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Murray Bookchin’s New Life

Whatever their limits, Murray Bookchin's ideas should be studied by today's left.

Murray Bookchin spent fifty years articulating a new emancipatory project, one that would place ecology and the creative human subject at the center of a new vision of socialism.

Here is a thinker, who in the early sixties, declared climate change as one of the defining problems of the age. Bookchin saw the environmental crisis as capitalism’s gravedigger.

But he also insisted we must be continually alert to the postcapitalist potentialities that may surface within capitalism. “Liberatory technologies” from renewables to developments in “minituration” and automation combined with broader forms of social and political reorganization, could open up unprecedented possibilities for self-management and sustainable abundance.

In the seventies and eighties, Bookchin suggested an environmentalism obsessed with scarcity, austerity, and the defense of “pure nature” would get nowhere. The future lay with an urban social ecology that addressed people’s concerns for a better life and could articulate this in the form of a new republican vision of politics and a new ecological vision of the city.

In the nineties, at the height of postmodernism, Bookchin argued a Left that reduced modernity and humanism to a caricature would become actively reactionary.

He died in 2006, politically isolated and resigned to his project’s failure.

A decade later Bookchin seems to be everywhere, from the New York Times magazine to the Financial Times. Suddenly, name-dropping this revolutionary leftist is all the rage in the most mainstream of publications. Why is this?

Chaos in the Middle East, particularly the Kurdish fighters’ defense of their autonomous zone in Bakur, Rojava, and the southeast regions of Turkey, is partially responsible for the current spate of mainstream media attention.

Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) broke with Marxist-Leninism in 2004 and declared himself a follower of Bookchin. Öcalan has subsequently argued that Bookchin’s proposed system of confederated participatory democracies provides the base of a new model of democratic modernity beyond the nation-state: not just for the Kurds, but for the region in general.

The uptick in Bookchin’s popularity, though, predates Öcalan and the Kurds.

It is “Bookchin the social ecologist” who has now reentered environmental discussions, particularly in light of debates about “the anthropocene.”

Bookchin anticipated much of this discussion thirty years ago. In a thankless debate he had with various “deep ecologists,” he argued we must acknowledge how much social history and natural history have become profoundly intertwined.

He also maintained that the widespread tendency to blame a generic “anthros” for an environmental crisis generated by capitalism was completely misleading. A social ecology must reject the misanthropic view that humans are inherent “environmental degraders” and assert our potential as creative stewards of the earth.

Perhaps most surprising though has been the manner in which Bookchin has popped up as a key point of reference in the ongoing attempt to make sense of the post-Occupy political landscape.

Bookchin’s view that urban democracy must be revitalized through the model of the popular assembly has led his anarchist supporters to claim that he almost anticipated the political forms that Occupy sought to champion.

In contrast, a growing band of Marxist devotees have argued it is “Bookchin the ex-anarchist,” who gives a pretty good guide to why Occupy fizzled and faded. They have observed that his later writings are increasingly critical of consensus-oriented decision-making. Bookchin believed in building popular assemblies but, contra many Occupy anarchists, he also believed in political leadership and mobilizing the public through a clear set of demands.

So, what is the Bookchin that might be most useful to our political moment today? Are there any grounds for feeling that his writing might actually offer ways to think beyond the “the Red,” “the Black,” and “the Green”?

Ecology Or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, a new biography by Janet Biehl (Bookchin’s collaborator, co-writer, editor, and partner of twenty years) provides a productive starting point for considering Bookchin’s legacy.

Red, Black, and Green

In her meticulously researched and often moving book, Biehl demonstrates that one reason Bookchin attracted and lost so many different audiences across his long scholarly life is because his political history rose and fell with twentieth-century left politics: he participated in the “old left,” the New Left, the green left, and the final impasse of twentieth-century socialism.

Murray Bookchin was born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants, forced to emigrate to the Bronx in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution. His radical grandmother, who had been a member of the Social Revolutionaries in Russia, largely raised him.

Brought up in a household where portraits of Rosa Luxemburg and Tsar Alexander’s assassins adorned the walls, Bookchin recalled knowing more as a young child about Russian revolutionaries than Robin Hood. He lost his beloved grandmother at the age of ten. His father left, and then it was just him and his mother, who, Biehl maintains, was rudderless at the best of times. Life got tough.

Biehl paints a vivid picture of Depression-era New York City. Bookchin and his mother were near-destitute for periods, reliant on the soup kitchen as they moved between rented apartments and the street. The richly articulated and deeply politicized immigrant neighborhoods of the Bronx, alongside the Communist Party, saved the young Bookchin.

The CPUSA’s youth organizations gave him structure, focus, a political education, and sustenance in a chaotic world. As a teenager, he sold the Daily Worker on street corners in the Bronx, spoke at outdoor meetings in Crotona Park, and participated in rent strikes.

After high school, Bookchin found work as a foundryman and autoworker. He was also a trade union activist, participating in CIO organizing drives.

But the Popular Front, the Moscow trials, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, combined with what he perceived as a lack of revolutionary consciousness among American workers, disillusioned him. Like many on the intellectual left, Bookchin left the CPUSA for Trotskyism and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

It was there that Bookchin met German émigré and socialist intellectual Josef Weber. Weber had joined the German Communist Party while Rosa Luxemburg was still alive and worked for a Parisian newspaper that Trotsky praised. He turned up in New York City in the early forties with a suitcase of books on Marx, Hegel, critical theory, and German idealism and the belief that capitalism was in terminal decline.

Bookchin quickly became his student, his researcher, his understudy, and finally his protégé. Together they broke with the SWP in the late 1940s and formed the journal Contemporary Issues with other leftists.

Contemporary Issues was committed to rethinking the socialist project along “democratic lines.” As a result, it was sharply critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union. The journal sought to map out an independent and humanist socialism. Bookchin wrote for the journal throughout the fifties on all manner of political subjects.

It is in “The Problems of Chemicals in Food,” an article Bookchin published in 1952, where he first argued that environmental problems might now constitute the place where fundamental contradictions of capitalism are being played out.

Counterculture Ecology

The sixties saw Bookchin emerge as a full-throated advocate of a revolutionary social ecology. Our Synthetic Environment (which came out six months before Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring in 1962) made the claim that postwar affluence was underpinned by widespread environmental degradation.

Crisis in Our Cities (1965) suggested that the crisis of the urban environment was intimately related to the crisis of the natural environment. Both books argued that without fundamental reorganization of society none of these problems would be resolved.

These projects didn’t garner the public following or academic acclaim enjoyed by books like Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. But key essays — such as “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” (1964) and “Towards a Liberatory Technology” (1965) — circulated widely through the alternative press in the United States.

Elsewhere, such interventions were occasionally met with complete incomprehension; the Situationists mockingly referred to Bookchin as “Smokey the Bear” when they met in Europe. Yet he gradually found an audience on the more radical end of the counterculture.

New Left politics simmered down at the tail end of the 1960s. But Bookchin continued writing books and the articles, and his body of work attracted sufficient attention to land him an academic post. Indeed, as Biehl observes, he rose to full professor without having an undergraduate degree. This “day job” gave him the stability to pursue projects outside the academy.

Bookchin founded the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) in the early seventies in Vermont with anthropologist Dan Chordokoff. As Biehl outlines, in probably the most optimistic and lively sections of the book, the ISE was run on a shoestring but became a central hub for all manner of charismatic teachers and utopian dreamers.

At its peak, roughly three hundred radical intellectuals, activists, artists, and technologists would come to study with Bookchin and participate in the school’s three-month summer program.

The ISE offered some of the first courses in the country on urbanism and ecology, radical technology, ecology and feminism, activist art and community. There really was nothing like it. Students read critical theory, studied the history of popular assemblies and experimented with urban aquaculture or solar collectors.

The ISE also became the center of a wave of political activism that swept the country in the seventies and eighties: John and Nancy Todd experimented with living machines and closed-loop production systems at the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts (anticipating subsequent research programs in Industrial Ecology); Karl Hess and David Morris tested neighborhood democracy and self-management in DC; Ynestra King and Chiah Heller did much to instigate debate around the contours of a social ecofeminism.

All taught at the ISE at different points. Longstanding relations were also built between the ISE and Puerto Rican radicals in New York City. Chino Garcia and his CHARAS group were regular visitors to Vermont as they explored various strategies for bottom-up community development and socio-ecological retrofits of their neighborhood in the Lower East Side.

But while the political vistas are large and ebullient in the first three quarters of Ecology Or Catastrophe, it is striking how they contract in the final section of the book.

Disenchantment

Bookchin and Biehl threw themselves into advocating for a confederal municipalist politics focused on the popular assembly in the late eighties and nineties. Pamphlets and books poured out of their small home in Burlington, Vermont that sought to convince the uninitiated and do battle with doubters.

Ecology Or Catastrophe details numerous critical moments when this political project appeared to gain some traction. The rise of urban movements such as the Montreal Citizens Movement in Canada; movements for neighborhood democracy in Spain, Greece, and Norway; and municipal socialism in Britain all seemed to have some potential at different points in time.

Biehl documents how Bookchin spent a good deal of time in the eighties in dialogue with the left sections of the German Greens. He unsuccessfully attempted to convince them that the parliamentary road was a dead end and that they were better off pursuing a confederal municipal alternative.

Back home in Burlington, he butted heads with Bernie Sanders. They both attempted to build some kind of political force that would have some staying power: the Left Green Network, the Burlington Greens, the Social Ecology project, The Communalist Project …

Each moment flickered and then faded. The times were out of sync. Biehl also acknowledges Bookchin was never easy to work with. He had a singular vision and could not compromise.

In his twilight years, illness, political defeats, endless polemics, and ongoing battles with an ever-expanding list of political enemies left Bookchin exhausted. Money was tight but more than anything else Bookchin was profoundly disappointed by the political regression that he saw around him.

The popularity of an irrational postmodernism in the academy was one thing but the explosion of completely irrational forms of ecology and anarchism was heartbreaking. He broke with anarchism in 2002 and increasingly referred to himself as either a communalist or a socialist.

Bookchin and Biehl in their final project together embarked on a four volume re-reading of the revolutionary tradition that aimed to return struggles for popular democracy to their central place in revolutionary history. It kept him alive, it gave them a common project to work on; but politically and personally they were drifting apart.

Bookchin maintained a militant commitment to the revolutionary tradition and confederal municipalism till the end. Biehl reveals that she, at least, gave up hope. She reverted back to being a “social democrat,” the politics she had prior to meeting Bookchin.

A New Audience

What can a twenty-first-century left draw from Bookchin?

Bookchin got a lot of things right. His writing on capitalist crisis and ecology, the promise of liberatory eco-technologies, the new forms of pleasure and leisure that a socially and ecologically rational reorganization of society could make available were insightful and important.

Ecologically minded socialists can still learn from his call for a creative urban ecology that expands the realms of freedom, self-management, and socio-technical change.

We need forms of ecological urbanism and eco-technological restructuring that aim for more than technocratic low-carbon outcomes. As Bookchin argues, we should aspire to socio-technical forms which as far as possible restore a sense of “selfhood and competency” to an “active citizenry.”

Biehl’s Ecology Or Catastrophe is also important in that it highlights how the Institute for Social Ecology, at its best, practiced an experimental and creative ecological politics that stood as a direct challenge to the ideological presuppositions of Malthusian environmentalism.

Public art; collective experiments in eco-design and technology; attempts to cultivate participatory systems of social, urban, cultural and community innovation; an ecological politics of pleasure can all be scoffed at by purists.

But it is striking how removed the apocalyptic politics of the contemporary ecological left is from this project. The idea that we might not aspire to simply shrink our ecological footprint but create a better ecological footprint seems to have gone entirely missing.

But Biehl’s biography also serves as a reminder that Bookchin’s project also comes with many unresolved issues.

Social and Labor

Bookchin’s desire to avoid class reductionism was important, as was his emphasis on a politics that reached people outside the workplace. But his desire to avoid vulgar workerism was too extreme — labor disappears from his social ecology.

We may or may not be heading towards a new wave of postindustrial automation in advanced economies. Nobody really knows. What we do know is that, in the here and now, the workplace remains a critical site of exploitation, surveillance, and enormous unfreedom.

As Fight for $15 has reminded us, it also remains a key site for mobilizing people for better terms and conditions which can then lead to further struggles for more autonomy and self-management within and outside the workplace.

The popular assembly model has a long and noble history on the Left. It continues to inspire political mobilizations from Argentina to Rojava. But critical questions remain regarding how much a neighborhood-assembly-focused strategy alone can accomplish and how such forms are going to relate to other sites and tiers of political activity.

The dilemma is fairly straightforward. If neighborhood assemblies do too little, they become powerless and pointless, but if they promise too much, it’s a recipe for dysfunction and political gridlock.

Bookchin favored a maximalist vision and he felt a confederal structure of governance could iron out any wrinkles. There are reasons to believe that unless projects for rebuilding robust urban democracies are more differentiated, multi-scalar — and clearly connected to projects to build industrial democracy in the workplace, cultural democracy in everyday life, and ongoing political battles to defend, expand, and transform the administrative state — municipal politics could easily fail.

Without a complex politics that moves forward on many fronts, neighborhood assemblies could easily become polities that are occupied by the commitment-light and time-rich. Folks that are working fifty hours a week and have to juggle childcare and eldercare will have no voice.

The shift in social ecology from production to a focus on “community” also raises serious concerns. Attending to local social and environmental concerns has its value. Communitarian experiments to build different kinds of participatory local social ecologies can build civic solidarity and competencies.

But we also know that all these projects come with complicated class/gender and racial politics. It is also fair to point out that communitarian solutions to complex local and global issues – from food production to the manufacturing of goods – can quickly hit upper limits.

Once again, attending to labor as a critical site for understanding the metabolism between “society” and “nature” becomes critically important here. The production process is a site where local to global socio-ecological contradictions are played out and where capitalism’s universalizing tendencies to connect people, materials, non-humans and multiple diverse ecologies in vast supply chains becomes most apparent.

Labor is also a critical site where alternative local to global labor-environmental alliances can be reconstructed that push for green jobs, worker-owned, sustainable co-ops, eco-industrial restructuring, and “just transitions” across the globe.

Indeed, it is through building such labor-environmental networks, coalitions, and solidarities that the spatial geography of a more multi-tiered and differentiated vision of a sustainable future might come more clearly into view.

Technology and Urban Ecology

Questions about the politics of scale also surround Bookchin’s vision of the future of urbanism and technology.

The possibilities for constructing a politics of “liberatory technologies” that have the potential to contribute to popular self-management have clearly expanded well beyond the pallet of distributed renewables, mechanical minaturation, and automation that excited 1960s Bookchin.

Peer-to-peer production, open-source software, digital fabrication, proposals for platform co-operatives, circular economies, industrial ecologies and so on, could all contribute to a vision of an alternative sustainable techno-culture of the future.

However, many of these very same technologies that are heralded to increase autonomy and self-organizing possibilities at one spatial scale, may well be dependent on centralized infrastructures, research institutions, forms of expertise, and a complex division of labor at other spatial scales.

Moreover, the stuff to make solar PV and cellphones, turbines, and energy storage systems doesn’t grow on trees. It’s dug out of the ground in some places and dumped out of sight in other places.

In this regard Bookchin is right. We will have to ecologize and democratize our urban worlds. Strategies to build an equitable and participatory urbanist future marked by luxurious and sustainable public housing, exquisite public parks and gardens, new modes of sustainable mobility, and high-quality shared public goods and spaces will almost certainly have to combine “bottom-up” and “top-down” strategies. Bottom-up neighborhood assemblies can be vital but gaining public power over urban investment decisions and demands for regional or national popular investment banks is also critical.

Ensuring that what Mumford called “the art of city making” is a public art rather than a private secret may also require something more than calls for face-to face urban democracy or a return of “mother knows best” left technocracy.

We need to build diverse fora where “experts in city making” (planners, landscapers, architects, designers etc) are brought into constant dialogue with “experts in city living” (ie: knowledgeable publics prepared to tackle the hard task of envisioning alternative urban futures). This could provide much more fruitful ways to think about democratic design.

The broader liberatory scales of our future urbanscapes and ruralscapes are going to be messy, complicated, and poorly captured by the “decentralization = good,” “centralization = bad” binary. In many cases, densification of our existing cities, suburbs and ex-urbs will be much more important for low-carbon futures than encouraging the kinds of decentralized landscapes envisaged by Bookchin.

Scaling Down, Scaling Up

It is climate change that presents the most politically pressing question regarding the forms of social ecology that might build a socially just and ecologically sane future.

Bookchin deserves enormous credit for being one of the first radical voices to insist that the Left must mobilize around climate change. Today we must cut greenhouse emissions by up to 90 percent in perhaps fifty years while ensuring that upwards of 9 billion people have access to a good life.

The task is gargantuan. The standard liberal technocratic response to this challenge has focused all attention on the importance of decarbonizing our energy supplies. But this isn’t enough.

We must build a new, continental-scale, post-carbon energy infrastructure, electrify and diversify transportation, find new ways to travel and ship, and develop vastly more efficient building materials.

Coastal areas in many places will have to be made more resilient and robust, repositioned, perhaps moved or abandoned. Patterns of consumption premised on a cradle-to-grave model will have to be transcended by just and sustainable industrial ecologies that take us from more to better, from ownership to access, from built-in obsolescence to high-quality durable goods that can be easily dissembled and reused.

Now all of this is true but rarely does this reflection stray to consider how this project might also require demilitarization, the democratization of value creation and economic power, or the need to democratize our decrepit political institutions.

So, where does this leave Bookchin’s legacy?

Kurdish forces currently attempting to sustain their democratic communalism against the ongoing military assaults of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and ISIS have to be supported. What they have achieved to date in the brutal conditions they find themselves in is nothing short of remarkable.

In terms of gender politics, they seem to have already gone beyond Bookchin. We should learn from their extraordinary attempt to undermine patriarchy and institutionalize popular democracy and hope that it maintains a generally progressive path.

But we should be wary of over-generalizing the relevance of this experiment to other places and other problems.

In terms of climate issues, we now know that the greenhouse gases that have already been released into the atmosphere have “baked in” a certain level of warming and sea level rise into the system for centuries to come. This means that we are now dealing with a much more dynamic and non-linear system than anything imagined by sixties radicals, who — largely drawing from the community ecology of their day — focused on building a future marked by “natural balance” and holism.

The counterculture vision of a decentralized ecological society “neatly nested” into place will have to give way to a more dynamic vision of postcapitalist democratic urbanscapes and ruralscapes that are constantly adjusting to, and making and remaking, their surrounding social ecologies.

Rather than fetish a municipal route to social change, this will have to involve enrolling many partners at many spatial scales of politics to facilitate social, technological, and ecological transformations. Most critically, the state — where it exists and where it is still relatively open to influence by progressive forces — is going to play a central role in this transition.

The sensibility will have to be experimental and iterative rather than institutionally dogmatic and inflexible. The human scales of a democratic and ecological urban future are going to be multiple and varied.

Anything less fails to understand the amount of trouble we are in.