Murray Bookchin: the outlook of organic society

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

chapter two: the outlook of organic society

Drawing on archeological evidence, mainly from the Near East, and anthropological research, mainly among American Indians in the Southwest, Murray Bookchin constructed a picture of human society before the emergence of hierarchy.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_He saw primal human societies as “organic”—one in which everybody shared, nobody gave orders and all regarded themselves as members of an extended family.

He gave the example of the Kintu Indians, who lacked words for “have,” “take” or “rule.”  A Kintu mother does not “take” a baby with her, she “goes with” it.  A Kintu husband does not “have” a wife, he “lives with” her.  A Kintu leader does not rule, he “stands with” his people.

People in organic societies typically saw plants and animals as living things like themselves, Bookchin wrote; they saw themselves as part of the natural world and not separated from it or dominating it.

They had private property in that each person had personal tools and other possessions.  But they typically had usufruct—the right to take anything you need for survival.

Nobody in an organic society would deny anyone food, clothing or shelter, no matter what their work contribution.  In a community living close to the margin of survival, this would be the equivalent of a death sentence.

Bookchin wrote that organic societies did have a sexual division of labor.  Women bore children and raised them.  Because of this, they had less mobility than the male hunters and warriors.  Instead they were gardeners, potters and keepers of the hearth.

Kinship was based on descent from common mothers.  Bookchin did not believe that organic societies were  matriarchal, in the sense that women gave orders to the men, but he did believe they were matricentric, in their unity was based on kinship, and because they honored the values associated with hearth and home.

Organic societies extended their sympathies by extending family ties—by intermarrying with other kin groups, or by adopting strangers into their own kin group

All this is speculative, as Bookchin admitted, but he asserted that his speculation has some basis.  If the size of prehistoric house foundations is noteworthy for the absence of large individual dwellings, and if the adornments in burial sites exhibit no conspicuous wealth, it is reasonable to assume a great deal of social equality.

1murraybookchin270984The presence of female figurines in Neolithic villages suggests that women had prestige.  If bone implements are etched with images of animals, it is reasonable to think the community had an animistic outlook.   If all these things are common, he said, it is reasonable to make generalizations—recognizing that there may be exceptions.

I think what he wrote could well be true.  I don’t have a good basis to judge whether it is true or not.  The main reason to believe him is that the characteristics he attributes to the original organic societies are qualities that would enable them to survive, when selfish and competitive individualists would not.

Bookchin’s organic societies have a great deal in common with the Amish, the Hutterites and the Gypsies as described by Dmitry Orlov in Communities That Abide, except that those societies, having originated in historic times, are strongly patriarchal.  (Orlov by the way is an avowed anarchist himself, a follower of Prince Peter Kropotkin).

Bookchin’s organic society and Orlov’s Communities That Abide are not appealing to me.  I would find living in such communities frustrating and stifling.  But that may say more about me than it does the merits of organic society.


PREVIOUS: chapter one: the concept of social ecology.

NEXT: chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy.



The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

Toward an Ecological Society by Murray Bookchin.

Introduction to The Murray Bookchin Reader by Janet Biehl.

Review of The Ecology of Freedom by Alex Knight for The End of Capitalism.

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