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Bizarre and Wonderful: Murray Bookchin, Eco-Anarchist

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Image from London Review of Books. May 4 issue, 2017.

Image from London Review of Books. May 4 issue, 2017.

In spring 2004, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, sent a letter to Murray Bookchin, an 83-year-old, wheelchair-bound, arthritic eco-anarchist in Burlington, Vermont. Öcalan was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement on an island off the Turkish coast. In prison he’d abandoned Marxism-Leninism and was in search of a new philosophy. He told Bookchin that he considered himself his "student," "had acquired a good understanding of his work, and was eager to make the ideas applicable to Middle Eastern societies."

Bookchin was an advocate of an eclectic form of environmentalist anti-capitalism. In "Ecology of Freedom" (1982), he argued that man’s destruction of the environment is the result of his domination of other men, and only by doing away with all hierarchies – man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor – could humanity avert ecological and economic collapse. In "The Rise of Urbanisation and the Decline of Citizenship" (1987) and "Urbanisation without Cities" (1992), he proposed "libertarian municipalism" as an alternative to representative democracy and authoritarian state-socialism: directly democratic assemblies would confederate into larger networks and eventually topple state power. His 24 published books had earned him admirers such as Grace Paley, Noam Chomsky and Ursula LeGuin (who based her novel "The Dispossessed" in part on Bookchin’s early work); but Gary Snyder denounced him as a "thug," the Situationists dismissed him as "spit in the horrible communitarian soup," and one of his former acolytes, David Watson, wrote a book, Beyond Bookchin, ridiculing him.

Bookchin replied to Öcalan that he was too ill to correspond with him. Öcalan wasn’t put off. He believed Bookchin’s work showed a way for failed national-liberation struggles to transform themselves into democratic movements without losing their revolutionary ambitions and recommended that all PKK-affiliated politicians in Turkish Kurdistan read Urbanisation without Cities and all guerrilla fighters read Ecology of Freedom. In March 2005 he issued the "Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan," calling on his followers to embrace a version of libertarian municipalism. "My worldview," he told his lawyers, "is very close to that of Bookchin."

PKK militants duly formed democratic assemblies and experimented with organic agriculture; female members took leadership roles. The goal was to incubate self-governed Kurdish institutions within the Turkish state, resorting to violence only if their autonomy was threatened. "We will put Bookchin’s ideas into practice as the first society that establishes a tangible democratic confederalism," an anonymous member of the PKK leadership said after Bookchin died in July 2006. "We undertake to make him live in our struggle."

In "Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin," Janet Biehl portrays Öcalan’s idol as a contradictory source of revolutionary inspiration – an anarchist who nursed a Leninist’s tendency to bully his opponents; an environmentalist who loved eating McDonald’s; a utopian who couldn’t get along with anyone. Before becoming Bookchin’s biographer, Biehl was his lover and companion for 19 years. She nursed him, typed his letters and promised, somewhat reluctantly, to write his biography, though her book sometimes confuses the methods of memoir (anecdote, unrecorded conversation, memory) with the strategies of the historian. She was also denied permission by his estate to quote at length from Bookchin’s papers. The result is a sympathetic, incomplete and sometimes frustrating account of the life of a largely forgotten radical whose work the Kurdish liberation movement has resurrected.

Bookchin was born in the Bronx neighbourhood of East Tremont in 1921. He was raised mostly in the apartment of his Russian-Jewish grandmother, Zeitel Kaluskaya, who had smuggled guns for the anarchists and fled the tsarist authorities. Kaluskaya wept when she heard that Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed. By the age of 13, Bookchin was a leader of the Young Communist League of the CPUSA. After his mother lost her job, he slept under a bridge on 149th Street and sold copies of the Daily Worker. He had a talent for soapboxing in Union Square, and led a gang that fought with the police, argued with members of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, and held basement fistfights to practise for the coming revolution. "The first time Murray got hit by a cop with a billy club," Biehl writes, was "while carrying an evicted family’s furniture back up a stairwell."

In 1939, after being expelled from the Young Communist League for criticising the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Bookchin became a Trotskyist and dropped out of high school. At the age of twenty, he joined the Merchant Marines, but got ‘too hungover to report for duty’. For ten months, he trained as an infantryman at Fort Knox. ‘I was still a Bolshevik,’ he told Biehl. ‘I believed that we should be trained for armed insurrection.’ Then he went to work at a General Motors machine-shop in Manhattan and began organising for the United Auto Workers and, secretly, the Socialist Workers’ Party. In five years, Bookchin recruited just one worker into the SWP’s inner ranks. Trotsky’s prediction that the Second World War would end in massive workers’ revolts had failed to materialise. The decision of GM workers in 1948 to accept a contract forbidding them from going on strike, Biehl writes, "demonstrated to Bookchin once and for all that [the working-class] was not revolutionary … Having been a Marxist since the age of nine, the realisation came as a shock. For if the proletariat was not revolutionary, then proletarian socialism was an illusion, and Marxism was based on a fallacy. He left General Motors, dazed and uprooted."

Bookchin’s community collapsed around him. The party had failed him; his grandmother died; the Cross-Bronx Expressway, built by the city planner Robert Moses, ripped through East Tremont, displacing five thousand people.

In 1950, Bookchin joined a literary collective led by Josef Weber, a Holocaust survivor, who had brought together a group of former Communists to publish Contemporary Issues, a journal that sought ‘a democratic solution to the crisis of mankind’ that was neither capitalist nor Marxist-Leninist. Weber encouraged Bookchin to draw on his experience in East Tremont and write about urban planning, agriculture and natural history. He spent his days in New York’s public libraries studying Lewis Mumford’s "The Culture of Cities," biology texts and government agriculture statistics, then published the results in Weber’s journal. Contemporary Issues received little attention and as its failure became obvious Weber turned on his acolytes. In 1958 he denounced Bookchin as subservient and stupid, "like the dog behind the stove"; he tried to have an affair with Bookchin’s wife, Beatrice Appelstein, whom Bookchin had met while speaking to a socialist Zionist group at City College; he called Bookchin a "pig" and a "mere journalist."

Weber died of a heart attack a year later. Soon afterwards, Bookchin sold Knopf a proposal for a book about "the problems of chemicals in food." The massive urban expansion under the leadership of planners like Moses, Bookchin argued in "Our Synthetic Environment" (1962), had been made possible by the repurposing of wartime chemicals for industrial agriculture. Enormous amounts of pesticides and fossil fuels were now used in order to supply food to urban centres. Cities had grown so large that it was hard to feed their inhabitants nutritiously and just as hard to govern them democratically. Postwar capitalism had deformed the city: humans were alienated from their labour as well as from politics and nature. "Our Synthetic Environment" was admired by some prominent scientists but dismissed in the press. "No one is going to stop the world so that someone who would like to get off will be able to," the New York Times reviewer said.

A year later Bookchin first read about the new science of ecology. "Every philosophical revolution was revolutionised by science," he wrote in "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought," a 1964 essay for his newsletter, Comment, the first piece to appear under his own name (he’d previously used several pseudonyms to hide his socialist agitating from employers). "It may be that man is manipulable," he wrote, "or that elements of nature are manipulable … but ecology clearly shows that the totality of the natural world – nature taken in all its aspects, cycles and inter-relationships – cancels out all human pretensions to mastery over the planet." He proposed anarchism as a natural partner to ecology. If the social world was understood as an ecological system, everything had equal value because it played its part in the whole. He tried to strike a balance between a primitivist mindset that denied man’s unique role in the economy and a modernist one that fetishised it, and argued that the revolutionary’s function should not be to dominate nature but to "steer" it. He called this idea "social ecology": "It cannot be emphasised too strongly," he wrote, "that the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology and a decentralised society … are not only desirable but necessary. Not only do they belong to the great visions of man’s future; they now constitute the preconditions for human survival."

He found in ecology a new reason for revolution, and in anarchism a political shape it might take. According to Biehl, he was looking for ways to recast the "apocalyptic binary" first enunciated by Rosa Luxemburg. (Biehl’s title is an intentional echo of Luxemburg’s "Socialism or Barbarism".) He "restated it as a choice between anarchism and extinction".

In the 1960s Bookchin helped Puerto Rican squatters in Lower Manhattan farm organic fish in tenement basements; he worked with environmentalists and Native Americans to halt the construction of nuclear power plants; he travelled to Barcelona to interview veterans of the Spanish Civil War. He also attacked the leaders of the New Left. "When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?" he asked in his essay "Listen, Marxist!" He took a thousand copies of it to the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society convention in Chicago. Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn, who would soon found the Weather Underground, were making promises of "winning state power in the US". Bookchin led a caucus of 250 members to try to persuade the student movement to put environmental politics at the centre of its revolutionary agenda. It wasn’t interested.

Accompanied by a group of social ecologists he left the Bronx in 1973 and moved part-time to Vermont, where he’d been invited to lecture at Goddard College. The university soon asked him to head a full-time undergraduate programme, the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE). Bookchin was wary of the academy, and dismissed other radical professors for their "refrigeration" in the universities, but Goddard enticed him with a riverside plot called Cate Farm: a nine-room brick farmhouse, barn and forty fertile acres. It was an ideal place to experiment with transforming technological "instruments of domination and social antagonism" into "instruments of liberation and social harmonisation". Students built thousand-gallon fish tanks, composting toilets, geodesic domes, wind turbines and Vermont’s first solar-powered building. They read Marx, Kropotkin, Adorno, Mumford, Buber and Bookchin’s own writings. Staff and students skinny-dipped, hiked and partied together. In summer, the community swelled to nearly 200 students, drawn by Bookchin’s growing notoriety and guest lectures by Grace Paley, Margaret Meade and Anna Gyorgy. "If we are to avoid the mistakes [of] over one hundred years of proletarian socialism," Bookchin wrote, we must think and act "not simply in terms of economic questions but in terms of every aspect of life … not merely of class domination but hierarchical domination".

In "Ecology of Freedom" he drew on work by the anthropologists Paul Radin and Marshall Sahlins, who argued that hunter-gatherer societies had been far more prosperous than previously thought and were humankind’s original "affluent societies." Bookchin claimed hierarchy hadn’t existed in these "organic" communities of pre-literate peoples. Their worldview, he said, was defined by a spirit of unity in diversity that guaranteed a base level of egalitarianism among humans and an intrinsic respect for animals and nature. As technologies advanced, however, and societies built up agricultural surpluses, equality gradually gave way to priestly, warrior, gerontocratic and shamanic elites. Since that time, belief in the need for hierarchies has become embedded, justified by the notion of human difference, a reversal of the ecological idea that diversity is a source of strength. "Difference" has been "recast from its traditional status as unity in diversity into a linear system of separate, increasingly antagonistic powers’ – man and woman, reason and emotion, old and young, society and nature." As he’d written in "Post-Scarcity Anarchism" (1973), "the notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man. But it was not until organic community relations … dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world."

Bookchin also explored humanity’s 5000-year "legacy of freedom" in "Ecology of Freedom." In the late 20th century, advances in science and engineering had for the first time made material scarcity a political rather than a natural problem. By combining a social-ecological revolutionary movement with such technological innovations as solar power and cybernetics, it seemed that humans might finally liberate themselves from the brutal demands of existence, which had shackled the utopian ambitions of Marx and his followers, causing them to idealise labour as much as any capitalist ever had. "When cybernated and automatic machinery can reduce toil to the near vanishing point," he wrote in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, "nothing is more meaningless to young people than a lifetime of toil. When modern industry can provide abundance for all, nothing is more vicious to poor people than a lifetime of poverty. When all the resources exist to promote social equality, nothing is more criminal to ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals than subjugation."

Small cadres at places like the ISE would need to cultivate social-ecological attitudes that would enable the democratic organisation of society, and acquire the practical and political acumen to create a world in which technology served the needs of local ecosystems and their human and non-human inhabitants. It was, in other words, a proposal for an economy that Bookchin hoped would be neither communist nor capitalist but what he called "Communalist". "The effort to restore the ecological principle of unity in diversity," he wrote, "has become a social effort in its own right – a revolutionary effort that must rearrange sensibility in order to rearrange the real world."

In the 1980s, Bookchin began to advocate taking control of municipal authorities through, among other things, getting involved in local elections – the rejection of elections, he believed, had become a ‘paralysing dogma’ for anarchists. "We have movements today that aren’t anarchist in name," he told a crowd of French and German anti-authoritarians. "Peace, anti-nuclear, feminist, Native American … They reject hierarchy … How, in your opinion, should anarchists relate to them?" In "The Next Revolution," a collection of essays published posthumously in 2015, Bookchin argued that social ecologists should move to cities and create neighbourhood assemblies that would organise their communities democratically, and put up candidates in local elections. Elected council members would advance the decisions of their assemblies, and once they had a majority on the council, they would vote to dissolve it, returning municipal power to neighbourhoods. "The immediate goal of a libertarian municipalist agenda," he wrote, is "to reopen a public sphere in flat opposition to statism, one that allows for maximum democracy in the literal sense of the term, and to create in embryonic form the institutions that can give power to a people generally."

In Burlington, Bookchin and a dozen or so comrades tried to put these theories into practice. Hoping to tap into Vermont’s 200-year tradition of town meetings, they organised assemblies in the city’s six wards and drafted a programme that advocated taking power away from city hall and creating hundreds of green jobs. The mayor, Gordon Paquette, a businessman, responded with a proposal to convert the city’s lakefront into a luxury development boasting three condominium towers, a 150-room hotel, a private boating club and a parking lot. Bernie Sanders, a 39-year-old socialist filmmaker and political neophyte, challenged Paquette in the 1981 mayoral race, lending his support to the assemblies. Bookchin hoped a Sanders victory might "spark a nationwide movement for assembly democracy." Sanders won the election by ten votes. "Ten anarchist votes," Bookchin said. "And I know who they were." But once in office, Sanders abandoned his support for the assemblies. In the local press Bookchin described Sanders as a "centralist" who was "more committed to accumulating power in the mayor’s office than giving it to the people."

Seven months later, Goddard College went bankrupt, and the ISE lost its home at Cate Farm. When a wealthy supporter offered to buy the property and donate it to the institute, all seemed saved – but after purchasing the land, this supposed friend of the movement got rid of the geodesic domes, composting toilets and fish tanks, and turned the property into a private farm.

Bookchin and his followers soon found another home in the village of Plainfield, on a much smaller plot of land and without any institutional support. It was here that Janet Biehl, a 32-year-old copyeditor from New York who had been captivated by "Ecology of Freedom," arrived in 1985. From the first day of class held in a flower-filled meadow, she was both perplexed and mesmerised by Bookchin, a gnomish 65-year-old with catfish whiskers, whose bottom lip seemed to cover his moustache when he grinned. He dressed "like a janitor, with a tyre air-pressure gauge in his front pocket" and infuriated some of his colleagues and students by driving around campus in his car, "even for short distances." His first date with Biehl was at Dunkin’ Donuts. Bookchin defended his diet as an expression of his proletarian roots, and dismissed criticism of it as the bourgeois scapegoating of individuals for the crimes of corporations and governments. But his taste for Big Macs and gas-guzzling cars struck many as ludicrous. "The thing that got people was the Twinkies," another student told Biehl.

In the years after Biehl and Bookchin met (he had divorced Applestein in 1963), he saw his ideas gain unprecedented influence on the American left. But he was less cheered by their growing popularity than worried by deviations from ideological coherence. In 1987, he clashed with a younger generation of environmentalists over tactics and priorities; lecturing at the second National Green Gathering, in Amherst, Massachusetts, he denounced the radical groups Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose members had attacked and sunk two Icelandic whaling ships a year earlier. Deep ecologists, as the militants called themselves, believed as Bookchin did that only fundamental change would prevent the earth’s ruin, but he dismissed them as "well-to-do people who have been raised on a spiritual diet of Eastern cults mixed with Hollywood and Disneyland fantasies." Their notion of "putting the earth first in all decisions, even ahead of human welfare if necessary," as Earth First! founder Dave Foreman had written, had a noxious undertone. "The worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid," Foreman said. "The best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve … Likewise, letting the USA be an overflow valve for problems in Latin America is not solving a thing. It’s just putting more pressure on the resources we have in the United States." Bookchin compared the deep ecologists’ leaders to Hitler and called them "barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones, and outright social reactionaries." Bookchin’s comments struck many as evidence that he’d never really shed the Bolshevism of his youth.

He next waged a campaign against the anarchists who, for the first time since the Second World War, seemed poised to emerge as a relevant global movement, in no small part due to the work of activists he’d trained. Anarchist writers like Kropotkin, Bakunin and Paul Goodman had invigorated his analysis, but there had always been a tension between those, like Bookchin, who believed anarchism to be a philosophy of radical democracy, and those who took it to be a philosophy of radical individualism. The latter group, by 1992, included such cranks as Jason McQuinn, the editor of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, who came out that year as a Holocaust revisionist; John Zerzan, a hermit who thought language was the root of the world’s problems; and L. Susan Brown, who held that anarchists should support Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that "there is no such thing as society." "When I normally encounter my so-called colleagues on the left," Bookchin once told a roomful of Ayn Rand acolytes, "they tell me that, after the revolution, they’re gonna shoot me … I feel much safer in your company."

"Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm" (1995) cemented Bookchin’s reputation as a cranky dogmatist rather than a sophisticated theorist of nature, democracy and urbanism. The backlash against the book compounded the reaction to his remarks at Amherst (published as "Social Ecology" versus "Deep Ecology"). Former friends denounced him as a "demagogue," a "fascist," a "Bolshevik," and a "worker-hating booster of capitalism." The attacks convinced him that the anarchist movement had become a playground for "juvenile antics" led by people whose relationship with the truth was hardly more honest than Stalin’s. In 1998, he renounced anarchism, as he had Marxism fifty years earlier, claiming that a new ideology was necessary, "not one that was developed during the Spanish Civil War or Russian Revolution."

The WTO protests a year later in Seattle could be seen in part as the fruit of Bookchin’s lifelong efforts to promote the ideology he’d now turned his back on. In such books as "The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years," in which he helped introduce the idea of the "affinity group" to North American activists, and "The Third Revolution," a four-volume study of insurrectionist movements, he laid the foundations for a leftist tradition and practice that Biehl claims "offered a way for young radicals, disillusioned by Marxism-Leninism to step over the debris of the imploded New Left." But Bookchin was too bitter to enjoy the moment; even social ecology was a "lost cause," he said. One day several of his former students called him from Seattle, as tear-gas canisters soared overhead, and told him "they loved him," and "considered him their grandfather." Bookchin was unmoved. He’d seen protests, "much bigger than this one, come and go." He believed the revolutionary era had ended, and he felt as if he was on "a peninsula that was slowly being covered with water." For the rest of his life, he said, any writing he did would be "hypothetical" and "profoundly subjunctive."

*

In 2004, as an undergraduate, I drove with a friend from upstate New York to Plainfield, Vermont, hoping to hear Bookchin speak. I didn’t know that he was no longer much involved in the Institute for Social Ecology. Then 83 years old, he spent his days at home or scooting in a motorised wheelchair around downtown Burlington. One of the senior faculty at the ISE snorted when we asked about the institute’s founder. The small white farmhouse used as classroom and lecture hall was dilapidated.  "Are you here for the ideas?" he asked my companion. "Or just to, like, hang out with your boyfriend?"

Around the same time, in Burlington, Bookchin received his first note from Öcalan. Biehl doesn’t recount this story from Bookchin’s point of view in Ecology or Catastrophe, and the book only contains a three-page postscript about his influence on the Kurdish revolutionary movement. "I beg you to understand," Bookchin wrote to Öcalan, "that I am … very frail. I can no longer sit before a word processor for hours and write articles or even letters … I am obliged to spend much of my time in bed. As such, I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue … I deeply regret the loss, but have increasingly come to terms with the inexorability of ageing and mortality."

A decade after Bookchin’s death, I travelled to Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria, to meet the revolutionaries he inspired. According to a 2015 report by the American Academy of Sciences, Syria’s Fertile Crescent has experienced its worst drought in 900 years, due in large part to man-made climate change. In 2008, three years before the outbreak of civil war, Assad’s agriculture advisers cabled officials in Washington to complain that the social and economic consequences of the drought were "beyond our capacity as a country to deal with." I travelled through the parched landscape in a caravan of white Nissan pick-ups filled with young Kurdish soldiers on their way to fight Islamic State. We passed rickety oil derricks stretching into the sky. "Ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved," Bookchin wrote, "without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it."

Over the next two weeks, I visited popular assemblies, female-led militias whose fighters lectured me on the evils of capitalism and patriarchy, and a mayor who told me she saw the nation-state and "hierarchical, statist mentalities" as threats as grave as IS, whose jihadists had tried to suicide-bomb her office the week before. At the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in the city of Qamishli, the library included Bookchin’s "The Third Revolution" and Andy Price’s biographical study, "Recovering Bookchin." His work has never been translated into Arabic; Syrian Kurds mostly learn his ideas from Öcalan’s writings, or at a PKK training academy, where Bookchin’s work, much of which was translated into Turkish in the early 1990s, is required reading. "America?" a young militiawoman guarding a checkpoint said one morning, as she handed me back my papers. "Like Bookchin!"

Since she published Ecology or Catastrophe, Biehl, who is 63 and earns her living as a freelance copyeditor, has visited Rojava twice. "The first time I went," she told me over the phone, "I actually had no idea people would’ve heard of Murray. It’s so fascinating and bizarre and wonderful." Still, she’s been a critical observer. In "Paradoxes of a Liberatory Ideology," an essay published on her blog in November 2015, she pointed out something that also troubled me on my visit – the personality cult around Öcalan, whose picture appears in every office, hall, hospital and barracks. She also criticised a law passed by the Culture Ministry prohibiting the publication of books that aren’t suitable "to the morals of society." Can you publish books supporting capitalism? Biehl asked the culture minister. Or that disagree with Öcalan? She wasn’t given a straight answer. The "general reverence" for Öcalan and his ideas is "troubling," she writes. "A bottom-up system generated from the top down: by now the paradox is enough to have the visitor’s head spinning."

Whatever its faults, and whatever criticisms Bookchin would have had, the Kurdish revolution in Rojava matters for the global left: a formerly authoritarian communist organisation is attempting to build a post-communist movement in the middle of a savage civil war. It’s putting to the test Bookchin’s ideas about libertarian municipalism as a way to organise a revolutionary society; the centrality of ecological thinking in 21st-century libertarian ideology; and hierarchy as the key to forms of oppression such as sexism, capitalism, reactionary religiosity and racism. In Biehl’s account, Bookchin’s life is a story of the personal toll taken by fighting for these revolutionary ideas in a non-revolutionary era. But in Rojava it’s a testament to the notion that, as Bookchin said, "being in the minority is not necessarily testimony to the futility of an ideal."