Burlington Greens

From Anarchy In Action

From 1986 to 1990, the Burlington, Vermont, chapter of the US Green movement combined Anarchism with an involvement in local electoral politics. The group included the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and tried to closely follow his philosophy of "libertarian municipalism" or Communalism. Although the Burlington Greens did not win in their mayoral or city council campaigns, some reforms they advocated were eventually implemented by the city, notably the preservation of the city's waterfront.

Janet Biehl, a member of the Burlington Greens, describes the group's structure:

We structured the Burlington Greens nonhierarchically and democratically. We made decisions by voting, and voting rights were equal. Prospective members had to attend meetings for six months before requesting to join, and they had to be voted in. Membership reached a peak of twenty-three in September 1989. Most of the members were young and inexperienced, more comfortable with direct action and protest than with electoral politics, but they were bright and eager to learn.[1]

The Burlington Greens organized against ecologically destructive initiatives of "Socialist" Mayor Bernie Sanders who wanted to develop high-rise condos on the waterfront. Bookchin wrote in 1986, "Sanders’ version of socialism is proving to be a subtle instrument for rationalizing the marketplace — not for controlling it, much less threatening it."[2] Sanders belonged to the Progressive Party, a third party that tended to align with the Democratic Party on national affairs. Sanders stepped down in 1988 in order to run for Congress.

The Burlington Greens' 1989 platform advocated for a variety of "minimum goals" including the expansion of renewable energy, "a moratorium on growth" and a right to housing and good working conditions. The constitution concluded, "We think these goals can be achieved only through a movement that is antiauthoritarian and popular, one that seeks to create a grassroots democracy. We seek to change our entire image of progress as mindless growth into an ecological vision of progress that will ultimately foster a new harmony between people and between humanity and nature."[3]

The Burlington Greens' Communalist strategy involved using local elections both as an educational tool and as a way to ultimately take local power. Once in charge of the local government, the Greens would supposedly rewrite the city charter to transfer all decision making power from bureaucracies to direct democratic assemblies. This strategy has since been criticized by the authors of An Anarchist FAQ, who see running electoral campaigns as a drain on time and resources that could be spent on direct action.[4]

In 1990, some members of the Burlington Greens went behind the rest of the group's backs and made a deal with the Democrats. The Green and Democratic candidates would throw only softball remarks at each other during a debate in order to embarass the Progressive candidate. Biehl recalls, "To our horror, Mahnke the Progressive lost—by a margin smaller than the number of votes Steve the Green had received. If he and the Democrat hadn’t colluded, Mahnke might well have won. The election was tainted."[5]

Once the rest of the Greens heard about the collusion, they held a meeting and discussed whether to go public about what had happened. Some younger members of the group were adamant that the whole affair be kept a secret. Bookchin said, however, that he was so outraged that he would go public if the group did not do so. With little choice, then, a majority voted to issue a press release explaining what happened and apologizing. Some of the younger members resented this decision. Due to the scandal and strong internal disagreement over how the affair was handled, the Burlington Greens quickly "passed out of existence."[6]

Even though they did not win elections, the Burlington Greens' educational efforts may have contributed to local environmental and social victories in the coming years.

In the next years [after the collapse of the Burlington Greens], Burlington’s waterfront was made into a public park. The landfill, owned by the people of Vermont, is today covered with an expansive green lawn and flowering trees; it is home to endless summer festivals, games, and other public events. It is Burlington’s great, irreplaceable treasure. The Progressives and their allies would go on to institute many environmental improvements, lacing the city with community farms and gardens; as well, they established or bolstered programs to support the poor, the elderly, battered women, and minorities. Burlington has won numerous accolades for its social and ecological liveliness...[7]

  1. Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch. 12
  2. Murray Bookchin, “The Bernie Sanders Paradox: When Socialism Grows Old,” Murray Hates Bernie, https://cominsitu.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/murray-hates-bernie/.
  3. "Electoral Platform of the Burlington Greens" in Janet Biehl with Murray Bookchin, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), 177-181.
  4. An Anarchist FAQ, "J.5.14 What is Libertarian Municipalism?," http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secJ5.html#secj514.
  5. Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe, ch. 12.
  6. Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe, ch. 12.
  7. Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe, ch. 12