Five, six weeks ago Nick Minchin used Four Corners to start a war in the Liberal Party that ultimately elevated Tony Abbott to the leadership — which may not have been Minchin’s intention, at least at this stage of the game.

Retrospectively, his intervention has become famous — “Oh you know green politics is like communism was, it’s just another move by the anti-industrial Left”.

And Minchin doesn’t do anything accidentally — save, of course, for getting Tony Abbott up one election too early — and the remark was a magnet dropped into a pile of iron filings, bending the party into tight circles at each end.

Now, the strategy was not without risk — chief among them that it will be quoted back at the coalition in a full election, to portray them as a bunch of conspiratorialists.

Kazart! Ever since Bob Hawke destroyed Malcolm Fraser’s claim if Labor gets elected, your money will be safer under the bed with the remark “oh you can’t put it there, that’s where all the reds are”, the tinfoil hat stuff has been a non-starter — save for a few rural areas, where RM Williams sells hats ready-lined with Alcan.

Consequently it was intriguing to see at least one commentator taking it seriously — our old mucker Christian Kerr, in the Oz Spectator (not online, or well-hidden if it is: I read it in the newsagents).

Argues Kerr, there’s no doubt that the radical left moved holus-bolus into the environmentalist movement in the late ’80s and ’90s, Kerr argues, noting the entrist push into the 1984 Nuclear Disarmament Party by the then Socialist Workers Party (later DSP) among others.

More acutely, Kerr sounds a note of caution: though environmental issues are a real problem, they’re ultimately a business problem, a question of cost — and people really believe that climate change is happening.

Pari passu, the upshot of this is, let’s create a conspiracy about the conspiracy — regard the whole green movement as communism by other means, but let the lumpensuburbatariat think that you really care about the issue.

By now, the whole issue has become so live, that it’s worth disentangling it a little — if only because it throws light on the Liberal Party’s separation from the mainstream.

Everyone knows, or should, that the Communist movement — the Old Left — wasn’t anti-industrial in the slightest. It’s about as wrong a definition as you can get.

The whole aim of Communist movements within capitalist countries was to build a movement within the industrial working class — and thus the growth and expansion of that class was vital to its task. In Communist countries, industrial development was vital to standing against the capitalist world.

Left, Old Left, New Left … by the 1960s Communist Party dominance of the left was starting to slide, as a more civilisational critique of industrial and organisational humanity came to a head — including our impact on nature. Silent Spring, One Dimensional Man, DeSchooling Society, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Steal This Book, Growing Up Absurd, The Dialectic of Sex, and a hundred others suggested implicitly and otherwise that the Old Left was part of a monolithic system of growth and alienation, whose victory would do nothing to solve humanity’s deepest problems.

Lord, by the time that official Communist parties had taken onboard this wider critique, they were irrelevant — and they often remained highly critical of much of its efflorescences. David “Burnout” Burchell fits well into The Oz’s op-ed page because as a CPA intellectual and editor in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of his role was to hold back much of the “New Left” tide, both its macro-civilisational critique and its micropolitics of non-hierachical participatory organisation and frikkin face painting. He’s a grumpy sod, because those people were most of the readers of ALR, which he edited.

In Michin and Kerr’s account, the accurate part is that a section of the Marxist left — the Trotskyist “far left” groups — began to see the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, as places for entry, activity and recruitment. Within the far-left there was keen debate about the dangers of “movementism” — of getting sucked into the actual cause, rather than building the party. “Far left” groups remained scrupulously agnostic about what form a socialist society would take — but their insistent motif was that environmental destruction was caused by the profit motive (often rendered rather unmarxistally as “greed”), and lack of social control of the economy.

Seen thus, a section of the Green movement was Marxism by other means. But it’s more complicated than that. Because Minchin, Kerr and others can give no credence to the Marxist argument about capitalism — that it must expand endlessly, and at ever greater velocity just to keep going, that the idea of a stabilised capitalism is an illusion of the pre-Marxist classical economists who thought of it as an eternal structure (hidden beneath centuries of bondage) — they can’t credit the possibility that left wing people would work in either a Marxist organisation or a Green one, because they believe the criticism to be correct.

Now, you would have to say that not only is there a strong case for this, but also that many people believe it — that our way of life, especially if it were generalised to all six billion people — would simply choke the planet dead. Many people aren’t prepared to actually change their life at this stage — which is why useless activities such as personal recycling are devised, to give the illusion of action — but hypocrisy is not the worst of vices.

Understand this clearly — more people now believe the Red-Green hypothesis, that capitalism is a system testing us to destruction in its current form, than go with the idea that it is some empty charade of communism by other means. The idea that it’s merely a “business problem” is one they’re increasingly rejecting, at least in thought.

To put it plainly, that group includes a lot of Liberal voters, and a high majority of Labor voters. None of them want to live in grass huts, but the idea that factors other than business will have to be brought into global economic calculus is one that appeals to them — including fairly radical schemes to make the electricity grid two-way with clean domestic power generation, relocalisation of parts of the economy, and drawing areas of life out of the commodity cycle. Ideas that are  Green and, in a way, vaguely communistic.

Seriously, it’s early days for all that. But it will grow and grow — and voters will assess parties on their seriousness about addressing the deep problems of global growth, not in advancing cheap kludges that give the sense of appeasing a fringe.

The trouble for Minchin, Kerr and co is that they won the battle at one level — the privatisation of the economy — while culturally the new left prevailed in terms of a sense of what life is about. Now that the right’s victory delivered us a global financial crisis, the new left’s critique of its illusions is still there, and growing stronger by the day.

Peter Fray

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