Murray Bookchin – The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies & The Promise of Direct Democracy, eds. Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor, Preface by Ursula K. Le Guin. Verso, 2015 (Originally published in Peace & Justice News, July 2015).
To read Murray Bookchin’s writings in 2015 is to witness ideas taking flight. In the decade since his death in 2006, Bookchin’s ideas regarding direct democracy and the form of libertarian socialism he called communalism have become the cornerstone of a political and cultural revolution in Rojava, western Kurdistan, whilst the people of Barcelona recently elected the first female mayor, Ada Colau, along with ten other councillors as part of Barcelona en Comú, on a radical municipal platform. While born from very distinctive histories of struggle, these events resonate with Bookchin’s vision for creating a ‘vital democratic public sphere’ that could effect radical social change from the ground up.
Born in 1921 in New York, Bookchin’s work on revolutionary history and theory, social ecology, and its political philosophy and practice, communalism and libertarian municipalism respectively, spanned six decades. The Next Revolution contains nine of his articles, written in a lively and clear way, during the final two decades of his life. A preface by author Ursula K. Le Guin asks the question: ‘What is left of the Left?’, and suggests the potential offered by Bookchin’s clear-eyed assessment of the obstacles that must be overcome to establish an ‘egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society’. Bookchin’s daughter, Debbie, and Blair Taylor’s introduction offers a useful summary of Bookchin’s intellectual and political journey, from Marxism, through anarchism, and eventually to communalism.
The collection begins with ‘The Communalist Project’, in which Bookchin lays out his assessment of both Marxism and Anarchism, arguing that the dynamism of capitalism has drastically reconfigured the industrial societies in which these movements first emerged, thus generating new phenomena, such as climate change and post-industrialisation, which they are ill-equipped to address. Yet this is not to suggest that the study of these revolutionary bodies of theory and practice can be brushed aside. Indeed, Bookchin is adamant that the quality of future anti-capitalist social movements will be partly determined by just how effectively radicals are able to learn the lessons of the past – especially the last two centuries of the ‘revolutionary era’.
Bookchin demonstrates what this undertaking requires in ‘Anarchism and Power in the Spanish Revolution’, in which he asserts that an overly-negative view of power led the Spanish anarchists in 1937 to allow the elites to regain and consolidate their power over the rebellious populace. In light of this, Bookchin sees it as essential to identify how power may be channelled through an ‘emancipatory institutional form’ – which he develops as libertarian municipalism. These ideas are explored in greater detail in ‘A Politics for the 21st Century’, ‘The Meaning of Confederalism’, and ‘Libertarian Municipalism: A Politics of Direct Democracy’, which build upon the potentialities of what Hannah Arendt called the ‘lost treasure’ of the revolutionary tradition, the popular assembly, through which people may come together – as empowered citizens – to take decisions regarding their community affairs.
Bookchin distinguishes this form of participatory government from statecraft, which he defines as ‘a professional body composed of bureaucrats, police, military, legislators . . . that exists as a coercive apparatus clearly distinct from and above the people’, and which will invariably act to suppress such spaces of ‘local freedom’. It is Bookchin’s conviction that only by establishing such popular institutions, extending their control over the economy, and confederating into networked assemblies, can politics be transformed from something which politicians ‘do for us’ into what we do for ourselves.
As a newcomer to Bookchin, I am struck by how his writing prefigured so many current crises: his recognition of the incompatibility between capitalism’s ‘cancerous logic’ of perpetual compound growth and ecological limits (analysed anew more recently by Naomi Klein); struggles to reclaim and defend the commons – whether land and resources, energy, healthcare or education – against privatisation and austerity measures, by instating community-based forms of ownership; and, particularly after the Independence Referendum, the recognition that the UK’s putatively democratic institutions in fact stand in radical tension to people’s desires to make decisions about the issues which matter to them most. Engaging, practical and hopeful, The Next Revolution exceeds critique to suggest the political possibilities latent in our current circumstances, and how we might transform not just the content but the form of politics, to bring about an authentically democratic, egalitarian and ecological society.