Anarchy and Ecology

eco anarchist flag

Continuing my recent theme of dealing with big issues, like anarchism and feminism, in today’s installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchy and ecology. While Murray Bookchin is often credited with bringing the ideas of ecology and anarchism together, previous writers had dealt with ecological themes, including the anarchist geographers, Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, the communitarian anarchist, Gustav Landauer, the English writer, Ethel Mannin, and the American social critic and author, Paul Goodman. Selections from their writings can be found across the three volumes of the Anarchism anthology. A bit early for Earth Day, but here it is.

resistance_is fertile

Anarchy and Ecology

Anarchists had long been advocates of decentralized, human scale technology and sustainable communities. In the 1940s, Ethel Mannin drew the connections between increasing environmental degradation, existing power structures and social inequality, writing that as long as “Man continues to exploit the soil for profit he sows the seeds of his own destruction, not merely because Nature becomes his enemy, responding to his machines and his chemicals by the withdrawal of fertility, the dusty answer of an ultimate desert barrenness, but because his whole attitude to life is debased; his gods become Money and Power, and wars and unemployment and useless toil become his inevitable portion” (Volume Two, Selection 14). Murray Bookchin expanded on this critique in the 1960s, arguing that the “modern city… the massive coal-steel technology of the Industrial Revolution, the later, more rationalized systems of mass production and assembly-line systems of labour organization, the centralized nation, the state and its bureaucratic apparatus—all have reached their limits,” undermining “not only the human spirit and the human community but also the viability of the planet and all living things on it” (Volume Two, Selection 48).

Bookchin was fundamentally opposed to those environmentalists who looked to existing power structures to avert ecological collapse or catastrophe. This was because the “notion that man is destined to dominate nature stems from the domination of man by man—and perhaps even earlier, by the domination of woman by man and the domination of the young by the old” (Volume Three, Selection 26). Consequently, the way out of ecological crisis is not to strengthen or rely on those hierarchical power structures which have brought about that crisis, but through direct action, which for Bookchin is “the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly, without ‘representatives’ who tend to usurp not only the power but the very personality of a passive, spectatorial ‘electorate’ who live in the shadows of an ‘elect’”(Volume Three, Selection 10).

In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued not only that the state was unlikely to effect positive social change, given the interests it represents, but that reliance on state power renders people less and less capable of collectively managing their own affairs, for in “proportion as the obligations towards the State [grow] in numbers the citizens [are] evidently relieved from their obligations towards each other.” As Michael Taylor puts it, under “the state, there is no practice of cooperation and no growth of a sense of the interdependence on which cooperation depends.” Because environmental crisis can only be resolved through the action and cooperation of countless individuals, instead of strengthening the state people should heed the anarchist call for decentralization, by seeking to disaggregate “large societies… into smaller societies,” and by resisting “the enlargement of societies and the destruction of small ones,” thereby fostering the cooperation and self-activity upon which widespread social change ultimately depends (Volume Two, Selection 65). Otherwise, as Paul Goodman argued, we are stuck in “a vicious circle, for… the very exercise of abstract power, managing and coercing, itself tends to stand in the way and alienate, to thwart function and diminish energy… the consequence of the process is to put us in fact in a continual emergency, so power creates its own need.” For the emergency or crisis to be effectively resolved, there must be “a profound change in social structure, including getting rid of national sovereign power” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Robert Graham


Anarchist Communism


This is the latest installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I continue my survey of the development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I describe how the doctrine of anarchist communism arose from the debates within the anti-authoritarian sections of the International, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress.

carlo cafiero

Carlo Cafiero

Anarchist Communism

It was from among the debates within the anti-authoritarian International that the doctrine of anarchist communism emerged in the 1870s. François Dumartheray published a pamphlet in February 1876 advocating anarchist communism, and Elisée Reclus spoke in favour of it at the March 1876 Lausanne Congress of the anti-authoritarian International. By the fall of 1876, the Italian Federation considered “the collective ownership of the products of labour to be the necessary complement of the [anarchist] collectivist” program of common ownership of the means of production (Nettlau: 139). Anarchist communism was debated at the September 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, with Paul Brousse and the Italian anarchist, Andrea Costa, arguing in favour, and the Spanish anarchists, Tomás González Morago and José García Viñas, defending the collectivist view, shared by Proudhon and Bakunin, that each person should be entitled to the full product of his or her labour.

At the October 1880 Congress of the Jura Federation, the delegates adopted an anarchist communist position, largely as the result of Cafiero’s speech, “Anarchy and Communism” (Volume One, Selection 32). Cafiero defined the communist principle as “from each and to each according to his will,” with everyone having the right to take what they will “without demanding from individuals more work than they would like to give.” With production being geared towards satisfying people’s wants and needs, instead of the financial demands of the military, the state and the wealthy few, there will be no “need to ask for more work than each wants to give, because there will be enough products for the morrow.”

Cafiero argued against the collectivist position on the basis that “individual distribution of products would re-establish not only inequality between men, but also inequality between different kinds of work,” with the less fortunate being relegated the “dirty work,” instead of it being “vocation and personal taste which would decide a man to devote himself to one form of activity rather than another.” Furthermore, with “the ever-increasing tendency of modern labour to make use of the labour of previous generations” embodied in the existing economic infrastructure, “how could we determine what is the share of the product of one and the share of the product of another? It is absolutely impossible.” With respect to goods which are not sufficiently abundant to permit everyone to take what they will, Cafiero suggested that such goods should be distributed “not according to merit but according to need,” much as they are in present-day families, with those in greater need, such as children and the elderly, being given the larger portions during periods of scarcity (Volume One, Selection 32).


Kropotkin further developed the theory of anarchist communism in a series of pamphlets and books, the best know and most influential being The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33), and Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). The Conquest of Bread helped persuade many anarchists, including former collectivists in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Selections 58, 84, 95 & 114), and anarchists in Japan, China and Korea (Volume One, Selections 99, 106 & 108), to adopt an anarchist communist position, sometimes referred to, particularly in Spain, as “libertarian communism” (Volume One, Selection 124).

In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin set forth his vision of a decentralized anarchist communist society “of integrated, combined labour… where each worker works both in the field and in the workshop,” and each region “produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.” At “the gates of your fields and gardens,” there will be a “countless variety of workshops and factories… required to satisfy the infinite diversity of tastes… in which human life is of more account than machinery and the making of extra profits… into which men, women and children will not be driven by hunger, but will be attracted by the desire of finding an activity suited to their tastes” (Volume One, Selection 34). This remarkably advanced conception of an ecologically sustainable society inspired many subsequent anarchists, including Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in Germany (Volume One, Selection 111), and through him the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Buber, Volume Two, Selection 16, and Horrox, 2009), the anarchist communists in China (Volume One, Selection 99), the “pure” anarchists of Japan (Volume One, Selection 106), and the anarchist advocates of libertarian communism in Spain (Volume One, Selection 124).

communitas cover

Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30).

There is another aspect of Kropotkin’s conception of anarchist communism that had far-reaching implications, and this is his vision of a free society which “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects.” These “ever changing, ever modified associations” will “constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all” (Volume One, Selection 41). Some Italian anarchist communists, such as Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), argued for an even more fluid concept of voluntary association, opposing any attempts to create permanent organizations, whether an anarchist federation or a revolutionary trade union, arguing that any formal organization inevitably requires its members to “submit for the sake of discipline” and unity to “provisions, decisions, [and] measures… even though they may be contrary to their opinion and their interest” (Volume One, Selection 35).

As Davide Turcato points out (2009), the debate between “anti-organizationalists,” such as Galleani, and the “organizationalists,” such as Malatesta, “was a debate of great sophistication,” which developed many ideas which were to “become common currency in the sociological literature, particularly through the work of Robert Michels,” who recognized that “anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchic consequences of party organization.”

Most anarchist communists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, believed that nonhierarchical organization is possible and desirable, although one must always be on guard against oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies. In our day, Colin Ward (1924-2010), drawing explicitly on Kropotkin’s theory of voluntary association, has endeavoured to show that anarchist ideas regarding “autonomous groups, workers’ control, [and] the federal principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organization which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical institutional philosophy which we see in application all around us” (Volume Two, Selection 63).

Robert Graham



Additional References

Goodman, Paul & Percival. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. San Francisco: AK Press, 2009.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Turcato, Davide. “Making Sense of Anarchism.” Introduction. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.

Kropotkin: Happy Solstice (Across the Anarchist Universe)


Around this time of year, the combination of religious idolatry and capitalism called “Christmas” can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are other things to celebrate, like Peter Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, both of which fall on December 21st. Instead of focusing his critique on religion and its role in perpetuating the domination and exploitation of the masses, something that Bakunin was adept at, Kropotkin tried to articulate a positive view of the universe and people’s place in it, which mirrored his views of an anarchist society. In Modern Science and Anarchism (1903), Kropotkin described anarchism as “a world-concept based upon a mechanical [kinetic] explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature.” This was a 19th century conception of nature and the universe, still steeped in Newtonian physics, soon to be replaced by Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics. But in Kropotkin’s earlier pamphlet, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (1896), he set forth a view of the universe that is surprisingly modern, anticipating post-Einsteinian theories, such as the hypothesis of the “God particle,” infinitesimally small particles that hold the universe together. Space considerations prevented me from including these passages in the excerpts from Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In celebration of Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, I reproduce them below, hopefully providing some respite from the relentless religious and commercial propaganda at around this time of year.

Across the Anarchist Universe

Across the Anarchist Universe

An Anarchist Across the Universe

Those who are persuaded that anarchism is a collection of visions relating to the future, and an unconscious striving towards the destruction of all present civilization, are still very numerous. To clear the ground of such prejudices as maintain this view we should have to enter into many details which it would be difficult to cover briefly.

Anarchists have been spoken of so much lately that part of the public has at last taken to reading and discussing our doctrines. Sometimes men have even given themselves the trouble to reflect, and at the present time we have at least gained the admission that anarchists have an ideal. Their ideal is even found too beautiful, too lofty for a society not composed of superior beings.

But is it not pretentious on my part to speak of a philosophy, when according to our critics our ideas are but dim visions of a distant future? Can anarchism pretend to possess a philosophy when it is denied that socialism has one?

This is what I am about to answer with all possible precision of clearness. I begin by taking a few elementary illustrations borrowed from natural sciences. Not for the purpose of deducing our social ideas from them—from it; but simply the better to set off certain relations which are easier grasped in phenomena verified by the exact sciences than in examples taken only from the complex facts of human societies.

What especially strikes us at present in exact sciences is the profound modification which they are undergoing in the whole of their conceptions and interpretations of the facts of the universe.

There was a time when man imagined the earth placed in the center of the universe. Sun, moon, planets and stars seemed to roll round our globe; and this globe inhabited by man represented for him the center of creation. He himself—the superior being on his planet—was the elected of his Creator. The sun, the moon, the stars were made for him—towards him was directed all the attention of a God who watched the least of his actions, arrested the sun’s course for him, launched his showers or his thunderbolts on fields and cities to recompense the virtue or punish the crimes of mankind. For thousands of years man thus conceived the universe.

An immense change in all conceptions of the civilized part of mankind was produced in the sixteenth century when it was demonstrated that far from being the center of the universe, the earth was only a grain of sand in the solar system—a ball much smaller even than the other planets—that the sun itself, though immense in comparison to our little earth, was but a star among many other countless stars which we see shining in the skies and swarming in the milky way. How small man appeared in comparison to this immensity without limits, how ridiculous his pretentions! All the philosophy of that epoch, all social and religious conceptions, felt the effects of this transformation in cosmogony. Natural science, whose present development we are so proud of, only dates from that time.

But a change much more profound and with far wider-reaching results is being effected at the present time in the whole of the sciences, and anarchism is but one of the many manifestations of this evolution.

Take any work on astronomy of the last century. You will no longer find in it our tiny planet placed in the center of the universe. But you will meet at every step the idea of a central luminary—the sun—which by its powerful attraction governs our planetary world. From this central body radiates a force guiding the course of the planets, and maintaining the harmony of the system. Issued from a central agglomeration, planets have, so to say, budded from it. They owe their birth to this agglomeration; they owe everything to the radiant star that represents it still: the rhythm of their movements, their orbits set at wisely regulated distances, the life that animates them and adorns their surfaces. And when any perturbation disturbs their course and makes them deviate from their orbits, the central body re-establishes order in the system; it assures and perpetuates its existence.

This conception, however, is also disappearing as the other one did. After having fixed all their attention on the sun and the large planets, astronomers are beginning to study now the infinitely small ones that people the universe. And they discover that the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are peopled and crossed in all imaginable directions by little swarms of matter, invisible, infinitely small when taken separately, but all-powerful in their numbers.

It is to these infinitely tiny bodies that dash through space in all directions with giddy swiftness, that clash with one another, agglomerate, disintegrate, everywhere and always, it is to them that today astronomers look for an explanation of the origin of our solar system, the movements that animate its parts, and the harmony of their whole. Yet another step, and soon universal gravitation itself will be but the result of all the disordered and incoherent movements of these in finitely small bodies—of oscillations of atoms that manifest themselves in all possible directions. Thus the center, the origin of force, formerly transferred from the earth to the sun, now turns out to be scattered and disseminated. It is everywhere and nowhere. With the astronomer, we perceive that solar systems are the work of infinitely small bodies; that the power which was supposed to govern the system is itself but the result of the collision among those infinitely tiny clusters of matter, that the harmony of stellar systems is harmony only because it is an adaptation, a resultant of all these numberless movements uniting, completing, equilibrating one another.

The whole aspect of the universe changes with this new conception. The idea of force governing the world, pre-established law, preconceived harmony, disappears to make room for the harmony that Fourier had caught a glimpse of: the one which results from the disorderly and incoherent movements of numberless hosts of matter, each of which goes its own way and all of which hold each in equilibrium.

anarchist galaxy

If it were only astronomy that were undergoing this change! But no; the same modification takes place in the philosophy of all sciences without exception; those which study nature as well as those which study human relations.

In physical sciences, the entities of heat, magnetism, and electricity disappear. When a physicist speaks today of a heated or electrified body, he no longer sees an inanimate mass, to which an unknown force should be added. He strives to recognize in this body and in the surrounding space, the course, the vibrations of infinitely small atoms which dash in all directions, vibrate, move, live, and by their vibrations, their shocks, their life, produce the phenomena of heat, light, magnetism or electricity.

In sciences that treat of organic life, the notion of species and its variations is being substituted by a notion of the variations of the individual. The botanist and zoologist study the individual—his life, his adaptations to his surroundings. Changes produced in him by the action of drought or damp, heat or cold, abundance or poverty of nourishment, of his more or less sensitiveness to the action of exterior surroundings will originate species; and the variations of species are now for the biologist but resultants—a given sum of variations that have been produced in each individual separately. A species will be what the individuals are, each undergoing numberless influences from the surroundings in which they live, and to which they correspond each in his own way.

And when a physiologist speaks now of the life of a plant or of an animal, he sees an agglomeration, a colony of millions of separate individuals rather than a personality, one and invisible. He speaks of a federation of digestive, sensual, nervous organs, all very intimately connected with one another, each feeling the consequence of the well-being or indisposition of each, but each living its own life. Each organ, each part of an organ in its turn is composed of independent cellules which associate to struggle against conditions unfavorable to their existence. The individual is quite a world of federations, a whole universe in himself.

And in this world of aggregated beings the physiologist sees the autonomous cells of blood, of the tissues, of the nerve-centers; he recognizes the millions of white corpuscles who wend their way to the parts of the body infected by microbes in order to give battle to the invaders, More than that: in each microscopic cell he discovers today a world of autonomous organisms, each of which lives its own life, looks for well-being for itself and attains it by grouping and associating itself with others. In short, each individual is a cosmos of organs, each organ is a cosmos of cells, each cell is a cosmos of infinitely small ones. And in this complex world, the well-being of the whole depends entirely on the sum of well-being enjoyed by each of the least microscopic particles of organized matter. A whole revolution is thus produced in the philosophy of life.


But it is especially in psychology that this revolution leads to consequences of great importance.

Quite recently the psychologist spoke of man as an entire being, one and indivisible. Remaining faithful to religious tradition, he used to class men as good and bad, intelligent and stupid, egotists and altruists. Even with materialists of the eighteenth century, the idea of a soul, of an indivisible entity, was still upheld.

But what would we think today of a psychologist who would still speak like this! The modern psychologist sees in a man a multitude of separate faculties, autonomous tendencies, equal among themselves, performing their functions independently, balancing, opposing one another continually. Taken as a whole, man is nothing but a resultant, always changeable, of all his divers faculties, of all his autonomous tendencies, of brain cells and nerve centers. All are related so closely to one another that they each react on all the others, but they lead their own life without being subordinated to a central organ—the soul.

Without entering into further details you thus see that a profound modification is being produced at this moment in the whole of natural sciences. Not that this analysis is extended to details formerly neglected. No! the facts are not new, but the way of looking at them is in course of evolution. And if we had to characterize this tendency in a few words, we might say that if formerly science strove to study the results and the great sums (integrals, as mathematicians say), today it strives to study the infinitely small ones—the individuals of which those sums are composed and in which it now recognizes independence and individuality at the same time as this intimate aggregation.

As to the harmony that the human mind discovers in nature, and which harmony is on the whole but the verification of a certain stability of phenomena, the modern man of science no doubt recognizes it more than ever. But he no longer tries to explain it by the action of laws conceived according to a certain plan pre-established by an intelligent will.

What used to be called “natural law” is nothing but a certain relation among phenomena which we dimly see, and each law takes a temporary character of causality; that is to say: If such a phenomenon is produced under such conditions, such another phenomenon will follow. No law placed outside the phenomena: each phenomenon governs that which follows it—not law.

Nothing preconceived in what we call harmony in Nature. The chance of collisions and encounters has sufficed to establish it. Such a phenomenon will last for centuries because the adaptation, the equilibrium it represents has taken centuries to be established; while such another will last but an instant if that form of momentary equilibrium was born in an instant. If the planets of our solar system do not collide with one another and do not destroy one another every day, if they last millions of years, it is because they represent an equilibrium that has taken millions of centuries to establish as a resultant of millions of blind forces. If continents are not continually destroyed by volcanic shocks it is because they have taken thousands and thousands of centuries to build up, molecule by molecule, and to take their present shape. But lightning will only last an instant; because it represents a momentary rupture of the equilibrium, a sudden redistribution of force.

Harmony thus appears as a temporary adjustment established among all forces acting upon a given spot—a provisory adaptation. And that adjustment will only last under one condition: that of being continually modified; of re presenting every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions. Let but one of those forces be hampered in its action for some time and harmony disappears. Force will accumulate its effect, it must come to light, it must exercise its action, and if other forces hinder its manifestation it will not be annihilated by that, but will end by upsetting the present adjustment, by destroying harmony, in order to find a new form of equilibrium and to work to form a new adaptation. Such is the eruption of a volcano, whose imprisoned force ends by breaking the petrified lavas which hindered them to pour forth the gases, the molten lavas, and the incandescent ashes. Such, also, are the revolutions of mankind.



An analogous transformation is being produced at the same time in the sciences that treat of man. Thus we see that history, after having been the history of kingdoms, tends to become the history of nations and then the study of individuals. The historian wants to know how the members, of which such a nation was composed, lived at such a time, what their beliefs were, their means of existence, what ideal of society was visible to them, and what means they possessed to march towards this ideal. And by the action of all those forces, formerly neglected, he interprets the great historical phenomena.

So the man of science who studies jurisprudence is no longer content with such or such a code. Like the ethnologist he wants to know the genesis of the institutions that succeed one another; he follows their evolution through ages, and in this study he applies himself far less to written law than to local customs—to the “customary law” in which the constructive genius of the unknown masses has found expression in all times. A wholly new science is being elaborated in this direction and promises to upset established conceptions we learned at school, succeeding in interpreting history in the same manner as natural sciences interpret the phenomena of nature.

And, finally, political economy, which was at the beginning a study of the wealth of nations, becomes today a study of the wealth of individuals. It cares less to know if such a nation has or has not a large foreign trade; it wants to be assured that bread is not wanting in the peasant’s or worker’s cottage. It knocks at all doors, that of the palace as well as that of the hovel. It asks the rich as well as the poor: Up to what point are your needs satisfied both for necessities and luxuries?

And as it discovers that the most pressing needs of nine-tenths of each nation are not satisfied, it asks itself the question that a physiologist would ask himself about a plant or an animal:—”Which are the means to satisfy the needs of all with the least loss of power? How can a society guarantee to each, and consequently to all, the greatest sum of satisfaction?” It is in this direction that economic science is being transformed; and after having been so long a simple statement of phenomena interpreted in the interest of a rich minority, it tends to become a science in the true sense of the word—a physiology of human societies.

While a new philosophy—a new view of knowledge taken as a whole—is thus being worked out, we may observe that a different conception of society, very different from that which now prevails, is in process of formation. Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises, giving at the same time a forecast as regards its future, both conceived in the same spirit as the above mentioned interpretation in natural sciences. Anarchism, therefore, appears as a constituent part of the new philosophy, and that is why anarchists come in contact on so many points with the greatest thinkers and poets of the present day.

In fact it is certain that in proportion as the human mind frees itself from ideas inculcated by minorities of priests, military chiefs and judges, all striving to establish their domination, and of scientists paid to perpetuate it, a conception of society arises in which there is no longer room for those dominating minorities. A society entering into possession of the social capital accumulated by the labor of preceding generations, organizing itself so as to make use of this capital in the interests of all, and constituting itself without reconstituting the power of the ruling minorities. It comprises in its midst an infinite variety of capacities, temperaments and individual energies: it excludes none. It even calls for struggles and contentions; because we know that periods of contests, so long as they were freely fought out without the weight of constituted authority being thrown on one side of the balance, were periods when human genius took its mightiest flights and achieved the greatest aims. Acknowledging, as a fact, the equal rights of its members to the treasures accumulated in the past, it no longer recognizes a division between exploited and exploiters, governed and governors, dominated and dominators, and it seeks to establish a certain harmonious compatibility in its midst—not by subjecting all its members to an authority that is fictitiously supposed to represent society, not by trying to establish uniformity, but by urging all men to develop free initiative, free action, free association.

Kropotkin A pamphlet

It seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.

A society to which pre-established forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course—these forces themselves promoting the energies which are favorable to their march towards progress, towards the liberty of developing in broad daylight and counterbalancing one another.

This conception and ideal of society is certainly not new. On the contrary, when we analyze the history of popular institutions—the clan, the village community, the guild and even the urban commune of the middle ages in their first stages—we find the same popular tendency to constitute a society according to this idea; a tendency, however, always trammelled by domineering minorities. All popular movements bore this stamp more or less, and with the Anabaptists and their forerunners in the ninth century we already find the same ideas clearly expressed in the religious language which was in use at that time. Unfortunately, till the end of the last century, this ideal was always tainted by a theocratic spirit. It is only nowadays that the conception of society deduced from the observation of social phenomena is rid of its swaddling-clothes.

It is only today that the ideal of a society where each governs himself according to his own will (which is evidently a result of the social influences borne by each) is affirmed in its economic, political and moral aspects at one and the same time, and that this ideal presents itself based on the necessity of communism, imposed on our modern societies by the eminently social character of our present production.

In fact, we know full well today that it is futile to speak of liberty as long as economic slavery exists. “Speak not of liberty—poverty is slavery!” is not a vain formula; it has penetrated into the ideas of the great working-class masses; it filters through all the present literature; it even carries those along who live on the poverty of others, and takes from them the arrogance with which they formerly asserted their rights to exploitation.

Peter Kropotkin

Anarchist Sky

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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