Murray Bookchin: the legacy of freedom

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 seven – the legacy of freedom

Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature.  I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures of state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.

In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal.   Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals.  They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.

Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.

The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy.  Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom.  Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.

But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared.  In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.

St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin.  The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal never disappeared.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again.   But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being.   That hope of a better world never disappeared.

In the beginning of Christianity, there were two factions, one led by St. Paul in Greece and Rome, which existed below the radar of the Roman government, and the other led by James the Just in Jerusalem, which joined with Jewish Zealots in rebelling against Rome’s power.  The tradition of rebellion against unjust power also never completely died out.

The Garden of Eden, in which people enjoyed abundance without being subject to any authority by God’s, provided an alternative ideal to Plato’s authoritarian Republic, with its rigid rules, “noble lies” and all-powerful guardians.

bookchin.quote156296Bookchin devoted a section to the legend of the island of Cockayhne, where everybody enjoyed everything in abundance, and another to Rabelais’ fictional Abbey of Theleme, where people lived without constraint.   Both rejected the notion of what Bookchin called “scarcity”, which means we need private property, police and laws because nature does not provide enough to go around.

He wrote about John of Salisbury, a 12th century philosopher who taught that tyranny—lawless government—was not legitimate and could be overthrown by force.

A heretic, Joachim of Fiore, believed in the coming of the Third Kingdom, in which the Old Testament stage based on the rule of the Father and the New Testament stage based on the rule of the Son was to be replace by the rule of the Holy Spirit, in which church and state would disappear and be replaced by the rule of love.  These ideas persisted for centuries, Bookchin wrote,

Gnosticism was another influential and long-lasting heresy.  Gnostic Christians believed in a supreme being, Sophia, who represented light, love and pure spirituality, and an evil divinity, the Demiurge, who created the material world.

One version of Gnosticism held that the moral rules laid down in the Bible were the product of the Demiurge, who needed rules because he was incapable of love.  Gnostics were ascetics, to the extent that they denied the power of the material world, but they were libertines, to the extent that they believed that the rule of love was sufficient.

The Protestant Reformation gave new emphasis to St. Augustine’s idea that Christians should obey God rather than government.  Some Protestant sects re-created small, self-governing communities, and these became the seeds of the New England town meeting democracy and decentralized Jeffersonian democracy.

Unfortunately, Bookchin wrote, most secular thinkers of the Enlightenment era, unlike Jefferson, supported the centralized nation-state, which was strengthened by the French Revolution and Napoleon.  Socialists, too, came to support centralized government, if ruled by their party.


PREVIOUS: chapter six – justice—equal and exact.

NEXT: chapter eight – from saints to sellers.



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

Introduction to The Murray Bookchin Reader by Janiet Biehl

Bookchin: Living Legacy of An American Revolutionary , an interview of Debbie Bookchin by Frederico Venturini.

On Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Its Contribution to Social Movements by Brian Tokar.

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