Murray Bookchin (January 14, 1921 – July 30, 2006) was an American anarchist and libertarian socialist author, orator, historian, and political theorist. A pioneer in the ecology movement, Bookchin initiated the critical theory of social ecology within anarchist, libertarian socialist, and ecological thought. He was the author of two dozen books covering topics in politics, philosophy, history, urban affairs, and ecology. Among the most important were Our Synthetic Environment (1962), Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) and The Ecology of Freedom (1982). In the late 1990s he became disenchanted with the increasingly apolitical lifestylism of the contemporary anarchist movement (see: lifestyle anarchism) and stopped referring to himself as an anarchist. Instead, he founded his own libertarian socialist ideology called Communalism.
Bookchin was an anti-capitalist and vocal advocate of the decentralisation of society along ecological and democratic lines. His writings on libertarian municipalism, a theory of face-to-face, assembly democracy, had an influence on the Green movement and anti-capitalist direct action groups such as Reclaim the Streets, as well as the democratic confederalism of Rojava.
Bookchin was born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants Nathan Bookchin and Rose (Kaluskaya) Bookchin. He grew up in the Bronx, where his grandmother, Zeitel, a Socialist Revolutionary, imbued him with Russian populist ideas. After her death in 1930, he joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist youth organization (for children 9 to 14) and the Young Communist League (for older children) in 1935. He attended the Workers School near Union Square, where he studied Marxism. In the late 1930s he broke with Stalinism and gravitated toward Trotskyism, joining the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In the early 1940s he worked in a foundry in Bayonne, New Jersey where he was an organizer and shop steward for the United Electrical Workers as well as a recruiter for the SWP. Within the SWP he adhered to the Goldman-Morrow faction, which broke away after the war ended. He was an auto worker and UAW member at the time of the great General Motors strike of 1945-46. In 1949, while speaking to a Zionist youth organization at City College, Bookchin met a mathematics student, Beatrice Appelstein, whom he married in 1951. They were married for 12 years and lived together for 35, remaining close friends and political allies for the rest of his life. They had two children, Debbie, and Joseph.
From 1947, he collaborated with a fellow lapsed Trotskyist, the German expatriate Josef Weber, in New York in the Movement for a Democracy of Content, a group of 20 or so post-Trotskyists who collectively edited the periodical Contemporary Issues – A Magazine for a Democracy of Content. Contemporary Issues embraced utopianism. The periodical provided a forum for the belief that previous attempts to create utopia had foundered on the necessity of toil and drudgery; but now modern technology had obviated the need for human toil, a liberatory development. To achieve this "post-scarcity" society, Bookchin developed a theory of ecological decentralism. The magazine published Bookchin's first articles, including the pathbreaking "The Problem of Chemicals in Food" (1952). In 1958, Bookchin defined himself as an anarchist, seeing parallels between anarchism and ecology. His first book, Our Synthetic Environment, was published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber in 1962, a few months before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The book described a broad range of environmental ills but received little attention because of its political radicalism.
In 1964, Bookchin joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and protested racism at the 1964 World's Fair. During 1964-67, while living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he cofounded and was the principal figure in the New York Federation of Anarchists. His groundbreaking essay "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" introduced ecology as a concept in radical politics. In 1968 he founded another group that published the influential Anarchos magazine, which published that and other innovative essays on post-scarcity and on ecological technologies such as solar and wind energy, and on decentralization and miniaturization. Lecturing throughout the United States, he helped popularize the concept of ecology to the counterculture. His widely republished 1969 essay Listen, Marxist! warned Students for a Democratic Society (in vain) against an impending takeover by a Marxist group. "Once again the dead are walking in our midst," he wrote, "ironically, draped in the name of Marx, the man who tried to bury the dead of the nineteenth century. So the revolution of our own day can do nothing better than parody, in turn, the October Revolution of 1917 and the civil war of 1918-1920, with its 'class line,' its Bolshevik Party, its 'proletarian dictatorship,' its puritanical morality, and even its slogan, 'Soviet power'". These and other influential 1960s essays are anthologized in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971)
In 1969-1970, he taught at Alternate U, a counter-cultural radical school based on 14th Street in Manhattan. In 1971, he moved to Burlington, Vermont with a group of friends, to put into practice his ideas of decentralization. In the fall of 1973, he was hired by Goddard College to lecture on technology; his lectures led to a teaching position and to the creation of the Social Ecology Studies program in 1974 and the Institute for Social Ecology soon thereafter, of which he became the director. In 1974, he was hired by Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he quickly became a full professor. The ISE was a hub for experimentation and study of appropriate technology in the 1970s. In 1977-78 he was a member of the Spruce Mountain Affinity Group of the Clamshell Alliance. Also in 1977, he published The Spanish Anarchists, a history of the Spanish anarchist movement up to the revolution of 1936. During this period, Bookchin forged some ties with the nascent libertarian movement. "He spoke at a Libertarian Party convention and contributed to a newsletter edited by Karl Hess. In 1976, he told a Libertarian activist that 'If I were a voting man, I'd vote for MacBride' — LP nominee Roger MacBride, that is."
In 1980, he resigned as ISE director, and upon his retirement from Ramapo in early 1983, he moved back to Burlington, Vermont. There, he continued to write, but also put his political ideas into practice by working with groups that opposed a wood chip plant, a trash incinerator, a condo development on the Lake Champlain waterfront, and a luxury marina. To foster face-to-face democracy, he helped create Burlington's neighborhood assemblies. In 1982, his book The Ecology of Freedom had a profound impact on the emerging ecology movement, both in the United States and abroad. His lectures in Germany influenced some of the founders of the German Greens. He was a principal figure in the Burlington Greens in 1986-1990, an ecology group that ran candidates for city council on a program to create neighborhood democracy.
In From Urbanization to Cities (published in 1987 as The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship), Bookchin traced the democratic traditions that influenced his political philosophy and defined the implementation of the libertarian municipalism concept. A few years later, The Politics of Social Ecology, written by his partner of 20 years, Janet Biehl, briefly summarized these ideas.
In 1987, as the keynote speaker at the first gathering of the U.S. Greens in Amherst, Massachusetts, Bookchin initiated a critique of deep ecology, indicting it for misanthropy, neo-Malthusianism, biocentricism, and irrationalism. A high-profile deep ecologist Dave Foreman of Earth First! had recently said that famine in Ethiopia represented "nature taking its course," nature self-correcting for human "overpopulation."
In 1995, Bookchin lamented the decline of American anarchism into primitivism, anti-technologism, neo-situationism, individual self-expression, and "ad hoc adventurism," at the expense of forming a social movement. Arthur Verslius said, "Bookchin... describes himself as a 'social anarchist' because he looks forward to a (gentle) societal revolution.... Bookchin has lit out after those whom he terms 'lifestyle anarchists.'" The publication of Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism in 1995, criticizing this tendency, was startling to anarchists. Thereafter Bookchin concluded that American anarchism was essentially individualistic and broke with anarchism publicly in 1999. He placed his ideas into a new political ideology: Communalism (spelled with a capital "C" to differentiate it from other forms of communalism), a form of libertarian socialism that retains his ideas about assembly democracy and the necessity of decentralization of settlement, power/money/influence, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.
In addition to his political writings, Bookchin wrote extensively on philosophy, calling his ideas dialectical naturalism. The dialectical writings of Hegel, which articulate a developmental philosophy of change and growth, seemed to him to lend themselves to an organic, even ecological approach. Although Hegel "exercised a considerable influence" on Bookchin, he was not, in any sense, a Hegelian. His later philosophical writings emphasize humanism, rationality, and the ideals of the Enlightenment. His last major published work was The Third Revolution, a four-volume history of the libertarian movements in European and American revolutions.
He continued to teach at the ISE until 2004. Bookchin died of congestive heart failure on July 30, 2006, at his home in Burlington at the age of 85.
General sociological and psychological views
Bookchin was critical of class-centered analysis of Marxism and simplistic anti-state forms of libertarianism and liberalism and wished to present what he saw was a more complex view of societies. In The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, he says that:
My use of the word hierarchy in the subtitle of this work is meant to be provocative. There is a strong theoretical need to contrast hierarchy with the more widespread use of the words class and State; careless use of these terms can produce a dangerous simplification of social reality. To use the words hierarchy, class, and State interchangeably, as many social theorists do, is insidious and obscurantist. This practice, in the name of a "classless" or "libertarian" society, could easily conceal the existence of hierarchical relationships and a hierarchical sensibility, both of which-even in the absence of economic exploitation or political coercion-would serve to perpetuate unfreedom.
Bookchin also points to an accumulation of hierarchical systems throughout history that has occurred up to contemporary societies which tends to determine the human collective and individual psyche:
The objective history of the social structure becomes internalized as a subjective history of the psychic structure. Heinous as my view may be to modern Freudians, it is not the discipline of work but the discipline of rule that demands the repression of internal nature. This repression then extends outward to external nature as a mere object of rule and later of exploitation. This mentality permeates our individual psyches in a cumulative form up to the present day-not merely as capitalism but as the vast history of hierarchical society from its inception.
In the essay "What Is Social Ecology?" Bookchin summarizes the meaning of social ecology as follows:
Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today—apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.
Starting in the 1970s, Bookchin argued that the arena for libertarian social change should be the municipal level. In a 2001 interview he summarized his views this way: "The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy." In 1980 Bookchin used the term "libertarian municipalism", to describe a system in which libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies would oppose and replace the state with a confederation of free municipalities. Libertarian municipalism intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist. Its supporters—Communalists—believe it to be the means to achieve a rational society, and its structure becomes the organization of society.
Legacy and influence
Though Bookchin, by his own recognition, failed to win over a substantial body of supporters during his own lifetime, his ideas have nonetheless influenced movements and thinkers across the globe.
Notable among these is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation in Turkey which has fought the Turkish state since the 1980s to try to secure greater political and cultural rights for the country's Kurds. Though founded on a rigid Marxist–Leninist ideology, the PKK has seen a shift in its thought and aims since the capture and imprisonment of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999. Öcalan began reading a variety of post-Marxist political theory while in prison, and found particular currency in Bookchin's works.
Öcalan attempted in early 2004 to arrange a meeting with Bookchin through his lawyers, describing himself as Bookchin's "student" eager to adapt his thought to Middle Eastern society. Bookchin was too ill to accept the request. In May 2004 Bookchin conveyed this message "My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Öcalan’s talents to guide them". When Bookchin died in 2006, the PKK hailed the American thinker as "one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century", and vowed to put his theory into practice.
"Democratic Confederalism", the variation on Communalism developed by Öcalan in his writings and adopted by the PKK, does not outwardly seek Kurdish rights within the context of the formation of an independent state separate from Turkey. The PKK claims that this project is not envisioned as being only for Kurds, but rather for all peoples of the region, regardless of their ethnic, national, or religious background. Rather, it promulgates the formation of assemblies and organisations beginning at the grassroots level to enact its ideals in a non-state framework beginning at the local level. It also places a particular emphasis on securing and promoting women's rights. The PKK has had some success in implementing its programme, through organisations such as the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), which coordinates political and social activities within Turkey, and the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK), which does so across all countries where Kurds live.
Works of Murray Bookchin
- Our Synthetic Environment (1962)
- A Philosophical Naturalism (1995)
- The Population Myth: Part I (1988)
- Radical Politics in an Era of Advanced Capitalism (1989)
- Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology (1987)
- Society and Ecology
- To Remember Spain (1994)
- What is Communalism: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism (1994)
- What is Social Ecology? (1993)
- Whither Anarchism? A Reply to Recent Anarchist Critics (1998)