Murray Bookchin, visionary social theorist, dies at 85

Brian Tokar of Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology writes:

Murray Bookchin, the visionary social theorist and activist, died during the early morning of Sunday, July 30 in his home in Burlington, Vermont. During a prolific career of writing, teaching and political activism that spanned half a century, Bookchin forged a new anti-authoritarian outlook rooted in ecology, dialectical philosophy and left libertarianism.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Bookchin built upon the legacies of utopian social philosophy and critical theory, challenging the primacy of Marxism on the left and linking contemporary ecological and urban crises to problems of capital and social hierarchy in general. Beginning in the mid-sixties, he pioneered a new political and philosophical synthesis—termed social ecology—that sought to reclaim local political power, by means of direct popular democracy, against the consolidation and increasing centralization of the nation state.

From the 1960s to the present, the utopian dimension of Bookchin’s social ecology inspired several generations of social and ecological activists, from the pioneering urban ecology movements of the sixties, to the 1970s’ back-to-the-land, antinuclear, and sustainable technology movements, the beginnings of Green politics and organic agriculture in the early 1980s, and the anti-authoritarian global justice movement that came of age in 1999 in the streets of Seattle. His influence was often cited by prominent political and social activists throughout the US, Europe, South America, Turkey, Japan, and beyond.

Even as numerous social movements drew on his ideas, however, Bookchin remained a relentless critic of the currents in those movements that he found deeply disturbing, including the New Left’s drift toward Marxism-Leninism in the late 1960s, tendencies toward mysticism and misanthropy in the radical environmental movement, and the growing focus on individualism and personal lifestyles among 1990s anarchists. In the late 1990s, Bookchin broke with anarchism, the political tradition he had been most identified with for over 30 years and articulated a new political vision that he called communalism.

Bookchin was raised in a leftist family in the Bronx during the 1920s and ’30s. He enjoyed retelling the story of his expulsion from the Young Communist League at age 18 for openly criticizing Stalin, his brief flirtation with Trotskyism as a labor organizer in the foundries of New Jersey, and his introduction to anarchism by veterans of the immigrant labor movement during the 1950s. In 1974, he co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology, along with Dan Chodorkoff, then a graduate student at Vermont’s Goddard College. For 30 years, the Institute for Social Ecology has brought thousands of students to Vermont for intensive educational programs focusing on the theory and praxis of social ecology. A self-educated scholar and public intellectual, Bookchin served as a full professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey despite his own lack of conventional academic credentials. He published more than 20 books and many hundreds of articles during his lifetime, many of which were translated into Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish and other languages.

During the 1960s-’80s, Bookchin emphasized his fundamental theoretical break with Marxism, arguing that Marx’s central focus on economics and class obscured the more profound role of social hierarchy in the shaping of human history. His anthropological studies affirmed the role of domination by age, gender and other manifestations of social power as the antecedents of modern-day economic exploitation. In The Ecology of Freedom (1982), he examined the parallel legacies of domination and freedom in human societies, from prehistoric times to the present, and he later published a four-volume work, The Third Revolution, exploring anti-authoritarian currents throughout the Western revolutionary tradition.

At the same time, he criticized the lack of philosophical rigor that has often plagued the anarchist tradition, and drew theoretical sustenance from dialectical philosophy—particularly the works of Aristotle and Hegel; the Frankfurt School—of which he became increasingly critical in later years—and even the works of Marx and Lenin. During the past year, even while terminally ill in Burlington, Bookchin was working toward a re-evaluation of what he perceived as the historic failure of the 20th century left. He argued that Marxist crisis theory failed to recognize the inherent flexibility and malleability of capitalism, and that Marx never saw capitalism in its true contemporary sense. Until his death, Bookchin asserted that only the ecological problems created by modern capitalism were of sufficient magnitude to portend the system’s demise.

Murray Bookchin was diagnosed several months ago with a fatal heart condition. He will be remembered by his devoted family members—including his long-time companion Janet Biehl, his former wife Bea Bookchin, his son, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter—as well as his friends, colleagues and frequent correspondents throughout the world. There will be a public memorial service in Burlington, Vermont on Sunday, August 13. For more information, contact: info(at)social-ecology.org.

See the Murray Bookchin page from the Anarchy Archives.

See our last post on contemporary anarchism

  1. The AP’s obituary…
    BURLINGTON, Vt. –Murray Bookchin, an early proponent of what he described as social ecology, died at home early Sunday at the age of 85.

    He was surrounded by family when he died of heart failure at home, said his daughter, Debbie Bookchin.

    Murray Bookchin long was a proponent of left-leaning libertarian ideas and was among the first people in the early 1960s to promote the then-emerging field of ecology into political debate.

    He published “Our Synthetic Environment” under the pseudonym Lewis Herber in 1962 in which he called for alternative energy supplies among other environmental proposals. It was in that book, which predated by five months the better known work Rachel Carson “Silent Spring,” that Bookchin introduced the notion of social ecology.

    He argued that only a completely free and open society can resolve the problems that confronted the environment at that time.

    Bookchin’s views, often well ahead of their time, never got wide play because they were so closely linked to his leftist political thought.

    Bookchin was born in New York City in 1921 of Russian immigrant parents. He joined the Communist youth organization at age 9, although he dropped out a number of years later, disillusioned at what he believed was the authoritarian nature of the movement.

    He was a foundry worker and union organizer in New Jersey before joining the U.S. Army. In civilian life, he became an auto worker, but left the industry and its labor organization after the General Motors strike of 1946.

    He eventually turned to his interest in the environment and writing, eventually publishing more than two dozen books ecology, history, politics, philosophy, and urban planning.

    He taught at Ramapo College of New Jersey from 1977 through 1981.

    In Burlington, Bookchin was instrumental in helping to organize the Green Party. He also co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield in 1971.

    Bookchin is survived by his longtime companion, Janet Biehl; son Joseph Bookchin of Burlington; daughter Debbie of Burlington; and ex-wife and longtime friend Beatrice Bookchin.

    From the Boston Globe.

  2. From The Guardian…
    Mike Small writes for The Guardian, Aug. 8:

    Obituary
    Murray Bookchin
    US political thinker whose ideas shaped the anti-globalisation movement

    The American political philosopher and activist Murray Bookchin, who has died of complications of a malfunctioning aortic valve aged 85, was a theorist of the anti-globalisation movement before its time, an ecological visionary, an advocate of direct action and a polemicist. “Capitalism is a social cancer,” he argued. “It is the disease of society.”

    The author of more than 20 books, Bookchin published his article “The Problem of Chemicals in Food” in 1952, under the pseudonym Lewis Herber. A decade later, again as Herber, he wrote Our Synthetic Environment; he called for a decentralised society, alternative energy and wrote prophetically about pesticides, cancer and obesity. The book preceded Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring by nearly six months. His writing in 1964 anticipated the greenhouse effect.

    His magnum opus was The Ecology of Freedom (1982). “The domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human,” he wrote. “The long-term solution to the ecological crises is a fundamental shift in how we organise society, a new politics based on face-to-face democracy, neighbourhood assemblies and ‘the dissolution of hierarchy’.”

    For Bookchin there was a clear distinction between ecology, which wanted to transform society, and environmentalism, which wants to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalist economy. In Remaking Society (1990) he wrote: “To speak of ‘limits to growth’ under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing.”

    Bookchin was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents from southern Russia. His former farmer father Nathan worked as a hatter and his mother was a member of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies). As a nine-year-old he joined the communist Young Pioneers, and by 1934 he was in the Young Communist League, which he quit, rejoined – at the time of the Spanish civil war – and then left again. After a high school education, he went to work in a foundry. Later, he was briefly a Trotskyist. After wartime army service guarding the gold in Ford Knox, he worked at General Motors until 1950, during which time he took part in the 1946 GM strike. He then studied electronic engineering at the RCA Institute. His other jobs at this time included a spell as a railwayman.

    By the early 1950s Bookchin had moved from Marxism towards a libertarian socialism. He had also been writing for Contemporary Issues magazine, which argued for a completely participatory democracy and identified western capitalism and the Stalinist east as a “business partnership”. In that decade too he was a co-founder of the Libertarian League.

    By the late 1960s Bookchin, based in Hoboken, New Jersey, was teaching at New York’s Free University. In 1969, at a time when Students for a Democratic Society, which had been a key force in the American left in the 1960s, was tearing itself apart via sectarian groups, he published Listen Marxist!, arguing for a “post-scarcity anarchism”.

    “The problem is not to ‘abandon’ Marxism, or to ‘annul’ it,” he wrote. “but to transcend it dialectically, just as Marx transcended Hegelian philosophy, Ricardian economics and Blanquist tactics and modes of organisation … We shall argue that in a more advanced stage of capitalism than Marx dealt with a century ago, and in a more advanced stage of technological development than Marx could have clearly anticipated, a new critique is necessary, which in turn yields new modes of struggle, of organisation, of propaganda and of lifestyle.”

    Without Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), anarchism would not be the force within the anti-capitalist movement that it is today. Bookchin parted company with anarchism in 1998, refocusing on “communalism”, but his writing lifted and sustained the movement from the 19th into the 21st century.

    Employed at the Ramapo State College in Mahwah, New Jersey, in 1971 he co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology, in Plainfield, Vermont, which won an international reputation for its courses in social theory, eco-philosophy and alternative technologies. He taught there until 2004. In retirement, he settled in Vermont, where in the 1970s he was active in the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group which pioneered tactics of non-violent direct action.

    The list of movements and individuals Bookchin battled against is endless. But to dwell on his quarrels is to paint a picture of him as an enragé. He was more reflective than his public persona suggested and was deeply influenced by Aristotle, Hegel – from whom he developed his idea of dialectical naturalism – Hans Jonas, Lewis Mumford, Theodore Adorno and the anthropologist Paul Radin. He is survived by his partner Janet Biehl, his former wife Bea and his son and daughter.

    · Murray Bookchin, activist, born January 14 1921; died July 30 2006

  3. From Peter Berg…
    Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation writes:

    Some Encounters with Murray Bookchin

    Before offering any recollections about Murray it is necessary to make the disclaimer that if he was here he would quite possibly refute them.

    And that he might even dispute that statement!

    That said I can relax and share some remembrances that might otherwise go unrecorded from the contentious albeit intellectually respectful course of my interaction with Murray since meeting him in the early Sixties on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I was living at the time. It was a gathering of radical activists of various stripes to discuss participating in the first New York City public demonstration against the Vietnam War, a march from Washington Square in Greenwich Village to UN headquarters. Alan Hoffman, editor of the outspokenly anarchist magazine Good Soup, introduced us. Also there as I recall was Ben Morea with some of his fellow Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and artist Aldo Tambolini who performed the Dance of the Screw in front of art museums around the city to protest the commodification of paintings.

    Dissenters in that period coming out of the repressive Fifties tended to be overly self-conscious and almost monomaniacally declarative about their positions. Murray was a distinct exception. He was confident and almost avuncular about his background and the tradition of anarchist philosophy. The Spanish Civil War of almost thirty years before seemed to have just happened when he spoke about it. He assured us that we were in good historical company, and was optimistic about support from anti-establishment groups in Europe. Unusual for a leftist at that time was his belief that issues of the environment offered a new basis for unity. But his agreeableness ended with the Marxist organizers of the demonstration and their centralized decision-making. I didn´t recognize him in the march that eventually materialized but came away from the meeting inspired to begin reading about the origins and practice of contemporary anarchism.

    By the late Sixties I had helped form the San Francisco Diggers, perhaps the best model of creative anarchist social alternatives as could then be found. it was clear that the Vietnam War was waning so we staged an “End of the War” event in a Haight-Ashbury theater announced by a poster showing Lyndon Johnson with his arms around Ho Chi Minh. It was a celebration of Diggerly things that could possibly take place in a liberatory peacetime society: free food and rock music, nude dancing, climbing cargo nets on the walls, processions with palm fronds, film loops of seeds germinating and volcanoes erupting, and satirical presentations by faux political candidates.

    A number of New York based groups showed up including some remnants of the Up Against the Wall Mortherfuckers who set up a card table with free pistol and rifle ammunition, and the entire cast of the Living Theater`s “Paradise Now” show who simply sat in the balcony wearing G-strings and stared wide-eyed at the proceedings.

    Murray suddenly appeared in an Army surplus jacket, boots, and carrying a gas mask! I asked him what he thought was going to happen and he nervously stated the conviction that police were about to descend on us. Not likely in San Francisco, I assured him and pointed out participants who were embracing or dancing ecstatically.

    The contrast between his furtive wariness and the expansive Digger attitude was glaring and I tried to persuade him to join in. He left immediately and afterwards I realized that some East Coast militants seriously expected a civil war to break out when the war ended.

    When I was invited to help edit the “Bioregions” issue of Coevolution Quarterly in the late Seventies one of the first materials I sought out was Murray´s Ecology of Freedom. Knowing that he accepted some of the general premises of bioregionalism as espoused by Planet Drum Foundation, I requested permission to edit the long first chapter of the book to expose readers to advanced anarchist-based ecology ideas. I fully expected an argument and long set of conditions but surprisingly he responded, “There isn´t anyone who I would trust with this more than you. Do whatever you like.” I took special pains to carefully preserve his train of thought, wondering whether there was ever another instance when Murray allowed his text to be altered. The resulting article was invaluable to help set the autonomous and self-governing tone of bioregional discourse.

    Bookchin´s subsequent campaign during the Eighties and Nineties against Earth First!, deep ecology, and spiritually oriented ecology proponents was a puzzling retreat from the openess in Ecology of Freedom. It was especially unfortunate because of the general slowing down of public support that was occurring at that time, and Murray seemed to be a singularly divisive force for dissent within the environmental movement. When Gary Snyder asked me why Bookchin chose to attack with inflammatory language including “misanthrope” and “eco-fascist” I explained that his argumentative style stemmed from early exposure to Communist ideology, and that it had the flavor of “Stalinist thugs”. Snyder repeated that phrase later in a newspaper interview. When I last saw Murray in the cafeteria of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, a few years ago he plaintively wondered why such a hurtful term had been used to describe him. There were the two Murrays in the same moment. He was an honestly compassionate champion of a more human and liberated society, yet seemed to be unconscious of the overbearing and dismissive statements that tinged his philosophical positions.

    In the Enlightenment Era, social and political thinkers pondered what kind of society might exist without monarchial government, and anarchism was considered as legitimate as other viable alternatives. It persisted as an ideal ever since although squeezed into an increasingly narrow area of acceptance by state socialism and bourgeois democracy which fight to diminish and ridicule it. But in our time when globalism and planet-wide environmental destruction threaten the whole human species, the broad vision of a sustainable society with a foundation in mutualism that underlies Murray Bookchin´s thinking is once again a guidepost for a positive direction.

    1. Annotation
      Questioned whether the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were around in the early ’60s, Peter Berg writes:

      Bill,
      Thanks.
      I wrote “as I recall” so there is some foginess. I do remember that Ben Morea was there with some others. If not quite as the Motherfuckers at that time they may have still been Black Mask which (again as I recall) was a collective before it was a magazine and a predecessor of UATWM.

      Peter

  4. From the New York Times…
    Douglas Martin writes in the New York Times, Aug. 7:

    Murray Bookchin, 85, Writer, Activist and Ecology Theorist, Dies

    Murray Bookchin, a writer, teacher and activist who began his political odyssey as a Communist, became an anarchist and then metamorphosed into an influential theorist on ecology, died July 30 at his home in Burlington, Vt. He was 85.

    The cause was complications of a malfunctioning aortic valve, said his daughter, Debbie Bookchin.

    Mr. Bookchin’s environmental philosophy emerged from his leftist background. He argued that capitalism, with what he characterized as dominating hierarchies and insistence on economic growth, necessarily destroyed nature. This put him at odds with ecologists who favored a more spiritual view and with environmentalists dedicated to gradual reform.

    “Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing,

  5. From the Los Angeles Times…
    Valerie J. Nelson writes in the LA Times, Aug. 10:

    Murray Bookchin, 85; Writer Pioneered Social Ecology and Influenced Green Parties

    Murray Bookchin, an anti-capitalist thinker who in the early 1960s was among the first theorists to bring ecology into the political debate, arguing that economic policies based on profit were harming the environment, has died. He was 85.

    Bookchin, a teacher and author who was well known within the Green movement, died of heart failure July 30 at his home in Burlington, Vt., said his son, Joe.

    A self-described eco-anarchist, Bookchin raised an alarm about pesticides and promoted alternative energy sources in his 1962 book “Our Synthetic Environment,” published several months before Rachel Carson’s better-known “Silent Spring.”

    His first several books were written under the pseudonym Lewis Herber, a common practice at the time among leftists who wanted to avoid attention from anti-Communists, said Janet Biehl, his longtime companion.

    Through his writing, Bookchin introduced a theory called social ecology, which blames environmental woes on human behavior and a capitalistic, consumer culture.

    To save the planet, he said, people needed to change how they treat one another.

    “His most telling contribution was that he saw that our economic system was on a collision course with nature because capitalism is based on a hierarchy of bosses and profit-seekers who always seek to turn the whole world into a way to make money,” said Sandy Baird, a former student. She studied with Bookchin at the Institute for Social Ecology, which he co-founded in 1971 in Plainfield, Vt., to further his ideas.

    The view put him at odds in the 1980s with the ideas of other environmentalists, including bio-centric “deep ecologists,” who see humanity as a disproportionately destructive species and New Age-style spiritualists, who seek mystical or meditative solutions to environmental problems.

    “I don’t regard people as a cancer on the planet,” Bookchin wrote in a publication called Green Perspectives. “The real cancer that afflicts the planet is capitalism and hierarchy.”

    To ecologists whose world view is primarily spiritual, he added, “I don’t think we can count on prayers, rituals and good vibes to remove this cancer; I think we have to fight it with all the power we have.”

    A typical response from a bio-centrist: “Compost the word ‘anarchy’ and do something real.”

    In 1992, the Independent newspaper of London called Bookchin “probably the foremost Green philosopher of the age.”

    The author of more than two dozen books, he wrote extensively on the environment, including “The Ecology of Freedom,” a 1982 book regarded as one of the “classic statements of contemporary anarchism,” the Independent said. He also wrote about politics, philosophy, history and urban affairs.

    His writings strongly influenced the Green political parties in the United States and Europe, and he was the keynote speaker at the 1987 founding conference of the U.S. Green Party in Amherst, Mass., Biehl said.

    Bookchin was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on Jan. 14, 1921. He traced his revolutionary fervor to his Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Nathan and Rose Bookchin. His father, a farmer who had been active in the revolution against the czar in Russia, became a hatter in his new country.

    By 9, Bookchin had joined the communist-run Young Pioneers but left the organization at 16 because he didn’t like the authoritarian nature of the international communist movement.

    He worked in a foundry and as a union organizer in New Jersey before joining the Army during World War II. Stationed at Fort Knox, he helped teach the troops to drive tanks.

    After the war, Bookchin became an autoworker at General Motors, helping to organize a large strike in 1946.

    When he began to see the leftist movement of the 1930s become as bureaucratic and centralized as the “capitalist machine” it hoped to topple, he transformed from a Marxist into an anarchist, Bookchin told The Times in 1989.

    Growing up, he developed a love of nature while hiking in national parks, and through his writing his postwar politics turned from red to green. As early as 1952, he wrote about the problems of chemicals in food, and he spent much of the 1960s crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada lecturing about ecology, Biehl said.

    A voracious reader, he was largely self-taught and had a reputation as a spellbinding orator. He never earned a college degree yet was a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey from 1977 to 1981.

    “He did not follow a very orthodox path,” Biehl said. “Through his institute, he was sort of this oracle in Vermont. Students would come hear him speak and develop an idea they heard from him into a PhD dissertation.”

    As a teacher, he was “incredibly provocative and knowledgeable,” Baird said.

    For a dozen years, Bookchin was married to the former Beatrice Appelstein, the mother of his son Joe, who is the director of the film and video program at Burlington College, and daughter Debbie, a freelance writer.

    In addition to his children, Bookchin is survived by Biehl, his companion of nearly 20 years; a brother; and a granddaughter.

    He raised his family in Greenwich Village in the 1960s but after the couple divorced, his ex-wife and children moved to Burlington, Vt., and he soon followed.

    His son remembered a father “with an encyclopedic mind and an extraordinary ability to synthesize ideas who tried to change the world until the very end.”