Anarchy in the UK

The Murray Bookchin Reader

Janet Biehl (editor) <em>Cassell, 256pp, £45 hardback, £14.99 paperback

After a lifelong career on the American left, producing a stream of articles and lectures and books over half a century, Murray Bookchin has become a venerable figure in the international libertarian and green movement. His companion Janet Biehl has now produced a convenient anthology of extracts from his work, together with a supplementary account of his current position.

Bookchin began as a Marxist, but passed through both Stalinism and Trotskyism to become a pioneer in the move towards anarchism and ecology after the second world war, and his combination of these two ideologies brought him to prominence in the ferment of the 1960s. Most of his many books are available, but they are not easy reading; he has the habit of repeating and revising himself, so The Murray Bookchin Reader provides a welcome guide to his work from 1962 to 1995.

There are sections on social ecology, first and second nature, organic and hierarchical society, scarcity and post-scarcity, Marxism and anarchism, dialectical naturalism, humanism and rationalism, and libertarian municipalism. A single book couldn't contain Bookchin's important contributions to all these subjects, and admirers will regret the absence of favourite passages - I especially miss some of the early polemics. Still, Biehl provides a representative selection with a useful general introduction and helpful separate commentaries on each section.

Bookchin calls his general ideology "social ecology", but his specifically political position "libertarian municipalism". Bookchin himself, now in his late seventies, has taken the initiative in founding a "neo-anarchist" movement to advance this idea, beginning with an international conference in Lisbon early last year. Biehl, 30 years younger, has taken a lead in organising the movement and in explaining its principles in The Politics of Social Ecology: libertarian municipalism.

Unlike most anarchists and ecologists, Bookchin advocates a form of politics which is not only egalitarian rather than hierarchical, and libertarian rather than authoritarian, but also practical rather than utopian, and local rather than national or personal. Like other creative thinkers on the left faced with the contemporary combination of the apparent triumph of global capitalism and the apparent failure of both reformist and revolutionary socialism, he advocates devolution rather than revolution. And he concentrates above all on the revival of the city or neighbourhood, following the examples of the Greek polis, the medieval commune, the New England town meeting, the French section and the Russian soviet.

Libertarian municipalism, like traditional syndicalism, is not so much pure anarchism as a form of direct democracy based on a network of face-to-face popular assemblies. It was outlined in some passages of Proudhon and Kropotkin, and will be most familiar to British readers from William Morris's News from Nowhere or to British film-goers from Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. Such a drastic decentralisation of power would conclude with what Godwin called "the euthanasia of the state". The obvious problem is that, despite Engels' prophecy, the state has proved reluctant to wither away. There are other obvious objections - some of which are considered in a long interview with Bookchin - and doubts about his proposals are bound to be raised by anarchists and socialists of many kinds. Nevertheless, Bookchin and Biehl offer serious thought about how the left should move forward and stimulating ideas about the first steps.

Nicolas Walter has been a frequent contributor to anarchist papers and editor of anarchist texts for 40 years

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium