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Review: Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy

Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. Edited by Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor. New York: Verso, 2015.

The Kurdish-controlled city of Kobane in northern Syria has attracted international attention as the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the struggle against ISIS. In the summer of 2014, forces led by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG and YPJ) defied all odds by fending off ISIS’s onslaught for months despite confident predictions by outside observers that the city would fall. After ISIS finally swept into Kobane in a major offensive in September and October, the YPG/YPJ regrouped and, with the assistance of coalition airstrikes and a contingent of Peshmerga troops, succeeded in retaking the city in January of this year. Now, in a city reduced to rubble and peppered with ISIS booby traps, the task of rebuilding has begun.

While the battle for Kobane made international headlines, rarely mentioned was the broader struggle being waged by Syrian Kurds and their allies, a struggle not just for survival, but for social revolution. Not only in Kobane but across the three cantons of Rojava—the Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria (or West Kurdistan)—people are fighting to protect a fragile social experiment: an effort to reorder society along directly democratic lines. Within the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Syrian state, a network of popular assemblies and councils is taking shape that aims to put the power of deliberation and decision-making into the hands of ordinary people. Neighborhood communes of 300 are being established to decentralize administration, women’s councils are confronting issues like patriarchal violence and plural marriage, and businesses are being turned into worker-run cooperatives. The principles informing such experiments—ecological responsibility, gender equality, and religious toleration—stand in stark contrast to ISIS’s reactionary ideology of apocalypticism, social hierarchy, and theocracy.

Even more unlikely, perhaps, than the Kurds’ tenacious pursuit of this so-called “Rojava revolution” in the midst of the turmoil generated by the civil war and the advances of ISIS is the provenance of core aspects of their political vision in the work of the late American political thinker and activist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin’s influence in the region can be traced to a remarkable evolution in the political views of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose Syrian offshoot is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Öcalan founded the party in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization whose objective was the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in southern Turkey (North Kurdistan), but following his capture by Turkish authorities in 1999 and imprisonment on the island of İmralı, Öcalan abjured Marxism and began to search for a new revolutionary framework. He found in Bookchin’s work not only staunch criticism of the national liberation paradigm the PKK had been attempting to implement in Kurdistan, but an inspiring alternative: a nonstatist vision of confederated municipalities, each governed by popular assemblies and sovereign in its own affairs, but strong enough collectively to defect from the nation-state without being suppressed.

What Öcalan has termed “democratic confederalism” is, in its broad outline, an adaptation of what Bookchin called “libertarian municipalism” (or, later, “communalism”). Bookchin formulated and honed his conception of libertarian municipalism over the last three decades of his life, fleshing out its theoretical and historical justification at greatest length in major tomes like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities. By the early 1990s, Bookchin shifted his emphasis to the popularization of his political program in more succinct essays intended to outline its main components and justifications and anticipate possible criticisms. These essays have been usefully assembled together in print for the first time in The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. If the flourishing of Bookchin’s ideas in Kurdistan is any indication that they still have revolutionary legs, the editors of the collection—Debbie Bookchin (Murray’s daughter) and Blair Taylor—have provided a valuable service to political progressives in making what may be Bookchin’s most accessible writings more widely available.

Of course, the timing of the collection also invites reflection upon certain ironies. In the last years of his life, Bookchin concluded—not unreasonably—that his efforts to reorient the radical left to a libertarian municipalist agenda had failed. Weary, battle-scarred, and isolated following a decade-and-a-half of public confrontations with representatives of what he perceived as politically poisonous, “anti-humanist” tendencies like anarcho-primitivism and postmodernism, Bookchin could hardly have imagined that his ideas would help to inspire a new revolutionary movement on the other side of the world. Although Öcalan reached out to Bookchin in 2004 in the hopes of initiating a dialogue, it never materialized, and Bookchin died two years later a stubborn but disheartened revolutionary.

The even deeper irony, however, is that from the start Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism was tailored not to the instability of civil war, when institutions can be precipitously dismantled and when social experimentation can be bold and visionary, but to the distinctly non-revolutionary conditions of post-1960s America. It is not coincidental that Bookchin’s earliest formulations of what would become libertarian municipalism coincided with his move, after the disintegration of the New Left, from the turbulent radical atmosphere of New York City to the comparatively sleepy setting of Burlington, Vermont. Libertarian municipalism was suited to such an environment in part because it was not conceived in traditional revolutionary terms as a means of ushering in an eschatological break with the status quo or fomenting open warfare between opposed classes or against the state. Rather, it was geared towards finding revolutionary potential within existing institutions at the local level and working—in a gradual, piecemeal fashion—to develop that potential as far as possible. In the region of the American northeast that Bookchin had chosen as his new home, the most fundamental institution of a libertarian municipalist society, the general assembly, was already present in the form of the town hall meeting. Although humble in scale, this institutionalization of direct democracy helped to inspire Bookchin’s vision of radical democrats gaining toeholds in municipal settings—whether through winning local elections or rallying the public outside of official channels—and using this footing to expand the use of popular assemblies and turn them towards more radical objects. Municipalities that were democratized and radicalized in this manner could then confederate, Bookchin suggested, gradually building up regional autonomous zones that would eventually be powerful and organized enough to supplant the nation-state.

Bookchin’s explications of the libertarian municipalist strategy in the essays that comprise The Next Revolution represent an at-times perplexing blend of realism and utopianism. On one hand, he takes the heretical step (for a self-described anarchist) of advocating electoral activity and reformist measures undertaken via established city councils. And even these modest efforts to work within the system, he admits, will more than likely be purely “symbolic” at first, as libertarian municipalists struggle to drum up popular support for their platform using the traditional, banal means of persuasion and propaganda. Progress will undoubtedly be painstakingly slow, advancing unevenly and incrementally through small triumphs, half-victories and resets.

On the other hand, Bookchin elsewhere clings to the fire-breathing revolutionary rhetoric that he first practiced on the streets of New York as a soapbox orator and Young Pioneer in the 1930s. Municipalities democratized and confederated along libertarian lines will, Bookchin proposes, array themselves in “clear and uncompromising” (94) opposition to the nation-state, provocatively asserting their autonomy and effectively daring the state to intervene. Furthermore, however small the first steps counseled by libertarian municipalism may be, its ultimate goals are unabashedly utopian. The refashioning of human life that takes place within liberated municipalities will extend, Bookchin tells us, far beyond institutions, reaching into the very sensibilities of the individual, and resulting in what socialists of old understood as the transformation of human nature itself, the creation of a “new man.” The citizens of municipalities will come to see one another as equal participants in a shared political world, their interactions colored by sentiments of solidarity rather than “material gain and egotism” (20). Through their common and concerted action they will help to raise humanity to the “universal state of consciousness and rationality” (21) dreamed of by utopians and fought for by revolutionary socialists.

As confident-sounding as many of Bookchin’s proclamations in The Next Revolution are, however, the collection is also a document of the revision and evolution of his views—or, at the very least, of the labels that he applied to them. Between the date of the earliest essay in the collection (November 1990) and the date of the latest (December 2002), Bookchin made the notable decision to stop referring to himself as an anarchist, driven by his disgust at the label being claimed by egoists and anti-humanists motivated not by political concerns but by the desire for “a radically unfettered lifestyle” (9). In his essay “The Communalist Project” from 2002, Bookchin proposes to call his perspective “Communalism,” a term he traces back to the Paris Commune of 1871. Bookchin encompasses under Communalism the entirety of his philosophical and political project, with libertarian municipalism now understood as the “concrete political dimension of Communalism” (17).

Even as Bookchin proffers new descriptors, however, he evidences some of the same old tendencies that contributed to his marginalization on the left and that have subsequently limited his appeal as a political thinker. No sooner is “Communalism” put forward as an insignia than Bookchin begins to write of what “Communalists” believe, which happens to read an awful lot like a compilation of Bookchin’s own somewhat idiosyncratic positions. (Because Bookchin has been disillusioned by the consensus process, for example, “Communalists” insist upon deciding matters by majority rule). Similarly, in earlier essays and books Bookchin wrote of the ideas of “social ecologists” and “libertarian municipalists”—mythical categories, for all intents and purposes—rather than simply arguing points in his own name. Bookchin can be forgiven for wanting to inspire movement-sized followings that embrace and act upon his views, but these kinds of constructions, along with Bookchin’s propensity for excoriating and alienating those who disagreed with him, have given many of his readers the impression that to be a “social ecologist,” or a “libertarian municipalist,” or a “Communalist” simply means to agree with Bookchin, with little room for deviation.

If the reception of Bookchin’s ideas in Kurdistan demonstrates anything, however, it is that keeping those ideas alive means adapting them, revising them, and applying them to new contexts, even if that means confounding the expectations and the intentions of Bookchin himself. The Next Revolution has the potential to help revive Bookchin’s thought for a new generation of radicals, but only if his work is understood not as a literal blueprint for a movement but as a critical resource that can be used to stimulate a more richly democratic vision and inspire a diversity of struggles.

Benjamin J. Pauli is a lecturer at Rutgers University whose work focuses on the history and theory of anarchism, political ideologies, and religion and politics.