Murray Bookchin is a leading anarchist thinker whose work I had never thought about until I learned that he is, of all things, respected by the Kurdish people in the Middle East.
The Kurds have struggled for decades for independence for decades against the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They are the most effective fighters in their region against the Islamic State and the successors to Al Qaeda in their region.
In all this, they have not engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians. They respect the rights of women, and even have women in their fighting forces. Although mostly Sunni Muslims, they gave refuge to people of all religions, including Christians, who suffer religious persecution.
Of course all this does not necessarily stem from their admiration for Murray Bookchin, but I am intrigued that this American thinker finds admirers in admirable people in a (to me) unlikely part of the world.
Bookchin is an anarchist, which means that he is opposed both to capitalism and to state socialism, a point of view I have come to share, late in life. Some other anarchist writers I admire, and have posted about, are David Graeber and James C. Scott.
I just finished reading Bookchin’s Remaking Society, a quick and readable, but somewhat superficial, outline of his views. I have started reading his earlier and longer book, The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, which is more detailed and profound, but more difficult to follow.
Bookchin is opposed to hierarchy as such. He thinks all domination is connected – political domination, economic domination, racism, patriarchy and the domination of nature.
His ideal is the “organic” society, in which people cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and seek to understand natural processes rather than override them.
He thinks organic societies existed in pre-historic times. Tribes based on kinship worked together for the benefit of all. Persons of superior ability became leaders, but not rulers. They had prestige, but not the power to coerce. Men and women had different functions, but neither ruled the other.
Their principle, he said, the equal treatment of unequals, which sound to me very like the Marxian principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. Our present capitalist society, he said, is based on the opposite principle – the unequal treatment of equals.
Bookchin thinks hierarchy began with tribal elders, who were valued for their experience and wisdom but also were expendable in times of hardship. He thinks the elders reinvented themselves as shamans, who had magic powers, and then as priests, who were delegates of the gods. They were the origin of sacred monarchies, such as the Pharaohs of Egypt.
A different kind of hierarchy began with young warriors, who were bond not by ties of village kinship, but by blood oaths to each other. They were the origin of warrior aristocracies, such as the Spartans.
The limitation of the organic village was that its members did not recognize the humanity of anyone who was not kin. The emergence of trading cities, in which strangers could meet as equals, was an important advance.
Although all the societies of the ancient world were based on domination, patriarchy and war, some developed principles and practices from we can learn from today.
The Hebrew Bible described an ideal of social justice, that rulers have a responsibility to the poor and not just to their own glory.
The ancient Greeks developed citizenship and participatory democracy that, limited as they were, represented an ideal to strive for. The Romans universalized the idea of citizenship.
The early Christians were an organic society, who valued the poor and outcast as much as the rich and powerful. Organized Christianity over time adapted itself to the Roman Empire, to feudal lords, to absolute monarchs and eventually to capitalism, but never quite forgot its original ideal.
Organized capitalism, in his view, is almost wholly bad. It forces people to compete with each other and thwarts their natural desire to cooperate. It based on a principle of growth for growth’s sake, which is unsustainable.
It creates vast hierarchical structures and convinces people that these are part of the natural order of things. People come to take it for granted that work has to consist of doing meaningless things under the supervision of a boss. They come to take it for granted that financial considerations override all other considerations.
State socialism is no improvement. It is based on the same kind of corporate hierarchy, except controlled by government officials instead of private individuals.
Bookchin rejects the Marxist idea that history proceeds in predictable fixed stages, and that these stages are based on which social and economic class is based able to exploit the current level of technology (means of production).
There were many historical turning points in which things could have turned out better (or, presumably, worse) than they did, and much in the heritage of the past that should be preserved.
He rejects the idea that the modern factory, with its regimentation, represents an advance over artisan work, or that the nation-state represents an advance over the city-state.
A political philosophy, he wrote, should help people liberate themselves in the here-and-now rather than sacrifice themselves for a hypothetical future.
One of the merits of his philosophy is that he builds on the past. He doesn’t propose to wipe everything off the blackboard and start over, which is one of the worst ideas in human history. He thinks the effort to be a better person and the effort to create a better society are part of the same time. His aim is to remold society to fit human nature, not to remold human nature to conform to some societal ideal.
His ideals are highly compatible with the best of American small town life as I experienced it growing up in the 1940s, and with American ideals of freedom and democracy as I was taught them as a schoolboy. They also are highly compatible with Unitarian Universalism. I think people from backgrounds very different from my own would find them compatible with the best of what they had been taught.
There are a couple of things that bother me about Bookchin’s ideas. One is that my own life is incompatible with his ideal. To suit him, I would have to spent more time gardening and less time reading, more time participating in my neighborhood association and less time sitting at my computer. But I am happy to live in a specialist society that enables me to spend hours each day reading and writing. This is not an argument that Bookchin is wrong, however.
Another is the possibility that Bookchin’s ideals may not be feasible in practice, or may not be possible to attain in present circumstances. There is a reason that anarchists have been in power so seldom. Of course the only way to find out whether an idea works in practice is to try to put it into practice.
Then, too, there is such a thing as a tyranny of the majority as well as a tyranny of rulers. The soft coercion of peer pressure in a communal society can be more insidious than the harsh coercion of a hierarchy. Bookchin’s answer probably would be that
I intend to follow the example of Alex Small and review The Ecology of Freedom as I go along.
Photo Credit: Institute for Social Ecology