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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Review: Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin by Janet Biehl

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin
Janet Biehl
Oxford University Press, 2015

This book review first appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory
on November 23, 2015

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Murray Bookchin was a pivotal, polarizing figure in the post-WWII history of anarchism. He put ecology and democracy on the anarchist agenda in a way that was as novel as it is enduring. As a polemicist, he spent decades at the center of crucial debates about history, strategy, and foundational ideals. Even his critics must acknowledge that he made major contributions to the growth and clarification of the anarchist perspective.

Something shifted in the movement when he died in 2006. For the preceding fifty years, his writings had been a point of reference through which we could clarify our views, even when we disagreed with them, whereas now that he was gone we had to make sense of him. Who was he and how had he lived? These are compelling questions for those who had worked with him and for anyone who wants to understand contemporary anarchism.

Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015) will help us here. The first (and probably last) biography of Bookchin, it is well-written, exhaustively documented, and invites readers to traverse the full arc of his life, from his earliest days in New York City to his last in Burlington, Vermont. But it is more than a biography. Biehl was Bookchin’s lover, collaborator, editor, researcher, advocate, and (finally) nurse for two decades and this text is also a memoir of their time together.

Ecology or Catastrophe tells a tragic story. Biehl portrays Bookchin as an irrepressible, profoundly creative and intelligent man who threw himself wholly into radical movements, set out to untangle some of history’s most challenging problems, but who ended his days feeling isolated, abandoned, and despairing.

Biehl narrates his life through his participation in the revolutionary Left—swinging back and forth from a depiction of the Left broadly to his response to it. His political history begins in New York City in 1930 when the precocious nine-year-old Bookchin joined a Communist Party youth group. The international communist movement was very much a mass, revolutionary movement at the time and his experience within it left a permanent imprint upon his political identity. It was emotionally important for him too. Biehl says that the Communists helped him compensate for his dysfunctional family (a physically absent father and emotionally absent mother). They “rescued Murray,” she says, “by becoming his surrogate parents. . . . They educated him . . . [and] provided him with stability and validation.”(7) Continue reading

Being a Bookchinite

This article will appear in the spring, 2008 issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, which is likely to be published in March. For more information, visit the Institute for Anarchist Study’s website.

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When Murray Bookchin died on July 30 last year, one of the most ambitious and compelling figures of the anti-authoritarian left passed.

He was an author, educator, and activist, although above all he was a revolutionary who gave his life to a single, colossal task: devising a revolutionary project that could heal the wounds within humanity and the split between it and the natural world. He tried to outline the theoretical principles of this endeavor; to build organizations capable of transforming the world around those principles; and to forge a cadre with the wisdom necessary to fight for them while enduring the inevitable ups and downs of political life. He had much in common with other sect builders of the socialist left—such as Max Shachtman, Josef Weber, and Raya Dunayevskaya, for example—who, in their respective times and latitudes, also attempted to salvage the revolutionary enterprise from the disaster that was Russian Communism and the many calamities of the twentieth century.(1)

Was Bookchin successful? Continue reading