Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Murray Bookchin

I learned Monday of the death of Murray Bookchin via ReadySteadyBlog. In the short time that I've been aware of Bookchin, he's earned my respect for his exciting and above all rational ideas about the state and anarchism and ecological issues. Only a few months ago I read Bookchin's Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left, an excellent, lively collection of interviews and essays from the mid-1990s. I had planned to write something about it at the time but never got around to it. The book serves well as a short history of 20th century radicalism, with analysis of what went wrong at various times and places, as well as a critique of many of the problems facing radicalism today, including the unfortunate tendencies in present-day anarchist thought--tendencies toward anarchism as a lifestyle choice, anti-scientific, divorced from real life as lived by most people.

I suspect that I first became aware of Anarchism as something to take seriously through the work of Noam Chomsky. But, other than general ideas about the nature of authority, Chomsky doesn't spend much time articulating a vision of the future. In his famous essay, "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (found in his first book, American Power and the New Mandarins--reissued in 2002 by The New Press), Chomsky does discuss at length the Spanish Civil War, particularly the initially revolutionary nature of that conflict and the typical inability of the liberal media to recognize it. In doing so, he quotes extensively from George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, particularly passages in which Orwell describes what he encountered upon arriving in Spain--genuine worker control, the apparent lack of hierarchies, etc. Chomsky's discussion fired my imagination, creating in me an abiding interest in the Spanish Civil War as one of the key events of recent history.

I finally read Orwell's book last month. It had been a contender for "next book" for some time, but Ellis Sharp's brief post about it brought it front and center in my attention (I also highly recommend the book and agree with Sharp, and Chomsky incidentally, that it is considerably better than Orwell's fiction). One of Orwell's observations is that the war was only truly alive to the general public when they felt there was something they were fighting for, beyond just generic "democracy" from above, when they had the arms and still controlled the territories that the Anarchists had captured, when it was revolutionary, which the Communist Party clearly was not, controlled as it was by the Soviet Union (which, perhaps, did not want to alienate its military ally, France). This theme is important. Bookchin, in the above-mentioned collection, makes no bones about the fact that the American Communist Party followed the dictates of the Soviet Union, but he stresses that, by the 1930s the Soviet Union, and by extension the Communist Parties in other countries, had long since ceased to be a revolutionary force. I don't have Bookchin's book in front of me to refresh my memory, but these passages, for me, put the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s in an even more tragi-comic light than before. I will return to this with at least quotations from Bookchin in future posts. I have and plan to read soon Bookchin's history The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936.

Richard Estes at American Leftist has a nice post about Bookchin, with links to some other articles, including this obituary in CounterPunch by Brian Tokar, and, after quoting some passages from Bookchin himself, ties his ideas in with what is going on now in South America:
No doubt some Marxists will take umbrage at Bookchin's blunt celebration of anarchism as the source of most contemporary social movements. It is the argument that will never go away, always returning in new variations. Is it only possible to carry forward the revolution by taking control of the instruments of state power, or, must the revolution, if it is to succeed, aspire to the eradication of the state itself?

Nowhere is the question more acute than in Venezuela, where the Chavistas have seized control of the state, through recourse to a paradoxical ideology that emphasizes the nationalism of Bolivar and the universality of Guevara, using it to defend against the imperial intervention of United States, while social movements exploit the newly opened space for experimentation, frequently relying upon the broad anarchist principles enunciated by Bookchin, artisanship, the mutual aid of the community, a closeness to nature and enlightened ethical norms.
I don't know a lot about Chávez and the Bolivarian movements. We hear a lot in the US about Chávez's "authoritarianism" but not much about what is actually happening on the ground. Estes quotes from an interview with Al Giordano in 2002, which contains a number of important observations, a couple of which I want to also quote:

The Bolivarian Circles are very similar to the Workers Councils of Paris 1968. There's also a Situationist tendency in some of what we see in the Venezuelan revolution. One of my best writers recently put that word, revolution, in quotation marks, but I don't. The surrounding of the TV stations, the confrontation with "the spectacle," Chávez's own willingness to confront the corrupt Commercial Media and legalize Community TV and radio, these things are showing the entire world a way out of this media mess. I love it.

None of this means I think that a Chávez government or a Lula government or a Lucio government or any other government is all honey over cornflakes. But the insistence that any movement be "perfect" or "correct" is the quickest route to a permanent state of defeat. What we've seen in Venezuela is that the government (the classic concept of the state) has taken very key actions, like legalizing Community Media as a Constitutional right, and smashing to bits the previous corrupt two-party system, has opened a space for more anarcho-syndicalist and self-valorized activity to gain a foothold in society, where previously it had none.

For me, Murray Bookchin's clear, no-nonsense style has been an important starting point on the way to understanding a lot of radical thought. In the process, he has addressed a number of the superficial concerns that I had about Anarchism, particularly its co-optation by "lifestyle anarchists"--technophobic people with an excessive interest in mystical new age hooey. I have still used the word "Anarchism" to signify what I am interested in here, but perhaps it's better to use Bookchin's term "communalism" to differentiate from the lifestyle anarchists. In any event, Bookchin's work has fascinated and inspired me. I mourn his passing, and I look forward to reading more of his books, such as The Ecology of Freedom, as well as another one on Spain, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936.


Richard Estes said...

The Bolivarian Revolution is paradoxical in many ways, but that does not mean that it is politically contradictory, or devoid of a clear vision of society.

I had the opportunity to travel to Venezuela last year, and I discovered a number of things.

First, power is too decentralized, too diffuse, for Chavez to govern according to Bolshevik principles of democratic centralism like Castro. Just look at the out of control rate of violent crime, especially murders, when do not appear to have overt political dimension.

Second, the Venezuelan left, which has worked hard since the 1970s to prepare the ground for someone like Chavez (with some criticizing him from the left and the right), did so by abandoning Che's principles of carrying out the revolution through guerrilla actions.

Third, Chavez seems to recognize that there are international limitations upon what he can do, and, hence, utilizes more voluntary methods of social organization, like cooperatives, rather than autocratic state control of resources (although, he does control aluminum and oil to direct their profits to community purposes).

For some interesting left discussion of these themes, check out these posts and comments at the Oil Wars blog:

Cooperatives in Venezuela

Castro versus Chavez

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard. Your observations from your time in Venezuala are quite interesting. Thanks also for the links to the Oil Wars posts.

Tim Barton said...


Re Murray Bookchin passing away.

I run the websites:

The latest issue of blue (BlueGreenEarth Vol.5 #11 - August 20th 2006) has run two Bookchin pieces

Whither Bookchin? - Obituary, by Tim Barton
Obituary, by Rob Allen (for Freedom Anarchist Fortnightly)

We also republished our review of Re-Enchanting Humanity

In the previous issue we had run a reprint of our Local-Global Organising feature from November 2005's Lancaster University KnowledgeLab (UK), at which I gave a Social Ecology related seminar.

Our Institute is still in its early stages, despite plans over 15 years ago to get it running, However, in the last few months things have begun to forge ahead and in 2007 we hope to have several courses available. These may be in Hastings, Ipswich, or Cork, and we hope offer them further afield over the next few years.

I hope this is of interest to you. We too were very sad to hear of Murray's death, though aware it was kind of due.


PS I also run the blog: