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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,279

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This is the grave of Murray Bookchin.

Born in 1921 in New York City, Bookchin grew up in the left-wing Jewish immigrant community of that city and time. His parents were immigrants, labor activists, and communists. Bookchin was very much part of that, a red diaper baby in the literal sense. He was in the Young Pioneers and the Young Communist League as a child. By the late 30s, as he aged toward adulthood, he began to question the support for Stalin among so many communists and moved toward Trotskyism. He was a Trot for a long time. His journey would be pretty epic, but it took awhile for it to start. He was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, shop steward in a Bayonne, New Jersey foundry for the communist led United Electric Workers there, and then later an active member of the United Auto Workers. He did not fight in World War II and I am not sure why, but we needed people in the factories too and as a good communist, he was deeply committed to winning the war, whatever he thought about Stalin by this time.

By the late 40s, Bookchin was still a factory worker but was moving away from communism, seeking something else that would guide his life and make positive social change. He was one of a group of post-communist thinkers who were basically utopian. They founded a magazine called Contemporary Issues – A Magazine for a Democracy of Content to create an alternative version of leftism, and this really did have legs, with chapters opening in Europe and even South Africa.

At the heart of Bookchin’s growing utopian vision was the ideal of being freed from work, which still has serious legs on the left and maybe among more people today who hate their jobs and are questioning the entire thing post-Covid. He began to explore the new science of ecology and try to center it in radical politics. It took awhile for him to get traction on this, but eventually, he would be hugely influential on the left. He was involved in a variety of leftist movements, including civil rights, but was known for bringing ecology into the movements. He was identifying as an anarchist by 1958 though that was definitely with a small a. He became something of a red baiter among the New Left, to the extent they even wanted to listen to the Old Left, he warned SDS of an impending Marxist takeover, for instance. They didn’t care. There were real divisions between generations of the left at this time and those with more experience with the CP didn’t romanticize it.

In 1971, Bookchin left New York for Burlington, Vermont. This was at the time when a lot of ecologically minded leftists decided to move to Vermont to make their paradise and this has had a significant impact on the state’s politics to the present. Remember that Vermont and Maine were the only two states to vote for Alf Landon in 1936. Plenty of those Landon voters were still alive in 1971. Vermont didn’t become a left center for no reason. It was because Bookchin and so many other people made it so. Not that electoral politics was something Bookchin cared much about.

The Institute for Social Ecology was something Bookchin founded at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont that became a center for appropriate technology (AT) in the 70s. AT was the brain child of people such as Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog. This was just the type of thing that Bookchin loved–people emancipating themselves by living in nature and understanding it in a new way. Of course, there’s today a lot of criticism of this kind of environmentalism–it’s impossible to scale up and is the kind of environmentalism without a class or race analysis that many on the contemporary left are rightly suspicious of. But at the time, it fit right in with the white environmental movement of the 1970s.

Bookchin’s interest in individual freedom made him curious about libertarianism and he even spoke at some libertarian conferences, but he pulled back when he realized what these assholes were really about. He also wrote a book on the history of Spanish anarchism during the 1970s. He taught at Ramapo College in New Jersey for several years and received tenure there.

Eventually, Bookchin got irritated at the extreme individualism of the modern anarchist movement and began to attack this by the 80s. Sure, he was an old man who was interested in the hippies getting off his lawn since they weren’t his kind. He wanted real social change through anarchism, with people achieving a collective liberation. But he saw the movement turn into what he called “lifestyle anarchists,” which basically was the rise of libertarianism.

One can criticize Bookchin I suppose, but he had real value and it holds up because he criticized capitalism and so few environmentalists really wanted to do that. He saw the ecological problem the same as everyone else at the time. It was really bad. But Paul Ehrlich wanted to blame population and Barry Commoner wanted to blame technology and Bookchin knew that was all missing the point. The problem is capitalism and indeed that is correct. As he pointed out in his 1990 book Remaking Society, “Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing.” Indeed sir. Indeed.

Bookchin also completely rejected the right-wing or pseudo left-wing but really right-wing position that men should turn into hunters and do this bullshit masculine back to the land stuff. He was like, this is a xenophobic and racist position. Rather, communalism was the answer for Bookchin. And if that wasn’t in fact the answer, at least it wasn’t the active anti-human hostility that poisoned so many environmental radicals. As such, he was an enemy of the deep ecologist types who saw in human beings great sin that had ruined the world. He was happy to attack them, calling them “eco-fascists,” which is a term with a lot of play today in the climate change era for those who are openly anti-human. In a sense, Bookchin ended up as a sort of small-town crank, the kind of guy who would go to a lot of New England town meetings to make a point, but the kind of guy that everyone tolerated and respected too. In fact, he fell in love with the New England town meeting and made it his ideal point of governance.

Interestingly, Bookchin has arguably had more influence internationally than on the American left. Now, Bookchin absolutely was influential among Eugene anarchists when I was in college, but it was this kind of pocket, not a general influence. But Bookchin got popular with the PKK among the Kurds, of all people. In fact, while PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was in prison, he started reading post-Marxist texts and got into Bookchin and tried to work out some way for them to meet. That never happened, but still, it’s an interesting point.

Murray Bookchin died of heart failure in 2006. He was 85 years old. Upon his death, the PKK sent out a press release calling him “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century.”

Murray Bookchin is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Burlington, Vermont.

If you would like this series to visit other American anarchists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stephen Pearl Andrews is in The Bronx and Jo Labadie is in Livonia, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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