Libertarian Municipalism: Murray Bookchin’s Revolutionary Program

Source: Roar Magazine

The demand for a rational society summons us to be rational beings—to live up to our uniquely human potentials and construct the Commune of communes.

The lifelong project of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) was to try to perpetuate the centuries-old revolutionary socialist tradition by renovating it for the current era. Confronted with the failure of Marxism after World War II, many, perhaps most radical socialists of his generation abandoned the left. But Bookchin refused to give up on the aim of replacing capitalism and the nation state with a rational, ecological libertarian communist society, based on humane and cooperative social relations.

Rather than abandon those ideas, he sought to rethink revolution. During the 1950s he concluded that the new revolutionary arena would be not the factory but the city; that the new revolutionary agent would be not the industrial worker but the citizen; that the basic institution of the new society must be, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the citizens’ assembly in a face-to-face democracy; and that the limits of capitalism were ecological.

Moreover, Bookchin concluded that modern technology was eliminating the need for toil (a condition he called “post-scarcity”), freeing people to reconstruct society and participate in democratic self-government. He developed a program for the creation of assemblies and confederations in urban neighborhoods, towns, and villages that, at various points in this life, he called eco-anarchism, libertarian municipalism, or communalism.

In the 1970s, new social movements—feminism, antiracism, communitarianism, environmentalism—emerged that raised hopes for the fulfillment of this program, but they ultimately failed to generate a new revolutionary dynamic. Today, in 2015, the concept of radical citizens’ assemblies is gaining renewed interest among the international left. For this new generation, I propose to lay out the basic program as Bookchin developed it in the 1980s and 1990s.

Libertarian municipalism

The ideal of the “Commune of communes,” Bookchin argued to many audiences and readers, has been part of revolutionary history for two centuries: the ideal of decentralized, stateless, and collectively self-managed communes, or free municipalities, joined together in confederations. The sans-culottes of the early 1790s had governed revolutionary Paris through assemblies. The Paris Commune of 1871 called for “the absolute autonomy of the Commune extended to all localities in France.” The major nineteenth-century anarchist thinkers—Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin—all called for a federation of communes.

Libertarian municipalism was intended as an expression of this tradition. Rather than seeking to form a party machine to attain state power and institute top-down reforms, it addresses the question that Aristotle asked two thousand years ago, the central problem of all political theory: What kind of polity best provides for the rich flourishing of communal human life? Bookchin’s answer: the polity in which empowered citizens manage their communal life through assembly democracy.

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