Murray Bookchin, 1921-2006

“Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced” wrote Murray Bookchin in 1991, “is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy”. Encapsulated in this one sentence is the essence of what drove this autodidactic scholar, who died on 30 July 2006, aged 85, to a prolific output of writing and research spanning the last 50 years. That essence was the commitment to the belief that analysis of social crises and transformation, and the revolutionary action required thereon, ought to have a much wider focus than a strictly economic one.

Naturally, a commitment to such a focus was inevitably going to bring Bookchin into direct conflict with the doyen of economic interpretations of social transformation: Karl Marx. An approach that was based on ‘a more general, social revolution’, as Bookchin described it, something that stretched far outside the traditional class struggle in which Bookchin was active from the 1930s to the 1960s, outside of the strictly economic concerns of worker control, would bring Bookchin not only into deep intellectual and philosophical conflict with Marx’s texts, but also into a more direct conflict with the followers of Marx. And this confrontation would not always be a civil one. In his infamous 1969 essay, Listen, Marxist!, Bookchin opens thus: “All of the old crap of the thirties is back again – the shit about the “class line”, the “role of the working class”, the “trained cadres”, the “vanguard party”, and the “proletarian dictatorship”. It’s all back again, but in a more vulgarized form than ever.”

A veteran of the class politics of 1930s New York, a student of the lessons learnt from the Spanish Civil War – yet another Communist Party casualty of the Hitler-Stalin Pact – Bookchin railed against the imposition of the older interpretations of Marxism in a decade as fluid as the 1960s; older interpretations whose deadly maladies had been revealed in the Soviet Union only the decade before. But more than this, Bookchin was not only trying to defend revolutionary Marxism from the failings of older interpretations, but was trying to save Marxism from itself, from its own intrinsic failings. For Bookchin, the problems that had beset the revolutionary movement thus far had arisen not from a historical misreading of Marx, but from a Marxist misreading of history.

What had seemed like a plausible ground for explaining revolutionary change to Marx – the wholly economic nature of life under emergent capitalism and the frenetic growth and unparalleled transformation therein – had in fact been only a product of its time, a deep process of change emanating from the transition from feudal society into capitalist society.  That is, this social terrain was not the platform on which to base an analysis of how all societal change did and would occur. Rather, it was the very specific effects of the process of change from feudalism to capitalism, of the transformation of one form of class society to another form of class society. To later try and use this model to explain the move from capitalism to communism – from a class society to a classless society was Marx’s most fundamental mistake, and the root cause of the communist movement’s deep degeneration over the 50 years that followed Marx’s death. It was thus clear to Bookchin that an alternative explanatory model of social transformation was required.

When Bookchin first began to write about Marxism’s failings in the 1960s, it wasn’t immediately clear what this explanatory model might be. Quite naturally, as a maturing thinker, he may not have known himself. What is clear is that he knew that there where vast swathes of activity in the social realm that were left on the sidelines by the Marxian analytical model. The New Social Movements (NSMs) of the 1960s – in particular, the feminist, the community, and the ecology movements – were clear evidence to Bookchin of the fundamentally different terrain of revolutionary action of his day, containing developments Marx could simply not foresee. But as should be expected from a thinker as dialectical as Bookchin, there is a sense of an unfolding in Bookchin’s work, a delineated path where one can trace the development of his thought as a product of his further engagement with Marx’s work, fleshing out his own philosophy in the process. Thus, in later writings, the factors he originally saw as mere differences between his own time and Marx’s became something much more – they became the real social factors that had been ever-present but that had been completely missed by Marx and the Marxian analytical model.

The NSM’s thus came to represent the true resting point of revolution for Bookchin, but not because of the particular trends or details of each individual movement, but rather because of the sweeping implications of the shared issues that they all raise. That is, it is not in the particularistic concerns of each of these movements – not a fight against the ecological despoilers, the sexists and the bureaucrats – but the issues they open up as a whole: namely, the concepts of hierarchy and domination which these movements raged against. Crucially, these were concepts of hierarchy and domination that had very little to do with economic exploitation. Bookchin began to see that no matter how full a revolution based on the Marxian model might be, there would be a whole range of hierarchies, and the domination they result in, that would be left untouched. More specifically, the Marxist goal of the abolition of the exploitative capitalist state would only end economic hierarchy and domination, thus, what was required was a fully social revolution that would take on hierarchy and domination wherever they were found.

Clearly, the 1960s Bookchin oeuvre was not completely unique: reformations of Marx’s theory were a deep historical necessity after its failings in practice, so apparent in the 1960s. However, Bookchin was unique in the extent of his critique of Marx: no Leftist theorist, committed to the overcoming of capitalism, so thoroughly rejected the central premises of Marx (a stance, for example, that was never going to earn him a place in The Frankfurt School). As he argued in 1969, ‘Marxism has ceased to be applicable in our time’, and not because it is too revolutionary, or too visionary, ‘but rather, because it is not visionary or revolutionary enough’. Later, he was to go even further, in an essay entitled Marxism as Bourgeois Sociology (1979), in which he argued that Marx’s main faults stemmed from his embedded position within the mores of bourgeois 19th century thought.

For Bookchin, Marx’s ‘myth’ of the proletariat as revolutionary agents, once sufficiently immizerised, is a glaring example of the thinker’s bourgeois sensibilities. Here, the domination and coordination of the masses in the factory system under capitalism is accepted by Marx as a positive, class-conscious forming process. It is through this process that the ultimate path to communism is to be formed. However, in the meantime, the fact that the masses are coordinated into a pliant, subservient mass was overlooked, if not welcomed. Quite how this co-ordinated mass would change from an organised adjunct to capitalism into a revolutionary movement was never comprehensively covered by the theory of immizerisation. Furthermore, the concept of immizerisation, foretelling a future when the masses would be at the point of revolution, meant that the intervening vicissitudes faced by the generations of working classes under capitalism, industrialisation, and imperialism, while noted as undesirable, were to be welcomed in the bigger picture; these things would be difficult, but were to be welcomed as progress wrought by the historical movement of society. In this way, Marx was a clear adherent to maxim of ‘progress’: the domination that had arisen out of the move away from barbarism was an unfortunate but necessary by-product; clearly an commitment he shared with 19th century colonialists, who could justify all manner of atrocities in the name of taking ‘progress’ out to the rest of the world (and Marx’s writing on the British in India is a striking example of this).

Furthermore, for Bookchin, Marx’s bourgeois sensibility stems also from his desire, in keeping with bourgeois thought of the time, to prove uncontrovertibly the objective veracity of his newly discovered laws of society; much like the Victorian natural scientists were advancing the human intellect with their claims to an objective uncovering of evidence, so Marx intended to do in the social sciences. But there is a fundamental drawback to the scientism of Marx’s model, as here the proletariat itself becomes objectified in his analysis, as does the entire revolutionary project – all ethical and moral content is removed, subsumed by a deeper, grander historical movement. Moreover, any deviation from Marx’s programme could now be labelled as unscientific, as subjective, as a utopianism emanating from the work of dreamers etc (something Marx would do with great determination in his discussions with Fourier et al). For only Marx’s ‘scientific model’ had uncovered the objective forces of social change. Again, with this mindset in place, the room to morally or ethically challenge the realities of life for the proletariat in 19th century capitalism are removed, or at best reduced to a secondary position behind the primacy of the march toward communism.

Bookchin’s rejection of Marxism as a philosophical and political programme, then, marked him off from other ex-Communists of the 1960s, and placed him firmly on the side of the anarchists. Here Bookchin would have stayed – in all probability, indistinguishable from many other anarchist critics – had it not been for the further dialectical development of his thought that occurred as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. This development can be clearly traced through the two main conclusions Bookchin had reached thus far. First, if revolution was about the abolition of something much wider than class – i.e., hierarchy and domination – then the emergence of these conditions, and the path toward their amelioration, had to be justified and explained; just as Marx had outlined the origin of classes and the state, so Bookchin would have to explicate the emergence of hierarchy and domination.  Second, as Bookchin had discounted the proletariat as an agent of revolutionary change, with what could it now be replaced? That is, if not the proletariat, what one factor or agent would be the primary drive toward revolution?

Both of these factors – the need to examine hierarchy and the need to find a replacement for the proletariat as revolutionary agent – would lead Bookchin to the same conclusion: to ecology. In the first instance, ecology would form the basis of Bookchin’s critique of hierarchy: nowhere in the natural world could a similar system to the hierarchy that affected human society be found. Ranking systems amongst animals, yes; individual acts of aggression and domination by the strongest in animal groups, yes – but not the institutionalised and immutable system of hierarchy that develops in human societies. In the second instance, the fragility of the world ecology – i.e. of the world’s ecosystem – brought almost to its knees by capitalism, would now be the main driver of revolutionary change. Humanity now had no choice of whether it wanted to overthrow capitalism or not (or of whether this could be delayed until a future time which would be more conducive to change) for its very survival depended on the immediate transcendence of capitalism. Under the Bookchin model, capitalism’s grave diggers would arise not from the immizerisation of the proletariat, but from the immizerisation of the planet as a whole.

From the confluence of these two conclusions would emerge the complete Bookchin philosophy, that which he would call social ecology. And this confluence of conclusions would give his thought and proposed action a complete unity: for if capitalism was rendering the world uninhabitable, largely because of the existence of hierarchy and not solely economic exploitation, and if hierarchy can be shown to be unnatural, in that it is not found anywhere else in the natural world, then its dissolution must be worked for through an understanding of and adherence to the non-hierarchical laws of natural ecology. Here, Bookchin’s thought comes full circle, and infuses every aspect of his output with a deep holism: the place society wants to get to has to be the place society tries to be now. This entails a re-working of every social structure, within the present society, to accord with laws of a non-hierarchical nature. Crucially though, this re-working must come from human society – the only repository of reflective ethics – and involve the active imposition of human values onto the natural world: an aspect of social ecology that would draw Bookchin into conflict with many ecocentrics in the ecology movement. 

It is this overarching holism, this grand narrative of the planet as a whole – of human society within its wider ecology – which marks Bookchin off as a ‘stand-out thinker’ of the last 50 years. Bookchin’s thrashing-out and professing of his vision is even more remarkable in light of the fact that over the same period we have seen the near total rejection of the concept of a ‘grand narrative’, in both the academic and activist world, in favour of a relativism, or an individualism, often as indefinable as it is unworkable. And the Bookchin narrative is as grand as any could be: the full reformation of the human condition to more fully accord with the non-hierarchical striving and growth found in a natural world. Bookchin was fully aware of the scope of his project, of its utopian nature. Indeed, he once wrote of the ‘unabashed messianic character’ of his work, of the striving toward defining an almost objective process toward a utopian freedom. But in keeping with his commitment to dialectic, the messianic Bookchin laid his theory open to the dialectical tension he ‘valued the most’: that between the reader of a book and the writer. In other words, his work was to be taken on by others, to be refined and re-worked.

Unfortunately, in his later years, due to an ever increasing number of disputes with people in activist and academic circles, and Bookchin’s ever-present forthright writing style, many would accuse him of forgetting his commitment to his most valued dialectical tension, and of brooking no dissent. But this overly simplistic view denies the many nuances and contradictions that are present throughout Bookchin’s entire output. Moreover, it fails to recognise the centrality of contradiction in his thought, and of the deeply Hegelian sense in which he used the concept. For Bookchin, contradiction was entirely about struggle, both in thought and in action. Form his discussions of the struggle for life in natural eco-systems to struggle for life of the poorest under capitalism, one gets the sense that not everything will be pleasant in the march toward a better society. So too in the forging of ideas: the need for pleasantries or an over-arching civility in debate and argument was a curiosity for Bookchin in a world where the civility and civilisation where themselves at stake.

Furthermore, the abrasiveness often found throughout Bookchin’s writing was a product of his background, schooled as he was in the streets 1930’s New York. Born in 1921 to Russian immigrants, themselves radically politicised by the process of fleeing the social upheavals of Revolutionary Russia, Bookchin cut his teeth as a party activist and public orator at a time when the matters up for discussion – imperialism, fascism, and oppression – were in a very real sense matters of life and death. Moreover, the environment of the debate itself – the street corners of impoverished working class districts of New York City – where the crowds, Bookchin told us in 1997, were ‘savagely hostile’, was to instil a mentality of struggle into the young Bookchin. To be taken seriously in these debates, forthrightness and a street-fighting style were an absolute necessity.

This defining period of a radical mind, backed up later by experiences of the factory floor, were to instil into Bookchin an urgency to cut though the niceties of debate, to cut through the technicalities – and to be tough in both argument and response. Later still, as most of the developed world moved through varying phases of social democracy, wherein there developed a widely held belief that the instability of the world, the very real dangers of the pre-WWII world were a thing of the past, Bookchin – as early as his 1962 Our Synthetic Environment – was writing about the environmental costs of capitalism, and the impending crisis that these would bring. Therefore, the urgency had not dissipated for Bookchin, the crises hadn’t stopped, merely changed realm, from the social to the environmental.

This urgency to explain the entirety of the social condition, the urgency to challenge everything before him, resulted in the great insights Bookchin has left us in his work, insights both social an ecological. And the melding together of these two realms within Bookchin – one of the first writers to do so – would render Bookchin’s work as grand in scope and originality as that of Marx’s a century before him. As for his style, for those of us researching in the field of anarchism and ecology, the world will be a duller place in the knowledge that there will be no more to come from the flashing pen of Murray Bookchin. And despite the polemics that fired around Bookchin’s later output, the characteristic we will miss most is the very human characteristics that shone from the pages of his work – the striving to understand the world, and the striving to make it a better place to live. Bookchin is survived by his long time companion, Janet Bielh, his ex-wife and friend, Bea, and a son and daughter.


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