Report on TRISE’s “100 Years Murray Bookchin” conference

Report by Netzwerk für Kommunalismus on TRISE’s conference “100 years Murray Bookchin”. 15 years after his death, Murray Bookchin’s ideas are more relevant than ever. The TRISE conference  covered very diverse areas in eight panels with 24 speakers, from Rojava to the COP26 climate summit.

According to legal specialist Marlene Payva, there is a misunderstanding in international law about the relationship between humans and nature. Environmental protection is not understood as the protection of human and non-human life, but as a legal means to exploit nature in such a way that its destruction remains minimal. This legal concept makes it easier for multinational corporations to exploit and pollute the world, especially in the Global South. “It allows them to continue producing greenhouse gases.”

The problem with international law, according to Marlene Payva, is that it sees nature as something external, separate from humans: “That’s a very narrow view to give an answer to the climate crisis.” International law sees itself as anthropocentric, but human rights are left out. The human being is at the center, but completely outside the world.

Murray Bookchin’s social ecology helps to broaden the view: it sees people as part of a larger whole. “Social ecology provides an ecological dimension that international law lacks,” Marlene Payva is convinced. The fundamental false assumption about the human-nature relationship that both are separate from each other must be discarded. She hopes that this knowledge will also flow into the COP26 conference in Glasgow: “We need imagination to face the crisis.” Bookchin’s concept of wholeness is crucial for this.

Rojava: Bookchin’s ideas in action

The weekend before the start of COP26, 24 speakers and dozens of participants gathered for the two-day online conference celebrating Murray Bookchin’s 100th birthday. The event was organized by the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology (TRISE). The variety of themes was extremely broad: a sign of the influence the American theorist and author still has today.

Several speeches dealt with the revolution in Rojava. Towards the end of his life, Bookchin was in correspondence with Abdullah Öcalan, the mastermind of the Kurdish freedom movement who has been imprisoned since 1999. Öcalan’s democratic confederalism is based directly on Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism. The TRISE conference clarified a few things in this regard: Bookchin’s influence should not be overestimated, but neither should it be underestimated. Ideas of social ecology were already anchored in the Kurdish movement earlier, for example through the contact of the people living in Kurdistan with nature or through the Alevi belief system, which values ​​respect for nature highly.

Social ecology rarely gets much attention in the mainstream media in relation to Rojava, said Stephen Hunt, editor of a new book on ecology and the Kurdish movement 1 . However, the ecological aspect affects all aspects of the revolution. In general, and not only in relation to Rojava, systemic causes of the ecological crisis have so far been absent from the public discussion – especially with regard to COP26, this topic is becoming all the more important.

Stephen Hunt drew the line to anti-colonial, ecological struggles such as the Zapatistas’ 2021 trip to Europe and the Mapuche struggle in Chile, as well as to grassroots democratic projects such as Symbiosis, Cooperation Jackson, Barcelona en Comú and TRISE.

First-hand Rojava experiences

Heval Tekoşîn, a European who has been living in Rojava (or more correctly: in AANES, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) for two years, joined in from a village outside of Qamishli. He finds the society there to be fairly consistent with Bookchin’s writings. It is not a consumer society: the houses are empty, there is no furniture or other material objects in the rooms, but people who are constantly going in and out. Society is non-productivist: efficiency is not the top priority. Therefore, much less work is done, and everyone has more time for that. Everyone is curious and wants to know everything about their counterpart. The group harmony is incredibly great, the ego is very reduced, and people do not react defensively to criticism, but factually. An example: In Kurdistan there is little awareness of animal rights. When Heval Tekoşîn criticized a comrade for hitting a cat, he didn’t react defensively, but happily. “He was happy that he could do something for me!” reported Heval Tekoşîn. The others then stopped treating animals badly.

Heval Tekoşîn also emphasized the material insecurity: He never knows whether he has a car when he needs one, but he is 100 percent certain that ten people will immediately call around and organize a car for him within five minutes.

From the chat came the question of whether these values ​​had been anchored in society before the revolution. Heval Tekoşîn affirmed this. The revolution will ensure that it stays that way. It protects society from becoming (Western) positivist.

Another question was whether the Rojava assemblies would decide by majority vote. Heval Tekoşîn on this: Thousands of meetings take place every day, some in living rooms, but often there is simply a consultation and people go home. The political system only “reaps” what is discussed in the population.

Paideia: political character formation

A term that came up again and again at the conference was “Paideia”. In ancient Greece, this was used to describe political character formation, i.e. the “competence to participate in democratic assemblies”, as panelist Davide Grasso explained. He compared the two Kurdish words “desthilatdarî” (rule or political power) and “otorite” (the authority held by teachers or leaders, episodic, non-institutionalized authority). In this sense, paideia is nothing other than the wide distribution of otorite in society.

cracks in capitalism

Thomas Murray compared John Holloway’s “Crack Capitalism” to Bookchin. John Holloway is also a proponent of the Commune and assemblies (he refers to the Paris Commune, the Soviets and the Zapatistas, among others), but he approaches it from a different angle. We don’t need an enlightened avant-garde, Holloway argued, workers could reject their identity as workers, for example by taking a short break from the screen – these are the little “cracks” (cracks) in capitalism. The question she asked how these cracks could flow together and open up the possibility of self-determination.

Bookchin, on the other hand, argued Thomas Murray, emphasized coherence in theory, character formation (paideia), formal organization and collective planning. The councils in Spain, Germany and Russia did not come by themselves, but also needed leaders.

TRISE member Yavor Tarinski also emphasized that institutions are necessary. The focus must be (with Polanyi) on politics, not just on economics.


Metin Güven warned of increasing state authority (state domination). Leftists would focus too much on neoliberalism. However, in view of the climate crisis, you should prepare for a new era of eco-totalitarianism and eco-fascism. State rule is increasing, so class reductionism should be avoided and states should be studied. Social ecology is an important part of such studies. Another panelist, Emet Değirmenci, showed the connection between eco-fascism, misanthropy, biocentrism and white supremacy.

From the Bookchin Reading Group to City Parliament

Dimitri Roussopoulos, the publisher of Black Rose Books, spoke of the longstanding practice of direct democracy in Montréal, the “most decentralized city in North America”. Another Canadian, Rob Case, told of the fight in the city of Guelph (Wellington area) against Nestlé, which has bought three wells to sell bottled water. Thanks to direct relationships with city parliamentarians, it was possible to veto Nestlé in certain areas. “You could see Murray Bookchin’s theories come alive before our eyes,” said Rob Case. Interesting detail: The city parliament has two MPs whose candidacy came from a Bookchin reading group.

Rob Case shared how Nestlé sparked a huge protest movement that fills him with hope. Most people are completely disconnected from active politics. The Nestlé protest shook her out of her self-satisfied well-being. In the local ecological grassroots movement, they would learn the skills for the “collective decision-making game”. This is not yet libertarian municipalism, but it is a start.

Rob Case underlined that in all of this the focus should not be on implementing a political agenda in Parliament but on dealing with democratic processes. Incidentally, suggestions for this can be found right before your own eyes: at the Haudenosaurce Confederation, the oldest existing democratic institution in North America. Indigenous societies would have different styles of governance. “I’m not saying we should adopt it, but it can expand our imagination,” said Rob Case.

Collective local response to state violence

Ben Price addressed how the state restricts local self-government in the USA: “State authority over the communities is absolute.” Local activists face repression from the courts, which protect corporate property from municipal legislation. For example, when it comes to minimum wage, protection of water from fossil industries, pesticides, fracking or tenant protection. “The courts want to nip this resistance in the bud before it spreads to other communities.” This institutionalized form of oppression is also racist, since property under white control is protected from redistribution. A particularly blatant example is the racist lead poisoning of the mostly black population in Flint, MI.

For Ben Price, freedom does not mean asking the state for permission, but enforcing autonomous community rights through local legislation – finding a collective response to oppressive structures. There have also been successes: For example, in Halifax, VA, the community’s right to a toxic-free environment was enforced against the operators of a uranium mine. Other examples are the “sanctuary cities”, which protect immigrants from deportation, or the “defund the police” movement. Such movements could benefit greatly from the writings of Murray Bookchin, argued Rob Case.

Ethical critique of capitalism: dialectic naturalism

Georgios Daremas spoke about the continuity of nature and society – first and second nature, as Bookchin says and how Hegel also thinks about it in his dialectics.

Georgios Daremas highlighted one of Bookchin’s revolutionary insights: “A society that has the idea of ​​wanting to tame nature must be overcome!”

Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism holds that evolution has one direction: it leads to ever more complex, differentiated forms. On this fundamental principle Bookchin based his ethical principles for society as well as his ethical critique of capitalism and individualism, which decomposes society.

Other more philosophical topics at the conference were the democratization of technology and the comparison of techné and “hyperobjects” in relation to Covid-19 – this is only mentioned to show the wide range.

Agroecology in India

Naturally, environmental degradation was also a major issue. For example, the disastrous water system of Los Angeles or the colonial transformation of traditional agriculture in the Ganga-Yamuna (Doab) river basin in India. The latter example shows the connection between ecology and social processes: Access to communal land resources was restricted, as Anita Prakash reported. The poorer population, who used the jungle as a resource in times of need, came under particular pressure as a result. In contrast, the use of jungle and water was commercialized, resulting in famine. Anita Prakash sees a future in agroecology. But obstacles such as unequal access to land, farmers’ economic insecurity and high debt must be removed. Murray Bookchin’s theories are important for such a transition. An interdisciplinary line is needed that integrates the effects of social injustice and ecological processes.

Feminist Care Culture

Federico Venturini reported on activism research. He advocates dissolving the researcher/activist dichotomy. Researchers should show solidarity with movement and ask what their needs are.

Eve Olney and Krini Kafiris introduced the Radical Institute (Ireland). Through workshops and other projects, they aim to create a culture of care that is feminist, radical, and political – heavily influenced by Murray Bookchin and his theories of hierarchy. Among other things, they offer a “Paideia Teenage Autonomous Space”.

In addition to the Rojava book mentioned, an ecology book from Australia was presented. 2 Australia is often forgotten by social ecology because it is so far away, said co-editor Stuart Hill, but Australia has a social-ecological tradition that goes back more than 40 years.

Social Ecology and Animal Liberation

A topic that deserves its own article can only be briefly touched upon here: Laura Schleifer took the position that animal liberation and veganism are compatible with social ecology – indeed that they should even be incorporated into it . Complementing Bookchin’s thesis that man’s dominion over nature stems from man’s dominion over man, Laura Schleifer proposes a similar thesis: Man’s dominion over animals influences how humans dominate other humans.

Laura Schleifer underpinned her thesis that with the advent of cattle breeding came wars and colonization because more and more land was needed. Livestock societies (e.g. under Genghis Khan) conquered other (partly egalitarian) societies and introduced feudalism. They even use animals (horses) as weapons of war. Prisoners were enslaved like animals, branded, their reproduction was controlled (castration, eunuchs, gender-based violence), humans and animals were beaten into submission.

During the Enlightenment, the question of what differentiates humans from animals was used to justify colonialism. The colonized were seen as closer to the animals: for example, they had no emotional self-control like “we Europeans”. That continues to this day: to Trump, who describes immigrants as animals, to children in (animal) cages and mounted border patrols with whips. Slaughterhouses are hell for the animals and the employees, who are often ex-prisoners or undocumented workers.

Social ecology would also require a re-naturalization of land, said Laura Schleifer. Veganism, meaning not eating animals, would free up massive areas for ecology and indigenous societies to thrive.

The entire conference can be watched on the TRISE YouTube channel.

1 Hunt, S. (eds.), 2021, Ecological Solidarity & the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Lexington books

2 Wright, D & Hill, S (eds.), 2020, Social Ecology and Education: Transforming Worldviews and Practices. Routledge

November 2, 2021


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.