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Reply to Moore

Dear Howard,

Thank you for inviting me to respond to John Moore's "Prophets of the Future." I've decided to reply in the form of a letter to you because my goals are rather limited. I do not care to criticize either Noam Chomsky or Fredy Perlman, partly out of a certain fatalism toward the way people deal with ideas these days; partly too because my debates with critics tend to lead to entanglements that are rather unrewarding, especially at this late time in my life. Moreover, I respect Noam Chomsky and Fredy Perlman as people who share with me a common view about the need for a libertarian society, however great many of our differences may be. Noam is an anarchosyndicalist, a position I have critically explored in my article "The Ghost of Anarchosyndicalism," in Anarchist Studies, no. 1. I only wish that the proletariat were the revolutionary agent that we oldsters once thought it might be, which is not to deny its importance in making social change. Moreover, I only wish that the libertarian trade unions of the past could have freed themselves of hierarchy, as we once hoped they could. Alas—I no longer believe this will be the case, after my long experience in the classical labor movement and a careful study of Spanish, French, and Latin American syndicalism. If only anarchosyndicalists could invalidate these concerns in real life, I would be their most eager supporter.

Nor do I want to critically examine Fredy Perlman's views, least of all as they are presented by an interpreter. I would have to reread Fredy's works, which I cannot do at the present time. Also, I had very good experiences with Fredy whenever I visited Detroit and found him a personally endearing individual who, together with Lorraine, his companion, deserves the most careful attention for their work. What has been described as his "technophobic," "primitivistic," "anti-organizational" outlook, and his romantic ideas of aboriginal life are unacceptable to me, which should hardly be news to people who have examined my books and articles.

John Moore makes a serious attempt to scope out my ideas and place them in a reasonable perspective. His account is all the more laudable because his previous writings show him to be unsympathetic to my views. But he does make errors that should be corrected. People who choose to criticize social ecology should at least know what it is, not settle for what they think it is or would like it to be.

  1. I do not believe, as Moore suggests, that it is obsolete"—particularly in the present context"—to use such designations as "right" or "left." I do not give a fig for the "present context" of contemporary political designations. We live in an era of political inanity in which capitalism itself is taken for granted as eternal or "natural." There is, in fact, a highly discernible and dangerously effective political right in the world today. Our real problematic is to create an effective, theoretically sophisticated libertarian left, and certainly not to dismiss it as "traditional" because it is left. Nor would I set myself up as an arbiter of what views are more or less "anarchistic" on the basis of my own personal peccadillos. Moore, for his part, seems to regard Fredy as less "anarchist" than Hakim Bey, whose book Chaos Moore lavishly praised (in his review in the Bulletin of Anarchist Research) as apparently the outermost limits of Anarchy. I fail to see what Moore has done besides proffer his very arguable opinion of what Anarchy is.

  2. The sense in which I regard advances in technology and civilization as desirable is rarely nuanced by critics, including Moore. Personally, I do not believe this society is morally qualified to engage in further technological sophistication and that we would have to radically alter much of existing technology to create an anarcho-communist society. Given this view I am as close to a Luddite as one can reasonably be—and Luddites were wiser in their qualifications about technological development two centuries ago than many individuals who invoke their tradition today. They certainly did not want to go back to the Stone Age.

  3. To attribute to my writings (which have undergone considerable changes over the decades) a conventional view of civilization, progress, and technological change is shallow, to say the least. My views on civilization somewhat resemble a "double helix," in which "The Legacy of Freedom" interacts as well as intertwines with "The Legacy of Domination" in ways that are extremely complex. There is no certainty, in fact, that "The Legacy of Freedom" will necessarily negate "The Legacy of Domination." In view of the failure of Marxian theory to explain how communism will come about, it will require a radically new politics, ethics, and sense of selfhood and otherness to actualize humanity's potentialities for freedom, consciousness, and cooperation. I hold to no simplistic notion of linear "progress," any more than I hold to a simplistic notion of primitivistic regress. Nor do I adhere to the bourgeois notion of progress as infinite material growth. It is depressing to have to reiterate these views in print, only to find them ignored again with a wantonness that has rendered me fatalistic about the value of ideological debates.

  4. Yes, I owe much to the Enlightenment, as Moore asserts, although without ignoring its many failings. Nor would I write off the anarchic movements churned up by the Reformation, indeed the libertarian elements in all the great revolutions, including the American and French, which the Marxists have essentially demeaned as "bourgeois" and thereby discarded their radical elements along with their regressive ones. Here one sees how emancipatory traditions and hopes are intertwined with domineering ones and the need to explain as well as unscramble them. I think no more of Tom Paine than I do of Jean Varlin. They were quite extraordinary within the context of their times, but pray, spare me any reverence for Thomas Jefferson, apart from certain passages in the Declaration of Independence and some of his letters.

  5. By the same token, let us get away from the notion that I regard Periclean Athens as a "paradigm" when I draw distinctions between statecraft, politics (the public sphere), and ordinary consociation (the realm of the workaday private domain). Nor do I regard the New England town meeting as more than a valuable tradition that shows the feasibility of a lived direct face-to-face democracy. I think we should contextualize social phenomena in terms of their time and place, and above all, explore what has been increasingly more rational and unique in their development. A reductionism that uses hindsight to dissolve all that is partial and developing into an ahistorical, undifferentiated, oceanic absolutism is naive. Periclean Athens is certainly no "paradigm," whatever that word means these days. But its virtues no less than its vices, and its advances no less than its limits, are immensely relevant to how we decide to define anarchism within a framework that is meaningful for our time.

  6. Moore is to be complimented for pointing out that I call for a confederation of municipalities structured around popular assemblies, not parochialized localities. This crucial aspect of my views is rarely mentioned by critics. Further, as Moore suggests quite correctly, the confederation I advocate would hopefully become a dual power in sharp revolutionary tension with the nation-state. But since Moore rightly acknowledges that I see "some [!] kind of inevitable conflict" between the two, it is hard to understand how he can think I am merely a "gradualist." Even the sensibility that individualist anarchists regard as a desideratum for personal renewal requires a great deal of time ("gradualism") to cultivate in people, so why should it be any different for social anarchists, whose effort to educate the public and even a libertarian movement also requires a great deal of time? As I shall point out later, I am not very sanguine about a spontaneity so uninformed that it is unlikely to produce a successful movement, much less a new social order.

  7. But then, I do believe in "order," indeed in the need for an organized, coherent, and purposive libertarian movement, free of Bolshevik centralization but not formless. My days in Paris in 1968, in SDS in 1969, and later in Zurich in the early eighties, where an uninformed "spontaneous" mass upsurge of Swiss youth with black flags and spray-paint cans dissolved as quickly as it arose (tragically, ending in the city's horrifying "Needle Park"), have reinforced my conviction that without a purposive libertarian movement, such popular phenomena will quickly evaporate. Sadly, I may add, once the Parisian students went off on vacation during the summer of 1968, they never quite returned to the streets in numbers comparable to the previous spring, despite all the fervent predictions made by my French comrades about the prospects of a revolution after vacation! Does this mean that I believe in a "vanguard"? If the term is not made synonymous with a Leninist "general staff" that functions politically like a military organization, my answer would be yes. It is not commonly known, in fact, that the word vanguard was widely used by social anarchists, both as a description of their own movements and as a title for their periodicals throughout the world. It was not until uninformed elements in the New Left identified it with a Leninist party that it was removed from the contemporary libertarian vocabulary—which ultimately led to opposition to any organization as such. A minority social project that advances views in opposition to the conventional wisdom of a time is usually an avant-garde, or a vanguard. When we fail to recognize the need for libertarian structures and organizations, we dissolve into a very real tyranny of structurelessness. I saw this in the anti-organizational "consensual" practices of the Clamshell Alliance which was crudely and fatally manipulated by presumably "anarchic" cliques and personalities. The real question is how an organization should be structured, not whether there should be an organization and a structure.

  8. Moore's contrast between Chomsky's concern with economics and mine with politics is simplistic. Like Chomsky, I am as acutely aware of the class nature of this economy as I am aware of the existence of hierarchy. Inasmuch as I lost my innocence about the "nationalization of production" in the early 1940s and "workers' control of production" in the 1960s, my economic views center on public control of production on a municipal and confederal level of social organization. A confederal municipal economy is my shorthand phrase for an anarchocommunist economy—assuming that the word "economy" could have more than moral and logistical meanings under anarcho-communism. To dissolve the factory in its present form, to induce workers to shed their "workerness" as an economic sensibility, to replace existing occupational and class interests by a general interest appropriate to the highest ideals of citizenship—these were major themes of my work as early as 1972, when I wrote the Anarchos essay "Spring Offensives and Summer Vacations," whose title was formulated partly as a result of my experiences in Paris 1968. It had been my hope that ecological imperatives as distinguished from single-issue environmental demands, feminist demands for an antihierarchical sensibility and society as distinguished from mere political and economic reforms, antiracist sentiments for a universal humanism as distinguished from an ethnically tribalistic outlook, and ultimately an awakening of a desire for a truly participatory democracy and economy could override the narrow class, gender, and ethnic divisions that are so marked today. The recovery and actualization of these suppressed potentialities may not be something I will see, given my age. But for me, libertarian municipalism would be the social and rational fulfillment—using the word "rationality" in its dialectical sense—of humanity's potentialities for freedom, self-consciousness, and cooperation. It is the "ought-to-be," the dialectical actualization of known potentialities, that stands as a rigorous ongoing critique of the "what-is." Without this objective critique by dialectical reason, an ethics is reduced to a mere expression of personal preferences. And inasmuch as anarchism is an ethical socialism, the dismissal of such issues denies to anarchism any legitimacy as something more than a personal life-style, a largely narcissistic and bohemian credo. To reduce my emphasis on potentiality to a teleological notion of predetermination is a fatuous, naive, or demagogic distortion—one that still persists in critical accounts of my views despite every protest I have expressed.

  9. It defies understanding how certain critics can deride as "anthropocentric" or possibly even "Darwinian" my view that a dialectical actualization of potentialities might also include humanity's latent capacity to render "Nature" self-conscious. Does all evolutionary theory and attempts to deal with humanity's place in the natural world necessarily link one to Darwin? If this link is accepted, I cannot talk to the deaf. If potentiality cannot be distinguished from teleological predetermination; if a sense of human service, much less human intervention, with respect to natural evolution cannot be distinguished from "anthropocentricity" or an arguable "ism" that has been attached to Darwin's name; if the human mind, with its powers of generalization and verbal conceptualization, is really equivalent to the "navigational skills" of birds, as deep ecologist Robyn Eckersley has ludicrously claimed, over my objections—I am bereft of any response but a gaping mouth.

  10. Nor do I, as Moore claims, believe that "all deleterious divisions within human history and the fatal dualisms of Western philosophy derive from the fundamental separation between humanity and nature." They largely stem—and only stem—from the domination of human by human, including the domination of men by men as well as the young by the old and women by men. What we talk about when we speak of "the domination of nature" is an ideology, not a fact. "Nature" can no more be "dominated" than an electron or an atom. Indeed, "Nature" is the very evolution of the natural world, just as Hegel described philosophy as the history of philosophy. Moreover, the word "Nature" becomes particularly hazy if it is not differentiated into "first" or biological nature, "second" or social nature, and hopefully, "free" or self-reflexive nature in a libertarian communist society. As to "dualism"—without celebrating Cartesian philosophy, which has become a bane in many respects—let us not confuse with it with duality, the emergence of the "I" and the "other," without which individuality itself would be impossible. What is really at issue with this duality is how the "other" is viewed by the "I," not the reality of a distinction that forms the very premise for individual autonomy, so understandably celebrated by many anarchists.

  11. Moore erroneously believes that I place a high premium on "intellectuals," with whom I have actually had little to do in my own life. At least one full decade of my youth was spent with industrial workers as a foundryman and auto worker, among other factory, shop, and mill environments during the turbulent thirties and forties. Unlike the other "prophets" Moore discusses, I hold no academic degrees and spent a very limited amount of my time beyond high school in institutions that provided me with a knowledge of electronics, structural steel detailing, and Spanish, although I did occupy an academic position in later life. What Moore takes to be my view of "intellectuals" is really a concern for developing an intelligentsia—a Russian word designating thinkers who live among oppressed people and who constitute a living community of rebels. Such an intelligentsia is perhaps exemplified by Diderot in France, Chernyshevsky in Russia—or so far as I can judge by Fredy and Noam in the United States.

  12. I explored in considerable detail spontaneity, class, the People, organization, and the need for a "New Enlightenment" in my November 1971 essay "Spontaneity and Organization," initially published in Liberation magazine and republished in Toward an Ecological Society, one of my most widely read books. Regrettably, there seems to be no evidence that Moore has read this work. Had he done so, it is hard to believe he would have written that "A comparison of the ideas of Perlman and Bookchin makes one realize how relatively (!) little things would in fact change in a future structured by social ecology," etc., etc. One should read at least enough of my stuff before one makes such a "comparison." Leaving aside the contradictions in his article, which variously describes my views as based on symbiosis of a "non-Darwinian" character in one passage and as being "Darwinian" in another; as oriented toward a radically new sensibility in a different passage, only to be characterized as largely bourgeois even in a new society in still another. That my essays "Desire and Need" and "Spontaneity and Organization" celebrate desire, self-expression, the aestheticization of experience, and the radical transformation of everyday life as well as work would be difficult to discern in Moore's account of my views.

More and more it becomes evident that we are going backward, not forward these days, when people claim to be transcending "left" and "right." The depoliticization of our times and the use of technology primarily to repress people have had their impact on what passes for radicalism today. Even anarchism seems to be retreating to the 1890s, when adulation for the "heroic rebel" replaced the effort to create a social movement. And even individuality and self-expression have been diluted in our increasingly atomized world of the social premises that make for real personhood. They have been placed on a seemingly eternal, asocial, indeed "natural" bedrock. Here I would be obliged to take my stand with Hannah Arendt who, without hypostatizing the Periclean polis, declared in an as-yet-untranslated German essay: "The individual in his isolation is never free; he can only become free when he sets his foot in the polis and acts within it."

Let me stress that I am not trying in this letter to persuade anyone to accept my views and interpretations. Let anyone who reads this letter decide for himself or herself what is most agreeable under the expansive rubric "anarchism." But I do not believe that we suffer from an excess of "civilization"; quite to the contrary, I believe we are not civilized enough. And therein lies the greatest problem we face today.

With comradely greetings,

Murray Bookchin