Some Encounters with Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin was one of the most influential thinkers in the formation of the anarcho-bioregional movement. Peter Berg’s homage to this most inscrutable luminary is from August 2006.

Before offering any recollections about Murray it is necessary to make the disclaimer that if he was here he would quite possibly refute them. 

And that he might even dispute that statement!

That said I can relax and share some remembrances that might otherwise go unrecorded from the contentious albeit intellectually respectful course of my interaction with Murray since meeting him in the early Sixties on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I was living at the time. It was a gathering of radical activists of various stripes to discuss participating in the first New York City public demonstration against the Vietnam War, a march from Washington Square in Greenwich Village to UN headquarters. Alan Hoffman, editor of the outspokenly anarchist magazine Good Soup, introduced us. Also there as I recall was Ben Morea with some of his fellow Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and artist Aldo Tambolini who performed the Dance of the Screw in front of art museums around the city to protest the commodification of paintings. 

Dissenters in that period coming out of the repressive Fifties tended to be overly self-conscious and almost monomaniacally declarative about their positions. Murray was a distinct exception. He was confident and almost avuncular about his background and the tradition of anarchist philosophy. The Spanish Civil War of almost thirty years before seemed to have just happened when he spoke about it. He assured us that we were in good historical company, and was optimistic about support from anti-establishment groups in Europe. Unusual for a leftist at that time was his belief that issues of the environment offered a new basis for unity. But his agreeableness ended with the Marxist organizers of the demonstration and their centralized decision-making. I didn’t recognize him in the march that eventually materialized, but I came away from the meeting inspired to begin reading about the origins and practice of contemporary anarchism.

By the late Sixties I had helped form the San Francisco Diggers, perhaps the best model of creative anarchist social alternatives as could then be found. It was clear that the Vietnam War was waning so we staged an “End of the War” event in a Haight-Ashbury theater which was announced by a poster showing Lyndon Johnson with his arms around Ho Chi Minh. It was a celebration of Diggerly things that could possibly take place in a liberatory peacetime society: free food and rock music, nude dancing, climbing cargo nets on the walls, processions with palm fronds, film loops of seeds germinating and volcanoes erupting, and satirical presentations by faux political candidates. 

A number of New York based groups showed up including some remnants of the Up Against the Wall Mortherfuckers who set up a card table with free pistol and rifle ammunition, and the entire cast of the Living Theater`s “Paradise Now” show who simply sat in the balcony wearing G-strings and stared wide-eyed at the proceedings. Murray suddenly appeared in an Army surplus jacket, boots, and carrying a gas mask! I asked him what he thought was going to happen and he nervously stated the conviction that police were about to descend on us. Not likely in San Francisco I assured him and pointed out participants who were embracing or dancing ecstatically. The contrast between his furtive wariness and the expansive Digger attitude was glaring and I tried to persuade him to join in. He left immediately and afterwards I realized that some East Coast militants seriously expected a civil war to break out when the war ended. 

When I was invited to help edit the “Bioregions” issue of Coevolution Quarterly in the late Seventies one of the first materials I sought out was Murray’s “Ecology of Freedom”. Knowing that he accepted some of the general premises of bioregionalism as espoused by Planet Drum Foundation, I requested permission to edit the long first chapter of the book to expose readers to advanced anarchist-based ecology ideas. I fully expected an argument and a long set of conditions but surprisingly he responded, “There isn’t anyone who I would trust with this more than you. Do whatever you like.” I took special pains to carefully preserve his train of thought wondering whether there was ever another instance when Murray allowed his text to be altered. The resulting article was invaluable to help set the autonomous and self-governing tone of bioregional discourse.

Bookchin’s subsequent campaign during the Eighties and Nineties against Earth First!, deep ecology, and spiritually oriented ecology proponents was a puzzling retreat from the openness in “Ecology of Freedom”. It was especially unfortunate because of the general slowing down of public support that was occurring at that time, and Murray seemed to be a singularly divisive force for dissent within the environmental movement. When Gary Snyder asked me why Bookchin chose to attack with inflammatory language including “misanthrope” and “eco-fascist” I explained that his argumentative style stemmed from early exposure to Communist ideology, and that it had the flavor of “Stalinist thugs”. Snyder repeated that phrase later in a newspaper interview. When I last saw Murray in the cafeteria of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont a few years ago he plaintively wondered why such a hurtful term had been used to describe him. There were the two Murrays in the same moment. He was an honestly compassionate champion of a more human and liberated society, yet seemed to be unconscious of the overbearing and dismissive statements that tinged his philosophical positions.

In the Enlightenment Era, social and political thinkers pondered what kind of society might exist without monarchial government, and anarchism was considered as legitimate as other viable alternatives. It persisted as an ideal ever since, although squeezed into an increasingly narrow area of acceptance by state socialism and bourgeois democracy which fight to diminish and ridicule it. But in our time when globalism and planet-wide environmental destruction threaten the whole human species, the broad vision of a sustainable society with a foundation in mutualism that underlies Murray Bookchin’s thinking is once again a guidepost for a positive direction.