Direct democracy is returning to France: a cultural battle whose theoretical foundations are largely based on the thinking of the American intellectual Murray Bookchin. His “libertarian municipalism” has inspired municipal citizen lists, as he inspired the Yellow Vests and the Kurdish revolution in Rojava.
By Gaspard d’Allens
Published in Reporterre, February 28, 2020
Translated to English by Janet Biehl (published here with the permission of the translator).
We don’t know how an idea arises. It floats in the air of time, volatile, before attaching itself to reality. This is the case with the thought of the ecologist Murray Bookchin, which is receiving growing attention. A publishing abundance surrounds his work, which we are rediscovering and translating massively. Since 2012, his writings have also fueled the Kurdish revolution in Rojava, in northern Syria, where a social model is emerging that combines multiculturalism, direct democracy, and ecology. The American intellectual, who died in 2006, now seems to have inspired several of the citizen lists that have entered the ring in the French municipal elections. Some of them gathered at the end of January in Commercy (Meuse) to lay the cornerstones for municipalism and think about a possible confederation, baptized “the Commune of communes.”
Feeling their way, they are seeking a new model to put citizens back at the center of politics. Direct democracy is making a comeback in France: a cultural battle whose theoretical foundations are largely based on the thought of Murray Bookchin.
The intellectual, who was by turns a worker, a unionist, and then a professor, devoted his life to developing a social project that would allow citizens to reclaim their existence by returning power to the base. “The political arena is reduced to a skin of sorrow, kidnapped by the dominant parties, and subservient to large groups,” he noted, then proposed to “replace the state, urbanization, hierarchy, and capitalism by institutions of direct democracy and cooperation.”
According his model, baptized “libertarian municipalism,” the municipality must become “the real cell of political life,” he believed. It would be made up of autonomous communities on a human scale, grouped into confederations. Legislative decisions would be made in open meetings, by majority vote, with the advice of recallable delegates, possibly chosen by lot. They would execute the tasks that the municipal assemblies decided and would administer all questions of production and goods at the local level.
Bookchin’s ecology is primarily social:
“If it is important for society to be decentralized, it is not only to establish lasting harmonious relations between humans and nature, but also to provide a new dimension of harmony among humans. . . . Reducing the dimensions of human communities is a basic necessity, first to solve the problems of pollution and transportation then to create real communities. In a sense, we have to humanize humanity.”
During his lifetime, the intellectual traveled through Europe and the United States to try to implement his model and launch the outline of a movement. He hit a wall. “For a long time, his thought remained in the margins of alternative culture,” observe Floréal Roméro and Vincent Gerber, co-authors of the book Murray Bookchin and Libertarian Social Ecology (Le Passager clandestin, 2019). Visiting France in the early 2000s, he was badly received and largely misunderstood. [Correction—he did not visit France in the early 2000s.—JB]
Today seems like a better time. For ten years, the experiences of the Indignés, Nuit Debout, and Rojava have fueled imaginations. The revolt of the Yellow Vests gave new impetus to this municipalist desire. “The thought of Bookchin accompanied us on the roundabouts. It provided answers to many of our questions,” acknowledges Stéphane Rollin, a Yellow Vest from Annecy. “It has fueled our debates on the RIC [a proposal to allow popular referendums in France] and the constituent workshops [drafting constitutional articles]. ”
With several of his comrades, Stéphane Rollin launched a “Vote for You” list that openly calls itself libertarian municipalist. They wish to establish a “municipal constitution” that would have the value of a moral commitment and would make it possible a municipal assembly, thematic assemblies, and citizen schools.
In many cities in France, lists are being assembled on this model. There is talk of popular decision-making assemblies, elected officials chosen by lot, citizens’ councils, and participatory commissions. Each time with nuances but always a desire for emancipation and rupture.
“The deficit in democracy has existed for a long time, but [lately] it has been exacerbated,” says Benoit Angibault, a Yellow Vest from Montauban. With others, he launched a citizen list in this city of more than 60,000 inhabitants. “Murray Bookchin’s writings are part of our store of ideas,” he says. “Concretely, we couldn’t take it anymore. We wanted to take advantage of the municipal elections to draw a new horizon line. But our approach goes beyond the campaign. Elections are only a lever to strengthen our roots and transform the system from the bottom. ”
For several months, groups of Yellow Vests have been experimenting with forms of direct democracy within their movement. Delegations from all over France gather regularly for the “Assemblies of Assemblies” and on a daily basis implement these horizontal practices without leaders. “Creating a municipal list is the logical extension of what we’ve already experienced,” says Claude Kaiser, a Yellow Vest from Commercy (Meuse).
Activists who called for a national meeting of free communes in Commercy wrote in the same vein,“France is in turmoil. Immense aspirations for social, democratic, and ecological transformation are being expressed. And in order not to be swept away, we have to root them at the municipal level, in our villages, our cities, our neighborhoods, wherever we are!”
In this city of 6,000 inhabitants, the municipalist list advocates a radical change in operations. Claude Kaiser jokingly presents himself as a “pure Bookchinien.” “Citizen participation is not a veneer. It must be part of a revolutionary process.” A people’s assembly has already been set up for a year and sometimes brings together more than a hundred people.
“We are a list without a program. We have proposals but they will be re-examined by the Assembly to see if they correspond to the aspirations of the inhabitants,” explains Claude Kaiser. “The city council will merely be a chamber for recording the citizens’ decisions. ”
According to him, this approach has found favor among the residents. “It responds to instinctive concerns. The population feels that it is not being listened to. It runs up against a system that immures it: voting every five years is useless, and demonstrating has become increasingly difficult. There is no longer any outlet for action… Conversely, direct democracy opens a window to a new world,” analyzes the activist. “The idea of abolishing the power of the elected officials has gone from the stage of utopia to that of need.”
But it will not be easy to win. The battle promises to be tough for the dozens of lists presented under this banner. In Commercy, the threat of the [right-wing] National Rally [formerly Front] awaits. In Annecy, the social environment is hostile. In Montauban, the size of the city lends itself poorly to this kind of experiment … “We weave our web patiently, we grope,” concede Stéphane Rollin from Annecy. “Our main objective is first to create local counter-powers and then to hold on to these experiments over time.”
After the [electoral] campaign, and even in the event of failure, the various lists will try to maintain the rhythm of these popular assemblies to build a balance of power with the official municipal government and nibble away at its legitimacy. The campaign is just a springboard.
In his writings, Murray Bookchin clarified this idea. According to him, “libertarian municipalism” had to become part of the daily life of people beyond election days. If he was not opposed to participation in local elections, he first advocated the development of popular assemblies, from the bottom, independent and separated from power, to take back political representatives. “Those who operate in the current framework only want to moderate the state and give it a human face,” he warned, recalling that the ultimate goal of libertarian municipalism was to overcome capitalism and create a confederation of free municipalities.
We are still far from it. But undeniably, a movement is starting. The Commercy meeting at the end of January brought together several lists and collectives in struggle, fueled by the ideas of Murray Bookchin and by municipalism. This theory provides a new opening. It releases hope. And who knows what can happen with an idea whose time has come?
 Excerpt from Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, 1964.