A More Complicated Bookchin

Buried in my filing cabinet, I occasionally find documents that date back to the two or three years during which my political history intersected with that of Murray Bookchin, the most creative anarchist thinker to emerge out of the post-WWII era. That is the case with the article copied below, which I happened upon a few days ago and promptly scanned.

I post it because it suggests a more complicated view of Bookchin than that presented in Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (2015). Biehl was Bookchin’s romantic companion for many years and her book is a tribute to his memory, not an attempt to make sense of his life or his work. She makes no effort to assess his contributions or explain why his life unfolded in the way that it did: she simply recounts the facts of his biography in laudatory, unreflective terms. Her intellectual passivity compromises her work in a crucial way because it compels her to avoid mention of his shortcomings or failings. To discuss such topics, she would have to interpret and analyze him, and that is something that she is either unwilling or unable to do. This results in a Bookchin without depth, a man lacking in the tensions and conflicts that burden the rest of us mortals.

Published in 1991, the breezy, one-off article that follows offers a glimpse into a crucial chapter in Bookchin’s long activist life: his first (and only) attempt to implement his libertarian municipalist ideas. “Libertarian municipalism” was the term that he used to describe his program for social change and his assertions about the revolutionary potential of the city. Bookchin did not believe that radicals should build countercultural enclaves or try to organize the working class: they should focus their efforts on the city, which they should attempt to turn into a directly democratic, revolutionary commune. He also argued that they should do this specifically by running candidates for local office. This would enable them to put a revolutionary program before the public at large and compel them to engage bread-and-butter issues of social policy.

Bookchin was in the early stages of deploying this strategy in Burlington, Vermont when I met him in 1989. His organizational vehicle was the Burlington Greens, a group that he founded and led, and he had also helped seed the city with a network of study groups, publications, and projects. I knew that I wanted to be part of the venture as soon as I learned about it and moved to Burlington at once. When I arrived, I joined a larger group of young people who had come for similar reasons and threw myself into the work. I explore aspects of this experience in “Being a Bookchinite.” Biehl also touches upon these years in her book.

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