Murray Bookchin in 1989. Photo by Janet Biehl

Our national existence is the sum of revolutions—among them, those intellectual upheavals supplanting world views, those political movements promising degrees of freedoms (or restrictions) and, finally, what most of us accept as a common reality: the abandonment of change and acceptance of the settled life. (We should not dismiss this as a form of revolution: Placidity is the bass note of many utopias’ promises.) In calming words, the Bible pronounces that each man will sit under his own vine and fig tree. As writer Melvin Lasky pointed out decades ago, “revolution” is rooted in “revolve”—to return to an original situation. We can put a halt to our ceaseless, Faustian desires for change and “doing.” We are satisfied to perform conventional citizenly duties, such as voting, paying taxes and supporting our Republic.

However, a refusal to resign oneself to situations has been the seed of revolt in many of our cultural protagonists who express the boldness of choice: our Pilgrim fathers inhabiting New England for the sake of a principle; union and civil rights leaders breaking down walls of oppression; the grand acommunalists, such as Henry David Thoreau, choosing startling degrees of solitude and autonomy; those who were violently enslaved yet kept alive the radical belief that they were human and could dream of freedom.

This catalogue—omitting so much—brings us back to the meaning of a radical life: radical, as in radix, the Latin for root. A radical life begins with asking: “On what are our lives based, to what do we commit ourselves and what are we willing to chance?” The decision to become, rather than be, demands that we rise over and against the present. We have choices.

A self-decided life involves discontinuity. Allegiants challenge us by exposing that the buried life is what we take as normal existence: one not given to the felt nature of narrowing conditions and options. Often, we no longer find the demand for radical choice important. There are few celebrations of a dulling monotony yet we seem all too willing to live it.

Those who call for a re-evaluation of “normalcy” and a “liberatory” politics often struggle hard against being outliers. Let us consider Murray Bookchin, whose works are now part of our national heritage. His version of anarchism, or what has been called “eco-anarchism,” (so the political theorist Victor Ferkiss termed it) is enfolded within the literature of the development of our state—an ironic situation for an anarchist—but there is no way or reason not to see his writings this way, except by saying, as with others, he was an American whose work is part of American civilization. As is Thoreau; as is Paul Goodman.

To begin with, Bookchin was a thinker within a European envelope. Born in 1921 and raised in the Bronx, he was deeply influenced by his Russian grandmother and inspirited by Russian revolutionaries. He was startled in what seems to be a road-to-Damascus moment by coming across the communist magazine for young people New Pioneer. He plunged into the rigor of the hard American left, working from his youth as a soapbox orator, organizer and manual laborer. Later, he grew disillusioned with the failure of the working class to develop the consciousness of the working class and became a prodigious researcher at the behest of the German theoretician Josef Weber. Bookchin finally achieved his intellectual maturity by freeing himself from the mechanical nature of leftist analysis. He proposed, variably, innovations in the way we can organize our politics and its relation to nature.

His legacy comes to us at an opportune time—thanks mainly to Janet Biehl, his editor, lover and colleague who has recently published a rock-solid biography, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin. In the book, much of his emotional life is bleached away, save mainly for the elegiac description of her relationship with him. (You can tease out some of his personal life by looking at Biehl’s endnotes.) Her rationale—and it’s an acceptable but debatable one—is that she wanted to treat him as a political creature, a zoon politikon. The one major dereliction in all of this—and who knows who is to blame?—is the failure to keep in print the indispensable The Murray Bookchin Reader. (As of my writing this, the price of a used copy of the Reader on Amazon is hundreds of dollars.)

But why the phrase “an opportune time”? We live under the sway of a delusional president and his collaborator appointees—few of whom are competent, few of whom demonstrate a concern for our nation, and all of whom are eager to dismantle an American culture that was a radical political experiment that shone brightly in a world of monarchies, tyrants and varieties of feudalism. Whether one likes what the foundation of this nation was built upon, America became a symbol of freedom for many. Nevertheless, as Bookchin argued, we exist under not-so-naked dominations and exploitations of environment and self.

As a consequence, we have become blind to compelling experiments in freedom and human potential. We are afraid to try them. Trump and company’s lies are so pervasive that a younger generation will have a hard time remembering the verve and rush of verifiable truth and enhancing discourse. Of what the spirit of the democratic ethos is. If things continue as they are, soon we, too, shall have an even more difficult time.

Bookchin’s “project,” as he explained it, was to suggest an unusual dimension to “anarchy”—to demonstrate the continuity of humanity and nature. In doing so, he fought against an inherited lexicon of “fixation,” as we can call it—conceiving of context, experience and historical situations as frozen, as static. If we do so, we cut away origins, process and the chance to create—as best we can—an open future. By reconceiving hierarchies, we gain the opportunity to sustain our natural world and reform our social existence. One can certainly bridle at a poetic metaphysics that argues for the organic and inorganic as examples of both unity and the striving of—and for—consciousness, but we should seriously consider his idea of an eco-anarchistic society.

In fact, the time for renewal was both then—and now. As he pointed out in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, we had reached the stage in which we do not have to worry about scarcity and want. A less efficient technology and lower-yield agriculture years ago need not be, in our day, limiting conditions for a flourishing life. We could live in a land satisfying human want, if we were willing to overturn the driving conjunction of capitalism and statism, and their making dominations of all sorts seemingly unquestionable facts of life. We have, sadly, the means for innovation but not the will.

For a reader of Bookchin, a quick way into this problem of social invention (or, if you will, invented recovery) is to consider both situation and unit. By situation, I mean those high-points—mythic or not—in our understanding of achievement. For him, salient examples were Athens, the Paris Commune, the revolutionary ferment in Spain—all marked by popular assemblies, an attempt to plant face-to-face democracy in everyday life, a recognized equality of human existence. As he took pains to emphasize, these historical markers were not without stain, but they had been achieved and could be used as promissory notes for a better future. They could speak to the present; nevertheless, they could not be mechanically iterated. By unit, I mean those small cells which he found attractive—“affinity groups”—based on friends sharing communal concerns, hoping to “hollow out” the state and replace it, widening their influence, linking assembly with assembly, with “popular” (as in democratically made) decisions. Confrontation with the state, setbacks and the necessity of patience were to be expected.

However, our natures are given to experimentation, discipline and the graceful energies of libidinous life. His envisioned future would be one in which all would be equal; nature sustained and harmonized with society (rather than exploited); needs met, and activities set to a human scale. One finds in his writing the jostling of socialisms, communisms, anarchisms and heritages of the Enlightenment. Why shy away from a future in which experience is willful, rational, educative and novel?

The above lines suggest how difficult, how capacious and yet how dreamy Bookchin’s program is. In other words: how utopian. I’m reminded of Herzl’s The Jewish State and its apodictic theses. Like them, Bookchin’s work lays out plans, and programs that are heady but have not found a continuous life. (However, Bookchin inspired Abdullah Ocalan, a pre-eminent Kurdish leader, who, in turn, enspirited his people to renovate their own society.)

His call for a new way of life is, or can be, demanding to the point of exhaustion. Colloquies, discussions, assemblies, options to attend, invitations to most everyone and the turning away from the irrational reveal daily life to be, in fact, the political life. However, anyone who has ever lived on a kibbutz knows how decision-making can tire out the most patient but reward the least intelligent. This is not news. Aristotle had remarked on the slow process of deliberation and the accompanying rise of mediocracy by assembly.

Nevertheless, Bookchin’s legacy has given us a torch. His Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont is one of these, lauded by many and practical in innovation. His common-sense defense of the Enlightenment’s heritage cuts against modern idiots who deny betterments made possible by science and technologies; his agenda for his version of anarchism is certainly doable, restoring the presence of people in a community’s life; his reading of the actual ground we put our feet on militates against some of the daft programs of deep ecology in which humans are of no more consideration than any other being; his commitment to developing a theory before action barricaded his suggestions against the ridiculous and smug righteousness of so many childish groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, simply wanting to improvise their way in and out of dire situations.

In our moment of American jitters, Bookchin’s suggestions are luminous. They may point—as some can easily claim—to a utopia (nowhere) rather than a eutopia (the good place), a distinction Lewis Mumford liked to emphasize. However, dreamers and prophets bring fruit and fiber to our lives. To return to Herzl, if you will it, it is no dream.

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Lewis Fried
Lewis Fried is an independent scholar and professor emeritus of English at Kent State University.