Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin


Below I reproduce a recent piece on Cornelius Castoriadis and  Murray Bookchin by Yavor Tarinski, who emphasizes the similarities in their ideas regarding direct democracy and ecology (I have taken the liberty of correcting various grammatical and typographical errors). It is interesting that both Castoriadis and Bookchin were young Marxists during the 1940s who took seriously Leon Trotsky’s remark at the beginning of World War II that if the war was not succeeded by a world revolution, Marxists would have to rethink everything, an intellectual project that Castoriadis and Bookchin soon embarked on. Castoriadis, under the name Paul Cardan, helped found the Socialism or Barbarism group in France, which was very influential in the “New Left” of the 1960s, and helped inspire the events of May 1968. Bookchin began drawing the connections between ecological crisis, capitalism, hierarchy and domination in the early 1960s, in a series of essays, some of which I included in Volume 2 of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. While Bookchin rejected Castoriadis’ ideas regarding the constitution of the “social imaginary,” their concrete political proposals were very similar.


Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control.
Vandana Shiva

Nowadays constantly we are being told “from above” that we don’t have a choice but to conform to the status quo. The dominant power institutions are doing everything they can to convince us that the solution to our social and environmental problems is going to be found in the very same policies that have created them in the first place. The T.I.N.A. [There is No Alternative] narrative continues to dominate the mainstream discourse; and the widespread consumerist culture, in combination with the long-lasting representative crisis, is infecting people’s imaginary with cynicism, general conformism and apathy.

But germs of other ways of thinking and living are trying to break their way through the passivity of present day logic. New significations that are going beyond the contemporary bureaucratic capitalist discourse, offering new sets of reasons and values, which to navigate societal life away from the destructiveness of constant economic growth and cynical apathy.

With popular dissatisfaction of the present order of things on the rise we can distinguish two significations that offer a radical break with the present normality:

On the one hand, there is growing interest in political participation and direct democracy. Nowadays it is becoming almost unthinkable to think of popular unrest outside of the general frame of democracy: first, the demands almost always revolve around more citizen involvement in one form or another; second, the way of organizing popular struggle for a long time has [surpassed] the centralism of the traditional political organizations, insisting instead on self-organization and collaboration.

On the other hand, ecology is emerging as major concern and as an answer to the contemporary growth-based politico-economic model that is responsible for the creation of a tangible environmental crisis and rapidly unfolding climate change. It is being expressed in the form of popular struggles against capitalist extractivist projects, harmful to the environment, human health, as well as to local autonomy. It also takes the form of resistance to consumerist culture, both of which boost innovative new theories like de-growth.

Amongst the diverse spectrum of thinkers that nowadays are developing these new significations we can distinguish Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin as two of the most influential. Both emerged from the Left and through their thought, as well as activist practices, managed to overpass ideological dogmas and to develop their own political projects, incorporating and advancing further direct democracy and ecology. It’s not surprising that they collaborated in the journal Society & Nature, and later in its successor Democracy & Nature, until 1996, when a bitter conflict between the two emerged [].

Nowadays their legacy is being carried on by social movements and struggles that place these two significations at the heart of their political activities. Castoriadis’s thought was revitalized with the popular uprisings across Europe of the last years and especially with the so called “Movement of the Squares” (also known as The Indignados), that was driven not by “pure” ideologies but by passion for political action and critical thinking, while Bookchin’s project is being partially implemented in practice by the kurdish liberation movement in the heart of the Middle East (most notably in Rojava), influencing it to such a degree that it completely abandoned its marxist-leninist orientation.

It must be noted that the target of the present text is not the development of a deep comparative analysis between the works of both of them, but instead an effort at underlining two elements of their thought that are especially actual for our current context and are charged with huge potential for change.

Direct Democracy

Both Castoriadis and Bookchin saw great liberatory potential in direct democracy and placed it at the heart of their political projects. They devoted a great part of their writings to that matter, developing this notion beyond the frames set by traditional ideologies. In stark difference with authoritarian views, mistrusting society and thus calling for its subjection to hierarchical, extra-social mechanisms, on the one hand, and on the other, with such views that reject every form of laws and institutions, the two thinkers proposed the establishment of structures and institutions that will allow direct public interaction, while maintaining social cohesion through horizontal flows of power.

According to Castoriadis, the majority of human societies were established on the basis of heteronomy, which he describes as a situation in which the society’s rules are being set by some extra-social source (such as the party, god, historic necessity, etc.). The institutions of the heteronomous societies are conceived as given/self-evident and thus, unquestionable, i.e. incompatible with popular interaction. For him the organizational structure of the modern western world, while usually characterized as “democracy”, is actually a liberal oligarchy, with some liberties for the people, but the general management of social life is situated in the hands of tiny elites (Castoriadis, 1989).

For Castoriadis democracy is an essential element of the social and individual autonomy (the people to set their own rules and institutions), which is the opposite of heteronomy. What he called the project of autonomy entailed direct-democratic self-instituting by the society, consisting of conscious citizens, who realize that they draw their own destiny and not some extra-social force, either natural or metaphysical (Castoriadis, 1992). I.e. in the hands of society lies the highest power that is: to give itself the laws and institutions under which it lives.

Castoriadis derives his understanding of democracy from the classical meaning of the term, originating from Ancient Athens (demos/people and kratos/power). Thus on the basis of this he denotes today’s liberal regimes as non-democratic, since they are based on the election of representatives and not on direct citizen participation. According to him democracy can be only direct, thus incompatible with bureaucracy, expertism, economic inequality and other features of our modern political system (Castoriadis, 1989).

On a more concrete level he suggested the establishment of territorial units with populations of up to 100,000 people, which [were] to self-manage themselves through general assemblies. For coordination between different such units he proposed the establishment of councils and committees to which the local decision-making bodies [would] send revocable short-term delegates (Castoriadis, 2013: pp.42-43). Thus power remains in the hands of the demos, while allowing non-statist coordination on a larger scale.

For Bookchin too, the characterization of the today’s system as a democracy was a mistake, an oxymoron. He reminds us that two centuries ago the term democracy was depicted by rulers as “mob rule”, a prelude to chaos, while nowadays [it] is being used to mask one representative regime, which in its essence is republican oligarchy since a tiny clique of a chosen few rules over the powerless many (Bookchin, 1996).

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, based his understanding of democracy on the experience of the ancient Athenian politia. That is one of the reasons he placed so much attention on the role of the city (Bookchin, 1964). He describes how with the rise of what he called statecraft, the active citizens, deeply and morally committed to their cities, were replaced by passive consumers subjected to parliamentarian rule, whose free time is spent shopping in retail stores and mega malls.

After many years of involvement in different political movements, Bookchin developed his own political project, called Communalism. Based on direct democracy, it revolves extensively around the question of power, rejecting escapist and lifestyle practices. Communalism focuses instead on a center of power that could potentially be subjected to the will of the people – the municipal council – through which to create and coordinate local assembles. He emphasized the antagonistic character towards the state apparatus that these institutions have and the possibility of them becoming the exclusive sources of power in their villages, towns and cities. The democratized municipalities, Bookchin suggested, would confederate with each other by sending revocable delegates to popular assemblies and confederal councils, thus challenging the need of centralized statist power. This concrete model Bookchin called libertarian municipalism (Bookchin, 1996), which has influenced to a big degree Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish struggle for social liberation.

A distinguishing feature of Bookchin’s vision of direct democracy in his communalism was the element of majority voting, which he considered as the only equitable way for a large number of people to make decisions (Bookchin, 2002). According to him consensus, in which a single person can veto every decision, presents a danger for society to be dismantled. However, according to him, all members of society possess knowledge and memory, and thus the social collectivity does not have an interest in depriving “minorities” of their rights. For him the views of a minority are a potential source of new insights and nascent truths, which are great sources of creativity and progress for society as a whole.


Ecology played major role in the thought of the two big philosophers. Both of them however viewed it in stark contrast from most of the environmentalists of their time (and of today as well). Unlike the widespread understanding of nature as a commodity, as something separated from society, Castoriadis and Bookchin viewed it in direct link with social life, relationships and values, thus incorporating it in their political projects.

Castoriadis argues that ecology is, in its essence, a political matter. It is about political choices for setting certain limits and goals in the relationship between humanity and nature (Castoriadis, 1993). It has nothing to do with science, since the latter is about exploring possibilities and giving answers to specific questions and not about self-limitation. However, Castoriadis urges mobilizing science’s resources for exploring nature and our impact on it, but he remains firm that the choice that will be made in the end will be in its essence a political one.

Therefore the solutions that should be given to every ecological crisis should be political. Castoriadis remains critical of the green parties and the parliamentary system in general, since through the electoral processes it strives at “liberating” the people from politics, [leaving] it instead solely in the hands of professional “representatives”. As a result of this the people are left to view nature in a de-politicized manner, only as a commodity, because of which many contemporary ecological movements deal almost exclusively with questions about the environment, unconcerned with social and political matters.

Following this line of thought it comes as no surprise that Castoriadis remains critical towards the rare occasions when big green movements and parties come up with proposals of a political nature for resolving the environmental crisis (Castoriadis, 1981). This is so, because most of the time, although their political proposals revolve around more popular participation – for example green parties that have come up with proposals for sortition and rotation of their M.P.’s, more referendums, etc. – they are still embedded in the contemporary parliamentary regime. Being anadvocate of direct democracy, Castoriadis believes that single elements of it, being embedded in the representative system, will lose their meaning.

Similarly, Bookchin also links the ecological sphere with the social one and politics in general. For him nearly all of the present ecological problems result from problems deeply rooted in the social order – because of which he spoke about social ecology (Bookchin, 1993). Ecological crises couldn’t be either understood nor much less resolved if not linked to society, since economic, cultural, gender and other conflicts in it were the source of serious ecological dislocations.

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, strongly disagreed with environmentalists who looked to disconnect ecology from politics and society, identifying it instead with preservation of wildlife, wilderness or malthusian deep ecology, etc. (Bookchin, 1988). He insisted on the impact on nature that our capitalist hierarchical society is causing (with its large scale, profit-driven, extractivist projects), thus making it clear that unless we resolve our social problems we cannot save the planet.

For Murray Bookchin the hierarchical mentality and economic inequality that have permeated society today are the main sources of the very idea that man should dominate nature. Thus the ecological struggle cannot hope for any success unless it integrates itself into a holistic political project that challenges the very source of the present environmental and social crisis, that is, to challenge hierarchy and inequality (Bookchin, 1993).


Despite the differences and disagreements between them, Castoriadis and Bookchin shared a lot in common – especially the way they viewed direct democracy and ecology. Their contributions in these fields provided very fertile soil for further theoretical and practical advance. It is not by chance that in a period in which the questions of democracy and ecology are attracting growing attention, we listen ever more often about the two of them.

These concepts are proving to be of great interest to an increasing number of people in an age of continuous deprivation of rights, fierce substitution of the citizen by the consumer, growing economic inequalities and devastation of the natural world. Direct democracy and ecology contain the germs of another possible world. They seem as two of the best significations that the grassroots have managed to create and articulate as a potential substitute for the rotting ones of hierarchy and commodification which dominate and destroy our world today.

Yavor Tarinski


Bookchin-Öcalan correspondence
Bookchin, Murray. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964)
Bookchin, Murray. The Communalist Project (2002)
Bookchin, Murray. The Crisis in the Ecology Movement (1988)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Communalism? (1996)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Democracy and Relativism (2013)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. From Ecology to Autonomy (1981)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1992)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Revolutionary Force of Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Worker Councils and the Economy of the Self-managed Society (1972)

Republished from:


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