When Murray Bookchin died on July 30, 2006, one of the most ambitious and compelling figures of the anti-authoritarian Left passed.
He was an author, educator, and activist, although above all he was a revolutionary who gave his life to a single, colossal task: devising a revolutionary project that could heal the wounds within humanity and the split between it and the natural world. He tried to outline the theoretical principles of this endeavor, build organizations capable of transforming the world around those principles, and forge a cadre with the wisdom necessary to fight for them while enduring the inevitable ups and downs of political life. He had much in common with other sect builders of the socialist Left—such as Max Shachtman, Josef Weber, and Raya Dunayevskaya, for example—who, in their respective times and latitudes, also attempted to salvage the revolutionary enterprise from the disaster that was Russian Communism and the many calamities of the twentieth century.1
Was Bookchin successful?
I: Half a Movie
One day last fall, I walk out of a local movie theater onto the quiet street of Northampton, Massachusetts. I squint into the late-day sun after a matinee showing of Fast Food Nation, a film based on the book by Eric Schlosser. I am flooded with the kind of sensory disorientation that often follows an afternoon matinee—one that leaves the viewer suspended somewhere between day and night, reality and representation. This disorientation is intensified by the fact that, as I am leaving the theater, I remember that the friend with whom I want to discuss the film is no longer alive.
One of Murray Bookchin’s best-known works is Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.1 In it, he argues that two quite distinct and incompatible currents have traversed the entire history of anarchism. He labels these two divergent tendencies “social anarchism” and “lifestyle anarchism,” and contends that between them “there exists a divide that cannot be bridged.”
With all the debates and controversies that surrounded Murray Bookchin’s many years of active political engagement, few commentators have addressed the lasting influence he had on the social and environmental movements of the past four decades. Participants in those movements, however, will always remember his compelling presence and his inspiring words. The earliest radical ecologists of the 1960s discovered Murray’s early work in underground newsletters and often in pseudonymous pamphlets. Antinuclear campaigners in the 1970s looked to him for glimpses of what a world of decentralized, solar-powered communities might look like, and radicals engaged in Green politics on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s relied on his vast historical and theoretical contributions in their uphill struggle to counter the drift among Greens toward conventional parliamentary politics. In the 1990s, anticapitalist global justice activists sought Murray’s counsel and looked to his writings as they crafted prefigurative models of direct democracy to take to the streets of Seattle, Prague, and Quebec City.
The following four essays provide a retrospective look at the life and work of Murray Bookchin. Murray was a central figure in the development of anarchist theory and practice in the 20th century, and also something of a grandfather of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. Personally, I never met Murray, but his spirit and his ideas so permeate the community that brought me into explicitly anarchist work that I feel that I knew him. Murray was, of course, the central figure at the Institute for Social Ecology, an institution that nurtured so many fabulous young minds in careful radical thought, including most of those who founded the IAS and this journal.
Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, eds. 2007
Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority
AK Press, Oakland and Edinburgh
by Alan W. Moore
The volume reviewed here bespeaks an exciting upsurge of attention to a world of dynamic, committed artistic practices, past and present. Realizing the Impossible, a collection edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, is largely a book on contemporary art, exploring politicized artistic practice now and in the recent past. It surveys radical art and art-making communities from around the world; the investigation spans a range of work, including those rooted in traditional genres, as well those which have created their own language of analysis. Realizing also recognizes the substantial part of the debt owed to international perspectives. It is constructed as a series of historical essays and close personal interviews, providing critical discussion and first-person experiential accounts of the pursuit of an “anarchist aesthetic.”
We put together Realizing the Impossible because we wanted to read a book that explored the relationships between art and anarchism in a myriad of diverse ways, but it just didn’t exist. That’s often the reason people put out books, because they want to read something and they can’t find it, so they try to bridge the gap. Relationships between art and anarchism are an under-explored subject. While there are a lot of anti-authoritarians producing artwork, there’s not a lot of intellectual work theorizing how that art exists in the world, and how it’s different from what other political cultures have produced.
As with all left social movements, in anarchist activism there is an antagonism towards art as a result of the idea that social transformation comes from the difficult and tireless work of organizing and activism, and art is something that needs to be pushed to the side when “real work” needs to get done. Realizing the Impossible is a collection of writings, art, and interviews that argue against that idea, and demonstrate that cultural work is not a side show, but a main event. A look at history will show that most dramatic social transformations have had strong cultural components.
A Review of:
Graeber, David. 2007
Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire
I recall that one of the most electrifying experiences of my late teens was a reading encounter with Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process. I enthusiastically interpreted it as a manual of social and political possibilities. I remember being inspired to write what was at the time the longest essay I had ever composed, a sort of grand theory of power and repression in light of the concept of entropy. I also remember, if less well, subtle changes in my relations with my peers—a glimpse, perhaps, of a new sense of community. Teenage utopian pipe dreams! Speculative, roughly hewn attempts to understand everything! Intellectual enthusiasm, precisely! I now find myself asking: how and why did I abandon that sort of reading? But rather than propose an answer to my question (it has to do with my continued engagement with universities, I’m sure, but that’s only so relevant here), I’ll take up what it was that made me go for that sort of interpretation to begin with. However crude my first games with anthropological concepts might have been, there is nothing crude —or so it seems to me now!—about the idea that these texts were effective precisely because above all, they both seemed eminently practical and communicated a feeling of possibility. This reflection was provoked for me by David Graeber’s collection of essays, Possibilities, which in its own way repeatedly summons just that exhilarating sentiment for which his book is named.
Jacques Rancière’s political writings have become essential reading for those wanting to extend contemporary political antiauthoritarian thought. Although his major political works, especially Disagreement, were published in the 1990’s, he has recently written a text that addresses contemporary political issues in an anarchist way. In fact, Rancière is the only major thinker in recent French thought who is willing to embrace the term anarchist. “Democracy,” he writes in Hatred of Democracy, “first of all means this: anarchic ‘government,’ one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern” ( 41).
Gentrification is too polite a term for the violence that takes a neighborhood away from one group and delivers it to another. The term suggests that a neighborhood is being made genteel – that the new inhabitants are improving the area, civilizing it, rather than savaging it. A more appropriate image is of one animal eating another, like a snake, devouring a creature many times its size, whole, and slowly digesting it. If people with more money—therefore more power—than you consume your neighborhood, then you can no longer afford to live there. Having your house taken is not a pleasant experience; you and your family lose more than just a place to live. You lose years of friendships and associations borne of close proximities. You cede social and bodily knowledge of a landscape, patterns of movement through spaces that are written deeply in your psyche. Neighborhoods, like everything else in a capitalist free market, are open to visceral, bloody consumption—being eaten alive. This Social Darwinism is constructed: people must be convinced that taking the neighborhood is good, harmless, and inevitable.
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