Nightmares of Reason

Unconscious irony has become a hallmark of Late Bookchinism, the Highest Stage of Leftism. Well-known examples include Bookchin’s denunciation of leftists with alluring academic careers just as the Director retired from an alluring academic career; his scathing contempt for John Clark’s “cowardly” hiding behind a pseudonym the way Bookchin did in the 60’s; his personalistic abuse of individuals he accuses of personalism; his vilification of other writers for appearing in the same “yuppie” publications he’s been published or favorably reviewed in; and his denunciations of anarchists for agreeing with what he used to write. (See also Appendix A.) Although inconsistency, not to mention hypocrisy, is nothing new for Bookchin (see Appendix B), lately the devolution of his reasoning powers is dizzying. Paradoxically – or is it? – his intellectual decline coincides with the Director’s shrill defense of Reason With a Capital R against the Lifestyle Anarchists and the rest of the irrationalist hordes. To borrow one of Bookchin’s favorite cliches, you might say that his commitment to Reason is honored in the breach.

The Director taxes Watson (that poor “philosophical naif”) for referring “to science (more properly, the sciences, since the notion of a Science that has only one method and approach is fallacious) . . . ” – for speaking of Science in the singular. In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Bookchin, who is never fallacious, or even facetious, nonetheless found it meaningful, not only to speak of Science in the singular, but to say strikingly Watsonish things about it: “Indeed, we have begun to regard science itself as an instrument of control over the thought processes and physical being of man. This distrust of science and of the scientific method [emphasis added] is not without justification.” Distrust of Murray Bookchin is likewise not without justification.

Someone who admires or pities the Director more than I do might like to interpret this as a cautious condonation of methodological pluralism, what the late Paul Feyerabend called “epistemological anarchism.” Alas, it is not so. Bookchin is no more an epistemological anarchist than he is any other kind of anarchist. Elsewhere in the same interminable paragraph, the Director rules out any such possibility: “Watson is free to say anything he wants without ever exposing it to the challenge of reason or experience. As Paul Feyerabend once wrote: ‘Anything goes!’” Let’s put aside Bookchin’s here openly announced hostility to freedom of speech – enough by itself to confirm my contention that he’s not an anarchist. In the sequence in which Bookchin places it, the Feyerabend quotation – unreferenced – looks like a summons to freak out. In fact, it was only an endorsement of pluralism in methodology. Feyerabend’s point was that scientific discovery does not necessarily or even normally result from following rules, including the rules of the scientific method (which Bookchin agrees does not exist). The tales of Archimedes in the bathtub and Newton under the apple tree may be mythical, but, as good myths do, they express non-literally a truth. In principle, any context may serve as what Karl Popper called the context of discovery: religion, drugs, psychosis, chance – anything. According to the Director, “mythopoesis” (mythmaking) has its place, but only in art. The “experience” to whose authority he appeals confirms a wider role for mythopoesis and nonsystematic sources of insight. As Feuerabend put it: “There is no idea, however ancient or absurd that is not capable of improving our knowledge.” One stimulus to the Copernican theory that the Earth moves, for instance, was Hermetic writings (also carefully studied by Newton) reviving that long-discredited Pythagorean notion. Nor was the Enlightenment as scientific and secular as the Director imagines: “The eighteenth century was too deeply involved with the occult to have us continue to associate it exclusively with rationalism, humanism, scientific determinism, and classicism. Manifestations of irrationalism, supernaturalism, organicism, and Romanticism appeared throughout.”

The Director’s reverence for Reason rises in inverse proportion to his practice of it. He now says that he has “long been a critic of mythopoesis, spiritualism, and religion,” although I have found no such criticism in his extant writings of the 60’s and 70’s. He also claims to be a longstanding critic of conventional, analytic, instrumental Reason. Much more revelatory, he says, is dialectical Reason, “the rationality of developmental processes, of phenomena that self-elaborate into diverse forms and complex interactions – in short, a secular form of reason [there’s a religious form?] that explores how reality, despite its multiplicity, unfolds into articulated, interactive, and shared relationships.” What, if anything, this means is anybody’s guess. Do “developmental processes” exhibit an inherent rationality? What’s rational about gangrene or cancer? By definition, relationships are interactive and shared, so what do these adjectives add to whatever the Director is trying to say? Casting about for a dimension of reality which, despite its multiplicity, unfolds into articulated, interactive, and shared relationships, what first comes to mind is capitalism.

In Anarchy after Leftism, I quoted the Director’s admission that his is “a fairly unorthodox notion of reason.” To say the least. His brand of reason, he says, is dialectical, but only in the sense that I long ago defined dialectics, “a Marxist’s excuse when you catch him in a lie.” To hear the Director talk, what dialectical reason adds to the ordinary variety is the developmental dimension, but none of his bombast makes any more sense diachronically than synchronically. Bookchin denounces his renegade disciple John Clark for mistaking dialectics for functionalism, the notion that “we can identify no single cause as more compelling than others; rather, all possible [sic] factors are mutually determining”: “This morass of ‘reciprocity,’ in which everything in the world is in a reciprocal relationship with everything else, is precisely what dialectical causality is not, unless we want to equate dialectics with chaos. Dialectics is a philosophy of development, not of mutually determining factors in some kind of static equilibrium. Although on some remote level, everything does affect everything else, some things are in fact very significantly more determining than others. Particularly in [sic] social and historical phenomena, some causes are major, while others are secondary and adventitious.[] Dialectical causality focuses on what is essential in producing change, on the underlying motivating [sic] factors, as distinguished from the incidental and auxiliary.” So then what’s dialectical about it? As Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have written: “[Marxist] dialecticians have never been able to indicate exactly how they see dialectical relations as different from any of the more complicated combinations of simple cause/effect relations such as co-causation, cumulative causation, or simultaneous determination of a many variable system where no variables are identified as dependent or independent in advance. . . . there is only the word and a lot of ‘hand waving’ about its importance.” Peter Kropotkin, who, unlike Bookchin, was an anarchist and a scientist, dismissed dialectics as unscientific.

“Objective ethics,” the directionality of nature, humanity as “second nature,” articulated multiplicity, collective consciousness, “the actualization of rationally unfolding potentialities” – all this jargon and gibberish marks mucid Murray as a mystic. His pseudo-system is exactly what Marx said Hegel’s philosophy was: “logical, pantheistic mysticism,” only less logical. The Director may not refer to God by name, but his abstract universal principle of directional development, ever more conscious and mastering of its nature and destiny, is the World-Spirit which Hegel identified with the Christian God. If it looks like a God, acts like a God, and (through His oracle, the Director) quacks like a God, it’s probably God, up to His old tricks. Putting another name on Him, or It, or not naming It at all, makes no difference. Christians say God, Jews say Yahweh, and Muslims say Allah, but they are all theists and monotheists, and so is Bookchin.

Even if none of his other doctrines did, the Director’s moralism would discredit him as a rationalist. There is no such thing as an “objective ethics.” What is passed off in certain times and places as objectively true morality is only the morality which then and there is popular or imposed by power. No matter how far you range across space and time, you will never find a universally accepted moral tenet – and even if you did, that wouldn’t prove that it was objectively true, only that everybody till now happens to believe in it, a consensus easily shattered by the first skeptic. There must have been a time when everyone believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but it was never true. The only universally true generalization about moral propositions is that they express the subjective values of those who believe in them (this is the “emotive” theory of ethics). This is one respect in which Bookchin’s regression to Marxism has not gone far enough, for Marx and Engels noticed early on that morality was not only subjective, it was usually relative to class interests.

As usual with Bookchin’s dichotomies, his moralism/amoralism distinction fails to match up with his Social Anarchism/Lifestyle Anarchism distinction. Some Lifestyle Anarchists, such as David Watson, also subscribe to objective moralism. And some Social Anarchists reject it, such as Emma Goldman. In her essay “Victims of Morality,” anarcho-communist Goldman denounced the umimpeachable “Lie of Morality”: “no other superstition is so detrimental to growth, so enervating and paralyzing to the minds and hearts of the people, as the superstition of Morality.” I do not propose to rehash here my own critique of moralism or that of any anarchist or Marxist or Situationist. I refer the interested reader to Stirner and Nietzsche among many others. Bookchin has never bothered to provide, or even purport to provide, a rational basis for a belief obviously derived from revealed religion.

What Bookchin describes is determinism, not dialectics. It’s what Marx called mechanical materialism. The distinctive feature of dialectical reasoning is the progressive approximation to truth through the clash of opposites and their supersession: “Truth exists not in unity with, but in refutation of its opposite. Dialectics is not a monologue that speculation carries on with itself, but a dialogue between speculation and empirical reality” (Feuerbach). There is nothing like that in Bookchin. The Director is predictably wrathful at Watson’s likening his dialectic to Stalin’s, but the comparison is apt. Both Leninists, Stalin and Bookchin, deploy the jargon of dialectics to justify their abrupt ideological reversals, their opportunistic changes of “line.”

Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism may be restated as follows: nature follows a “law of evolution” consisting of “an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.” Herbert Spencer, high priest of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism, first published these words in 1864. There is something developmental but nothing dialectical about Spencer’s “rigid and mechanical” formula. And its political implications are as conservative as Spencer was. Industrial capitalism with its social division of labor is the supreme example of definite coherent heterogeneity. In the words of Spencer’s disciple William Graham Sumner, “the sentimentalists have been preaching for a century notions of rights and equality, of the dignity, wisdom and power of the proletariat, which have filled the minds of ignorant men with impossible dreams.” Society must be left alone to work out its destiny, “through hard work and self-denial (in technical language, labor and capital).” Should we arrive at “socialism, communism, and nihilism,” “the fairest conquests of civilization” will be lost to class war or mob rule.

As is typical of Stalinist disputation, vulgar determinism in the abstract accompanies an opportunistic voluntarism in practice. In George Orwell’s 1984, one day Oceania would be at war with Eurasia – it had always been at war with Eurasia – the next day, Oceania would be at war with Eastasia, had always been at war with Eastasia. It is the same with John Clark, the Director’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Bookchin says that “it is difficult to believe that from the mid-1970s until early 1993, the author was a close associate of mine,” that they “had a personal friendship that lasted almost two decades.” Betrayed and insulted by his erstwhile acolyte, the Director says: “How could Clark have so completely misjudged me for almost two decades?” A better question is: how could Bookchin the Great have so completely misjudged Clark, his intellectual inferior, for almost two decades? How could so principled and penetrating an intellect as Bookchin’s have failed for so long to detect this snake in the grass? The Director’s answer, such as it is, is Orwellian. “Our ideas,” he says, “indeed, our ways of thinking, are basically incompatible”: “I could never accept Clark’s Taoism as part of social ecology.” And yet, the Director continues, “despite the repugnance I felt for some of his ideas, I never wrote a line against Clark in public” – not until he had no further use for Clark, or Clark had no further use for him. Bookchinism is basically incompatible with Clarkism, starting today. Bookchinism has always been basically incompatible with Clarkism, starting today. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, starting today.

I have no interest in defending Clark, who is at least as much in need of excuses as Bookchin for their long-term relationship. And Taoism is so peripheral to anarchism that how reconcilable they may be hardly matters to me. But there’s something important, and disturbing, about the way the Director is going about discrediting Clark. Clark, says Bookchin, came to anarchism from the right, he was “never a socialist.” As a young man, Clark was a “right-wing anti-statist,” a Goldwater Republican in 1964: “Causes such as the workers’ movement, collectivism, socialist insurrection, and class struggle, not to mention [so why does he mention them?] the revolutionary socialist and anarchist traditions, would have been completely alien to him as a youth; they were certainly repugnant to the right-wing ideologues of the mid-1960s, who afflicted [sic] leftists with conservatism, cultural conventionality, and even red-baiting.” (The last part of the sentence makes no sense, but the quotation is accurate.)

Assuming all that to be true, what are the implications for anarchist revolution? Apparently, anybody who has never been an old-fashioned revolutionary leftist can never be, or be trusted to be, a revolutionary anarchist. Bookchin, who accuses Clark and other alleged Lifestyle Anarchists of elitism, is imposing a severely limited, exclusivist entrance requirement on the millions of Americans who, he claims, are itching for anarchist revolution. The Director is the elitist. There are very few living Americans who have ever been socialists or left-anarchists. In opinion polls, twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals, and liberals are well to the right of the few people who identify themselves as leftists (“progressives” is the current euphemism). If a right-wing background disqualifies one as a revolutionary anarchist, then there will be no American anarchist revolution, because there just won’t be enough revolutionaries. So long as ideologues like Bookchin continue to think in terms of left and right, so long as they quarrel on those terms, the right will always win, or if the left wins, it won’t make much difference. Bookchin’s nostalgia for the Left That Was is literally reactionary.