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Murray Bookchin was not only one of the most significant and influential environmental philosophers of the twentieth century he was also one of the most prescient From industrial agriculture to nuclear radiation Bookchin has been at the forefront of every major ecological issue since the very beginning often proposing a solution before most people even recognized there was a problemEcology or Catastrophe The Life of Murray Bookchin is the first biography of this groundbreaking environmental and political thinker Author Janet Biehl worked as his collaborator and copyeditor for 19 years editing his every word Thanks to her extensive personal history with Bookchin as well as her access to his papers and archival research Ecology or Catastrophe offers uniue insight into his personal and professional life Founder of the social ecology movement Bookchin first started raising environmental issues in 1952 He foresaw global warming in the 1960s and even then argued that we should look into renewable energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels Wary of pesticides and other chemicals used in industrial agriculture he was also an early advocate of small scale organic farming which has developed into the present locavore movement and the revival of organic markets Even Occupy can trace the origins of its leaderless structure and general assemblies to the nonhierarchical organizational form Bookchin developed as a libertarian socialistBookchin believed that social and ecological issues were deeply intertwined Convinced that capitalism pushes businesses to maximize profits and ignore humanist concerns he argued that eco crises could be resolved by a new social arrangement His solution was Communalism a new form of libertarian socialism that he developed An optimist and utopian Bookchin believed in the potentiality for human beings to use reason to solve all social and ecological problems


10 thoughts on “Ecology or Catastrophe

  1. says:

    An amazing political biography on a true revolutionary who dedicated his life to fighting capitalism statism hierarchy and ecological destruction and advocating a liberatory society rebuilt along social and ecological lines Janet Biehl beautifully articulated Murray Bookchin's vision and ideas through a blend of narrative and history telling This book has come out at a most crucial time where our society is literally at a cross road between ecology or catastrophe and Bookchin's ideas are essential to any earnest struggle toward ecology


  2. says:

    Review by Chuck Morse from the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory Blog Murray Bookchin was a pivotal polarizing figure in the post WWII history of anarchism He put ecology and democracy on the anarchist agenda in a way that was as novel as it is enduring As a polemicist he spent decades at the center of crucial debates about history strategy and foundational ideals Even his critics must acknowledge that he made major contributions to the growth and clarification of the anarchist perspectiveSomething shifted in the movement when he died in 2006 For the preceding fifty years his writings had been a point of reference through which we could clarify our views even when we disagreed with them whereas now that he was gone we had to make sense of him Who was he and how had he lived? These are compelling uestions for those who had worked with him and for anyone who wants to understand contemporary anarchismJanet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe The Life of Murray Bookchin Oxford University Press 2015 will help us here The first and probably last biography of Bookchin it is well written exhaustively documented and invites readers to traverse the full arc of his life from his earliest days in New York City to his last in Burlington Vermont But it is than a biography Biehl was Bookchin’s lover collaborator editor researcher advocate and finally nurse for two decades and this text is also a memoir of their time together Ecology or Catastrophe tells a tragic story Biehl portrays Bookchin as an irrepressible profoundly creative and intelligent man who threw himself wholly into radical movements set out to untangle some of history’s most challenging problems but who ended his days feeling isolated abandoned and despairingBiehl narrates his life through his participation in the revolutionary Left—swinging back and forth from a depiction of the Left broadly to his response to it His political history begins in New York City in 1930 when the precocious nine year old Bookchin joined a Communist Party youth group The international communist movement was very much a mass revolutionary movement at the time and his experience within it left a permanent imprint upon his political identity It was emotionally important for him too Biehl says that the Communists helped him compensate for his dysfunctional family a physically absent father and emotionally absent mother They “rescued Murray” she says “by becoming his surrogate parents They educated him and provided him with stability and validation”7Succeeding chapters chart Bookchin’s path through many of the most utopian and radical currents in the twentieth century Left We see him working with WII era communist dissidents “Rethinker” and “Decentralist; navigating the radical milieu of the 1960s “Eco Anarchist” and “Counterculture elder” and so on Biehl does a good job at reconstructing his life during the distant years where the historical record is incomplete and at unpacking the often obscure history of the trends around which Bookchin built his lifeBookchin’s activism shifted in the late 1950s after the death of Joseph Weber a heterodox communist intellectual who had mentored him He increasingly began staking out his own theoretical and political positions and assuming responsibility for resolving the great challenges of the time His iconoclastic uniue perspective is evident in his very first book the path breaking Our Synthetic Environment 1962 and would only become pronounced as the years progressed Biehl shows us that he worked tirelessly for decades—producing mountains of text delivering rousing speeches around the globe and inspiring generations of activists in the processAs a revolutionist Bookchin moved between organizational and theoretical tasks depending on his sense of the movement’s needs Organizationally he built a series of small ideologically defined groups dedicated to propagating his views such as his Anarchos group in the 1960s among others; he also helped construct networks that would coordinate the activity of like minded groups including the New England Anarchist Conference and the Left Green Network; and he even cofounded a school—the Institute for Social Ecology—that would seek to influence the movement as a whole In one particular case he established a local activist group the ill fated Burlington Greens Bookchin excelled in front of large crowds where he could ignite the masses with his spellbinding oratory but “he preferred working intimately with small groups” Biehl notes xii This was his natural habitatOf course Bookchin was also an intellectual and Biehl devotes considerable attention to his voluminous body of work She does not attempt to defend or assess his ideas but rather to narrate their development particularly their relation to his evolving political concerns Biehl show us that he was a dynamic thinker who challenged Left orthodoxies tried to reformulate basic categories of human experience such as the relationship between humanity and nature and meditated deeply upon the problems of revolution However she fails to convey the enormity of the claims that he made for his work—that it would enable humanity to avert ecological apocalypse undo hierarchy and domination and realize the inner content of natural evolution in what he called “free nature” She also understates the extent to which his propensity to revise his ideas ran at cross purposes with his desire to build a stable philosophical doctrineShe indicates that the disintegration of the Burlington Greens in 1990 precipitated a sharp change in Bookchin’s temperament The group embraced his doctrine of “libertarian municipalism” which meant mainly that it ran candidates in local elections in an effort to advance a sort of eco anarchist politics Immersed in Burlington’s problems and commanding a large circle of young activists Biehl characterizes this group as the culmination of the “decades long prehistory” of Bookchin’s political development However she explains it collapsed in a frenzy of recrimination after a minor act of collusion between a Green and a local Democratic Bookchin subseuently announced that he was “retiring from politics”278 bringing an end to his seventy years of engagement and his world darkened thereafter He seemed to feel under assault particularly from old friends and allies who appeared all too eager to attack misrepresent and pilfer his contributions He churned out lengthy polemics against an assortment of minor figuresThere is no evidence that Bookchin ever asked why he had been unable to realize his transcendent aims but Biehl reveals that he grew progressively invested in the narrative that the world itself had become less rational—that we live in “reactionary times” characterized by “dumbing down of the human mind”306 This argument would explain why so few appreciated his achievements and exempt him from the need for self criticism but it also painted him into an impossible corner in which anguish and isolation were the inevitable result If human history was taking a turn for the worse then the emergence of his solution to life’s riddles is inexplicable Or to put it in the opposite terms if he had unraveled the world’s mysteries then we were living in very good times indeed In short his claims about history and his claims about his work contradicted one another and not surprisingly his final years were a torment “Intensely depressed feeling his life was meaningless he said freuently that he yearned for death” Biehl writes 307Although she briefly laments Bookchin’s often combative tone and repeatedly and somewhat strangely mentions his fondness for junk food Biehl does not otherwise suggest that Bookchin might have suffered internal conflicts or could have undermined his own aims Indeed she has a grating tendency to present him in highly idealized terms as if his inner and outer worlds simply coincided—for instance she informs us that he was a “thoroughgoing zoon politikon political animal”xi who “had no vanity” 225 and “subordinated his personal aims to the larger cause”xi This has a corollary in her propensity to insert invented dialogues into the text things like Bookchin surely said he would have told his new compañeros etcAlthough Biehl cites the public declarations of some of his critics in the book she does so to clarify why he felt so besieged not to illuminate any possible shortcoming She resists any temptation to assess or judge him and avoids topics where judgement would be inescapable For example she scarcely treats his family She barely mentions his first marriage and does not explain its dissolution; she also relegates the birth of his two children and second marriage to a footnote Certainly a treatment of Bookchin’s family would have reuired a discussion of his motives inner states as well as failings but Biehl skirts this by neglecting the subject altogether She also says nothing about his Jewish identity or feelings about IsraelNonetheless Biehl does provide a detailed account of her relationship to Bookchin which offers some clues into her reasons for constructing the work in the way that she did She tells us that she was a mess when she met him in 1986—a “hyperanxious underachieving drifter through life”267 who was “introverted and socially phobic”259—but that Bookchin’s love remade her psychologically notwithstanding the thirty three years that separated their ages Thanks to him and the love that they shared her “lifelong anxiety yielded to self confidence and even enjoyment of life”287 Bookchin’s “extraordinary affection transformed her into a self confident creative person” she notes307 But Biehl also depicts some of their difficult moments particularly during Bookchin’s final days She tells us that with the help of psychotherapy she started to differentiate her identity from his and ended up breaking with his ideas and essentially breaking up with him They continued to live together after this rupture but there were terrible stresses between them At one point tensions became so explosive that she even feared that Bookchin might harm her with one of his guns and asked police to escort her into their home Although her worries were unfounded Biehl’s inclusion of these episodes adds gravitas to her narrativeExcluding the romantic dimension Bookchin’s relationship to Biehl replicated a pattern that he established with many others Starting in the 1960s he began to surround himself with younger militants who were often “half his age”97 or “one third his age”277 He expected them to advance his ideas—as she puts it to be “willing to enter the public sphere with him” or at least participate “in the periodicals that his various political groups issued”xii He gave to them unstintingly in exchange—generously sharing the fruits of his tantalizing intellect While the degree and nature of Biehl’s involvement was uniue the basic template was the same—an asymmetrical relationship between mentee and mentor For her part Biehl expresses no regrets On the contrary she celebrates the “astounding good fortune” that brought them together viii Her encounter with Bookchin was wonderfully transformative for herBiehl does not ask what Bookchin derived from the adulation of his youthful followers and if Bookchin “had no vanity” as she claims this uestion would be difficult to pose However there is reason to suppose that it may not have served him—that his acolytes might have facilitated his descent into despair by sanctioning his feelings of grandiosity It is conceivable that Bookchin might have found joy and solidarity in the world if those who cared about him helped him develop a modest self understanding Perhaps his devotees were too indifferent to his burdensWhile lionizing Bookchin may have been a mistake while he was alive it is surely inadeuate now that he is dead Biehl’s work is comprehensive and readable but too credulous and accordingly misses key opportunities to explore the complexity of this important inspiring person There are many reasons to celebrate Bookchin but not to such a degree that he becomes otherworldly Encounters with Bookchin’s legacy should be transformative just as encounters with the man were for many For that to occur reflections on his life will need to be somewhat balanced and skepticalDisclosure I worked closely with Bookchin and Biehl in the late 1980s and early 1990s I describe the experience in “Being a Bookchinite” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory V 12 N1 Winter 2010


  3. says:

    This is one of the most enjoyable and informative books on politics and history that I have ever read I not only understand Murray Bookchin's thinking in a way that I really never would have without this overview but I also understand the history of Leftist movements in the US in a way that I realize I really did not beforeIf you want to understand the Left in the United States read this book


  4. says:

    An expansive and well resesrched biography of an unfortunately lesser known radical thinker of the 20th century written by the woman who was his student collaborator and companion during the last few decades of his illustrious career and life Though I don't march in lockstep with all the ideas Bookchin puts forward his vision is in line with my political beliefs than nearly any other I've encountered and the fact that his libertarian municipalist approach articulated in the late 70searly 80s is only being seriously considered and put into practice in Rojava Kurdistan is a testament to how far ahead of his time he was Bonus points for the take down of Bernie Sanders during his time as Burlington mayor I respect the Senator but the dude was and isproblematic


  5. says:

    This book could also be read as an account of the decline of radical politics A reality that is both depressing and oddly serene—at least to me—because now we find ourselves in an era when the necessity for radical reorganization of society is needed than ever against an adversary strong than ever To this end Murray Bookchin's work will be invaluable lest we lose the practice of rigorous insightful innovative critiue and fall victims to narcissistic self aggrandizing routine Janet Biehl managed to write about Murray Bookchin in such an evocative and compassionate manner that it leaves the reader with the distinct sense that they definitely know who he was—foolish inference to draw on part of the reader of course given that you could never reduce the life of a human being to such a short bookGiven that it's a biography of a avowed revolutionary utopian theorist one can always expect a hefty dose of politics but a politics with such clear vision that even the most cynical of us could easily embrace It really is a uestion of ecology or catastropheI will spare the reader of this review of great detail but suffice it to say that not only do you see Murray change over time but the entire world around in The endless struggle pushing the lone revolutionary to the brink of despair to the point that he had to retreat in the study of history to find solace That should tell you about the world than it did about the one personAlso incredibly interesting tidbit Had I read this book a few months ago then Bernie Sanders' betrayal of his voter base would not have surprised me at all This is what I found out about his first election as mayor On March 4 1981 Burlington elected him Bernie mayor—by a margin of ten votes out of than 9600 cast15 “Ten anarchist votes” Murray would say “And I know who they were” Only to go later to collude with big business interests in the area to build monstrous waterfront projects wood chipper fueled power plants and then a centralization of power into the mayor's office away from local democratic assemblies of the peopleAll in all read this book It is extremely important you do so


  6. says:

    Loved it One of my favourite books of 2016 I found it uite inspiring to read about an autodidact intellectual a person of ideas that continues to be politically engaged and looking for spaces of possibility throughout a lifetime It is sadly also an account of the decline of the American left and how one like Bookchin is always left marginalized Because of his constant intellectual engagement the book is also very much a history of ideas within the radical left of the US I especially liked the earlier chapters reading about the communist milieu of Brooklyn in the 30s probably the most radical community in the history of the US and learning about the exiled German Trotskyist Joseph Weber and the movement for a democracy of content after WW2 I had never heard of Joseph Weber before a fascinating character and theorist that became Bookchin's mentor for than a decade for the autodidact Bookchin; the communist party study groups in the 30s were his master degree while his PhD would be with Weber His retrogression thesis sounds bonkers when you first hear of it when you look at post war Europe but it actually makes a lot of sense and could very well have happened I also finally really understood the tendency for all these communist and Trotskyist groups to continually split


  7. says:

    Janet Biehl was for twenty years the partner of Murray Bookchin both politically and personally When Bookchin died in 2006 she decided to write his biography Although Biehl never detaches herself from the man and his life and never shies away from the difficult personal situations in which they navigated the book is intensely political it manages to keep a steady focus on Bookchin's intellectual development which we follow chronologically through his political involvement The result is a book that takes you on a remarkable journey through the American Left the counterculture and the major radical movements of the last centuryIronically one of the best introductions to social ecology may be a biography—this one


  8. says:

    Incredible Must admit I found Biehl’s return to liberalism pretty depressing Also the epilogue is pretty crushing to read in 2020 with its hopeful discussion of the PKK and their work in Rojava


  9. says:

    The life and legacy of Murray Bookchin a NYC blue collar kid turned Vermonter a la Bernie Sanders might be important because of what is happening in of all places northern Syria Born in the 1920s to an activist communist mother who escaped from the just being born Soviet Union to Brooklyn Bookchin grew up an intellectual Marxist theorist organizer and writerHis biographer Janet Biehl who still carries the late Bookchin's torch tells the tale of Bookchin's intellectual journey from Marxist to Trotskyite to anarchist to Green and finally to a kind of blend of New England town meeting enthusiast ecology disciple libertarian His writings would and maybe still will remain largely unknown if not for their being embraced and put into practice in 2015 2016 by a renegade region of northern Syria You can read an examination of this unlikely development at and at Biehl's biography this reader is left with the overriding impression that Bookchin was both a deep thinker and utterly naive as to the workings of human nature Again and again I was struck by the degree to which Bookchin assumes that all humans participate in civic affairs knowledgeably conscientiously and with the best of intentions In his many stops journey from Marxism to communalism one of the terms he came to embrace he seems never to have grasped the notion that lots of people are criminals misinformed dogmatically or theologically warped or would rather watch TV do nothing or game the system It seems to have taken him decades to see the reality that community decision making by consensus might feel cozy and friendly but only works when the group has shared values Still there is a lot to ponder in Bookchin's ultimate if amorphous prescription for self government 1 local is best2 face to face truly citizens talking to one another democracy is best3 making decisions based on ecological reality is fundamental he beat Rachel Carson to the market with a book on impending ecological crises including global warming but his prescription for radical social and political change to deal with it was so sweeping that nobody wanted to hear it4 Don't feel you have to replace existing government right away Just form local citizens councils anyway and government will eventually have to accept their will I have actually seen this bear fruit with our local neighborhood association It is an interesting idea given the degree to which many Americans feel their elected government does not represent them Just as an aside Biehl and Bookchin express some surprisingly scathing critiues of the sell out performance of Bernie Sanders as mayor of Burlington Vermont Worth the read just for that revelation


  10. says:

    Reading Ecology or Catastrophe is much than reading about Murray Bookchin’s life For me it was a combination of a history lesson of the radical left in the 20th century and the powerful story of an individual’s ability to form groups in order to change capitalist society I was totally engrossed in it from the first page to the lastI did not become radicalized until 911 While I lived through the political and social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s I watched them from a distance; trying to make sense of them in the traditional fairly conservative world I was part of The revolutionary Left was not part of my world until the last 15 years – and I have a lot of catching up to do Janet Biehl has made those times and events come alive for me This book was both a riveting portrayal of Bookchin’s life all the way from standing on street corners in New York speaking to – and responding to the arguments of – 1930’s American communists to the very end of the book when he is writing his 4 volume tome The Third RevolutionIt seemed as though I was right there with him in the Bronx in that magical Marxist school His amazing journey took him from a marginal life with his mother in Brooklyn to teaching classes at Goddard College and Ramapo College without even a high school diploma publishing many thought provoking and significant books and being part of the creation of the Institute for Social Ecology His writings helped me to clarify the different between the environmental movement and social ecology My heart ached for him as I watched his devotion to Weber be rewarded by spite and betrayal as it did when I read about so many “deep greens” turning against him with such viciousness Unlike some other reviewers here on I think Janet Biehl showed remarkable restraint in only making their personal relationship a part of Bookchin’s life and work She doesn’t even tell us anything about it until close to the end of the bookI do have uestions and concerns about Bookchin’s work I read another review that was very insightful and spoke to some of the same reservations I had while reading this biography Most importantly is the uestion of why so little of what he had fought so hard to build exists today And if I had known Murray before he died I would have urged him to not spend so much of his time defending his ideas to some of the less important criticsAll in all I think this is a valuable worthy book and I recommend it highly to those who are revolutionaries and those who are not Everyone can enjoy and learn from reading it