Photo: Janet Biehl

Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionary

  • February 28, 2015

Autonomy & Authority

An interview with Debbie Bookchin on her father’s contributions to revolutionary theory and the adoption of his ideas by the Kurdish liberation movement.

Below you will find an interview with Debbie Bookchin, daughter of the late Murray Bookchin, who passed away in 2006. Bookchin spent his life in revolutionary leftist circles, joining a communist youth organization at the age of nine and becoming a Trotskyist in his late thirties, before switching to anarchist thought and finally ending up identifying himself as a ‘communalist’ after developing the ideas of ‘libertarian municipalism’.

Bookchin was (and remains) as influential as he was controversial. His radical critiques of deep ecology and ‘lifestyle anarchism’ stirred up a number of heated debates that continue to this day. Now that his revolutionary ideas have been picked up by the Kurdish liberation movement, who are using Bookchin’s works to build a democratic, gender-equal and ecologically sustainable society in the heart of the Middle East, we are seeing a renewed interest in the life and thoughts of this great political thinker.

For this reason ROAR is very excited to publish this interview with Debbie Bookchin, which not only provides valuable insights into her father’s political legacy, but also offers a glimpse into the life of the man behind the ideas.

Federico Venturini: Verso Books has just published The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, a collection of essays by your father Murray Bookchin. Could you tell us something about this book? Why did you decide to embark on this venture?

Debbie Bookchin: The creation of this book was inspired among other things by the ongoing political discussion about which direction the Left should take with respect to the question of organization. Our publisher, Verso, publishes the writings of both Slavoj Žižek and Simon Critchley. Briefly, Žižek advocates revolution with the power given to a centralized state – a rehashing of Marxist theory. Critchley, on the other hand, advocates social change that takes place in the interstices of society.

Murray felt that both of these solutions were inadequate responses to the question of how to develop radical forms of governance that are democratic and can fundamentally change society. We thought this collection of essays on decentralized democracy could offer an important third pole in this political debate. And we wanted to present them, along with some previously unpublished material, to a new generation of activists.

How did Bookchin arrive at the concept of decentralized democracy?

Murray had spent a lifetime studying revolutionary movements and in fact wrote an entire history of those movements in his four-volume work, The Third Revolution. This study reaffirmed his belief that revolutionary change could not be achieved through activities that remained within the margins of a society – for example, building alternative organizations like food co-ops and free schools, as Critichley proposes – or by creating a massive socialist state, an idea which has been completely discredited and could never gain any kind of widespread appeal.

Instead, he felt that we had to employ modes of organization that built on the best traditions of revolutionary movements – such as the Paris commune of 1871 and the collectives formed in 1936 revolutionary Spain – an overlooked tradition that enshrines decision-making at the municipal level in neighborhood assemblies that increasingly challenge the hegemony of the nation-state. And because he was an American, he was also looking for a way to build upon traditions that would appeal to an American public, such as the committees of the American Revolution or the New England town meeting style democracy that is still active in places like Vermont today. These are the ideas he discusses in the essays in this book.

Bookchin is known for his writings on ecology, hierarchy and capitalism — collected under the umbrella of what he called ‘social ecology’. How do the ideas in this book emerge from the concept of social ecology?

One of Murray’s central contributions to Left thought was his insistence, back in the early 1960s, that all ecological problems are social problems. Social ecology starts from this premise: that we will never properly address climate change, the poisoning of the earth with pesticides and the myriad of other ecological problems that are increasingly undermining the ecological stability of the planet, until we address underlying issues of domination and hierarchy. This includes domination based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, as well as class distinctions.

Eradicating those forms of oppression immediately raises the question of how to organize society in a fashion that maximizes freedom. So the ideas about popular assemblies presented in this book grow naturally out of the philosophy of social ecology. They address the question of how to advance revolutionary change that will achieve true freedom for individuals while still allowing for the social organization necessary to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

Popular assemblies are part of the renewed importance that Bookchin gives to municipal organization. When and why did Bookchin begin to focus on these issues?

Murray had begun thinking about these issues early on, in the 1960s. He addresses them even in 1968, in his essay, “The Forms of Freedom.” But this question, of political and social organization, especially consumed Murray in the last two decades of his life, when the essays we’ve collected here were written. When Murray saw the predicament of the alter-globalization movement and similar movements, he asserted that simply engaging in “festivals of the oppressed” failed to offer a structural framework within which to address deep-seated social and economic inequities.

He had spent more than three decades working within the anarchist tradition but had come to feel that anarchism didn’t deal adequately with the question of power and political organization. Instead, he advocated a localized, grassroots democratic social philosophy, which he called Communalism. He called the political expression of that idea Libertarian Municipalism. He believed that by developing and institutionalizing general assemblies on the local level we could re-empower ourselves as active citizens, charting the course of our communities and economies and confederating with other local assemblies.

He envisioned this self-government as becoming increasingly strong as it solidified into a “dual power,” that would challenge, and ultimately dismantle, the power of the nation-state. Murray occasionally used the term Communalism interchangeably with Libertarian Municipalism but generally he thought of Communalism as the umbrella political philosophy and Libertarian Municipalism as its political practice, which entails the running of candidates on the municipal level, municipalizing the economy and the like.

It seems that recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indignados movement resemble some of these ideas. What would Bookchin have thought of them and of developments like the Podemos phenomenon in Spain?

Murray would have been excited to see the Indignados movement, in part because of his admiration for 1936 revolutionary Spain, which informs his book The Spanish Anarchists. And he would have appreciated the impulses behind Occupy and the citizen revolts across the Mideast. But I think he would have anticipated many of the troubles that preoccupied Occupy. This includes the problems inherent in the use of consensus, and the mistaken belief by many within the Occupy movement that the act of creating protest encampments can be equated with the actual reclaiming of popular power, which Murray believed had to be institutionalized in local assemblies within communities in order to create a true political force.

I think it’s hard not to be excited by political events in Greece and Spain, where new, more democratic parties are coming to power. But Murray would have warned that these kinds of national parties are almost always forced to compromise their ideals to the point where they no longer represent significant change. He warned about that when the German Greens came to power in the early 1980s and he was proven correct. They started out calling themselves a “non-party party” but they ended up in a coalition with the conservative CDU (the Christian Democratic Union) in order to maintain power.

That is why he differentiates between “statecraft,” his name for traditional representative government, which never really invests power with the citizenry, and “politics,” a term that he wants to reclaim to signify directly democratic self-management by popular assemblies that are networked together to make decisions that affect larger regions. So that’s one reason why we’re happy about the publication of this book at this time; it directly speaks to the impulses of millions of people around the world who are demanding direct democracy instead of representative democracy, and helps point a way to achieving that goal.

As direct democracy has become a rallying cry, your father’s work has enjoyed a resurgence. But even before that, he was considered one of the most important anarchist and libertarian thinkers of the last century. What is it like to be his daughter?

I guess there’s more than one answer to that question. One is political—most of my adult life has been spent as an investigative journalist, but since my father died in 2006, I’ve felt increasingly that it’s my job to help project his ideas forward, that we are living in a time when the need for political change has never been greater, and that his work has a major contribution to make to the Left.

The other answer is more personal – I had an unusual childhood because of both of my parents’ activism and deep involvement with so many ideas. Murray was self-educated – he never went to college – so he taught himself everything from physics to philosophy and had an especially remarkable command of history. He had an innate desire to contextualize everything, and that made him very engaging to be around. And my mother, Bea, was a mathematician, and a dialectical thinker in her own right. Her intellect and sensibilities made her an important sounding board for him, which helped him elaborate ideas.

They were extremely close; even though they were only married for 12 years they continued to live together for decades, right up until the early 1990s. So there were endless discussions and strong intellectual and emotional bonds that made it a wonderfully vibrant home to be raised in. And because I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s it was also a very active time politically, so our house was full of interesting people all the time, which was great fun for a kid.

Ultimately, the thing I appreciate about both my parents is their tremendous love of ideas – their lifelong commitment to great ideas that at their root form the possibility for political transformation – and their desire to act on them.

Could you say something about what Murray was like as a person?

While it’s hard to believe when reading some of his polemics, Murray was immensely warm and caring to the people around him. He took a supportive interest in his students at the Institute for Social Ecology and he was a very social creature; he loved good company.

In many of his writings, especially in his earlier wotrk, like the essays in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and of course The Ecology of Freedom, but also in later pieces like Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, you can feel the intensity of his utopian vision, his belief that human beings deserve to live in societies that maximize creativity and freedom. As a person he was deeply moved by human suffering and very empathetic, even sentimental at times. At the same time, he was profoundly committed to rational thought and felt strongly that human beings had an obligation to create a rational society.

As with all thinkers that produce work that spans over decades, your father’s thinking modified with the passing of time. How do you explain this?

Murray was constantly studying, evaluating, and reassessing. He allowed his theories to evolve organically and dialectically and didn’t hold on to set theoretical doctrines, be they Marxist or anarchist. On the other hand, Murray wasn’t immune from making mistakes. So, for example, while I agreed with his critique of “lifestyle” anarchism (in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm published in 1995), I think there were stylistic errors that made his tone more polarizing than it needed to be and that may have made it harder for some undecided anarchists to adopt his point of view.

But I think that now, twenty years later, his critique has stood the test of time not only with respect to “lifestyle” anarchism but anarchism per se and that Communalism can be seen, in a sense, as a logical progression that addresses organizational lacunae in anarchism. I hope that anarchists who read this new collection of essays will see Communalism as a natural outgrowth of anarchism and view Murray’s critique of the failures of anarchism in the context of his search for a potent instrument for revolutionary change.

Why do you think Murray adopted what some people viewed as a harsh tone in his book ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’?

Murray had spent a lifetime explaining why the irrationalities of capitalism could only be countered by an organized social movement and here was a vocal group of anarchists dismissing that goal in favor of an individualist, anti-technology, primitivist politics, which Murray found as irrational as capitalism itself.

So, if his tone was unforgiving, it’s because he was desperately trying to rescue the social dimension of anarchism. Murray was also unsparing in his critique of deep ecology—for example in his adamant assertion, long before others dared to say so, that deep ecology was a fundamentally misanthropic, anti-rational political philosophy. There were many in the anarchist and the deep ecology movements who were unable to answer his criticisms of those ideologies. So some of these adversaries resorted to personal attacks.

In his book Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Times, Andy Price of Sheffield Hallam University in England does an excellent job of analyzing Murray’s critiques with respect to anarchism and deep ecology and unmasks the efforts to caricaturize him by some members of those movements. Price’s book is a very fine treatment of those issues, and also happens to serve as a great introduction to Murray’s ideas.

What do you view as Murray’s most important teaching?

The necessity of dialectical thinking – that to really know a thing you have to see it in its full development, not statically, not as it “is” but rather as it has the potential to “become.” That hierarchy and capitalism weren’t inevitable developments and that a legacy of freedom has always existed alongside the legacy of domination. That it’s our job as human beings capable of rational thought to try to develop an ethics and social structure that maximizes freedom.

What about his most relevant achievement?

On a very basic level, his introduction of ecology as a political category was extraordinary. He was fifty years ahead of his time in saying unequivocally that capitalism was incompatible with living in harmony with the natural world, a concept that key activists today such as Naomi Klein have taken up and popularized. He also was ahead of his time in critiquing the Left from a Leftist perspective, insisting that traditional Marxism, with it’s focus on the proletariat as a hegemonic class and its economic reductionism, had to be abandoned in favor of a more sweeping framework for social change.

But even more important, I think, was his desire to develop a unified social theory grounded in philosophy. In other words, he was searching for an objective foundation for an ethical society. That led him to immerse himself in history, anthropology, and even in biology and the sciences, all in the service of advancing the idea that mutual aid, complementarity, and other concepts that predominate in natural evolution point to the notion that human beings are capable of using their rationality to live in harmony with each other and the natural world—that we are capable of creating what he called “free nature.” And in this sense I would agree with you that he was one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century.

Recently Bookchin’s name has come up in connection with the Kurdish autonomy movement. Can you tell us a bit about his role in influencing Kurdish resistance and their social forms of organization?

Right now the Kurds in parts of Turkey and northern Syria are engaged in one of the most daring and innovative efforts in the world to employ directly democratic decision-making in their politics. Two years before Murray died in 2006, he was contacted by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish resistance. While they never had a chance to engage in a direct dialogue, Öcalan did undertake a serious study of Murray’s work, reading seminal books like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities.

As a result, Öcalan abandoned his Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution in favor of Murray’s non-statist, libertarian municipalist approach, adapting Murray’s ideas and developing his own into what he called Democratic Confederalism. We see these ideas at work now in many Kurdish communities in Turkey and in the Rojava region in northern Syria, including in Kobani, where Kurdish forces battled and ultimately drove out the Islamic State from the city after 134 days of fighting.

These towns are remarkable for instituting the kind of directly democratic councils that empower every member of the community regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion. They have embraced the principals of democratic decision-making, ecological stewardship, and equality and representation for ethnic minorities and for women, who now constitute 40 percent of every decision-making body. They’ve instituted freedom of speech and in many cases municipalized their economies. Importantly they view Kurdish autonomy as inseparable from creating a liberatory, non-capitalist society for all and have created their own autonomous zones which stand as a true challenge to the nation-state.

This kind of self-government is a model not just for the region but for the world. I wish Murray, who not only believed so strongly in the libertarian municipalist model, but also in the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, had lived long enough to see it.

In your introduction to the book, you point out that Murray’s influence has also been felt within the practices and politics of new social movements. What do you think is his legacy for social movements and what is your aim with respect to this new publication?

I think that features of Murray’s thought are evident in a wide range of current political and social theorizing, for example in the insightful work of theorists like David Harvey and Marina Sitrin. My co-editor Blair Taylor, a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in the Politics Department, specializes in the history of new social movements and has observed that these movements have already embraced many of Murray’s ideas, even if this was sometimes unknowingly. You see this in the use of affinity groups, spokes-councils, and other forms of directly democratic organizing; in the sensitivity to matters of domination and hierarchy; in the understanding of pre-figurative politics—that is that we must live the values in our movement that we want to achieve in a new society.

These are all concepts that Murray introduced in the 1970s. You see these ideas at work also in the transition towns movement and on the streets when protesters are asked by reporters: “What do you want?” and they respond, “Direct democracy.” I think that it’s exciting that his work is being discussed by people like David Harvey and David Graeber and rediscovered by a new generation. What I hope is that the social movements taking shape across the globe will consider using the ideas in this book as a way of reclaiming popular power on the municipal level, so that we can institutionalize the political change necessary to move us from the realm of protest to that of social transformation—to a self-managed society and a liberated future.

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Federico Venturini

Federico Venturini is an activist-researcher, working with social ecology and urban social movement. He is currently PhD candidate at the School of Geography, University of Leeds and member of Transnational Institute of Social Ecology.

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