Bizarre and Wonderful

Wes Enzinna

  • Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin by Janet Biehl
    Oxford, 344 pp, £22.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 934248 8

In spring 2004, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, sent a letter to Murray Bookchin, an 83-year-old, wheelchair-bound, arthritic eco-anarchist in Burlington, Vermont. Öcalan was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement on an island off the Turkish coast. In prison he’d abandoned Marxism-Leninism and was in search of a new philosophy. He told Bookchin that he considered himself his ‘student’, ‘had acquired a good understanding of his work, and was eager to make the ideas applicable to Middle Eastern societies’.

Bookchin was an advocate of an eclectic form of environmentalist anti-capitalism. In Ecology of Freedom (1982), he argued that man’s destruction of the environment is the result of his domination of other men, and only by doing away with all hierarchies – man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor – could humanity avert ecological and economic collapse. In The Rise of Urbanisation and the Decline of Citizenship (1987) and Urbanisation without Cities (1992), he proposed ‘libertarian municipalism’ as an alternative to representative democracy and authoritarian state-socialism: directly democratic assemblies would confederate into larger networks and eventually topple state power. His 24 published books had earned him admirers such as Grace Paley, Noam Chomsky and Ursula LeGuin (who based her novel The Dispossessed in part on Bookchin’s early work); but Gary Snyder denounced him as a ‘thug’, the Situationists dismissed him as ‘spit in the horrible communitarian soup’ and one of his former acolytes, David Watson, wrote a book, Beyond Bookchin, ridiculing him.

Bookchin replied to Öcalan that he was too ill to correspond with him. Öcalan wasn’t put off. He believed Bookchin’s work showed a way for failed national-liberation struggles to transform themselves into democratic movements without losing their revolutionary ambitions and recommended that all PKK-affiliated politicians in Turkish Kurdistan read Urbanisation without Cities and all guerrilla fighters read Ecology of Freedom. In March 2005 he issued the ‘Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan’, calling on his followers to embrace a version of libertarian municipalism. ‘My worldview,’ he told his lawyers, ‘is very close to that of Bookchin.’

PKK militants duly formed democratic assemblies and experimented with organic agriculture; female members took leadership roles. The goal was to incubate self-governed Kurdish institutions within the Turkish state, resorting to violence only if their autonomy was threatened. ‘We will put Bookchin’s ideas into practice as the first society that establishes a tangible democratic confederalism,’ an anonymous member of the PKK leadership said after Bookchin died in July 2006. ‘We undertake to make him live in our struggle.’

In Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, Janet Biehl portrays Öcalan’s idol as a contradictory source of revolutionary inspiration – an anarchist who nursed a Leninist’s tendency to bully his opponents; an environmentalist who loved eating McDonald’s; a utopian who couldn’t get along with anyone. Before becoming Bookchin’s biographer, Biehl was his lover and companion for 19 years. She nursed him, typed his letters and promised, somewhat reluctantly, to write his biography, though her book sometimes confuses the methods of memoir (anecdote, unrecorded conversation, memory) with the strategies of the historian. She didn’t have permission from his estate to quote at length from Bookchin’s papers. The result is a sympathetic, incomplete and sometimes frustrating account of the life of a largely forgotten radical whose work the Kurdish liberation movement has resurrected.

Bookchin was born in the Bronx neighbourhood of East Tremont in 1921. He was raised mostly in the apartment of his Russian-Jewish grandmother, Zeitel Kaluskaya, who had smuggled guns for the anarchists and fled the tsarist authorities. Kaluskaya wept when she heard that Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed. By the age of 13, Bookchin was a leader of the Young Communist League of the CPUSA. After his mother lost her job, he slept under a bridge on 149th Street and sold copies of the Daily Worker. He had a talent for soapboxing in Union Square, and led a gang that fought with the police, argued with members of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, and held basement fistfights to practise for the coming revolution. ‘The first time Murray got hit by a cop with a billy club’, Biehl writes, was ‘while carrying an evicted family’s furniture back up a stairwell’.

In 1939, after being expelled from the Young Communist League for criticising the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Bookchin became a Trotskyist and dropped out of high school. At the age of twenty, he joined the Merchant Marines, but got ‘too hungover to report for duty’. For ten months, he trained as an infantryman at Fort Knox. ‘I was still a Bolshevik,’ he told Biehl. ‘I believed that we should be trained for armed insurrection.’ Then he went to work at a General Motors machine-shop in Manhattan and began organising for the United Auto Workers and, secretly, the Socialist Workers’ Party. In five years, Bookchin recruited just one worker into the SWP’s inner ranks. Trotsky’s prediction that the Second World War would end in massive workers’ revolts had failed to materialise. The decision of GM workers in 1948 to accept a contract forbidding them from going on strike, Biehl writes,

demonstrated to Bookchin once and for all that [the working-class] was not revolutionary … Having been a Marxist since the age of nine, the realisation came as a shock. For if the proletariat was not revolutionary, then proletarian socialism was an illusion, and Marxism was based on a fallacy. He left General Motors, dazed and uprooted.

Bookchin’s community collapsed around him. The party had failed him; his grandmother died; the Cross-Bronx Expressway, built by the city planner Robert Moses, ripped through East Tremont, displacing five thousand people.

In 1950, Bookchin joined a literary collective led by Josef Weber, a Holocaust survivor, who had brought together a group of former Communists to publish Contemporary Issues, a journal that sought ‘a democratic solution to the crisis of mankind’ that was neither capitalist nor Marxist-Leninist. Weber encouraged Bookchin to draw on his experience in East Tremont and write about urban planning, agriculture and natural history. He spent his days in New York’s public libraries studying Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, biology texts and government agriculture statistics, then published the results in Weber’s journal. Contemporary Issues received little attention and as its failure became obvious Weber turned on his acolytes. In 1958 he denounced Bookchin as subservient and stupid, ‘like the dog behind the stove’; he tried to have an affair with Bookchin’s wife, Beatrice Appelstein, whom Bookchin had met while speaking to a socialist Zionist group at City College; he called Bookchin a ‘pig’ and a ‘mere journalist’.

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