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


Murray Bookchin: Anarcho-Communalism (1981)

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

In September 1981, the Open Road editorial collective in Vancouver interviewed Murray Bookchin while he was finishing his magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom (yes, the legend is true: he spent some of his time correcting the galley proofs in a local MacDonald’s). The publication of The Ecology of Freedom in 1982 marked the apogee of Bookchin’s eco-anarchism. After that he came to focus more on his concept of “libertarian municipalism,” eventually rejecting anarchism altogether. Back in 1981, Bookchin was an anarchist, and proud of it. The interview was published in the Spring 1982 issue of Open Road, No. 13. This is the first of two parts. 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. Volume Three does include Bookchin’s essay, “Toward an Ecological Society,” which summarizes the main themes in The Ecology of Freedom.

Original Edition

Original Edition

Murray Bookchin: My concern is to develop a North American type of anarchism that comes out of the American tradition, or that at least can be communicated to Americans and that takes into consideration that Americans are not any longer people of European background. Another consideration is to find out what is the real locus of libertarian activity. Is it the factory? Is it the youth? Is it the schools? Is it the community?

The only conclusion I could arrive at with the death of the workers’ movement as a revolutionary force—you know the imagery of the proletarian vanguard, or proletarian hegemony—has been the community.

I’ve tried to start up from a different perspective involving a broader ecological perspective perhaps, and more or less updating my thinking historically, to many of the ideas expressed in Mutual Aid by Kropotkin (which doesn’t mean I’m a Kropotkinite). And I’ve gone toward an idea which in fact Kropotkin played around with a great deal, and which unfortunately acquired a bad name because it was associated with a French anarchist, Paul Brousse, who became a reformist…

I’ve followed Brousse’s career very carefully and I don’t know that you necessarily have to wind up in the type of situation where Brousse did. And that is to restore the image of the commune, the revolutionary commune, the neighbourhoods, the townships, in which the factories at best would be part of the community, not the factories usurping the community. This is anarcho-communalism in the full sense of the word. Thus I would like to believe that the arena would be an attempt to restore the revolutionary communal situation that existed in the 19th century and that I think can exist today even though we have tremendous crisis and division in the cities.

libertarian municipalism

The goal would be basically to try to revive civic organizations which would aim for the municipalization, the equivalent of collectivization of industry, of land, and create assemblies in the smaller communities, or many such assemblies federated in the larger communities.

As for the workers’ movement, I find that I reach workers more easily as neighbours than I do standing outside the factory despairingly giving out a leaflet telling them to take over, say the Ford plant. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you may not have worker’s movements developing, but the real question is whether or not one is going to have a unionist orientation or a communal orientation, whether the factories link with factories or the factories link with the people in the community. This is reinforced in my opinion by my conviction that the American middle class is being wiped out. In fact I believe that’s probably going to happen in much of North America through inflation, taxation…

bookchin communalism

Open Road: One of the obstacles to a municipal or community movement in North America would be the absolute lack of community in this society. There’s no interaction among people in neighhourhoods anymore.

Bookchin: Admittedly that’s so, but the problem of reviving it is another issue that has to be discussed. How about trying to revive it? I can’t think of any other arena in which to function as an anarchist.

Open Road: What about the alternative of rather than working within an existing geographical community, stepping outside of that whole grouping with one’s peers and building a base—rather than starting from within and all the compromises that would entail?

Bookchin: That’s one way of looking at it. And another way is starting from within but not within institutions, but creating counter institutions in their own community. Suppose you have food co-ops that interlink with, possibly, alternative schools. This is purely hypothetical. Right now there is a great deal of passivity; people are watching and waiting. And there is a very strong feeling of powerlessness. So, admittedly, if you were to point to institutions that exist right now in North America, or for that matter to a great extent in Europe, I would certainly agree with you. There is nothing to work with. But the point is what could we work with, or what could we try to create. And one of the things we can try to create would be the food co-ops, the health centres, the women’s centres, educational centres, even protective centres for elderly people in crime-ridden areas. In some instances even certain social services that normally were supplied, or pre-empted by the state. Take the United States, the Reagan administration is withdrawing assistance, all kinds of welfare programs, and if people don’t improvise their own resources to cope with problems of the ageing, problems of the sick, problems of the young, problems of the poor, problems of tenant rights, who will? And out of this may come the possibility of creating counter institutions, which I don’t believe in and of themselves are going to replace the existing institutions, but could be a dropping off point for the development of attitudes, techniques, and the practice of self-management.

Anarchist Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution

Anarchist Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution

Open Road: Getting back to libertarian municipalism, what you’re emphasizing is creating decentralized, democratic assemblies?

Bookchin: Yes. You see my residence is in New England, and New England has a strong tradition of localism. What is ordinarily called election day in most of the United States is called town meeting day in Vermont. And there are town meetings that are to one degree or another active, however vestigial their powers. They, for example, banned uranium mining in the Green Mountains of Vermont. And the governor of the state was forced to knuckle down to that even though he wanted uranium mining. A number of town meetings—not very large a number but at least a majority of those who had it on their agenda—voted for a nuclear arms moratorium. They’re taking up issues like that at town meetings. What we would like to do if we could is foster, at least in Vermont, greater local power, discussions around issues that are not simply immediate local issues. We would like to raise broad issues at these town meetings and turn them into discussion arenas and interlink the various assemblies and town meetings or try to help create growth of this type of local municipal power—communal power—a view toward, very frankly, establishing a grass-roots self-management institutional framework or network. Now this may be a pure dream, a hopeless ideal, but it’s meaningless for us to go to factories, I can tell you that much.

For me it’s meaningless to function in a very large city like New York, because I don’t think that one should measure the social weight of an area by the number of people it has. I think it should be measured by the quality of the politics involved. New York has a tremendous number of people but the quality of its politics is unspeakable. By contrast, in a smaller township, I find there’s a great deal of social awareness, less of a sense of powerlessness, less of a polarization of economic life. More people have been affected, in an amusing sense, by the fact that Burlington elected a socialist mayor—and I’m not concerned with elections at the moment: I’m concerned with what are called impacts—than they are by a demonstration for El Salvador in New York.


Open Road: One thing you mentioned is the danger of counter-institutions and projects becoming co-opted. Couldn’t they be used to supplement deteriorating social services and merely obscure the real nature of the state?

Bookchin: Yeah, that could happen. And that’s why I think an anarchist consciousness is necessary and why an anarchist movement is necessary. There is nothing that can’t be, at least hypothetically, co-opted, including anarchism. I’ve seen the professionalization of anarchism in a number of universities. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m addressing myself to is an anarchist theory of community and community activities. I’m not speaking of these things just occurring without any consciousness, intuitively or instinctively, merely in reaction to things that the state power does.

My feeling is that anarchists have to think in terms of a specific. I think the dispersal of anarchists all over the place, particularly very gifted ones who can turn out periodicals and do very effective public work, and their tendency to just pick up and take off is a liability. What I’m trying to do in Burlington is to help foster the development of a group of anarchists who will pick up on American radical tradition, or confederal traditions which might even exist in Canada as well. And I’m more interested in seeing some good examples established here, there and anywhere, than I am in seeing an attempt to build mass movements that in fact involve the dissolution of almost any movement in an amorphous mass that is politically very passive.

Anarchism in America

Open Road: What authentic North American radical traditions can you see us building on?

Bookchin: What I’d like to see developing is an American radicalism, libertarian in character, which relies, however weak, faint, and even mythic these traditions may be, on the American libertarian tradition. I don’t mean right-wing libertarianism obviously. I’m talking of the idea, basically very widespread in America, that the less government the better, which is obviously being used to the advantage of the big corporations, but none-the-less has very radical implications. The idea of a people that exercises a great deal of federalist or confederalist control, the ideal of a grass-roots type of democracy, the idea of the freedom of the individual which is not to get lost in the mazes of anarcho-egotism à la Stirner, or for that matter right-wing libertarianism. So I feel that now we have some opportunity in North America to go back and say the American Revolution was the real thing. I don’t want to think any longer simply in terms of the Spanish Revolution or the Russian Revolution. It doesn’t make any sense to talk Makhno to an American.

Open Road: What sort of activities would you suggest that conscious anarchists be doing?

Bookchin: At this point in North America the most important thing they can do is educate themselves, develop a propaganda machinery in the form of books and periodicals, a literature, engage in discussion groups that are open to a community, to discuss and develop their ideas and to develop networks. I think it’s terribly important that networks of anarchists establish themselves with a view toward educating people. In my case I would emphasize anarcho-communalism, along with the ecological questions, the feminist questions, the anti-nuclear issues that exist, and along with the articulation of popular institutions in the community. I think it’s terribly important for anarchists to do that because at this moment not very much is happening anywhere in North America. This may be a period of time, and a very valuable period of time of preparation, intellectually, emotionally and organizationally. My main interests right now are to publish, to write, to explicate various views which I hope have an impact on thinking people.

I know one thing: that you can do a lot of things but if you don’t educate people into conscious anarchism it gets frittered away. In the 60s there were a lot of things which were anarchistic. May-June ‘68 was riddled by anarchistic sentiments, dreams and ideals, but insofar as this was not strengthened organizationally and intellectually by a very effective, powerful infrastructure, then what happens is the movement becomes dissipated.

bookchin endquote

The New Anarchism: Beyond Neo-Marxism with Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) began publishing essays on anarchism and ecology in the mid-1960s (Volume 2, Selections 48 & 62). In the following essay, “On Neo-Marxism, Bureaucracy, and the Body Politic,” reprinted in Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), Bookchin sets forth an anarchist conception of politics in which people are empowered to take control of their daily lives and communities through directly democratic popular assemblies. Bookchin sought to transcend the class-based perspectives of both the Marxists and the anarcho-syndicalists by developing a libertarian conception of democracy which includes all members of the community regardless of their role in the productive process, similar to the “libertarian democracy” found in the collectives in the Spanish Revolution documented by Gaston Leval. Bookchin was very familiar with Leval’s work and wrote an excellent history of the pre-Revolution Spanish anarchist movement. Bookchin sought to transcend the simple dichotomy between society and the state expressed by some anarchists by setting forth a conception of a nonhierarchical political sphere that will survive the abolition of the state and provide people with the collective means of determining their own destinies. Noteworthy in this essay, given his later writings, is Bookchin’s unabashed anarchism.

Beyond Neo-Marxism

To some neo-Marxists who see centralization and decentralization merely as a difference of degree, the word “centralization” may merely be an awkward way of denoting means for coordinating the decisions made by decentralized bodies. Marx it is worth noting, greatly confused this distinction when he praised the Paris Commune as a “working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”(1) In point of fact, the consolidation of “executive and legislative” functions in a single body was regressive. It simply identified the process of policy-making, a function that rightly should belong to the people in assembly, with the technical execution of these policies, a function that could be left to strictly administrative bodies subject to rotation, recall, limitations of tenure and, wherever possible, selection by sortition. Accordingly, the melding of policy formation with administration placed the institutional emphasis of classical socialism on centralized bodies, indeed, by an ironical twist of historical events, bestowing the privilege of formulating policy on the “higher bodies” of socialist hierarchies and their execution precisely on the more popular “revolutionary committees” below.

Similarly, the concept of “representation” intermingled with “direct democracy” serves to obscure the distinction between popular institutions which should decide policy and the “representative” institutions which should merely execute them. In this connection, Rousseau’s famous passage on the constitutive nature of a “people” in The Social Contract applies even more to the “mass society” of our times than the institutionally articulated one of his era. “Sovereignty, for the same reason that makes it inalienable, cannot be represented” Rousseau declares; “it lies essentially in the general will and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or other; there is no intermediate possibility. The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts. Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free: but it is grossly mistaken: it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” However problematical Rousseau’s concept of “general will” may be, quite aside from his archaic concept of “law,” the premises that underly it cannot be evaded: “… the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.”(2)

It is precisely in terms of a “general will” more libertarian and individuated than any conceived by Rousseau that reveals the workers’ councils, soviets, and the Räte to be socially one-sided and potentially hierarchical. Councils may be popularly constituted, but they are not constitutive of a “public sphere.” As the locus of the decision-making process in society, they absorb within executive bodies the liberties that more appropriately belong to a clearly delineable body politic and thereby subvert institutions such as communes, cooperatives, and popular assemblies that indeed constitute a people and express a popular will. Councils, in effect, usurp the political subjectivity that should be shared by all in social forms that express the individual’s claim to social sovereignty. That Bolshevism recognized this possibility and later cynically exploited it is revealed by the emphasis Lenin placed on the factory as the social basis of the soviets. Here, indeed, a “proletarian public sphere,” to use Oscar Neckt’s phrase, was acknowledged and hypostasized—not as a truly democratic arena, but as the locus for a “proletarian public” that could be strategically deployed against the great mass of “unreliable” peasants whose villages comprised the authentic “public sphere” of revolutionary Russia.

But the factory, far from being the strongest aspect of the “proletarian public sphere” is, in fact, its most vulnerable. However much its social weight is reinforced by revolutionary shop committees and the most democratic forms of self-management, the factory is in no sense an autonomous social organism. Quite to the contrary, it is a particularly dependent one that can only function — indeed, exist — in conjunction with other factories and sources of raw materials. The Bolsheviks were to astutely use this very limitation of the factory to centralize the “proletarian public sphere” to a point where they were to remove the last vestigial remains of proletarian democracy: first, by employing the soviets to isolate the factory from its place in the local community; then, by shifting power from the community to the nation in the form of national congresses of soviets. The use of soviets to interlink the proletariat from factory to factory across the entire breadth of Russia, literally amputating it as a social stratum from any comprehensible roots in specific localities where it could function effectively, served to hopelessly delimit its powers and to rigorously centralize it. In the immense, national congresses of soviets staged annually during the revolutionary years, the Russian proletariat had lost all power over the soviets even before the authority of the congresses had been completely usurped by the Bolshevik party.

Quite likely, the centralization of the proletariat could have been achieved by the Bolsheviks in any case, without manipulating the soviet hierarchy. The very class nature of the proletariat, its existence as a creature of a national division of labour and its highly particularistic interests that rarely rise to the level of a general interest, belie Marx’s claims for its universality and its historic role as a revolutionary agent. These attributes, which hindsight clearly reveals today, explain the failure of all classical “proletarian revolutions” in the past. Neither the Paris Commune, which was really fought out by the last remnants of the traditional French sans culottes, nor the Spanish revolution, which was fought out by workers with rural roots, are exceptions…

If labour is the “steeling school” of the proletariat, as the young Marx was to emphasize, its locus, the factory, is a “school” based on “imperious, obedience,” as Engels was to add in later years — indeed, a “school” marked by the complete absence of “autonomy”(3)…

In whatever ways precapitalist societies differed from each other, they differed from capitalism in the fact that they were basically organic, richly articulated in forms and structures that were to be ultimately challenged and destroyed by bourgeois market relations. Even where the eye moves beyond the egalitarian world of the early human bands and clans, underlying all the bureaucratic and political formations that were to layer the surface of tribal, village, and guild-like societies were the extended families, tribal relationships, village structures, guilds, and even neighborhood associations that retained a subterranean autonomy of their own…

The most striking feature of the capitalist market is its ability to unravel this highly textured social structure, to invade and divest earlier social forms of their complexity of human relations. Even as capitalism seems to amplify the autonomy and claims of the individual, it does so by attenuating the content and structure of society. As Gemeinschaft theorists like Buber have pointed out:

“When we examine the capitalist society which has given birth to socialism, as a society, we see that it is a society inherently poor in structure and growing visibly poorer every day. By the structure of a society is to be understood its social content or community content: a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies, that is, local communes and trade communes and their step by step association. What Gierke says of the Co-operative Movement in the Middle Ages is true of every structurally rich society: it is ‘marked by a tendency to expand and extend the unions, to produce larger associations over and above the smaller associations, confederations over and above individual unions, all-embracing confederations over and above particular confederations.’ At whatever point we examine the structure of such a society we find the cell-tissue ‘Society’ everywhere, i.e. a living and life-giving collaboration, an essentially autonomous consociation of human beings, shaping and re-shaping itself from within. Society is naturally composed not of disparate individuals but of associative units and the associations between them.”

The capitalist economy and the centralized state “peculiar to it” begin to hollow out this highly articulated social structure until the modern “individualizing process” ends up as an atomizing process, a process that divests the individual of the social substance indispensable to individuality itself. Although the old organic forms retain “their outer stability, for the most part,” they become “hollow in sense and in spirit — a tissue of decay. Not merely what we call the ‘masses’ but the whole of society is in essence amorphous, unarticulated, poor in structure. Neither do those associations help which spring from the meeting of economic or spiritual interests — the strongest of which is the party: what there is of human intercourse in them is no longer a living thing, and the compensations for the lost community-forms we seek in them can be found in none. In the face of all this, which makes ‘society’ a contradiction in terms, the ‘utopian’ socialists have aspired more and more to a restructuring of society; not, as the Marxist critic thinks, in any romantic attempt to revive the stages of development that are over and done with, but rather in alliance with the decentralized counter-tendencies which can be perceived underlying all economic and social evolution, and in alliance with something that is slowly evolving in the human soul: the most intimate of all resistances — resistance to mass or collective loneliness”(4)…

To state the issue more broadly, the buyer-seller relationship of the market place, carried by the logic of the commodity relationship to the point of a market society, literally simplifies social life to the level of the inorganic… ecologically, the most significant problem we face today is not merely environmental pollution but environmental simplification. Capitalism is literally undoing the work of organic evolution. By creating vast urban agglomerations of concrete, metal, and glass, by turning soil into sand, by overriding and undermining highly complex ecosystems that yield local differences in the natural world — in short, by replacing a complex organic environment with a simplified inorganic one — market society is literally disassembling a biosphere that has supported humanity for countless millennia. In the course of replacing the complex ecological relationships, on which all complex living things depend, for more elementary ones, capitalism is restoring the biosphere to a stage where it will be able to support only simpler forms of life. If this great reversal of the evolutionary process continues, it is by no means fanciful to suppose that the preconditions for more complex forms of life will be irreparably destroyed and the earth will become incapable of supporting humanity itself.

This process of simplification, however, is by no means confined to ecology; it is also a social phenomenon, as sweeping in its implications for human history as it is for natural history. If the competitive nexus of market society, based on the maxim “grow or die” must literally simplify the organic world, so too must the reduction of all social relations to exchange relations literally simplify the social world. Divested of any content but the brute relationships of buying and selling, of homogenized, mass-produced objects that are created and consumed for their own sake, social form itself undergoes the attenuation of institutions based on mutual aid, solidarity, vocational affiliations, creative endeavour, even love and friendship. The “cell tissue ‘Society’” is thus reduced to the monadic ego; the extended family to the nuclear family and finally to disassociated sexual partners who enjoy neither the responsibilities of commitment nor emotional affinities but live in the vacuum of estranged intercourse and the insecurities of passionless indifference.

Indeed, the logic of market society is the market qua society: the emergence of objects, of commodities, as the materialization of all social relationships. No longer are we simply confronted with the “fetishization” of commodities or the alienation of labour, but rather with the erosion of consociation as such, the reduction of people to the very isolated objects they produce and consume. Capitalism, in dissolving virtually every viable form of community association, installs the isolated ego as its nuclear social form, just as clans, families, polis, guilds, and neighborhoods once comprised the nuclear social forms of precapitalist society.

Social regression on this scale imparts a new function to bureaucracy. Under capitalism, today, bureaucratic institutions are not merely systems of social control; they are literally institutional substitutes for social form. They comprise the skeletal framework of a society that, as Greek social thought would have emphasized, edges on inherent disorder. How ever much market society may advance productive forces, it takes its historic revenge not only in the rationalization it inflicts on society, but the destruction it inflicts on the highly articulated social relations that once provided the springboard for a viable social opposition. The most disturbing feature of modern bureaucracy is not merely the coercion and control it imposes on society, but the extent to which it is literally constitutive of modern society: the extent to which it validates itself as the realm of “order” against the chaos of social dissolution. Just as the ancient city — its temples, gardens, political institutions, and well-cultivated environs — represented human order as against the ever-menacing encroachment of natural “disorder,” so bureaucracy emerges as the structural sinews and bones that sustain the dissolving, decaying flesh of market society. Precapitalist societies have resisted or simply side-stepped bureaucratic formations that were imposed upon them with the highly articulated internal life they developed on their own or inherited from the past. Capitalism becomes bureaucratized to its very marrow precisely because the market can never provide society with an internal life of its own.

This fact expresses both the possibilities of bureaucracy as a social infrastructure and its historical limits. The very anonymity of bureaucracy reveals the authority of the system over personality, of the social framework over its “personnel.” The ease with which Stalinism reproduced itself structurally as a grotesque persistence of bureaus amidst a chronic execution of bureaucrats is testimony to a total depersonalization of social control today — the appalling asociality that bourgeois society finally achieves in its mythic “socialization” of humanity. Together with the “denaturing” of humanity, capitalism creates a synthetic society so completely divested of organic attributes that its social relations are literally mineralized into objects. The bureaucrat is truly faceless because he or she has no protoplasmic existence; the depraved notion that administrative decision-making can be taken over by computers and public expression by electronic media — a notion seriously considered as a step in the direction of “direct democracy” by theoretically sophisticated radical groups like the French Situationists, not only zany science-fiction “utopians” — increasingly renders the flesh-and-blood bureaucrat and citizen an anachronism. As in Platonic metaphysics, the immediate world of perception becomes the imperfect, transient “copy” of an eidos that transcends the uncertain and chaotic materiality of life itself. If bureaucracy represents the culmination of social order, capitalism totally belies the historic destiny Marx imputed to it as the means for universalizing humanity and providing it with the means for controlling its own destiny. Bureaucracy, as a system perfected to the point of voiceless depersonalization, now represents a mute society even more divested of self-articulation than “mute nature.” In the structureless void to which capitalism has reduced society, the public realm literally becomes a public space, public only in the sense that it is occupied by interlinking bureaus. Flow diagrams and systems theory become the language of corporate entities that, lacking even the presence of the lusty “robber barons,” consist of objects moving through depersonalized agencies. The homeostasis of these corporate entities depends not upon personal judgments but the corrective power of deviations. Contemporary language unerringly calls this “feedback,” “input,” and “output,” not discourse, dialogue or judgment.

There is a moral that must be drawn from this massive regression to the inorganic: capitalism has not performed the historic function of “disembedding” humanity from nature. Over and beyond the haunting power of archaic tradition over the present is an “embeddedness in nature” itself… that found expression in the organic consociation of human beings: initially, a consociation expressed in clannic ties, a sexual division of labour, the eminence of the elders, and a “nature idolatry” that slowly cemented human ties into ever-expansive forms of association. Doubtless, these were primarily biological facts, not social; organic, not synthetic. But the price humanity has paid for its socialization — for the “denaturalization” of blood groups into territorial units, tribes into towns, and the stranger into citizenship — has taken the form of capitalism, a rapacious society that has carried through human socialization by “tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and material forces.”(5)

If it is true, as Jeremy Shapiro has argued, that for Marx capitalism creates the conditions for removing human beings from their “immersion” in archaic traditions and in nature by “(1) setting abstract labour free as a force of production through the process in which labour creates its own conditions, and (2) freeing individuals from their identification with particular social roles allotted to them by the social division of labour…,” it is no less true that capitalism removes them from organic nature only to “reembed” them in inorganic nature.(6) It removes them from a “concrete labour” that knows nature in all its wealth of forms and immerses them in an abstract labour that knows only abstract matter; it removes them from their personal identification with a social division of labour by divesting them of the very subjective apparatus required for personality. Although capitalism may seem to free labour as a force of production in the organic sphere, it enslaves it to the inorganic, transporting it from the world of living materiality to the world of dead materiality. Capitalism may have freed humanity from the archaic “idolatry of nature,” but it did so only by committing humanity to the modern idolatry of quantity. In Marxism itself, it may well be that the present releases the hold of the archaic past on itself, but the present holds the past captive to fictive conceptions of history that divest human consociation of all human attributes but “interest,” “productive power,” domination, and the values of the bourgeois Enlightenment conceived as a project of rationalization and control.

If the “dialectic of history,” as Shapiro tells us, is to be “resolved through completion of the self-transcendence of nature that occurs when embeddedness in nature is overcome and human beings bring the historical process under control,” then this “control” must involve the re-absorption of nature into society as a “retribalized” humanity in which the archaic solidarity based on kinship is replaced by free choice of association, shared concerns, and love.(7) Communes, cooperatives, and assemblies — in fact, new poleis — must replace the poverty of social forms created by the void we call “capitalism.” Let there be no mistake about the fact that we are never “disembedded” from nature. Indeed, it has never been a question of whether we were “embedded” in nature or not, but rather the kind of nature we have always been “embedded” in — organic or inorganic, ecological or physical, real or mythic, whole or one-sided, subjectivized or “mindless.” Only the absence of a nature philosophy that reveals the natural history of mind from the very inception of the organic world to the present, a philosophy that can reveal the changing gradations of a natural dialectic into a social [dialectic], that can relate the realm of “instrumental action” to “communicative” [action], and ultimately human society with nature as the voice of a “mute nature” resubjectivized by human consciousness —only by virtue of this lacuna in the interface between nature and society is it possible to speak of “disembeddedness” in disregard of the meaning of a truly organic society.

Today, any meaningful project for the reconstruction of a revolutionary theory and practice must take its point of departure from three basic premises: the reconstitution of the “cell tissue ‘Society’” in the physical sense of the term, as a body politic, that is bereft of the institutions of delegated authority; the abolition of domination in all its forms — not merely economic exploitation; and the obvious precondition for the latter achievement, the abolition of hierarchy in all its forms — not merely social classes. The reductionist attitude of Marx that defines a body politic in the ambiguous terms of a “public sphere,” of domination in terms of economic exploitation, and hierarchy in terms of economic classes, masks and dissolves the differences between these concepts. That we could easily achieve a “public sphere” that professes to be free of class rule and economic exploitation, yet is riddled by patriarchy, bureaucracy, and a system of ruled and ruler based on professional, ethnic, and age differences, is painfully evident if we are to judge from the experiences of the “socialist orbit.” To speak to the needs of an organic society — the formation of an authentic body politic and a socially active citizenry — is to restore society as genuine “cell tissue.” Society, in effect, must become a body politic in the literal sense that the citizen must be physically in control of the social process, a living presence in the formation and execution of social policy.

Rousseau is only too accurate in recognizing that a body politic, divested of embodiment as a citizen assembly, is the negation of a people. The term “people” has no meaning if it lacks the institutional structure for exhibiting its physical presence and imparting to that presence a decisive social meaning — if it cannot assemble to debate, formulate, and decide the policies that shape social life. To the degree that the formulation of these policies is removed by mediated and delegated institutions, from the face-to-face decision-making process of the people in assembly, to that degree is the people subverted as the only authentic constitutive force of social life and society, vested in the sovereignty of the few, reduced to an abstraction, an unpeopled “public sphere” or a mere “public space.” Underlying every enterprise for the dissolution of the body politic into the faceless sovereignty of delegated authority is the hidden belief in an “elect” that is alone endowed with the capacity to rule and command. Ultimately, this view amounts to a denial of the human potentiality for self-management, to the spark within every individual to achieve the powers of social wisdom that a privileged few claim for themselves. That circumstances, be they resolved into the denial of education, free time, access to culture, and even an enlightened familial background, not to speak of material and occupational circumstances, have concealed this spark to the “masses” themselves is no argument for the fact that social life, particularly as it concerns the individual, could be otherwise.

Delegated authority, in effect, not only negates a people but the claims of selfhood… underlying the notion of popular self-management… [A] society that professes to be based on self-management is inconceivable without self-activity. Indeed, revolution can be defined as the most advanced form of self-activity, as direct action raised to a level where the land, the factories, indeed the very streets, are directly taken over by the autonomous people. In the absence of this level of activity, social consciousness remains mere mass consciousness that can easily be manipulated by hierarchies. Delegated authority vitiates the individuation of the “masses” into self-conscious beings who can take direct, unmediated control of society into their own hands. It denies not only the constitution of a “public sphere” into a body politic, but the individual into a social agent — into a “citizen” in the Athenian sense of the term.

We live today under the tyranny of a present that is often more oppressive than the past… Our social “models” for freedom have been the Russian Revolution and the so-called “revolutions” of the Third Word, of the councils, soviets, and shop committees that are so seductive to many neo-Marxists as forms of social administration…

It is ironic that we must turn to John Stuart Mill, rather than his socialist contemporaries, for an insightful evaluation of how direct participation in social life and the development of selfhood mutually reinforce each other to form the civic virtues and commitments of the citizen — that make active citizenship the highest expression of selfhood. The defects of Athenian democracy notwithstanding, the practices of the dicastery and popular assemblages, Mill was to observe, “raised the intellectual standard of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern.” The Athenian citizen was obliged “to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good…” He accordingly found himself associated “in the same work with minds more familiarized than his own with these ideas and operations” which supplied “reason to his understanding and stimulation to his feeling for the general interest.”(8)

Hannah Arendt was to formulate this educative process — an integral feature of what the Greeks called paideia, the spiritual forming of the individual — as an “enlarged mentality” that renders authentic judgment possible.(9) The polis was not only an end but a means that made political practice (“participation” is a feeble term) a mode of self-formation. At this level, a people not merely arrives at a “general interest” but begins to transcend “interest” as such…

Endowed with this [enlarged] mentality, “even when I shun all company or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply together only with myself in the solitude of philosophic thought,” Arendt observes, “I remain in this world of mutual interdependence where I can make myself the representative of everyone else. To be sure, I can refuse to do this and form an opinion that takes only my own interest, or the interests of the group to which I belong, into account… But the very quality of an opinion as of a judgment depends upon its degree of impartiality.”(10) “Impartiality” must be taken literally if Arendt’s point is to have meaning — as a condition that rises above the “partial,” or one-sided, and the “partiality” of a predetermined commitment. The emergence of a “general interest” is, in effect, the abolition of the “partiality” of a self rooted in “interest” and in a one-sided society.

It is a truism that “opinion” and judgment so formed have material preconditions and a historical background that has received sufficient emphasis not to require discussion here. Arendt’s “enlarged mentality” must emerge from a terrain that is materially incompatible with the formation of “class interest” and its ideological expression as “class consciousness.” But once these material preconditions are emphasized, we must add that a “proletarian public sphere” is an anachronism because the proletariat as a proletariat, as the fictive expression of a public sphere, is an “interest” that opposes the universalization and abolition of “interest” and the formation of a public. It is not accidental that Marx follows in the wake of bourgeois reality by denuding the proletariat of the social and personal forms without which it cannot develop its public existence as part of a universalized humanity. Marx’s writings “hollow out” the proletariat as ruthlessly as capitalism hollows out the “cell tissue ‘Society’”. Just as abstract labour confronts abstract matter, so abstract classes confront each other in a conflict of “interests” that exists beyond their will or even their clear comprehension. That Marx conceives the proletariat as a category of political economy — as the “owner” of labour power, the object of exploitation by the bourgeoisie, and a creature of the factory system — reflects and ideologizes its actual one-sided condition under capitalism as a “productive force,” not as a revolutionary force. Marx leaves us in no doubt about this conception. As the class that is most completely dehumanized, the proletariat transcends its dehumanized condition and comes to embody the human totality “through urgent, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need…” Accordingly: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”(11) (The emphasis throughout is Marx’s and provides a telling commentary on his de-subjectivization of the proletariat.) I will leave aside the rationale that this formula provides for an elitist organization. For the present, it is important to note that Marx, following the tradition of classical bourgeois political economy, totally objectifies the proletariat and removes it as a true subject. The revolt of the proletariat, even its humanization, ceases to be a human phenomenon; rather, it becomes a function of inexorable economic laws and “imperative need.” The essence of the proletariat as proletariat is its non-humanity, its creature nature as the product of “absolutely imperative need” — of brute “interest.” Its subjectivity falls within the category of harsh necessity, explicable in terms of economic law. The psychology of the proletariat, in effect, is political economy.

The real proletariat resists this reduction of its subjectivity to the product of need and lives increasingly within the realm of desire, of the possibility to become other than it is. Concretely, the worker resists the work ethic because it has become irrational in view of the possibilities for a non-hierarchical society. The worker, in this sense, transcends her or his creature nature and increasingly becomes a subject, not an object; a non-proletarian, not a proletarian. Desire, not merely need, possibility, not merely necessity, enter into her or his self-formation and self-activity. The worker begins to shed her or his status of workerness, her or his existence as a mere class being, as an object of economic forces, as mere “being,” and becomes increasingly available to the development of an “enlarged mentality.”

As the human essence of the proletariat begins to replace its factory essence, the worker can now be reached as easily outside the factory as in it. Concretely, the worker’s aspect as a woman or man, as a parent, as an urban dweller, as a youth or elderly person, as a victim of environmental decay, as a dreamer (the list is nearly endless), comes increasingly to the foreground. The factory walls become permeable to the development of an “enlarged mentality” to the degree that personal and broadly social concerns begin to compete with the worker’s “proletarian” concerns and values. No “workers group” can become truly revolutionary unless it deals with the individual worker’s human aspirations, unless it helps to de-alienate the worker’s personal milieu and begins to transcend the worker’s factory milieu. It is indeed doubtful that, in the event of truly revolutionary change, workers will want to control production and bask in the glories of an economy based on “worker’s control.” They will probably want to alter production, indeed sever society’s technical commitment to the factory as such. This kind of working class will become revolutionary not in spite of itself but because of itself, literally as a result of its awakening selfhood…

If we are not merely at the end of capitalism but at the end of “civilization” as Fourier might have observed — of hierarchy and domination — it is not enough to speak any longer of class and exploitation but rather of rank as such at the most molecular levels of human consociation…

A new “revolutionary subject” exists in the social vacuum left by society and the centralized power at its summits. The system turns everyone against it — be it the conservationist or the small struggling entrepreneur, the worker or the intellectual, women, blacks, aged, or the seemingly privileged suburbanite. The denuding of the individual from “brothers” and “sisters” into “citizens” and finally “taxpayers” expresses the common lot of every individual who is burdened by a terrifying sense of powerlessness that is so easily mistaken for apathy. Bureaucracy can never blanket this open, unoccupied social domain. This domain can eventually be filled by neighborhood assemblies, cooperatives, popular societies, and affinity groups that are spawned by an endless array of social ills — above all, decentralized groups that form a counterweight and a radicalizing potential to the massive centralization and concentration of social power in an era of state capitalism…

The simplification of the “social problem” into issues like the restoration of local power, the increasing hatred of bureaucratic control, the silent resistance to manipulation on the everyday level of life holds the only promise of a new “revolutionary subject” on which resistance and eventually revolution can be based. It is to these issues that revolutionary theory must address itself, and it is to a reinstitutionalization of a conscious body politic that revolutionary practice must direct its efforts.

Murray Bookchin, April 1978


1. Karl Marx: “The Civil War in France,” Selected Works, Vol. II (Progress Publishers, 1969), p. 220.

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Everyman Edition, 1959), pp. 94, 96. Rousseau’s influence on Hannah Arendt is almost as great as Aristotle’s. Compare these remarks with Arendt’s in On Revolution (Viking Press, 1965), pp. 239-40.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family (Progress Publishers, 1956), pp. 52-53; Frederick Engels: “On Authority” in Marx, Engels, Lenin: Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (International Publishers, 1972), p. 102.

4. Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia (Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 13-14 [see Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 16].

5. Karl Marx: Grundrisse (Random House, 1973), p. 410.

6. Jeremy J. Shapiro: “The Slime of History,” in On Critical Theory, ed. J O’Neill, (Seabury Press), pp. 147-48.

7. Ibid, p. 149.

8. John Stuart Mill: Considerations on Representative Government (World Classics Edition, 1948), pp. 196-98.

9. Hannah Arendt: “Truth and Politics” in Philosophy, Politics and Society (edited by Peter Laslett and W.G. Runciman (Blackwell & Co., 1967), p. 115.

10. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Op. cit., p. 115.

11. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family, op. cit., pp. 52-53.

The Emergence of the New Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read (1893-1968)

Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, opens with excerpts from Herbert Read’s 1940 essay, “The Philosophy of Anarchism.” Read had declared himself in favour of anarchism in his 1938 publication, Poetry and Anarchism, with which I closed Volume One of the Anarchism anthology.  There he wrote that  he sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom.” Read was under no illusions regarding how people would react to his endorsement of anarchism.  At the time, the world’s various anarchist movements were in eclipse, and most radical intellectuals supported the Soviet Union with its Marxist ideology.  It was the era of “Popular Fronts” against Fascism, which the Stalinist Communists used to co-opt other forces on the left, resulting in the further isolation of the anarchists, their inveterate foes and frequent victims (see Chapter 18 of Volume One, “The Russian Revolution”).

Herbert Read (1893-1968) had served in the First World War, which helped turn him into a pacifist.  By 1938, he was a noted poet, essayist and art critic. In the 1930s, he helped introduce Surrealism to an English audience. After the Second World War, he did the same for existentialism, the philosophy that was being popularized in France by people like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was current with the latest  intellectual and artistic trends, including Freudian psychoanalysis, which helped to inform his approach to anarchism, art and education. Read was one of a few better known intellectuals at the time who expressed anarchist ideas in a contemporary idiom, helping to pave the way for the remarkable resurgence of anarchism that surprised many, including some anarchists, in the 1960s. Other noteworthy contributors to this anarchist renaissance were Paul Goodman and Dwight Macdonald in the United States, Marie Louise Berneri, Alex Comfort and George Woodcock in England, and Giancarlo de Carlo in Italy. I have included extensive selections from all of these writers in Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology.

Not all anarchists were enamoured with these new currents in anarchist theory. Anarchists who took a “class struggle” approach, which emphasized the revolutionary role of the working class and the need for anarchists to take part in working class struggles, such as the Impulso group in Italy, denounced the “new” anarchism as counter-revolutionary, referring to it as “resistencialism,” because writers like Read had purportedly abandoned any hope for a successful social revolution and instead advocated resistance to authority, rather than its abolition (Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 38).

Read, however, had not abandoned the idea of a social revolution. He simply conceived of it in broader terms, and distinguished it from more conventional conceptions of revolution by reviving Max Stirner’s (Volume One, Selection 11) distinction between revolution and insurrection. A revolution is “an exchange of political institutions.” An insurrection “aims at getting rid of these political institutions altogether.” Consequently,  he looked forward to a “spontaneous and universal insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 1), but discarded “the romantic conception of anarchism — conspiracy, assassination, citizen armies, the barricades. All that kind of futile agitation has long been obsolete: but it was finally blown into oblivion by the atomic bomb.” Today, “action must be piecemeal, non-violent, insidious and universally pervasive” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Defining the measure of progress as “the degree of differentiation in society” (Volume Two, Selection 1), Read sought to create an organic society in which everyone is free to develop and express their unique talents and abilities, bringing forth “the artist latent within each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19). Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed a system of direct democracy based  on functional and communal groups federated with each other, with their activities being coordinated by ad hoc delegates who are never separated from their “natural productive” functions (Volume One, Selection 130).

When Murray Bookchin started drawing the connections between anarchism and ecology in the 1960s, he cited Read as one of his inspirations (Volume Two, Selection 48). Read’s emphasis on local politics can also be found in Bookchin’s writings, in his concept of “libertarian municipalism.” Bookchin’s distinction between a libertarian politics of directly democratic community assemblies and the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the state can therefore be found in Read’s earlier writings.

In the following excerpts from Read’s 1947 BBC lecture, “Neither Liberalism Nor Communism,” he further develops his conception of anarchism as an alternative kind of politics without the state, emphasizing, as Bookchin did later, the insight of the ancient Greek philosophers that a truly democratic politics requires decentralization and human-scale.

Herbert Read: Neither Liberalism Nor Communism (1947)

It has always been recognized since the time of the Greek philosophers that the practicability of a free democracy was somehow bound up with the question of size — that democracy would only work within some restricted unit  such as the city-state. This was the conclusion of Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world, and their view has been supported in modern times by great political philosophers like Rousseau, Proudhon, Burckhardt and Kropotkin.

Based on this realization, a political philosophy has arisen which opposes the whole conception of the State. This theory, which would abolish the State, or reduce it to insignificance, is sometimes known as distributivism, sometimes as syndicalism, sometimes as guild socialism, but in its purest and most intransigent form it is called anarchism. Anarchism, as the Greek roots of the word indicate, is a political philosophy based on the idea that a social order is possible without rule, without dictation — even the dictation of a majority. Señor de Madariaga in his broadcast used the word as an antithesis to order, which is a common misuse of the word. Anarchism, indeed, seeks a very positive form of social order, but it is order reached by mutual agreement, not order imposed by unilateral dictation.

Though anarchism as a political doctrine has a respectable ancestry and has numbered great poets and philosophers like Godwin and Shelley, Tolstoy and Kropotkin among its adherents: though even now it is the professed faith of millions of people in Spain, in Italy and, alas, in Siberia: though it is the unformulated faith of millions more throughout the world — though, that is to say, it is one of the fundamental political doctrines of all time, it has never been given a place in our insular discussions of the political problems of our time.

Why this conspiracy of silence? I shall not spend any time on that interesting speculation, but I shall try, in the few minutes left to me, to give you the main principles of this distinct political theory

Believing that an expanding democracy leads to the delegation of authority to the creation of a governing class of politicians and bureaucrats — believing, in Acton’s words, that democracy tends to unity of power, and inevitably to the abuse of power by power-corrupted politicians, we who are anarchists seek to divide power, to decentralize government down to the localities in which it is exercised, so that every man has a sense of social responsibility and participates immediately in the conduct of his social order.

That is the political aspect of the theory. But it is equally in the economic field that democracy tends to unity of power — either the power of the capitalist monopoly or the power of the nationalized industry. We believe in the decentralization of industry and in the deproletarization of labour in the radical transformation and fragmentation of industry, so that in place of a few powerful trade combines and trade unions, we should have many small co-operative farms and workshops, administered directly by the workers themselves.

We believe, that is to say, in a federal or co-operative commonwealth, and we believe that this represents an ideal which is distinct from any offered by liberalism or communism. You may be inclined to dismiss it as an impracticable ideal, but within limits we can prove that it does work, in spite of unfavourable economic conditions and in the face of ruthless opposition from capitalists or communists. There have been many failures and many false starts, but these have been studied by the sociologists of the movement, and we know pretty accurately why certain co-operative communities have failed. We think we know for what reasons others have survived for a century or more — the Hutterites, a religious community was founded in Moravia in the 16th century and has carried out these principles successfully ever since. More remarkable, because operating within the economic structure of a modern society, are the highly successful co-operative agricultural communities established in Palestine, in Mexico and under the Farm Security Administration in the USA. At Valence in France a very successful experiment is taking place. In this case the co-operative community combines a highly skilled industry (the manufacture of watch-cases) with agriculture. I do not pretend that these experiments prove the case for an anarchist society. But they are highly significant tests of the human capacity for co-operative living — experiments which give us every confidence in the social and economic soundness of our wider proposals.

I am old enough to remember the days, before 1917, when people would say: Oh, socialism is all right in theory, but it could never be put into practice. Against such an argument socialists of that time could only put their faith — a faith which, we must admit, has been amply justified. Now on every side we meet the same argument against anarchism, against the co-operative commonwealth. No feudal baron could have believed in a world ruled by merchants and money-lenders; and in their turn these merchants and money-lenders refused for a long time to believe in the possibility of a world ruled by bureaucrats. I do not expect that many of my listeners can believe in a world in which the very idea of rule is abolished, in which we live by mutual aid, in which all thought of profit, all aggressive impulses, the concept of national sovereignty and the practice of armed imperialism, are forever absent. But when you consider the world in all its moral and economic chaos, when you see humanity fearfully transfixed by the threat of atomic warfare, can you for a moment believe that our civilization will be saved by any change less profound than that which I have described tonight?

Reprinted in A One-Man Manifesto and Other Writings for Freedom Press (London: Freedom Press, 1994), ed. David Goodway