The Greens as a Social Movement: Values and Conflicts




– For Green Parties: Reflections on the First Three Decades, edited by Frank Zelko and Carolin Brinkmann, Heinrich Böll Foundation of North America, 2006.

In the America of the mid 1980s, the dreams of a more just and ecological society that had flourished during the 1960s and seventies seemed in danger of disappearing into the mists of history. The Reagan years had ushered in a culture of resurgent greed, militarism and conspicuous consumption, and a dismal politics of reaction and retrenchment. In this challenging climate, the visionary policies and electoral victories of die Grünen in Germany appeared to be nothing short of a political miracle. Hundreds of thoughtful and idealistic people throughout the US, from many walks of life, gravitated toward the idea of an American Green movement as a symbol of hope that the liberatory spirit of recent decades might continue to grow and develop.
Thus it was much more than the pragmatic electoral victories of the German Greens that sparked people’s imagination on this side of the Atlantic. We were inspired by Rudolph Bahro’s call for an ecological civilization that would transcend the stale divisions between East and West, by Petra Kelly’s plea for a convergence of peace and ecological movements, and by the massive outpouring of people across Europe to oppose what the British historian E.P. Thompson termed the “exterminist” politics of a reinvigorated Cold War.1 For many US activists, the emergence of Green politics in Europe seemed nothing less than the renewal and expansion of just the kind of visionary, ecological politics that many in this country had argued for, but few saw a way to practically implement.
However this new Green vision meant many different things to different people and, before long, the territory of Green politics in the US became one of often bitter contestation between very different outlooks on both the present and the future. Forward thinking, inspired people of many political orientations saw the Greens as the way to realize their particular hopes and visions. Thus, the very idealism of the early US Greens fostered an ideological polarization from which the project of creating a Green politics for the US would never truly recover.
By the late 1980s, a rather dynamic but loose network of perhaps as many as 300 local groups around the country were practicing Green politics in their towns and cities, and designing the framework for a unified Green organization that would help realize both local and national aspirations. The praxis of these groups varied tremendously. People expressed their Green outlooks in diverse forms of activism, lifestyles, spirituality, political engagement, philosophical inquiry and institution-building. But in the early years, all these activities were seen as important steps toward the realization of a Green politics that could support a different way of living and doing politics while inspiring vital changes in US political, social, and cultural institutions.
Early US Greens emerged from many distinct spheres of social and political activity, and the diversity of these activities shaped early Green ideals and praxis. Greens identified themselves by their ideas, their values and by actions in their communities. They made an important mark on countless local issues and political struggles, and showed how work on particular issues could express and embody a much broader political outlook. In scores of cities and towns, Greens built community gardens, fought destructive development projects, declared Nuclear Free Zones, opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and worked to democratize their local governments.2
From New England to Florida to Oregon, Green activists were in the forefront of opposing a new generation of municipal waste incinerators, and implemented wide-ranging recycling programs to demonstrate a practical alternative. Just outside St. Louis, they worked to prevent the incineration of toxic, dioxin-tainted soil from the evacuated community of Times Beach, Missouri, and some years later organized the first comprehensive US activist gathering to oppose the development of genetically engineered agriculture. In California, Greens renewed statewide opposition to the expansion of offshore oil drilling and supported a ballot initiative to protect the last remaining old growth forests. In New Mexico, they defended small farmers facing the loss of their water resources due to expanded commercial development and worked alongside low income urban dwellers threatened by the rapid gentrification of their neighborhoods. In Honolulu, a university seminar on Green city planning evolved into a popular effort to map out a comprehensive Green vision for the entire state of Hawaii.3 In Wisconsin, Greens brought together people from across the state to defend the treaty rights of indigenous Chippewa fishing communities in the face of racist attacks and the incursions of transnational mining companies.4
Some of these stories were largely of local concern; others became national news. In a few cases, these efforts were stepping stones toward local electoral involvement. But perhaps most distinctively, they all embodied a political outlook shaped by Green values, and aimed at expressing a broader Green transformative vision. They were carried out largely by people who were determined to transcend the traditional divisions between environmental and social activism, between direct action and electoral politics, and between personal and social change. Where Greens did run for office, they had a track record of local involvement that greatly increased their profile and credibility among voters. Nonetheless, these pioneering local efforts are often overlooked in historical accounts of Green politics in the US.

Meanwhile, at the national level, a rather different dynamic was emerging among people who identified as Greens, one shaped by persistent ideological struggle, continual organizational restructuring in an attempt to accommodate emerging factions, and bitter contests to shape the future of Green politics in the United States. Greens at the national level were sharply divided over questions of deep ecology and social ecology, public expressions of spirituality, anti-capitalism vs. faith in small businesspeople, social movement vs. political party orientations, and endless internal debates over organizational procedures, decision making styles, membership rules and the allocation of scarce funds.
Ultimately, this protracted argument about what it meant to be “Green” came to dominate the attention of most active participants. Those with little taste for such debates drifted away, and what is now the larger of the two national Green organizations was founded in the 1990s to promote an entirely election-centered strategy (see below). Despite the aspirations of early state party organizers to recast the Greens as a “mainstream” political force, the US winner-take-all voting system relegated state and national Green parties with a narrowly electoral focus to the furthest margins of national politics. While the Ralph Nader presidential campaigns of 1996 and 2000 drew legions of enthusiastic new supporters to the Green party – and may have helped prevent US political discourse from drifting even further to the right – the Greens by then had largely shed their interest and ability to manifest significant social and political change at the local level.
What were the ideological currents that shaped these Green debates, and what is their legacy for Green politics in the US? The Greens initially attracted a diverse and colorful mix of progressive activists, cultural radicals, dedicated environmentalists, liberal “pragmatists,” spiritual and social ecofeminists, social anarchists, and independent Marxists. The conflicts among these various tendencies shaped organizational debates at the national level, and led to the entrenchment of increasingly inflexible ideological positions.
The original framing of the Greens’ Ten Key Values as a series of rather open-ended questions aimed for a broad appeal, but ultimately conveyed a relatively comfortable, managerial liberalism, with populist aspirations, but little grounding in ongoing social and political struggles.5 The goal was clearly to articulate a positive, ethical grounding for Green politics; however, the voice of the original Ten Key Values questions is distinctly personal rather than broadly political, and aims to avoid fundamental conflicts with elite social and cultural norms. It is the voice of those who would intervene, implicitly from on high, to design, shape and “operate” a new social order. The goal for many was to bring Green values into mainstream politics – whether by starting a Green party, or by influencing two the dominant parties. A large, but ultimately shrinking, minority viewed the Greens as the harbinger of a new ecologically-based social movement. One element that repeatedly saved the Greens in their early years was the openness of the Ten Key Values to ongoing discussion and continual reinterpretation at the local level.
During the evolution of the Committees of Correspondence as a national Green organization in the mid-1980s, the most vocal counterpoint to the emerging focus on electoralism was from bioregionalists, whose focus was on ecological living and culture rather than policy or activism, and displayed far less interest or faith than many Greens in the project of influencing mainstream US institutions.6 The first public discussion of Green politics in the US was at the North American Bioregional Congress, held in rural Missouri in 1984, and it largely reflected this particular outlook.
Another important influence, which became increasingly vocal as the new national Green organization began to take shape, came from the social ecologists.  With Murray Bookchin’s Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont as their intellectual home, social ecologists had their roots in antinuclear politics, urban alternatives, and a social anarchist political orientation. It was the social ecologists who insisted from the outset that a US Green party could not emerge from the top down, but had to evolve from active networks of autonomous Green locals.7 This strategy first took shape in New England, where the affinity group-based organizing model of the anti-nuclear power movement was still a fresh experience, and dozens of local groups soon came together to form the New England branch of the Committees of Correspondence.8 For social ecologists, the focus on local organizing was not only a practical strategy, but a fundamental political principle and an explicit challenge to the entrenched power of the nation state. Social ecologists viewed the emerging Green local and regional networks as the core of a decentralist political strategy, and an incipient grassroots counterforce to oppressive political and economic institutions. Elements of this vision were shared by many Greens across the ideological spectrum; however the appeal of this position was often compromised by a widely perceived ideological rigidity on the part of many in the social ecology camp.
Some Greens viewed Barry Commoner’s 1980 campaign for US President, under the banner of the Citizens Party, as the first incipient expression of a Green politics in the US. The first electoral campaign explicitly organized by Greens, however, was in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale University, where a group of independent Marxists had long sought to create an alliance of radical intellectuals and the city’s impoverished majority. Under the Green banner, they elected a Green city councilor in 1985, fought entrenched real estate interests and sought public funding for efforts to Green their city.
More established progressive activists began to take interest in the Greens shortly after the demise of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson had raised expectations that his Rainbow Coalition would continue beyond the presidential campaign and realize its vision of a “rainbow” alliance across racial and ideological boundaries. When Jackson abandoned this project, casting his fortunes instead with the national leadership of the Democratic Party, many of his supporters looked to the Greens as the next manifestation of the Rainbow. Many left-leaning Greens, along with some centrist Greens, would later form a long-term alliance with the post-Rainbow Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN) and its 1992 presidential candidate (now Center for Constitutional Rights executive director) Ron Daniels. Meanwhile, an alliance of libertarian Marxists, spiritual leftists and social anarchists began articulating an explicitly radical Green vision in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1987 -’88, and social ecologists in New England founded the Left Green Network as an explicit challenge to the Greens’ perceived drift toward conventional party politics. The Left Greens issued a detailed manifesto, expanding upon the 10 Key Values, with an explicit focus on social ecology, antiracism, direct action, and a post-capitalist cooperative economics.9
When the Greens held their first large gathering to discuss the emerging national Green program, in Eugene, Oregon in 1989, Left Green-sponsored forums attracted well over 100 delegates for provocative discussions of ideas and strategy that continued late into the night. Also in Eugene, Left Greens and the emerging Youth Greens crafted a proposal for a direct action to disrupt business on Wall Street the day after the much-hyped twentieth anniversary of Earth Day in April of 1990. The Earth Day Wall Street Action would unite grassroots Greens with environmental justice organizers, urban squatters, radical ecofeminists and many others, and communicate a strong message that corporate power, not merely individual consumption patterns, was at the core of the day’s environmental threats. It was clearly the most successful public project of this broad alliance of Green radicals.10
At the 1990 national Green Gathering in Colorado, Left Greens tapped a deep reservoir of discontent with the aspiring mainstream Greens’ efforts to water down the proposed Green program.  While the Left Green presence at this gathering was limited by unusually high travel, lodging and registration costs, and many in attendance appeared more conservative, older and more affluent than in Eugene, proposals from the left proved far more popular than expected. The Green program that was provisionally approved at this gathering opposed the commodification of water and air, denounced racism and sexism, supported Native American sovereignty, and advocated a 75 percent reduction in the military budget as well as decentralized, democratic public control of health care, banking, insurance, energy and transportation. Despite efforts by more centrist Greens to cast these proposals as merely the product of a minority faction, each received the approval of three-quarters of the delegates in attendance in order to be included in the final program draft.11
The Youth Greens emerged from the Greens’ original campus-based Youth Caucus, but soon forged a unique left-libertarian organizational identity of their own. They added an explicit focus on anarchism and anti-capitalism to their statement of principles, held their own national conferences, and for several years published a theoretical journal, Free Society.12 The merging of youthful rebellion and anti-capitalist politics that took shape in the Youth Greens in many ways prefigured the organizational style and outlook of the emerging antiglobalization movement that made world headlines a decade later with the mass direct action confronting the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Along with a commitment to directly democratic organization and decision-making, they shared a strong cultural affinity with the “autonomist” youth movements that emerged in Europe during the 1980s.13
Meanwhile, those seeking to influence mainstream party politics as Greens were not at all satisfied with the left-leaning outcome of the 1989 and 1990 national gatherings, and they too set out to create their own structures and organizing vehicles. In 1989, they formed a Green Party Organizing Committee (GPOC), partly independent of the Green Committees of Correspondence.  In 1991, they proposed a new structure for the Greens in which emerging state-level Green parties would have equal weight with Green locals in an essentially parallel organizational structure. This proposal was roundly rejected by delegates at the annual Green Gathering and Congress in Elkins, West Virginia that year.14 Instead of following the national gathering’s mandate to reintegrate party-building efforts into the existing national Green structure, GPOC members held a series of invitation-only meetings to create a new organization, the Green Politics Network.  This network in turn prepared the ground for a new Association of State Green Parties (ASGP), which would overtake the original national Green organization in size and visibility in the aftermath of Ralph Nader’s 1996 presidential campaign. The ASGP approach eschewed any structural link between a Green political party and local, movement-oriented activists. In the words of John Rensenbrink, the leading spokesperson for the GPOC and the Green Politics Network, “a party must have scope to push for power, and the movement must be able to act freely as a moral guide for the party.”15

Also in Elkins, social movement-oriented Greens took one last opportunity to steer the national Green infrastructure toward supporting broadly-focused, community-centered activism inspired by Green values. The Congress approved a national Green Action Plan, encompassing: a series of anti-nuclear actions the following spring; support for an inner city renewal campaign, dubbed Detroit Summer; and involvement in October 1992 actions initiated by First Nations activists throughout the hemisphere to protest the Quincentennial of Columbus’ first landing in the Americas. The Greens as a national organization, however, were unable to support a sufficient infrastructure for a successful national action campaign. Although a comprehensive organizing guide was produced, a lack of follow-up and organizing assistance meant that only a handful of locals participated. The National Green Clearinghouse did actively raise funds to support Detroit Summer, which brought local youth to Detroit that summer (rather than Greens from across the country, as originally conceived) to participate in rebuilding inner city communities. Even this effort was roundly condemned by electorally-focused Greens as a misappropriation of national Green resources, despite their nominal agreement that the Greens should prioritize alliance-building with urban communities of color.
By 1992, the quest for Green Party ballot access at the local level had become the de facto national strategy of the Greens. While left-leaning Greens remained active at the local level in New York, St. Louis and a few other cities, the Left Green Network and Youth Greens soon drifted away from active involvement with the Greens and focused more specifically on their own theoretical discussions and publications. Spiritually-oriented Greens were also largely disillusioned with the increasing focus on electoral politics and many ceased their involvement with the Greens as well, though some continued their involvement in various Green-linked organizations. The main point of contact between left-leaning Greens and centrist Greens was through involvement in Ron Daniels’ Independent Progressive Politics Network rather than the Greens’ own national organization. With nearly all factions pursuing their strategies through independent structures, the original national Green organization – renamed the Greens/Green Party USA in Elkins – was largely hollowed out, and found itself struggling for survival for the remainder of the 1990s and beyond.
Still, the Greens as an organization, movement, and a diverse alliance of local chapters and state Green parties, continued to attract idealistic people seeking an organizational home for their political involvement. By the late 1990s, Green work at the local level was largely overshadowed by the pursuit of permanent ballot access at the state level, and by Ralph Nader’s 1996 and 2000 campaigns for president. Greens at all levels came to focus almost entirely on electoral work, and those who identified primarily with the movement-building vision of the Greens increasingly drifted away. Ralph Nader drew hundreds of enthusiastic people to participate in his presidential campaigns, but his promise to build the Green Party as a political force at the state and local levels went largely unrealized. Nader’s own decision not to join or actively participate in any existing Green formation contributed to the US Greens’ organizational weaknesses. By the summer of 2004, Greens of all political stripes were intensely divided over whether to support Nader’s third run for president, or to support the “official” Green candidate, Texas lawyer and activist David Cobb, and encourage Greens in electoral “swing states” to vote for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.16
With this twenty year history of idealism and dissention, what is the lasting legacy of the US Greens? From the beginning, the American Greens aspired to create a new way of doing politics in the US. Greens sought an explicit synthesis of social and ecological concerns, and focused on broad values and principles in an effort to challenge the hegemony of pragmatic issue-oriented activism. They helped bring an explicitly feminist outlook into the political sphere, as well as a heightened identification with international social movements, and offered an organizational setting where distinct ideological approaches to ecology (social ecology, deep ecology) and to feminism (cultural, spiritual, social and anarcha-feminism)17 could be played out in an engaged social and political setting where ideas truly mattered.
Greens have contested the norm of US politics as largely an elite activity, and raised the important question of whether a political party in the US can aspire to act as an expression of a broader social movement. This is often taken for granted in Europe, with its history of political parties rooted in organized labor, but explicitly contradicts the managerial pragmatism that dominates politics in the United States – and increasingly in the European Union as well. Whether there is room in the American political landscape for a multi-issue, ecologically based social movement seeking an explicitly political expression still remains to be seen. But the twenty year history of the US Greens raises the hope that this may one day be realized, along with a host of valuable lessons for those who will most certainly keep trying.


1 Especially popular among early US Greens were Rudolph Bahro, From Red to Green, London: Verso, 1984, and Building the Green Movement, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986, and Petra Kelly, Fighting for Hope, Boston: South End Press, 1984.

2 These activities were chronicled in the quarterly Green journal, Green Letter, published in Berkeley, California, and subsequently in its St. Louis-based successor, Synthesis/Regeneration.

3 Ira Rohter, A Green Hawaii: Sourcebook for Development Alternatives, Honolulu: Na Kane O Ka Malo Press, 1992.

4 See Al Geddicks, The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations, Boston: South End Press, 1993.

5 The original Ten Key Values were Ecological Wisdom, Grassroots Democracy, Personal and Social Responsibility, Nonviolence, Decentralization, Community-based Economics, Postpatriarchal Values, Respect for Diversity, Global Responsibility and Future Focus. Each was accompanied by a set of 5-6 questions designed to promote discussion; several versions of these were published in pamphlet form by Green locals across the US. The original values and questions are reprinted in Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics: Ecofeminism and the Greens, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998, pp. 276-279.

6 The bioregional outlook and its contribution to the development of Green politics in the US is described in Brian Tokar, The Green Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992, pp. 27-32.

7 Charlene Spretnak, who was influential in organizing the first nation-wide meetings of Green political activists, suggests that nearly all of the participants in the founding meeting of the Committees of Correspondence in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1984 supported a grassroots focus, with only three participants from Washington, DC arguing for a more centralized organizational model.  Remarks made at the “Green Parties in International Perspective” symposium, Washington DC, May 24, 2004.

8 Guy Chichester and Howie Hawkins, Green Politics in New England? New England Committees of Correspondence, 1984. The affinity group organizing model was introduced by Quaker-oriented activists in New England and was inspired in part by the anarchist grupos de afinidad of pre-Civil War Spain.  Such ideas were first introduced to a US audience by Murray Bookchin in his 1968 pamphlet, “Listen, Marxist!”, reprinted in his Post-Scarcity Anarchism, San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1971. For discussions of the affinity group organizing model in practice see Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, and Joel Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Terror, Boston: South End Press, 1983, esp. pp. 168-189.

9 Call to Form a Left Green Network, Burlington, VT, 1988.

10 See Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, Boston: South End Press, 1997, pp. 15-16.

11 The Greens/Green Party USA Program, Kansas City, 1992. On the Estes Park, Colorado Green gathering, see Brian Tokar, “Into the Future with the Greens,” Z Magazine, November 1990, pp. 61-66.

12 Youth Greens Political Principles, July, 1990; also see Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics, op. cit., pp. 117-129.

13 George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997.

14 Brian Tokar, “The Greens: To Party or Not?,” Z Magazine, October 1991, pp. 42-46.

15 John Rensenbrink, “A Green Strategy for the ’90s,” E:  The Environmental Magazine, September/October 1990, p. 55.

16 One widely distributed critique of the Greens’ decision to run Cobb as its 2004 presidential candidate was offered by Jeffrey St. Clair in “Suicide Right on the Stage: The Demise of the Green Party,” CounterPunch, July 2, 2004, at

17 Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics, pp. 140-176.