Murray Bookchin, One-Dimensional Man

My first time around, in Anarchy after Leftism, I gave Bookchin’s history of recent anarchism the scant attention it deserves. This time I’ll screwtinize it in more detail. Basically it goes like this. At the economic base, there are periods of “apparent capitalist stabilization” or “capitalist stability,” of “social peace,” and then there are periods of “deep social unrest,” sometimes giving rise to “revolutionary situations.” When capitalism is crisis-ridden, Social Anarchism “has usually held center stage” as far as anarchism goes. When capitalism is, or seems to be, stabilized – the ambiguity is a big help to the argument – then the Lifestyle Anarchists come to the fore to flaunt their cultural and individual eccentricities.

The first thing to be said about this analysis is that it reads more like a justification than a critique of Lifestyle Anarchism. It looks more like a reasonable social division of labor between what the Director calls the two “extremes.” When social revolution is a possibility, let those so disposed lead the way. When revolution is not on history’s agenda, it makes sense to uphold the black flag on the cultural and individual terrains. Better Lifestyle Anarchism than no anarchism at all (although Bookchin would surely disagree). Somebody has to keep alive what the Spanish anarchists called “the idea” in a climate of social reaction.

But that was just the first thing. Here’s the second: a time of capitalist stabilization can also be a time of social unrest. The 1900’s and the 1960’s were periods of prosperity and protest (both liberal and radical). In the years before the First World War, anarcho-communists and especially anarcho-syndicalists were as conspicuous as they would ever be in the United States and several other countries. Since Bookchin’s thesis is empirically inconsistent, you can read this fact as either proving or disproving it, which is just to say that the thesis is unverifiable, unfalsifiable and meaningless. As for the 1960’s, there is an unbridgeable chasm between Bookchin’s recent junk Marxism and his own earlier, accurate conclusion that 60’s unrest was important precisely because it was not the reflex of an economic crisis, but rather a qualitative crisis of everyday life. The May-June 1968 uprising in France “exploded the myth that the wealth and resources of modern industrial society can be used to absorb all revolutionary opposition.” Inexplicably, in the 1970’s the same wealth and resources underwrote a period of popular quiescence and social reaction which persists to this day.

No matter which determinant of anarchist fortunes you get out of Bookchin – “capitalist stabilization” or “social unrest” – it fails as an explanation. If you go for capitalist stabilization, that explains why (as he concedes) Lifestyle Anarchism was more influential than Social Anarchism in the 60’s, but fails to explain why Lifestyle Anarchism increased its lead over Social Anarchism through the 1970’s, a period of recession and retrenchment. That was the decade in which emerged such Lifestyle Anarchist themes as primitivism, anti-organization, zerowork, and the critique of technology. Bookchin is even less of an economist than he is an ecologist, so it’s hard to tell what he means by capitalist stabilization. It’s quite a capacious concept if it encompasses the recession of the early 70’s and the prosperity of the late 90’s. The suspicion arises that this is not an economic concept at all, but rather a synonym for social reaction and an antonym for social unrest.

The social unrest explanation is equally flawed. According to this theory, Social Anarchism should have dominated in the 1960’s and Lifestyle Anarchism thereafter, with a resurgence of Social Anarchism in the 90’s when, the Director assures us, the system is creating “mass discontent.” That’s not what happened; that’s not even what Bookchin says happened. Rather, for thirty years or more, in times of protest as in times of privatism, the Lifestyle Anarchists have gained on the Social Anarchists. That is exactly what Bookchin is complaining about. The Director’s thesis, in either version, does not meet the tests of reason or experience.

Here is a more accurate description of the last 40 years of North American anarchist history. In 1960, anarchism was dying and nearly dead. By then, according to George Woodcock – who once believed in it – anarchism was “a ghost that inspires neither fear among governments nor hope among peoples nor even interest among newspapermen.” Moreover, “nor is there any reasonable likelihood of a renaissance of anarchism as we have known it since the foundation of the First International in 1864; history suggests that movements which fail to take the chances it offers them are never born again.” In 1966, two academics who set out “to take anarchism seriously” – and did – nonetheless acknowledged that “few today entertain either hope or fear that government might be abolished as easily as it was called into being.” After 40 years of decline, anarchism was a historical curiosity not far from suffering the fate of the Shakers.

In 1967, Woodcock reconsidered. There was still no “obvious” – he should have said “overt” or “avowed” – anarchist revival, but he detected an anarchist influence in America on the New Left and especially the counter-culture. But this anarchism, he thought, was not the revival of the classical ideology but something new. He was right. The new anarchism developed, not out of the old versions, but out of the youth culture. It could do so because the youth culture’s tendency was anarchistic. Anarchism was the best theoretical synthesis of the New Left and the counter-culture. Unfortunately, anarchism had sunk so far into obscurity that few radicals had the opportunity to make the connections to anarchism which are so obvious in retrospect. Also, Bookchin is not entirely wrong to identify an anti-theoretical tendency in the youth culture which delayed widespread awareness of its anarchist affinities. Although we speak of “the 60’s,” implying a decade of dissidence and dissonance, the radical phase lasted only some five or six years. The rush of events was overwhelming, and a lot of people were, yes, going through changes. When militants felt the lack of theory, their first inclination was to turn to what was available, not what was appropriate – to Marxism, not anarchism. That turn was a turnoff; many lost their way. The movement wasted time, unaware how little it had left.

No one has ever explained to my satisfaction the left’s abrupt freefall in late 1970. It astonished me then and it astonishes me now. I see now, as to some extent I suspected at the time, that the decline was exaggerated by the media. The 70’s were not the times of flatline social reaction which Bookchin makes them out to be. I also appreciate now that most people cannot indefinitely sustain a revolutionary pitch of intensity in the indefinite absence of revolution itself. Even some who felt regret at the decline of activism felt some relief too. Whatever the explanation, the decade was critical for the development of contemporary North American anarchism.

Already in the 60’s, the vestigial anarchist groups and projects were, relative to their size, inundated by the few young radicals who consciously identified themselves as anarchists. Intergenerational friction might ensue, as it did in the Industrial Workers of the World. In the 70’s, 60’s veterans and their younger counterparts of similar background and outlook increasingly identified themselves as anarchists, participating in existing projects – mostly publications – and starting new ones. Mostly they came from the campus and/or the counter-culture. Thanks to a flurry of academic interest in anarchism which continued out of the 60’s, anarchist histories, biographies, anthologies and classics appeared almost in abundance, sometimes from mainstream commercial publishers like Dover, Doubleday, Schocken, Norton, Dell, Random House, Beacon Press, etc., and from university presses. Ramparts Press published Bookchin’s Post Scarcity Anarchism in 1971. Important anarchist presses commenced which still publish: Black & Red in Detroit, Black Rose Books in Montreal, Left Bank Books in Seattle. One of the original underground newspapers, Detroit’s Fifth Estate, went anarchist in 1975 and immediately became influential. Other noteworthy anarchist tabloids included No Limits (Madison, Wisconsin) and Front Line (Washington, DC). Not in 70 years had anarchist ideas been so accessible to North Americans. More and more people, myself included, appropriated some of these ideas, sometimes critically, sometimes not – and sometimes added their own.

The distinctive novelty of the 60’s persisted: the youth culture connection to anarchism. Punk rock is the conspicuous example. Punks have been explicitly involved with anarchism, as ideology or affectation, for over twenty years. Some of the earliest punk bands, such as CRASS, openly proselytized for “the idea,” and some still do. The nexus goes beyond punk music as such, or any style of music as such. Subcultures oriented to other marginal music genres (industrial, hip hop, etc.) are also connected, and music is not the only or the only important expression of youth culture. Deviations in diet, drugs, sex, religion, reading tastes, and defections from leftism or libertarianism – usually in combinations – any or all of these, with or without music, are typical of those who nowadays become anarchists, mostly Lifestyle Anarchists. Anarcho-leftism, I should add, has also gained support from the youth culture connection, especially as represented on campus, “college boys in designer hardhats.” The formulas of classical anarchism provide the belief structures so necessary to reduce to modest order the intellectual confusion of anarchists like Jon Bekken, Jeff Stein, Tom Wetzel and Chaz Bufe who could never quite cut the umbilical cord to the campus. The traditional leftists got a spillover share from the general resurgence of anarchism – but not a proportionate share. It is in that context, and in awareness of its ominous implications, that the Director denounces the Lifestyle Anarchists while he still can. But it is already too late. The men who will carry him out are already at the door. The women too.

The youth/counter-culture connection has its drawbacks. Most North American anarchists are younger than most San anarchists, but not nearly as well adapted to their environment. Even if they are in –or have been in – college, their general education is inferior to what was provided in the 60’s and 70’s. This is one of the few points on which Bookchin and I, who have both toiled to teach them, probably concur. Song lyrics are really not the most effective vehicle for conveying political ideas, except maybe Fascist or Fundamentalist Christian ideas. Necessarily the message is drastically oversimplified even if the ideas are expressed with all the amplitude the form permits. Some punk anarchists are as stupid as they are ignorant. For many it’s just a phase they’re going through, although there always seem to be more – and more of them – to take their place.

Nonetheless the point is that, since the 60’s, there have always been open channels of access and attraction, however imperfect, between anarchists and young people. The channels have not been as broad or deep for decades, not since the anarchists lost influence over the classical workers’ movement and then that movement withered away. Without such channels, a theory or ideology grows old and dies. I am as exasperated with much of what passes for anarchism as Bookchin is, and I said so a decade sooner, with better reasons. But potential anarchists have to come from somewhere, and youth/alternative culture is where they’ve mostly come from for over 30 years. Exceptional individuals also wander in from unexpected places, as they always have – as Bakunin and Kropotkin wandered in from the Czarist aristocracy – and these exceptionals often contribute ideas and energy out of all proportion to their numbers. But unless a lot of people who are not, or not as, extraordinary also wander in – as at certain times and in certain places they have, in large numbers – anarchism has no future except as an ancestor cult and a magnet for crackpots.

The Director may be cycling, but anarchism isn’t. The leftist varieties are stagnant or in decay. In North America the most ambitious recent effort at anarcho-leftist organizing, the Love & Rage federation, just went through a three-way split. In Britain, Class War split in two: the final issue of their newspaper admitted their ineffectuality. As organizationalists, these leftists stand self-condemned. Some anarcho-leftist projects may be surviving artificially on life-support. Rich anarchists, like rich people generally, tend to be conservatives. Noam Chomsky subsidizes select anarchist projects. So does the triple-platinum English band Chumbawamba, the only anarchists who have ever performed on “The Tonight Show,” the best source of anti-Unabomber jokes. AK Press, Bookchin’s publisher, is one of their favorite charities, but the band has done nothing for the Green Anarchist defendants who are on trial (two so far were convicted, but their convictions were reversed on appeal, one acquitted, with two to go) for nothing more than publishing news reports of acts of resistance. No quantity of financial formaldehyde preserves against decay forever.