unlikely to jump ship. The same is true of the labour movement. At this point an electoral left party would likely suffer the same fate as the Waffle movement in the 1970s, which split from the NDP only to suffer poor electoral results before disappearing entirely. A new party would suffer from vote splits with both the Greens and NDP, and the activists would exhaust themselves only to achieve poor results.

At this point it can seem that all roads are blocked: “Don’t work in the Greens, don’t join the NDP, and don’t form a new party.” However there is another road. Despite the anti-democratic NDP bureaucracy, there is still a left tradition in the NDP. Most importantly, the NDP still has an organic connection and a class base within the working class. There is still the organic link to the trade unions. This is why Marxists still recommend a (very) critical vote for the NDP in elections.

The eco-socialists have more in common with the NDP left than they have with the Green bureaucracy. Similarly, the NDP and Green bureaucracies may as well be the same people wearing different coloured shirts. It is significant that Haddad raised the issue of collaboration with the NDP, which resulted in a sharp rebuke from the Green establishment who are always far more hostile to the NDP than they are to the Liberals.

Build a united socialist movement

In our view, Lascaris should reach out to socialists inside the Greens, the NDP, the unions, plus unaffiliated socialists, to form a mass movement for an anti-capitalist socialist workers’ party. This movement would not run in elections against the Greens or NDP, but would advance a series of policies that could be the founding principles of such a party. Dimitri’s call for social ownership and democratic planning of the economy, plus an anti-imperialist foreign policy, would be a good place to start the discussion.

The NDP left should not be forced to split away, but instead would be free to advance the policies of the movement within the NDP. Perhaps these anti-capitalist ideas, and the new energy from the eco-socialists, will allow this movement to gain significant headway in the NDP ranks and the trade unions. Everybody recognizes that the NDP is in the doldrums due to the status-quo policy of the leadership that does not go beyond capitalism. The NDP is still suffering from removing references to socialism from their constitution back in 2013. With a non-sectarian and patient approach, the Lascaris movement could be the catalyst to precipitate a far wider process that brings together all the best fighters from every area of struggle.

In advance it is impossible to know exactly how such a movement would develop. We don’t know what would be the specific weight of different constituencies—the eco-socialists, the NDP left, trade unionists, and unaffiliated people. But through the process of building a living movement, these quantities will be concretized in real struggle. This in turn would condition what next steps are to be taken.

Trotsky explained how the crisis of modern society can be reduced to the crisis of working class leadership. In this epoch of pandemic and slump, workers and youth are desperately seeking anti-capitalist and socialist solutions. Unfortunately, socialism is never on the ballot in any meaningful sense. All parties propose market-based non-solutions to the climate crisis instead of seizing control of the main corporate polluters. All parties propose corporate bailouts instead of nationalization and workers’ control. A mass organization that directly denounced failed capitalism, that educated the population about environmentally sustainable production for need and not profit, could blow away the tired old parties of today. With the correct approach, the 10,000 Lascaris voters could get this process started.

Alex Grant is the editor of Fightback.

This article originally appeared in Fightback, the Marxist voice of labour and youth.

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