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I’D NEVER HEARD of Murray Bookchin, but this American political theorist and his beliefs are celebrated in Rojava, the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, and, at one time, in Burlington, Vermont. I’d not heard of Rojava either until I read about it in the May 4, 2017, issue of the London Review of Books. The LRB article also links its Burlington mention with a well-known personage to be revealed here anon.

“Bizarre and Wonderful,” by Wes Enzinna, is the LRB review of the book Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, by Janet Biehl. A summary of the review can be accessed here; LRB readers get the full story. And what a story it is.

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, by Janet Biehl, Oxford University Press, 2015. Biehl was Bookchin’s partner for 20 years until his death in 2006.

Murray Bookchin, born in the Bronx, New York, in 1921, was raised primarily by a grandmother who had smuggled guns for anarchists during the downfall of the Russian tsar. Bookchin was active in the Communist Party of the U.S.A. until expelled for criticizing the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.

Murray Bookchin, 1921–2006, American political theorist, libertarian, anarchist and writer of 24 books on political theory and ecology.

Bookchin and other lapsed Communists proposed theories that were neither capitalist nor Marxist-Leninist, until 1964 when he was attracted to the emerging science of ecology. Bookchin jumped into this full time with opinions such as “Every philosophical revolution was revolutionized by science…. … ecology clearly shows the totality of the natural world—nature taken in all its aspects, cycles and inter-relationships—cancels out all human pretensions to mastery over the planet.”

What’s more, Bookchin proposed a partnership of anarchism and ecology in what he called “social ecology.” Goddard College was (and remains) an experimental and non-traditional college in Plainfield, Vermont, and, in 1973, it invited Bookchin to co-organize an Institute for Social Ecology. Part of this involved running an experimental community called Cate Farm.

Goddard College, established in 1863 as Green Mountain Central Institute; renamed Goddard Seminary in 1870, a Universalist prep school primarily for Tufts; and reformed as Goddard College in 1938.

LRB reviewer Enzinna, who’s also a senior editor at Mother Jones, writes, “Students built thousand-gallon fish tanks, composting toilets, geodesic domes, wind turbines, and Vermont’s first solar-powered building.… Staff and students skinny-dipped, hiked and partied together.”

I believe I get the picture.

What with Vermont’s 200-year-old tradition of town meetings, in 1981 Bookchin and colleagues devised a social-ecology plan for Burlington, about 50 miles west of Plainfield. Writes Enzinna, “Elected council members would advance the decisions of their assemblies, and once they had a majority on the council, they would vote to dissolve it, returning municipal power to neighbourhoods.”

Sort of taking over the town pond and draining it, whether it needed draining or not.

As detailed by Enzinna, Burlington mayor Gordon Paquette’s reelection in 1981 was challenged by a 39-year-old socialist filmmaker, a political independent who lent his support to the assemblies. The socialist won by ten votes, though once in office, according to Bookchin, he became a “centralist… more committed to accumulating power in the mayor’s office than giving it to the people.”

The new mayor’s name? Bernie Sanders. He was reelected mayor three more times.

And what of Bookchin and Rojava? This de facto autonomous region of northern Syria is regarded by Kurdish nationals as part of Greater Kurdistan. Neighboring Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran would disagree.

Flag, coat of arms and map of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria.

Rojava’s government is based on social ecology, confederalism, gender equality and libertarian municipalism, with Murray Bookchin being something of a Founding Uncle from Afar.

As Enzinna describes it, “In spring 2004, Abdulla Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s PKK, sent a letter to Murray Bookchin, an 83-year-old, wheelchair-bound, arthritic eco-anarchist in Burlington, Vermont.”

Bookchin responded, “As such, I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue….” But his message and many of his political theories became well-known and respected in Rojava. No Bookchin works have been translated into Arabic, but Öcalan’s writings are widespread. And, indeed, Enzinna notes that an Öcalan personality cult has evolved, with pictures of him appearing in offices, halls, hospitals and barracks.

Abdullan Öcalan, Turkish-born c. 1947, Kurdish nationalist, one of the founding members of the PKK, imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.

Enzinna recalls a Rojava encounter occurring a decade after Bookchin’s 2006 death: “ ‘America?’ a young militiawoman guarding a checkpoint said one morning as she handed me back my papers, ‘Like Bookchin!’ ” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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