Interview with Murray Bookchin (by Dave Vanek)




Murray Bookchin, born in 1921, has been involved in leftist politics for seven decades and has written almost two dozen books on a great variety of subjects, encompassing ecology, nature philosophy, history, urban studies, and the Left, particularly Marxism and anarchism. In the 1950s, with his long 1952 essay “The Problem of Chemicals in Food,” he warned against the chemicalization of agriculture and the environment, and with this and other writings, he helped lay foundations of the modern radical ecology movement. He helped popularize organic gardening, diversified agriculture, and other alternatives to chemcialized agriculture. His comprehensive survey of environmental ills, Our Synthetic Environment, was published in 1962, a few months before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. His manifesto of radical political ecology (“Ecology and Revolutionary Thought”), written in 1964, was the first in any language. As an author and speaker, he influenced the antinuclear movement and the formation of the early Green political movement, both in the United States and Germany. He is the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, where he lectures each summer, and professor emeritus at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is currently finishing the third volume of a trilogy, The Third Revolution, which is a history of the great European and American revolutions.

David Vanek:In your books, you draw on your experiences of the 1960s and 1970s, as many environmentalists do, but you also draw on your experiences of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Murray Bookchin: I came out of the traditional Left, at a time when the Russian Revolution was still the most important event in recent history. In fact, when I was born — in January 1921, in the Bronx in New York City — the Russian Revolution and civil war were still going on. My family was made up of Russian revolutionaries. The first language I knew was Russian, and I spoke it up to the age of two or three, but then my parents stopped talking to me in that language, so that I wouldn’t develop an accent. I learned English in the streets. You had to know two languages in New York at that time, because almost half the population was born in Europe.

I entered the American Communist movement when I was a child. As a Czech, you would know about the Young Pioneers — well, I was a Young Pioneer in the early 1930s. In 1934, when I was thirteen, I went into the Young Communist League (Komsomol). Soon afterward, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I broke with the Communists, because of their Popular Front line — I was on the extreme left, and I opposed what I considered to be class collaboration with the bourgeoisie.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, I went back to the Communists, because they seemed to be the only ones who were fighting Franco. I wanted to fight in Spain, but I was too young. Soon after rejoining the Communists, I left them again, this time permanently. After high school, I did not go to college — I went to work in a foundry near New York. I hoped that the Second World War would end in revolutions, as the first war had, and became a Trotskyist. When the war ended without a revolution, I became disillusioned with orthodox Marxism and realized I had to rethink everything. I came out of the army and went to work in the automobile industry, where the workers, formerly militant, were becoming ever more middle class in their mentality. So in the 1950 I went to the RCA Institute, where I studied electronic engineering. I saw that many machines could ultimately replace most human toil. Being a socialist, I wanted to reduce the amount of labor that people have to give to society, whether under capitalism or socialism, so that they could be free to become creative human beings, follow their own interests, and fulfill their own talents.

I decided to go beyond Marxism and became a libertarian socialist. Already in 1952 I was writing about the chemicalization of food. I developed a critique of hierarchy and related the struggle against hierarchy and domination to the struggle for the integrity of the natural world. I tried to show that modern economics is an interaction not only between wage labor and capital, but also between human labor and the natural world. My philosophical conceptions were and are dialectical, based on Hegel, but without Hegel’s teleological approach. I’m not a teleologist, I don’t believe that any development is inevitable; but at the same time, I believe, some developments, like socialism, cannot be achieved without adequate material developments. I called my approach dialectical naturalism. I framed my ecological thinking around the problem of urbanization, particularly the dislocations between town and country. I wrote about alternative technology, arguing that technology should be as humanly scaled as possible. Later I brought in, above all, the idea of face-to-face democracy, under the name libertarian municipalism or communalism. As my ideas developed, I retained aspects of Marx — not Marxism but Marx’s own ideas — combining them with the general anarchist ideas of confederalism. But please let me stress that I believe we have to go beyond all radical tendencies from the past — incorporating their best elements — to something new: an outlook I call communalism.

In the early 1960s I became involved with the nascent counterculture. Anarchism seemed nearly defunct both as an ideology and a movement. At the same time, it was very fluid: as an anarchist, you could be a syndicalist; you could be an egotist; you could be anything you wanted to — it was as fluid, and often as formless, as water. So I first advanced my new views under the rubric of anarchism, and they later were called “eco-anarchism.” I think it is fair to say that my writings on ecology and anarchism were the first radical political writings on ecology. They became rather popular with the New Left. People don’t remember the origins of radical ecology — they think Ralph Nader or maybe Barry Commoner produced it and influenced the New Left. This is quite erroneous; in fact, the true history of radical ecology has yet to be written.

In my twilight years — I’m now 80 years old — I’ve been trying to evaluate what I’ve seen and done in my life. I ask myself: What happened in the 20th century? What’s going to affect the 21st? I’ve come to some very definite ideas about that. If we are going to change the direction of society in a libertarian way, we will need to build a systematic and coherent project. Coherence is very important, not only in politics and organization but in economics, in history, and in philosophy as well.

DV: The summarizing phrase that is commonly associated with your work is “We cannot solve the environmental crisis without solving social problems.” To whom specifically were these words addressed when you wrote them for the first time? To the environmental movement of the time?

MB: No, it was 1952, and there was no environmental movement at that time — just a few books on conservation and overpopulation, most of which were very reactionary. There was no organic gardening movement except for experiments among a few people who had come over here from Europe and especially England. I strongly believed, however, that making a few small changes would not solve the ecological problem — on the contrary, a transformation into a rational, egalitarian, and libertarian society was necessary. When I talked about solar and wind energy, I didn’t just propose them as alternative technologies; I proposed them as part of the technological apparatus of a new communal society.

DV: What do you consider to be the necessary prerequisites for such a transformation?

MB: I think the most important thing we are faced with today is to raise consciousness. America can be a good example. Americans by disposition and cultural heritage are activists. They don’t think very much in advance, they act, and then they look for the reason why they acted. They don’t think much of the past or the future, they think of the here and now. They’re engineers, they don’t generalize, they don’t look for the connections. In America it’s our job to bring out these faults Our people have to know what happened in history, what philosophy is, so they can educate. They have to have a point of view. They can’t just be against something, they have to offer an alternative. And they have to learn tactics, they have to have a methodology.

DV: In terms of this methodology, what do you think of the often-stated contradiction between direct action and political methods like lobbying, legislative reform, and the like? Do you prefer lobbying to, for example, community work?

MB: I have a long and painful experience with lobbying. Many years ago I was active in the antinuclear movement, which not only occupied plants in direct actions but also circulated petitions and then brought them to local congresspeople. The results were usually not very good. In the United States today, there’s the Democratic Party, and there’s the Republican Party. You go to them, and they will promise you anything to get elected. They won’t give you much of anything if it doesn’t help the ruling class. Sometimes they make small concessions — they’ll give you ten acres of “wilderness” — but then they’ll cut down the rest of the forest. That’s what lobbying usually achieves.