The Legacy of Murray Bookchin

Written by Brian Morris


Although Murray Bookchin has been described as one of the most provocative, exciting, and original political thinkers of the twentieth century, it is worth noting that he is singularly ignored by many academic scholars writing on green philosophy or the history of the ecology movement (e.g. Scruton 2012; Radkau 2014), while he is invariably caricatured or reduced to a negative stereotype by anarcho-primitivists and spiritual ecologists (e.g. Black 1997; Curry 2011: 64; cf. Price 2012).

In this essay I aim, therefore, to outline and re-affirm Bookchin’s enduring legacy as an important scholar, both in terms of his philosophy of nature—dialectical or evolutionary naturalism, and in terms of his radical politics—libertarian socialism or communalism. For Bookchin’s political legacy offers the only real solution to the immense social and ecological problems that now confront us, as neither communing with the spirit world (mysticism), nor the technocratic solutions offered within the current capitalist system will suffice (Roussopoulos 2015).

In a recent widely acclaimed text, Facing the Anthropocene, Ian Angus writes, with respect to the present crisis of the earth system, particularly global warming, that it is “a challenge to everyone who cares about humanity’s future to face up to the fact that survival in the Anthropocene requires radical social change, replacing fossil capitalism with an ecological civilization, eco-socialism” (Angus 2016: 20).

Angus neglects to mention, of course, that this is something that Murray Bookchin extolled over 40 years ago, although, for Bookchin, this did not entail that “we need governments” (op. cit. 197) in order to create an ecological society. Bookchin, following Bakunin and Kropotkin, always felt that Marxist politics, specifically the “conquest” of state power, would lead to either reformism, or, as in Russia and China, to state capitalism and political tyranny.

Both a radical activist and an important radical scholar, for over 50 years Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) produced a steady stream of essays, political tracts, and books on environmental issues, the culture of cities, libertarian political movements, and social ecology that are truly impressive and path breaking. Yet he remained one of the few key figures in the ecology movement not to succumb either to religious mysticism or to fashionable postmodernism, but remained true to the rationalist tradition of the radical Enlightenment. Throughout his life, Bookchin was an evolutionary naturalist, as well as a libertarian socialist—a leftist and a revolutionary. (For his biography, appropriately titled Ecology or Catastrophe, see Biehl 2015.)

The notion that in his last years Bookchin became a “grumpy old man”, that he abandoned his earlier ecological vision and attempted to “trash” his own political legacy (Black 1997; McKay 2007; Clark 2013), seems to me highly misleading. Granted, given his polemical writings, Bookchin was assailed on all sides—by deep ecologists, political liberals, technophobes, anarcho-primitivists, spiritual ecologists, neo-Marxists, and Stirnerite egoists, as well as by the acolytes of Nietzsche and Heidegger. In many ways Bookchin became an isolated figure. Yet in an important sense he remained throughout his life a committed and passionate evolutionary naturalist and a revolutionary anarchist—that is, a libertarian socialist. The situationists mockingly described Bookchin as “Smokey the Bear”. In many ways this is a fitting depiction—for Bookchin was gruff, solid, down to earth, and enraged at the present state of the world, and committed to doing something about it.

He was a coherent thinker, and all aspects of his work are closely interrelated. I shall focus in this essay on some of his key ideas, and outline his legacy in terms of four themes—namely: the modern crisis, social ecology, dialectical naturalism and ethics, and, finally, Bookchin’s libertarian socialism.

The Modern Crisis

Along with Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and Rene Dubos, Murray Bookchin was one of the key figures in the rise of the ecology movement around 1970 (Carson 1962; Dubos 1968; Commoner 1972). There is no doubt that when I first became involved in environmental issues in the 1960s ecology was seen as a radical movement. Indeed, the biologist Paul Sears described ecology as “the subversive science”. Bookchin’s writings, along with the Marxist Barry Commoner’s (1972), emphasized that we were confronting a severe ecological crisis unprecedented in human history, and that its roots lay with an economic system—capitalism—that is geared not to human well-being but to the generation of profit, and envisages no limit to industrial progress and technology. Ultimately, Bookchin felt that capitalism was destructive not only to ourselves but to the whole fabric of life on earth. For the underlying ethic of capitalism was indeed the technological domination of nature, an anthropocentric ethic that viewed the biosphere as having no intrinsic value; it was simply a resource to be exploited. In his pioneering ecological study, Our Synthetic Environment (1962), and in various Brian Morris 14 other writings, Bookchin graphically outlines the social and ecological crisis that emerged following the expansion of global capitalism at the end of the Second World War (Bookchin 1971; 1980).

Apart from die-hard neo-conservatives, many people now recognize that the world is in a sorry state and that there is a lot to be angry about. Long ago, Bookchin outlined what he described as the “modern crisis”, highlighting that both global capitalism and the modern liberal state are in dire straits (Bookchin 1986). This crisis, for Bookchin, was indeed manifold; at once social, economic, political, and ecological. For under global capitalism there has been a growing concentration of economic power, and the continuous expansion of economic inequality. It is now estimated that the 400 richest people in the world have a combined wealth greater than that of 45% of the world’s population. No wonder rampant poverty exists throughout the world. Out of a world population of seven billion people, nearly a billion (15%) are estimated to be severely undernourished—that is, unable to obtain the basic conditions of human existence (Tudge 2016: 16). Such poverty is not integral to the human condition but, as Bookchin emphasized, directly related to “development”—to the global expansion of capitalism.

Equally significant is that across the world we find a “dialectic of violence”—reflected in the widespread existence of weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and nuclear, and the stockpiling of conventional weapons. This can hardly be said to have kept the peace, for since the Second World War there have been hundreds of armed conflicts, killing millions of people (Roser 2019). This dialectic has led to the disintegration of local communities, the denial of human rights, widespread genocide and political oppression—usually by governments. Along with Bookchin, many scholars have emphasized that the impact of free-market capitalism has been socially devastating, not only leading to economic inequality and widespread poverty, but also to political instability, religious fundamentalism, racial and ethnic conflict, and family and community breakdown (Ekins 1992; Morris 2004: 15–17). Finally, there is an ecological crisis. As Bookchin outlines, this is clearly manifested in the degradation of the natural environment under industrial capitalism:

  • the polluting of the atmosphere and of the seas, lakes, and rivers;
  • widespread deforestation;
  • the impact of industrial agriculture, which, as Bookchin expresses it, is “simplifying” the landscape, while giving rise to the adverse effects of toxic pesticides and soil erosion;
  • the creation of toxic wastelands; the loss of biodiversity with many species now facing extinction; the problem of chemical additives in food; and
  • a serious decline in the quality of urban life through over-crowding, poverty, and traffic congestion.

Equally important for Bookchin is that capitalism has ceased to be simply an economic system, for the market economy has come to “penetrate” every aspect of social life and culture. Wealthy celebrities are now extolled by many, and greed and self-aggrandisement has come to seem virtuous.

For Bookchin, of course, it was not simply that there were too many people on earth, or that technology itself (rather than the mechanistic Cartesian world-view) had brought about the “modern crisis” and the degradation of the natural environment. Rather, the roots of the ecological crisis lay firmly with global capitalism, which was continually “plundering the earth” in the search for profit. Bookchin felt that the capitalist market economy had become a “terrifying menace” to the very integrity of life on earth. Industrial capitalism, he argued, was fundamentally anti-ecological and—over 40 years ago, long before Al Gore, George Monbiot, and Bruno Latour—he stressed with some prescience that the burning of fossil fuels (specifically coal and oil) had created a “blanket of carbon dioxide” that would lead to destructive storm patterns and eventually the melting of the ice caps and rising sea levels (Bookchin 1971: 60–67; 1982: 19; Morris 2012: 180–187; Kovel 2002; Monbiot 2006; Gore 2009; Latour 2017).

It is important to emphasize that, while Bookchin recognized that humans often degraded the natural environment in which they lived, in the past this had been essentially a local phenomenon and a local problem. But, he argued, since around 1950, with the expansion of global capitalism, humanity had come to place severe ecological burdens on planet earth that were global in extent, with “no precedent in human history”. Two issues particularly troubled Bookchin: the possibility of a worldwide thermonuclear war, given the “balance of terror” strategies of Russia and the United States, and the climatic changes that had been induced by the widespread burning of fossil fuels. Both, he felt, could have a catastrophic negative impact upon organic life—the biosphere. What concerned Bookchin, therefore, was both “our destiny as a life form and the future of the biosphere itself ”. Contrary to the opinions of his critics—both the anarcho-primitivists and the mystical (deep) ecologists—Bookchin was concerned not only with the survival and well-being of the human species, but also with the flourishing of other life-forms and the earth itself. We need, he argued, to maintain the “restorative powers” of both nature and humanity, and to “reclaim the planet for life and fecundity” (1986: 100– 108).

In response to the “modern crisis”, especially regarding the social and ecological challenges it invoked, Bookchin proposed a re-affirmation and re-elaboration of the revolutionary anarchist tradition that essentially stemmed from Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and their nineteenth century associates. His tradition emphasized the need to integrate an ecological world-view, a social ecology that Bookchin (1995a) later described as “dialectical naturalism”, with the political philosophy offered by anarchism—that is, libertarian socialism.

Ever since I read Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) some 40 years ago, I have admired Bookchin, in the same way as I have been a fan of Peter Kropotkin, Lewis Mumford, Richard Jefferies, and Ernest Thompson Seton. All were pioneer social ecologists. For in his early writings Bookchin sensed that human social life must be seen in terms of a new unity, that the time had come to integrate an ecological natural philosophy (social ecology) with a social philosophy based on freedom and mutual aid (anarchism or liberal socialism). This unity was essential, he argued, if we were to avoid an ecological catastrophe. What we must therefore do, Bookchin stressed, is to “decentralize, restore bioregional forms of production and food cultivation, diversify our technologies, scale them down to human dimensions, and establish face-to-face forms of democracy”, as well as foster a “new sensibility toward the biosphere” (1980: 27).

In later years Bookchin became embroiled in acrimonious debates with deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists, and bourgeois individualists, in which Bookchin fervently defended his own brand of social ecology and libertarian socialism. He never deviated from the views he expressed in his earlier writings. Bookchin’s core ideas about social ecology, libertarian socialism, and libertarian municipalism, which he defended and elaborated throughout his life, can be found in three key early texts, namely Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), Toward an Ecological Society (1980), and his magnum opus The Ecology of Freedom (1982). As Tom Cahill (2006) remarks in his generous tribute to Bookchin, these books contain the essence of Bookchin’s thoughts. Therefore, Bookchin was not only an important figure in the emergence of the ecology movement, but also played an important role, as Peter Marshall indicates, in the “renewal” of anarchist theory and practice during the 1970s (1992: 622).

Social Ecology

In the Vatican there is a famous painting by Raphael entitled The School of Athens. It depicts Plato as a grey-haired older man pointing to the heavens, while the younger Aristotle points to the Earth (Lewis 1962: 50). Plato, of course, while holding mathematics in high regard, was fundamentally a religious mystic, a scholar who expressed a dualistic spiritualist metaphysics and contempt for sensual experience and empirical knowledge. Aristotle, on the other hand, was an empirical naturalist, with a deep interest in biology, He described himself as a physikos—one who studies nature. He expressed, as Bookchin recognized, an “organic” way of thinking.

It has often been said that western philosophers either side with Plato or with Aristotle. Bookchin clearly sided with Aristotle, and was vehemently opposed to all mystical or theological interpretations of the natural world. Indeed, Alfred Whitehead famously described western philosophy as merely a series of footnotes to Plato.

All the major figures of the western philosophical tradition—Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—were fundamentally religious thinkers, as well as pro-State. Bookchin, therefore, belonged to a minority tradition within western philosophy—that of philosophical naturalism.

But what is significant about Raphael’s painting is that it reflects the essential paradox at the heart of the human condition. For, as scholars as different as Lewis Mumford, Edmund Husserl, and Erich Fromm insist, humans have, in a sense, a dual existence. On the one hand humans are earthly beings and, as organisms, intrinsically a part of the natural world. But on the other, humans are a unique species, having a high degree of selfconsciousness and sociality, highly complex symbolic systems, and forms of technology, leading recent scholars to suggest that, over perhaps the last 50 years, humans have become a “geological force” within the “earth system” itself. (Fromm 1949: 40–41; Mumford 1952: 48; Morris 2014a: 112–113, Crutzen 2002; Angus 2016: 27–37).

What is significant about Bookchin’s philosophical naturalism is that he firmly embraced this paradox, emphasizing that humans are a product of, and had roots in, organic evolution, while at the same time they are animals of a “very special kind”. As he expressed it:

Human beings are OF the biotic world as organisms, mammals and primates, yet they are also APART from it as creatures that produce that vast array of cultural artefacts and associations that we call second nature. (1982: xxix; 1995a: xiii)

Bookchin, therefore, expressed, like Michael Bakunin and many other scholars, a triadic ontology of the human subject, recognizing that humans are intrinsically both natural and social beings, as well as having, like other organisms, a special sense of self-identity and personhood. Bookchin found deplorable the notion that humans are “aliens” or “parasites” on earth, as suggested by some deep ecologists and the acolytes of Friedrich Nietzsche. It implies, he argued, the “denaturing” of humanity, and denies the fact that humans are rooted in biology and are the products of organic evolution (Bookchin 2007: 27).

Bookchin’s own metaphysics of nature is a form of evolutionary naturalism, akin to that of Darwin, Marx, and Kropotkin. Therefore, he fervently rejected the two dominant world-views that have long characterized western philosophy and culture, namely religion and mechanistic philosophy (Morris 1996: 25–36).

The first of these are the various religious (or mystical) cosmologies; this world-view has taken a variety of forms. These include (with their respective adherents), tribal animism (or polytheism) (Watson 1999), Christian theism and goddess religion (Starhawk 1979; Berry 1988), pantheism (or theosophy)—which conceives of God as both a transcendental creator and manifested in natural phenomena (Nasr 1996) and, finally, various types of mystical pantheism (Naess 1989).

The second form of cosmology that has been dominant in western culture is the mechanistic world-view, invariably identified with René Descartes. This cosmology expresses a dualistic metaphysic—a radical opposition between humans and nature—an atomistic epistemology, an anthropocentric ethic that validates the technological domination of nature, and a conception of nature simply as a resource for human use.

Rejecting both ecological mysticism and the mechanistic approach of Cartesian philosophy, Bookchin, in contrast, advocated an organic or evolutionary way of thinking—an ecological world-view that he described as dialectical naturalism (see below).

Although in the broadest sense the term “nature” implies everything that exists, and although this materialist definition may be valid in some respects, Bookchin suggests that the term is too limiting. Nature, from a social ecological perspective, refers to an evolutionary process or development. Bookchin thus defines nature as “a cumulative evolutionary process from the inanimate to the animate and ultimately, the social, however differentiated this process may be” (1982: xx).

There is a widespread tendency within western culture, Bookchin argues, to view nature as a realm that is opposed to human freedom and human well-being, one characterized as “stringy”, “intractable”, “cruel” and “competitive.”. It was an image of nature expressed not only by Cartesian philosophy, social Darwinism, and the ideology of capitalism, (neo-classical economics in particular) but also, Bookchin contends, by Karl Marx. For Marx conceived of nature as a “realm of necessity” which must be subdued in order to engender a “realm of freedom” (Bookchin 1986: 50; 1995a: 72; but cf. Foster 2000 on Marx’s ecology).

As an evolutionary naturalist and realist, Bookchin of course found the idea that nature is simply a social construction facile and obscurantist. In contrast, Bookchin conceives of nature not as an inert or recalcitrant material realm, but as a graded, self-developing evolutionary process. Nature, therefore, is not some divine cosmos nor a lifeless machine, nor could it be equated, as deep ecologists have tried, with a pristine wilderness. It is rather an evolutionary process of graded and phased development that indicates increasing fecundity, diversity, and complexity, and is characterized by the developing and ever-expanding activities of self-consciousness, subjectivity, creativity, and freedom. Following important studies by Kropotkin (1902) and Lynn Margulis (1981), Bookchin also contended that nature is characterized not only by conflict and competition, but also by cooperation, mutual aid (mutualism), and symbiosis, even between diverse organisms (such as lichen). Life, therefore, is inter-active, procreative, relational, and contextual (Bookchin 1986: 57).

All life-forms, for Bookchin, even bacteria, exhibit a sense of selfidentity and self-maintenance, however germinal and nascent. Therefore, they have in varying degrees, subjectivity (choice), self-consciousness, agency, and freedom, and are active participants in their own evolution (1995a: 81). Bookchin was critical of fashionable neo-Darwinian theories that unduly emphasized the impact of the external environment (adaptation) and advocated a gene-centred approach to biology (e.g. Dawkins 1976). This approach, Bookchin argued, tends to completely bypass the subjectivity and agency of the organism. Like Brian Goodwin (1994), and even Darwin, Bookchin advocated an approach to biology that affirms the organism as the fundamental unit of life (Bookchin 1995b: 137–43).

Bookchin, therefore, concluded that within organic evolution there is a striving for greater complexity and increasing degrees of subjectivity (or selfhood) which constitutes “the immanent impulse of evolution towards growing self-awareness” (1995a: 128).

Bookchin consistently argued that mutualism (co-operation), selfconsciousness, subjectivity, and freedom are inherent tendencies in the natural world. They may, therefore, be realized as potentialities in human social life, specifically in the creation of an alternative ecological society (Bookchin 1995a: 127–128).

Following a long tradition going back to the beginnings of western philosophy, and which was well expressed by the Roman scholar Cicero, Bookchin makes a clear distinction (not a dichotomy) between “first nature”, the realm of non-human nature that pre-exists the emergence of humans, and “second nature”, the realm of human artefacts, cultural landscapes, and social and symbolic life (Bookchin 1989: 25). But he insists that human social life is “within the realm of nature”, thus always has a naturalistic dimension. The emergence of humans as a life-form and of human sociocultural and symbolic life is, therefore, for Bookchin, a “natural fact”, having its roots in biology. (Bookchin 1989: 26).

Not just an emergent materialist, Bookchin was fundamentally a social ecologist, and he continually emphasized the integrity of both nature as an objective reality, and human social life. The relationship between nature and human social life is, therefore, one of continuity, a dialectical relationship, not one of opposition. Nature is a realm of potentiality for the emergence of human life—in terms of technics, social labour, language, subjectivity—as well as a precondition for the development of society. Bookchin was fond of describing the relationship between humans and first nature in terms of a concept derived from Hegel, namely that it is a dynamic “unity in diversity” (1982: 24; 1980: 59).

In an important sense, Bookchin, like Mumford and Dubois, was an ecological humanist, offering a creative synthesis of humanism and naturalism. By “humanism”, of course, Bookchin meant a shift “in vision from the skies to the earth, from superstition to reason, from deities to people” (1987: 246), thereby emphasizing the agency and cultural creativity of the human subject, both individually and collectively. Equating humanism with Cartesian philosophy and anthropocentrism, as do many deep ecologists and postmodernists. (e.g. Manes 1990; Braidotti 2013), was for Bookchin stultifying and obscurantist. Needless to say, secular humanists from Ludwig Feuerbach to Fromm and Mumford long critiqued Cartesian metaphysics, emphasizing that humans are fundamentally “earthly beings” (Lamont 1949; Morris, 2012).

In contrast to much social theory and ecological thought, Bookchin stressed both natural and social evolution, on nature and the integrity of the human species. He was, therefore, opposed to all dualistic theories that tend to radically bifurcate or separate nature from the social (and spiritual) aspects of human life—as reflected in Platonism, Cartesian theism, and other religious cosmologies, as well as much sociological theory and the humanities. Bookchin was especially critical of postmodernism, which tends to ignore biology entirely, although he was mainly concerned with the relativism, misanthropy, ahistoricism, and the ultimate nihilism of the likes of Nietzsche and Heidegger (Bookchin 1995b: 112–201).

But Bookchin was equally critical of all forms of reductionism. He was critical of socio-biology, which tends to reduce social life to biology or even to genetics, and of many mystical deep ecologists who tended to oblate the integrity of the human subject with reference to a universal spiritual “oneness”. This was akin, he felt, to the “night in which all cows are black”, Bookchin being fond of quoting Hegel’s joke about Schelling’s mystical idealism (Bookchin 1982: 22). Bookchin, in fact, became a rather maligned figure among many academic philosophers for his trenchant critique of deep ecology (Bookchin 1987), even though the substance of this critique is quite compelling. For Bookchin was critical not only of the eclecticism of the deep ecologists and their tendency to embrace mystical theology—as expressed in Devall and Session’s seminal text (1985)—but also of their neo-Malthusian tendencies and their emphasis on “biospherical equality” (biocentrism) which tended, Bookchin argued, to lapse too easily into misanthropy. In fact, Bookchin was particularly critical of two prominent deep ecologists, Dave Foreman of Earth First and Christopher Manes who extolled famine in Africa and the AIDS epidemic as acceptable ways of controlling the human population. Such notions deeply disturbed Bookchin, hence the stridency of his polemic. But Bookchin was also critical of the deep ecologists for holding an undifferentiated humanity responsible for the ecological crisis, when the crisis had its roots in social problems— specifically with regard to the capitalist market economy—thus requiring fundamental social changes and the “remaking” of society (Chase 1991: 32). Bookchin’s harsh critique of deep ecology (1997) generated a heated debate, although the critical responses to Bookchin’s own critique and his advocacy of social ecology tend to verge on caricature (Price 2012: 49–61).

Dialectical Naturalism and Ethics

To understand the natural world as an evolutionary process, and the place of humans in the cosmos, Bookchin argued that we need to develop an organic way of thinking, one that is dialectical and processual rather than instrumental, mechanistic, and analytical. Such a way of thinking avoids the extremes of both anthropocentrism, exemplified by Cartesian metaphysics and the ideology of capitalism which radically separates humans from nature, and biocentrism, a naïve form of biological reductionism expressed by mystical deep ecologists. Both approaches, Bookchin felt, express a logic of domination, and a hierarchical mind-set.

As a philosophy of social ecology, Bookchin, therefore, advocated a dialectical or evolutionary form of naturalism, one that combined and integrated an ecological world-view (naturalism) as a metaphysic of nature with dialectics as a relational epistemology. To develop a sense of dialectics, Bookchin seems to have immersed himself in three classical texts on dialectics, namely Aristotle’s “Metaphysics”, Hegel’s “Science of Logic”, and Engels’ “Dialectics of Nature”. Bookchin fully embraced their dialectical sensibility, but he rejected the theological and teleological aspects of Aristotle’s and Hegel’s philosophy, emphasizing that they lacked an evolutionary perspective, while he felt that Engels was still deeply entrenched in mechanistic materialism, Engels emphasizing not development but matter in motion. Bookchin aimed to develop a dialectical naturalism by “ecologizing the dialectic”, as he put it (Bookchin 1995a: 119–133).

A good deal has been written on dialectics. Some, like Kropotkin, identifying dialectics with Hegel’s pantheistic mysticism, found the concept unhelpful; others have dismissed it as mystical mumbo-jumbo. “What have Galileo’s laws of motion and the life-history of an insect to do with dialectics?” asked Sidney Hock (1971: 75–76), whose early writing on Hegel appealed to Bookchin. Following Karl Popper, anarcho-primitivist Bob Black dismissed dialectics as “mystical gibberish” and, embracing the nihilism of postmodernist theory, dismisses Bookchin as a naïve positivist (1997: 90–97). Black thus has a rather facile understanding of Bookchin’s work, and even less understanding of dialectics, Popper, or positivism. Neither Popper, a critical rationalist, nor Bookchin, a dialectical naturalist, were positivists. Bookchin emphasized that “reality is not simply what we experience” (1995a: 21). Hardly a positivist sentiment!

What then is dialectics? Following Engels (1940), three aspects of the principles of dialectics may be briefly indicated.

The first principle to understand in dialectics is the idea that both the natural world and human social life are in a constant state of flux, and that the historical sciences have made the “immutable” concepts of Newton, Descartes, and Linnaeus redundant.

The second principle of dialectics emphasizes the notion of totality (holism). This is the idea that all the seemingly disparate entities that make up the material world are interconnected, and that no phenomenon (whether natural or social) can be understood in isolation. As many have expressed it, nature is a complex interactive web.

The final principle of dialectics is expressed by the terms “paradox”, “contradiction” and “unity of opposites”. Engels and Bookchin contend that ordinary common-sense understandings, traditional logic, conventional (or instrumental) reason, and metaphysical philosophy (especially the kind expressed by Descartes and Kant) tend to think in terms of “oppositions”, rather than dialectically in terms of development into a “unity of opposites”.

As Engels succinctly described the limitations of metaphysical (nondialectical) thinking:

In the contemplation of individual things, it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. (Engels 1969: 32)

As Bookchin conceived of it, dialectics is not a form of logic, nor is it a method, and it certainly is not “mystical gibberish”; it is rather a “way of reasoning about reality” (1995a: 15). It is a mode of understanding the world that posits an “emergent” rather than a mechanistic form of causality, expressing an organic rather than a religious (mystical) or mechanistic way of thinking, emphasizing process and development—not simply change or motion. And finally, it stresses the unity and agency of organisms, as well as their complex relationships or inter-actions (mutualism) (Bookchin 1995a).

The conception of nature that Bookchin expressed in many contexts focusses around a number of key concepts: holism (complexity); differentiation (diversity); freedom (subjectivity); fecundity (creativity), and participation (mutualism). For Bookchin, nature constitutes “a participatory realm of interactive life-forms whose outstanding attributes are fecundity, creativity, and directness, marked by a complementarity that renders the natural world the grounding for an ethics of freedom rather than domination” (1986: 55).

As ethics, for Bookchin, is an eminently human creation, in that human beings can derive a sense of meaning and value first from nature by virtue of their interpretive powers, he suggested that humanity is “the very embodiment of value in nature as a whole”. He goes on to advocate an “ethics of complementarity”, which “opposes any claim that human beings have a ‘right’ to dominate first nature, assuming that they can do so in the first place, much less any claim that first nature has been ‘created’ to serve human need” (1982: xxxvii).

Following Aristotle, Bookchin sought to promote an ethical naturalism that was consistent with ecological principles and an ecological sensibility.

Arguing against the fact/value of the positivists. Bookchin held that first nature may be reasonably regarded as the ground for an ecological ethic. But the natural world itself is not ethical; it is never “cruel” or “kind” or “caring”, nor good or bad. Bookchin affirmed that, from our knowledge of the natural world and the place of humans within first nature, humans could thereby derive ethical principles—to guide human conduct and to establish an ecological community based on the values of co-operation, self-organization, freedom, and diversity.

As an ethical naturalist, like Spinoza and Kropotkin, Bookchin explicitly rejected ethical theories that based moral value simply on tradition or custom (cultural relativism), on subjective whims and individual emotions (as per the logical positivists), or on a denatured conception of the human subject (as per Kant). He was equally critical of all transcendental or absolutist forms of ethics, those which derive moral edicts either from the holy scriptures of Oriental religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, mediated, of course, by the clerics), or from the emanations of shamans, charismatic priests, or religious gurus, whether enlightened visionaries or messengers of God.

As Bookchin wrote of humans as “the embodiment of nature rendered self-conscious and self-reflective”, and advocated the human “stewardship” of the earth, stressing the need to go beyond the present dichotomy or rift between first and second nature to create a “free nature” (1995a: 131–36), he has been widely denounced by mystical deep ecologists, anarchoprimitivists, and liberal philosophers alike. He has been accused of being “anthropocentric” and “utilitarian”, advocating a Faustian domination of nature, and expressing “humanistic arrogance” (e.g. Manes 1990: 160; Marshall 1992: 618; Black 1997: 98; Curry 2011: 64). These critiques seem to wilfully misinterpret the meanings that Bookchin himself gave to these concepts.

By “stewardship” of the earth, Bookchin certainly did not intend to imply that humans should take complete control of nature or steer organic evolution—Bookchin was an ontological realist, holding that first nature has an independence and integrity quite separate from the human species. What he implied by “stewardship” was the development of an ecological sensibility that “respects other forms of life for their own sake and responds actively in the form of creative loving and supportive symbiosis” (Chase 1991: 34).

Likewise, the concept of “free nature” did not imply the “mastery of nature but rather the opposite: the freeing of the natural world from the plundering of the capitalist system, and the creation of an ecological society in which the relationship between humans and the natural world would be one that was co-operative, harmonious and mutualist—a “creative interaction”. It would be a society that enhanced the flourishing and well-being of both the human species and other life forms along with the nature itself, a mutuality “between first and second nature that enriched both natures” (1995a: 120). Bookchin always advocated and stressed an “ethics of complementarity” that is lost on his numerous critics.

Neither indifference nor the technocratic management of problems within the capitalist system (environmentalism) are viable options to the present social and ecological crisis (Roussopoulus 2015).

The Politics of Libertarian Socialism

In response to the social and ecological crisis, Bookchin not only insisted on the need to develop a philosophy of dialectical naturalism (a form of ecological humanism), and an ecological sensibility or ethic. He also stressed the need to create—as a radical alternative to liberal capitalism—an ecological society. He envisaged a rational society based on anarchist principles—libertarian, socialist, ecological, and democratic.

Around 2002, at the age of 81, Bookchin announced that he had ceased to define himself as an anarchist—leading Ian McKay (2007: 39) to suggest that Bookchin in his final years attempted to “trash his own legacy”.

But it is important to recognize that the anarchism that Bookchin abandoned was what he had earlier rejected, in a harsh polemic (1995c), as “life-style” anarchism. This kind of anarchism, otherwise known as “postLeft anarchy”, or (by academics) as the “new anarchism”, consists of a motley collection of several distinctive strands, among them Stirnerite egoism (Jason McQuinn), Nietzschean aesthetic individualism, otherwise known as poetic terrorism (Hakin Bey), anarcho-primitivism (John Zerzan et al.), postmodernism and, at extremes, the anarcho-capitalism of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (Morris 2014b:133–148).

As a political tradition, anarchism has usually been defined in two ways. The first, well exemplified by Peter Marshall’s (1992) history of anarchism, conceives of anarchism in terms of an opposition to coercive authority, specifically as “anti-State”. Thus a wide variety of philosophers and individuals have been described as anarchists—Godwin, Stirner, religious mystics such as Tolstoy and Gandhi, radical libertarians (Spencer and Whitman), mutualists, anarcho-capitalists as well as many anarchocommunists (Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Rocker, et al.). Even Margaret Thatcher and the authoritarian-Marxist Che Guevara, an icon in the 1960s, find a place in Marshall’s important survey of anarchism. This has enabled liberal and Marxist scholars to dismiss anarchism as a completely incoherent philosophy.

But it is not. There is another way of understanding anarchism. That is, to view it as a fundamentally historical social movement and political tradition that emerged around 1870, mainly among working class members of the First International. This form of anarchism, as many scholars have emphasized, combined the best of both radical liberalism, with its emphasis on liberty and individual freedom, and socialism (or communism), with its emphasis on equality, voluntary associations, mutual aid, and direct action. This unity, which defines anarchism as libertarian socialism, was most succinctly expressed in the well-known adage of Michael Bakunin that “liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality” (Lehning 1973: 110; Morris 2014b: 204–207).

In his polemic Listen, Marxist! Bookchin critiqued Marxism for its lack of a libertarian perspective, while in his later polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism he criticised a wide variety of contemporary anarchists for their bourgeois individualism and lack of a socialist perspective (Bookchin 1971: 173–220; 1995c). Thus anarcho-communism, social anarchism, libertarian socialism, and communalism are virtual synonyms. That is, different expressions of Bookchin’s political philosophy of anarchism. Thus it is important to recognize that, throughout his life and even in his last years, Bookchin remained true to the legacy of St. Imier—a committed and strident libertarian socialist.

Lifestyle anarchists, as Bookchin described them—Nietzschean aesthetes, Stirnerite egoists, and, especially, anarcho-primitivists—not only rejected socialism (and society) but went to extremes and rejected civilization (even agriculture and human language), technology and city life. What is important about Bookchin was that he attempted to avoid these extremes, and, like Mumford, was never anti-civilization, anti-technology, or anti-urban. On the contrary, he affirmed all three as vital creative aspects of the human spirit.

Alive to the achievement of human civilization, Bookchin rejected anarcho-primitivism.

In Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin devotes a chapter to what he described as “organic society”, the early hunter-gatherers and tribal societies. He ascribes the following features to such tribal societies: a primordial equality and an absence of coercive and domineering values; a feeling of unity between the individual and the kin community; a sense of communal property with an emphasis on mutual aid and usufruct rights and, finally, an ecological sensibility, involving a relationship with the world that was one of “reciprocal harmony, not of domination” (Bookchin 1982: 43–61).

But like Kropotkin, Bookchin was only too aware of the limitations of tribal life, and concerned that we draw inspiration and lessons from the past and from tribal cultures, rather than romanticizing them. Still less should we try to emulate them. Given the present human population, the “future primitive” of John Zerzan is simply not a political option (Morris 2014b: 141–42).

While Bookchin was always a harsh critic of anarcho-primitivism, he was not an obsessive technocrat as David Watson (1996) portrays him. Nor was he besotted with civilization. He certainly emphasized the importance of city life, especially given its introducing the idea of a common humanity, a universal humanitas (2007: 61), but like Kropotkin and Mumford, both important influences on Bookchin—and unlike the anarcho-primitivists— Bookchin had a much more nuanced approach to technology and civilization. As he put it in defending his pro-technology stand:

[This] 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. (1995c: 34).

Technology, Bookchin felt, had to become “liberatory”, and to be reduced to a “human scale” and, through the Institute of Social Ecology cofounded with Dan Chodorkoff, he pioneered the use of renewable energy sources and promoted organic farming (Biehl 2015: 159).

Following Kropotkin, Bookchin emphasized two sides of human history—the legacy of domination reflected in the emergence of hierarchy, state power, and capitalism, and the legacy of freedom, reflected in the history of ever-expanding struggles for emancipation (1999: 278).

Eager to develop libertarian municipalism as an integral part or strategy of anarchism (communalism), Bookchin detailed the many forms of popular assembly that have emerged in the course of European history, particularly during times of social revolution. Bookchin was particularly enthusiastic with respect to the Athenian polis and the system of direct democracy, while recognizing its historical context and limitations. But forms of popular democracy have occurred throughout history: popular assembles in medieval towns; neighbourhood sections during the French Revolution; the Paris Commune of 1871; workers’ soviets during the Russian Revolution; New England town meetings; and anarchist collectives during the Spanish Civil War. Bookchin refers to them all (1992; 2007: 49).

In his later essays Bookchin came to explicitly distinguish between four radical political traditions, namely Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism (equated with lifestyle anarchism), and communalism or libertarian socialism.

Always critical of Marxism, or what is termed “proletarian socialism”, Bookchin rejected the notion that the individual proletariat could any longer be conceived as the “hegemonic historical agent” in the struggle against capitalism, given the fundamental social and technological changes that were taking place within global capitalism during the second half of the twentieth century. He was equally critical of the Marxist emphasis on the State, whether this implied the bourgeois democratic State or Bolshevik strategies of state control during the Russian Revolution (2007: 88–89; 2015: 155–160).

Bookchin was also critical of revolutionary zeal, with its strategic focus on the industrial worker and the factory system. While acknowledging their libertarian bias, Bookchin rejects the “workerist” (ouvrierist) emphasis of the anarcho-syndicalists, and laments their lack of a coherent theory— especially evident in the summer of 1936 during the Spanish Civil War (2007: 93).

It has been suggested by many scholars that Bookchin ignored the importance of class, and that the concept of labour virtually disappears from his social ecology, even though the workplace still remains a critical site of capitalist exploitation. But Bookchin never repudiated the concept of class, nor the importance of class analysis. As a fervent anti-capitalist, he always acknowledged the crucial importance of the working class in achieving any form of social revolution, and categorically affirmed the importance of the class struggle (1999: 264). But given the emphasis on advancing the “communalist project” as the socialism of the twenty-first century, class issues nevertheless seem to be side-tracked in his writings.

As indicated earlier, Bookchin’s polemical essay Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism (1995c) was essentially a defence of libertarian socialism, offering a trenchant critique of several anarchist tendencies that were prominent in the 1990s, specifically so-called Nietzschean poetic terrorism, anarcho-primitivism, and Stirnerite egoism. Labelling them together as “life-style anarchism”, what linked these various tendencies for Bookchin was their affirmation of a radical individualism that gives absolute priority to the unfettered, autonomous ego (Bookchin 2007: 91; 2015: 160–61).

For Bookchin, none of these currents of thought—Marxism, anarchosyndicalism, and lifestyle anarchism—articulated an authentic political theory that was based on democratic self-management of 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 recognizes that throughout human history some form of social organization has always been evident. For humans are intrinsically social beings, not autonomous possessive egos. Some kind of organization has, therefore, always been essential not only in terms of human survival, but specifically in terms of child care (kinship), food production and distribution, shelter, clothing, the basic necessities of social life (the social economy), and the management of human affairs as they relate to community decisions and the resolution of conflicts (politics). Bookchin, therefore, was always keen to distinguish between ordinary social life—focussed around family life and kinship, affinity groups, various cultural associations, and productive activities—and the political life of a community, focussed around local assemblies.

Bookchin equally insisted on distinguishing between politics, which he defined as a theory relating to the public realm and those social institutions by which people democratically manage their community affairs, and what he called “statecraft”. The latter focuses on the State as a form of government that also serves as an instrument for class exploitation, oppression, and control.

Thus Bookchin came to emphasise the need to establish popular democratic assemblies based on the municipality, on neighbourhoods, towns, or villages. Such local assemblies rely on face-to-face democracy to make policy decisions relating to the management of community affairs. He argued consistently that such decisions should be made by majority vote, although Bookchin does not advocate majority rule, and emphasized that a free society could only be one that fosters the fullest degree of dissent and liberty. Municipalities would be linked through a confederate political system. He warned, however, of the dangers of the assembly becoming an “incipient state” (Bookchin 1971: 168; 2007: 101–110).

Bookchin summed up his own conception of anarchist politics in terms of four basic tenets: (1) a confederation of decentralized municipalities; (2) an unwavering opposition to Statism; (3) a belief in direct democracy; and (4) a vision of a libertarian communist society (1995c: 60; see also Biehl 1998 and Eiglad 2014).

Of course, Bookchin did not provide us with all the answers to our current problems. On the contrary, he left us with many unresolved issues. Exactly what kind of technology do we need to sustain or develop? What exactly is involved in decentralizing the urban landscape? And what precisely is the relationship between community politics and class struggle focussed on the workplace? These are all unresolved issues for contemporary radicals.

But, alongside his focus on nature, what is truly significant about Bookchin is his critique of urbanization, especially given the fact that roughly half of the human population now live in cities. He had a vision of greening and decentralizing the city and, by establishing truly democratic institutions to manage the municipality, restoring people’s “right to the city.”


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This text is an excerpt from the book “Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities”, containing the proceedings from our 2017 conference in Thessaloniki. Read more about the book here.

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