Janet Biehl’s engrossing biography shows that Bookchin, an unlikely social theorist and radical philosopher, produced an important body of work of lasting significance.
Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin
by Janet Biehl
Oxford University Press, New York, 2015
reviewed by Simon Butler
Just days before the US entered WWII in 1941, a 20-year-old New Yorker and radical political activist named Murray Bookchin was looking forward to beginning work as a seafarer. Inspired by romantic notions of life at sea conveyed by writers such as the socialist novelist Jack London, Bookchin was keen to trade his arduous job in a New Jersey iron foundry for something more adventurous.
The night before he was due to ship out Bookchin’s worried friends took him out for a farewell drink or three. They succeeded in getting him boisterously drunk – so drunk that, as intended, Bookchin was in no shape to report for work the next morning and missed the boat. Not long afterwards the first of many US merchant ships were sunk in the Atlantic by German U-boats. It soon became apparent that Bookchin’s friends had saved his life.
Happily, Bookchin went on to lead a long and eventful life: a working class kid from the Bronx who became one of the very first writers to warn of the dire environmental havoc caused by modern industrial production; the high school dropout who became one of the most important and influential radical thinkers in US history.
Janet Biehl’s biography of Bookchin is a very readable account of his long involvement in various struggles of the US left, from the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s to the youth radicalisation of the 1960s through to modern environmental movements around issues such as nuclear power and organic farming. It is also the most definitive account yet published of how Bookchin’s distinctive contribution to political thought – social ecology – evolved and developed over his lifetime.
Bookchin knew genuine hardship as a child growing up during the Great Depression. He and his sole parent mother were routinely evicted for falling behind with the rent in the early 1930s. A few times, he was forced to sleep rough until a new apartment could be found. By 1932, the 12-year-old Bookchin had met members of the Young Pioneers – a children’s organisation linked to the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). He joined up and fast became a youthful Communist cadre, attending the party’s Worker’s School, giving public speeches on Communist policy and selling the party newspaper Daily Worker, for which he was able to earn a modest, but much-needed, income.
The CPUSA was by far the dominant left wing US political party in the 1930s – 50,000 new members were recruited between 1930 to 1934 alone. The party became the young Bookchin’s “second family” and helped educate him in political theory. Yet as the 1930s progressed he became more and more critical of the CPUSA’s rightward drift and begun to consider the anti-Stalinist politics of the much-maligned Trotskyists in the small Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
Bookchin, already known by this time as dissenting troublemaker, was eventually thrown out of the CPUSA for objecting to the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. According to Biehl, after the pact was announced Bookchin approached a CPUSA official, asking, “What happened to our anti-fascist policy?” The official “whirled around, pointed his finger at him, and said: ‘Bookchin, you’re expelled!’” Bookchin calmly responded, “Why did you wait so long?”
He promptly joined the SWP and remained a member until 1947, a period during which the SWP faced persecution from the US government for its opposition to WWII. Bookchin left the SWP along with a small group of libertarian Marxist dissenters led by the German émigré Josef Weber. For more than a decade the tiny New York-based collective published a serious theoretical magazine called Contemporary Issues. Encouraged by Weber, Bookchin first began to develop his ecological critique of capitalism.
His earliest research was brought together in his prescient 1952 essay “The Problem of Chemicals in Food.” In it, says Biehl, Bookchin first concluded that “capitalism was reshaping agriculture. To maximize profits, industrial agriculture was cultivating crops on a large scale, in monocultures, which required pesticides because they were vulnerable to infestations and fertilisers because they degraded soil … Capitalism as a system, it turned out, was harmful to human health and well-being. The very concept, Bookchin recognized, was explosive.”
The Contemporary Issues group never expanded beyond a few dozen members. Disillusioned with Weber’s erratic behavior and the group’s lackluster internal culture, Bookchin left the group in the early 1960s. For the next four decades he identified as an anarchist (although by the late 1990s he eschewed the anarchist political label too in favor of what he and his co-thinkers termed Communalism, with its emphasis on extending democratic decision-making throughout society.)
By 1962, Bookchin had brought together his research into the growing environmental crises into his first book, Our Synthetic Environment. It was a ground breaking work but had the misfortune to be published at almost same time as Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring – a book often credited with launching the modern environmental movement.
The two books were often reviewed together at the time and Bookchin himself always commended Carson’s work, praising her “stylistic magic.” But Bookchin’s deeper explanation of the systemic causes of ecological breakdown, and his explicit argument that the ecological crisis cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist system, meant that Our Synthetic Environment was largely overlooked.
However, with the advent of the youth radicalisation later in the 1960s Bookchin’s ideas began to find a bigger audience. The publication and wide circulation of three of his essays in the journal Anarchos in 1968 burst Bookchin into prominence in radical circles after decades of isolation. Biehl says that by the early 1970s he was at the peak of his fame: “People even followed him into movie theatres and demanded he talk to them.” Looking back at this period Bookchin was later to say, “What a time to live.”
Later in the 1970s Bookchin moved to the US state of Vermont, where stayed the rest of his life. There, despite never having been a university student, he became a university lecturer and a founder of the School of Social Ecology.
During his years in Vermont Bookchin took part in several ecological campaigns. These included the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance and the successful campaign to preserve the Lake Champlain foreshore in the Vermont city of Burlington, defeating the designs of property developers that were backed by the then-local mayor Bernie Sanders. Bookchin was also took part in the formation of the US Green Party, although he was a sharp critic of its conservative leadership.
Throughout this period Bookchin took up the debate against the liberal wing of the ecological movement, which said significant gains could be won without resorting to radical social change. Biehl summarises Bookchin’s key arguments:
“Don’t let the ecology movement be reduced to the lapdog of the corporate elite … to be stroked or kicked at their whim. The movement should be challenging the profit-oriented economy that is based on production for the sake of production, whose law of life is to grow or die, that turns people into buyers and sellers – and that views nature as a collection of resources to be devoured. A focus on individual lifestyle choices, or on the number of children people have, will only distract us from the necessity of creating the long-term solution we desperately need.”
Bookchin was not without faults. Biehl admits that his strident style of polemic could get out of hand and was perceived by some to cross the line from criticism to insult. Ecosocialist critics have noted that he never succeeded in integrating class struggle into his account of social ecology. His differences with Marxism too often devolved into straightforward sectarianism (such as his refrain, “Don’t work with the Marxists”). His attempt in his major work The Ecology of Freedom to explain the course of human history as a product of social conflicts around domination and hierarchy is ultimately underwhelming.
Yet so much of Bookchin’s work has enduring relevance. His sharp critiques of lifestyle politics, deep ecology and populationism are still cited and referred to in contemporary debates. His contention that genuine revolutionary democracy must be inclusive and participatory has become ever more influential, most prominently among the Kurdish left. His argument that ecology must be a social movement, addressing social issues, is the only realistic response to capitalism’s war on the planet, which threatens to cause cascading breakdowns of the earth system.
Bookchin kept his 1941 seafarer’s certificate framed above his work desk for the rest of his life as a wry reminder to himself “not to do anything stupid.” Biehl’s engrossing biography shows that Bookchin, the unlikely social theorist and radical philosopher, managed to do far more than that: he produced an important body of work of lasting significance.