Janet Biehl: Reply to Finley and Venturini.
The following is a reply by Janet Biehl, author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015), to a review which appeared in Anarchist Studies 25.1 (2017) by Eleanor Finley and Federico Venturini. It is followed by a response to Biehl from Finley and Venturini
The reviewers of Ecology or Catastrophe, my biography of Murray Bookchin, correctly observe that I didn't devote much space to his first wife Beatrice. Yes, as I explained (pxii): 'After Murray's death in 2006, I became estranged from his first wife, Beatrice', and their children. 'Hence these family members appear only minimally in these pages'. I went on to suggest that Bookchin family members write their own stories.
Finley and Venturini consider this omission a serious flaw, asserting that Beatrice was Murray's significant collaborator. Yes, after their 1963 divorce, they remained friends (p100, n20). But was she a significant collaborator? For one thing, from Contemporary Issues (1950s) to Left Green Perspectives (1990s), Murray edited and/or wrote for several key periodicals to advance social ecology. Beatrice's by-line appears rarely if at all in any of them. As a non-writer, her 'collaboration' was limited.
Yes, she was, as Finley and Venturini note, an antidevelopment activist in the Burlington (Vermont) Greens. In the late 1980s, Murray and I belonged to that group too. In my observation, he and she were friendly, but far from being collaborators, at crucial points they didn't agree even on basic principles.
The Burlington Greens existed to call for a 'new politics' based on face-to-face democracy and social ecology. In 1983-84, in Germany, Murray had met the writer-activist Jutta Ditfurth, who was leading the radical wing of the German Greens calling for democracy, movement accountability, and something close to social ecology. Her work showed him the potential for a parallel development in the nascent US Greens (my Chapter 11), which he set out to initiate with the Burlington Greens.
From the mid-1980s, the Greens ran candidates in local elections calling for a 'new politics' of social ecology and citizens' assemblies. In 1986 Beatrice ran for city councillor. She chose a campaign poster bearing the slogan 'Bea for Bookchin' and a photo of her face. Murray objected since it contradicted the Greens' raison d'etre, suggesting conventional personality-oriented politics. Beatrice insisted, to Murray's chagrin.
In early 1990, Murray and Beatrice clashed bitterly. The issue was whether, in a three-way election campaign, a Green candidate may secretly exchange questions with one of his/her rivals, in advance of a public debate. The question may seem a no-brainer, but our novice candidate had done just that, after the internal Green committee charged with advising him gave him the go-ahead (my Chapter 12).
The episode came to light within the group on election night. Murray and I, horrified, argued that the fixed debate had tainted the election. Given the group's commitment to accountability, we had no choice but to publicly admit what had happened and call for another election.
But only one of the other twenty-odd Greens agreed with us. Everyone else--including Beatrice--insisted the group must keep quiet and, in effect, let the truth be buried. The acrid debate raged for days. Finally we went public, but Beatrice and her faction exited the group, thereby terminating the Greens' existence. Need I observe that this rupture hardly reflects collaboration? Murray and Beatrice never again shared membership in a political group.
Venturini and Finley accuse me of portraying myself as 'the sole female protagonist in Bookchin's life', but Jutta Ditfurth had a tremendous impact on him, as I've just mentioned. He lauded Ditfurth frequently in his 1980s-90s writings, and they published in each other's periodicals. That's how he treated his significant collaborators. His grandmother Zeitel's impact on him was greatest of all.
From 1987 until the early 2000s, I collaborated closely with Murray to advance social ecology by writing, editing, and publishing. Bizarrely, Finley and Venturini take issue with my portrayal of Murray as depressed in the 1990s. Of course he was depressed. The Burlington Greens had shattered sordidly. After the collapse of the USSR, the revolutionary Left, to which Murray had devoted his life, all but evaporated, and what remained was ideologically regressive. The social ecology movement he long toiled to create had not materialised; instead, deep ecology was ascendant. As his intimate, I witnessed his severe depression daily for many years.
But our two reviewers assert that it was all a figment of my imagination: 'Contrary to Biehl's depiction, Bookchin was not... despondent'. I commend them for sheer chutzpah, as neither of them ever even met Murray. But don't take my word for it. From the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Murray kept a handwritten diary.
It's unpublished, but our reviewers could ask their friend Beatrice to share her copy with them. It is a protracted gusher of despair. (They might also ask her how her marriage to Murray could have ended in 1963 yet still exist--as they would have us believe--in the late 1960s Anarchos years. A case of magical thinking?)