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Synthesis/Regeneration 54   (Winter 2011)

The Greens as a Social Movement:
The Early Years

by Brian Tokar

In the America of the mid-1980s, the dreams of a more just and ecological society that had flourished during the 1960s and 70s 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 poli-tics of reaction and retrenchment. In this challenging climate, the visionary policies and electoral victo-ries of die Grünen in Germany appeared to be nothing short of a political miracle. Hundreds of thought-ful and idealistic people throughout the US, from many walks of life, gravitated toward the idea of a US 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.

…the very idealism of the Greens fostered an ideological polarization…

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 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 in the 1980s, 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, transformative Green 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.

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 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.

Where Greens did run for office, they had a track record …

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 over time, and the precursor to the current US Green Party 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 emerging Green Party, the Greens by then had largely shed their 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 continuing 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, however, 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 it ultimately conveyed a comfortable, managerial liberalism with populist aspirations but relatively 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 was distinctly personal rather than broadly political, and aimed to avoid fundamental conflicts with elite social and cultural norms. The goal for many was to bring Green values into mainstream politics — whether by starting a Green party, or by influencing the two dominant parties. A large but ultimately shrinking minority viewed the Greens as the harbinger of a new ecologically based social movement.

During the evolution of the Green Committees of Correspondence as the first national Green organization in the mid-1980s, one vocal counterpoint to the emerging focus on electoralism was from bioregionalists, whose focus was on ecological living and culture rather than policy or activism. They had 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.

…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.

Another important influence, which became increasingly vocal as the new national Green organization began to take shape, came from social ecologists. With Murray Bookchin’s Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont as an intellectual home, social ecology was rooted in anti-nuclear politics, urban alternatives, and a left-libertarian outlook on local politics. 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 Green Committees of Correspondence. 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.

…one vocal counterpoint to the emerging focus on electoralism was from bioregionalists…

More traditional 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 Ron Daniels. Meanwhile, a small group 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 subsequently founded the Left Green Network as an explicit challenge to the Greens’ perceived drift toward conventional party politics. The Left Greens’ manifesto expanded upon the Ten Key Values, with an explicit focus on social ecology, anti-racism, direct action, and a post-capitalist cooperative economics.[8]

When the Greens held their first large gathering to discuss the emerging national Green program, in Eugene, Oregon in 1989, Left Green-sponsored open 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 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.[9]

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 national Green program. While the Left Green presence at this gathering was limited by unusually high travel and registration costs, and many in attendance appeared more conservative, older and more affluent than in Eugene, proposals from the left were 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% reduction in the military budget along with 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.[10]

However, those seeking to influence mainstream party politics as Greens were not at all satisfied with the left-leaning outcomes of the 1989 and 1990 national gatherings, and they soon 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.[11] 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.

The ASGP approach renounced any structural ties of accountability between a Green political party and local activists.

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 renounced any structural ties of accountability 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.”[12]

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 the emerging Detroit Summer inner-city renewal campaign, and involvement in October 1992 events to protest the quincentennial of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, initiated by First Nations activists. The Greens produced a comprehensive organizing guide, but a lack of follow-up and organizing assistance meant that only a handful of Green locals participated. The national Green Clearinghouse raised funds to support the launching of Detroit Summer, which brought area youth to Detroit that summer to participate in the rebuilding of inner-city communities (the project originally hoped to attract Green activists from across the country). But even this effort was roundly condemned by electorally-focused Greens as a misappropriation of national Green resources, despite a nominal agreement that the Greens should prioritize alliance-building with urban communities of color.

By mid-1992, the quest for Green Party ballot access at the local level had become the de facto national strategy of the Greens.

By mid-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 both 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 ended their involvement with the Greens as well. The main point of contact between left-leaning Greens and centrist Greens was through the 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.

One positive development in 1992 was the merger of the original Green discussion journal Green Synthesis with the St. Louis based Regeneration: A Journal of Left Green Social Thought to create the current Green journal Synthesis/Regeneration. The journal remains an important forum for discussion and debate around Green ideas to this day.

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 activism at the local level was largely overshadowed by the pursuit of permanent ballot access at the state level, and by Nader’s 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 mostly 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 unrealized. Nader’s own decision not to join or actively participate in any existing Green formation contributed to the US Greens’ organizational weakness.[13] In 2004, divisions among the Greens were heightened by the debate over whether to endorse Nader’s third run for president, or support the “official” Green candidate, Texas lawyer and activist David Cobb, who encouraged Greens in electoral “swing states” to vote for John Kerry.

Greens…raised the question of whether a political party in the US can…act as an expression of a broader social movement.

With this 25-year history of both idealism and conflict, 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, along with a heightened identification with international social movements, and offered an organizational setting where various approaches to ecology, feminism, and other concerns could be played out in a highly engaged social and political setting where ideas truly mattered.[14]

Greens 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.

Brian Tokar is the author of The Green Alternative, Earth for Sale, and the newly published Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change, along with three edited books on food politics and GMOs. This article is condensed from a presentation at a 2004 conference, “Green Parties in International Perspective,” held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC; the full proceedings were published as Green Parties: Reflections on the First Three Decades, edited by Frank Zelko and Carolin Brinkmann (Heinrich Böll Foundation of North America, 2006).


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 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 and associated questions are reprinted in Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics: Eco-feminism 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 are 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 national meetings of Green political activists, insists 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 organization. Remarks made at the “Green Parties in International Perspective” symposium, Washington DC, May 24, 2004. On the role of affinity groups in anti-nuclear organizing, see Joel Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Terror (Boston: South End Press, 1983), pp. 168–189.

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

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

10. 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.

11. Brian Tokar, “The Greens: To Party or Not?” Z Magazine, October 1991.

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

13. See Brian Tokar, “The Nader for President Fiasco,” Z Magazine, November 1996.

14. Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics, pp. 140–176.

[10 jan 11]

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