Why Recover Bookchin?

Author of Recovering Bookchin Andy Price

In the book Recovering Bookchin, published by New Compass, Andy Price recounts the debates between Murray Bookchin and deep ecologists, anarchists and primitivists, identifying and critically discounting the Bookchin caricature as a body of critique leveled against Bookchin the person rather than his ideas.

Instead, Price argues, Bookchin's contribution can be seen to provide a coherent practical and theoretical response to the ecological and social crises of our time. We asked Price to tell us more about New Compass' most newest publication.

First of all, who was Murray Bookchin?

Murray Bookchin was a radical American social and political theorist and activist, known for significant contributions to anarchist political theory and green political thought.

How is he known to the Left and to the general public?     

Bookchin first came to the attention of the left in the 1960s with important works on both environmental problems and radical politics. For example, in 1964, he published ‘Ecology and Revolutionary Thought’, which was one of the earliest theorized attempts to link the ecological destruction wrought by capitalism to the need to radically change society.

In 1969, he also wrote ‘Listen, Marxist!’, which developed this theme further: the left was at a real impasse, Bookchin argued, and had to realize that the relationship between capital and the people had changed, that the new radical battlegrounds had been drawn, and that the old revolutionary movements of the past had spectacularly failed. Thus there was a new approach required, one that acknowledged that new battle lines between the people and capital might not be not be fought in the factory, nor fought around issues of the exploitation of workers, but rather might be fought around capital’s exploitation of the natural world and the impending ecological crisis that resulted from this.

Over the remainder of his life, Bookchin would develop a theoretical and practical response to this new reality, that which he called social ecology, and which would eventually bring him to the attention of the wider public.

Why was he controversial?

Well, apart from his forthright critique of the Marxists he saw as outdated, originally, he wasn’t controversial at all! The controversy would come later: namely, in the 1980s, when the green movement in the West was perhaps at its most popular. At this time, Bookchin would critique some of the more problematic aspects of the Green movement – movements like deep ecology, which had produced some worrying trends – as misanthropic, as blaming humanity per se for ecological degradation rather than focusing on class, hierarchy, and capital.

From this critique (which I examine at length in the book) there was an almighty backlash, from different thinkers and activists within the green movement as a whole who would accuse Bookchin of attempting to dominate the movement as a whole. However, as I argue throughout Recovering Bookchin, these accusations were nothing more than that: unsubstantiated, personal attacks. Worse still, they failed to address the issues Bookchin had raised, and failed to acknowledge that these issues stemmed from Bookchin’s by then 20 year career of writing and thinking about ecological issues.

What characterized the controversy surrounding his work in the period you are talking about?

Well, as noted, the response to Bookchin was the real controversy here. The large majority of responses to Bookchin’s critique of the deep ecology and the other strands of the Green movement he saw as problematic focused on assumed bizarre personal motivations of Bookchin, and worse, on his personal failings.

But right from the very moment I came across these debates (many years ago!) I was confronted by two huge, flashing questions here. First, how could these people possibly know about Bookchin’s personal motivations? How could they even begin to verify them? And second, and more importantly...so what!? Why were we wasting time talking about Bookchin the individual, and not the ideas that were contained in his 1980s critique and the rest of his work? I could not get past these questions, and I suspect neither could many others, and hence the need for the book, I would argue.  

How was Bookchin caricatured?

Again, from the responses to his 1980s critique of certain elements of the green movement, Bookchin’s ideas were lost. His personality and its assumed defects took centre stage. Thinkers who came to Bookchin and his work after the mid-1980s – myself included – were confronted but this caricature of a Bookchin desperate for glory, desperate to be seen as the leader as the Green movement as a whole. Worse, the whole episode would tarnish Bookchin throughout the 1990s, repeated with an exchange with elements of the anarchist movement in the 1990s, sadly even adversely affecting Bookchin’s work itself. Indeed, as a young researcher, I originally set out to try and explain why Bookchin was so problematic, so large did the caricature loom. However, as soon as you begin to look at this dominant picture of Bookchin the aggressor, it immediately begins to fall apart if front of your eyes.

Why do you think this caricature was wrong?

Well, in the first instance, it is wrong on its own terms. That is to say, that under even the briefest of critical spotlights, we can see that much critique of Bookchin stems in the first instance from this personal, ad hominem body of critique that categorically fails to deal with the issues at hand, fails to deal with Bookchin’s work at all, really. As such, it should be rejected completely. There is a time-honored notion in theoretical exchange and political debate to play the idea, as it were, and not the man or woman who brings us the idea.If Bookchin’s ideas can then be shown to be problematic, then fine. But first, we must give them the air they are due.

In the second instance, and in my opinion, perhaps more importantly, these ideas themselves, the central positions of Bookchin, are well worth revisiting: they are a significant contribution to ecological thought and radical social change. More timely now than ever, perhaps.

Why is it important to ‘recover’ Bookchin what is it that you do recover that might be useful for us today? 

Again, it is important, as, in my opinion, his ideas have been at the very least partially obscured by the caricature. Therefore, even out of interest for a clearer picture, it is worth looking at Bookchin’s ideas afresh, worth recovering his ideas from the mess that erupted in the 1980s.

But more than this, I would argue that looking at his ideas afresh is now more timely than ever, for in them not only do we find some very useful discussions indeed of our relationship to the natural world and the current ecological crisis that will prove very helpful in trying to respond, as a society, to that crisis, but also, we find a fascinating discussion of radical social practice as a way of articulating that response.

Not only does this an examination of the practical side of Bookchin chime with the lessons we have all learnt from the growth in ecological awareness over recent decades – about land management, about scale, about balance and participation in ecology as well as society – but perhaps most tantalisingly of all, it also proves a fascinating precursor to the kind of political protests we have seen within the last 24 months in places like Madrid, New York, and London. Again, Bookchin is well worth a revisit, shorn of any of the politics or silliness that surrounded him in the 1980s and left us with the caricature.