Murray Bookchin: justice—equal and exact

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin.   His ideas about the evolution of human society are conjectural, but I think much of what he wrote is unquestionably true, most of it could be true and all of it makes me see the world in a new light.

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how concepts such as “freedom” and “justice” came into being as counterpoints to domination

The first human communities, which he called “organic societies,” practiced what Bookchin called equal treatment of unequals—what Marx later called the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

Over time this changed into what Bookchin called the unequal treatment of equals—impersonal laws that treated everybody as if they were the same—what Anatole France called the law that in its majesty forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal loaves of bread.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In organic societies, Bookchin wrote, there were no laws, judges or punishments.  Instead there was solidarity within the group.  In such societies, it didn’t matter whether you were a mighty hunter or somebody who could barely keep up.  Everybody was entitled to what they needed in order to survive.

Limitations on choice were imposed by circumstances—the weather, the availability of game, sickness and health—not human domination.

If you endangered the survival of the group, you might be put to death (as among Eskimos) or severely beaten (as among Crow Indians).  Other than that, there was free rein for eccentric behavior, sexual freedom, personal ambition (to be a “big man”), religious visions and the exercise of skill and courage.

Bookchin wrote in previous chapters how the elders of organic societies reinvented themselves as shamans and then as priests, while young warriors made blood oaths that took precedence over loyalty to the tribe.   As sacred kings emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia, priests and warriors provided teachings and coercive force to support their rule.

Within the original small organic societies, everybody knew each other personally.  The larger kingdoms had need for impersonal laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi.   Legal obligations and punishments were different for nobles, common people and slaves, and for subjects of the kingdom and for strangers.

As empires expanded, the idea of impartial and universal justice grew.

The Mosaic law in the Hebrew Bible, for example, deals mostly with obligations of the Jewish people toward one another, and distinguishes between Jews and strangers.  But the law contains other passages—inserted later?— prescribing the duty to be as just and kind to strangers as to one’s own.

There seems to be an evolution here.  Likewise, Yahweh is described at first as a jealous God and then as a just God.  What seems to be emerging is a need to morally justify the religion.

Ancient Greeks strongly believed that only they were free men by nature (Greek women weren’t free) and non-Greeks were naturally slaves.  Athenian democracy did not apply slaves, freed slaves, women or foreigners.

The conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors broke down this distinction.  They created empires that came and went, without resting on any fixed traditions or making any.

Individuals emerged—merchants, craftsmen, seafarers, mercenary soldiers—who were not tightly embedded in any particular society.  They were not loyal to any ancient tradition.  For such people, authority, whether political or religious, had to be justified.

Universal philosophies, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, emerged.  These philosophies taught people they had the power to be happy, or to be self-respecting, through their own reason and will-power.

Epicureans and Stoics felt no connection with local communities.  They were cosmopolitan.  They felt themselves to be citizens of the cosmos itself.

Within the Roman Empire, citizenship became less and less a monopoly of the Romans and their Italian allies.  Finally the Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men within the empire.

Christianity emerged as a universal religion.  St. Paul taught that within the Christian community, there was no distinction between Greek or Jew, slave or free, or male or female.  All alike were subjects of the Kingdom of God.   Christians were taught that they were pilgrims, traveling through life on a great spiritual adventure, and that this world was not their home.

Justitia-Image-hl707Over time, organized Christianity adapted itself to whatever power structure existed at the time—the Roman Empire, the feudal barons, the absolute monarchs and modern democracy and capitalism—but the original Christian ideal was never completely lost, Bookchin said.

While human sympathies were broadened by universal philosophies and religions, he wrote, human connections with nature and with organic communities were weakened—though never severed entirely.

Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and other early modern philosophers saw no ethical meaning in nature or the physical universe.  They saw no ethical meaning in human society beyond the need to protect individual safety, well-being and property rights.

Locke thought of individual consciousness as cut off from the world, so that the theory of knowledge—how and whether human perception reflects reality—became an important philosophical problem.  Such a question would have been incomprehensible to people in the organic societies, who saw themselves, not as onlookers, but as embedded parts of nature.

The modern philosophers’ idea of justice was the impartial rule of law, symbolized by the goddess Justitia, blindfolded and weighing claims in a balance, and treating all the same, regardless of circumstances.

Bookchin said equal treatment of unequals was replaced by the unequal treatment of equals (although his two phrases make more sense to me the other way around)


I have long believed the rule of law to be the most fundamental principle of justice.  I believe that nobody, no matter how humble, should be below the protection of the law, and nobody, no matter how powerful, should be above obedience to the law.

What the principle of the rule of law does is to tell individuals what they must do to be safe from the exercise of power, and to tell those in power their limits they must observe in exercising power over individuals.  But as Bookchin pointed out, the rule of law takes for granted the existence of the domination that needs to be held in check.

Is this the best that can be hoped for?  I don’t have a good answer.


PREVIOUS: chapter five: the legacy of domination.

NEXT: chapter seven: the legacy of freedom.



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

Remaking Society, a review by Marcus Melder of Social Ecology, London.

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