In celebration of Murray Bookchin’s birth centenary, his daughter Debbie is joined by a number of his former friends, students and fellow travelers to honor his memory and reflect on his revolutionary legacy. Originally published on ROARmag.
In the years before his death, my father wrote a series of books entitled The Third Revolution. In them, he analyzed transformative revolutionary moments in history, beginning with the late-medieval uprisings and German Peasant Wars of the 16th century, and ending, four volumes later, with the Spanish Civil War. Studying this revolutionary history gave my father solace — it took him back to a time when revolutionary ideals animated everyday life, when utopian cries lived on the lips of ordinary people.
It also gave him immense hope, best exemplified by his choice to dedicate each of the four volumes of The Third Revolution to his young granddaughter. To be sure, he loved her quite madly as an individual, one whom he felt shared many of his early talents as a musician, an artist and, above all, a writer. But his dedication also indicated his belief in the promise of a new generation, one that might take up the banner in the struggle for a more rational society — a banner that had lost its sheen in the decades before his death, when the left was struggling to combat rising neoliberalism, authoritarianism and rampant ecological destruction.
In many ways, my father was ahead of his time. His ideas were often ridiculed or dismissed during his lifetime — his belief that climate change would become a serious threat to our survival laughed off as alarmist by the New York Times in the 1960s; his pleas to the left in subsequent years to put in the hard and unglamorous work of building an organized network of local democratic assemblies often bypassed in favor of street insurrection.
Yet throughout his life my father remained optimistic. He refused to give up hope that these ideas, his ideas — borne from seven decades of consideration about what kind of society would maximize the human potential for creativity, imagination and harmony with the natural world — would one day imbue people in the future with the same transformative zeal that he had found in the revolutionary past.
In one of his earliest essays, “Desire and Need,” my father wrote: “A good idea can slip from the hands of its creator and follow its own dialectic.” While this was originally intended as a critical comment on artists who are unaware of the power of their own art, it seems to me that today these words can be viewed in a new, positive light. They remind us that ideas have unlimited potentiality; that the seed of an idea can expand far beyond what the original thinker might have expected, reaching across the globe to touch peoples and minds previously unimaginable; becoming in turn transformed by those people, ultimately achieving a transcendent richness, beauty and concretization that can exceed and outlast the originator’s wildest dreams.
It would be my father’s great joy to know, a hundred years after his birth and nearly 15 years after his death, that the hope he placed in the future was well-founded; that even amidst intense global turmoil and the increasing threat of an ecological holocaust, aspects of his vision of a rational society have been taken up around the world, serving as a model for anyone who seeks to engage with them.
Many of the voices in these tributes reflect individuals who have been influenced by my father, from Fearless Cities municipalists to alterglobalization activists — who absorbed his ideas and enlarged them to fit their social contexts, building new and emancipatory political ways of being. In particular, I know my father would have been profoundly moved by the courage and dedication that has gone into the Kurdish project of democratic confederalism in Rojava, and I consider it a personal tragedy that he died before having the opportunity to see that triumph of feminist, egalitarian self-determination that the Kurdish people have achieved.
For me, my father’s enduring legacy is the dialectical cast of mind he brought to social problems: the impetus to see nature and society in process, never in stasis — always evaluating things not merely as they are but as they have the potential to become. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, he would have wanted us to celebrate the power of ideas to remake the world; to never despair; to keep educating ourselves, our brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends; and to carry forward his legacy by, above all, putting our ideas into practice.
— Debbie Bookchin
Over the years, Murray Bookchin has dedicated his remarkable talents and energy to many different domains: history, technology, social organization, the search for justice and freedom and much else. In every case, he has brought illumination and insight, original and provocative ideas and inspiring vision. With appreciation for many years of enlightenment and inspiration.
— Noam Chomsky
Member of the leadership council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava, an architect of the Social Contract governing the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and author of the book “Why Jineology.”
The state and power have produced many problems, rendering a state of structural crisis upon the world system. Capitalist modernity has declared war against society with its four weapons: nationalism, religionism, sexism and scientism. Through these ideologies, capitalist modernity has imprisoned humanity in an iron cage.
To face these crises, the philosopher and thinker Murray Bookchin proposed rigorous analyses of power and the state. He developed advanced alternatives, thereby opening new horizons for us in light of the chaos and crises we are encountering. These analyses were expressed best in his books The Ecology of Freedom, Urbanization Without Cities and Toward an Ecological Society. The latter, indeed, was a manifesto for the 20th century.
Bookchin’s work evokes humanity’s cry to get out of the iron cage. He revealed an extraordinary truth, in which he showed the organic relationship between ecological problems and social problems. The main difference between Bookchin and other thinkers is that he not only voiced critiques against the capitalist system but also proposed alternatives to go beyond it. For example, his “ecological society” model, which is based on the liberation of humans and nature from domination, and the idea of direct democracy which rests on local confederations, are important and valuable achievements.
What was proposed by Bookchin had a great impact on Kurdish revolutionaries, who are working to achieve freedom, equality and justice for their people and the rest of our global society. Bookchin’s ideas were a major source of inspiration for us to build a model of democratic self-administration in Rojava and North-East Syria. We built communes and local councils, a system of co-presidency between women and men, and enabled the participation of all ethnic, religious and ideological components in the region’s administration. We have worked to develop democratic power in place of the state system while, at the time, ensuring that our polity is socially and ecologically conscious. All these revolutionary steps have been achieved.
We, as the revolution of women and a diverse range of peoples, are inspired by all humanistic values, and we consider the ideas and philosophy of Murray Bookchin as part of these great values that will remain immortal in the consciousness of humanity.
— Translated from Arabic by Jihad Hemmi
Activist from the Mesopotamia Ecology Movement.
Many activists from the Kurdish Freedom Movement heard of Murray Bookchin for the first time in the early 2000s. He was introduced to us by the recently captured Kurdish leader and thinker Abdullah Öcalan, who suggested from his prison cell that we study his work. Indeed, Bookchin’s writings supported us in our quest for a liberated, emancipated and egalitarian society. As an ecologist, getting acquainted with Bookchin was fascinating because of the importance he placed in his political writings on nature as the source of all life on this planet.
Over the course of two decades, we have managed to put some of Bookchin’s revolutionary theories into practice in North and West Kurdistan (Bakur and Rojava). Millions of people are now part of a process where a society is rebuilt along radically democratic lines, based on principles of communality, broad participation, solidarity and gender liberation in all spheres of life — and of course on a solid ecological foundation. We still have a very long way to go and plenty of mistakes we need to reflect on. But despite all the threats we have faced so far, we are still moving forward and are determined to stick around for a long time!
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
Bookchin was an interdisciplinary, eclectic and above all unique thinker. Having never been socialized — “shoehorned” — by the academy, he retained a freedom of thought that remains as helpful for the emancipatory project as ever.
I first came across Bookchin at the age of 16 in the Victorian Trades Hall bookshop, which sold an excerpt from The Ecology of Freedom for 20 cents! This shifted my political consciousness like no other text, save perhaps The Communist Manifesto. It stated what remains, in my view, the most fundamental aspect of his legacy: understanding that the roots of the exploitation of man by man and man of nature are located within the same social pathologies of hierarchy.
These pathologies, as widespread as anti-nature, patriarchy, nationalism, statism and capitalism, come to colonize public life. “Communalism” (or “libertarian municipalism”) is one of the few means to combat this radically (that is, tackle the “root” of the problem) by giving freedom institutional form in direct and participatory ways via decentralized social organization and social ecological principles.
It is in the unpacking of this bifurcation between hierarchy and freedom — so simple to see when expressed so clearly by Bookchin — that has the most profound implications for thinking radically today.
Cultural anthropologist, co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology and author of “The Anthropology of Utopia” (2014).
Murray Bookchin was my mentor, friend and associate: we co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology in 1974. During his lifetime, Bookchin was often a lone voice in the wilderness. As early as the 1950s, he warned us of the dangers of authoritarianism on both the left and right, and the enormity of the ecological crisis, as well as its social roots. He was prescient in his predictions of global warming in 1964 and in the 1970s he promoted alternative technologies like solar and wind energy as well as offering a stunning critique of industrialized agriculture.
His magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom, published in 1981, still stands as the most comprehensive exploration of the dialectical emergence of hierarchy and its potential dissolution through the development of a new ecological sensibility and forms of freedom to support and reinforce the emergence of an ecological society.
Over his lifetime he wrote 25 books and countless articles exploring these themes and others. He was a true revolutionary who devoted all of his considerable energy to transforming our society. He developed the ideas of libertarian municipalism (also known as communalism and democratic confederalism) as a political strategy for achieving that transformation.
Bookchin’s work represents what Ernst Bloch called “The Principle of Hope,” and in my opinion, that is his greatest legacy. His work will continue to educate and inspire people all around the world for many years to come.
EMILY MARION CLANCY
City councillor for Coalizione Civica per Bologna, Italy.
As a municipalist I cannot stress how great an influence Murray Bookchin’s work has been for so many of us. His inspiring vision of direct democracy is the foundation on which we have built our organizations, our vocabulary, our very sense of activism. In fact, I cannot think of a better embodiment of the adage “think globally, act locally” that we strive towards in our political action.
As a leftist, I am in awe of the brilliant mind behind social ecology and believe his legacy is still so very relevant in relation to one of the greatest challenges of our time: climate change. In exploring the correlation between social and ecological issues, he traced a parallelism in the dynamics of prevarication and supremacy that we see between mankind and nature and between fellow humans. Two faces of the capitalist society we live in, to which Bookchin responded by envisaging a world of ecological egalitarianism, democratic confederalism/communalism and popular participation.
If we may be allowed a wish on this centenary of his birth, let it be for us to bring his radical spirit with us as we embark on the next revolution seeking a new Enlightenment.
Political sociologist and author of the forthcoming book “The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice.”
What is the meaning of liberty at a time in which more people are “free” to do what they want while the planet is burning? In times of ecocide and fascism, raising universal questions about the condition of human freedom is a matter of life or death.
Murray Bookchin’s holistic thinking about the world in terms of continuities and connections, his insistence that no life on earth is condemned to violence and domination, provides us with a whole set of questions and proposals to fundamentally rethink our relationship to life itself. Leftist theory and practice is often sectarian and doctrinaire, unable to express the creativity and love that makes up so much of human sociability. Social ecology, however, is not a dogma but a framework and mentality that refuses to see oppression as fate. It reconciles the individual with society. It empowers the individual to define her relationship to society, while enabling her to become an active agent that can transform social relations.
In a neoliberal world that marketizes and commodifies every aspect of our lives and thereby normalizes violence and domination, Bookchin’s ideas allow for a radical, society-loving individuality that is liberationist, not individualistic. It is a healing framework in the alienating era of capitalism.
Teacher of religion and philosophy at the University of South-East Norway.
Murray Bookchin was a passionate thinker, and a genuinely original one. Not only did he help introduce ecology to the left, he also insisted the left should work to end all forms of hierarchy and domination. Taken together, his pioneering works contributed to a fundamental transformation of the revolutionary project, making it relevant for our own time. Social change is not only necessary to avoid ecological disaster and collapse, he claimed, but it is also necessary to actualize human aspirations for a rational, free and caring society.
When I was introduced to social ecology in my late teens, it was precisely this idea that appealed to me, this overarching, emancipatory project for an ecological society. Although I admit that the sheer scope of this project often can feel overwhelming, I still cherish social ecology and I repeatedly turn to Murray’s work for inspiration and encouragement.
Some 15 years after Murray’s passing, the challenge remains: will human beings be able to fundamentally change the ways in which we interact with each other and with the natural world? Will we be able to create an ecological future?
I am convinced that social ecology — the body of ideas Murray developed — will only become increasingly relevant in the decades to come. Through movements that take up his legacy, his ideas will live on.
Social ecologist, PhD candidate at UMass Amherst and associate editor at ROAR Magazine.
Freedom is a state of collective being; a social relation that blankets members of a society and binds them together. It can be elaborated upon and reinforced — or, conversely, thwarted and snuffed out — by the codes, conduct and cultural norms we enact on a daily basis.
And freedom has evolved over time. Political movements throughout the world enrich it in struggle. This ongoing fight for freedom bears not only upon human will and consciousness, but the potential freedom of nature as well.
In developing this conception of freedom, Bookchin delivered his most enduring contribution. For it isn’t enough to hold directly democratic assemblies at a protest camp or to plant neighborhood vegetable gardens. Nor is it enough to paddle around and around the same old cycle of elections. If we are serious about building “the new society in the shell of the old,” we must discuss concretely how to confront and transform the institutions that shape everyday life — from schools and hospitals to farms, factories and public works. Why? Because the freedom we seek can only be realized via the institutions we build ourselves.
Bookchin not only established the project to transform institutions of local “governance” into directly democratic assemblies and confederations, he redefined revolution as freedom realized in substance and form.
Independent scholar and author of “The Distortion of Nature’s Image” (2019).
Bookchin is one of the great philosophical visionaries of the 20th century, who brought a genuinely dialectical orientation into our collective understanding of the great crisis of our time: the global ecological crisis. Bookchin remains almost entirely unique among 20th century thinkers in his capacity to think through ecological problems in terms of their origins in social and institutional relationships.
He deepened our awareness of historical acculturations to nature and offered thought-provoking speculations about how we may begin to approach a more complementary relationship with the biosphere in the form of a communalist society.
What is most remarkable about Bookchin’s legacy is not what he thought about this or that specific issue, but how he thought through the given reality dialectically. The current global pandemic provides ample examples of what, in The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin termed “the social matrix of technology,” both in terms of the relentless exploitation of animals through factory farming and its implications for the spreading of disease and capitalism’s remarkable capacity to accelerate a global vaccine response so that disruptions to the prevailing mode of production may be minimized.
His philosophy endures as a watershed for all of us passionate about building a truly democratic and ecological society.
Professor of political philosophy at Loughborough University.
I first read Murray Bookchin sometime in 1983 when I was immersed in 19th-century anarchism. I was embarrassingly ignorant of the status he had already acquired as a critic of Marxism and pioneer of social ecology. It took me a while to fully appreciate the consequence of his theoretical re-grounding of anarchism. When I read Bookchin I heard Kropotkin. But then I came across John Clark’s essay in The Anarchist Moment and I saw the vital connection between anarchism and ecology that Bookchin forged. Even if he strongly disapproved of some of the lines this connection followed, he was nevertheless central to the reimagining of anarchy and he opened new perspectives on anarchism’s past, present and future.
Bookchin’s impact on Abdullah Öcalan’s politics has rightly re-focused attention on democratic confederalism. His anarchist defense of democracy is a central thread in his work, but the ominous backdrop was the rightward drift of international politics in the 1980s and 90s. He urged the left to organize against it. The polarization of politics in liberal democracies since his death in 2006 reinforces the pertinence of his conclusions: “The Left must stake out its own arena, one that stands in revolutionary opposition to the prevailing society, not one that participates as a ‘leftist’ partner in its workings.”
Emeritus professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London.
Bookchin was, like Kropotkin, to an important degree a moral philosopher. The kind of society he envisaged is thus an expression of an ethical socialism. Bookchin stressed that the affirmation of an ethical stance is central to the recovery of a meaningful society and a sense of selfhood.
While Bookchin advocated a form of ethical naturalism he recognized that there is no simple or straightforward relationship between facts and values. As he wrote, an ethics grounded in ecology can yield “a salad of ‘natural laws’ that are as tyrannical in their conclusion as the chaos of moral relativism.” Thus, although stressing the need for a deep sense of ethical commitment, as well as the need to “ground” ethics in an understanding of natural evolution, what Bookchin advocated is an objective ethics that is “neither absolutist nor relativist, authoritarian or chaotic, necessitarian nor arbitrary.”
Given nature’s inherent fecundity, its thrust towards ever-increasing diversity and its potentialities for freedom, consciousness and subjectivity, Bookchin suggested that such a perspective provides a basis for an “ecological ethics” which sees “the emergence of selfhood, reason and freedom from nature — not in sharp opposition to nature.”
But in emphasizing that nature is a “ground” for an ethics of freedom, Bookchin suggested that this does not entail any deterministic theory, such as the postulate of some inexorable natural laws; for he stressed that social ecology is essentially a “philosophy of potentiality.” Social ecology, he continually affirmed, is an “organic” mode of thought and an evolutionary way of thinking about the world.
SIXTINE VAN OUTRYVE
PhD student in Belgium on communalism and direct democracy.
“It’s obvious!” How many times have I not heard these words from those discovering the theory of communalism, or libertarian municipalism, of Murray Bookchin. When I first read Bookchin, I too had this feeling of having found the non-hierarchical, democratic and emancipatory solution to the many problems posed by the present political system.
In his theory of communalism, Bookchin asks these two correlated questions anew: that of how public power should be exercised, and that of what should be the main political unit for a people to govern itself. He answers these questions by advocating for the commune as the political unit to realize direct democracy, as it is the only place where the people can assemble, debate and directly take decisions on a face-to-face basis, rather than voting for a class of rulers to exercise public power. For issues overstepping the local scope, these self-governed municipalities would organize in confederations where each popular assembly would send delegates with imperative and recallable mandates.
By proposing a simple, yet coherent and feasible theory of how the political order could be organized differently, Bookchin has inspired and continues to inspire revolutionary social movements around the world.
Author of “Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and The Crises of Our Time” (2012).
I first came across the work of Murray Bookchin as a politics undergraduate two decades ago. I remember how struck I was by how in a world of often dry and archaic theory, here was a voice of clarity and principle, with an uncompromising commitment to the project of building a better world. So clear was his voice when I first read him that I feared his work was too simple: wasn’t all theory supposed to be dense and difficult to understand? Isn’t that the hallmark of good theory?
Bookchin showed me how false this position was. Behind all the causes he fought for stood a significant theoretical corpus that is rich and detailed, but one rendered accessible — not to mention gripping — by its central characteristic: that the entire work focused on the questions at the very heart of the collective human condition. Where does human society come from? What is its relationship to nature as a whole? And, crucially, why it has gone so awry to have led us to the point of ecological catastrophe?
For me, this still remains his biggest contribution: his theoretical framework — still so rich and unmined, still with so much to offer — remains a real and everyday reflection on our present condition; today, we need it more than ever.
Author of “The Leaderless Revolution” (2013) and the subject of the documentary feature “Accidental Anarchist.”
Murray Bookchin’s insights only become more pertinent as time goes on. To take an example: he observed that you cannot end mankind’s domination of nature without ending the domination of one human over another. One way of putting this is that capitalism is incompatible with safeguarding the planet and its natural environment. If only we had followed this advice when it was written.
Now, as we confront an epic global crisis, its salience is only greater. It has become imperative to replace capitalism with an economic — and thus social — system that treats nature as integral to humanity’s wellbeing, not as an adjunct to our welfare or a resource to be exploited.
Bookchin proposed, correctly, that the only political system truly compatible with such an economic system was one where the state disappeared and where people governed themselves, locally and confederally: a system where humans no longer dominate each other or nature. Thus, Bookchin was the first to truly integrate a political with an ecological philosophy.
As disillusionment with our contemporary economic and political system only grows, and while the planet is yet more degraded, Bookchin’s vision has never been more important.
Professor at Binghamton University and author of the forthcoming book “The New Revolutions: From Social Movements to Societies in Movement.“
In 1999, on the streets of Seattle, as tens of thousands of us shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization, I learned in practice that direct democracy is possible. As spokescouncils coordinated the daily events, from the direct actions to legal, food, education, medical and media support, my imagination exploded. I began to learn, through doing, that non-hierarchical transformation is possible.
Soon thereafter I began to read various works by Murray Bookchin — in particular his work on Spain detailing the organizational forms of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s — which further opened my sense of what is possible, grounding it in real-life historical possibilities. In this work he meticulously analyzes the various forms of direct democratic organizing and I recognized, in historical writing, the spokescouncils I had joined in Seattle.
From his work on Spain I read more: on the necessary links between ecology and non-hierarchy, showing how what one also sees as revolutionary impossibility is actually possible, grounded in history and theory, showing us ways that we can transform society and organize it on real democratic principles, from below, locally and spiraling outwards, horizontally.
Most of all, what Murray’s work does is to guide and ground us in theoretical and practical revolutionary possibilities — both the ones we already have as well as the ones we continue to create day to day.
It can be hard to fathom just how radical a departure Murray Bookchin offered from the prevailing environmental thinking of his time. Today, people with diverse political outlooks see environmental problems as a crisis of society’s relationship to the natural world. We have well-developed networks advocating for environmental justice, climate justice and ecosocialism, and political ecology is on the curriculum of universities around the world. But none of this existed when Bookchin began writing in the 1950s and 60s.
Concerns about air and water pollution were widespread by the mid-1960s, but the traditional conservation organizations had rather conservative roots. Washington think tanks were mainly concerned that coming resource shortages could affect corporate bottom lines, and most of the Marxist left was enthusiastically celebrating “socialist” industrialization, “socialist” gigantism and even “socialist” nuclear power. Some prominent ecological scientists were beginning to see their work as possibly “subversive,” but Bookchin was the first to say it was incipiently revolutionary.
In the 1970s and 80s, he urged the blossoming antinuclear movement to embrace the radical potential of decentralized renewable energy, coupled with a decentralized, self-managed economy governed through direct democracy, and his political writings and exploration of revolutionary traditions continued to evolve from there.
Perhaps the widening scope of the ecological crisis would have eventually raised an alarm about its broader social and political dimensions, but Murray Bookchin was the first to put all the pieces together and help us see the way toward a fully liberated ecological society. For that, we are all truly grateful — thank you, Murray!
Activist-researcher and co-editor of “Your Freedom and Mine: Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish Question in Erdogan’s Turkey” (2018) and “Social Ecology and The Right to the City” (2019).
Bookchin should be remembered for having given us the possibility to better understand reality and the challenge to explore the complicated nexus of dominations that must be unravelled on the long path towards freedom. Along the way, he encouraged us to challenge the current capitalist system and all forms of oppression including racism, ethnocentrism, colonialism and patriarchy.
Indeed, social ecology highlights natural evolution as based on the idea of diversity, cooperation and continuous development, and, in doing so, it underlines the potentialities of human development.
This approach supports the idea that, even if throughout history a legacy of hierarchy and domination has developed, domination is not an innate aspect of the human project. In fact, Bookchin has shown us that in human history, a powerful legacy of freedom is expressed by continuous eruptions of movements and projects for emancipation. He has shown us how resistance can destroy the surface of capitalism and offer the possibility of experiencing alternative worlds, allowing seeds of alternative societies to sprout.
Bookchin established and, with the help of others, developed social ecology as a political project. Now it is our duty to continue both to develop and implement it for an ecological and democratic future.
Co-founder and national coordinator of Black Socialists in America.
Out-of-the-box thinking out of etymology, and trips back in time to explore the social relations that define our essence. Anthropological groundings to left-libertarian expoundings. An ongoing interrogation of all assumed (always). Scientific methodology with a rejection of scientism.
Connecting the ecological problems to the social problems. Moving beyond mere class exploitation, and into the interrogation of domination. Parsing hierarchy in all of its manifestations. Human and non-human interconnectedness. Biospheric symbiosis on this beautiful planet that we call “Earth.” Usufruct (he was quite fond of that word).
These are just some of the things that I think about when I think about Mr. Murray (in addition to his wonderful daughter Debbie, who has shown me nothing but love and guidance since we met years ago). These are also just some of the things that Mr. Murray introduced me to, and that inform literally everything that I do today.
I thank Mr. Murray for his endless guidance, which persists even after his physical death, and for the compassion he helped pass on to his children, who have grown to help and guide others like me, as I grow to help guide others like me, in the human struggle for freedom (real freedom).
In memory of Murray Bookchin
January 14, 1921 – July 30, 2006