Murray Bookchin, who championed a democratic and anti-authoritarian vision of environmental politics, died last week in Vermont at 85.
Bookchin has for years been on my must-read list. I write and work from within a tradition he helped shape. As Brian Tokar recently put it in his obit on Counterpunch, Bookchin sought to “reclaim local political power, by means of direct popular democracy, against the consolidation and increasing centralization of the nation state.”
Bookchin’s historical opponents within the environmental movement are the “deep ecologists,” who see human beings as inherently destructive to “nature” — a sort of pox on the Earth that really should just go away. In Bookchin’s more nuanced view, termed “social ecology,” it’s our vexed social relations — not our very existence — that have made our stay on earth so problematic. “The very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human,” he wrote in perhaps his most influential work, Ecology of Freedom.
Some famous thinkers, by a certain age, forget to think; their ideas ossify into platitudes. I admire the way Bookchin’s thought evolved over the course of his long career, how to the end end he played the gadfly not just to those in power, but also to critics of the power structure. Here is Tokar again:
Even as numerous social movements drew on his ideas … Bookchin remained a relentless critic of the currents in those movements that he found deeply disturbing, including the New Left’s drift toward Marxism-Leninism in the late 1960s, tendencies toward mysticism and misanthropy in the radical environmental movement, and the growing focus on individualism and personal lifestyles among 1990s anarchists. In the late 1990s, Bookchin broke with anarchism, the political tradition he had been most identified with for over 30 years and articulated a new political vision that he called communalism.
At a point in history when to be “green” hinges on which car one buys — on sustaining consumer culture, not interrogating it — Bookchin’s work retains relevance. May it not be forgotten.