Thursday, March 6, 2008

Murray Bookchin--Anarchist

As my minions of readers are aware, I have been reading a number of works on Anarchism, both past and present. This piece is a review of Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1970) and Lifestyle Anarchism and Social Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1995). Murray Bookchin was one of the most dedicated anarchist thinkers in the 20th century. Bookchin spent his life committed to the struggle for human freedom and his thoughts were constantly in the process of evolution, defying the ideological border patrol which lumps people into easily defined categories. As a young man, he became involved in the socialist workers movement, joining the Communist Party. After becoming frustrated with the ideological conformity of Stalinism, he gravitated to Trotskyism, and then ultimately rejected Marxism altogether. In the 1960s, he became one of the leading activists for a New Left version of anarcho-syndicalism. Retaining his anarchist vision in the 1990s, he became critical of what he called “lifestyle anarchism”—a version of anarchism that rejects the more redeemable cause of anarchism—namely social equality.

Accepting the nuances of his thought, these two works are frustrating at a number of levels. One of the major difficulties is that both books were written, in part, to engage in internecine struggles of the left. Post Scarcity is a collection of articles, some of which are polemics against Marxist groups, while Lifestyle Anarchism is a critique of New Age Anarchism. Both seem to be specifically written to engage certain individuals and groups—and therefore some of the deeper issues are either dated or opaque.

Lifestyle written in the 1990s was written largely in response to the emergence of several anarchist zines and cultural movements and the decline of the political Left. Bookchin champions “The Left that was” (not to be confused with the bureaucratic “Old Left”) for its universalist and socialist values. He is largely critical of the modern academic Leftism (post modernism, political correctness, and the romantic left) because of its parochialism and retreat from universalist principles. Notably, he doesn’t discuss right wing libertarianism (the anarcho-capitalism of Rothbard)—I suspect because he doesn’t view this line of thought as being akin to anarchism as he understands it.

I found many of the Bookchin’s criticisms of lifestyle and individualist anarchist to be sound, although most of the discussion focused on the former, not the latter. He only briefly mentions Benjamin Tucker and cavalierly dismisses him. A more substantive engagement would have been welcome. He then picks up individualist anarchism in the 1980s, focusing on “New Age” anarchism. This variant focuses heavily on individual acts of cultural rebellion. Not that I am totally unsympathetic to New Age sensibilities, I agree that this form of anarchism arguably reinforces many of the worst aspects of modern society—hyper individualism, selfish-gratification, and cultural elitism. He is most critical of lifestyle anarchism’s abandonment of social equality and collective action in favor “personal spiritual liberation.”

His criticism seems at odds with an almost romantic reverence, in Post Scarcity Anarchism, for the new social movements of the 1960s—feminism, environmentalism, hippie culture, black liberation and Third World peasant revolts. Bookchin sees these movements as confirmation that the traditional worker movement (the “Left that Was”) only prepared workers to be good “bourgeois” (and reactionary) workers and that the real revolutionary movement would come from declasses, the lumpen, and in the case of the third world, the peasantry. I too have had a romantic fascination with the social movements of the 1960s at times, growing up in the 1980s and becoming politically active in the 1990s, but I also see the relatively direct connection between these movements and the balkanization of the left that Bookchin criticizes. Perhaps hindsight is 20/20, but how terribly shocking is it that the hippie, Age of Aquarius, drug culture evolved, in part, into apolitical New Age mysticism and an anarchism based on personal self-gratification? And this from a Deadhead!

There is a similar trend with regards to his relationship to Marx. One of Bookchin’s more polemical pieces is called “Listen Marxist!” It is more a criticism of sectarian Marxism than Marx, but also raises serious questions about the role of class struggle in social transformation. Interestingly, Bookchin ends up defending Marx in Lifestyle Anarchism for his commitment to international revolution. I am not trying to make Bookchin out to be some sort of hypocrite—it is more a reflection on his almost rigid lack of rigidity, if that makes sense.

Bookchin does make a number of key theoretical points that are often elided or misunderstood by the most devout Marxist. His criticism of the way in which class struggle has been conceptualized is important. Not only does he press us to not define class struggle in purely economic terms, but if the struggle in capitalism is a dialectical one—between workers and owners—it must necessarily lead to the destruction of both. To put it another way, the central role of working class struggle is not simply to overthrow the capitalist state, but to eliminate itself as a class. Conversely, capitalism constantly seeks not only to exploit the working class, but to recreate it. Necessarily, much of the class struggle is internal to the working class as it attempts to transform itself into the “non-class class.” The cultural tensions that exist among workers are reflections of growing pains as the working class is reshaped, reformed, and struggles with its own “workerness.” In this respect, the dialectic is not just between capitalists and workers, but between the nightmare of the past (paraphrasing Marx) and a future, pregnant with possibilities.

The most interesting chapters of Post-Scarcity deal with the role of ecology and technology. Although technological development and ecological balance are often counter-posed as being incompatible, Bookchin sees them as complementary. Only through the development of clean technology, new energy sources, and more sophisticated machinery can the balance between man and nature be restored. He is very critical of the romantic primitivism of many anarchists, instead imagining a world where technology complements human creativity, and where the social and technical division of labor, which reduces people to cogs, is supplanted by a blending of land and community.

Bookchin’s thoughts on ecology and technology speak to the limitations of 19th century Marxist and utopian socialist thought. As he correctly points out, most 19th century socialist thinking assumed that the initial task of socialism would be to ration scarcity, while improving the productive capacity of society. What Bookchin argues is that this is no longer necessary. Of course, he argued this in the 1960s, before the more recent burst of globalization. Moreover, it is difficult to quantitatively prove that we are “post-scarcity.” Nevertheless, global industrialization has continued as has the expansion of “unproductive labor,” namely the bureaucratic administration of capitalism. These trends, combined with the voracious over consumption in the United States at least suggests that if we aren’t already post scarcity—we are pretty darn close.

Even with the inconsistencies in Bookchin’s thought, these two books are important contributions to the struggle for human freedom and imagining a world where both desire and need can be satisfied for all.


cwm said...

For a critical look at Bookchin's legacy, there is a lengthy article here.

Anonymous said...

Nice. I read a lot about it too, maybe a couple of years ago, but I never heard abut Murray Bookchin. Thank you for sharing the information. Though now I work for the generic viagra agency, I still have an anarchic living within.