Appendix C: Primitivism and the Enlightenment

“There is nothing new,” the Director Emeritus intones, “about the romanticization of tribal peoples. Two centuries ago, denizens of Paris, from Enlighteners such as Denis Diderot to reactionaries like Marie Antoinette, created a cult of ‘primitivism’ [sic] that saw tribal people as morally superior to members of European society, who presumably were corrupted by the vices of civilization.” Actually, two centuries ago – 1798 – they were both dead. The Director makes it sound like they were collaborators. If there was a Parisian cult of the primitive, the airhead Marie Antoinette (d. 1793) – who was Austrian, by the way – had no part in creating it. Her cult of choice was Catholicism. Denis and Marie never met. And, as so often with Bookchin, the quotation marks around “primitivism” do not identify a quotation, they imply disapproval – an abuse, especially rife among Marxists, which I have already protested. No one called himself a primitivist in the eighteenth century. The word didn’t enter the English language until the mid-twentieth century. Am I quibbling about dates and details? Doesn’t the Director? This guy claims to discern the directionality, not only of human history, but of natural history. How can he tell where history is going if he doesn’t even know where it’s been, or even when?

Bookchin misdates the romanticizing of the primitive not by years but by centuries and, in the Garden of Eden version, by millennia. The noble savage was not dreamed up at a Parisian salon. Although it is not quite primitivism, the pastoral ideal goes back to Bookchin’s dream-world, the urban-dominated world of classical antiquity. The German barbarians of Tacitus are likewise noble and free. European notions of primitive freedom, virtue and comfort are at least as old as extensive European contacts with primitive peoples, especially in the Americas. They were Columbus’ first impressions of the Indians, and the first impression of Captain John Smith in Virginia. Neither of these conquistadors was by any stretch of the imagination an Enlightenment humanist. In 1584, a sea captain working for Sir Walter Raleigh scouted the coast of Virginia. He saw it as a garden of “incredible abundance” whose inhabitants were “most gentle, loving and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason, and such as live after the manner of the golden age.” In The Tempest (1611), the “honest old Councellor” Gonzalo envisages Prospero’s enchanted island – under his own self-abolishing rule – as an anarchist, communist, amoral, libertine, pacific, primitivist, zerowork commonwealth, a place not to repeat the mistakes of civilization. I am not claiming Shakespeare as a primitivist, only as a sensitive witness that one pole of the European perception of primitives was already, well, primitivist in 1611. Accurate or not, these impressions indicate an attraction for the primitive which long antedates the eighteenth century. And is it so unthinkable that some of these early-contact impressions, formed before European aggression and spoliation embittered relations with the Indians, might be true? Several historians – historians, mind you, not anthropologists –believe that they are. That there is nothing new about an idea does not mean that there is nothing true about it. Pythagoras, not Ptolemy, turned out to be right about the movement of the earth.

Of all the things Bookchin does badly, intellectual history may be the worst. He is hardly capable of an accurate statement about the history of religion. At one point – actually, at too many points – he castigates David Watson for thinking that civilization as such represents regression for humanity. The Director makes the obvious comparison to the Garden of Eden story, with which I find no fault except for its banality. He should have left it at that. Everything he goes on to say reveals him as an ignorant bigot.

“This sort of rubbish,” he continues in his usual dispassionate voice, “may have been good coin in medieval universities.” Evidently Bookchin is unfamiliar with the curricula of medieval universities. They taught the Thomist interpretation of Aristotelian teleology, which Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism is much closer to than it is to the mechanistic philosophy of his revered Enlightenment. Official Christianity was never anti-urban or anti-civilizational. Christianity originated in the urban-dominated Roman Empire, and its original appeal was in the cities, not the countryside – the word “pagan” derives from the same root as the word “peasant.” Saint Augustine would not have written of the City of God if he thought God had something against cities. The medieval university was a purely urban institution.

Christian orthodoxy has never interpreted human history or destiny as the recovery of the primal innocence preceding the Fall. That was the teaching of anarchic heretics like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Adamites, the Diggers and the Ranters. Christianity, like Marxism and Bookchinism, is forward-looking, eschatological. The Kingdom of Heaven is not the Garden of Eden restored, it’s the City of God, the ultimate polis, except that a loving Lord as a special blessing on the saved excuses them from attending town meetings. In the Republic of Hell, attendance is obligatory for all eternity. By the 18th century, the dominant tendency in religious thought was to regard the Fall as an “episode in prehistory” marking the origin of human society, and not such a bad thing after all.

So here’s the Director’s next sentence: “But in the late Middle Ages, few ideas in Christian theology did more to hold back advances in science and experimental research than the notion that with the Fall, humanity lost its innocence.” Try as I have, I am unable to understand why the notion that humanity lost its innocence should retard scientific progress. So far as I know, no historian has ever said so. And I’m unaware that anyone in the later Middle Ages was even trying to conduct experimental research, aside from the alchemists. Presumably, if the Fall-from-innocence idea retarded scientific and technological progress in the late Middle Ages, it must have done so throughout the Middle Ages. That nearly reverses the reality. Scientific progress, it is true, was slowed by the prevailing ideology – not by Christianity, but by ideas inherited from pagan classical antiquity, from men like Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy. On the other hand, there was rapid technological progress, unlike the stagnation of Greek and Roman times. The mold-board plough opened up vast new territories for farming. Other innovations included the windmill, the clock, and advances in shipbuilding and navigation destined to transform the world. Military technology, especially, progressed by invention and adoption: heavy armored cavalry, the longbow, the crossbow, artillery, firearms, stone castles, etc. Architecture surpassed its classical limitations – Bookchin’s beloved Athenian polis could never have built Notre Dame.

The Sage of Burlington continues: “One of the Enlightenment’s great achievements was to provide a critical perspective on the past, denouncing the taboos and shamanistic trickery that made tribal peoples the victims of unthinking custom as well as the irrationalities that kept them in bondage to hierarchy and class rule, despite [?] its denunciations of Western cant and artificialities.” Mopping up this mess will take me awhile.

Having credited, or rather discredited, the Enlightenment with inventing primitivism, the Director now credits it with refuting primitivism by denouncing the taboos and tricky shamans holding tribal peoples in bondage. But how would “a critical perspective on the past” bring about these insights? 18th century Europeans had little interest in and less knowledge of the histories of any tribal peoples except those mentioned in the Bible and the classics. They wouldn’t have been able to learn much even if they wanted to. They were barely beginning to learn how to understand their own histories. Anything resembling what we now call ethnohistory was impossible then. Bookchin implies that the Age of Reason was the first historicist period. In fact it was the last period which was not. The Enlightened ones typically posited a universal, invariant human nature. People are always and everywhere the same: only their circumstances are different. The same circumstances always determine the same behavior. A politician in 18th century Britain or America, for instance, will act the same way as an Athenian or Roman or Florentine politician acted, as reported by Thucydides, Livy and Machiavelli, in the same situation. So really there was little to learn from the primitives. They were merely contemporary confirmatory examples of a stage of society already inferred from Homer and Hesiod and Tacitus and the Old Testament.

“Shamanistic trickery” is the crudest kind of soapbox freethought cliché. Some primitive peoples have no shamans to dupe them. Many are not in thrall to supernatural fears; some have a rather casual attitude toward the spirit world. Shamans – healers through access to the supernatural – aren’t frauds: they believe in what they do. And what they do does help. Medical science is taking great interest in their medications. Beyond that, shamans alleviate the suffering of victims of illness just by providing an explanation for it. American physicians serve the same shamanistic function, and they know that they do.

Custom is not necessarily irrational: indeed no society could function without it. Calling a custom a tabu does not demonstrate its irrationality. The tabu against driving on the left side of the road, for instance – which was a custom long before it was enacted into law – is a very sensible approach to traffic regulation. It would be just as sensible to place the tabu against driving on the right side, as most countries do, but that doesn’t make either tabu irrational, even if it had originated in some superstition. The anthropologist Malinowski rejected the civilized myth that primitives are slaves to custom. The customs of craftsmen among the Trobrianders, for instance: “in the main these rules are followed because their practical utility is recognized by reason and testified by experience.”

The Director is full of – surprises. He takes David Watson to task for “denigrat[ing] the development of writing” – actually, all Watson did was deny the “dogma of the inherent superiority of the written tradition” to the oral tradition. Astonishingly, Bookchin’s defense of literacy takes the form of an affirmation of law: “Before the written word, it should be noted, chiefs, shamans, priests, aristocrats, and monarchs possessed a free-wheeling liberty to improvise ways to require the oppressed to serve them. It was the written word, eventually, that subjected them to the restrictions of clearly worded and publicly accessible laws to which their rule, in some sense, was accountable. Writing rendered it possible for humanity to record its culture, and inscribing laws or nomoi where all could see them remains one of the great advances of civilization. That the call for written laws as against arbitrary actions by rulers was an age-old demand of the oppressed is easily forgotten today, when they are so readily taken for granted. When Watson argues that the earliest uses of writing were for authoritarian or instrumental purposes, he confuses the ability to write with what was actually written – and betrays an appalling lack of historical knowledge.”

If there remained any doubt that Bookchin is not an anarchist, this passage dispels it. To affirm law – and written law – while disparaging custom as unequivocally statist. Custom, he contends, is inherently enslaving, whereas law is at least potentially liberatory. Here’s an eerie parallel with the Director’s dismissal of the actual anarchism of primitive societies and his affirmation of the, at best, potential anarchism of cities. Whether a rule or norm is enslaving or liberatory depends, not on whether it is custom or law, and not on whether it is oral or written, it depends on what it prescribes or proscribes. If we consider the general tendencies and affinities of custom and law, the order of custom is characteristic of primitive societies, usually anarchist, and the rule of law is characteristic of civilized statism. Everyone knows this who knows anything about the differences between primitive society and civilization. It’s a difference which ought to be of special interest to an anarchist such as Bookchin mistakes himself for. Bookchin’s law-and-order anarchism is nothing short of bizarre.

Nor does the weirdness end there. According to the Director, the magic of “the written word” “eventually” rendered the rulers accountable “to some extent” – by implication, for the first time. He provides no dates or details because there are none to provide. He does not explain why custom could not have constrained power, as it does in primitive societies. Nor he does notice that he has made yet another category mistake, confusing the custom/law distinction with the oral/written distinction. There is nothing about a custom that precludes its being written down, if there’s anybody around who is able to write. If I write down that “people are expected to throw rice at the newlyweds at weddings,” that doesn’t destroy the practice as a custom or turn it into a law. And law is not necessarily written. Almost all primitive, nonliterate societies have law by Hoebel’s definition, “the legitimate use of physical coercion by a socially authorized agent.” The most minimal common sense suggests that there had to be an unwritten law before there could have been a demand to write it down.

Just when I thought I was beyond surprise, the Director sprung another one on me: this revolutionary anarchist shares Sergeant Joe Friday’s faith in the law. The policeman is your friend – potentially, which for Bookchin is always as good as the real thing. Granted, in real life the cops kick your ass, but that is merely adventitious and secondary. I don’t know in what capacity I was more incredulous: as an anarchist or as a lawyer. It does not occur to Bookchin that a written law is necessarily more accessible to a ruling elite, which is literate or employs the literate in its service, than it is to the illiterate masses. More accessible, and more manipulable. You can forge a document, like the Donation of Constantine, but you can’t forge a custom. As Stanley Diamond writes, “law is not definite and certain while custom is vague and uncertain. Rather, the converse holds. Customary rules must be clearly known; they are not sanctioned by organized political force; hence serious disputes about the nature of custom would destroy the integrity of society. But law may always be invented . . . ”

Law may always be invented; what’s more, it may always be interpreted, which comes to much the same thing, although it may take a little longer. For a thousand years, the Twelve Tables were the basis of Roman law, but long before then, they’d been interpreted almost out of existence. And look at what the Talmud blimped up out of the Torah. In U.S. constitutional law, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was for many decades interpreted almost out of existence, then interpreted back into efficacy as a powerful restraint – a judicial restraint, not a popular restraint – on legislative power. Written law is much more an opportunity for expert mystification than a protection for the citizenry. The Fourth Amendment, for instance – dealing with warrants and with search and seizure – is a single sentence of 54 words. A treatise on the law of search and seizure is four volumes long. If you want to know your Fourth Amendment rights, you are better off ignoring the words of the Fourth Amendment and navigating the treatise, if you can, but unless you’re a lawyer, you probably can’t.

The published availability of the vast mass of American statutory, regulatory and case law makes a mockery of the Director’s childish faith in the liberatory power of the Logo, the Word revealed. There are just too damned many words. Every San forager knows all the rules of his society. No North American or European, not even the most learned lawyer, knows one-tenth of one percent of the rules of his society. Caligula, one of the more over-the-top degenerate Roman emperors, was criticized for enforcing new tax laws without previously publicizing them: “At last he acceded to the urgent popular demand, by posting the regulations up, but in an awkwardly cramped spot and written so small that no one could take a copy.” For all practical purposes, this is the situation of the ordinary modern citizen with respect to the law. The lawyer is not much better off. In the words of an unusually candid Federal judge: “Any competent lawyer, during any rainy Sunday afternoon, could prepare a list of hundreds of comparatively simple legal questions to which any other equally competent lawyer would scarcely venture to give unequivocal answers.” As a more than usually competent lawyer, albeit out of practice, I fully agree.

So what is there to the Director’s supposition that written tradition is more reliable, more tamper-proof, than oral tradition – as to law or anything else? Bookchin inconsistently denounces oral tradition as rigid and frozen and as manipulable by self-serving elites. Those who have compared oral and written traditions haven’t identified any major difference in their reliability. Both forms of transmission are subject to the influences of “selectivity” (what is interesting enough to preserve) and “interpretation” (the meaning of what was preserved). Sometimes the written record can be refuted by the oral, and sometimes the other way around, and sometimes – often – they agree.

If anything, it may be better for the cause of liberty that written law fails to fix forever the meaning of the law as it was understood at the time by those who promulgated it. In the Anglo-American legal tradition, for instance, Magna Carta, the Great Charter of 1215, is revered as the fountainhead of liberty under law. If so, it is not because of its specific provisions. Nearly all of them address the private grievances of certain barons against the reigning king or else deal with obsolete aspects of feudalism. Only three of its 64 chapters remain in some version on the English statute books. The Charter is historically important as myth – the “mythopoesis” the Director despises – because of the ways jurists later misinterpreted it and ordinary people misunderstood it.

The Director’s digression has drawn me into one too. Let’s get back to where we started, Bookchin’s belaboring of the primitives. As in SALA, Bookchin’s choice of words betrays his ignorance of real-life primitives. In the above quotation, he blames the irrationalities of tribal peoples, such as tabus and shamanistic trickery, for keeping them in bondage to hierarchy and class rule. As usual, he overlooks the distinction between band societies (usually foragers) and tribal societies (usually horticulturists or pastoralists). To Bookchin, they’re all just niggers. Tribal peoples tend to be less egalitarian than foragers, but they exhibit far less hierarchy than any civilization ever has. And almost by definition, tribes are not subject to class rule. By way of the primitivists, most anarchists have been exposed to these ethnographic commonplaces. Indeed, they may be found in Kropotkin, greatest of the Social Anarchists. What kind of idiots does Bookchin take us for? Does he still suppose, after what Watson and I, among others, have done with him, that he can still bull his way over his critics by sheer bluster? That the authority of his greatness is enough to crush all opposition? Who’s the personalist narcissist monomaniac if not Bookchin?

We are witness to the decline and fall of a theorist whose theories were always deeply flawed but which nonetheless exerted an important and mainly positive influence on the revival of American anarchism which commenced in the early 1970’s. Bookchin’s ecological orientation never had the widespread influence of Rachel Carson’s, but it had a lot of influence on anarchists. Bookchin’s notion of liberatory technology did not, in the long run, catch on with most anarchists, but ironically it may have directed their attention to the repressive power of really existing technology, and indirectly inspire the anti-tech tendency. No matter how much he regrets it now, Bookchin did lend a lot of aid and comfort to what he now denounces as Lifestyle Anarchism, to the transvaluation of values and the revolution of everyday life. Hardly any anarchists ever took seriously the Director’s longtime enchantment with the slave-based, imperialist, authoritarian Athenian polis.