Green Party member Derek Wall remembers Murray Bookchin (1921-2006)
Murray Bookchin, who died on July 30, was by some measures the most important 'ecosocialist' of the 20th century. Born in the Bronx in 1921 to Russian Jewish parents, Nathan and Rose (Kaluskaya) Bookchin, he spent his whole adult life struggling for ecology and human liberation.
He was a contradictory character - he hated Marxism yet advocated a Marxist-rooted politics of fierce anti-capitalism and revolution. He was an early supporter of the US Green Party, but attacked Greens with vigour. He developed in his major work The ecology of freedom a dialectical philosophy of nature, but was a strident enemy of deep ecology. He fondly quoted Kropotkin's statement that anarchism was the extreme left of socialism, but towards the end of his life decided that this label did not fit either, becoming instead a 'communalist'.
Despite the battering that the left has taken over recent decades, we all know that there is anger on the streets, we have witnessed a huge anti-capitalist movement and millions of young people are mobilising against war. Despite Bookchin's failings, I would love to point young activists looking for political education in his direction and I suspect, despite our very different politics, that the same might go for other readers of the Weekly Worker. He outlined the essentials (ecology, socialism and direct democracy) with passion, clarity and solid intellectual foundation.
Bookchin joined the Communist Party youth organisation at the age of nine! Disillusioned by Stalin by 1937, he joined with Trotsky. Bookchin once told me that he was so close to the man that he knew what he ate for breakfast. By the mid-1940s he had become a libertarian socialist and then an anarchist. He was, like many of his generation, a working class intellectual: although he spent decades in higher education, his roots were proletarian. He was a foundryman in New Jersey and a union organiser, served in the US army and returned to civilian life as a worker at General Motors and took part in the strike of 1946.
His earliest experience as a Marxist shaped his entire political trajectory in both positive and negative ways. He was always stridently anti-capitalist, yet sectarian, and disillusionment meant that he rejected the Marxist label. But Marxism is a template for much of this thought.
During the 1950s Bookchin picked up on environmental politics, and his book Our synthetic environment, published six months before Rachel Carson's Silent spring, outlined how pesticides and other pollutants were a serious risk to life. Bookchin was a pioneer of green politics and, in decades when most of the left were ignoring ecological issues, played a vital role in flagging up the environment.
During the 1960s Bookchin was active in the civil rights, anti-war and student movements, where he warned groups like Students for a Democratic Society against the evils of a rigid Maoist politics.
In the 1970s he was active in the direct action movement against nuclear power. Indeed groups like the Clamshell Alliance, which helped stem the nuclear expansion, successfully used Bookchinite methods of organisation in affinity groups to halt the growth of nuclear power stations. In the 1980s he was active in the emerging green parties of the USA - the Left Green Network was a Bookchinite organisation, which was initially highly influential, and many of the big names of ecosocialism in the US Greens today, like Joel Kovel and Howie Hawkins, were part of the Left Green Network.
Bookchin was - from his childhood Communist Party of the USA involvement, to his work as a union organiser, to his direct action work - an activist, but he is best known as a theorist. He left dozens of completed texts, many of which are online and contain important insights, and before he died he was working on a book looking at the history and strategy of the left. I would argue that reading Bookchin is an important part of one's political education as a socialist or a green - I know it was important to mine.
Bookchin stressed that capitalism was ecologically unacceptable. He rejected undemocratic political organisation - from the realism of those like Joschka Fischer of the German Green Party to the Stalinism of much of the left. He argued like Marx and the best of the anarchists that the state could be replaced with a self-managed, truly democratic society, modelled on the Paris Commune. This commitment was implicit in his slogan of libertarian muncipalism.
His most famous polemics deal with his social ecology opposition to deep ecology. He did not just attack rightwing greens like Dave Foreman when they came up with monstrous Malthusian statements (Foreman, for example, arguing that African famines were beneficial), but argued that social ecology was vital, because ecological problems are socially caused - by capitalism, imperialism and the state. In an age where virtually everyone is worried about the environment, Bookchin shows that environmental issues are profoundly political.
However, Bookchin, for all his educational value and life-long commitment, was a flawed prophet. He quite correctly attacked rightwing Earth Firsters but when EF in the UK - influenced remarkably by his own thought - moved to the left and campaigned against capitalism, he ignored them. Those in the Left Green Network with whom he broke, like Howie Hawkins, were attacked in lengthy polemics. He rightly criticised much of the left, including the Marxist left, for economism and productivism. Yet, as socialists took ecological issues more seriously and ever more was revealed by writers like John Bellamy Foster of Marx's own sophisticated understanding of ecological science, Bookchin continued with ultimately rather dogmatic attacks.
Bookchin's thought is essential, his lifetime struggle is hugely inspiring. Yes, the average young activist will learn much from him, but he was sadly limited by his sectarianism.