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Remembering Murray Bookchin

Thumbing through the Sunday, November 29th New York Times Magazine, there was a surprisingly revealing article by Wes Enzinnanov, “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard.”  The article discusses the efforts by Kurdish rebel faction to created a revolutionary society in what the author calls, “a sliver of land in the far north of Syria: Rojava, or ‘land where the sun sets.’’’

The article is important because it provides an invaluable snapshot of an alternative popular movement that has gained some small amount of land and power amidst the Syrian crisis. It is opposed to Bashar al-Assad, including the Russians and Iranians, as well as the Islamic State.  Because it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it is on the U.S. terrorist list but, due to the exigencies of war, it appears to be unofficially supported by the U.S./NATO-backed Syrian opposition.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the article was stumbling upon Enzinnanov’s extensive discussion of the role Murray Bookchin, the anarcho-communist and radical environmentalist, played in the development of the thinking of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader.  While imprisoned in Turkey, he came across Murray’s writings — who the writer calls “an obscure Vermont-based philosopher” — and underwent a radical conversion, what a scholar called, from a ‘‘Stalinist caterpillar to libertarian butterfly.’’

Amidst the buffoonery of the 2016 Republican presidential horserace, rightwing operatives like Ron and Rand Paul have come to exclusively define the “libertarian” movement.  However, the term has a long history within the left, especially among non-Marxists-Leninist.

In broadest terms, the libertarian left includes those struggling against domination, especially political, workplace, environmental and interpersonal hierarchy; it is distinguished from conventional Marxism that principally opposes exploitation and class relations.  This has been the great divide within the left.

Historically, left libertarians have been identified as anarchists, the the anti-statist forces that date from Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and innumerable defeated movements that range from the Paris Commune to the Russian revolutionary soviets, the Spanish Civil War militants and Zapatista radicals to today’s struggles in the U.S. and throughout the world.

For Leninists, the organization of the vanguard of the proletariat, the party, was the means to capture state power and, in some distant future, will oversee the withering away of the state.  That this never occurred in Russia, China or Cuba presents few problems for conventional Marxists.

Enzinnanov offers a thumbnail sketch of Murray’s life and some of this thoughts, but for a far richer account people should check out Janet Biehl’s article, “Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism”; she was his comrade and partner, and considers him “a major anarchist theorist, perhaps the most wide-ranging and innovative of the twentieth century.”

Murray was born in the Bronx, NYC, in 1921, worked as an autoworker and was a UAW shop steward during the post-WW-II reconversion – the era when mainstream unions like the UAW sold out to the “American Dream” and the anti-communist hysteria.  In the ‘50s, he broke with Marxism-Leninism, questioning whether the working class was a revolutionary force, and moved further to left.

During the ’60-’70, he was – along with Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse – a voice for a new New Left.  His wrote a dozen or so book and innumerable articles that helped foster the early “conservation” movement, the non-Leninist/non-Maoist left and spurred the call for direct democracy in municipal life.  He broke with what he identified as U.S. “lifestyle anarchists” in the mid-‘90s, promoting libertarian environmentalism and localism.

While in solitary confinement, Ocalan read one of Murray’s writings, The Ecology of Freedom, which Enzinnanov calls “a reimagining of Marx’s Das Kapital.”  For Ocalan, Murray’s anarcho-communist analysis represented a potentially viable political alternative to traditional Stalinism.  The writer adds: “Maybe the P.K.K. didn’t have to take state power.  Maybe it could obtain Kurdish rights by creating its own separate communities inside existing countries, resorting to violence only if attacked.  Maybe all along, Ocalan had been mistaken to think that liberation could be achieved by creating a Kurdish-run nation-state, Marxist or otherwise.”

Through his attorney, Ocalan reached out via email to Murray in 2004, who at 83 years and bedridden, replied, ‘‘Much remains to be explored, which my health and age prohibit me from doing.”  Following Murray’s death in 2006, the PKK sent a tribute to Biehl honoring Murray’s contribution, calling him ‘‘the greatest social scientist of the 20th century. … Bookchin has not died. … We undertake to make [him] live in our struggle.’’

In 2005, Ocalan issued the ‘‘Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan’’ and called on all PKK supporters to embrace Murray’s teachings.  According to Enzinnanov, “He instructed his followers to stop attacking the government and instead create municipal assemblies, which he called ‘democracy without the state.’”  He also “urged all guerrilla fighters to read The Ecology of Freedom,” another of Murray’s works.

Alternative forms of struggle emerge in the most hellish of situations and whether Rojava’s non-authoritarian movement will survive against the threats of Assad, ISIS and the U.S. military is an open question.  Murray’s vision continues to reverberate in movements as diverse as Critical Mass and Occupy Wall Street and now in the autonomous region of Rojava.  Enzinnanov quotes a Syrian radical: ‘‘Rojava is something beyond the nation-state ….  It’s a place where all people, all minorities and all genders are equally represented.”  Let’s hope it survives and flourishes.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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