Murray Bookchin: Grumpy Old Man by Bob Black

Submitted by Defasher in communalism

Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism may well be the worst book about anarchists that any of them has ever written.

According to the cover blurb, Murray Bookchin, born in 1921, has been “a lifelong radical since the early 1930s.” “Radical” is here a euphemism for “Stalinist”; Bookchin was originally “a militant in the Young Pioneers and the Young Communist League” (Clark 1990:102; cf. Bookchin 1977:3). Later he became a Trotskyist. At one time Bookchin himself, “as one who participated actively in the ‘radical’ movements of the thirties” (1970: 56), put the word “radical,” considering the context, in quotation marks, but now he is nostalgic about that milieu, what he calls the Left That Was (66–86).

About 25 years ago, Murray Bookchin peered into the mirror and mistook it for a window of opportunity. In 1963 he wrote, under a pseudonym, Our Synthetic Society (Herber 1963), which anticipated (although it seems not to have influenced) the environmentalist movement. In 1970, by which time he was pushing 50 and calling himself an anarchist, Bookchin wrote “Listen, Marxist!” — a moderately effective anti-authoritarian polemic against such Marxist myths as the revolutionary vanguard organization and the proletariat as revolutionary subject (Bookchin 1971:171–222). In this and in other essays collected in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), Bookchin disdained to conceal his delight with the disarray of his Marxist comrades-turned-competitors. He thought he saw his chance. Under his tutelage, anarchism would finally displace Marxism, and Bookchin would place the stamp of his specialty, “social ecology,” on anarchism. Not only would he be betting on the winning horse, he would be the jockey. As one of his followers has written, “if your efforts at creating your own mass movement have been pathetic failures, find someone else’s movement and try to lead it” (Clark 1984: 108).

Bookchin thereupon set out to conquer the anarchists for the eco-radicals (the Greens), the Greens for the anarchists, and all for one — the great one — Murray Bookchin himself. He would supply the “muscularity of thought” (Bookchin 1987b: 3) that they lacked. By now he’s been “a prophetic voice in the ecology movement for more than thirty years,” if he does say so himself (Institute for Social Ecology 1996: 13) (Bookchin co-founded the ISE). He cranked out several well-padded, largely repetitious books. The Ecology of Freedom (1982; rev. ed. 1991) is the one he apparently regards as his magnum opus. At any rate, one of his jacket blurbs (Bookchin 1987a) quotes a revolutionary anarchist weekly, the Village Voice, to that effect (cf. Clark [1984]: 215).

The material base for these superstructural effusions was Bookchin’s providential appointment as a Dean at Goddard College near Burlington, Vermont, a cuddle-college for hippies and, more recently, punks, with wealthy parents (cf. Goddard College 1995). He also held an appointment at Ramapo College. Bookchin, who sneers at leftists who have embarked upon “alluring university careers” (67), is one of them.

Something went awry. Although Dean Bookchin was indeed widely read by North American anarchists — one of his acknowledged sycophants (Clark 1984: 11) calls him “the foremost contemporary anarchist theorist” (Clark 1990: 102; cf. Clark 1982: 59) — in fact, not many anarchists acknowledged him as their dean. They appreciated his ecological orientation, to be sure, but some drew their own, more far-reaching conclusions from it. The Dean came up against an unexpected obstacle. The master-plan called for anarchists to increase in numbers and to read his books, and those parts came off tolerably well. It was okay if they also read a few anarchist classics, Bakunin and Kropotkin for instance (8), vetted by the Dean, with the understanding that even the best of them afford “mere glimpses” of the forms of a free society (Bookchin 1971: 79) subsequently built upon, but transcended by, the Dean’s own epochal discovery, social ecology/social anarchism. Bookchin does not mind standing on the shoulders of giants — he rather enjoys the feel of them under his heel — so long as he stands tallest of all.

He must have had no doubt that he would. He seemed to have no competition intramurally. Paul Goodman, “the most widely known anarchist” (De Leon 1978:132), untimely died. Tweedy British and Canadian anarchist intellectuals like Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and George Woodcock shuffled off into the literary world. Aging class-struggle fundamentalists like Sam Dolgoff and Albert Meltzer could be counted on to just keep doing what they were doing, whatever that was, and with their usual success. “We all stand on the shoulders of others,” as the Dean generously allows (1982: Acknowledgements). Dean Bookchin could stand on the shoulders of midgets too. The footing was even surer there.

What the Dean did not expect was that anarchists would start reading outside his curriculum and, worse yet, occasionally think for themselves, something that — in all fairness — nobody could have anticipated. They read, for instance, about the ethnography of the only societies — certain of the so-called primitive societies — which have actually been operative anarchist societies on a long-term basis. They also read about plebeian movements, communities, and insurrections — Adamites, Ranters, Diggers, Luddites, Shaysites, Enrages, Carbonari, even pirates (to mention, to be brief, only Euro-American, and only a few Euro-American examples) — seemingly outside of the Marxist-Bookchinist progressive schema. They scoped out Dada and Surrealism. They read the Situationists and the pro-situs. And, yes, like earlier generations of anarchists, they were receptive to currents of cultural radicalism. Indeed, instead of listening to “decent music” (64 n. 37), they often preferred punk rock to Pete Seeger and Utah Philips (“the folk song,” he has explained, “constitutes the emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual expression of a people” [Bookchin 1996: 19]). And usually their hair was either too long or too short. Who sent them down this twisted path?

In some cases it was the “self-styled anarchist” (1, 2,9) — this is a favorite Bookchin slur — who wrote:

The graffiti on the walls of Paris — “Power to the Imagination,” “It is forbidden to forbid,” “Life without dead times” [sic], “Never work” — represent a more probing analysis of these sources [of revolutionary unrest in modern society] than all the theoretical tomes inherited from the past. The uprising revealed that we are at the end of an old era and well into the beginning of a new one. The motive forces of revolution today, at least in the industrialized world, are not simply scarcity and material need, but also the quality of everyday life, the demand for the liberation of experience, the attempt to gain control over one’s destiny [emphasis in the original].

This was not a solemn revolt, a coup d’etat bureaucratically plotted and manipulated by a “vanguard” party; it was witty, satirical, inventive and creative — and therein lay its strength, its capacity for immense self-mobilization, its infectiousness.

The lumpen-bohemian crazy who penned this paean to “neo-Situationist ‘ecstasy’” (26) is the prelapsarian Murray Bookchin (1971: 249–250, 251), These are all, in fact, situationist slogans. Some of us believed him then. Now he tells us we were wrong, although he never tells us he ever was. Why should we believe him now?

The Hard Right Republicans like Newt Gingrich along with the Neo-Conservative intellectuals (most of the latter, like the Dean, being high-income, elderly Jewish ex-Marxists from New York City who ended up as journalists and/or academics) blame the decline of Western civilization on the ‘60s. Bookchin can’t credibly do that, since it was in the ‘60s that he came out as an anarchist, and built up the beginnings of his reputation as a theorist. In his golden years, he has to tread very carefully on this dark and bloody ground:

For all its shortcomings, the anarchic counterculture during the early part of the hectic 1960s was often intensely political and cast expressions like desire and ecstasy in eminently social terms, often deriding the personalistic tendencies of the later Woodstock generation (9).

By definition “the early part of the hectic 1960s” is presumably the years 1960–1964. This is the first time I’ve heard tell of an “anarchic counterculture” during the Kennedy Administration. As manifested in — what? the Peace Corps? the Green Berets? And while there were personalistic tendencies in the early 1960s, no one then anticipated, and so no one derided, the specific “personalistic tendencies of the later Woodstock generation.” Not Bookchin, certainly, who concluded prematurely that “Marxian predictions that Youth Culture would fade into a comfortable accommodation with the system have proven to be false” (1970: 60).

What did the all-seeing Dean do to combat these nefarious trends in the 20-odd years they have been infecting anarchism? Nothing. He had better things to do than come to the rescue of the anarchist ideology he considers the last best hope of humankind. On the one hand, he was consolidating his alluring academic career; on the other, he was making a play for ideological hegemony over the Green movement. Were we all supposed to wait up for him?

There were those who actually tried to implement the Dean’s directive to formulate “a coherent program” and “a revolutionary organization to provide a direction for the mass discontent that contemporary society is creating” (1). Note that Bookchin demands one organization, although he does not say if he wants an American CNT, an American FAI, or an American symbiote of both such as formed in Spain, with less than entirely positive consequences (Bookchin 1994: 20–25; cf. Brademas 1953).

During the recent decades of decadence, there were several opportunities for the Dean to participate in this important work. He claims that his parents were Wobblies (2–3) — I wonder what they thought when he became a Communist? — but he did not himself join the Industrial Workers of the World although it still, after a fashion, exists. In the late 1970s, some class-struggle anarchists formed the Anarchist Communist Federation, which collapsed in acrimony after a few years. The Dean did not join. One ACF faction set up the syndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance; Bookchin didn’t join that one either. And finally, in the last few years the direct-actionist newspaper Love & Rage has tried to turn its support groups into the nuclei of a national anarchist organization. Once again, Bookchin held himself aloof.

Why? No doubt all these organizations fell somewhat short of his requirements, but as my mother says, “what do you want, an egg in your beer?” The CNT and the FAI were also imperfect. Everything is imperfect. If your fundamental critique of contemporary North American anarchists is that they have failed to assemble in a continental federation, surely you should have told them what is to be done, and how, a long time ago. The involvement of so distinguished a militant as Bookchin might energize an organization which might otherwise appear to be a sect of squabbling, droning dullards, perhaps because, in each and every instance, it is a sect of squabbling, droning dullards.

The only possible justification is that — to do justice to the Dean (and do I ever want to do exactly that!) — he laid down two requirements, not just one. A directive organization, yes — but with “a coherent program.” Such time as remained after the performance of his administrative and academic responsibilities (and the lecture circuit) the Dean has devoted to providing the coherent program. No doubt Bookchin can organize the masses (he must have had a lot of practice, and surely great success, in his Marxist-Leninist days). So can many other comrades — but no other comrade can concoct a coherent program the way Bookchin can. It is, therefore, only rational for a division of labor to prevail. Less talented comrades should do the organizational drudge-work, freeing up Dean Bookchin — after hours — to theorize. It’s an example of what capitalist economists call the Law of Comparative Advantage. All of that Kropotkinist-Bookchinist talk about rotation of tasks, about superseding the separation of hand-work and brain-work — time enough for that after the Revolution.

The Dean’s booklet thunders (in a querulous sort of a way) that “anarchism stands at a turning point in its long and turbulent history” (1). When didn’t it? In the time-honored sophist manner, the Dean offers an answer to a nonsense question of his own concoction. “At a time when popular distrust of the state has reached extraordinary proportions in many countries,” etc., etc., “the failure of anarchists — or, at least, many self-styled anarchists — to reach a potentially huge body of supporters” is due, not entirely of course, but “in no small measure to the changes that have occurred in many anarchists over the past two decades... [they] have slowly surrendered the social core of anarchist ideas to the all-pervasive Yuppie and New Age personalism that marks this decadent, bourgeoisified era” (1).

Now this is a curious claim. Anarchism is unpopular, not because it opposes popular ideological fashions, but because it embraces them? It’s unpopular because it’s popular? This isn’t the first time I’ve identified this obvious idiocy (Black & Gunderloy 1992).

Simple logic aside (where Dean Bookchin cast it), the Dean’s empirical assumptions are ridiculous. North American anarchism is not “in retreat” (59), it has grown dramatically in the last twenty years. The Dean might have even had a little to do with that. It is leftism which is in retreat. That this growth of anarchism has coincided with the eclipse of orthodox anarcho-leftism by more interesting varieties of anarchy doesn’t conclusively prove that the heterodox anarchies are the growth sector, but it sure looks that way. For instance, the North American anarchist publication with the highest circulation, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, is on Bookchin’s enemies list (39, 50).

As for the supposition that “Yuppie and New Age personalism” are “all-pervasive” in our “decadent, bourgeoisified era,” this says more about Dean Bookchin and the company he keeps than it does about contemporary society. If you are an upper middle class academic in an affluent leftist enclave like Burlington or Berkeley, you might well think so, but to generalize those impressions to the general society is unwarranted and narcissistic (“personalistic,” as it were). America (or Canada) is still much more like Main Street than Marin County. If the Dean really thinks the brat-pack collegians in his Burlington ashram are representative North American youth, he doesn’t get out enough.

Berating “Yuppies” for their self-indulgence, something Bookchin carries to the point of obsession (1 & passim), doesn’t defy media-managed popular opinion, it panders to it. As is typical of progressives, Bookchin is behind the times. Not only are the ‘60s over, as he has finally figured out, so are the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The Old Left that he nostalgically recalls, what he calls the Left That Was (66–86), extolled discipline, sacrifice, hard work, monogamy, technological progress, heterosexuality, moralism, a sober and orderly if not downright puritanical lifestyle, and the subordination of the personal (“selfishness”) to the interest of the cause and the group (be it the party, the union or the affinity group):

The puritanism and work ethic of the traditional left stem from one of the most powerful forces opposing revolution today — the capacity of the bourgeois environment to infiltrate the revolutionary framework. The origins of this power lie in the commodity nature of man under capitalism, a quality that is almost automatically translated to the organized group — and which the group, in turn, reinforces in its members.

This passage might have been written by Jacques Camatte, whose essay “On Organization” has exerted an anti-organizational influence on a lot of us “lifestyle anarchists” (Camatte 1995: 19–32). By now the reader will be on to my game (one of them, anyway): the above-quoted author is once again Bookchin the Younger (1971: 47; cf. Bookchin 1977: ch. 11). Again:

In its demands for tribalism, free sexuality, community, mutual aid, ecstatic experience, and a balanced ecology, the Youth Culture prefigures, however inchoately, a joyous communist and classless society, freed of the trammels of hierarchy and domination, a society that would transcend the historic splits between town and country, individual and society, and mind and body (Bookchin 1970: 59).

Bookchin the Elder’s values, in contrast, are precisely those of the New Right and the neo-conservatives who have set the country’s current political and ideological agendas — not the New Age bubbleheads Bookchin may meet in Vermont’s socialist Congressman Bernie Saunders’ hot tub.

“Yuppie” is, on the Dean’s lips, an ill-chosen epithet. It is (lest we forget) a neologism and semi-acronym for “young urban professional.” To which aspects of this conjuncture does Dean Bookchin object? To urbanism? Bookchin is the apostle of urbanism (1987): he thinks that “some kind of urban community is not only the environment of humanity: it is its destiny” (1974: 2). To professionalism? A college professor/bureaucrat such as Bookchin is a professional. The high technology Bookchin counts on to usher in post-scarcity anarchism (1971: 83–135; 1989: 196) is the invention of professionals and the fever-dream of techno-yuppies. So if Dean Bookchin, an old urban professional, disparages young urban professionals, what is it about them that he hates so much? By a process of elimination, it cannot be that they are urban and it cannot be that they are professional. It must be that they are young, as the Dean is not. Actually, a lot of them aren’t all that young — most are baby boomers entering middle age — but to a Grumpy Old Man of 75 like Dean Bookchin, that’s young enough to resent. But it’s not their fault, after all, that most of them will live on long after Murray Bookchin is dead and forgotten.

And one more thing: Now that we know why the heretical anarchists have “failed to reach a potentially huge body of supporters,” what’s his excuse? One of his editors calls him “arguably the most prolific anarchist writer” (Ehrlich 1996: 384). (Although he has yet to outproduce the late Paul Goodman, who “produced a stream of books containing some of his enormous output of articles and speeches” (Walter 1972: 157) and he is likely to be soon surpassed by Hakim Bey — a far better writer — which may account for some of the insensate hatred the Dean displays for Bey.) So the truth is out there. Where, after all these years, are the Bookchinist masses?

The Dean’s vocabulary of abuse evokes what he calls the Left That Was (66) but hardly the fondness he feels for it. His epithets for unorthodox anarchists are the standard Stalinist epithets for all anarchists. He berates anarchist “decadence” over and over, to which he often appends abstract denunciations of “bourgeois” or “petty bourgeois” tendencies. “Decadence” is an epithet so indiscriminately applied that a spirited case has been made for retiring it from responsible discourse (Gilman 1975). Even without going quite so far, undeniably “’decadent’ as a term of political and social abuse has a generous range of applications,” especially as deployed by Marxists and Fascists (Adams 1983: 1).

To speak of the Dean’s denunciations of le bourgeois as “abstract” is my characteristically courteous way of hinting that he of all people had better pick his words more carefully. I say “abstract” because a college dean is a member of the bourgeoisie if, in any objective sense, anybody is. Bookchin surely has a higher income than anybody he’s targeted. Dean Bookchin has to be deploying the word in a subjective, moralistic, judgmental sense which, however, he isn’t defining.

It never used to bother the Dean that “many militant radicals tend to come from the relatively affluent strata” (Bookchin 1971: 25) — as his student disciples still do. Who else can afford to sit at his feet? For 1996–1997, the two-semester masters’ program in Social Ecology costs $10,578 (Goddard College 1996). Back then he considered it a “historic breach” that it was “relatively affluent middle class white youth” who created the implicitly revolutionary Youth Culture (Bookchin 1970: 54–55).

No one can possibly pronounce with any confidence upon the class position of present-day North American anarchists in general, much less the class positions of “individualists,” Bookchinists, etc. (Although my impression is that most anarcho-syndicalists are campus-based and none of them are factory workers. Work is much easier to glorify than it is to perform.) Nor does it bother the Dean that almost the only luminaries unconditionally admitted to his anarchist pantheon, Bakunin and Kropotkin, were hereditary aristocrats. Class-baiting is evidently a weapon to be deployed with fine discrimination.

For Bookchin, as for Stalinists, class is not a category of analysis, only an argot of abuse. Long ago he dismissed “workeritis” as “reactionary to the core” rendered meaningless by the trans-class decomposition of contemporary society (1971: 186–187). So completely did class disappear from Bookchin’s ideology that a review of one of his goofier books (Bookchin 1987) exclaimed that “it is what is missing altogether that renders his book terminally pathetic. Nowhere does he find fault with the most fundamental dimension of modern living, that of wage-labor and the commodity” (Zerzan 1994: 166). He now reverts to the hoary Marxist epithets — “bourgeois,” “petit-bourgeois” and “lumpen” — but with no pretense that they have, for him, real social content. Otherwise, how could he apply all these words to the same people? In their relations to the means of production (or lack thereof), lifestyle anarchists cannot be both bourgeois and lumpens. And how likely is it that out of these “thousands of self-styled anarchists” (1), not one is a proletarian?

Where Bookchin accuses rival anarchists of individualism and liberalism, Stalinists accuse all anarchists of the same. For example, there was that Monthly Review contributor who referred to Bookchinism as “a crude kind of individualistic anarchism” (Bookchin 1971: 225)! In other words,

...capitalism promotes egotism, not individuality or “individualism.”...The term “bourgeois individualism,” an epithet widely used today against libertarian elements, reflects the extent to which bourgeois ideology permeates the socialist project —

— these words being, of course, those of Bookchin the Younger (1971: 284). That the Dean reverts to these Stalinist slurs in his dotage reflects the extent to which bourgeois ideology permeates his project. Fanatically devoted to urbanism, the Dean was being complimentary, not critical, when he wrote that “the fulfillment of individuality and intellect was the historic privilege of the urban dweller or of individuals influenced by urban life” (1974: 1). Individuality’s not so bad after all, provided it’s on his terms.

As for “decadence,” that is an eminently bourgeois swear-word for people perceived to be having more fun than you are. By now the word has lost whatever concrete meaning it ever had. Calling post-leftist anarchists “decadent” is just Dean Bookchin’s way of venting his envy and, as Nietzsche would say, ressentiment that they are not afflicted with the hemorrhoids, tax audits, or whatever it is that’s raining on his Mayday parade.


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TheWorldTreeWithers moderator wrote (edited )

If you are indeed "familiar" with Black, and I have certainly seen his antics described by people who are much closer to a "lifestylist" way of of thinking than I could ever be being as I have been immune to fads for years, then you should NOTE one obvious thing. The continued tolerance of his vicious antics is OBVIOUS ! TOTAL ! UNEQUIVOCAL ! proof that the ideology of anarchism as it exists in North America has NO ! answer as to how to prevent psychopaths and other criminals from running rampant in whatever vague utopia they may have in mind. Black is not just a psychopath. He glories in it.

What amazes me about the arguments against a REAL anarchist movement is the delusion that their proponents have that a) they are new and b)that their illusionary syndicalist or anarchocommunist opponents have had nothing to say about such matters in the past or even the present.

First of all the various themes of the mishmash that is popular in American anarchism are actually 100s of years old and predate not only anarchism but modern society in general. "Primitivism" ie the "golden age" is thousands of years old.

"Insurrectionism" ie "the Apocalypse" is equally ancient. The arrogance of "bohemianism" may be younger, but it certainly predates the 1840s and Proudhon's declaration of "anarchism". So-called "spirituality" and the belief that so-called "primitive people" have some magical connection to nature also predates anarchism. I could go on and on with other examples, but the point is obvious. The average American anarchist has a grasp of history that it takes a microscope to see.

Similarily it is the height of both arrogance and ignorance to ignore the actual history of REAL anarchism ie when it became a mass movement. The most popular anarchist book in Spanish translation was Kropotkin's 'The Conquest of Bread', and his vision there has NEVER been exceeded by ideological lifestylists and has only rarely been exceeded by those outside of the ideology. Where anarchism has NOT been the badge of identity of a subculture it has always ! addressed matters that were outside of the workplace, and this was not restricted to Spain. This was a fact long before the 8 hour day or the birth of the ideologues who claim there is no more working class (I can remember the same claim being made by the likes of Marcuse in the 1960s). It is a delusional slander to say that this wasn't an obvious fact.

I will use the example of community gardens because I am quite familiar with both the technical and social context of same.

1)Ordinary people have done such things for decades WITHOUT the input of subcultural anarchists.

2)They do it BETTER technically AND socially than such "anarchists" do.

3)They outnumber the subculturists by at least a thousand to one and probably much more.

4)Such things are, of course, important whether they are "revolutionary" or not.

Personally I am NOT a 'revolutionist". They deserve attention BUT the attention of subculturists is often more destructive than beneficial. If, for instance, I was trying to set up a community garden I would try my damndest to get rid of the scrubby looking ideologue who wants to rant to the people about being "middle class" and how "civilization should be abolished".

Eventually all anarchists are going to have to make a choice. Set aside the liberal bullshit you were taught in school that every opinion is equally correct which has received dogmatic assertion amongst young anarchists that they should genuflect to "diversity of tactics". Either you go with your idea that there is a "non-confrontational" way to anarchism. I call it gradualist anarchism. Others have called it by different names. OR...you can go with the idea that anarcho- arsonists who endanger the lives of anybody living nearby should be glorified. I say this as a resident of a city where gang delivered bullets more often than not hit innocent victims rather than the intended target.

If you are like Bob Black and are willing to side with such people when they "justify" themselves by saying such things as, "I really didn't mean to burn the little bitch" then we have little to talk about. If, however, you are a bit above this PLEASE consider the implications of the tactics you advocate. Anarchism is not an ideology for violent psychopaths, no matter what the likes of Bob Black would have you believe.