The Political Legacy of Murray Bookchin

Article by Brian Morris, written in 2009 and included in “Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader” (2015, PM Press).


Brian Morris is one of of the keynote speakers at our upcoming conference in Thessaloniki. In this article from 2009 he gives his own perspective on the political legacy of Murray Bookchin and its stance in the anarchist tradition.


Ever since I read “Post-Scarcity Anarchism”, some thirty years ago I have been a fan of Murray Bookchin – in the same way as I have been a fan of Peter Kropotkin, Richard Jefferies, Elisee Reclus and Ernest Thompson Seton. All were pioneer ecologists. In 1981 in a review of a book on eco-philosophy, I described Bookchin as a “lone voice crying in the wilderness”, and even ten years later still felt the need to publish an essay on “The Social Ecology of Murray Bookchin” (1996 : 131 – 138), emphasizing Bookchin’s seminal; importance as a social ecologist and as a radical political thinker. However, by the end of the decade, Bookchin’s trenchant (and valid) criticisms of deep ecology, anarcho-primitivism and the bourgeois individualism of the likes of Hakim Bey, had thrust Bookchin into the media limelight, and he became something of a controversial figure. He certainly ruffled many feathers, especially amongst those happily ensconced in the academy. He thus came to be assailed from all sides – by deep ecologists, political liberals, technophobes, spiritual ecologists, anarcho-primitivists, poetic terrorists, neo-Marxists, and Stirnerite individualists, as well as the acolytes of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In the process, of course, Bookchin’s seminal importance as a social ecologist and as a radical anarchist thinker tended to be forgotten, if not completely denigrated. But what to me was important about Murray Bookchin was that he re-affirmed and creatively developed the revolutionary anarchist tradition that stemmed essentially from Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus. This tradition emphasized the need to integrate an ecological world view or philosophy – what Bookchin was later to describe as dialectical naturalism – with the political philosophy offered by anarchism, that is, by libertarian socialism. This political tradition and social movement, as many have emphasized, combined the best of both liberalism, with its emphasis on liberty and individual freedom, and socialism with its emphasis on equality, voluntary associations, mutual aid and direct action. This unity, that indeed defines libertarian socialism (or anarchism) was most succinctly expressed in the well-known maxim of Michael Bakunin:

That liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality” (Lehning 1973 : 110).

Some forty or so years ago Murray Bookchin sensed that the social and the natural must be grasped in a new unity. That the time had come to integrate an ecological natural philosophy (social ecology) with the social philosophy based on freedom and mutual aid (anarchism or libertarian socialism). This unity was essential, he argued, if we were to avoid an ecological catastrophe. What we must, therefore do, Bookchin stressed, was to

decentralize, restore bioregional forms of production and food cultivation, diversify our technologies, scale them to human dimensions, and establish face- to- face forms of democracy”, as well as to foster a “new sensibility toward the biosphere” (1980 : 27).

Although in later years Bookchin became embroiled in rather acrimonious debates with deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists and bourgeois individualists – in which Bookchin fervently defended his own brand of social ecology and libertarian socialism – Bookchin never, in fact, deviated from the views he expressed in his earlier writings. Bookchin’s core ideas on social ecology, libertarian socialism and libertarian municipalism – which he defended and elaborated upon throughout his life – are thus to be found in three key early texts, namely, “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” (1971), “Toward an Ecological Society” (1980), and his magnus opus “Ecology of Freedom” (1982) As Tom Cahill remarked in his generous tribute to Bookchin, these books contain the “essence” of Bookchin’s thoughts (2006 : 164).

It has to be recognized that although Bookchin always expressed his views with some stridency, even rancour – to a degree that many found disturbing – he was in fact no more doctrinaire, sectarian and ideological than the anarcho-primitivists and the individualist anarchists with whom he disputed, and he expressed a much broader social vision. What could be more narrow and sectarian than the kind of anarcho- primitivism expressed by Bob Black and Jolhum Zerzan. An Oxford University academic like Uri Gordon, deeply offended by Book chin’s “vituperative attacks” on the “new anarchists”, thus comes to completely ignore the substance of Bookchin’s critique (2008 : 26), for anyone who has read, for example, Hakim Bey’s (aka Pete Lamborn Wilson) esoteric writings can easily understand why Bookchin described them as “narcissistic”, “elitist”, “petit-bourgeois” and as a “credo for social indifference”. (1995 : 20-26). Benjamin Franks is of the same opinion. For Franks suggests that Bey’s kind of bourgeois politics completely fails to confront the oppressive power of both the state and capital, happily co-existing with them, and is essentially a form of liberalism, akin, he even suggests, to anarcho-capitalism (2006 : 266 – 67). And contrary to what many academics think, the anarcho-capitalism of the likes of Ayn Rand – Aynarchism, as Ruth Kinna )1005 : 25) describes it – is by no stretch of the imagination – as Bookchin described it. (see my critique of Ayn Rand’s politics 1996 : 183 – 192). Bey is just an old-fashioned liberal with a penchant for Nietzschian aesthetics and Islamic mysticism, and his liberal politics were rightly condemned by Bookchin.

What Bookchin describes and critiques as “life-style” anarchism is in fact what many academics have now come to describe as the “new anarchism” (e.g. Kinna 2005, Curran 2006). According to Ruth Kinna (2005) this “new anarchism” consists of a rather esoteric pastiche of five ideological categories – for Bookchin can in no sense be described as a “new” or “life-style” anarchist! These categories are : the anarcho- primitivism associated with Bob Black and John Zerzan; the “poetic terrorism” of Hakim Bey and John Moore who follow the aristocratic aesthetic nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche; Stirnerite individualism; the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand; and, finally, the so-called post-modern anarchism that is derived from the writings of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. None of this “new anarchism” is in fact either new or original.. What they have in common is the kind of radical individualism and neo-romanticism that Bookchin identified and critiqued as “life-style” anarchism.

In their response to Bookchin’s critique, Bob Black, David Watson and surprisingly, John Clark (aka Max Caford, who at one time was a fervent devotee of Bookchin) all harshly denounce Bookchin’s social ecology, and were more than a match for Bookchin in their invective. Bookchin thus came to be depicted by these three as an aspiring “anarchist Lenin”, an “anarcho-leftist fundamentalist”, a dogmatic “technocrat”, and advocate of “spontaneous violence” due to Bookchin’s “revolutionary fantasies”, the arrogant promoter of some “Faustian project”, as well as being described as an intellectual buffoon. Bookchin’s defence of reason and truth – as against religious dogma, mysticism and postmodern relativism – implied, it was argued, that he had affinities to the American neo-conservatives, advocates of free market capitalism! (Watson 1996, Black 1997, Clark 1998).

Although Robert Graham (2000) has little sympathy with the acrimonious and denunciatory polemics that have marred the anarchist debates around social ecology – and rightly so – he nevertheless defends Bookchin’s integrity, and suggests that the three critics have seriously misjudged, or wilfully mis-interpreted, Bookchin’s social ecology.

In the bookshops now is a useful little book entitled “Social Ecology and Communalism” (2007). In many ways it constitutes Bookchin’s last testament, and provides a good introduction and summary of Murray Bookchin’s political legacy. It consists of four essays written in the last decades of his life, and has a short but useful introduction by the editor Eirik Eigland.

The first essay “What is social Ecology”, originally published in 1993, essentially outlines Bookchin’s thoughts on the emergence of hierarchy and capitalism, and his conception of an ecological society. For Bookchin, human life is essentially a paradox. For on the one hand, humans are intrinsically a part of nature, the product of an evolutionary process. That humans are conceived as “aliens” or as “parasites” on earth, as suggested by some deep ecologists and eco- phenomenologists, Bookchin found quite deplorable. It implied, he argued, a “denaturing of humanity”, and denies the fact that humans are “rooted” in biology and evolutionary history.

On the other hand, in the course of their development as a unique species-being, humans have developed language, a potential for subjectivity and flexibility, and a “second nature”, such that their cultures are rich in experience and knowledge. This gives humans technical foresight, and the capacity to creatively refashion their environment (24 – 27).

To understand the natural world as an evolutionary process, and the place of humans within the cosmos, Bookchin therefore argues that we need to develop an organic way of thinking, one that is dialectical and processual, rather than instrumental and analytic. Such a way of thinking avoids the extremes of both anthropocentrism, exemplified by Carthesian metaphysics which radically separates humans from nature and biocentrism, which is a naïve form of biological reductionism expressed by both deep ecologists and sociobiologists (27 – 28).

Early human societies Bookchin argued, were essentially egalitarian, practising mutual aid, and following the principles of usufruct and the irreducible minimum – the notion that everyone in a community was entitled to a basic livelihood (37). Bookchin goes on to suggest that the first forms of hierarchy were based on age and gender and that it is therefore important to make a distinction between hierarchy as a form of domination and class exploitation (36).

Although the idea of dominating nature is almost as old as that of hierarchy itself, Bookchin emphasizes that the current ecological crisis has its roots not in over-population, technology or human nature, but in the capitalist system, which is inherently anti-ecological. It is well to recall that over forty years ago Bookchin was reporting in detail the environmental and health costs of pesticides, food additives, chemicalized agriculture, pollution, urbanization and nuclear power. He was even, with some prescience – long before Al Gore and George Monbiot – highlighting the problems of global warming – that the growing blanket of carbon-dioxide would lead to destructive storm patterns, and eventually the melting of the ice caps and rising sea levels (1971 : 60). But the cause of this ecological crisis, for Bookchin, was not because humans were inherently the most destructive parasite on earth; rather it was due to a capitalist system that was in its very essence geared to exploitation, competition and to ruthless economic expansion. This is spelled out in the second essay “Radical Politics in an era of Advanced Capitalism” where Bookchin describes capitalism as an “ecological cancer”, a form of “barbarism” that is making the earth virtually unsuitable for complex forms of life (56). Equally important, for Bookchin; capitalism is not simply an economic system that is polluting and ravaging the natural world; it is also leading top the expansion of commodity relationships into all areas of social and cultural life. One thing that can be said about Bookchin is that he is a fervent anti-capitalist, in ways that media radicals like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot are most certainly not. For both Klein and Monbiat are simply reformist liberals, with a vision of some benign forms of capitalism.

This leads Bookchin to advocate the creation of an “ecological society”, involving the following: the social transformation of society along ecological lines; the elimination of class exploitation and all forms of hierarchy and domination; a spiritual renewal that develops humanity’s potential for rationality, foresight and creativity; and the fostering of an ecological sensibility and what Bookchin describes as an “ethics of complementarity “ (46 47). But crucial to Bookchin’s vision of an ecological society is the need to develop a radical form of politics based on the municipality.

Unlike Nietzschean “free spirits” and Stirnerite individualists, who in elitist fashion rely on other mortals to provide them with the basic necessities of life, Bookchin recognized that throughout human history some form of social organization has always been evident. For humans are always intrinsically social beings. Some kind of organization has therefore always been essential, not only in terms of human survival, but specifically in terms of the care and upbringing of children (kinship), in the production of food, shelter, clothing and the basic necessities of human life (the social economy) and finally, in the management of human affairs, relating to community decisions and the resolution of conflicts (politics). Bookchin, therefore, has always been keen to distinguish between ordinary social life , focussed around family- life and kinship, affinity groups and productive activities, and the political life of a community, focussed around local assemblies.

Bookchin has been equally insistent on distinguishing between politics – which he defined as a theory relating to the public realm, and to those social institutions by means of which people democratically managed their own community affairs, and what he called “state craft”. The latter was focussed on the state, defined as a form of government that served as an instrument for class exploitation and for class oppression and control (95). Thus Bookchin saw “government” – institutions which deal with the problems of orderly social life – as consisting of two forms: as the state or as local democratic assemblies centred on what he described as municipal politics.

But even in his earliest writings, reflected in the seminal essay “The Forms of Freedom” Bookchin was concerned with exploring what “social forms” were most consistent with the “fullest realization of personal and social freedom” (1974 : 143). It is of interest that in this early essay Bookchin is critical of the limitations of workers’ councils and does not in fact use the term “government”, only that of “self-management”. He also indicated the dangers of an assembly becoming an “incipient state” (168).

In his last essays, however, Bookchin argues that we need a new politics based on what he describes as the “communalist project”. As in the early writings, he describes the various forms of popular assemblies that have emerged throughout European history, particularly during times of social revolution. Bookchin is particularly enthusiastic about the classical Athenian polis, where citizens (aristocratic males) managed the affairs of the community through a form of direct democracy, instituted in a popular assembly. Even though, as Bookchin always recognized and stressed, such a form of democracy was marred by patriarchy, slavery and class rule (49). The Athenian polis was in fact a city-state. But such forms of popular democracy had been found from earliest times, and Bookchin cites, for example, the following: the popular assemblies of medieval towns; the neighbourhood sections formed during the French revolution; the Paris commune of 1871; the workers’ soviets during the Russian revolution; and the New England town meetings (49).

Bookchin thus comes to put a focal emphasis on the need to establish popular democratic assemblies, based on neighbourhoods, towns and villages. Such local assemblies through face to face democracy, would make policy decisions relating to the management of community affairs (101). He argues consistently that such decisions should be made by majority vote, though Bookchin does not advocate majority rule (109), and emphasizes that a free society would only be one that fosters the fullest degree of dissent and liberty. He is, however, given his early experiences with the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, highly critical of consensus politics, except for small groups (110).

But Bookchin goes on to argue that such local or municipal assemblies must be formally structured, with constitutions and explicit regulations (111), and that the assembly, as the sole policy-making body, has priority over the workers’ committees and the co-operatives concerned with food production and other social activities. These would have a purely administrative function. As Bookchin puts it:

every productive enterprise falls under the purview of the local assembly, which decides how it will function to meet the interests of the community as a whole” (2007 : 103). Town and neighbourhood assemblies would be linked through con-federal councils, consisting of mandated delegates sent by the assemblies (50). It seems important for Bookchin that power be both decentralized, and instituted in local communities, organized through face-to-face democratic assemblies. Even more controversial, Bookchin advocates that communalists, I.e. libertarian socialists, should not hesitate to run candidates in local government elections, and thereby attempt to convert them to popular assemblies (115).

What has troubled many anarchists is that while the “life-style” or “new” anarchists (whether anarcho-primitivists, poetic terrorists, poststructuralist anarchists, or Stirnerite egoists) have, as ultra-individualists, denigrated, or even repudiated the socialist component of anarchism – derided as “leftism” (that is, they have repudiated political protest and class struggle) – Bookchin in his later years, partly in reaction to the “life-style” anarchists, has moved to the other extreme and has increasingly downplayed not only cultural protest, but the libertarian aspect of anarchism. Thus his emphasis on local assemblies and confederations as structured institutions that take priority not only over voluntary associations and self- management of the economy, but also, it seems, over the individual, seems to many to introduce an element of hierarchy quite foreign to anarchism, that is, libertarian socialism or anarchist communism. In fact, the whole idea of “government” seems contrary to anarchist principles

Bookchin has always acknowledged the importance of protests and struggles to achieve a better world – whether centred around nuclear power, ecological issues, health care and education, or community issues, as well as the importance of the anti-globalization movement in challenging capitalism, both on cultural and economic grounds (85). Nevertheless, Bookchin has tended to focus “direct action“ rather narrowly on local municipal elections.. This also seems contrary to libertarian socialist principles, for local authorities are essential appendages of the nation-state. This strategy is thus basically reformist.

Bookchin’s critique of “life-style” or “new” anarchism is, I think, largely justified and valid. In fact, the essay “The Role of Social Ecology in a Period of Reaction” is largely devoted to a reaffirmation of what was expressed in his controversial polemic “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism” (1995). For besides emphasizing that social ecology is deeply rooted in the ideals of the radical Enlightenment and the revolutionary socialist tradition (71), Bookchin argues that the “new” or “lifestyle” anarchism, as expressed by the likes of Hakim Bey, Bob Black, and Jason McQuinn, is largely a retrogressive “goulash” in its embrace of spiritualism, anti-rationalism, primitivism and bourgeois individualism. Lifestyle anarchism, he writes, with some derision, is little more than an ideology that panders to petit bourgeois tastes in eccentricity (72).

Thus his hostility towards “life-style” anarchism and radical individualism, combined with his advocacy of a highly structured form of municipal “government” (no less) has led Bookchin to almost forget the libertarian component of anarchism and the cultural importance of the concepts of individual freedom and autonomy, both personal and social, as well as of cultural revolt. Indeed, in his early writings Bookchin put a crucial emphasis on the self, on self-activity and self-management, arguing that a truly free society does not deny selfhood and individual freedom, but rather supports and actualizes it (1980 : 48). He even advocates life-style politics as being an indispensable aspect of the revolutionary project (1974 : 16).But as Robert Graham (2004) has argued, Bookchin’s later writings on “communalism”, with its focus almost exclusively on the structured municipal assembly, tends to downplay or marginalize direct action, the self-management of the economy, and the crucial importance of individual freedom. Anarchism has a dual heritage, and must not only be socialist (denied by most of the “new” or life-style anarchists) but also libertarian – which seems to be rather downplayed by Bookchin in his last years.

It has to be recognized, of course, that although Bookchin is highly critical of Marxism and the idea of a “ proletarian revolution”, as well as of anarcho-syndicalism given his hostility to the “factory system”, Bookchin never repudiated the concept of the “class”. He always acknowledged – as a fervent anti-capitalist – the crucial importance of the working class in achieving any form of social revolution, and categorically affirmed the importance of class struggle (1999 : 264).

It is also important to note that although Bookchin was a harsh critic of the kind of anarcho-primitivism that essentially stemmed from the writings of Fredy Perlman, he was not an obsessive “technocrat” as portrayed by Watson (1996) – in fact Bookchin described himself as a bit of a Luddite. Nor was he besotted with civilization. He certainly emphasized the importance of the city, especially in introducing the idea of a common humanitas (61); but like both Peter Kropotkin and Lewis Mumford – both important influences on Bookchin – and unlike the anarcho-primitivists, Bookchin had a much more nuanced approach to both technology and civilization. As he put it, in defending his pro-technology stand:

which is not to deny that many technologies are inherently domineering and ecologically dangerous, or to assert that civilization has been an unmitigated blessing. Nuclear reactors, huge dams, highly centralized industrial complexes, the factory system, and the arms industry – like bureaucracy, urban blight and contemporary media – have been pernicious almost from their conception” (1995 : 34).

Following Kropotkin, Bookchin therefore came to emphasize that there had been two sides to human history – a legacy of domination reflected in the emergence of hierarchy, state power and capitalism, and a legacy of freedom, reflected in the history of ever-expanding struggles for emancipation (1999 : 278).

It is thus disheartening to read, in the last essay, on “The Communalist Project”, that Bookchin comes to deny that he is an anarchist; that he had embraced, as an alternative, the politics of “communalism“ Rather ironically, communalism is defined as a form of libertarian socialism, and is seen as the political dimension of social ecology, libertarian municipalism being its praxis (108).

Significantly, making clear demarcations between Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism Bookchin comes to narrowly define anarchism in terms only of its individualistic tendency. Thus in both the essay, and in his preface to the third edition of “Post-Scarcity Anarchism“ (2004), Bookchin comes to define anarchism as a “tangle of highly confused individualistic concepts“. Anarchism is thus misleadingly interpreted in terms of “life-style“ anarchism, characterized by ultra-individualism, nihilism, mutualism, aestheticism, and as being radically opposed to any form of organization. Both conceptually and historically this is an inaccurate depiction of anarchism, which has always embraced a dual heritage of liberty and socialism. But it leads Bookchin – like the Marxists, anarcho-primitivists and Stirnerite egoists – to postulate a false and quite untenable dichotomy between anarchism and socialism. For historically the main strand of anarchism has been anarchist communism (or libertarian socialism) combining liberalism – as existential not possessive, individualism – with socialism. The socialism that Bookchin now espouses as communalism, which he affirms as both libertarian and revolutionary (96), is in fact good old-fashioned anarchism. First formulated by Bakunin towards the end of the nineteenth century, anarchism in this sense has various synonyms: anarchist-communism, revolutionary anarchism, libertarian communism, class struggle anarchism, or as Bookchin and many contemporary anarchists conceive it : social anarchism or libertarian socialism.

Authentic anarchism is not then the life-style (or “new”) anarchism – as Bookchin contended in his last years – but the class struggle anarchism embraced by Reclus, Kropotkin Goldman, Berkman, Flores Magon, Galleani, Malatesta, Landauer, and by scores of contemporary anarchists and radical activists who muster (at least in Britain) under such banners as Class War, the Solidarity Federation (the Direct Movement), Black Flag, Industrial Workers of the World, and the Anarchist (communist) Federation (see Franks 2006). Bookchin, in spite of his rhetoric, and in spite of misleadingly equating anarchism with ultra-individualism, always essentially belonged to this libertarian socialist tradition – anarchism. Bookchin’s true legacy, it seems to me, was in re-affirming and creatively developing, this tradition, not in advocating libertarian municipalism, with its rather reformist implications.



Black, B. Anarchy After Leftism (1997 Columbia; CAL Press)

Bookchin, M. Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1974 London; Wildwood House)

Bookchin, M. Toward an Ecological Society (1980 Montreal; Black Rose Books)

Bookchin, M. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism (1995 Edinburgh; AK Press)

Bookchin, M. Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left (1999 Edinburgh; AK Press)

Bookchin, M. Social Ecology and Communalism (2007 Edinburgh; AK Press)

Cahill, T. Murray Bookchin (1921 – 2006) (2006 Anarchist Studies 14/2 : 163 – 66)

Clark, J. Municipal Dreams in A.Light (Ed) Social Ecology After Bookchin (New York; Guildford Press)

Curran, G. 21st Century Dissent (2006 Basingstoke; Palgrave)

Franks, B. Rebel Alliances (2006 Edinburgh; AK Press)

Gordon, U. Anarchy Alive! (2008 London; Pluto Press

Graham, R. Broken Promises: The Politics of Social Ecology Revisited (2000 Social Anarchism; 29; 26 – 41)

Graham, R. Re-Inventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology (2004 Anarchist Studies. 12/1; 16 – 35)

Kinna, R. Anarchism: a Beginners Guide (2005 Oxford; Oneworld Publ.)

Lehning, A.(Ed) Michael Bakunin : Selected Writings. (1973 London; Cape)

Morris, B. Ecology and Anarchism (1996 Malvern Wells; Images)

Watson, D. Beyond Bookchin (1996 Brooklyn NY; Autonomedia)


August 15, 2017

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