Ten questions on Murray Bookchin


By Matthew Quest

Bookchin, Murray. The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and Direct Democracy.

Preface by Ursula K. Le Guin. Introduced and Edited by Debbie Bookchin and

Blair Taylor. New York: Verso, 2015.

[Note: This valuable interview with Blair Taylor was completed circa 2015. Subsequently many obstacles were placed in the way of its publication. This was in the aftermath of the Occupy Movement. With seven years having passed since then, a word should be mentioned about Taylor’s reminder of the link between Murray Bookchin and Abdullah Ocallan.

There has been a rich debate, even among anarchists and left libertarians, as to the merits of Abdullah Ocallan, the PKK/Rojava leader of the Kurds. It is accurate that Ocallan, having been inspired by Bookchin to reconsider some of his Marxist ideas, has spread further the global influence of Bookchin’s ideas. Bookchin passed away around the time Ocallan began making these projections, and some of Bookchin’s adherents began advancing Rojava solidarity work. Readers interested in Bookchin’s philosophy should study further, not simply the Kurds and the Rojava struggle, but the historical creative conflicts between direct democracy and national liberation struggles. This interview is presented with no editorial changes since the time it was completed. MQ]

1) What was Murray Bookchin's notion of direct democracy? Was it different than participatory democracy?

Participatory Democracy, as popularized in the SDS of the early 60s, was more a general orientation than a specific political program – it was open to interpretations stressing both more participation in the existing society, or a very different and structurally more directly democratic one. It was this latter option that Bookchin sought to express and develop, outlining the institutional forms that could make democracy not only more participatory but direct, leading to a self-managed society. Yet this vision was overlooked as SDS failed to create a mass movement and especially a strategy to implement participatory democracy, and soon ended up embracing Maoism, revolutionary terror, and an anti-imperialism that gave up on the American masses.

2) Did Bookchin see popular assemblies differently than most of the Occupy Movement of 2011?

OWS’ directly democratic assemblies were perhaps closer to his political vision than SDS’ participatory democracy, but still they didn’t congeal into a clear political alternative to the current order. Instead assemblies were mostly instrumentalized as a tactical and organizational form and an internal decision-making process, rather than a political and strategic one that could comprise a dual power. Often OWS conflated movement forms and norms for society at large, not unlike the new social movements of the 70s and 80s. In contrast, Bookchin argued for popular assemblies that would expand their base of power, which were not geared primarily at reproducing protest encampments but reclaiming popular power. He also opposed consensus as the tyranny of the minority, which many thought was born out by the OWS experience. So there were some important broad similarities – anti-capitalist direct democracy embodied in the assembly form, but not embedded in a clear political and strategic alternative, which is what he outlines in The Next Revolution, and why we’re excited it’s being published now.

3) What was Bookchin's critique of electoral party politics and how was his politics of libertarian municipalism meant to challenge them?

He believed representative/electoral politics institutionalized disempowerment and created a permanent professional class of politicians removed from society, forming their own class with their own interests. Libertarian municipalism was a political approach that didn’t just offer a different political content, although it also had this, but also a fundamentally different political form designed to replace a disempowering “statecraft,” as he called it, with a directly democratic politics of self-management taking the form of networked popular assemblies.

4) How are Bookchin's writings on direct democracy and popular assemblies informed by his four volume study of the Third Revolution particularly where he explored the Puritan, French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions?

He noted that throughout history, when people threw off oppressors they often banded together in councils to collectively manage their affairs. Yet this consistent form was overlooked by radical movements, subordinated or crushed by nationalists and Marxists alike. Bookchin’s politics takes this insight (Communalism coming from the councils of the Paris Commune) and develops it into a new politics, in the way radicalizing Hannah Arendt’s similar call for a radical civic republicanism in the last chapter of her book On Revolution, which calls council democracy “The Lost Treasure of the Revolutionary Tradition.”

5) What were some of Bookchin's critiques of lifestyle anarchism and deep ecology? Did they help advance anarchist movements? Were these challenges so internal to anarchist movements that they sometimes mystified the teaching of the meaning of anarchism among non-adherents?

It’s true Bookchin’s critiques of primitivism, Deep Ecology, and what he called “lifestyle anarchism” were so frequent and heated that in the 90s they threatened to overshadow the rest of his project, including his positive articulation of a democratic social anarchism. Yet those tendencies were very real in the radical scene – misanthropic ecologies that advocated population control or even “die offs” in racist terms, embracing HIV as “thinning the herd,” not to mention a variety of people rejecting anarchism’s historic tie to the left and political organization, advocating instead “anarchy” that focused not on revolutionary social change but rather fleeting moments of individual and small group freedom found by living on the margins and via “temporary autonomous zones,” an emphasis on non-oppressive lifestyles like veganism, an ecological politics based on dumpster diving and reuse, all of which were perhaps admirable attempts, but which taken together posed not a threat but an adaptation to the present order. They had abandoned the possibility of revolution, and the need for politics and political organization. These folks were often the “vanguard” of radical activist movements, and he worried they were becoming both insular and ineffective. They were internal, and after long and exhausting debates, he decided they were right, he wasn’t an anarchist, and left to develop his own politics – Communalism.

6) Do you believe Bookchin's body of work was underdeveloped in how it spoke to race, nationalism, and the cultures of formerly colonized nations? Or does he actually have an interesting body of work on these topics which clashes with common assumptions of the American Left leading these to be ignored or held in contempt?

Bookchin’s project really began as an attempt to expand a very economistic, mostly Marxist framework on the Left, so that it dealt with not only class exploitation but gender, race, and age domination. This is why he turned to the concepts of hierarchy and domination – as broader concepts than the class and economic exploitation that had defined most of the left historically. By theorizing the rise of hierarchical society, of which economic class society was but one historical form, he wanted to offer a new left theory that didn’t make non-economic issues secondary. So Bookchin really was a pioneer in criticizing economic reductionist forms of Marxism and opening up space for new issues, struggles, and concerns. Yet as he was attempting to develop a very broad and general theory of history, he was not able to theorize every specific form of hierarchy and domination, and while an ardent anti-racist, did not write extensively on racism.

However, the book includes an essay, Nationalism and the National Question which directly discusses many of the themes of racism, nationalism, and colonialism. He believed an “unswerving opposition to racism, gender oppression, and domination as such must always be paramount,” but also forcefully rejected nationalism and statism as dead ends. He believed states did not make people free, and that nationalism encouraged racism and artificial divisions that papered over class and political differences. His anti-statism and universalism put him at odds with the turn to Maoism and national ideology in the late 60s. He saw national liberation and identity politics as adaptive rather than revolutionary, pragmatic abandonments of internationalism and universalism that sought only a more just division of wealth and power in the existing world, rather than a radically new one.

He felt many movements – from black nationalism to cultural feminism – had simply reversed traditional power hierarchies, replacing the idea of the “superiority” of straight white men with women, queers, and people of color instead, thus reinforcing irrational categories of domination rather than undermining them. Just as the Old Left fetishized and valorized workers in the abstract, he thought the New Left was too quick to abandon critique and principled political positions to defer to the new “most oppressed”: people of color and the third world. So despite his work with CORE, the feminist movement, his theoretical work that put racism and sexism at the center, his universalist commitments would rankle the particularist and cultural relativist streaks of the present left. I suspect that although he was committed to fighting white supremacy and all forms of hierarchical domination, he would be dissatisfied with the current hegemony of “privilege” politics, which point towards a more just distribution of existing social resources but not a more expansive form of freedom. He sought an ethical internationalism based on shared politics rather than the elevation of parochial national and cultural identification.

7) How do we reconcile Bookchin's unapologetic emphasis on Enlightenment rationalism and explain as well his occasional affirming and insightful discourses on indigenous cosmologies? Is religion and ethnic cultures always properly seen as outside the political realm for Bookchin? Could there be some exceptions?

I don’t think there is any contradiction between his defense of reason and his valorization of certain democratic indigenous practices. Yet he wanted a rational society, where people did not oppress and dominate each other because it made sense and was right, not because some ancient God or myth prohibited it. While defending individual freedom of faith, he recognized that a plural society could not be based on particular religious beliefs, and attempts to do so have been a source of historical oppression from early Christian Europe to Indian Hinduism. In this case he defended that religion and “culture” were something distinct from politics – making and governing the world in common. He hoped this very process would offer a different form of democratic ethical life, indeed a new community that would undermine the irrational, particular, and chauvinist forms of social identification in the past.

8) Bookchin developed a type of philosophy of becoming which he at times called a “dialectical naturalism.” He seemed to be inspiring in his critique of Karl Marx as a bourgeois sociologist but retreated from this in later years and seemed to have an affinity for Marx's philosophical outlook. How much is Bookchin's dialectical naturalism influenced by Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin, and what are some of the other elements which influenced his developing method?

I think Bookchin expressed more admiration for Marx in his later years because he saw how much the left had changed, and that there were even worse things than a Marxist left. The old truisms of the need for organization, universalism and internationalism, revolution were largely forgotten by a postmodern left that rejected formal political organization while embracing spiritualism, particularism and nationalism. His philosophy of Dialectical Naturalism could be described as a synthesis of Marxian/Hegelian method with Kropotkin’s evolutionary naturalism. It was also deeply informed by the growing ecology movement. At the same time, naturalist philosophies of all kinds were strongly attacked in the 90s and 00s by poststructuralism, which Murray largely rejected, and didn’t take some of their, in my view valid critiques, seriously.

9) Late in life Bookchin seemed to disavow anarchism in favor of what he termed “communalism.” How much of this was that he saw left libertarians as insufficiently interested in mutual aid and building social movements beyond personal affinity groups and sub-cultures? How much of this was he felt most anarchists were not sufficiently interested in revolutionary organization?

This was at the core of his departure from anarchism – its inward looking individualism and lack of interest in mass movements and revolutionary organizations. Together these concerns deeply inform his counter project of Communalism.

10) Interestingly, Chuck Morse in his “Being a Bookchinite” has argued that Bookchin failed at his life project of developing a coherent revolutionary doctrine and as well at developing a project of revolutionary organization. Morse has also suggested that Bookchin had never captured the imagination among a sizable group of people, never had a significant influence among academics, and is generally not part of debates among the Left. His striving for a systemic doctrine and to cultivate disciples may no longer be defensible in an intellectual world with a more post-modern epistemological awareness. I find Morse's assessment harsh but I never worked with Bookchin and this is coming from an assessment of Morse's own past with him. Was not one of Murray Bookchin's great contributions that he was an anarchist who tried to cultivate the popular will and build revolutionary organizations? Do you have any opinions on these challenges and assessments?

Most revolutionaries “fail” to create revolution, but that sets a pretty unrealistic high bar. But in fact Bookchin had a huge impact on the left both intellectually and practically, through his ideas and deep engagement with every major movement of his life from the Communist Party, Trotskyism, the New Left, peace, ecology, and feminist movements, alter-globalization and anarchist movements. Our introduction describes these important influences in some detail, to suggest that he is a key architect of the contemporary left – Bookchin was really the first to develop a broad critique of hierarchy and all forms of oppression, make ecology a left issue, and develop a modern social anarchism before eventually abandoning it for a politics centered on popular assemblies.

So it’s not surprising that today Bookchin is undergoing a renaissance, coming from some very unexpected quarters. Even way back in 1987 the book The Last Intellectuals singled out Bookchin as an important overlooked thinker, while today David Harvey praises his work in his latest book Free Cities. During the 1990s, as his Marxist detractors went extinct and poststructuralists debated the revolutionary potential of pop culture, global social movements echoed Bookchin’s social critique by taking representative democracy and capitalism as their primary targets. And of course now many are captivated by the adoption of Bookchin’s ideas by Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK and their implementation in Rojava, and during war with the Islamic State. Movements around the world today are implicitly and explicitly adopting Bookchin’s ideas, and intellectuals are rediscovering his work, and we hope this book will contribute to that process, as they have much to offer those who wish to move from endless protest to social transformation.

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