Janet Biehl gave this presentation to the New World Summit in Derik, Rojava, on October 16, 2015.
The American social theorist Murray Bookchin was a profoundly original thinker, fertilizing the left with ideas about assembly democracy, ecology, and opposition to hierarchy, long before those ideas were popular, and providing it with new bases for opposing capitalism and the nation-state. He grew up as a young Communist in New York in the radical 1930s, but in the late 1940s he rejected Marxism-Leninism as not only authoritarian but fallacious—the proletariat was not revolutionary after all. But rather than abandon radical politics, as many of his friends did, Bookchin stayed on and chose to rethink the revolutionary project for a new era.
By the 1950s he realized that a new left would have to be democratic and ecological. His study of ancient Athens taught him people are capable of governing themselves in democratic face-to-face citizen assemblies. Inspired, he concluded that the present nation-state could be eliminated and its powers devolved to citizens in such assemblies. If people had governed themselves that way in the past, they could do so again.
He also realized early on that that capitalism’s fatal flaw was its conflict with the natural environment, which would ultimately result in a crisis; he wrote the first manifestos of radical ecology, advocating that cities be decentralized, so people could live at a smaller scale and grow food locally and use renewable energy and manage their own affairs. Over the next decades Bookchin would elaborate these ideas into a program for an ecological, democratic, nonhierarchical society called “social ecology.”
In the 1960s he tried to persuade the New Left—the revolutionary student and black and antiwar movements—to call for citizens’ assemblies. But the movements were more interested creating an international proletarian revolution, in solidarity with Castro, Guevara, Ho, and Mao.
The 1970s saw the flowering of an ecology-minded counterculture that created cooperatives and organic farms, stood for peace, and protested nuclear power. Anarchism was newly popular, largely thanks to Bookchin himself, and he tried to persuade anarchists that citizens’ assemblies were their natural political institution. But anarchists didn’t like democracy because it involved voting and accepting the will of the majority.
In the 1980s, despite these setbacks, Bookchin elaborated his democracy program, now called libertarian municipalism. The urban neighborhood and the town, he said, could become a revolutionary arena. He advocated democratizing municipalities into citizen assemblies and then mounting a municipalist revolt against the nation-state and capitalism. The city’s physical form could be decentralized as well. By rescaling cities into neighborhood communities and rescaling technological resources along ecological lines, libertarian municipalism proposes to bring town and country into a creative balance.
Over broader areas, Bookchin recommended that the assemblies confederate, at the municipal and regional levels and beyond. They would send delegates to confederal councils to coordinate and administer the policies. Power would flow from the bottom up. The confederations would expropriate major economic assets and “municipalize” the economy—place it under community ownership. Economic life would be part of the public business of the confederated assemblies, which would distribute the material means of life for the benefit of all.
As more municipalities democratized and confederated, they would become powerful enough to constitute a dual power to the state and to the capitalist system. Expressing the people’s will, the confederations would become levers for the transfer of power.
In the 1980s as Green movements emerged in North America and Europe, Bookchin tried to persuade them to accept this program. But they turned out to be more interested in forming conventional top-down political parties.
Finally, late in life in the 1990s, he appealed once again to anarchists, arguing that the ideal of collectively self-managed communes, joined together in confederations, was part of their history. But once again they rejected the idea, saying that municipal governments were nothing more than nation-states writ small, and there was nothing potentially liberatory about them. Bookchin didn’t belong in their movement, he was told–he was a “square peg in a round hole.”
Feeling his powers failing, Bookchin retired from political life, hoping that sometime in the future a movement would emerge that would take seriously the idea of citizens’ assemblies. If it ever did, his writings would be ready and waiting.
It was at that moment that Abdullah Öcalan wrote to him from his solitary prison on Imrali island.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Öcalan had been concluding that the Kurdish people had to respond to the historical moment and reassess their hitherto Marxist program. In 1999, at his trial, he called for the democratization of the Turkish republic, ensuring every citizen the right to participate equally in Turkish political life, regardless of ethnicity. His call was ignored, and he was convicted of treason.
In solitary confinement, he was permitted visits only by his lawyers for an hour a week. During those visits in the early 2000s Öcalan would often ask the lawyers to ask friends for recommendations on books to read. The lawyers brought him books on social theory and much else, and Öcalan was soon generating manuscripts based on his studies.
One of the lawyer’s associates in Istanbul, Oliver Kontny, translated some of the new manuscripts and “discussed some of the philosophical and political implications.” They tried to think of more books to recommend to Öcalan, such as Foucault. “Then somebody came up with a book by Murray Bookchin that had been translated into Turkish,” Kontny recalled. It’s unclear which one it was.
The lawyers brought the book to Imrali, and reading it, Öcalan seems to have recognized in its author a kindred spirit. In 2002, in his prison notes, he wrote, “I recommend this book for the municipalities.” Thereafter Öcalan asked for more books by Bookchin, and got them. Soon it became clear that he was working on “a paradigm change” based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. He initiated a discussion within the PKK, and the new ideas were not initially accepted.
In 2004 Kontny and his then-colleague Reimar Heider wrote an email to Bookchin, expressing Öcalan’s interest in his work and soliciting an exchange of ideas. Bookchin was surprised to be approached by the convicted PKK leader. But responding a few days later, he expressed pleasure at hearing from Öcalan and recommended his books that had been translated into Turkish, not realizing that Öcalan had already read them.
The two intermediaries transmitted this letter to Öcalan. About a month later, in May 2004, Kontny and Heider wrote a second letter to Bookchin, saying that Öcalan “emphasized that he thought he had acquired a good understanding of your ideas” and “spoke of himself as ‘a good student’ of yours.” He “elaborates on the concept of an eco-democratic society and the practical implementation of libertarian municipalism in Kurdistan.” And he said that “the Kurdish freedom movement was determined to successfully implement your ideas.”
A few days later, Bookchin responded, telling the intermediaries: “I am pleased that he finds my ideas on libertarian municipalism to be helpful in thinking about a future Kurdish body politic. . . . I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue with Mr. Ocalan, as much as I would like to. . . . My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Ocalan’s talents to guide them.”
We sent the email to Kontny and Heider. When Kontny got it, he told me, he was in a hotel in Jordan, en route to the Kurdistan People’s Congress in the Qandil Mountains. While awaiting his flight to Baghdad, he printed out Bookchin’s letter. When he reached the mountains, he showed it to the congress’s steering committee, suggesting that the letter be read aloud to the delegates. A heated discussion ensued. One man objected, saying, “We have much more powerful potential allies in the US. Who cares about some marginal anarchist with 50 followers?“ Kontny responded that Öcalan himself had asked Kurdish activists to read Bookchin, so why not read Bookchin’s message to the congress?
Then a women’s movement delegate took the initiative to translate Bookchin’s message into Kurdish and Turkish. She happened to be chairing the opening session, and so when the moment came, she read the letter aloud. The delegates’ applause was warm and enthusiastic.
A few months later, on October 27, Öcalan wrote again in his prison notes, “For the municipalities, I suggested that Bookchin must be read and his ideas are practiced.” On December 1, he wrote, “The world view for which I stand is close to that of Bookchin,” and recommended that his adherents read Urbanization and Remaking Society.
Öcalan went on to develop a base-democratic program for the Kurdish movement. In March 2005, he issued the “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan” that called for “a grass-roots democracy … based on the democratic communal structure of natural society.” It was to “establish village, towns and city assemblies, and their delegates will be entrusted with the real decision-making, which in effect means that the people and the community will decide.” These democratic institutions would spread, he proposed, so that all of Turkey would undergo democratization. The assemblies would then cross national borders, bringing democratic civilization to the region and producing not only freedom for the Kurds but a democratic confederal union throughout the Middle East.
When Bookchin died in July 2006, the PKK assembly saluted “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century,” saying that Bookchin “showed how to make a new democratic system into a reality.” The resolved to “put this promise into practice this as the first society that establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.”
In 2007,in Syria, the PYD issued its “Project of Democratic Self-Governance in Western Kurdistan,” and began to organize clandestinely to put democratic confederalism into practice. In July 2011 an extraordinary congress at Diyarbakir declared “democratic autonomy.” Soon in Kurdish towns and cities democratic institutions and civil society organizations were emerging: assemblies, councils, committees, and cooperatives. It amounted to emergent self-government on the local level, an incipient dual power to the Turkish state.
Four years later, in March 2011, the Syrian uprising began, and the Kurdish movement plunged ahead, creating councils in neighborhoods, villages, districts, and regions. By the time the Assad regime evacuated in July 2012, a system of assemblies and confederal councils was in place and had gained popular support.
I think Bookchin would have been gratified to see these developments in both parts of Kurdistan, as I was when I visited Rojava in December 2014. Be it in the Middle East or anywhere else, the assembly, for Bookchin, was an ethical process. As he wrote in Urbanization Without Cities in the mid-1980s, “Our freedom as individuals depends heavily on community support systems and solidarity. . . . What distinguishes us as social beings, hopefully with rational institutions . . . are our capacities for solidarity with each other, for mutually enhancing our self-development . . . and attaining freedom within a socially creative and institutionally rich collectivity.”
For more information:
For a full account of Bookchin’s life, see Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
For more on the overlapping ideas in Bookchin’s and Öcalan’s writings, see “Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy,” New Compass, Feb. 2012.
Bookchin’s books translated into Turkish in the mid- to late 1990s include:
- Toward an Ecological Society (1980), translated as Ekolojik bir topluma doğru (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1996);
- The Ecology of Freedom (1982), translated as Özgürlüğün Ekolojisi (Istanbul: Ayrinti, n.d.);
- The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1987), translated as Kentsiz Kentleşme (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1999);
- Remaking Society (1989), translated as Toplumu Yeniden Kurmak (Istanbul: Metis, n.d.); and
- The Philosophy of Social Ecology (1990, 1994), translated as Toplumsal Ekolojinin Felsefesi (Istanbul: Kabalci, 1996).