"Almost every major revolution has been a conflict between the local community and the centralised state…"
- Murray Bookchin, Limits of the City
In 2020, human societies face ecological pandemonium, yawning economic inequality and a rural-urban divide. Forests burn in Australia, California, and Brazil. Glaciers melt. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s own National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2020 was the warmest on record.1 Economic contradictions become starker: Credit Suisse reports that the top 1 percent of the population owns 45 percent of all global personal wealth, while the bottom 50 percent owns less than 1 percent.2 Insurance companies have begun to factor in the expected cost of climate change into their models, with the expectation that insurance premia could become unaffordable.3 The gap between the urban rich and the rural poor is complicated by the emergence of a respiratory virus, which afflicts metropolitan areas hardest.4
Recent climate protest movements have focused on the need to achieve social and economic justice as well as effect a successful transition away from fossil fuels. Campaigning groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future have highlighted the systemic conditions that underpin global warming, while the Green New Deal campaigns in the U.S. and Europe have called for mass employment in green jobs as well as the decentralisation of the democratic process. All advocate the creation of ‘citizens' assemblies’, groups of individuals making decisions at the community level.
It would be difficult to credit a single person with the development of these concepts. Indeed, the one figure to whom much of the credit is due would likely have been reluctant to claim it. Mortimore ‘Murray’ Bookchin (1921-2006), father of the social ecology movement, seems to have been as modest as he was dogged. Foundry worker, union rep, writer, community organiser, professor, speechmaker: Bookchin played a whole series of roles during his life, movingly documented in Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015). The definition of an ‘outsider’ activist, he eschewed mainstream political life, choosing instead to agitate through his writings, speeches and teaching.
Ecology or Catastrophe darts in and out of Bookchin’s life, interspersing biography with an account of contemporary political developments. The book is as much a wistful chronicle of 20th century radicalism as it is of Bookchin’s life. We learn of mass Communist support in interwar New York, the anti-war and anti-racism movements in the U.S. and in Europe, and the growing green movement towards the end of the 20th century. In turn, today’s climate movement owes much to Bookchin, who was the first to identify the environmental crisis as a structural contradiction, produced by the very ways in which our modern lives are organised.
The Limits of Marxism
Born in East Tremont, New York City, Bookchin was the son of first-generation Russian Jewish émigrés. His grandmother, Zeitel Carlat, had been a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and smuggled guns into Russia during the 1905 Revolution. Following Tsarist police raids on the family home in 1913, Zeitel left the Pale of Russia for the Netherlands with her two children, Rose, and Dan (her husband, Moishe, had already died of bladder cancer) and set sail for New York. Rose grew up to work as a milliner and had Murray with Nathan Bookchin, whom she met at a Communist youth summer camp. Nathan ultimately abandoned the family, leaving Murray’s rearing largely to Zeitel.
Zeitel’s revolutionary spirit was, if anything, bolstered by what she saw as the inferior, materialistic American culture of the 1910s. Thanks to her, Murray Bookchin received his first education in revolution. According to Biehl, he learnt about Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht before he ever did Washington and Lincoln. The 1917 October Revolution was at the forefront of his child’s mind and, following his grandmother’s death, he joined the Young Communist League (YCL), the youth wing of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
It was as a young revolutionary that Bookchin developed the rhetorical skills that would come to define his later career. More fascinated by revolution than schoolbooks, he dropped out of public school and was given a job as a street-corner orator by the CPUSA. Yet Bookchin became increasingly alienated by the Marxist-Leninists during his teens and into his twenties. While key tenets of Marxism – principally, Hegelian dialectic – were valuable in laying the foundations for his systemic critique, Bookchin questioned the YCL’s doctrinaire support for Stalin’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and was finally expelled from the League. Over the course of his life, Bookchin would come to see Marxist movements as principally concerned with obtaining and consolidating power for themselves. Crucially for Bookchin, who came to be concerned with questions of ecology, Marxism treated the environment as something to be tamed and exploited by workers themselves. In other words, its desire to achieve man’s mastery over the natural world was no less chauvinistic than capitalism’s.
Moreover, as Biehl reminds us, Marxism had failed to predict capitalism’s enduring success. The end of the Second World War was staring Bookchin in the face; carried by the surge of wartime production, the American capitalist economy was booming. The moment for revolution, it seemed, had passed. Bookchin cast around for alternative theoretical foundations and settled on an altogether different set of principles.
Bookchin is best known today as the father of libertarian municipalism; the belief that authentic politics is done at the local level. Yet his initial writing was motivated by the negative relationship between urban and rural in the contemporary United States. Inspired by William Vogt’s The Road to Survival, Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, he spent much of the 1950s writing and researching the impact of pesticides and fertilisers on human health. This work ultimately became Our Synthetic Environment (1962).
The radicalism of Our Synthetic Environment stemmed not so much from its systematic examination of agrochemicals and their harmful effects on humans but from its diagnosis of the underlying issue: the organisation of modern life. Bookchin explicitly linked human health to the contemporary mode of economic and social organisation. Cities–debilitating to human health and impossible to live in–were a necessary precondition for modern capitalism. The megalopolis had to be dismantled and replaced with smaller, self-sustaining communities, which Bookchin described as ‘eco-decentralism’. This big-picture argument set the book apart from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which largely eclipsed Our Synthetic Environment. While Silent Spring was doubtless the more popular book, its failure to address the social and economic structures promoting pesticide use meant that, in the words of historian Yaakov Garb, it "...brought its readers to the threshold of difficult questions…but Carson’s avoidance of politics, abetted by her conceptions of nature, helped lead them away again".5
Our Synthetic Environment reflected Bookchin’s growing interest in anarchism as a model for political organisation. His love affair with Marxism-Leninism was over, as it had erroneously predicted that economic and social forces would inevitably lead the world to socialism. The classical workers’ movement had ended because, in Bookchin’s words, "[it] never really had the revolutionary potential that Marx attributed to it… the factory, […] in fact had created habits of mind in the worker that served to regiment the worker".6 Marxism, in other words, simply reproduced hierarchy. Anarchism, on the other hand, explicitly interrogated it: in families, sexual relationships, schools or ethnic groups. Anarchist theory, Bookchin believed, would place the responsibility firmly in the hands of individuals to create societies free from domination. The idea of domination, derived from anarchist theory, was central to his distinction between environmentalism, which sought to instrumentalise the environment, perpetuating domination over nature and ecology, a form of social organisation which removed dominance from humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
For these societies to be achievable, however, they would need to be self-sustaining. Bookchin’s subsequent work was the product of this intellectual fusion of anarchism and ecology. In his next book, Crisis in Our Cities (1965), Bookchin argued that the decentralisation of cities would require newly created, small-scale communities to grow their own food, generate their own power and heat their own houses. Technology would play an essential role: solar, wind, and geothermal energy could provide electricity, while small-scale rotating fields could provide sustainable, pesticide-free sources of food. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964) argued that only an ecological movement could create the social transformation required to avert ecological crisis.
Be Realistic, Do the Impossible
Bookchin spent the 1960s and 1970s writing, organising and teaching. He joined the New York branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a non-violent movement that had fought racial segregation in the American South. He would become a field organiser for CORE and was arrested for non-violent civil disobedience at the World’s Fair in 1964. These non-violent movements were quickly replaced, however, by groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) inspired by Franz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse, and Mao. In late 1967, they deployed ‘mobile tactics’, smashing windows and entering direct confrontation with the police during Stop the Draft Week. Bookchin took part in Stop the Draft Week as a peaceful protester but was aghast at what he saw as the increasingly Marxist tendencies of the student movements. In Biehl’s words, Bookchin believed that revolutionaries should act as catalysts, but never as commissars.
The early 1980s saw green movements make substantial gains across Europe. In particular, the West German Greens (Die Grünen), founded in January 1980, championed ecological and social issues in their four pillars: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence. At the same time, Bookchin’s work was being translated into Italian, French, Greek, and German. He was invited to speak at various European venues, where he was exposed to the complexities of anarchism in contemporary Europe: in Italy, where anarchist movements had been consigned to irrelevance due to their refusal to participate in the political process, and in Germany, where the Greens were fiercely debating whether to go into coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). Bookchin, convinced the Greens should avoid parliamentary politics at all costs, gave a series of speeches alongside figures such as Jutta Ditfurth, arguing that the Greens should instead create citizens' assemblies at the neighbourhood level.7 To Bookchin’s dismay, the Greens eventually went into coalition with the SPD. Once again, the dream of municipal organising had been sacrificed at the altar of party politics.
Returning to the U.S., Bookchin saw an opportunity to put his anarchist vision into practice. Burlington, where he had lived since the early 1970s, had just elected Bernard Sanders on a platform of local community interests. But Sanders proceeded to pursue a smorgasbord of unpopular measures, including a wood-chip power plant, a major development on Burlington’s waterfront and support for a local General Electric factory that manufactured the Gatling gun.8 What was more, Sanders seemed to be intent on centralising power in the mayor’s office, contrary to the Neighbourhood Planning Assemblies that had been proposed only months earlier. Of most concern was the January 1983 proposal by the Senate Operations Committee to extend Vermont’s two-year legislature election terms to four years, threatening to professionalise the political class and consolidate its power.
Bookchin, recently retired from his professorship at Ramapo and with The Ecology of Freedom (arguably his magnum opus) just published, leapt into action. With a group of local activists he formed the Burlington Environmental Alliance, bringing together local citizens to articulate an alternative vision for the waterfront. However, Bookchin did not stop there, going into battle against the four-year term proposal, writing articles, giving interviews and even storming into the office of the editor of the Burlington Free Press, Dan Costello, to remonstrate with him. Costello duly revised the paper’s initial support for the proposed four-year reform and backed the two-year term.
The issue of the waterfront development had not been settled, however. The development planners, backed by Sanders, proposed a $6 million bond issue to fund the hotel and the marina, to be approved in a referendum. Bookchin and the Burlington Greens condemned the issue and used a series of tactics to mobilise local opposition: letters to newspapers, press conferences, educational forums, and nature walks along the waterfront. To pass, the referendum needed a two-thirds majority, but only received 53 percent. The Greens and their allies had won this time.
But this early success was undermined by subsequent events. In a March 1990 city council election, collusion between the Green and Progressive candidates tainted the election; the Greens consequently disbanded. Shortly afterwards, Bookchin announced his retirement from politics. His hopes of securing tangible political change had come to an end.
Death of an Ecologist
How might the success of an activist’s life be measured? Despite everything, Bookchin died in 2006 believing that his project had ultimately failed. The writing, the book tours, the speeches, the teaching, the conversations had, in his view, come to nothing. Capitalism continued to wreak havoc on people’s bodies, dull their brains and destroy their natural environments. A sense of melancholy, even anguish, thus permeates Ecology or Catastrophe. We watch as Bookchin, constantly on the lookout for self-organised local movements that could launch the beginning of the new ecological community, gradually came to accept that the time of revolution had come to an end. Clear-eyed about Marxism’s mistaken faith in the inevitability of revolution, he never forgot that it would require individual effort to persuade others of the urgency of his task. When anarchism failed to translate into a mass political project in his lifetime, the failure must have felt personal. For someone whose life’s work centred on the belief that social and economic relations could –and, in the face of impending ecological disaster, had to– be transformed into decentralised communities based on rationality and kindness, capitalism’s continued triumph at the end of the millennium must have felt cataclysmic.
In her portrayal of Bookchin’s miserable final years, Biehl does not simply point the finger at capitalism. Bookchin’s detractors are lined up for inspection, too. In the later stages of the book–with three hundred pages of Bookchin’s heroism firmly in our minds– Biehl presents various critics, mostly Leftists, who launched barbed attacks against Bookchin’s writings. Individual readers will have to draw their own conclusions as to the validity of these critiques, though it seems Bookchin attracted a bewildering amount of invective, largely on the grounds of jealousy. There is a slight sense that the book has a chip on its shoulder; Biehl presents Bookchin not simply as a hero but a tragic one, betrayed by his supporters, let down by history, and failed by ideology.
Biehl’s vital supporting role in Bookchin’s later years must have eased the pain considerably. The two first met in 1986 during a summer course taught by Bookchin. The age difference–Bookchin was sixty-six, Biehl thirty-three– was irrelevant and they would go on to spend thirty years together until Bookchin’s death.9 Biehl became secretary, publisher and editor, as well as primary caregiver. She was well placed to perform the role of biographer, then, which on balance she performs well, with rare personal interjections and a biographer’s critical tone. She quietly hints at the extraordinary amount of care and labour that she was required to provide Bookchin, who suffered from osteoarthritis in his old age. The relationship was nonetheless a two-way street and clearly gave Biehl the confidence to forge her own career as an author and campaigner. Intriguingly, she has distanced herself from the social ecology movement in the years since Bookchin’s death. A self-defined social democrat, she wrote Ecology or Catastrophe as a final ex voto to her beloved. The book’s melancholy is doubly reinforced by the impression of Biehl as an increasingly reluctant standard-bearer.
Protest as a Crisis of Modernity
It is curious to think what Bookchin would have made of life in 2020. His belief in the radical transformational potential of technology might be disappointed by the increasing atomisation and polarisation facilitated by the Internet and social media. Capitalism remains the dominant mode of social and economic relations; catastrophe seems to have triumphed over ecology. But not only have new groups used technology to achieve mass mobilisation in the name of averting ecological catastrophe, they have done it in Bookchin’s terms: agitating for the creation of citizens' assemblies, reducing power to the level of the municipality and achieving social justice through environmental means. Doubtless, Bookchin would have maintained his healthy suspicion of mainstream attempts to co-opt the climate narrative, but there is a chance he would have been delighted by Extinction Rebellion’s unrepentantly anarchist mode of organising and its emphasis on devolved, autonomous organising. After all, this was the only way Bookchin believed societies could ever effect true change: by restoring decision making to local communities, to the human level.
Bookchin’s ideas have found their way into unexpected places. Witness the final pages of Ecology or Catastrophe, where Biehl reveals that Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), read Bookchin’s work while in solitary confinement and developed a political movement known as ‘Democratic Confederalism’ based explicitly on Bookchin’s ideas. The Kurdish autonomous area in Rojava, northern Syria, was founded in 2012 on the core principles of assembly democracy, ecology and a cooperative economy. The strength of Bookchin’s ideas lies in their versatility; different communities across the world have been able to adapt them to their specific needs and contexts. Though Bookchin never lived to see them, citizen movements across nations and continents have put his ideas into practice.
Today’s protest movements continue to grapple with the fundamental tension, explored by Bookchin, between the overlapping echelons of political action. The truth, they argue, is that modern, global problems–climate change, the refugee crisis and automation inter alia– pose threats to the fabric of local communities. In turn, their structural critiques articulate the problem as a crisis of representation and make the familiar argument that the political class is ignoring the interests of the demos. The solution, echoing Bookchin, is more power for citizens at the local level. Organisations like Extinction Rebellion insist that it is precisely the failure of government to listen to local communities that has exacerbated the climate emergency, and make an urgent call for the establishment of citizens' assemblies to "determine the wide-ranging policy changes needed to transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions and halt the extinction of species".10
Two assumptions are made here. The first is that citizens' assemblies will take more enlightened, progressive decisions than the representatives in whom decision-making power has traditionally been vested. This has proven to be the case in several scenarios: citizens' assemblies have been responsible for passing pro-abortion laws in Ireland, electoral reform in Canada, city planning in Australia and labour issues in Belgium. The second related assumption is that these assemblies will limit their ambit to exclusively ‘progressive’ issues, however defined. It is easy to imagine a scenario where other interest groups also demand direct forms of democracy. If there were to be citizens' assemblies on climate change in the UK, why not on migration policy?11 Even on climate change, it must be remembered that many citizens in eastern European countries remain considerably concerned with the threat posed to fossil fuel-linked industries. Such angst creates strange bedfellows. At the end of 2018, the Polish union Solidarity issued a joint statement with conservative U.S. think tank The Heartland Institute that expressed extreme scepticism at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s view that the world stands at the edge of a climate catastrophe.12
As for technology’s role in activism, Bookchin, of course, did not have Greta Thunberg’s Twitter followers. All protest movements are in part defined by the technology at their disposal. The speed and energy with which Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future have been able to mobilise would undoubtedly have been impossible without digital technology. Bookchin would have surely been delighted at the use of technology in pursuit of human freedom; a 1965 article, ‘Towards a Liberatory Technology’, celebrates the radical potential of technology to free humans from onerous labour and, one presumes, exploitative capitalist relations. Extinction Rebellion, for its part, makes use of social media and email to engage its supporters, but focuses much more of its time making sure those supporters meet regularly and face-to-face. It may use ‘analytics’ and ‘metrics’ to measure its success–how much media attention it has received, for example– but is much more concerned with fostering strong bonds and a so-called regenerative culture among its members.
Of course, the current pandemic lockdown has rendered much physical organising impossible. Activists may be moving online, #climatestrike is slowly being replaced by #climatestrikeonline, and, in countries where physical gatherings remain possible, protestors are still mobilising on the street, two metres apart. The longer the lockdown continues, however, the more momentum is lost. Physical disobedience also risks a loss of credibility; the pandemic has imbued the state with a moral authority that is difficult to contradict. Climate activists, often sceptical of national governments, are urging people to stay at home. Indeed, the protests that have attracted the most attention have been those organised by right-wing libertarian movements in the U.S. Yet the lockdown has also served as a visceral reminder of the importance of communities, with mutual aid groups organising in the absence of the centralised state.
Key Takeaways for Love and Rage
Even if we all suddenly find ourselves inhabiting Bookchin’s preferred modus vivendi, none of this is to suggest his was the better project. His steadfast refusal to engage with mainstream party politics, which he saw as corrupted, corrupting and opposed per se to his vision of the ideal society, clearly and drastically limited his programme’s potential for change. His anarchist model would require not just a vast collective effort but a collective ability to imagine a world after capitalism, hierarchy and domination. Simply put, it would require ongoing politicisation on a vast scale, a kind of Trotskyite permanent revolution. Bookchin would retort, perhaps, that such a transformation would be necessary in any event for humanity to avoid ecological, existential disaster. But it is difficult to see how this transformation would take place without the willingness of political activism to agitate for change in the mainstream. Had Bookchin been more willing to grit his teeth and lobby the mainstream for change, he might have ended his life in a state of less profound gloom.
What lessons can be learned from Bookchin’s project? We identify three. First, that the local cannot be neglected as a site of politics. Not only are communities vital for our individual survival, they allow us to negotiate power, articulate collective interests and solve shared problems without the inevitable alienation involved in the removal of politics to external centres of power. Secondly, Bookchin’s personal failure to achieve change in his lifetime reminds us of the enduring tension between the local and the national in the age of the nation-state, and the fact that the local must remember the national if it is to survive. Last of all, Bookchin’s work is a reminder that change takes time, and that activists may not live to witness the change they work to achieve. But who would be willing to contemplate that possibility?
1 NOAA, "January 2020 was Earth’s hottest January on record", 13 February 2020. Accessible here.
2 James Davies, Rodrigo Lluberas and Anthony Shorrocks, Global Wealth Databook 2019, cited in Credit Suisse, "Global Wealth Report 2019". Accessible here.
3 Swati Pandey, "Climate change could make premiums unaffordable: QBE Insurance", Reuters, 17 February 2020. Accessible here.
4 Ronald Brownstein, "An Unprecedented Divide Between Red and Blue America". Accessible here.
5 "Yaakov Garb, "Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring," Dissent (Fall 1995), 540–45." As cited in Biehl, p 272.
6 "Murray Bookchin Explains Anarchism". YouTube. Accessible here (accessed on 26 October 2019).
7 "Bookchin, "Parteipolitik oder populistische Politik: Anmerkungen eines in Deutschland reisenden Amerikaners," Kommune 1 (Jan. 18, 1985)." Cited in Biehl, p. 617.
8 Not only did Sanders refuse to endorse protests against the GE factory, he also supported the arrest of demonstrators.
9 One of Biehl’s footnotes delightfully cites the "thirty-six florist note cards, 1991-2002" that Bookchin sent her.
10 Extinction Rebellion, "Our Demands." Accessible here (accessed 16 February 2020).
11 While attitudes appear to have softened following the 2016 referendum result, one poll suggests 44 percent of Britons remain in favour of reduced migration. See: Blinder and Richards, "UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern", The Migration Observatory, 20 January 2020. Accessible here.
12 Joint Declaration Between Solidarity and The Heartland Institute, 5 December 2018. Accessible here.