Rebuttal to Ecology or Catastrophe Review

 

Written by Duncan Rayside

The review of ‘Ecology or Catastrophe, the Life of Murray Bookchin’ by Janet Biehl, written by Eleanor Finley and Frederico Venturini and published in Anarchist Studies, vol. 25 is, to my mind, a direct attack on the author’s scholarship and integrity. I offer this rebuttal in defense and clarification and with the hope that this book will be read by all those who care about Murray Bookchin’s legacy.

The review begins by citing “troublesome omissions and misrepresentation of Bookchin’s personal life and political work” beginning with the characterization of Bookchin’s life before 1986 as “relying heavily on personal recollections of Bookchin’s beliefs and motivations rather than drawing on interviews and accounts with those close to Bookchin at the time.” Next is a fast forward of 40 years to provide, “a first example of this kind of omission regards the Anarchos group (1966 to 1971), the publishing collective and affinity group based in New York City, lead by Bookchin and his then wife, Bea Bookchin.” Bea Bookchin’s general absence from the body of the post-war narrative is noted, especially in the depiction of the Burlington Greens from 1981 to 1991. This shortcoming is extended to include “most of Bookchin’s close comrades especially women. Biehl’s erasure of virtually all the other women who participated in Bookchin’s political milieu…is a distortion of those women’s sensibilities and reach.” The reviewers dispute Biehl’s depiction of periods of both personal and political flux during which Bookchin experienced deep sadness and disappointment and further that her last chapter “contains a wealth of odd and inappropriate personal anecdotes.”

With all due respect to the reviewers (who I know to be principled and diligent activists) I felt like we hadn’t even read the same book. Biehl’s fluidly anecdotal narrative style is not only extensively documented, but the multiple sourcing of her endnotes gives the reader every chance to check her facts. The first five chapters trace Bookchin’s journey from street kid to communist militant to Trotskyist dissident to eco-anarchist. There are 326 citations in those first five chapters. I found two that could be reasonably questioned. Moreover, Biehl consistently stuck to the stated caveat in her introduction, “when people’s memories were contradicted by a document, I chose to follow the written record.”

At the end of chapter five Biehl charts Bookchin’s transition from an increasingly insular Trotskyite splinter group, publishers of ‘Contemporary Issues,’ to his engagement with ecology and anarchism in the early ‘60s, and his emergence as an activist and theoretician of the new left. Biehl draws on Bookchin’s involvement with C.O.R.E. and the peace movement, introduces 20-year-old Allan Hoffman out of East Village bohemia, Judith Malina and the Living Theatre, Sam Dolgoff, Russell Blackman and the Libertarian league and in 1964 the founding of the New York Federation of Anarchists, (direct forerunner of Anarchos). The activists published ‘Good Soup’ which included Bookchin’s essay ‘The Legacy of Domination’ as well as a piece by Allan Hoffman and the poetry of Joyce Gardner and Judith Malina. From a communal loft in the Bowery they hosted the Lower Eastside Poets, (Including Allen Ginsberg), and opened the anarchist bookstore, The Torch, on E. 9th St. Biehl continues by linking Bookchin’s post-scarcity thesis to an era that saw the rise of the Maoist sect, Progressive Labor, the murder in Mississippi of Downtown C.O.R.E. organizer Mickey Schwerner, and the Harlem riots in response to the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Biehl skillfully weaves Bookchin into a turbulent decade. The Vietnam war escalated, as did the largely student led protest movement and local resistance became national. Ben Morea formed the art-prop dadaists Black Mask who would make an instantly classic garbage dump at Lincoln Center and later morph into the New York Motherfuckers. (Even as a barely political jock at a Colorado teachers’ college In the spring of ‘69, I heard of “the east-coast shitstorm” that would ride in with the Motherfuckers at the upcoming SDS convention.) Half the New York fédérés, including Joyce Gardner and Allan Hoffman, went upstate to form the rural commune, Cold Mountain Farm, and the Situationist International claimed two converts from among those who remained. There was lots of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, in which, by all accounts, Bookchin did not partake. Personally, he said, “I like clarity of thinking” so “I would not take LSD.” (Having spent time on both sides of that equation, I can only agree with him.)

According to Biehl, Bookchin’s Aug. 1967 trip to Europe, was his response to declining political fortunes in NYC. He encountered the anarchists and Situationists in Paris, as well as the Provos of Amsterdam. Biehl highlights the meetings with Spanish Civil War veterans Pablo Ruiz and Cipriano Mera as well as the historian Gaston Leval and the author of the three volume work ‘The CNT in The Spanish Revolution’, José Pierats. (Which I believe laid the foundation for Bookchin’s ‘The Spanish Anarchists’ to appear in the mid-seventies.)

In the winter of ’67 Bookchin joined with friends to form Anarchos in an attempt to reboot the NYC anarchist project. The collective published the first issue of a journal in January 1968 featuring Bookchin’s ‘Ecology and Revolutionary Thought’ as well as ’Revolution in America,’ the latter a call to action that stood in stark contrast to the Marxist-Leninists cheer-leading for the workers at the factory gates or dreaming up urban guerrilla fantasies in aid of the real life struggles in the third world. The point is that Biehl places Anarchos in the context of the arrival of Bookchin on the national stage, and I ask the reader to apply the test of time to Anarchos No.2 Spring ‘68 (available at libcom.org) and compare ‘Eighteen Rounds of Total Revolution’ by Allan Hoffman to Bookchin’s ‘Forms of Freedom.’ Anarchos went to the 1969 SDS convention, but it was Bookchin’s broadsheet polemic ‘Listen Marxist!’ that was remembered and, not coincidently, published a year later by Ramparts Press in ‘Post- Scarcity Anarchism.’

Regarding Biehl’s purported “erasure” and “distortion” of prominent women in Bookchin’s life; this biography is simply inconceivable without Zeitel Bookchin, Judith Malina, Ynestra King, Jutta Ditfurth and Sandy Baird. In fact these women appear at critical junctures in Murray Bookchin’s life; from a NY tenement in the 20s, to the East Village renaissance of the ‘60s, at the rebirth of anarchist feminism in the peace movement of the late ‘70s, to the ‘80s and ‘90s and the forays into electoral politics of the German and Burlington Greens. The reviewers correctly note the absence of Bea Bookchin, Murray’s wife of 12 years and lifelong confidant. Her unquestionable contributions as companion, intellectual and activist were a part of his life for nearly six decades. What the reviewers failed to note is Biehl’s explanation, to be found in her introduction: “After Murray’s death in 2006, I became estranged from his first wife Beatrice (they were married from 1951 to 63), and from their two children. Hence these family members appear only minimally in these pages. It is to be hoped they will someday write about Murray’s life from their own point of view.” Absent further explanation from either the reviewers or the author I believe this statement must be accepted on its face, and that this biography still succeeds admirably on its own terms.

I will end on two points, one from the biography, one personal. Regarding the review’s assertion of Bookchin’s unfailing optimism in the face of adversity, Biehl’s depiction of the events surrounding the Burlington Ward election in March 1990 is particularly instructive. In a nutshell, Bookchin was active in the Burlington Greens when some members engaged in an act of typical campaign sleaze, (the Green candidate secretly agreeing with the Democrat to serve each other easy questions at an upcoming debate.) When another Green discovered this a day after the Democrat had won a close election over the Progressive candidate, Bookchin and two other Greens demanded a full public disclosure and a call for a new election. The rest of the Greens, including the candidate himself and members of a campaign advisory board waffled, at which point Bookchin threatened to resign and go to the local press. Leaving aside what counter arguments could have taken up four days of heated debate, the truth was finally brought out (unfortunately not resulting in a new election). Bookchin apologized from the floor at the next city council meeting to the man who had lost his seat and for his association with a group whose actions had tainted the election. Those who knew Bookchin could never doubt his deep sorrow that people he respected as equals could choose to defend fraudulence in the service of what he used to call ‘statecraft’ over the principles of democratic confederalism.

Lastly, the reviewers describe the book’s final chapter as containing “A wealth of odd and inappropriate personal anecdotes… She seems to oscillate from adoration and awe of Bookchin to degradation and belittlement.” Truthfully, I am angered and saddened by that unsubstantiated insult to my friend. Together with my two closest friends, I spent a fall afternoon with Murray and Janet in Burlington, in 2002. I hadn’t seen him face-to-face in 20 years, but Murray made it feel like it was 20 minutes. At one point he countered my reservations about electoral politics with an eloquently vintage ten minutes ending with, “you know, Duncan, democracy is not a dirty word.” We both laughed. The 30 years between our ages (which meant nothing in ‘72 or ‘82), was now strikingly apparent. His breathing was sometimes labored. He was literally flat on his back in the middle of the room. He was arthritic. (I have two herniated discs and know the binary choice between mind-numbing drugs and excruciating pain.) He was wistful, especially in telling us of his early years. Tears came more than once for all of us. In the end, my lasting memory is of the comfortable silence that can only be shared with friends by people in love and at peace, and that gift came from Murray and Janet.

 

 

December 4, 2017

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