Murray Bookchin: Ethical Anarchism (1981)

Bookchin in Lyon 1984

Bookchin in Lyon 1984

This is the second part of the Open Road interview with Murray Bookchin. Here, Bookchin makes clear his rejection of Marxism, particularly the Marxist theory of “historical materialism.” He clarifies his concept of “post-scarcity anarchism” and advocates an ethical anarchism, urging anarchists to focus their efforts in locations where they have greater chances of success. Space limitations prevented me from including excerpts from this interview in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now available from AK Press.

1969 Bookchin Pamphlet

1969 Bookchin Pamphlet

Open Road: What kind of balance do you find between a Marxist or historical materialist concept of necessary conditions, and the idea of anarchism as an act of will, anarchism as voluntarism, anarchism as a potential in any historical situation according to the desire, consciousness, etc., of those who advocate it?

Bookchin: I’m less influenced by any of Marx’s ideas today than I’ve ever been in my life, and most significantly Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which I think is virtually a debris of despotism. But to respond very directly to what you said, I’m by no means convinced that capitalism and the development of technology has made anarchism easier. On the contrary it has imposed tremendous difficulties by reinforcing domination and hierarchy with instrumentalities, techniques, from electronic devices to thermo-nuclear bombs and neutron bombs, has reinforced hierarchy and domination on a scale that I could never have even foreseen, say in my youth, when I was a radical and a Marxist at that time.

But here’s what I do believe very strongly: that once capitalism comes into existence, once it creates this mythology of a stingy nature, then that myth has to be exorcised. In other words, we have to get out of people’s heads the idea that without a market economy, without egotism, competition, rivalry and self-interest, without all the technological advances that Marx imputed to capitalism, we have to eliminate the feeling that we would sink into some kind of barbarism. We have to give people the freedom to choose lifestyles and material satisfactions that suit their needs, and we have to redefine need itself. We can’t redefine need among ghetto people by telling them we should all give up our TV sets or automobiles: we have to tell them there’s enough to go around, now let’s talk about using it sensibly.

So in that sense I speak of post-scarcity because my concern is to eliminate the sense of scarcity that people feel. Capitalism has created a situation called scarcity. And that scarcity is not natural, it’s socially induced. Along with that sense of scarcity, or feeling of scarcity, is a feeling of economic insecurity. Along with that is a feeling of deprivation…  And unless we can demonstrate that that feeling is not justified technologically, we will not be able to speak intelligently to the great majority of people and reorganize our economy so that we really know what needs are rational and human and what have been created, almost fetishisticaly, by the capitalist economy. What I’m saying in effect is we have to say the goodies are all here to be had, but to what extent do we really want them and to what extent are they goodies? As long as we feel that we can’t have them, we’ll want them and we’ll make them central to our lives.

I’ve been criticized by many anarchists as believing that anarchism is impossible without affluence. On the contrary, I think affluence is very destructive to anarchism. If you are absorbed by that commodity world then you’re not going to move toward any radical positions, you’re going to move toward a stance of protectiveness.

European Youth Revolt

European Youth Revolt

Open Road: On the other hand, it is those affluent countries in Europe— Switzerland, Germany— which seem to be developing a rebellious youth movement.

Bookchin: That’s an intriguing fact. I have been criticized for pointing out that anarchism is likely to flourish more easily, at least in the western world, and to a certain extent in eastern Europe, in those areas where there is either grim need or considerable technological development. Since you’ve pointed this out, I’ll be the last one in the world to deny that. But I don’t believe that you can make a whole historical theory out of it. That’s very important to see.

After reading The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, I realized that capitalism did not naturally grow as Marx would imply by his theory of historical materialism. People were dragged into capitalism screaming, shouting, and fighting all along the way, trying to resist this industrial and commercial world. And I’m convinced more than ever that capitalism, with its technological development, has not been an advance toward freedom but has been an enormous setback of freedom. I am more disenchanted with “civilization,” which does not mean that I’m a primitivist, than I’ve ever been in my life. In The Ecology of Freedom, my critique of what is called civilization and industrial society is massive, and my attack upon Marx’s commitment to it as a necessary stage in human progress and the domination of nature is very sharp.

Open Road: Is there a necessity for a spiritual or religious idea in addition to practical, every day demands, in organizing, as a unifying bond for a political or social movement?

Bookchin: I believe that there has to be an ideal and I favour an ethical anarchism which can be cohered into an ideal.

I believe that it’s terribly important to have a movement that is spiritual, not in the supernatural sense, but in the sense of German Geist, spirit, which combines the idea of mind together with feeling, together with intuition. I’m sorry that some self-styled anarchists have picked up on the word spirit and have turned me into a theological ecologist, a notion which I think is crude beyond all belief. There has to be a body of values. I would prefer to call them ecological because my image of ecology goes beyond nature and extends into society as a whole—not to be confused in any way with socio-biology, which I think is an extremely regressive, reactionary tendency…

Green anarchism

Open Road: Anarchism and its various qualifiers—communalist, syndicalist, eco-, collectivist, etc., seems to have a pretty nebulous identity at the present time.

Bookchin: We have to clarify the meaning of the word. We have to give it a rich content. And that content has to stand apart from a critique of other ideologies, because the way you sharpen a knife is, frankly, on a grindstone. And the grindstone for me is Marxism. I’ve developed my anarchism, my critique of Marxism, which has been the most advanced bourgeois ideology I know of, into a community of ideas and ultimately a common sense of responsibilities and commitments. I don’t think anarchism consists of sitting down and saying let’s form a collective. I don’t think it consists of saying we’re all anarchists: you’re an anarcho-syndicalist; you’re an anarcho-communist; you’re an anarcho-individualist. I believe that anarchists should agree to disagree but not to fight with each other. We don’t have to go around as the Protestant reformation did, or as the socialist revolution did, and execute each other as soon as we are successful—assuming we’ll ever be successful. But I believe that if we do have a commonality of beliefs we should clarify them, we should strengthen their coherence and we should also develop common projects that produce a lived community of relationships.

And also we should try to become better people, ethically speaking, reflect upon ourselves and our very limited existences and develop a sense of tolerance for each other, as well as for other anarchist groups with which we may disagree. But we’re not committed to toeing a line called anarchism; there are many different anarchisms. My anarchism is frankly anarcho-communalism, and it’s eco-anarchism as well. And it’s not oriented toward the proletariat. I would like to see a critical mass of very gifted anarchists come together in an appropriate place in order to do highly productive work. That’s it. I don’t know why that can’t be done except for the fact that I think that people mistrust their own ideals today. I don’t think that they don’t believe in them; I think they mistrust the viability of them. They’re afraid to commit themselves to their ideals.

You see something very important is happening. Personality is being eaten out, and with that the idealism that always motivated an anarchist movement—the belief in something, the ideal that there is something worth fighting for.

I’m much more interested in developing human character in this society. And I’m much more interested in the social conditions that foster commitment to ideals, a sense of solidarity, purposefulness, steadfastness, responsibility…

Open Road: I’m not that clear on what you were suggesting when you said you felt that highly gifted anarchists should get together in one location and…

Bookchin: Anarchists should get together who agree, and develop their gifts at a critical point, in a critical place, and form genuine affinity groups in areas where they can have certain results, notable results—not move into areas of great resistance where they’re almost certain to be crushed, defeated, demoralized. And secondly, I would not want to be in the same movement with an anarcho-syndicalist, however much I may respect and like that person. Some of my best friends are anarcho-syndicalists. I mean, I realize that we do not have a commonality, even a language, that makes it possible for us to communicate.

Sam Dolgoff - anarcho-syndicalist

Sam Dolgoff – anarcho-syndicalist friend

Open Road: How do too feel about the developing “doctrine of Bookchinism’’ around your ideas?

Bookchin: Terms that are related to individuals like Marxist, or Hegelian, or Bakuninist, or Kropotkinist, are completely outside my intellectual and emotional horizon. I’m a follower of no one; I’m a Bookchinite, and nobody has a right to claim that but me. When I die Bookchinism comes to an end, and all the allusions to it both among Marxists and anarchists…

(lots of laughter)

Bookchin quote

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