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.

Although the purpose of the article below is to report on splits among the Greens, it highlights a contradiction that ran throughout Bookchin’s life.

It notes that the Burlington Greens had splintered into three factions and that there were twenty-six people among them. It also indicates that all of those involved embraced the main contours of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism—a focus on the city and on running candidates for local office. Although they (we) were unable to work together, and had not come close to winning an election, it is remarkable to consider that there was such a large group of people dedicated to such an obscure doctrine in Burlington, a small city of about 40,000 residents. Even though we all nourished the milieu in various ways, its existence was really Bookchin’s achievement: he generated, anchored, and inspired it, despite being about fifty years older than most of us. This is a testament to his charisma and the appeal of his vision.

But the piece also points to a less flattering truth. It mentions that his group, the Burlington Greens, had shrunk to six people. As such, a man who essentially claimed to have resolved world history’s greatest riddles—in The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy and elsewhere—operated in a group that could fit comfortably in a minivan with room for luggage. And this was not atypical for him: most of his political practice unfolded in small groups on the margins of the left and he devoted a significant portion of his intellectual energies to angry polemics against other minor figures. There seemed to be a gigantic chasm between his sense of his own importance and the actual scope of his influence.

But Bookchin was an amazing person. In addition to being fabulously interesting and unusual, he was also a wildly creative—though undisciplined—thinker; a spell-binding orator, and often playful and kind in private. These are surely among the things that prompted Biehl to author her monumental eulogy, why I still reflect upon him today, and why others continue to mull over his impact.

These qualities helped him build up the radical scene mentioned in this article, but why couldn’t he sustain it? Why did he retreat so quickly into a tiny group? Biehl can neither pose nor answer these questions, but they should be an element of any account of his life. Part of the answer must be psychological: Bookchin struggled to interact with larger groups in an effective, egalitarian way and surrounding himself with a small circle of disciples protected him from some of the consequences of that deficiency. I wonder why this was so difficult for him and if he suffered as a result of his conflicts with others. Politically, I suspect that his isolation served him—sectarians often wear their marginality as a badge of honor and as a sign of their singularity.

The following piece also captured what turned out to be a fleeting moment. All of the groups mentioned in it dissolved shortly after its publication, most of the young people moved away, and Bookchin devoted himself to writing entirely. When he died in 2006, he saddled us with the task of making sense of his legacy. Biehl has taken a stab at this, but the archival record suggests that he was more complicated—and more human— than her work allows.

~ by Chuck Morse

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The Vermont Times
January 31, 1991.

Elections Prompt Yet Another Split Among Greens

By George Layng
Staff Reporter

To many, the Greens are simply more radical, environmentally oriented relatives of the Progressive Coalition, the party that dominates local politics here.

They all were members of the political family that a decade ago elected self-styled Socialist Bernie Sanders mayor amid talk of social and economic justice, ecology and participatory democracy. The victory marked the triumph of a wide coalition of progressive, leftist groups.

But ever since then, the Greens have gone their own way, in more ways than one.

In 1986, they broke with the Progressives, complaining the city’s ruling party cares more about economics and winning elections than protecting the environment.

Then last year, the Greens themselves divided into the Burlington Greens and the Northern Vermont Greens when members felt their group was becoming too large for the different personalities involved.

Now, some members of the Northern Vermont Greens have left and formed a new party called Civic Forum, which is running two candidates for City Council in the March elections.

The latest division stemmed from arguments over whether to field candidates this year. The split raises questions about whether the Greens have devolved from a political movement to a debating society.

“Not even a debating society,” said critic Gene Bergman, a Progressive Coalition city councilor, who argued that even debating clubs tolerate differences of opinion. “Here, it’s like they have to be holier than thou – that’s what their problem is.”

But Chuck Morse, a member of the Northern Vermont Greens, said the split with Civic Forum was a friendly one prompted simply over whether to run candidates now or wait until next year. Civic Forum decided to try this year, and Morse said his group hopes to do so in 1992.

Taking issue with Bergman, he said differences of opinion are tolerated, and decisions are made by a simple majority – not a unanimous consensus. However, Morse acknowledged Greens are idealistic.

“All of our politics emerge from principle, not so much from what’s possible, but what’s right,” he said. “We’re not going to choose between lesser evils, but what we think is right.”

All told, fewer than 30 people belong to the three Green groups. The Burlington Greens, centered around nationally known environmentalist Murray Bookchin, have six members, while Civic Forum has five and the Northern Vermont Greens have 15, Morse said.

Although its numbers are small, Civic Forum hopes its message poses a difficult challenge for the Progressives , whom they charge have moved away from the full progressive agenda to win votes.

“They are really an electoral machine, and we don’t see us that way,” said Civic Forum’s Sandy Baird, who in 1989 was the Green mayoral candidate.

The question comes as the city’s leading Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle — is considered by many Democrats and Republicans to be a Democrat in all but name. Neither of the two more established parties is running challengers.

Bea Bookchin, Civic Forum’s candidate in Ward 6, said the group presents a clear alternative to the Progressives. “It’s not like we’re in the same direction as they are, only more so,” she said.

However, Civic Forum acknowledges its best chance at winning is by appealing to progressive supporters in Ward 2 a progressive stronghold. There, Civic Forum’s Eugene Resnick, a Burlington High School teacher, is challenging Progressive Dana Clark, who serves on the board of education, and Democrat Ian Gailbraith.

Both Resnick and Bookchin are running on a platform opposing development of the waterfront, encouraging businesses that are more concerned with morality than profit, and getting residents more involved in local affairs by giving greater power to the now-advisory Neighborhood Assemblies.

Bergman argued that Progressives have achieved much of what Greens are calling for, citing plans to protect the waterfront, forcing developers to build low-cost housing if they build luxury homes, and creating the Neighborhood Assemblies.

“We continue to push the limits of government,” Bergman argued, “but there’s only so much you can do – this is not a dictatorship.”

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