Philip Levine (1928–2015): A poet of working class life and struggle

By Dorota Niemitz and Matthew Brennan
5 March 2015

The poet Philip Levine died on February 14, at the age of 87, in Fresno, California. Levine’s poetry is often associated with depictions of industrial working class life and struggle, particularly in and around Detroit.

Born in Detroit in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Levine himself was a factory worker for more than a decade, beginning at the age of 14. Among the factory and industrial jobs he held in the Detroit area were ones at the Cadillac Engine, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, and Wyandotte Chemical factories.

Phillip Levine, September 2006, photo by David Shankbone

In his early teens Levine was initially inspired by poetry after reading Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem Arms and the Boy. He later enrolled in the English department at Wayne State University, and became interested in Keats, Whitman, Hardy, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. He noted the connection between his work life and his growing artistic aspirations in an interview with Studs Terkel. “I was working in factories and also trying to write. I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here; it doesn’t exist.’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it. And I sort of took a vow to myself … I was going to write the poetry of these people.”

In 1953 Levine enrolled in the University of Iowa Writing program, studying under the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He considered Berryman his “one great mentor” in poetry, and speaks movingly of him in his autobiography The Bread of Time. Pursuing an academic career, he eventually became a professor of literature at Fresno State University in 1958, a position he held until he retired in 1992.

Levine’s published body of poetry spans from 1961 (On The Edge) to 2009 (News of the World). Some of his more well-known books of poetry include Not This Pig (1963), They Feed They Lion (1974), The Names of the Lost (1976),A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988), and The Simple Truth (1995). He won a Pulitzer Prize for this last work. Capping a long list of literary awards received over his lifetime, he was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

Levine’s poetry and poetic style, at its best, captured the complexity and beauty behind the harsh exterior of social life for working people. Often his poems depicted daily urban American life through both chaotic and mundane images—the factories, smog and soil, the smell of bread, eggs and butter, grease and sweat, fevered children, snowstorms, cluttered diesel truck cabins, an assembly press malfunction, a winter-beaten garden, or a mother’s work clothes. He could tell a genuinely moving story and evoke honest imagery without sliding into sentimentality.

Back-breaking work, dreams, drudgery and love could find sudden, unexpected intersection in his poems. Take for instance, parts of “What Work Is,” or “Of Love and Other Disasters:”

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work isif you’re
old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.
(…)
The sad refusal to give in to
rain, the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German (…)

– from “What Work Is”

The punch press operator from up north
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium
(…)
how the grease ate so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. “The lifeline,”
he said, “which one is that?” “None,”
she said (…)”

- from “Of Love and Other Disasters”

Levine’s appeal was also due in part to the accessibility and directness of his free-verse poems, which relied on familiar, accurate, and authentic language –all the more impressive in an era (the 1960s through early 1990s) when postmodernism and its impenetrable jargon began to find significant influence in literature and art.

Memory, nostalgia, grief and anger were central, for better and worse, to Levine’s narrative approach. Most often his characters live in all three spaces of time across a poem. People and places that no longer exist are brought back to life in the present, and their dreams are projected onto the future, or up against the lack of a discernible future.

His best poems often emphasize tension between visual motifs—such as everyday objects, people or well-known places—and the non-visual elements they evoke in the sounds or feelings of a place or time. In “Those Were The Days” he writes about young boys imagining a hearty breakfast served on silver plates on a sunny day, before being dragged back into reality by their mother, without the food, putting on their galoshes and heading off to school in freezing November rain.

In “Salt and Oil” the elements of the poem’s title become opposing symbols for capturing the “unwritten biography of your city … There is no/ photograph, no mystery/ only Salt and Oil/ in the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds./ There is smoke and grease, there is/ the wrist’s exhaustion, there is laughter,/ there is the letter seized in the clock.”

His compassion and humane treatment of his subjects are Levine’s strongest qualities, with his sympathies almost always clearly directed toward the exploited, overworked and weary people of his poems. In the haunting “Detroit, Tomorrow” for instance, Levine describes a mother who contemplates “how she’ll go back to work today” after her only child has been killed (“You and I will see her just before four/ alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box/ of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee, a navel orange secured under her arm …”).

Or in “Among Children,” from a classroom of 4th grade schoolchildren in Flint, Michigan, he considers their fathers working in spark plug factories or water plants, their mothers waiting in old coats, and worries what the future brings (“You can see already how their backs have thickened, how their small hands, soiled by pig iron, leap and stutter even in dreams”).

One could easily list a dozen other poems evoking very human qualities in Levine’s poetry.

However, while his ability to movingly render the lives of “everyday people” and the grinding nature of work is admirable, those of his poems that move onto political and historical terrain point to some of Levine’s weaknesses. Here a tendency toward pessimism and resignation emerges most clearly.

Some of his most well-known poems—“They Feed They Lion” and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” about racial tensions and the 1967 Detroit Riots, or “Francisco, I’ll Bring You Red Carnations” about events in the Spanish Civil War—are among his least effective.

Some of this can be explained in Levine’s world outlook. Throughout most of his life he identified himself as an anarchist. He dedicates numerous poems and essays to vignettes and to anarchist figures of the Spanish Civil War—a struggle he considered the most important of the 20th century. Many of these are captured in The Names of the Lost and in a chapter of his autobiography (“The Holy Cities”).

The themes of the more “political poems”—heroic individualism, defiance in the face of long odds, idealist notions of a better world—are generally passive and even demoralized. They lack a conception of the material and social basis of the revolutionary struggle. The poem “To Cipriano, In The Wind” is an apt illustration. Cipriano is the name of the Italian dry cleaner who inspired Levine’s turn toward anarchism as a youth. The poem is a discouraged longing for that particular idealism as it fades away in old age. Another poem, “The Communist Party,” about a CP meeting in Detroit in the late 1940s, illustrates a certain lack of seriousness with which he approached questions of history.

“Were we simply idealists?
What I’m certain of is something essential
was missing from our lives, and it wasn’t
in that sad little clubhouse for college kids,
it wasn’t in the vague talk, the awful words
that spun their own monotonous music:
“proletariat,” “bourgeoisie ,” “Trotskyist.

There is an underlying element of retreat and defeat—of an individual “screaming in the wind”—in many of Levine’s poems, even in some of the warmer compositions. In a Paris Review interview towards the end of his life he stated as much, despite his hatred of imperialist oppression. “Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire,” he said, “subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; it finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do?”

Large historical issues of the 20th century—the significance of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent betrayals of Stalinism, the global crisis of capitalism, the transformation of the trade unions into adjuncts of big business and the capitalist state, the dead-end of nationalism—would be difficult to navigate for even the sharpest of artists. Levine’s anarchism left him virtually powerless to bring these issues to life in his poetry.

His focus on the details of life in and around working class neighborhoods led one cultural critic to dub Levine the “large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” This description is somewhat misleading, however. It is indisputable that over the course of a lifetime Levine captured the episodes, dreams, daily routines, tragedies, disputes and complex interactions of working class lives in moving fashion. But his overall outlook is often shrouded by the view that life will never get any better. He is less of a fighter and optimist than Whitman, but Levine was no less sympathetic to his subjects than that poetic giant who preceded him by more than a century. He should be read and remembered for trying to give voice to the largely “voiceless” in industrial America.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/05/phil-m05.html

Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?

By Jeff Miley On March 3, 2015

Post image for Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?The democratic confederalism of Rojava is an attempt to transcend borders and build a participatory alternative to the tyrannical states of the region.

By Jeff Miley and Johanna Riha. Photo by Erin Trieb.

Since the descent into civil war in Syria, revolutionary forces have seized control of the Kurdish region of Rojava. The mainstream media has been quick to publicize who the revolutionary forces in Rojava are fighting against — the brutality of Islamic State (IS) — but what they are fighting for is often neglected. In December 2014, we had the chance to visit the region as part of an academic delegation. The purpose of our trip was to assess the strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities of the revolutionary project under way.

Rojava is the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. It consists of three cantons: Afrîn in the west, Kobani in the centre, and Cizîre in the east. It is, for the most part, isolated and surrounded by hostile forces. However — despite the brutal war with IS, the painful embargo of Turkey and the even more painful embargo of Barzani and his Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq — systems of self-governance and democratic autonomous rule have been established in Rojava, and are radically transforming social and political relations in an emancipatory direction.

As Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing the independent communities of Rojava, explained in an interview in November 2014:

[We are engaged in the construction of] radical democracy: to mobilize people to organize themselves and to defend themselves by means of peoples armies like the Peoples Defense Unit (YPG) and Women’s Defense Unit (YPJ). We are practicing this model of self-rule and self-organization without the state as we speak. Democratic autonomy is about the long term. It is about people understanding and exercising their rights. To get society to become politicized: that is the core of building democratic autonomy.

At the forefront of this politicization is gender equality and women’s empowerment, with equal representation and active participation of women in all political and social circles. “We [have] established a model of co-presidency — each political entity always has both a female and a male president — and a quota of 40% gender representation in order to enforce gender equality throughout all forms of public life and political representation,” explains Saleh Muslim.

The revolutionary forces in Rojava are not fighting for an independent nation state, but advocating a system they call democratic confederalism: one of citizenry-led self-governance through the formation of neighborhood-level people’s councils, town councils, open assemblies, and cooperatives. These self-governing instruments allow for the participation of diverse political, ethnic, and religious groups, promoting consensus-led decision-making. Combined with local academies aimed at politicizing and educating the population, these structures of self-governance give the populace the ability to raise and solve their own problems.

During our nine day trip to Cizîre canton, we visited rural towns as well as cities, where we met with representatives and members of schools, cooperatives, women’s academies, security forces, political parties, and the self-government in charge of economic development, healthcare, and foreign affairs.

Throughout the visit, we witnessed discipline, revolutionary commitment and impressive collective mobilization of the population in Cizîre. Despite the isolation and difficult conditions, a perseverance and even confidence seemed to dominate the collective mood among representatives and members of all the diverse groups we met. This collective optimism and willingness to sacrifice was in the pursuit of an admirable ideological program and genuine steps towards collective emancipation. We were particularly struck by the emphasis on education, politicization, and a consciousness-raising of the general population in accordance with a grassroots democratic transformation of social and property relations.

An obvious and striking strength of the revolution clearly on display throughout our trip were the strides towards gender emancipation. Our meetings with government representatives, members of academies, women’s militias, and people’s councils all demonstrated that women’s empowerment is not mere programmatic window-dressing but is in fact being implemented. This, in the context of the Middle East and in sharp contrast to both the IS as well as the KRG, was most impressive.

Another feature of the programmatic agenda we found admirable was the insistence by the revolutionary government in Rojava that it is committed to a broader struggle for a democratic Syria, and in fact a democratic Middle East, capable of accommodating cultural, ethnic and religious diversity through democratic confederalism. In this vein, we witnessed proactive attempts by the revolutionary forces to include ethnic and religious minorities into the struggle underway in Rojava, including the institutionalization of positive discrimination, quotas, and self-organization of minority groups, such as the Syriac community, which even formed their own militias.

Listen to Jeff Miley’s talk on Rojava and the Kurdish revolutionary movement

That said, the integration of the local Arab population into the revolutionary project remains a critical challenge, as does coordination and the formation of alliances with groups outside of the three cantons. Extra-Kurdish coordination and alliances are certainly prerequisites for ensuring the survival of the revolution in the medium and long term and are especially critical if democratic confederalism is to spread across Syria and the Middle East.

Such a task is as difficult as it is urgent. It is crucial that the revolutionary authorities do everything in their power to assuage Arab fears of a Greater Kurdistan agenda, and include them in this struggle. Avoiding a Kurdish-centric version of history, literature and even the temptation to push for a Kurdish-only language educational system will help prevent the alienation of ethnic and religious minorities.

Revolutionary symbols like flags, maps and posters are particularly important when it comes to integrating ethnic and religious minorities, as well as publicizing the revolution across the world. More inclusive imagery would certainly facilitate the task of winning support and sympathy — both in the Middle East and more globally. References beyond the Kurdish movement were strikingly absent from the symbols we saw. The positive side of the Kurdish revolutionary symbols cannot be ignored and certainly plays a significant role in facilitating the mobilization of the Kurdish population. However, at the same time it is likely to alienate non-Kurds and Kurds who might misidentify the struggle as one for a Greater Kurdistan.

Our biggest concern is that the revolution will be compromised — if not sacrificed — by broader geopolitical games. The current close alliance between the KRG and the United States, and the recent US-led airstrikes in Syria, fuel the suspicions of many, especially Sunni Arabs, that the Kurds are but pawns to yet another imperialist intervention in the region in pursuit of oil.

The politics of divide and conquer employed by the imperialist powers have a long, bloody and effective history in the Middle East and beyond. This sad reality reinforces how crucial it is to build alliances, and to transcend the Kurdish nationalist imaginary within the ranks of the movement. Indeed, one of the principal strengths of IS has been its ability to mobilize militants both locally and globally in seemingly implacable opposition to imperialist powers.

It is especially important for the Kurdish revolution to appeal to the Turkish left, and to encourage them to denounce and fight against the crippling embargo enforced by the Turkish state on Rojava. The effects of and challenges created by the embargo were all too evident with respect to the basic health needs of the population we encountered. Unexpectedly, it was not a lack of medical expertise but rather a lack of medicine and medical equipment that most threatens population health.

The effects of the embargo also reach beyond the immediate needs of the population in Rojava. The environmental toll was evident, most notably in the oil-seeped soil around the rigs. Given the circumstances, it is certainly understandable and indeed inevitable that the revolutionary authorities are nearly exclusively preoccupied with the tasks of providing for immediate energy and food needs of the population while searching for financial assistance to keep the revolutionary project afloat. Nevertheless, the revolution offers a unique opportunity to carefully establish an environmentally sustainable and democratically managed economy.

In the broader context of tyranny, violence and political upheaval rocking many countries in the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that problems can be understood in isolation or solved on a country-by-country basis. One of the best things about the model of democratic confederalism institutionalized in Rojava is that it is potentially applicable to the entire region — a region, it should be recalled, the borders of which were largely drawn in illegitimate fashion by imperialist forces a century ago. The sins of imperialism have yet to be forgotten in the region.

Democratic confederalism, however, is not about dissolving state borders, but transcending them. At the same time, it allows for the construction of a local, participatory democratic alternative to tyrannical states. Indeed, the model of democratic confederalism promises to help foster peace throughout the region, from the Israeli-Palestine conflict, through Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, etc. If only this democratic revolution could spread.

The long siege on Kobani, facilitated by the criminal complicity of the Turkish state, constituted not just an assault on the Kurdish people but on a revolutionary democratic project. The region is being torn asunder in a destructive process protagonized by a variety of reactionary brands of political Islam. The revolutionary project of Rojava, based on democratic participation, gender emancipation, and multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and even multi-national accommodation, represents a third way — perhaps the only way — for achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

For these reasons the recent liberation of Kobani should be hailed by progressives, indeed, by all advocates of peace, freedom and democracy around the world.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is Lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. His research interests include comparative nationalisms, the politics of migration, and democratic theory.

Johanna Riha is an epidemiologist who recently finished her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Johanna was part of an academic delegation that visited Rojava in December 2014. 

This article was originally published at the website of the University of Cambridge, and has been republished here with the authors’ permission.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/03/rojava-kurdish-revolution-academic-delegation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionary

By Federico Venturini On February 28, 2015

Post image for Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionaryAn interview with Debbie Bookchin on her father’s contributions to revolutionary theory and the adoption of his ideas by the Kurdish liberation movement. 

Editor’s note: Below you will find an interview with Debbie Bookchin, daughter of the late Murray Bookchin, who passed away in 2006. Bookchin spent his life in revolutionary leftist circles, joining a communist youth organization at the age of nine and becoming a Trotskyist in his late thirties, before switching to anarchist thought and finally ending up identifying himself as a ‘communalist’ after developing the ideas of ‘libertarian municipalism’.

Bookchin was (and remains) as influential as he was controversial. His radical critiques of deep ecology and ‘lifestyle anarchism’ stirred up a number of heated debates that continue to this day. Now that his revolutionary ideas have been picked up by the Kurdish liberation movement, who are using Bookchin’s works to build a democratic, gender-equal and ecologically sustainable society in the heart of the Middle East, we are seeing a renewed interest in the life and thoughts of this great political thinker.

For this reason ROAR is very excited to publish this interview with Debbie Bookchin, which not only provides valuable insights into her father’s political legacy, but also offers a glimpse into the life of the man behind the ideas.

:::::::::::::::::::::::

Federico Venturini: Verso Books has just published The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, a collection of essays by your father Murray Bookchin. Could you tell us something about this book? Why did you decide to embark on this venture?

Debbie Bookchin: The creation of this book was inspired among other things by the ongoing political discussion about which direction the Left should take with respect to the question of organization. Our publisher, Verso, publishes the writings of both Slavoj Žižek and Simon Critchley. Briefly, Žižek advocates revolution with the power given to a centralized state – a rehashing of Marxist theory. Critchley, on the other hand, advocates social change that takes place in the interstices of society.

Murray felt that both of these solutions were inadequate responses to the question of how to develop radical forms of governance that are democratic and can fundamentally change society. We thought this collection of essays on decentralized democracy could offer an important third pole in this political debate. And we wanted to present them, along with some previously unpublished material, to a new generation of activists.

How did Bookchin arrive at the concept of decentralized democracy?

Murray had spent a lifetime studying revolutionary movements and in fact wrote an entire history of those movements in his four-volume work, The Third Revolution. This study reaffirmed his belief that revolutionary change could not be achieved through activities that remained within the margins of a society – for example, building alternative organizations like food co-ops and free schools, as Critichley proposes – or by creating a massive socialist state, an idea which has been completely discredited and could never gain any kind of widespread appeal.

Instead, he felt that we had to employ modes of organization that built on the best traditions of revolutionary movements – such as the Paris commune of 1871 and the collectives formed in 1936 revolutionary Spain – an overlooked tradition that enshrines decision-making at the municipal level in neighborhood assemblies that increasingly challenge the hegemony of the nation-state. And because he was an American, he was also looking for a way to build upon traditions that would appeal to an American public, such as the committees of the American Revolution or the New England town meeting style democracy that is still active in places like Vermont today. These are the ideas he discusses in the essays in this book.

Bookchin is known for his writings on ecology, hierarchy and capitalism — collected under the umbrella of what he called ‘social ecology’. How do the ideas in this book emerge from the concept of social ecology?

One of Murray’s central contributions to Left thought was his insistence, back in the early 1960s, that all ecological problems are social problems. Social ecology starts from this premise: that we will never properly address climate change, the poisoning of the earth with pesticides and the myriad of other ecological problems that are increasingly undermining the ecological stability of the planet, until we address underlying issues of domination and hierarchy. This includes domination based on gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, as well as class distinctions.

Eradicating those forms of oppression immediately raises the question of how to organize society in a fashion that maximizes freedom. So the ideas about popular assemblies presented in this book grow naturally out of the philosophy of social ecology. They address the question of how to advance revolutionary change that will achieve true freedom for individuals while still allowing for the social organization necessary to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

Popular assemblies are part of the renewed importance that Bookchin gives to municipal organization. When and why did Bookchin begin to focus on these issues?

Murray had begun thinking about these issues early on, in the 1960s. He addresses them even in 1968, in his essay, “The Forms of Freedom.” But this question, of political and social organization, especially consumed Murray in the last two decades of his life, when the essays we’ve collected here were written. When Murray saw the predicament of the alter-globalization movement and similar movements, he asserted that simply engaging in “festivals of the oppressed” failed to offer a structural framework within which to address deep-seated social and economic inequities.

He had spent more than three decades working within the anarchist tradition but had come to feel that anarchism didn’t deal adequately with the question of power and political organization. Instead, he advocated a localized, grassroots democratic social philosophy, which he called Communalism. He called the political expression of that idea Libertarian Municipalism. He believed that by developing and institutionalizing general assemblies on the local level we could re-empower ourselves as active citizens, charting the course of our communities and economies and confederating with other local assemblies.

He envisioned this self-government as becoming increasingly strong as it solidified into a “dual power,” that would challenge, and ultimately dismantle, the power of the nation-state. Murray occasionally used the term Communalism interchangeably with Libertarian Municipalism but generally he thought of Communalism as the umbrella political philosophy and Libertarian Municipalism as its political practice, which entails the running of candidates on the municipal level, municipalizing the economy and the like.

It seems that recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indignados movement resemble some of these ideas. What would Bookchin have thought of them and of developments like the Podemos phenomenon in Spain?

Murray would have been excited to see the Indignados movement, in part because of his admiration for 1936 revolutionary Spain, which informs his book The Spanish Anarchists. And he would have appreciated the impulses behind Occupy and the citizen revolts across the Mideast. But I think he would have anticipated many of the troubles that preoccupied Occupy. This includes the problems inherent in the use of consensus, and the mistaken belief by many within the Occupy movement that the act of creating protest encampments can be equated with the actual reclaiming of popular power, which Murray believed had to be institutionalized in local assemblies within communities in order to create a true political force.

I think it’s hard not to be excited by political events in Greece and Spain, where new, more democratic parties are coming to power. But Murray would have warned that these kinds of national parties are almost always forced to compromise their ideals to the point where they no longer represent significant change. He warned about that when the German Greens came to power in the early 1980s and he was proven correct. They started out calling themselves a “non-party party” but they ended up in a coalition with the conservative CDU (the Christian Democratic Union) in order to maintain power.

That is why he differentiates between “statecraft,” his name for traditional representative government, which never really invests power with the citizenry, and “politics,” a term that he wants to reclaim to signify directly democratic self-management by popular assemblies that are networked together to make decisions that affect larger regions. So that’s one reason why we’re happy about the publication of this book at this time; it directly speaks to the impulses of millions of people around the world who are demanding direct democracy instead of representative democracy, and helps point a way to achieving that goal.

As direct democracy has become a rallying cry, your father’s work has enjoyed a resurgence. But even before that, he was considered one of the most important anarchist and libertarian thinkers of the last century. What is it like to be his daughter?

I guess there’s more than one answer to that question. One is political—most of my adult life has been spent as an investigative journalist, but since my father died in 2006, I’ve felt increasingly that it’s my job to help project his ideas forward, that we are living in a time when the need for political change has never been greater, and that his work has a major contribution to make to the Left.

The other answer is more personal – I had an unusual childhood because of both of my parents’ activism and deep involvement with so many ideas. Murray was self-educated – he never went to college – so he taught himself everything from physics to philosophy and had an especially remarkable command of history. He had an innate desire to contextualize everything, and that made him very engaging to be around. And my mother, Bea, was a mathematician, and a dialectical thinker in her own right. Her intellect and sensibilities made her an important sounding board for him, which helped him elaborate ideas.

They were extremely close; even though they were only married for 12 years they continued to live together for decades, right up until the early 1990s. So there were endless discussions and strong intellectual and emotional bonds that made it a wonderfully vibrant home to be raised in. And because I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s it was also a very active time politically, so our house was full of interesting people all the time, which was great fun for a kid.

Ultimately, the thing I appreciate about both my parents is their tremendous love of ideas – their lifelong commitment to great ideas that at their root form the possibility for political transformation – and their desire to act on them.

Could you say something about what Murray was like as a person?

While it’s hard to believe when reading some of his polemics, Murray was immensely warm and caring to the people around him. He took a supportive interest in his students at the Institute for Social Ecology and he was a very social creature; he loved good company.

In many of his writings, especially in his earlier wotrk, like the essays in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and of course The Ecology of Freedom, but also in later pieces like Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, you can feel the intensity of his utopian vision, his belief that human beings deserve to live in societies that maximize creativity and freedom. As a person he was deeply moved by human suffering and very empathetic, even sentimental at times. At the same time, he was profoundly committed to rational thought and felt strongly that human beings had an obligation to create a rational society.

As with all thinkers that produce work that spans over decades, your father’s thinking modified with the passing of time. How do you explain this?

Murray was constantly studying, evaluating, and reassessing. He allowed his theories to evolve organically and dialectically and didn’t hold on to set theoretical doctrines, be they Marxist or anarchist. On the other hand, Murray wasn’t immune from making mistakes. So, for example, while I agreed with his critique of “lifestyle” anarchism (in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasmpublished in 1995), I think there were stylistic errors that made his tone more polarizing than it needed to be and that may have made it harder for some undecided anarchists to adopt his point of view.

But I think that now, twenty years later, his critique has stood the test of time not only with respect to “lifestyle” anarchism but anarchism per se and that Communalism can be seen, in a sense, as a logical progression that addresses organizational lacunae in anarchism. I hope that anarchists who read this new collection of essays will see Communalism as a natural outgrowth of anarchism and view Murray’s critique of the failures of anarchism in the context of his search for a potent instrument for revolutionary change.

Why do you think Murray adopted what some people viewed as a harsh tone in his book ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’?

Murray had spent a lifetime explaining why the irrationalities of capitalism could only be countered by an organized social movement and here was a vocal group of anarchists dismissing that goal in favor of an individualist, anti-technology, primitivist politics, which Murray found as irrational as capitalism itself.

So, if his tone was unforgiving, it’s because he was desperately trying to rescue the social dimension of anarchism. Murray was also unsparing in his critique of deep ecology—for example in his adamant assertion, long before others dared to say so, that deep ecology was a fundamentally misanthropic, anti-rational political philosophy. There were many in the anarchist and the deep ecology movements who were unable to answer his criticisms of those ideologies. So some of these adversaries resorted to personal attacks.

In his book Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Times, Andy Price of Sheffield Hallam University in England does an excellent job of analyzing Murray’s critiques with respect to anarchism and deep ecology and unmasks the efforts to caricaturize him by some members of those movements. Price’s book is a very fine treatment of those issues, and also happens to serve as a great introduction to Murray’s ideas.

What do you view as Murray’s most important teaching?

The necessity of dialectical thinking – that to really know a thing you have to see it in its full development, not statically, not as it “is” but rather as it has the potential to “become.” That hierarchy and capitalism weren’t inevitable developments and that a legacy of freedom has always existed alongside the legacy of domination. That it’s our job as human beings capable of rational thought to try to develop an ethics and social structure that maximizes freedom.

What about his most relevant achievement?

On a very basic level, his introduction of ecology as a political category was extraordinary. He was fifty years ahead of his time in saying unequivocally that capitalism was incompatible with living in harmony with the natural world, a concept that key activists today such as Naomi Klein have taken up and popularized. He also was ahead of his time in critiquing the Left from a Leftist perspective, insisting that traditional Marxism, with it’s focus on the proletariat as a hegemonic class and its economic reductionism, had to be abandoned in favor of a more sweeping framework for social change.

But even more important, I think, was his desire to develop a unified social theory grounded in philosophy. In other words, he was searching for an objective foundation for an ethical society. That led him to immerse himself in history, anthropology, and even in biology and the sciences, all in the service of advancing the idea that mutual aid, complementarity, and other concepts that predominate in natural evolution point to the notion that human beings are capable of using their rationality to live in harmony with each other and the natural world—that we are capable of creating what he called “free nature.” And in this sense I would agree with you that he was one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century.

Recently Bookchin’s name has come up in connection with the Kurdish autonomy movement. Can you tell us a bit about his role in influencing Kurdish resistance and their social forms of organization?

Right now the Kurds in parts of Turkey and northern Syria are engaged in one of the most daring and innovative efforts in the world to employ directly democratic decision-making in their politics. Two years before Murray died in 2006, he was contacted by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish resistance. While they never had a chance to engage in a direct dialogue, Öcalan did undertake a serious study of Murray’s work, reading seminal books like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities.

As a result, Öcalan abandoned his Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution in favor of Murray’s non-statist, libertarian municipalist approach, adapting Murray’s ideas and developing his own into what he called Democratic Confederalism. We see these ideas at work now in many Kurdish communities in Turkey and in the Rojava region in northern Syria, including in Kobani, where Kurdish forces battled and ultimately drove out the Islamic State from the city after 134 days of fighting.

These towns are remarkable for instituting the kind of directly democratic councils that empower every member of the community regardless of ethnicity, gender or religion. They have embraced the principals of democratic decision-making, ecological stewardship, and equality and representation for ethnic minorities and for women, who now constitute 40 percent of every decision-making body. They’ve instituted freedom of speech and in many cases municipalized their economies. Importantly they view Kurdish autonomy as inseparable from creating a liberatory, non-capitalist society for all and have created their own autonomous zones which stand as a true challenge to the nation-state.

This kind of self-government is a model not just for the region but for the world. I wish Murray, who not only believed so strongly in the libertarian municipalist model, but also in the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, had lived long enough to see it.

In your introduction to the book, you point out that Murray’s influence has also been felt within the practices and politics of new social movements. What do you think is his legacy for social movements and what is your aim with respect to this new publication?

I think that features of Murray’s thought are evident in a wide range of current political and social theorizing, for example in the insightful work of theorists like David Harveyand Marina Sitrin. My co-editor Blair Taylor, a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in the Politics Department, specializes in the history of new social movements and has observed that these movements have already embraced many of Murray’s ideas, even if this was sometimes unknowingly. You see this in the use of affinity groups, spokes-councils, and other forms of directly democratic organizing; in the sensitivity to matters of domination and hierarchy; in the understanding of pre-figurative politics—that is that we must live the values in our movement that we want to achieve in a new society.

These are all concepts that Murray introduced in the 1970s. You see these ideas at work also in the transition towns movement and on the streets when protesters are asked by reporters: “What do you want?” and they respond, “Direct democracy.” I think that it’s exciting that his work is being discussed by people like David Harvey and David Graeber and rediscovered by a new generation. What I hope is that the social movements taking shape across the globe will consider using the ideas in this book as a way of reclaiming popular power on the municipal level, so that we can institutionalize the political change necessary to move us from the realm of protest to that of social transformation—to a self-managed society and a liberated future.

Federico Venturini is an activist-researcher, working with social ecology and urban social movement. He is currently PhD candidate at the School of Geography, University of Leeds and member of Transnational Institute of Social Ecology

 

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