Obituary by Janet Biehl, for the Burlington Free Press
Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) was a left-libertarian social theorist who, in the early 1960s, introduced the concept of ecology into radical politics. A self-described utopian, he sought a decentralized, genuinely democratic society and placed ecology in a humanistic and social framework. He wrote more than two dozen books on ecology, history, politics, philosophy, and urban planning. At all times he upheld reason against the alternatives and sought to bring a lived revolutionary past forward into the future.
He was born on Jan. 14, 1921 in New York City, the only son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Nathan and Rose (Kaluskaya) Bookchin. At nine he joined the Communist youth organization but became disillusioned with the authoritarian character of the international Communist movement and broke with it in 1937. Unable to afford a college education, he worked as a foundryman in New Jersey and as a union organizer for the CIO. He served in the U.S. Army, then returned to civilian life as an autoworker. He participated in the great General Motors strike of 1946, but the strike leaders’ compromises with management caused him to abandon his faith in the industrial proletariat.
His first book, Our Synthetic Environment (written under the pseudonym Lewis Herber), published in 1962, addressed a broad range of ecological issues. Preceding Rachel Carson’s famous SilentSpring by nearly half a year, it called for a decentralized society using alternative energy sources. In this and later writings he developed what he called social ecology, which holds that ecological problems can be remedied only by the creation of a free and democratic society. At a time when “ecology” was an unfamiliar concept to most people, he lectured indefatigably on the subject to countercultural groups throughout the United States. He advanced the concept of postscarcity, holding that advances in technology would make possible a reduction of the workday, thereby providing people with the free time necessary to engage in civic self-management and direct democracy. His 1960s essays were very influential both in the counterculture and in the New Left and were anthologized in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971).
During the 1970s Bookchin’s writings and lectures influenced the formation of Green movements in the United States and abroad. Three years after moving to Burlington in 1971, he co-founded the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vt., becoming its director; the school later acquired an international reputation for its curriculum on social theory, ecophilosophy, and alternative technologies. That same year he began teaching at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where he became a full professor in 1977. He retired from Ramapo in 1981 with emeritus status.
In 1982 Bookchin published The Ecology of Freedom, which became a classic in social thought. His 1986 The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1986) presented his program for direct-democratic politics at the municipal, neighborhood, and town levels. In Burlington Bookchin attempted to put these ideas into practice by working with the Northern Vermont Greens, the Vermont Council for Democracy, and the Burlington Greens, retiring from politics in 1990. His ideas are summarized succinctly in Remaking Society (1989) and The Murray Bookchin Reader (1997).
Bookchin is survived and his passing mourned by his loving family members, all of whom live in Burlington: his longtime companion, Janet Biehl; his daughter, Debbie Bookchin, her husband, James Schumacher, and their daughter, Katya Bookchin Schumacher; his son, Joseph Bookchin; and his ex-wife and longtime friend, Beatrice Bookchin. He will be much missed as well by his many dear friends and by the thousands of people, unknown to him personally, whom he touched during his long and productive life.