Toward an Ecological Society. By Murray Bookchin. Black Rose Books, 313 pp., $8.95.

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Murray Bookchin may be the orneriest political theorist alive. It is impossible, whatever one’s point of view, to read a page of Bookchin without taking vehement exception to one or more of his outrageously sweeping, infuriatingly confident pronouncements. Still, he’s worth arguing with.

Bookchin is an ecologist, a utopian, a feminist, a Communist and first and last an anarchist. Unlike the right-wing ringers who have lately misappropriated the labels “anarchist” and “libertarian,” he is aware that the state is not the only agency of domination. Unlike many Marxists and social democrats, he is insistently critical of other forms of hierarchy besides class structure. And unlike many fellow anarchists and counterculturists, he knows that freedom has its material considerations and revolution its historical preconditions.

These themes were brought together in “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” (1971), a significant restatement of classical anarchist ideas that was one of the most interesting theoretical products of the New Left. “Toward an Ecological Society” is another stimulating, wide-ranging collection— at once rewarding and wrong-headed.

In the rewarding category are several excellent essays on urban planning, the future of the city, new developments in ecologically sound technology (“ecotechnology”), and the history of utopian thought. In the latter, wrong-headed category is Bookchin’s baiting of Marx, a continuation of the hoary tradition of wrangling between anarchists and socialists.

Bookchin’s complaint is a familiar one: Marx was an authoritarian and centralist. Marx’s praise, echoed by all subsequent socialists, for capitalism’s momentous technical and organizational achievements, and his description of the factory and the modern economy as a “school of revolution,” strike Bookchin as reactionary. The socialist ideal of a predominantly industrial, globally integrated society run by federated workers’ councils is a regression, far inferior, from a libertarian point of view, to the classical Greek polis (city-state) and the early American township.

Furthermore, Bookchin is scandalized by Marx’s theoretical acceptance of a “realm of necessity,” an inevitable minimum of unpleasant and uncreative labor, which even the most advanced technology and libertarian social organization cannot eliminate. Marx made the lessening and equitable sharing of this necessary labor the basis of at least the initial phase of socialism.

For Bookchin, this is not merely a lack of imagination on Marx’s part, but a grave metaphysical dereliction—a sign of Marx’s insufficient emancipation from the philosophical materialism of the Enlightenment. Imbued with a proper appreciation of “spirit,” anarchists un like socialists, realize that the “realm of freedom” can penetrate and finally dissolve the realm of necessity. And they will settle for no less.

What is actually at stake in the endless quarrels between anarchists and socialists over freedom and necessity, centralization and mass production, the division of labor and the delegation of authority? Whatever else may be at stake, there is this question: what in general is a good size and structure for workplaces and communities? Here are Bookchin’s answers: “Machinery [and] the systematic rationalization of labor in ever-specialized tasks totally demolished the technical structure of self-managed societies…and of ‘selfhood’ in the economic realm.” By contrast, “artisanship relies on skill and a surprisingly small toolkit [and on] the pleasure of articulating raw materials their own latent possibilities for acquiring a pleasing and useful form. …Within the technical sphere, craftsmanship is the expression of selfhood par excellence.”

As for communities, Bookchin agrees with Aristotle that “the polis must be large enough to meet its material needs and achieve self-sufficiency, but small enough to be taken in at one view.” This size “would make it possible in Hellenic fashion for people to manage the affairs of society without the mediation of bureaucracies and professional political functionaries.”

The guiding political principle of the good society is “amateurism—the accessibility of virtually all organs of power to the citizen, the conscious despecialization of municipal agencies, the formulation of policy in face-to-face assemblies, and the use of the lot in the selection of public officials.”

But do we really want to abolish mass production, professionalism and bureaucracy, root and branch? I’m not sure. Suppose that instead of spending six or eight hours each day at a craft, however pleasant, I’d prefer (as I suspect most people would) to spend two or three hours of routine labor in an automated factory and the rest of my day writing poetry, music and mathematics, and getting stoned. Suppose that deciding—even in face-to-face assemblies—on a new amphitheater or sewage plant appeals to me less (and, I suspect, to most people) than leaving it to those fellow citizens with a taste and talent for design or sanitary engineering.

Why should such a system be a debasement of “selfhood,” as Bookchin implies? Why, in a sufficiently rich society, can’t all these choices be available? I’ll let you live in your utopia if you’ll let me live in mine.

Leaving these questions for our anarcho-communist posterity, I must now say a word in defense of the Enlightenment, which Bookchin blames for leading, implicitly, to “not only the total despiritization of nature but the total despiritization of man.” However, a rigorous distinction between “matter” and “spirit” perished, along with the rest of traditional metaphysics, well before the Enlightenment. It won’t do to search for the metaphysical roots of domination in Enlightenment materialism. Neither domination nor anything else has metaphysical roots.

Bookchin also laments that “Marx, while he may have joined Hegel in a commitment to consciousness and freedom as the realization of humanity’s potentialities, has no inherent moral or spiritual criterion for affirming this destiny.” This failing is traced back to the Enlightenment itself, which “by divesting law or all ethical content, produced an objective cosmos that had or without meaning.”

It may be news to Bookchin, but there isn’t any “inherent” meaning to the cosmos. Nor is there any way to prove values by argument, to deduce “ought” from “is,” as has been acknowledged by nearly every important philosopher in the last three centuries. Everything is, alas, contingent.

Bookchin’s nostalgia for “spirit” and for Aristotelian natural law places him in the curious company of Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis and Ali Shariati, not to speak of William F. Buckley Jr.—peculiar comrades for a revolutionary anarcho-communist.

It’s sad to watch Bookchin squander energy on these unfortunate polemics. When he avoids hectoring Marx (and the Enlightenment and Engels and Marcuse and Andre Gorz), Bookchin is capable of penetrating, finely indignant historical analyses.

For example, he offers a long reconstruction of how the spread of market relations “hollowed out” the intricate community texture of precapitalist societies, and in the process “simplified social life to the level of the inorganic.” Equally admirable is his description of the genesis of oppositional consciousness in individuals and the growth of non- hierarchical forms of organization within radical movements.

In some ways, Bookchin reminds one of Paul Goodman: his defiant anarchism; his interest in liberating technology; his idiosyncratic use of intellectual history; his wide range; and, happily, his difficult, eccentric prose style. Norman Mailer made immortal fun of Goodman’s style in “The Armies of the Night”, but a patient reader will come to appreciate Goodman’s dogged verbal scrupulousness.

Bookchin’s style, on the other hand, is merely irritating. There is hardly a sentence that is not marred by awkward rhythm or graceless phrasing. It is a pity; this celebrant of craft might have troubled to master his own.


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George Scialabba