Beyond the Caricature: The Need to Recover Bookchin

Written by Andy Price. This is the preface to Price’s book “Recovering Bookchin: Social Ecology and the Crises of Our Time” (New Compass, 2012).

At an academic conference several years ago, I attended a workshop directed to an examination of Murray Bookchin and his place in the anarchist tradition. There, after giving a paper I had rather hastily cobbled together (I was a young, and not very adept researcher) from the opening years of my research on Bookchin’s philosophical and political programme, I was confronted— collegially, and in good spirit, it should be noted—by a colleague who proceeded to tell me all about Bookchin’s personal and political motivations. Agitated and animated, my erstwhile colleague told me that throughout the 1990s, Bookchin had “bestrode the anarchist world, looking to pick a fight with anyone and everyone,” desperate for a conflagration, desperate for attention. I watched, bemused, as my colleague raised his arms in the vein of a muscle man, bending both arms to show his strength, seemingly a likeness of Bookchin’s position down the years. Although I cannot be sure of the precise memory, I think he may have even “shadow-boxed” to illustrate Bookchin’s pugilistic intentions.

The rhetorical and visual fireworks aside, this description of Bookchin jarred on a more fundamental level. I was stuck by two immediate questions. First, was my colleague speaking of the same Bookchin whose philosophy I had been immersed in for what seemed like a lifetime, a philosophy I found creative, cooperative, inspiring and, above all, humanistic? Was this the same Bookchin who had spent years refining a political programme that was explicitly directed towards the creation of a society of genuine equality, freedom, and above all, non-conflictual forms of relations and forms of organisations? Second, how did my friend know of Bookchin’s motivations? How did he know that Bookchin wanted to fight the rest of the anarchist world, know that he was desperately seeking people to argue with? Was there any evidence for such a position?

Of course, I had been aware of Bookchin’s polemical works before my exchange with my colleague, and I had been aware of the many disagreements Bookchin had had with former friends and comrades, but I originally intended to ignore these polemics, to put them down to the usual political manoeuvre and disagreement that quite naturally emerges in the exchange of ideas. Mine was to be a project directed solely to an examination of Bookchin’s content, to the fundamentals of his philosophical and political project. However, it soon became apparent that I could not avoid this problematic picture of Bookchin: I would meet many more people who would describe Bookchin in exactly the same way (gesticulation included); I would read many more texts that claimed identical things. Moreover, it became apparent that this was many people’s experience of Bookchin: that is, the newcomer to Bookchin cannot help but be confronted in the first instance (and quite possibly overwhelmed) by the critical literature on Bookchin.

Yet the more I read of Bookchin, the more the evidence of a genuine attempt to remake society in the name of humanity and the natural world would pour from the pages of his work. I thus concluded early on, that the initial and immediate picture of Bookchin was a caricature: it underplayed and undervalued a rich and detailed philosophy of nature and a practical political programme, worked out in great detail over the previous five decades by focusing on the relatively short period within which he had become embroiled in fierce disagreements. Originally, I argued that this vast body of work, when fully appreciated, would easily make-up for whatever Bookchin had done wrong in the 1980s and 1990s, that whatever mistakes he had made, this important contribution was still intact.

However, as I turned, with trepidation, to examine Bookchin’s “wrongdoings,” the problems that led to an extraordinary body of literature that casts his motives in to doubt, it soon became clear that Bookchin had in fact done very little wrong. There was, in short, no evidence of Bookchin becoming dogmatic, controlling or aggressive in his later years, as the critical literature claimed: quite to the contrary, there was evidence that the works and moments in Bookchin’s biography that the critics would point to for their evidence of his illfound motivations were in fact coherent expressions of his wider philosophy, and, by-and-large, informed critiques and challenges to the movements with which he was involved. Moreover, the most problematic of the criticisms of Bookchin never addressed his philosophical and theoretical fundamentals or even the criticisms he raised that were held up as evidence of his desire to attack.

It is from these early developments that the analytical framework of the current work stemmed. In the first instance, its aim is to recover the vital contribution to radical social thought that Bookchin provides in his work, a contribution that has been partially lost to the more problematic picture discussed above, by examining and exposing the foundations of the Bookchin caricature. In the second instance, this recovery also extends to the more robust critical pieces on Bookchin. It is argued here that there have been serious and reasoned critiques made of Bookchin, but that these too suffer from the existence of such a skewed caricature. They have often been mired by the more problematic literature, themselves not fully appreciated. They too will be recovered here from the rancour that surrounds Bookchin and his opponents and used to put Bookchin’s foundations to the test. Finally, this recovery and reassessment, in keeping with Bookchin’s own approach, is carried out not solely as a theoretical exercise, but as an examination of a theory that may suggest practical political possibilities to reverse the social and ecological crises of our time.

February 2, 2023

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