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Learning from the Life of Murray Bookchin

Ten years ago, American radical Murray Bookchin drew his last breath in the bed of his apartment in downtown Burlington.

By his side was Janet Biehl, his partner for 19 years.

I remember the moment well—as vivid as the Atlantic Ocean allowed for. His health had been deteriorating rapidly the last few months, and the day before I had called him up and sent my parting words. He was unable to respond (and almost certainly unconscious), but I explained to him that I was with an international group of social ecologists, from Finland, Sweden, Turkey, England, Chile, and Norway, gathering in Telemark that week to discuss permaculture, municipal reconstruction and radical social change. The next day, July 30, 2006, we received the news of his death. Many of us knew Bookchin and had worked with his ideas for a long time. It was a sweet moment: we shared our memories and strengthened our resolve.

By the time of his death, Bookchin had few friends and even fewer political allies. The polemics and conflicts within the Green movement, with deep ecologists, and with anarchists, had taken a heavy toll. The endless political conflicts had earned him a reputation for being grumpy, sectarian, and divisive.

After his death, despite the serious work of social ecologists, Bookchin and his ideas seemed to wane steadily into obscurity. But recently, we have seen a renewed interest in his ideas: his name now gains public attention, in part because of the massive mobilizations against global warming, which increasingly recognize Bookchin’s prescient early contributions to radical ecology, and in part because of the remarkable communalist experiments in the Kurdish cantons of Rojava, in Northeastern Syria, which in many respects approximate Bookchin’s ideas of libertarian municipalism.

Bookchin was not only the founder of the social ecology movement, but his pioneering work to raise environmental awareness started in the 1950s; already in the 1960s he warned against the prospects of global warming, and he was an early advocate of organic farming, decentralization, and renewable energy sources. More than anything, however, he was instrumental in making ecology a concern for the left, and he never ceased to insist on a left humanist perspective in broader ecological movements. Many ideas that are now commonplace among ecologists and social activists, he helped develop half a century ago.

Indeed, Bookchin pioneered the development of anti-hierarchical analyses and solutions, and he suggested that popular assemblies should be the basic institutions of local power, a genuinely emancipatory arena for “remaking society” along ecological and democratic lines.

During his life, Bookchin always strove to contextualize pressing issues within the history of the left and of radical movements more generally. In all conflicts and polemics, and indeed in all his writings and public talks, Bookchin drew parallels from his life and from movements he had been engaged with. Everyone who came in contact with him can attest to his willingness to share experiences and ideas. But with his passing, that contextualizing canvas of popular movements, and that ideological palette he used to visualize his political philosophy seemed irretrievably lost.

When so few seemed to understand or appreciate his ideas while he was alive and could explain them, how would people read his works now?

At the deathbed, Janet Biehl had promised Murray she would write his biography.

A generous offer, but would she be up for the task? I knew some were skeptical. To be sure, Biehl is an accomplished author: Not only has she popularized the politics of social ecology in her books, Libertarian Municipalism and The Murray Bookchin Reader, but she has also contributed to the theories of social ecology in her own right, such as in, for example, Finding our Way: Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics. But would she be best suited to write his biography?

Indeed, there seemed to be several obvious obstacles to her project. First of all, Biehl was intensely involved with Bookchin during the last two decades of his life: they were a common-law couple, and they also cooperated closely politically. Would her deep affection stain the integrity of the political biography? Hagiographies may be personally soothing, but have very little value in explaining intellectual trajectories.

Furthermore, although it is difficult to overestimate Biehl’s role in the last two decades of Bookchin’s life, one could fear she would aggrandize herself in other respects. After all, Biehl was not only a student of social ecology, but became a close collaborator, as well as Bookchin’s personal secretary and copy-editor. With the founder of social ecology gone, would she set herself up as the sole and true interpreter of the canon? True, Biehl has always downplayed her own contributions to social ecology (see for instance, the introductions to Libertarian Municipalism and Finding our Way), but now a decade has passed.

Paradoxically, the biography could also potentially yield the opposite result: the most important of these possible objections—to me, at least—was that after his death, Biehl publicly disassociated herself from anti-statism, which after all is a fundamental premise for Bookchin’s libertarian politics.

This was a process that had been brewing, but was known to Bookchin (p. 306) and close associates. As she explains in the book, she no longer felt comfortable defending anti-statist views in public. Would the biography distort his views? All these possible objections, of course, stem from her profound personal engagement with the man as well as his ideas.

Now Oxford University Press has launched Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, and the result, I think, puts all these objections to shame.

In Ecology or Catastrophe, Janet Biehl traces Bookchin’s whole intellectual trajectory, from the early years in the Bronx in the late 1920s, and his introduction to the communist Young Pioneers, then via Trotskyism, and then into anarchism in the 1960s. Decade for decade, she shows where his ideas came from, how they matured, and how they interacted with social movements and the pressing issues he was involved in.

Chapters subsequently have titles such as “Labor Organizer”, “Eco-Decentralist”, “Anti-Nuclear Activist”, “Green Politico”, and “Historian” — each depicting specific periods of his active life. This chronological exposition clearly shows how Bookchin’s ideas matured through shifts in emphasis, and how they would feed into an increasingly more elaborate body of ideas known as social ecology.

The biography is abounding with anecdotes and details about his life, many of which are very vividly portrayed. When we learn how Bookchin’s grandmother, Zeitel Kaluskaya, reacted to the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 (p. 5), I felt like being transported right back to his living room where he’d generously share these stories to students and colleagues. I also learned much from reading the biography, even about events that I know fairly well, such as, for instance, just how meteoric was the rise of Montreal Citizens’ Movement in the mid-1970s and how swift its fall (notably pp. 163-164, and 187-188) and how the Institute for Social Ecology lost its Cate Farm in 1981 (pp. 197-198).

This book, however, is not only for the initiated. It deserves to be read by anyone who would like to know more about American radicalism in the last century, or learn more about the genealogy of social ecology. Admittedly, there are a few sections where ideas in dialogues seemed somewhat stilted (such as, for example, the anarchist arguments against libertarian municipalism, pp. 239-240). Perhaps this is unavoidable, given the difficulty of conveying political conflicts in such a format. Yet, those remarks are probably just a confirmation of how smooth the rest of the text flows: it is a page-turner and a sheer pleasure to read.

Janet Biehl treats complex ideas with remarkable ease, and the footnotes reveal careful research into the many movements, figures, and events that were significant to his political life. As far as I can judge, no significant intellectuals or movements are left out of this account, but I am sure other people will certainly fill in other aspects of his life, perhaps from some personal encounters, or memories of the movements in which he was involved.

Biehl extensively researched personal and public archives, and conducted long interviews with old colleagues. Her account is balanced, yet engaging. And it is never “objective.” Indeed, toward the end of the book, Biehl necessarily enters the book, and becomes part of the story. Yet, her account is in no way “self-aggrandizing”—indeed, much of it is not even flattering—but I think overall she provides a fair account of the personal doubts, frailties, and tensions that often accompany an intense political life.

In a broader sense, the book also gives an accurate portrayal of the difficult last years of Bookchin’s life, when his difficult health situation and ideological conflicts had worn him down. I always had a hard time understanding why, despite his obvious influence, virtually nobody stood up for his ideas in the public polemics.

In the conflict with deep ecology, very few spoke out openly in his defense of a humanistic and social ecology movement. Then, when he started to criticize anarchism in full, even fewer came to his defense of a principled libertarian socialist politics. Today, most of the critical perspectives he brought up have arguably been incorporated into these movements (which is not to say that they have resolved their internal contradictions). But Biehl manages to convey just how original his contributions to radical theory were, and how isolated he was in the many polemics.

This book, however, illuminates how the ideas he expressed in various polemics fit into his larger corpus. He would always look for political openings and seek to draw out the logic of any given idea or movement. Interestingly, Biehl recounts a fascinating early story about Bookchin’s friend Russell Blackwell from the New York Libertarian League.

Russell, who was a veteran from Amigos de Durruti in the Spanish Civil War, had warned him about using the term anarchism for his political ideas (pp. 97-98), but Bookchin saw great possibilities in creating affinities between anarchism and ecology. Bookchin’s decision to try to develop a political theory of anarchism was one he often regretted. Yet, when more impatient colleagues were too uncompromising, Bookchin would argue that it is not just about rejecting anarchism: he insisted that we should seek to transcend anarchism, as well as Marxism, to bring out their best features and help them ripe to fruition in another body of political ideas.

To be sure, there is always much to be wanting from a political biography, and other books are needed to develop social ecology further; but overall, Biehl’s book presents a lucid overview and a lively introduction to Bookchin and the emergence of social ecology.

Now, as I make it plain in the introduction, I worked with Murray and Janet during the last decade of Bookchin’s life. Note well, however, that I am writing this review not as Biehl’s friend, but as a social ecologist; as an activist intensely concerned with the dissemination and development of social ecology. It is from that perspective that I conclude that Biehl’s biography—for illuminating the emergence and contexts of these ideas—may very well be the best introduction we have to social ecology today.

On the blurb of the book, Oxford University Press announces that Ecology or Catastrophe is both “a biography of a great thinker” as well as “continuation of Bookchin’s ecological and social call to arms.” I will confirm that the book satisfies both these ambitions: meticulous research and a deep passion for this man and his ideas have resulted in an intellectual biography of the first order.

Janet Biehl has done a remarkable job in bringing Bookchin “back to life” for new generations. This is the Bookchin I knew. And, thanks to this book, now you can too.

Biehl ecology or catastrophe cover

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