From Movement to Parliamentary Party: Notes on Several European Green Movements




This article was originally published in Society and Nature 3 (1993). It is a revised synthesis of “Western European Greens: Movement or Parliamentary Party?” Green Perspectives 19 (Feb. 1990); “Farewell to the German Greens,” Green Perspectives 23 (Jun. 1991); and “U.K. Greens Face the Future,” Regeneration 4 (Fall 1992). Thanks to Murray Bookchin for his constructive criticism and comments.

Among many Greens in the United States, which has a winner-take-all electoral system, it is fashionable to praise European Green parliamentary successes and envy the systems of proportional representation that have allowed Greens to be catapulted into positions of political power at various levels in Germany, Italy, and France. Such celebrations, however, ignore a disturbing side of many European Green electoral “achievements.” In fact, to the extent that these Western European Greens have become part of parliamentary systems, their politics have most often undergone major changes for the worse, by comparison with the earlier grassroots-oriented, often revolutionary outlook of the movements upon which they based themselves. Green parties in Germany, France, Italy, and Britain have quickly adapted themselves to conventional power politics and the nation-state, variously abandoning movement ties, accountability structures, and programmatic principles in the process.

Even the American mainstream press has noticed this shift. The New York Times noted in 1989, “The Green groups, which once insisted on a radical overhaul of Western society, today have become more mainstream and have toned down anti-establishment language. Even the European Parliament, which they have long derided as a stodgy bureaucracy, is now looked on as an appealing forum where new power and input can be gained.”1 The Associated Press wire service compared “the once-radical Greens” of several years ago with “today’s mellower Greens” and their “new respectability.”2 Greens in many West European countries have become largely professional politicians, and their parties routine parliamentary parties with an environmentalist cast. Their radical calls for general social transformation along ecological lines have been watered down to mere environmentalism.

The German Greens (die Grünen)

It was in then-West Germany that Greens fought out the question of the dangers of parliamentarism most thoroughly and concluded it most decisively; indeed, it was in West Germany that Greens have most notably found themselves in situations that afforded them regional- and national-level power and coalition governments. Die Grünen had started out perhaps more firmly base and grassroots-oriented than any other Green party in Western Europe. Back in the early 1980s they constituted themselves as the electoral arm of a mass movement whose practice was direct action and citizens’ initiatives on single issues. When the die Grünen began to take a public political role in legislatures, they declared that the internal decision-making structure of their party caucuses in legislatures, would at all times remain subject to grassroots control. Moreover, they avowedly opposed professionalism: Both in program and in practice they were committed to a politics of collectivism, in which all members are basically equal and officeholders are merely the voice of the organization’s membership who present its views on the floor of the other parliamentary bodies. “The central idea in this respect,” their original program reads, “is the continuous control of all office holders, delegates, and institutions by the rank and file.”

Thus, when the German Greens first entered the Bundestag in March l983, the movement expected to control its representatives by an “imperative mandate,” so that the center of political gravity would remain outside the Bundestag. Parliamentary tenure would be limited by the rotation of deputies and of other elected officials. That is, they were to surrender their posts to other Greens after a year or two, to allow as many people as possible to gain political experience. All Green deputies were to give half of their large parliamentary salaries to a special party fund for environmental and social causes and keep only the remaining portion to live on. The principle of “separation of office and mandate” prevented the concentration of power in only a few hands by barring Bundestag members from holding high office in the party itself.

The Transition to Professionalism

But access to power and money proved all too compelling. Almost as soon as die Grünen entered the federal apparatus, the defining democratic impulses of the movement were brought into question and even abandoned by many of the Bundestag delegates themselves. Those who became generally committed to exercising parliamentary power came to be known as “realos”; those who defended the original values, in turn, generally came to be known as “fundis” and later regrouped as the left within the movement; the also encompassed Greens who accepted the use of the parliamentary apparatus to publicize and dramatize their program. It was the realos who now rejected the principles of Green extraparliamentary grassroots-democratic radicalism and adapted to the conventional framework of the parliamentary establishment. Otto Schily, a lawyer who in the 1970s had been a flamboyant, defense attorney for the members of the Baader Meinhof terrorist group, now basked in the limelight as a Bundestag deputy and did as much as he could to professionalize die Grünen and eliminate rotation. (He later left the Greens and joined the Social Democratic Party.) Two former leaders of the “Spontis” (or Revolutionary Struggle, anarchistic street revolutionaries from Frankfurt in the 1970s)–Joschka Fischer and Daniel (“the Red”) Cohn-Bendit–entered the party after it had achieved a measure of success and became media darlings and joined Schily in arguing that Greens should be able to hold parliamentary offices in the conventional way. Together these realos attempted to professionalize the Greens into an environmentalist and pragmatist party that would be comfortable within in the existing system rather than remain a collectivist “non-party party” that would challenge it.

The transition to professionalism, then, can be traced back to the very beginnings of the history of Green party statecraft. Early on, the realo leaders pushed through a restructuring of the parliamentary caucus to eliminate the Greens’ mandated collectivist procedures. They gutted “working circle” procedures and strengthened the power of individual parliamentary offices. They made sure the fundis–who constituted a minority in the Bundestag party caucus, although they were in fact the majority in the party membership–got unimportant committee assignments and used the resources, access to media, and legal power that were now available to them to promote their own positions. Where the center of gravity that determined party policy had once been the extraparliamentary movement, it now shifted to elected representatives who claimed to be speaking for several million Green voters.

Needless to say, the content of realo politics shifted as well. While the fundis called for the elimination of nuclear power plants and tried to keep the peace movement going after the 1983 siting of Euromissiles in West Germany, the realos tended to concentrate on reformist, state-financed projects at best and intraparty political manipulation at worst. The realos toned down their opposition to nuclear power plants and even reversed the demand for German withdrawal from NATO (ironically, a position that they continued to hold even in 1988-89, when withdrawal from NATO became popular among many West German liberals).