Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin


chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traced the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

Augustine and other church fathers insisted that these ideals were purely spiritual, but there were constant uprisings throughout the Middle Ages by common people who insisted otherwise.

In the Peasants Revolt in England in 1381, the peasant leader John Ball said that all people are equal because we are all descended from Adam and Eve, there are no nobles or serfs in God’s kingdom and all things should be owned in common.  His forces were strong enough to threaten the English monarch until he was murdered under a flag of truce.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Taborites, an offshoot of the Hussite rebels in Bohemia in 1419, governed the city of Tabor without taxes, rent or private property, until the Hussites were crushed by the armies of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Diggers in England in 1649, who emerged during the English Civil War between the King and Parliament, believed that the fruits of the earth belonged equally to all because we are all the heirs of Adam and Eve.

Bookchin mentioned other examples as wekk.  Basically, he wrote, there were two types of Christian utopia—a hedonistic consumers utopia, in which people could indulge their desires, and an ascetic producers utopia, in which individuals subjected themselves to discipline for the good of all.  The rebels generally fell in the latter camp.  He didn’t think either ideal was complete.

Medieval society was morally and spiritually oriented, Bookchin wrote; at its worst, it had a nobler purpose than mere satisfaction of material wants, as occurred under capitalism.

The capitalist system did increase the production of material goods, creating the possibility, according to Bookchin, of abundance for all and realization of the best possibilities of consumer and producer utopias.

To realize this, he wrote, it is necessary to get rid of the capitalist idea of scarcity—that no matter how much you have, it isn’t enough.


PREVIOUS: chapter seven – the legacy of freedom.

NEXT: chapter nine – two images of technology.


Janet Biehl, left, and Murray Bookchin, center and right

Janet Biehl, left, and Murray Bookchin, center and right

Introduction to the Murray Bookchin Reader by Janiet Biehl.

Ecology or Catastrophe | A blog about the life and influence of the American social ecology theorist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), written mostly by his late-life partner and biographer, Janet Biehl, with a special focus on the Kurdish freedom movement.


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