A Critical Introduction to Bookchin's Theses on Libertarian Municipalism
Murray Bookchin’s political thought is noteworthy for helping to transmit core anarchist ideas of decentralized direct democracy and free federation to several post-60’s generations of anarchists and libertarian socialists. His text, “Theses on Libertarian Municipalism,” was a significant step in the development of that project. Moreover, the work is of more interest at the present moment in history than it has been at any time since it was published. This ground-breaking manifesto in defense of communal participatory democracy was completed in September 1984, and was first published in 1985 in the Canadian anarchist journal Our Generation. On its appearance, the journal’s editors commented that “after several decades of writing critical analysis of historical and contemporary issues, Bookchin initiates a long-awaited and much-needed movement-building perspective.”
For almost thirty years after this initiation, there was scant evidence of the emergence of such a movement, including in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, where Bookchin focused his efforts. However, more recently, largely unanticipated historic tendencies have emerged, including the Democratic Autonomy Movement in Rojava, the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, grassroots indigenous movements in Bolivia and elsewhere, that have given the work a much greater historical significance. In these movements, communal assemblies, citizens’ committees, and other forms of base democracy have once again become historical realities. Though these current developments differ in some important ways from what Bookchin envisioned in 1984, they constitute a radical libertarian and decentralist turn in the global Left that makes his work on municipalism an important link between historical anarchist thought and practice and the most advanced contemporary revolutionary politics.
What has often been missing in contemporary anarchist thought is a vision of how an anarchist or libertarian socialist approach might transform society in practice. Bookchin proposes an alternative to two unpromising approaches that are common in recent anarchism. One is to focus almost entirely on resistance and oppositional work, while leaving constructive counter-institution building for possible future consideration. The second is to put one’s efforts into a variety of constructive but basically marginal projects, hoping that somehow this will transform the world. Bookchin’s crucial contribution was to help revive debate within anarchism and libertarian socialism concerning the possibility of a realistic program that had a meaningful and reasonably concrete vision of how society could be deeply transformed in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, Bookchin’s approach also demonstrates the pitfalls of theory degenerating in some ways into ideology, as exhibited in a certain programmatic rigidity, and in a tendency to distort opposing views, as exemplified by the clumsy caricature of anarchism that he presented when he was in the process of renouncing it.
Contrary to his later claims, Bookchin points out correctly in the “Theses” that what he labelled libertarian municipalism, and later came to call “communalism,” is inherent in the works of the classical anarchists. This was true to a certain degree of the first major theorists, Proudhon and Bakunin, but became much more pronounced in the thought of communist anarchists such as Kropotkin and Reclus. Later, it was also expressed powerfully in the communitarian anarchism of Gustav Landauer. In such a politics, ultimate power lies in the hands of the citizens of the local community, and in Bookchin’s version, above all in the democratic assemblies of these citizens. Bookchin describes it in the “Theses” as “the re-embodiment of the masses into richly articulated assemblies, the formation of a body politic in an arena of discourse, shared rationality, free expression, and radically democratic modes of decision-making.” He hopes that this politics will allow “the People” to reemerge as the world-historical subject of revolution, based on a “‘general interest’ that is formed out of public concern over “ecological, community, moral, gender, and cultural issues.”
Bookchin’s focus on the primacy of the assembly exhibits both the strengths and the weaknesses of his position. He argues for the assembly as the major force in shaping members of the community into true citizens. In the “Theses,” he describes this institution as essential to “the character formation which transforms ‘men’ from passive objects into active subjects.” Elsewhere, he depicts “new forms of citizenship” and the assembly as the “social gymnasium” in which the citizens develop the “muscularity of thought” that allows them to be judicious and rational decision-makers. A strong point in this analysis is the idea that for authentic communal self-rule or self-management to exist, a kind of person must emerge who is capable of making decisions that are wise, impartial, and for the good of the community. For successful social transformation, any collective or universal “subject” of revolution, whether a specific class or “the People” in general, must be rooted in the individual “subject” of revolution as the free, communal, rational, and responsible person. This image of personhood is a stark contrast to late capitalist subjectivity, in which there is a disintegration of character-structure and a loss of sociality. However, there are also problematic aspects to Bookchin’s conception of selfhood. One of the most significant problems is that his images of activity, strength and management often exhibit a masculinist bias in his thought. As this dimension develops, especially during his more programmatically municipalist period, he gives a rather restricted concept of “rationality” a more central place, while there is increasingly less emphasis on community members as caring, loving and nurturing beings.
A major issue for Bookchin’s confederal municipalism is the relationship between assemblies and structurally higher-level bodies that are in principle subordinate to the power of the base. He asserts in the “Theses” that “only if assemblies . . . maintain the most demanding vigilance and scrutiny over any coordinating confederal bodies is a libertarian democracy conceivable.” He assures the reader that “structurally, this issue poses no problems,” since “communities have relied on experts and administrators without losing their freedom from time immemorial.” His first point is indisputable from a radical libertarian perspective. Delegates at any federal or confederal level, council members, and members of administrative bodies such as citizens’ commissions must be subject to mechanisms such binding mandates and recall, if power is to be maintained at the base. However, structural constraints that work beautifully in theory are not always adequate to prevent abuses in practice. In the real world, assemblies can only oversee, interpret, and execute policy to a very limited degree. This is the reason why recent revolutionary movements have found that the expression of democracy through other means—for example, through the kind of diverse citizens’ councils that exist in Rojava, through the Zapatistas’ good government councils and comisiónes de vigilancia, and above all, through diverse aspects of the ethos of the community—is so important.
Bookchin’s position has been controversial among many anarchists because of his advocacy of participation in local elections and local governmental institutions. He stresses in the “Theses” the need to “alter city and town charters,” in order to create “directly democratic institutions” at that decentralized level. He replies to critics that “there is no reason why such a politics should be construed as parliamentary, particularly if it is confined to the civic level and is consciously posed against the State.” One reason might be, however, that explicitly parliamentary regional and local systems have existed and still do, and city councils in general can meaningfully be interpreted this way. So, it might be best to recognize the “parliamentary” dimensions of this politics and confront consciously the challenges and even dangers that these aspects pose. Bookchin describes his municipalism as a politics that is “structured around neighborhood assemblies, recallable deputies, radically democratic forms of accountability, and deeply rooted localist networks.” The final point, which concerns the larger ethos in which the formally democratic procedures are situated, is a very crucial one. We must ask how they can be deeply rooted in a pervasive ethos that is not only libertarian and egalitarian, but also communitarian and caring. The potential for developing a strong community of care at the local level will depend in part on the “ethical substantiality” (to use Hegel’s pertinent concept) embodied in a community’s living traditions of mutuality and care. Bookchin calls the town, village or neighborhood community a person’s “most immediate environment” in a rather ahistorical, generic sense. However, it will constitute such an “environment,” not merely in theory, but in actuality, to quite different degrees, depending on the degree to which it is part of a more traditional society in which such communal practices are central, or part of a highly technological, mediatized, commodified and atomized one in which these practices are increasingly alien. Bookchin focused his efforts almost entirely on North American and European societies in which traditional communal roots were weakest, while he largely neglected non-Western, and above all, indigenous contexts in which the radical communitarian potential has been greatest, as we now see in Chiapas, Rojava, and Aymara communities in Bolivia.
Among the major issues that Bookchin confronts in the “Theses” are several interrelated ones: the role of class politics in revolutionary struggle; the significance of the economic dimension; and the relation between the community and the workplace. He is highly critical of what he sees as an over-emphasis on the role of the working class and of economic factors by the traditional Left, and he proposes a radical shift to the centrality of the local community or commune. One of his criticisms of working-class movements, including both Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism, is that in their worldview “the economy has acquired a predominant position over the community” and there is a “shift from an ethical emphasis on socialism to an economic one.” However, this claim is questionable. It seems difficult to deny that the workers’ movement’s enduring crusade against sweatshops, child labor, slave labor, hazardous workplaces, exploitation of women and children, destruction of the health of workers, poisoning of both workers and communities, etc. have expressed deeply moral concerns and constituted a deeply ethical critique of capitalism. While the French version of the Internationale invokes “la raison,” and the German invokes “das Recht,” the two together epitomize the ethical core of the classical worker’s movement.
Gaston Laval, in his study of the working-class Spanish anarchist movement, argues that its experience shows that the preparation for any “social revolution that is truly socialist [“révolution sociale et vraiment socialiste] . . . must be, above all, moral [doit être, avant tout, morale.]” The successes of the movement depended to a significant degree on the fact that its vision of a free and just libertarian communism captured the moral imagination of the masses. Bookchin’s claim that there was “a disturbing shift in emphasis from communitarianism to industrialism, from communal values to factory values” is valid to the extent that Spanish workers found industrialism and factories to be much more central to their everyday lives and practical struggles than in earlier periods. Yet, this is not equivalent to a weakening of the ethical dimension within their own movement, in which ideas of justice and injustice, equity and exploitation, solidarity and brutality all remained strong. There has, in fact, been a weakening of the ethical in modern society. However, this has, ironically, been primarily the result of the antithesis of what Bookchin, points out: the decline of the industrial working class and its productionist values (the dignity of labor, the need for equitable distribution, etc.) and the rise of the “post-industrial” capitalism of the society of mass consumption, with its values of self-image, lifestyle, comfort, and immediate gratification.
In the “Theses,” Marx and Engels come in for particularly harsh criticism on the issue of economism. Bookchin goes as far as to say that in their analysis “the myth that the factory serves to ‘discipline,’ ‘unite,’ and ‘organize’ the proletariat” led workers “to ignore its authoritarian and hierarchical role. It is true that Marx was optimistic in many ways about the ability to the working class to self-organize based on its experience in the modern capitalism industrial system but he was, in fact, quite critical of the authoritarian and hierarchal aspects of highly mechanized factory production. Bookchin is obviously correct in questioning the over-optimism of Marxists and even anarcho-syndicalists concerning the possible results of mere seizure and operation of the existing industrial system by the working class. However, it is not true that either branch of the workers’ movement overlooked the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the existing factory system. To cite one of Marx’s numerous statements on this topic, he writes in Capital of “the technical subordination of the workman to the uniform motion of the instruments of labor” and “a barrack discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory, and fully develops the labor of overlooking, thereby dividing the workpeople into operatives and [overseers], into private soldiers and sergeants of an industrial army.” The classical anarchist movement, even as it embraced the cause of the workers and celebrated the International, made similar criticisms of industrialized and mechanized factories and farms, as expressed, for example, in Elisée Reclus’s pamphlet “A Mon Frère le Paysan,” and in other works.
In his effort to discredit what he sees as a misguided workerism, Bookchin makes the significant but rather curious claim that “the factory, and for much of history the workplace, has actually been the primary arena not only for the exploitation but of hierarchy—this together with the patriarchal family.” This claim is fascinating in that it states and refutes its own thesis within the space of a single sentence. The factory is the “primary arena”—with the exception of whatever else is primary. A rather reductionist view of domination is initially asserted, and then correctly rejected, in partial recognition of the reality that domination is, in fact, a complex dialectical process in which the person, the family, the community, and the workplace are all “primary sites” of domination that profoundly condition one another, and are, indeed, present in one another. The Rojava Revolution has been unusually explicit on the patriarchal roots of domination and exploitation. Öcalan’s thought has made a real advance in emphasizing the fact that it is not only the traditional family that reflects deeply-rooted patriarchal values, but the individual psyche, the community, and the workplace. This dialectic of mutual determination must be understood as encompassing all forms of domination. including not only capitalist and patriarchal domination, but other forms such political domination through the State, and technological domination through the Megamachine.
One of the most valuable, yet also quite problematic, aspects of Bookchin’s interpretation of world history is his treatment of the liberatory role of the city and of the civilizing process, which he associates with cities. His analysis is strongest when he discusses the emancipatory possibilities opened by the city from the ancient Greek polis to the Paris or Barcelona of the modern revolutionary age. As he recounts it in the “Theses,” “the emergence of the city opens to us in varying degrees of development not only the new domain of universal humanitas as distinguished from the parochial folk, of the free space of an innovative civicism as distinguished from tradition-bound, biocentric gemeinschaften; it also opens to us the realm of polissonomos, the management of the polis by a body politic of free citizens.” This analysis points out an important truth. The development of the city helped establish the moment of universality in citizenship. In Hegelian terms, the city developed universal particularity through the unfolding of the possibilities within the community, while at the same time developing universal singularity through the unfolding of the possibilities of each person as a citizen. This is an inspiring historical heritage that the free community must claim and develop further. Yet, it focuses on only one side of the story.
The achievements of civilization have always contained both progressive and regressive moments. Thus, the Greek polis, in excluding women from a supposedly “universal humanitas” was a regression from some aspects of previous matrifocal societies. On this point, it should be noted how strikingly Bookchin’s account of the civilizing process contrasts with that of the eco-anarchist philosopher-geographer Reclus, who thought that each “civilizing” advance in, for example, personal freedom or technological ingenuity, needed to be balanced against losses in areas such as communal solidarity and ecological sensibility. Bookchin contends that “the Urban Revolution . . . essentially created the idea of a universal humanitas and the communalizing of that humanity along rational and ethical lines. It raised the limits to human development imposed by the kinship tie, the parochialism of the folk world, and the suffocating effects of custom.” His position echoes in some ways Marx’s rather Eurocentric stigmatization of “the idiocy of rural life.” Today such views sound, if not racist, at least rather unjustly dismissive of the valuable experience of many traditional societies, and, above all, of the liberatory dimensions of indigenous cultures. Thus, we might want to hesitate a bit before we hasten “beyond the band and village level of non-hierarchical social relationships” and reconsider what we must learn from these “levels.”
Bookchin states in the “Theses” that “‘civilizing’ is merely another expression for ‘politicizing’ and rendering a mass into a deliberative, rational, ethical body politic.” But it is not merely this. As he himself once recognized in his discussion of “organic society,” it is, in some ways, another expression for the loss of forms of caring, mutual aid, and generosity. At that point, he was much closer to Reclus’s more expansive view of history. To recognize these valuable moments of indigenous society is in no way to deny the urgently needed lessons that we can learn from what Bookchin considers the “most noteworthy” examples of the achievements of civilization, such as “the Athenian democracy, New England town meetings, the sectional assemblies and Paris Commune of 1793.” These examples can serve as powerful sources of hope and inspiration, as long as they are approached in a deeply (rather than merely superficially) critical way, and other examples, including non-Western and indigenous ones, are given equal consideration as sources of lessons concerning liberation. Furthermore, we might always keep in mind the rather important fact that the civilizing process has always been in part a genocidal process.
Finally, there is the inescapable yet perplexing question of leadership. Bookchin says in the “Theses” that the emergence of “a viable libertarian confederalist movement” requires the existence of the kind of “radical intelligentsia” that has “provided the cutting edge of every revolutionary project in history.” There are indeed many good examples of the crucial role played by such a political avant-garde. However, it would be more accurate to say that this role has been played in “many revolutionary projects” in “a certain period of history.” Such a formation was not so central to the Mexican Revolution and has been even less essential to other peasant and indigenous revolts that should not be read out of or marginalized within revolutionary history. Furthermore, the Zapatista experience shows that the reality may at times be closer to the opposite of what Bookchin depicts. In Chiapas, the crucial turning-point occurred when the radical intelligentsia that came to instruct and lead the indigenous people realized that it had instead to learn and to follow if it was to play a truly revolutionary role. The “radical intelligentsia” that went to Chiapas to instruct the indigenous people ended up discovering that it had more to learn than to teach, and that what is necessary is, as the Zapatistas put it, mandar obedeciendo, or “leading by obeying.”
On the other hand, one might point to Öcalan’s influence in Rojava as supporting evidence for Bookchin’s model, since he exemplifies the extraordinary power that even a single radical intellectual can have when such a figure also happens to be a long-time, dedicated movement leader. Yet, Öcalan also had a conversion experience similar to that of the Zapatistas when he discovered the role of women and feminine values in history and “pre-history,” and realized that the centralist, authoritarian, patriarchal concept of vanguardist revolution must be rejected in favor of an egalitarian, participatory and cooperative one. He also discovered that implicitly hierarchical ideas of leadership that prevail even among the Left need to be discarded, and that communal practice, and especially that of women, needs to take the lead. In the case of both Rojava and (especially) Zapatismo, leadership does not disappear, but it is radically transformed, and evolves beyond the classic revolutionary instances on which Bookchin bases his paradigms.
In conclusion, the emergence of strong movements for and practical achievements in the creation of decentralized participatory democracy in Chiapas, Rojava, El Alto, and elsewhere have given Bookchin’s Theses on Libertarian Municipalism a much greater significance as a link between the historical anarchist tradition and contemporary developments. We now have more evidence than ever that highly participatory communal assembles are an effective means for eliminating hierarchy and forms of domination and for helping to express the will of a free community. On the other hand, we find that real-world developments have in some ways moved beyond the municipalist vision expressed in the “Theses.” Contemporary revolutionary movements, through actual social practice, have launched a much deeper critique of patriarchy and masculinist egoism, and revealed more about the transformative power of radical feminism. In addition, they have expanded our perspective by exploring the role in social revolution of the “non-party party” and of other institutions besides assemblies in a non-hierarchical, horizontalist, and democratic political system and culture. And finally, they have helped us reimagine the question of revolution as a question of the here and now.
This text was written as a preface for the new edition of “Pour un municipalisme libertaire,” the French translation of “Theses on Libertarian Municipalism,” published by the Atelier de Création Libertaire in Lyon. The English version also appears on the "It Is What It Isn't" blog from Changing Suns Press at http://www.changingsunspress.com/it-is-what-it-isnt. Thanks to David Watson of the Fifth Estate and Michael Pelias of the Institute for the Radical Imagination for very helpful suggestions.
Murray Bookchin, “Theses on Libertarian Municipalism” in Our Generation Vol. 16, Nos. 3 & 4. Spring/Summer 1985, pp. 9-22. For a fully-developed version of Bookchin’s position see Murray Bookchin, “The Communalist Project” in Social Ecology and Communalism (Oakland: AK Press, 2006), pp. 7-116.
 “Theses,” in Our Generation, p. 7.
 Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1980), p. 290.
 Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays in Dialectical Naturalism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990), p. 138.
 A major gap in Bookchin’s social ecology is his failure to address (or learn from) the ecofeminist ethics and politics of care. A good introduction to ecofeminist themes of embodied materialism and (“meta-industrial”) caring labor is Ariel Salleh’s Ecofeminism as Politics (London: Zed Books/New York: Palgrave, 1997; new edition forthcoming) and her collection Eco-Sufficency & Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology (London: Pluto Press, 2009).
 Gaston Laval, Espagne Libertaire (36-39) (Paris: Editions du Monde Libertaire, 1983); online at https://cras31.info/IMG/pdf/gaston_leval_espagne_libertaire.pdf.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1967), Vol. I, pp. 423-424.
 Elisée Reclus, “A Mon Frère le Paysan,” in John Clark and Camille Martin, Anarchy, Geography, Modernity (Oakland: PM Press, 2013), pp. 113-119.
 Elisée Reclus, “Progress” in Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, pp. 208-233.
 The question of the degree to which a fully critical approach is taken to Öcalan’s own ideas remains an important one.