A preliminary critique of Murray Bookchin


Murray Bookchin’s works are experiencing a posthumous revival due to the integration of his theory into the praxis of the Kurdish PKK and PYD in Turkey and Syria, and in particular its implementation within the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Celebrated as a progressive figure, an examination of Bookchin’s 1985 polemic ‘Were we wrong?’ reveals Bookchin to be far more regressive in his views than expected.1 The purpose of this belated reply is not to focus on what is uncontroversial in Bookchin’s article – for example, the failure of the pre-WWII revolutions to produce the societies they set out to create – nor is its purpose to engage in a long-winded historical counter-narrative to Bookchin’s account of the “so-called bourgeois revolutions”.2 Instead, the focus will be on Bookchin’s regressive proscriptions and his view of capitalism as effectively against human nature. This will be detailed in five stages. First, Bookchin rejects Marxist historiography in favor of Karl Polanyi’s view of the importance of status over class; second, he advocates libertarianism as a moral movement with an ethical praxis over proletarian class struggle; third, Bookchin’s community originates from a core group of enlightened individuals instead of a Leninist vanguard; fourth, Bookchin’s account of the emergence of capitalism as effectively the result of a failure to control markets is examined; and fifth, the previous stages inform a perspective of Bookchin’s polemic as being structured around capitalism as “asocial”3 and what it means for his libertarian municipalism. Unfortunately, Bookchin’s ideas show regressive characteristics and an explicit rejection of Marx’s conclusions about capitalism. There is no plan to abolish capitalism, only to hollow it out through “libertarian traditions”.4 If there is a failure of classical analysis he does nothing to rectify it convincingly.
Bookchin has a clear idea of how pre-capitalist societies functioned. Rather than being class societies, they were societies of “orders” governed by “biosocial norms” revolving around “family and kinship relations”.5 These social hierarchies formed “the more basic substrate”6 of people’s lives. He takes this conception from Karl Polanyi, who argued that a person secured not individual interest but their status in society.7 Bookchin transforms this into the “paramount social tie”, and believes it is status which should be the “core for social analysis” not class.8 He believes it can be either libertarian or authoritarian in nature.9 Bookchin’s view that social hierarchies were more important than class shine through when he states “[o]ne’s community and the place one occupies in it is one of the most human attributes we posses”.10 There is a distinct view that masses are built around class interest while individuals care about status, and he claims the individual “tends to behave with greater decency than the mass”.11 Unsurprisingly, he rejects Marxist-influenced historiography as “crude economic determinism” and believes radical historians have denied “the moral integrity of the person in contrast to the role assigned to masses and forces in history”.12 The masses are also impersonal, which seems to offend Bookchin’s libertarian sensibilities. In opposition to the proletariat, “integrally tied up with interest”, he advances the community as “the only agent on which we can premise future radical change”.13 It is in this sense that Bookchin is regressive: “The only revolutionary era on which we can premise any future for radical change is the one that lies behind us”.14 What lies behind, according to him, is a pre-capitalist society of orders based upon status – the individual’s position in the community. Bookchin seeks to return to a type of society known before the advent of capitalist civilization, seeing in it a reflection of humanity’s natural condition.
Bookchin is determined to create a libertarian movement. He is not a reactionary despite what the above may imply. Instead, his focus is on the “hidden libertarian tendency in history”, exemplified by various populists and anarchists who stand as “striking examples of highly moral social movements”.15 Note how these movements were moral, not class movements, to Bookchin. He believes that the proletariat with its class interests “precludes the ability to voice broadly human concerns. Hence, no possibility ever existed that the proletariat…could ever speak for the general interest of society”.16 Only libertarian movements can do so, united as they are by their collective morality and “a shared ethics”.17 Bookchin believes the libertarian community will transcend status and class based interests. Driven by “the moral power of their libertarian beliefs”, the community is the hidden tendency made concrete, but it is based on a presumption that “solidarity outweights [sic] status or class interests”.18 Bookchin is somewhat vague on what constitutes the ethics of this community and how they are imparted. He describes them abstractly asthe ever-present act of an ever-dynamic effort of public and self-assertion that yields a sharp sense of selfhood”.19 More concretely, “the melding of traditional groups into a public sphere, a body politic…imbued with a sense of cultural and spiritual continuity and renewal.”20 In other words, communal selfhood will be inoculated against any individual or class interests by direct participation in the community. All individuals will be bound together by their positions in various traditional groups and their common political purpose in the community. Bookchin’s alternative is the emphasis on direct, communal ties and politics with the individual as its basis.21 It is this retreat to the individual, their place and status in society, which Bookchin advocates.
There must be a beginning to Bookchin’s community and that too is founded on an individual basis. It will “be created out of smaller units – groups of people for whom the cultivation of consciousness is a calling in its own right”.22 At the root of it all is something like a Philosopher King who then associates with like-minded individuals. In a way, Bookchin is substituting the Leninist vanguard – “a party of conscious revolutionaries”23 – for one of his own, though with a different mission. The vanguard is supposed to “provide the self-reflexivity”24 needed to succeed in revolutionary conditions. For Bookchin, however, “[s]elf-reflexivity cannot be separated from self-administration without reducing the group to a cellular academy at one extreme or an affinity group at the other”.25 The fate of the Leninist vanguard was effectively the latter. Bookchin is not denying the “role of consciousness” for such a group: he is relying on it, and considers it “decisive”.26 He is adamant that it must be founded on a different basis if it is not to betray its purpose: “Politics consists as much in the attainment of self-reflexivity of goals and processes as it does in the social functions it performs and the forms of freedom it institutionalizes”.27 The only way to ensure that kind of self-reflexivity is to spread it out in a participatory fashion amongst everyone. “The formation of a collective subject…is thus attained in the crafting of subjectivity as a participatory enterprise”.28 Consequently, Bookchin eschews a vanguard to lead a mass movement; instead, his association of enlightened individuals provides “the means of mobilizing people for a new praxis”.29 This praxis is new in the sense it is opposed to status and class interests and organized around absorbing their “centrifugal”30 forces. It is in this way that Bookchin takes an older way of life and gives it a libertarian gloss, updating it in order to counter mass interests in class and individual interests in status.
Bookchin’s view of human nature is most directly exposed in his account of capitalism’s emergence. While Marx believes human nature is “the ensemble of the social relations”31 rather than an individual abstraction, Bookchin believes that capitalism could not have emerged out of this ensemble. He sees a “malignancy”32 rather than social change. Bookchin makes a Feuerbachian mistake when he resolves biosocial norms into “the human condition”,33 rather than accepting that those norms are mediated and shaped by material social relations. As a result, Bookchin cannot adequately account for the epochal changes which swept the feudal order into the dustbin of history. He believes that capitalism represented a decisive break with all pre-capitalist societies, from “primarily a society of orders”34 to a class society. It is here that Bookchin begins to extrapolate wildly: “it is necessary to reject altogether the idea that capitalism as a society of classes could have emerged organically within the ‘womb’ of feudalism, a society of orders”.35 Describing capitalism as “the uncontrolled market” juxtaposed to the “carefully integrated” markets of precapitalist societies, capitalism to Bookchin becomes a market-based “cancer” which was “always a dormant system in the larger precapitalist social orders” – and like cancer it was waiting to “essentially burst upon the world”.36 What triggered its emergence he does not say, but it is strongly implicated that it was due to “a general erosion of all mores”37 which thus eroded control over the market. “No precapitalist world was equipped to deal with the formidable social and cultural irresponsibility that an uncontrolled market economy would foster”, he claims.38 The emergence of capitalism was a kind of moral decline which reached its apogee in the “social vacuum” of the 18th century – the “decay in history” which fed “cancerously on the corpses of traditional societies”.39 Capitalism was not a development of human social relations, instead it was the result of flaws inherent in human nature which lead to a failure of pre-capitalist societies to control the market.
Bookchin’s view of capitalism’s emergence and his proscriptions for fighting it are directly linked. If capitalism, almost as a force outside of humanity, resulted from a failure to control the market then its re-integration is necessary. He sets out to construct a blueprint for a society capable of controlling the market through “ethical, cultural, and institutional constraints”.40 As capitalism is a class society he takes inspiration from the previous society of orders, which demonstrated an ability to embed markets into peoples’ lives without it dominating them. Being a libertarian, however, this must be done without social hierarchy, which is the true root of the moral failure and thus social collapse of feudalism. Bookchin’s view of human nature is classically Western in the sense that the individual must be embedded in a community which constrains them as well as enables them. It makes perfect sense, then, that Bookchin wishes to resurrect the polis as the model form of his libertarian municipalism. He adopts the politics of the polis in order to abolish social hierarchy by direct democratic participation, ameliorating the struggle for personal status, while class struggle is absorbed by the social solidarity of ethical praxis and the moral force of libertarian beliefs. As his libertarian community is effectively founded by a group of Philosopher Kings, we can see that Bookchin has a very Platonic view of politics. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether Bookchin’s solutions can endure against status and class interests. Plato (or Socrates through Plato) would argue that any polis is many poleis – one in our era of proletarian and bourgeoisie, and within those classes reside many other contending groups.41 Bookchin has not demonstrated, beyond a personal belief, that his libertarian municipalism is capable of succeeding where the classical polis failed. Most concerning of all, he shows little interest in articulating how capitalism can be fought except in the realm of consciousness.
Bookchin cannot accept capitalism as a result of human sociality. It is around this core that his entire polemic revolves. Capitalism is described as a malignancy that lurked within market economies, kept in check by social orders more in tune with human nature. The moral decline of feudal social orders set capitalism loose on the world. His libertarian municipalism refuses to acknowledge that capitalism as a class phenomenon requires a class perspective. Bookchin’s individualism and disdain for political economy precludes such a perspective. As a result, his community-based participatory praxis is focused on improving the human condition over directly fighting capitalism. Consciousness is important but it is material social relations which are decisive, and which help shape consciousness itself. If the core relations of capitalism, epitomized by wage labor and capital accumulation, are not abolished then any libertarian project lends itself to regression – its morals will decline and its ethics will be eroded. The centrifugal forces of capitalism cannot be absorbed by ethical praxis and libertarian moralism. The great contradiction is Bookchin readily acknowledges the ability of capitalism to wear away traditional cultures, all mores, personal ethics, and yet somehow believes that participatory and community-based politics offer a kind of inoculation against these forces, and even further, that such politics will erode capitalism itself through moral force and personal grounding in the individual. Erosion will never be as forceful as abolition, and should capitalism be as terrible a “blight”42 as Bookchin believes it to be, then no quarter should be given and no risks taken which merely result in capitalism’s incubation within a libertarian society. It would be a sad irony for a libertarian project to experience the same kind of moral decline that Bookchin imputes to feudalism, with capitalism steadily overwhelming all resistance, destroying everything so many had fought so hard to build.


1. Murray Bookchin, ‘Were we wrong?’, Telos, vol. 65, Fall 1985, pp.59-74.
2. Ibid. p.70.
3. Ibid. p.68.
4. Ibid. p.71.
5. Ibid. p.64-65.
6. Ibid. p.65.
7. Ibid. p.64.
8. Ibid. p.64.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid. p.65.
11. Ibid. p.71.
12. Ibid. p.69, 71-72.
13. Ibid. p.71.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid. p.70.
16. Ibid. p.71.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid. p.71.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. Bookchin alludes to this when he states that “[c]ollectivity thus melds with individuality to produce rounded human beings in a rounded society”. Ibid.
22. Ibid. p.73.
23. Ibid. p.60.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid. p.73.
26. Ibid. p.72.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid. p.74.
29. Ibid. pp.73-74.
30. Ibid. p.71.
31. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, 1845. Accessed Jan 2017 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm
32. Bookchin, p.65.
33. Ibid. p.70
34. Ibid. p.64.
35. Ibid. p.65.
36. Ibid. pp.65-66.
37. Ibid. p.66.
38. Ibid. p.64.
39. Ibid. pp.65, 68.
40. Ibid. p.65.
41. Plato, Republic, Book 4, Section 422e-423a. Accessed Jan 2017 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D4
42. Bookchin, p.70.