Murray Bookchin

Political philosopher and activist who became a founder of the ecological movement

Saturday 19 August 2006 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Murray Bookchin, writer, philosopher and political activist: born New York 14 January 1921; married 1951 Bea Applestein (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Burlington, Vermont 30 July 2006.

'Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced" wrote Murray Bookchin in 1991, "is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy".

What drove this autodidactic scholar, activist and founder of "social ecology" to a prolific output of writing and research spanning 50 years, was the belief that analysis of social crises and transformation, and the revolutionary action required thereon, ought to have a much wider focus than a strictly economic one. This would lead Bookchin into a direct confrontation with Marxism and Marxists that would forever define his thinking.

Born in the Bronx in 1921 to Russian immigrants, themselves radically politicised by the social upheavals of revolutionary Russia, Bookchin cut his teeth as a political activist and public orator on the streets of the working-class districts of New York. At the age of nine, he joined the Young Pioneers, the youth section of the American Communist Party. Aged 12, he had already started to read Marx's work - including "groping studies" of Das Kapital - and would spend his teenage years trying to capitalise on the instability of the Depression by actively spreading the word of Marx.

However, Bookchin would become yet another Communist Party casualty of the Spanish Civil War and the Hitler-Stalin pact, which both laid bare the first indications of the failings of Communism in practice. After a spell in the US Army during the Second World War, Bookchin would return to his political writing and activism in the 1950s, but with an added clarity about the failings of the Marxist interpretations of revolution so dominant in the inter-war period.

By the 1960s, he was raging against the adherence of most of the revolutionary movement to these older, economic interpretations of Marxism. In his infamous 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist!, Bookchin argued that the problems that had beset the revolutionary movement thus far had arisen not from a historical misreading of Marx, but from a Marxist misreading of history.

For Bookchin, an examination of the times in which he was writing would prove that there were vast swathes of activity in the social realm that were ignored by the Marxian model. The New Social Movements (NSMs) of the 1960s - in particular the feminist, the community, and the ecology movements - were clear evidence to Bookchin of the fundamentally different terrain of revolutionary action of his day, containing developments Marx could simply not foresee.

But as should be expected from a thinker as dialectical as Bookchin, there is a sense of an unfolding in his work, a delineated path where one can trace the development of his thought as a product of his further engagement with Marx's work, fleshing out his own philosophy in the process. Thus, in later writings, the factors he had originally seen as mere differences between his own time and Marx's became something much more - they became the real social factors that had been ever-present, but that had been missed by Marx and the Marxian analytical model.

The NSMs thus came to represent the true resting point of revolution for Bookchin, but not because of the particular details of each individual movement, but rather because of the implications of the shared issues they raised - the concepts of hierarchy and domination which each of these movements worked against. Crucially, these were concepts that had very little to do with economic exploitation.

Bookchin began to see that no matter how full a revolution based on the Marxian model might be, there would be a whole range of hierarchies that would be left untouched. More specifically, the Marxist goal of the abolition of the exploitative capitalist state would only end economic hierarchy and domination. Thus, what was required was a fully social revolution that would take on hierarchy and domination wherever they were found.

Alongside his ongoing debate with Marxism, Bookchin developed the second great theme of his life's work - investigation into the burgeoning environmental crisis of the post-war period. As early as his 1952 article, "The Problems of Chemicals in Food", published in Contemporary Issues under the pseudonym Lewis Herber, Bookchin was beginning to decry the effects that advanced capitalism was having on the environment. In 1962, six months before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Bookchin published Our Synthetic Environment, a far more comprehensive and challenging account of environmental degradation, and, for many in the movement, the true harbinger of widespread ecological awareness.

By the end of the decade, Bookchin had further developed his notion of ecology in his 1970 pamphlet Ecology and Revolutionary Thought into a revolutionary critical science: he suggested that increased awareness of ecological breakdown stemming from ecological investigation would represent the ultimate death knell for capitalism - and not the working classes after all.

This dual focus of Bookchin's investigations - of social hierarchy and domination, and of ecological degradation - led him to label his growing theoretical corpus "social ecology", and by 1974 he had co-founded the Institute of Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont, which undertook the dissemination of his ideas linked to various degree courses with sister institutions. By the mid-1970s, he was also a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

He continued to write, and produced some of his most respected works - most notably The Limits of the City (1974) and Toward an Ecological Society (1980). In 1982 he published the seminal work The Ecology of Freedom, a sweeping and full elucidation of the concept of social hierarchy that he had first tried to define 20 years earlier. Here, he also attempted to prove that hierarchy on the scale found in human society did not exist in the natural world, or in earlier, organic societies, and its dissolution was therefore a real possibility through a clearer understanding of non-hierarchical, natural ecology.

Throughout the 1980s, though retired, Bookchin continued to produce more work on radical thought and action. The Philosophy of Social Ecology (1990) was a thorough account of the theoretical basis of his thought, and his late 1990s three-volume history of popular movements, The Third Revolution, was an impressive feat of research for a thinker approaching his eighties. Throughout this period, Bookchin and his colleague and companion, Janet Biehl, worked to produce The Politics of Social Ecology: libertarian municipalism (1998), a key text in the social ecology canon.

Andy Price

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