The American presidential election season has pundits and pollsters proclaiming “change” a primary factor in the minds of many voters. It’s little wonder that this stark period – marked by the so-called “War on Terror,” the extension of neoliberalism across the globe, and the urgency of global warming – has motivated such vague desires among the citizenry. Undefined, undifferentiated and ultimately relegated to mere platitudes, “change” here means little; it is cosmetic, commodified, and reinforces the status quo. Absent is a lens, a coherent perspective through which current and future movements might comprehend and ultimately transcend the prevailing order, inspiring the crucial transformative “change” so necessary to reverse today’s regressive and reactionary tendencies.
While the US Green Party struggles on and plans yet again to rely on a presidential candidacy to foster a “trickle down” growth for state and local parties, there is little to suggest that Greens or any other marginalized American Left movements are positioned to fill this void of coherent analyses and strategies for reconstructive action. Yet the American Green movement’s early history included the influence of social ecology, a body of thought primarily developed by Murray Bookchin, that articulates just such a vision based on ecological principles, notions of radical democracy, and a celebration of our uniquely human potentialities. Bookchin was a keynote speaker at the first national gathering of US Greens in 1987 and his work, including more than 20 books, numerous essays, articles, speaking engagements, and the co-founding of the Institute for Social Ecology, affected the formation of the Left Greens and played a prominent role in debates over direction for the nascent American Green movement.
Social Ecology and Communalism, a recently released collection of four essays written in Bookchin’s later years, offers an accessible introduction to social ecology’s fundamental rejection of social hierarchy and domination, critique of instrumental reasoning in favor of a dialectical philosophical orientation, and it’s ecological “libertarian municipalist” political strategy. It should be noted that Bookchin’s version of “communalism” bears no relation to the (largely religion-based) sectarianism it evokes in South Asia. Instead, here communalism refers to the theory and system of government in which local communities are associated in a confederation.
Norwegian communalist Eirik Eiglad edited this collection and presents the reader with a fascinating, if brief, biography of Bookchin, a man literally raised in the radical political culture of Depression-era New York City. Early adulthood saw Bookchin involved in various Communist Party organizations, though he soon broke with the Communists, aligning for a time with the Trotskyist movement before moving towards libertarian socialism after World War II. Eventually, after years of activism, writing, and serious study of radical theory, he engaged in the anarchist movement. With the appearance of his seminal 1964 essay “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” began to clearly articulate an explicitly radical and ecological body of thought.
The collection’s initial lengthy essay “What is Social Ecology?” represents an attempt at a concise elaboration of social ecology’s basic premise that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep seated social problems. Bookchin traces the roots of social hierarchy and domination in early aboriginal societies, at the same time observing examples of distinctively social and egalitarian human institutions that represent the latent human striving for freedom. In particular, he identifies the “irreducible minimum” – a social custom that held that all members of the community are entitled to the means of life regardless of the amount of work they perform – and “usufruct” – a notion of property that allowed for the use of the means of life, as needed, by one group or individual so long as they were not already being used by another – as examples of customs which persisted, evolved, and even today continue to exist in latent forms.
These twin legacies of hierarchy and freedom, he suggests, have evolved through history and provide crucial insights into today’s social climate. It is the institutionalization of capitalist ideology, reinforced by notions of social Darwinism and instrumental rationality – one that reduces human reasoning faculties to a mere “means-ends” tool that neglects any concern for what “ought be” – that represents a logical, yet not inevitable, unfolding of the legacy of hierarchy and domination.
Bookchin calls for the replacement this existing “grow or die” mentality with an ethics of complementarity, rooted in ecological principles and informed by a dialectical philosophical orientation writing that humanity “can draw far-reaching conclusions for the development of an ecological ethics that in turn can provide serious guidelines for the solution of our ecological problems.” Through a developmental, historical perspective we may “educe” the means to a synthesis of the nonhuman and human spheres into a “free nature” where humanity acts ethically and creatively within the wider natural world.
The two subsequent essays, “Radical Politics in an Era of Advanced Capitalism” and “The Role of Social Ecology in a Period of Reaction,” focus on both social ecology’s concept of politics and its relationship to the Enlightenment tradition, respectively. Here Bookchin underscores the importance of reason, ethics, and citizenship to the social ecology project.
“Politics these days has been identified completely with statecraft, the professionalization of power” – a vital recognition that leads to his call for a re-thinking of citizenship in the spirit of the Athenian polis, positing the importance of face-to-face direct democracy and an emphasis on the neighborhood, town, and municipality. Bookchin places this emphasis on citizenship, face-to-face municipal politics under the rubric of “libertarian municipalism” a strategy based on human-scale eco-communities linked through confederal bodies guided by reason and ethics rather than profit and the private accumulation of power. For Bookchin, it will be “the ability and willingness of radicals to (redefine politics)” that “may well determine future movements like the Greens and the very possibility of radicalism to exist as a coherent force for basic social change.”
“The Communalist Project” closes the collection and was Bookchin’s last major work before his passing in July 2006. Significant for it’s far-reaching scope and positioning of social ecology and libertarian municipalism under the “communalist” banner, the piece begins with an impassioned plea:
“Whether the twenty-first century will be the most radical of times or the most reactionary or will simply lapse in the gray era of dismal mediocrity – will depend overwhelmingly upon the kind of social movement and program that social radicals create out of the theoretical, organization, and political wealth that has accumulated during the past two centuries of the revolutionary era.”
Seeking to place Communalism in historical perspective, Bookchin surveys the major Left traditions, endeavoring to illustrate how communalism incorporates the better elements from each while offering provocative critiques of Marxism, anarchism, and revolutionary syndicalism. Bookchin describes libertarian municipalism as the “praxis” of the communalist framework and emphasizes the importance of the civic dimension of the modern world’s great revolutions, not the least of which, for Bookchin, was the Paris Commune of 1793.
Bookchin is clear in his belief that the primary concerns of today’s radicals should include a solid grounding in the study of history, specifically that of modern revolutionary era. He is also unequivocal in his rejection of what he considers the oft-confused and contradictory aspects of contemporary trends in mysticism and spirituality, “lifestyle anarchism,” and the reconstitution of various outdated Left ideologies.
It’s telling that Bookchin’s ideas were so inspirational to the initial development of the US Greens while the emphasis was on the building of a transformative grassroots movement. Yet as Green Party US emerged and the more radical and movement-oriented activists drifted away, the valuable insights and provocative critiques put forth by Bookchin and social ecology receded from view for many Green activists. Social Ecology and Communalism presents a potential source of rediscovery, an inspiration in a time where lucid alternatives to the grim prospects of enduring social and ecological crises are desperately needed.