Murray Bookchin, Visionary Social Theorist
urray Bookchin, the visionary
and often iconoclastic social theorist and activist, died Sunday,
July 30 in his home in Burlington, Vermont. He was 85. During a
prolific career of writing, teaching, and political activism that
spanned half a century, Bookchin forged a new anti-authoritarian
outlook rooted in ecology, dialectical philosophy, and left libertarianism.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Bookchin built on the legacies of utopian
social philosophy and critical theory, challenging the primacy of
Marxism on the left and linking contemporary ecological and urban
crises to problems of capital and social hierarchy in general. He
also pioneered a new political and philosophical synthesis—termed
social ecology—that sought to reclaim local political power
by means of direct popular democracy, against the consolidation
and increasing centralization of the nation state.
From the 1960s to the present, the utopian dimension of Bookchin’s
social ecology inspired several generations of social and ecological
activists, from the pioneering urban ecology movements to the back-to-theland,
antinuclear, and sustainable technology movements to Green politics
and organic agriculture to the current anti-authoritarian global
justice movement. His influence was often cited by prominent
political and social activists throughout the U.S., Europe, South
America, Turkey, Japan, and beyond.
Even as numerous social movements drew on his ideas, however, Bookchin
remained a relentless critic of the currents in those movements
that he found deeply disturbing, including the New Left’s drift
toward Marxism-Leninism in the late 1960s, tendencies toward mysticism
and misanthropy in the radical environmental movement, and the growing
focus on individualism and personal lifestyles among 1990s anarchists.
In the late 1990s Bookchin broke with anarchism, the political tradition
he had been most identified with for over 30 years, and articulated
a new political vision that he called communalism.
ookchin was raised in a leftist family in
the Bronx during the 1920s and 1930s. He enjoyed retelling the story
of his expulsion from the Young Communist League at age 18 for criticizing
Stalin, his brief flirtation with Trotskyism as a labor organizer
in the foundries of New Jersey, and his introduction to anarchism
by veterans of the immigrant labor movement of the 1950s.
In 1974 he co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology, along with
Dan Chodorkoff, then a graduate student at Vermont’s Goddard
College. For 30 years, the Institute for Social Ecology brought
thousands of students to Vermont for intensive social ecology programs
focusing on theory and praxis. A self-educated scholar, Bookchin
served as a full professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey despite
his lack of conventional academic credentials. He published more
than 20 books and 100s of articles, many of which were translated
into Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, and other languages.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Bookchin emphasized his fundamental
theoretical break with Marxism, arguing that Marx’s central
focus on economics and class obscured the more profound role of
social hierarchy in the shaping of human history. His anthropological
studies affirmed the role of domination by age, gender, and other
manifestations of power as the antecedents of modern economic exploitation.
The Ecology of Freedom
(1982), he examined the parallel
legacies of domination and freedom in human societies, from prehistoric
times to the present. He later published a four-volume work,
, exploring anti-authoritarian currents in the
Western revolutionary tradition.
At the same time, he criticized the lack of philosophical rigor
that has often plagued the anarchist tradition and drew theoretical
sustenance from dialectical philosophy—particularly the works
of Aristotle, Hegel, and the Frankfurt School—and even the
works of Marx and Lenin.
During the past year, while terminally ill with a fatal heart condition,
Bookchin was working toward a re-evaluation of what he perceived
as the historic failure of the 20th century left. He argued that
Marxist crisis theory failed to recognize the inherent malleability
of capitalism and that Marx never saw capitalism in its true contemporary
sense. Bookchin asserted that only the ecological problems created
by modern capitalism were of sufficient magnitude to portend the
Murray Bookchin will be remembered by his devoted family members,
including his long-time companion Janet Biehl, his former wife Bea
Bookchin, his son, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, as well
as his friends, colleagues and frequent correspondents throughout
the world. A public memorial service was held in Burlington, Vermont
on Sunday, August 13.
more information on Bookchin’s work: social-ecology.org. Brian
Tokar is an environmental activist and author.