Ok. So Murray Bookchin, this Jew from the Bronx, who has been dead for almost 10 years, is inspiring Kurds to create an egalitarian, ecological society while they fight ISIS. Can it get any better than that?
In this weekend’s NY Times, Wes Enzinna writes of A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard. Michelle Goldberg, on Slate, noting this, says that American Leftists Need to Pay More Attention to Rojava.
Yes. Yes, we do.
And, if, in reading of this “Topia” (“Utopia” literally means “No place,” and this is very real), you are reminded of something you read, in fiction — science fiction — where many of the same ideas were implemented on a fictional moon, in a fictional universe, then you may have read Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed. That, too, was based on the work of Murray Bookchin, the most influential and far-thinking social theorist you have likely never heard of. Except that this time, it’s real. This time, in our time, we find the same ideas creating liberty and egality in the unlikely place of Kurdish Rojava.
Murray’s ideas continually evolved in his lifetime (I call him “Murray,” because, the first time I met him in May, 1981, when he was the keynote speaker at a conference I helped organize on Social Ecology, at the end of my senior year at Wesleyan University, he said, “Please, call me Murray. Only the FBI calls me Mr. Bookchin.”). He started out as a Stalinist Youth in the Bronx, became disillusioned with what he heard was happening in the USSR, and moved through Trotsky and beyond, became a union organizer, and began to realize that the fundamental challenges in the world have to do not with capital, or class, but with the nature of hierarchy itself.
Writing of “The Problem of Chemicals in our Food” in 1952, and of Our Synthetic Environment in 1962 before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, he realized that the issue of ecology is that we attempt to use nature to gain advantage and to dominate and control other people. And so he wrote for many years on what he called Social Ecology.
As Murray wrote in in 1993:
What literally defines social ecology as "social" is its recognition of the often overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today--apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.
As you can read in Enzinna’s piece, this is exactly what they understand in Rojava. Because Bookchin is required reading. And what you read is how they are creating an egalitarian, ecological, non-state, with face-to-face democracy, with a small “d,” while fighting ISIS. And winning.
As Enzinna notes, Abdullah Ocalan discovered Murray’s work in prison, and decided that he, and his people, should also move away from Stalinist ideas to a non-hierarchical, egalitarian, ecological, face-to-face democracy, And they did.
In the late 20th Century, when I was his student, I saw that Murray realized that he was from another time. He attempted to instill a revolutionary perspective among those of us who were numbed and tamed by entertainment, first on TV, then on PC's, then on smartphones. There simply was not enough leverage, not enough hardship, not enough "or else"-ness, to foster revolution, or anything close to it, in the time of Reagan Democrats and a Clinton White House. he could not find his constituency. And, to his chagrin, he found that any promising contemporary movement, like Die Grünen in Germany, became co-opted.
I knew Murray for the last 25 years of his life. For most of those years, he had been predicting an early death for himself. When I knew he was actually dying, at age 85, and that it was only a matter of time, I asked him why he kept predicting an early demise for himself, all these years. He told me that he was a revolutionary, like Rosa Luxemburg, et. al., and never expected to die a natural death. I think he finally recognized that he lived to an "old" age.
In a foreword to a The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, a new, posthumous anthology of Murray’s essays, Ursula Le Guin herself notes,
In the twenty-first century we go on using the terms, but what is left of the Left? The failure of state communism, the quiet entrenchment of a degree of socialism in democratic governments, and the relentless rightward movement of politics driven by corporate capitalism have made much progressive thinking seem antiquated, or redundant, or illusory. The Left is marginalized in its thought, fragmented in its goals, unconfident of its ability to unite. In America particularly, the drift to the right has been so strong that mere liberalism is now the terrorist bogey that anarchism or socialism used to be, and reactionaries are called “moderates.”
So, in a country that has all but shut its left eye and is trying to use only its right hand, where does an ambidextrous, binocular Old Rad like Murray Bookchin fit?
Apparently, he fits in a remote corner of the world, where the ideas that inspired The Dispossessed, so many years ago, have found a new, human laboratory, in the most unlikely of places.
Le Guin’s foreword continues:
Murray Bookchin was an expert in nonviolent revolution. He thought about radical social changes, planned and unplanned, and how best to prepare for them, all his life. A new collection of his essays, “The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy,” released last month by Verso Books, carries his thinking on past his own life into the threatening future we face.
Impatient, idealistic readers may find him uncomfortably tough-minded. He’s unwilling to leap over reality to dreams of happy endings, unsympathetic to mere transgression pretending to be political action: “A ‘politics’ of disorder or ‘creative chaos,’ or a naïve practice of ‘taking over the streets’ (usually little more than a street festival), regresses participants to the behavior of a juvenile herd.” That applies more to the Summer of Love, certainly, than to the Occupy movement, yet it is a permanently cogent warning.
But Bookchin is no grim puritan. I first read him as an anarchist, probably the most eloquent and thoughtful one of his generation, and in moving away from anarchism he hasn’t lost his sense of the joy of freedom. He doesn’t want to see that joy, that freedom, come crashing down, yet again, among the ruins of its own euphoric irresponsibility.
Anarchists could not understand the virtue of self-governance without a State, face-to-face. Nor could they understand that did not help to throw bricks, or to cover them with graffiti. Capitalists, of course, could not understand that the only limit to capitalism is ecology. And Deep Ecologists could not understand the problem of hierarchy. He died a defeated man.
Yet, a revolution has its moment. Whether it is the Arab Spring, or the Occupy Movement, or Ten Days That Shook the World, there is a time when a spark hits some kindling and a time, or place, ignites. Whether the flame becomes strong, or withers without additional fuel, or gets put out, violently, always remains to be seen.
And so, now, we have Rojava. A man serving a life sentence in Turkey found one of Murray’s books, decided to read them all, and then convinced his followers to create a real-life laboratory of liberatory expression. In a most difficult historical situation, in a most remote region, surrounded by enemies on all sides, this egalitarian exercise could almost be on a fictional moon. But it is real.
Then again, Marx did not foresee Russia as the ideal place for his revolution, either....