Monday, August 28, 2006

Whither Bookchin? An Obituary


Jan 14, 1921 - Jul 30, 2006

I was deeply saddened by the news of Murray's death. I had known it was coming sooner or later. A few years ago Murray had had a serious heart-attack, and I knew his health had been delicate since. I had worried that I would not hear of his death, when it came, for a while. When it did come, I found I heard from several sources well within 48 hours of the event, and I made sure the news spread further, too. Few writers and activists have had anything approaching the influence on my thinking, over the years, as Bookchin did. Ironically, many of the few that come close, or at least not far off, are writers he was not fond of - they include, for instance, Andre Gorz (via Ecology As Politics) and Herbert Marcuse (via One-Dimensional Man, and little else of his). But, for a general, attractive, and rooted visionary political worldview none have bettered Bookchin.

I had originally thought to write a précis of Bookchin's life and works as a tribute, under this obituary heading. However, apart from such having been amply covered elsewhere, other issues seem more pressing.

It is apparent that we are better off using our time creating a bulwark against the tide of misrepresentations that have spewed forth (already!) in Murray's absence. Many of the claims are essentially the same as those he constantly wasted energy countering throughout the nineties, but a new strain has emerged that appears to be trying to re-interpret his work as soon as he is no longer here to rebut them.

A quote from an email sent to me from bluegreenearth yahoogroup member Paul Illich, from someone on anarchist.academics group, one Andy, sums up briefly the tenor of some of this 'reappraisal', that is in essence a sectarian attempt to marginalise Bookchin's work.

> Bookchin was a Stalinist and then a Trotskyist before
> he became an anarchist, and his last works also drop
> reference to anarchism in favour of "libertarian
> municipalism" which seems to be a kind of city-statism

says Andy.

I replied to Paul (who, I believe, has forwarded said reply to the anarchist.academics list). That reply was the seed for the rest of this piece...

On the "Bookchin was a Trotskyist/Stalinist etc..." side of things, Bookchin has always been upfront about his background, and made a point of explaining how and why he moved away from such positions. To suggest that leftist ideas and ideals were important in forming his thought is obviously true, and some of his ideas that are heralded as 'anti-Marxist' are very much rooted in Marx's thought, but also very obviously sometimes in counterpoint. BUT, his Trotskyist phase was FIFTY YEARS AGO, and most if not all of what he wrote (that most "anarchists" who have read him have read) quite definitely comes from the most recent half-century, when he WAS'NT one of them.

Ditto the ridiculously disproportionate space given in the (rather weak) obituary in the New York Times [see also BlueGreenEarth YahooGroup], in which it is noted that he was effectively a nazis apologist (at least, that is the tone of the offending sentence, if not the exact phrase). In so far as Bookchin suggests that Germany, post-depression, might have any other drivers in its behaviours than only racism is apparently, beyond the pale, which I find laughable. It is also based on pseudonymous comments FIFTY YEARS AGO, and from which he has publically distanced himself (despite the possibility that he may have had a point, up to a point - suggesting an economic dimension to the Holocaust hardly renders it less dreadful, and, in fact, is useful in so far as it illuminates an aspect of capitalism's ethical failures - see Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and the Breaking of the Nazi Economy, reviewed at The Guardian, for example).

On the "last works also drop reference to anarchism in favour of 'libertarian municipalism' which seems to be a kind of city-statism" issue... Yes, that is, it seems, the new populist interpretation of Bookchin. It is to be found, most bizarrely, in a note on the Marxism list from one Jay Moore, who attended Bookchin's memorial service (more on that below), but it is also trotted out by Brian Tokar, whose obituary was the first one I saw (and a great deal better than the NYT's) he says "In the late 1990s, Bookchin broke with anarchism, the political tradition he had been most identified with for over 30 years and articulated a new political vision that he called communalism" (see Murray Bookchin, Visionary Social Theorist, Dies At 85 , July 31, 2006 Z-Mag).

Back to Andy - I think it a complete misreading to see his 'city-statism' as anything to do with 'The State'. More importantly, he was writing in a way that avoided using the term 'anarchist' very often quite early on - 'social ecology'; 'libertarian municipalism'; 'communalism'. These terms are more or less chronological, the former being sixties/seventies; the middle one eighties/ early nineties (the former term not dropped at all, by the way); the latter late-eighties to the end (the former terms not dropped...). He long favoured a presentation of ideas that he saw as lying in a nexus between the traditional left, green and anarchist ideologies. In light of the US libertarian tradition he had an uphill battle, being far more 'European' in his sensibilities - perhaps part of why he has so much of a readership here. However, some of the 'now he has rejected anarchism in favour of communalism' type comments are a half-truth.

As noted, he was not a 'pure' socialist, anarchist, or what-have-you, instead bravely forging an unpopular 'new' path that he saw as a natural evolution of what was best in those traditions. 'Communalism' has been promoted in recent months as a departure - it wasn't, and he wrote a Green Perspectives issue on it 12 years ago, tellingly subtitled 'the democratic dimension of anarchism' - anarchism was certainly the tradition he was closest too, yet it is open to question whether he was or was not an 'anarchist' in the traditional sense at any point (at least from the sixties on). I, and many of those who I know who found Bookchin in their youth, are instinctively inclined to say he was a kind of anarchist, and afterall it is a broad church, but I understand, and indeed applaud, his long-time efforts to make it clear that such terminology did not encompass all of what he was about. I, too, long preferred 'social ecologist' to 'anarchist', as it bought less baggage to a debate with new acquaintances.

He saw the municipal arena (or polis) as the best forum for a direct democracy, feeding representatives to a wider 'assembly of assemblies' to administer a 'commune of communes', and it is this concept that underpins the city-state idea in so far as Bookchin expressed it. This 'city-state' is quite definitely not what, say, Hobbes would recognise as 'The State', and is not in my view 'Statist' at all. It was a tool for consociation that his 'praxis' (as he continually insisted on calling practise - actual work with actual people: how many political theorists in the Post-Modernist Cage do that?) had taught him to view as the best forum for an anarcho-socialist society to grow from.

Obviously, you are free to disagree with him on these issues and I know many anarchists can't square the circle over organisation - an anathema to some. But, really, in my experience, anarchists who refuse to get organised are a minority - indeed the "refuse to organise" tag is essentially a Right-ist, and Statist Left caricature of 'anarchism', and most of us who cleave to anarchist ideas reject such implications (after puberty, if not before!). Bookchin tried to balance a need for Form (within which a collection of different individuals could actually get things done) with an anarchistic and community focussed way of being, in balance with nature (as opposed to power-hungry hierarchy focussed and out to meely dominate nature), and his 'social ecology' studies led him to the 'libertarian municipalist' / 'communalist' flavour of left-anarchist-ecologism that he wrote widely on for the last thirty years or so (as opposed to from last month).

His faith in democratic forms involving the community when the community is wider than the 'affinity group' (another important Bookchin touch-stone) may seem naive - he thought, though, that with proper information, and empowerment the majoritarian element of democracy wouldn't be the "I'm alright Jack" hell the Right-ist's and Statist Leftist's in, say, the UK make it out to be when trying to undermine support for reforms such as proportional representation, or other attempts to democratise the forms our government tries to pass off on us as 'democratic', especially where a 'bottom-up' aspect threatens their power base. Whether a naivety or not, I think it a terrible misreading to suggest he meant a State to underlie his commune of communes.

As to Andy's "mysticist misanthropic petty-bourgeois proto-fascist bourgeois pseudo-anarchist lifestylist like all the rest" comment, which I take to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek (at least I hope so!)... Mea Culpa, perhaps? I too have read (and reviewed - see BlueGreenEarth Archive) Re-Enchanting Humanity, and rather deplore his foolishness in not just (more or less) ignoring the small and frankly unimportant idiots he has found a need to retaliate to. I certainly don't think he was motivated by dogmatic Stalinism, though it has to be said that, as he entered his last two decades, his perception that rational left-anarchist-green agendas were under assault from deep ecology, post-modernism, hyper-individualist and lifestyle anarchism did lead him into windmill tilting that could only make him more apoplectic. My personal view is that he should have reserved his energies, but nonetheless I must saying that I actually agree with him on most of these points.

As with all sectarian fragmentation, Bookchin found himself having more vitriolic and more frequent spats with those closer to him politically than with the Statists, the Right, the Capitalists... that were nominally the more important enemy. However, seeing clearly the implications of deep ecologies anti-rationalism and anti-technologism, or of the ethical void at the heart of hyper-relativist po-mo 'philosophy', it is hard to agree with those that might suggest he should have said nothing - more that he should have made a statement and withdrawn. As with the constant harping on about his more Leftist early years, this argument, about the last decade or so, serves to draw attention away from a core thirty years of extremely important work that led to even so ambivalent a reviewer as Douglas Martin in his luke-warm NYT obituary to need to refer to Murray as "an influential theorist on ecology", and more sympathetic writers such as Brain Tokar in his ZMag obituary to call him a "visionary social theorist and activist". The last decade or so saw him working through his trilogy The Third Revolution (of which only the first two volumes seem to be readily available despite an Amazon listing for an expensive hardback of the third volume, that I am assured has not actually been printed yet, and rumours of a fourth), which, coupled with his The Ecology of Freedom appear to be his grand work for posterity.

Despite reports of his "fundamental theoretical break with Marxism" (Tokar) these works bear the imprint of someone deeply sympathetic to Marx's project, summed up in the Theses on Feuerbach's "Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern" , and indeed Marx's ideas run much deeper than that in Bookchin's work - none of which makes him a Marxist or communist: as with many of us, it was initially their authoritarianism that began his journey to more fruitful heights.

All this sectarianism had a toll on his perspective on occasion (ie, he was human) - see for example his attacks on Andre Gorz, which almost reach the pitch of Karl Popper's on Karl Marx, and with a good deal less reason. However, personality based mud-slinging is a waste of time when you can instead engage with the work of the man - read Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Toward An Ecological Society, The Modern Crisis and The Limits of the City instead of the cant from those who feel threatened by his legacy.

Indeed, these last mentioned works are, to my mind, far better an introduction than The Third Revolution or The Ecology of Freedom. Tokar noted that Bookchin "criticized the lack of philosophical rigor that has often plagued the anarchist tradition, and drew theoretical sustenance from dialectical philosophy" - this is true, and most exemplified by The Third Revolution and The Ecology of Freedom, but it is not these books that will reach a wider audience. As an opus to hold up to Marx, Bookchin's big works do not quite get there, but if you want influence combined with substance, those other works I listed, I think, have more depth than, if not the immediacy of, The Communist Manifesto. Indeed, his ability to turn a strong and memorable phrase is no doubt at the root of the accusations (from those he critiques) of having a Stalinist mentality - such insults ultimately take the place of argument, especially from those he has accurately skewered and who have no good come-back left.

I only met Murray on one occasion, in London in 1992. I found him to be polite and friendly, but too busy to sit and talk with for hours on end, which, given his schedule and the fact that he had just delivered a long talk, is no reflection on his personality. I think that, if you want to know about his personality you should not extrapolate from his work, but, rather, ask those closest to him - his daughter Debbie, his partner Janet Biehl, colleagues from the Institute for Social Ecology. So far as I am aware none of them have written lengthy and detailed biographies of the man, and I see no honest mileage to be gained from speculating, especially when all it succeeds in doing is relegating his work to the margins: being cynical, I suspect those who snipe to be setting out to do exactly that - like class analysis to a rich Lord, Bookchin's attempt to create a political and social philosophy that engages with the real world, and aims at a better future for all, discomfits those from traditional (and dogmatised) radical backgrounds as much as it would the neo-liberal free-marketeers, should they ever read him.

I said I'd come back to the memorial service. Jay Moore's email is as follows:

From: "Pieinsky" Subject: [Marxism] Bookchinism in Kurdistan?

I attended the Memorial Service for Murray Bookchin on Sunday in Burlington,
Vermont. There I learned two suprising things: (1) Bookchin by the time
of his death (and for however long prior to that I don't know) no longer
viewed himself as an eco-anarchist, anarcho-communist or anarchist of some
sort but rather as a socialist; and (2) Even more surprisingly, the Kurdish
PKK under the leadership of Öcalan has switched from Marxism-Leninism to
some kind of Bookchinism (my term) and that that's where Bookchin had put
his main propagandizing efforts recently rather than among the Greens, for

Does anybody have a clue what either of the above is about? I was once
fairly close to Bookchin but am mystified now.


It seems unfortunate that some of those close to him are also pushing the "he rejects anarchism" line, implying that he was a long-time hardcore anarchist but very late in life repudiated it. It is clear, as noted above, that he distanced himself from the label, and not without reason. But he had done so long ago, and never, whatever he may or may not have said, stopped having a thread of anarchist influenced thought running through his work - his views on communalism are, indeed, a proof not of rejection of the left and anarchism, but of their sensibilities and visionary hopes being subsumed into his newer and richer and more relevant life work. Perhaps he requested of them that they say so, but that doesn't make it true. To do so undermines radical alternatives everywhere.

I must also make a comment on the reference to the mention of Öcalan and the PKK. I followed some links on this and all I got was a Wikipedia piece which says:

Since his incarceration, Abdullah Öcalan has significantly changed his
ideological line, reading Western social theorists like Murray
Bookchin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel [19], fashioning his
ideal society as "Democratic-Ecological Society" (later renamed as
"Democratic-Ecological-Gender Liberationist Society" as it is in the
current programme of PKK), and refers to Friedrich Nietzsche as "a

I followed the footnote [19] to PWDnerin. My initial attempt got a dead link, as I reported when responding to Paul, but today I found the page live - but not in English. I see a reference to Ekolojik Topluma Dogru, which I take to be The Ecology of Freedom, but, since I cannot find a Turkish (or is it Kurdish?) translation engine, cannot read exactly what is said (I have forwarded the full text to an ex-asylum seeker Kurd friend, so hope to resolve this one). However, the context is that Bookchin's name appears alongside Wallerstein, and Braudel, so little common thread appears to be visible. The mention of Friedrich Nietzsche as "a prophet" doesn't bode well, either!

Reading the material on the official Öcalan site, where there is an extensive English text from 2003, I see little real movement from Öcalan's historical position, ie sectarian and stalinist, cloaked in on-the-surface 'well-read' but shallow reading around various aspects of the struggle. Certainly, his discourse has become more a little more sophisticated in form and references, but it still reads like a blinkered early-20th century 'marxist' analysis despite a 'valiant' attempt to give more coverage to gender and environment issues than was the case then.

Öcalan's view of democracy as a third domain between state and society appears deeply unaffected by anarchist, communalist or other possibly 'Bookchinite' opinions - that is to say, he is typically obsessed with a role for 'the state'. This is as it ever was - having Kurdish friends I have read a lot of his prison writings, usually with a raised eyebrow. He uses a light and shallow vocabulary of liberal fluffy platitudes that no-one will be offended by (freedom, justice, self-determination, cultural protection), but that has always appeared to barely mask an underlying Stalinist Statist cellular vanguardist viewpoint that more or less means that his success would result in his people finding their culture imperilled by the imposition of a leftist state to the detriment of their traditional culture, that he claims to wish to protect - not that anyone else is offering them any hope, mind (it is for this reason, my familiarity with his earlier pronouncements, that I am giving the issue such space here).

So, I see Bookchin and co. as merely being used as a new and more sophisticated fig-leaf - with friends like Öcalan, who needs enemies?

Between his being taken up by such as Öcalan, his being at one and the same time pushed and pulled from the anarchist movement, his being pilloried by the left for rejecting their pat dogmas (instead embracing the spirit of socialistic ideas), and his being at the same time accused of being too traditionally leftist, a simple overview of his life seems not to be what is required. Bookchin's thought, in my opinion, must be promoted more passionately than ever, so that the society that was his spurring vision might be disinterred from the mess that the old ideologies of Left and Right, immured as they are in 'grow-or-die' and anti-humanist chains, have made of the Earth, and despite the escapist head-in-the-sand drooling of the more extreme fringe of the ecology movement and of mere individualist lifestyle anarchism.

In the interests of allowing some grief and contemplation to be a part of this article, here is a link to one of the last pieces written by Murray, at a time when he was clearly painfully aware of his mortality, The Twilight Comes Early - Anarchist Archive. I thank Dana Ward, Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer College, who posted the link to this to the anarchist.academics forum, and to Paul Illich for forwarding it so promptly to me.

It is my intention that BlueGreenEarth and the European Social Ecology Institute run a series of analyses of various aspects of Bookchin's thought over the coming months, to set a foundation from which we can go further in both commentary, theory and, not least, practise. I republish a piece we used as a seminar paper, my old review of Re-Enchanting Humanity, and publish Robert Allen's obituary of Murray, written for Freedom, the anarchist fortnightly, as a starting point. Submissions for further publication are welcome.

Tim Barton

Murray Bookchin's books include:

  • Murray Bookchin: Post-Scarcity Anarchism
  • Murray Bookchin: Toward An Ecological Society
  • Murray Bookchin: Anarchism, Marxism & the Future of the Left
  • Murray Bookchin: The Modern Crisis
  • Murray Bookchin: The Ecology of Freedom
  • Murray Bookchin: The Limits of City
  • Murray Bookchin: Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm
  • Murray Bookchin: Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future
  • Murray Bookchin: The Philosophy of Social Ecology
  • Murray Bookchin: The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era
  • Murray Bookchin: The Spanish anarchists: The heroic years, 1868-1936

  • See also:
  • Janet Biehl: The Politics of Social Ecology / Libertarian Municipalism


Blogger Derek Wall said...

Hi Tim,
interesting obit. As you know I am not uncritical of Bookchin but I am amazed that anyone can dismiss him, especially in terms of Stalin...he joined the Communist Party youth group when he was under 10!

His thought touches the essentials and remains well worth reading.

best wishes,


Monday, August 28, 2006  

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