Vermont's historic contribution to the development of the American left is most famously embodied in Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist who broke through to electoral success. But Vermont was also home for many years to a lesser-known figure: Murray Bookchin, who revived the anarchist tradition and melded it with an influential green critique of centralized industrial society.
The life and thought of Bookchin, who died in 2006 at age 85, is being chronicled by Janet Biehl, his partner of nearly 20 years. A Burlington-based copyeditor for New York publishing houses, Biehl has completed the first part of a graphic biography tracing Bookchin's beginnings as the son of Russian Jewish revolutionaries in the Bronx, up to his break with the Communist Party at the start of World War II. This initial set of cartoons can be viewed at www.janetbiehl.blogspot.com.
Although she has no formal art training, Biehl's drawings are serviceable, and they effectively illustrate a narrative laden with the complexities of left-wing ideologies and sectarian splits. Biehl says she chose this form mainly for its potential appeal to generations unfamiliar with the history of radical movements in the 20th century and Bookchin's pivotal place in many of them.
Meanwhile, she's also conducting research for a prose biography of the social theorist and political polemicist. Nights and weekends, Biehl excavates archives and interviews Bookchin's comrades from the 1940s, '50s and '60s, whom she finds "very eager to talk." Not so with Bookchin's ex-wife Bea, son Joe or daughter Debbie, who, Biehl says, have declined to cooperate with her endeavor because of "a breach between me and the family." Bea Bookchin says only that Biehl "hasn't asked for our cooperation."
Having been in thrall to a man 32 years her senior, Biehl acknowledges she is laboring under the intellectual and emotional sway of a "lion" of the left. Indeed, her graphic memoir project is "part of the grieving process," she says, "a way of conjuring him back to life."
Biehl met Bookchin in Plainfield in the mid-1980s at a seminar sponsored by his Institute for Social Ecology. For the next 20 years, Bookchin provided "a wonderful education" while treating her "like a queen," Biehl says. Now, she is steeped not only in the details of Bookchin's biography but in the breadth of his political philosophy; she is the editor of The Murray Bookchin Reader (1997).
Biehl resists the suggestion that Bookchin should be viewed as a latter-day prophet, but she points out that he highlighted the threat of global warming as early as the 1960s, identifying its cause as over-dependence on fossil fuels and contending that such excesses are inherent in capitalism. Salvation, Bookchin taught, lies in the sort of democratic decentralization that is approximated by Vermont's town meetings.
Burlington scenes appear in some of Biehl's cartoon panels. In one installment, Bookchin relates his Bronx boyhood as he leans on both Biehl and a cane while tottering out of the Oasis Diner and into the annals of American dissident thought.