Whither Anarchism?

If this is, as Bookchin’s title implies, the question, it is one for which he has no answer. In “The Left That Was,” the appendix to SALA, he all but concedes that the classical left is forever defunct. Long ago he announced that “the traditional workers’ movement will never reappear.” He does not discuss the social composition of the “millions of people today” who experience “the sense of powerlessness” which renders them “a potentially huge body of supporters” of anarchism. Who are they? They cannot be bourgeois, for the bourgeois are by definition the enemy. They cannot be proletarians, for the proletariat, according to Bookchin, has been bought off and bourgeoisified. They cannot be the underclass, the idle poor, for these are the “lumpens” Bookchin says are actual or potential fascists. So who’s left for the left?

After repeatedly denouncing Lifestyle Anarchists for their personalism, individualism, narcissism, navel-gazing and psychologism, the Director himself defines the yearning millions of potential anarchists in purely personalistic, psychological terms, in terms of their “sense of powerlessness.” Are they powerless, or do they just think they are? Do they need revolution or just therapy? If all they need is therapy, the system is surely capable of supplying it (for a price). An awareness of powerlessness is surely as old as its reality. The slaves and peasants of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia must have known that they were powerless, but such awareness more often results in resignation than revolution. Bookchin cannot explain why powerless people sometimes revolt but usually don’t. For that matter, Bookchin can’t explain anything else either.

According to the Director, the enormities and the eccentricities of the Lifestyle Anarchists are “in no small measure” responsible for the anarchist failure to recruit and deploy “a potentially huge body of supporters” ripe for revolution. That’s an extraordinary measure of blame to heap upon an imperceptible fraction of the population with no access to the mainstream media. Absolutely no evidence supports the assumption that anything anarchists of any orientation have done or not done in recent years has repelled vast numbers of people. There is absolutely no evidence that vast numbers of Americans have ever encountered anarchism in any form. Bookchin brags of having lectured at every major university in the United States, which provided him forums on a scale no Lifestyle Anarchists have ever had access to. Here was his opportunity to convert strategically situated cadres of the youth intelligentsia to his advanced ideology. Here he could have gone far toward strangling Lifestyle Anarchism in the cradle. He failed. Or rather, he never even tried. His self-promotional careerism took priority. Is it accidental that it was only when his career was over that Bookchin assailed the Lifestyle Anarchists?

According to the Director, thousands of decadent Lifestyle Anarchists have discouraged many millions of other Americans from embracing anarchism in a version Bookchin approves of. What discouraged many millions of Americans from embracing anarchism in the many decades before Lifestyle Anarchism came along, he does not say. (Did the machinations of Leninists like himself have anything to do with it?) One suspects that anarchism’s unpopularity had more to do with anarchism in general than with any of its particular versions. Bookchin’s fantastic exaggeration of the influence of Lifestyle Anarchists corresponds to his fantastic exaggeration of his own influence. The Lifestyle Anarchists must possess very powerful juju in order to outshout the voice of Reason as it booms forth so often and so eloquently from Murray Bookchin.

As in SALA, the Director rebukes the Lifestyle Anarchists – belatedly including John Clark – for elitism. This dictum, again unexplained, makes no more sense than it ever did. It is not clear why collectivist elitism – vanguardism – is superior to individualist elitism. Bookchin decries “abstract individualism” but never entertains the possibility that what his enemies espouse is concrete individualism, what Vaneigem calls radical subjectivity. Nor does he consider the possibility that what he espouses is abstract collectivism, not concrete collectivism (community). Abstract collectivism is totalitarianism, which is much worse than abstract individualism (classical liberalism). Elitism implies exclusivity, but Bookchin is the one who is reading thousands of anarchists out of the movement. Lifestyle Anarchism is intolerable, so Social Anarchism is intolerant. The movement “must become infected with intolerance against all who retard its growth by subservience to spontaneity,” as the lawyer Lenin put it. There may be a sense in which some so-called Lifestyle Anarchists might be elitists, i.e., they aspire to excellence and they want to level up. But they want everybody to level up – they want company – they want a world of what Raoul Vaneigem calls “masters without slaves,” not out of pity or paternalism but because they crave a community of fulfilled, enriched, masterful other individuals to relate to. John Simon, referring to the late American critic Dwight Macdonald, admitted that Macdonald was an elitist of sorts, but “an elitist, then, who would eagerly help others join the club, who would gladly have abandoned his badge of superiority for the sake of a world full of coequal elitists.” Only in that sense are post-left anarchists elitists.

Bookchin’s proposed means of overthrowing hierarchy are patently hierarchical. Anarchists require “an organization ready and able to play a significant role in moving great masses of workers.” The vanguard is to lead, the masses are to follow, as usual. Bookchin would no doubt protest that he envisions something more reciprocal, dialectical, but on his own account, dialectics is not mere reciprocity, “some things are in fact very significantly more determining than others.” The organization is significantly more determining than the masses – that’s its purpose. This is Leninism – not metaphorical Leninism, not swear-word Leninism – it’s the real thing. The dog has returned to his vomit. The mantle of leftism which Bookchin has donned is a shroud.