This small book is nothing more than a critique of another small book, Murray Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.1) His consists of the title essay plus “The Left That Was: A Personal Reflection.” Published in 1995, it was an unexpected intervention in an intramural debate which had been going on for at least twenty years between traditionalistic anarchists — leftist, workerist, organizational, and moralist — and an ever more diverse (and an ever more numerous) contingent of anarchists who have in one way or another departed from orthodoxy, at least in Bookchin’s eyes.

Bookchin caught a lot of us heterodox anarchists by surprise. Most of us have read some of Bookchin’s books and many of us, myself included, have learned from them, especially the earlier books from the 1970s. Bookchin’s subsequent and ever-intensifying preoccupation with municipal politics we were mostly inclined to ignore as an idiosyncrasy. He seemed to take no notice of what we were up to. He was absent from publications like the Fifth Estate, Popular Reality, Front Line, The Match!, and Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. It was as if he took the anarchists for granted. They didn’t know that Bookchin thought they were sinking swiftly into ideological and moral decay.

They do now. Bookchin views-with-alarm almost every new tendency in anarchism except his own specialty, ecology. What’s more, the nefarious novelties exhibit malign thematic affinities. Not only are they pernicious, they are pernicious in essentially the same way. They represent a recrudescence of an old heresy, “individualism,” decked out in trendy post-modernist fashions in a configuration Bookchin calls “lifestyle anarchism.” Much worse than a falling-away from some aspects of classical left-wing anarchism, lifestyle anarchism is (he insists) fundamentally opposed to the defining tenets of anarchism. (How this could have happened on his watch he does not explain.)

For Bookchin, then, lifestyle anarchists are not just errant comrades, they are traitors. As such they are even worse than avowed opponents of anarchism. He mistreats them accordingly. His jeremiad is downright nasty. There aren’t many epithets he doesn’t work in somewhere or another, and never mind if they sometimes contradict each other (for instance, “individualism” and “fascism” applied to the same people). They don’t have to be true to be effective. Bookchin started out as a Stalinist, and it sure shows in the abusive style and unscrupulous content of his polemic. He wants no dialogue with his self-appointed enemies, only their irreparable discredit.

I get the distinct impression that Bookchin, an elderly man said to be in ill health, is cashing in his chips as a prominent anarchist theorist and staking all his influence and reputation on demolishing all possible alternatives to his own creed, what he calls “social anarchism.” A parting shot.

He missed the target. He had to miss the target, since there is none. There’s no such thing as “lifestyle anarchism.” There are only a lot of anarchists exploring a lot of ideas — a lot of different ideas — that Bookchin disapproves of. It follows that this book is not a defense of “lifestyle anarchism.” There’s no such unicorn, so I couldn’t defend it even if I wanted to. The very phrase is Bookchin’s invention, much as Stalin invented a nonsense category, the “bloc of Rights and Trotskyists,” to collect all his political enemies for their more convenient disposal. At the time, Bookchin believed this, and everything else, the Party told him to believe. He hasn’t changed much; or, if he did, he’s changed back.

If I were only taking Bookchin to task for his incivility, I’d be a hypocrite, for I’ve penned plenty of blunt critiques of various anarchists and anti-authoritarians. A Dutch anarchist, Siebe Thissen, has described me — not as a criticism — as the severest critic of contemporary anarchism (1996: 60). Maybe I am, although criticism of anarchists takes up only a fraction of the content of my previous three books. But I’ve often been tough on anarchists I considered authoritarian, dishonest or stupid.

Often harsh but, I like to think, rarely unfair. Some people, especially those I’ve criticized, mistake my being articulate for my being rude, or mistake my noticing them for being obsessed with them. Be that as it may, for me to set myself up as the Miss Manners of anarchism would not be appropriate. I do think Murray Bookchin needs a lesson in manners, and I’m going to give him one, but incivility is the least of what’s wrong with his dyspeptic diatribe. It’s what he says, far more than how he says it, that I mean to have done with.

I am not, except incidentally, defending those whom Bookchin targets as “lifestyle anarchists.” (For the record, I’m not one of his identified targets.) I am debunking the very category of lifestyle anarchism as a construct as meaningless as it is malicious. And I am coming down with crushing force on “an ugly, stupid style and substance of doctrinal harangue” (Black 1992: 189), the worst survival of Bookchin’s original Marxism. I’ve done it before and, frankly, I rather resent having to do it again. Bookchin has made the cardinal author’s mistake of falling for his own jacket blurbs. Otherwise he could never write such a wretched screed and hope to get away with it. His previous contributions to anarchism, even if they were as epochal as he likes to think, are no excuse for this kind of gutter-gabble. His swan-song sounds nothing but sour notes. And sour grapes.

Which is why I think there’s a place for my polemic. If even the great Bookchin can’t get away with talking trash, maybe less eminent anarchists will be less tempted to talk trash. If even the quasi-academic Bookchin’s quasi-scholarship doesn’t hold up under even modest scrutiny, maybe some unduly impressionable anarchists will learn to question the authority of footnotes and jacket blurbs. Better scholars than Bookchin live in dread of somebody someday looking up their footnotes. I’ll be getting around to several of them, too. But, worst things first.

Most people will take no interest in what Bookchin and I have to say about anarchism. These books aren’t destined for the best-seller lists. Even some feel-good anarchists will dismiss the ruckus as “in-fighting.” But on one point at least I think Bookchin would agree with me: in-fighting can be as important as out-fighting. Indeed it’s impossible to tell them apart. The fighting has a lot to do with determining who is in and who is out. But anybody who thinks that anarchism is, or might be, important should consider this controversy important. I admit I’m almost as vain as Bookchin, but maybe I am the “lifestyle anarchist” to call him out for a showdown at high noon out at the Circle-A Ranch.

A throwback to vulgar Marxism in more than one sense, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism may turn out to be the last tract of its kind, at least the last one with anarchist pretensions. Soon there will be nobody left in North America with the requisite Leninist background to practice this highly stylized genre of defamation. Debunking it may assist anarchists in letting go of the leftism they have outgrown, some of them without realizing it. Cleansed of its leftist residues, anarchy — anarchism minus Marxism — will be free to get better at being what it is.

Edinburgh, Scotland & San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 1995. All references consisting solely of numerals in parentheses are page references to this book. All other references — be they to Bookchin’s other writings or the writings of others — follow an approximation of social-science citation style. That is, they consist of a parenthetical reference to a source by the last name of the author and the year of publication followed by, in some instances, specific page references. For example, (Black 1994: 50) refers to page 50 of the book listed in the Bibliography as follows:
Black, Bob (1994). Beneath the Underground. Portland, OR: Feral House & Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited
Sometimes the author’s name is omitted if, in context, it is provided or implied in the text, e,g., (1994: 50) where the text itself has identified Black as the source.
I request the forbearance of readers who think that in explaining the almost-obvious I am talking down to them. I expect that nearly all of my readers are either familiar with this citation system or else would have no difficulty figuring it out. I chose to use it to supply at least the rudiments of references simultaneously with what I make of them. I choose to explain the system here from an excess of caution.
I expect the Bookchinist counterattack to rely heavily on confusionist quibbling about details, including bibliographic details. Some anarchists are unduly impressed by the trappings of scholarship, unaware that, if carefully scrutinized, they are sometimes only claptrappings. Some are even susceptible to typeset text as such, as if typesetting were some sort of guarantee that the text is presumptively important and/or true.
To a considerable extent, Bookchin’s seeming scholarship is shallow or sham, and that’s especially true of Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism. To demonstrate that, as this essay does, my scholarship will have to be much better and much more honest. Careful referencing, and a clear understanding of my method of referencing, is crucial to that demonstration. For you, gentle reader, the worst is now behind you. Let the games begin!