The Murray Bookchin Reader (1997)

In 1997 I compiled and edited The Murray Bookchin Reader (published by Cassell in the UK and by Black Rose Books in Canada). Its introduction explains who Bookchin was in a way that may be helpful to those new to his work. Murray called the book “the best introduction to my work.” It is long out of print from Cassell but is still in print from Black Rose. (The photos that appear here, by the way, were not included in the book in 1997.)

* * *

In the aftermath of the cold war, in a world that glorifies markets and commodities, it sometimes seems difficult to remember that generations of people once fought to create a very different kind of world. To many, the aspirations of this grand tradition of socialism often seem archaic today, or utopian in the pejorative sense, the stuff of idle dreams; others, more dismissive, consider socialism to be an inherently coercive system, one that whose consignment to the past is well deserved.

Robert Owen's utopian society

Robert Owen’s utopian society

Yet for a century preceding the First World War, and for nearly a half century thereafter, various kinds of socialism—statist and libertarian; economistic and moral; industrial and communalistic—constituted a powerful mass movement for the transformation of a competitive society into a cooperative one—and for the creation of a generous and humane system in which emancipated human beings could fulfill their creative and rational potentialities. People are ends in their own right, the socialist tradition asserted, not means for one another’s use; and they are substantive beings, with considered opinions and deep feelings, not mass-produced things with artificially induced notions and wants. People can and should throw away the economic shackles that bind them, socialists argued, cast off the fictions and unrealities that mystify them, and plan and construct, deliberately and consciously, a truly enlightened and emancipated society based on freedom and cooperation, reason and solidarity.

Material aims would be secondary to ethical concerns, people would have rich, spontaneous social relationships with one another, and they would actively and responsibly participate in making all decisions about their lives, rather than subject themselves to external authoritarian control.


Lenin and Trotsky in the Bolshevik Revolution

After 1917 a general enthusiasm for the stunning accomplishment of the Bolshevik Revolution pervaded almost all sectors of the international left, so much so that the humanistic ideals of socialism came to be attached to the Communist movement. In the 1930s young American intellectuals growing up under Depression conditions, especially in the vibrant radical political culture of New York City, cut their teeth on the version of socialism that the Communist movement taught them. Their minds brimming with revolutionary strategies and Marxian dialectics, their hopes and passions spurred by life-endangering battles against a capitalist system that seemed on the brink of collapse, they marshaled all their abilities to achieve the century-old socialist ideal.

Tragically, international Communism defiled that ideal. It committed monstrous abuses in the name of socialism, and when these abuses became too much to bear—the show trials of 1936-38, the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution, and the Hitler-Stalin pact—hopes that the Communist movement could usher in a socialist world were shipwrecked. Many radicals, reeling from these blows, withdrew into private life; others accommodated themselves to the capitalist system in varying degrees, even to the point of supporting the United States in the cold war. Still others, who did remain on the left politically, turned their attention to more limited arenas: aesthetics, or “new class” theory, or Frankfurt School sociology. Meanwhile, outside the academy, what remained of the Marxian left persisted in small groups, defying the prevailing “consensus” in favor of capitalism and accommodation.

Among the young intellectuals who had emerged from the 1930s Communist movement, relatively few responded to its failure by attempting to keep the centuries-old revolutionary tradition alive, by advancing a libertarian alternative to Marxism, one better suited to pursue a humane socialist society in the postwar era. It is a distinction of Murray Bookchin that in these years of disillusion, disenchantment, and retreat, he attempted to create just such an alternative.

Born in January 1921 in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bookchin was raised under the very shadow of the Russian Revolution, partaking of the excitement that it aroused among his immigrant and working-class neighbors.

New Pioneer, the magazine of the Young Communist League, which Bookchin joined 1934

New Pioneer, the magazine of the Young Communist League, which Bookchin joined 1934

At the same time, from his earliest years, he imbibed libertarian ideas from his maternal grandmother, who had been a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries, a quasi-anarchistic populist movement, in czarist Russia. In the early 1930s, as the United States plunged deeper into the Depression, he entered the Communist movement’s youth organizations, speaking at streetcorner meetings, participating in rent strikes, and helping to organize the unemployed, even as an adolescent, eventually running the educational program for his branch of the Young Communist League. After breaking with Stalinism—initially, in 1935, because of its class- collaborationist policies (the so-called Popular Front), then conclusively in 1937 during the Spanish civil war—he turned to Trotskyism and later to libertarian socialism, joining a group surrounding the exiled German Trotskyist Josef Weber in the mid- 1940s; his earliest works were published in this group’s periodical, Contemporary Issues. In the meantime Bookchin was deeply involved in trade union organizing in northern New Jersey, where he worked for years as a foundryman and an autoworker.

A 1930s foundry. Murray was a pourer.

Murray worked as a pourer in a foundry like this one, from 1939 to ca. 1945.

(Due to his family’s poverty, he went to work in heavy industry directly after high school.) In whatever factory he worked, he engaged in union activities as a member of the burgeoning and intensely militant Congress of Industrial Organizations, particularly the United Automobile Workers.

During the 1930s Marxian precepts had seemed to explain conclusively the Great Depression and the turbulent labor insurgency that arose during the decade, seeming to challenge the very foundations of the capitalist system. But Marxist prognoses about the 1940s were glaringly unfulfilled. These predictions had it that the Second World War, like the First, would end in proletarian revolutions among the belligerent countries. But the proletariat, far from making a revolution in any Western country under the banner of internationalism, fought out the war under the banner of nationalism. Even the German working class abandoned the class-consciousness of its earlier socialist history and fought on behalf of Hitler to the very end. Far from collapsing, capitalism emerged from the war unscathed and strengthened, with more stability than ever before.

The 1946 General Motors strike

The 1946 General Motors strike

The Soviet Union, for its part, was clearly far from a socialist society, let alone a communist one. Far from playing a revolutionary role during the war, it was actively involved in suppressing revolutionary movements in its own national interests. Finally, American industrial workers, far from challenging the capitalist system, were becoming assimilated into it. When a major General Motors strike in 1946 ended with his co-workers placidly accepting company pension plans and unemployment benefits, Bookchin’s disillusionment with the workers’ movement as a uniquely revolutionary force was complete, and his years as a union activist came to an end. The revolutionary tradition, he concluded, would have to dispense with the notion of proletarian hegemony as the compelling force for basic social change. With the consolidation of capitalism on a massive international scale, the idea that conflict between wage labor and capital would bring capitalism to an end had to be called into serious question.

To his credit, Bookchin, faced with these dispiriting conditions, nonetheless refused to relinquish his commitment to revolution. Rather, the revolutionary tradition, he felt, had to explore new possibilities for creating a free cooperative society and reclaim nonauthoritarian socialism in a new form. Anarchism, whose history had long intertwined with that of Marxian socialism, argued that people could manage their own affairs without benefit of a state, and that the object of revolution should be not the seizure of state power but its dissolution. In 1950s America, in the aftermath of the McCarthy period, the left generally—especially the anarchist movement—was small, fragmented, and seemingly on the wane. Yet anarchism’s libertarian ideals—“a stateless, decentralized society, based on the communal ownership of the means of production”—seemed to be the basis, in Bookchin’s mind, for a viable revolutionary alternative in the postwar era.

Moving decisively toward this left-libertarian tradition in the middle of the decade, Bookchin tried to free anarchism of its more dated nineteenth-century aspects and recast its honorable principles in contemporary terms. “The future of the anarchist movement will depend upon its ability to apply basic libertarian principles to new historical situations,” he wrote in 1964.

Life itself compels the anarchist to concern himself increasingly with the quality of urban life, with the reorganization of society along humanistic lines, with the subcultures created by new, often indefinable strata—students, unemployables, an immense bohemia of intellectuals, and above all a youth which began to gain social awareness with the peace movement and civil rights struggles of the early 1960s.

Even as he embraced the anarchist tradition, however, Bookchin never entirely abandoned Marx’s basic ideas. In effect, he drew on the best of both Marxism and anarchism to synthesize a coherent hybrid political philosophy of freedom and cooperation, one that drew on both intellectual rigor and cultural sensibility, analysis and reconstruction. He would call this synthesis social ecology.

* * *

Even as Bookchin was moving toward an anarchist outlook, the American economy of the early 1950s was undergoing enormous expansion, with unprecedented economic advances that catapulted even industrial workers into the booming middle class. It was not only military spending that propelled this growth; with government support, science and industry had combined to spawn a wide array of new technologies, suitable for civilian as well as military use. These new technologies, so it was said, seemed poised to cure all social ills of the time, if not and engineer an entirely new civilization.

Aerial spraying of pesticides

Aerial spraying of pesticides

Automobiles, fast becoming a standard consumer item, were promising mobility, suburbs, and jobs—giving plausibility, in the eyes of many Americans, to the slogan “What’s good for GM is good for America.” Nuclear power, it was avowed, would meet U.S. energy needs more or less for free; indeed, Lewis Strauss, the former Wall Street investment banker who first chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, predicted that electricity from nuclear power plants would become “too cheap to meter.” Miracle grains would feed humanity, and new pharmaceuticals would control formerly intractable diseases. Petrochemicals and petrochemical products—including plastics, food additives, detergents, solvents, and abrasives—would make life comfortable and provide labor-saving convenience for everyone. As for pesticides, as environmental historian Robert Gottlieb observes, they were “being touted as a kind of miracle product, supported by advertising campaigns (‘Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry’), by government policies designed to increase agricultural productivity, and a media celebration of the wonders of the new technology.” Most of the American public welcomed these new technologies, seeming to agree with the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Thomas Nolan, that the new technological resources were “inexhaustible.”

It was just at this moment of collective anticipation that Bookchin audaciously suggested that an ecological crisis lay on the horizon. “Within recent years,” he wrote in a long 1952 essay, “the rise of little known and even unknown infectious diseases, the increase of degenerative illnesses and finally the high incidence of cancer suggests some connection between the growing use of chemicals in food and human diseases.” The chemicals being used in food additives, he insisted in “The Problem of Chemicals in Food,” could well be carcinogenic. The new economic and technological boom, despite all its rosy promises, could also have harmful environmental consequences.

Little environmentalist writing existed in the United States in these years, apart from neo-Malthusian tracts that issued dire warnings about overpopulation, like Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s The Road to Survival (both published in 1948). Although a conservation movement existed, it worked primarily for the preservation wilderness areas in national parks and showed little interest in social or political analysis. The existing literature on chemical pollution, for its part, was silent on the driving role that modern capitalism was playing in the development and application of chemicals.

So it was that before most Americans even realized that an environmental crisis was in the offing, Bookchin was telling them it was. Even more striking, he was already probing its sources. “The principal motives for chemicals,” he warned, and the “demands imposed upon [farm] land” are “shaped neither by the needs of the public nor by the limits of nature, but by the exigencies of profit and competition.” The use of carcinogenic chemicals was rooted in a profit-oriented society; “profit-minded businessmen” have produced “ecological disturbances . . . throughout the American countryside. For decades, lumber companies and railroads were permitted a free-hand in destroying valuable forest lands and wildlife.” Bookchin had not only rooted environmental dislocations in modern capitalism; he had found a new limit to capitalist expansion, one that held the potential to supersede the misery of the working class as a source of fundamental social change: environmental destruction.

Bookchin started calling for a decentralized society in the 1950s, building on the work of Ebenezer Howard, whose Welwyn Garden City is shown here.

Bookchin started calling for a decentralized society in the 1950s, building on the work of Ebenezer Howard, whose Welwyn Garden City is shown here.

Amid the McCarthyite intolerance of all social radicalism in 1952, it required considerable courage to write and publish a radical social analysis of environmental problems. Yet not only did Bookchin write such an analysis; he advanced, albeit in rudimentary terms, an anarchist solution to the problems he explored, calling for the decentralization of society to countervail the looming ecological crisis, in passages that presage the marriage of anarchism and ecology that he would expound more fully twelve years later:

In decentralization exists a real possibility for developing the best traditions of social life and for solving agricultural and nutritional difficulties that have thus far been delivered to chemistry. Most of the food problems of the world would be solved to-day by well-balanced and rounded communities, intelligently urbanized, well-equipped with industry and with easy access to the land. . . . The problem has become a social problem—an issue concerning the misuse of industry as a whole.

For almost half a century, this assertion of the social causes of ecological problems, and the insistence on their solution by a revolutionary decentralization of society have remained consistent in Bookchin’s writings. He elaborated these ideas further in Our Synthetic Environment, a pioneering 1962 work that was published five months before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; unlike Carson’s book, Our Synthetic Environment did not limit its focus to pesticides. A comprehensive overview of ecological degradation, it addressed not only the connections between food additives and cancer but the impact of X-radiation, radionucleides from fallout, and the stresses of urban life, giving a social elaboration of what in those days was called “human ecology.”

The freer political atmosphere of the 1960s allowed Bookchin to express more clearly his revolutionary perspective. His 1964 essay “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” the first manifesto of radical ecology, overtly called for revolutionary change as a solution to the ecological crisis. It advanced a conjunction of anarchism and ecology to create an ecological society that would be humane and free, libertarian and decentralized, mutualistic and cooperative.

In its range and depth, Bookchin’s dialectical synthesis of anarchism and ecology, which he called social ecology, had no equal in the postwar international Left. The first major effort to fuse ecological awareness with the need for fundamental social change, and to link a philosophy of nature with a philosophy of social revolution, it remains the most important such effort to this day.

Social ecology, drawing on multiple domains of knowledge, traces the roots of the ecological crisis to dislocations in society. As Bookchin put it in “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought”: “The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world.” This inextricable relation between society and ecology remains a pillar of social ecology.

But social ecology has not only a critical dimension but a reconstructive one as well. Since the causes of the ecological crisis are social in nature, we can avert the present danger of ecological disaster only by fundamentally transforming the present society into a rational and ecological one. In this same 1964 article, in “Toward a Liberatory Technology” (written the following year), and in many subsequent works, Bookchin described his version of the truly libertarian socialist society. It would be a decentralized and mutualistic one, free of hierarchy and domination. Town and country would no longer be opposed to each other but would instead be integrated. Social life would be scaled to human dimensions. Politics would be directly democratic at the community level, so that citizens can manage their own social and political affairs on a face-to-face basis, forming confederations to address larger-scale problems. Economic life would be cooperative and communal, and technology would eliminate onerous and tedious labor.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan, the urban village where Murray lived in the 1960s

The Lower East Side of Manhattan, the urban village where Murray lived in the 1960s

Bookchin would elaborate and refine many aspects of this society—and the means to achieve it—over subsequent decades. But its earliest outlines were sketched as early as 1962 and developed in 1964 and 1965. Here he also proposed that an ecological society could make use of solar and wind power as sources of energy, replacing fossil fuels. At that time renewable energy sources—solar and wind power—were subjects of some research and experimentation, but they had essentially been abandoned as practical alternatives to fossil and nuclear fuels; nor did the existing environmental literature pay much attention to them. Not only did Bookchin show their relevance to the solution of ecological problems, he stood alone in demonstrating their integral importance to the creation of an ecological society.

To maintain a large city requires immense quantities of coal and petroleum. By contrast, solar, wind, and tidal energy can reach us mainly in small packets; except for spectacular tidal dams, the new devices seldom provide more than a few thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity. . . . To use solar, wind, and tidal power effectively, the megalopolis must be decentralized. A new type of community, carefully tailored to the characteristics and resources of a region, must replace the sprawling urban belts that are emerging today.

These renewable sources of energy, in effect, had far-reaching anarchistic as well as ecological implications.

The list of Bookchin’s innovations in ecological politics does not stop here. To take another example: Warnings of a greenhouse effect were hardly common in the early 1960s, yet Bookchin issued just such a warning in 1964.

It can be argued on very sound theoretical grounds that this growing blanket of carbon dioxide, by intercepting heat radiated from the earth, will lead to rising atmospheric temperatures, a more violent circulation of air, more destructive storm patterns, and eventually a melting of the polar ice caps (possibly in two or three centuries), rising sea levels, and the inundation of vast land areas.

He underestimated only the time frame—and it is testimony to the enormity of the ecological problem that the damage that he anticipated would take centuries to develop has actually developed in only a matter of decades.

Earth Day 1970

Earth Day 1970

Bookchin spent much of the 1960s criss-crossing the United States and Canada, indefatigably educating the counterculture and New Left about ecology and its revolutionary significance. The first Earth Day in 1970, followed by the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, signaled the arrival of ecology as a popular issue. But in the following years a less radical, more technocratic approach to ecological issues came to the fore, one that, in Bookchin’s view, represented mere environmental tinkering: instead of proposing to transform society as a whole, it looked for technological solutions to specific environmental problems.

Calling this approach reformistic rather than revolutionary, Bookchin labeled it “environmentalism,” in contradistinction to his more radical “ecology.” Although some histories of the ecological and environmental movements now assert that Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess was the first to distinguish between environmentalism and ecology (in a paper on deep ecology, presented as a lecture in 1972), Bookchin made this distinction in November 1971, in “Spontaneity and Organization,” anchoring it, as always, in a social and political matrix:

I speak, here, of ecology, not environmentalism. Environmentalism deals with the serviceability of the human habitat, a passive habitat that people use, in short, an assemblage of things called “natural resources” and “urban resources.” Taken by themselves, environmental issues require the use of no greater wisdom than the instrumentalist modes of thought and methods that are used by city planners, engineers, physicians, lawyers—and socialists.

Ecology, by contrast, . . . is an outlook that interprets all interdependencies (social and psychological as well as natural) nonhierarchically. Ecology denies that nature can be interpreted from a hierarchical viewpoint. Moreover, it affirms that diversity and spontaneous development are ends in themselves, to be respected in their own right. Formulated in terms of ecology’s “ecosystem approach,” this means that each form of life has a unique place in the balance of nature and its removal from the ecosystem could imperil the stability of the whole.

Bookchin’s core political program remained far too radical to gain general social acceptance in those decades. But many of his remarkably prescient insights have by now become commonplaces, not only in ecological thought but in mainstream popular culture, while their originating source has been forgotten or obscured. By advancing these ideas when he did, Bookchin exercised a strong and steady influence on the international development of radical ecological thought.

* * *

As significant as Bookchin’s prescient insights are, they are only part of what is actually a large theoretical corpus. Over the course of five decades, the ideas of social ecology have grown steadily in richness. Encompassing anthropology and history, politics and social criticism, philosophy and natural science, Bookchin’s works evoke the grand tradition of nineteenth-century generalists, who could write knowledgeably on a multiplicity of subjects—a tradition that is, lamentably, fast disappearing in the present age of scholarly specialization and postmodernist fragmentation.

Drawing on anthropology and history, Bookchin explored the libertarian and democratic traditions that could contribute to the creation of an ecological and rational society. A “legacy of freedom,” he believes, has run like an undercurrent within Western civilization and in other parts of the world, with certain social virtues and practices that are relevant to the socialist ideal. In its nascent form this legacy appears in the “organic society” of prehistoric Europe, with a constellation of relatively egalitarian social relations. These societies were destroyed by the rise of hierarchy and domination and ultimately by the emergence of states and the capitalist system.

Hierarchy and domination, it should be noted, are key concepts in Bookchin’s political work, for although in his view the ecological crisis has stemmed proximately from a capitalist economy, its ultimate roots lie in social hierarchies. The ideology of dominating the natural world, he has long maintained, is an anthropomorphic projection of human social domination onto the natural world. It could only have stemmed historically from the domination of human by human, and not the other way around. During the late 1960s and 1970s Bookchin’s anthropological, historical, and political explorations of the “legacy of freedom” and the “legacy of domination,” as he called it, percolated through radical social movements—not only the ecology movement but the feminist, communitarian, and anarchist movements as well. The concept of hierarchy in particular, assimilated by the counterculture into conventional wisdom, has become essential to radical thought due largely to Bookchin’s insistence on its nature and importance in many lectures in the late 1960s.

Bookchin’s ideas have retained an underlying continuity over the decades, and it is precisely by upholding his original principles that he has maintained his stalwart opposition to the existing capitalist and hierarchical system. As could be expected of any writer engaged in concrete political activity, his ideas have also changed over time; yet they have done so not to effect a compromise with the existing social order but to sustain a revolutionary position in response to regressive developments both in the larger society and within social movements for change. Often he has initiated intramural debates by objecting to tendencies that he considered out of place in a revolutionary movement, due to their opportunism, their accommodation to the system, or their quietism; his frequently polemical style stems from an earnest attempt to preserve the revolutionary impulse in movements that hold potential for radical social transformation. To his credit, he raised such objections even when the tendencies to which he objected were the more popular ones and when acquiescence would have enhanced his own popularity. Still, even as the key concepts of social ecology remain fundamentally unchanged since the 1960s, the many debates in which he has been engaged have primarily defined and sharpened them. If anything, his ideas have become more sophisticated over time as a result of these debates.

It is typical of Bookchin that his ideas should become honed as a result of practical movement experience. Despite his large body of theoretical writing, he is no mere armchair theorist. Throughout his life he has consistently maintained an active political practice: his union and protest activities in the Depression decade, his libertarian activities of the 1950s and 1960s, his mobilization of opposition to a nuclear power plant proposed for Queens in 1964, his civil rights activities, his participation in endless demonstrations and actions in the 1960s against the Vietnam war and in support of ecology and anarchism, his 1970s involvement in the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance, his efforts to preserve and expand democracy in his adopted state of Vermont, and finally his influence, in the 1980s, on the development of Green movements in the United States and abroad, trying—often unsuccessfully—to keep them on a radical course. Only in his eighth decade have physical infirmities—especially a nearly crippling arthritis—obliged him to withdraw from organized political activity.

Yet withdrawal from active political work has not meant that Bookchin has put down his pen. On the contrary, in an era of reaction, he continues to denounce tendencies that compromise the radicalism of the ecological and anarchist movements, be it a mystical “deep ecology” or an individualistic “lifestyle anarchism,” both of which he sees as personalistic and irrationalistic departures from the social, rational, and democratic eco-anarchism and socialism he has championed for decades. With the emergence of ecological-political tendencies that embraced irrationalism, he emphasize that an ecological society would neither renounce nor denigrate reason, science, and technology. So crucial is this point that he today prefers the phrase “rational society” to other labels for a free society, since a rational society would necessarily be one that is ecological. His commitment to longstanding socialist ideals, informed by Marx as well as by social anarchist thinkers, remains firm: for Murray Bookchin, the socialist utopia is still, as he once said, “the only reality that makes any sense.”

* * *

To all his writing, Bookchin brings a passionate hatred of the capitalist social order, expressed in the cadences of six decades of radical oratory. He brings to it the grim hatred of the grueling toil that he experienced in factories, and the acerbic intensity of one who has looked down the barrel of a gun during 1930s labor protests. At the same time he brings to it the originality and creativity of a thinker who is largely self-taught, and the love of coherence of one who studied dialectics with Marxists as a youth. He brings to it, in this age of diminished expectations, the outrage of one who consistently chooses morality over realpolitik, and he serves as the lacerating conscience of those who once held revolutionary sentiments but have since abandoned them.

A thorough understanding of his project would require a reading of his most important books. Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) contains the two pivotal mid-1960s essays mentioned in this introduction, which encapsulate so many ideas that he later developed more fully and that, in their uncompromising intensity, remain fresh to this day. The Ecology of Freedom (1982) is an anthropological and historical account not only of the rise of hierarchy and domination but of the “legacy of freedom,” including the cultural, psychological, and epistemological components of both. Although The Ecology of Freedom has been heralded in some quarters as Bookchin’s magnum opus, it has been followed by several books of at least equal importance. The Philosophy of Social Ecology, especially its revised edition (1995), is a collection of five philosophical essays on dialectical naturalism, the nature philosophy that underpins his political and social thought; he himself regards it as his most important work to date. Remaking Society (1989) is a summary overview of his ideas, with emphasis on their anarchist roots. From Urbanization to Cities (which has previously appeared under the titles Urbanization without Cities and The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship) is a wide-ranging exposition of libertarian municipalism, Bookchin’s political program, giving much attention to popular democratic institutional forms in European and American history. Re-enchanting Humanity (1995) is his defense of the Enlightenment against a variety of antihumanistic and irrationalistic trends in popular culture today. Finally, his three-volume The Third Revolution (of which the first volume is already in print at this writing) traces the history of popular movements within Euro-American revolutions, beginning with the peasant revolts of the fourteenth century and closing with the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37.

The present reader brings together selections from Bookchin’s major writings, organized thematically. Even as I have tried to show the development of his ideas over time, I have emphasized those works that have stood the test of time and that are most in accordance with his views today, at the expense of works that, generated in the heat of polemic, sometimes verged on one-sidedness. All of the selections are excerpted from larger works, and all have been pruned in some way, be it to achieve conciseness, to eliminate repetition among the selections in this book, or to produce a thematic balance among them. I have very lightly copyedited a few of the selections, but only where the need for it was distracting. Regrettably, but necessarily for reasons of space, I have had to cut all textual footnotes, retaining only those that cite a specific source. Except for these notes, I have indicated all cuts in the text with ellipsis points. I have provided the sources for all the selections in the listing that appears at the end of this book.

 Janet Biehl


Erratum: In the opening, I originally stated that the Bookchin Reader was out of print. I’ve now corrected it to reflect that the Black Rose edition is still in print. November 3, 2015.

The Left Green Network (1988-91)

In the 1980s in many countries, ecological, feminist, antinuclear, and other movements give rise to Green parties. In inspired by the then-radical German Greens, these “anti-party parties” were not yet entirely coopted by the mainstream; for several more years they would retained a degree of their original movement orientation. Late in the decade the U.S. Greens (founded in 1986) were still in flux, grappling with an existential question: would they would they remain a movement, or would they become a conventional political party? Influential members of the U.S. Greens were fixated on becoming a normalized party as a positive good and even on eventually running U.S. presidential candidates.

Photographer: Janet Biehl

Bookchin in the Pacific Northwest, 1988

In 1988, disturbed by this development, Murray Bookchin and Howie Hawkins collaborated to found the Left Green Network (LGN) as a radical alternative to U.S. Green liberals. Where the mainstream Greens wanted a conventional party, the LGN called for continuing the Greens as a decentralized movement. Where the mainstream Greens wanted to enter the existing system, the LGN rejected that system and called for replacing it with a confederation of democratic assemblies. Where mainstream Greens focused heavily on environmental issues, the LGN insisted that environmental issues were inseparable from social justice issues. Where mainstream Greens were entranced by eco-spirituality as a worldview, the LGN recognized naturalism and science as the rational basis for averting ecological ruin. And where mainstream Greens tended to blame “overpopulation” for ecological destruction, the LGN pinned the blame squarely on capitalism and the nation-state.

That summer of 1988, Hawkins and Bookchin drafted a “call” for the LGN, stating its purpose, and a set of principles based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. They would use these documents as the basis for organizing an ecological, democratic, antiracist, feminist, multicultural, anticapitalist movement.

For a few years, thanks in great part to Hawkins’s energetic organizing, the network expanded, slowly gaining adherents among Green groups around North America. The LGN participated in the Wall Street Action of 1990, along with the affiliated Youth Greens. Left Greens worked with the Diné (Navajo) in New Mexico and Arizona to prevent uranium mining on their ancestral lands. They conducted educational workshops at the Nevada nuclear test site. The local group to which Bookchin and I belonged, the Burlington Greens, ran candidates for city council on a platform to decentralize city government and replace it with neighborhood assemblies; groups in Iowa and New Haven ran similar campaigns. The LGN published an organizing bulletin and a journal. It nurtured relations with Green leftists and ecologically oriented socialists internationally.

But in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left declined quite precipitately, and many leftist groups simply disappeared. The Left Green Network lost momentum and gradually passed out of existence as well.

Howard Hawkins, c. 1987

Howard Hawkins, c. 1987

A period of reaction had set in. In the next decades, the ecological crisis would only worsen, and capitalism would become ever more consolidated.

Now, in 2015, calls for an egalitarian renewal of anticapitalist grassroots-democratic movements are once again being heard. Perhaps the time has come to take another look at the LGN’s founding documents. At the very least, as a programmatic formulation of Bookchin’s ideas (with influence by Hawkins), they constitute a historical record of this part of this important thinker’s political journey, Hence I am republishing them here. While some of their topical references are out of date, in many respects they seem prescient. Perhaps their basic structure will become relevant for organizing a similar movements today.

Call for a Left Green Network

The existing world system is based on an economic structure with a “grow-or-die” imperative that threatens to destroy life as we know it. Buttressed by militaristic nation-states organized to protect ruling elites, the present system—in both its capitalist and bureaucratic manifestations—is increasingly irrational. This irrationality is demonstrated not only by the continued and increasing oppression and dehumanization of people and their communities around the world, but by the vast destruction of the biosphere. It is manifested in Chernobyl and Bhopal, by toxics in food and contaminated water, by rainforest destruction and by acid rain, by the greenhouse effect and by ozone depletion, and recently by drought in the central United States and by the total inundation of the Ganges delta. The ruling elites’ answer to global starvation and the destruction of the very foundations of human life is war, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. To global corporations and state managers, the critical problems are interest-rate levels and the “food glut.”

A political force is needed to stop this destruction of the living earth, including humanity itself—a force organized locally and linked confederally up to the global level. Such a movement is already growing in many forms today—from Greens in Europe to communities of indigenous peoples fighting the destruction of their rainforest homes. As North American radicals, many of whom were involved in the New left of the ‘60s and the environmental movements of the ’70s, we see this emergence of the international Green movement as a major step toward creating an alternative to this destructive system.

In the United States, elements of such a new political force exist in the independent socialist and anarchist left; among Blacks and Latins for whom the promise of the Rainbow Coalition is not fulfilled; among Native American traditionalists; among feminists; in the gay and lesbian liberation movement; in the nonaligned peace movement; among workers resisting the corporate assault on living standards and fighting to control their work environments; among students and other young people facing a bleak future; in the growing Green movement; and among many people who are realizing for the first time that they are oppressed by this destructive system.

These groups now have an opportunity to converge into a force that can challenge the destruction of our humanity. We are calling for the formation of a Left Green Network in North America as a step toward that end.

1989 LGN founding meeting

At the founding meeting of the LGN, Ames, Iowa, 1989

Many of us have worked in the Green movement. We hold the concept of “Green” to be explicitly radical, inherently anti-capitalist, and completely wedded to the New Left’s commitment to participatory democracy. We believe the Green movement should carry forward the anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian themes of the New Left, while advancing a social-ecological perspective as the basis for new independent political movement.

We see the Left Green Network as an organized educational tendency for activists who share our perspectives within the left, within the Green movement, and within grassroots movements of resistance. We encourage U.S. participants in the Left Green Network to remain in—or join—the Green Committees of Correspondence, the principal nationwide Green political organization. But we also welcome participants from other Green and leftist organizations throughout North America, as well as unaffiliated Greens and leftists.

Independent leftists and Greens in the United States need to offer an alternative to the concerted efforts currently being made to steer radicals into the Democratic Party, a party whose purpose is to implement only those reforms necessary to reproduce the capitalist system and to smother those that would conflict with it. It is vital to begin providing a serious alternative for radicals who disclaim both the orthodoxies of the Old Left and the unprincipled compromises that come with seeking piecemeal forms through the Democratic Party in coalition with the corporate and military interests that dominate it. In the name of a ”lesser evil” policy, too many activists are supporting “progressive” capitalist politicians who are hardly distinguishable in substance from the “greater evil” supposedly being opposed.

This damaging trend has created a vacuum where once there was radicalism, making the rebirth of a New Left more important today than at any time since the ’60s. Such a movement must be capable of advancing principled, independent, and anti-capitalist position that addresses current realities and is unencumbered by support either for the western bloc’s corporate capitalism or the eastern bloc’s bureaucratic statism.

While so many activists have been disappearing to the Democratic Party, the U.S. Green movement has failed to live up to its promise. Often, the consensus-seeking process is abused to prevent debate on controversial questions, affirmation of majority positions, and decisions to act on them. An equation of accountable structures with hierarchy is fostering an irresponsible revolving membership and a tyranny of structurelessness. The radical potential of the Green movements is being compromised by tendencies that are fostering an anti-intellectual irrationalism, a proselytizing religiosity, and a liberal “tolerance” of an intolerant, mean-spirited Malthusianism.

Instead of advancing a coherent alternative to global destruction, the Greens are mired in a contradictory mix of orientations—peace, justice, and ecology activism along with nonpolitical mysticism and “deep ecological” misanthropy; independent leftism along with opportunistic liberalism and outright anti-leftism. Thus, in spite of the U.S. Greens’ claimed openness, the resulting absence of a clear commitment to a convergence of environmental movements with movements for economic justice, racial equality, women’s liberation, and other emancipatory movements is deeply offensive to activist Greens and many of the people they are trying to reach.

A New England affiliate of the LGN protests nukes

A New England affiliate of the LGN protests nukes

In this atmosphere of conciliation with the Democrats, on the one hand, and with anti-leftist mysticism on the other, we find it necessary to avow our commitment to the New Left tradition of a radical struggle for human emancipation. By forming a Left Green Network, we hope to advance a programmatically coherent leftist policy within the Green movement.

We take this step in a constructive spirit. We want to persuade others of our views, while functioning in a manner completely open and transparent to the movement at large, and by scrupulously abiding by the democratic processes of broader organizations. By organizing the Left Green Network, we hope to reach out to other currents of the independent left and to popular movements for peace, justice, and the environment. We want to greatly enhance the vitality, social diversity, and political coherence of the North American Green movement.

While we favor the appropriate use of consensus process by tightly knit local groups if they so choose, we oppose its abuse in newly forming groups and in large, diverse regional and national meetings. Nor are we opposed to a “spirituality” that means mutual care, respect, and a sense of community to nurture the human spirit and sustain us for political struggle. We want to foster an ecological sensibility that rests on a healthy naturalism with a sense of wonder and respect for natural evolution, and a sense of experiential communion with nature—not a supernaturalism that promotes the separation of humanity from nature and that ultimately justifies domination and hierarchy.

We do not believe that humanity’s present collision course with nature is inevitable, nor that reason excludes intuition and emotion, nor, above all, that the ecological crisis can be separated from the social crisis and dehumanization and spiritual impoverishment from oppression and material impoverishment. Green politics, therefore, are left politics—and are incompatible with the competition, alienation, exploitation, and endless accumulation that characterize capitalism.

Protesting nukes in New Hampshire

Protesting in New Hampshire

We wish to establish organizational forms for the Left Green Network that embody the Green principle of social responsibility, as well as that of grassroots democracy. Accordingly, we plan to develop an educational and organizational literature that will advance our views, including an organizing bulletin and a discussion journal for in-depth theoretical analysis. We plan to organize Left Green conferences to exchange views and set our policies; to participate in others’ conferences by sponsoring workshops, co-sponsoring forums, and the like; to develop international ties; and to promote political action in pursuit of Left Green goals. We will have a clearly defined membership with voting rights, a realistic common commitment to finance the Left Green Network, and local, regional, national, and continental organizational forms based on a confederal system of association. We call for accountability at every level of organization and in every kind of structure—both in the Left Green Network and in the other groups of which we are a part. We will seek consensus on decisions, but when differences cannot be ironed out in discussion, the majority will have the right to take and implement decisions, while the minority will have the rights to abstain from implementation and to publicly dissent.

The appended draft proposal for a Left Green body of principles provides a philosophical framework the Left Green Network based on social-ecological, anti-capitalist, independent politics. It is put forth not as a dogma but as a first step toward the ultimate creation of a Left Green program. It calls for democracy based on equality and solidarity, instead of political rule based on economic power; for social justice as a necessary part of an ecologically sustainable society; for economic justice and material well-being as a necessary part of caring for the world of life as a whole, rather than regarding nature as a resource to be raped for the sake of a “grow-or-die” capitalist economy; and for the harmonization of human with human—the elimination of violence and domination in all its forms—as a necessary part of harmonizing society with nature.

We call upon activists who share these principles to join us in building the Left Green Network in North America within the Green movement and the independent left.


Principles of the Left Green Network

[August 13,1988]

1. Ecological Humanism

Left Greens stand for the creation of a society of human liberty, equality, and solidarity in ecological harmony with nature. We seek to realize the highest democratic and libertarian ideals of the American Revolution and to create the social conditions for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We share the Revolution’s humanistic premise: that all humans are endowed by nature with the capacity for reason, empathy, and free choice and therefore have a natural right to democratic self-government and to basic freedoms, as well as economic rights.

The humanism that the Left Greens stand for, however, is an ecological humanism. We reject the antinaturalism of traditional humanisms that have sought to create a social “realm of freedom” by means of dominating a natural “realm of necessity.” We also reject the antihumanism of ecophilosophies that, in reaction to the destruction of the environment, seek to protect nature by constricting human freedom.

Left Greens oppose all forms of domination, of both human and nonhuman nature, and believe that human liberation and ecological harmony are inextricably connected. We call for a reharmonization of humanity with nature on the basis of a new harmonization of human with human. We seek a social and ecological ethics for a society in which each individual is free to reach his or her full potential; free, egalitarian, nonhierarchical society of self-governing communities that are humanly scaled, bioregionally integrated, and cooperatively confederated; a society that is a partner with the rest of nature.

2. Social Ecology

Humanity has reached a point in history where the boldest concepts of utopia are possible, yet we remain mired in the legacy of domination, and even the very survival of humanity is now in question. The ecological provision of material security for every human being is readily achievable, yet we remain trapped in a social megamachine that pits humans against each other and that devours both people and nature for its own purposes.

Left Greens are social ecologists. We root the ecological crisis in its systemic social causes—capitalism in particular and hierarchy and domination in general. The present competitive society’s war on the natural world is an extension of the war of each against all that it fosters among humans—as well as a war of each against his or her own nature. Left Greens oppose the misanthropic orientations that blame human nature, human rationality, or “overpopulation” for the ecological crisis. We believe that a radical transformation of this society is not only possible but imperative for survival as well as to continue natural and social evolution.

Human liberation and the protection of nonhuman life are not merely compatible—both are necessary. The Left Greens seek to unite social and environmental movements in order to change society. As social ecologists, we stand with every struggle for human freedom, equality, and solidarity, for the liberation of women, people of color, gays and lesbians, working people, young people, old people, peoples dominated by foreign powers, and ordinary people in all walks of life who are weighed down by the institutions and culture of domination.

Left Greens also stand with every struggle for the protection of nonhuman life. As social ecologists, we embrace the conservation of species diversity, habitats, and ecosystems and the expansion of wilderness areas. We call for ecotechnologies based on renewable, organic, and nontoxic materials, energy sources, and production processes that harmonize community-controlled economies with the ecology of their bioregions.

3. Racial Equality

Left Greens oppose any compromise with racism in any form. We support affirmative action to create substantive equality and every effort of racially oppressed groups to achieve community empowerment and self-determination. We seek to help an independent “rainbow” movement develop from below in which independent community-based organizations in all of North America’s diverse ethnic and social communities join together on the basis of substantive equality, mutual aid, and grassroots control of the movement.

4. Social Ecofeminism

Left Greens are committed to the liberation of women, to their basic reproductive rights as well as to their full participation all realms of social life. We believe in a social ecofeminism that seeks to understand and uproot the social origins of patricentric structures of domination. Unlike other ecofeminisms that accept patriarchal myths and cultural definitions of women as more” natural” than men and as existing outside culture, social ecofeminism regards women as cultural beings, as well as biological beings, and seeks to understand and change the social realities of the relationships between women, men, the political realm, the domestic realm, and all of these to nature.

5. Gay and Lesbian Liberation

Left Greens demand the sexual and social emancipation of people of all sexual preferences. We support every effort by lesbians and gay men to achieve substantive equality and civil rights in all areas, such as jobs, housing, and child custody, as well as anti-AIDS funding. We recognize that lesbians and gay men are demanding not only their own freedom and dignity but that of all people, for as long as sexuality is not free, people are doomed to thwart their most basic desires for love, pleasure, and creativity.

6. Grassroots Democracy

A society in which human beings cooperatively control their own destinies must be the product of the self-activity of a popular majority of the people. Because this kind of society cannot, by its very nature, be legislated from the top down, Left Greens do not want to get elected into the existing power structure. Rather, we want to restructure political institutions along lines that will replace the centralized state with a confederal participatory democracy. Our goal is base democracy, in which public policy at all jurisdictional scales is determined by community assemblies, such as town meetings, that are open to all citizens. Confederations of these community assemblies will coordinate public policy from below. Representatives to the larger scales of confederal self-government will receive ongoing instructions from the base assemblies and will be subject to immediate recall by the base.

7. Cooperative Commonwealth

The Left Greens seek to bring the economy under the control of the grassroots democracy. We call for a cooperative commonwealth—a fundamental alternative both the private-corporate-market system of the West and the state-bureaucratic-command system of the East. The world economy today, under both corporate capitalism and state-“socialism,” is an interconnected system based on the exploitation of the many. Its goal is not to meet human needs in harmony with nature, but the investment of capital to create more capital in order to satisfy the profit and power motives of the elite few that control the means of production and militaristic nation-states. Endless growth-for growth’s-sake is thus structured into this economic system, making it deadly to the planetary biosphere. It is inherently anti-human and anti-ecological.

The LGN at the Wall Street Action, 1990 (note the banner in the upper left)

The LGN at the Wall Street Action, 1990 (note the banner in the upper left)

It degrades social and moral bonds into depersonalized, amoral market and bureaucratic relationships. It calls upon the basest of human attributes to motivate economic activity. To attempt to humanize and ecologize this system is like asking a plant to stop photosynthesizing.

Society’s common wealth—the land and natural resources; the banks and the material infrastructure of production—is the creation of natural evolution and the labor of millions, not of the ruling elites that now control most of it. As our common heritage, Left Greens believe that this social wealth should be held in common and used cooperatively or the common good of people and their ecological context.

In a cooperative commonwealth, people democratically and cooperatively own and control their economy. Global corporations and centralized state enterprises should be broken up and replaced by individual and family enterprises, cooperatives, and decentralized publicly owned enterprises. Basic industries and services would be socialized through municipalization into community ownership and control, not nationalized into bureaucracy. Confederations of communities would own larger facilities regionally, and confederations of regions would coordinate the economy from below at still larger jurisdictional scales.

This kind of democratized economic system will uncouple the exploitative growth dynamic of today’s economic megamachine and make possible an ecological economy in dynamic equilibrium with the environment. It will empower people to define their own needs and then produce what is needed to satisfy them in harmony with nature. It will enable society to replace the growth-oriented exploitative economy that blindly devours the environment with a need-oriented moral economy that consciously establishes a dynamic equilibrium with the biosphere.

8. Human Rights

Left Greens envision a world where each individual is free to develop his or her full potential because each individual enjoys basic political, economic, and individual human rights. Left Greens make no compromises in the defense of civil liberties. But formal civil liberties are undermined as effectively by the burdens of economic deprivation as they are by overt political repression. Left Greens therefore call for the creation of a moral economy that ensures that every person’s basic material needs are met as a human right. We call for a guaranteed income sufficient to support decent standard of living and for a just distribution of available work for all willing and able. We demand shorter work weeks and call for the free provision, under community control, of education, health care, public transportation, and other basic goods and services. These social responsibilities would be funded through steeply progressive taxation, revenues from public enterprises, and voluntary contributions to public funds.

9. Non-Aligned Internationalism

Left Greens support human rights according to one universal criterion—freedom—without regard for national boundaries or the military blocs of the Cold War. They actively solidarize with nonaligned peace, ecology, democracy, worker, feminist, anti-racist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements in every country—East bloc, West bloc, Third World.

Janet Biehl prepares for a Burlington Greens action, c. 1989

Janet Biehl prepares for a Burlington Greens action, c. 1989

They envision a world without borders, a world of decentralized regions composed of confederations of self-governing communities.

Left Greens demand that every nuclear power initiate immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament and conversion to nonprovocative, home-based defense based on both voluntary conventionally-armed militia and nonviolent social defense. These forms of defense should be strictly accountable to civilian authority. Left Greens demand that every country recall all armed forces from stations abroad and use the savings from military spending for social and ecological reconstruction. Only such measures can create the just, democratic, and ecologically sustainable conditions necessary for a durable peace.

10. Independent Politics

Grassroots movements for fundamental change need an independent political vehicle. The Democratic Party has been the graveyard for every popular movement for fundamental change in the United States, from the early workers’ parties and the populist movement of the nineteenth century to the labor movement of the 1930s and, increasingly, the new social movements since the 1960s. Left Greens reject the dependent politics of lobbying and compromising inside the establishment parties, the Democrats and Republicans, which are dominated by the vested interests connected to big business and the military. We oppose any support for their candidates, including “progressive” Democrats who run against more moderate elements of the party establishment. Instead, Left Greens seek independent organization and action outside ruling-class structures. We support Greens who run on an independent Green ballot line as mandated and recallable representatives who are fully accountable to the program and membership of the Green political organization. Left Greens cooperate with and seek to develop unity with other independent political organizations on the basis of compatible political principles

11. Direct Action

Voting is not enough. Global corporations hold a private economic veto over public policy through threats of disinvestment. The bureaucratic and military structures of the stale can veto radical legislative initiatives through bureaucratic inertia and, as a last resort, military repression. Broad, popular direct action is thus needed to counter private corporate power, bureaucratic inertia, and ultimately violent repression by the military. Movements from below are the basis for Green political organization. Left Greens help build independent direct action movements that can lay the basis for an independent electoral alternative. Left Green direct action takes many forms: from nonviolent resistance to existing abuses to reconstructive action to build alternatives. The Left Greens call for extending the extra-parliamentary movement into electoral/legislative arenas, not for the purpose of getting into the existing power structure, but to restructure that power fundamentally. We seek to create direct action in its highest form—direct democracy.

Left Greens do not limit their goals to the “left wing of the possible.” We aim to change what is possible. We refuse to compromise our program in order to achieve short-term “influence” inside the establishment. Capitalism and hierarchical society generally cannot be transformed incrementally from the top down. Although Left Greens may enter legislatures to advance their program, they refuse the formal executive power of government until the majority of people not only vote for a program of basic social change but are ready to take direct action to ensure that the program is implemented

12. Radical Municipalism

Left Greens “think globally” to understand the large-scale social forces that must be transformed, while we “act locally” to create a local framework through which grassroots people can participate directly in democratic transformation. For Left Greens, community empowerment does not mean electing better representatives to govern us, but literally the empowerment of every community to practice self-government.

Left Greens call for a radical municipalist strategy that will run independent Green candidates in cities and towns across the continent on a program of building up a popular counterpower based on movements from below, on democratizing municipalities, and on creating municipal confederations that bring increasing political and economic power under community control. We hold that community empowerment must be created throughout the land in order to build up a dual power in society that can initially resist and ultimately replace nation-states and global corporations.

13. Strategic Nonviolence

Left Greens are committed to a strategy of nonviolent revolution, but we affirm the right of self-defense. We practice critical solidarity with legitimate freedom struggles, although we may not agree with every tactic or programmatic goal of such movements. Left Greens work toward a society in which political disputes are solved nonviolently. We understand that this is not currently the case, and that the central reason for this fact is the existence of social hierarchies based on racial domination, patriarchal authority, class exploitation, and an unjust world order maintained by militarist in nation-states. The inevitable instances of violence arising from the conflicts between these structures and their subjects are to be blamed on the structures of domination, not on those who resist domination. Such structural violence will be eliminated only by the elimination of these structures of domination.

14. Democratic Decentralism

Left Greens believe in democratic decentralism. On organizational forms demand strict accountability of representatives, spokespeople, candidates, and elected officials to policies set by the membership. At the same time, we believe in pluralism among the membership, including the freedom to dissent and full ongoing discussion of all positions taken by the organization. Outside of the binding agreements on the Principles and Bylaws that constitute conditions for membership, members are free to abstain from the implementation of majority decisions with which they disagree and to publicly dissent from them. Although Left Green representatives, spokespeople, candidates, and elected officials are required to act in a manner consistent with imperative mandates from the membership, they are free to publicly express their own dissenting views when they differ from such mandates. Left Greens believe in seeking to arrive at decisions by consensus if possible. But when differences exist, majorities should be accorded the right to make decisions in the name of the organization. Minorities remain free to abstain from the implementation of majority decisions with which they disagree and to publicly dissent from them.




Message to Amed Ecology Assembly

I was invited to participate in the Ecology Assembly in Amed (Diyarbakir), which met on February 28. The organizers wanted me to explain Bookchin’s thinking about ecology.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend personally, but I wrote a message to that effect and added some of my own thinking about cities as an ecological issue.  –Janet

Congratulations on the creation of the Amed Ecology Assembly—I wish I could be there with you, to speak about ecology and Murray Bookchin. Thank you for inviting me to send this message. I will summarize his work on ecology and then make some concrete suggestions that may be useful for you toward the creation of ecological Democratic Autonomy in Bakur and Rojava in the coming years.

Bookchin, as you know, was a social ecologist, which means that he saw ecology in social terms and he stated writing about it in the 1950s. Unlike other nature-minded people who revered wilderness, he thought ecology was indissolubly tied to social organization and proceeded on that premise.

Murray Bookchin in 1989

Murray Bookchin in 1989

He started writing about ecology just after the Second World War, when large-scale, industrialized agriculture was just emerging. He saw that small farms were giving way to large factory farms; that traditional farmers with a connection to the land were being replaced by capitalist enterprises that employed farm laborers—employees; that traditional agricultural lifeways, which valued the local rural community, were giving way to the drive for profit; that diverse crops, farmed in rotation, were giving way to monocultures, subject to pest infestation; that as a result pesticides were being used widely; that local farms, where crops were consumed by people living nearby as needed, were giving way to long-distance food transport; that that required chemicals to be added to food like preservatives and coloring agents, to store it when it wasn’t immediately consumed. Many of those chemicals, it was just being discovered, cause illnesses in human beings, including cancer.

Now, sixty years later, all these problems are familiar, and much of great usefulness to you has been written about the problems of capitalist, chemicalized agriculture and need for organic farming. Bookchin argued starting in the 1950s the solution was to decentralize agriculture and indeed all of society, to get break up the large industrial farms and replace them with many small farms. That way farming could be small scale, integrated to the society; crops would be grown close to where they would be consumed, so that no preservatives would be needed; that crops should be diverse and rotate again, so that monocultures could be eliminated; and farming should be restored as a respected practice, with farmers feeling an affinity to and pride in working the soil.

I don’t know how much you are being invaded by industrialized capitalist agriculture, but if you are, it’s important to resist it and hold out for small-scale organic farming and traditional practices. I think you have some ideas about how to do so with the creation of sustainable eco-villages.

Just as Bookchin wrote about agriculture, he also wrote about a parallel development in cities. He argued that cities, too, were becoming too large and industrialized, dehumanizing people who lived there with anonymous office work, the stress of harried city living, and depoliticization. He thought that in the large new metropolises, the diverse communities and neighborhoods that give cities vitality and liveliness were being eliminated by centralization. The urban social fabric was being torn to make way for highways and parking lots for automobiles. Driving cars was more important than walking, and the needs of cars were more important than the needs of people, so cars were accommodated. Gigantic new cities, like gigantic new farms, were monocultures, dehumanized. And much as the chemicals in capitalist agriculture were damaging human health, so too were gigantic cities polluting the air and water, harming people’s health as much as chemicals in food did. He thought people would soon reach the limit of what they would tolerate, in terms of these insults to their health and environment, both in agriculture and in urbanization, and would rebel.

They would demand that the gigantic cities of industrialized urbanism be broken up into human scaled neighborhoods so that a rich ethnic diversity would once gain make up an urban tapestry. In neighborhoods and villages, people could feasibly create the kind of democratic self-government through citizen assemblies. And in those assemblies they could make decisions to create a healthy society, one that didn’t use food chemicals that cause cancer, and didn’t pollute the air and water through other kinds of chemicals.

Furthermore, cities consumed enormous amounts of energy, which meant they required power plants that ran on fossil fuels: coal and natural gas, as well as petroleum. But in 1965 he wrote that that was producing a crisis called “the greenhouse effect” (what we call global warming today). In a few hundred years, he wrote back in the 1960s, the greenhouse effect would make the planet too hot for life as we know it. Since fossil fuels were creating this greenhouse effect, he said, we have to get off fossil fuels, and use renewable energy—solar, wind, and thermal power. And if those technologies can’t power gigantic cities, then we have to decentralize cities, to break them up into small-scale neighborhoods and villages, which are more suitable for renewable energy.

Decentralization was imperative, then, he argued, for these energy reasons; for health reasons (chemicals and pollution); and also for a broader moral reason: that people are more important than the profit of a few. That people’s well-being is more important than profit of a few. And that democratic self-government, taking power away from the greedy economic elites and put it in the hands of people, is an ethical good in its own right. It’s an end in itself, a fulfillment of natural evolution toward complexity and freedom. That’s why he called his big book “The Ecology of Freedom.”


In Bakur and Rojava, you too could find your traditional cities becoming gigantic. You could find your neighborhoods homogenized and disempowered, your city government centralized, your workplaces capitalized, your vibrant political culture reduced to docile employees punching clocks at boring jobs day after day. The change can happen little by little, without people even noticing it. So it’s important to stay alert and to prevent it, even little by little, and build an ecological society even with small steps.

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Rojava runs on diesel, from its oil wells, and it’s dirty and sooty. Right now, due to the embargo, Rojava lacks the resources to develop solar. And maybe you have similar problems in Bakur. As one part of democratic autonomy, you could think about adopting solar energy. You have plentiful sun. Solar panels are inexpensive these days—they could power single buildings or entire neighborhoods. I think you should consider embedding it into your infrastructure as much as you can.

Start farming in your urban neighborhoods. Set aside areas for community farms, so that people can farm in the city. Also, trees are very important—not just for beautification. They cool cities in the summertime. They help purify the air. They help keep people sane and calm and civil toward one another. They are one of the best, simplest ways to counteract climate change. Plant trees, everywhere you can, in parks, along streets, in rural areas.

In my opinion, one of the most important ecological issues of all is transportation. Specifically, we have too many cars. People love their cars, probably as much here as in the United States. But they are a real problem. They make city air hard to breathe by generating pollution and smog. And they are an ecological disaster because they produce greenhouse emissions.

But the problems are more than that. When cars are dominant in city streets, they can become harmful to vital, livable, decentralized cities.

They do it by ruining neighborhoods for people. They have to be parked, so people rip up good buildings that could be used for housing or workplaces, and pave over flat areas for parking. And they’re socially isolating. When you’re driving a car, you don’t’ encounter your neighbors and have a conversation. They endanger to pedestrians and bicyclists. And finally, they’re not even efficient as a means of transportation in a city, because they create traffic congestion and then everyone gets stuck in traffic and has to wait. So it’s both a social and an ecological issue to keep cars under control, to keep them from dominating streets.

But people get dependent on cars for a reason. They need them to get from home to work, because there’s no alternative. So it’s an ecological issue to reduce the need for cars

There are several ways to do that. Most important, strengthen your neighborhoods, so that homes and workplaces are within walking distance of each other, and shopping and recreation as well. Don’t centralize workplaces in a downtown—make sure workplaces are spread throughout the city, in the neighborhoods. That way people can walk to them rather than drive a car. And that will help keep your neighborhoods strong and vibrant.

Make it easy to walk. Design streets for people, not for cars, and keep the streets safe for people. Instead of building more roads for cars, build sidewalks. Turn certain streets over to walking and bicycling—ban cars from them. Create car-free zones. Create green networks—interconnected green areas that make it pleasant and easy for people to walk or bike through the city. All these things are being done in other parts of the world now, to reduce the need for cars. You can do it here too, or maybe you are already.

Encourage bicycling. Build bike lanes. Tear up big streets, or transform driving lanes into bike lanes. All this will support decentralization and democratic autonomy. Walkable and bikable neighborhoods are the essence of community—that’s where people meet, where you see each other face to face.

And it’s important to think about public transportation. I didn’t see any in Rojava—everyone drives cars. I know that resources are scarce, because of the embargo, but it’s important to start bringing in buses, and eventually trains, light rail, streetcars. People need cheap or free public transportation, within cities, so they don’t have to drive to the walkable neighborhood on the other side of the city. And crate public transit between cities.

Don’t be afraid of dense population in your neighborhoods. Density is good because it makes public transportation financially possible. It’s better to build up existing areas than create low-density suburbs out in the countryside that make people dependent on cars.

In the United States we have too many, and too many highways, and too many parking lots. We have to undo car dependency. Fortunately young Americans want to move away from car ownership and from driving, but they’re finding it difficult because so much of the American built environment was organized around the automobile.

Build walkability and public transit into your constructed environment from the outset. These are my recommendations for any urban ecology effort. Working with renewable energy, urban farming, walkability, and public transportation will help you support neighborhoods, and decentralization, and ultimately democratic self-government and democratic autonomy. I wish you success.

Thank you for inviting me to contribute. If you need more information about anything I’ve said, please contact me.